This past week I got some disappointing feedback on my latest manuscript from an industry professional. (The feedback was, basically: do better). I ran through the usual gamut of emotions… shock like a blow to the place where my rib cage meets my soft part, a sinking hopelessness, fear like standing at the foot of a mountain you know you must climb to survive.
Then I worked through the familiar techniques. Is it true? What actionable information is there beyond the pain of rejection? What should I do? Then, I got to work.
The book in question is told from the point of view of two characters who start the story in very different circumstances. They live in a land where Seers can see the future, but are powerless to change it. Witches can work change with their magic, but are blind to fate. One is a queen, the other a servant who starts the story in the most abject of circumstances. The feedback was: “like the servant, not feeling it for the queen.”
It is true that the servant’s narrative includes more of my lived experience. One of the first scenes where we meet her, she’s getting hit by the man whom he serves, and one of her first acts is to run away. (She gets captured by slavers, so it’s not all smooth sailing for our girl). I haven’t been a servant or a slave, but I’ve been hit, and I’ve run away to make a new life. I know that story.
The queen, on the other hand, is ambivalent. She is about to come into her own after having a Regent rule in her stead since the death of her mother in our protagonist’s infancy. She means to rule, kinda because that’s what she’s always known she was supposed to do. She’s been content to just chill and attend balls, but it’s not like she’s got real drive. That was what this reader reacted to: what does she want? Where is she going?
And the answer is: I have no idea. I do powerlessness well. Power? Not so much.
I view life through a prism of the forces bigger than ourselves that toss us about. My early life was all about those forces: a mercurial father with a hand that was quick to fly, a government that considered me “illegal,” an unexpected exile to a country where I felt like an oddity. Then a return “home” to the country where I’d longed to be, only to find that the language had melted and changed into something unrecognizable. When I entered adolescence and a broader view of what I wanted from life, I figured out what being undocumented really meant, a maw so menacing and inescapable I can still feel it chomping down on me in the middle of the night, even thirty years after I escaped it for good.
I know wily. I know scrappy. I know the mouse escaping the cat. Agency? That’s still a problem for me.
I first realized this when I was writing Secret Side. My editor kept asking me. “What choice does she make here? How does she move the story forward?” I was trying to convey what it’s like when a story is thrust upon you, and what it’s like to react to that, since that’s what the experience of being undocumented was like for me. That’s what many people experience, but it generally does not make a good story unless the protagonist does something. Yes, she can flounder. Yes, she can vacillate. But she can’t let the story happen to her. She makes her own fate, no matter how narrow her choices. She decides who she is. It was a lesson I learned through writing books, but it has served me well in life, too.
I’ve read a veritable mountain of books on the structure of stories since I winged it on Secret Side. Good stories, while they can range from space operas to drawing room romances, follow predictable formats. The main character is in their “regular life” (even if “regular life” means being an underwater bubble dweller with a pet blue octopus, that’s the “regular life” of the character). Then an inciting incident happens, which sets the protagonist in a new direction. There’s no going back. She’ll struggle, she’ll try to resist the arc of fate, but in the end, she’ll make the choices that will make the tale satisfying and, at the end, complete. There will be an antagonist, a tightening of the noose, so to speak, and then our character will prevail, whatever “prevailing” looks like in the universes we create.
I thought back on the first fifty pages of my queen, the sting of the rejection still fresh, and asked myself what she does in them. Sure, she goes on a journey. Sure, she demands a Seer do her bidding. But does she do all this in the service of her goals as a character? No. She’s a little wishy washy. Also, she thinks about her drapes too much. She needs a big, juicy goal, and some backbone.
And, maybe, so do I.
I think of my tendency to think of myself as buffeted by the cruel winds of the publishing industry. Writers who debuted the same year I did post cover reveal photos, and endorsements from luminaries. I toil silently, about 300,000 words (the equivalent of 5 Secret Sides) into other stories, some complete but imperfect (otherwise known as incomplete), others partial, their shortcomings still to be found. I ache inwardly that the world is passing me by, or that it never wanted me at all, undocumented in the land of books, a story that repeats itself in my head with new backdrops, new antagonists.
But, no. Not this time. Like my heroines, I want to push my story forward. I reached out to a few paid editors, with the instruction to be unsparing. I wrote a whole new backstory for my queen. I determined to do more, and better. I began outlining my next book. In life and in books, I long for boldness and courage, for choices and zest. I long to roam the world and let my heart stomp big, and roar. I long for agency. In giving it, it is found.