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The Writing Process

A couple of people have asked me about my writing process on The General's Mistress -- I'd said that I started the book in 1992, and how did it take me so long to write it, or didn't I say that I wrote it between Black Ships and Hand of Isis? So here's the story.

I began writing Elza's story in December, 1992. The first scene was this one, which now opens the third book. I started writing with that book, with Poland in the winter of 1806-1807 and what would become the Eylau campaign and the Battle of Eylau. However, it quickly became clear to me that this wasn't the beginning of the story. and that flashbacks were going to become a very tangled way to tell this. I was twenty five, and I didn't have the skill to tell the story I wanted. I wrote about 80,000 words and realized this was about a tenth of the total story, and that this encompassed neither the beginning nor the end. Also, I had a lot of discouragement. A lot of people in my life were telling me it was no good and that I was a terrible writer. I had a lot of pressure from my friends to stop working on it. They hated Elza and went as far as to call the entire premise of the books "evil." Then a pro told me that it was unpublishable. It was too long, nobody likes Napoleonics any more, women can't sell books about war because publishers won't buy them, and it wasn't that good anyway.

So I put it away. I gave up the idea of writing professionally and put my energy into working in politics. I went from door to door pollster to regional director for a national advocacy organization over the next ten years. But I never put Elza down entirely. I kept researching, and I kept writing scenes as they occurred to me, pieces that I loved and wrote for myself and for my partner, because I just wanted to. And I wrote about 1.5 million words of fanfic. No kidding. 1.5 million. Roughly 150,000 words a year for ten years. Some years more, some years less. And that improved me. I learned the skills I hadn't had at 25. And I matured. One problem at 25 is that, no matter how preternaturally talented someone is, they are not mature. They don't have the life experience to truly understand a lot of things they read and see. There is no short cut to life experience, just the passage of time spent well in doing important things, in taking risks, in having relationships, in working for things you believe in, in loving well and hard.

I wrote Black Ships while I worked in DC, on trains and planes, in hotel rooms across the country while I did 26 trips in 12 months as an organizer. Black Ships was my fun. When I finished it, I went back to Elza in the spring of 2005. I also changed jobs, Deputy Director of a national organization. Working in politics at that level gave me the real life experience to understand Elza's fight, just as some rough years in my twenties gave me the real life experience to understand Elza's motives. There is no shortcut to experience, no juvenile genius that substitutes for life lived. I came back to the story in my late thirties knowing what I needed to do.

The original giant book broke into six pieces, each one telling a discrete phase of her life. The first book is about how she declared independence and came to Paris, how she found Michel and how she found herself. The second book is about how she finds her purpose. The third book is about her work -- what she does in the service she has chosen. The fourth book is about what happens when the story starts to turn, when shadows gather and the story descends to defeat. The fifth book is Elza as mover, when she decides that this is not the end and she will be one of the people who changes the world. The last book is what happens after, Elza as master, the one who has embraced responsibility and who drives the Story. This is the voyage from heedless girl who wants something more, who describes herself as "a piece of flotsam pushed by the tides" to someone more like Judi Dench's M, the ruthless and focused spymaster who is pulling the strings.

I finished the first book, The General's Mistress, in 2006. And then Black Ships sold on a two book contract with the unwritten Hand of Isis. Hand of Isis was written after The General's Mistress, so the references are actually reversed. For example, I wrote the scenes between Charmian and Agrippa to set up Elza and Michel, rather than Elza and Michel being written in response to Charmian and Agrippa. The dress Charmian wears at her disastrous dinner with Agrippa in Campania is the mirror of the one Elza wears when she meets Michel at Moreau's party. I knew where everything was going. The entire structure of the Numinous World was complete, roughed in over twenty years of researching and writing.

The other piece, the middle piece, is the novella The Ravens of Falkenau. It was written in the late 90s, and so it postdates the original Elza sections but predates Black Ships. I knew Georg was Elza from the first, and that this was one of the stories of how she became who she is. Elza is Georg and Lydias, Gull and Charmian, and others whose stories I haven't written yet, and all those pieces go into her. Every word has echoes.

And now, with the Elza books, I've written forwards and backwards through all six books. I finished the second one complete in 2009. I finished the third one complete in 2011, though I've recently realized that the last two chapters need to move into the fourth book and a couple of chapters in the middle need expanding. There are 35,000 words of the fourth book done, and pieces of five and six. I know how it will end. (And no, not a Hand of Isis ending!)

And I know it will all be published. I don't know by what company and in what year, but the story will be complete. I'm seeing how to reach for the things I envisioned but couldn't do twenty years ago -- not quite there yet in terms of skills, but getting closer. One thing the Legacy series has taught me is about plotting and pacing in a long series. The Stargate books have been incredibly valuable and improved my skills immensely. Working with Melissa Scott has improved me immensely. I've learned how to make the story tighter, how to pull the plot together so that it seems smoother for the reader and how to make the pacing of historical events fit the demands of story. I'm getting there. I'm closer to being able to tell this as it should be told. And I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it!


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 19th, 2013 01:44 am (UTC)
It's wonderful to see how writing can work over time and with setbacks - that it isn't always a linear simple process and it can be better for the chance to evolve. It's useful to see someone talk about that.
Jan. 19th, 2013 10:56 pm (UTC)
I think the time to evolve is really important. At 24 I loved Elza but I didn't understand her. I didn't have the context. I needed more life experience before I could tackle the story I wanted to tell, and more skill developed through practice. So yes, time! :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )