For the past few years, I’ve had two novel ideas eating my brain. Last night, however, I finally made the decision to put both of these ideas on the shelf and work on another book. While I care about these ideas passionately, I do not yet have the confidence that I’m ready to write them the way I think they deserve to be written.
The first is Truth and Beauty, my retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast with more than a few twists. I first got the core of the idea for this one after reading Robin McKinley’s two excellent BatB retellings (written several years apart at very different times in her career), Beauty and Rose Daughter. Specifically, the ending of Rose Daughter addressed one of the points of the canonical BatB story that I have always had difficulty believing, and I was happy to see that someone else was not only bothered by it as well, but actually did something about it. Reading Rose Daughter freed me to articulate other things I disliked about the typical BatB story and start thinking of ways to fix them. Over several years and discussions with Steph, I came up with the story behind Truth and Beauty. This is a book I am very passionate about writing; it has evolved far beyond my original questions.
The second is tentatively titled Learning to See. When I’m feeling whimsical, I describe it as “The Adept meets Robert Parker’s Spenser novels.” If that doesn’t evoke anything for you, The Adept is the first of a five-book collaboration by Katherine Kurtz (of the Deryni novels fame) and Deborah Turner Harris, centering around Scottish noble and psychiatrist Dr. Adam Sinclair. Adam is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wealthy, successful man who also just happens to be a magician and one of the leaders of a “hunting lodge” — a group of good magicians tied together with a Judeo-Christian flavor of magic who work together to find and defeat evil occultists. While entertaining reading, The Adept illustrates what are to me the two central flaws that are present in nearly every occult thriller out there:
- They’re always about saving the world or some other big earth-shaking events. I’m really tired of reading novels about magic where the stakes are always saving the world. By the end of the series, we’ve got Nazis, Templars, the seal of Solomon, and several other pivotal scenes and instances from English and Scottish history all woven into the tale (including Kurtz’s formerly stand-alone WWII occult novel Lammas Night). Adam and his compatriots live in a world of high society, money, and privilege; they are able to re-order their lives and commitments to go haring all over the UK and the world in pursuit of their goals and enemies at a moment’s notice. I can’t relate to these people; they don’t struggle to pay bills or otherwise deal with reality. Their biggest challenge, it seems, is whether to drive the Bentley or the Rolls on their latest quest.
- They have a skewed view of the scope and impact of magic. If magic is real — and more importantly, if what we call magic or the paranormal exists in the world and has the particular relationship to religion and Christianity as I tend to think it does — then the big stuff is very rare. Far more common, and to me more interesting, are the stories of how (for example) someone with the spiritual gift of discernment might see that gift manifest itself in his life. This man, Gordon, is like me in many respects — but unlike me, he’s had some terrible things happen to him that have caused him to face these issues more directly. He’s not a superhero or a member of the glitterati; like Robert Parker’s Spenser, he’s a typical person with some non-typical attitudes, making his way along through life the best he can. He’s not perfect but is generally aware of his flaws.
Gordon’s story is, I currently believe, probably going to stretch over five novels (which I’m calling the Charism series) and possibly a few short stories. I also realized, somewhere along the way, that Gordon inhabits the same world as Caedmon (the main character of Silicon Cats, another project I need to get around to finishing); in fact, Gordon and Caedmon are good friends and we’ll probably see Gordon in Silicon Cats at some point.
These are the two fiction stories that have been eating my brain and demanding what little free time I can spare for fiction writing. Here’s the problem I have, though: I care so passionately about these stories that I don’t want either of them to be my first.
No novel is perfect; with each one you write, you’re learning more about the craft of writing. Now that blogging has gone beyond trendy into the realm of “makes good business sense,” I read a lot of blogs by authors. In every single one, I’m struck by how the successful ones can see the flaws in their work, but nevertheless finish up the draft and send it in because it’s the best draft they can write at that point. Writers who strive for perfection never finish their work. While you always want to do your best writing, you have to acknowledge that you can at some point only get better by letting your work be good enough and moving on to the next project. I’ve certainly had to cope with this over my years as a technical writer at 3Sharp; my current book on DPM is full of much better writing than I was able to do for the Exchange Server Cookbook, which was the best technical writing I could do at that time. Two years and a host of intervening writing projects will do that to you.
At the same time, though, Truth and Beauty and Learning to See aren’t just stories I need to tell. In many ways, these are intensely personal stories that reflect the last ten years of my struggle to be the best human I can be; they embody my thoughts and questions and reflections on the nature of love, relationships, spirituality, and the meaning of life. Perhaps it’s hubris, or maybe it’s just an honest reflection of where I’m not yet at as a fiction writer — but I don’t want these stories to be my first novel. A writer’s first novel is generally regarded as their learning novel. First novels are usually not picked up and published until a writer has shown that they can beat the odds and produce books that earn through their advances and make money, not just once but time and again. First novels, when when finally published, are usually much rougher around the edges, and may require a lot of additional rewriting and editorial care.
When it comes down to it, I don’t know if I’m ready to have either of these stories languish as a first novel. They’re not the stories I need to be telling when I’m working out the mechanics of adapting the lessons I’ve learned as a technical writer into the additional challenges of handling fiction and narrative and characterization and plotting. While I would do my very best writing on either of them, I don’t think that my current level of “best writing” is good enough for what these stories deserve. It has taken me literally years to trash through plot and character ideas and refine the initial concept to a story that I think will hang together well.
In contrast, when I sat down with Stephanie to hash out the minimal details I need to start any new story (character names are probably the biggest; as I’ve stated before, I don’t really have a sense on who the character is until they tell me their name), the ideas bubbled to the surface. By the time I’d described to her my idea (a fantasy novel that stems from an idea I had for a RPG contest), I knew the protagonist’s occupation (a glassblower). From there, it was a short distance to not only his name (Luc), but his wife’s name (Hannah). It took perhaps 45 minutes to go from concept to beginning of the draft. I think it’ll be a good story and I’m relatively confident that I’m a good enough writer to handle this story, but more importantly, if I’m wrong, I’m not going to be crushed. I care enough about this novel to do my best on it, but I don’t feel that the stakes are as high.
Is this arrogance, or is this wisdom?