Thursday, December 27, 2018

Life Update 3 // DRACONIAN

Ages ago, in the forgotten year of 2017, I started querying DRACONIAN, which you may know as DSS. I talked a bit about it in this post.

In that post, I reference a sweet, kind agent who offered me a snippet of personalized feedback for my novel. Although it was still, ultimately, a rejection, and although I didn’t do anything about it right away, it got the gears in my head spinning. I knew that I hadn’t been getting as much interest in my queries for DRACONIAN as I had with TIB. I felt like I was missing something vital, like I had taken a step backward in the quality of my writing. So after I got over a bit of burn out, I pulled myself out of my funk, sat down with my story, and made myself face what I knew was wrong.

A long while ago (everything was a long while ago for me), I read some writing advice that said something to the effect of, “If you know you have a weakness in your story, and you’ve done your best to fix it, so you know you’re not being lazy, it’s okay to go ahead and query. No book is going to be perfect.” I’m still on the fence about whether or not that’s good advice. In my case, it wasn’t, because it gave me an out. I tried to fix the problem. I found I couldn’t. So I let myself query a novel I felt supremely insecure about, when I should have been like, “No, no, we are going to sit here, right here. We are going to look at this problem, and we are not going to leave this Starbucks booth until we know where the story’s going wrong.”

Okay, so maybe that’s a little overdramatic.

Let’s talk about the sticking point in DRACONIAN. It happens to be the most unfortunate, I dare say most common one. My beginning wasn’t working. It’s bugged me for years, has always felt like a low-level criminal offense. In its earliest iterations, when I was thirteen, it was pure exposition, all the telling and none of the showing. It stayed that way until I was eighteen. In my defense, I think that’s when I did succeed in streamlining it and introducing a good sense of rising tension. Where the breakdown happened was a few pages in, during a scene where I have a revelation that reads as too clich├ęd, the beginning of every single fantasy novel ever. I spent so much time trying to think around the issue. For the sake of the plot, my main character has to learn a significant secret her parents have been keeping from her, not because this will then launch her into glory and fame and riches, but because the betrayal will hurt her more than anything else, and it will affect how she behaves from that point on. But the way I had written it, it came off as tropey. There was no way for any agent to know, upon reading the first few pages, that I was trying something different.

When I finally sat down to address the problem from a new angle, I don’t know if I owe the subsequent revelation to timing, brooding, or pure happenstance. (I have this theory that stories are the sum of the times and places they were written, that where and when a scene is birthed changes its genetic makeup, that until you have written a thing, it is in flux, rich with infinite possibilities, infinite directions you could take that depend on the thinnest threads of fate and chance. Like, if you’re in the wrong place when you write something, you’ll miss some great revelation, and you won’t do it right. Or, if you write it too soon, you won’t have a vital, game changing thought that was scheduled to occur to you two months later. It’s at this point that I have to shut down this line of reasoning, because I can follow it in circles until I’m in the throes of an existential crisis, migraine and all. So, moving on.)

Somehow, (don’t look at the existential crisis, Liz, don’t do it), I finally thought of a way to restructure the beginning, to erase the aspects of it that had led to my querying woes. Of course, you know that whole, I’ll just tug on this one thread, just one more tug, one more, and then suddenly the sweater you were holding is gone, replaced by a pile of yarn. That’s what happened with DRACONIAN, but in a far less destructive way.

Altering vital details in the beginning has affected how the rest of the story plays out. Addressing those changes has, in turn, caused a cascade of differences down the line. I’ve kept a journal with extensive notes to track every stray thought that crosses my brain as I do this (it has two dragons on the cover), because there are so many balls to keep in the air. I’m about two-thirds done with the first pass now, but I don’t know how much work remains. I expect I’ll have to go through the whole thing at least two more times, so I catch all the errors and inconsistencies I’ve introduced.

