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Advice From “The Story Of My Heart” Part II

So it seems that I stirred up a little bit of discussion two weeks ago with my odd little pyramid based on something I learned from the “story of my heart,” a tale of aliens searching for grace that I […]
| Feb 15, 2012 | No comments |

So it seems that I stirred up a little bit of discussion two weeks ago with my odd little pyramid based on something I learned from the “story of my heart,” a tale of aliens searching for grace that I call The Leader’s Song. This is the story that launched my journey toward publication. This was the story that I (erroneously) believed would be my debut novel. And it’s also a story that helped me stumble upon two lessons.

I talked about the first lesson two weeks ago by saying that we should maybe give a little more weight to criticisms and suggestions given to us by publishing professionals such as agents or editors. Several of you disagreed with me (and that’s okay!). Since I mentioned that I learned this lesson at the first ACFW conference I attended, Fred Warren wondered which industry professionals had given me advice (since many of the attendees at ACFW are not . . . how shall I put this diplomatically? . . . friendly to spec fic in general). When I revealed that it was Jeff Gerke, Steve Laube, and Andy Meisenheimer, Fred then asked the very good question:

I’m curious to hear about the problem they found in your story, and why this persuaded you to set it aside.

Okay, Fred, since you asked, here are the sordid details (and it’ll help explain the other piece of advice I got).

Like I said two weeks ago, when I started writing The Leader’s Song, it began as one long story consisting of two connected plots. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll refer to these plots as the “Modern Plot” and the “Ancient Plot.” If I were to create a ridiculously bad graphic to illustrate the general structure of the story, it’d look something like this:

In this not-at-all-to-scale graphic, the Modern Plot is in red and the Ancient Plot is in blue. As you can see, the middle third of the story consisted of one gigantic flashback, consisting of most of the Ancient Plot.

When I was done with the first draft, I realized that my “novel” was waaaaaaay too long (at the time, I guessed it was approximately 3/4s the size of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). So I figured that I would split the bigger book up into a trilogy. Great idea, right? I found two “natural breaks” in the story and basically took a chainsaw to it, resulting in this:

Again, not to scale. The astute reader will immediately see the problem: none of the books were self-contained stories. Worse, the Modern Plot ends abruptly at the end of the first book, only to have the Ancient Plot take over. And the Modern Plot doesn’t return until the end of Book Two.

It was a mess. And while the authors I spoke to (and I can’t remember who exactly) said that it wouldn’t be a big deal, the industry insiders I mentioned all said that this wouldn’t work.

I remember that when I went into this conference, I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities. I figured I’d find someone to buy my trilogy right away (ah, the naivete of a rookie author), only to find out that no one was interested and that my books were a mess. I crashed pretty hard, convinced I had made a major mistake in pursuing this writing career. Then I had a small group session with Deb Raney and Colleen Coble. While they didn’t say anything about the plot, they both liked my writing and was very encouraging. So when I left the conference, I felt a little better. I had created this mess. I would find a way to fix it!

Over the next two years, I wrote another book (a secular fantasy I called The Return of the Mourning Dove), but I kept returning to the story of my heart. I wanted to find a solution. I had to find one. This was the story of my heart, darn it! It had to work!

As near as I could figure, I had two options. The first was to interweave the Ancient and Modern Plots together, tell part of one in a chapter and then tell part of the other in the next. Sort of like what Diane Duane did in Spock’s World. After considering it, I rejected it (and I won’t go into details now).

Instead, I decided to reorganize the whole structure, putting the plots in chronological order. I would expand the Ancient Plot and mash all of the Modern Plot into the third book. In short, it would look something like this:

Simple, right? And awesome to boot! I would get to revisit the characters I loved so much! I could do more world building! So I spent some time reworking the first book, expanding it and tuning it up so that, when I went to my next ACFW Conference in Minneapolis, I’d be sure to sell the story of my heart! So I signed up for the conference, ready to pitch my heart out. Book One was ready to go. I hadn’t fixed up Books Two or Three yet, figuring I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself.

Since the conference was in Minneapolis, just a few miles from my house, I volunteered to pick up people at the airport and shuttle them to the conference. You can imagine how excited I was when I saw that one of my passengers would be Colleen Coble! She had lifted my spirits so much two years earlier and I never had the chance to thank her. So when I picked her up, I fairly gushed. I reminded her of our small group critique session, telling her that her kind words had really helped buoy my spirits. She smiled very graciously and asked me what I was going to pitch at the conference this year. And I enthusiastically told her, “The same story I pitched two years ago!”

That’s when she gave me a great piece of advice. Very gently, she suggested that I move on, that maybe the time had come to shelve my trilogy idea and come up with something new. She pointed out that we learn a lot when we start from scratch and that I’d probably benefit from putting together new ideas.

I was stunned and a little hurt. Shelve the story of my heart? No! I had worked on it for years. Years! How could I leave it behind?

