For most people, writing is a narrow, rocky path littered with obstacles. Occasionally you’ll pass another writer on your way and you’ll nod to each other before continuing on. Sometimes you’ll find a stream along the side of the path and you’ll fill your water bottle and maybe lay down for awhile. Some people never get up again. And every now and then you’ll pass a marker that tells you exactly h0w far you’ve come — though not how far you have to go.
These markers are important. They’re the little boost we need to get over the next hill. They show we’re still moving forward, even if the landscape never changes. They tell us that we’ve achieved something — and we have! Not everybody gets this far. You could have given up a long time ago. Half your friends are still back there by that stream. We’re going places. We should acknowledge that.
One of the ways I acknowledge my own little markers is by writing a blog post at the end of every book, listing the things I’ve learned from the experience. I actually used to write these posts at the end of every draft — back then it felt like there was so much to learn, so much ground to gain, and I leaped from marker to marker with energy and gusto. Now, the markers are a little further apart. The things I’m learning are amorphous and harder to put into words. But I think it’s important, still, to pause and take a little Instagram snap of where I am and what I’ve learned.
None of these are dos and don’ts. They’re not rules to follow. They’re just things I’ll be aware of next time when making decisions about a character or a story, things that might make my life easier to avoid. Or, if I decide to include them, things to use with care and intention.
What the Sea Story has taught me:
1. The trouble with outsider characters
I’ve always written outsider characters, characters that are either new to their world, or on the outskirts of it. We all understand what that’s like, to feel like we don’t belong, to be the new person, to be alone in the world. It’s relatable. But while writing the sea story I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to construct a story with an outsider main character.
Dialogue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It achieves so many things at once: it reveals character, it creates conflict and suspense, it reveals information, and it advances the plot. Outsider characters have less opportunity to interact with other characters in a meaningful way, and you can fall into the trap of having scene after scene of your character just thinking about things. Give your characters friends, siblings, parents, enemies. Dialogue is where conflict happens; it’s the lifeblood of your story.
The other difficult with outsider characters is worldbuilding. If a character knows about her world, she can convey it to the reader, but if she’s new to it, every bit of information must be fed to her (and us) by other characters. If she’s also an outsider in the social sense, this creates additional difficulties.
Outsider characters are important and all these things can be overcome, but next time I will know exactly what I’m getting into before I decide to write this kind of story.
2. The weight of back-story
Imagine your novel in its first chapters is an infant. Still young, not quite able to hold its own head up yet. What you’re hoping as you go along is for that infant to grow, to learn to walk, and to become its own person. Now, imagine your back-story has a physical weight. It’s a metal chain that you loop around your story. In small amounts it can be beautiful — an adornment, a necklace — but too much begins to weigh your story down.
An adult can carry great chains across her back and it might even make her stronger. But even the smallest chain can be too much for an infant. A story will never learn to walk or talk or cover great ground when its first chapters are burdened with back-story.
I knew all this going in to the Sea Story, at least intellectually. But without realizing it, I created a story that was completely reliant on its back-story. The back-story was built into its bones — all forward movement was based upon events from the past. My poor first chapters struggled under the weight of it.
Back-story is not a bad thing in and of itself. But if you’re creating a story that relies upon its back-story, rather than using it as decoration, you will need to be especially creative in your execution. My advice? Make your back-story your front-story. Maggie Stiefvater often begins her story at that one important moment in the past that determines all that is to come. Julie Murphy, Jandy Nelson and Gayle Forman have all used unconventional story structures in order to incorporate events of the past into their manuscripts.
(*If you have any other examples of unconventional story structures in YA, please send them my way!)
Back-story is a hurdle, but when used well it can be beautiful.
3. The trouble with first person narratives
I love first person narration. All three of my novels are first person. But when you’re writing a story with a complex world and events happening in multiple locations, a single, first person narrator has its limitations. Your character either needs to be in the heart of the action at all times or have someone else tell them what’s going on — which can lack the drama of seeing it for themselves.
Another difficulty with first person narration is suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the genre, once gave the illustration of two people sitting at a table while a bomb ticks away underneath. If the viewer is unaware of the bomb (as in a first person narrative), then the eventual explosion is surprising but not suspenseful. If the viewer is aware, if they saw the bomb planted there and they know it will explode at a certain time, they become involved in the narrative and long to warn the characters. This is suspense.
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock
It’s all about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. This was the first time I even noticed these limitations, and I made first person work for me regardless, but with my WIP I’m giving third person a try. I have a larger kind of story I want to write and I’m looking forward to exploring it from a wider lens.
Sometimes, when writing feels like work, when you’re weary and stressed, it shows in the writing.
Sometimes, when writing is a joy, when you’re writing with the exuberance of pure creation, it shows in the writing.
For me, with this story, it was important to maintain the “mind on fire” spirit of writing. When I didn’t feel that, when an entire draft felt like work, that was a huge clue that something wasn’t right. And readers could tell.
I read this great piece by Hilari Bell the other day about embracing failure, because it means you’ve tried something and learned from the experience. Go read it; it’s a good one.
These are the ways I tried and failed while writing the sea story. These are the lessons I learned.
Next time I will fail better.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett