I’m not interested in the texture of a rock, but in its shadow.
This resonated with my mostly because of my main character in Stars Fall Out, a failed printmaker whose tendency to see the light and shadow in everything ends up revealing something important about a newly-engineered magic.
Between Vaffeldagen, taking care of a flu-stricken toddler, and subsequently becoming a flu-stricken adult, I forgot to brag about passing the 100,000 word mark on my current novel. Although this has been as frustratingly slow as walking behind someone at Walmart, and although I still have probably 25,000 words left to go, I want to mark this moment in my life. That I have been fixing problems in this manuscript for 100,000 words now, even after I might have killed it a couple times, is an accomplishment I’m immensely proud of.
There’s a common metaphor of writing a book being like having a baby–you gestate it for months and blah blah blah. But you don’t have to make time to be pregnant. You do have to make time to write a book. It’s not like you say, “Well, I have a couple hours to be pregnant on Thursday morning,” then shoot your fetus some nutrients via umbilical and go get an ultrasound. Pregnancy is only as active as you make it. But if you’re writing, you do have to set aside those Thursday mornings and whatever other spare morsels of time you can grab.
Also, once your book is “born,” it doesn’t then spend the first several months of its life requiring literally every spare minute of your time to hold it and breastfeed it and change it and sooth it down to sleep. Having a baby to take care of is the writing discipline equivalent of someone upending a table. In an episode of the Dear Sugars podcast (I don’t remember which one), Cheryl Strayed refers to writing with young children or toddlers as “writing on slow mode.” This is what I’ve been doing.
Like the secret stash of candy bars under my desk*, writing has become something I sneak in small bites. I no longer keep obsessive records of every minute I spend writing, because that itself takes too much time.
The novel will probably not be named Stars Fall Out or once I sit down and brainstorm a more fitting one, but it inherited the title from an earlier iteration of the story and from a Simple Minds song:
Even without a toddler, this novel has had a hell of a lot of obstacles.
In fact, I have grown this story from the corpses of two short stories and two unfinished novels. Or five unfinished novels, but they aren’t all corpses, depending what happens when they get smacked with the defibrillator of future rewrites.
Here is the strange and cannibalistic writing timeline of Stars Fall Out:
Short story one Barely more than a scene about a girl jealous of her younger sister and feeling trapped in relationship. Something about a unicorn. Something about stars falling out of the sky. No idea how to end it.
Short story two One girl, living in a small town in our world, sees another girl sink into some river water, seemingly on purpose, and be snatched under the river water. MYSTERY. Who is the girl? What role will the dance night stoners play? No idea how to end it.
Stars Will Fall Out, first attempt, in 2007 I smash the two short stories into a single novel that I assume will solve the ending problems I was having. Now, the girl being sucked down the river is one and the same as Jealous Girl who feels trapped in her relationship, only now she lives in a secondary world and works at a bakery and uses a magic vial as a means of escape to our world. There is a mad professor of magic. No unicorn.
Abandonment of Stars Will Fall Out in 2008 Smashing the stories together didn’t work. I decide I will not be continuing to write my novel because it’s a mess, the worldbuilding is godawful**, and Small Town Girl has no business being the main character. But, hey, at least I learned something.
Circus of Thieves, in which I take on worldbuilding In my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I develop a secondary world (Fyaan and Kirosz) living in the realm of steampunk and fantasy, depending what time and place I’m writing in. It’s kind of a Moll Flanders type story but with a fake circus and a horned bear and a mystery machine.
The Remnant, a second trip into Fyaan and Kirosz Five magicians with connected relationships take opposing sides in a war for a variety of reasons. One of them, a disgruntled ex-patriot, sides against her homeland. I write a bit of her backstory one day, and oh! She’s River Girl, also known as Jealous Girl, also known as Bakery Girl. I decide that I will go back and write her story in the Fyaan and Kirosz world without any of the stuff about Small Town Girl.
What I don’t realize at this point is that my first attempt at Stars, with the ill-fitting main character, was like dipping the story in egg dye. I took away every trace of that character, yet the story is a different color.
Bitter Machines, the reason I am writing Stars Fall Out now I don’t go back to write Bakery Girl’s story yet because it’s too much work. Instead, in 2012, I write the second book she will appear in. There are spies and powerless royals and imperial occupation and a weird cult, and holy shit, every time I look at the draft I can’t believe I wrote it myself. I love it.
Stars Fall Out, second attempt After a few years thinking that I need to write this story so I can get to Bitter Machines, I sit down and tackle Stars itself and figure out what would make it awesome for me to write. If I’m going to maintain the motivation it takes to write it, it can’t just something I’m getting out of the way.
I begin rewriting with new, better worldbuilding and Big Events and empires and some stuff about shadows, but maybe not stuff about stars. I remove the word “will” from the title, which seems like a big difference at the time.
I take a break to publish Pumpkin Goblins and Spirit Notes Fading in 2016. When I return to Stars, I keep plugging away, but am miserable writing. That’s a whole other story. I stop writing for four months that feel like an entire year.
Stars Fall Out, third attempt At some point, a question pops into my head: “Where do you go when you escape?”
In my rewrite with the bigger and better worldbuilding, I had forgotten what interested me about Bakery Girl in the first place: she has a stolen magic vial, an extremely powerful artifact, and she uses it only to escape her own life.
