GRAVE spoilers here

Posted in DAW, Queen of the Dead.

First: a reminder. I’m taking part in the pixel project fundraiser. This means I will be doing a google hangout on the 17th of March, at 8:30 EST.

There will be an indiegogo fundraiser as well, but I’ll post a link to that when it goes live.

Second: HOUSE WAR in audio book is available at until the 27th, as part of their First in a Series sale.


Kick asked: Grave was worth waiting for.
I’m curious, though, why this particular book was so difficult for you?

And I started to answer, and then realized I couldn’t really answer without, oh, spoilers.



The difficulty goes back to Touch. When I finished Silence, a book which wrote itself, I had a trilogy in mind. I am famously terrible at estimating the number of books it will take me to finish a story. Infamously terrible.

But…I had a three book structure. I tend to write toward an ending, always, and I knew where books two and three would end.

(I know where the Essalieyan books will end. I knew where Sun Sword would end, and it was going to be two books: The Broken Crown and Sun Sword. The ending of the first book, the ending moment I was writing toward, was the end of Shining Court. My first four novels were a short story. No, seriously: I knew exactly where I wanted the story to end. But I also knew that the ending would have no emotional weight or power if I didn’t lay the emotional structural foundations. I just had no idea that they would take as long as they did.)

Touch, however, did not end where I thought it would end. I started it. Threw out 50k words. Started it again from a different viewpoint. Threw out about 37k words. It’s not that the words were objectively bad, but rather, that I understood from tone that the book would never actually arrive at the ending I had envisioned.

And it wasn’t until the final attempt, when Emma phoned her mother to tell her that she’d mistaken the library study date and would be home for dinner, that I realized that there was nothing I could do that would take the book toward the ending I’d envisioned, because there was nothing I could do that would make the choices that would lead to it believable. Emma would never, ever make the decisions that would be required.

(I’ve talked about this before: I can intellectually plot anything and make it work on paper. It works as a structural story. But…when I write the actual book, there’s an entire emotional, instinctive layer that comes into play. The book isn’t a book until I actually write it, and when I’m finished, it’s frequently not what I initially thought it would be.

And when I finished Touch, and was discussing it with my alpha reader, I finally told him where I’d been aiming. There was a long silence, and then he finally said, “You honestly thought that the characters you’ve already written a novel about could ever make those choices???” (seriously, there were more invisible question marks and disbelief). Sometimes the things that seem obvious to other readers are the least obvious to me, whereas things that are obvious to me come as a surprise =/).

So: I finished Touch. And once I realized that these characters could not make those choices, the book stopped fighting me. Or I stopped fighting the book.

Ummm, this is getting long, sorry =/.

What this meant for Grave, however, was that Emma was not in the right place. She didn’t yet have experience with the right things. Things that would have been introduced in Touch–the City of the Dead, in person–weren’t introduced there.

Emma was supposed to be in that city. And demonstrably she wasn’t.

I therefore had to get Emma to the City of the Dead. The first attempt was about 55k words. Helmi appeared much earlier, and much more time was spent at Amy’s safe house. There are whole sections of that that I really liked, but I realized, when I finally reached a certain event, that most of those words were actually not necessary, because I realized the how of it.

So I started again, and the first five chapters of the actual published novel were similar to the next attempt, which was 98k words. This time, more of the book was set in the City of the Dead, but… the voice was off, to me. It just didn’t work.

And then I wandered around my house for a couple of months, pathetically beating my head against the available walls and whining a lot and feeling like an abject, total failure. I had given up on deadlines for this book, because it was late. Late produces extra stress, because the secret fear is the book won’t be good enough to justify the long wait. Seriously, the I waited this long for this??? fear is a pretty visceral one. I’m a reader, too; I know how I would react if I waited years for a book that…didn’t work for me. Sadly, this is not unusual.

Something was missing. The weight of the ending, emotionally, was going to be unbalanced.

While whining at my editor–because if I hit a roadblock that I cannot move around, I will phone my editor–I realized that the thing that was missing was Reyna. The Queen of the Dead.

And so I started the book again. My editor hadn’t read the previous versions. I realized that my own personal response to Reyna was far, far too dismissive; I really wanted to strangle her. But…people are people. They have their reasons, and even if those reasons are not good enough to me personally, their feelings are real, their doubts are real, and their pain is real. And I needed to respect that, which… I wasn’t doing.

Reyna, for me, was difficult.

I had initially planned, on some level, to have the two faces of human response to grief and loss be within Emma, herself. I had planned that she would make the same choice as Reyna did–well, not so much with the slaughtering people–and that balance of decision would be internal. But Emma Hall couldn’t make that choice, in the end. She could want it, but couldn’t make it.

