My Current Project


Here’s what I’m doing right now.  I’ve written before about the urban fantasy I wrote several years ago, sold to a small press that promptly went belly-up, and have had trouble reselling to another publisher ever since.  I love this book.  I believe parts of it are better than anything else I’ve done.  I love the lead character.  I love the romance that develops as the plot progresses.  I adore the secondary characters.  I love the magic system, too, but I think it’s been problematic from a marketing standpoint, and I’ve come to recognize that other parts of the book are flawed.  It’s not going to sell as I originally wrote it.  About six weeks ago I had an epiphany about this book.  I came up with a new magic system that is marketable — more so than anything I’ve dreamed up before, for any book.

So, I am in the process of rewriting my beloved book.  I’m trying to salvage those scenes and plot points and character interactions that work, while weaving in a new magic system, a new plot, and some new characters.  It is, quite possibly, the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer.  I’ve been trying to come up with an analogy that does justice to the process, and so far haven’t been able to.  I started with the basic car analogy — I’m keeping the body, but rebuilding the engine and drive-train and all that, but that’s really a poor comparison.  A car has discreet parts that can be removed from one another.  The elements of a novel are far more interwoven.  There are things that I want to keep and others that I have to remove, and these parts are joined together like an old piece of gum wrapped in tissue.  They simply can’t be separated; they have to excised.

Ultimately what I’m doing, to borrow the house building analogy that Faith used many months ago to describe writing a book, is rebuild the foundation and interior design of a house while maintaining the outer structure.  I’m ripping out floors and knocking down walls.  I’m taking out some weight-bearing beams and hoping to God that the whole thing doesn’t collapse before I can replace them.  I’ve had several false starts with this.  The first time I panicked and gave up, thinking that the new idea wasn’t as good as I’d thought.  I was ready to give up, but quickly reconsidered.  At this point, giving up probably means abandoning any hope of seeing the book in print, and I can’t live with that.  The second time I realized that I wasn’t being bold enough.  I was making changes around the edges.  I was trying to recreate the original book with a few cosmetic alterations.  I was afraid to attack those supporting beams, and so I wasn’t making it into anything new.  I abandoned that effort and started again.

I’ve got it right now, though.  I’m being more ruthless.  I’m having to let go of some of what I loved about the original.  Scenes and plot points that were dear to me are gone.  Others are on the chopping block, because I finally have the narrative going in a new direction.  And in the process, I’m discovering a few things.  First, some of what I loved about the first version wasn’t as good as I thought.  I’m cutting those things, because they deserve to be cut.  Second (and this is related), I’m a better writer now.  I’m able to make those original scenes that still work shine even more than they did.  And the scenes and characters that I’m adding are better than anything I’ve had to lose.  Third, and this might be the most important lesson, the characters that work and the elements of my story that were strongest, will have no trouble surviving these extensive rewrites.  Put another way, a good character is adaptable.  Effective relationships between good characters are dynamic enough to work under different circumstances.  The things that worked originally will have no problem surviving the rewrite; the ones that didn’t work won’t. 

One of the reasons this process has been so hard for me, and the reason I thought it was worth describing in a post, is that I have a tendency to grow too attached to my own work.  As we’ve discussed here at MW, rewrites and revisions are hard.  (We’re pulling for you, Faith!).  It’s never easy to hear that your book is flawed.  It’s even harder to come to that conclusion on your own (see last week’s post on self-editing).  Part of the difficulty for me in editing myself is letting go of those passages that I like but that don’t work.  We all know what’s like to confront our literary darlings — the little turns of phrase that strike us just so.  I’m cutting those right and left these days.  As I said at the outset, I love this book.  Gutting it in this way has been wrenching.  But it has reminded me that there is (or should be) a hierarchy of those things we care about in our own work.  Characters and their relationships are far more important that the pithy turn of phrase.  Narrative flow and structural coherence matter more than clever plot points. 

This process has also reminded me that being a professional writer means being ruthless when it comes to editing my work.  It means making certain artistic sacrifices for the market (something Faith tried to tell us all a few weeks ago).  And it means challenging myself to take on tasks that I might have thought impossible not too long ago.  I want to see this book in print.  For that to happen, I have to tear it apart and put it back together in a new way.  So that’s what I’m doing.

David B. Coe

26 comments to My Current Project

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    It is possible, David, that nobody in the universe understands what you are describing as well as I do. Recently, I thought to myself that, whatever else, I have now become a master at unraveling and reraveling scenes. The process of taking apart scenes, losing things you loved but that need to go, adding and tightnening other things is such a fascinating process–both painful and joyful at the same time.

