I’ve enrolled in Queensland Writers’ Centre’s Year of the Novel. I mentioned it to friends and a couple of them said, ‘You already know how to write a novel: you’re published.’ That doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot to learn.
I’ve been trying to choose what novel I’ll write during the five months of the course. I think I’ll do one I’ve called Memory for Loan. I’ve been sitting on this novel for a long time, primarily because I haven’t nutted out the plot properly. Every time I look at it, I can’t work out how to relate it to other books written in the same world.
The main character is a significant secondary character in another novel I’ve already written (but haven’t edited properly), but this book could go either before or after that one. Every time I look at it, I get a bit closer to something that’s comfortable, but I haven’t reached it yet. Hopefully this course will make it happen.
I’m also hoping to write a novella during the course. I have nearly 25000 words written on a novella I’ve tentatively called Contact but I put it aside because it wasn’t working. I’ve recently done a scene map and worked out what’s wrong: I don’t know whose story it is. There are three major plot lines and three major protagonists. The villain is the same through all the plot lines, but none of the protagonists stand out. I need to decide whose story it is and delete all those scenes that deviate. That could be my side project while I’m working on Memory for Loan. The cut scenes might be another novella in that world.
As if that isn’t enough to keep me busy for the next six months, I’ve almost finished edits on Dragon God. I want to get it ready for publication and self-publish. I’ve been procrastinating because I’ve never self-published before and it’s a bit daunting. Next steps: polish the blurb, get it professionally edited, get a cover made for it. I’ll get there—eventually.
The story has progressed to the stage where I need to make some decisions about the plot. So far I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along, with only a brief premise to guide me. That’s my comfort zone with writing. Now, though, something has happened and there has to be a reaction to that. Working out how each person will react is only partly based on their personality. Whatever the reaction is, by either character, it has to move the story forward. That means I have to know a bit about the story.
My first decision will have to be about the length of the story because that will influence the complexity of the plot. Is it going to be a short story (up to 15000 words)? Will it be a novella (15000 – 30000 words)? Or am I going for a full-length novel.
The last few pieces I’ve written have been full-length novels. They’re fulfilling but time consuming, and a lot of hard work. I’ve written a couple of short stories in there as well. Some of the short stories have begun as a character exploration for the novels, some have been custom-written for a specific market. The short stories are quick and either easy or super challenging. Sometimes they fall into place and I’m done in a few days. Other times, particularly when I’ve spent a lot of time writing ‘long’, I need to heavily edit the story, pare it back to the basics.
A novella falls somewhere in between those two. You can explore the complexities of the plot and the characters a lot more than in a short, but you don’t need multiple plot lines to keep things moving.
Deciding on the length of the story comes out of the first few scenes I’ve written. With The Gingerbread House, I’m at 2000 words and have just introduced the two characters. At this stage, it could be any length. I made the arbitrary decision that this story isn’t going to be a novel. It’s not going to take me six months to write and edit. This decision was partly made because I don’t have the time right now to devote to a long work, and partly because, with the amount of effort required for a novel, I want the possibility of being paid for it when I’m finished. That’s not going to be the case with this story because I’m posting it free every week.
That leaves the choice between short story and novella. I’m going to aim for a short story, with the option of a novella. I think it’s possible to complete a basic plot within the 15000 word limit, but I want the option to expand it if the plot becomes more complex than I think it will.
Length influences plot.
The plot is influenced by the length of the story. Generally, the shorter the work, the less complex the plot. In a short story, there’s room for only one plot arc, and one character arc for each character.
Plot, in very basic terms can be encapsulated by the question: what happens next? I’ve discussed a number of plotting tools that can be used when writing in previous blog entries so I won’t go into them again here. I’ll make a very basic list of what will happen with Andrew and Thomas.
As with characters, my plots evolve as the story is written and I learn more about the characters and the situation. With a longer work, the differences between plan and fruition are marked. With this story, that probably won’t be the case.
Now to continue The Gingerbread House.
Andrew glanced around the room. “Is Mistress Osborne that crazy witch that lives beyond the Troll Bridge?” Thomas nodded. “Why are you here instead of there, studying?”
Thomas’s shoulders slumped, then straightened again. “I’m more powerful than she is.”
“So, you’re here by choice? But can’t get out?” Andrew looked around again. “Why would you do that?”
