Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Friday, October 01, 2004

coaching on length, pace, plot and character in novel writing

Coaching conversation between two writers:

Jason: "I've been told that the overall length of a novel should be between 75,000 and 100,000 words. However, it appears that most fantasy novels are larger (witness the Jordan and Goodkind novels.) Terry Goodkind's first novel (Wizard's First Rule) was huge, around 250,000 words in length. But I've been told to avoid that route. Since I'm writing a series, I have some leeway where I can end the novel.

Orson: "Choose one of the climaxes, an important one, to be the major climax of the volume, and shape the structure accordingly. If a couple of other climaxes can be timed to come near the same point in the story, so much the better.

Jason: What is the difference between climax and cliffhanger endings?

Orson: With the climax endings the reader closes the book saying, "Wow, that was great. I can't wait for the next one." This is so much better than the cliffhanger endings when the reader closes the book saying, "That was it? I have to wait for the next book to find out anything?" Guess which reader will be telling his friends about your series, or lending it out, or checking at Borders or Amazon or B&N to find out when the next volume is due. So you want to pace your book around the important climaxes you select.

Jason: How do I pace a novel around important climaxes?

Orson: Let's look at the extremes of pacing:

There's "soap opera" pace, where things happen so incrementally, with so much angst every step of the way, and with endless scenes where characters who were not present at key events have those events recounted to them by characters who WERE there, etc. Frankly, this pacing makes me want to find the author and delete his files.

There's action-adventure pace, where you move lickety-split through the events, chewing up plot like a sumo wrestler going through a stack of sandwiches. And there are many paces in between.

Jason: How do you pace your books?

Orson: I tend to be a little more leisurely, giving a lot of the characters' personal reactions to events and their plans and ideas about what to do next. I spend a lot of time on relationships. However, I give almost no time at all to description or writerly writing, so on the whole I move through the plotline rather quickly. (This is why abridgements of my books for audio presentation almost always result in some serious incoherency -- I don't include very much that can afford to be cut.)

Having said that, I must point out that the original advice you were given -- that a book feels like a normal novel somewhere around 100,000 words and is hard to publish at less than 75,000 -- is true. This means that if you find your first volume stacking up at about 60,000 words, you need to go back and re-pace it -- you're consuming plot way too fast. (No, you don't need to add more plot. But you might want to beef up a side-story, adding chapters that follow other characters on related adventures.)

Jason: The specific problem I have had is when a writer sets up a quest, and then enters into a series of try fail cycles. The quest is linear. There are no left or right. No 'turn's in the story. Just more and more problems. This kind of pacing bogs me down, because what I really want to know is whether he gets the quest or not. It's not the journey that becomes important to me, but the achieving the aim. The journey is just boring, because I know he's going to get there eventually. I just want to know what happens when he does.

I have a character who is on a boat heading to the site of the major conflict. In my mind, the reader wants him to get there. Any kind of problem along the way is going to bore them, because what they really want to see is him getting there and entering the confrontation. But.... The ship trip is 2 months like, and meanwhile all the other characters are doing things. He's got nothing to do. Do I drop him and wait till he gets there (a long piece in the manuscript) or do I start creating artificial problems for him?

Orson: The problem you're facing is the direct-line problem. The try-fail cycle you talk about not only is boring, it isn't used very much in epics that work. Rather you have the conflicting objectives cycle. Things that are worth doing, that need doing, which sidetrack the characters and distract them from their quest. Then there's the This Can't Happen trick (Gandalf dies?) that "changes everything" and causes the group to reconfigure (again, some of them being distracted as they go off on sub-quests).

Also, you need characters who are not equally committed to the main quest (think Boromir) or who have other quests that only they can perform (think Aragorn).

Then you have the protagonist's conflicting feelings about having undertaken the quest in the first place, and about putting other people's lives at risk. (I'll go off by myself, says Frodo, because this way I'm only bringing destruction down on my friends. [Actually, this was deeply stupid, since the friends were his main hope of avoiding being killed by the ring-wraiths; but Tolkien made it all come out anyway ].)

But sometimes the sidetracks don't work -- think of Tom Bombadil and the whole barrow-wight sequence in the first volume of LOTR. All very lovely, but it does nothing to advance the story (i.e., to make us care more or worry more about the characters; nothing arises out of who they are, and no one is transformed).

So you need to make sure that the conflicting desires of the characters make sense -- that each of the characters matters to us, positively or negatively, in his own right. Then the whole try-fail cycle disappears. That's a videogame, not a novel .

Jason (later): Your advice has caused an explosion in me. It started with the novel length question, which you answered in terms of pacing, which led me to ask about the try fail cycle, which you rejected and threw me into a chaos of panic. But you came back in mentioned that the 'real story' comes from the conflict within the character. That triggered my memory of Ben Bova's Emotion vs. Emotion advice, which in turn triggered my memory of my brief study of Danielle Steel (410 million copies sold) where every single one of her characters has a duel desire (Betty loves both Fred and Parker). Then Friday night I read in Elia Kazan's A Life autobiography that the secret of all stories is to have a character in conflict with himself. Back to Bova, I read the next morning that you start with the character, creating the conflicting emotion, and then give him a problem that directly impacts that conflict.

And just like that I finally understood what you meant when you said Try Fail vs. Real Story. I mean, it hit me like a ton of bricks! I applied it immediately to three of my characters and I can't tell you how excited I am. I was jumping on the bed causing my wife to growl. I couldn't stop talking. You connected with me, you led me where I needed to go? Why? The Proof: For the first time in my life, my characters are alive to me! I felt sadness and regret for them, and worry. That mysterious connection I've always missed.

And you are right, I'm going to have to rewrite the entire thing. Not that the plot has to change much, but you are totally right! I need to rewrite it! And it wasn't a waste, because it got me to this point!!!

Then, another piece of the puzzle came this morning: I'm driving to work and I remember Abraham and Issac. And I think: Obedience to God Vs. Love for his Child. But it was even worse than that. Abraham wanted kids his whole life. No kids. He prayed, and no answer, and then it was too late. But a miracle happened, and he got a kid when he was old! Not only that, he was promised generations and generations, a very important thing to the old Jewish Culture. He was thrilled. And then God asked him to kill his son.

Wow! Not only is there conflicting desires in Abraham, but his problem is the worst possible thing it could be. Hugh Nibley teaches in his collection of Essays Volume 12 Temple and Cosmos, that every single person will have to be faced with their Isaac. Whatever it is, God will come, and ask you for it, and see if you aren't willing to give it. It's the test of this life.

And I applied that to my characters, and it's haunting. It's terrible. It's sad. I think of Ender, and his duel desire for love and belonging vs. helping the world. And I felt so bad for him, because he couldn't have both. Ah!

Orson: Glad I could be of service, but you did most the work.


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