Rewriting THE LONG ROAD: Week 2

it is much more pleasant than it sounds, I promise

it is much more pleasant than it sounds, I promise

This is the second in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

To recap, my goal from last week was:

My plan of attack is to write a fairly dry wikipedia-style entry that tracks the war from start to finish: how it started, who shot first, the highlights and lowlights, how it ended and why it ended that way. Wish me luck!

What has actually happened:
I am still very much mired in the worldbuilding stage of things. The planning stage is far, far away – if I shield my eyes and squint I can just see it there on the horizon. That whole wikipedia entry idea? Apparently not in the cards (yet).

Last week, when I said I was going back to square one, really I should have said square zero. I thought I’d plan out the diagetic world events as they happened to specific characters in specific moments but that’s not shaping up to be the most productive approach. Here is a kicky chart that summarizes what I’m talking about:

worldbuildingpyramid

you guys, I just love charts

Ok, so what does this (extra fancy) chart mean, exactly? Well, let me tell you! I think every book – every narrative – is an attempt to explain and explore a world event through the eyes of a handful of people. It’s a way of making the historical, the grand, the political, personal. It’s a lens to understand what happened, why it happened, how it happened, and what might happen next. That’s why stories are so powerful.

The top of the pyramid is the narrative. The plot. The actual thing you’re actually going to read. The rest of it all floats beneath the surface, supporting that plot, giving it shape and structure. One can think of the plot as that aforementioned distillation of large-scale events down to individual narratives that reflect the scope of those events. My problem was that when I realized I needed to do worldbuilding, I didn’t realize I needed to do worldbuilding all the way down to the roots. I had a couple of failed attempts at outlining, which turned into long lists of questions I couldn’t yet answer, and then I realized what I really need to do.

It was time to worldbarf.

To worldbarf is to simply vomit ideas and concepts and half-formed histories all over the page. It’s the getting-it-out-there-so-you-have-it-to-work-with-later thing. It is not structured, it is not clean, it is not particularly usable for much of anything but getting the ideas flowing.

So, I’ve been worldbarfing. Lots of guesses, lots of questions, lots of notes about names I need to come up with later, timelines to sort out, events that are still fuzzy yet that need more refining once I’ve got the overall gist of the world and the war down. When I’ve got a computer, I worldbarf in Evernote.

for folks playing at home: take a shot for every cuss word you spot!

for folks playing at home: take a shot for every cuss word you spot!

Right now I have a note labeled “Border Wars Bible” that is a very stream-of-consciousness vomitorium for the general context and conditions in which the book will take place. Because, infuriatingtly, there’s no highlight function in Evernote, I’ve been color-coding the text as I write it – diegetic phrases, locations, and people get their own colors. One truly lovely feature of Evernote that fits very well with this free-form creative outbursting I am currently engrossed in is its ability to stick a To-Do button anywhere in your text. This makes it extremely easy to scan through what I’ve written and take note of open questions and loose ends.

When I’m not near a computer, and therefore cannot worldbarf digitally, I use an old-school old-fashioned spiral notebook.

worldbarfing - hardcopy edition

worldbarfing – hardcopy edition

It is also color-coded and very stream of consciousness. Unfortunately as I am writing longhand on the bus it is also in places illegible.

So what am I worldbarfing about? I started way, way back. How did these two populations (the humans and the elves) meet? What was first contact like? Why did the humans start settling in elvish territory to begin with, and what effect did the conditions for settling have on the way they structured their society down the line? How do differences in biology between these two groups (lifespan, typical number of children, potentiality for magical expression, etc) shape the conditions for the war?

The thing about the worldbarfing is that it works. I’ve made a tremendous amount of progress answering many of these questions, and in the answering have found other blind spots and quandries to sort out. I am nowhere near divining the plot of this book yet, but the groundwork is clipping along pretty quickly. I now have – I think for the first time – a sense of  the political and cultural context that led up to the war and shaped how it played out.

Next steps. Goals are always good to lay out, right? Let’s see…by this time next week I will have worldbarfed the war itself. Right now I have a solid sense of the conditions and context of it but still a very nebulous sense of what actually happened.

Rewriting THE LONG ROAD: week 1

because sucky worldbuilding gets us nowhere

because sucky worldbuilding gets us nowhere

This is the first in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The initial post outlining why this book is getting said rewrite is here.

I have known for some time that there are problems with THE LONG ROAD. That is to be expected since it’s the first piece of fiction I ever wrote. Let me say right at the outset that the book it turned into, and that the book it is about to turn into, is a completely different animal than the book it started as. Draft 1 to its current incarnation is a truly shocking display of evolution. Perhaps the biggest change was the decision around Draft 3 to make it a Serious Book and to move away from the attempted Hitchhiker’s Guide farcical humor of the initial drafts. This was mostly my doing and not my co-author’s – one of my first epiphanies as a budding writer was the certain knowledge that I am not a humorist. There are flashes of humor, sure, but I am no Douglas Adams or Mark Twain. I’m way too earnest for that.

