I felt like I was going back to my roots – to the kid in junior high writing stories and sharing them with his friends in class. For years, I competed in creative writing competitions and enjoyed creating characters and the adventures that test and grow them. Moving forward with fiction was like going back. I relished the idea.
Then the writing process began…
I started Clear Winter Nights with the hope of teaching through story. My goal was to communicate biblical truth through an intriguing storyline and memorable characters. In this way, the book would include both fiction elements (a story and dialogue) and non-fiction elements (theological discussion and logical reasoning).
Sounds simple enough, right? I thought I’d knock out the project in the amount of time it took to write my other books. Little did I know, I was in for a rude awakening.
Here are two reasons why writing fiction turned out to be harder than I expected:
1. A Lengthier and More Robust Editorial Review
Four major publishing houses liked my initial proposal and sample chapters enough to make an offer. I chose Multnomah because, in early conversations, I sensed they would be heavily involved in the editorial process. They didn’t let me down. For almost a year, I received feedback from great fiction editors, readers, writers, and theologically savvy types who love the idea of a non-fiction writer branching out into new territory.
For a non-fiction book, the editorial stage is simple. You send the manuscript to trusted friends and advisors who then offer their feedback.
Did you mean to say this? I think you’re wrong.
Maybe if you said this in a different way, you can avoid a potential area of confusion.
I love this idea, but I think you could communicate it better if you did it this way…
Editorial comments for a Christian Living title focus on the strength of your argument and the persuasiveness of your presentation.
Fiction, on the other hand, adds another layer of complexity to the editorial process. People respond differently to characters and stories than they do to an outline that organizes truth in a linear fashion.
Initial impressions are much more subjective for a fiction book than for non-fiction. Second, third, and fourth drafts lead you to do more than tweak a sentence here or there. Sometimes, you’ve got to go back to the keyboard and scrap entire scenes, rearrange material, and introduce new people. Then there are the times you have to trust your instincts and ignore all the other voices.
2. The Complexity of Character Development
The initial idea for Clear Winter Nights was to put forth traditional Christian teaching in a compelling story, to make good points through characters and fiction. In other words, though I would never have articulated it this way, I viewed the story as the shell around the didactic, non-fiction elements at the center. The point was the truth; the vehicle was the story.
That approach didn’t last long.
Once I began to proceed with a didactic purpose, I found myself opposed at every point by my characters themselves. They seemed to rise up in defiance of my predetermined outline. They broke out of the constraints I had set for them. They resisted any attempt to be forced into conversations that didn’t fit their personalities.
As the storytelling process unfolded, some of my favorite scenes and conversations landed on the cutting room floor. Truths and arguments I had originally intended to express through these characters didn’t fit their personalities. The characters outgrew my initial vision, leading to more and more revisions of the story and dialogue. When my familiarity with the story kept me from seeing how the characters had grown, my editors stepped in to point out the discrepancies.
As an author, I could have chosen to ramrod my agenda through the book and cause Chris and Gil to say and do whatever I wanted. But in the end, I wanted the conversations to serve the characters, not vice versa. The more you come to know the characters you create, the less likely you are to make them nothing more than an agent of your own bidding.
I realize how confusing this must sound to those who haven’t written fiction. Are you saying, Trevin, that you don’t have final say-so over what your characters say and do? Not at all. I like how it all turned out. It’s just that, as you develop characters, you find their individuality leads to certain constraints and choices that differ from the initial expectations you had when you began the story.
I could continue listing reasons why writing fiction was harder than I thought. Several reasons deal with being aware of the basics of storytelling. I’ve already written about one of the most important discoveries here – the Point of View, so I won’t belabor the point.
In the end, Clear Winter Nights has been a labor of love and learning. Love for the characters and the truth they discuss, and learning for me as an author as I’ve been working to get better at a craft I neglected for too long.