Balance

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I have been slowly working my way through the first thirteen chapters of book four (not to worry I have far more written than these chapters, they just happen to comprise Part One of the book) and as I’ve been doing it I’ve considered all the things I look for as I make the first sweep through. One of the big things is balance, and this is something I look for with each sweep (and I will do many). By balance I mean that instinctive knowledge that one develops as a writer about what the flow of the book should feel like, how much weight to give certain events, which stories to tell, and which to merely refer to, or cover in a flashback. Here are some of the things I look for as I go through, fixing grammar and punctuation before I hand it off to Editor Number One(she deserves all those capital letters). I look for the amount of action- is there too much or too little? If there’s too much, I have to decide how I’m going to break that up at little. It’s important to give readers breathing space, particularly in books as large as the ones I write. The quieter more domestic sort of chapters often provide this, or a descriptive passage. If there’s too little, I have to decide how to pick up the pace. With each book this issue of balance becomes somewhat more complex- how much back story to include, without inundating long time readers with stories they already know, but give enough detail so that first time readers, who may pick up this book without realizing it’s part of a larger series, won’t be completely lost. The amount of dialogue needs to be balanced with narrative drive, the characters have to be described again to bring them to life for readers once more, and to give them flesh for those new readers. I add in tiny descriptive details that may have been overlooked in the first draft, just to enrich the scene a little. This is my chance to bring up the bones of the story, so that the underlying structure is felt but not seen, if that makes sense.

Here’s an example of one of those tiny descriptive details- originally I just had the character bending over the basket to look at the baby, and then the dialogue took over, but then I added in one small sentence, the bit with the baby’s hand. It’s not much but it adds something to the overall scene. To me this is comparable to painting, where the artist goes back and adds in or refines the small details, the things that your eye is naturally drawn to if you give the painting more than a cursory glance.

He bent over the basket where Isabelle slumbered on. He laughed as one tiny hand shot out in sleep, the fingers curling slowly under, like rose-pink fronds of sea anemone.

Reminding readers how a character looks is always a tricky business, after all they have a fairly good and very personal image in their head. If I’m lucky you’ve already been travelling with these characters for three books, so it’s a matter of keeping the detail down but giving enough to refresh the reading memory. Usually this is accomplished by the characters seeing each other after an absence, or meeting one another for the first time.

This is Jamie seeing Patrick for the first time in three years:

Pat sat on the sofa, his tensile strength resounding in the air. His presence was quieter than that of his brother, but still very definite, he was a man that one could not ignore, he would never blend into the background. Right now there was a great exhaustion emanating off him, however, which was of course, to be expected.

Just a short paragraph but it conveys the sense of him and that something big is going on with him. This is filled out a bit more in the chapter.

Originally, part one clocked in at sixteen chapters, but as I read through it I realized it felt too weighty, and there was definitely too much going on with those extra three chapters. So I moved them to part three, as the book alternates between two different story lines. I had to rework the end of chapter thirteen, because if the last line of a chapter matters then you can well imagine how important the last line of an entire part is. I like it to feel just right, and it will make me uneasy until I find the right way to close that part out. Fortunately, I did find what I was looking for.

I always consider what I want each part to accomplish as well. In this particular book, I have a new character who has been mentioned in previous books, but we haven’t met him until this one. He’s a major player throughout this entire book so I needed to introduce him quickly so readers have a strong sense of him from the get go. I also have all the main players to re-introduce, etc. There’s no time lapse really between the end of ‘Angels’ and this book, so that simplified things for me. I had the sense I wanted to ease the readers back into the characters’ lives a little, because a lot happens in this book, and I thought there was a need for people to settle back into this world before they get hit with all the events that occur as the story unfolds.

I consider each book as having its own element— ‘Exit Unicorns’ was earth, ‘Mermaid’ was water, ‘Angels’ was air, though arguably there was a very strong theme of fire running through ‘Angels’ as well. When it comes to ‘Shadows’ it’s not so much an element, unless you consider blood an element. There is a very strong undercurrent of blood running thematically through the book (there’s almost a pun there but not quite). The time period covered in the book- the fall of 1975 through to the fall of 1978, was a fairly dark time in Northern Ireland. There weren’t quite so many of the big events, historically speaking, but there was a lot of internecine fighting, a lot of collusion between the Army, the security forces, the police and the paramilitary organizations. So there was plenty of fodder for the book, but not one of those big events as a lynchpin for the entire thing- the way the civil rights movement was for the first book, and internment and Bloody Sunday were for the second. So structurally that makes it a different book, just as ‘Angels’ was. I found ‘Angels’ spine with Jamie’s journal entries, with ‘Shadows’ it’s a series of events, like putting rather dark pearls on a silver string. It’s a more straightforward book than ‘Angels’ was, which has made it somewhat easier to write.

Sometimes the process, when I get to this stage, where I am really backing up and looking at the big picture can get a little overwhelming- there are so many things to consider and of course, always wanting to make it the best book I possibly can and wanting it to be as good, if not better than the last book.

So that is a peek inside just one of the processes of writing. Now I need to get back to work on the book. 🙂

(The little snippets are from ‘In The Country of Shadows’ copyright 2015 Cindy Brandner).

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