Friday, 4 February 2011


With thanks to Jason Walker for the title, which is a line from his song 'Down'.

This past week I learned something with regard to my writing. And I've been going backwards and forwards about how and if to post about it. In the end I decided that I needed to say something because I've been teasing you all for quite a long while with the details of FF (the book that I handed in to my editor earlier this month). The reason I kept quiet on specifics was that I knew one of the elements of the story was controversial and I wanted to make sure I'd done a good job and that it would go ahead before I told you all about it.

Sometimes, as a writer, you HAVE to write something. It doesn't matter how scary or hard it is. A character, a story, a scene comes to you and maybe it shocks the Hell out of you, but it must be written. It takes you over. When you hand that book in, you are ready to defend to the death the thing you've written, no matter what anyone says, because you know that character, that story, that scene, cannot be anything else. But surprisingly often those parts won't raise an eyebrow from anyone. Not because they're not shocking or controversial, but because your passion and conviction have made those elements indispensible to the book. This was the case with several parts of Shadows on the Moon (as anyone who's read one of the ARCs will probably realise).

But sometimes you will go through a slightly different process. Remember my post on Diversity a week ago? Well, I've been thinking really hard about the implications of my privilege for quite a long while, and this lead me to make a decision in writing FF not because of passion, not because I couldn't write the story any other way, not because that was the way the story was - but because I wanted to make a point.

This isn't always a bad thing. The inspiration for the multiracial world and differing religions in Daughter of the Flames came about in such a way. But in this case, my thinking caused me to take my characters and push them into actions which frequently felt slightly off to me. It caused me to take my story, which had always been meant to unfold a certain way, and change it radically. And there were definitely brief, shining moments when I was sure that it was all working together perfectly, and I think this allowed me to fool myself that my decision was right.

Editors, however, cannot be fooled by stuff like that. My editor read my story and she came back to tell me, as kindly and nicely as she could (because she is very kind and nice) that it just didn't work. Because you see, that's the way it is when you've let yourself be blinded by Big Ideas. It often takes someone else to come along and point out that you've blundered.

I set out to do something that I believed - and still believe - to be important. And I failed.

It really, really hurts to admit that. I'm always talking about taking risks, but something I hardly ever mention - something that people who encourage you to push yourself, test your talent, challenge your limits, hardly ever talk about - is that as a result YOU WILL FAIL sometimes. There are going to be occasions when you make the wrong choice or just don't have the skills yet to fulfil your ambitions. Your reach exceeds your grasp.

One of the hardest parts? Deep down in that murky, intuitive place where unpleasant truths lurk, I knew. I'm pretty sure I knew all along that it wasn't right. I'm cross with myself for ignoring that and just HOPING, somehow, that I could pull it off. That's a lesson learned. Pay attention to your gut.

And in case you're wondering what I failed at, it was writing a convincing romance between two girls. That was what I wanted to do in FF. A high fantasy gay romance.

The thing is, the book didn't want to be a high fantasy gay romance. It didn't start out that way, and I never had any blinding inspiration or subtle realisation that it should be. The characters I pushed together didn't want to be in love, I don't think. It might sound silly to talk that way, as if the characters and story have some sort of independent will of their own, but for me it really DOES feel that way. And when I force my characters and story to do things they don't want to, the results are never good, even when I'm forcing them with the very best of intentions.

I still want to write that book. I still think that book needs to be written. But I think my failure here shows that good intentions cannot take the place of passion when it comes to writing stories. If you let your desire to make a point lead you astray from serving the story and characters you have in front of you RIGHT NOW in the best and most truthful way you can, failure is inevitable.

So now the quest is to save my characters from what I've done to them. Save the story that originally presented itself to my mind from the awkward changes I forced on it. Make FF the book it probably always should have been, and hope that people like it anyway, even if it's not illuminated by the flaring brilliance of Good Intentions and Big Ideas (or, not the same good intentions and big ideas I had before).

The lesson I really wanted you guys to take from this? Maybe it's that, look - I made a big mistake. Four books into my career, as a grown-up. I made a big mistake. I failed. But the sky didn't fall.

I felt like it had for a few hours there, but it didn't.

So...take comfort from that. Take comfort from knowing that you will make mistakes and you will survive them. Get up, dust yourself off, and fix it.

And if you can't take comfort from that, then take it from this article by award-winning author Nicola Morgan, which really helped me to put things in perspective when I read it yesterday morning.

Have a great weekend, peeps. I'll be here, with my edit letter - illuminated by the flaring brilliance of knowing that this time, I'm going to get this book RIGHT.


Anonymous said...

Old chinese saying not a mistake if you learn from it.
Victoris x

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you.

Isabel said...

I'm sooo sorry, Zoe!! I really wish it could have worked out - I would have liked to read about a high fantasy gay romance. But I'm sure this book will be amazing anyway. I wish you all the best of luck. You had some good intentions, and that's what matters.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Isabel. I hope I WILL write that gay fantasy high romance one day, but it'll need to be when that's what the story and characters really want. Ah, well.

Cat Clarke said...

This is a brilliant post. Well done for speaking up. Now go kick some ass with those edits.

Zoë Marriott said...

Aw, thanks, Cat! I will. *Shakes fist determinedly*

Anonymous said...

Have you shown your manuscript to any lesbian fans of fantasy? They might be able to help you figure out where you went wrong.

Zoë Marriott said...

Well, it seems a bit rude to go up to a lesbian fantasy fan and say 'Hey, you! Educate me!' It's up to me to do my own research. Plus, I don't think the problem is that there are 'mistakes' in the way I've written the relationship. The problem is that I took two characters who originally were dear friends, and tried to create romantic love and passion between them, and they didn't fit.

Megha said...

Awhhh, it's okay Zoe. And I bet your story will be enjoyable anyhow.

I can't wait! The library's copy of DotF will be in my hands tomorrow!

Megha said...

And TSK too, of course.

Zoë Marriott said...

I will do my best, Megha. Hope you enjoy your re-reading, too.

Lauren said...

I've been reading a book on writing this week, and one of the things it says it that writers should be prepared for their characters to take on a life of their own and not want to do what they tell them. Your real-life example of this makes a lot of sense. For me, as someone who is trying to write her first ever complete novel, it's oddly encouraging to see a 'real' author like you saying she failed at something. It makes me realise that when things aren't going so well for me, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's because I'm not good enough to be a writer. It's the willingness to fix things and persevere that I'll take from your experience, so thank you for sharing it.

I also like the fact that in your comment reply to 'Anonymous', you've said you don't think the problems were down to 'mistakes' in the way you've written the relationship. I honestly think you could just as easily have had the same experience writing a straight relationship where the characters didn't 'want' to be in love.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Lauren. That's really why I wanted to share. I have spent a lot of time worrying about getting things wrong, and I think that has held me back on at least one fairly important occasion. But now the axe has fallen, and I've made that really big mistake...and it turns out that I didn't die! Hurrah!

I also think that it would be easy to shrug my shoulders and say 'Oh well - I'm straight, so I'm no good at writing gay relationships' but that would be cowardice. I don't believe that writing a gay relationship is essentially any different than writing a straight one - love is love, regardless of orientation or gender. It's just that these characters *weren't* in love. Foolish Zolah! No cookie!

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