A couple of you asked me to talk about how my story, Riddle in Stone, changed from the point of conception to the point of publication.
This is a long story, so bear with me. But it also has an important morale that I think new writers need to understand.
You see, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, as I have often said. So one day, about six years ago, I decided that I was going to write AND FINISH my first novel-length manuscript. After the better part of a year, I finished it. YIPPIEE!
I sent query letters to a bunch of agents and got a lot of requests to see it. But nobody wanted to represent the manuscript.
A few agents gave me suggestions as to how to make the story better, but I was very resistant to change anything. The story, after all, was finished and revising it would mean making substantial changes to the characters and places—which were firmly fixed in my mind. I loved the main characters and I could literally close my eyes and SEE the settings in which the story took place. So I didn’t make the changes and the manuscript never saw life in publication.
At this point, I started to see the need to STUDY THE CRAFT of writing. I read all the books I could get my hands on about how to write and learned a tremendous amount (I still am).
One of the issues that I soon saw with my writing was that my dialogue all sounded like me. According to the books I had read, the style of dialogue should be so different that you should be able to tell who is speaking without being told. My dialogue wasn’t like that. All my characters sounded the same.
So I began a story at TORC (www.theonering.com) about a guy named Edmund who literally just started walking down the road away from his home. Every day, I spent 10-15 minutes writing a quick scene where Edmund spoke to people. My goal was to develop a certain speaking style for him and the various characters he met.
I should point out that Edmund stutters partly to make his speech different than other characters, but also because my son, Alex, stuttered and I wanted to have a hero for him to read about who spoke just like him.
Anyway, I kept writing these little episodes…and slowly a story formed. It was about this loser guy who liked this beautiful woman and how he wanted to become famous to win her heart.
In the first versions, which was called “All Mortals Die,” Edmund died at the end. But that was really unrewarding. The story just ended. So I had to completely rework the conclusion.
In the next versions (now entitled “The Riddle of Iliandor”), a different ending occurred (the ending that it has now, so I won’t spoil it for you). However, a publisher who wanted to read the manuscript told me that Edmund was kind of a stuck-up jackass. He knew more than everybody and often showed it. He also was kind of sneaky and mean.
For example, in this version, Edmund sent a band of young adventurers on a wild goose chase through a great swamp that Edmund told them was merely a “brief wetland.” It was a good scene and very funny. I also loved the three young adventurers because they were so full of energy and gusto. But in the next version of the story, the one where I wanted Edmund to be nicer, that scene had to be cut out and, consequently, those three characters disappeared. Hopefully I can bring them back some day. I think you’ll really like them.
So then I made Edmund kinder and more sympathetic. He was still smart, but he was shyer and less prone to humiliate people. He was pretty much as he is now.
I sent this version of the manuscript around and another editor said that the engine of the story, the element that starts the storyline, wasn’t compelling enough. In the previous versions, I had Edmund drinking too much and leaving home to win the heart of his one true love. The editor didn’t like this. She said it was trite and flat.
In these versions, there was a terrific scene where Edmund wakes up the next afternoon in the middle of the road, miles from town, hung over and vomiting. But, unfortunately, this scene had to go as well if I wanted to give Edmund a new reason for leaving home.
I redid the first three chapters and toned down his love for the woman. In this new version, he still loved her, but he doesn’t think that she’ll ever love him. Also, he leaves town not to win her heart, but to find some sense of purpose. He was bored with his life and wanted a change.
The second editor asked to see the manuscript again and read this new version with the likable Edmund who is trying to “find himself.” She enjoyed it, but not enough to buy it. She felt that the action didn’t start quickly enough. She told me that Edmund has to get in “serious trouble” by page 50.
This meant that I had to delete two entire chapters and eliminate five characters and their subplots, which really weakened the ending since those characters played a big part in the revised conclusion. I also had to take all of the backstory learned about Edmund in those two chapters and sprinkle them elsewhere. This meant that I had to do significant revisions to beginning again.
So I now had a nicer Edmund, who loved the beautiful woman (but wasn’t obsessing over her every other page), was trying to find himself, but also ran into serious issues by page 50. I should mention that in all of these versions, Edmund is middle aged.
My agent loved this new version and started shopping it around to more publishers. But nobody was biting.
Then somebody suggested that I make Edmund younger. So I went through the entire manuscript and made him a teenager.
I didn’t like this change. I felt that part of Edmund’s charm was that he had “wasted” so much of his life and he wanted to regain his youth. So I changed the story back to having him be middle aged.
Also, I changed the title from “The Riddle of Iliandor” (Iliandor was too hard to say and it meant nothing to anybody who didn’t read it), to “Riddle in Stone.” I thought that this title was more mysterious. Also, the “stone” could have different meanings…literally a riddle carved “into stone” and a riddle of “permanence”—both of which apply to the story.
So my agent now pitched “Riddle in Stone.” Edmund was nicer. He wanted this woman, but not too much. And he was out adventuring for himself, not to win anybody. Plus the action came faster.
The first publisher who looked at it (Diversion Books) took it and published as is.
The morale of the story….
I think we (writers) tend to get to know our characters so well that they become more or less real to us. We then become reluctant to make any substantial changes to our manuscripts, especially changes that will completely alter our original understanding of the characters and our story.
But we have to make changes. Writing has to be fluid. It has to bend and twist and mold itself into the shape that will maximize its impact. Some characters—wonderful, lively characters—have to be cut out of the picture. And some scenes have to disappear. It sucks. But that’s how it is.
STORIES LIVE AND BREATHE…AND CHANGE AS THEY ARE WRITTEN.
I don’t know how many times fellow writers have told me, “Well, I like it! And if the publishers don’t, they’re crazy!!” Or, “I’m not going to tailor my work to the tastes of the ignorant masses!”
It’s a shame. These writers are stifling their literary growth by being enslaved to their initial vision of their characters and story. They’re unwilling to see how changes can improve their manuscripts. As a result, their work will probably never become exceptional or get published.