Everything but the Kitchen Sink?

stainless_steel_kitchen_sink_1815If you read the Paranormalcy young adult trilogy—and judging by its bestseller status, at least one or two of you did—you know that author Kiersten White mentions all sorts of paranormal beings (vampires, werewolves, faeries, mermaids, pixies, and many others). But the books never seem overstuffed, because of an organization White developed for her series: the International Paranormal Containment Agency. Think Men in Black Meets Paranormals. The series wouldn’t work if only one group of paranormals was mentioned.

So, what’s wrong with the following picture? A manuscript I previously worked on involved elves, humans (regular and menthol), shape-shifters, witches, evil princes, scornful princesses, cringing lackeys, unicorns, a ghost, a dragon, and a weird old man who kept popping up to throw curses on people. Add a medievalish setting, four or five different perspectives, and stir. Voilà! You have a manuscript that I spent years writing. I gave part of the revised version of this manuscript to a beta reader, because he was an expert on medieval studies. The conversation went something like this.

Beta Reader: Well, the time period facts are okay. But . . .
Me: But?
Beta Reader: It’s a bit choppy and hard to follow.
Me (stunned): What?!
He then tried to explain why it was so choppy, but I was too crushed to listen. He didn’t like it! is what I came away with. I can make this work, the resilient part of me thought. After all, people like Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson have written series involving different beings coexisting within their fantasy worlds. Why shouldn’t mine?

Months after that experience, I quickly wrote the first three chapters of a new manuscript involving fewer characters and a third-person limited viewpoint. After spending less than a week writing those chapters, I gave the hastily written manuscript to the beta reader.

Beta Reader: This is much better.
Me: This is a completely different manuscript.
Beta Reader: Yes, this is much better. You should go with this one.
Me (outraged): What?!
I was peeved. He found fault with the first manuscript but preferred one I hastily cobbled together??? The moral of this story is that beta readers cannot win.

Seriously, the manuscript the beta reader found only so-so was probably the literary equivalent of a chopped salad from Portillo’s—everything I liked about fantasy thrown into the mix.

I kept thinking I could make the thing work. Sadly, I failed to pay attention to the “character comes first” rule. Instead of developing the ones I had (especially their cultures), I was too busy adding characters I thought were cool. Elves? Yeah! Unicorns? That could work! Witches? Sure! All could roam the land like free-range chickens. The only group missing were ninjas. I simply couldn’t make them work with the plot.

The problems with this manuscript became obvious during the battle scenes. Hundreds of people stormed a castle. In one room of the castle, about twelve people—many of them major secondary characters—were involved in the climactic battle with the evil prince and his minions. I had trouble writing the scene, because I was too spatially challenged. I kept getting confused about who stood where.

I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when I turned to the book I recently completed. Working with a smaller cast and fewer subplots allowed me time to develop the characters and their cultures. And with fewer people involved in a fight scene, I always knew where everyone stood.

How about you? Are you a kitchen sink kind of writer: continually adding characters, cultures, tropes, and whatever else you think sounds cool? What feedback have you received?

Sink by Jiangmen Jin Ke Ying Stainless Steel Wares Co., Ltd.

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12 thoughts on “Everything but the Kitchen Sink?

  1. You’re right, beta readers can’t win! We need them, but we never want to hear what that have to say.

    I admit, I have several types of fantasy creatures in my world. There’s an encounter with a dragon, a gryphon sighting, sorcerers and potion-makers, and mer folk, but it’s all spaced out to give readers time to digest things. I tried not to pile everything into the first book. One character is very curious about these things, so other creatures are mentioned, but I held back from throwing then in. I didn’t want too many characters to keep track of, and the species tend to keep to themselves. No elf-dwarf-unicorn-mer-human groups on a quest here. 🙂

    Now, the next book introduces flying horses and mysterious monks, so I guess my self-restraint isn’t so impressive. 🙂

    • Mysterious monks???? I am so there, Kate! And good point about spacing things out. I like to delve into new cultures, but as you said, I like to digest them. Tolkien didn’t add fling hobbits and orcs together right away in The Fellowship of the Ring. We got to know the hobbits first, then as they traveled met other people groups.

      • Exactly. It isn’t “once upon a time there was a hobbit and a wizard and an elf and a human and a dwarf in a land with orcs and goblins and…”

        Yeah, the monks sort of came out of nowhere and surprised me. OH, maybe they’re related to the ninjas that didn’t get into your work! 😀

      • I can’t wait to meet them! I don’t know if you’re a Doctor Who fan, but if they’re anything like the monks in Season 2 (the werewolf episode), then I’m already in love with them.

      • You know, I haven’t watched Dr Who since I was a little kid and my dad watched it, but I think I’d really enjoy it. I always have trouble watching TV shows, though; usually our TV is kids’ shows, or I’m doing something else. I’d try to start, but I wouldn’t know where to begin…

      • Kate, if you want to begin, you might start with the 2005 reboot. Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor. My nephew elected to skip that season and go on to Season 2. Some teens just go to the Matt Smith seasons. His first official season is Season 5. Okay, that was probably more information than you wanted. 🙂 But your mention of ninja monks got me started on this trail. Ninja monks. I love that.

      • That’s actually very helpful, thank you!

        Now you’ve got me wondering whether my monks have a bigger part to play that I thought…

  2. I enjoyed Paranormalcy very much and I think you are right on two points. One — White corralled her many beings into the Institute and Two — she focused on the main character and developed that character until you felt you’d know her if you saw her on the street — bedazzled taser and all. The first book that made me think — whoa! the whole kitchen sink is in here — was Cassandra’s Clare’s City of Bones. I enjoyed that one very much, too, but in that case, I wondered if she needed to use all of those different magical beings. Even though I loved the story and turned the pages and breakneck speed and I can’t wait to see the movie — the appearance of vampires took me out of the story and made me wonder if it was necessary for the storyline or if she was just having a good time with the lore. Thanks for this post.

    • It’s interesting that you should say that, Laura. Care to elaborate on why the vampires took you out of the story? Is it because of other books or a switch in tone?

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