The Empty Page

I hate beginnings. No, I loathe them. All the things the story has to say, crowding at the bottleneck of Chapter One. How does a person make sense out of such unruly chaos?

Oh, and don’t get me started on the characters. Fledglings, so dear and intricate to me, but blank slates to the readers. With all the complexity of human beings, how to show a character, fit her into her niche? How can she start out feeling like herself if you have to introduce her first?

The only way I can even begin to imagine the undertaking is through careful organization. I am such a plotter. Everything neatly constructed beforehand, to avoid traffic accidents and suchlike. For pantsers I have a sense of awe, edged with jealousy and maybe just a hint of disbelief. How in the name of all things good and green do you do it? Unwritten stories are monstrosities. Pantsing is like tweaking a dragon on the nose and then running for your very life, laughing as you go. They laugh, I swear. They are insane. (That, and a little bit magnificent.)

Anyhow, like I was saying, I need careful organization. I need to lay out exactly what I need the reader to know. And then I need to take my protagonist and throw myself inside her head with reckless abandon.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about characters, it’s that “setting out” to show their personality usually ends in disaster. I think I touched on this in Drowning in Roses and Moonlight. You really have to bury yourself inside a character’s head in order to portray her properly. That’s the only way she can breathe. Too much control and she turns into a puppet.

I remember reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych in highschool, and this was something that struck me about his characters. His descriptions were so beautiful and spot-on, and his studies of human nature truly interesting, but for all that, they were nothing but that to me: studies. I don’t mean to insult such a prominent and well-loved author, but I can’t have been the only person who felt that his characters were being controlled by an outside force. Come to think of it, that may have been what he intended. In which case, he did a brilliant job, but it’s not a writing goal that I share, satirical or otherwise.

In order to form beginnings, I have to craft a delicate balance of absolute control and absolute lack of it. Direct the characters, but let them breathe as freely as any human being. It’s an interesting dance, and part of the execution of it is keeping up with the craziness without showing how much it freaks you out. You have to lose yourself in the rhythm, just like improvising jazz.

The Colored Glass Effect

Writing isn’t so much like drawing a line as it is cutting and then arranging shapes of colored glass into a mosaic. A surreal, abstract mosaic, probably, but there’s the beauty of it. Because the abstract pattern could even be considered a colored shape of glass itself, and and and . . . this excites me probably more than it should. But isn’t it breathtaking?

Every important anything in a story is a piece of colored glass. Each shape takes a single idea and reflects it in fiction form. The mosaic is the medium, the go-between of the surreal and the mind’s eye.

My favorite stories are those in which you can almost feel the crystalline shapes, can hear their song of prism light. Properly exectued fairytales tend to do this very well through their idealism. Dostoevsky created this effect beautifully with his characters. Frances Hodgson Burnett accomplished it with theme, and CLAMP, when they really put their all into it, show their mastery of stained glass symbolism. Have you ever watched The Fall? That movie breathes with the effect.

What if somebody could write a story where everything felt that way, but they still managed to ground the reader in reality?

I’m going to be honest now: that is my ultimate goal. Can you imagine how beautiful that would be? Fantasy world, characters, themes, symbols, atmosphere–just everything–all color and shape and light. Still realistic at the same time, too. Crazy. Can it be done? I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Still, if I’m going to grow in this direction, I’m going to need a lot of help. And so begins my study of stories that strike me with their colored glass. Now and again, I will share my findings. It’ll be like setting out to explore a mysterious, beautiful land, where all the examined colored glass reflects into the design of the world. Hey, that’s actually kind of neat. What would Alyosha Karamazov’s character resemble as fantasy terrain?

Drowning in Roses and Moonlight (I Knew You There)

Four thousand, five hundred words into the re-write of the first chapter and the fat, splaying purposelessness of it all has ground me to a halt. This happens here, then that happens there. So what? At this point, if the sky caved in on the entirety of my world and all its inhabitants, I would shrug and close the door.

It took days of contemplation and blasting In Tenebris on my headphones to realize the issue: my protagonist. I don’t care about her. I don’t care about her because she isn’t who she’s meant to be.

Somehow, I tricked myself. The same outer appearance that my MC, Verity, shows to strangers has misled her own author. How to describe this? She is like a violin. On the one hand, you have the musicians in stiff white collars, playing sonatas at tea parties. And then there are gypsies dancing around the fire at midnight—that is Verity. Reserved, gentle, well-mannered, but deep within her spirit there is a burning love of life and a wildness. She has lost the dangerous edge of her passion.

Not only that, but the depth of the darkness within her sealed itself off from me. I am moving her, directing her, but I do not know her. She is like a porcelain doll.

Maybe I am worrying too much, trying to press it all into perfection. Into the press goes Verity, and she comes out like a teacup. No good. No good at all. It is like there is a glass shell of pride around her and she won’t let anybody in.

So what am I doing wrong here? I am making the reader view her like a stranger would, but why?

I think it is fear. If I let the reader inside Verity’s heart and head, they will know exactly what I mean to say. And if they know exactly what I mean to say, they’ll know exactly when I’m saying it wrong. The way Verity views the world paints my own loves and intentions clearer than I am comfortable with. She understands things too well.

I am afraid to lose myself in the fabric of my own world, to give in to that understanding. What if it isn’t what it’s supposed to be? Wouldn’t it be safer, more sensible, to hold the story at arm’s length and press into it the ideas I know it needs? I can see the entire book from here . . . I just cannot feel its breath.

