On Labor Day, at 3:30 or so in the afternoon, I typed the last sentence of the rough draft of The Swan Princess. This is always a bittersweet moment, when a book that began life as a vague idea, almost an image, congeals into a visible shape. Not yet an adult shape, fully formed, but a real story with a beginning, a somewhat hairy middle, and an end. I have left the stage of pure imagination and moved into the (for me) even more vital stage of revision.
The bittersweet quality was particularly pronounced with this book. Like many writers, I find beginnings and endings easier than middles, which have to sustain interest and develop the plot and characters without rushing to the resolution of problems. Perhaps because The Swan Princess is also the fulcrum of the series—the third of the five directions—finding its heart became a slog in a way that the first two books never were and I hope the last two will not be (since I already know their basic stories). The whole novel is, in a sense, a middle—focused on development and the retention of interest more than resolution.
Of course, I still have a long way to go. As tends to happen with my stories, characters insisted on doing things for reasons I don’t yet understand and that may not work when I do figure it out. On the whole, the resolutions at the end mirror the problems established at the beginning, but a few hares I started in chapter 1 veered off into the woods in chapter 8 and never returned. I have either to catch them and bring them back or erase any traces of their presence. Key secondary characters vanish for long stretches of time and need invitations to check in once a while before the reader forgets them and their concerns. At least one minor character requires building up, whereas others will do better with some trimming. The spiritual and political background so important to the series as a whole so far appears in patches, at best.
But the book was also a learning experience for me. I discovered that, however hard I cling to the illusion, I cannot outline a novel. I need to see it on the page in all its glorious complexity and illogic. I find the characters, the plot, the dialogue, and the settings by writing them out. Even comments from other trusted writers can’t help much at the start, because until I know what course the story will take, I have no way to assess whether I should push a problematic incident in this direction or that, give it more space or cut it altogether. Once that spine exists—sketched out and filled with place-holding clichés as it inevitably is (because if I stop to edit, I will not move the story forward)—then constructive criticism works, because I can figure out how to respond.
A few days to revel in the sensation of accomplishment, and it’s back to the drawing board—or in this case, writing desk—to prune the dead wood and nurture the sprouts that see the sun only in chapter 10. With luck, the revisions will go faster than stage 1, and I’ll have completed my sixth novel late this year or early in the next. And when I start book 7, I’ll know to lock myself in the office and write it down, warts and all, before inflicting it on my long-suffering, endlessly patient and helpful critique group. But then, I already have a good idea of what should happen in The Vermilion Bird....
Speaking of my critique group, if you happen to live in the Philadelphia area, three of us are giving a panel at the Helen Kate Furness Free Library next Wednesday, September 16. Stop by and say hello. You can find full information and sign up on Facebook or get time and place from the Five Directions Press site. Hope to see you there!