Writing Wednesdays: Orphans

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:

  1. I would only draw fairies from the folklore of Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and the surrounding islands, with a particular focus on Ireland.
  2. 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.

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Writing Wednesdays: The Evolution of Fall, Chapter One

Earlier this week, I posted the first chapter of Fall. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to go and do so before you continue – this week’s Writing Wednesdays post is all about the evolution of that chapter, so it’s not likely to make much sense to you otherwise.

At this point, Chapter One has been through approximately four and a half drafts. The half-draft is my original handwritten version, which I never managed to finish. At the time, I actually wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going, so I didn’t really know how the chapter should end. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), that draft was written before I moved last year, and the notebook containing it is still buried in the bottom of a box which is buried beneath a pile of boxes deep in the wilds of the junk room. So I don’t remember a lot of specific details. I do recall that I was still using the characters’ original names at that point, so Kira was Aisling, and Bree was Siobhan, among other things. I also recall that the story did not start with Bree’s dream. In fact, I hadn’t yet hit on the idea of giving her strange, prophetic dreams at all. That only emerged as Bree’s story expanded beyond her romance with Maddie, and I decided…

Well. That would be telling. In the words of River Song, spoilers.

Anyway, that early draft actually begins with Bree/Siobhan already on campus, heading to class with her sister. Kira/Aisling doesn’t have much of a part in that draft at all – Siobhan complains a bit about how perfect (and evil) her sister is, but Aisling runs off pretty quickly, and then Siobhan literally bumps into Maddie, who reacts to her meeting with one of the daoine sidhe with rather more fear and distaste. I had the basic idea of who Maddie was in my head, but I hadn’t yet thought through what that meant.

Really, the point of that very first draft was to get myself to start writing this story. In that, it succeeded. But I hadn’t done a lot of the groundwork, and it shows. In fact, as I recall, I hadn’t yet explored the world of the Fair in full, so at that point in time, I was just writing about the daoine sidhe. I’m not even sure I’d brought Professor Gahan and his family into it yet.

You may be wondering why that initial draft was handwritten. That’s a habit of mine that I haven’t yet fully broken. I got my first laptop at eighteen. Before that, I was primarily using the family computer. Since I was, as you might guess, sharing that computer with my family, I only had a couple hours on it each day, and I didn’t want to waste that time pondering. So I’d write out my initial drafts on hand, then type them up when I got my turn on the computer and start making corrections and revisions from there. If I ended up throwing out the whole draft, I’d write the second one longhand as well, to save precious computer time. I still tend to do this on some projects – particularly when I’m running a tabletop RPG – even though I’ve had one laptop or another available to me for most of the past decade. Further, at the time I had an extremely long commute which involved a very lengthy bus ride, and I was nervous about bringing my laptop along. It seems silly to confess that now, as I am literally writing this during my 30-40 minute commute on the Red Line, but there you are.

I do have access to my first complete draft of Chapter One, though I had to go digging through my writing group’s archives to find it. Strangely, it seems I didn’t save a local copy. Actually, looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so strange – I’ve found myself wincing at several points. But I tend to hoard old files, sometimes to my detriment, so it’s still a little surprising that I didn’t keep this one.

With the first draft, the general shape of the chapter begins to emerge. All the characters have their proper names: Bree is Bree, Kira is Kira. Looking back, I see that I’d even settled on Deirdre as their mother’s name. There was a time when I was going with Gwynn, which ultimately became the name of Deirdre’s late mother. (You haven’t heard the story of Deirdre and Gwynn yet. You will.) That said, a lot of the details differ. Most notably, I hadn’t yet figured out Kira’s characterization. In the first complete draft, she was even more bratty and obnoxious than she is now. In fact, she initially woke Bree by dumping a bucket of ice water over her head. When I put this draft before my writing group, many of them pointed out that Kira seemed awfully immature for someone who was over a century old, and her relationship with Bree was not what they would expect from someone who was already grown when her little sister was born. In the course of that discussion, someone mentioned the idea of Kira seeing herself as a sort of surrogate mother to Bree, and I latched on to that. Kira still has moments of immaturity, but it’s all artifice. We see a little of her deeper nature in Chapter One, and we’ll see more as the story continues. Kira has motivations that go far beyond simple malice.

