‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is the first book I ever actually completed (in first draft), so now that it’s had several months to brew while I finished another book, it’s time to begin the process of editing. I’ve always imagined that my writing is pretty clean. I don’t make many errors of grammar, spelling or punctuation, and I edit to some extent as I go along, cleaning up yesterday’s writing before starting a new section, adding in elements needed to the early chapters as the plot develops and occasionally revising whole chunks of text when I reached a lull. So it was shock to reread the opening chapters after a spell away from it.
Who wrote this crap? That was my first thought. It was long-winded and dull. I’d tinkered a bit with the opening paragraph, but it still didn’t work. Then there was a long section that was basically exposition, more telling than showing, just atmospheric backstory, before other characters appeared and things started to happen.
The problem was that I was working on the idea that I needed to show my first main character, Mia, in her setting, as a way of introducing her character and world. When I actually wrote this chapter, some eighteen months ago, that was what I thought you had to do, show the character’s normal life before the inciting incident. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s better to start with a bang, with something (anything) happening, or even in media res (right in the middle of the action).
Is that feasible? The inciting incident, in this case, is the death of one of the characters, but it’s very hard to drop right into that point without there being some background. Otherwise the reader has no measure for how this affects things. So I rewrote the first chapter to show more of the basic theme (double marriages and how they work), less of the tedious description of rooms and shafts of sunlight spearing through the windows, and more of Mia’s character (the timid little mouse). It still had petitions hearings, it still had Tella and then Jonnor arriving home, but hopefully it’s a bit less tedious.
Then I posted it on Scribophile. I had two decent critiques in the first couple of days and they both had similar issues. One was a misunderstanding about the Slaves. Now the Slaves are one of the central mysteries of the plot; who are they, and what is their real purpose? The title is ironic, ultimately. But at this point, they are just like priests, only with more influence over the main characters’ lives. I’d hoped that the mention of robes and incense would give that away, but apparently not. The real problem is the use of the word ‘slave’ at all. Everyone knows that a slave is the lowest of the low, people who are treated the same way as horses or the ploughing oxen. Yet my opening scene has everyone waiting for them, then they lead the procession and take the top level of the dais. There were other confusing issues, but that was the worst.
The other problem is that nothing happens. The petitions interlude is irrelevant to anything later in the plot, although it serves as a useful introduction to the principle of double marriages, and the rest of it is just character introductions, and rather clumsy ones at that. The attempt to get some mention of Mia’s ‘connection’ (magic) really didn’t work.
So I’ve decided to rewrite the opening altogether. I know so much more about writing now that it can only be an improvement. I’m going to start with the event which triggers everything – Tella’s death. I will start with Mia’s point of view, because ultimately this is more her story than Hurst’s, and I will lift sections from the existing chapters, but essentially it will be new. I can use the death and funeral to introduce the characters, their relationships, the setting and the Slaves. It’s disappointing, because this is more of a rewrite than an edit, but hopefully it will only be the first two or three chapters and then things will be back on track. We live and learn (as we should).