One of the good things about last week, despite it being an insane week on multiple levels, is that I still managed to get in some writing. The goal for the week was to work on Dead Isle at least three days out of five, and I think I managed all five.
The Dead Isle is currently in rewrites; it’s one of the earlier novels I wrote, the second or third I put online (even before Nameless, I think, though Nameless was written either before Dead Isle or somewhere during its process) and it was really just a way to get some writing done and have fun with some worldbuilding. It arose out of a single scene and a desire to dig more deeply into Steampunk, a genre/aesthetic that has always appealed to me. It is also, unfortunately, about five hundred pages long, which is about two hundred pages longer than I want to read, let alone publish. It definitely needs the rewrite.
At the moment I’ve been focusing on making cuts and working with how those cuts affect later events, because while there’s a lot of dead wood in Dead Isle, most of it is difficult to extract from the bits that aren’t dead wood. Initially I thought the rewrite would involve cutting a lot of the worldbuilding stuff — random fairy tales and quotes from fictional philosophers — but in the end those are sort of vital to the way the story plays out, so they might get polished but they mostly stay in.
But I know the cuts that I am making are right, because they’re all about the same thing: one of our heroes meets up with a Famous Person From History. So far I’ve cut PJ Kennedy (ancestor of the Kennedy clan), Sarah Bernhardt, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. (Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne had to stay in, but they make more sense than previous.) I get why I put all this in, because one of the joys of writing period lit for me, even in a fantasy alternate universe like The Dead Isle, is introducing historical fact and historical personages.
And that’s fine…in the first draft.
The first draft of a story is a good place to put one’s indulgences, to pet the ego and play around with where you’re going and what you’re doing. The problem, a lot of the time, is that we often think our self-indulgent bits are the best bits, so cutting them out in the next draft is a real wrench. Sometimes they are really good, too, but they don’t always belong in the story even if they are. There’s a moment in The Dead Isle where Sarah Bernhardt reminisces to Clare about Ellis spending his youth in France hanging around with dancing-girls and degenerates, and it’s a great moment in terms of uncovering Ellis’s character. But Sarah is otherwise superfluous to the story, and really we don’t actually need to know that Ellis used to chase cabaret stars. So she has to go.
Most people don’t respond well to too many restrictions placed on them during the initial creative process. That’s why we have drafts, so we can clean up the messes we made while we were figuring out how to make the good bits. A part of learning to be productively creative is learning how to be okay with the mess, especially later when you have to mop it up. Learning not to be too embarrassed by the naked ego that’s just sitting out there for everyone to look at. Learning to cut something because it’s not good for the story, even if you love it.
I didn’t always believe that writing involved talent; I used to think it just involved a shit-ton of practice. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore, but even so, talent is only a small component of the experience of good writing. Much more important is discipline: the discipline to practice, to accept criticism, to know when you’ve done something good, and to know when what you love and what is good are two different things. They aren’t, always. But more often, they are.
There are parts of The Dead Isle that are both vital to the book and satisfying to me; otherwise I wouldn’t have written it. Trimming out the narcissistic, self-indulgent parts will only increase the value of what remains, and I accept that. Learning to differentiate is hard, and actually making the cuts is harder, especially since you won’t feel the satisfaction of the outcome until afterwards, but it’s necessary if this book is going to be the best it can be.
And at least with The Dead Isle, unlike with Nameless, I don’t look at work I did on it and want to strangle my four-years-ago self.