Friday, March 22, 2013

SPECIAL: Jaydium - Revising a False Start

As a special thanks to all of you who've been following along with the adventures of Kithri, Eril, Lennart, Brianna, and assorted invertebrates, here's a special backstage tour of the opening...

Jaydium, my first novel to see print, had a long and colorful history, with almost as many adventures as its characters. It began life as a few pages scribbled in a spiral bound notebook while my first child (who is now in her 30s) attended swimming class. The idea for the "space ghost" in Chapter 5 came to me in a dream. Eventually these scrawled pages became the beginning of the first draft.

In those days, I knew almost nothing about editing and even less about revision. I learned about them by writing Jaydium. And re-writing, and re-visioning, and taking apart and putting it back together in some completely different way . . . until I got it right. Here's the first version, the one I inflicted upon my local writers' group:

Chapter 1

"I'm sorry about what happened in the bar," the stranger said, and Kithri Jump/laughter looked up at him from her preliminary safety check on her scrubject BUSHWACKER. Jump/laughter, that was her Brush name, worn for enough seasons now that her real, ordinary name began to feel heavy on the tongue. Kithryne vont'Sunnai Gildreath, who was she but some penniless honk with nothing but a third-rate, down-at-the-pharings local hopper to her name? Kithri Jump/laughter, now there was a handle to make the tavern buffoons sit up and take notice.

So Kithri Jump/laughter was rarely made a fool of, and she squinted her eyes at the man who had been a witness to one of those rare occasions. His body was slender, hard-muscled under his flightsuit and he'd rolled the sleeves to bare his forearms. His skin glowed like warm honey in the noon sun -- smooth, his face with its trace of epicanthic folds and full lips saved from prettiness by a small, jagged scar on one cheek. Not her type, but Kithri couldn't afford a type.  She knew he was studying her, wondering what he thought of her muscular shoulders and broken nose. She couldn't whore for survival money even if she wanted to. 

She said, "You don't have to come."

"Lyu, my name is Lyu. And my brother-in-law didn't desert you on purpose. It was an honest mistake, a shock seeing you there."

Kithri flapped the safe-cover down over the backup 'chute system. If he wouldn't shut up, she'd have to find some excuse to back out of the substitution. "Look, Lyu -- Hank, that scrub-pilot turned war hero who married your sister was no sweetheart of mine. Not even a bedmate, although not from want of trying. We've run Jaydium from the Hillers for five years now, war or no war. He may well forget it now that he's got your rich sister, but it's all that keeps me going off-season." And I can't do it alone, or I'd never agreed to this crazy scheme.

"He --"

"Stop apologizing for the bastard, will you! Sure, he and his bride come wandering through his old haunts for nostalgia's sake, and what inconvenient boobie shows up but his old Jaydium running partner? What's he to do? 'Oh, sorry my dear, I'm off to risk life and impotency for the sake of a few shekels?' If I were in his booties, I'd back out just as fast."
Lyu pulled tight the last tensegrity-reinforcement strap and slid into the second pilot's seat. The pseudo suede seemed almost new compared to the primary's. He said, "Don't do this often, do you?"

"Run Jaydium? Hell, you know the risks. Stuff's so labile the only way to get it in is flying duo, and I don't often find a match I'd trust with my life" . . . and mind. For all his womanizing, she'd been able to trust Hank. Why was she taking such a damned risk with this stranger? She watched him again as he began the instrument check, liking the way he moved, the care with which he double-checked everything. He'd had good training, why did he need to run Jaydium? For kicks?

Lyu looked up as she slid into the seat before him. Almost a lover's fit, his knees beside her elbows. Could he be one of those few who, like herself, risked a marginal existence for the occasional dip into the nirvana of duo-flight? Hank had been greedy but steady, unable to comprehend why the intense, melding closeness of duo never led her to his bed. They weren't that close a match, for all his arrogant good looks, and the joy of duo had been enough in itself for her.

This opening reads like a textbook example of beginner's errors. I'd read somewhere that you had to hook the reader early and to me that meant something exciting had to happen right away, a spasm of instant adrenaline. I decided to start with a tension-filled scene and segue into a hair-raising Jaydium mining run. What I did was to dump the poor unsuspecting reader into the middle of an unreasonable argument, with no sense of place or personal history or motivation. I then scrambled to introduce background explanations, mostly in dialog because I didn't want to slow down the "action". I didn't realize then that when characters tell each other what they already know for the sake of the reader, they appear stupid and arrogant, hardly sympathetic.

The chapter continued at a breathless pace that left my first readers confused. The most common reaction was an irritated, "What the heck is going on?"

I also indulged in a good deal of playing around with funny names and ideas, many of which don't make sense or even fit with one another. This is one work habit I haven't tried to change and it's still typical of my first drafts. It's important to my style of working that I be free to put down whatever nonsense pops into my head. I usually edit out the embarrassingly bad ones before I let anyone read my drafts. Some of my targets here were names and technobabble. Some I dropped, others I transformed, and in a few cases I couldn't resist the temptation to create new ones. My goal was for the jargon to enrich my portrayal of the characters and their unique world, not intrude or exist only for the sake of weirdness.

