Novel Writing: Time to Do the Heavy Lifting

I’m writing my first trilogy, and I must admit, the first 2/3s has come rather easily. Book one cruised by and set-up book two perfectly. Book two introduced some new characters and the adventure went farther, deeper, and more enjoyable than I could have anticipated. Even the ending flowed, setting up book three.

But now, well, I’ve just realized something. If I want this series to end in book three, which I do, then it’s time to do the heavy lifting. By heavy lifting, I mean I need to invest some serious amount of time into thinking, yes thinking, before I get back to writing.

I know the ending of the trilogy. It’s a no-brainer in my mind, but I sat down yesterday and did my first actual writing on book three, I realized that I got a lot of work to do if I’m going to tie all these lose ends together, because I have a lot of loose ends. This series has a plethora of related plots, which have worked well up to this point, and I am confident that they will work well through the ending, but admittedly, I don’t see it all yet.

Now some might call this writer’s block, but I think that’s nonsense. I have plenty of things to write about in this novel and I could go and whip off a chapter right now if I’d like. But, in my mind, this is the crucial moment. The moment of decision which is going to affect a reader’s overall view of this trilogy.

The problem is all about choices. There are so many choices to make. Here are a few:

When should the story pick up again? Immediately after book 2?  I think not. I need a new clever hook, and I have that, I believe. The new book will start in 1348 Europe, the Europe that’s being decimated by the black plague. Has my series had anything to do with that so far? No. That’s why I think it’s cool. A reader will start wondering what in the world this has to do with the plotline, but they will be rewarded, I, as the writer, must make sure of it. And I will.

But after my jaunt in time is finished, how do I pick up the lives of the main characters? Is it the next day? The next week? The next year? I’m currently leaning towards week.

If I choose week, what has transpired that the readers are going to need to know about? And how do I insert that situation? Should I isolate the main characters? Should I have them together? Each decision changes the way the book will flow.

What about the villains? Are they going to get away with it? Are they going to be tracked down? How? What surprises await them? What surprises await the readers?

Do all of my character’s actions feel justified by their motivation?

So I am at a writing crossroad, but before I choose, I must consciously weigh each path and then choose one. Will I ever know if I chose the right one or the wrong one? No. Writing is so subjective that it makes reading extremely subjective.

All I can do is do the proper heavy lifting in my mind and then hope for the best. Here goes.

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Writing a Trilogy, or is it a Three Part Story

I’ve mentioned before how I am working on my first trilogy. My first five novels were standalones and I’ve always felt that standalones are more interesting reads because, well, they have a tight arc and a thrilling finish. I’ve never been one for built-in cliffhangers (let alone the ridiculous extra scenes that Marvel Studios has become famous for. Please, no!). I’ve never wanted to tease the reader or string a reader along. I just wanted to write quality stories, encompassing one person’s whole worldview in one story. Sequels, series, trilogies were just not for me.

Well, hey. What do they say? People change? So do writers, and that has led me to some unfamiliar territory. When I wrote my latest novel – still unreleased – the story, though quite tidy, didn’t feel over. There were unanswered questions and many new avenues to explore. I decided to thing about a sequel. It let me to a cool idea and then the story took off.

Well, no those two stories are becoming three. My first trilogy.

As I continue to punch away at the keys and discover all the crazy ways this story is taking on new life, I’ve realized that there is a difference between a sequel and a just a longer story. My goal now isn’t to write three related novels. My goal is to write one story, broken into manageable and gripping parts. A large arc over all three with individual arcs built into each section. It’s a challenging yet fascinating process, and it’s forcing me to approach writing in different ways from the past. This can only be good in a writer’s development. I’m excited about that aspect.

To make this work, I’ve dramatically slowed down the release of book 1 so I can finish book 2 and be well on my way in book 3 before the opening chapter ever sees the light of day. As my English colleague says, trilogies planned at one time are better than those with an added sequel. I agree. It’s all about coherence and allowing new ideas be applied to previous ideas. Lots of back editing is needed. Retroactive writing is tough to do once the first story is in print.

The plot of this novel is a challenge. It’s complex, with many characters. It has two main overarching stories which are connected. These stories have spawned subplots and minor characters and it’s a lot to keep straight. It’s a puzzle really. A puzzle I’m driving myself. A puzzle I get to create. I love that aspect of it.

So writers, push yourself. Try something new. Let your trilogies be standalones and your standalones be trilogies. It will be worth it in the long run.

The Truth is Stranger than Fiction. Sometimes.

