In January 2011, I started writing my newest novel, then called The Skylords of Ambria. (I ditched ‘Ambria’ in favor of ‘Agathon’ after learning that ‘Ambria’ is a minor planet in the Star Wars universe. I went with ‘Agathon’ instead, which is the word that Plato used for the Form of the Good in The Republic.) At the time, I had been collecting notes and sketching plot and character ideas for the novel for over a year while I was finishing Song of the Ziggurat.
At first, everything seemed to be going along quite well. I had worked out a complicated plot involving multiple plotlines and main characters, and I could see how everyone and everything fit together, more or less. It involved some shoehorning, but it all fit. So I started writing. Between January and May, I pushed out 50,000 words – about half of a book (typical length for a novel is 80k-120k words). And then my drive just sort of petered out.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. I just didn’t care.
I was distraught. Where had my love for this story, this world, gone? When I dug back into my notes, my brainstorms of ideas, I could still get excited. But the execution of those ideas onto the page had failed, all the life had been stamped out of it. Technically, the writing was fine (in need of editing, but what first draft isn’t?). The plot made sense and was developing tension. But I began to be convinced of two things.
First, many of the ideas that I had gotten the most excited about during my original brainstorming had been plowed into a ditch while I was working out this elaborate plot, because they just didn’t fit.
Second, the characters had largely been developed to fulfill functions of the plot. I had Varick appearing in a prison, where he and Gall could make an escape because I had planned the whole thing in advance. It had little or nothing to do with Varick, or what he wanted or cared about. I didn’t really know what Varick wanted or cared about. I knew I needed Gall to have a ‘helper’ and I knew Gall was going to be imprisoned, and I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to have a sort of rogue engineer that helps him to escape. Sure, it had been a neat idea when I thought it up, but it was a neat plot idea, and had nothing to do with Character.
The artifice I had imposed on the characters to serve the plot had backfired. I had characters that met the needs of my plot, but that’s all they did, and because of that, they were boring to me. And if I was bored with them, how could I expect a reader to give a damn?
So, against all rational judgement, I started over.
I went back to my original notes, found some new, innovative ways to propel the story, and began to look for characters not to fit a particular plot, but characters that would be impacted by the central problems of the setting. And when I started to find those characters, I just kept on asking the most important questions a writer can ask… Why? And What do they want? Why does Varick spend his days wandering the Wastes, looking for junk? What does Marduk want so badly that he’s willing to commit murder to get it? Why does Anias care about a family that abandoned her at the age of three?
As I began to answer these questions, or find out where and how the characters would find the answers themselves, I began to see how the story could unfold.
I don’t have all the answers. I probably haven’t asked all of the right questions yet. Some character may yet disappear, or new characters may be added, but for now, I’m pretty sure the characters are driving the story, and not the other way around.
Know how I can tell? I’m excited again. Everything feels fresh and alive and possible. The world feels electric and dangerous. The characters are compelling and exciting. Unexpected secrets turn up as the words unfold. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Also, a word of thanks to those who helped me work through the decision to start over and helped me to rethink the characters and spine of the story. Lauren, Martin, Evan, and Nathan – thank you!