Veranix Calbert leads a double life. By day, he’s a struggling magic student at the University of Maradaine. At night, he spoils the drug trade of Willem Fenmere, crime boss of Dentonhill and murderer of Veranix’s father. He’s determined to shut Fenmere down.
With that goal in mind, Veranix disrupts the delivery of two magical artifacts meant for Fenmere’s clients, the mages of the Blue Hand Circle. Using these power-filled objects in his fight, he quickly becomes a real thorn in Fenmere’s side.
So much so that soon not only Fenmere, but powerful mages, assassins, and street gangs all want a piece of “The Thorn.” And with professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might just fall apart. Unless, of course, Fenmere puts an end to it first.
ONE: I AM NOT A PANTSER; IN WHICH I EMBRACE OUTLINING
I wrote two now-trunked novel-resembling-things before I started working on Thorn of Dentonhill. They were not novels. Novels have a structure, a plot. These were more “a collection of things that happen to people who may or may not be characters”. I’m saying they weren’t good, but in a way I could learn from. One of the things I learned was to abandon my romantic notions of “I’ll just write and see where it takes me.” It took me to a mess that only looked like a novel if you squinted and looked at it sideways. So I realized I needed to outline my next attempt at a novel.
TWO: I HATE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE; IN WHICH I FIGURE OUT HOW TO OUTLINE
I found a lot of guidelines and advice out there of “how to outline a novel” fantastically unhelpful. Because so many boiled down to “Three Act Structure: That’s Your Outline.” What’s three act structure? It’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Frankly, that doesn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. Especially since the “middle” part of three acts tends to be “Rising Action: More Stuff Happens”. What kind of stuff? STUFF. Stuff that RISES.
I also studied the Hero’s Journey, but I also found this less than helpful in coming up with an outline structure— it was a tool for analyzing stories, but not for building them. It was like trying to bake cookies using only the nutritional information as a guide.
So I did my own story-hacking, studying books, movies, comics, television— taking them apart and figuring out what all the moving parts were. I emerged from this with a powerful, flexible outlining tool at my disposal: a twelve-part story structure.
THREE: EMBRACE THE HERO’S FLAWS; IN WHICH I GO WITH THE STUPID CHOICES
There’s a pair of tropes out there called “the idiot ball” and “the idiot plot”. The gist of both involve plots and twists that only work if the character is stupid. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing— sometimes your character needs to do the stupid thing. Sometimes it’s the most in-character action they can take.
Veranix is a guy who keeps doing the stupid thing. He can’t help himself.
There are several points in the story where the smartest thing Veranix could is just walk away, let it go. He knows that getting himself involved in stopping drug dealers or street toughs or even a sociopathic circle of mages is incredibly stupid, and on any given night it would be best for him to head back to campus, get a good night’s sleep and study all day. But then he’ll see one more dealer working, one more addict overdosing, one more victim crying for help— and off he runs into the fray.
FOUR: LOVE EVERY CHARACTER; IN WHICH EVERY PLAYER HAS HIS DAY
There’s an adage out there that every villain is the hero of their own story. Way back in the day, I was a stage actor, and more than once I played “2ndSoldier” or “Citizen #4”. Small parts, but I treated them like they mattered. I considered every role to be someone who has a rich life outside of the scope of the play. That was the same mindset I took with every character, regardless of their role. The obnoxious prefect who keeps getting in Veranix’s face; the grizzled street boss who wasn’t expecting a fight, but is ready for one; the three Rose Street Princes who are part of Colin’s crew; even two random constabulary officers who wander onto the scene. All of them could be their own hero. And more to the point, I let myself really enjoy getting into each and every one of them.
FIVE: SIZE MATTERS; IN WHICH I BULK UP
I started the process of querying my finished manuscript, woefully unaware that I had made a glaring mistake, until I got this response from one agent: “I really like the book. I read it all today. Bad News: It’s too short for sale at this point. It’d need to be at least 20k longer for most houses.”
Yeah, I had absorbed bad information about how long a novel needed to be, and Thorn was way too short. So I had to make it longer without losing pacing or tightness. Add muscle and bone. Armed with that knowledge, I dove back in, whipping it into shape and proper size.
When I had that done, you better believe that agent was the first one I sent it to. He’s who represents me now, he’s who sold it, and it’s thanks to him that the book is what it is today.
Marshall Ryan Maresca grew up in upstate New York and studied film and video production at Penn State. He now lives in Austin with his wife and son. His work appeared in Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction and Rick Klaw’s anthology Rayguns Over Texas. He also has had several short plays produced and has worked as a stage actor, a theatrical director and an amateur chef.