Open Letter to Annaka

Dear Annaka,

Last week on Twitter, I asked you about your writing.  You told me you write YA.  That you like to write about girls/women, friendships, and adventures, large and small.  You also admitted to feeling you have a problem with becoming verbose – specifically that you found yourself getting caught up in character exploration side plots that, once written, you ended up really liking.  Therefore, you didn’t want to discard them.  Instead, you wove them back into the plot.

Some of My Gardens

Finally, you wondered how I managed to keep the “richness” of my characters in my own stories without dragging down the plot.

First, thanks for the compliment…  Second… I’ll admit, there’s no real formula.  I thought that here, freed from the telegraphic communication constraints of Twitter, I might offer a few thoughts.

Since your bio note indicates that you’ve attended Viable Paradise workshop, which is taught by some very skillful editors and writers, I’m going to skip the basics and get to the philosophical.

I think the sort of story you like to write – in which friendships are as important as adventures, and that those adventures can be both large and small – probably lends itself to getting lost in character side plots.  Have you read the National Book award-winning “Penderwick” books by Jean Birdsall?  They’re very much that sort of book.   I love them…

However, readers of SF/F usually expect their adventures to be on a grander scale.  They often expect the characters they read about to be somehow super-powered, whether by means of magic or science.  A wandering side plot about very human issues – no matter how much characterization it offers – is not what they want.  They want – as one (adult by the way) reader admitted to me – to read about people who don’t get messed up by life events the way they themselves do.

So the first question to ask yourself is “Am I writing the right form of fiction?”  Would you be happier writing stories in which character exploration and development is the point, not something that has to compete with defeating dystopian governments or saving the space station or whatever?

The genre you’re writing shapes everything else.  Pretty much the first question any SF/F writer gets asked is “Why do you write ‘that stuff’?”  There are lots of answers – the ability to use the future or an alternate world to explore a social or moral or ethical question.  Because it’s what you like to read.  Because it’s a hot market.

For me, it’s because it’s how my brain works.  Except for occasional short pieces, stories without the speculative fiction element don’t hold my attention.  That, in turn, shapes how I characterize.  I slip inside the person and, while I’m writing in their point of view, I am that person.  Because people rarely go off into side plots that aren’t tied to the issue at hand, my characterization stays tight and yet gets expanded.  If someone remembers an event from the past in any sort of detail, it’s going to be tied to the events of the present moment.

I know a lot of things about my characters that don’t make it onto the page.  This material may never make it onto any page except as notes to myself.  However, I think it’s there in the story nonetheless, keeping my characters three-dimensional, making them react consistently to situations, keeping them from being pawns slid around according to the needs of the plot.

Here’s another question…  Are you sure novels are what you want to write?  Oddly enough, you sound very much like a short story writer (all those side plots) who is forcing herself to write a novel.  Side plots are very different from sub-plots.  Sub-plots exist in tandem with the on-going action.  A good example of this is Elise’s crush on Jet in the early Firekeeper books.  By itself, it would be a pretty slim romance story.  Tied into the novel, however, it helps flesh out the consequences of the competition for King Tedric’s throne, one of which is a girl’s broken heart and her realization that romantic daydreams shouldn’t be used to make major real life choices.

Back in the day, it was more common for writers to explore various aspects of a character or setting in short story format.  These days, too many relatively untried writers push themselves into writing novels.  Maybe you want to write short stories instead – stories about the same people and places, sure.  That’s completely acceptable.

Charles de Lint’s “Newford” stories had all the more punch because he was able to tell so many tales about an interconnected group of friends in a shorter form.  (His Dreams Underfoot is a short story collection that manages to read like a novel.)  David Drake’s Old Nathan is three stories that build on each other, but each stands on its own.  Many an early SF/F novel was actually cobbled together from strong short stories.

Maybe you should consider whether your side plots are really independent short stories.  Don’t weave them in or feel forced to condense them.  Pull them out and find out what the novel really is about.  If it crumples without the side plots, you’ve learned something interesting.

You described yourself as “pantser” as opposed to a plotter.  As I explored in another of these Wanderings, another term for “pantser” is “gardener” – this balanced against “architect,” as a term for those who like to build their stories out in advance.  But I know you’re also a “real” gardener. You know that (no matter what people who don’t garden think) gardens don’t “just grow.”  They need planning, pruning, watering, thinning, fertilizing.

A verbose novel is like an overgrown garden, not really a healthy place.  Consider the shape of your garden.  (Genre.)  The type of your garden.  (Short story.  Novel.)  Then tend appropriately.  You may find your imagination taking a new and wonderful shapes!

Happy Writing!

Jane

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2 Responses to “Open Letter to Annaka”

  1. Annaka Kalton Says:

    Dear Jane,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful post.

    I have not read the “Penderwick” books, but will definitely check them out. From your broader description, it sounds like you have a bead on the sort of character-driven side plots I find myself wandering into. And enjoying a little too much for my own good!

    You’re absolutely right that it’s an uphill battle integrating such explorations into the dominant type of fast-paced SFF novel. Given that I adore magic and dragons and such, and seem incapable of coming up with a plot that doesn’t involve at least one fantastical element, I’m hoping that I can use the more character-driven elements as leavening and keep my fantasy. The trick is keeping those characters under control!

    I really liked the comment you made about using the characters’ focus on the matter at hand to keep things tight. I think part of my issue may be that the “issue at hand” isn’t always strong enough in my story. That gives me too much leeway for looking around and getting distracted.

    My current novel has a much stronger core plot thread, and I’m finding it easier not to let the tangents grow out of control with that. Unfortunately, the novel that motivated my question is also a novel of my heart… so I’m anxious to find a way to “fix” it — if not now, then once I have expanded my toolbox a bit.

    My favorite bit of your post was the characterization of a verbose novel as being like an overgrown garden. I find that a very helpful simile, because it captures the mess and complexity — but also the potential. I also find it apt in that you can’t just hack a tidy novel out of a verbose novel, any more than you can hack a tidy garden out of an overgrown garden. Any initial hacking must be followed by replanting and a second round of judicious pruning and training.

    I think I will practice on my more plot-driven novel, which is an easier case. Once I’ve had some practice, hopefully I can return to my beloved character-laden beauty, and find the story that wants to come out.

    Thanks again for your insights!
    Annaka

    • janelindskold Says:

      Hi Annaka —

      Like you, I love the elements that are characterized as “Fantasy.” I know (and like, and like the writing of) a woman who proudly proclaims her Fantasy “dragon free.” Me? I’m not ashamed to admit I like dragons — large, small, and variants. I like magic, too — systematized mystical, some of the above, all of the above.

      I think one of the reason I like the Penderwick books is they make everyday life magical.

      I think your insight that you need a stronger sense of the “issue at hand” to guide you is a great one. When I was starting, I often wrote a key word or phrase at the top of the page, to help me remember what I started to explore.

      Good luck with your novels! May they grow lush and have many lovely flowers…

      Jane

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