In January this year, I tried to write a rough draft of a novel. Fullblood, a sci-fi story about escaping a dying earth, was the story I picked. It has been rattling around in my brain since 2010, and I’ve even produced one partial draft before; better make that two partial drafts now.
Things did not go well. I felt trapped and stymied by the characters I was bound to. Digging back so deep, to characters and emotions my tenth-grade self deeply responded to, was a difficult process.
Carrin and her brother had been left alone in my head for so long that they behaved more like actual people than creations of mine. It was dead-clear when the dialogue I was writing didn’t serve whatever the character has become in my head. Beyond that, the new characters I tried to create seemed out-of-place, lacking any substance beyond a few snippets of dialogue that fell completely flat.
There are plenty of life reasons why I failed to finish a draft in January (see: Fail Hard). We ended up moving in March, and preparation for that sucked away my time. We are in the process of adopting, and home visits, classes, and paperwork were in my head instead of drafting. I struggled to get any consistent time in January to write.
But I don’t want to look at the practical reasons today — I want to dive into the story a little bit more, and figure out why success has been eluding me for so long. All Right had its own slow path of development, but after three years I produced a complete first draft. Just enough percolating time to make something valuable.
Fullblood has been percolating for nine years, now? And I still have only ten thousand words here and there to show for it. It’s (still) not ready for a rough draft. What are the problems that keep derailing this book?
I have one strong character in this story: Carrin. She’s tough, determined, and willing to do what it takes to protect her brother. She’s close to my exact opposite and is extremely difficult to write well. But, over nine years, I’ve developed a canny sense of who she is and isn’t. Dialogue and plot points feel “right” or “wrong” for the character, while I’m writing. I know there’s a compelling story lurking around somewhere in her past.
Carrin’s brother is a different matter. When I was writing the book in high school, the narrator was a stand-in for myself, with all the messiness that entailed. Trying to write a first-person story and keep a separate narrator is a tall order, and I failed pretty hard at it. Carrin’s little brother had no personality that’s not my own, no character goal except: “protect Carrin.” He feels like a sock puppet that exists only to explore my own relationship with my creation.
I had enough problems with the brother that I wrote him out of the new draft. He appears as an infant, and the story is told from Carrin’s own point of view. This was a disaster. If first-person is hard with a faceless, bland narrator, it’s twice as hard with a character who seems to have a life of their own, independent of the story. Throughout January, I took to writing conversations between myself and Carrin, arguments over the draft and the plot I was butchering.
Drastically changing the core structure of the story was a mistake: Fullblood needs to have the strong brother-sister relationship, and it needs to be narrated from the brother’s point of view.
My fix should have been to improve the brother’s character. He needs a name: a bizarre quirk of my original idea that I’ve slavishly maintained for nine years now. Instead of making him an infant, like the latest draft, I should maybe make him older — and build an equally strong character who could stand alongside Carrin, with goals and motivations of his own.
Fullblood is a claustrophobic look at a brother and sister’s relationship, set against the ticking time bomb of the dying planet of Esparan. Their journey to escape the planet, and find a home where they belong, is the key theme of the story.
Esparan serves as a thrilling backdrop for this pretty simple plot. The looming skyscrapers, rusting hulks of metal, spur my imagination on. A society where hearts are traded in for cyborg implants gives a whole new look at class, privilege, and abuse: facets I’m eager to explore. Descriptive writing flows easily, for the setting is nearly as old and rich as the character of Carrin. This is a place where the time away has made the story stronger, more unique, and not damaged it.
In an attempt to keep the story “gritty” and “fast-moving,” I shied away from description in my latest draft. I’m not sure why I thought this was a good idea: Esparan is definitely the strongest fictional setting I’ve produced in, well, ever.
Embracing description will strengthen the story, and hopefully lend it just a little bit of place that all the great sci-fi novels have. What is Dune without Arrakis, Asimov without the Foundation, or C.S. Lewis without Malacandra? Leaning into the place, and taking the time to stretch out my descriptions so that you, the reader, can feel Esparan, will go a long way to strengthen the book.
The plot of Fullblood has never been the problem. It’s mostly complete, and follows a pretty simple arc: Carrin and her brother realize there’s a problem, decide to escape Esparan, and do so. A government that’s out for all fullblooded humans provides the challenge, and a dying planet that’s losing oxygen provides the timer. From these rough chunks, I have most of a complete plot.
There are some characters that need to be removed, others that need to be overhauled, but in general, the story is about Carrin and her brother, not the people they leave behind on Esparan.
When I sat down to draft in January, I tried to change large swathes of the plot I just laid out, above (which is from the 2010 draft). I tried to add complexities, and in typical Andrew fashion, the ending was still weak.
Rather than adding innovations to the plot, I need to strengthen and simplify what I have. Smoothing out the last few plot holes and writing a strong ending will provide the finishing touches.
To take a different example, All Right has significant parts of myself in it: north Georgia, searching for home, and loneliness. But I can separate those emotions that are part of me from the story I wrote. The story was a way to look at the emotions from the outside, to gain some distance and perspective by diving into fiction.
There’s one more thing that needs to be removed from Fullblood: me. The idea is sound, but too much of my own journey and struggles has been implicitly tied to this story for too long.
Fullblood has no distance and perspective. The particular issues and struggles that I have in connection to the novel still feel incredibly raw and difficult to examine. Finding some distance from the story of Fullblood, and separating it from myself, is the most essential task before me if I ever hope to finish this book.
So, where to go from here? I’m not certain when I’ll work on Fullblood again, so soon after I’ve fallen flat on my face. There’s work that needs to be done to prepare (and I knew this in December, before attempting a rough draft!), and that won’t come quickly. Nothing in this story has come quickly. But someday, we’ll get a rough draft across the finish line.