Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why I write sequentially

Today I feel as if I've got a tiger by the tail. Yesterday I executed the plot point I had planned for that point in the story--but, as so often happens, I was surprised by a character's emotional reaction, left with a profound feeling of uncertainty about what he's going to do next and how it will influence the unfolding story.

Don't read too much into my assertion that I had planned this plot point: I had only realized what Deaclan was going to do at this point in the story a few days earlier, when I began thinking about the plot point to which he's reacting and remembered that--because of the rules of magic and magical bonds already in play--Deaclan would be immediately aware of things anyone else could only have guessed at. And that those things weren't going to make him happy. Suddenly this event which I had originally planned as part of another plot was affecting Deaclan and his tactics, and -- more importantly, to my mind -- moving him into an emotional space I wasn't ready for. One unanticipated emotional response from a character can--and frequently does--change the way the plot unfolds.

The closer I come to the end of this novel, the more nervous things like this make me. In early chapters, when characters surprise me, I feel entirely comfortable just letting them do their things and finding out what they're getting at as things unfold. But now I am (I hope) within fifty pages of the climax, and the novel has to end in a particular place--and, more troubling yet, because the next novel will continue the action of this one, my plot structures must work across the divide between these books. I must not allow characters to reveal things that I need to use in the next volume--and I can't fall into the trap of allowing them to stagnate because I'm trying to hold off. And when my characters surprise me, they always move my reveals forward from where I'd planned them. I am, after all, notoriously slow at most everything. I can only assume that when the muse pushes faster, he's the one who's right. But suddenly each of my subplots is straining towards stuff that has to be in the next book, while my main plot is time-bound. The climax must occur on a particular day, because it is a holiday; and as my characters speed up the pace of the subplots, and I try to keep my reveals under control, that day begins to seem a very long way off.

Why all this worry? Because there are only so many pages that can be fit between a single set of covers before the book becomes too expensive to produce. If there were no such limits, I would probably write novels that were 800 or a thousand pages long. Readers will only pay so much for a book, and distributors and bookstores will demand their cut of the purchase price. If the money remaining after all those requirements are met is less than the cost of producing the book, I am essentially paying readers to read my stories. And of course I want to share my stories with everyone, but I can't afford to do that. As long as my stories go to market in book form, I have to keep the chunks of my story below a certain threshhold--and each of those chunks must stand satisfyingly alone.

This is a set of tricks which seems more easily managed by people who develop outlines and then stick to them. Unfortunately I develop outlines, draw maps of my story territories if you will, plan my trips--and then the characters hijack the bus. Every so often, when we stop for meals, I negotiate with them about moving in the direction of the climax point for which I'm shooting, and we modify our maps and set out again. But the characters have a tendency to forget to look at the map, or to drive too fast--and my nice measured story arcs look as if they were drawn by someone riding on a bus being driven much too fast on a poorly maintained road.

Which, of course, they are.

We will get there. But I'll be uneasy until I bring my subplots to their first-book climax points.

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