The Bittersweet Pill of Hindsight or Things I’ve Learned Thus Far

Hindsight is a bittersweet thing. It is both a useful learning tool and a frustrating smack to the head. I’ve learned quite a bit since I sold my debut, Deadworld. I believe I’m a better writer now because of my experience in writing the three books in the series thus far. Writers have to continually be working at getting better. One doesn’t “arrive” when one is published and get to coast on one’s good fortune. Like any other endeavor in life, it can always be done better. The most you can do is to try to do the best job you can given your current wisdom and experience, learn from what you create, and apply it to the next endeavor and do better than before. Here a few things I’ve learned about writing over the course of my three books.

1. Character rules all. You can have the coolest plot in the universe, but if you don’t work through it with interesting, fully developed characters, it will fall flat somewhere along the way. I created a very difficult, female protagonist in Jackie Rutledge. She has an emotional baggage train about a mile long, can be pretty abrasive at times, and being in her head space is  not always very comfortable. I wanted to start with a character who was in a pretty dark place, and watch her develop through that over the course of the series. In hindsight, I may have put her too far into the dark end, and alienated some readers who found it too difficult to relate to her. In some ways she might even be considered an anti-heroine. While I really do like what I’ve done with her, I may not ever write a heroine that is so dark again.

2. Pacing is very under-rated. All three of my Deadworld books follow a similar structure: a slowly unraveling mystery that turns into intense action/suspsense. Another of Deadworld’s faults is that I may have been too slow at having the story unfold. Urban Fantasy is very action driven (in general), and I’ve come to believe there are certain built-in expectations with many readers of the genre. My stories have a foot in the crime-fiction/mystery genre, while the other stands squarely in the Urban Fantasy camp. It can be a hard blend at times on a structural level. All three of my books were edited for pacing in the first half of the books, cutting and rearranging chapters to build a greater sense of urgency and move the story along at a faster pace. The third book is the best in this regard, in my opinion, and not surprisingly, is the shortest of the three. Building your story to keep the pages turning and interest level high is not as easy as it might appear. Writers would do well to pay particular attention to this element of writing.

3. Backstory. This ties in with pacing. Many writers have heard about the “info dump,” the misguided notion of some writers to get all of the useful, needed background information into the story as quickly as possible. We avoid this like the plague or try to at least. My thought on this is that readers only need to know what is necessary at any given point in time for the story and characters to make sense. I believe readers are quite adept at filling in the blanks with a minimal amount of information. Good story-telling sparks the imagination and takes your mind beyond what is readily presented on the page. Readers don’t need a lot to make sense of who, what, where, and why. However, they do need something to latch onto, to enable them to build things to the point you want them to for everything to gel within the story. In hindsight, I skimped out on backstory for the sake of pacing. This is actually a very hard balance to maintain. A writer always must be asking oneself how the needed backstory can be woven in without taking the reader away from the story at hand. In Deadworld, I presented very little info on the how and why of Nick’s relationship to the villain, and what exactly happened all those years ago to put them in the current situation. Many readers wanted more and I realized I did not give them enough to develop what happened beyond what was written. Given a chance to rewrite, readers would have seen a more thorough presentation of how things all started with Nick and the villain.

4. Character development vs. reality. In real life, change is slow. It is very seldom that we have stunning, “a-ha!” moments that suddenly change the way we are and interact with the world. In fiction, one of the main reasons readers read stories (my opinion here of course) is to see characters they can relate to, grow and change over time. Sometimes, this means playing rather fast and loose with how people change. When I wrote Deadworld and created the characters, I was hellbent on making sure character growth happened in a way that approached real life change. When you have a story that takes place over a short period of time, this becomes more and more difficult to accomplish. Deadworld takes place over the course of about a week. When you have a troubled character, with problematic, ingrained ways of acting and relating to the world that haven’t changed for years, how does one reasonably accomplish drastic change over the course of a week? For Jackie, Deadworld became not so much about change, but the simple realization that change needed to happen. For many readers, this kind of slow development may not seem very satisfying, and for a character that is difficult to connect with and like in the first place, it may seem far too little to be worthwhile. Honestly, I don’t know that I would change this if given the chance to rewrite. Even over the course of the three months that the three books takes place, I had difficulty producing the kind of growth that might be expected. The point though, is to make it reasonable to the reader. Many things can be forgiven in a story if it makes sense and does not appear to be coincidental. My new story will take a different approach to this element, which will hopefully make sense to readers and produce a more satisfying growth arc for the characters involved. Every story is different of course, but it is just something I believe writers need to always be aware of. Be true to what you want to write, but do not forget reader expectations. They don’t always coincide, so walking that tightrope is a necessary and useful skill to have.

Anyway, I don’t want folks to think I’m trying to apologize for what I’ve written. I love my story. I believe it works well on a lot of levels, but I’ve learned some things to, that would have made them better. Hindsight is good for that. Happy reading/writing everyone!

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