Six impossible things

It always happens to me

As regular readers of this blog may remember, a couple of months back I realized I’d gotten partway into the third of the Frontier Magic books and realized that I’d gotten the events in the wrong order.

Not “wrong” in the sense that I’d gotten cause and effect reversed (you know, the sort of thing where someone’s suffering from a gunshot wound before the gun has actually been fired, or deducing information from a clue they haven’t found yet). Wrong in the sense that one subplot had taken over, resulting in a whole lot of too-similar scenes in a row. Also wrong in the sense that the order of the scenes, if closely examined, didn’t build up the way it needed to.

I ended up scraping the entire ms. back to paragraph 2 and starting over. I have now, finally, come nearly back to the end of the material I’d supposedly already covered, so I thought I’d update you on the situation.

The ms. is twice as long as it was in its original form, because there are scenes from several more subplots interspersed with the original scenes. The first-round material is now in a much more sensible order, has more logical reason behind it, and isn’t so repetitive. The characters are, as usual, filling up far more time than I expected with clearing up important loose ends – they were supposed to have been on the road long before this, but what can you do? Scenes that happened in midwinter now happen in midsummer, which meant keeping a careful eye on the descriptive bits and stage business so that I didn’t end up with people shaking snow off their coats in August.

I don’t call this kind of thing “revising,” though there’s really no reason not to except personal preference. I call it “rewriting” or “redrafting.” It’s a way of fooling my backbrain into considering the story from a completely new angle. I’m not just patching up gaping holes in the roof; I’m building a whole new roof, though I do get to reuse some of the old material, if it’s in good enough shape. It’s a matter of attitude.

The other thing about this kind of do-over is that this time, I didn’t end up wasting months agonizing about whether I really had to do it and looking for ways to salvage the work I’d done without going back to zero and rewriting the whole plot. I’ve done this twice before, and each time, it took me nearly a year to suck it up and ditch the chapters that had to be ditched. That’s a year of wasted time, because I wasn’t actually making forward progress on anything, just waffling and complaining and agonizing about how I wasn’t getting anywhere. Third time’s the charm, I guess.

I’m going through all this partly because I promised I’d keep people updated, but also because…well, because it’s one of the hard parts about being a writer. (Which is why it took nine to fourteen months to psych up to do it the first two times I did it.) I am hopeful that the fact that it only took me a week to recognize and admit the fundamental problem this time means that next time (and I’m sure that there will be a next time, though I hope it’s a few more books down the road) I will notice sooner and be able to fix it faster. Because the earlier you spot this kind of thing, the less you have to rewrite and the easier the whole process is.

Now all I have to do is finish the darned thing.

  1. I like your roof analogy! Just one question: what did you *do* while you were waffling and complaining the other two times?

  2. Congratulations on the progress (and the swift realization.) That’s got to be tough -tearing everything out at the seams and rearranging the pattern.

  3. Ouch, ouch, ouch. . . though one great advantage of total overhauls in my experience is getting away from the magnetic attraction of the old, incorrect words. . . it lures you back so easily

    • Mary – The first time it happened was my first novel, and I thought it was because I was a beginner and didn’t know what I was doing. I worked on other stuff, mainly short stories. The second time was Magician’s Ward, and I complained at everyone who would listen and tried everything I could think of to get the book going again without having to junk 14 chapters and rewrite, and it wasn’t until I was nearly up to deadline that I gave up and started over.

      Chicory – It’s emotionally hard, but once I see the way it should be, it goes pretty fast. What took the time this time was all the new material.

      Marycatelli – It depends on why the old words are incorrect. “They stamped snow from their boots and shook it from their coats, leaving little white piles to melt all around the laboratory door” isn’t tempting at all when the scene is now taking place in August. 🙂 The advantage of the total overhaul for me isn’t the lure of the old words so much as it is the thoroughness – I am a lot less likely to miss things like snow in August or a mention of something that hasn’t happened yet if I go back to the beginning and start over.

  4. `Magician’s Ward’ is one of my favorite books. From reading it, I never would have guessed that you ran into problems with the writing. It flows really smoothly.

  5. I’m feeling your pain at the moment. Took me over a year to finish the one story and I know already that a complete redraft is needed.

    I think I’m glad it isn’t sold to anyone and thus isn’t on a deadline right now.

  6. I totally understand. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit. I sometimes wonder if my first book will ever be done. At least I am learning.

    • Chicory – Well, that’s because the version you saw is the one where I started in chapter 1 and wrote through to the end without running into problems. There’s no possible way you could know that it was on the second try!

      Deborah and Jean Ann – Revising is a skill, too, as much as writing is, and like writing, it gets better with practice. You just don’t want to get so caught up in revising that you never get back to writing new stuff!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this- I’ve known for awhile that I should go back and re-write the majority of my first attempt at a novel, but I’ve just been distracting myself with other writing and other work. I think it’s time to take it back out and try again.

    I also can’t help but add that you were my first favorite author, when I was about 12, and coming back to read your work on the Frontier Magic series has felt like coming back home 🙂

  8. A gunshot wound before the gun is fired might make an interesting story. Offhand, I think it would require either having the wounded character travelling from future to past rather than the usual direction (and having somehow managed to conceal this till this incident,) or a plausible magic system which would induce severe writerly headaches.

  9. Oh, I love it when I find the blogs of authors I love. I’d just been looking closely at my copy of The Thirteenth Child and realizied for the first time that it was labled “Frontier Magic: Book One” on the spine. Googled and came upon this entry, and also on a release date for book two, which is now on my calendar. 🙂

    As an aspiring author, and as a college writing consultant, I also love to glimpse at others’ writing processes. What work it is!

  10. Well, I’m awfully glad you took the plunge so quickly because I, like Inigo Montoya, hate waiting, and I don’t think I could stand it if you fell behind schedule. (Well, I’d survive… but I wouldn’t like it!) 🙂

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,