One of those stories that started with an image in my head, and developed in the writing (what’s often called ‘pantsing’ or ‘discovery writing’). It’s not something I do for novels, but it works well for the first draft of short stories. In this case, I knew the main character was trying to escape from some kind of agency, but when I started out I had no idea of the twist at the end.
Stories are almost always open to interpretation. Often, when we read or hear a story, we’re not presented with all the information. Sometimes, the actions of the characters can be seen from different angles.
I was thinking of the biblical story of Onan recently (no idea why—my mind sometimes takes interesting diversions). His story can be found in Genesis, and goes like this:
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
(Genesis 38: 6-10, NIV)
From this, we get the ‘sin of Onan’, or Onanism. This word is often used to refer to masturbation, but this is clearly not what Onan was up to. The original/true meaning of Onanism is coitus interruptus, which was once (and possibly is by some people) seen as a sin—the underlying belief being that sexual activity is primarily for procreation.
Before we continue, a word of explanation. It’s easy to view historical writings through modern eyes, so it’s important to point out that, when this story was said to take place, Judah’s request to Onan was in keeping with tradition—when a man died, it was his brother’s duty to ensure his widow bore children. Those who refused to carry this out were publicly humiliated.
But in this story, Onan is not publicly humiliated, but is put to death, because ‘what he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight’.
The classic interpretation is that, by ‘spilling his seed on the ground’ (wonderfully poetic phrase, that), he angered God. But this leaves his actual ‘sin’ open to interpretation—was it coitus interruptus, or was God more annoyed that Onan refused to fulfil his duty? Should the ‘sin of Onan’ really be concerned with breaking tradition?
There’s also a totally different way of looking at this story. Tradition is what is expected, passed down through generations—but that doesn’t necessarily make it right. Think of ‘traditional’ roles of men and women in western society, and how they have now changed. Think of the ‘traditional’ treatment of ‘foreigners’, especially those with different skin colours. In some parts of the world, female genital manipulation is still seen as a rite of passage, something traditional that should be upheld.
Tradition is not always ‘right’.
So let’s return to Onan’s story, but this time I want to think about Tamar. She’s pretty central to the story, but only gets a walk-on (or lay-down) part. There’s nothing about what she thinks of Onan. Is she happy to sleep with him—and if not, could we see this as rape, even though it’s socially acceptable in the story’s culture?
Maybe Onan is a deep thinker. He want to be a good member of society, but he has many questions inside about what goes on around him. Maybe Onan likes Tamar, and feels empathy with her, knows how much she’s hurting after the death of her husband. Maybe he’s been a friend to her, almost a brother, so when Onan’s father tells him that he must provide Tamar with a child, he has grave concerns. He sees the fear on Tamar’s face when he approaches her, and he knows that this is the last thing she wants. He has no wish to cause her more suffering.
But what is a dutiful son and brother to do? If he doesn’t go through with the deed, he’ll be punished. And even then, what will happen to Tamar? She has no children, has not provided a continuation of Judah’s family—her prospects don’t look good.
Poor Onan’s torn. He does his duty, but his heart isn’t in it. He tells himself he’s doing the right thing, but he doesn’t believe that. He sees Tamar’s face, her eyes shut tight as she wills herself to be somewhere else—anywhere else. He feels her pain, and he knows this is wrong.
Finally, just before the point of no return, Onan makes his decision. With a surge of willpower, he withdraws, refusing to force his sister-in-law to bring to term a child she doesn’t want.
And maybe there’s a tear in the corner of her eye, slowly running down her cheek. She’s sobbing, and her body trembles with relief.
Onan’s done the right thing.
But that comes at a price. For doing what he believed was right, Onan is martyred, killed by a cruel social system that treats women as second-rate citizens. He’s reviled, even though he’s a true hero.
It’s all about interpretation.
If that examples too serious, I’ll give another interpretation of a well-known story. It goes like this:
A young girl travels to a distant land and kills the first person she meets. She then teams up with three strangers and sets off to kill again.
Recognise it? I’d be surprised if you’re not aware of it. You might not have read the book, but you’ve probably seen the film. No doubt it’ll be on over Christmas, what with it being a much-loved family entertainment.
Those two sentences are just one interpretation of L Frank Baum’s classic, The Wizard Of Oz.
I’ve had the idea for this story knocking about for a couple of years now, originally as an opening to a novel—but I never had a clear idea of where to take it. So I thought I’d adapt it to a short.
I might write the novel that comes after at some point, but not yet.
The indie author community feels very special—even to someone like me, who is only on the fringes of it. Writers who are publishing themselves are spread across the globe, and their numbers are growing all the time, but still the community feels…like a community.
