Portland author Tina Connolly is a Clarion West graduate and the author of a long and growing list of well-received short stories, including “Selling Home” in Bull Spec #6. She’s also a podcast narrator, both out and about on several podcasts and on her own, the bite-sized fiction podcast Toasted Cake, which won this year’s Parsec Award for best new podcast. Her just-released debut fantasy novel Ironskin tells a story which is more complex than the intriguing but reductive tagline “Jane Eyre with fairies” conveys, and mapping out the muddy middle of this more complex plot was the hardest part of its writing.
“Jane Eliot wears an iron mask. It’s the only way to contain the fey curse that scars her cheek. The Great War is five years gone, but its scattered victims remain—the ironskin. When a carefully worded listing appears for a governess to assist with a “delicate situation”—a child born during the Great War—Jane is certain the child is fey-cursed, and that she can help.”
“Middle-Muddles and Lockpicking Tools” by Tina Connolly
THE MUDDLE IN THE middle. That’s the hardest part for me. Or count it as the doors between acts, maybe.
Ironskin was my 7th book, and the most structurally complex of any book so far. Well. The most complex of any book *finished.* I naturally write short (flash! It’s a GREAT length) and so for a long time I had piles and piles of Chapter Ones littering my hard drive, with no idea what to do next. Eventually I attacked this roadblock in a couple ways—first, by writing a couple romance novels (because they had a very solid structure to follow) and then, several years later, by writing middle-grades. I wrote two MGs and then a YA, each one slightly longer and more complex. But none of them were really complex—they all had a pretty neat and tidy structure—you know, like a farce, for example. Complications pile up, but there’s a clear throughline to where you’re going. (I still rather love the shortest of the MGs, and it has a very thoroughly structured plot—think something vaguely like Jumanji, where every chapter is the next crazy event that happens.)
But Ironskin is not a farce, and it’s meant to be more organic. It started life as a novella (with a lot of extra stuff left over, and a lot more left to say.) At some point while I was struggling with arranging it into a book-length arc (and despairing), someone pointed out the similarities to Jane Eyre. That gave me the structural key to turning my piles of scenes and ideas into a plot. (And thematically it worked beautifully—I think my subconscious was several jumps ahead of me.)
Things started improving. Until I ran into the same problem I had with previous novels—that of getting stuck at the doors between acts. You start off in the beginning, full of steam—so much to say! But then the door opens into act 2. You turn the corner. And . . . what? How do you complicate things up? And then, after you’ve complicated them . . . the door to act 3 comes along. How do you wind them all back up?
But at some point, muddle-middles aside, the book takes on a life of its own. Themes organically come out and you find the important things you’re trying to talk about. You stop trying to make the plot do things, and look at what puzzle pieces fit in with the puzzle you already have. IE, it turns out this book is about X. So in this hole, what else do I want to say about X? Or, Jane’s character shows that she often does Y. I need to reinforce Y in this hole.
So I learned a lot while writing this book. It was the most challenging story I’d attempted and finished. I’ve written 2 books since Ironskin—I wrote a complete YA while we were shopping Ironskin that I haven’t done anything with yet. And then I wrote the sequel, while baby-wrangling. (THAT will be the subject of “the hardest part” post for book 2, lol!) And I’m noticing with relief that what I learned is still bearing fruit and even improving. My process is getting better. (Slowly.) The muddle in the middle is still, yes, a great muddly part where I curse the book and rue the day I started it and swear I’ll never it make it to the end. But I muddle through better these days. The doors into the acts aren’t shut and barred against me—or at least, I finally have a better set of lockpicking tools than that old credit card and hairpin. So there’s hope. . . .