Magic System Meltdown: On Revising A Fantasy Trilogy



Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

~Samuel Beckett

For the past few weeks, I've been holed up in my office revising the first book in my jinni trilogy (EXQUISITE CAPTIVE: The Dark Caravan Cycle Book 1). For a while there, it was not going well. Let's just say that I turned it in at 3:00 a.m. the morning it was due (cue wiping forehead). Despite how difficult it was, I am REALLY happy with the revision - my editor is brilliant and I'm...well, a writer who has doggedly pursued a better draft. I have never had such a trial with a revision. Character arcs and fun, sexy scenes were easy. It was the magic system, a veritable logic puzzle of epic proportions, that had me knocking back cocktails one after the other. I can't even tell you how many times I thought I'd solved a problem only to realize a few minutes later that the solution I'd spent hours on wasn't going to work after all. There were several come-to-Jesus meetings in which my husband and I sat down and hashed out detail after detail of the magic system and plot (because, of course, they are so intertwined as to sometimes be the same thing)--from the limitations on a secondary character's psychic powers to the logics of the jinni-master bond and the purpose of the jinni bottle. Sometimes I just wanted to drop my forehead to the desk and cry. It's interesting how you can go from feeling that anything is possible to realizing that, actually, very few things are possible.

What made the revision of the system and plot so much more challenging, of course, was the fact that I was setting up two books I haven't even written yet. Sure, something might have worked fine for book one, but then I would have written myself into a corner for books two and three. Though I know where the whole story is going and already have the majority of book three playing in my mind like a movie, it's book two that has been really difficult (probably because it's the next one I'm writing and so the heat is on). In order to finalize book one, I needed to know some of the trickier plot elements of book two. This was especially important for the novel's over-arching villain, who we meet at the beginning of book two and plagues my protagonist all the way until the end of book three. I had to make sure my villain had certain powers, but that they were limited in several important ways. This caused me to have to look into the backstory of the whole trilogy and iron out a few details, which then created more problems down the line.

The thing is,'revising really did make the book about a million times better.'

It is totally worth putting in all that hard work. Choosing the easy solutions are rarely going to serve you and there's the risk of becoming derivative. Creating a truly unique magic system and fantasy plot requires some serious mental and imaginative gymnastics.'So what worked' Having someone (my husband) to talk to every step of the way was probably the most important thing (also, having a supportive spouse in general). Sometimes I was soliciting advice, sometimes I was just talking through it. Also, having amazing writing buddies who took the time to help solve key problems - I sent two people frantic emails about places that were like plot and magic quicksand to me and they were able to help me out. Simply writing those emails was helpful too - in trying to explain my predicament and the possible solutions I'd come to or why I rejected certain ideas, I was able to see the problems more clearly and new solutions arose. Side note: it was so incredibly helpful to have'my writer friends to go to for OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT moments.

There were some practical things that really helped me, too. I created a massive list of revisions that needed to be made (my ideas and my editor's) and it helped to gradually cross them off one by one. I tried to stay focused on the heart of the story by finding pictures of models that looked like my characters, or of people that reminded me of them (I look like a total commie now because my revolutionary character is a very Che Guevara type, so Che now graces my idea board). When you're revising a plot heavy/magic heavy book, it can become really easy to forget about your character's emotional journeys. You really risk treating them like chess pieces, so it's more important than every to stay connected to the heart of your story.

Another thing, I have four cork boards on the wall of my office - one for general inspiration and encouragement, two for the trilogy, and one for my other books...I really need a fifth, no joke. I created character pages to put on the boards so I could jump up and write down ideas that occurred to me for the later books in the trilogy as I worked. It was amazing how working through this revision got my wheels turning about the other books. I drank a lot of coffee, kept classical music going in the background (except for the action scenes, where I listened to the Game of Thrones soundtrack). I took walks and when I was totally brain dead, I watched a Nicholas Sparks movie (don't hate).

I only emailed my editor a couple times - not frantic ones, more like are-you-cool-with-me-going-in-this-direction ones. I didn't want to make a huge change that would affect the whole draft and find out later that she hated the idea. When I had a few days left of my revision, I got to see the ideas the designers came up with for the covers, which was super exciting and reminded me about the fun parts of this whole writing-a-book thing. I rarely left the house and didn't clean it, either. Oh yeah, and I hardly ever cooked and the only time I saw my husband was to hash out problems I was having with the draft, or to drink much-needed margaritas. This stuff is HARD, yo.

Here's the good news: that long list I had that seemed like the Mt. Everest of revision lists' Every item is crossed off. The seemingly impossible plot problems' Organic solutions always emerged from the work. The scene I spent six hours on and then accidentally deleted in Scrivener' Better the second time around. (That was the only time I cried and it was one tiny sob and then I told myself to grow a pair, just like my protagonist does, and I moved on). I have never wanted or needed a vacation so badly - unfortunately, I'm behind on the thesis I'm writing for my MFA and need to get out forty pages of a new novel to my advisor in a few weeks on top of revising my second Macmillan book and working on an outline for another new project and doing promotional stuff for my debut, out Feb 4th (SOMETHING REAL). But...FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS and all of them blessings.

If this revision has taught me anything, it's that I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life and the fact that it was hard is what makes it worth doing. If writing was easy, I probably wouldn't want anything to do with it. It's getting through the tough stuff and seeing the other side that makes writing so fulfilling. That and getting to hang out with your imaginary friends.

Now...on to my next revision!