It’s supportive, for one thing. As it’s now November, we’re in NANoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. The challenge (to write 50,000 words over the month) is really there to help new writers grow a writing habit, but many seasoned authors still take part. And those who don’t still offer encouragement to those who might be struggling. There’s an overall sense that, even if you don’t reach that 50,000 word goal, any words you do get down take you closer to the end of that novel, and are to be celebrated. There are many writers who cite NaNoWriMo as formative in their writing careers, and much of that comes down to the support from the indie author community.
It’s also incredibly generous. People are generally very willing to share both their successes and failures. There’s no sense of hard competition between writers, but rather a feeling that encouraging reading will help everyone (I’ve often heard this spoken of as ‘a rising tide floats all boats’). It’s why writers are willing to recommend books by others in their genres, and also why they provide so much help to newer writers. Yes, some of this costs (in the form of books and courses), but so much is put out there for free. There are blogs, webinars and podcasts. Personally, I’ve learnt so much through listening to the advice, interviews and discussions available from the likes of Joanna Penn, Kevin Tumlinson, Mark Dawson, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, and so many others.
Of course, no community is perfect, and there are those who are not so generous and helpful. There are those who try to cheat the system, or take short-cuts that make things harder for others. There was the whole ‘cockygate’ thing a few months ago (this post provides a pretty good summary for anyone who’s interested to read more). But generally, indie authors see fellow writers not as competition, but as travellers on the same journey—and, often, this grows into genuine friendship.
One incident recently brought home to me just how caring this community is.
You might have heard of Brandon Barr, but if that name is unfamiliar to you, he writes fantasy and science fiction. Like many writers, he juggles his writing with a day-job and family commitments, but he’s been building up a readership over the years, and has forged bonds with fellow writers. Slowly, he’s becoming ‘successful’, especially with his Song Of The Worlds series.
But his journey hasn’t been plain sailing. A couple of years ago, Brandon was diagnosed with leukaemia, and although the treatment he received appeared to have been successful, the leukaemia has recently returned. This time, doctors can’t offer a good prognosis.
There’s been a surge of support and help from other writers, and although those closer to Brandon have been at the forefront of this, many others have done what they can to help. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to support his family. They’ve stepped in to help with the recent re-release of his series, and to take over the running of his newsletter when he’s unable to do this himself. And a couple of authors are currently working on Brandon on the remaining two books in his series.
But the indie author community is a part of a far larger community—that of readers. Many writers who have not been in a position to directly help Brandon have done the best they can by asking readers to help. How? There’s also one very simple way for readers to support an author—buy books. The best place to start with Brandon is Rise of the Seer, the first book in his Songs of the World series. So if you would like to help support Brandon and his family, please consider either buying a book or donating (or both).
And if you want to learn a bit more about Brandon, his recent interview on Kevin Tumlinson’s Wordslinger podcast is a great place to start (click here).
I’ve finished my first editing pass through Dark Glass, and after a number of tweaks I’m really pleased with the structure. Of course, there’s still work to do. The writing’s clunky in places, and I’m sure there are repetitions and other issues to deal with. And then I need to go granular, examining the actual words I’ve used.
But I also need to ensure I haven’t added anything to this version that contradicts following books, so I’ve started re-reading the rest of the series. I wrote the original three books a couple of years ago, and even though I can go back over my notes, there’s much I’ve forgotten.
I have fond memories of the second book, Dead Flesh. It’s the darkest book so far, but it also has a very emotional arc for Rodin, as he develops (or maybe uncovers) a stronger conscience. So I was looking forward to re-reading this book.
It starts well, throwing the reader straight into Rodin’s latest contract, and I’m pleased with how I balance the (pretty sickening) violence with Rodin’s growing unease at the acts he’s being called on to perform.
But the book’s not perfect, and as I read on I came across passages that weren’t as good as my writing is now. As I approached the middle section of Dead Flesh, a nagging voice started asking if this book, like the first, needed a re-write.
Now, that voice was nowhere near as forceful as it had been with Dark Glass (and that book definitely needed reworking), but it started a worrying train of thought—if the second book could be improved, then so could the third, and so on. I’m improving as a writer all the time (partly because I’m paying more attention to the way I use words and structure stories, partly through actively learning through craft books and podcasts, and partly because I try to write every day), and so everything I’ve already written has the potential to be improved. I always aim for my next book to be my best yet.
But if I constantly returned to older books, pulling them up to my current writing standard, I wouldn’t be producing any new books. This clearly isn’t sensible—I enjoy creating new stories, and readers who have already started on my books deserve to have those series completed at some point. Just think of the way readers have moaned about the long wait for George RR Martin’s next book. Also, if I want to improve as a writer, that means working on all stages of producing a finished story—planning, writing and editing. I won’t get that all-round constant learning if I’m only editing.
