Scope and a painful lesson learnt

Posted on Tue 19 September 2017 in Journal • 4 min read

Back in 2015, I decided to re-write my novel, Weaver of Dreams. The original version had its problems; problems of characterisation and setting that have niggled at me for years.

Several early readers of the book didn't connect with my main character, a young woman, like I hoped. They were much more interested in her twin brother, a sullen, uncoordinated youth caught between those awkward years between boyhood and manhood. I introduced him to provide a chaperone and a little conflict in the first chapter and that was all; I barely him mentioned again. Those early readers wanted to know more about him and his story.

Maybe I was battling the inherent gender bias in the genre. Admittedly, this was 2004 and with a few exceptions, most fantasy novels were coming of age stories about boys becoming men.

More likely (and it pains me to admit this), I wrote him better than I did my heroine, particularly in that essential first chapter. Having once been a sullen teenage boy, battling with puberty and unrequited love, he was an easy character for me to write.

Today, I like to think that I'm a better writer than I was in my early 20s. I have more life experience and a better understanding of what makes a good character; back then I was writing purely on instinct and limited experience. Nevertheless, the fact that readers responded to Emilan has played on my mind for the better part of a decade.

So with that niggling doubt lingering in my mind, when I decided to re-write the novel, I believed that I had to elevate Emilan's role to that of a main character, giving him equal footing with his sister.

This has been a costly mistake.

The first version of the novel was around 120 thousand words with a fairly linear and well-paced plot. The monstrosity I'm writing now is not.

To introduce a second main character arc, I've had to break and extend the story's time line from two months to almost a year. I've introduced lengthy sub-plots. I've given my antagonist more POV time, when frankly the scenes work better when they are off screen. I've had to bend over backwards to put my characters in situations to satisfy the old plot.

Instead of fixing the problems of the first version, I've compounded them. I'm barrelling towards a whopping word count of 200k -- a length well-beyond the tastes and tolerances of modern readers, particularly when taking a risk on a new writer. In fact, it is getting so large, I contemplated writing an even bigger story, padding it out and splitting it into the classic three-part trilogy format.

Moreover, by changing the character dynamic, I think the moral integrity of the story suffered. Lillian's story was in danger of being overshadowed by her brother's, particularly as I fell back to the well-worn trope of a boy becoming a mighty warrior, leaving his sister struggling with stereotypically female concerns about marriage.

Nevertheless, it hasn't been a complete waste of time. My heroine is a better character than she was 15 years ago and there's much more at stake for her. The setting is richer, the magic system more fleshed out, as is the backstory. There's good material, it's just not used well or it's used in the wrong place.

So, I've decided to scale back the scope of the story. It's time to do a little structural editing with a scalpel and sheers.

First and foremost, Lillian's brother will be demoted to a supporting character; he'll get a lot more time than in version 1, but this is no longer his story.

I'll prune the lengthy subplots. The longest, of which, I'll spin off into a standalone novella. This novella will be set just before Weaver of Dreams, about an event that's referenced early on. Reading it won't be essential to the book, but it's a story I'd like to tell nonetheless -- and why waste material?

Finally, I'm going to scale back the amount of POV scenes I've given to the antagonist. This will be tough; I wrote some really good material for him, and cutting it is going to hurt. I have to take the hit to my ego though for the sake of the story. That's what writers mean when we say 'kill your darlings'.

With these changes, I hope to get the project back on the rails and finish the draft sooner that I could reasonable expect if I was shooting for a doorstopper or trilogy. It's still going to be a long-ish story (somewhere between 130-150k) but hopefully it will be a story that's a little tighter, a little more focussed and truer to my original vision.

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