Twice now I’ve mentioned a young adult fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for roughly eight years. Working on it over such a long period of time has been a struggle, particularly as I became more well-read and better at writing while still trying to work within a premise constructed by a fifteen-year-old girl. I knew, deep in my literary critic’s heart, that the story needed a massive overhaul, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. After all, it took me eight years to write a hundred and twenty-one pages. I’m notorious for starting stories and never finishing them, so the fact that I’d accomplished such a volume of writing was a source of pride for me.
I wrote last time that my problem was that I knew my plot too well. This was not really true. The real, core problem was that the plot was too busy and I was too close to it. I’m not the kind of writer who wants to commit to writing a series because of my penchant for ceasing work, but I was trying to squeeze a ton of elements into a single fantasy story for teenagers. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We still read George R. R. Martin’s books and they’re beyond messy. But my issue was I tried to shove them all in at once, rather than add things in after getting the main plot really hammered out.
Luckily, I have rather excellent friends. My dear friend, whom I shall refer to as GNA, has always been willing and able to murder her darlings and help us do the same. Yesterday I was able to spend a long time with her chatting about what a mess my novel had become. It was mostly her asking questions and trying to figure out how it was supposed to work and me fumbling to explain my elaborately plotted schemes. I chalked most of it up to the fact that there was a lot of history that she hadn’t read about yet; but the more she spoke, the more I got to thinking about how flat my characters were and how naive the plot was and how I wanted to do a lot of things that I couldn’t do with all the elements I had.
And then finally, she told me to cut out one of my twelve main characters.
I’d already decided that this story wasn’t going to be one about destiny or fate or anything like that. The character, a boy called Liron, was the subject of a prophecy, but he wasn’t crucial to the story. He was just there to do superfluous things. I knew that. But it took me about ten minutes of subconscious internalizing while GNA continued to ask probing questions until I finally took my pen to the character map I’d had to draw for her and crossed poor Liron out.
And just like that, I felt the relief. Suddenly I felt like I could do anything to this story. I could make it whatever I wanted. So we did. By the time we finished re-plotting, seven more characters were dead at the end of the story and there were also going to be zombies. The really great part is that it all made much more sense. For example, few things kick off a story’s action better than the death of a character, particularly if that character was one of the only ones who had all the pieces of the puzzle. Just look atA Song of Ice and Fire. Book One happens because Jon Arryn dies. Book Two happens because Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark die. Book Three…well, you get the idea. But while I knew this crucial fact of fiction writing, I loved all my characters too much to kill them. Then I realized that by killing them, they make the story better. It’s a worthy sacrifice.
So I went home and cut sixty-nine pages from my manuscript. What’s really funny is that the chapters that survived, the ones that were separate from the whole boy-prophecy plotline, are my absolute favorite chapters. So clearly, my brain was just waiting for my heart to catch up.