Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I Learned Writing Pilgrimage

Over three years ago, I wrote this blog entry about what I learned writing Sorceress' Blood. I had intended to write a similar blog entry after finishing Pilgrimage but for some reason I never did. Well, it's time to fix that. So here we go!

This is what I learned writing my second book, Pilgrimage.

1. Planning makes everything better

I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to begin. I knew where I wanted Pilgrimage to end. I knew what I wanted the themes of Pilgrimage to be, I knew what the world would be (because it's the same world as Sorceress' Blood) and who the characters would be. This was enough for me to begin writing. A couple of chapters in, I grabbed my hand-dandy notebook and wrote myself some notes to outline the next few chapters. Every time I finished a couple of chapters, I'd go back to my notebook and do the same. This meant I knew not only where the story was ultimately going, but where it was going next. Very little of my writing time went towards staring at the screen thinking "what happens now?" because I had done that work before hand. This was invaluable in making my writing time productive. I have been a committed planner ever since.

2. No, really, planning makes EVERYTHING better

Pilgrimage is a strong story, I think, because of its themes. The themes of friendship, grief and redemption are core to the novel. Without exploring those themes, it would be a far less interesting story. Those themes were always in my mind. Before the first words were on the page I had planned what themes I wanted the story to explore, how characters would relate to those themes and what the novel would say, if anything, about those themes by the time it finished or if it would leave them open to reader's decision and interpretation. There were no accidents in finished product. I said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and it has made Pilgrimage a more satisfying and memorable book for both me the author and the reader.

3. Sometimes you edit with a scalpel, sometimes with a butcher's knife

A lot of editing is a matter of fine tuning. Reworking a sentence, choosing a better word, cutting out your adverbs and your passive voice and your excessive copulas. You edit to trim the fat and make everything look and sound pretty and get your point across with maximum clarity. It's a task that requires precision. Except when it doesn't. Sometimes you don't need to trim the fat, you need to lop off a limb, behead the body, carve out the heart and lungs and dump it all in the fire. During the editing phase of Pilgrimage, I removed a number of chapters and re-wrote them from scratch. I took big chunks of those chapters and inserted them into later chapters, rewriting them to fit seamlessly. One section of the journey appeared significantly later in early drafts, but I cut it out and shoved it back in earlier on in the story. These were massive changes affecting not just large sections of text but the entire story as a result. It meant a lot of work. Everything that got chopped and sliced and shifted needed delicate stitching around it to make sure the flow of the narrative wasn't broken. But those changes improved the story. These big changes were still easier than writing the complete first draft, though. Don't be afraid to make big changes in editing. Even though the hardest part is done, don't think you can slack off.

4. Stay in school, kids

Pilgrimage is a journey. The journey is kind of like Baby's First Literary Device. It's simple stuff. Journeys are popular because they're simple. They're easy to write, easy to dissect, and they make for great extended metaphors. Every story includes some kind of journey. A character's personal arc is almost always a psychological journey for them. Linking that personal psychological journey to some kind of physical journey is first grade writer stuff. But I can only tell you this, I could only write Pilgrimage the way I did, because I learned it. I studied it. I had it all spelled out to me and I was shown examples upon examples upon examples. All this happened to me in my second last year of high school. It turns out, all that stuff we learned in English class is actually really important if you want to write. I'm glad I paid attention. I'm also glad I had an excellent teacher (to whom Pilgrimage is dedicated) who fostered in me a passion for literature and a desire to understand it. I've said before that if you want to be a writer, you forfeit the right to read for fun. Reading is now study. Understanding books is necessary to writing books.

 5. When you're stuck, look at your conflict and theme

Raymond Chandler famously said "If in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun." It's one of my favourite pieces of story telling advice. It means that if you're stuck, make something exciting happen. Add some conflict and drama and mystery. But if you're brain is working, you might be asking "But who is this man with the gun and why is he here?" The way I see it, you've got two options. Firstly, this man with his gun could be the beginning of a new mysterious subplot. That gives you an interesting new direction to take and something for your characters to do right now. But obviously you can't add in a whole new subplot every time you're scratching your head for ideas. So I say, option two, tie the man with the gun into your primary conflict or your themes. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist working against each other. This man with the gun (who is probably not a literal man with a gun) represents the agenda of your antagonist. It's a new obstacle the character must over-come to keep ahead of the antagonist and if the protagonist fails, the antagonist moves ahead, putting more pressure on the protagonist. Alternatively, the man with the gun might not represent the antagonist but instead represents the theme of your story. How your character interacts with this man with a gun, how he triumphs or fails, what that means to your character, can all deepen the story's exploration of its theme. So if you're struggling to think of ways to move the narrative forward and keep reader interest, look at your theme and main conflict for ways to introduce new conflict.

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