Finishing the Whisperer’s Revolution

I know it’s been a month already, but here is my traditional post about finishing a novel and how it went. Being a professional procrastinator, I managed to put this post off on the shabby pretext that I needed some time to reflect on the book.

Genesis

This book has long been brewing inside my head. I got the first idea while I listened to a panel on Revolution at Eastercon 2012. Often when I’m sitting there in the audience, my mind will start bouncing ideas on the topic being discussed. This time, I got the idea that I wanted to see a revolution where the one being revolted against was actually a good guy but couldn’t give away his position because some terrible thing would happen if he did. He might be sympathetic to the ones rebelling against him, but he wouldn’t move. I thought that would be a great conflict and that I hadn’t seen this sort of story yet, revolutions being often seen from the side of the insurgents.

The second major piece came to me when I was researching various revolutions. I ended reading a bit about the fall of Roman monarchy and the creation of the Republic. I knew part of the story of course, but reading about Lucretia really sparked my imagination. What if someone had used her and engineered her plight in order to bring the king down?

The two ideas mixed together wonderfully and they started to build up inside my mind until at some point I got the feeling I was actually losing wonderful ideas or lines I would never find again because I couldn’t write them down. It’s usually a good indicator I have to start writing, but I was in the process of editing Shrouds and I couldn’t let that book down, so I waited.

First ideas

Another of my little traditions is to write some lines from each of the major point of views in order to get each voice down. As an exercise, I decided to write those lines in the form of letters. I had two characters at that point : a King loosely modeled after Louis the 16th who is more interested with his astronomical studies than anything else and his opponent, the Whisperer. I submitted both letters to my writing group and alpha readers. The reaction was immediate : the Whisperer was an interesting character (even if he is clearly a sociopath) while the King came out as really unsympathetic.

I then realized I couldn’t have the King go about hunting down his enemy. He had other duties that would prevent him from being an active character. I needed someone else.

Enter his niece, a teenage girl who wants nothing to do with her royal lineage (a very good choice if I want to sell that book as YA). Now, that characters can be more active and be doing all sorts of things. The real problem here is that she’s really not fit to go hunting down a man who can slip inside most people’s minds and control them.

The solution came while I began writing. I created a character who was both free to act and skilled in hunting down bad people. Jdira is a strong character I really came to like.

With all the characters in place, it was time to start.

Act 1 : Why won’t Lucretia appear?

Being a “Discovery Writer” has its advantages, but the one problem is you really have little control over your story. The characters act and react according to who they are and what happens to them. You don’t want to nudge them too strongly in one direction or the entire plot will seem contrived, even when you know they really aren’t going where you want them to. I knew I wanted my bad guy to start his revolution by finding his Lucretia and having one of the king’s men do enough violence to her that she would go out in public, denounce him and kill herself.

But as pages and words came along, Lucretia didn’t appear. Worse, the bad guy really didn’t get the idea until really late. He started scouting for his victim, but couldn’t find her. If you’re wondering why the first act is so long (about 5k extra words), this is why.

In the end, my antagonist found his victim and offered her as his sacrifice to spark his revolution, but I really wondered whether it would really happen.

Act 2 : Not to take the Bastille

I really wanted to see the people within the city rise together and walk on the royal palace, pitchforks in hand, singing songs about slaughtering the King and all of this. Sounds cliché, doesn’t it? I was ready to add a few twists, but this was the feel I was going for.

Know what? Didn’t happen.

Why? Really because the antagonist isn’t the sort of man who would rise to the top of a barricade and make a hot speech to make the mob’s blood rise. He’s a plotter. Someone from the shadows. And the opposition? Nice people who wouldn’t order the guard to fire on innocent citizens. So, there were barricades, but not really bloodshed.

What happened was a negotiation for power between the antagonist and the King’s niece.

The one scene which really worked for me was when the King was forced to send his best friend to be judged by the rebels for a crime he knew the man didn’t commit. Very powerful scene which left me drained. This usually happens to me about once per book. It’s always a surprise to me and those moments really are why I do write.

Act 3 : Varennes doesn’t come either

I knew at the beginning that I wanted the King put in prison and his niece needed to stage a prison break and bring him out of the city before revolutionaries caught them and brought them back.

Like in the Lucretia case, I couldn’t find my escape coach and my Varennes. The main cause here was because it was out of character for at least one of the 3 escapees who didn’t want to go away. The easy solution here was to split the company up and allow the King to take his coach out.

In a sense, this splitting of the 3 gave me my ending (which I’m not going to talk about here). Suffice it to say it gave me an idea for a powerful ending which I think will be very satisfying. In my head, I saw the setting for the last battle but when I started to write it, the battle really didn’t come out as I expected. I wanted fireworks and rage, but what came out was rather poignant.

Epilogue : to outline or not to outline?

My writing process is a strange one. I build plans inside my head (or rather scenes). I might come up with half a dozen of those scenes for a given book. Some might not play well with the others, but that’s normal for me. With this pool of scenes, I start to write and see where I can go. Sometimes, the scenes unfold in the right way (like in The Fifth Compendium or Shrouds), but they might not (like here). Most of the times, the characters will surprise me and create what I think are the best scenes of the book. Along the way, new scenes do appear (usually I get my ending while I’m finishing the second act), but it’s always a difficult process. Why can’t the bloody characters do as they are told? Why can’t they follow the plan?

At some point, I wondered if I wasn’t better off dumping those scenes from the start. If I’m going to pantse a book, why not do it the whole way and forget about those scenes, since I’m not going to be able to use them?

First, I’m really unable to shut down that part of my brain. These scenes are what get me excited about writing a book in the first place. If I cast them all away, writing isn’t going to be fun for me.

Then, there is some sort of game going on between me and the characters. I want them to go left and they want to go right. How can-I convince them that left is better? The point is : if I manage to convince them that left is the only way to go, they’ll believe it and so will the reader. Really, fighting with my characters is really better for the book than either allowing them to do as they please or force them to go where I want them to. Sometimes it means the book gets longer for them to reach the right point, sometimes, they convince me that left really wasn’t such a good idea after all.

So I’m going to continue imagining those scenes, whether I can use them or not.