The advantage of writing something else

I’ve mentioned the elusive “novel #4” many times since last summer. I must credit Jan O’Hara, from Writer Unboxed, for her great post on Robert McKee’s negation of the negation principle (read it here). While I’d been ruminating on the ideas for writing something new for about a year (the idea came to me when I was writing my third novel, since it explored the story of the formidable Blood Queen, who reigned 1000 years earlier), it wasn’t until reading Jan’s post that I decided I’m going to jump in and explore further, with values in mind.

Well, that was a much-needed spark. For about a week, scene after scene took shape and I fleshed out the evolving premise, key characters, and a general sense of the setting. I spend a while exploring via notes and summaries before I do any drafting, so at this time my only aim was to connect to the overall potential of where I would see this story going. I am not an outline writer, however I am not a discovery drafter either. I tend to borrow aspects from both, so in this earlier stage of writing I commit little time to crafting the actual prose that will go into writing (the technique I use is very similar to what TV, screenplay, and comic book writers do when they story-board their ideas). The advantage of this approach is I am flexible and free to chase potentials to flesh out conflict, organic plot that is based on plausible character interrelations, and make large changes with ease.

The only problem was I had a polished novel (#3) and was at the time working with an editor on it. I was set to hire a developmental editor to work with it in the fall, but something did not feel right about going ahead. There was something fundamentally flawed with my third novel and I needed to gain perspective. Finally, I decided not to publish it, but instead submitted it to the developmental editor just to get his input. I heard what I wanted to: move on, there is too much work to be done here.

The real spark, though, came from Writer Unboxed yet again. This time, I must credit Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash, whose Q/A-style post on the importance of book coaching (read it here) gave me another much-needed step. One statement Lisa made resonated, based on the assessment my developmental editor gave me: “A beautifully written so what.”

As much as I hated to admit it, that’s exactly what my third novel was. At the time, the idea for a fourth novel was fresh and waiting to be harvested, and there was an invitation to try Jennie’s Author Accelerator program with a free trial that week. The only problem was that I needed something to submit. So that weekend, I wrote the first scene from the fourth novel notes I had been developing.

Well, I ended up loving the program. More importantly, I ended up loving the new story. Because I am a full time editor, I decided that to keep myself sane I would write on weekends only. So far this has been an excellent experiment, especially since I get new ideas and perspectives during the week, which I bring to the keyboard during weekend writing time.

The novel now has a name, which I will share: Blood Dawn. It is about a young seamstress whose uncanny ability to weave cloth is far more than it seems. I look forward to developing the manuscript this next year or so.

I’ve found that each week’s new layer of story has led me to some great surprises. The best of these was how my previous novel, which I’d all but abandoned, will fit in with Blood Dawn. This surprise came to me when I was developing one of the characters and I mentioned some characters who were from my previous novel. Originally set 1000 years earlier, the story of Blood Dawn wouldn’t involve them at all. But when the characters entered the plan, I stopped for my usual “why not” moment of consideration. Why not led me more why nots: why not make this a series rather than a stand alone novel? Why not utilize the overall events from that previous work as fodder for a second book? Why not utilize some of the complex intrigues from my third novel as some of the background for the intrigues that will factor into this novel? Why not squash the 1000 year gap and bring the reader into a world in the midst of revolution? Such thinking led me to not only make Blood Dawn richer, but to figure out exactly how my previous manuscript needed to be “revised” – proof that moving on to something new can give you the perspective you need, and sometimes that perspective isn’t that a novel needs to be rewritten, but that its contents belong somewhere else.

Why nots are a great counterbalance for planners. Why not has now led me to see not just that my previous manuscript can and will be used in an open-ended story arc, but that all my ideas for fantasy books are flexible and open. In fact, I am much reminded of a good game of chess. One begins with careful thought (generally, about 5-7 moves ahead), and one modifies with care with each subsequent move. Check mate is always the goal, but the path to that goal changes with the game, and if upon each move one is thoughtful, it will be a good game.

Storytelling is no different. We are married to ideas, and sometimes, like in chess, attachment to one idea without perspective of the game goal (checkmate, or in stories, a solid premise) can lead to a trap. We are blinded by ideas, sometimes, and, like in chess, it is good to step back and think. Sometimes the right choice is subtle and doesn’t seem right, yet upon careful thought, one can see that a simple pawn move can change the game. So it is with stories.

Well, my friends, that’s enough of an update for now. It’s the weekend, and I’m happy to be at the keyboard, following more surprises.

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About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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4 Responses to The advantage of writing something else

  1. How marvelous that your once-abandoned novel has promise. It can be discouraging to set a work aside, even if framed within the belief that no writing is a waste. Didn’t take you long to prove that true.

    The credit for the negation of the negation goes to McKee, of course, but I’m glad if I helped make it accessible for you.

    Carrying out conversation over from my blog, you’re a few provinces east of me and I’m not familiar with many writing conferences between us. I *almost* went to Surrey this year, which would have been my first time. I hear it’s fantastic and there are at least two WU staff writers there. Maybe we can meet in BC. I can dream, right?

    • John Robin says:

      Jan, I’m planning to go to Surrey next year. Why don’t we make that a date? Heck, we should rally up as many WU folks as we can to go there and we can have a mini WU party there. I wonder if Donald Maass will come and do another workshop there next year? (I can dream too!)

  2. Lizette Clarke says:

    This quote is almost serendipitous for me: “…moving on to something new can give you the perspective you need, and sometimes that perspective isn’t that a novel needs to be rewritten, but that its contents belong somewhere else.” I’m currently in this process of focusing on a different part of my novel’s universe (the always gripping world of Connecticut in the late 90s!) and telling a new story. I’ve been feeling pretty burned out, but by writing something else, I hope I can take a step back and gain some perspective on the larger work.

    So I can totally relate to this post, and feel nice and validated about my decision. The simple question of “Why not?” can indeed open up a whole new world for an author!

    • John Robin says:

      Great to see you here, Lizette, and yes moving on to something else is as rewarding as it is terrifying. But it’s the most powerful choice you can make because sometimes in letting go you free yourself to take hold of many more things you never knew were in reach.

      Keep me posted on your fiction adventures.

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