Out of Oz

Here’s a pro writing tip you will read nowhere else: If your lead character comments that she feels like she’s in an illustration in an Oz book, alarm bells should go off in your head.

Unless you’re writing an Oz book, of course.

A few days ago, I thought I was doing nicely with the draft of Book IV of my YA fantasy series. I had drafted 22,000 words, and was working on Chapter 7. Kyura is about to set off on an expedition which is the mainspring of the plot for this novel, in search of the thing she needs to solve most of her problems. I found myself writing this:

Kyura was glad to have a solid group of trustworthy people with her; it was so much better than the first time, when she and her friends had been manacled and dragged through the tumblerock by demons. But she also felt a little silly striding out in front of a group of armed men. She thought she ought to be wearing a cute little tin helmet, or maybe a bright red coat and short skirt instead of sensible denim trousers.

Does that last sentence remind you at all of one of those line drawings of General Jinjur? It should. Of course, Kyura doesn’t live on our Earth, and has never read an Oz book, but she dipped into my subconscious and noticed that she really ought to look more like General Jinjur.

At that point I sat back and took a serious look at the plot. I swiftly realized that it was a flabby mess. I was making life much, much too easy for my heroine. I was serving up solutions to all of her pressing problems on a silver platter. Now, technically, the first sentence in that passage is irony, because her group of trustworthy people includes a pair of assassins who are planning to kill her. The reader knows it, but Kyura doesn’t. Even so, her comment about the tin helmet made it clear I was turning the story into a kids’ book.

Not good.

I have now brainstormed half a dozen ways to crank up the tension in the story. Bring the villain onstage more, and give him more schemes. Toss in a few other forms of treachery. Will that expedition still take place? Sure. But getting it started will be harder, the tension and conflict will be greater, and the dangers will be more concrete. If I do my job right, that is.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. The procedure for writing plotted fiction is actually quite simple. First, put your protagonist’s ass in the meat grinder. Then keep turning the crank! Is Kyura’s ass in the meat grinder in that passage? Not a bit. Time for a rewrite.

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