    I wish you the best in having yours fall into place.

  • I feel your pain, David. I’ve been going through my old short stories, seeing if there’s anything worth salvaging, and I find plots or characters that are good, buried under the weight of my awful beginner’s writing. Twice, I’ve attempted to resurrect these creatures but both times failed. My fear is always that whatever was in me at the time that needed to be expressed has been satisfied (even though I could express the same sentiment far better now), and that somehow this just won’t let the stories work now. Then I tell myself that’s nothing but a BS excuse for not making the story work.

    On a related but more uplifting note — on Ursula K Le Guinn’s website (under the link On Writing) she has a copy of a rejection letter that says she can write extremely well but then rips her work apart. The work in question: The Left Hand of Darkness. It made me smile, laugh, and then get back to writing.

  • I’m intrigued that you mention that the magic system is unmarketable. I never would’ve thought that this would be a major sticking point in selling a novel.

    Is this something that happens often to fantasy writers?


  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    I’m with Nathanael…can you give us a hint about what you thought was unmarketable about the old one?

  • Jagi, I’ll look forward to sitting down with you and comparing notes on this process when both of us are through with it. It is all the things you say and then some. I am, by turns, frustrated, elated, depressed, grimly determined, and proud of what I’ve done.

    Stuart, I do believe that some stories can’t be rescued. And I think that had I not come up with a new foundational concept for this book it might have been a loss. But I also believe that everything has it’s time. It may be that some of those stories aren’t ready to be repaired yet, and that you have to let it happen when you and the work in question are both ready. And thanks for the story about LeGuin. It’s good to remind ourselves at times that those rejecting our work don’t always know what the hell they’re talking about.

    Nathanael and Jagi, I’m not sure that I want to say too much about the new concept, or the old one for that matter. But I will say that originally my lead character was a drug addict, and that his addiction was central to the story. It made for moving and dramatic moments, but I also think that some readers and editors shied from the series because of it. And I believe that I got so caught up in those dramatic moments that at times the story was about drug addiction rather than about magic and mystery and all the things I wanted it to be about.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    > But I will say that originally my lead character was a drug addict, and that his addiction was central to the story

    Interesting, because at another time, that might have been the major selling point. So part of having a right time is related to the market.

    But if you can find a way to salvage the story and meet the needs of the present market, that is, of course, just great.

  • I do think that timing can be central to marketing decisions with books. That’s one of the reasons why my agent says she never tells writers to pitch their books to the market. You can try to write zombie dwarf erotica because right now zombie dwarf erotica books are just flying off the shelves. But by the time you get your book out and onto those same shelves, zombie dwarf erotica might be passe. Everyone will be interested in the new craze — bovine vampirism — but you’re stuck with a three book zombie dwarf erotica contract and you’re just flat screwed. So, yeah, timing is important….

  • Awesome. Well, time to finish that zombie dwarf erotica story I’ve nearly finished. How’d you know I had one of those? 😉

  • “How’d you know I had one of those?”

    Doesn’t everyone?

  • Drat! And I thought I was being original. Curses! Well, maybe I can work on a necrophiliac leprechaun were-parrot erotica story instead….

  • Right, as if that’s new….

  • Barry King

    Man. Good luck. I’d hate to have to do that. Rather give the old book a decent burial and start fresh. Too many factors to re-consider, to think through all over again.

  • I understand what you mean, Barry. And it may turn out that I’m wasting my time. But as I’ve said, I really love this book and the lead character. Add to that the fact that I put months into writing the book, and that I wrote it during a very special year that my family and I spent living in Australia, and this book has deep emotional connections for me. I want to see it in print, and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to make that happen. We’ll see if it works out. Thanks for the good luck wishes.

  • One thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years, since I made the decision to try and become a published author was that what I wrote was not set in stone.

    I’ve learned to tell myself: “It doesn’t have to happen this way.”

    The WIP I’m currently working on: a stand alone epic fantasy (which also doubles as a prelude story to a much larger multi-volume epic fantasy story) is dramatically different from its origins all those years ago while bored in my Junior High math class. I’m still learning that I can change whatever I want to fit the story this novel has become. Even the really cool parts can go, if they support the old story and not the new one.

    The biggest change is who the main characters are now that I’ve spent this much time with them. Who I thought they were back in my first draft all those years ago, and who I thought I had learned they were even a year ago when I began to reshape the story, are both very different people from the ones I am actually writing about now.

    Good luck with your new construct. I’ve heard you mention this story on and off and I hope this effort pays off in a sale.

  • Zombie dwarf erotica, bovine vampirism and necrophiliac leprechaun were-parrot erotica…I’m starting to think I should give up reading and try knitting for a while.

