For whatever reason, today I’m finding my head filled with abandoned novels. My abandoned novels, that is.
There’s three I can think of off-hand. One is (in)famous in small circles, a science fiction novel called In Our Image. Another is an untitled fantasy story in a world of dragons and humans, started during National Novel Writing Month a few years ago. The third is yet another science fiction novel, set more in the far future, whose only public face so far has been a short piece for “Rabbit Hole Day” (also a few years back).
Actually, I could count other even more dimly remembered ones from my far past. The short story “Only With Thine Eyes” was originally intended to lead into a novel. (At times I suspect it, Image and the far future one referenced above are all failed attempts at grappling with the same theme, but I’m not positive of that.) All the way back in high school I was working on a dreadful fantasy novel which I think might be my longest incomplete work to date: I think it hit around 40,000 words. And I suspect I’m missing a couple other ones in there that never got past scribbled notes. If so, the chances are good they’re no longer with me at all—I don’t think I have any word processing files that go back earlier than the mid-’90s, when I was using Nota Bene (whose file format is thankfully just marked-up ASCII, not too dissimilar from HTML).
I’ve long wondered at my inability to actually pull off novel-length pieces. I’m comfortable enough with the novella length; my recent stories of 3-5,000 words are unusually short for me. Yet actually developing a full novel has never worked out for me.
Today I had a possible insight, as I was going back over Image and yet again lamenting my problems with telling Tara’s story. The problem may be that I’m not following the advice I give others about storytelling: stop world-building.
This is difficult to follow for people who’ve grown up with science fiction and fantasy, especially if you played a lot of role-playing games, which are often all about the world-building. If you played D&D in the ’80s, the chances are you knew at least knew one Dungeon Master who had hundreds of pages of maps and histories and ethnographic studies and political analyses of his own fantasy world. (Maybe you were that Dungeon Master.) You wanted to have a rich and “complete” world for the players to explore, and that meant knowing lots and lots and lots of crap that probably they’d only scratch the surface of unless the adventuring in that world went on for decades.
RPGs condition us to think of authors as Game Masters—there are even RPGs that refer to GMs as “Storytellers,” right? But the thing is, storytelling doesn’t actually work that way, because you know where the characters are going. You actually only need the part of the world built that they’re in. If the characters are never going to that fantastic trade city on the other side of the continent, you only need to know as much about it as affects the story. That might be as little as the city’s name. It might be as little as, well, nothing at all.
I understand that writing about the histories of these lands may be a whole lot of fun. They can be really cool! But if they don’t even ephemerally influence the story about your characters, they’re not relevant. This is, like it or not, an inescapable truth. I have met more than a few writers in various fandoms over the years who never actually write the novel they’re creating their great universe for. They know everything about that universe, let me tell you.
Except a good story to tell in it.
So. I think the problem I’ve had with more than one of these is that I don’t really know the story that I want to tell. In Our Image is Tara’s story, at least at first, but does it stay Tara’s story? The implications are clearly that her story will have a profound influence on the whole society around her, but how wide-angle a lens do I want on that, and where does the story actually end? (I’ve been accused of “not writing endings” on occasion, usually by people who, I suspect, are upset that there’s clearly more that could be told past where I stopped. Yet there’s always more that could be told past where one stops.) The dragon novel set up a few interesting characters—both dragon and human—but ultimately I really didn’t have much idea why the characters were in conflict, what the stakes were. And the far future novel with the bioengineered wolf girl? Holy crap. I got thousands of words of notes about the setting and about sweeping political conflicts, but I’m not sure I even know the main character’s name, much less what her motivations are or just what she’s embroiled in besides, uh, something involving those sweeping political conflicts.
Does knowing this problem—assuming my analysis is correct—help me solve it? I’m not sure about it. Frankly, I shouldn’t try to solve it quite yet anyway; I have to resume work on A Gift of Fire, A Gift of Blood version 2 before seeing if any of these are resurrectable. But I think if I do go back to any of them—or, God help me, get another idea for a novel-length work—I’m going to try to keep the scope pretty tightly focused on the main characters, and try to avoid learning things about their world that ultimately aren’t going to help me tell their stories.