Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

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[process] Developmental Anatomy of a Book

As some of you may know, I am currently writing a novel entitled Green. In my continuing quest to explain how this business works (to myself, at least), I'm going to share a few bits of history and process here.

"Green" was a short story which appeared in Aeon issue 5, in December, 2005. (If you're curious, see the Tangent Online review here.) Some time after I'd written it, I drafted a novel proposal entitld Green Crossing, which was subsequent to the events of the short story. I didn't do anything with the proposal at the time except stick it in my metaphorical drawer.

Fast forward to this past summer. I workshopped one of the several other short stories I've written in that setting at Rio Hondo. One of the other writers there, a much bigger name than I, got interested in the setting and asked if I had other work there. I showed her "Green." She urged me to write a novel in the setting. I mentioned this in passing to casacorona, who then looked over both the story and the original proposal. She concurred.

Fast forward again to this fall. I had discussions with casacorona and arcaedia (along with mcurry, kenscholes, lasirenadolce and a few other folks) about what I should be writing next. Black Tulip had been on the dance card for a while, but it wasn't feeling quite right to me. Based on feedback from those discussions I decided to revisit Green, and wrote a revised proposal which folded the story and the old proposal into one work.

So, I went from short story to proposal to novel, in that order.

Now, consider Tuesday night's effort. When I ceased writing that evening, I was at 11,900 words in the manuscript. That took me to the end of the second sentence of the outline, about fifty words in. (Out of fourteen pages, mind you.) That corresponds pretty tightly to about 1,800 words of the short story, which in its entirety at 6,700 words maps to the first act of the novel structure as outlined.

Obviously I'm not going to write 6,000 words for every sentence of the outline. At least, I don't think so. To some degree, this is throat clearing. This novel also requires a lot of character development and set up — a long runway, basically, for it to properly take flight. I also can't tell you if most or all of this first 11,900 words will survive into the final draft, though I suspect the bulk of it will.

Still, what happens to this story is an interesting process. The short story was like blowing up a balloon. The outline deflated it to a core essential. The novel then reinflating to a much larger size, with more fine grained detail and great deal of additional character and plot development.

Here is the relevant portion of the original short story:

Green [excerpt]

by Jay Lake

THE FIRST THING I can remember in this life is my father driving his white ox, Endurance, to the sky burial platforms. The ox's wooden bell clicked in an echo of the slow clops of his hooves on the dusty track. The sun was warm on my face. My mother must have carried me, for she was alive then too, but all I remember is the clicking ox bell and the jangling silver bells of my grandmother's shroud. She had died that morning and now took her last ride astride Endurance's back.

The women of our village are given a swath of silk at birth, though mine is lost. It is usually two arm spans wide, and as long as the family can afford. Wisdom says that the longer the silk, the longer the life. The first skill a girl-child learns is to sew a tiny bell to her silk each day so that when she marries she will dance with the music of five thousand bells. Every day she sews a tiny bell so that when she dies, her soul will be carried out of this life on the music of twenty thousand bells.

None of this lore is in my memory of course, only the mournful echo of Endurance's heavy wooden bell and the gentle shaking of my grandmother's shroud, like rain on a temple roof to cry her soul away. That and my father flicking his lash and singing a death song for his mother.

And of course it was hot.

A bit later in my life, Endurance stood watch over me as my father worked. I remember hiding in the shade of his belly, staring up at the fringe where the fur of each side met. The white of his back shaded to gray there, like the line of a storm off the sea. Endurance's great brown eyes watched me unblinking as I ran in the rice paddies, climbed the swaying palms and bougainvilleas, hunted snakes in the stinking ditches.

If I strayed too far, his bell clopped as he shook his head and snorted to warn me back.

At night I sat before the fire in front of our hut and stitched another tiny bell to my silk under the watchful eye of my father. My mother was already gone, though I cannot remember her death. Endurance's breath whuffled from the dark of his pen. If I stared into the shadows, I could see the fire's fetch dance gleaming in the depths of his brown eyes.

One day my father came into the field where Endurance watched over me and called my name. Laughing, I ran from a stand of banana trees, a hard green crescent in each hand. My hair trailed behind me, tugged by sun and wind, and there was warm mud caked upon my feet.

He had a man with him, pale as a maggot and taller than a gatepost with hair like straw and eyes the color of a lime. Father bent and said some words to me that I can no longer recall. Then he placed my hand in the maggot man's hand, kissed my forehead, and walked quickly away.

The last thing I remember of that time in my life, like the first, is the clop of Endurance's wooden bell as the ox shook his head and snorted to warn me back.

"You are coming to Copper Downs," the maggot man told me. After spending a day walking together, we were in a little house on a giant boat upon the sea. His words were thick and muddled, as if he had only just learned to talk. He smiled to make up for his poor mouth.

"Don't want to go to Copper Downs." I knew I was supposed to be nice, but that was difficult. "Want to go home."

His smile shrank. "Copper Downs is your home now."

I considered this. We had not brought my silk with my thousand bells. "Papa will be there, and Endurance, and my aunties?"

"Your new home."

At that lie I ran, ducking between his legs and out the door of the little house. I was fast, for a girl, and more strong than the maggot man knew. The floor of the boat was big, covered with ropes and boxes and tall trees hung with great white cloths, and most of all, shouting men. I raced through everything heading for the edge.

