Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weaving the Threads

I’m taking a break just now from writing a particularly harrowing scene from my new science-fiction novel, “Gusto, ” and I thought I’d drop you a line.

It’s a retrospective novel of sorts, in that Paul Riker--skipper of USS Skipjack, the Federation sublight vessel he captains, in my books—has received word of a death in his family. His grandmother, the formidable, very prejudiced and super--socially--conscious matriarch of the clan, has passed away, and he returns to his home planet, Zerev, to attend the funeral.

Not such a hot premise for a book, on the face of it; and yet, when Riker begins to discover elements of his life and family that he has never suspected, he gets drawn ever deeper into the lives of the pioneer folk of his colony planet—and understands exactly who he really is—and who is family truly are.

This kind of book is not necessarily easy to write, and I don't recommend your starting with one of this sort. If you have a great idea for one of them, shelve it until you have a few finished novels under your belt, and then go for it.

Some books are easier to write. You start with a character you know well, put him in an impossible, hopefully deadly, situation and let him get out of it by his own wits. You just follow him around, making notes. Some writers pooh-pooh this approach, but, I say, hey, to each his own. It's always worked for me, as far as it went.

Other books call for more sifting, more weighing of ideas and facts, a spinning of multiple golden threads that guide each character—like Theseus with his Minotaur—through the maze of the story. To do this, however, be sure you know the way out of the maze beforehand.

Before you start a story of any sort, you mustknow the beginning, the middle and the end, and the important thing that changes. You already will have the skeleton of your story. Fill in the blanks with anything you wish, as long as it makes sense. Situate the story anywhere you like, give the characters whatever attributes you wish, add plot twists if you want to, and still, you have the basis for your story, right there in front of you.

In my own work, I always start with one strong, engaging character--someone I'd like to know--and hopefully, two or three more of them to flesh out the story. Then I go from there.

In my initial novel, “All the Gods of Eisernon.”I used five strong characters: Dao Marik--clearly the dominant personality--Hennem-Mishli, Kles Mennon, Duli Paige and Paul Riker.

Since “Gods—“ had multiple story lines, I needed multiple strong characters to support them. Just make sure, if you decide to go this route (and before you build all those individual story lines) that the book really cannot do without them. Nothing is more confusing—or more off-putting to your Reader--than a snarl of storylines that even the writer can’t untangle.

In “The Elluvon Gift,” while I still relied Dao Marik and Paul Riker, I basically used one story line and just the two really strong lead characters, because that’s what the story called for. It was a much simpler book, from the writing standpoint. Neither better nor worse, just simpler.

For my purposes as a writer, I find that the more story lines you weave, the more ‘lead’ characters you must have. That can be a problem for the beginning writer, and sometimes for more experienced writers, too. If I were just starting out, and had not written fifteen or twenty pieces of fiction yet, I’d stick to a single, well-defined, story line, and make it the best I knew how to write.

But how do you know how?

That’s the rub, as Shakespeare was reported to have said. (These days they’re not sure he actually existed, but they quote him anyway.)

I’ll tell you next time.

Meanwhile, why not start building yourself a character whose adventures you personally would love to share. Write down every detail. Nothing is off-limits. You are bound only by good taste and your great imagination. You cannot write it ‘wrong’ because it’s yours, and you get to say what goes and what doesn’t.

Meanwhile, let’s talk next week again, shall we? Looking forward to it.

Lang out.

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