Changing Up the Plot Without Throwing Away the Story

I got 50,000 words into a draft of a novel and sort of slammed to a halt. Well, actually I slammed to a halt several times in the course of writing those words, too. There are questions about the story I’ve been avoiding for a long, long time, and I’ve realized I can’t proceed without answering them. My last talk with my writing coach shook some of this loose, and I feel much more capable of going forward now. Here’s the deal:

For better or worse, I chose to write a story where technologically-superior people from one civilization are shipwrecked on the home of a different, technologically inferior civilization, and the parallels with European colonization of the Americas have been dogging me the whole time.

To put it bluntly, and leaving aside the actual skin tones of my fantasy people: I don’t want to tell a story with any whiff of white people good, brown people bad.

There are lots of different ways I could have run that scenario instead (maybe the shipwrecked land on the shores of a more advanced civilization, a la When True Night Falls) but Joe helped me figure out how to skirt this without throwing away the whole story:

  1. Avoid making the indigenous people, or any one of them, the antagonist
  2. There has to be something inherent to the indigenous civilization that is key to succeeding in the challenge of the novel

Luckily, I already have (2) figured out. As for (1), when I was blocked months ago two ideas came together I came up with a third, antagonistic force that would assail the colonists and the indigenous people and require them to work together, but I’d considered that a thing to use in future books.

Instead, I can use it in this one, if I allude to it earlier and weave it into the story. That avoids having the indigenous people be “the bad guys”; instead, the colonists and the indigenous people have tensions and conflicts, but those must be set aside when this greater threat surfaces. This solves a large number of problems with the narrative, actually.

The next question is: who is this third, antagonistic force? I already had ideas for them, but, like I said, I was going to use them in later books, so hadn’t really fleshed it out. Well, the time of flesh is upon us1.

The civilization that’s sort of the “protagonist”, or that contains the protagonists, of my stories is relatively secular, at least in terms of political organization. It would be interesting to have a theocracy invade them… So now the question is, how and why do you get a theocracy and what would drive the invasion?

The dumb way to do this is a common problem when writing the “other” in your stories: make everyone a religious zealot. But a culture isn’t a “hive mind”, no matter how cynical you are about Facebook; the people in the civilization are individuals, and they participate in their culture, interact with it, in different ways.

So what’s a real-life analogue to a theocratic society engaging in a holy war? How about the Crusades? Even from the small amount of reading I’ve done, it’s clear the Christians and the Muslims were not two homogeneous masses driven by dogma to break lances on each other. The Crusades were perpetrated, and the Crusaders participated, for lots of different reasons, the same reasons people do anything.

Postulate: Wars happen because enormously-powerful interests are, uh, interested in them happening. Medieval society sure seems bloodthirsty in retrospect, but the vast bulk of people have always just wanted to live their lives in peace regardless of what century it is.

Even in the more-dictatorial societies that are typical in medieval-style fantasy fiction, just because you’re the king or empress doesn’t mean you can say, “Hey, you hundred-thousand people, I know you’re busy trying not to starve or die of the plague, but go pick up swords and die horribly hundreds of miles from home,” and your civilization will respond, “How high?”

This is perhaps even more true in such societies, because they didn’t tend to have standing armies (the economics just weren’t there), which means you really did have to give people incentives (which, sure, probably included religious dogma and the threat of execution) to get them to fight for you.

So all that being said, this theocratic civilization I’m inventing would probably only build an army and a navy and sail across the sea to make war on the heathens if they had a bunch of damned-compelling reasons to. Sure, the high priest might tell the people he has a message from God, and, depending on how your fiction is wired, he might have actually experienced something supernatural, this is fantasy after all…

But what seems more likely and more interesting to me is that there’s some kind of struggle in the government of this civilization that makes invading a foreign nation seem like an attractive idea. Maybe there’s an upstart political class that’s challenging the authority of the theocratic class, or vice-versa, and the way to keep the people in line is with a Crusade—good opportunity to extol the supremacy of God’s Chosen, and thereby keep the people excited about having the high priests rule over them—as long as you win, of course. It’s high-risk, high-reward. And the economic incentives of a crusade could get the political class to play along, too.

Does that sound cynical? Well, read about why the actual Crusades took place, and agree with me that the best fiction does not, even if it’s fantasy and dragons are casting spells on centaurs to appease a living volcano, divorce itself from human nature.

  1. Which sounds ike someting James Earl Jones said in the first Conan movie

What Exactly Are You Afraid Of?

