For the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of editing.
This wasn’t the first novel I’ve written. There were three others that came before, mostly born from my love of National Novel Writing Month. The difference between this book and the others is simple. It’s not that I’ve reached some new height of creative brilliance. Instead, I’ve changed my attitude towards writing. For some reason, I held the mistaken belief that writing was the kind of talent that simply grows over time in the same way that characters level up in a roleplaying game. If I was unhappy with a piece, I simply discarded it and moved onto the next, hoping that I would do better in the future. It’s easy to live without ever looking back. It’s much harder to approach writing with the diligence re-writing requires. And after the rewriting comes the plunge, the moment when I upload my work where others can see it and submit myself to their judgements.
With The Hummingbird Familiar, a fantasy story set in an invented world with its own magical rules, I’ve been finding that most of my problems emerge out of my writing style. Though I have a lot of respect for the kinds of writers who plan meticulously, I have always been more of an organic writer. Even with essays in university, I found that I worked best with a loose outline. If I immersed myself in a subject through my readings, I could trust that my caffeinated brain would (usually) create a well-structured argument.
In fiction, writing this way has its strengths. My characters and their relationships unfold over time. Places are explored based on the needs of plots and characters, as if I were excavating rather than creating, and sometimes a tangent surprises me by striking a rich vein of sensory detail.
When the time comes to edit, though, I read my own work like a pedantic fan. How does the magic of familiars work? If Sprite can’t transform this object halfway through the book, why could he do something similar early on? What sort of technology is available in this world? Are my settings too modern? To what extent am I imposing my own standard of living on this world out of convenience? (Am I using magic as a lazy substitute for technology to avoid dealing with the consequences of its absence?) A related problem: how can I write descriptively if my characters are involved in events beyond my experiences? How do I recognizably describe animal species whose English names use real-world places, like the Canada goose or the guinea pig?
When I write organically, I also tend to take the path of least resistance. If I feel discomfort in writing a scene, I side-step it. Transitions are one of the places where this usually happens. For example, my second chapter begins like this in my first draft:
In the morning, Maya couldn’t find the shaman. She had searched through as much of the messy house as she could; most of the doors were locked, except for the kitchen, bathroom, and what she could only guess was a living room underneath the strangeness.
In the fourth draft, the same opening reads like this:
In the morning, the door was unlocked and the house was silent. The books that Maya had spilled onto the floor the previous night were back in their places, though traces in the dust showed where they had fallen. Her socks were gone entirely. Maya missed them as she ventured into what she could only guess was a living room. It was difficult to tell, but there was a coffee table piled high with boxes and a couch leaking stuffing like a dying thing. Loose beads were scattered across the wooden floor. They pricked her toes, but at least they weren’t bugs.
Maya tried each door she found. The first two were locked. The third, its framed marked with swipes of what Maya hoped was red paint, burned like a coal as she touched the handle. It left no mark on her skin, which tingled long after. Sucking her fingers, Maya opened the kitchen door with a cautious elbow-jab. The smell made her dizzy, so she breathed through her shirt. Silverfish wriggled along the counter, disappearing into cracks in the cabinets. A loaf of bread sat next a wicker basket filled with mouldy fruit.
I hope the changes I made evoke a sense of strangeness and create a mental picture. By being more detailed, however, I have created new problems. Are coffee tables and stuffed couches appropriate to the setting I’m trying to create? As a reader pointed out, these details suggest a more modern mental picture than I was going for.
Right now, I’m a bit at a loss for how to solve this problem. I want readers to be able to picture these settings and, in order to do so, I need to use details that will ring true. But how can I evoke strangeness, a sense of being somewhere else, if I’m relying on familiar objects?