Pantsers and Pirates: Writing THE READER with Traci Chee

If you haven’t pre-ordered your copy of Traci Chee’s THE READER, the first book in the planned Sea of Ink & Gold series that will be released on September 13th, I recommend you address that issue immediately. Everything about this novel, from the world building, to the incredible writing, and even the page design, is completely gorgeous.

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THE READER follows Sefia, a girl living in the wilderness with her Aunt Nin, as she struggles to survive after her father’s murder. When Aunt Nin disappears, Sefia turns to a strange artifact for help. In a world, where few can read, Sefia has found a book. With the book in hand, and with the help of a stranger, Sefia sets out to rescue Nin. Along the way, she reads amazing tales of swashbuckling pirates on the high seas, and these stories are sort of a book within a book for readers.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an ARC and the entire time I read I was wondering about Traci’s writing process – specifically how she managed writing multiple narratives that have their own unique plots and character arcs and was able to do so in a way that resulted in such a well-connected piece of storytelling. Traci has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her process.

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KD: First of all, are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

TC: Thanks so much for inviting me to come chat writing and revising, Kelly! Craft is one of my favorite things to talk about, so I’m really excited to get into it with you!

I’m a natural pantser–or “discovery writer,” which sounds so fancy, haha–because for me, writing is thinking. In life, I have to journal out my emotions before I really understand what I’m going through, and in fiction, I have to write myself into scenes before I really understand what’s happening in them. I even struggle to get a good handle on my characters before they show up on the page, and it’s only through revision that I really get to know them.

At the same time, I’m always trying to get better, so I’ve been trying to pick up plot tricks like Save the Cat and the Hero’s Journey for the second and third books in the Sea of Ink and Gold series. I’ll talk some more about that below!

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KD: How did you draft THE READER? Did you write all of Sefia’s narrative and draft the pirate stories separately? I am so curious about this because the stories Sefia reads have an effect on the choices she makes as the real-time narrative progresses. It all winds up being so seamlessly blended.

TC: Since I’m so pantsy, my initial drafts were messy and relatively simple, switching between only two storylines, but the more I worked, the more I realized I had a much bigger, much more complicated book than I’d first thought. In the end, The Reader ended up with one primary storyline (Sefia’s), two minor ones (Captain Reed’s and Lon’s), with a host of one-off point-of-view characters who waltz in and out of the book.

Some characters, like Captain Reed and his outlaw crew, just appeared while I was drafting, but on the whole I really needed some help sculpting the manuscript. So I turned to the Hero’s Journey. (Actually, my friend Diane, the most incisive critique partner I’ve ever had the pleasure of being eviscerated by, put a copy of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler in my hands and said go.)

For those who aren’t yet familiar with the Hero’s Journey, it’s a common three-act story structure based on the format of myths and old tales. Even if you don’t know it by name, you’re probably already familiar with it: A hero goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, and returns home transformed. (For more info, check out The Writer’s Journey website, or better yet, grab a copy of The Writer’s Journey for yourself.)

I really wanted the whole book to hold together with a Hero’s Journey, but there was a problem: some points in the Hero’s Journey absolutely did not fit the main story, Sefia’s.

For example, the “Meeting with the Mentor” in Act I. It’s an important plot point: Skywalker takes up with Obi-Wan. Dorothy meets Glinda the Good. The mentors introduce the heroes to the new, special world they’ve stumbled into, revealing information and imparting gifts.

However, a fundamental part of Sefia’s journey is that she is alone. She has no one to help her muddle through the adventure she’s on; she has to do it by herself.

But I had to help the reader understand the rules of the special world. The reader couldn’t just muddle through–how frustrating would that have been!

That’s where Lon’s storyline came in. Unlike Sefia, he’s a character who can have a guide to teach him how to navigate the special world. And his mentor could teach the reader… without teaching Sefia.

In this way, the reader could follow along the points of the hero’s journey through not one storyline but multiple. Lon could meet the mentor, who could induct the reader into the special world, so when Sefia appeared again at the First Threshold in her next scene, the reader would understand what was happening to her even if she herself didn’t.

KD: How did you keep the various POV’s organized? Any tips for writers working with multiple POVs, especially in terms of making sure that each has a unique voice?

