I’ve known Chris for quite some years now – I think we met when we were both looking for critique partners. Chris has been writing Century of Sand for years, so when he finally put it up for publication, I thought it would be good to hear from Chris about how the revision process works for him.
When Merrilee asked me to write an article about my editing process, I didn’t think I’d get caught up in a month-long struggle with my own wordiness. You see, I’m a pretty brutal editor. I cut a lot. I’m not happy unless I’m cutting to the bone. As a result, my projects take a stupidly long time to finish. I’m my own worst enemy. But I can, at the very least, explain how I spent three years bringing my latest novel Century of Sand from a flabby, unfocused first draft to a finished product.
Century of Sand is a fantasy novel about a father and daughter – Richard and Ana – running away from their homeland, trying to escape from a vicious and bloody-minded Magician. It differs from many fantasy works in that the hero is not young, dashing and chosen by prophecy – he’s old, bitter, and full of doubt at the decisions that led to his escape. Ana is a warrior with the mind of an infant, trained to kill but not to speak. The landscape they’re crossing is not traditional European woodland, with tall grey castles and knights riding lovely white horses. It’s an unending desert, harsh and bright and bone-dry, where local warlords battle over water and demons walk around in stolen skins.
But when I began writing Century of Sand back in 2008, I didn’t even have that previous paragraph to work from. All I had was a premise – a demon living in a termite mound in the centre of a vast desert – and a single character – Richard, an old man fleeing from the Magician-turned-King. As such, I didn’t really know how to construct the novel. I had no plan and basis of comparison. All I could do was jump in at the deep end and hope something worked out along the way.
I operate in two very distinct modes: writing and editing. I can’t write and then edit a project in the same day, or even the same month. The processes require different areas of my brain, and it takes a long time to switch gears. So instead of sitting down and carefully plotting my way through, I wrote blindly, without consideration for character development or narrative structure. The result was a mess that Merrilee probably remembers as nigh-unreadable. I put the draft away in a drawer for six months, came back and read it as if I were reading somebody else’s story. Then, I began to plan.
My revision plan was constructed around what I personally feel most important in a story. For me, characters are always number one. With the rough draft in place, I could see the approximate arcs that my characters were supposed to take on their personal journeys, so I mapped out each arc and the changes that each character would need to undergo throughout the story. With those in place, I found the locations and events scattered throughout the Century of Sand trilogy that would best serve those evolutions in character. I twisted the plot where it needed to be twisted in order for these character revelations to fit – for me, plot is always secondary to a good character arc. Then, once I had the story mapped out in terms of character developments and interactions, I start cutting.
What parts of the plot didn’t serve the characters? They got chopped. What parts existed only for filler? Chop. I went through the story line by line and cut everything that wasn’t necessary, and I left myself notes to indicate all the things I needed to put in their place – meaty things, things with weight, things with tangibility. Authorial intrusion got chopped. Infodumps got chopped. I found ways to replace them with action, with collision and conflict. I located passive moments and beat my head against a wall until I discovered a way to make them life-or-death situations.
Then, with my character arcs in place and my story honed to a fine edge, I thought about the world.
I’m not good at worldbuilding. It’s the part of fantasy I hate the most, because it so often leads to extended chapters discussing trade routes and the history of meaningless cities. My perfect form of worldbuilding is one where info is only revealed in a way that furthers the plot, or the development of a character.
But to find those good moments, you have to cut away from a big messy whole. So, with my entire trilogy already drafted, I drew a map for the first time and figured out exactly where my characters were headed. I filled in the gaps, all the places they didn’t visit, and I thought about how those places, their religions, their histories and tribal disputes, could have influenced my characters in the past. Only one of my main characters, the Kabbah – a local warlord drawn into the adventure by a need to pay a blood debt – has any real knowledge of the world through which they’re travelling, so he is the lens through which my other characters, Richard and Ana, see the desert. The way in which the Kabbah talks about the desert gods, the rock formations, the wars over territory, inform the reader of his character as much as they inform Richard and Ana about the landscape. By making him my walking encyclopaedia, I can worldbuild but also build his personality simultaneously.
So, my three main editing steps – character, plot, and world – were complete. What was left?
I put the draft away in a drawer for six months. I let it get mouldy. I took it out. I started again.
After four complete rounds of rewriting, hating my manuscript, hating myself, cutting, rewriting, having epiphanies, cutting again, crying, and rewriting again, I finished Century of Sand. It took four years, almost to the day – March 2008 to late February 2012. I knew I was done when I took the manuscript out of the drawer in December 2011, reread it, and found myself enjoying every word. It felt like somebody else’s book, and it was exciting from beginning to end. Instead of thinking, “I need to rip this apart and start from scratch,” I thought, “A bit of a proofread and this is ready to go.”
That actual process of uploading and self-publishing Century of Sand should have been terrifying. Instead, as I clicked UPLOAD on the Kindle website, I was calm. I knew that my novel was the best it could be, the best I could make it. I trusted my process. It worked.
All I had left to do was books two and three.