Peter Newman: Five Things I Learned Writing The Vagrant
The Vagrant is his name. He has no other. Years have passed since humanity’s destruction emerged from the Breach. Friendless and alone he walks across a desolate, war-torn landscape. As each day passes the world tumbles further into depravity, bent and twisted by the new order, corrupted by the Usurper, the enemy, and his infernal horde. His purpose is to reach the Shining City, last bastion of the human race, and deliver the only weapon that may make a difference in the ongoing war. What little hope remains is dying. Abandoned by its leader, The Seven, and its heroes, The Seraph Knights, the last defences of a once great civilisation are crumbling into dust. But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.
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1. Some things take time
It can be tough when you’re struggling to get the words on the page and people all around are talking about word sprints of a thousand words an hour, or daily totals of two, three, five or even ten(!) thousand words a day. But with The Vagrant I learned that sometimes you have to write slowly. As I figured out my process with the book, I limited myself to a thousand words a day. If I wrote more than that, the quality of the writing began to suffer. And more often than not, that thousand words would not just pour onto the page so I could run free for the rest of the day. They had to be chipped out of the edifice of my unconscious, letter by letter. But here’s the thing. Some projects are fast to write, and something of that frenetic energy gets translated onto the page and that’s great. But sometimes, the work demands to be taken slowly, and that can be great too.
2. It’s amazing how much space dialogue can take in a book
In The Vagrant, the protagonist is silent. His primary companions are a baby and a goat so for large sections of the book there isn’t much chatter. It made me realise how much of books is often the principal characters talking to each other and, from a writing perspective, how useful it is to have the principal characters talking to each other. On the plus side, it forced me to find other ways to tell the story and work hard on other elements of the narrative.
2.5. It’s amazing how much space the character’s inner worlds can take in a book
In The Vagrant, we don’t get access to the inner thoughts of the protagonist. I decided that it would be more interesting if the reader had to come to their own conclusions about him, based purely on what he did. You get to see into the heads of some of the other characters, especially the infernal ones but not the Vagrant himself. Again though, this means that a lot of what usually makes up a book in terms of speech and thoughts aren’t there, putting the focus very much on action and reaction.
3. Gender stereotyping is tricky and insidious
Some of the characters changed gender between first and final drafts. This is partly because of feedback that I got and partly because over the course of writing and rewriting, I came across a number of very cool folks posting about the representation of women in fantasy that forced me to look hard at what I was doing. I think it’s all too easy to assign gender to a character without questioning or thinking through the decision, considering why that choice has been made and what message that might be sending out.
I also tried to make sure that there was a balance of male and female characters across a variety of roles, both in the foreground and background. To a degree I did this naturally but not enough. I’m fairly happy with the balance I’ve achieved in the book, and even happier with the sequel.
4. Things that look cool in my head can be hard to put on the page
There was this one fight scene that I had to keep rewriting. It was a cool scene: Three different factions and multiple combatants going back and forth, twisting and turning, different sections of the fight playing out in multiple levels of a complex. High stakes, high drama-
It was complicated and hard to follow.
On a screen, it would have been easy. In a graphic novel, perfect (if anyone wants to turn The Vagrant into a graphic novel by the way, I’m all ears) but in text form, it was problematic. I mean, I could understand what was going on in the scene just fine but apparently that isn’t good enough so I went back and reworked it.
And reworked it.
And reworked it.
And… actually, by then it was pretty good. J
5. Standalone? Duology? Trilogy? Neverending Story?
I originally started writing The Vagrant as a standalone. It was only when I was coming towards the end that I found narrative doors were opening as much closing. When the book was submitted, and I was asked to pitch for a sequel, I found the ideas already there, almost as if I’d planned it that way.
Recently, I was asked: why did you plan to write a duology? The truth is that I didn’t plan a duology. In fact the sequel is with my publisher at the moment and having written a draft of it, I find that there is a third book knocking on the inside of my skull, asking if it can join the first two. So if I’m lucky, one day the duology will become a trilogy, or a wheeloftimelogy. But who knows? Not me. And I think that while sometimes you need a concrete arc that fits into a set number of books, sometimes it’s okay to be taken along for the ride.
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Peter Newman lives in Somerset with his wife and son. Growing up in and around London, Peter studied Drama and Education at the Central School of Speech and Drama, going on to work as a secondary school drama teacher. He now works as a trainer and Firewalking Instructor. He sometimes pretends to be a butler for the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, which he co-writes, and which has been shortlisted for a Hugo Award.