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.