A long and twisting road: The story behind “The Mosaic”—Part 2
In Part 1 last week I talked about the problems we found in The Mosaic, specifically the problem with too many viewpoints. I also said that I would discuss two other things. One of those dealt with the differences between a screenplay and a novel. Let me start there.
Novels and screenplays both tell stories but they do so in completely different ways. About the only things they share are the basics of any story: beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution. One major difference is their length. A rule of thumb says that for screenplays one page equals one minute on screen, but a hard rule is that a spec screenplay (a proposal screenplay) should be between 110 and 120 pages. In fact, if it’s longer, you can pretty much count that no serious party will read it. The page count of a feature film script may be any length, though, but that comes after the original has been “accepted.” Chris Keaton’s original screenplay for The Mosaic was 105 pages.
The other major difference between novels and screenplays is how they deal with descriptions for setting and characters. Screenplays ae very lean, sometimes having only a line for two for setting description and character descriptions. One mark of an amateur screenwriter is having extensive descriptions. It’s understood that the director and actors will fill in the missing details.
I’ve preached ad nauseam on this blog about the necessity of establishing and fleshing out strong, interesting characters to help drive your story. Where I went awry with Chris’ screenplay was not following my own advice. What I should have done in the beginning, before I started writing the novel, was to develop detailed bios on the characters to make them three-dimensional to me. Instead, I sort of followed my nose and let the screenplay direct me, filling in details on them as I went along.
Because I did not follow my own advice, it took much longer for the characters to develop in my head. As a result, some of them lacked proper emotional resonance for the reader and their interactions with each other were not always strong enough.
So, lesson learned. As Chris and I work on our second Mosaic novel, I have been very conscious of my previous oversights. Since we’re introducing a number of new characters in the second novel (because quite a few of the original characters in the first novel are “indisposed and unable to participate”), I’m being careful to flesh out the new ones and give them personalities.
Let’s go back to the first novel so I can tell you how we reduced the number of viewpoints. As I mentioned last time, I went through the novel scene by scene (around 80-90 scenes) and put very brief summary of each on a notecard along with the POV of the scene. Then we had to determine the minimum number of viewpoints required to tell the story that would also minimize the amount of rewriting.
Part of the challenge was that originally we had parts of the story happening in four major locations around the world: Kansas, Germany, the Near East, and New York City—until everything converged on Kansas. Even then, we still had things happening simultaneously in different spots around the museum. This meant that one perspective wouldn’t work unless we did a complete rework of the story line. We soon decided that we could do it in three POVs, but no fewer.
I used the 3×5 cards to separate scenes into the POVs we were going to keep. Any scenes not in one of those either had to be written in another POV or eliminated. The cards also helped arrange the scenes in a logical sequence.
If a scene was deemed essential to the plot but wasn’t in one of the three POVs, then we figured out how to tell it from another perspective. In some cases, where the action in the scene wasn’t necessary but the information in it was, we found another way to convey that information.
In the previous version, we never used the POV of the primary villain (the Witch Queen) but did use that of her “sidekick,” Bacu, the Dream Reaper. His was not one of the POVs we had settled on, but Chris came up with a great idea. Instead of letting the reader see what the Queen was doing through Bacu’s eyes, we would using news media or the Internet to let the good guys follow her movements based on reports of “strange events” in the world. This worked better for the story because letting the other characters anticipate her arrival created more tension for the reader.
For other scenes, we rewrote them in one of the three POVs. If none of those POV characters were in the scene, we revised it to include one of those characters. I know I make it sound simple, and for some scenes it was, but for others it did require significant rewriting or a minor revision of the story. One of the POVs we eliminated was that of the girls’ grandmother. You’ll have to read the novel to see what Chris came up with for that.
This demonstrates a good lesson in writing a novel: Before you start, try to decide which POVs you absolutely need, and if it’s just one POV, make SURE you select the right one. This may take some experimenting, but figuring out the best POVs early on will save a lot of grief and frustration later.
