Douglas Milewski (dacuteturtle) wrote,
Douglas Milewski
dacuteturtle

Weeds Among Stone, Draft 4 Commentary


I've been wanting to document my development process for a while. I finally got around to writing this up.

In January, 2008, I decided to write something. Come hell or high water, I would actually complete this work.

This project evolved from several directions. I developed a D&D campaign world called Wikiworld for a while. It was fun and I had fun inventing things. As I considered raising the project's profile, I found an IP conflict with this name. There was  a web comic called Wikiworld. Having a respect for web comic developers in general (some of whom are my friends), I decided to change the name of my project to something else. This provided an opportunity to find a more fitting name for my endeavor. I chose Endhaven, which is the afterworld in my setting.

Even though I had fun creating the setting, I eventually ran into a mental block. I made no progress. My interest waned. Wanting to get myself unstuck, I decided to write a novella. There's nothing like writing from a new perspective to get the creative juices flowing again. I could develop all kinds of new items, powers, and abilities.

At this point in time, the big news of the day was a new edition of D&D coming out. Not knowing what that would bring, but thinking that it looked promising, I had incentive to focus on fluff and ignore rules development. I could then take the fluff and port it to the new system.

I chose the location of Broadford, where I had struggled to write an adventure, hoping that this would spur an adventure design as well. I eventually settled on the the title, "The Heroes of Broadford." I could then write a series of stories for the characters by focusing on works 10k-30k long. Essentially, long short-stories or novellas.

"Short" was an important goal here. With the recent fashion of overly-fat fantasy, I had a desire for the slimmer, simpler fantasy of my youth: short, quick, action-packed, and no redeeming literary value.

Drafts are located at: https://sites.google.com/site/endhavenproject/fiction. All are licensed under the Creative Commons license.

Draft #1

I waded into my first draft with gusto. I set my writing time after all my chores were done and the child was in bed. Completed between Jan 2008-Mar 2008, this draft defined many things which became important to future drafts.

Maran began life as a woman with two small children looking for her lost adventurer husband. From there, motivational backstory changed considerably and frequently.. At other points, she was looking for lost family members, looking for the bones of lost family members, and several other ideas which never got beyond the design stage. Her story is the true genesis of the work, existing in my head for months before I began typing.

I developed Zebra from the concept that the elves had only one goddess left: the goddess of fire and passion. His character is one that is driven by passion for everything that he does, and the wreckage that this makes your life should you actually live this way in all things.

Altyn Tag walked in and sat down. I knew nothing about her until I wrote that line. Her character fairly dropped onto the page. She exemplified the characters that would soon work best for me: the ones who showed up on their own.

The Missus began as the Baroness of Broadford. She had an interesting enough back story, but I did not use her very much.

The remaining character all had their cool ideas behind them. They rushed out, fought bandits, fought a dragon, and began exploring the world. At that point, I ran into a problem: I had no idea what I wanted to do with the story!

After thinking about it, I identified a series of issues with draft #1.

The story itself was too laden with world information. This might be cool stuff which I enjoyed writing, but it did not make for a good story. The information brought the story to a screeching halt, then added little to the story beyond.

Because of this, I added a new rule for myself: everything must contribute to the story at hand. If I could cut something, then it did not serve my story. The story should not survive if I cut a single chapter. Everything must be vital.

A second issue was a character problem: I had too many of them. Other writers might be able to handle six characters. I could not. I chopped the primary characters down to the four strongest: Maran, Altyn, Zebra, and a to-be-named new character.

The plot itself had issues. The plot starts, runs in a straight line, then ends. The only twist came from the sudden appearance of the dragon partway through the tale. That not necessarily bad for an action-adventure tale, but its the twists that show your characters in that genre, not the straight lines.

The enemies themselves were bland. The bandits brought nothing to my story. Their goals were uninteresting and disconnected from the world.

Interestingly, some things that I would cut snuck back in in future drafts, this time far more effectively. Stonebrother Flint was a powerful character who never fit in well. I loved writing for the Mother of Storms, and enjoyed that idea that mortals try to cheat her. The dragon always kept trying to come back.

Draft #2

The second draft evolved over March 2008 - June 2008. I cut the long-winded historical beginning. The story now jumps straight to Maran, now defacto primary character. Maran has a new mission, as every draft gives her a new mission. These missions I found hard to write, as they need to propel her outward, but not compel her. That would be a hard problem for me to solve, until I realized that I was solving the wrong problem.

All together, the second draft produced a far more readable story as opposed to a series of events. The text itself is less halting, less sketchy, firmer, with better flow. Minor characters, such as Bertra, got a name. Interior histories got rewritten, shortened, or even trimmed. Maran gets more clever. Zebra gets a vicious edge. The Ironmongers first appear.

Draft #2 is a definitive improvement on Draft #1, but showed new flaws.

The dragon has been promoted from pet to leader. This looks cool, but once you get into the implications of a dragon as a leader, you get many issues. In the end, I would found those issues unresolvable. He was a villain because he was a dragon. There was nothing that offended the reader. There was no plan to spoil. Most importantly, there was no hook about the villain. Your villain needs to be among the most engaging of characters, as he spends most of his time as an off-screen presence.

The character of Osei drove me nuts. I wrote his back story 6-8 times. In every draft, his story changed. Perhaps that makes him very close to the water-character that he should be, but it was not good for the story. In hindsight, he always failed as he had no function in the story, either logistically or metaphysically. He was a minor character waiting to happen. That lesson would take a long time to learn.

The story needed more flavor as well. Places needed more describing. Setting needed to contribute more to the story.

