Monday, February 25, 2013

In Search of the Lost Tale: Returning to a Stalled Novel

I've just returned to writing a novel I haven't worked on since 2007.  That's not really as negligent as it sounds, since I started writing it in 1969.

Well, in a way.  Back then, it was a series of poems, and the story I was telling then has become virtually lost.  It's also grown into a trilogy — and, beyond that, into a loose ennealogy — with the original bit consigned to volume three, which is why I'm only just addressing it.

The trilogy's called The Winter Legend (the title I first came up with back in 1969, while taking the dog for a long walk in the country) and the components are The Tryst Flame (currently under submission to Harper Voyager's open submission window) Children of Ice (complete, but in need of heavy revision) and Dreams of Fire and Snow — the one I'm now working on.

So why the delay?  Both since 2007, and way back since 1969?

Well, the second is probably easier to explain — I simply haven't been a good enough writer until now (I hope) to do justice to the story.  Before the current versions, I'd written two complete versions of each of the first two instalments, as well as a couple of unfinished ones.  Over the decades, both my writing technique and my understanding of the world and human nature have improved, and I think I've finally expelled enough of the clumsiness and clichéd behaviour to give it a go.

Not that I've wasted the idea in the interim.  An originally minor background character has taken on a life of his own under the name of the Traveller, while I've written stories covering ten thousand years and seven continents of the world I created for The Winter Legend.  But it's time now to come back to where the whole thing started.

My original plan, back in 2004 or so, was to write the three books straight off, before going back and revising them.  That way, anything unexpected that came up in the course of writing — and it always does — could be written into the revision stages of the earlier books. 

A great theory, and it worked well enough for the first two books, where I was rewriting earlier versions.  When I got to Dreams of Fire and Snow, though, I was in territory I hadn't trodden since 1969, and the story's changed beyond all recognition.  Certain basics are still there, of course, but a lot of extra characters and subplots have found their way in since then, and other people have fundamentally changed.  Including the main antagonist, who's transformed from a stereotypical "dark lord" villain to someone you can almost like.

The tone has changed, too.  In the original version, for instance, the hero had to venture into Hell.  I quickly realised that this didn't fit at all, and I decided to turn it into the Underworld, seeing that as very much like the Underworld from Greek mythology.  Eventually, though, I came to the conclusion that would be a bit clichéd.  The episode still involves a place called the Underworld, but it's about as far as possible from any traditional concept of what that represents.

So I got to around 100,000 words and approaching the grand dénouement of the whole trilogy — and came to a grinding halt.  This was partly for practical reasons.  Because I was flying a bit blinder than in the other books, I found I'd followed plot threads I wasn't sure how to resolve, and I suspected I needed a rethink on those.

I think there was a psychological reason, though, as well.  The Winter Legend has been part of me for most of my life.  On a conscious level, it's important for me to finish it — which is why I've put my effort into a trilogy, something all sane advice tells us not to do till we can rely on getting it published — but, deep down, I think I'm actually a bit scared of it being done.  What's it going to be like when I don't have it to work on any more?

It needs to be done, though, and, having prepared The Tryst Flame for submission and revamping Children of Ice into something close to the form it'll finish with, I've just started working on Dreams of Fire and Snow again.  I've written chapter 26, introducing a couple of major retcons I'm going to have to write into earlier chapters, and finding one key scene resolving into an outcome I didn't expect, and I'm hoping to reach the end in a couple of months.  I wonder how many more surprises it has in store.


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