“I’m not here by choice! She’s trapped me here because she thinks I’m going to drain her magic and take over her business.” Thomas’s fingers curled into frustrated fists.
“I didn’t think you could take someone’s magic without their permission.”
“So her thinking you’ll take her magic is what—paranoia? And if you’re stronger than she is, how can she keep you trapped here?”
Thomas’s shoulders slumped. “She didn’t cast the spells. Her pet gremlins did.”
“Are gremlins more powerful than wizards? I thought they were cute little things that looked like children even though they’re ancient.”
“They’re not more powerful; they have different magic that wizards can’t control.” Thomas spoke through gritted teeth. “Yes, gremlins look like children at a cursory glance.” He jammed his hands on his hips. “Now tell me who the hell you are that you could circumvent all the spells surrounding this place and waltz in here?”
Andrew grinned and settled more comfortably on his seat. “I’m Andrew,” he repeated. “I’m a baker.” His grin widened at the expression on Thomas’s face. Winding Thomas up was almost as easy, and way more fun, than teasing his five-year-old sister. He held the coin up for Thomas to see, then put it on the table and slid it closer to him. “This is what brought me here.”
Thomas scowled at the coin and slowly reached over to touch it with one fingertip. He jumped back as if scalded. “It’s mine.” He glanced at Andrew before returning his attention to the coin. As he picked it up it glowed, just as it had for Andrew on the path. Thomas closed his fingers around the coin. His eyelids slid shut and he hummed, a deep, resonant sound that echoed through Andrew’s body. The hum continued until Andrew felt he had to say something, if only to remind Thomas he was there.
Before Andrew could do more than open his mouth, Thomas’s eyes popped open. “I didn’t think the spell worked.”
“When I first arrived here and worked out what was keeping me here, I tried to cast spells out into the world so someone who could circumvent the gremlins’ magic could come and rescue me. I didn’t think any of them worked.”
Andrew nodded at the coin. He knew he should be smiling and brushing off Thomas’s intimation that Andrew was there to rescue him, but the best he could manage was a grimace. “It didn’t work. I’m a baker. I don’t have any magic.”
Thomas’s shoulders slummed even further than before. “Then I’m stuck here forever.” He glared at Andrew. “And so are you.”
I’m on retreat this weekend. If you’re anything like my family, you’ll be saying ‘again?’. If you’re like my writing friends, you’ll be saying ‘again?’, but with a very different inflection.
There are six of us this weekend. We’re staying in a little place near Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. We’re on the top of the mountain with a magnificent view and totally exposed to whatever the weather wants to throw at us. Last night it was a huge windstorm. We sat in the living room with the fire going, toasty warm, while all around us the wind howled and twigs and branches slapped and crashed. It went on through the night, gaining in intensity, until, suddenly, it stopped. That was about 2.00am.
At 3.30am the possum came home. I woke to scrambling and thumping in the ceiling above my head. I count myself lucky that the possum doesn’t seem to have access to the whole ceiling so didn’t go running all over the place.
I finally got to sleep around 4.00am, only to wake before 7.00am with the sun streaming in my uncurtained windows. The courtyard is filled with leaves, half a tree came down in the neighbour’s yard and all the mandarins fell of the tree in the front yard. Luckily, where we parked the cars seems to have been protected, so there’s no damage there.
Oddly, after spending all night editing, and with the prospect of more writing this morning, I’m not feeling tired at all. That might change after a few hours.
Last night was really productive. I finished the line edits on Warrior Pledge - just the global edits to do before Tuesday. I also critiqued a chapter for a friend. Today I'll be working on character profiles, plot and first chapter of the sequel to Warrior Pledge.
I'm still editing No Evil Star. I'm down to the last dozen notations that something has to change but I didn't do anything on it today. I know why I've left those last few things to the last.
They're the kinds of things where I need to read back and forth and find exactly the right spot to drop one or two words, then do it again for another few words, then again and again until the picture has built up gradually to give me the impact I want. The constant scrolling up and down and reading, or skimming, makes it really easy for me to lose track of what goes where and what shouldn't be there at all. I just know I'm going to end up with an unreadable mish-mash of rubbish that's worse than the original was.
Or, it could be brilliant.
Meanwhile I'm really enjoying my new Surface tablet computer. I have a nifty stylus that I can write on it with. It's enough fun that I almost enjoy editing. Almost.
E E Montgomery
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