Friday, October 21, 2011

Rediscovering the novel that was my "baby"

So I have this trilogy I wrote. (Maybe you have one like it, or something similar sitting in your files somewhere.) I always loved it. It was my first "novel," my baby, very close to my heart in that dangerous way that means it will take you forever before you really understand it. Maybe "baby" really is the right word.

It has a lot of growing up to do, but I've never stopped loving it. The world - Varin - was the one part I was sure of, because it came into a mature form on the basis of my studies. That was the one thing I was an expert in at the time that I wrote it. Varin sticks with me. The characters, as problematic as they were in their execution (even after three, four, five drafts!) never stopped sticking with me. I knew that I had their basic roles right, the basic contradictions and flaws in their personalities.

And when I mean they stuck with me, I don't just mean I remembered them. I mean that long after I'd left them alone, realizing that this still wasn't the novel it needed to be, I kept having ideas that refined their character, brought them closer to what they needed to be in order for the story to succeed.

I got a really wonderful opportunity to step back into that world and "get it right" with the short story I had published in Panverse Publishing's Eight Against Reality anthology ("The Eminence's Match," reviewed here by Margaret McGaffey Fisk). It was years since I'd put the novel down, but when I finally got that story right, I knew I had the ability to get the world and the characters to come together. The character in that story, Imbati Xinta, was the first character I'd really grasped with any degree of complexity when I was writing the novel initially, so it made sense that he was the first one I'd be able to "get right." At the same time I was getting glimpses into the character of Akrabitti Meetis, the girl who seems innocent but really is an incredible intellectual subversive.

Last year sometime I started back into Varin writing a novel, For Love, For Power. It was a novel I'd attempted before, after writing the trilogy, initially because I wanted to try to understand the nobility and their situation better (a great reason to start a story, but not sufficient for finishing it, as I learned at the time). It was better-planned than the original trilogy, and when I picked it back up, it started to take off. I'm 2/3 through right now and certain that it will finish in a way that far exceeds what I was ever able to accomplish earlier. It's also doing something fascinating that I didn't expect. By getting me deep into the backstory of some of the trilogy's major players, it's re-focusing my attention on the elements of the original trilogy in a new way. It's forcing me to engage deeply with details of Varin that I hadn't previously considered. How the streets are laid out, for example, and how people who have no power will work around all obstacles in order to accomplish things. What kind of motives are plausible for people to hold. How people earn their money, and what kind of position that puts them in as far as altering the difficulty of their situation.

A few days ago, the question of money-earning opened a door for me into the backstory and mindset of the third character from the trilogy, Akrabitti Corbinan. He was always the hardest, because he was the least like me. I figured out how he was brought up and why he ended up getting involved with gangs, and why his people's undercaste status was so dissatisfying. Hint: it's not because he wants to overthrow the government, which would be implausible for a person in his position. It's because he figures everybody deserves some cash, a place to live, and some respect...and nobody he knows gets all three.

Figuring this out put me in a strange position. Always before I'd known Corbinan was the revolutionary - you know, the one who wants to bring the whole system down and make things right for his people (it's a familiar trope). Suddenly he wasn't that any more. It was refreshing - so refreshing! - for him to be so much more realistic, but I wasn't sure how he was going to get done what he needed to get done any more. I couldn't see how to get him to begin the story I had always imagined. So suddenly everything and everyone was working better than ever before, but the story was implausible!

Today I was talking with the lovely and insightful Janice Hardy, and it came to me. It was like a shock, and I got goosebumps. Corbinan has to discover a hidden library. But he doesn't have to have revolutionary goals, and he doesn't even have to know it's a library in order to get there. Once he's there, he gets arrested and dragged before the Eminence of Varin and his servant, Imbati Xinta. The Eminence falsely accuses him of spying and working for a political rival, has him tortured and thrown in jail. But here's the best part - it is those very accusations that for the first time give Corbinan the idea that he can make a difference. It is the fact that he then gets thrown in prison that gives him time to think it all through, and make plans. An ordinary person with a degree of insight into his own people gets exposed to something unusual, and the results are unusual. That is something I can get behind.

Suddenly I'm starting to realize that none of the previously written text of this story will make it into the new draft. I'm going to have to outline it from scratch, because that new beginning is already starting to show me how entirely different the story will be this time. I don't want to see what I did before. I want its spirit to stay with me, as it always has - but I want to write it the way I now know how to write it.

I'm telling you this because even though I see mountains of work ahead of me, it feels like climbing Mount Everest, in the best possible way. So if you've ever been in this position before, or if you still are guarding a "baby" somewhere, you might have a chance to realize that it still has hope. It might not be a baby, but a caterpillar just waiting for its metamorphosis in order to fly.

I get the feeling mine will fly this time, and I can't wait to get started.


  1. Great post. :)

    I have a baby of my own that is waiting for its time.

  2. As you probably guessed, I'm thrilled to hear this, and it also points to the different ways we approach a story. I too have a "baby" I'm going to have to rewrite from scratch. However, my issues were technique rather than story. I failed to bring the characters fully into what was happening. I know how they belong and exactly what happens, but I just wasn't patient enough or skilled enough of a writer to do more than hint at that possibility. The mounds of work is intimidating though :).

  3. It's nice to have an a-ha moment. Good for you and your story. Good luck!

  4. Deborah J. Ross mentioned this post on her blog today so I thought I'd drop by and have a read.

    Mind if I stay a while and browse?

  5. OK ... it was your post on the 17th ... don't know how that happened ... *looks around for interwebz ghosts*

  6. Wow, lots of comments! :)

    Sarah, thanks, and good luck with your baby.

    Margaret, I'll try to live up to your expectations, lol. It's really hard to describe what was missing in the first draft, because a lot of it is subtle. I'm just happy with where it's going. Thanks!

    E. Arroyo, thanks!

    Widdershins, welcome, and feel free to browse as much as you like!

  7. I can totally relate! I had a similarly revealing insight about my story's beginning and basically decided to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. (It completely changed the way I looked at my main character and therefore the entire story.)

    What an exciting feeling to know you've got the missing pieces to the puzzle and can see how it should all go together now. A chance to do the story justice, daunting as that may be. :)

  8. Good luck finishing your story, it's so great that you kept at it through all the changes!

  9. I've had the same characters playing around in my head for quite a few years. They keep on changing, slowly, and so do their personal stories. Sometimes they change as I change, and sometimes all on their own (for example, I realised my MFC is in fact a mother, it was such a strange realisation but felt so right that I relished that realisation for quite a while).

    I've tried writing their stories during NaNoWriMo a couple of times, but it never worked out. I'm sure one day I'll close in on the stories they have to tell, though.

  10. Tiyana, that's so cool! I don't want to count how many times I've revised this one... but never quite so dramatically.

    Sophia, thanks!

    Sirithduriel, sounds really interesting, and you never know what your characters will surprise you with. I'm not a NaNo girl myself, as I am unable to create text at anywhere near the rate I'd need to. Do whatever works, and good luck!