The problem with this, with Aerdh more generally to be honest, is that so much of the foundational worldbuilding of this fantasy universe happened when Jon (the aforementioned co-author) and I were still playing (incompetently on my end) with slapstick. I have scrubbed Aerdh clean of most of the slapstick, but your first book is something weirdly personal and weirdly special. It seems almost untouchable. I have a fanatical attachment to this book which defies logic: it is, in this incarnation, not the sort of tale I write well or particularly even like reading and yet the idea of publishing anything and not publishing this feels very wrong. All of that is to say that it has taken several years for me to admit that maybe whole sections of plot made no sense. And maybe that is because some of the upfront worldbuilding I did a million years ago when I first started writing this book was total crap.

I thought, somewhat naively, that what I needed to do to get this rewrite up off the ground was to cut a bunch of stuff and streamline the plot. Last week, in the contained environment of a plane (I love writing on planes), I started brainstorming. On exploratory first drafts I’m not much of a planner, but for rewrites I very much am. So I thought I’d do some outlining, and then I realized just how much needed to change in order for the book to move from a well-executed silly and trite fantasy novel to an actual Good Book. The outline turned into a list of razor sharp HOW ARE YOU SO STUPID type questions about all the parts of the plot I’ve always been too much of a tender-hearted wuss to admit made no sense. But the biggest thing I realized is that I never did the really hardcore worldbuilding I needed to get done.

THE LONG ROAD centers around a group of elvish rebels trying to make it to the end of a nasty and brutish civil war. I worked out the elves’ society, the humans’ society, the way those societies interacted and mutually shaped each other, systems of magic, geography, etc. What I never spent that much time on in terms of worldbuilding was the war itself. It started because of…reasons? And ends because…something cool happens? I don’t know. I know what the world looked like before the war, during it, and after it, but the world itself is a huge nasty blind spot. This is very embarrassing to admit, but it’s true.

Today when I sat down to crank out some outlining for this rewrite I realized actually I have to take a step back further than I thought. I have to sort a bunch of shit out, do some very deliberate and crafty worldbuilding which is now complicated by the fact that I have written multiple novels that dovetail with the outcomes and highlights of this war, all of which ideally will remain consistent with one another.

My plan of attack is to write a fairly dry wikipedia-style entry that tracks the war from start to finish: how it started, who shot first, the highlights and lowlights, how it ended and why it ended that way. Wish me luck!

 

That moment where you thought you were done with a book and it turns out you aren’t.

Back to Square One signpost

I’ve been shopping around THE LONG ROAD for awhile now. It’s the first book I ever finished — actually, the first fiction I wrote in my adult life was in the context of that book which my partner, Jon, first began. Really, he is how I started writing fiction, and this book is why.

Jon and I have drafted this book three times, and when I say drafted I mean a top-to-bottom raze-it-to-the-ground rewriting process. Whole species of sentient beings have wound up on the cutting room floor. Main characters have been eclipsed, secondary characters have stepped up to take the lead, and then those main characters have switched genders. The current iteration of the book is solid, and quite a different beast than where it started. Reading through the various drafts of it is like paging through a scrapbook of my writerly life so far: I can trace the change of themes, the way my skills have grown and developed, see where I struggled and what was always easy.

So, like I said, I’ve been shopping the book around. We half-assedly queried it before, a couple of years ago, and got some lukewarm interest. I polished it up a little and since I have been querying SOUND AND SONG I thought why not? I’ll send out THE LONG ROAD, too. Recently I got a very nice rejection from an agent who mentioned as she gently turned me down that the length gave her pause. And something just clicked.

I am not one to alter a manuscript for presumed marketability. I take the stance that it’s either marketable or not, and that really it will either find an audience or it won’t, and that’s all just what it is. But when she said that I took a second to think about it. It’s 120,000 words long, and I’ve been marketing it as a young adult high fantasy book. And I think it is one, and I know that’s awfully long for a YA book. But when she said it, and I thought about it, the length of the book gave me pause, too.

It’s not that kids don’t read long books. I sure as hell did. It’s more that this book doesn’t actually need to be this long. This book is, perhaps, two different books. It’s currently structured with two overarching story lines which are honestly only tenuously related. I had plans to bring them together in a later volume in a way that perhaps does not make particularly logical sense. The upshot is I think the book needs a tighter focus, needs some streamlining.

Needs to be shorter.

Needs yet another rewrite.

And the thing is that I am kind of stoked to do it. Which is a really good sign that it’s the right move, that the book will be better for it, and that it will probably be hella fun to work on.

Yay for thoughtful rejections!