knowing what your story is about

It’s the When Words Collide weekend, and hopefully the last one that is going to be online. I’m presenting Sunday at three to discuss “There are no rules, twenty years on. Are we still sure we’re right?”

Ten years ago this weekend, I sat down with Adrienne Kerr to pitch the latest version at the time of my novel, Misbegotten. It was a rewrite of the book that made me realize I still needed to learn how to write. I had spent the past six of the seven years since then publishing with over a dozen novels to my name. The novel was supposed to be my triumphant return to mainstream publishing.

I had my elevator pitch and everything, but Adrienne started by asking me what the book was about.

My mind went blank.

Today I can answer that question — it’s an epic fantasy in which each character has to face their breaking point between love, duty, and an inevitable fate. When the gods wake and drive false kings mad, Lien joins the band of loved ones struggling to keep their King safe and sane as the madness of other false kings consumes their world.

But in 2012, all I could think of was the story was about a guy who did things. I could explain to Adrienne what the characters did until the cows came home. But I couldn’t explain why they were doing it.

I always thought that in 2006, I’d done a course-correct and now I’m here, but I forgot the second, probably more important course correct in 2012. Adrienne did her best trying to jockey the answer from a tiring horse on the final stretch, but I knew that while I had a vague idea that testing different relationship bonds to see when each one would break when the fall off the cliff became inevitable, they weren’t developed and the book wasn’t written to explore those bonds. It would need another extensive (yet to be done) rewrite to explore those breaking bonds.

Instead, I applied what I learned to my smut. I wrote Red Lettering in the fall of 2013. I saw the MLR submission request on a Thursday for a deadline on Monday. I’d never written a novella in three days, edited it over an evening and sold it the Monday, but I did it. I started the book not knowing what was going to happen, but I wrote to the theme for the first time deliberately.

Every scene had a purpose that established something the reader needed to understand themselves to grok the next bit. The mood of the piece wrote itself. I’d just lost my cat of seventeen years to cancer that summer. I don’t believe in literal soul-bonding with animals, but if there was, we had it. I wanted to paint that grief into the work. The character of Ren wasn’t born, he burst on the page fully armed, dressing fabulously and dead to begin with. The story was about his lover emerging beyond the grief of loving a larger-than-life, if deeply flawed person.

Would I have put it through another tight edit? Absolutely. Did it perfectly capture what it was I was trying to put down on the page? Also absolutely. Its sequel — a drag queen version of the Christmas Carol, was even more of a delight to write despite the bleak moments.

When I joined IFWA in 2005, I believed to the core of me that theme is just an elaborate Aesop’s Fable moral. Now, I recognize it as the compass of the story. It all started by examining the question of beyond what your characters accomplish on the page, what is the story about?

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