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The toughest book so far (or, Going off half-cocked)

Midnight on 31st January 2016 has been on my mind since the middle of last year. That’s because, after my wife Kerry accepted a posting to Bangkok, Thailand, I approached my publisher and asked for my 30th November 2015 deadline to be extended by a couple of months. I knew that the shift to Thailand (effective 16th November) would make meeting my 30th November deadline impossible. My editor Jo Fletcher agreed (bless her!); so 31st January 2016 became the new red-circle date on my calendar.

The book in question is Empress of the Fall – Book One of The Sunsurge Quartet, the sequel series to The Moontide Quartet, which concluded in 2015. It’s fair to say that Empress has had a tough genesis. First up, I had to take two months out in May/June to write a teen novel about World War One. Secondly, Kerry had a bad fall while running in June, resulting in multiple fractures in her right hand and an operation to insert plates and screws, and many months of disruption as I doubled as her taxi-driver and dresser, while picking up many more of the tasks around the house. Then there was the period of our packing out of Auckland and shifting our lives to Thailand, in October/November.

The net result was a book that I only got to attack in short and unpredictable windows, resulting in a very disjointed first draft. To recover, I had to really blitz the story in January, working without a day off from about 3rd January onwards, with many 12 hour days; culminating in working a 19-hour shift until 2am on deadline day (the deadline was 6am local time, so I sent it in with 4 hours to spare).

But I got there! And when I say “I got there”, what I mean is that I’m genuinely pleased with the manuscript, which I think is the equal of anything in the Moontide series. It’s got pace, pathos, humour, action, and a real heart. Of course, I’m yet to get Jo’s appraisal, so this satisfaction might be deluded. I think I’ve said before, that I only write to please two people – myself and my editor.

But why did it all end up so bloody difficult this time around?

Obviously, all the disruptions were a factor. They couldn’t not be – it was a bad year. Also, it’s a Book One: and I wanted it to be readable for anyone who hasn’t read the Moontide books. That meant I had to re-establish the world-building, and this is no small task: it’s a complex story-world. Also, as a Book One, so much rides on every decision I make, not just in this book but the remaining three. In later books, the choices have been narrowed by what has gone before, which makes them easier to write. It’s the choices we’re faced with that cost us writers our sleep!

But the BIG THING was this: I initially couldn’t ‘hear’ certain character’s voices. In the past, I’ve never started a novel without being totally clear on the persona of all the major characters. This time, the deadline dictated that I start in February, regardless of whether I felt ready. I hoped that the act of writing would settle the characters into place in my head – and that worked for some, but crucially, not for all. The fact was that I wasn’t psychologically and emotionally ready enough to start the writing process: in old fashioned parlance, “it went off half-cocked”.

The result was that the main central thread, comprising 50% of the novel, was spent in the company of two POV characters whose identity was constantly shifting, as I changed my mind about who they were. It made their scenes, decisions and character, all massively variable. Frankly, it was a mess.

I recognised this, of course, and tried to rectify it by trying out different personality types. Both characters went through several metamorphoses; the male from naïve greenhorn to world-weary rogue; the woman from a lonely spinster to a brat. Little worked, and the amount of words I wrote then culled again was enough to flesh out several novels. By the time October came, I was genuinely afraid that for the first time I’d fail to meet a deadline.

What got me through?

First up, my test readers were brilliant. I gave them a tight turnaround, and asked them to comment on everything I thought was wrong with the book, plus any other problem they saw. They were asked to not spare my feelings, and they didn’t. But they were also wonderfully constructive and clear-sighted. They saw what WORKED as well as what didn’t, and by then I was becoming blind to that.

So thanks, Kerry, Heather, Cath and Paul. You were fantastic.

The rest was both mental application and graft. What I did first was settle on a persona that worked for my problem characters. I did this by writing made up POV scenes in which they explained who they were to me (something I picked up from a “craft-tip” in Maureen Crisp’s weekly blog on the writing scene). Finally, I began to really “hear” them.

That resolved, the rest flowed. But it still required every scene involving them to be re-crafted, right down to the smallest sentence. And then there was still the regulation trimming and editing that any story requires – the other two threads also had issues to resolve.

But as I said, I got there!

The Lesson: Don’t even start writing until you know EXACTLY who your lead characters are. Not just a profile document (I’d done those, and they proved utterly worthless, as they didn’t capture their essence): write from THEIR PERSPECTIVE, explaining their world view. Once you know and understand your leads, everything else really does flow!

Phew! Now, I have a month in which to do some miscellaneous tasks (edits on some other projects, some website stuff), before Book Two awaits!!!

At least I know my characters this time!!!!

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