I’ve been rereading the Vlad novels in preparation for writing the next one, and, eventually, finishing the series if I live that long. I’ve been going through them looking for guns I left on mantelpieces, so I can pick them up and have them go off together in ways that will make people go, “Wow! He had all of that planned from the start?” Well, and to remind myself of stuff I actually did know from the start. Anyway, in the course of this, I just finished a reread of Yendi and had some thoughts about it that might be useful to other writers.
Yes, I still think it is a bad book (although with some moments that, in retrospect, I’m quite proud of), and this post is not intended as a platform to argue that. Let me have it as a given and make my point.
My second novel was To Reign In Hell, and it was quite an experience. For one thing, I decided my biggest weakness was characterization, so I wanted to write a book that simply wouldn’t work unless I nailed the characters. It was hard, for that reason and others. It was an ambitious project for me. At one point, about a third of the way through, I spoke to Will Shetterly, and told him, “I should wait ten years before writing this one. I don’t have the chops to pull it off yet.” He said, “You’re right, you don’t. You should write it anyway. In ten years you’ll write something else, and what you learn doing this one will stay with you.” It turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.
After finishing it, I was exhausted, beat, done, wiped out. It felt like I’d been doing hard labor. I was emotionally drained and, for a while, wondered if I’d ever write again (it turns out, this is fairly normal for me after finishing something; I need a few months to recover. But I didn’t know that at the time). Once I did start getting the itch to write again, I was still sort of bruised from how hard it had been. Now, my first novel, Jhereg, I had thought of as a standalone. I put in hints of backstory and foreshadowing and stuff, but not with the intention of returning to the world, only because, well, I love it when books do that. But after finishing TRiH, it hit me that what I needed was something fun, something I could just kick back and enjoy writing without a lot of sweat or effort, to remind myself how much fun writing can be, and I realized that I already had the world and characters set up, I could just go back there and tell another story. To make it easier, I could use the backstory I’d already hinted at, plus throw in a bit of “foreshadowing” for Jhereg (like, Vlad remarking that no one would ever steal from the Jhereg Council, stuff like that). Because I felt a need to challenge myself at least a little, I decided to work on a different aspect of characterization than I had in TRiH, to wit, on finding the telling detail for each character that would make that one memorable.
Between these two goals—making characters identifiable, and kicking back and having fun—emerge the two problems with Yendi. First, it’s got too many characters; some of those folk are just in there so I could practice with them, and I would probably have removed them if there’d been a well handy. Second, it’s sloppy. It’s just kind of slapdash, thrown out there, with a few accidental contradictions, and not much substance. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with “a good tale well told,” but if that’s all there is to a story, well, it should be really well told, and that one was only fairly decent. That is why I’ve always regretted that book, and badly wished I could do it over (which, in a way, I did: Orca is in some sense the book Yendi should have been).
I should say, I’ve always regretted that book until now. Here we get to the point of this post, to what might be useful for new writers to think about.
Yes, because I was sloppy with that book, it has haunted me. I cringe when I think about it, and what it ought to have been, and still remind myself not to get lazy. BUT. I was right. It comes back to me that the book did exactly what I wanted it to: it reminded me how much fun writing can be, how to take joy in the process, and evil, cackling delight in imagining what I was going to do to the poor reader. And this has stayed with me. Of course, there are the horrible, wracking moments of where do I go? and how do I make this work? and how do I turn these concepts into a story? and what happens next? Of course those still happen. But underneath, since writing Yendi, I haven’t forgotten that at the bottom, I do this because I love it.
If you can keep that feeling at the price of one book that is weaker than you wish it were, well, I call that a fair trade.