Monday, September 14, 2015

Untangling the Web

The original content here was how to balance spinning plates, meaning the subplots and the plots of a novel. The analogy is still sound: writing a novel IS like spinning plates. You have to keep them all going without dropping any.

However, I tend to think that untangling the web works at least as well.

here's the thing: Writing a novel involves more than just a linear story, at least in my eyes. Listen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a short story. Cinderella is a short story. Want the proof of my statements? Go find your closest copy and count the pages.The tales are relatively simple. But they can be made more complex. A better example of a novel length work in the same genre might be Beauty and the Beast, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and originally published in 1756 (Seriously, how's THAT for timeless? There are actually older versions, apparently, including one by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve that was published several years earlier in 1744, and was even more in depth regarding both belle and the Beast's origins). In that tale Belle must atone for her father's sins. She must live with the Beast and in the course of time she must free him from his curse. That is not a task that is made easy. He's reprehensible. It is also something he never advertises as the choice must be hers free and clear to fall in love with him despite his bestial appearance and habits.

The more complex version of Beauty and the Beast, which is also the version most readily adapted, involves Belle having sisters who are cruel, the beast having an origin story that explains why he has been trapped in his castle for so long, and the background on the transgressions of Belle's father that lead to her sacrificing her own freedom to save her father from being stuck with the Beast. The subplots also include lost ships, financial ruin for Be;Elle's father and the nearly obligatory harsh treatment of Belle by her abusive sisters.

And that's not getting into the many adaptations (including several that involve bondage, because, really, why not, one supposes) that have followed afterward in book form, comic books, movies and television. Also plays, musicals et al.

The tale is never quite short. The skein upon which it is women has depth and detail that would never be found in a short story.

At its heart my novel SERENITY FALLS, which as also made into a trilogy as a mass market edition, is a story of revenge. A woman is accused of being a witch (falsely), and misused by the local head of the colonial town. Her husband, upon coming back from a trip back to England, finds out that his wife has been killed and accused of witchcraft and decides to seek revenge. The curse he lays out comes to fruition 300 years later. The story of the curse and its ending is actually rather short. it COULD be told as a short story though it would be tough. Instead I chose to tell the tales of several different families and how that curse affects the. I tell of how the curse is fueled, how the curse was laid out and how the town has suffered through three centuries. There are over 185 named characters in the three novels because there are also multiple scenes from the history of the town.

That one took a year of my life and weights in at a little over 340,000 words. It was my third novel. I will go on record as saying I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I wrote it. But I had a lot of fun getting there.

The thing is, I can't give you any secrets. I write by the seat of my pants and I let the story flow as organically as I can. If it fails, I back up and try again. That doesn't happen as often as you might think.

Book One: WRIT IN BLOOD, tells three simultaneous tales. The first is the story of the curse that has settled over the town through the course of three hundred years. That story is told from the perspective of a local man who fancies himself an historian. Imagine his surprise when he starts having visions regarding what he has researched. Simultaneously the story has a section I've always thought of as Jonathan Crowley's Adventures Across America. Jonathan Crowley is a recurring character, a monster hunter, who in this case is lured to the town of Serenity Falls. he is fully aware that he is being lured, but decides to go anyway because that's what he does.

Book Two: THE PACK, tells the tales of the modern citizens. Their stories have direct correlations in a lot of cases because their families have been in the region since the curse first came about. There are a lot of subplots spun out as we get to know about the town and it's people, as we see the floundering town revitalized by new business and we start to see the curse coming into its own. The locals are happy and they are also suffering through their own lives and amidst all of this, Jonathan Crowley is trying to understand exactly what is happening as the supernatural forces at work grow stronger and stronger.

Book Three: THE DARK CARNIVAL deals mostly with the fruition of the curse. Crowley discovers the secrets of the curse, encounters several people who have fallen under the influences of three hundred years of potent sorcery, seeks to stop the curse, meets the progenitor of the curse (still around and happy to watch the town fall apart) and does everything he can to minimize the body count. He is not completely successful.

The simple fact of the matter is, it's a complex story. My original outline, meant to be five pages or less, is actually 18 pages of necessity. There are a LOT of subplots, but most of them pertain directly to the story being told. ALL of them deal with the curse or introducing characters whoa re, to one level or another, affected by the spells cast in the distant past.

The challenge was bringing it all together in a coherent way, or, tying the threads together to make a proper tapestry. At the center it's a simple tale. the subplots are what make the difference here. They are the seasoning that flavors the meal, the colors upon the threads that make the tapestry more interesting.

Without them, the tale is less interesting. The rub is to make sure that even with subplots in place there story moves forward. And I mean it when I say that can be challenging.

Want to know my favorite example of failing at that?

Piers Anthony was one of my favorites when I was younger. He did interesting tales and he had a lot of fun. Sometimes he was serious, sometimes he was whimsical. And the he did THE INCARNATIONS OF IMMORTALITY. Five or six books dealing with the mortals chosen to work in the roles of Immortals. The first story was called ON A PALE HORSE and dealt with a man who kills Death and must take his place. It was serious on one side and whimsical on another and a lot of fun. So much fun that when I heard it was a series instead of a standalone book I was delighted.

Right up until I read the next book. I couldn't even tell you which one it was. I think it MIGHT have been BEARING AN HOURGLASS, which deals with the incarnation of Time. I sank my teeth in and started reading and about three quarters of the way through I grew puzzled. As with the first book the second dealt first with the chosen Incarnation and how the position as chosen, how the decision as made, and how the individual deals with becoming a Force in the Universe. Neat stuff! I decided to over look my problem with the second book and bout the third, WITH A TANGLED SKEIN, and I had the EXACT same problem again.

Here's there problem. They all told the exact same tale. Each book dealt with how a girl is destined to marry Satan due to a deal made by her father and how the Incarnations respond to the situation. Satan does his thing, the bride to be does hrs and the Incarnations are all in there doing one thing or another, but they are all the exact same story from a different perspective. The only significant change comes from there perspective and origin of the Incarnation.

After book three I stopped reading and contemplated how best to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
NOTHING BUT SUBPLOT. And not enough to keep my attention. The back stories were interesting, but not enough to justify me buy five additional books to tell me one tale.

And there it is.

My warning against too much subplot.

I will say this. There were some darned pretty covers by Michael Whelan.


  1. Heh - I remember that series. And had the exact same experience. WTF, Piers?? A good cautionary tale, however!

  2. Seriously. By the end of the third book I genuinely felt ripped off. That's never a good thing.

  3. Points for referencing the old Beauty and the Beast novel! And 18 pages of necessity, I like that.

  4. I actually "finished" the series to Book Seven.* You saved yourself, let me tell you. Book Six was all right (essentially Sympathy for the Devi), but OH DEAR LORD BOOK SEVEN DO NOT GET ME STARTED.

    *- Decades later Anthony self-published a Book Eight, and I ain't even gonna touch that.

  5. I'm a long time fan of Anthony, but in this case, it seemed ridiculously lazy and self-indulgent.

    And Chantel, dear lady, it's a DAMNED big book. :)