Thursday, November 21, 2013

ARCHIVES Northlight: Evolving a Novel


After I submitted Jaydium, which was to become my first published novel, I began work right away on my next project. Or rather, I took a look at all the ideas and characters which were screaming inside my skull to be made into stories and tried to decide which one would cause me the most anguish if I didn't work on it first. High on my list was to rewrite the last novel I'd written before Jaydium. It had received careful attention, not to mention three single-spaced pages of critical feedback, from the editor who would later buy Jaydium.

I felt that if an editor had taken that much time and trouble with the book, there was something of value, something that perhaps I was now a good enough writer to bring out fully.

The book's working title was Weiremaster, and it was based on the world of my very first professional short story, "Imperatrix", which appeared in the debut Sword & Sorceress anthology. Weires are bipedal ape-like creatures, seven-feet tall, fanged, silver-furred, immensely powerful and receptively telepathic. In the world of "Imperatrix," they obey people of imperial blood. For the purposes of that short story, no further explanation was needed.

Now, years later, my world-building had matured. I wanted to know how these creatures had come into a human world, how the control worked, and how the dynastic characteristic had been established. I concocted an adventure which would lead my hero into the world of the Weires and back home again, changed. He would carry me -- and the reader -- along with him, a classical hero-quest. 


I began the story as Terricel, a young scholar, received word that the democratically elected ruler of his city had been killed -- shades, no doubt, of my own memories of the Kennedy assassination. "Imperatrix" had portrayed a worthy monarchy, with heavy overtones of The Divine Right of Kings. Now I shifted in my world view to a populist leader. After all kinds of political turmoil, a second main character appeared -- Kardith, a Border Ranger, looking for help in searching for her missing partner, Terricel's sister. And so the action began.

When I sat down to actually write the new version, I realized that the assassination had to happen on the page or not at all. It was simply too pivotal an event to tell second-hand. And twist them as I might, I couldn't seem to make the politics of the city anything but deadly boring. I wrote and rewrote the first 150 pages four or five times, until I was heartily sick of them. And they were still boring. The shift toward democracy had been right in tone but wrong in emphasis. This wasn't in essence a political story.

Then I asked myself, When does the story get interesting? I realized that everything up to the entrance of Kardith was preparatory. She came barging into the city -- and Terricel's staid scholarly life -- and set off the chain of events that made up the backbone of the story. Okay, I said to myself, let's chuck the preliminaries and get right to the good stuff. But what about the assassination, which plays a pivotal role in shaping future events? I moved the assassination in time to shortly after Kardith arrived in the city. And as I wrote about these events, something strange and wonderful happened.

Kardith herself started talking to me. 

I'd known she was brazen, obstinate, darkly humorous, an accomplished knife fighter.  But as her voice came clearer, I realized that she was telling me a much more powerful and moving story than I ever envisioned. Her courage and the abiding pain of her past ran like a counterpoint through the dramatic action.

You can't turn a story over to someone like Kardith and expect it to come out unchanged. By the time Kardith was done with it, there were no more Imperials and no more Weires. There was, instead, a far different world to be explored, and very human lessons to be learned.

One of the interesting questions that comes up is how much of the author is in the character. This was particularly relevant since Kardith is a knife fighter, and I used techniques from my style of kung fu (san soo, as taught by Jimmy H. Woo) in describing her fighting style. I'd never written a character who was so vivid and yet so different from me. But I never felt that Kardith was me; rather, she was someone I had something in common with. I think a writer needs the sensitivity and imagination to have empathy for the character she creates; there must be some bridge, some understanding, but the character must not be limited to the writer's own experience and taste. It was only logical that a character as colorful and determined as Kardith would shape the story in a new direction.

But the direction was not hers alone. She'd brought along Terricel and had given him a new name, Terris. In the original version, Terricel was a cipher, a place holder whose function was to take the reader along on the adventure. After Kardith was through telling her tale, I was left with a wimpy, Terricel-sized hole in the story. 

Terris turned out to be a more complex character than I'd dreamed, just as full of surprises as Kardith was, and more difficult to get a hold on. For one thing, Kardith's focus was intensely personal and emotional, whereas Terris had the ability to see a larger picture, to dream larger dreams. His gifts were those of empathy and imagination. He took Kardith -- and me -- clear across the wilderness to places and times I hadn't imagined existed. 

If Kardith was the story's heart, Terris now became its soul. With the two of them as anchors, I could now explore the political aspect of the story without turning it into a recitation of dreary details. The book acquired a new title, Northlight, which then became a metaphor for transformation. But the center of the story remained with these two characters, their dreams and passions, the web of their lives. In order to find that center, I had to be willing to let go of my preconceptions of what the story "was supposed to be" in order to discover what it could become.

Afterword: In the process of bringing out a digital version of Northlight, I refocused the cover image. Judith Tarr was kind enough to allow me the use one of her splendid horses for Karrdith's gray mare.

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