A Toppled Tower

from fimoculous c/o Flikr

Imagine, for a moment, a tower that’s built piece by piece over a number of years. It starts as a one story house with a solid foundation; over time, another story is added, then another. Soon it reaches into the sky, and grows higher and higher. It gets that cartoonish curve you see when someone draws something tall and rickety. If it keeps getting higher, what’s going to happen?

It’ll crumble like a house of cards. Unless, of course, you continue to work on the foundation.

This is the trouble, I find myself in currently. Over the weekend, my wife and I were doing some shopping and I had a creative epiphany that solved one of the question I’ve had about my Tapestry Project: how do I bring my main conflict–a behind the scenes war between gods–into the forefront so it means something to the characters? The idea was a war between two fey tribes, the Winterkin and Summerchilde. The conflict has been waged for centuries in an alternate plane of existence, and it’s now bleeding into the real world. Sounds compelling, or so I thought.

The problem was that, in shoehorning this concept into my existing framework, I’ve effectively built too many stories (forgive the pun). Magic in my World is a product of the Elements–I’d have to equate that somehow to the seasons if I have Summer and Winter fey tribes. I haven’t introduced fairies into my story, so I have to make them fit before giving my characters that identity. Having an unseen world that lurks beneath Tornum gives a lot of opportunities, but requires some retooling to make sense. And, ultimately, I’d be adding a core concept to the book.
Really, this epiphany doesn’t work–not for this story, anyway. I like the idea and may use it elsewhere, but for Tapestry, it’s a dead end. But it was revelatory for another reason.

It showed me that my overall story, as much as I’ve worked on it and tinkered with it over the years, has an awful lot of holes. It’s a tower waiting to be toppled by the slightest breeze. Why? Because I keep adding to it.

It’s a good story–I think so, anyway. It’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and I’m excited to finally be doing it. But it’s become larger than itself now, and I’m trying to incorporate too many disparate elements in an effort to make it interesting. This is what happened the last time I put it down. It collapsed under its own weight, and I simply couldn’t keep it straight anymore. This time, I don’t intend to abandon it–but something needs to be done.

This is a very valuable lesson for me. If something as simple as a cool idea can tear the foundation of my story to pieces, there’s something wrong. I need to repair the foundation, rather than thinking up new and creative ways to solve the problems inherent in the story. I didn’t expect that lesson, but I’m glad for it. It’s given me a lot to think about.

And lo, as if the Great Muse was thinking of me as I pondered my problems, I came across this article, How To Strengthen A Story Idea. Go ahead and click on the link, it’ll open in a new window. The greatest thing I took away from this article is that if you feel that your story is falling flat, you’re in trouble. You have to reinvigorate it somehow, and it’s likely a larger problem than warrants adding some action or a new character. To quote the author, Roz Morris, you have to “recreate the gut ‘wow.'”

How do you do that? I’m just learning that myself, but this article is a great place to start. In the back of my mind, I’ve known for a while that my story is getting too complicated. Most of the research I’ve been doing will end up in the ‘background,’ colouring the characters, setting and themes, but that doesn’t mean it’s strong, or relevant to the story. I have to find our what is, and go with that.

This is what I’ll need to consider over the next while. Do I need to involve kabbalah, I Ching, Tarot, astrology, alchemy and theological philosophy? Do I need to have each character’s name reflect some esoteric or occult meaning? What’s really important for this book?

The answer to that question, simply, is the story. That’s what’s important. I can have all the window dressing I want: if the story isn’t good, the book’s not good. The narrative is the foundation–and I can add as many stories to the tower as I want, it won’t do a lick of good if I don’t have a strong foundation.

So where does this leave me? I’m of a mind to shelve the project for a while, work on something else, and come back to it with a clear head–something suggested in the article above. I’m wary of that though, because I know myself. If I put it down, even for a couple weeks, there’s a chance I’ll neglect it completely.

So for the moment, I’m going to continue working on it–through research, if not actual writing. I need to get back to basics, and my research on Tarot will give me that anchor. Once that’s complete, I should be able to get a clearer view of the overall story, do some revised plotting and outlining, then dive right back in. In the meantime, this is something I needed to learn, and I’m glad it came when it did (as opposed to, say, after releasing the first stories in this project). It’s a lot easier to fix  the foundation if you haven’t built the tower already.

6 comments on “A Toppled Tower

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, James! And you’re right – when you keep adding, you make the story unstable. As you say, get back to the foundations and look at them with new eyes. Oh my, mixed metaphors… Have fun!

  2. Interesting.

    I liked this bit:

    • who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
    • what people are trying to do
    • how it will get worse
    • what the setting is
    • why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
    • a rough structure

    I’ve been struggling with my WIP (a prequel to Rainbow’s Lodestone) for several days, and it finally gelled today. I had to do a lot of setting research (things like the looking up the melting point temperatures of bronze and iron) and setting brainstorming (how did the Ghriana build their strongholds?). Fun stuff, but this work usually gells into a story sooner for me. I was beginning to wonder…if it wouldn’t! Eeep!

    I can’t say exactly what I did that precipitated the gelling, but it started with a resolve to bring my mind back from the vast and grand scope of the setting to the character I hoped would be the protagonist and back to the first inklings I had for his nature.

    As I contemplated, the first scene I’d envisioned suddenly became more solid and real. It wasn’t an outline or a sketch anymore. It was…the beginning of the story. And the whole arc of scenes started to fall into place, sort of like turning the focus on binoculars and going from blurry to sharp. I was ready!

    I’m sure the exact scenes I write will change, as well as some details and the ordering of the scenes. But I can feel the current now! And I notice after the fact that I can answer all the questions in Morris’ list. I’m going to make a reference copy of that list!

    (BTW…cool photo from Flickr!)

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head: looking at the “grand scope” of things isn’t always going to work. I need to step back and see the tress–not the forest–as it were.
      Glad your project is gelling! I’ll look forward to that prequel; it’s a great story, but it left me wanting to know more about the history of those strongholds and how things came to be. Can’t wait!

  3. Ryan Casey says:

    Great post, James, and very timely indeed for that matter. I’m currently reviewing my upcoming novel (reviewing tends to be what I call the first stage of the re-writing process, where I sit down with the book and make notes on plot/character points and general overarching themes that aren’t really working for me) and I’ve also found myself wanting to get back to the root of my problem/dilemma. There’s a lot going on, quite a fair bit of backwards and forwards, but it’s something that is addressable. A part of me hates the rewrite stage (why can’t everything just read as well as it seems to write during the first draft?!), but I guess tearing it up and getting to the root of the character’s issue is all part of the fun.


    • You raise a good point: ego can be a formidable challenge to a writer. I also used to think that my first draft would be fine–just check for spelling and such, then press “publish.” Despite having written things for a decade, I’ve never gotten out of that mindset until actually publishing something. It’s a lot harder than it looks–but it’s a good lesson to learn!

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