There is no point in writing a book about overcoming fear and accepting the full exquisiteness of life if I hold back from bravery and beauty myself. I need to take a deep breath, trust myself, plunge into the madness of dreamer’s thoughts that is Verity’s head. Let go of reason, but keep my feet planted on it. There is truth and sense enough woven through the world that I will be able to see it without clinging to a handful of abstract rules for security.

It’s amazing how much better I can understand things when I write them; I know exactly what to do now. Tomorrow, I shall begin weaving my way through Verity’s mind. I would start tonight, but I’m really much too tired. Watching The Lord of the Rings and procrastinating all day can wear a person out.

Writing vs. Conversing

Have you ever had one of those writing days where you know exactly what to say without having to work? Words skate across the page; paragraphs form themselves; your fingers fly across the keyboard and you think to yourself, “This is so easy. I wish every writing day was like this.”

If you have, take that thought and look it long and hard in the eye. Writing is hard. Writing is supposed to be hard. If you’re finding it’s a breeze then you’re cheating yourself.

Every now and again, I find myself forming sentences in “conversation mode”. My brain is in the same place it would be if I were caught up in an intiguing chat with friends. Nowhere near the life’s-essence-beading-on-the-brow concentration that story weaving requires. I use common words, say “what anybody would say” while constructing dialogue, and paper the characters with cheap emotions. The result is predictable, shallow, purposeless.

A writer needs continual challenge, not only for self-reassurance that he’s trying his best, but also to evolve and grow. What if you’re a genius? Progress anyway. This, I think, is the reason some successful writers turn to formulas. It’s not only because it sells, it’s because it’s easy. They’ve given up on growing, exchanged their tired pens for a form of conversing in disguise.

Listen to your gut. That urge to find “the perfect word” is there for a reason, so never sell it short. Envision every scene, down to the last sentence. Delve inside your characters’ emotions and thoughts. Keep a dictionary and a thesaurus by you whenever you sit down to work. I don’t care how good your vocabulary is; even the best of us slips into mirroring the way we talk and starts using just the same, fraying words instead of searching for new ones. Humans are lazy. Keep an eye on yourself.

Phoenix Light and Dragon Fire

Eilai Sabanya: that’s “light” in my phoenix language and “fire” in my dragon language.

I’ve always loved writing, but it wasn’t until I was eight or nine that I decided I wanted to be an auhor. My sister and I had bought identical blank books. She was writing a story in hers, and so I decided that I should write a story in mine, about my favorite, made-up character to roleplay at that time. We had created an intricate fantasy world, my sister and I. We liked to think we had created something very clever, but it was really just a melding of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Myst, laced with glimmers of originality and fragments of more obscure movies and books.

Anyway, something new found me when I penned the first paragraph in that blank book. Previous tales had been just a medium of bringing to life the world my sister and I had claimed as our own. Writing was no more special than drawing or making stories out of songs.  But this story was different. The picture, the feeling, had to translate exactly on its way from my mind to the page. Words became living, mysterious forms that shifted with synonyms and rhythm. I could hear the tone of the characters’ voices in my head, and I could feel their pleading, silent imploration: “You are the only one who can hear us. Show them. Show them how we think, and what we feel. Show them who we are.”

The first evidence of lunacy? Absolutely. They say that those who have lost their minds do not question their sanity, and I did not question my need to answer the plea that came not only from the characters, but from the very air and magic of the fantasy world itself. I had found my calling, and there could be no turning back.

After that, I wrote almost every day. I began and abandoned more stories than I can remember until finally I paused and said to myself, “What a waste. I need to focus on something. I’m eleven years old now, and I know how to write. The next book that I start, I am going to finish and publish.”

I worked on that rough draft for a year. I did finish it, but by that time I had realized that, in fact, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not know how to write. To try to publish the mutation I had compiled would be a slander against the name of fantasy. I started a revision, but new story inspirations kept whispering in my ear, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned my book to start another.

Things went on like this for two or three years. I began four serious projects, only to abandon each in turn for a new idea. Then, finally, a concept so beautiful that I could never dream of abandoning it came to me. I started at fourteen, and trimmed and hacked and sculpted the idea for five years. Staying up until three or four in the morning, ignoring notes to cultivate ideas during lectures in school, and keeping my room a jungle wreakage of paper all became normal practices. After three re-writes, more revisions than I care to remember, and thousands of cups of tea, it was done. I had turned handfuls of compost into elegant shapes of colored glass, and I was proud.

So I began the process of sending out agent queries. Fortunately, only eleven had passed my inbox before I realized something was wrong. My story was like a table with a short leg: wobbly, distracting, unstable. I resisted the urge to smash my computer against the wall and ruminated.

The first chapter hung from the story like a sad, deflated balloon–that was obvious enough. As I wrote out what I needed to fix, other cracks in my glass sculpture revealed their ugly discoloration until I had woven through the entire story with a Plan of Attack.

And that’s where I am now, re-writing the first chapter. Five years, and it still isn’t finished. I am so sick of revision and re-writing. I can see the finished product somewhere in my head and I WANT it. Now. The only way to get there is to re-vise, and re-write and so, as much as I want to strangle them, that’s just what I’m doing.

Eilai Sabanya: phoenix light and dragon fire. That’s the only way to write. Take no shortcuts (and no prisoners). Never give up, never stop Listening, and always always always find a way to love what you’re creating. This book is going to be beautiful.

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