Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.
After an all-consuming summer spent leading passionate, determined cadets through the leave-it-all-on-the-floor atmosphere of Odyssey’s boot camp, fall often brings mixed feelings. The fifteen newly minted warriors I have bonded with–sharing the pain of their struggles, the joy of their successes, their longing to do better—are gone, carried off to the four corners of the globe. For a while, the solitude is held off by the veteran warriors at The Never-Ending Odyssey (the eight-day program for Odyssey Writing Workshop graduates). Those soldiers come in from their battlefields to share war stories, improve skills, reevaluate strategies, form new plans, and head once more into the breach. Yet that passes all too quickly. And then I am alone on my own battlefield. With the 300,000-word draft of my current novel-in-progress.
The summer left me with many insights: my antagonist is weak and doesn’t make my readers as worried as they should be; some of my plot logic makes sense only to me; my writing is too thorough and explanatory at times, too obtuse and withholding at others. We all face our own battlefield, our own enemies, and as we descend into the trench looking out on that blasted no man’s land, we go alone. We may fight for a month to move our trenches five yards ahead, only to face a counterattack that has us retreating to our old lines. But once in a while, the sun emerges from the clouds and we gain a new perspective, discover a new strategy that may allow us to break through the enemy lines and make major forward progress. My insight this fall is that I need to manipulate my pacing and organization more. In the hope that it may also help you in your current campaign against stagnation and despair, I’ll share my thoughts here.
The insight was triggered by a chapter from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin that begins, “The courtyard rang to the song of swords.” If you’d like to play along at home, this is a chapter from Jon Snow’s point of view starting on p. 176 of the mass market paperback edition. After originally reading the book some years ago, I have been re-reading it aloud to my husband as we drive to the grocery store, and when I finished this chapter, I looked at my husband and said, “Why the heck did he structure it like that?”
As you can tell from the opening sentence of the chapter, we start with action, as Jon spars with other recruits at the Wall. Jon beats his opponent, the session ends, and Jon walks by himself to the armory and changes clothes. All this has happened in about 1 1/2 pages. Now the narrative becomes interior as Jon thinks for a half page about his expectations versus the reality of being a part of the Night’s Watch. He thinks about his uncle leaving him, and we transition into a flashback as Jon remembers asking to go with his uncle on patrol. That section, a half page, is short but dramatized with an exchange of dialogue. Then Jon remembers his uncle leaving the following morning, and that section, two paragraphs, is mostly recapitulated (summarized), with just one line of dialogue provided. After that, Jon thinks about his situation for another half page. Then the recruits he had sparred with confront him, and a brief fight ensues. The armorer, Noye, breaks up the fight and sends the others away. Here we have a key section of the chapter, as Noye explains to Jon why the others hate him and how he can fix it. The confrontation and conversation fills about 3 1/2 pages. Jon goes outside and remembers, in a 1-paragraph flashback, the first time he saw the Wall (the previous chapter from Jon’s POV showed Jon on the way to the Wall but not arriving). Jon runs into Tyrion and they talk about the Wall, allowing for some necessary information to be introduced. Then Jon is summoned by Mormont, the commander, who informs him that his brother Bran will live. Jon shares the good news with Tyrion and offers to train the recruits he beat in the sparring session. This last chunk, from the time Jon runs into Tyrion until the end, takes 5 pages.
As you can see, the author is struggling to incorporate many different pieces of information, which is often the case in fairly early chapters. Here, a new setting, a new cast of characters, and new conflicts (both internal and external) are all being established. Putting the information in chronological order wouldn’t work well, because it would feel very disjointed and stringy to have a paragraph describing Jon seeing the Wall for the first time, then a half page describing Jon three days later asking to go with his uncle, then two paragraphs of Jon watching his uncle leave the next morning, and so on. A chronological structure would pretty much force the author to describe each action in more detail, so each incident would be a full scene and we could feel like we were there with the character.
Instead, this chapter jumps ahead in time to the sparring and then circles back to fill in the important moments we missed. Moving the pieces around in time allows the author to describe the scenes in the “present” of the chapter most vividly (the sparring, the confrontation in the armory, the conversations with Noye and Tyrion, and Jon’s change at the end) and to dramatize only key moments of “past” incidents, because we don’t remember entire scenes; we only remember the moments important to us. Anything else from the past can be recapitulated or skipped over. This gives the author the freedom to control his pacing, to jump over what isn’t interesting or necessary, to recapitulate what isn’t too interesting but is necessary, and to dramatize what is both interesting and necessary.
This structure also helps to create some sense of unity out of these diverse incidents by highlighting the important change that Jon undergoes in the chapter. The beginning shows Jon putting his full effort into beating the recruits, not realizing that they haven’t had the benefit of training that he has, and the ending shows Jon offering to train them.
While the chapter is not entirely successful, in that it feels somewhat diffuse and lacking in momentum, and some potentially emotional moments–the first sight of the wall, Jon’s desperation to go with his uncle–are weakened by being tucked within this structure, it achieves a lot and I think follows the best structure possible.
My examination of this chapter coincided with my struggles to revise several scenes in my doorstopper novel that were–to put it kindly–not riveting. They involved the antagonist, Alex, following the protagonist, Diane. Both Alex and Diane are point of view characters, and important things happen to both of them during this time. So I had a scene showing how Diane got from A to B, then a scene showing how Alex got from A to B, then a scene showing how Diane got from B to C, and a scene showing how Alex got from B to C. Yes, it’s all quite thorough (see weaknesses listed in paragraph 1), but hardly exciting. I had tried several different revisions–attempting to insert more tension, make the scenes more vivid and intense–but they didn’t work. Once I connected the lessons of the Jon Snow chapter to these scenes, I realized the solution. Recapitulate chunks of these scenes and dramatize only the most important parts. Play with time when necessary rather than sticking with chronological order, so each scene can feel unified and highlight a strong turn. In retrospect, this solution seems ridiculously obvious. Yet it took many battles before I realized that these particular techniques were key to solving the particular problems facing me. And so one doorstopper provided help to another.
Now it’s time to stop stalling and return to my trench. Whatever battles you are fighting on your own battlefield, remember that, though you must fight your battles alone, the rest of us are out there fighting too, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. You are not alone.
As I hunker down against the big chill, I look forward to the next time I can come in from the cold and share war stories with new recruits as well as battle-hardened comrades. Like Jon Snow is soon to discover, great rewards, strong bonds, and invaluable insights arise when warriors help each other pursue a common passion.