    Oh wait, maybe not – Eeek! Nothing is safe!

  • Thanks, CE, and good luck with your WIP, too. In many ways the whole changing character thing has been the most disorienting part of this. The character who was once my main villain is now a minor character and somewhat sympathetic (I know that must sound odd, but basically it boils down to this: same murder victim, but a very different type of crime). Writing that character now is hard, because I don’t like him and I keep on wanting to make him a bad guy. But there’s no need to; in fact it wouldn’t work. But thinking about him differently is giving me fits.

    Misty, that’s a great link. Thanks! And, you’re right: nothing is safe… Bwahahahahaha!

  • Emily Leverett

    Bovine vampirism… now there’s something I might pick up.

    “They’re mad, they’re bad, and they’re out for MOO!”


    “Mad Cow disease just got a whole lot worse…” (Hey, I can see it happening in a lab… a government created Mad Cow disease variant that gets lose… in TEXAS!)

  • Sarah Adams

    Forgive the cliche, but oh I do feel your pain. When I finally realized that I (and my writing partner) had to give up on our book as it is and rip out everything except a few key characters and world building details I cried. It wasn’t as hard as putting a beloved pet to sleep, but it was close. The only thing that balances the mourning for the old project is the excitement of starting the new one. But I know the old one was a mess – to use your metaphor, redecorating just wasn’t enough. The house needed to be bulldozed and rebuilt from the ground up.

  • Getting to this late, David. Sorry. I have been buried under the fastest, hardest, most detail oriented rewrite of my life. (Of course I’ve said that with several of them.) It was so bad I have tendonitis and typing is now at about 1/3 of my previous speed. But, oddly enough, the rewrite was a lot like what you are doing. Remodling, wall-tearing, floor-dropping reconstruction. And unless I missed something (not an impossibility) the book is *much* better.

    I know you are having fun with this, hard and frustrating as it is. And hey, thanks for the part about the zombie dwarf erotica (and its follow-up erotica). It made my day!

  • Thanks for the laugh, Emily! And yes, I think that second idea has definite Fox mini-series potential….

    Sarah, there is absolutely a mourning period that has to be built into the process. I have grieved for this book quite a bit, and in a way I think that’s what those first, unsuccessful attempts were about. I’m past it now and getting more excited with each day as I watch the new version come together. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Faith, I’m sorry it’s been so hard, but glad to hear that you see the revisions coming together so well. As I said to Jagi, we’ll have to sit down and compare notes at some point. Glad you enjoyed the zombie dwarf erotica thing….

  • Actually David, I have a novel that I’m having to do this with. I started it a long time ago, and abandoned it because the pirates stood a better chance to break into the market. Now that I want to think about it again, I’m realizing that not only does it have problems, I may even have chosen the wrong character to be the protagonist. *sigh* We’ll see how it goes.

    Glad you enjoyed the zombie dwarf erotica thing….

    God help me, no!! *presses her hands over her ears and runs screaming into her room*

  • Good luck with that, Misty. And please, don’t tell me that you preferred the leprechaun thing…..

  • I am admitting nothing!

  • KINGS AND REBELS is the book I can’t give up on. It’s been my first attempt and I should have put it in the proverbial drawer, but all the time I let it sit to work on other projects, the main characters, one of the basic premisses and two of the plot lines won’t let go of my brain. So I kept getting back to it and fiddling around with little success except to improve the writing itself and delete one plotline that didn’t work. It was only when I made the step from historical fiction to Fantasy that things began to fall into place and I got a feeling that there was a good book lurking in the mess.

    By now it’s 3-4 books-to-be, and of the original very little is left, even in rewritten form. But I still have the three MCs (now it’s 4, actually), I still have the forbidden friendship between Roderic and Kjartan and Roderic’s plotline – only it goes much further now – as well as most of Alastair’s. I have some cool magic and a much better grip on the characters. Roderic’s father is much darker in this version but still gets a tragic end he doesn’t deserve. Alastair’s brother plays a more complex role, Kjartan has become heir to the king of Nordland, a responsibility he doesn’t really want …..

    It almost like writing a new book (or books) and it’s still the most ambitious and difficult project besides A LAND UNCONQUERED, but on good days I think I have grown enough as writer to do it justice.

    On bad days, well …. everything I write sucks rotten potatoes. 😉

  • Ah, Misty. Your silence speaks volumes…..

    Gabriele, I suppose we all have stories that we don’t want to give up, that we keep reworking. Sounds as though you’ve done a fine job turning Kings and Rebels into a viable series. Well done. And yeah, we all have the rotten potato days, too…..