I was also describing Kira very differently – in fact, I was describing all the daoine sidhe of the Winter Court differently. In the first draft, they tended to be short and slight, and Bree, who stood at least a head above most of them, stuck out like a sore thumb. I ultimately decided to make them all a bit more like supermodels, and that meant upping their height significantly. They’re still slender and pale and coldly beautiful, and Bree, with her healthy farm girl glow, still sticks out like a sore thumb, but the differences are there nonetheless.

Speaking of the Winter Court, Bree’s first day of college was originally much colder – cold enough to make her put a nice thick sweater over her shirt and under her jacket. Here’s the thing about early September in New England: as a rule, summer hasn’t left yet. It’s hot and muggy and actually really unpleasant. So my writing group didn’t really buy that even the Winter Queen’s ambient magic would make the first day of college that cold. In the end, I decided that there was no real point in keeping that detail if it broke the reader out of the story, so I toned down the temperature difference a bit. Crowshead still has an unusually cool climate for Massachusetts, but it’s no longer freezing while the rest of the state is still sweltering.

Crowshead wasn’t Crowshead, of course. I’ve talked about that before – it was originally Tara, which was taken as an allusion to Gone With The Wind rather than the reference to Irish history and mythology it was meant to be. In fact, the town wasn’t even in the same place in that first draft: I originally placed it in central Massachusetts, and Greymont College was actually Greyvale instead. When I was pondering new names for the town, I hit on Cape Clear, came up with some really fantastic visuals for the Winter Queen’s palace (which you’ll see for the first time in Chapter Two), and moved the whole thing to the coast. My writing group didn’t like Cape Clear, either, so I did some research into the history of my home state, looked at the names of some other coastal towns, and finally came up with Crowshead. The name Greyvale wasn’t really working for me at that point, so I changed it to Greymount, which ultimately became Greymont.

Last but far from least, the dream was much shorter, and there wasn’t a single detail in it to indicate Maddie’s possible presence. Someone still grabbed Bree at the end of her dance with the handsome boy from the dream, but I didn’t really describe that someone at all, and my writing group actually wasn’t sure it was meant to be a separate person at all! So I tried to make that clearer in later drafts. Hopefully I’ve succeeded.

So the second complete draft introduced Kira’s new personality, Maddie’s hand, the coastal town of Cape Clear, and Greymount College. One thing it didn’t introduce: Bree’s magic. The fourth draft is the first version of Chapter One in which she actually uses any magic at all. Bree doesn’t rely too heavily on her magic – certainly she doesn’t use it as freely as Kira does – but yes, she has power, she is willing and able to use it, and she uses more of it in Chapter Two. Originally, however, she didn’t use it at all until that chapter. And yet she still noticed fine details like Maddie’s hand and the bracelet around her wrist from a good twenty or thirty or forty feet away. This was something else my group called me on. I had originally thought that the daoine sidhe simply had better-than-human sight, but my fellow writers pointed out that it was very difficult to consistently and convincingly write a character with superhuman powers of perception, particularly if those powers were constantly active, and I ultimately decided that Bree would have to make a conscious effort to see so clearly across such a great distance.

The third complete draft really didn’t differ much from the second at all. At the time, I was actually submitting the first chapter of Fall (along with some other pieces) as a writing sample for a job that didn’t end up panning out, so the third draft was mostly cleanup. I changed Cape Clear to Crowshead, and I believe I made one or two other adjustments, but most of the major changes, such as they are, came with the fourth draft.

