Narrelle M. Harris is the author of four novels, including the Witch Honour series and the acclaimed Melbourne-based vampire novel The Opposite Of Life. She spent a year writing the follow-up to that novel, only to finally scrap the entire book. The Outland Institute asked Narrelle to talk about starting over and the art of editing.
I wrote my vampire book The Opposite of Life in something of a blitz. It came about after I saw Underworld. It was a fun film, but I was sick of glamorous, sexy, skinny vamps. Why was it that a set of fangs came as a package deal with ultra-coolness, great hair and a stunning all-leather outfit?
If I was ever turned into a vampire, I figured, I’d still be me. Still a big girl with a daggy streak a mile wide. That was the story I wanted to read, about the kind of vampires real people would be, in this real world where old-fashioned skulking in castles and eating the peasants wasn’t really an option any more.
The Opposite of Life was published earlier this year, and despite (or maybe because of) the lack of glam characters, it’s been doing well. Now I’m contractually obliged to write two more in the series.
Writing the sequel has turned out to be harder than I’d thought. The first one flowed trippingly from the keyboard. My editors have made comments suggesting the idea had been stewing away in my head for years, but no. It just popped up and I wrote it down. A lot of work went into the polishing of it, mind you. There were lots of added scenes, lots of stuff that changed or just came out. But it wasn’t a book I’d harboured in my head and heart for a decade, polishing it to loving detail. It was just a rollicking good time.
Walking Shadows (the current working title of the sequel) is a different beast altogether. I have already written one version of it. It took a year to do the first draft, then a few more months to finalise it for submission. It turned out to be… I hesitate to say “bad”, but it wasn’t the book that needed to be written.
That’s difficult to admit, especially since I’d thoroughly enjoyed myself while writing it. It was only when Ron said ‘we can’t publish this’ and explained why that I realised that he was completely correct. It was extremely painful and remains both distressing and embarrassing to have got it so wrong. The oft-told tale that the same thing happened to Helen Garner isn’t as comforting as people think.
So I’ve had to go back to the drawing board – or in my case, the blank page. Some of those key ideas and events may be retained, but as I start over I realise that there is less that can be salvaged than I’d hoped.
Writing is sometimes a bitch of a thing. Recently, I finally decided to do what Barbara Hambly referred to as “killing your babies”. A sequence of events I was very fond of just had to go because it slowed down the story and frankly didn’t provide a big enough laugh to justify shoehorning it in at this point.
In the abandoned version of Walking Shadows, this sequence of events worked well and provided a great, grotesque laugh at a good point in the story. But that whole story is now just an Alternate Universe, and that sequence can’t be retained solely because I liked it. It was killing the pace.
So one night last week, a good deal of my allotted writing time was spent in deleting a thousand or so words I’d spent previous hard hours working into the story.
One of my favourite writerly quotes (attributed to Mark Twain) is “Sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Writing isn’t just about the words you keep. It’s about the ones you wipe away. Maybe it’s even more about the ones you delete. It can be like sculpting, in that way, knocking off the bits that don’t look like the thing you’re trying to craft.
Killing those babies, no matter how much you loved them, to make the story work is as hard, and sometimes harder, than getting those words down in the first place.
I worked – really worked – for over a year to get those words out on the first version of Walking Shadows, determined to make the deadline I had committed to. I’m still sad about having to kill it, even though I finally realised (with the gentle help of my publisher) it was utterly the wrong book and it would have to go. It didn’t happen without a lot of angst and distress and volcanic eruptions – killing your babies is very, very hard to do, and isn’t designed to make the writer a rational person.
It’s strange starting over and taking my characters in different directions, given that this other life they had exists in my head still. On the other hand, this new life of theirs is taking them where they should have gone in the first place. It’s giving them adventures and opportunities which are painful for them but gives them new ways to grow. I’m a bit of a sadist though, and when they are having a hard time is often when I’m having the most fun.
More of my babies will die before I’m done with this thing, but others will be born in their place. To stretch the analogy, perhaps to breaking point, I hope mainly that they will not die in vain, and that the remaining nursery will grow up into a healthy, happy book that other people will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.