Monday, October 22, 2012

Wordcraft -- Where good novels go wrong

Canadian science fiction author Karl Schroeder gave us plenty of direction on outlining novels at his recent FenCon writing workshop. But as some of us know from experience, even with an outline, things can get crazy in the midst of writing a book. So Schroeder also gave us tips for finding our way through the dark forest of the novel -- and where the trouble spots lie, from beginning to end.

“They can certainly go wrong as you’re getting started,” Schroeder said. “One (way) that happens all the time -- it’s happened to me -- is great idea, no plot. The cool idea is not the story.

Don’t I know that, from having a file of story ideas that never quite got off the ground. I’ve found that, following advice from a previous FenCon workshop leader to delineate clearly the major character roles -- protagonist, relationship character, and antagonist -- was often enough to get enough to get the story back on track. (See “Bones of a novel,” parts I and II, October 12 and October 19, 2011.)

Another problem is a too-rapid outline, that is, an outline without enough material for a full-length work.

Or its opposite -- an outline or draft becoming unwieldily large. In this case, we may have succumbed to what Schroeder called “the Tolkien thing” -- writing the entire history of our story’s world before actually starting the story. In this case, the “history” takes on a life of its own that prevents making fundamental changes, no matter how necessary.

More terrifying, if possible, than bad beginnings are the “scary middles,” the places where writers discover they’ve “thrown a whole lot of balls in the air and can no longer keep it straight.” These can happen when an author finds his outline too cursory to juggle multiple issues such as story arcs for secondary characters and the overlapping subplots.

When that happens, Schroeder warned, the writer must be prepared to shift gears from high to low, outlining scene by scene.

Even after working through the beginning and middle, the ending of a novel comes with its own set of potential problems. One of those is a novel that, although otherwise all right, reaches its resolution too quickly. Having subplots can prevent a climax that occurs too quickly by giving the writer alternate ways to explore his themes.

But again, beware of the opposite problem of having too many characters, especially if you find yourself with multiple characters who have the same basic function, for instance, having two trickster characters. Remember, even Tolkien finally saw the need to reduce the number of hobbits in his stories.

For more tips from on novel writing from Schroeder’s FenCon workshop in Dallas, see “The myriad paths to a novel,” September 24, 2012, and “The myriad paths to a novel, park II,” October 8, 2012.

And for more on Schroeder and his writing, see his blog at

(Next Monday -- well-published authors discuss the perils of the publishing industry.)


  1. That workshop sounds extremely helpful. Thanks for passing on the info, Melissa.

    1. More than welcome. I've picked up a lot of good stuff from your blog as well.