And that brings us to the present. Major changes in this draft: Greymount officially became Greymont, I added some more details to the dream, and I tweaked Bree’s conversation with Maddie as well as the scene between Bree, Maddie and Kira. I also, notably, changed Dougal’s name. It had been Doyle, but my friend Katie pointed out that Doyle was the name of a prominent character from the Merry Gentry series, and while I’ve read the first book and my Doyle isn’t really at all like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Doyle, I still didn’t want to invite comparison. Both Doyle and Dougal are derived from the old-form version of his name, which is Dubhghall, and in fact Dougal has turned up more often as the modern form in my (admittedly sketchy) research so far, so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I finally made the switch.

As I said previously, this may not be the final form of the chapter. I may still make some tweaks, cut down on some of Bree’s ramblings, and generally clean things up a bit. But I’m confident in the general shape of it, and more than ready to move on. Truth be told, if I hadn’t decided to post the first chapter on the blog, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with another draft at all – at least not until I had the whole novel sitting in front of me, ready to be knitted into a coherent whole. I have much bigger dragons to slay: namely the second chapter (where I’m introducing a character who walked into the story three chapters late and demanded a place in the narrative) and the third (which has seen two completely different drafts so far and still isn’t quite right) and, well, every chapter afterward. Still, it did help a bit to look back at where I’ve been and come up with a new working copy. If nothing else, it got my head back in the game.

Onward.

If you like what you’ve just read, or if you’d like to see more of Fall, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I receive before April 30, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall or a short piece set in the same universe. I’ve already received a little over one hundred dollars, meaning we’re less than $150 away from the first benchmark. The same deal applies for every $500 I receive after the end of the month: a chapter from the book, or a short story exploring Bree’s world in more depth. If you can’t personally donate, you can still help by spreading the word about the blog and the novel. The more readers and potential donors I reach, the better. Either way, though, thanks for reading.

Fall, Chapter One

Today I’m offering up the first chapter of my work in progress, Fall, as it currently stands. The details are likely to change, and I’ll probably adjust or outright delete some of it as the manuscript approaches its final form, but at this point in time, I’m pretty sure I’m close to the final version. In this chapter, you get to meet Bree, Maddie and Kira, and you learn a little bit about Bree’s world. Chapter Two expands on those details and brings us all the way into the heart of the Winter Court itself. But that’s a story for another day.

If you’d like to see more, I’d urge you to donate to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I collect before April 30th, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall – up to half the novel, in theory – or a short piece set in the same world. After April 30th, I’ll do the same each time I collect another $500 total. If you can’t donate yourself, but you want to help, or you just like the chapter and want to see more, then please tell your friends. The more potential supporters I can bring in, the better.

I hope you all enjoy this first look at Fall.

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Writing Wednesdays: All The Small Things

In the past, I’ve remarked that I would very much like to be Neil Gaiman when I grow up. I do not, of course, mean that I would like to be a middle-aged man with perpetually untidy black hair, a keen wit, and a ridiculously awesome English accent, though of course some of these things are indeed things I envy and/or aspire to. (I currently have perpetually untidy red hair. It’s very different.) No, what I admire about Neil Gaiman is this: he is, I daresay, the authorial version of the Renaissance man. He’s worked in a vast array of media – comics, prose, poetry, music, beekeeping – and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. That’s the course I’d like my career to take. Ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, I’d like to look back and say that, yes, I, too, have done a little bit of everything.

Except the beekeeping. I have a deathly fear of bees. …I probably shouldn’t admit that kind of thing on the open Internet.

I realize I’m burying the lede, here, so let me get to the point: the stories we tell, the shapes those stories take, are determined by a million different decisions. Some of them are quite big and obvious. Medium, of course, plays a central role in the final development of a story. A film is not the same animal as a short story, a novel, or even a television show. But some of the decisions you’ll make will be smaller. Subtler. They are, nevertheless, vitally important, and at every turn, in considering every aspect of your tale, you should ask yourself how this choice or that will alter your story. Will it make your job easier? Will it help you tell the story you want to tell? If your choices are going to make the story more difficult for you to write, then why are you making those particular decisions? What benefit will you gain, and how will it outweigh the costs?

