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Wielding the Knife

Photobucket [1]Anyone who’s been following my occasional references to the work in progress may recall that last year I had the challenging experience of needing to change horses mid-race. The situation was complicated, but in a nutshell I had a two book contract with my Australian and UK publishers, and I had written four chapters of the first book, Heart’s Blood. At that point the North American rights were sold to Penguin, a new publisher for me, and my editor there wanted to publish the other book first. They were stand-alone novels, but the second one was related to my Sevenwaters Trilogy, which sold well in the USA. It made good commercial sense for my new editor to want that one as my first novel for Penguin.

So I wrote Heir to Sevenwaters, which is all edited and ready to go. Now it’s back to those four chapters of Heart’s Blood, written nearly a year ago, and I remember how much I loathe major revision! It hurts to delete pages of serviceable work that took hours to write. It pains me to have to take these chapters apart when the clock is ticking away and all I really want to do is get on with the new bit. I felt severe envy reading that Ann Aguirre had written Grimspace in three months – if I worked as fast as she does I’d be finished by now!

Of course, I could have simply picked up the ms at Chapter Five, couldn’t I? Well, no. Because I had to write Heir to Sevenwaters in less time than I’d expected, I unconsciously used elements from the partly written novel, including aspects of the male protagonist’s physique and character. That meant the male protag of Heart’s Blood had to change. From that flowed all sorts of other changes, since the story is based around this character’s personal struggle. It didn’t help that I read a comment somewhere suggesting that my two central protagonists are always the same: a damaged hero and a strong, capable heroine who saves him from himself. While that isn’t true of all my novels, it is a pattern I’ve used in several books, though to me the characters and stories are quite distinct. The comment did sting rather, and I reassessed those four chapters in the light of it. (For the record, Heart’s Blood still has a damaged hero.)

As I re-read these chapters, I found other flaws. In fact, the book just wasn’t working. The plot was OK – we’d been through the outline in writers’ group and fixed up the structural flaws. It had drama, romance, mystery and some other elements that were new to a JM novel. Still, something was wrong with the pacing, and it went beyond my usual problem of slow starts. The more I read the chapters, the less I liked them and the harder it was to work out what the problem was. I considered ditching the lot and writing something completely different. Then I got it. Too much information too soon.

To keep the reader involved, I have to resist the urge to explain as I go. Heart’s Blood is a novel in which layers of the past are unfolded, with the main plot involving a scribe’s work on a collection of ancient documents, and another, related strand which is the mysterious family story she discovers there. The two threads meet up towards the end of the novel. I need to drip-feed Caitrin the information from the papers, so she and the reader don’t fully understand its dark significance until it’s almost too late (this is a Gothic fantasy-romance, after all!). I need to keep my protagonist in relative ignorance as long as I can, so she’ll put herself in perilous situations. Mind you, I don’t want her to be a white-floaty-nightie girl who runs screaming along dark corridors, Gothic as that might be. I like my female protagonists to have the courage to face their fears, and indeed this is the central challenge for Caitrin in this book. But the reader has to be slightly ahead of her all the way, constantly wanting to shout ‘Don’t do it!’ as she takes another risk.

This means I’ve made major cuts to the 150-odd pages already written, and every one of them hurt. Oh, for a book I can write in one flowing sweep from page 1 to page 500! Still, I am working my way through Chapter Four now, and should soon be onto the new bit and barreling ahead.

How well do you cope with structural revisions? Can you see them as a welcome challenge, or does the process feel like taking a knife to your own offspring?

Photo by Amlet with Dreamstime.com [2]

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About Juliet Marillier [3]

Juliet Marillier [4] has written twenty novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's most recent novel, Den of Wolves, was published in October/November 2016. Den of Wolves is the third book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The Blackthorn & Grim series is published by Penguin Random House US and Pan Macmillan Australia.