Monthly Archives: November 2018

The constant process of revision

Before I launch into today’s blog post: sorry. Yeah, long time since I last posted. It’s been a busy year and the blog has not been my priority, or anything close to it. I’ve got a few things to say, and I’ve read a few things I want to talk about, so that’s likely to change now. Starting with this.

In 2008 I attempted NaNoWriMo for the second time ever, and succeeded. The story I wrote was called Flame Undying, and it was about an immortal character with an affinity to fire who returned, after a decade, to the city he once ruled. That year, NaNoWriMo had a promotion with a print-on-demand service such that winners – people who successfully wrote 50,000 words in November – could get a free printed proof of their novel if submitted in time. I took advantage of that offer, and still have the proof copy.

The concept of immortals was one I had developed for a previous story, based on a sort of magical force being generated by belief, fear, awe, hope and other emotions about particular parts of the worlds – geographical features, human traits, concepts and ideals. My first immortals were the Four Horsemen – Death, War, Famine and Pestilence – but the concept quickly grew, to include River Guardians, Mountain Walkers, Fate, representatives of the four seasons, and, ultimately, Fire. Coupled with a couple of months hearing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida on the radio constantly at my summer job, I developed the story of Blaze, the immortal who “used to ruuuule the world”, to quote Chris Martin.

This was followed by a prequel story, The General’s Secret, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I became obsessed with the story, writing literally dozens of versions of some scenes in my attempts to get it right. But ultimately, I had to drop it. I couldn’t make it work. And for years it sat untouched as I worked on other ideas, other stories.

I had a backstory for Blaze: he was a bronze-worker in the Bronze Age, who became immortal as a result of dying in a fire and being taken over by the magic. The fire that killed him, and all of his people, was started by raiders from a city called Caer, which later burned down too.

Gradually I returned to this concept, but I knew it was time for a major overhaul. For starters, I wanted a female protagonist, and I wanted her story to be closer to the start, not when she was two thousand years old. In 2015 I started working on Kell’s Adventures, set some ten years after the destruction of Caer. But it lacked something, and it didn’t get far. A few times in the two years that followed, I tried out one thing or another – a second protagonist as a travelling companion and ally, a series of short stories involving individual encounters, scenes I thought might need to exist in a novel. But it was still missing something. I worked on other projects.

Now to this year. This year has been an odd one. I got a full-time job, lost it without warning or explanation a week after my probation period ended, learned I was autistic, worked through a hell of a lot of baggage about that, then got another job where I am much happier. I’ve been there four months – longer than I was at the previous job.

In August this year I came to a realisation that, all this time, I’d been writing Blaze and Kell as a metaphor for autism. The affinity for fire as a special interest, the overwhelming effects of it causing an overload response, the discomfort of certain sensations making concentration difficult, the effect of immortality causing isolation as a parallel to my own social awkwardness making it hard to fit in. This wasn’t a product purely of my imagination, it was an embellished analogy for what I experienced daily and had no word for until recently: autism.

That realisation made it all click into place. It felt as though I’d been looking through a keyhole, trying to work out the story from what little I could see, for years, and now I had the key and could open the door and walk right inside. Since then, I have written tens of thousands of words of notes, and at least as many words of actual story drafts, each version building on previous decisions, revelations and calculations to make Kell’s story more and more real. Every day I get closer to creating a story, and every day I am excited by what I discover in the process.

It is a process of constant revision. A decision I make one day may be revoked or overwritten the next day when I get a better idea of how to approach the scene, think more about the implications of events on non-core characters and the world at large, or work out how a character is likely to behave or react. A small idea one day might grow and, a week later, become a significant plot point, a new character or an element of the world that makes it feel more real and lived-in.

There are still gaps. I focus on what interests me, and follow the threads until I am satisfied. There are still things I need to visualise – especially now I’ve realised that I’ve been picturing two events as being on opposite sides of the river, without having a river crossing happening in between them. Oops.

But I’m getting there. I’ve got an outline. Well, I’ve got several, and the latest one – written two days ago – already needs to be amended to take into account new decisions made today about the timescales in the final third. I’ve started on character sheets. I’ve got some ideas about family trees I need to write down.

Even when I start the next draft of the manuscript, the revision won’t stop. It never does; it can’t. Generally my process when writing a manuscript is to stick at it, start to finish, and not go back and change anything, but rather make a note where I’m at, stating the planned change, and continuing with the text on the assumption that the change has been made, then go back at the end to make the edits. It’s how I can revise without losing momentum on the story.

It’s come a long way. Over the course of more than ten years, I have created and refined a character and a concept until I’ve found a story that draws on my own experiences and tries to explore life through the lens of autism, in a fantasy world as alien and familiar to me as the real one, while still telling a story about a character with hopes and fears and goals. I have no doubt it’s still got a way to go – aside from the gaps I’ve yet to work out, the names I need to fix, I’ve still got the whole manuscript to write, after all. But I’m certain the end is in sight now. I’ve found what was missing before. I’ve revised my way to the story I’m trying to tell.

When the revision stops, that’ll be when I know it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than my own.

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