What’s It About?

If you tell someone you’re writing a novel, one of the first questions most people will ask you is “What’s it about?” Such a tough question to answer, especially when I was writing the first draft. It seems like the author should be able to easily describe what his/her novel is about, but it’s really not that simple. At the time, you may have many ideas floating around in your head you want to try out or characters that haven’t been introduced yet, and if you’re not an outliner, like me, then you may not know exactly where the story is going until you get there; though I’ve learned from my first two drafts that it’s probably wise to do some planning first, because you may get to page 300 and not remember what you wrote on page 100, and if you don’t have the story planned out well, you may realize at that moment that you should have taken the story in a different direction, and after all, that is the direction you really wanted to go, and so you begin to change things and inconsistencies occur that you will then have to fix, but that means re-writing those first 300 pages again, because the slightest change in storyline can change much more than you realize at the time.

This is exactly what happened to me from my first to second drafts. That is why my first draft is in some trash compacter somewhere, or in a landfill, or being recycled and used again by some fourth grader. I did realize this problem after going back and reading my first draft; there was so much I wanted to change, and the writing was so bad that, looking back on it now, makes me want to vomit. But even the most genius of writers have lousy first drafts. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, has a great chapter on how bad first drafts can, and are supposed to be.

But mine was horrendous, and I realized I needed to do something. So I wrote back-story. Fifteen pages of back-story: characters, places, setting, timeline, symbolism, plot summary. All that stuff that makes a novel what it is. I thought this would help guide me as I wrote the second draft for a while, which it did, but then I got in too big of a rush and didn’t bother to go back and read what I had previously written on a character after switching back to his or her viewpoint, and I created even more inconsistencies. So, I didn’t follow the plan all that well.

When I re-read it a second time, most of my writing was still pretty bad, and though I kept some of it, I ended up re-writing a lot of scenes or adding new scenes, and this is what has taken me the most time. The third draft has been the longest, in terms of time investment, because I have been much more careful to edit slowly and meticulously, and then go back and re-read scenes when I switch from viewpoint to viewpoint. I have also pared down the viewpoints to three main characters this time. Much easier to keep track of three for a first time novelist. Highly recommended to keep your viewpoints as limited as possible for your first novel.

So, what’s it about? Ah, the interminable question. If I had to classify it, I would consider it a blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Historical fiction in the sense that it is based on an actual time period: late 12th, early 13th England and France, and I’ve done my best to stay true to the many facets of that culture that makes it so interesting. There are two main kingdoms in my novel, one of them an island kingdom to the north, and the other, a continental kingdom to the south across the channel. As befitting of the medieval time period, war and chaos seem to rule; the nobles (kings, earls, counts, barons, lords) war against one another, but there is one man who emerges as the ruler of the continental kingdom, and he is the antagonist. A man with the mentality of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, his desire is for one thing, and that is to rule the entire continental lands, eradicate any claimants to the throne, and also bring the island kingdom under his control. It is a story of deception and vengeance and betrayal, for throughout the medieval world, this was common among nobles who wished to increase their status and wealth by allying with the side they believed stood the greater chance of victory. Wealth was in land, and the easiest way to increase your wealth was to go to war and take over your neighbors’ lands. This was common practice in medieval France, a decentralized nation with a figurehead king, a monarch in truth who had very little power over his subjects, who held duchies and counties of their own and had their own small armies. So you had a lot of infighting among the barons trying to conquer each other’s principalities. Duke William of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, was a great example of a man who, in reality, arguably had more power than the King of France, as William controlled the duchy of Normandy and the entire Kingdom of England at one time, though medieval England was seen by France as insignificant, an outpost on the edge of the world. France was the heart of the civilized world, the greatest nation to rise since the fall of the Roman Empire, forged by great leaders such as Clovis and Charlemagne.

