Sunday, April 08, 2012

Dragons, the policeman knew, were supposed to breathe fire.*

Working my way through the final edits of The Rose Cord, book two of the Ballad of Sir Benfro series, I have come to a rather disturbing conclusion: it's not quite as good as the first book, Dreamwalker.

Dreamwalker an ebook by James OswaldThis is hardly surprising, really, since Dreamwalker was written after The Rose Cord. Benfro had an awkward early life. After a few try-outs with some short stories, I sat down and wrote what I confidently thought would be the first instalment of a three part epic fantasy, the entirety of which was written from the point of view of just one character - Benfro - a young dragon growing up in the depths of the forest, with an extended family of rather broken and pathetic old dragons for company.

The earliest draft of Benfro had sheep as the evil antagonists, not men. There's a reason for that, but alas like many things it has been lost in the mists of time. Mr Stuart pointed out that sheep aren't exactly terrifying evil overlords, and somewhat difficult to take seriously. There was also the problem of them lacking opposable thumbs, vocal chords, the ability to build castles and much else besides. I ditched the sheep idea about the same time as I decided having one voice throughout what would likely be half a million words was going to be very, very dull. More voices, and so more points of view, were needed. I'd also created lots of mythology and built a vast world in which Benfro could live, all of which needed to be shown in some way. So I decided to do what you should never do, and write a prologue.

It came to 120,000 words, give or take a comma.

Obviously I couldn't shoe-horn that in at the beginning of the first book, so I decided to make it a prequel. Actually, I could have shoe-horned it in at the beginning of the first book. It's fantasy, after all, so 250k word counts are not that unusual. The third book (or second, depending on your point of view), The Golden Cage, comes in at around 225k and has the feel (if perhaps not the readership) of something George RR Martin or J RR Tolkein might write. Tad Williams is another one for the weighty tome, as is Stephen Donaldson. And Robin Hobb, but not Katherine Kerr, who prefers to spread her story over many volumes, each perfectly formed but slimmer than the average house-brick.

But I digress, and hunt link-bait (Joe Abercrombie). I felt I couldn't combine what was so obviously two books, and no-one but I knew that the series was meant to be three books, not four. So the final chapter of Dreamwalker is actually the first chapter I wrote in the entire Benfro series, and the sections of The Rose Cord from Benfro's point of view are the picked over remains of the first draft. Reading them again with the benefit of a few years distance, I can see how my writing has improved since the early noughties.

For one thing, every single piece of dialogue is matched with 'he said' or 'she said' or 'such and such a character said.' Apart from the questions, where said is replaced with asked. A lot of the dialogue was horribly clunky, too, before I applied the read it out loud without bursting into fits of giggles test. There's far too much telling rather than showing, and my biggest sin of all, Benfro spends way too much time sat in his own head thinking. This is even after I whittled down the original version enough to allow me to add sections from three other characters' points of view without much increasing the overall word length. One of those characters, Errol Ramsbottom (see the sheep influence still evident), is so important to the storyline he gets almost as much time as Benfro. I was horribly wordy back then.

These other character sections are (just about) OK. Honing the writing craft is all about getting words down. Lots and lots of words. More words and more. Until you don't really have to think about it, and can watch from a distance for all the silly mistakes. By the time I got round to writing the extra sections for Rose Cord, I'd written Dreamwalker and spent a couple of years in the world I'd created for it. These sections I can live with. But those early Benfro bits bug me (as does unnecessary alliteration).

If I was doing this full time, I'd rip the whole lot up and start again. Come at each section from the modified perspective of having written Benfro for half a million words now, and the improved quality of my writing (at least in my own eyes) that has come about from having written a further four non-dragon-related novels in the interim. There's an argument that says I should rewrite anything I'm not a hundred percent happy with regardless, and if it takes time, it takes time. That argument can never be satisfied, however. By the time I'd got the Benfro sections to my liking, the Errol sections would be looking a tad weak, and so on and so on ad infinitum, or absurdam or something. Working in the few spare moments I can wrestle from a busy farming schedule (*ahem*), this could end up taking a very long time, and since I'm getting emails from people promising they'll pay for the next Benfro book, I can't really afford to leave it long. Somewhere a line has to be drawn, and I have decided it will be here.

So the 'he said she said' will go, along with a few other things that can be easily tweaked, but the whole structure of it will remain. I will be unhappy with how it turned out, but hopefully the next one will be better, and the one after that better still.

Of course, the one after that has still to be written, but that's a post for another time.

*A prize of a smug feeling of self-satisfaction to anyone who knows where that quote comes from.

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Blogger terlee said...

Considering it's an oldie, I'm not sure how smugly satisfied I actually feel that I know this song...

(Yaz) Yazoo: I Before E Except after C.

April 09, 2012 3:57 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

Enough of the 'oldie' tag. I remember buying the album - Upstairs at Eric's - on vinyl!

April 09, 2012 5:35 pm  

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