I know the universal truth is that first drafts suck. But oh my God.
The process of writing Sparkwood was a garbage fire on a sinking ship, and it was absolutely within my power to stop it. This post isn't a "what not to do" post so much as it's me going back through a year of revisions in my planning document, and screaming at myself.
Sparkwood was written for LT3's "My Dearest Enemy" submission call. Enemies-to-lovers romance! Something I had not written before, and wasn't terribly confident about.
Here's my first word-vomit summary:
I kept adding to this document sporadically. Ideas were hashed out that never made it into the final draft; I was really attached to the idea of fairies taking magic from storytelling, and that Luke (the dead twin) had died because he was telling the fairies his life story, without realizing that it was quite literally sucking the life out of him. That's pretty esoteric. Not my style.
I also wrote down "someone wakes up with horse eyes," which is based on a nightmare I vaguely remember. And now that I look back on it, that might be the entire basis for the fairies having completely black eyes. Writing is dumb.
At this stage of plotting, I was extrapolating a lot of things from my second rewatch of Twin Peaks. I was interested in the idea of fairies being attracted to heightened emotional states—that they themselves weren't capable of deep emotion, but they fed off human emotions. Kind of like the spirit BOB. Anyway, that's another idea that got cut, although the fairies remain very dramatic.
The idea of telling stories might not have remained so central to Sparkwood, but the bones are still there: if you read Sparkwood, you know that the library played a big role in Luke's life.
So now I have a very loose plot: LIVING TWIN finds out that DEAD TWIN, who was taken by fairies years ago, has died. LIVING TWIN goes to the fairy court, where he also starts to slowly die of the same causes. That was the gist of it.
It was time for characters.
As I discussed in my process post, I made a planning document for Sparkwood. I was having trouble finding a voice when I started writing; the prose felt bland, and the dialogue wasn't clicking for me either.
To jar myself out of that, I started writing Sparkwood as a detailed outline, including dialogue when it came to me.
You can read the final version of this scene on my excerpts page! It became chapter 3 of Sparkwood. Some of the details are the same: The main character wakes up to find a fairy in his bedroom. They fight.
And... drumroll... here's where I first considered naming the dead twin Finn! This deserves its own paragraph, because this asshole went through Jacob, Finn, Lee, Dylan, Rylan, Ryan, and finally Luke. As you might notice... my main character actually nabbed the name Finn. It's not confusing at all!
But onward! More scenes that have shades in the final draft show up in this document. Robin and Finn (the real, living one, not the dead twin) lose their tempers with each other over the hotel room—except in this version, it's a frankly overblown drama about how the room is full of the dead twin's favorite shit, which was meant to set up a whole subplot... where Finn really, really thinks Robin used to date his brother. This got cut in edits because it was pointless, and never really made sense. I mean, he could just ask, right?
At this point, a full month after starting this brainstorm/plot outline/collection of garbage prose, I start knuckling down on why Finn's twin died in the first place.
Obviously, this was a big problem. I had next to no plot. Granted, I hadn't written a lot of prose yet either, and part of writing is plotting for me. But still, it's a messy way to start writing a murder mystery. Or any book for that matter. Luke's death is the entire central problem. It was literally the most important detail, and I totally neglected it!
If someone dies, figure out why they died, and make that priority number one. Fortunately, I figured out Jacob/Finn/Lee/Dylan/Rylan/Ryan/Luke's death relatively soon after this. But it took more world-building to get there, and it was world-building that would have saved me substantive edits had I done it out sooner.
It's not all bad here though! There are some cute ideas hidden in this old doc. One of them is a scene that never made it into the final story. It takes place at a bar, and Finn is flirting with another guy to get information. Robin gets jealous, and uses magic to make the guy's beer room temperature. The guy complains, gets another beer, and Robin does it again, playing coy even though Finn knows exactly what's going on. I think this scene is super cute, and I love the idea of fairies being incredibly powerful, but using their magic for petty means because they're ultimately ruled by their emotions. This was where I started figuring out the tone of fairy culture, and the chemistry between Finn and Robin.
Two months into plotting (April 10, 2016), I named the town Sparkwood. And I de-named the DEAD TWIN, and gave my main character his final name... Finn!
I made another revision to that document at 11:56 PM:
So there it is, a very, very skeletal description of the plot of Sparkwood. It needs some work. Apparently Robin still went by a filler name! And Jacob/Finn/Dylan/Rylan/Ryan/Luke's name was Lee? For five whole seconds? But a late night prick of inspiration changed the whole direction of this story for the better.
What would I do differently?
Every step of writing Sparkwood was an editor's nightmare. And yet, it's hard for me to think of doing it differently. Maybe it's because I felt so stuck when I started the book, but brute-forcing a fantasy world to life did work out. And I learned a lot while I was desperately cobbling everything together.
That being said, of course I will never put myself through this again. One of the better things I did was make a list of clues and relevant information that Finn (the living one) could discover along the way as he investigated his brother's death. Knowing what is important to your story, and what isn't, is crucial.
Brainstorm people that might be useful, or who the characters would realistically run into. After coming up with that skeleton plot, I sat down and made a list of nameless characters, including THE MAYOR, THE GENTLEMAN, and A HUMAN. These would go on to become the mayor (uh, duh), Alan Merrow, and Finn's friend Pearl. They didn't need names, because all that mattered were their roles in the story.
When writing a romance, it's easy to focus on the main characters and lose sight of the people around them. The best romances don't do that, of course. And murder mysteries can't do that. The other players are crucial to the plot. When I started Sparkwood, I was concerned about writing my first enemies-to-lovers story. I devoted more attention to that, when I should have treated it as a murder mystery and let the animosity between Finn and Robin flow from that.
Along the way, as I was struggling to master my plot, I got worried that I didn't have a B plot. I had read something about balancing an A plot (the main story) with a B plot, which complemented it or served as a metaphor.
After this freakout, I had a laughing conversation with my friends because I remembered I was writing a murder mystery/romance. There's your A and B plots, right? Robin and Finn solve a mystery (A plot) and fall in love (B plot).
Well, it turns out that what really made Sparkwood click, in my second or third pass of edits, was adding another B plot. Or C plot, I guess. Either way, there was a supporting element missing from the story. All this goes to say, if you feel like your story is missing something, it probably is!
It just might take you two drafts and a lot of misery to figure out what.
Sparkwood is out now and it's a lot better than this post makes it sound!