Relearning how to write a book

516HTXS03NLMaybe I’m revealing more than I mean to right now, but when I was a kid I really liked Mercedes Lackey. I mean really, really. I just went to her wikipedia bibliography page and counted up: I’ve read 41 of her books!

I’ve tried now, and then, to go back to them, but I don’t know how well they’ve held up for the adult Rahul. However, what I appreciated about them, even as a kid, was that these were fantasy novels that tapped into deep emotions. Many fantasy novels don’t do this. Many fantasy novels have deep, mythic stories and rely on the scope and power of the story to pull you through. For instance, Lord of the Rings. It’s full of awe and despair, but it’s not rooted in strong emotions. When the book starts, Frodo has no real stake in his journey. He’s just going off on an adventure because the story requires it.

Mercedes Lackey wasn’t like that. Every book would have some world-saving plot: a terrible email that needs must be fought off by some brave teenager. But the teenager also had regular teenage stuff–rejection and alienation–to deal with.

In my own novel-writing, I struggle to root my books in strong emotion. I can’t count the number of times (hundreds!) I’ve started to write a book and found that I didn’t really care about the main plot, because I didn’t feel invested in my own characters. At the same time, my works in progress can often feel too claustrophobic and small. They’re about people who want things which are so  simple–love or family or respect–that the book can feel boring, because, really, how much variation can you have in that story: either they’ll get what they want or they want, and if they don’t, then who cares?

But the other day as I was driving to a friend’s birthday party, I had an epiphany: books often have two plots!

Yes, there’s often a small-scale plot that’s directly rooted in the character’s needs. And then there’s a large-scale plot that provides the bigger stakes and the main antagonist.

This makes intuitive sense: after all, characters need something to do on page one. You can’t just have them sitting around and chatting it up. They need a goal to focus their attention. But you also can’t introduce the primary antagonizing force on page one (in most cases) because then the book would be too crowded.

I was so blinded by the obviousness of this realization that I was like, wait, how did I not know this before? And then I realized that I did know it. In fact, my own book is a great example of this. The book is driven forward by Reshma’s desire to get into Stanford (for which reasons she decides to write a novel about her life). But the primary antagonizing force only appears 15% of the way through the book, when she gets caught cheating. Then, for the rest of the book, she juggles both plots: she attempts to write the novel even as she also tries to fight off her school and regain the valedictorianship.

In my book, the first plot peaks at the midpoint, and thereafter the second plot is the primary one. But both of them are throughlines in the book, and both of them get resolved in the end.

And I can see a similar structure in many other stories. For instance, Star Wars is about defeating the Empire, but it’s also about Luke learning to be a Jedi. The Fault in Our Stars is a love story, but it’s also about dealing with cancer. Les Miserables is about running from Javert, but it’s also about trying to build a respectable life after spending twenty years in prison.

What’s funny to me is that I knew this! I not only see this structure in Enter Title Here, but in all the unpublished novels of mine that I actually like. This is something I’ve done, time and again, without realizing it. Which was fine, so long as writing was coming easy. But when it stopped happening on its own, I was at a loss. Suddenly I was like…why aren’t my stories working anymore? What’s missing?

Which brings me back to Mercedes Lackey. Her second published novel, Arrow’s Flight, features, as a major plot point, a young sorceress, Talia, who loses control of her abilities. In the first book, she appeared to have such a solid hold on her rather unusual abilities that her instructors skipped right over the basics and moved directly to teaching her how to do some pretty advanced stuff. But in the second book, this bites her in the ass: her natural control is degrading, and now she has no idea how maintain it.

It’s interesting that this is Lackey’s second novel. I have to believe that this plotline is, in some ways, about the experience of writing a second book. You write one book, more or less on instinct, and suddenly people think you know what you’re doing. But then your instincts vanish and you lose control and suddenly you need to relearn how to do the things that once came to you so naturally.