Lessons teach. Painful lessons are more often retained. Painful lessons learned in public are almost impossible to forget. No lesson was less painful than my online story, which I serialized back in 2013.
This is the tale of Last Word Before Dying, which has been available on my website. Removing it is long overdue, but I wanted to replace it with something worthwhile and that’s about to happen. First, though, there are the lessons learned.
Where to begin? How about some story trivia:
• When the story began I was still on oxygen after suffering a severe breathing/health setback the autumn before.
• At the story’s outset I was a Wyoming resident, but moved to Montana before the serial’s midpoint.
• After I changed the format (more on this below) I posted every week until the story’s completion eleven months later, with one exception: the week I attended my father’s funeral three weeks before I moved.
• It was the first story I’d ever written using Scrivener.
• The story squeaked-out novel length, finishing at 61,346 words over 19 chapters (the chapters were posted over the course of 2-3 weeks each).
• It’s about Shayleen Rilden, a girl raised as a virtual orphan in a home with an abusive mother and distracted father. She takes a secretarial job working for an aging, eccentric adventurer and comes to realize the tale he’s dictating provides the answers she needs to save a city.
After I started my WordPress blog in 2013 I thought a serial was a gift that would also expose readers to my fantasy world, Ontyre. When the story began it was told via Shayleen’s journal entries. Dull, slow, and one dimensional, that format was abandoned after a few months. I suspended the story and brought it back at the beginning of the summer written in 3rd point-of-view (POV).
I’d often over-planned stories and decided to experiment with pantsing, little considering that as each installment was posted it became gospel. The lone exception was when I changed the format and the journal entries created to that point were reworked.
So, what else went wrong? Here’s a small sampling:
• The murky plot wasted time searching for its identity (which was more than I had worked out for the stakes…yikes!). It showed. The story wandered and stumbled. By the time it righted itself, marginally, near the 3rd plot point I was building on a rotten foundation.
• The structure was fair, at best, and the story sagged in the middle like an elastic suspension bridge (confusing, pointless character arcs were introduced and banished).
• The heroine’s life was full of conflict, which was great, but poor planning ruined her arc. I wrote myself into a corner and ran out of ink once I got there.
• The story became rich with backstory and info dumps. It was parceled out in small amounts, but in total it was shocking.
• The heroine had no attraction to the love interest and the better love interest died the first time he had more than a couple of lines. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true.
The narrative voice embraced almost every version of 3rd POV and I might have invented a few new ones along the way.
I could stop here and weep over an experience that was painful and humbling, but I learned SO much. That sounds like Luke Skywalker frustrated in the swamp, and it should. Yes, before the story ended I was questioning my future (but fortunately didn’t lose a hand). What started as a fun experiment had turned into invasive surgery to expose everything I didn’t know to the fantasy reading world. Ouch.
But like I said, I learned a lot:
• My pantsing is now restricted to brainstorming within my plotting framework. No more, “Hey, a dragon egg! Let’s fry it up right here.”
• There’s plotting and there’s plotting properly, and then there’s properly plotting in the way that works best for the writer (try saying that fast). Telling parallel stories that come together at the end was clever and daring, but not when one story was essentially an info dump.
• Know thy characters and why they’re there. Seriously. Figuring this out at the story’s end means you just wasted an entire story discovering what you should have known at the beginning. Now the 2nd draft becomes another 1st draft.
• There’s a reason why rules should be learned. It’s time well spent. A few months after Last Word ended I committed to taking the long road in my writing pursuit, which led to…
• Learning structure through-and-through while paying attention to how others have employed it is worth the effort. In addition…
• HUGE LESSON! This is especially true for anyone writing a story where world building or extensive research or both are involved. When you don’t know where the story is going you fall back (often unconsciously) on what you do know. Backstory. World building elements. Research. Going in I knew the rule that says no excessive backstory and info dumps! It was ingrained in my brain, yet I did it anyway. Why? Because when I became lost (because there was no plan) I absently dabbled in what I knew. When I look at the story now my jaw sags. I wrote that?
Last Word Before Dying also led to other profound changes for this author. One was increasing my reading input. I’ve long been an avid reader, but since I moved to Montana I’ve more than tripled the number of books I read per month. (On a side note: don’t move in a snowstorm in the middle of a major writing commitment.)
I also decided to better learn POV. I first attempted multiple POVs during NaNo in 2014 and began studying Deep POV in 2015. My brain initially rebelled, but I’m getting there.
Lastly, I learned a lot about the fantasy world I want to explore. I’d wavered between a medieval-like setting and a world more akin to Edwardian/Steampunk/Gaslight. Last Word reflects that wavering because it refused to commit. In 2015 I made that commitment and updated references I hadn’t touched in 15 years.
In the end, Last Word Before Dying was a worthwhile experiment, both more than I’d expected and not for the same reasons I was expecting. Although the story now leaves, it isn’t dead and may appear as a reworked novella in a collection in the distant future. Who knows. Too, some moments were brighter than others. Shayleen’s encounter with the werewolf was a favorite scene, but, alas, it came late and few ever read it.
Next week I’ll remove the story from the website. Poof! As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t want to delete it until I had something with which to replace it. Therefore, an entire short story will debut on the website next week. I’ve written many short stories since late last year and most I’ll attempt to market since income is a word I need to heed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share one here from time-to-time.
One attitude hasn’t changed and has powered my decisions along the way, even when dreaming up the ill-considered serial and reworking the format. Who’s most important? Is it about the author or the reader? It’s about the author making it about the reader.