If 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 . . .
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?
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