I’ve been thinking quite a bit about orphans lately.
I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Though, come to think of it, there’s probably a lot to be said about orphans, and I’m writing my share – Maddie from Fall is an orphan, after all; so, too, is Willow, the protagonist of my back-burnered children’s book, Ten Witch Grave. There are a lot of orphans in literature, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. We seem to be drawn to them as characters. There’s probably a whole other blog post there. File it under Posts I’m Not Writing for now.
But that gives me a great segue into what I’m actually writing about: J.K. Rowling (as revealed on Pottermore) calls them orphans. My writing group calls them Stories You’re Not Writing (or Poems You’re Not Writing, or Plays You’re Not Writing, or…you get the idea). They are, simply put, the Very Good Ideas (and occasionally the horrifically bad ideas) that, sadly, have no place in whatever you’re actually creating. Because let’s face it: we all have good ideas. Even great ideas. Except, of course, when we don’t – but, for the most part, ideas are everywhere. They can be found in abundance. And the surfeit of ideas can be more of a problem than the absence of ideas.
In previous posts, I’ve used the machine analogy: your novel (or story, or even poem, in some cases) isn’t a simple thing. It’s a machine filled with many moving parts. You have to choose those parts well, and assemble them with the utmost care. As a rule, you can’t afford to waste your time and effort on useless frippery – or, worse, design and build mechanisms that actually interfere with the functioning of the whole device. You may also have heard of the concept of bandwidth. It’s mostly a computing term, referring to the amount of data you can transmit over a given connection at a given time. But human beings have bandwidth, too. Projects have bandwidth. You can only process so much information; you can only fit so much into a given work.
So this is something that anyone working on a creative project has to deal with. You have ideas. Many of them are Very Good Ideas. But even the best ideas may have to be ignored, or cut, or shouted down until they slink away, tail between their legs. You only have so much bandwidth. You only have so much time. And so, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes painfully, you force those Very Good Ideas out of your story. You create orphans. And those elements of your story will never see the light of day, except perhaps in author’s notes, or interviews, or blog posts like this one.
When I think of Fall‘s orphans, I think first of the two bits of Irish folklore that first inspired me. One of them is an old story (with a few different variations) that I’m not going to talk about just yet, as it may lead people to guess the outcome of the novel, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone before I’ve finished writing it. The other, as I mentioned before, was a charm against the Good Folk that I have been unable to find again – but it went vaguely like this:
Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in that hill over there, stay over there and don’t bother me.
I’m sure it was much more poetic in its original form (for that matter, it’s probably much more poetic in Irish Gaelic), but as I said, I can’t recall the exact wording and haven’t been able to find the charm again since I first heard it in a folklore class many years ago. But I was struck by the idea of wielding the natural order of things as a weapon against the Good Folk, of using logic and reason and nature against the illogical, the insane, the supernatural. It is not, perhaps, an entirely original concept – see the animated film version of The Flight of Dragons, or certain interpretations of Changeling: The Dreaming – but I found it fascinating nonetheless.
As I think on it now, there is, perhaps, still something of that dichotomy in Fall as it currently stands. Certainly the Fair don’t play by our rules, and their magic is not readily explained or explored through the scientific method. (Sidebar: Isaac Asimov wrote a terrific essay on magic, science, and Clarke’s Third Law in which he argued that, in fact, magic by definition is not bound by rules, where science is – appropriately enough, it’s in his fantasy collection Magic. I did not agree with the essay when I first read it. I’ve come around on the subject.) But they’re not creatures of madness and irrationality anymore. They would generally agree that today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. They would, in fact, point out that today is Wednesday and you’ve actually got it all wrong. The light of reason would not drive them out. It’s a wonderful idea. But there’s no place for it in the story I’m writing.
Actually, a lot of folklore has fallen by the wayside as I’ve streamlined the society of the Fair. As I was researching the book, I drove myself a bit crazy trying to catalog and codify all the fairies in European folklore, chasing down stories of shapeshifting witches and wise druids and talking cats and river monsters. This, too, I’ve discussed before. For a while there, it was enough to make me want to tear my hair out. Finally, for the sake of my sanity, I decided on two rules:
- I would only draw fairies from the folklore of Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and the surrounding islands, with a particular focus on Ireland.
- I would only allow a particular species to join the ranks of the Fair if it filled a specific niche that no other species quite occupied.
With those rules in mind, I sketched out the following list in my notebook. This is taken verbatim.
- The bòcans became true shapeshifters.
- The coblynau retreated beneath the earth.
- The daoine sidhe came to resemble humans.
- The dullahans became night terrors.
- The leannáin sidhe adapted to feed on human blood.
- The murúcha retreated beneath the waves.
- The spriggans became more like humans, but kept their strength and power to grow.
- The fir liath became creatures of air.
- The ferrishyn became diminutive sprites and formed bonds with dogs.
- The leanaí na gcrann became creatures of the forests.
- The sluagh na marbh survived by recruiting/preserving the dead. (also consuming?)
Obviously I’ve expanded on that since, and some of it has changed since I sketched out that basic list. But there’s the skeleton: twelve species, each with their own niches, their own parts to play. And it fits the basic ideas of my story well. The Fair are not their ancestors, the legendary Tuatha de Dannan. They can’t change their form on a whim (with the possible exception of the bòcans, but even they have their limits), they can’t move mountains with a whispered word. They are changed. Codified. Diminished.
I had to bid goodbye to so much in the process: trolls and kelpies and knockers, nixies and nucklavees. There are a lot of orphaned fairies out there, and I wouldn’t want to run into any of them on a dark and lonely night. But Fall is stronger for it. The world is more coherent, more defined. The machine is not yet running perfectly, but it’s running well.
Don’t be afraid to make orphans. If something isn’t working, cut it out. Be ruthless. Cut and rearrange and cut some more until it fits – even if you’re losing Very Good Ideas in the process. There will be other stories. Or there will be notes, or interviews, or anecdotes to be told with a small, rueful smile. You don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this story.