Friday, April 11, 2014

Swans Taking Flight

I thought it might be fun to delve a bit deeper into the issues raised in the writing process blog hop that I discussed in the last couple of posts. It’s been almost two years since I wrote “Romancing the Word,” and in those two years The Winged Horse has gone from rough plan to finished draft. By June, Five Directions Press will have published it. Meanwhile, I have a brand-new project: The Swan Princess (Legends 3: North). After a month or so, I’m almost ready to write, although I need to read a few more books first. But what does “almost ready to write” mean?

It means, first and foremost, that I have a story to tell and a sense of the major characters, who they are and how they will change. Most novelists, especially those who have written more than one book, would agree with this statement, but how we get there differs radically from person to person. My approach to a story is just that: my approach, not a prescription or a panacea. Still, I find individual differences fascinating, don’t you?

By instinct, I am what authors of writing craft books call a “plot person.” I approach a story first by imagining what will happen. By watching the characters respond to the events I create, I figure out what kind of people they are; then the plot shifts in response to them.

Other people approach their stories differently. In her interview with me, Jessica Brockmole mentioned that she starts by writing letters from the viewpoints of her characters, even for books that she doesn’t intend to end up as epistolary novels. Ariadne Apostolou, in my writers’ group, writes e-mails and sample scenes wholly inside the main character’s head—a technique similar to Jessica’s. Virginia Pye, in another interview, mentioned that she begins with a setting—a place—where she sees people slowly forming and moving about.

I start with a plot. My first draft of any chapter is a sketch, like a screenplay. Character X does this or says that, and Character Y responds. Feelings, settings, and thoughts come later. Because this is my natural approach, I began Swan Princess by drawing up a plot outline. I recognized right away that it contained a lot of events and characters for one novel, although only after showing it to my critique group did I accept that I had outlined most of the rest of the series. (They were very nice about it. The most important question they asked was, “Whose story is this?”—for the answer, keep reading.) I knew, but it took me another couple of weekends to figure out how to convince them.

To get there, I returned to my two absolute go-to writing craft books: John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I started at the beginning, just as I had with The Golden Lynx and The Winged Horse, and worked my way forward. I’ll probably keep reading, just to remind myself of points I’ve forgotten, but the important part of these exercises is to spark ideas, to encourage me to come up with responses to the questions they ask. One of my favorites is Truby’s “what if?” exercise, which demands that the writer take a basic story idea and push it in as many different directions as possible. Goal, Motivation, and Conflict focuses on the characters (as do most of Truby’s exercises): What do they want? What gets in their way? Of the obstacles they face, which are internal or moral and which come from outside, especially from other characters fighting for the same goals? These obstacles create the conflict that pressures the main character to change, because fictional characters like change no more than the rest of us, so they resist it as long and as forcefully as possible.

In this case, all my main characters have already appeared in earlier books, so I do have a good sense of them as people (the great advantage of series). Even so, that does not let me off the hook. Over the course of two books, the characters have grown, so I need to discover where they are in relationship to one another at this point in time, about 15 months after the end of The Winged Horse.

The advantage of doing this work is that it’s so much easier to revise plot lines and even character profiles when the change involves a paragraph, not pages and pages of text. I don’t want to constrain my imagination: on the contrary, the fun lies in the discovery, and my stories zig and zag as they go onto the page. But I have also learned that it helps to have a rough idea of where the characters are heading and what they need to learn on the way. Then, when they are happily running off into the forest, I can rein them in and redirect them along the path that will lead them to their ultimate destination.

So, if I have a story and characters, why I haven’t starting writing yet? Because this is a book about war: specifically, how war affects the men who fight it and the families who support them and the civilians who too easily become swept up in the violence. There are men who lead and men who follow, women seeking the warriors they love and women bent on protecting themselves from abuse while pursuing the opportunities created by a society in flux, people who harm and people who heal. Most of all, I want to examine the tendency of the Russian state to reject warriors who fail for reasons beyond their control, an attitude that became particularly obvious in World War II but occurred even in the 1530s, the period in which the Legends novels are set. To bring this attitude and this environment to life, I need to know more than I currently do about war in the 1530s—and war in general: how it was fought and how it affected people, even men who had been raised in the understanding that they would spend their lives fighting to defend their land from one would-be invader or another.

I am also learning about swans, an image that emerged from my subconscious in reference to this novel (swans, in Turkic cosmology, are both sacred and associated with the north, where they migrate in spring). The swan represents fidelity, in the many senses of that word, and the fierce defense of family. As I find out more about what they do and how they live, new elements of the story occur to me. In that sense, I am still gathering my forces. Not for long, though: I enjoy research, but I don’t want it taking over my novel. I need just enough to feel comfortable getting started.

And in case you’re wondering, it’s Nasan’s story. Daniil’s, too, and Grusha’s—and even Semyon’s—but first and foremost Nasan’s. After all, how could I write a book about war without my favorite warrior heroine leading the way?

The swan on my cover is © David Benton/Shutterstock 8554303.

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