Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Writing Novels

by Jon Chaisson
2004, Jon Chaisson


How anyone can write a short story is beyond me.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy reading them.  But I've tried my hand at writing them and I just can't do it.  I can't wrap my head around one idea; I have to have five different subplots, a whole created universe, and an ongoing conflict that isn't easy to resolve within a few pages.  I love to get lost in the flow of words.  In a way, it reminds me of my uncle who used to tell five-minute jokes that could be told in thirty seconds.  The journey is fun, and the payoff is always worth it.

When I'm coming up with ideas, more often than not, just buds of inspiration or passing images that catch my imagination, waiting to take hold and grow.  Most of these ideas aren't deliberately conjured; they come from dreams, from music, from documentaries on television, or even from a sentence I happen to read in a book.  If an idea hits me at just the right angle, I'll get obsessed enough to take out the ol' pad and pen and scribble everything down.  Within a few minutes I'll have the barest bones of a story.  The written notes become merely a guideline, and the rest of it hatches like an H. R. Giger alien inside my head, taking over and not letting go until it's migrated through my body and onto the computer screen.

So how is it that these miniscule ideas turn into sprawling novels?  Why can't I, just once, come up with an idea that can be contained within a few thousand words?  I've tried it once, and while it was an amusing story, I felt I was severely editing myself.  The characters had little or no depth, and the story itself felt shallow and ended up reading like a Japanese manga rip-off.  Ever since then I've devoted my time to the wonders of worldbuilding and character development.

Writing a novel, I suppose, might be a little like composing a symphony.  There's a lot more to it than crafting a beautiful melody; there are complexities and structures that must be included for it to make sense and become a work of art.  A theme must be presented, a story must be told, and, most importantly, the whole work must remain interesting to hold the audience all the way to the end.  Both symphonies and novels contain conflict, diversions, and repetition to hold the theme in place.  The art is in interweaving these three things into something unique and pleasant for the listener or reader to enjoy. 

This is the part of the craft I enjoy most.  It's almost a mathematical weaving, creating a flow that hides the framework underneath and exposes only the finished work of art.  It's during this weaving that the characters develop, the worldbuilding continues, and the composition takes on a life of its own.  There are many writers out there who have admitted to loving a part of their novel in progress, despite its going in a direction other than its intended path.  These happy accidents add to the story -- admittedly, sometimes to the detriment of the novel itself, but that's a given -- and often they reveal something unexpected about the story or the character.  The weaving takes on a new path while still remaining faithful to the theme.  I remind myself that this is the kind of conflict readers enjoy, so more often than not I roll with it.  As long as the overall theme is intact, I still have my story.

This is the kind of evolution within the story that draws me towards writing them.  With a novel I can learn about the characters just like a reader would.  I can play with their actions (and their minds) as much as I want, without sacrificing anything.

*   *   *

The need to sacrifice pieces of a novel, on the other hand, is a bittersweet job that must be done from time to time.  Excising passages that are no longer needed is one of the toughest things a writer has to do to his story.  During the writing process, scenes cease to fit within the context of the novel, for one reason or another.  They may be 'diversions' that worked to develop a character, but did not contribute to the overall flow.  They may be the 'cool scenes' with all the bells and whistles that had no real reason for being there except for flash.  Or they may be subplots that did little except take up space.  A red flag pops up during the rewrite, and that queasy feeling sinks in with the realization that some surgery will have to be performed.

I will admit that I have fallen victim to the 'cool scenes' and the 'diversions' and the 'pointless subplots.'  We all have, as writers.  It comes with the territory.  The first incarnation of my Mihari trilogy project, a long novel entitled The Phoenix Effect, was full of these things.  And while the novel made sense, all the extraneous items made my symphony sound like an out-of-tune school band, with the horn section playing too loud and the woodwinds stuck on an altogether different tune.  I had too many subplots going that were never wrapped up at the end.  I had too many characters with nothing important to contribute to the plot.  And let's just say that too many 'cool scenes' strung together don't make a plot.

I learned my lesson the hard way when I picked the novel up after many months of having completely forgotten about it.  While I had the germ of a novel within these many pages, what I didn't have was the symphony.  It sounded all wrong, if that makes sense.  By rereading it I could feel that there was no flow, and no life to it.  There were many parts of it that could be salvaged... if I sat down, took this novel writing gig a little more seriously, and completely rewrote it.

Which is what I did.  I liked the idea too much to be rid of it and chalk it up as a trunk novel, so I took some time to further build both the world and the characters.  I gave the setting life by giving the city of Bridgetown a culture.  I dropped an embarrassing subplot of artificial intelligence and substituted an alien race with ancestral ties to humans.  I gave this alien race its own spiritual culture and its own language.  If I was going to do this novel right, I was going to go all out, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.  Using the original only as a guideline, I started at the beginning and gave it as much life as I could.

Next thing I knew, I was one-third of the way through The Phoenix Effect and I had a full-length novel of over 150,000 words, entitled A Division of Souls.  At first this shocked me.  Had I gone overboard?  Once I did the rewrite, it was clear that I hadn't; in fact, I wrote the novel I'd meant to write the first time out, only as the first book in a trilogy.

Again, there were many scenes that had to be excised.  Most of them were edited out due to the fact that I was merely writing a repeat of an earlier scene.  Others were cut because of change in the plot.  Of course, being the packrat that I am, I sent these parts off to a folder on my computer called 'Outtakes.'  I even annotated a few of them to show where they might have gone, and also to show the difference between the first draft and the final rewrite.  I did the same for books two and three, The Persistence of Memories and The Process of Belief.  I'm currently working on book three, and the plot has diverged so much from the original that I'm no longer using it as a guideline.  I might steal a few scenes from it, but other than that, I can say this trilogy has taken on a much healthier life of its own.

*   *   *

One last thing.

Anyone who's seen my posts in the Forward Motion Community might have noticed that I have not one, but four WIPs (Works In Progress) going on at the moment, aside from this third novel.  How, you ask, can I possibly find the time to write five novels at once?  I ask myself that question all the time.

I know once I finish off the third book, I won't be touching this magical universe again, at least for a long time.  I believe I can tell the story I want to tell within those three books, and a fourth would stretch the idea farther than I want it to go.  If you asked me eight years ago what I'd do after I finished a novel, I'd have had no idea what to say.  Back then, starting a new novel was starting from a completely clean slate.

Since then I've learned to multitask my writing.  While I concentrate mostly on this current novel, those four WIPs are in the back of my mind, just waiting to be next in line.  I haven't forgotten about them; in fact, I'll often write down notes as they come to me at work.  But for the moment, that's all they are: notes.  What I'm doing here is saving time.   I'm worldbuilding, just like I did with the trilogy rewrite, only I'm doing it while I'm writing something else.  This, by far, is one of the most important abilities a writer should have.  Why wait for something to be completed, only to waste valuable writing time doodling for ideas?  I say do it now; let the ideas germinate for awhile!  By the time I eventually do pick one of them up, I'll have enough of the framework to build yet another novel.

Or in this case, write another symphony.