And yet, at the conference, Jeff Gerke pointed out another problem with my “great solution.” And yet, while people seemed interested, there were no takers. When it was all said and done, I had the story of my heart and a decision to make: Should I keep on tinkering with it, hoping that I would stumble on the solution that would make it all work out? Or should I move on?

I chose to move on. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have spent time writing a Christian space opera called Numb. If I hadn’t, I might not have written Failstate, which will be my debut novel in just a few short months.

See, here’s the thing. As speculative fiction authors, I think it’s easier for us to get bogged down in the “stories of our hearts.” We get an idea and we absolutely fall in love with it. And we have to do a lot of extra work to get everything set up, world building that writers in other genres don’t have to do. And I think that can give us tunnel vision sometimes. I know it did for me. I became so wrapped up in The Leader’s Song that I’d probably still be tinkering with it even now. If I hadn’t given Colleen Coble that ride from the airport, there’s a good chance I’d still be in the “not published” camp.

I’m not saying that I’ll never come back to The Leader’s Song. Every now and then, I catch myself puzzling over its structural problems. Maybe someday I’ll screw on enough courage to delve back into it and finally find the right solution. Until then, it’s staying on a shelf, gathering dust. And I’m okay with that.

Now I can’t tell you what to do. Maybe you’re doing better than I was. But I wanted to pass this advice along to you. Maybe the best thing for you to do right now is shelve your book idea and try a new one. You never know what might happen.

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Lisa Lickel

Yeah, still following you, John, having worked with you on some of this journey. I still haven’t given up on my very first novel. It’s been put aside, but creeps back out every once in a while. It might work itself out someday, or be cannibalized for other work.

Yvonne Anderson

I can SO relate to this! In my case, making the decision to shelve the story of my heart (which would probably be categorized as Women’s Fiction) led me to make a complete departure and start writing spec fic on the rebound, so to speak. Once I started on that journey, I realized I was finally where I belonged.

Thanks for sharing your heart on this, John.

Bethany A. Jennings

I can SO relate to this, John.

I have a “story of my heart”, too, and it’s a trilogy.  I’ve been working on it for 6 years now, going on 7.  It keeps getting better!  Characters are deeper, my writing has improved dramatically, and I am growing in my skill with plot, so I restructure and reorganize it every couple of drafts.  But yet it’s never good enough…

I DO work on other projects off and on.  There’s a futuristic series that I work on often enough to keep “on the back burner” (as opposed to in the idea pantry), at one point I wrote a novella, and I’m always dashing off on rabbit trails to start a new fantasy or sci-fi idea that’s itching to be tested on paper.  But I always come back to the trilogy!  Your enthusiastic response to Colleen amuses me, because that’s kind of how I answer all the family and friends who ask me what I’ve been writing lately, all the time.  😀

I am well aware it may not be my best work.  It’s probably not good enough for a debut novel, either (which worries me, because I feel like some of my later works and potential works are much stronger books, and if they get published first this book never would, if that makes sense…is that silly of me? :D).  I have many readers who are convinced that it *will* be published eventually, but I’m growing less certain.  I am optimistic that *I* will be published someday, Lord willing…but I’m not sure it’ll be my trilogy, either when I debut or ever.

So now that I’ve rambled (sorry)…I just want to say “thank you” for sharing your experience, because I feel like you’ve given me permission to explore a little bit!  I’ve ALWAYS felt guilty whenever I “rabbit trailed”, and your post has reassured me that I really don’t have to feel badly.

So now I am feeling free to ditch my current “obligatory” edits on the trilogy and go frolicking with the futuristic series for awhile!  The trilogy can wait…and if experience tells me anything, I know it’ll come sneaking back and steal me away again in its own time.  🙂 

Thanks for sharing this story about a story!

— Bethany

Fred Warren

Ah, I understand better now, and these articles share a great “writing journey” story that could be a conference seminar all by itself. Hang onto them.

Some stories need to age, like fine wine. Or, to use a different metaphor, the story is bigger than we are, and we have to grow into it. Once we’ve gathered enough life and writing experience, the story calls to us again, jumbled pieces begin to fall into place, and we wonder why it was so difficult before.

I’ve had similar experiences, on a smaller scale, with short stories I’ve begun and had to shelve because they were missing something, or I couldn’t figure out how they needed to end. One waited for six years, with a lot of writing other things in the interim before I could finish it.

And even if you never finish it, that’s okay too. It can become a launching pad for other related stories, a laboratory where you experiment with new ideas, or something like the classic car in the garage that’s always a work in progress.


I’ll be honest: This did not sit well with me at all.


Somehow my above post lost all but the first sentence, and I can’t edit it, so I’ll rewrite it here. I have been working on a very dull, hateful story for class this semister, and it’s sapping all my energy. But the other day, when I went back to my 2008 NaNo story, it was so exciting. I had characters I loved, a plot where I cared about what happened, and a beginning, middle, and end. It needs a lot of work, a lot of time and care, but I think it could become something worth publishing someday.
On the other hand, I already have some stories I have let die. My first NaNo (a fanfiction) suffers from excessive angst and non-conformity with canon, so I let it lie. My 2010 NaNo had too many characters and a top-heavy plot, so it is being left alone for the time being also.

