Friday, November 15, 2019

When It All Goes Horribly Wrong, Turn to Odyssey Online

By Dianna Sanchez, @diannabooks

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: Writing is often hard to learn on your own, and luckily, there are classes and workshops galore to help up improve. Dianna Sanchez visits the lecture hall today to share her experiences with Odyssey Online.

Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, also known to her children as the Queen of Sarcasm. She has worked as a technical writer, electrical engineer, programmer, farmer, and preschool cooking teacher, among many other things. Her middle-grade fantasy series includes A Witch’s Kitchen (2016), A Pixie’s Promise (2018), and An Elf’s Equations (forthcoming in March 2020). A Latina geek originally from New Mexico, she now lives in the Boston area with her husband and two daughters. 

Take it away Dianna...

It’s every author’s worst nightmare: I had a novel to write, and I could not write it. Every time I opened Scrivener and tried to get writing, I ended up staring blankly at the screen. It wasn’t the novel I’d planned to write. It wasn’t even the protagonist I wanted to write. But I had a contract to fulfill, and I was going to write it. I just had no idea how. Fortunately, I had several Odyssey Online classes under my belt, and the lessons I learned from them got me through the most difficult writing project I’ve ever faced.

When I’d turned in the manuscript for a novel in November 2017, my publisher had pointed out that it was really two novels, and could I please split it in half, then fill out the first novel, and write the second from a different protagonist’s point of view? After a howl of existential angst followed by a spate of intense negotiation for a three-book contract, I agreed, because they were right. It really was two novels. And besides, they were mostly written already. How hard could it be?

The first novel, A Pixie’s Promise, turned out to be quite easy. I turned in the new version three months later, and after a round of edits, it was good to go. But the second novel, An Elf’s Equations, proceeded to kick my butt. Turns out, changing your protagonist changes everything. I pounded my head against it for months without getting any traction at all.

Initially, I started simply transposing everything from the former protagonist to the new protagonist. But the protagonist of A Pixie’s Promise is a six-inch-tall pixie named Petunia, who gets into fights with goblins and loves telling bad jokes. The protagonist of An Elf’s Equations is Sagara, an elf from a high-ranking family who despises high society, loves math, and is full to the brim with snark. They had completely different voices, so putting Petunia’s words in Sagara’s mouth did not work one bit.

Fortunately, the very first Odyssey Online class I ever took was Powerful Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos. I used the techniques Jeanne had taught me to explore the unique voice of each character. Sometimes, I would remove everything but the dialogue, no he-said-she-said, just to check that it was clear and obvious who was speaking by what they said and how they said it. I completely rewrote whole conversations to fit Sagara’s personality.

In the process, I exposed problems that ran to the foundation of the novel. Sagara is a fundamentally different character, with different needs and desires. Writing Petunia had been easy because I’d done all the character development work before writing A Pixie’s Promise. I had never done that for Sagara and had only vague ideas for her background and driving motivations. I needed help, fast.

I signed up for an Odyssey Online Webinar, Creating Characters and Character Arcs with Meagan Spooner. On her recommendation, I tried acting out some scenes from Sagara’s point of view, and on one moonlit night on an island in Sweden, as I walked a path strewn with shining maple leaves, I had the breakthrough into Sagara’s psyche that I’d desperately needed.

Then I was ready to start applying the principles I’d learned in Getting the Big Picture, the Odyssey Online revision course taught by Barbara Ashford. I examined the tension between what Sagara wanted and what she needed, used that to completely restructure the plot of the novel, then went back and reinforced the themes that emerged from that process.

At this point, I realized that I needed a slightly different world than the one I’d first envisioned. Sagara’s relationship to math and to the fundamental underpinnings of magic meant that I had to restructure an entire culture and carefully think through the ramifications of magical misuse on a global scale.

Fortunately, I had taken Odyssey Online’s Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction with Patricia Wrede. Using her clear instruction, I was able to redesign the Realm of Vanaheim from the ground up, considering everything from the effects of physics in a non-standard world to the society that would arise from severe restrictions on magic. And I was even able to lay the foundations for the next novel in the series.

It took me more than a year, a long and grueling year, to finish An Elf’s Equations. I’ve worked on an experimental fusion reactor, and that was a piece of cake by comparison. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it alone. I had the solid grounding of the courses I took with Odyssey Online as well as the fantastic community of Odyssey alumni to help me through it. My awesome publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the initial printing of An Elf’s Equations, and this has already funded, though there’s still time to help us reach some stretch goals. The novel will appear in print and ebook format in March 2020.

Meanwhile, registration for this year’s Odyssey Online classes is now open. I’m hoping to take Jeanne Cavelos’s class, Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction in the hope that better structuring my novels from the start will reduce my revision time. Perhaps I’ll see you there. 

About An Elf's Equations

Sagara hates the stupid rules of her elf society. She prefers the logic of math to wrestling with her grandmother’s magical politics. When a rare sentient tree named Thea is kidnapped, Sagara joins her friends Millie, Petunia, and Max on a journey to the nearby Realm of Vanaheim to save her. Sagara must navigate ridiculous court etiquette, a complex ritual, and wartime negotiations in a world where even the most basic laws of nature have been twisted out of true. Can she find a way to use both math and magic to save Thea and all of Vanaheim? An Elf’s Equations is a middle grade fantasy for young foodies and math lovers.

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