Authorguy's Blog

Can’t get there from here

Posted on: May 25, 2011


There are many steps to writing a query letter, most of which are pretty obvious and simple to follow. It always amuses me that just about every article on the subject has a toss-off line about ‘writing a synopsis’ as if such a job were a) not the heart and soul of the query, and b) easy to do. I’ve often thought that there was something wrong with me that I had such problems with this supposedly simple task. I spent literally years trying to describe my latest novel, St. Martin’s Moon. I finally gave up on the project, when I realized that the problem was not with the book, or with me, but with the concept of a synopsis, which is in turn based on the idea of the story structure.

One sees so much strange advice in blog posts, much of it contradictory, on the subject of how to write a book. I could spend a day or two just cataloging the variety, but I’m not interested in that right now so I won’t. One thing they all have in common, it seems, is that they regard the process of writing the story as an almost mechanical act. Select your genre, whip up a few characters, give them a few foibles, some strengths, some amusing weaknesses, hmm, how about a clever name, etc. Your hero will be x, your villain will be y, points of conflict are thus and so, subplot a…Fill in with dialog as needed. In other words, start with a short synopsis, and revise it up into a book. The skeleton of the book is very straight, almost linear, and everything else hangs off of it like Christmas tree ornaments. The very meaning of the word synopsis implies that the necessary parts of the story story can be brought together to a single view.

This is not my method.

Under most circumstances my method isn’t really all that far removed from this, except that I have no idea what the story is about when I start. I think I know the genre, and the plot may not be there at the beginning but I piece one together as I go. That’s what I did in book one. I did something like this in book two, which exploded into three separate storylines in the middle which nevertheless came back together again in the end.

St. Martin’s Moon wasn’t nearly so obliging. It was the genre that did it, I think. I had originally been aiming for a mystery/horror story, about a werewolf attack on a lunar colony. I can’t write either genre, it seems, which left me SOL, except for the wonderful characters I had come up with by the time I realized my own shortcomings. They carried me through, as I spent years following them, trying to understand what they were doing. This is the most purely character-driven book I’ve ever done, since I had nothing else, not even an ending. (I was thinking futuristic paranormal, or maybe SFR. But again the genre let me down. Science fiction doesn’t do ghosts or curse, romance requires a happy ending, and I had no idea how I was going to pull one off. Something had to give.)

The problem is that these guys were wandering around doing their own thing, without a plot to constrain them. The skeleton of this story was far from linear, and the sub-plots were much more than ornaments. The main character shows up on the colony to solve a minor mystery. His mere presence sets everyone else on the base in motion, an the story doesn’t so much follow him as it does them as they relate to him. I call him a catalyst character, although he is changed during the course of the story. It’s complicated, by the fact that the change that comes upon him is brought by those he set in motion. In other words, this is a story with at least five different plots, each of which is necessary but not sufficient to bring the whole story to a resolution. Trying to describe the story is like trying to map out a soccer ball by tracing the seams.

I did get a good short story out of it, though, about how such a story could come into being. It’s a comedy.

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2 Responses to "Can’t get there from here"

Good example of how hard it can be to wrangle our own characters! I do think, though, it can result in some amazing stories when we follow our characters around and watch what happens.

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I know my own stories do, St. Martin’s Moon most of all. I know that many authors are pantsers, but I don’t know how many, if any, of them take it to this extreme. I will say it’s not an easy thing to do under any circumstances.

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