Happy Monday to all! Today, we are pleased to host Fantasy author Rachel Neumeier to talk about her most recent novel The White Road of the Moon, a stand-alone YA Fantasy, out last March.
Those Early Novels You Haven’t Looked at in Ten Years
The White Road of the Moon is my twelfth book to hit the shelves. Except in a way, it’s kind of my debut.
Fifteen years ago, more or less, I wrote this line at the top of a page: There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-Water, but only one of them was alive.
I had no idea where I was going. I had never written any kind of fiction before. I had never thought seriously about “being a writer.” I could write a whole post about what inspired me to set this line at the top of a blank page and then go on for fifteen hundred more pages, eventually completing my very first fantasy trilogy. But this is not that post, so I will just say briefly: I was in grad school and needed a hobby that was not related to my research. Also, I wanted to increase my typing speed. (It worked.)
It took maybe three or four years to complete this trilogy, working off and on. For long periods I didn’t touch it at all. I could write a whole post about the kinds of things that inspired me to keep chipping away at it until I finished the whole thing, but I’ll just say: adding a new and exciting character can be one way to revive faded interest.
I never sought publication for this trilogy. I wrote a long science fiction novel instead, which I also dropped in a drawer and never sent out. Only after that did I decide to write a much (much) shorter novel, something that was as good as I could make it. So I sat down and wrote The City in the Lake, which was the first work of mine to actually appear in bookstores. I could write a whole post about the experience of writing that novel, but this isn’t that post either. I’ll just say that even though I would tweak it a little if I were writing it today, City is still sometimes my favorite of all my books.
But this post is about the inspiration and process that led me to open up that first-ever fifteen-hundred-page unpublishable fantasy trilogy, take it apart, and put it back together as two completely different, unrelated standalone novels, the YA The White Road of the Moon and the adult fantasy (out this fall) Winter of Ice and Iron.
About two years ago, more or less, I had nothing in particular on my plate. I was done with deadlines for the moment. I generally have about half a dozen novel-fragments sitting around; thirty- to hundred-page beginnings that might lead to something, someday. (I always say beginnings are the easy part.) None of them really appealed to me, but while opening those files and looking at them, I also opened up the first book of this early trilogy, the Ghost trilogy, and read a little bit. Jumped ahead to the second book and read over some of my favorite tidbits. Started going back and forth through the trilogy, doing the same.
And you know what? Some of those tidbits were not bad. Whole passages, even whole scenes, were actually pretty good. The trilogy as a whole had…substantial flaws, let’s say. I’d sometimes have fifty or a hundred pages where nothing important happened to advance the plot. One of the three main characters was frankly kind of boring – he’d always been the least interesting. The most compelling character in the whole trilogy was actually a secondary character with only a little point-of-view time. On the other hand, he was pretty compelling. In fact, once I took a serious look at the trilogy, there was a lot to like.
So I would say that’s the first essential element for getting inspired to revise, refurbish, and rescue your early work: finding that you genuinely like parts of that work. A lot of what we call inspiration is enthusiasm and play: ideas about how to redesign parts of the trilogy into a single work occur to you, and you play with them, and more ideas occur to you, and you decide that come hell or high water you are going to save this character or these lines or this element of the setting, while those other characters or paragraphs or elements can go . . . maybe you can use them later somewhere else . . . and wouldn’t it be kind of fun just to start paring away all the elements that can’t possibly fit and see what’s left?
So that’s what I did. I made copies of the original files, and then took an axe to them.
It’s fun working with an axe. Or a chainsaw, let’s say. Something big and unsubtle. You don’t have to take anything too seriously. After all, the original files are still there if you change your mind. You can carve away huge chunks and let the debris fly. You’re not trying for delicacy or artistry, you’re not trying to redesign the plot so it will actually work. Not yet. You’re just chopping. This is the protagonist you’re going to keep, those can go. The ghosts can stay, the spirits of the land must go. This mysterious stranger can stay; in fact, he can become the key to the whole plot. That merciless duke would be great in a different book, but here, no! Out he goes.
That might be the second essential element for rescuing an early work: willingness to throw great heaps of material away. Let it go! Hurl everything you can right out of the story and see what’s left. Here’s how that looked in practice: below is a list of elements from the original trilogy. Items that made it into the final version of The White Road of the Moon are italicized. Items that are included in the final version of Winter of Ice and Iron are bolded. Items that haven’t yet made it into any finished work are
The village girl
The dog, a ghost
The mysterious stranger
The mysterious boy, a ghost
A best friend
The nice boy from a good family
The retired soldier
The responsible princess
Her brother, a prince
Her father, a king
Her best friend
The Wolf Duke
The Mad King
The young prince who never expected to be heir
His sister, deceased, a ghost
The clever nobleman, her lover
The lord of thieves
The god of truth and silence; the white priests
The god of change and chance; the blue priests
The genii locorum (spirits of places)
A basically coherent plot
The story that turned into The White Road of the Moon actually starts almost exactly as in the original trilogy. For the first hundred and fifty pages, the story remains pretty similar to the original. Gradually it diverges. Then it diverges more widely. The antagonist changed completely, and so of course the plot also changed a good deal.
At first I didn’t carve away quite enough. The two gods and their specific priests remained for a long time, along with various other elements. But the story was too long and too complicated, and eventually I sent it to my agent and asked her advice for how to cut the manuscript – by that time under deadline. She said basically, “I love some of the secondary characters and I hope you can use them elsewhere, but this one and that one can vanish entirely and then you can go directly from point B to point G without passing through C-F in between.”
She was right. That was what needed to happen. The gods turned into just one God and that part of the worldbuilding was dramatically simplified, several characters vanished, and the plot lost any trace of romance because there just wasn’t room. So I’d say that was the third essential element for rescuing (part of) this trilogy: a willingness to ask for help and listen to advice. Sometimes you are just too close to your story to see it clearly.
How much trouble was this whole process of turning one fairly coherent trilogy into two different standalone novels? It was actually pretty comparable to writing two completely new books. But this massive revision and rewrite was fun, in a way that was very different from starting a brand-new story. Seeing what I’d done badly in the original trilogy was educational. Seeing that some of what I’d written in this early work was worth keeping was satisfying. Through everything, the first line of The White Road of the Moon remained There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-Water, but only one of them was alive. It’s still my favorite opening line from any of my books.
Now I’m just really glad I never threw away the original trilogy, and that one day a couple of years ago I opened it up, took a look, and found myself inspired to rework my real first fantasy trilogy into new and improved forms. I’d certainly suggest, if you have unpublishable first novels sitting in a virtual drawer somewhere…don’t delete those files. Wait ten years and then take a look and see if there’s anything there you still like, if perhaps great characters or a fantastic setting or a solid plot shine through the flaws. It may take a good deal of work to bring out those elements and polish them up, but it’s a great joy to see your early novels morph into the stories they always wanted to be and take flight.
Rachel Neumeier started writing fiction to relax when she was a graduate student and needed a hobby unrelated to her research. Prior to selling her first fantasy novel, she had published only a few articles in venues such as The American Journal of Botany. However, finding that her interests did not lie in research, Rachel left academia and began to let her hobbies take over her life instead.
She now raises and shows dogs, gardens, cooks, and occasionally finds time to read. She works part-time for a tutoring program, though she tutors far more students in Math and Chemistry than in English Composition.
The White Road of the Moon is out now.