Three workshop and two editorial revisions later, the final version of Jaydium's opening invites the reader into this new world, introducing characters, concepts, and relationships in a developing progression.  To do this, I not only had to slow the pace but to back up my point of entry.

Chapter 1

Dust, Kithri thought as she shoved her shoulder against the door of The Thirsty Miner Tavern. The pitted duraplast jerked open, sending a drift of gray-brown powder over her boots. My whole life is turning to dust.

Dust was everywhere on the single inhabited continent of the planet Stayman. It clung to the folds of Kithri's dun-colored overalls and sprinkled her ragged brown curls. Sifting past the shutters or tracked in at the door, it invaded even the corners where shadows lay thick and stale.

The Thirsty Miner gathered its fair share of dust. Other bars catered to insystem traders, the few Federation agents who cared to rub shoulders with locals or the farmers who, when they came into town at all, kept stubbornly to themselves. But this bar, small and far from the center of Port Ludlow, attracted only its regular customers, Jaydium miners all.
Look at them, Kithri thought, pausing as the door swung shut behind her. They're already drinking up every credit they've made on this run.

Old Dowdell and his two tavern buddies, identical in their rumpled miners' overalls and grizzled faces, looked up from their usual places at the centermost table. Kithri turned her back on them and leaned her elbows on the bar. The barkeep set a mug of brew in front of her.

A few more years, and I'll be just like them.

This was not strictly true. Although Kithri had come to Stayman as a homesick adolescent, she would never be anything but an outsider. One day her clear gray eyes might dull under the faint film  that never seemed to leave the other miners' eyes and her youthful skin might dry up into a mass of crevices like theirs, but she could never change who she was -- the daughter of a Federation scientist.
Comment #1: Much of what makes a situation or a character interesting involves difference. In the first version, the reader had no way of experiencing Kithri's sense of isolation and antagonism toward her world, or her dreams and fears, or why she is special. By slowly moving into this scene, I offer the reader a chance to care about her.

Kithri might not belong to Stayman, but Stayman had left its mark on her. The heavy fabric of her overalls could not hide the long curves of her thighs, or shoulders grown muscular from years of chipping Jaydium. She rubbed her nose where it had once been broken and sipped the tepid brew, wishing for the hundredth time that morning there was somewhere else to go, something else to do. She could drag out her outdated astrophysics texts and pretend to study, but what would be the use?

I'm never going to get off this miserable planet! Not to University, not to anywhere!

"Hey, Bloodyluck!"

"Dowdell," she muttered without turning around, "there's nothing you have to say that I want to hear, so stuff it."

"I hear Nash's looking for a whore on his insystem route. Fix you up good, you might do."

Kithri took her mug and stalked over to the farthest, darkest corner. Dowdell's raucous laugh followed her,

". . . 'course we'd all expect free samples . . ."

At the rate she was going, flying singlo, it would take years to save the rest of her passage offplanet. The Federation freighters came too infrequently and too much of her earnings dribbled away just to survive on this desolate hunk of rock. But if she could find someone else trained in duo -- someone besides that dustbug Dowdell -- all it would take would be one, maybe two good runs. She could even make another haul before the freighter took off tonight.

Kithri leaned against the grimy ash-brick wall and closed her eyes, trying to remember Albion's rivers and flowered fields, the clear blue sky, the billowing golden clouds. The images were fragmentary, a child's memories, luminous and blurred. Albion itself was now a radioactive cinder.

Lost in her daydreams, Kithri didn't look up as the door swung open again and a man stood there, silhouetted against the glaring daylight. His off-worlder clothing -- closefit pants, shirt and vest, laced boots -- did little to mask the hard, lean contours of his body. Close behind him came a stunningly beautiful woman in a tailored medic's uniform and a taller man, brassy-haired and smiling. Dowdell let out a long whistle and glanced towards the corner where Kithri sat, her eyes still closed.

The barkeep set three mugs of brew in front of the newcomers. "Hank," he nodded to the tall man. "Been a while."

In her corner, Kithri opened her eyes, slowly focusing on the three newcomers. Her expression hidden by the dense shadows, she got noiselessly to her feet.

The woman looked down at her mug and wrinkled her nose at the dingy, froth-covered liquid. "Is this all there is?"

"Avery, my love, you wouldn't want to try the alternatives," said Hank. "The water's laced with metal salts and the rotgut's only good for a three-day drunk."

The second man lifted his mug to his lips. His vest fell open and revealed a leather shoulder holster carrying a force whip, an exotic weapon for a planet where simple stunguns were the norm. "It's better than aardwolf piss," he commented.

"Such language, Eril!" said the woman. He leaned toward her, laughing, a male version of her beauty -- dark hair, faint epicanthic folds of the eyelids, golden skin. But while she was all silky curves, there was nothing effeminate about him. Instead, he was sleek and taut like a sand-leopard, the kind of predator that relishes trouble.
Comment #2: By the time I wrote the final version of Jaydium, I'd learned to make story elements do double- and triple-duty. For example, the field of flowers, the force whip, and Kithri's scientific background all play important roles later in the story, as well as adding detail now.

