This month has not gone as well as I’d hoped for the writing. In fact I’ve not written a word since my last blog post. But I have been thinking. Thinking about what motivates me, thinking about the stories I’m trying to write and the stories I worked on long ago.
With Invisible Duke, I’m a bit unsure on exactly where the crux of the story is, where it begins and where it should end. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t what’s stopping me writing; I’ve written before where I’ve had a go at an idea, not liked it, changed what the start and end and what the focus were, and tried again and ended up with something halfway decent. The story that ended up as Ailith’s Gift (available to read for free at Myths Inscribed) started out a very different story, told from the perspective of the dragon, after the events of Ailith’s Gift. I even had a character called George and this whole take on the old George and the Dragon myth, and themes of change and the baby from Ailith’s Gift growing up and everything. But for a short story, with a target of 3,000 words, it just didn’t work. There was too much to fit in, even if I broke it down to the most important plot points. By changing the focus and reducing the scope, though, I came out with something that did work, that wasn’t too rushed and which met the needs of what I was aiming for.
I think that’s something of what I need to do with Invisible Duke too. I’ve got the concept, I’ve got hints of the story, but I’ve not got the right angle on it. It’s already an amalgam of two ideas, that magical point at which ideas can become stories, but I think it needs a third idea to get there. I just need to work at it some more, but here’s the second problem: I’ve been putting off that work. A couple of weeks ago I heard of a call for submissions for stories that give a new twist on fairytales or subvert them in some way from The Book Smugglers. And it sounds perfect, exactly the sort of thing I should be submitting a story like Invisible Duke to, a story which looks at one of the fundamental assumptions of fairytales. The deadline for submissions is 31 July.
And I’m scared. I’ve not even finished the story, but having realised what an opportunity had landed on my lap when I heard about this, I failed to reach for it, and instead let it intimidate me. I’m not confident. I haven’t ever been, really, but right now my confidence level is at the lowest it’s been in a decade. And that has meant, on this occasion, that I’ve let myself be scared off from a prospect that could help me build up my confidence, help me improve my writing, and possibly even give me my first writing success in a long time.
I don’t what to do now with Invisible Duke. I think I’ve got two options:
1. Leave it til after the Book Smugglers deadline, take a fresh look at it, and try and work out where within the whole concept there’s an interesting story I can tell. Then take my time drawing the story out and getting it right – even if it takes a month.
2. Try to condense all the thinking and all the writing into the four evenings (today included) I have left til the deadline and get something I can submit, if only for the potential feedback I might get if not a real expectation it might be considered.
It’s a decision I’m going to have to make soon. Maybe I’ll have a go at looking at the story this evening and see where I am by bed time, and then decide.
In the meantime, there are other things I’ve been thinking about.
I got stuck at the end of May with the Penal Colony story. Since then I’ve been dancing around the issue I had with it. A soft, slow middle when nothing much happened. I considered reworking the story as a series of short stories, each one with a different character from the last engaged in a complete arc, where the whole thing together told the overall story. That, I decided, was not the answer; it would dilute my core message.
I spent one evening looking in depth at my core theme of justice, and how Fiarra views it as something that is objective, but herself acts very subjectively when attempting to determine what actions are just. I looked at how other characters might disagree with her, how she treats different characters whose crimes are comparable in different ways based on her own personal feelings about them, how she advocates doing things “right” right up until it’s inconvenient for her. I didn’t really come to a solid conclusion on that, on how I should present it and whether it would make the story feel empty or the ending unsatisfying.
Most recently, I’ve thought about how the story has gone so far in the 40,000 words I have written. And actually, it generally goes well for Fiarra. Okay, sure, she gets captured and beaten up and enslaved, but on the whole, by the point at which I stopped writing, she was in a better position than at the start of the story. A few things had gone right for her all in a row, and the things that had not gone right either served the plot or were so insignificant that 5,000 words later they’d leave no impact at all. In short, I’d made it too easy for her.
Or, to be more accurate, I’d made it too easy for me. I wanted to get to the cool speeches and the powerful emotional parts and everything I wrote that wasn’t that was designed to enable me to get to those parts.
I should know better.
The reason I keep going back to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender time and time again (current count: 7) is in no small part because of Zuko’s arc. I did a character study on him not long ago. There’s an end point that he reaches, that he is destined to reach, and there are points along the path where it seems that he might make it, but at those points, where has has the opportunity to befriend Aang and switch sides, he doesn’t, because he’s not done cooking yet. He’s not gained the experience he needs to be the kind of person who will decide that this is what he needs to do, that this is the person he should be, until he’s made the wrong decisions and lived the consequences.
I love that. I love watching it. I love seeing Zuko undergo that change, come to that gradual realisation. And yet I’m not putting that into my writing. I’m too eager to write the end of the journey – the emotional reunions, the important speeches, the redemptive actions – that I rush things along and forget to put enough of the journey in to make those turning points powerful.
With Penal Colony, therefore, I need to take a step back and work out where I’m making things too easy and make them harder. Where the turning point scenes are too early I need to move them later, to change them and deny those scenes the happy endings I crave so that the story can be told at the right pace, where victories are truly won and not handed over when I feel I can get away with it.
I need to start asking myself, with every scene I write, every paragraph even, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then write it.
The other problem with Penal Colony is that I still don’t have as good a grasp on my characters as I would want. I struggle to hear their voices, the way they speak or think or act. I don’t know much what they look like. I haven’t grasped their mannerisms or their attitudes. It’s all very superficial in the 40,000 words I did write – Prentor is friendly, Laik is cold and laconic. At least, they are for as long as that serves the story. In one scene Laik became very frank and clear because I wanted things spelled out for Fiarra, and that was wrong (not to mention way too early in the plot). It’s something I need to work on.
The Snowflake Method might be a good starting point for working out the characters. It’ll give me the space to think about their own arcs – another flaw in my approach so far for Penal Colony – and expand upon who each character is, what they want, and how they interact with other characters and with their environments.
The next step after that, I think, would be to try to write short stories about each character or tackle certain scenes in the novel from their point of view, as an exercise to understand them rather than as part of the narrative. It certainly helped me earlier in the process when I did this for Laik, though a lot has changed since then and even that short scene might need an update.
In my lowest moment, driving home after a long day and frustrating at work, I considered giving up on this story entirely. I believed it wasn’t working and was never going to work. But I do still believe I’ve got something here. I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to tell, over and over and over again in various guises, for years. In fact it’s only as a result of my recent contemplations that I’ve come to realise exactly how deep that truth goes. I know I’ve been writing stories with this master-slave dynamic and this shift of power for at least eight years. The theme of justice has definitely been strong too; I even had an immortal character named Justice in one of my worlds, and at least three stories with him in. So yes, this is the story I’m going to tell, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll try with something else but I’m not going to give up until I’ve given it a thorough try.
I’m finally coming to realise exactly how much work writing a book really is.
I guess the next steps involve stepping back. I’ve still got some re-evaluation to do, but now also I’ve got a lot of planning to do, a lot of legwork to put in so that when the time comes for me to start writing again I’ve got the confidence to start and to keep writing, and so that I’ve got something to write.
For Invisible Duke, I’ll see if I can make option 2 work, and try to work out where my story is then write like the wind to meet the deadline – of, if that doesn’t work out, take the time to get it right next month.
With Penal Colony, I’ve got to start from scratch: learn who the characters are and how they act; make sure I understand the world of the story; and consider how to get the most out of it and make my characters work for their victories so they meet their destinies when the time is right, not when I really want it to happen.