I know I’ve been doing “Words Crush Wednesday” for a long time now, but this week I’m not doing it. Because I’ve decided to take part in the “Insecure Writers Support Group,” and we’re supposed to post about our writing the first Wednesday of the month. So “Words Crush Wednesday: The Homeric Version” will be back next week. But this week I will be talking about my woes and worries for my novel writing. (I apologize to those who are uninterested in same.)
Things are looking both down and up for my Trojan War novel, Ilios. I had self-published it earlier with LeanPub, in the hopes of getting someone to read and critique it for me (because LeanPub lets you update as much as you want, being e-publishing only) but only two people downloaded it, both for free, and they never left any feedback whatsoever, and I had come to understand a lot of the problems, so I temporarily de-published it so I could fix at least some of the problems before anyone else saw it. Since then, I had started to give up, feeling like no one would ever want to read it. (And maybe they won’t; I don’t know.) But I had someone contact me on the NaNo forums and offer me entry into a group that has been helping each other with critiquing short passages, so I’m hoping I may finally get some help with it. It will never be of interest to the mainstream audience, I realize that, but maybe I’ll at least get it to the point where I feel comfortable considering its form “final” and adding it to e-pub places that get more fiction traffic. (LeanPub primarily has software-related books, things on programming and stuff.)
So what I actually want to talk about is my series of quasi-Young Adult novels. I call them “quasi” because I don’t really know how far you can go in what directions before it no longer qualifies as Young Adult. The only Young Adult novels I’ve read that were written in this century are the Harry Potter books, so I don’t know much about the field. But I felt like Young Adult was more the direction to go in, because two of my three leads were teenagers, I didn’t want sex to play any strong role, and I didn’t want to have to go into much detail about the fighting. Or rather I didn’t want it to get too bloody, despite that it’s an adventure story. But despite that I don’t want sex to play a strong role, I can’t help but mention it. In the first book, a rape committed nearly twenty years earlier is an important background detail, and it’s hard to get around calling it a rape. Furthermore, the heroine is the daughter of Achilles, and it’s hard to keep the fact that her father was very actively bisexual from coming up, considering that his one true love was his male lover, despite how much he claimed to have loved his concubine Briseis. Though I guess the homoerotic side of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos didn’t start coming up until book 2…
What happened, you see, is that last January, I found myself repeatedly re-reading and proofing Ilios, trying to get it ready for publication, but as I came to the part late in the war, when Achilles needed to go to Lesbos with Odysseus to be purified of a homicide, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened next. What happened after these two famously sexually overactive men were finished with their business on Lesbos. It’s not like they’d perform the purification ceremony and then hop right back on the boat without stopping for the night, right? So what happened while they were staying the night? I started out just imagining their conversation, as Achilles is trying to drown his sorrows in wine–not only is Patroclos dead at this point, but he’s only just killed Penthesileia, too–and Odysseus is trying to turn Achilles’ attention onto the slave girls serving them, not only because he fears Achilles’ hangover the next morning, but also because he’d rather be spending that time with the slave girls than with a drunken Achilles.
My initial thought was just to write a short story. Write that conversation, and then write about the daughters they fathered leaving the island as grown women, and joining the Heraclidae as they conquered Greece. Something like that. Where the focus was on the established characters, and the daughters were just the epilogue. But then I made the ultimate mistake: I named one of them. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to write about the daughters, not the fathers.
I started writing the first book on a Sunday night, at about 11:00. I only realized how long I’d spent at it when I noticed the sunlight coming in through the windows. (Fortunately, that Monday was a holiday.) I kept writing until about 2:30 in the afternoon, at which point I felt like I’d better turn off the computer for a while and let it rest. But I wasn’t even tired. I’d been that excited about it. I hit 50k in faster time than I ever had during NaNoWriMo, and I finished the first draft of the book in exactly a week. I wasn’t ready to stop writing and start re-writing, so I moved on to book two. By the end of the semester, I’d written all seven books in the series. (Though I’m now working on an eighth book, more of an epilogue and a half-way step towards a second series about the characters than a proper book.)
The primary cast are the daughters that Achilles and Odysseus fathered on the slave girls on Lesbos, and Eurysakes, the son of Aias. (Who is a genuine mythical character, though I don’t think my version in any way meshes with the one written about by Sophocles…but it’s hard to say for sure, ’cause the play about him is lost. I’m pretty sure the traditional one would have been raised by his grandfather, Telamon, rather than his uncle, Teukros, though. But this way worked better for my story.) I made the Lesbian slave girls into sisters so that the two heroines would be first cousins, which would hopefully put off lesbian jokes made by readers. (Though I’ve recently realized that the daughter of Odysseus actually is a lesbian in the modern sense, and is in love with the daughter of Achilles, which is not something I’m entirely comfortable with, actually. I’m trying to have her work through it in the new book. Eurysakes, much more experienced in matters of love than the girls, has realized her feelings even though she hasn’t.) The first book takes place mostly in Troy, but later books take them as far afield as Babylon and even the Alps. (Though I can’t call them the Alps per se. They also go to the Garden of the Hesperides in that book, but that’s the sort of place you’d expect them to go, so it’s a bit different.) Obviously, because it’s only twenty years after the Trojan War (well, it is by the last book anyway) there are still a lot of surviving veterans of the Trojan War, and they do end up running into a lot of them. (Probably too many, in fact.)