TC: I think voice and point of view are rooted in character. What a character notices will direct you to what you describe. What a character thinks of who they’re with will influence the language they use.

For example, there’s this one character, Archer, who’s coming out of this particularly brutal trauma, which has robbed him of not only his voice but also his memories. So when we’re seeing a scene from his perspective, the narration is full of short, simple subject-verb sentences, and it never refers to him by name.

My favorite character to write is actually a one-shot point-of-view from this completely self-absorbed, completely oblivious soldier who sort of blunders into the story and trips on his way out again. Foul smells assault his delicate senses. Pretty boys attract his attention. His language is a bit more high-falutin than Sefia’s or Captain Reed’s would be. At the same time, he also has this weird thing where his narration keeps going, “if he was being honest with himself, which he was not,” and “if he was being honest with himself, which he most definitely was not,” which I think shows he’s a little smarter than even he gives himself credit for.

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KD: What software program did you use? Did you use anything else to stay organized?

TC: I’m a fan of good ol’ Microsoft Word for writing. What with The Reader being as complicated as it is, however, I also made tons and tons of charts and graphs and maps that I pasted up all over my walls. Graphs where I counted the number of pages in each scene to check the book’s momentum. Pacing charts where I colored each chapter blue for “talking” and red for “action”–if there were too many blue chapters in a row, I switched out most of the dialogue and exposition for fight or a chase. And of course, a big timeline with color-coded post-its that spanned two corkboards!

KD: I sometimes hear that editors are reluctant to take on YA projects that have prominent adult characters. But you have some major adult characters and even an adult POV. How did you do this but keep things relatable for teen readers?

TC: You know, at the time I didn’t actually think anything of including adult POV characters? They were just people who had important stories to tell, so their perspectives went into the book!

I’m still not sure if I really got away with this, but I do think that in general these adult characters have some narrative purpose that helps justify their place in the book.

Some provide answers to story questions. Others create tension by threatening the main character. And I keep Reed around, of course, because he’s a tattooed cowboy/pirate with a cursed weapon and hankerin’ for adventure.

KD: Building on that question, there is a diverse set of characters here in terms of age and experience? How did you keep track of them all and make sure that each has his/her own character arc?

TC: With three storylines (and one of them split between the past and the present), I knew I was running the risk of one storyline being more interesting than the others–or worse, one storyline being so boring that the reader would skip it entirely! So to make sure the secondary plots were as dynamic and compelling as the main one, I gave each of them their own Hero’s Journey.

This was relatively easy for characters like Captain Reed, who has about ten scenes.

It was much more difficult for characters who had only a handful of chapters in which to get through all twelve steps of the Hero’s Journey.

For example, Lon has the shortest of the minor storylines, and in his introductory chapter he goes through six steps!

Not all of the storylines have all twelve points of the Hero’s Journey (Can you imagine how much longer this book would have been!?), but each of those storylines has an arc of its own. Each of those characters has to go through trials, and each of them comes out of their adventures transformed. That’s what makes them interesting (I hope), and that’s what helps the reader to stay with them.

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KD: What was the revision process like? Was it challenging to revise the various story elements?

TC: Revision is where I live. By the time I signed with my agent, I had around thirty-five drafts of The Reader saved to my computer!

To make sure each storyline worked on its own and as part of the whole, I revised each of them in two ways: First I collected all of the scenes from a single plot and revised them together, as if they were a single self-contained story. Then I’d also revise the scenes as part of my work on the entire book. It meant double the time working on each piece, but it also meant that each arc was (hopefully) satisfying in its own way.

Then, of course, there was the scene shuffling and the character adding and the condensing (oh the condensing! I am a chronic overwriter, so a huge chunk of my revision time is spent cutting), the hours spent fiddling with sentences and the days where I printed out the whole manuscript, stuck it in a binder, and edited it all by hand! But revising has always been my favorite part of the process, so I love when I get to do it.

Kelly, thank you again for letting me show up and ramble all over the place. (I am an overwriter, after all.) I had a great time talking craft with you!

THE READER Links
Amazon
B&N
Goodreads

  • shhenning

    I absolutely loved this interview! Thank you Kelly and Traci for a fun and informative read on The Reader and plotting!