Monday, June 13, 2016

A Long and Complicated History

Behind the Story of Whispers of the Dead  (Part 1)    


Warning:  this post contains spoilers for Whispers of the Dead, and I recommend reading the book first.  Also be warned that this shows the ‘sausage-making’ aspect of writing, which some of you may not want to know about.

This book began life as a short story I wrote for a college creative writing class over a quarter century ago.  That was essentially a different version of what happens in the first chapter of Whispers, preceded by scenes showing what had led up to that calamitous night.  (All of which changed substantially, as you’ll see.)

Then I decided to write a novel (my first real novel) starting with that story and continuing with the consequences which would follow.  Having studied the craft of storytelling for several years already at that point, I outlined the book and began writing.  It took me a long time to finish the first draft, and much longer to rewrite it (and rewrite it again, then revise and revise some more.)  But in the end, it wasn’t good enough.

Despite a solid premise and an interesting central character and other engaging elements, it didn’t have enough life, enough zest.  It was well-written, but parts of the plot were predictable, the tone was far too angsty and emo, and most of the supporting cast felt flat.  It needed to be much, much better, and though I spent a lot of time trying to fix it, I couldn’t.  I didn’t know how to give the story what it was missing.

So I shelved it and started on a new novel, the idea for which had sprung from the backstory I’d developed for Whispers.  I’d been expanding that fictional future history and searching for just the right story, one I’d be thrilled to tell.  And when I realized what that was, I decided to discovery write it rather than outline the plot in advance.  After I wrote (and rewrote) Certain Hypothetical, I took the plunge and published it independently instead of sending the manuscript to traditional publishers.  I was confident it was a story people could and would enjoy.

Those were the right choices.  I found writing a first draft by the seat of my pants far more exciting than trying to breathe life into a dry outline, and the feedback I received from readers helped encourage me to keep going.  I wrote and published another novel, then another and another.

As I continued coming up with ideas for future stories, I was tempted to dust off the old manuscript for Whispers, give it a good polish, and release it as the first book in a new series.  After all, I’d loved the original idea, and that novel had ended with the promise of more to follow.  I’d learned a lot about the craft in the interim – there’s no teacher like experience, just digging in and doing it – and I was confident I could improve on what I’d written so long ago.  But I quickly discarded that notion.

I knew even a wholesale rewrite wouldn’t work – that old book belonged in the dustbin.  What I needed was to write a brand new novel based on the original idea, something strong enough to be a solid foundation for a series.  I’d also have to be excited enough to spend all those hours and days and weeks writing and rewriting and revising, and the story as written wouldn’t motivate me.  Then there was the fact that the backstory behind it had grown fuller and richer as I’d developed the Slowpocalypse and Watchbearers series.  The essence of a vastly better book existed, and I needed to tap into that potential.

But first I would have to strip away most of what I’d written and get down to the story’s fundamental DNA.  So I could rebuild everything from the ground up.

Next:  Part 2 – Some Severe Pruning

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