Reading Helps Me Think About Writing
My writing work this week, coupled with reading The Artist’s Way and a fiction book, have made me very thoughtful. How does one go about plotting a clever book that will be unpredictable and engage the reader? This has been my topic of the week.
I started out by picking up a random book from my shelf, a book which I had bought for $1 or less at a wonderful, local book sale that goes on twice a year. I am about to finish the book, but things are wrapping up in it now, and I’m contemplating plot. The book is Kushiel’s Chosen, a dark fantasy/Alternate Universe novel by Jacqueline Carey. I picked it up knowing it is part of a series, and not the first book. Yet I had read so many good reviews of it, I just had to buy it when I saw it at the sale.
Without giving anything away, I will say a little about Carey’s book. Phedre no Delaunay, Comtesse de Montreve, is a chosen of the god Kushiel, and thus experiences pain and pleasure simultaneously. She was a slave girl and was bought by a spy lord as a girl and trained the arts of spying and prostitution; now, after the death of her master, who was also a dear friend, she has recently had some normalcy in life, which included a monogamous romance with a dear old friend.
But, at the start of the novel she receives a signal that indicates her old enemy, noble-woman and spy-equal Melisande, is still alive, and may be a threat to Phedre’s Queen. So Phedre returns to the Capitol and to her life of politics, seduction and intrigue, hot on the heels of an evil plot, whilst inside being tormented by the loss of her lover and friend (who feels betrayed that she has had to return to her holy prostitution under the service of the goddess Naamah).
In the course of the book, Phedre is forced to make important choices which effect the events later in the book. ***SPOILER WARNING!! SPOILERS BELOW**
Phedre chooses to take the bait the enemy gives her, and move to a foreign city to investigate clues. She chooses to track her enemy to her location, and thereby gets herself in huge trouble and almost goes insane, literally, in a terrible prison. Then she is given the choice to remain there forever or become an indentured slave to the enemy. Just as she chooses to be a slave, with little hope of escape, she is taken from prison – only to become a hostage in the hands of a famous pirate!
If Phedre had chosen to stay in the Capitol instead of pursue the enemy, she never would have found the information she sought – but nor would some of her companions have died, perhaps. ***SPOILERS END AFTER THIS PARAGRAPH***
WHAT MAKES A GOOD OUTLINE?
These are just a few examples of how characters choices affect the story. It was also the choice of the author to have so many options, and to make it so that one event causes her character to choose a different path later. Because of certain events, characters develop in varied ways and make choices different than those they would have made at the start of their story. Thus, both plot and character arcs become very engaging to the reader.
I find this all very interesting as I try to outline my novel, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I want to learn better how to make one event the cause for another, to make one choice by the main characters affect the story later on. It may seem obvious to think on it abstractly, but when it gets down to writing a deeply involved novel with political intrigue and such, as Carey’s novel, then the writing work gets more gritty.
My contemplation of what makes a good outline seemed to be echoed in my life this week, too. I bought a plane ticket, which takes careful planning if you want a certain price, date, etc., and a friend of mine cancelled her plans with me because she got overwhelmed by circumstances beyond her control. Just one tiny thing can change the course of a day, a week…maybe even a lifetime.
I guess my point is, sometimes we feel small in the pullings of the world, but this ability to be small can help us when we outline our book in detail. The more detailed outline, some would say, the better. Others would say, don’t be so attached to the outline, and still others, don’t outline at all. My opinion lies somewhere in the middle: Outline, but be flexible about it. Outlines help, but it can be easy to get distracted by them, and get so involved in outlining that you don’t even get started (or continue) writing your story.
KEEPING YOUR CHARACTER’S DEVELOPMENT CONSISTENT
Back to Carey’s book, I noticed the skill with which Carey developed Phedre’s character. At the start she is very in control and strong, and through the course of the book she seems to become weaker and more vulnerable to her inner fears and truths…but towards the end, these very weaknesses become her strengths. If it were not for certain people dying, or certain unexpected attacks by the enemy, Phedre would not have developed in this way, but would have remained under the shadow of this false strength that she shows to society. Because of the events of the plot and her choices, she develops into a strong but vulnerable, even more clever woman.
Towards the end of the novel, there were a couple instances I felt that Carey’s writing…wilted. I had to suspend my disbelief a little too much, as characters who had previously been very intelligent and quick to act missed a couple key opportunities to do a quick one-two political moves to render the enemy defeated quickly. For the sake of plot and her series, and a dramatic climax, Carey gave her characters a couple stupid moments, right at the end when it really counted, right when I REALLY wanted to see them be smart! It left me feeling a little empty, when I had been so full with the genius of the book thus far.
So this gets me thinking more on, not only plot and deliberating one event into causing another, but showing our characters using what they’ve learned while not giving them too much advantage. Perhaps Carey felt that if she didn’t give the characters their stupid moment, the end would have been too easy. Indeed, she is good at being tough on her characters – and her readers! Yet, I had believed in the intelligence of her character so well so far, that seeing them falter – and for no given reason, just randomly – struck me as a bad move on the author’s part.
Right now this post is just a mad ramble, because I am still thinking on all of this. I want to de-jumble the mess of my thoughts and post again soon. I am also going to continue my posts on Julia Cameron’s creativity workbook, The Artist’s Way. For now…
Any thoughts on plotting, outlining, or character arcs?
Thanks for reading,