This is the backdrop of my novel. The two kingdoms, the island kingdom and the continental kingdom, have a dislike for one another, and so when the antagonist, a noble without royal blood and without rightful claim to the throne, begins to take over the divided principalities of the continental kingdom, many of the nobles switch allegiances to him, and some try and form a weak alliance with one another, while others remain neutral, so there is a great divide among the many lords and barons, dukes and counts. While across the channel, the island kingdom waits and watches.

Medieval England was not nearly as divided as medieval France. William the Conqueror, after defeating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, began a campaign of castle construction throughout the kingdom, and he set up Norman rulers (his friends and relatives) to govern and administer these many estates, and thus brought the people under his control, and due to these efforts, England became more of a central monarchy, though it was still divided into many shires and could not avoid the inevitable fighting that came on the heels of a king’s death, such as the with the death of King Henry I and the subsequent battle for the throne between Stephen of Blois and Matilda.

The church at that time was very powerful, and you cannot study the medieval period without noticing the incredible influence it had on Western Europe. I’ve tried to include this element in my novel as well, a corrupt church run by corrupt leaders, who will do anything they can to protect and increase their power and impose their will on the people. Even kings would bend at the knee of the pope, and if they didn’t, they were excommunicated, though in truth, that meant very little to some kings. Religion plays an important part in my novel, for without religion, characters are not very human.

The novel not only has outwardly religious characters but also contains spiritually symbolic elements that will be noticeable to the astute observers. I like how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien use spiritual elements in their writings, and I wanted to use that style in my own writing, though I wanted to be a little more subtle than Lewis, such as with his use of Aslan as a representative of Christ. Nothing that is quite that obvious.

I suppose my novel can be classified as fantasy as well, because all of my kingdoms, characters, places, etc. are completely fictional. There is no historical person or event that my novel centers around, and so technically, I suppose, it is not historical fiction. I wanted my story to be real and dark and gritty, so there are no magical elements in it as you find with almost all fantasy, but the theme of good versus evil set to the backdrop of a sweeping, epic war is very much a common theme in fantasy novels.

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10 thoughts on “What’s It About?”

  1. I think it’s really cool that you write just for love and not sell out for money and fame. I hope everything goes well with your book. And I recommend a creative writing book titled “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. It definitely strengthened by resolve to aspire at writing. Maybe it’ll be worthwhile to check out. It really gives a push in dark, bleak times…

  2. Thanks, Michael. It was important to me when starting my novel to pick a topic I really enjoyed, and while the idea for my novel is not unique, I am able to enjoy the writing process because I have a love for medieval history and the historical fiction and fantasy genres. I have not read “The War of Art” but will definitely check it out. Thanks for the suggestion. Best of luck to you as well in your endeavors.

  3. I think once you’ve pinned down the ‘theme’ you can easily explain what you novel is about, especially when it’s a rather complicated history. My theme for “Shadow of the Lion” (about the fall of Alexander the Great’s empire) is “How blind ambition and greed brought down a world power.”

    Your story sounds very interesting and, probably like mine takes a lot of time to write/research/visualize etc. I’m a big fan of Steven Pressfield, by the way, and we sometimes email each other.

  4. Wynn, I guess I should have read your comment here before responding to your other comment on another post. I’m guessing you tend to read mostly historical fiction set in the period of Ancient Greece as well? I haven’t read Pressfield yet, but doesn’t he tend to focus on this period in history. I love all history about Ancient Civlizations: ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Americas, etc. Medieval history, obviously, is my main focus.

  5. Doing great! Just trying to keep my Web site and novel going outside of my day job. I’m starting the 4th revision of my novel now. How are things with you?

  6. Some people just have the gift of describing an event and instantly you can feel it happening in front of you. It was very refreshing to hear about the Historic/Fantastic Novel. I am eagerly waiting for publication. Good Luck.

  7. Thanks Haneef! It was good to hear from you again. I’ll keep posting updates about my novel to this site periodically, so check back. Keep in touch!

  8. Thanks, Robert. I’m planning on completely re-writing the prologue and first chapter, so it may take me longer than I had hoped to get an excerpt up on my site. I still hope to have it edited well enough by the end of next year (2010) to start sending out queries.

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