It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’ve had the day off from work. Ahem, a day off from the office job. It’s allowed me to put in some writing work. I knocked out just over 2,000 words today, interspersed with some family responsibilities. As satisfying as the day has been, that’s not my purpose for this post.
I’ll just say it aloud: Writing is weird. It really is. You sit, you think, you write out thoughts. Some day, not today, they make sense. Hopefully, to others besides yourself.
I planned to write something of a scene today, and as I consider the labyrinthine journey I took as I worked, I’m surprised – and pleased – with the results. For those of you interested in the writing process, I whipped up a quick post to shed some light on my own methods and madness. Be advised, Dear Reader, this will be a strange walk through one writer’s mind and his storytelling process. Consider yourself well-warned.
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In my second novel, my protagonist has been raised without any knowledge of his past life. Like his sister Tildy in the first book, the world thinks Samor dead. But as the children of a Queen and King, their worlds are filled with paintings, books, people, and other references that provide insight into their family and their early lives. The children do not realize this, but assuming I do a proper job, the Reader will.
As I was getting ready for the day, I started debating what I might write about. My mind followed Samor’s book journey and decided I would have him discover the painting of his parents. Tildy does a similar thing in her book, and neither of them recognize the experience for what it is: the first time either of them have beheld their parents – or the infant images of themselves.
Parallel scenes like this are one of the reasons I wanted to tell their stories in separate books. It also allows a fair amount of compare and contrast, which is a handy way to derive inspiration: Oh, Tildy handled the experience this way? How would her brother handle it differently? And what are their shared reactions?
OK, so I’ve set a goal, a destination, for my scene. How do I get there? (For spoiler-y reasons that I won’t explain here, the portraits have been hidden. The why isn’t important to the scene.) I now needed a beginning and a middle.
Earlier in the book, I’ve established that a character close to Samor – his primary teacher – has seen the paintings before. Their artistry moved him profoundly. If you’re like me, and you experience such a thing, you want other people to share in it. And so does this teacher. He thinks, perhaps over-optimistically so, that this would be a welcome present for Samor’s birthday. Yeah, yeah, I know. But I also recognize that gifts are often as much about the person giving them as the recipient.
Anyway, the teacher is vaguely aware of this, too, and knows he must make another connection for his young charge. He’s a teacher, so this will be a learning experience. His true purpose for showing Samor the portraits of the Queen and King has suddenly become to help the boy understand the weight of his responsibility. He is the heir of the Steward. When his father dies, he will be entrusted with the future of the kingdom.
Well, how does this teacher know where the hidden paintings are, I asked myself. To which I responded: Someone with secret knowledge, of course, has confided in an untrustworthy friend of the teacher. Whether the details of this are more salacious….well, we’ll see.
Alright, I’ve got the destination, some of the motivation, but I need to set the scene rolling. Portraiture often hangs in a gallery, which – POOF! – this fortress suddenly has. I won’t bore the Reader with fifty descriptions of other rulers and dignitaries as they pass through the gallery, but I need to convey that this fortress does have a rich history. (It occurs to me as I write this post that it’s a perfect set-up for the teacher’s plan of showing Samor his place in the world! Ah, serendipity.)
Our two characters travel the gallery and pass the important people. They come to a spot where two portraits have been removed – the King’s and Queen’s. The teacher has made the journey to this spot instructional and he has created a segue to his true purpose.
So far, that’s a lot of stuff about the teacher’s motivation. But what about our hero, who might be forgiven for not enjoying this particular aspect of his birthday. I mean, come on, we’ve got a long journey with a humdrum destination. But wait, what if this is exactly something Samor needs? He’s an overprotected child who cannot leave the castle. He’s also living a life of privilege where things go his way. These are the motivations that lead him to run away in the book, which sets up the primary story. Et voila! We now have a way to convey this need, and perhaps, this allows us to strengthen his desire to the point where he will feel compelled to go!
Therefore, this trip to the room – no, secret room – no, secret hidden room with a magic lock – NO, secret hidden room with a magic lock at the heart of a spiral pathway beneath a fortress of ice – must be a trek that scratches Samor’s need for adventure. Samor enjoys this, despite himself, and the teacher accidentally spurs him toward running away.
Whoops. Best laid plans and all that.
Wrapped within this instruction by the teacher, and all the way to the portraits in the secret room, is some helpful exposition and backstory. Every book needs some of this. Sometimes it’s well disguised; other times, it’s simply a chapter that should be entitled “How the bad guy did it”. So, I’m grateful for what appears to be an unobtrusive way to handle it.
So, where were we? Gallery, strange journey to secret destination to a door with a magic lock. The more impressive the security, the more valuable the treasure, right? BTW, this suddenly became a similar lock to one that will play an important role near the climax of the book (forcing the author to jump to later chapters to create this connection).
In a way that I will rewrite to make it less deus ex machina-y, the teacher happens to have a special key. In fact, it’s the key he’s used to unlock every door on their journey (the author writes, going back to those scenes to ensure congruence). The door is open! Now Samor must cross the threshold into a darker place, much like his journey into adulthood, the teacher explains.
Using a wisdom and words that convey to the Reader that this teacher cares deeply for Samor’s learning (as most teachers do), the teacher helps Samor understand the importance of what he is seeing, even if neither of them knows that Samor is the lost prince that everyone thinks dead. Sweet Moses, that was a gross sentence, but such is the chaos that first drafts invoke!
But…this teacher is pretty damn smart. He’s a collector of information. He connects seemingly unrelated dots. As he and Samor are looking at the infant with the sugar-blonde hair, who would be Samor’s age if he had lived…the teacher is nearly knocked over by the idea that Samor is the lost prince. Now, it will take him a lot of time to confirm this, and we’ve got a few books to do that, but the first crack has appeared in the wall that guards Samor’s true identity.
I swear, sometimes the way this stuff comes together, it’s like my fingers are being guided by someone who wants to use me to tell a story.
After they depart and this heavy scene ends, the teacher gives Samor a second present. In hindsight, this puzzle box might be too much for now. It could reveal something special or drive Samor toward something, but I’ve got a few other scenes of birthday presents. While Samor lives a privileged life, I can’t bore the Reader with scene after scene of marvelous presents.
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It’s a first draft, of course, but it’s gotten the job done. As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to take you on a winding journey, give you a peek behind the curtains. Much like a stage production, there’s a lot of messy backstage stuff you never see: nails and braces, stitches in costumes, and so on. Similarly in this post, I’ve got italics, parentheticals, and asides; odd sentence structure; and it rambles at times. It’s a messy style and one I would not typically keep, but it’s reflective of the way my mind works when I’m moving full speed. This is what editors are for.
You might have also noticed that the pieces above were not recounted in linear fashion. I slipped forward and backwards through the scene, making changes to better set up the climax. A few things were planned. Many were not. Problems were solved as I went. New ones were created – gifts to my future self, and not unwelcome ones.
Most importantly, I accomplished some things. There’s some context, some history. Some new famous people to possibly explore later. A magic key for an unbreakable lock. Foreshadowing and other setups for future storylines. We explore another dimension for a character, the teacher whose description started as “inspired by Severus Snape, but not as tragic”. We start to understand what motivates Samor, or how others inspire him to change. All in all, not a bad bit of work for a few hours’ time. And for that, I am always grateful. I wish you similar luck with your writing.
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© Michael Wallevand, November 2020