Untying the Knot


Yesterday I was reading an article about the delay in George R R Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, the latest addition to the Song of Ice and Fire series. For those who aren’t familiar, the series is about the struggle for power in the fantasy kingdom of Westeros, combined with the sudden return of an ancient evil from beyond the Wall that forms Westeros’ northern border. It’s rich and dense and well-stocked with memorable characters. Word is he intended to write a trilogy, but soon found that he needed more books to finish telling the story. Which delighted fans of the series, until Book Five seemed to take forever to arrive. Some fans urged patience, others threw hissy fits demanding that Martin stop everything else he was doing to finish the book. Other speculative fiction writers stepped up to defend Martin (if you haven’t seen Neil Gaiman’s article on the subject, go read it. I’ll be here when you’re done.) The article’s writer quotes Shawn Speakman, “For years George has wrestled with the Knot and it has defeated him at almost every turn.”

Most writers who’ve been struggling with writing novels for more than a day or two probably nodded sagely at the mention of the Knot. There’s a difference between telling a story and weaving the tapestry of a novel. A story can be simple – one character with one mission and one outcome. It takes no time at all to work your way from start to finish. A novel needs layers, subplots that weave in and out of the main story to create depth and intricacy. A simple story is a pretty skein of yarn, one long thread. A novel should be a gorgeous tapestry, full of many brilliantly colored threads that come together and fall away. In order to create a novel, all the plots and subplots have to tangle around and through each other, becoming one big knot before the writer gently pulls each strand into its proper place at the end.

There are ways to assist a writer with the Knot. Outlines and other planning styles are good for keeping the story on track, much the same way needleworkers use patterns. But in the end, whether you’ve completely planned for the Knot or whether it comes upon you out of the blue, it takes patience and care to undo every little tangle. You can let the Knot bring you to a halt, or you can remember that the more complicated it is, the more a reader will be able to immerse himself in the story once you’ve finished untying it again.

I just finished a novel that has been kicking my butt for a while. I had so many threads, and every time I thought I was nearing the end, I’d realize I’d forgotten to clear up this or rework that, forcing me to go back, pull the stitches out and try again. But last Thursday I finally got all the threads in place. There’s nothing so satisfying as untangling that last snarl, and seeing the whole thing, neat and beautiful, spread out before you.


23 comments to Untying the Knot

    (there is no emoticon for kicking up one’s feet and waving one’s arms in excitement, but here’s my attempt)

    Congrats Misty fot getting the knot’s strands properly placed. I can NOT wait to read it!

  • I can’t wait for you to read it! And now I’m all tangled up in a brand new mess of steampunky threads…

  • Mikaela

    Thank you. This post helped me realise that Daughter of the Dark and A Shadow of Love is one story, not two.

    Also, I am starting to suspect that my High fantasy novella, is the first part of a novel.

    How late in a novel can you introduce new POV’s? And how many can you have, without the reader being confused?
    Well. Now I need to continue cleaning. I have guests coming in a couple of hours.

  • Congrats on finishing the book! Looking forward to reading it. As for the Knot — well, I’m staring at it right now. Going through revisions of my novel, trying to figure out how to get all these strands to weave tighter, better, clearer. Sometimes I think it’s easier to create the knot in the first draft than it is to turn that knot into a pretty bow by the last draft. Oh well, back to BIC.

  • Great analogy, Misty. Congrats on finishing the new book. That’s huge!

  • Congratulations, Misty – that’s a HUGE accomplishment!

    I like how you tied this in with George R.R. Martin. I never wanted to read The Song of Fire and Ice series because of all the controversy surrounding it. But, in a revision course I’m taking, the first book is recommended reading. So, I’m now more than half way through – and I’m hooked. I can see, though, what everyone is talking about. I will probably continue to read the series, but I’m doing it with a writer’s eye and learning as I go along.

  • Congratulations, Misty! Glad to hear that you’ve finished the novel, and even happier to hear that you’re already wading into your New Shiny! Go, you!

    Yeah, the knot. Untangling the the fifth and final book of Winds of the Forelands remains the proudest achievement of my career. I’m not saying that book is the best I’ve written (though it’s up there) but it was the most challenging, and the most satisfying once I’d finished.

  • Mikaela asked >>How late in a novel can you introduce new POV’s? And how many can you have, without the reader being confused?

    There is a rule of thumb (remembering that all writing rules are made to be broken) that all characters have to be mentioned, introduced, or have a narrative scene by page 100.

    I’ve broken this rule successfully in series. If the new character doesn’t appear until the middle of, or later into, the book, a writer needs to mention him enough times that the readers don’t forget him. Being fair to the readers is what counts.

  • Thanks, y’all! I was beside myself when I actually hit ‘send’ on it.

