Aliette de Bodard: Cannibalizing A Draft (Or: The Art Of Rewriting)

And now, a wonderful guest post by Aliette de Bodard, which serves as a good reminder that we are best when we know our process — and when we know that our process is an ever-shifting chimera, as is every book, as is every writer. Yes, we’re literally chimeras. Shut up and go with it, and now read this very good guest post please and thank you.

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I’m not a writer given to much revision.

That makes me sound like everything that comes out of my keyboard is perfect, which is *so* not the case! Rather, what happens is that I do a lot of preparatory work for a piece: I’m the antithesis of a discovery writer, and about 50% of my writing time on a draft is spent researching, brainstorming and outlining so that by the time I get around to writing line one of chapter one I’m usually pretty definite on what exactly is going to happen and when.

Accordingly, it was a bit of a shock when I wrote In The Vanishers’ Palace, my latest book. Originally I set out to write this because I was pretty close to burnout and I wanted to write something just for fun. I’ve always loved Beauty and the Beast, and I wanted to try my hand at a retelling where they’d both be women, and the Beast would be a Vietnamese dragon: something that would merge my love of fantasy and the Vietnamese tales of my childhood, where dragons are water spirits bringing good luck, and the heroes are scholars rather than sword-wielding knights.

Obviously, as I should have known, “fun” became a synonym for “pulling hairs when writing” and “wanting to set fire to everything”. It sounded like a simple idea to rewrite a fairytale–but by the time the first draft was done and I got the first reader feedback it was obvious that my retelling was not working on a major scale. Character motivation and arc was all over the place, and more importantly the plot itself fizzled out, a sure sign that id need to redo the entire thing.

It was a terrifying thought, a bit like jumping out of a plane without a parachute (not helped by the other looming deadlines on other projects and the general fatigue due to being the primary caretaker of two young children in addition to a day job and writing!) In retrospect it’s due to making a couple of ambitious decisions, one of which was having a romance subplot (the Beauty and the Beast part, in which my impoverished scholar falls in love with the dragon whom she’s indentured to) at the same time as a motherhood subplot (the dragon has two adopted children who are now teenagers, and quite busy asserting their independence in the most disastrous possible way). These two plots are not incompatible, obviously, but my brain, fed by tons of media representation, kept insisting it was a terrible mistake.

I looked at my field of ashes draft and thought I might as well toss it in the bin: usually I manage to salvage scenes but this felt like no single scene was working properly.

I moped for a couple of weeks (a totally writer thing to do! Well, at least this writer!) And then I sat down, turned to a fresh page in my brainstorming notebook, and wrote, very deliberately, “list of current scenes in the draft”, and “list of scenes I would like in new draft” (ok, it might have been a teensy bit more cryptic since they were notes to myself). I also took another notebook and did pages of brain dumps that were essentially me talking to myself about what I needed to fix. Writing it down without judgement was actually super helpful to unlock the issues and possible fixes: since it was longhand and not on a computer, I didn’t feel like it was a final story or even graven in stone. It forced me to keep thinking, to keep track of what I was doing, but not in a way that paralyzed me.

By the time I was done, I had a completely new synopsis for a book that only vaguely resembled the original one. I set to writing it, duly–and was surprised that while I couldn’t recycle whole scenes, I could totally plunder my draft for bits and pieces. An abortive, intimate scene around a basket of fruit (because apparently nothing says flirting like giving a basket of fruit to ones’ beloved!) couldn’t be re-used, per se, but I kept the basket of fruit and moved it to earlier in the narration. A scene where my character breaks into a secret hospital room and which completely fizzled out in the original was replaced by a scene in which my scholar character goes looking for the dragon’s children and finds them in the room: I ended up re-using the setting!

From other scenes, I cut and pasted bits, sometimes no longer than sentences–and all of it actually made the subsequent draft faster to write, because there were a bunch of small things and small details I didn’t need to fumble for, but could lift wholesale out of my previous draft.

Basically, I took a knife to my previous draft and used the fragments of its corpse to make the next draft–which is either very sophisticated cooking or advanced draft cannibalism. I wouldn’t say the revision was fun (funnier than first draft, but that’s mostly a comparison between being cut by a sword and being bitten by a dog), but it was certainly way more painless than I expected.

So, my three lessons learnt:

  1. In case of doubt, take the book apart
  2. Books always involve pulling out hair
  3. Draft cannibalism is always a thing

(I did learn a fourth one, which is that I’m totally incapable of making a draft shorter. The final version of In the Vanishers’ Palace is almost double the size of the original one. So much for my plans to write short!(*))

(*)I always write long, and any of my friends could have told me writing a short book with complex characters, complex worldbuilding and two subplots in addition to the main one was DOOMED TO FAIL.

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From the award-winning author of the Dominion of the Fallen series comes a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land… 

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Aliette de Bodard: Website

In The Vanishers’ Palace: Indiebound | Amazon