Did you miss Part I of our Greenweek interview series? It’s easy to get caught up!
In the opening scene of Ed Greenwood’s
This is where the plot of the novel starts for readers. But these first pages aren’t necessarily where the novel begins for the author.
In fact, according to Greenwood, Dark Lord started with a certain amount of dissatisfaction and with a few good old-fashioned “what ifs”.
“In my childhood,” said Greenwood, “[I had] an inward dissatisfaction with one point in a lot of the early fantasy novels about ‘people from our real world’ stepping into fantasy settings (a situation that fascinated me, that I loved reading about) where they conveniently somehow—usually a ‘somehow’ that was never explained—understand the language being spoken around them, by monsters as well as fantasy-setting people.
“Later, I thought of a solution to that: what if the real-world person/protagonist is the creator of the fantasy world! Aha! Of course he’d arrange things so they spoke his language. But wouldn’t it be a boring story because he knew all about the world?
“Well, what if he doesn’t? Not because he’s insane or stupid or amnesiac, but because he keeps finding differences between ‘his’ world as he imagined it and what the setting is actually like. How did those differences get there? And what if, just for once, the protagonist was, yes, a writer, not a hero? Not good at fighting, not good at acting or finance or anything much except writing.
In other words, Dark Lord started with the author’s desire to solve what he called a “pet peeve.”
Here is part 2 of 4 in our conversation with Greenwood, in which he discusses plot and how it happens.
Jones: Where does a novel or story start for you? [More…]
Greenwood: The answer to this one has to be “it depends.” Most of the major publishers I work with have a process that goes something like this: first, pitch an idea (if the contract hasn’t come first, and already involved one). When approved, write a detailed story outline, get it approved, and then start writing.
When writing short stories for an anthology, the theme of the anthology comes with the project, but the story idea must still be pitched before writing starts — unless the editor asks me to tackle something specific to balance the story roster. Outlines aren’t usually involved, beyond a few sentences or questions and answers briefly tossed back and forth.
If I’m working entirely on my own, an idea usually comes to me without my realizing it and blossoms in my head as a vivid scene or scene fragment out of nowhere. I then race to the keyboard to write it down, and see where it takes me. Plotting or story-shaping often occurs after the scene is “done,” to see what I can make of it.
Over the years and seemingly countless novels and short stories, I have tried just about every possible method of setting out to tell a story—either on a whim or because of how the particular project started. I don’t prefer one way or another; they are all fun. However, for particular projects, only one way may be acceptable or effective. A major publisher who needs a catalog blurb and time to commission a cover long before the book is written almost always wants a story outline, unless the book is a later title in a series.
Jones: What part of the process is hardest for you?
Greenwood: Most of my weaknesses lie in plotting. I like to put in too many characters and too many subplots and let them roll along and “show what happens,” rather than keeping the narrative line of a novel simple and clear, and racing along faster.
I have never been entirely of the “if it doesn’t vitally advance the plot, leave it out” school, and don’t think I should be, but I know I have strayed too far in the other direction.
I now take refuge in the outlines my major publishers insist on my doing, anyway. I make sure the chapter-by-chapter breakdown describes and gives the necessary room to a strong, fairly clear plot outline.
My recent Knights trilogy for the Forgotten Realms is a bit of an exception to this: I’m condensing established Realms history, with far more characters than I’d ordinarily want to have involved, and necessarily “stretching the story” to make sure a long list of “must” scenes and events are included. I don’t mean that a strong plot outline has to make the reader feel that the characters are driving hard toward known goals all the time. The characters can wander and drift and hem and haw; it’s the writer who has to keep things moving.
Some readers hate my “jump from this character to that one, then on to another, jump jump jump” style, and others love it. I’m working to make it easier for the haters to swallow by checking back with characters I’ve jumped away from, fairly often, so readers don’t feel as lost in a large cast all busy in “what’s going on?” scenes here, there and everywhere across the fantasy world.
Jones: How do you build the novel from that first glimmer, that “scene out of nowhere”?
Greenwood: The “scene out of nowhere” will always have a tone—arch comedy, or grim confrontation, heavy narrative voice or almost none—and will always involve characters and a situation.
From these elements, a story can always be built. What sort of story is either dictated by what I am working on at the time (put this scene into my current project) or (with usually better results) what seems to best fit the scene.
