Doing what’s best for the story is a refrain I had heard multiple times over the years, whether it was from Agents/Authors on conference panels, other blogs from Authors I follow, or from Twitter threads.
It seems like a simple thing, shouldn’t it?
But in reality, we, as authors, get stuck in our made-up reality that is our story. And then we get blinded by our world, our characters, & our process, and we really have to step back from it. Examine it anew. Especially newer authors, or ones (like me) who have been working on a story/world for many years, it gets harder for us to look at the story with fresh eyes and see where we need to fix things.
Critique partners/beta readers are excellent sources for this to happen. With unbiased critique, they let us know what needs shoring up, and what can be ultimately cut.
And this is where we have to truly put on our author hats and take that broadsword and slash the ever-living shit out of our baby.
Now, in my own journey, I had to make a decision that would alter the very fabric of the story I set out to tell. But after multiple years of failing to find that illusive unicorn that is known as a literary agent, I realized that I had to do what was best for the story…
Last time I spoke about the change in scenery to my series The Mistlands Tragedies. But prior to the final change, there was another major decision made and that was to focus my story on a different character than originally intended.
Let me get some back story out there. The original draft of my first book was strictly an Epic Fantasy with multiple points of view (POVs). I love ensemble casts and wanted to tell a story that had a big cast of characters. By the time I got the first book to a draft that was readable, I had 5 major POVs and 3 minor. I wrote the other two books of what was once a trilogy with this story. All said and done, I had 7 major and 10 minor character voices (Hells, over the course of these 3 books, I had 125+ named characters that had dialogue and parts to play in the narrative). But from the get of book one, my main character, Brynn, was the focused plot driver, and her story arc was the catalyst for nearly all the other characters. Meaning, almost every single character was introduced to expand her story. Except one.
Well, that’s exactly the point, this industry is so subjective and there are “rules” that new authors need to follow to even get a sniff at getting traditionally published (which is the route I want to pursue). One of those unwritten rules is word count. My first draft of this book was 140k words, you know, 40k more than the unwritten rule for new authors…So whatever. If you’re GRRM or Sanderson, you get to write 500k and no one bats an eye. I hate this rule.
But honestly, even with 140k words, not every character was given enough room to grow and allow readers to get to know them. Minor characters it’s not as important, but the major POVs need to have a connection with the readers (good or bad depending on the character, aka my proper bastard villain that all my betas/CPs seem to love). Over the course of a series, you can have that growth, but in the first book of a series, it is difficult to have so many characters and give them the life they need.
And here is where that issue of doing what’s best comes into play. I needed to refocus this story if I want it to see the light of day on a book shelf. It was also a defining moment in my growth as a writer.
The character of Ashe did not directly affect Brynn’s story in the first book. Actually (and quite stupidly on my naive part) Ashe didn’t even interact with Brynn or the other POVs until midway through the second book. Her arc was completely separate from the rest of the story. While Brynn and the other main characters were all tied together on this quest story, Ashe was having her own plot. And it isn’t until book 2 that she meets the rest of the cast, but then even that was a small section because not long after, something happens to her and she goes off on her own, completely separated from the rest of the cast (I’m not counting other majors I introduced from other parts of the world because they haven’t met Brynn yet either).
On top of the Ashe conundrum, I faced the same exact problem most SFF writers face – world building. This damn series has such a complex world, religion, magic system. Everything is just dense. And trying to build a cohesive world in 140k words tends to have a ton of exposition within. Nobody wants that, let alone an agent/publisher. So that needed to also change.
Doing what’s best for the story (see recurring theme!!!), I made the difficult (and slightly frightening) decision to completely pull Ashe’s entire arc from Brynn’s story. I could have done the easy thing and just left it on the cutting room floor, but I loved this character as much as Brynn. I didn’t want this lowborn sasspot street thief with the power to summon the dead to go into the deep unforgotten realm of computer files. A decision had to be made.
Make Ashe her own story and write Brynn’s story as is!
Well, again, it’s not that simple. Ashe’s entire arc was built upon this world I had crafted. Creating a new world, while still fitting her in, was difficult (ask my CP Claire, she knows…). So I did the next best, and smartest, thing I could think of, Ashe became the first book in the now 5 book series.
As much as I love Brynn’s story, I had always struggled with creating that opening, that inciting incident that would draw readers in. Like how much to show, where to start, etc. Then throw the world building on top of that. It became a bogged down mess.
That is why having Ashe as a story on her own worked so well. I was able build the world slowly. I didn’t have to introduce all these complex concepts because not all of them pertained to Ashe’s arc. And Ashe’s arc from start to end works brilliantly as a standalone story. Yes, I had to craft other scenes to fill in sections. Yes, I did some major scenery changes. Yes, I made some changes to Ashe’s personality (next blog post!). Yes, I had to come up with a completely new climax. But that was not as difficult as starting from scratch if I had to plop Ashe into a new world.
The best part is that Ashe’s story has been read by my CPs and they all agreed it was the best decision for the series as a whole. She is a good lead in character to the concepts I want to invoke. And they love her quirky, fun attitude with that devilish badass just waiting to come out at a moment’s notice. And now I’m able to introduce Brynn properly in book 2 and give the readers the opposing characters/concepts without inundating them all at once. And then once I get to the later books and the ideas that I already have written, the emotional connection will already be there. (Oh, and I decided to cut down those 7 majors to only 3 and combine some characters together)
In the end, I did what was the best for my series. I think it’s something that I never would have dreamed about when I first set out with this story. It took years to realize this, but this time doing the queries/pitch sessions/pitch parties/what-have-yous, I feel insanely confident that my story is ready for that next step!