Skip to main content

On alchemy

Like most writers, I have a few works in The Trunk, the virtual box under my bed where works that don't work lurk.

I have two, in particular. One is a YA sf thriller I started when I was still repped by a YA agent and thought I should probably write something for that market. I like it okay but I've never really got to grips with the characters or the speculative elements. It also reminds me too much of a tough time, writing wise, when I was left in a limbo that I'm only drawing out of now, and I suppose that steals the will to continue with a work.That one, I think, will stay where it is for now.

My second trunked novel is a more challenging scenario. This one is a sf. I love the concept, I love the characters, but it's just not quite working. Part of that is a structural issue - this is a mother and daughter's combined story, told mostly by the daughter through a link to her mother's memories - which I have never fully managed to solve. Part of it is the need for me to build a better world around it. At the moment, the city I've imagined hasn't quite come alive. It's sort of a mish-mash of places I know, and a few futuristic ideas I like. Either I need to identify it fully with a now-city and move it into the future, or I need to devise a completely new world and city, and I haven't had the inclination to do so yet. This book, called A Galaxy of Flowers, will appear one day, I hope. But I might need to be a more confident and rounded writer to nail it.

This is the thing about writing more than one project: you start to know what is working and flowing and what isn't.

One thing that I know from my sales of the Abendau trilogy feeds into this. When people buy book one, I have a relatively low return rate to buy book 2. Now, this isn't unusual and there are a number of things that feed into this: I often price promote book 1, so people pick it up on spec. With any book where you have a lot of casual purchasers, only some will even read the book and not everyone who does read it will like it enough to keep going. But, also, whisper it: I struggled like hell with Abendau's Heir. It was my first book - and it shows in places. It is the book that I think is probably my weakest, although I think the trilogy as a whole is very strong.

Now, the first thing people might think is that I have the rights back now - why don't I go in and fix that first book. I know the flaws (it slows a little too much about a third of the way through; the darkness perhaps needed a little more humour to break it up; the sf elements could be stronger with a bit more cool tech). But I don't think I can fix the book because the other flaw is that Heir is an overworked book. I rewrote it so many times I don't think I can bring the freshness to it that would be needed.

Move along to Sunset Over Abendau (the 2nd book I wrote) and Abendau's Legacy (the 5th), and I see a different pattern. When someone purchases book 2, a few days later, in practically every case, book 3 follows the same purchase pattern and people are hooked enough to keep going. In other words, they are books that deliver and work.

Now, when people ask me what my personal favourite book of mine is, I have to say it's Sunset Over Abendau. I enjoyed writing it (I think I like writing established characters), I enjoyed where the world went, and I felt it had a lot of fun within it (particularly the Lichio arc). But, in terms of which book felt best when I wrote it, I'd have to say Legacy. I was very confident with it. It felt right. And, true enough, when Teresa, my editor, fed back to me about how it read, there were very few changes to be made (apart from the small matter of Lichio's entire arc...). It worked. I knew it as I wrote it, I still believe so now.

Between the second and third book of Abendau, I worked on other projects - namely Inish Carraig and Galaxy of Flowers. As you see above, Galaxy didn't work, and I was shocked at the time. This was my 4th book, and I thought I'd nailed the process. Turns out the process, such as it is, isn't always easily transferable between books. They both gave me new skills and perspective. Inish taught me about pace, Galaxy about complexity in structure. Both strengthened my confidence at writing SF elements.

This is why I always think it is good not to get so bogged down on the PROJECT. The thing we want to write. (It's so sad, actually, that the story we generally have the passion to write, our first story, is also the least likely to be our best writing). Some writers stay in that project, don't move beyond it, seem to find it impossible to think of writing something else, and twenty years later (or five, or three, or forty) they have a book with the same problems it started with, with a writer who hasn't developed as much as they needed to and with a book that struggles to meet its potential. Sometimes I wonder - if they'd whacked out a couple of 30000 word novellas, or some long short stories, even, would they have found the tools they need to write the story? (Cue telling everyone to go and read Stephen King's On Writing and then question if they have the toolbox they need - I know I don't yet).

It's also what's making me happy this week. Inish Carraig 2 is a slow project, for me - I'm a busy lady, I'm afraid - but it feels right. Like it's going the right way and falling into place. Like it might work. That's the way Legacy was written - slowly, surely, with very few deleted scenes. Changed, of course. Some added, naturally. But very little wastage. That's how IC2 feels. And, so far, the beta team have liked it enough to make me feel that yes, it might work out okay.

And that's the alchemy that I'm talking about in the title. It's something that only comes with some experience - both of things that have worked, and things that have failed. It's like playing patience/solitaire, and there comes a sudden realisation that you're going to get all the cards out, that you've turned a corner and everything's in place. But you have to reshuffle the cards a lot to get that knowledge of when things are right, and when they're wrong.

I hope I'm right. I really want IC2 to live up to the first book. But I do know if I'm wrong, then I'll have learned something more from having written it. (Including, perhaps, not writing blogs about how well things are going before the project is finished, or the readers have had their say!

Whatever you're working on, I hope the alchemy appears and the writing angels sing. Jo