I have been moving at a glacial pace on this story, usually only tackling it for (in a good session) four hours every Thursday. To which you are probably asking, if you haven’t read my pre-NaNo post, “If you were so frustrated with your slow progress, why wasn’t this one your NaNo project?” Two things. Firstly, I’m not frustrated, not generally. I’ll get to that later. And secondly, burn out is a hideous thing, and I was starting to feel it creeping up behind me. I decided I needed to set DRACONIAN aside and duck out for a month-long fling with some other stories.

The consequence of this hands-plunged-in-all-the-way-up-to-the-elbows-deep-clean edit is that my book is stronger, and I’d like to think richer, than it was before. My world building has improved; my characters have grown. I’ve shored up plot holes I’d never noticed before. My insecurity—it’s almost gone. DRACONIAN isn’t done yet. It might not be done for another six months. It might be done in two. Who knows? But I can see the bright shiny spark of what it’s supposed to be, now, and I’m entranced. Even if this book never sits on store shelves, this effort will have still been valuable. It has taught me so much about editing, so much about patience and determination and endurance. I’ve relearned, through this experience, how to love writing for the sake of writing.

As for the whole querying question, before November, I had fully intended to keep DRACONIAN as my main project, the one I prioritize finishing. There are now a few reasons why my plans have changed.

For one, it could be a while until it’s done, and it’s become such an intricate, loving revision, that I don’t want to rush it like I’ve rushed it before. I owe this book the time and effort it requires. That means that it’s going to have to become one of my side projects, at least for the moment.

Another thing is, and maybe this is a silly reason, that having already queried this one, I might want to put some distance between those efforts and renewed ones. I know people revise and re-query, and I know there are still so many agents I never queried with this project. But it’s also harder to jump back on the bandwagon with a book you’ve tried and failed with once before.

My last, and I think most compelling, reason is this: HIRAETH is suddenly so much further along, and while I have renewed confidence in DRACONIAN, it pales in comparison with how I see HIRAETH. HIRAETH feels like the one in ways that my previous two didn’t. As I mentioned in this post, I still have scenes to add and, realistically speaking, it will probably be a few months before I’m ready to query, maybe longer. Even if it was ready, I don’t think I’d send out queries until midway through January, so they don’t get lost in the holiday mix. But I want to take it and run with it.

That being said, I will still fight to get DRACONIAN to you someday, coffee beans, even if that means I have to print it out on rolls of toilet paper and leave them on your porch in the dead of the night.

That’s it for today, coffee beans. What are some stories you’ve wrestled with for years? What are some of your greatest revision triumphs? Are you currently in the query trenches/planning to jump in soon?


  1. I'm so glad you figured out what was wrong! And I also totally relate to being hesitant to change something in a story you've worked on so nearly feels betrayal!? Which I guess is silly haha, but I have a fantasy I've been writing (rewriting) for nearly 10 years and sometimes it's hard to let parts go when it's been with you for so long. But I'm glad you're tackling Draconian and happy with where it's going and best of luck with the other project too *flails* 2019 seems like it's going to be an exciting year with lots of progress for you!

  2. I'm glad you were able to figure out the problem--and gather the courage to dive into editing! Editing your own stories is one monstrous beast, especially when you have to do deep revisions like this!

    Low Expectations is a story I've been working on for YEARS, and at this point, I think I've done as much work with it as I can. But at the same time, I almost feel like I'm waiting for something to happen before I take any further steps. I don't know. Maybe there's some thought that's scheduled to occur to me 2 months from now that'll make everything clear. ;)

    And I 100% relate to wanting to distance yourself between rounds of querying for one story. I think that's part of the reason I'm waiting with LE: the fact that I have queried it before without success, and I want a little more time before I decide what exactly I'm going to do with the project next.


  3. The biggest hurdle is always finding out the problem. I’ve been so frustrated with stories because they kept getting rejections and I didn’t know why then an editor who ultimately rejected me told me my plots lack focus and that just made a lightbulb turn on for me. It’s why outside eyes are so handy. And I think it’s wise of you to sense the creeping burnout and nip it in the bud. Best wishes with revisions.