I was stuck with one of my drafts of Sen of the Woods, and had another writer friend, Claire Ryan read it. “What’s it about?” I had to ask her. I didn’t know. And THAT should have been my key into what was wrong, but I was too close to it, and needed Claire’s help.
Something very interesting happened when she started to comment. It became clear that while my narrator, Sen, drove the story for me, I had never truly wondered what the story was for her. That might sound absolutely crazy, but there were times I found myself absolutely unable to get away from this story as I wrote it, and revised it. Parts would come and it was a bad day when I didn’t have my journal nearby to write down a scene. It reverberated throughout my day like constant music. It truly felt as if something was special about the book–and yet I couldn’t tell you what it was about.
Sen was an observer through those first drafts. That didn’t mean she wasn’t an interesting character to me. With all the forces against her, it was her strength that seemed to drive her, that forced her to be more of herself.
But she had no inner challenge, and nothing for anyone to truly embrace or connect with.
That one revelation nearly stopped me in my tracks. I felt as if there was so much good to this story, something really interesting within those pages.
One suggestion Claire made was to diminish the world building, something I absolutely refused to do. If I did I would not be Mab Morris, writer, but someone else. That did not mean I was stuck. I had to use her comments with the respect that her skill in writing deserved. I also had to respect mine—and find a way to fix a book that felt doomed, or impossible to fix. Any worth in the story mattered very, very little if the reader didn’t want to read the book.
That’s the fun part of getting great critiques—the type that isn’t a pat on the head, the type that is difficult to take, daunting even, that feels both correct and impossible to fix. Why? Because if a writer is going to write they’ll face that moment and sweat it, get sick about it, and still do the work. It’s the type of criticism that makes a writer–me in this case–decide if the book is worth saving, worth digging even deeper than you’d thought you could ever go before.
Claire was saying she couldn’t really get into this character. I remembered Layton Green saying something similar about Kuen in Fate of the Red Queen, how we needed to know what she had lost, and not just know she’d lost something. So many people wanted a war scene to open the book. Something dramatic. But that advice never, ever had weight to it. As Jennifer Crusie once said, “The story starts when the problem starts.” It wasn’t the war that was the problem. Layton’s advice transformed that thought, opened it up—and made such sense that I could write a beginning that helped transform the book.
I knew I’d done Sen the same kind of disservice. However Kuen had something to fight for—knowing what she had lost was already present in the book. Sen? That was trickier, and more daunting of a problem.
When I was considering Claire’s advice—despite having this conversation at 3am—and thinking about Sen, I began to ask Sen questions about what she wanted. And discovered she was content. She was happy. She didn’t want change. She was so freakin’ content to remain where she was. Granted, the book doesn’t let that happen to her, but I now wanted to shake her till her teeth rattled.
It was that desire that also guided me. Nothing that happens to Sen was boring—but suddenly she was. Which was a serious problem (like more than daunting), as she is the narrator of the story. She might have been likable, and while she might not be content to lie back on the ground and watch clouds roll by, in some ways her pursuits were just that. Boring. Despite everything that happens to her Sen, herself, in early phases was uninteresting.
And that I could change!
How, I did not know. Still, that started me working in my journal, in my head, and in the document, trying different ways to fix the problem of making Sen a character people wanted to read about. It didn’t matter if I had serious doubts about the different tries. I had to try. The book deserved it.
It wasn’t as if I had a choice. It isn’t up to me if I write or not, and if I gave up on this book before I finished the series, I knew I’d be miserable, as if I cut out some essential piece of me and set it out to rot. The book was flawed. I had known it. And with a critique that felt a bit like doom, I began to ask important questions. If I kept doing the work, I could find the answers.