Kali Wallace: Five Things I Learned Writing The Memory Trees
Sorrow Lovegood’s life has been shaped by the stories of the women who came before her: brave, resilient ancestors who settled long ago on an unusual apple orchard in Vermont. The land has been passed down through generations, and Sorrow and her family take pride in its strange history. Their offbeat habits may be ridiculed by other townspeople—especially their neighbors, the Abrams family—but for the first eight years of her life, the orchard is Sorrow’s whole world.
Then one winter night everything changes. Sorrow’s sister, Patience, is tragically killed. Their mother suffers a breakdown. Sorrow is sent to live with her father in Miami, away from the only home she’s ever known.
Now sixteen, Sorrow’s memories of her life in Vermont are maddeningly hazy; even the details of her sister’s death are unclear. She returns to the orchard for the summer, determined to answer the questions that have haunted her: Why has her mother kept her distance over the last eight years? What actually happened the night Patience died? What other long-buried secrets has the orchard been waiting for her to uncover?
You can rewrite an entire book multiple times without knowing what it’s about
I’ve heard writers say that the first draft of a novel is the one where we tell the story to ourselves. What I haven’t heard is that this can also be true of the second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts, because sometimes it takes that many tries to figure out what the hell we’re doing.
The Memory Trees began life as a very different kind of book. It was a classic ghost story: creepy atmosphere, excessive melodrama, flimsy-as-fuck murder mystery. And through many drafts, I tried to make that story work. I tried to fix the murder mystery. Added ghosts. Added confrontations. Added ominous fog. My editor got a lot of practice saying, “This revision is better! …but also not really better,” in politely ruthless ways.
She was right. For eighteen months of rewrites, revisions, edit letters, phone calls, outlines followed and discarded, she was right. I wasn’t making it better.
Only when I finally discarded the ghost story framework I had started with was I able to focus on the things that actually offered the makings of a decent book: the characters, their relationships, the many ways humans help and harm each other, and how those fierce, personal acts of love and hate can have repercussions that last generations.
Second novels are for unlearning what you have learned
After you finish your first book, a lot of people warn you that the second one will be harder. I expected that to be true. But what I didn’t expect–possibly because nobody warned me, but more likely because I wasn’t listening when they did–was that I would sit down to work on my second novel and have absolutely no idea what to do.
None of the revision techniques I used for my first novel worked anymore. None of the questions I had learned to ask of my characters helped. I could not make the story’s structure feel natural. I could not strike the right tone. I could not balance the pacing. Every change only made me more frustrated with how far the story was from being what I wanted it to be.
What I eventually figured out was that I had not learned how to write a novel. I had learned how to write that novel. Now I needed to learn how to write this novel.
It’s never too late to rearrange your entire novel on a whim
And that meant learning that while plot may be one damn thing happening after another, story is something else entirely.
Two weeks before my final final final deadline–I had already pushed back the publication date twice–I was forced to admit that while individual scenes worked, the characters were distinct, the plot had no holes, and the writing was strong, something in the book remained fundamentally broken.
That’s when I got the idea to blow up the whole structure.
I thought of it while walking to the gym–all the best ideas come while walking or showering–and I had absolutely no idea if it would work. I certainly didn’t have any time to spare. But I did it anyway: I broke off the first eight chapters (roughly 1/3 of the book), reshuffled them into a different order, and stuck them elsewhere, letting the emotional progress define their placement more than the sequence of events.
It did work–thank goodness, because I was out of ideas. It worked because this is a book about how the past informs the present, about the interplay between memory and truth, about how the actions of past generations still reverberate. In that kind of story, setting the past alongside the present makes sense–but I didn’t know that until I tried it.
How to delete men for fun and profit and the conscious deconstruction of internal bias
From the beginning The Memory Trees was a book the relationships between women. It’s about a teenage girl reconnecting with her mother and grandmother, all members of an old matriarchal family. That was always the plan: this is a story about women.
It wasn’t until my editor pointed out to me places where the central characters were taking a back seat to the men in their lives did I realize how deeply unintentional gender imbalance and bias can creep in. The solution, in retrospect, was obvious: for every character, for every scene, look long and hard at whose perspective is being favored, and take men out of the story when they had no reason to be there. Every single character got the “What is your purpose and does that purpose actually require a male character?” treatment.
The world has conditioned us as both readers and writers to accept that male characters are the natural default, while female characters need exceptional reasons for existing. That is both sexism and bad storytelling, and it takes conscious work to avoid both. It’s such a pervasive problem, such an ingrained habit, that even as a wildly progressive, grossly over-educated thirty-eight-year-old woman living in the year 2017, I still had to learn this lesson about letting women stand at the center of their own stories.
Stories are important when the world is crumbling
This book is forever tied in my mind to the unending escalation of horror that was 2016. There were many, many times when I looked up from my work and asked myself, “What the hell am I even doing? The world is a dumpster fire! Friends and loved ones and neighbors and strangers are in fear for their lives! Heartless sociopathic monsters are taking over our country! Why the fuck am I writing a book about magical apple trees?“
Since the mind-numbing shock of Election Day 2016–which also happened to be my birthday, fuck you very much–I’ve had many conversations with writer friends in which we asked ourselves: Why are we doing this? Who is this for? Does any of it matter?
Every writer has to find their own answers, and for me those answers are both complicated and painfully simple. Stories matter to children looking for both a mirror of their own lives and a window into a better world. Stories matter to teenagers who are righteously pissed off at how adults have fucked up the world so badly. Stories matter to anybody who needs to believe in beauty, justice, hope, and progress. A world in which art and beauty are encouraged to exist is what we are fighting for. A world in which long-silenced people are invited to shout their stories from the rooftops is what we are fighting for. A world in which young women can learn that their voices matter is the whole goddamned point.
Or maybe stories only matter because we’re all going to need to Scheherazade our way out of being eaten by roving bands of cannibals as we stumble wearily through the oncoming apocalyptic wasteland. That’s important too.
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Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees, and the upcoming children’s fantasy novel City of Islands. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.