Right, so having lain out the backstory, the vague and hopefully tantalizing details of the world I'm dealing with, I think I can now go on to detail not what has happened but what will occur in my story. The plot, in other words.
One thing I've found to be really good practice for writing stories like this is to write out that plot. Sure, you carry it around in your head. And you don't want to tie yourself down too rigidly to points and features that will shift as the story develops. But writing out a summary helps to channel the awesome totality of that amazing, exquisite idea you call a novel into a coherent whole. Distilling it all down, trapping it within a few lines of text can help you to figure out just where you might have problems. I know, it's hard to believe but you might not have thought about every last detail of your book before you write it out. Coming up with an outline, with an overview of everything that's going to happen, can point out the places where you need to do a little more thinking. Help you to focus all the great plans you have into something that you can develop into a finished piece of work.
Even something as simple as a logline – a few lines of text describing the plot of your book that you can use to get people excited about using it – can be a tremendous helpful tool in developing your ideas further. Because in order to summarize your plot, to condense it and pack it tightly into such a limited space, you have to strip away everything inessential and focus on what it is that makes it work as a story. And by doing so, you also learn what is and isn't important. It's a guide. And even once you start writing, sometimes it's good to stop and take a few minutes to quickly sketch out what the plan is going forward. Here, then, is my current plan.
Times have never been so bleak in the isolated peninsula of the Ulyes. An unnatural frost has spread famine across the land even as it falls under the boot heel of an army of foreign invaders. Refugees and those those seeking to turn a profit from the war stream south and away from the ravaged plains of the north. In the quiet seaside town of Seente worshipers of the old gods find themselves persecuted at the hands of a new god, the Prince of Winter. The stone walls of Ut are manned by defenders as the the first city of story and song prepares to make a final stand. And high in the mountains, the priestesses of Lospes keep the answer to all the world's problems locked up in mazes of riddles and candles. Mydea, a young slave girl and an adherent of the Ulyean Mother goddess will see them all and more as her strangely prophetic dreams drive her to find the “End of the World”. Her gods have marked her out, cursing her with the gift of true sight – visions that can, that must, come true. And while she'd like nothing more than to lay down her burdens she's the only one who can bear the Ulyes' hope on her shoulders.
Which is a good summary of all the basic plot points I'm going to hit, I think. Without revealing too much about how they're actually going to happen – it's the kind of paragraph that makes a lot more sense if you knew the whole story, I think, and that's a good thing. About the only thing that I'd like to do better is to include the central metaphor. Earlier versions really hammered home the idea of candles and their flame representing hope, representing the light, the promise, of civilization. And how it was threatened by the encroaching night and the bleak cold of winter. That got lost along the way in favor of trying to be much more explicit and less symbolic. After all, the point of this exercise isn't to write great prose, but to encapsulate my plot in a few brief words.
Here's one of the earlier versions, by way of comparison:
A cold wind has blown across the plains. Snuffing out the lights of the great and powerful defenders of civilization. Crops fail as unprecedented snows fall. Apocalyptic cults, believing the end of the world is at hand have spread like wildfire as the sun has gone missing. And the armies of a powerful army of foreigners are on the march, conquering those who haven't collapsed on their own. Hope is in short supply and the long night of winter seems inevitable. In the distant south, Mydea is barely aware of the troubles in the north. But, now, she's been charged with the gods with the task of making sure the candle's light does not go out. Through dreams, through visions, through the chaotic events swirling around her, they've told her to make sure that her civilization endures in this, its darkest hour. But Mydea is nothing more than a lowly slave girl in a quiet town along a shore of golden sand blasted by years of uninterrupted sunshine. Unsure, uncertain, and unready of the burden her cryptic gods have lain upon her trembling shoulders. Chased from her home, hounded by relentless enemies, set upon by nature itself, if the gods expect her to be her people's savior they're going to need to send help. And fast, because the candle's flame is flickering in the wind and about to be blown out.
Mydea's my main character, in case you couldn't tell. What we novelists like to call a "protagonist". She was not quite introduced in this excerpt. And the story is really her journey. Across the landscape, always just one step ahead of the forces chasing her, true. But also her journey from a young girl unsure of herself and her place in the world to someone capable of shouldering her destiny and keeping that small flame of hope burning. Here's another one that goes into a bit more detail:
By Flickering Candlelight is the story of Mydea. A young girl driven from the plains of Northern Ulye like so many others by the encroachment and growing power of the Maluthkan Kingdom. And, like so many others, she became a refugee. Eventually winding up as a slave in a quiet, seaside town along the idyllic southern coast working - barely - in the home of a minor politician. In spite of the growing influence of the Maluthkan Cult of the Winter's Prince, Mydea is faithfully loyal to the gods of her youth, especially the slave god, the Mother, even though most of her teachings seem to have passed the young girl by. She's not the best or brightest slave and constantly getting into trouble because she's clumsy and ill-tempered. But she still performs her daily rituals in the small shrine she and her fellow slaves have made in their home, praying that the gods will deliver the Ulyes from their current troubles. What Mydea didn't expect, though, is that the gods would answer through her. Lately, she's been troubled by strange dreams, full of glimpses of places and events she's never seen before, predictions of the future, visions that become the truth. Mydea becomes gifted with true sight, the ability to see the hidden connections and interwoven fates. And with it, the growing realization that she's destined to lead the way to the defeat the Maluthkans. But as a young, rebellious slave, Mydea has a long way to go before she's ready and the book is about her journey from a contented, if contentious life, as a slave along a tropical shore through the Ulyes. It begins with the death of one her closest friends at the hands of cultists and takes her high atop the mountains overlooking the Valley of the Ancients. To the venerable Temple of the Mother, looking for answers with the Mother's priestesses. The women who call themselves Seers. But who only claim the gifts that Mydea would dearly like to rid herself of. Because Mydea sees the future. And what's she's seen is a dark winter spreading across the land and the enormous sacrifices she'll have to make in order to see that the world makes it to the next spring.
While I'm at it, here's my current logline. I'd like to get it down to 25 words but I can't quite manage so I had to settle for 30:
Mydea is a girl driven by her strange dreams to travel across the land as winter falls, trailing destruction in her wake, and finding an unexpected destiny along the way.
Could be a bit better. My biggest problem is trying to get all the context around the story in there. Without knowing about the Ulyes and the Maluthkans and the relgious conflict and everything else it's a pretty hollow and uninteresting story. With them, I hope, it takes on new layers.