It started with career day. My sister/roommate is a high school teacher and once a year I get invited to take part in her school’s career day, and spend a morning talking to kids about my career. I go back and forth between talking about my day job in tech and my creative job as a writer, or some years try to talk about both, but let us be real: the writing stuff is way more interesting and exciting for everyone. (I’m a great product manager and yeah, I definitely have advice about how to write great status report emails. That is definitely not very interesting to 15 year olds.)
This was one of my writing years, and hey, I have cartons of my own books in my closet, so I grabbed one of each and brought them with me as visual aids. And as I sat on the train on my way to school, I did something I don’t think I ever have — I started rereading my second book.
To be clear, I read it a gajillion times when I was writing it. There are many reasons for the adage that you should only write what you love, though that advice is usually given in regards to not trying to write to market trends. But on a purely pragmatic level, you should only write what you love because you will have to reread what you write roughly seven hundred times throughout the publication process. For Freed by Flame and Storm, that process ended sometime in mid-2017.
The other writing adage that is relevant here is this one: that your second book will be the hardest book you ever write. I can’t swear to that yet, since, you know, I haven’t had any more books since Freed, but let me tell you, writing it was really freaking hard. As I told the kids: it took me about three years to draft, re-draft, re-re-draft, and then revise Bound by Blood and Sand, and then my agent and I worked on it for about six months, and then my editor and I worked on it for about six months. The whole process took something over four years. Freed, however, was written under contract and under deadline, which means all of those same steps had to happen… in a year. And that is why second books are so very, very difficult.
The end result of all of that — the difficulty, the stress, the super quick timeframe, etc — is that, honestly, I had basically no memory of what happened in Freed. I mean, I could give you the very broad strokes, but even as I was reading it I was like, “Is this the part where Elan is captured? Wait, no, that’s later? Isn’t it? Wait, does he get captured or was that in the draft I threw out?” (He does. It was later.) It was actually really interesting to read through something I came from my brain, but that I was far enough removed from to read it as if it was someone else’s novel.
I don’t have a ton to say that’s really profound, but here are three things I learned about my own writing, reading it with fresh eyes:
* I’m not that great at metaphors. Or well… I guess I’m fine, but in this book they were really strained. See, the thing was, in Bound by Blood and Sand when I had all that time to work on it, I was also able to really focus on the prose, which is not usually my strongest point. In one of my many, many revision passes on it, I had concentrated on how the language could reinforce the worldbuilding, so I had a handful of lovely passages and descriptions that really reinforced how dry and desperate the world was, and how vast the desert was, and how tiny and powerless the protagonist was in comparison. Great stuff! So in Freed I tried to recapture that feeling using a lot of desert-based metaphors and, uh, didn’t quite make it. None of it was necessarily terrible, but a lot of it felt pretty forced. Oh well.
* I am good at plotting! Look, at the end of the day, I don’t think that the idea of plot and character can be truly divorced into the ways people talk about character-based writing or plot-based writing, but… yeah, I’m a plot-based writer. The first thing that comes to me is usually a story premise, then a couple of scenes that end up being major plot points, and then a bunch of worldbuilding, and then the rest of the plot, and somewhere in there the characters who are involved in all of that. The end result of that is a story that’s got a lot of forward momentum and a good, exciting build to the climax. I was pretty delighted when I realized I couldn’t put my own book down because I really wanted to see what happened!
* I am… medium at characters. That’s the inverse of the point above, I guess. I usually get the story that I want in place well before I feel like I really “know” the characters, and maybe it has to be that way. They need to be malleable enough that I can have them believably make the decisions necessary to keep the plot rolling the way I want (where as, I’ve been told, for many other writers it’s the plot that changes because the characters won’t, and they wouldn’t believably make the decisions necessary for the plot to unfold as planned).
It was within the character stuff that I found the only real pieces I wish I could revisit all these years later (cringe-y metaphors aside, I guess). I don’t think I did a bad job, but there’s a moment about 2/3 of the way through when the protagonist needs to make the wrong choice, and I don’t think I full sold the reason why she made that choice…especially since it could have been lit by a flashing neon sign saying “Bad Idea This Way.” Similarly, the climax hinges on the antagonist making a major choice as the culmination of her character arch, and while I think I did a better job with that one, I also think her arch could have been stronger throughout. Alas.
All told, though, I’m extremely proud of the book overall. I think the fact that I can spot the weaknesses now is a sign that I’ve grown as a writer, which is always a good feeling. And it’s especially important to me right now because, as I’ve noted in this letter over the last few months, I’m currently racing through a rough draft. I didn’t quite hit my 25,000-word goal for February — but I came in at 21,000, which is nothing to sneeze at (and more than I expected because it was rougher to get out and felt like less, which is why actually tracking my writing sessions is so valuable). I’m currently rounding the corner into my third act and climax and hope to have the whole thing done by the end of the month.
This won’t technically be the first draft of a project I’ve finished since Freed. There was the novel that’s been stuck in a drawer since 2017, and the first two-and-a-half versions of this project. But this is the first one where it feels like it might actually work (knock on wood… I’m not done yet!). I’ll have plennnnnnty to revise, but this draft, at least so far, feels like a solid foundation to build on. And since rereading Freed and being able to actually view my strengths and weaknesses in action, I feel really excited to do that revision and I have a solid sense of some of my writing pitfalls to watch out for when I get started.
Side note: I’ve gotten a couple of replies to these letters in the past few months, which I love! So in case you were wondering, if you hit reply it comes directly to me, and I always want to hear your responses and all about your writing.