Monday, December 6, 2010

When a novel requires surgery...

Here’s how my editing process works. In Thief’s Coin, book 2 of my trilogy Larenia’s Shadow, I ran my chapters through the Online Writers Workshop of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In the first go-through, I sought as many reviews as possible. Often a chapter would get five or more reviews. That’s quite helpful in determining what revisions may be necessary. Once through all the chapters with all the changes made, I posted the chapters a second time on the OWW to give me the opportunity to polish the manuscript.

For my third and final editing stage, I asked a friend, a published author living in Oregon, to take a look at the manuscript and give the chapters a detailed critiquing. I expected some continuity problems but no major rewrites. Instead, she told me she had some serious problems with Thief’s Coin, especially the first half of the novel.

None of the OWW reviews brought up Jeanette’s concerns, but those online reviews have a serious shortcoming. Oftentimes there can be a month or two between chapters. Reviewers do forget the gist of earlier chapters. Jeanette read the book straight through as a reader would do.

Here’s what she wrote in an email: “I'm about 40% into Thief's Coin, and have had a growing unease about Illisandra. I finally figured it out. I'm hesitant to bring it up, but it's a major thing, and could result in people giving up before reading the third book. Illisandra mostly seems like a muddled young woman trying to find herself, and her joys seem confined to tormenting one person or another for no particular reason, and with no real end in view. You have to give me an outrage to make me hate her, involving a profound grief, and you have to do it by chapter 5.”

Illisandra is my villainess, a long-lived sorceress plagued by multiple personality. In the first book, The Emperor’s Mistress, one of the personalities, Charis, sleeps deep inside the sorceress’s subconscious. That enables Illisandra to do her machinations without any interference from Charis. In fact, for most of the first book, Illisandra doesn’t even know Charis exists.

But in the second book Charis is out in full force and the two personalities’ contest for supremacy. That tussle over control of their mind is slowly driving Illisandra insane. Her actions—what Jeanette calls “tormenting one person or another for no particular reason”—are manifestations of her growing insanity.

I decided to run Jeanette’s concerns by a couple of the OWW reviewers and get their opinions. One wrote back: “I think she makes a very interesting point. On the one hand you definitely can't lose the mental tussle between Charis and Illisandra. What you could do is make Illisandra more spontaneously evil. Give it an unpredictable and unhinged quality that would allow her to cuddle puppy dogs and castrate a servant in the following paragraph kind-of-thing. Think Caligula. Allow Charis the more mature and considered evil. And make this clear throughout, thus seeding the sequel. I liked Jeanette's suggestion that you make a powerful sacrifice early on.”

So I decided to make Jeanette’s suggested changes since other reviewers concurred with her observations. I like to see advice from multiple sources before making major changes to a novel late in the editing process.

The end of chapter 5 underwent major revision. In the updated version, Illisandra and Charis have a major argument that leaves Illisandra fuming. The quarrel occurs in a marketplace jammed with people. Illisandra can’t strike out at Charis, so she instead flings her magic at a passing wagon, weakening the back axle. A wheel comes off, tipping the wagon, spilling heavy grain sacks. Bystanders are killed and injured including a noblewoman and her dog.

I wrote: “No! What have I done?” Illisandra’s hands flew to her mouth. She hadn’t noticed the highborn woman and her dog near the stall. The woman had been feeding a sweetmeat to the dog. Both lay motionless beneath under a clutter of grain sacks. “The poor dog.”

Her magic had been done subtly so people would assume it was merely an accident and not spell-induced. As the scene ends, Illisandra rushes to the injured to offer aid. Throughout the early part of the book, Illisandra tries to remove enemies in such a way that it makes her look heroic in the eyes of the general populace. The wagon accident gives her the opportunity to advance her agenda.

I plan one other major revision later in the novel. As Illisandra becomes less and less stable, she will blind the mother of one of my main characters. I had considered killing a major character, but that character is really needed at the end of the third novel, Assassins’ Lair. So the character gets to live.

So hopefully these changes will allay Jeanette’s fears. When Thief’s Coin is published, you who read this will have to buy and read the novel. Feel free to let me know if I succeeded in making Illisandra more spontaneously evil, more unpredictable, more unhinged.

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