My main worry about these books–which are all still on their first draft, and obviously need much work–is that I feel like no matter what I do to them, they’re never going to be what people want from them. When I started describing the concept to my family members, my father and brother immediately seized on the early concept of the two cousins running away from slavery to make their living by the tip of the heroine’s spear, and came to utterly mistaken conclusions about what the series would be like, and the series they thought I was writing was going to be “awesome” and “potentially successful” and so on. But I can’t write the series they thought I was writing. I don’t even want to.
But that happens whenever I describe my books to someone. They hear my setting–not usually even the plot, just the set-up–and they imagine what a talented writer would do with that, get all excited, and then if they see what I’ve actually written, they’re disgusted by how bad it is. Worse, though, I think a lot of it is because they’re not so much reacting to its quality but to its discordance with their expectations. I have no idea what to do about that.
But they are, in this case, also reacting to its lack of quality. I know that. Because my writing is terrible. My mind does not work in a visual way. I can’t write descriptions; I’m literally incapable of it. Once, after reading something I’d written, my mother complained about how the narrator “refused” to describe anyone, and told me to insert some descriptions, saying how “you picture them all in your mind’s eye, don’t you?” and my only possible answer was “No, I don’t!” Because I really don’t. I picture a few important details–my heroine’s bright red curly hair, for example–but mostly I don’t know what they look like. I don’t think in images. I think in words. And those words don’t include visual descriptors. In fact, when I read a detailed description of a person’s face, I frequently don’t even understand it: if someone said “he’s the moon-faced one” when sending me into a crowd to look for someone, I’d never have any clue what I was looking for, nor do I know what “almond-shaped eyes” look like, since they can’t really look like almonds. I have an idea what a “hooked nose” looks like, but it’s not a shape that occurs in nature, only in movies with prosthetics.
Not that the lack of description is my only problem. I feel like my plots lack events; I feel like I’m always rushing into the climax without enough buildup, and yet my novels are always quite long. I don’t have any idea how to fix that. It’s like a learning disability: I can look at what someone else has done and know it’s great, and I can look at my own work and know it’s terrible, but I can’t compare the two to understand what I did wrong and how to improve it. (This applies to anything and everything, from fiction to academic writing to my feeble attempts at visual works.) The few instructions I’ve gotten from others have been so vague as to be utterly useless. (Primarily, I’ve gotten them from my mother, whose main instruction has been “put in descriptions” despite my assurances that I can’t.)
And, of course, I’m not even sure my characters interact with each other like real human beings, because when I’m not at school or volunteering at the museum, I’m a hermit who rarely sets foot out of her house, apart from going to buy food, books, games or toys, none of which add much to my human interaction scale. And if you could talk to the staffers at the museum, they’d tell you that even though I’ve been volunteering there for something like four years now, they don’t know me very well, because I never talk about myself, and rarely talk at all.
Maybe that just means I shouldn’t be trying to write. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it. But I have all these stories bubbling up inside me wanting to be told, if only I had the skill to tell them! (They’re always better in my head than they are when they get out onto the computer screen, naturally.)
I think I’ve gotten off topic.
I was supposed to be talking about my quasi-YA novels. How much can I talk about sex before they stop being YA? My main heroine, the daughter of Achilles, is (unlike her father) utterly asexual. In fact, she’s literally incapable of knowing anything about sex. It doesn’t come up in the current versions until very late, but Athene literally wiped all knowledge of sex out of her brain. When my heroine was 14, a free man decided he wanted to deflower her, and when she refused, pointing out that she was the daughter of Achilles, so he’d better not mess with her, he wasn’t afraid (because he wasn’t from the island and didn’t know she was strong enough that she’d thrown a man onto the roof when she was only nine) and actually tried to rape her. The full details have never made it into writing yet, but by the time she fought back and struck him with all her strength, her clothes were shredded and she was badly bruised by his assault. But since he was free–the bodyguard of her master’s guest–and she was only a slave, she was badly beaten over it. In fact, her master had commanded that she be whipped until the man she had struck (and nearly killed) was satisfied, and the guest had intervened, knowing that his bodyguard wouldn’t be satisfied until she was dead. She was so horribly traumatized by the attempted rape and the excessive beating that Athene took pity on her and wiped most of the details out of her mind. But if she ever learns the full details of sex, she’ll remember it all, so any time she starts learning a little, it’s wiped back out of her mind again, so she remains childlike and innocent on such matters, even though she’s aware that something happens to create babies, and that it’s usually referred to as things like “to lie with” and such. Her cousin is sometimes frustrated by her excessive innocence, but she’s also comforted by it. (Though even I only recently realized why she takes so much comfort in knowing that her cousin will never allow a man to have his way with her.)
So, how much of that can I actually put in, over the course of the books, without it losing its YA standing? ‘Cause between the general lack of violence and killing, and the innocence of the characters–and the fact that neither of my heroines falls in love with the man they’re traveling with (which is good, ’cause he’s already got a girlfriend and several “fiancees”)–I don’t think non-YA audiences would put up with it. Then again, I suppose YA audiences wouldn’t put up with it, either.
Ugh…I’m more depressed now than when I started. And I’ve been at this like an hour and a half. So I should stop and do some more of my reading for class or something.