We could not be too far from my home.

But when I vaulted the little wall at the edge of the floor and dove for the sea, I saw there was no land nearby. Water was water, I could swim here as well as in a ditch at home, but the other side was too far to reach.

Then I was in the sea. It was colder than I had thought, and stung my mouth terribly. The water was dark and gray. I found the surface and began to swim away from the boat.

Behind me they shouted. I rolled to my back and looked as I swam. Angry men lined the little wall at the side of the boat, pointing and yelling. I smiled at their discomfort even as one raised a great spear and aimed it at me.

It flashed and a silver arrow sped toward me. I started to scream as it passed above me. I turned again, almost slipping beneath the water, to see the dart fly into a great, toothed mouth that was open just behind me.

There was a blue spark, and a shriek like a woman in pain. Then the mouth closed and sank beneath the water, dragging a rough gray head larger than Endurance with it. A dead black eye, ringed with flesh as pale as the maggot man's skin, glared at me. It lacked the wisdom of Endurance's brown eyes, but still I felt the sea-beast take my name among its secret hatreds.

The boat turned and came back for me. I was afraid to be on board again, but I was more afraid of the sea. At home, the water had held only snakes and turtles with knife-sharp beaks. The sea held every kind of throat to swallow me whole.

Fortune's Flight, as they called the ship, had bells too. After weeks of sailing we came near land again at Copper Downs with all of them ringing. Bells floating in the water and more bells on the shore with an answering call, as if a whole parade of women were on their way to the next world.

Copper Downs was greater than a thousand of my villages. Its buildings were taller than the burial platforms of home - those pillars are the highest things we make, in order to carry souls closer to the freedom of the sky. Copper Downs was, as Federo the maggot man said, a city. A city spread along the shore for an hour's walk or more in each direction. Temple roofs glinted with the metal that gave the place its name, and huge buildings by the docks took in men and cargo from the ships.

I had learned so much already on the voyage.

"You are too smart," Federo had said with a little smile. This was his true smile, not his talking-to-children smile. "The Factor will like you for it, but the women will not. Mark me," and he waggled his finger, "play the dullard a bit and you will live a happier life."

But despite his advice, he spoke to me and read to me and taught me letters and even showed me what a map was. I became used to his muddy speech, and learned some of his own words, which sounded sharp and harsh to my ears. By the time we had landed, I felt almost like I belonged in Copper Downs even though that city's people were pale with fat red cheeks and hard blue eyes.

At the docks we were met by a carriage, a high-sided cart with windows like a little rolling room. Federo pushed me inside and told me to stay while the sailors loaded his gear from Fortune's Flight. I picked at useless little buttons set deep in the leather seats and smelled the oils someone had polished the carriage with - lemon, maybe, and the pressings of some vegetable I didn't know - until he returned.

Then we were away through the streets of Copper Downs in a ride rougher than any storm-tossed buffet of the ship. Should I have leapt into the sea as we arrived here, I wondered? There had nowhere for me to swim to in the harbor. Even less so the street. Federo had told me of cobbles, but I had never seen a stone road before.

Despite the marvels, I still wanted to go home.

The Factor's house had high walls of blue stone, with streets around it on all sides. My village could have fit within those walls with room for rice and soy to grow. We passed through a main gate, then a second gate, to an inner court. The carriage stopped and Federo brought me out.

"From here you are among women," he said, kneeling to meet my eyes at a level. "I am the only man you will speak with, except for the Factor himself. Use your head, little one."

"I have a name," I whispered, thinking of Endurance's bell. Federo had never used it on the ship, not once, though I'd said it to him a hundred times.

He ruffled my hair. "Not until the Factor gives you a name."

Then the carriage rattled away and I stood alone next to a pomegranate tree that reminded me of my home. The inner court was cobbled like the streets outside, with the tree growing from a little round-walled patch of soil. The house around the court had a low porch, with a screened upper balcony topped by a copper roof with the blue walls towering beyond. I could see other trees above the copper, as if there were more courts around me.

Though I saw no one, I heard throaty laughter.

"I am here," I called out in my own words. Then I said it again in Federo's words.

After a while a woman not much taller than I, but fat as any house duck with broad lips to match, waddled out from the shadowed porch. She was swathed in coarse black cloth, which covered even her head. "So you're the new one," she said, in Federo's words. "I'll have no more…"

I did not understand the rest. When I tried to ask what she meant, she slapped me hard upon the ear. I knew then that she intended me not to speak my own words.

I resolved to learn her words so well that eventually this duck woman could never order me about again.

Here is what that became in the outline:

GREEN is sold into concubinage as a small child. Purchased by FEDERO for her near-perfect beauty and exotic (to him) appearance, Green is taken from her home in distant, tropical Selistan and carried north across the Storm Sea to the great merchant city of Copper Downs along the Stone Coast.

And the current work in progress snippets here and here, excerpted from the novel manuscript.

What's that tell me? I'm not sure. It tells me that I can play with idea sizing to all sorts of effect, I suppose. What's that tell you? Maybe nothing, but I found it interesting. As the novel unfolds, this tight correspondence with the source material will loosen, then unravel completely in the course of me uncovering the narrative. Right now it's unusually clear. I wanted to capture that moment.
Tags: books, fiction, green, process, writing

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