I remember when I was around twenty years old, and I decided to write my autobiography. Yeah, it makes me laugh now, too. What in the world was I going to say about myself at such a young age when I had no idea what I even wanted to do with my life?

I don’t know, but I was undaunted. I didn’t know how to start writing my story, so I decided to write a series of poems about my upbringing in order to bring out different themes or ideas which would help me write. Actually, this was a pretty good idea. I was, after all, going through my poetry stage, writing all kinds of poems from rhyming couplets to visually arranged poems similar to E.E. Cummings. I wrote Shakespearean sonnets and Walt Whitman inspired lyrical phrases about mundane items like a log or an ant. I even wrote an epic poem based on the style of Alexander Pope. (More on that later.)

Anyways, I started writing poems about my young life. I still have them, and they are quite sweet, actually. One is a reminder of how my dad used to come into my bedroom on Sunday morning to wake me up for church. I never greeted such reminders with much enthusiasm, but one Sunday I had a brilliant idea. I woke up early, stuffed blankets in the shape of a person under my covers, and then hid behind a door in my room waiting for him to arrive. He came, calling my name and shaking the bed. The look on his face was priceless. I jumped out from behind the door and scared him. I wrote this all in a lovely poem which I still have. I wrote several other autobiographical poems and then finally abandoned my autobiography in despair because I felt I could never write it. In my estimation, my life had been utterly too boring. I had nothing at all to say about myself.

Truth was indeed much more boring than fiction.

But what I didn’t understand at that point was that stories are meant to be manipulated, embellished, re-written, and apocryphal. There are, of course, those historical biographers who aim to “get it right” about a person, but I was looking at myself too literal. Yes, I was a literal person who had literal experiences, but why would I want to shackle the writer of my biography with facts and mundane activities when I could use what I know to create something much more interesting?

A writer’s mind cannot be bound to fact. It has to be allowed to explore and discover unique means of being able to present the universal truths of humankind.

I’ve long since moved on from the desire to write an autobiography, but I have learned to feel free to use snippets of my experiences, adding them to completely fictional elements in order to create something wholly new, original, and engaging.

Perhaps those poems will continue to inspire me in the future. I am glad I wrote them.

Mixing real historical figures into a work of fiction. Vietnam 1945.

My untitled third novel that I’m currently working on is set during two different time periods in Vietnam. The first is 2000 and the second is 1945.

Nineteen-forty-five is the crucial year in modern day Vietnam. It’s the year that the Japanese completely overthrew the remnants of the French Empire in Indochina. It’s the year that the Vietnamese freedom fighters – Viet Minh – were trained by the Americans in July. It’s the year that they declared their independence on September 2, 1945, in vain looking for a western nation (namely America) to support their desire to move beyond both Japanese imperialism and French colonialism. Alas, the nascent Truman administration felt it prudent to back French claims and support de Gaulle as he reasserted French presence in the world after the war.  It’s the year that set the course for the French-Indochina War which would last from 1946-1954, resulting in a split Vietnam which would lead to the Vietnam War of the 1960s. It’s a fascinating year with larger than life characters who exert themselves on the scene: Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Chiang, de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh.

Okay, enough with the history lesson.

I found myself writing about the fascinating interaction between the O.S.S. and the Viet Minh in July 1945. Of course, my story is fictional and it has a crucial bearing on the story that I am writing along side it set in 2000. But, when it comes to 1945, I couldn’t resist putting Ho Chi Minh into my writing. But I realize I must do so with caution.

Ho Chi Minh is revered in Vietnam as ‘Uncle Ho’ who never married and spent his life in one single pursuit – freedom for his nation and people. I’ll let the historians argue about the veracity of that statement. However, regardless of your view, there is a lot to admire about Ho Chi Minh. He spoke, they say, upwards of 11 languages or dialects. He was good at English and wrote letters and spoke freely to the OSS officers who visited him that summer. He had general goodwill and admiration for Americans and he hoped that Truman would back his legitimate claim on Vietnam. He even wrote several unanswered letters to Truman trying to get across his point.

Was he a communist? Yes.

Was he a pragmatist? Yes.

Did he put dogma ahead of practicality? I think not.

He was a patriot who loved his country much like George Washington loved his country.  In fact, Ho Chi Minh even used this comparison to George in some of his rhetoric questioning America’s relentless support for the French who ruthlessly raped Vietnamese resources for 80 years.

So, I had fun today thinking how I could bring this real-life character into my story. Of course, his role is minor, but I wanted it to be memorable. Hopefully I’ll achieve this. I’m not going to give any specifics at this point, but I will say this:

Uncle Ho is making an appearance in my third novel.

Should be fun!