Waiting, leaping, working, listening: how I wrote Bones of Faerie

It’s pretty much a tossup between blogging first about dystopic arranged marriages and how I wrote Bones of Faerie, so, since the latter spent more time in the lead, I’ll post that first. 🙂 (Feel free to ask further questions about process in comments!)

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It’s been a little more than two years since Bones of Faerie was published, which is hard to believe, since in some ways it seems like this book has been out in the world forever, and in other ways that seems strange, because for so many years I wasn’t sure it would ever be part of anyone’s world but my own.

Bones of Faerie didn’t really begin two years ago, of course. It didn’t begin five years ago, when I found my agent’s forwarded offer for it in my inbox, either. (It’s a good thing book offers come by email these days. I tend to hyperventilate a little, and need some time before I can speak.) It didn’t even begin seven years ago, when I finally finished writing Bones of Faerie and put it in the mail for the first time.

Bones of Faerie began in 1993. Or maybe it was 1992; I’m not longer entirely sure. I was a new writer living in St. Louis, just a couple years out of college, with a few short story sales under my belt thanks in no small part to the Alternate Historians, my first critique group. We were all new writers, full of energy and ideas, learning from each other.

It was sometime during those years in St. Louis that I sat down and wrote, longhand, an opening scene where a girl explained, very calmly and reasonably–as if this sort of thing happened all the time–how her father left her baby sister on a hillside to die for having magic. Along the way, the girl also mentioned a war with Faerie and the dangers it had left behind. I don’t know where that war or that opening came from, though the baby on the hillside was influenced, at least a little, by changeling stories in general, and also by the way I’d been immersing myself a little in the new wave of urban fantasy stories about contemporary faerie and elves.

Once it was written, that opening haunted me, though I didn’t even know the girl’s name. What I did know was that I had to tell her story.

But I had no idea what happened next, and I had no idea how to write a story that might do that opening justice. Somewhere, it seemed, there must be a future writer me who could tell the story the way it deserved to be told, but I wasn’t her yet. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t have other stories I wanted to tell. (Or other incomplete openings, for that matter.)

So I spent a decade or so writing other things: a couple dozen more short stories, the Phantom Rider trilogy, Secret of the Three Treasures, a bunch of other books and half-books that never made their way out into the world. Along the way I moved to Tucson (the Phantom Rider books are all about my new-found desert love), and my fiction career had plenty of ups and downs. Between the first three books I sold and the fourth, I went eight years without selling any novels (and ten years between their publication dates); I found an agent and I left him; I wondered in dark moments whether I was a little foolish to keep throwing so much of my life into this writing thing; and always, always, I kept writing. I said I could always stop if I really wanted to, but I never did.

And every so often during those years, I’d check in with that opening scene I’d written back in St. Louis. Was it time yet? I’d write a few more pages, a few more chapters, half an outline, and then decide no, I really wasn’t ready after all.

Until one day, not longer after selling Secret of the Three Treasures and after a failed first attempt at a YA fantasy (or maybe that YA is just another project that isn’t quite ready yet), I decided, based on instinct and gut and I’m not sure what else, that it was time. I’d learned what I needed to learn, and now I had to write that faerie war book–which I’d taken to calling Bones of Faerie–or else I might never get to writing it.

At the time, writing Bones of Faerie didn’t make much business sense. I’d sold four middle grade novels for younger kids. I loved and still loved those books. The sensible thing would have been to write more middle grade books, which there was some evidence I could sell, and not a YA, when I’d had no luck with YA as well.

Especially since this was before YA fantasy was considered a very commercial genre. I had my share of rejection letters from my first YA and from the chapters-and-a proposal I’d sent around before that, explaining that fantasy was a hard sell for teens. Then too, while books about faeries and elves had been popular in the 1980s and 1990s, by the 2000s they were feeling a bit over and done. And the post-apocalyptic and dystopic thing? Surely that was an artifact of my 1980s late cold war upbringing; books like that were no longer being published much, either.

It seems hard to believe now that a book about post-apocalyptic faeries could ever seem uncommercial. But when I decided to write Bones of Faerie, I was taking a huge leap of faith. I was writing a book a desperately wanted to write, because I desperately wanted to write it, and hoping the rest would somehow fall into place, even though it hadn’t always fallen in place for me before.

That opening was still haunting me. I had to write the book that went with it.

It took two more years. I had to give myself permission to write badly; I had to write a first draft that in places made no sense at all and that changed dramatically even the places it did make sense; I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite some more and make a second leap of faith, one that said that if I rewrote enough, I would find the book I was looking for. Because of course I hadn’t learned all I needed to learn after all. I’d learned what I needed to get started, and then the book taught me the rest, as books tend to do. The learning curve was steep. Writing this book was terrifying, and overwhelming, and a blast. I worked hard. I had fun. I listened to my story.

Bones of Faerie made me keep working and stretching to the very last page, as I wrote and rewrote and the ending countless times until it landed where it needed to. The opening scene may have been a gift, but all the rest of the book I had to work for.

When I was done, I still had no idea if it would sell. But twelve years after that opening scene had begun haunting me, I’d told the story at last, told it as well as I possibly could, and whatever happened next, even if no one else ever read it, nothing could take that away from me. (To this day, I think this is one of the biggest reasons for focusing on writing stories of the heart. Anything we write can sell or not sell. But if we write the stories we want to write, the process of writing them is ours, forever and ever.)

There was more business to be gotten through after that, and it took a couple more years. I marketed the book by myself for a while (after leaving my first agent I wanted some time on my own before looking for another), and then signed with a new agent who was a much better fit for me and who knew the right editor for my book. There was more waiting to be gotten once we sold it. During that time I worked on a middle grade, which didn’t sell (yet); and then on another YA, Thief Eyes, which did. There were editorial revisions for Bones of Faerie, too–just because I’d written the best book I knew how to write didn’t mean that right editor didn’t know how to make it better.

But two years ago, the book I knew I had to write, and was afraid for years I wouldn’t be able to write, made its way into the world. It’s still there. In a little more than a month a sequel, Faerie Winter, will also be out (writing the sequel was a different sort of challenge than writing the original; one day I’ll try to post about that too). And as soon as I post this I’m going back to working on a third and final Faerie book.

I can’t imagine what it will be like to let Liza and her world go at last, after we’ve spent so much time together. I don’t know, yet, how the last book will end.

So I’m taking a leap of faith, just as always–trusting my process, writing as well as I possibly can, and learning what I need to as I go.

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