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.