I’ve been talking to friends lately about why it’s so hard to share the difficult parts. That is, why it’s so much easier to write a blog post about some happy-smiley writing tips, but when I spend two or three weeks that turn into two or three months not working on my novel, I go radio-silent, too.

Part One is it doesn’t seem like there’s anything worth saying. Does it help for me to share the things I’m struggling with? Aren’t we all struggling with things, and who am I to project my lot into the world, as though strangers on the internet give a fuck?

Part Two is the opposite, and equally unthinkable: if I project my weaknesses, if i reveal my soft underbelly, won’t I be found wanting? Especially in comparison to my heroes. You know the ones, the people who are doing the thing I want to be doing. We don’t even have to go lofty like Stephen King or Hemingway—that would be too obvious. Even Chris Fox.

I mean, Chris has talked about depression, and I appreciated that. But like everyone he mostly talks about his successes, and your brain gravitates to those and forgets about the failures he shared, and pretty soon the only failures you think about are your own, and why would you want to share those?

Then again, why not? Maybe they help one other person. Just one. Maybe the whole world rejects you, and more likely no one even notices you exist, but there’s just one person who sees this frustrated blog post, this admission that I’m flailing my arms in open air and I haven’t a fucking clue where I’m going to land, and they go, Thank Christ—because I feel the same way, and I thought I was the only one.

That might be a stupid story I tell myself as I spill my guts all over the floor, there to be humiliated or annihilated (which is worse?) But maybe it isn’t. And, most likely of all… it doesn’t even matter.

And if it doesn’t matter you might as well do it.

That’s Part Three.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about the human condition. I summed it up like this, because I was a beer in and just in that kind of mood:

You are an accident that will soon be corrected.

From the perspective of the universe, I mean. I’m not trying to be an asshole.

But, think about it: In a hundred years, the likelihood is that no one alive will know you even existed. In two hundred years, that’s just about a certainty.

You can either think about things like this and hang your head and stare at the floor or you can take heart in the understanding that your life is not so epic and important that you must be paralyzed by shocking panic fear whenever you conceive of creating anything.

Instead, you can just create the thing, because

a) it doesn’t matter whether you do or not, and

b) you’re driven to, regardless

My witticism about you being an accident was in response to my friend saying that entropy always wins. In the end, all human effort is futile.

I chewed on all this for a few days, and then a thought struck me as I was walking down the street: Sure, entropy always wins, but humans seem driven to create order from chaos even though we know it’s futile.

That being the case, you might as well create order out of chaos, because what’s the alternative? You’re wired how you’re wired. Entropy wins anyway, you’re driven to create, so… create.

Looking at it this way, there’s literally nothing better you could do with your time.

I want to apologize for these morbid ways of picturing our lot in life, but frankly I don’t find them morbid—in the sense of being depressing—they help me out. Because when I get heavy, the heaviness almost always seems to come from being too attached to my identity.

To worrying about what everyone else will think about me.

To being “found out”, never mind as what.

Something deep in my brain believes with religious fervour if I am found to be flawed, if I disappoint, if I am not enough… then I will be flung into empty space, there to drift and die an infinity of deaths. In the cold, all alone.

That’s ridiculous. Not to mention melodramatic. If someone doesn’t like me, I guess they could shoot me in the face, and that’d suck. But what’s far more likely is… nothing. Maybe someone says something unkind to me on the internet? Or in real life?

Compared to the inevitability of entropy, doesn’t that seem like a stupid thing to worry about?

Maybe this is too Zen for you, I don’t know. And now I’m probably misrepresenting what Zen is, for that matter.

Worry, worry, worry. Or I could just hit Publish.

And then, at least, I will have made something. And then I’ll have imposed a little order, in the littlest way, for a little, little while.

You might say: nothing matters, so what’s the point? But instead you could say: nothing matters, so what do you really have to be afraid of?

I’m afraid it will somehow harm me if I share the struggle. The bad stuff.

The just-not-giving-a-shit about the thing I keep saying and thinking I care so much about.

The way I just want to sleep in at the beginning of the day and play Skyrim at the end, which doesn’t leave any time to work on my draft.

The relationships I get into and then (I convince myself) they take all my time and attention, and then they end and my time and attention goes into medicating away the bad feelings with the aforementioned sleeping in and video games.

See? Does telling you that help? I have no idea. Does it hurt?

Not as much as I was afraid it would.