Although some writers calculatingly plan a story with plots, subplots and the like, I prefer to leave that to my subconscious at the outset and write a few more scenes before stepping back to plan. My early Realms novels betray many instances of my running out of words to tell the story and rushing its ending, because my imagination would outstrip my craft — that is, the organizing, and balancing.
In the end, almost all novels tend to get remembered through their most vivid scenes; I want my stories to have a glowing handful of these, to entertain the reader, with a minimum of the more boring, workmanlike necessary linking explanations.
The actual how-I-build depends on the project. When I’m doing an outline, that outline will be terse in some areas but break down into actual dialogue and narrative prose at key dramatic moments. Some of my outlines have been quite long, as much as a third of the length of the finished story, for short stories and novellas. Usually I don’t have time to leisurely add more and more to an outline, to flesh it out slowly; in recent years I’ve been doing three novels and thrice that many short stories between January 1sts, and have to “hit the keyboard running,” so to speak.
Jones: Was there a moment or particular story or some other thing that helped you stop “running out of words” and “rushing the ending”? A shift in the way you worked or conceived of stories?
Greenwood: I wish there was an insightful moment wherein I figured out what I was doing and how to stop it, but instead it was just a general scaling-back of what I tried to cram into a Realms story. As far as I can tell, this wasn’t a general flaw in my writing at the time; like any writer I learned how to handle climaxes, twists, and endings better the more I wrote them. It was specific to my Realms fiction.
As far as I can figure out, the problem was this: as the creator of the Realms, which I brought into being for myself as a setting for short stories before the D&D game existed, and which was not deliberately crafted to be a game setting, I obeyed my publisher too literally and faithfully.
What they told me repeatedly was: “Bring us the Realms, with all its warts” and “Show us the Realms.” What they really wanted was: give us a fast-action, not-too-deep adventure fantasy, closer to Conan than Tolkien, but make sure it has ‘Forgotten Realms’ stamped colorfully all over it.”
They never explicitly said this, of course.
So I tried to pour the Realms as I saw and enjoyed it into a book (and then another, and then another). “My” Realms is picaresque, and feels real because there are consequences for everything and reasons behind everything — that passing rumbling wagon is full of jars of perfume because… — and there is no single plot narrative with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
Instead, lots of characters are all getting on with their own lives and bumping into each other because of geographical proximity or interests in the same person, thing or upcoming event. In other words, there are untidily tangled subplots, like real life, not simple but profound — and less believable — “innocent farm boy picks up scythe and therefore begins to fulfill his destiny, beginning the inexorable journey that will bring his backside to the greatest throne in all the world” singular plotlines.
Simply put, I tried to put too much in them. Most editors wanted the destination (“this plot, with monsters being killed and spells hurled constantly, to this clear-cut victory at the end of the book”), with the journey just being fast and furious and full of fighting. Until I learned that they were never going to articulate what they really wanted, and I couldn’t take their directions at face value, I would write books “my way” . . . and inevitably run out of wordcount to bring things to a properly-paced conclusion. Because the deadlines were always so tight, there was never a proper amount of revision time, so fixing this always became a matter of “Whoops! Only four thousand words left? Well, I’ll just have to dump the last third of the outline and wind the story up right here!”
In other words, it didn’t happen to be my learning process as a writer you’re pointing towards, in your question. I already knew how to pace and shape plots, at novel length; what I had was a blind spot for Realms novels, because cramming in details of what people ate and wore, and everything else that ate up space, was the Realms, to me. If I’d been a movie director, I’d have been Robert Altman doing Gosford Park: all of these characters are interesting – yes, every last scurrying servant —and you should get to see something of all of their lives.
Understand that I am not saying my way is better. From any publisher’s point of view, their way is always, by definition, better. (“We bought this book because we wanted a fluffy comedy of vampires pretending to be a normal American family living in suburbia, and you’ve given us vicious vigilantism! Where’s the fluffy comedy in that?”)
What I was really doing was fighting the struggle between “writer doing their own thing/following their Muse” and the needs of the commercial fiction marketplace. Not only is that a battle the “needs” side will always win, “their” side is advocating leaner, clearer storytelling. Which by definition will achieve their goal: wider popularity (as compared to my more idiosyncratic, “acquired taste” style of storytelling). Tristram Shandy may be a classic, but if today’s readers are given free choice, James Bond books will always be more popular.
Come back tomorrow for more Q&A about the Realms and how to write a trilogy, as Greenweek continues!