Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Process and TIME OF DAUGHTERS

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Talking about writing process, I learned the hard way, can be as tedious to uninvested listeners/readers as droning on about the history of a project, interlarded with character names and places without the listener having any idea who they are or why they exist.

But sometimes I get questions, and as we have an ongoing discussion by Book View Café writers on process, I figured I’d take a whack at answering the questions, which were relevant to my new release as of yesterday.

This new release, the second half of TIME OF DAUGHTERS began as a flashback in the middle of an incident way up the timeline. The flashback kept opening “trapdoors” [defined below]: a summary needed to be a scene, a scene led to arc. When I had a handful of these, I thought, make the flashback epistolary! No longer than novelette, novella length at most, spread over the entire project, that’ll work, right?

But. Being a visual writer, once I’d slid from writing the letters to the minds of the letter writers, I crashed into their lives, their world, and, uh, emerged a year and a half and two books later. * Kaff * long books. The characters I got involved with most were the ‘ordinary’ individuals—the ones whose names never make it into history books, but who still influence events. Whether they are aware of it or not.

The whole leading up to an ending that felt a lot like Shostakovich’s 11th.


Since there is relatively little universally accepted terminology for the nuts and bolts of writing (which makes sense, given how different each writer’s process is) I will define “trapdoors” as discovering that there is motivation, intention, or action (usually all three) behind a summary, or even a sentence, that needs to be a scene or scenes. Have you ever read something, and found yourself wishing that there’d been more about how or why X happened, as the story races past? In fact you’re more distracted by what isn’t there than by the ongoing action? That’s a potential trapdoor.

Trapdoors can happen over a series as well as within a single book.

Other terms that may or may not make any sense outside my head: setpiece. That’s an arc that could almost be lifted out as a short story or novella, in which a whole lot of different things are going on before a (maybe partial) sense of resolution. If you’ve read MANSFIELD PARK, two setpieces are the visit to the Rushworth estate, and the whole play episode.

In LORD OF THE RINGS, the birthday banquet in the Shire is a setpiece. The Rivendell sequence is a setpiece.

LOTR is a good example to mention here as its popularity helped sparked the trilogy fantasy explosion through the seventies. As a reader back then, I began to discover that a lot of these series were not always one long story, or they tried to be one long story, when actually they read more like the same story told three times.

The most common pattern I saw was “a battle per book”—that is, the first book ended with a battle, with a bigger battle climaxing second book, and the humungoid battle against the biggest of the big bads in the last. These battles were usually setpieces, bringing all the threads together. Leading to them was a lot of disjointed travel scenes, talking scenes setting up the battle, or bad-guy-attacking-protag scenes to set up motivation. But usually not setpieces, which are tightly woven arcs with their own coda.

At the end of the third big battle, the story would be done, just when things started to get interesting—for me as a reader. Other readers, of course, wanted exactly that story. But a third set of readers began to complain about middle book sag, or syndrome, meaning one could basically skip that middle battle, and go straight to the big one.

But other series really were one long story—such as LOTR—that cannot be read out of order. It’s not one road climbing three mountains, each higher than the last. It’s a winding road, through cities and valleys and maybe leaping to the stars then back again—unpredictable, especially in the changes wrought on the characters.

White fire, a third relevant term, is when you fall so deeply into the project that a sixteen hour writing day doesn’t seem quite long enough, and you wake up in the middle of the night to work, or you find yourself working out sequences while dreaming. And when you wake up, you throw yourself down at your desk to get it all written up.

My favorite white fire projects are the ones that completely write themselves. But other times a project can turn into a white fire. TIME OF DAUGHTERS did.

The problem with white fire projects is that the writer is so deeply invested they might assume automatic investment on the part of readers. I’ve found that white fire projects usually need a whole lot more redrafting, and tightening, than projects with more frontbrain involvement.

I had to redraft this one a lot. It’s up to readers to decide if it was enough.

Okay, enough process. Back to the new release. Writing cover copy gives me mental hives. You are supposed to “catch the reader’s eye,” which seems to mean ad language. Which I loathe. Added to that, this being the second half of a story, I didn’t want to spoil the first half in case there might be readers who wanted to wait until the whole was complete before deciding about getting it.

So this is what I came up with:

In a time of rising danger, women go to war, and ghosts walk the walls…

In the second half of TIME OF DAUGHTERS, a few years have passed since the Night of Four Kings, when the least expected candidates for rulership found themselves in charge of a disintegrating kingdom.

Threats from the border become raids, led by an idle noble with an eye to kingship. The two princes, Noddy and Connar, newly emerged from the military academy, are dispatched to patrol the troubled area until they find themselves under attack.

Their loyalty to one another is strong, but what happens when one brother discovers a taste for war and the other a loathing for it?

Matters of marriage and love tangle up with the menace of war, and don’t forget those ghosts—which most don’t even believe exist—but the greatest threat of all comes when the world’s strongest army faces enemies from within.

Book One is on sale here at Book View Café for 1.95 for the rest of the month. (2.99 at retailers)

Book two, the longer of the pair, is here.





Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Process and TIME OF DAUGHTERS — 5 Comments

  1. Setpieces! That’s as good a term as anything I’ve ever heard for those complicated scenes that are like a story within a story. That sometimes you remember even if you forget a lot of the rest.

  2. Thanks! I got it from someone else, years back. Finding writing craft terms that stick is a mug’s game. Processes are simply too different. There’s inevitably a lot of reinventing the wheel, and a lot of sheer incomprehensibility–look at all the debate on what is voice and what is style.

  3. I’d always heard ‘set piece’ as a film / movie sequence that requires enormous logistical planning and lots and lots and lots of money to film.

    If I recall correctly, this is yet another term the film industry brought in from the theater.

      • If you plug ‘set piece’ all alone into a browser search window, it’s one-after-another reponses for how to write a movie set piece, what it is, etc.

        Cecil DeMille was famous for his! That vile BoaNation which is also considered the birth of the movie as we came to understand it, has many.

        Here’s a site where a former film industry person writes about set pieces in fiction:

        [“As a former film guy, I’ll be the first to point out that books and movies are radically different forms with radically different challenges. Too often the lessons of one get slopped onto the other to little benefit, but for one grim fact: most modern readers learn story from movies and television. This is why opening stingers and slam-bang action have gradually killed off omniscient third person and leisurely descriptions of pre-modern novels.” ]

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