By this time, we were about four years into the project, and Chris was taking a more active role in the rewriting. We had a revised working draft, and worked ahead of me on revising scenes where he could. As the novel writer, I followed along and do the more detailed revisions and cleanups to make sure we stayed on the same page.
Collaborations can be tricky things. It’s rare that two writers (even professional ones) will think alike or be even close in their writing styles. Someone has to take the lead or you could end up with a mess. At the same time, you need to consult each other frequently to ensure that all ideas are included and worked out
After we’d straightened up our mess and had a coherent novel with three POVs, we needed to look at the opening. Over the course of the writing, we had tried various opening scenes, including the one that Chris had opened the screenplay with. Unfortunately, what works well for a movie may not work well for a novel.
In this case, Chris had opened with the backstory of how the Mosaic came to be made in the first place. It was mostly action, but being backstory made it not a suitable way to start a novel because it did not involve the twins. Essentially it would have been a prologue, and I’ve talked about problems with prologues previously. In this case, it made for a weak opening.
That illustrates another difference with screenplays. Narrative backstory can be more easily translated into a compelling visual on the screen, but in a novel even a battle scene has to be described. You find very few novels opening in the heat of battle because it’s really hard to orient the reader and introduce characters if they’re fighting. You can’t stop in mid-swing of a sword to describe the character. Well, you could, but it’s not likely to be something many writers can pull off well, and I’m certainly not going to claim I could, at least not without a lot of effort, experimentation, and outside opinions on whether I had succeeded.
That’s what we had to go through to write The Mosaic and the reasons it wasn’t written nearly as fast as we had hoped or expected.
My second novel (Vampires, Inc. I co-wrote with another Chris, Chris Hosey (who sadly passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 38). Because Chris had given me not only a superb story concept to work with, but also a set of compelling characters to populate it with, I completed a solid, edited draft in about three years. He was a superb at creating strong, flawed characters, and he and his characters served to inspire my writing. I still had to get acquainted with them and add some more, but the story fell together fairly quickly, even though it wasn’t a “completed story” like Chris Keaton’s screenplay was.
In a similar way, my first novel More Than Magick came together relatively easily to write because I had done many of the character backgrounds before the writing.
What I’m saying is that it’s not the story concept or the completeness storyline itself that affects how easy it is to write a given novel. It’s how all the elements, especially the cast of characters, are put together to start with and the decisions on the overall presentation that matter.
To reiterate: Create your characters and get to know them intimately first! Otherwise, you could find yourself stumbling through your novel and get frustrated along the way. Having well-developed characters with a purpose in the beginning will make the writing go more smoothly. Once you have those, make the decision regarding who the POV character or characters will be.
This brings me to a plug for our novel. If you want to see how we did in the final product, check it out. It’s YA fantasy, but it’s not your typical fantasy. Like Harry Potter, it’s modern fantasy that takes place in the real world, but it’s nothing like Harry Potter. It’s more what you might consider Urban Fantasy, except it doesn’t take place in an urban setting.
But that doesn’t tell you what it’s about.
Imagine that you’re a teen (one of two twin girls in this case) living in a small town in Kansas. Suddenly you discover that what you thought you knew about your grandparents and the large, private museum you’re living in was either wrong or missing in some major details. There are secrets even your parents, who died four years ago on an archaeological expedition to Egypt, didn’t know.
While this is essentially a YA fantasy (because the main characters are teens), they are only two YA characters in it. Everyone else is an adult. This novel contains a lot of surprises, several evil characters, and a lot of fun characters in addition.
Originally, 13Thirty Books was interested in publishing the novel, but they were not quite ready to take it on at the time. Chris and I didn’t want to wait, so we released it ourselves to get it started gathering reviews. We recently turned it over to 13Thirty to help us give it the attention it deserves while we work to complete the second novel for release late in 2017 or early in 2018.
Meanwhile, if you want more Mosaic stories before then, check out Chris Keaton’s solo work Pieces From The Mosaic, a set of twelve short stories about other people who have encountered fragments of the magical Mosaic throughout time. One of his stories “The Others” introduces several characters who figure prominently in the second novel.