Thursday, May 1, 2014

When It Changed

From: Morgayne

Greetings from the Olympic Peninsula! Just started reading Hild which led me to your blog. I'm a writer who has had a short story published in the local community college anthology and am looking forward to having a novel published.

Hope to be one of the lucky lottery winners for your workshop coming up in June.

I have a couple of questions about your writing process. Do you start with archetypes for your characters? And do you use Joseph Campbell's 12 phases of the Hero's Journey to form your stories?

Have read your previous fiction and am a huge fan. Thank you for being willing to answer my questions.
No and No. I don't use any formulae at all when it comes to writing. No Jung, no Campbell. Just people. And places. And systems.

As you've read my other novels you've probably guessed that I like to know how things work: ecosystems, weather systems, economic systems and so on. That what a world is: a series of interlocking systems. As a writer I build a world (whether here-and-now or elsewhere or elsewhen) then put an interesting person, one with their own needs, into that set of interlocking systems, including other people with their own sets of needs, which promptly sets out to stymie those needs. What happens is the plot. What it means--the consequences for the protagonist--is the story.

I like to begin the story as far along as possible in that moment when the protagonist's life turns from the way it was to how it is now--or, to borrow the title of Joanna Russ's famous novella, to show When It Changed.

The trick, of course, is to know how to bring the reader along on the ride. The 
further the narrative world is from your expected readers' experience, the more time it takes to orient them and get them comfortable. As we're talking about northern Britain in the very early seventh-century, most readers know very little (and even experts find that they disagree with other experts; there's a reason historians used to call that era the Dark Ages).

In other words, it's a lot easier to simply begin with a dramatic moment when talking about (say) nineteenth-century Port Mahon, Minorca, or sixteenth-century Putney, London, than with seventh-century Loides, Elmet.

With Hild I had to not only introduce readers to a time and place they weren't familiar with and a character they'd never heard of but also to the fact that this was A Novel (as opposed to An Adventure or A Romance or even Historical Fiction). It was an interesting challenge. I knew I would lose a lot of readers in the first few pages. Those names! those strange concepts! the destruction of cherished stereotypes! But nothing works for everyone. Every writer has to choose who they're they're willing to lose and who not.

In the end, I made the choice I always do: I wrote the kind of novel I yearn for, one for smart readers who are ready to leap into the void and hope the writer catches them.

The beginning of Hild II is much easier, much less risky than Hild I in the sense that tens of thousands of readers now know Anglisc from British; they have adjusted to the possibility that women can be more than baby machines; they understand that most of what they thought they knew about Early Medieval Britain is probably wrong. But as the book progresses it is much, much more risky.

Ah, but you'll just have to wait and see why.
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