Kaci Hill

I think some stories just have to “cook longer” than others.  You get in there, and it’s just not time. The story’s not developed yet; your writing is in a growth spurt of sorts where everything is changing in your approach; the experience and knowledge required isn’t there yet…something.  But it has to be allowed to develop, and sometimes that only happens if you focus on something else for a bit.

Kessie Carroll

Oh, so that’s the rest of the story! I’m glad I know the whole picture now.
I really can’t think of anything else you could have done with a story in a format like that. Unless you write the ancient plot as one self-contained book and the modern book in another book, both self-contained, but complimentary. The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones does that. Three stories in the same world, then a fourth book to tie them all together.
I’m glad you moved on and wrote other things. My hubby was stuck in the same rut, writing one story over and over. So I wrested it away from him and wrote it for him, and he was able to move on and explore other ideas. It’s actually been very refreshing for both of us. (We pretty much share his world and build onto it all the time.)

Matt Mikalatos

I have a really awful second world fantasy I wrote sitting on my bookshelf right now. It’s probably salvageable, but it would take more work than starting over at word one with the concept (which is decent) and treating it like a new novel.

I also wrote a vampire screenplay which I was pretty fond of which is now useless as the concept was also thought of by someone else who actually got it professionally published, so my work would look derivative at best now. Darn other people who have the same good idea as me but are more professionally polished! 

So… my first published novel was the second one I wrote. Not counting all the abandoned half-written ones. 

Kessie Carroll

I’ve noticed that that happens. My siblings came up with this great idea for a family of superheroes with a bunch of kids with powers. Then the Incredibles came out. My brother had this idea for this nice girl who catches the hottest guy in school, and A Walk To Remember came out. So yeah. Nothing new under the sun and all that. :-p

Bethany A. Jennings

Awhile back I was reading a list of book name ideas that I used to keep when I was younger (not sure why…kind of a weird thing, making up titles for books that don’t exist).  One of them was “Midnight Sun.”  Hahaha.  So I pretended to be angry at Stephanie Meyer for stealing my idea.

For a long time I also thought I had invented the idea of an e-reader.  Ah, I was so upset when I discovered they were actually real, and becoming pretty commonplace!

Matt Mikalatos

My vampire thing was “The Longest Night”… set in Alaska, during the winter when the sun doesn’t rise. Enter… “30 Days of Night.” Grrr.

Matt Mikalatos

My first book was called “The Hinterlands”… there’s now a novel with the name. And the (critically acclaimed) book “The Stolen Child” has STRONG plot similarities. Which makes me bitter. Mostly because I wasn’t a better writer fast enough to beat everyone else to it!

I also, years ago, had this historical drama all worked out set in Nazi Germany called “The Good Nazi.” Then “The Good German” came out and I was like DANG IT. Mine, however, was set in the German car racing industry, which is still sort of cool. Even though they were using that as a research arm to make their planes better to kill more Allied folk.  Oh well. Maybe one day….

“Nothing new under the sun…” I like that. Did you make that up? 😀 

Kessie Carroll

Nope, it’s from Ecclesiastes. Everything that has once been will be again. 🙂

Morgan Busse

“Some stories need to age, like fine wine. Or, to use a different metaphor, the story is bigger than we are, and we have to grow into it. Once we’ve gathered enough life and writing experience, the story calls to us again, jumbled pieces begin to fall into place, and we wonder why it was so difficult before.”
Yeah, that was my book. My story was way bigger than I was when I started writing eight years ago. I went through some difficult life experiences and learned a lot about writing. That, combined with years for the story to simmer, finally created my debut novel.

Melinda Reynolds
Melinda Reynolds

I, too, have the First Novel that hasn’t gone anywhere. I started it in 1989 — my first attempt at writing entirely on my own — and it was way too long, so I split ot up into a trilogy (ah, yes, the magic trilogy).  After a few years of sitting on the shelf, and a few more years of rewrites, I finally finished the third book in 2010.  Each book is around 200 pages.  It’s about the Angel Warriors told from the POV (mostly) of Archangel Michael’s second-in-command (but not in first person); it starts with CREATION, then to REBELLION, finishing with REPARATION (the titles of the books).  Total disinterest.

Then, in 2009 I wrote a companion series of books — 6 so far — using the same angel warrior characters, but adding a female angel for the main character.  The third book in this series was accepted for publication by Marion Margaret Press and published 11/11/11.

I still have high hopes for my Angel Warriors trilogy, even if I have to self publish.  I’ve done a few sample runs at Lulu.com and the books look pretty good.

At this point, I don’t know what else to do with the trilogy to improve it, so I guess I’m the only one who will own a ‘printed’ copy.

The other series with the female angel as the lead character with the Warriors is going pretty good, as I’m getting the second and fourth books ready to submit.