So Reyna herself was the other side of grief, the other side of loss, the other side of choices Emma didn’t make. And sometimes, those of us who write instinctively, don’t realize this on the first iteration, or the second. These books were harder because the substructure must be part of the psychological detritus of grief and the way grief breaks things, so there were choices in story that could not be made. They wouldn’t fit that.

I didn’t write nearly as long a false start this third time, but I did start with much more Reyna.

And then, having learned all these things that you think I would know after 30+ novels, I started a fourth time. I cut a bunch of stuff as I went, because I finally had a visceral sense of the emotional arc and balance; I could finally get out of my own way and just listen to the book itself.

18 Responses to GRAVE spoilers here

  1. Karen Zorn says:

    I breezed through Touch and Silence; Grave did not allow itself to be a fast read. The characters, to me, were richer and more complex, the story considerably more intricate, and the City of the Dead sharp in its construction and detail. It has now been read twice and enjoyed for Ms. Sagara’s masterful story telling.

  2. Karen Zorn says:

    Those 60K additional words enriched the story, it wouldn’t have been as good if they weren’t there. 🙂

  3. Cherie Gardner says:

    It was seriously VERY good. I left a review at Barnes and Noble for the first time in a VERY long time, it was so good.

  4. Tchula says:

    I remember being so relieved at the end of Touch that Emma didn’t resurrect Nathan! I believe Grave works because of the clear contrast between made between Emma and Reyna’s handling of grief. Reminded me a little bit of the brief conversation we had about the anime, Noein’s ending (and why your son didn’t like it). It had a similar feel to me in terms of people causing great destruction in the name of love, but not really appreciating/understanding the things that made love beautiful in the first place.

  5. hsmyers says:

    Your description of what happened versus what was planned was delightful and it fits the bits and pieces mentioned from other book wars…err…campaigns. The part I favor the most is anything that leads to my words on paper :) BTW, where do the words thrown out land?

  6. michelle says:

    @Tchula: I think you weren’t alone in that relief. In fact someone here pretty much said they gave up on Touch the first time half way through because they were certain that was where it was going.

    But the thing about pantsers is that a lot of the sense of story & structure is subconscious. It’s there, and if forced to argue for something, it comes to the surface–but it’s not put down on paper.

    So my subconscious basically goes into all out revolt when I’m trying to do something that, in the end, won’t work on the page. It’s actually one of my clearest indicators. I know when I don’t want to write something (end of Hidden City, parts of City of Night) because it’s painful, and when I don’t want to keep going because it’s wrong, if that makes sense?

    I think there would have been emotional power had Emma made the wrong choice–because she would have to really look at it to reverse course. But…that doesn’t work for Emma Hall as written, because actually, she’s learned to see things pretty clearly, in part due to Michael. She see’s what’s there, more than she sees what she wants to see.

    @hsmyers: Mostly they land somewhere on the hard disk where they won’t do anyone any harm …

  7. keldernael says:

    Dear Michelle Sagara/West, i have bought the three ebooks of this series when published, and beginning Grave, I discovered a funny thing : I really didn’t read the others.

    I returned to Silence, and even if i don’t really like teen characters in american schools in principle (on the other hand De Lint and Nina Kiriki Hoffmann have written well these), I read with pleasure the first three chapters of Silence, Now three books to read waiting your others series.

  8. Daniel Catudal says:


    I did not go trough the readers comments because I haven’t finished reading your book, which surprises me because I usually just breeze trough your books, well I always read your comments.
    This reply to mention that as a reader, I would love to read all of your false starts, you must have that thought too for other writers that you love to read as you yourself are an avid reader.
    Being emotionally involved as we get in your stories says a lot about the success of your work. Thanks again for your efforts. Have a good day.


  9. Zia says:

    I meant to respond to this earlier, but I had such a crazy, terrible work weekend when this was posted I completely forgot >.< But minus the lack of recalling to post here, just reading this did make my weekend better.

    As I said in the other thread, Grave was more than worth the wait. I was cautious about trying another series marketed more towards YA audiences when this series started because the more recent ones I’ve tried were just not at all to my tastes. But you are, hands down, my favorite author, so I decided to give the series a try. I am so glad I did. I’ve been heavily recommending this series (and all your others) to everyone who mentions needing something new to read.

    What I love the most about your writing style is the fact your characters are people. They make mistakes, no matter what side of the fence they’re on, and they have goals, fears, and flaws.

    And, I absolutely loved Michael in this series. Loved that he was included in all three books.

    I hope things have been going better for you. Thank you so very much for writing all of your books. They are such a comfort to me no matter my mood, and I love binge reading several of them on one of my days off as a way to escape everything.

    Also, for the record. Nothing you write, whether it is a post here or a book, is ever too long :) In fact, I’m always open to longer books ;)

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