Hank turned away from the bar, unaware of Kithri's silent approach. "Yes, my love, this lowly tavern was the scene of many a youthful adventure of mine. I remember the time this trader took the notion one of the miners'd hyped his stash. Now, I knew Grizz'd done no such thing -- all the man knows is Jaydium and getting drunk, in the reverse order. And besides, the trader's so stoned on bloodroot he can't even remember where he put his own head. He pulls out a knife as long as your forearm --" Hank gestured dramatically, "-- screams like bloody hell and goes ramming for Grizz. Well, what was I to do, let an honest miner get his kidneys chopped? I vault over those three tables there and foot-sweep him. Bam! Down he goes! Then I break a chair over his head, wrestle the knife out of his hands, and --"

"You're nothing but a dustbug liar, Hank Austin!" Kithri slammed her mug down next to his. "In case you've forgotten, it wasn't a chair I smashed over the trader's head, it was a bench. All you did was stick your foot out and pick up the pieces afterwards."

"Kithri! By all the powers of luck and space, what are you still doing here?"

She winced. "It's great to see you, too. C'mon, if we scramble we can make one more duo haul on this run. There's five, almost six hours until lift-off."

"Who is this... person?" asked the petite beauty, slipping her hand through Hank's arm and narrowing her eyes.

Hank straightened up. "Avery my love, meet my old flying partner, Kithri Bloodyluck. Ask me sometime how she got that name. It makes the other story sound like an old ladies' tea party. Kithri, this is my wife."

"Your... wife." In her soaring excitement, Kithri had barely noticed the two strangers. She swallowed hard, her tanned face flushing to an ugly shade of copper. The dim light of the tavern masked it and her voice was steady enough. That was lucky, because she could feel the eyes of the other miners on her, searching her for any hint of weakness. They'd given up any pretense of lack of interest and were staring frankly. After Hank had signed on as a Federation pilot, she'd had her fill of speculation about their having been lovers -- and who would take his place. The thought of another round of Dowdell's jokes was enough to turn her stomach.

"I wanted to show Avery where I used to hang out before I enlisted," Hank said. "Now that the war's over --" He paused, his handsome brow furrowing. "You didn't think I came back here -- just to run Jaydium, did you? I'm not that crazy, and besides, there's my bonus money."

Kithri picked up her mug. The brew tasted flat and bitter. "It's nice one of us doesn't have to work for a living."

"What about you? You're not still running Jaydium, are you?"

"What else should I do on this dustball planet, open a beauty parlor," she jerked her chin toward Dowdell and his cronies, "for the likes of them?"

Hank spread his hands apologetically. "Hey, it's nothing personal."

"The whole thing's too damned personal, if you ask me." Kithri strode out of the bar, leaving the rest of her drink. Dowdell let out another long whistle as the second newcomer slapped his own mug down and hurried after her.


The astute reader will notice that this excerpt ends where the original one begins. But now there is an emotional motivation for Kithri bolting from the tavern, as well as a sense of her complex, impulsive personality. The stranger (Lyu, now renamed Eril) brings his own mystery: why does he go after her? What are his secrets, this man with the sleek menace of a sand leopard, who carries a force whip? That is, the story itself generates a natural interest in what comes next.

Which is, after all, what the beginning of a novel is supposed to do.


  1. You're so brave to post this.It's fascinating to compare the before and after, and see how you've grown as a writer.
    I actually wanted to do something similar (posting a before & after version of the first Storm Dancer scene in the endmatter of The Word-Loss Diet, to show how wordy the early draft had been) but... I chickened out.
    I read that early draft of that first scene, and I cringed. It was so embarrassing! Not only was it wordy waffling, it was full of info-dumping As-You-Know-Bob dialogue, it lacked a scene goal, the characters were cardboard, the scene was littered with cliche tropes of fantasy fiction.
    On the one hand, it's good to see how much I've grown as a writer, and it would have been good to show this to the readers of my writing craft books. I wouldn't mind the embarrassment of revealing how bad my writing used to be.
    But on the other hand, I remember that when I wrote that early draft, I thought my writing was good. Actually, at the time I thought my writing was brilliant. That conceit makes me cringe more than my appalling writing does. I reckon it's best to keep my appalling writing (and the conceit that went with it) locked up and forgotten.
    But I applaud your courage to share yours!

  2. Rayne, I joke that I had to have the principles of good prose explained to me in words of one syllable, with lots of pointers to where I'd gotten it wrong and how it could be made better.

    Yes, cringeworthy -- but what an amazing teaching tool. It's one thing to say, "avoid infodump" but often much more helpful to show examples and alternate ways of presenting the bare-bones necessary info.

    I think we tread a tough line between insecurity and arrogance. As writers, we need not only confidence in ourselves, but delight in our work. But when we put on our revision/editorial hats, we must find ways to be ruthless and yet compassionate with ourselves. Good teachers can offer us role models on how to do that.

    And that's one of the reasons I "pass on" the wonderful guidance I've received over the years.