Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: Craft Breakdown! Soulwoven Ch. 1

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Craft Breakdown! Soulwoven Ch. 1

Greetings gentle readers. For a while now, I've been kicking around the idea of doing blog posts about Soulwoven, and breaking it down structurally in terms of what happens when, why it does, and what I'm trying to do as a writer in any given chapter. The big problem with the idea has always been that most visitors to this blog probably haven't read Soulwoven, and certainly don't have it front of them to take a look at.

Well, now that I'm posting chapters of it on Wattpad, that's not a problem anymore.

So without further ado, I'd like to inaugurate a series of craft posts about my writing and what I'm trying to do with it. Spoilers and technical writing bits to follow, so be forewarned. :-)

We'll start with Soulwoven Chapter One.

Opening chapters of novels are, I think, the most difficult thing to write in the whole world. I have rewritten this chapter more times than any other piece of writing I have ever produced. It's probably on its 20th or 30th iteration, if you go all the way back to when I started writing the book ten years ago. To be totally honest, I'm still not entirely comfortable with it, and I probably never will be.

So! Big points. There are three sections in Chapter One of Soulwoven, each containing its own scene with its own little arc. I'll break them, and what I'm trying to do in each of them, down below:

Scene One: Litnig, Cole, and their father are delivering groceries. There's someone watching them as they do it, which is weird and makes Litnig uncomfortable.

This scene has to do a lot of heavy lifting. It needs to establish the world, the main character, the voice, and immediate tension. And it needs to hook the reader along into going on to the next scene. To handle the first and the second, I drop us into the middle of a typical day in Litnig's life. He and his family are out delivering groceries, which is what they do. Litnig is curious but a little slow, Cole is sleepy and bored, and their father is grumpy and borderline violent. To handle the tension, I introduce something mildly creepy. There's a person watching Litnig. He's a kind of person Litnig has never seen before. He doesn't stop watching him throughout the whole scene. Litnig's father is dismissive of Litnig's worries. And the person watching has sharp, yellow teeth.

To establish the voice, I break rules. I open with a sentence that falls under several "thou shalt nots" of writing: it's got a cliche ("Once upon a time"), and it's got nothing particularly unique going on in it ("a young man opened his eyes"). It could be (and very well might be) the first sentence in any number of stories.

But it's also a one-sentence summary of this story, and one of my goals with it is to offer the reader the following information: I am going to try to do unusual and difficult things here. I am not going to follow all of the rules. If you're interested in that, and you think I can pull it off, then come along for the ride.

To get the reader to do that, I rely on the tension, and I end with a creepy image of the person watching Litnig smiling at him as he passes by.

Scene Two: Litnig, Cole, and their father return home. Their father starts beating Cole, and Litnig stops him.

By the time we reach this scene, things are hopefully flowing a little easier for the reader. They've made the decision to stick with me to this point, but I still need to hook them. This is the big sympathy scene in the first chapter. Cole does nothing wrong, and his father flies off the handle and starts pounding him. Litnig saves him. We learn a lot about both brothers in this scene---how they handle explosive situations (Litnig tries to defuse them, Cole sticks a firecracker into them), what they're capable of physically (Litnig is big and strong, Cole is not), and how much they think about what they're doing (Cole has a purpose, even when he's goading his father into hitting him. Litnig often just acts). Hopefully, by the end of it, the reader cares about both of them, and finds them interesting enough to continue.

Scene Three: Litnig has the first dream of his life. Something weird happens with the air and there's a scream. Litnig and Cole decide to try to find Ryse.

This scene is where we really start to dig into Litnig's head. I'm still trying to develop sympathy for Litnig, but I'm also sending him on his adventure. In the first scene, there's something weird going on, but it's unclear whether it's going to affect his life. In the third scene, there's something really weird going on, both for Litnig (the dream) and for the world he lives in (the scream), and it affects his life immediately. There's also additional world-building and a brief introduction of Ryse. And at the end, I try to set up a shift to Cole's point-of-view in the next chapter by moving the focus of the narrative from Litnig's actions to Cole's.

There are several things that I don't really like about this chapter. I don't like that it's split up into three scenes, because we won't see that again for another eight or nine chapters, and one thing I feel it's important to do in an initial chapter is to establish the type of structure the reader is going to see. The scenes are short, as well, and the whole just feels a little choppier than I want it to be. But there are distinct arcs to every scene. Combining them just wouldn't work because of that. I also thought at one point about breaking the chapter after scene two and starting Chapter Two with the events of scene three told in Cole's point of view, but Chapter Two feels pretty tight to me the way it is and I don't want to disturb it.

So that's it for Chapter One, really. I want to emphasize that I don't think much about these things when I'm writing. I don't plan this stuff out like this, and this is the first time I've ever written it down (That's one reason, actually, that I'm doing this at all. It's good exercise). When I write, I follow the story. I put characters in a situation, and then I let them react to it.

But when a chapter isn't working, I do think about things like this. It's an editing tool. "What am I trying to do here?" and "What do I need to do here?" are two of the most important questions you can ask yourself, and I'm never comfortable with a chapter until I can answer them.

Chapter Two of Soulwoven goes up on Wattpad tomorrow. I'll break that one down as well a little later on in the week.


  1. I really like the changes you've made in this chapter, and they all make a lot of sense, especially reading your scene breakdowns. I think it's much stronger than the previous version I read. The only thing I would consider changing is cutting out the line: "A few hours later, a part of it was." It tells me that Litnig is about to have a dream. Why tell me and then show me? Just let me discover that he's had his first dream.

    I see what you're saying about the structure for chapter 1, but I don't think it's a problem that there's a few section breaks, even if you don't do it again for several chapters. I'm not sure most readers will even notice it. The real structure of your story is how it changes from one POV to another, from one chapter to the next.

    Thanks for this insightful tool on editing. I think it'll help me in my own creative process and in tightening up my own plot lines.

    1. Thanks, Chris. :-) I've played with that line several times, and will probably play with it several times more before it comes into final, locked-in-stone form. Trouble is, every time I take it out I wind up putting it back in. Without it, there's nothing to link the prayer with the waking up, and things get a bit disjointed in that section.