And so, on slow mode, I return to the story. This time, first and foremost, I’m asking myself where Tyatavar goes when she escapes. It’s been less than a year since my most recent start, and I’ve done most of the work in that time. But it’s been almost thirteen years since I wrote Short Story One. Nothing about this process resembles pregnancy.
*I guess it’s not much of a secret now that I’m posting it on the internet, but it was only a secret before because my partner repeatedly forgets about its existence.
**There was a character named Dwardley Gryphon, and he owned a tavern. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s lazy and default-ish, and more importantly, I didn’t love it. Also, the characters wear “timebands” instead of watches because, I dunno, that makes it different?
I enjoy the sensational, daytime talk show-esque nature of this question. But as it happens, it’s neither an episode of Jerry Springer nor a mythological Kullervo* or Turin** situation. It’s a possible solution to a couple of my own fictional characters who are each either vitally important or completely extraneous, with cases to be made for either option, but almost no middle ground. In short: it’s a decision. And I’m bad at those.
All characters are potentially:
Replaceable by any other character.
Replaceable by wind-up automata, golems, and holograms; they all need to fear that their jobs will be taken by robots. Whether their purpose is emotional, logistical, thematic, or plot-devicey, they can be replaced by another character who fulfills the same role, possibly better.
One of my characters frequently runs away from the family bakery to meet her secret girlfriend in a shady part of town where they take care of a stray dog. The girlfriend sees and says things she isn’t supposed to, and occasionally threatens to hijack my entire story with her possible homelessness and constant spying on the main character’s family, until I turn from her power and write some other scene. Or this blog post.
My character also has a mother [OR DOES SHE?!?!!?] who has come and gone from different iterations of my draft, drifting away like vapor only to turn up again more vibrant than before: a woman as wise as she is muscular, kneading bread and doling out life advice. The father and the family bakery drive some important plots, so her conspicuous absence has become more and more irritating, like a hole in a sock that you keep putting through the wash only wear it again after forgetting about the hole. By unwritten rule, all first draft mentions of the mother must include a dramatic, bracketed, all-caps statement, a note-to-self for my revision.
“My chance had arrived. “You don’t need me, do you father?” I asked casually. Casual, with just a hint of sweetness. The lemonade of asked questions.
And sure enough, he waved a hand to the door. “No, no. Go see your mother.” [IF SHE HAS A MOTHER]
When combining the two characters occurs to me, I am typing away at an especially small and sunny Dunkin Donuts. I sit with a mess that has been made in seven minutes, although I only have an hour to write before work. My backpack on the table forms a wall defending a sprawl of index cards, laptop, bullet journal, project notebook, an iced cold brew the size of the Argonath, and a squishy croissant sandwich.
On this morning, the Dunkin is solely populated by pairs of old men. Two talking about the comings and goings of local businesses, two talking about music and the capo on a particular guitar. Another pair is made up of one talking sports to his companion as though he’s reading a bedtime story while the other frequently interjects with a hacking cough that sounds like a rottweiler.
WHAT IF HER GIRLFRIEND IN ACTUALLY HER MOTHER? The thought slams on some kind of mental caps lock, startling me into locking eyes with the man who is the living memory of failed northern Rhode Island businesses. Does it make selfish Vilari more sympathetic if she’s sneaking away to see her absent mother? Do I want her to be more sympathetic? What about the spying plotline—wait, is it more poignant if it’s the mother? Is it now appropriate rather than annoying that this character, Fya, has a name that rhymes with that of the main character, Tya?
Writing fiction requires a lot of decisions, and I can’t understate my awfulness at making decisions. I spent a week—fine, two weeks–refreshing the page for these reusable baggies every time I came across that tab in my browser, paralyzed and unable to decide what color I wanted. Would the smiling octopus make me unhappier on depressive days? Did I like the watercolor pattern or is it a little too suggestive of a girly floral? Should I spend the extra dollar to get the patterns I like best because they will make me happier, or will I stop noticing the pattern after a few weeks anyway?
My challenge with the story is to find the story’s true north in a sea of infinite choices. It’s like the old Lucky Charms commercial where there are suddenly a bunch of Lucky the Leprechauns, and none is obviously the real one until you acquire some gizmo from the cereal box. 3d glasses? But I don’t have 3d glasses to pick the right character, and there is no GPS to tell me my way—I would need to input a destination I don’t know. All I can do is squint at the horizon, try to figure out if the purple smudge is a mountain, and then try to figure out if I am full-on ready to go to a mountain right now. Which reminds me that I have lived my entire life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and never earned a “This car has climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker.
All I have to go on is the strength of my own taste, and my own concept of what I want my story to be about.
Ultimately, I did the right thing: I didn’t let the decision derail me. I’m procrastinating on figuring this out so I can avoid procrastinating on the meat of the story: all the stuff with the bakery and the dreaded wedding and how my main character is basically using the most powerful magical item of her time as a poor coping mechanism for depression. I wrote my question on an index card to carry around in my pocket, in the hopes that this will be like a program running in the background of my brain, working on cobbling together a GPS out of 3D glasses.
*SPOILER ALERT. In the centuries-old Finnish mythology collected in the epic The Kalevala, Kullervo falls in love with a woman who turns out to be his sister.
**DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT. In decades-old Middle Earth mythology written in The Silmarillion, based partly on The Kalevala, Turin falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a sister, and it’s maybe a dragon’s fault. I forget. It’s been seven years since the last time I read The Silmarillion.