Celebrating my first 10 years as a writer… Scott Westerfeld- On Rewriting & Growing Up
I recently read this article/pep talk by Scott Westerfeld in my email. Just like his pep during NaNo, this particular one was definitely insight and memorable — he really knows how to string two words together.
But the point was it really reminded me of where I started.
Here are the most important points he made, to start your revision by answering these questions:
- Which scenes flowed from your pen, and which were clunky?
- Which writerly decisions embarrass you now?
- Which characters were like a bad relationship, and which turned out unexpectedly compelling?
- Which goals that you started with aren’t worth pursuing anymore?
- And what startling new vistas opened up?
For the first point, I’m reminded of the first scenes of the first two chapter in the first book in the series I’ve been writing for these past ten years. The very beginning, in short, of my entire story of Dawn, my centre character of it all.
The first chapter details her life on the mountain, living alone with her family. The set-up is that she lives in a house in the mountains in an abusive household isolated from society and dreaming of escape. She has an adoptive sister, her only support, but that doesn’t stop Dawn from gaining a hard shell or from thinking better of the world outside. And through all this, she has no idea just how close town really is, because she’s never escaped that far.
Throughout my drafting of this first chapter, I’ve gone through many different versions. At first, I had both parents, then I had the mother flee at the start of canon, and now I have her gone by the time Dawn was three, because I needed to tie in the details from later in the series, and Dawn discovers she has a biological sister. That was the biggest change.
Nevertheless, through the years, that first chapter and the one that follows is constantly being changed or fixed or edited because I just thought of something else that was wrong, or unrealistic, or that looks terrible. It’s always those two chapters. So I’d say, coming from that perspective, they must’ve been clunky, especially that first chapter. But as Scott points out in his pep talk, I was young and — maybe not so innocent, but maybe I was, if I was innocent in my ignorance.
And through those young dreams of running away (in my case, it was the reverse, though not nearly to the motivations that Dawn had), those first chapters were always, I think, my strongest. As far as first drafting goes, when I first wrote, it did feel relatively that it flowed, better than a lot of think in those early days. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck to it for so long.
Let’s move along to the second point… embarrassing writerly mistakes.
If I could stick to those first few chapters, I’m sure that those mistakes probably still exist in my first book draft. Well, the way I wrote in those early days certainly held some common mistakes. I remember writing waking up scenes, trying to describe the characters appearance, etc.
Talking more on content, I think in that first draft, I took away from the abuse of the situation by making her escape in smaller ways. I remember a particular description of her escaping the house and going for a bush walk up the mountain, and specifically the feeling of a wall of sandstone under her fingers as she felt along the surface… Then in the dialogue scenes between her father, I don’t really think I had a grasp of what that scene would look like, or how it would feel. And describing her pain was another problem.
There were even small details when she was cleaning up on him and heard popular music on the radio, or when I would try to list the kinds of books her sister Belinda read…
Of course, none of this was as bad as chapter two, when the scenes escalated dramatically to finally escaping, only to meet a worse fate. The boys on the mountain… If I didn’t understand how her father would act, I had even less idea about the boys who wandered in from town, or what they were doing there. All I knew was what Dawn knew and felt.
All this is just the first two chapters, and although there are other things I’ve written, none of them really stick out in my head as strongly. Probably because in the very beginning of my writing, I was in the habit of editing those things over and over again instead of just pressing ahead with the writing. And of course, that’s where NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) stepped in to help me get rid of that habit, way back in 2007.
Of course, that brings me to the relationships with my characters. Well, of course there’s Dawn; me and her go way back, and I’ll always love her. She’s my favourite character to date, though Dylan takes second. Dylan was actually quite a surprise; I didn’t expect to love her as much as I do, but I managed to put more of myself than I ever expected to in her, and I love her for it.
Although she’s different from me in that she’s outspoken and determined, on the inside she has much of the same confusion and insecurities that I’ve dealt with in the past.
And then of course, there’s Seth, her brother. Another character I care a great deal about, he encompasses another side of me. That is, the side that wants to fight my reality, and all the indignities I find follows certain aspects of living. For example, sexuality in the public light. Partly oppressed by his dead adoptive father, he diminishes his public image to one of invisibility so as not to be judged unworthy, a fact that Dylan endlessly fights against. And I understand why, but I understand Seth’s point of view much better.
Now, as far as bad relationships, I do have something of and on-again-off-again relationship with Andrea. When I first invented her, it was as a match for Seth. Given a shaded past, I thought he deserved a companion, and then that relationship grew into something like love. But this was in their childhood, and even then, he had his reasons to keep distant.
But then, after years, when I finally came back to her story (after spending so long on Dawn’s), every time I tried to put them together, they somehow tore apart again. What’s definitely true is that Andrea really desperately cares for him. It’s also become clear that, in his own private way, he cares for her too. What’s unclear is how much, and what form that care takes.
Another iffy character of mine is Brenda. Sure, she shares certain traits in common with me, like her social isolation and her love of books, but Brenda’s one character that falls flat to me as her own person. I can sympathise her reasons for breaking up with her ex, but beyond that, she mostly remains a mystery to me.
Which brings me to Orion. My relationship with him is only a little better, even though I share less in common with him. What I do share in common is his sense of outrage, and his concealed defence of those he cares about. I’ve always hated his brother Alex, one of my first villains, but through his eyes I began to see him in a new light.
I’m not sure if there are goals I had at the start that aren’t worth pursuing anymore. I mean, certainly, the series that I’m writing now were once separate, as well as the characters, so maybe that. But besides that…
As far as startling new vistas… I’m going to University this year. I’ll probably post an entry on that later. And eventually, all my drafts will come together. As far as plotting, that’s something else I have to figure out, especially for the third book.
There’s still a lot to do before my first drafts of the whole series is complete. But as a writer, of course, I’m looking forward to it. Here’s hoping it’s all going to happen before the next ten years passes.