Case in point: my two major projects, Ten Witch Grave and FallTen Witch Grave is the working title of my children’s book, something that I hope will follow in the footsteps of His Dark Materials and Stardust. It’s currently on the back burner, though I’m planning to return to it after I’m done with Fall, and I hope to have it done by the time my niece (currently around 23 months old) is old enough to appreciate chapter books. Structurally, it’s very much a traditional novel: I’m writing in the third person, limited omniscient, past tense, all that. Narratively it reads like a fairy tale, which of course it is, to some degree. All well and good.

Fall is quite a different animal. It’s in the first person, told entirely from the perspective of my heroine, Bree, and thus it follows that the information available to her (and thus the reader) at any given time is limited. It’s also in the present tense.

I always saw the present tense as gimmicky at best. When I was younger, any book written in the present tense had to work that much harder to win me over. I vividly recall a silly little science fiction novel called This Place Has No Atmosphere which I did, ultimately, enjoy in all its corny, fluffy glory – but only after resisting the impulse to take the book straight back to the library after discovering it was written in the present tense. Even now, looking back, I wonder why the author made that decision, because I don’t think it served the book well. And while I liked the book, at the time, it reinforced my perception of the present tense as inherently artificial and hokey, something done in a flawed attempt to grab the reader’s attention or experiment with the narrative, seldom if ever yielding positive results.

This led to something of a crisis of faith when I started thinking about Fall and came to the realization that it would work so much better in the present tense – that, indeed, I wasn’t sure I could write the same story in the past tense.

Luckily, it was around this time that my friend Katie came to my rescue again. You may recall that I was inspired to write Fall after I read the Twilight series – entirely Katie’s fault, but since it did inspire my current project and it led me into the rather amusing world of Twilight fanfic, I’ve since forgiven her. (The jury is still out on her decision to expose me to His Dark Materials, which made me cry like a baby at the end, but I guess that’s inspired its own projects, so I have to let her off the hook for that one, too.) Katie ultimately made up for the aforementioned atrocities by making me read The Hunger Games, which also made me cry, but in a good, cathartic kind of way. More importantly, it showed me that the present tense was not a gimmick. It could be done well. In fact, it could be the only viable choice for some stories. Can you imagine that book, or its sequels, written in the past tense? Would the events therein have carried the same sense of immediacy? Would we have believed that literally anything could happen to Katniss if she was narrating those events from some undefined future date? I won’t say that Suzanne Collins couldn’t have written The Hunger Games in the past tense – but it would have been a very different series.

Similarly, the more time I spend with Fall, the more I realize that I can’t tell that story any other way, either. It has to be in the first person: this is Bree’s story, the tale of a girl coming to terms with her past and her future, discovering her roots and forging a new destiny for herself and the people she loves. It’s a lot of other things as well, but at its core, it’s Bree’s tale to tell, and no one else’s. And it is important – vital – that I as the writer and you all as the readers take that journey with Bree. This is not a story she’s going to tell at some unspecified future date – or, if she does, she’ll be editing it and censoring herself heavily. This is a story we will only get if we’re inside Bree’s head as it happens.

I talk a good game, but I have to admit I faltered on these points recently. Someone (I’m honestly not sure who) told me that they were surprised at my use of present tense and found it odd, and all my old doubts came rushing back. I tried writing a chapter in past tense, and it was like writing with one hand tied behind my back – and, more importantly, the prevailing opinion was that the story worked much better in present tense. Will I give up the faith again? Maybe. But maybe that’s not the end of the world, either.

Your story is not a breath of divine inspiration. Nor is mine. They do not, they will not, emerge fully formed from our brows. Neither are they flat-pack furniture: we can’t pull them off a shelf and assemble them from the standardized instructions with the standardized tools. Rather, we should think of our stories as the vast, complicated machines they are, sprawling devices full of moving parts. We must, with the utmost care, select just the right tools and parts for the job. We must make no assumptions. We must question every choice we make: structure, character, plot, narrative, dialogue, all of it. Only then will our stories function properly.

Don’t go with the crowd just because it’s the ‘default’ choice. Make your own decisions. Find your own voice. And keep at it. But that’s probably another post entirely.