Twenty years and still going strong

Twenty years ago today, I finished my first novel.

I often say — because it’s true — that of the basic foundational skills one needs to be a writer, the last one I acquired was the ability to finish what I started. I was writing competent (if not brilliant) prose, characters, and plots before that point, but none of them meant much because unless you’re a celebrity or otherwise have some kind of “in” with the publishing industry, nobody’s likely to buy an unfinished project from an untested writer. Nor should they: I was living proof that being able to get a good start doesn’t mean you can stick the landing.

Why did that change? I more or less tripped and fell into it. I’d written assorted scenes for the novel that joined up into something like a coherent whole, but a guy in our crit group (the one who is now my husband) pointed out that there were problems with the pacing and so forth. He was right, but for a deeper reason: I looked at what I had and realized it wasn’t the beginning of the book. You see, in those days I tended to leap around writing whatever bits sounded exciting, and unsurprisingly, those were mostly from the middle.

So I made a list of stuff that needed to be set up first — worldbuilding to explain, character stuff to establish — and worked out a path through it all that would let me work that stuff into the story. I spent the first half of the summer writing my way down that list, until I finally was ready to stitch it onto the part I already had . . . and realized I had half a novel.

At which point there seemed no reason not to keep going.

Much of what I wrote for the beginning was ultimately cut. I’ve said before that Lies and Prophecy owes a debt to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin; the connection is much less visible these days, as I wound up revising out a lot of the material that followed the characters through their lives at college in favor of getting to the central plot more rapidly. But it was still an extremely useful thing to do, because it turns out that for me, the “leap around writing the fun bits” approach is a really bad idea. It leads to me writing stuff that isn’t grounded in what came before, and when the time comes to splice things together, the splicing material is very utilitarian, designed to get the story from Point G to Point J as fast as possible. These days I will occasionally skip ahead to write a scene out of order, and of course the structure of Turning Darkness Into Light meant that one threw much of my usual process directly out the window . . . but I still mostly write in order. I have to, if I want good results.

Like the result of finishing what I’d started. Twenty years ago today, for the first time, I had a complete novel: a long story that went from beginning to end with no holes in it. I didn’t publish it until thirteen years and multiple revisions later, but it’s still a watershed in my career. I have a career because of that moment.

(And for those who have been wondering . . . yes, there will be a third book in that series. Various factors have prevented me from writing it yet, but I haven’t forgotten, and by god, I will finish it eventually.)

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