I’m at a really interesting place in Last King of Osten Ard right now, in the middle-ish parts of Book 2 (Empire of Grass), because from here until the second half of the Book 3 (The Navigator’s Children) I don’t really know what’s going to happen.
Well, I guess that’s a bit misleading. Me being me, I know a LOT about what’s going to happen, and especially as the story moves into its ending, but I’m in that part of the process right now where I don’t know much about how my characters are going to get to their appointed places in time for the grand finale, as it were. And, as usual, some of them will refuse to do what I want, while others will insist on pushing themselves to the front of the narrative when I hadn’t planned for them.
Characters are @$$holes, by the way. Seriously, I’d rather work with Teamsters.
Don’t get me wrong. I LIKE not knowing sometimes.
People often ask, if, according to George R. R. Martin’s definition, I’m an “architect” or a “seat of the pants” writer, and in most ways I’m definitely the former. I construct my books and worlds with great care. But with a really long story, you can’t plan everything—or at least and not get the book written in any reasonable length of time. Which is why I try to pre-think general character arcs and/or certain locations that might come in handy (to the plot, not just geographically) and then when I get there, sort of push the people and places around and see what works best.
I’ve often talked about this: in the MS&T books certain things were complete surprises, like Cadrach becoming a major character, and the role of the White Arrow, and other things that just sort of happened. And this kind of serendipity is important too. One of the most enjoyable things for me in writing really long books is that the combining and re-combining of all those storylines and personages is a bit like creating artificial life—order emerges on its own, and it’s often an order I didn’t anticipate.
In fact, I’m seeing it happen right now in the last half of ‘Empire of Grass’, although I still have a lot of work to do, and much will probably change during the rewrite of the first draft. That’s another gift to writers—rewrites. You can think of something later that, like the French phrase, “l’esprit de l’escalier”, you didn’t think of in time to make yourself look brilliant, but thanks to rewrite you can fix it so it DOES look like you knew what you were doing from the first.
There’s another factor, too, which is that nowadays any writer working on a long-form story is going to have a chance to hear lots of readers speculate on how things are going. This ubiquity of comments leads to a twofold puzzle:
First, many genre readers have experienced so many epic fantasies (in this case) as well as other plot-driven movies and books that they are very hard to fool with conventional plot twists. (Curse you, you rotten smarties!) So I have to work extra hard to stay ahead of them, and sometimes, tai chi style, I have to use their own familiarity with the tropes and twists against them. Because I am old and cunning.
Second, despite all my attempts, someone will usually guess something close to the truth about certain plotlines or characters. The temptation for me is to then change the story to kill that good or lucky guess. But that’s a path that leads to madness, especially since with many people speculating, a few are bound to hit at least a plot point or two right on the noggin.
As a result of these two problems, I try not to read too much speculation. (I also try not to read too many reviews of my work either, but that’s another kettle of neurosis.) I don’t want to be cutting and trimming a story simply to stay ahead of a couple of readers who make good guesses. That, in my opinion, is when you start to lose your inspiration. Nobody should write a story as reaction, only as action.
So, if you do guess something right, pat yourself on the back. You outthunk me. But I’ll bet I get you a few other places.
And if you guessed EVERYTHING . . . well, do you want to write my next couple of books? I could use a vacation.
(A p.s. from Deborah. We’re nearly there to the end-June publication of ‘The Witchwood Crown’. I think it would help us if you all could pre-order your copies now, so they count towrds pub-date numbers. Also, get your birthday gifts in! Sorry. Shameless huckstering.)