Friday, September 24, 2010

Trouble at the End

I have a problem.  I'm nearing the end of the first draft of my novel, but I'm not exactly sure how to end it. 

My story has become a trilogy in my head, which complicates my writing a bit.  I have an outline of the high points of each book, but I have to find the happy balance between keeping the first book as a stand-alone novel so that it will actually be publishable, and making sure that the second book is appropriately set up to continue the story without becoming boring filler as so many second-in-a-trilogy books tend to be.

So this brings up a good question: what makes a satisfying and complete ending?  When you, the author, know that there will be more than one book and know what's going to happen next, how do you keep the story self-contained, while still leaving the right number of loose-ends to bring people back for the next installment?

One of my first posts was about the book Ariel, by Steve Boyett.  I hated the ending of that novel.  Now, I don't know if he originally intended it to be a multi-book series (a sequel was published just last year, though the original was published in 1983), but regardless, the ending was dissatisfying and now I have no desire to read the sequel.  I want to avoid that if at all possible with my own readers.

I also recently read the first two books in a trilogy by Celine Kiernan, and I thought the ending of her first book was wonderful, but I'm pretty sure she sold the books as a trilogy, so the ending of the first book is left wide-open.  The heroine is literally walking down a road, beginning a new adventure as she searches for the truth.  Unfortunately, I can't really bank on the fact that I can sell all three of my books in one go.  From what I understand, as a debut author, it's often easier to sell the first one, see how it does, and then sell the remaining two books.  I need the ending of my first book to be a little more conclusive, a little more definite, with just a hint that there could be more to come, in case it ends up being the only one that gets published (sad, but possible).

There are people that will argue that writing is an art and I therefore shouldn't be concerned about the market or whether the books will be published.  They will say that I should focus on achieving my own vision, not appeasing "the man".  They're right to an extent.  I should be focusing on the story, and I should be working toward the vision in my head.  I need to make the book as good as it can be before I worry about the business end of things.  That's all true.  However, those of you who know me, know that I'm too darn practical for that.  I was a business major after all.

Writing is a business, whether you like it or not, and I want my books to be published.  Yes, I'm working hard to make my novel the best that it can be.  Yes, I am striving to achieve the vision in my head and tell a fantastic story.  But I want people, beyond my immediate friends and family, to have the opportunity to enjoy that story, and the only way to do that is to get it published.  I'm not cutting corners, I'm not pandering to the market, I'm simply trying to consider the business angle while I polish and progress.

Which brings me back to the original point: how am I supposed to end this thing?  I suppose I'll figure it out eventually.  I'm going to have to.  I just have to keep writing, polishing, and perfecting.  It'll get there.  I promise.  Seriously.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Laws of the World

World-building is an integral part of any good work of fiction.  It is the author's job to make the world feel real, so that the reader can live in it for the period of time that they're reading the work.

"But realistic settings constructed from memory or research are only part of the challenge, for an intensely created fantasy world makes new boundaries for the mind...Obviously this does not absolve the writer from the necessity of giving outer space its own characteristics, atmosphere, and logic.  If anything, these must be more intensely realized within the fiction, since we have less to borrow from in our own experience." 
Much of world-building is done in the head of the writer through research and planning prior to the actual writing of the story.  The author always knows more about the novel than the words that end up written on the page, especially in science fiction or fantasy.  Meanwhile, the reader needs to feel part of the written world without being overwhelmed with information dumped all at once. 

Benjamin Tate, author of Well of Sorrows (which I'm currently reading), posted not too long ago on Magical Words, saying that,

"The main to let the reader settle into the world and live in it without the world itself becoming overwhelming. Make the world familiar enough and expose the differences from our world in slow and steady stages, and the reader won’t even notice that they’ve snuggled deeper into their chair and are turning the pages that much faster."

I bring this topic up now because of my summer writing class.  We were required to submit a final piece, either a complete short story or the first chapter to a novel.  During the last two classes, we critiqued each other's work.  My final short story was set in the world of my novel, but occurred approximately sixty years prior.  Ironically, the short story's protagonist is the antagonist of the novel: Sarah, the current werewolf pack leader.  In any case, one of the primary criticisms was that I hadn't provided enough information about the rules of my fictional world. 

My goal had been to follow Benjamin's advice.  I wanted the reader to slowly become aware that the story was about a single battle in a werewolf war.  I tried introduce the rules of the world more or less evenly over the ~5,000 words of the story.  Unfortunately, by the end the readers still didn't have enough information to fully understand what was going on or feel satisfied with the conclusion.  My classmates asked about the identity of the werewolf pack, the reason for the war, and why the protagonist was so brutal.  We ended up talking about my world more than the story itself, which was fine by me since I had so much information to share.

Nearly everyone in the class thought that my short story was part of a longer work.  In a way, I suppose it was.  It was a piece of back-story for my novel.  But it made me realize that world-building is a balancing act.  You need to bring the reader into the world slowly and carefully, but you also have to give them enough to chew on or you'll lose them.  Every word, every sentence, needs to function on multiple levels to keep the reader interested, entertained, and ultimately satisfied.  If you don't give them enough, they feel incomplete, but give them too much and they'll either be overwhelmed or feel patronized.  The sweet spot is hard to find.

Now that I'm beginning the revision process for my novel, I'm reading with an eye for the "reality" of the world.  I've already noticed spots where I've given an information dump, or areas that need more description.  Revision is a wonderful thing.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Farm City

As many of you know, gardening is a significant hobby of mine.  Particularly vegetable gardening.  I grow tomatoes, zucchini (which unfortunately have done very poorly this year), cucumbers, beets, arugula, bell peppers, hot peppers, and strawberries, plus an assortment of herbs and random veggies that get thrown in the ground once in awhile.  So it's not surprising that I picked up a copy (rather, I downloaded on Kindle) Farm City by Novella Carpenter.

I don't often read non-fiction, but I'm glad I chose this one. 

Novella's urban farm is located in downtown Oakland, CA.  She starts out with a few pots in her own backyard, but quickly realizes that the empty lot next door would be a fantastic site for an urban farm.  She becomes a squatter - at least with her garden.  Her first addition beyond the regular veggies is a "poultry pack": chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks.  After several adventures and one fantastic Thanksgiving dinner, she adds bees to the mix.  Then it's rabbits.  Then pigs. 

Not only informative, Farm City is entertaining and Novella's voice comes through loud and clear.  She has a great sense of humor, even while performing activities that modern day urban dwellers might not find the most appealing.  I, on the other hand, found the book inspiring, and hope to one day have a little farm of my own.

Rating: 4.5/5