    Faith answered Mikaela’s first question, so I’ll tackle the second one. How many characters you have depends entirely on how well you can wrangle them yourself. GRRM could populate a small town with all his named characters. David has a pretty extensive cast of characters himself, and does a fine job of keeping everyone in the reader’s eye. As long as all your characters have personality and a goal to work toward, you’re fine.

    EK, I’m glad you’re enjoying the books. I’m particularly fond of Jon Snow, and I’ll read every book GRRM releases if Jon’s in them. *grin*

  • Young_Writer

    Congrats, Misty! When does it come out? I’ll try and get it.

  • When I have a release date, be sure I’ll be announcing it here…and everywhere!

  • Misty> Congrats! That is so awesome! I’m excited for you!

    As for GRRM> *sighs* I read the first three. I won’t read any more until he’s done. FWIW, I totally agree with Neil Gaiman that it on his (GWWM’s) timeline, and people shouldn’t harass him. That being said, I won’t buy another book in the series until it is done. It’s been years since I read the third one, and he takes long enough between books that I forget a lot. I’d need to reread the books to pick up the next one. For me, I don’t have the time, which means that, while I liked the books, they didn’t pull me in enough to make we want to reread 3000 pages, then 4000 pages, etc. This isn’t a criticism of GRRM, it’s just the way I happen to be about this series. I might end up rereading them and just sitting down to read all of them at once. I did enjoy them (and I’m with Misty on Jon Snow, and I loved the girl who is now queen, whose name I can’t remember now, and Arya), but not enough to take that time right now. I’ve got too many new things that I haven’t read even once that I want to read.

    I say this because while I agree that an author’s time is his or her own, his delay did lose him a reader in me, for at least a while. Though I do still recommend his books.

    Am I also correct in thinking that, unless you’re GRRM or someone of similar selling power, you don’t have the option with the publishers to take as much time between books?

  • Yay, hurray, and congratulations, Misty! What a joy, and at the same time, what a relief, I’m sure. I hope you celebrated long and well.

  • At the start there is no knot. In the middle I didn’t see a knot. At the end instead of a tapestry I had all the world’s knots forming a noose from which I could hang myself. 🙂
    I started my novel with a bunch of characters doing their thing then I had to squish them into the same timeline because they had to cross over and meet. I outlined a lovely novel with crossing and intertwining and everything only to find it didn’t include my main character! He was off in his own little story with everything else happening out of his sight. Talk about unpicking!
    I didn’t really understand GRRM’s problem with finishing his latest book until I got 70% through writing my first. Now I’m just pushing on to get a draft out so I have a start, middle and end and hopefully I can get everything sorted then.
    I’ve also realised my first book of three might need to split into two books.
    Has anyone else hit that problem where part way through you realise you have more than one book on your hands?

  • Like Pea Faerie I had to stop reading GRRM… it was too frustrating having to re-read ALL the previous books when a new one eventually came out. I too will wait until I’m SURE he’s finished the series to read them all ( I’ll get the whole series and take a couple of weeks holiday), even if I have to come back from the dead to do it!

  • Mikaela

    Thank you for answering my questions! I think I can introduce the main POV characters within the first 100 pages. So, thank you Faith and Misty!

  • Pea Faerie asked Am I also correct in thinking that, unless you’re GRRM or someone of similar selling power, you don’t have the option with the publishers to take as much time between books?

    I’m not sure on this one. If your contract says it must be turned in on a certain date, a heavy hitter probably has more room to be late than a midlister.

    Scion asked Has anyone else hit that problem where part way through you realise you have more than one book on your hands?

    Yep, just this week. The New Shiny was a stand-alone before I started, and now it’s telling me it’ll have to be a trilogy. Eek!

  • *grin* And you should see the cast of characters I’m working on right now. There are going to be a looooot of voices in my head for a while!

  • Congrats, Misty on finishing.

    Do you and Faith have a thing for multiple voices in your head? LOL

  • Nice post… that’s really all I can say.

    That, and I like untying fictional knots. 🙂

  • roh

    Hi Misty,

    Congratulations on finishing your novel! That’s such an awesome feeling, isn’t it?!

    I’ve been a fan of GRRM’s work for a long time. The first book of his that I read was Fevre Dream, a vampire story that takes place on a paddle wheel steamboat in the deep South. I found Game of Thrones after that and have patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) waited for each new volume in that series to be released.

    I even own a bottle of Dornish Red, a wine that was specially made by fans for World Con a few years back in honor of George’s appearance there.

    My favorite character? Hands down – Arya Stark and her Needle. Yeah, that’s me…

    Thanks for this topic – I haven’t thought about Dance With Dragons for awhile. And it’s nice to discover other fans of this series (isn’t the character development fantastic?)

  • Thanks, Roh! I haven’t read Fevre Dream yet – I think I’ll go put it on my library wish list right now, ’cause it sounds great.

    I’m highly jealous of your Dornish wine. 😀