Besides, it’s not as if Dead Flesh is a bad book. As I read on, I became increasingly immersed in the story (one advantage of reading books that have faded in memory). When I reached the climax, I was pleased with how this part of the series reads. I still love how the final scene plays out after all the action and violence, and it sets Rodin up for what he faces in Dominions III (and beyond). Yes, there are things that could be improved in this book, but I’m fine with how it stands.
So I’m not going to re-write Dead Flesh (and, when I get on to reading Deep Water, I doubt I’ll feel the need to re-write that either). Instead, I’m going to continue working on Dark Glass, and then I’ll concentrate on new books With everything I’m learning through this re-working process, I’m sure that new book (Dominions V) will be my best yet—until the one after that.
Previous ‘Reworking a novel’ posts:
It starts with a man on a plane…
This story was one of a number that I first-drafted while on holiday over the summer. I can’t recall if I wrote this story on the plane, but it’s genesis was definitely the flight out.
So, you’re on a plane, with a hundred or so other passengers. Maybe you know a few, but most are strangers. Some look like they’re going on holiday (pale and excited), or just returning (tanned and tired). But others are more of a mystery—the lone passengers, the ones who might be on a business trip, or who might be doing…something else.
For this story, I let my imagination run wherever it wanted. What if one of these mysterious passengers were on a mission to save the world? What if the world was being invaded, and only this passenger and a handful of others knew?
And what if the invaders were winning?
Habits build up over time, often without conscious thought. I like to read before I go to sleep, but I also read at other times. Most recently, this has included a decent length of time when I get in from work (grab a bite to eat and a drink, and sit down with a book for a good half-hour or more), as well as ten minutes while eating breakfast. I sometimes get more time in during the day, but that depends on what else is happening, and the three times mentioned above (breakfast, after work, before sleep) are pretty regular.
A few weeks back, I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, but straight away I ran into a problem—the chapters were too long.
This needs an explanation.
I’ve never felt comfortable stopping reading just anywhere. I always aim to finish a chapter, or at least to reach a section break. Stopping mid-flow feels wrong. In a well-written book, the chapters and sections are part of the structure of the story—the writer chose to change scene, or to provide a break, for a particular reason. I can recall hearing Brandon Sanderson (I think it was on his Writing Excuses podcast) talking about wanting the reader to take a break at the end of each chapter—each chapter is it’s own mini-story, and needs to be assimilated before continuing to the next mini-story.
In the same way, I don’t enjoy watching films in sections either, or listening to only part of a piece of music. I need to experience the work as the creator intended.
So when I started The Blade Itself (The First Law Book One), I knew I’d want to give each chapter the time it deserved. This wasn’t a problem when reading before sleep—I had some flexibility in this. Likewise, after work, I could continue reading until I’d reached the end of a chapter.
But over breakfast, my time is limited—I have to be out of the house by a certain time in order to get to work. I wouldn’t have time to necessarily read complete chapters.
One of the things I love about my Kindle is how it tells me how many minutes reading is left in each chapter, and I could’ve used this. I could have made sure that when I stopped reading at night, I did so with a shorter chapter coming up, one that I could get through in ten minutes—but what if I was in the midst of some very long chapters? I could have pushed through the chapter in the morning, skim-reading—but I wanted to enjoy these books, and that included the writing itself. I could have simply read in the hope that a scene-break would appear at a sensible time—but what if it didn’t?
Then I found my solution.
I don’t only read fiction. Since starting writing, I’ve been reading more and more books about writing—the craft itself, marketing, mindset, and anything else related to publishing. These books often have some kind of narrative flow, but that’s secondary to the information. Also, non-fiction tends to be written in shorter, easily-digestible chunks—ideal for reading when you only have a few minutes spare.
You can probably see where this is going.
I now have two books on the go at any one time. I read fiction when I have longer stretches of time, enabling me to immerse myself in the story as the writer intended. But I also have a non-fiction book on the go at the same time. I use my phone for these books (either using the Kindle app or a pdf reader, as some of these books I only have in that format), which has another advantage—if I have a spare couple of minutes (for instance, if I’m waiting to pick one of the kids up from an activity) I can consume another short section of non-fiction.
It’s only a small alteration to how I read, but I can see the advantages already. I won’t be as ready to put longer-chapter books aside for ‘later’ (so I’ll finally get round to all those Brandon Sanderson books sitting on my to-be-read list), and I’ll also be getting a little bit of ‘learning’ in each day from the non-fiction.
Always good to find a win-win solution!