Draft #3

I wrote draft #3 between July 2008 and November 2008. Running into daily writing difficulties, I shift my writing times from the evening to the morning. I now wrote from 6am to 6:45 am. This greatly relieved my writing frustrations as the evening had grown chaotic, and getting into firm writing routine had proven frustrating.

Draft #3 built firmly on Draft #2. Adding flavor and description, while better explaining the action, increased the running length to 25k. Maran gained more motivation, more opinions, and realization that she must rise to leadership. Tensions between the characters increased. Goals of the characters diverged. The human slaves acquire character, getting a low-class crassness to them. The ugliness inside suited them, making them more real.

Late in the rewrite, I fired the hobgoblins. They and their dragon leader were out as villains. In came the dwarves, and the story's engine turned over. They immediately made better villains. Zebra gleefully killing hobgoblins turned into Zebra gleefully killing dwarves, and there was something RIGHT about that. That begged a story. Maran conflicting with dwarves stabbed at her own morals harder than some faceless goblin. The world got grayer, and I liked that. Endhaven was always a very gray place, running astride the canyon of moral hazard.

With new villains came a new leader. In November, I named his Svero, and he took over my story. He begged a story like no villain I had ever written before, scrawled in moral ambiguity across the dwarven world.

I was happy with Draft #3. It needed more refining. I had the story, or so I believed. Soon writing would prove me wrong. I had no idea then, but my most important character had not yet taken the stage.

Draft #3 also contained a significant failure. There was no reason that I could not change the setting of this work. I could place this story in any world, and that is a failure. The point of this work was to explore Endhaven. In the next draft, I needed elements that could only happen in this particular setting. You might be able to translate it, but it should not be easy.

Draft #4

Draft #4 (November 2008 - August 2009) began with fleshing out the world. I asked myself, "What cards have I left on the table?" I wanted to know where I had touched on things and not used them to their capacity. I needed a deeper connection to the unique attributes of this world.

The biggest change was a change in strategy. I realized that I was writing for the screen. As modern humans, we instinctively write this way as TV and Film are our primary storytelling outlets. However, a book is not a film. A book has different strength. I wanted this work to rest on the strengths of the written word. In a word, I wanted this tale more literate.

Locations changed. In the previous drafts, my character Maran journeyed from her home to Jura City, then to Fort Resolute, then to Broadford. In all those words, I said almost nothing about Jura City, the capital of the dwarves. With dwarves now being more important, that suddenly showed as a great omission. In comparison, Fort Resolute so uninspired me that I had barely written 200 words about the place. Given those facts, I moved the earlier scenes to Jura City, with the idea that my character would then move onward and meet more people.

Jura City kindly accepted my pen, then kept it. Try as I might, she held on as I attempted to escape her, my futile attempts after my futile attempts. Jura City had a story to tell and she needed to be heard. In time, I became convinced that the work belonged here. That means abandoning 20k out of 25k words of the previous draft. I did so and was well rewarded for it.

A second big change came from my character Maran. Her people claimed to be pacifists. Why wasn't she a pacifist? WHY NOT? I became convinced that she must go through this story as a pacifist. That pacifism  opened up a whole new vista for me. It daunted me, but I decided to trust where my character took me.

That decision made me look at the other characters. Zebra had lost his sword. Osei had put his weapons away. Altyn preferred staying at home. In truth, all my characters had already put down their weapon, I just hadn't noticed. Once I put the keystone of violence away, the character reassembled themselves in far more interesting ways. They began serving different and more useful functions.

Svero now casts a long and appalling shadow across the tale, from military hero to ethnic cleansing. This is a guy who ships in moral ambiguity by the gross ton. He is both admirable and horrible.

In June, I finally understood what the villains were up to, and how their schemes worked. That took a ridiculously long time but the payoff was sublime.

I addressed the world itself, and what made it unique. In its basis, this draft is no different from any other fantasy work. The dwarves live in a big stone city and hammer metal. Ho-hum. What made this work interesting for me was asking, "What does that mean? Given this situation, what would each side perceive and how would each side act?" It is in this that the book become a challenge for me, for the nature of humanity is ugly. I found subjugation, violence, and hatred. It is here, in nature extrapolated, that the work took the strongest meaning for me.

At this point, the work has altered so much that I had to re-title it. Following the tradition of books being named after quotes, I found an interesting one by Bronte which mentioned "weeds among stone." I like that. It works from two points of view. It, too, is ambiguous.

During this rewrite, I was struck by many influences. My wife is a graduate in Conflict Resolution and worked for the Advocacy Institute. Conflict and advocacy took on themes. From other, I picked up on responsibility, the local food movement, peak oil, the rust belt, and too many other themes of modernity. Socially, I stole from everyone as equally as possible.

With all those changes, the idea of a blatant action-adventure was left behind. This was now a character piece. It has some pretensions to beauty.

By August 2009, the work weighed in a 60k words. I now had a full-fledged book on my hands.

After all that work, the draft had problems. Most importantly, the early chapters were written to support the old novella. Those chapters needed heavy revising to match the later work. In too many places, the text was sparsely written. Many places begged better descriptions. In too many places, the literate sense went away, leaving me with little but scenes playing out. The chapters were too long. It was not beautiful.

A big issue that got lost was religion. The simple influence of religion into everyday society simply did not happen like it should have. Parts of it emerged, but not nearly enough. The tale needs that shaping power.

"Beautiful" is something that I want of from that work. I don't have any publisher's deadlline to meet. I can raise the bar. I can make this a truly beautiful work.
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