On writing (Spoilers for Hidden City/City of Night)

Posted in Elantra, Essalieyan, writing.

I’ve said before — and will say again, right now — that writing processes are very indi­vidual. I’m always suspi­cious of proscrip­tive writing advice. There are so many different ways to finish a novel, there is no right way. There is just the way that works for an indi­vidual author. Consider this my ritual disclaimer. I am talking about my own process and my own inter­ac­tion with writing. The person next to me on the book­shelf might well goggle at how I do things, because it might be so foreign to them.

Estara said some­thing in the comments that I can’t find, or I would quote it (I might be looking at the wrong site), and I’ve been thinking about it and mulling it over since then.

It was — badly para­phrased on my part, I’m really sorry — about a common story thread running through my books, in partic­ular female char­ac­ters who gather/protect their fami­lies — be those fami­lies of blood or fami­lies built after the fact.

I found this slightly confusing at first, but on reflec­tion, under­stand it better. I think.

In the Cast novels, I have one view­point char­acter. Although the books aren’t written in first person, they’re a very tight third. If I am writing one view­point for an entire book or an entire series of books, I want to spend the time with a char­acter I like. Not everyone will like her. She is more impul­sive than I would be, it’s true. She is also a lot younger. But at base, even having done things she’s not in any way proud of, she’s a person who is strug­gling to make a different life for herself.

Could these books have been darker? Absolutely. I could have started them earlier; I could have started with Kaylin in the fiefs. It would have changed the tone and texture. It wouldn’t be less true, because it would still be her life — but I would be writing about someone’s collapse. I didn’t because in part, it’s not where she came from that matters to me, but what she wants now. Does the past still shadow her present? Yes. Both her own actions in the past, and the things she suffered. But she is not only the sum of her suffering.

The entire Halls of Law are seen through the lens of Kaylin. She sees in them what she wants to see: an extended family. The obnox­ious uncle you invite to your wedding even though he’s going to get drunk and sere­nade you in the middle of dinner. The aunt who tells you you should have lost weight before you got married. She accepts what she sees as inevitable. If the books were written from Teela’s point of view, the office would look very different. The people in the office are who they are — but Kaylin’s view­point priv­i­leges certain aspects. She wants a home, and a place to belong.

The same is true of Jewel. Many, many readers found Hidden City very hard going for a variety of reasons. I didn’t, as a writer. The book doesn’t start in a happy place, and the lives of Jewel’s den are not — by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion — good. But what Jewel wanted was, to me. She didn’t have much; she didn’t feel she had much to offer (she often doesn’t), but what she wanted made sense — again, to me. Her life was not easy. None of the lives of her den were easy, either. But she was trying, given the circum­stances, to build some­thing posi­tive out of a whole bunch of nega­tive.

But in the West novels, I am not limited to a single view­point. I have several. I don’t need to spend all of my writing time in any one novel inside only one person’s head. It increases the range of view­points, for me. If I don’t have to remain with one person for the entire novel, I have a freedom to examine many other view­points. Duster is one of them.

Duster is not Jewel. But Duster, and her resent­ment, her anger, the things she wants that she’s desper­ately afraid of both needing and losing, were part of that. They had two distinct ways of looking at the universe, and Duster wouldn’t have stayed if some part of her didn’t want what Jewel could offer. She was afraid to trust it. But some­times, you have to take that risk.

The end of Hidden City was not about Jewel, for me. It wasn’t about Jewel, but I spent six weeks not writing a word trying to come up with any other ending. The flat truth is: I assumed that they had all suffered phys­ical and emotional abuse to one degree or another. They were chil­dren, they didn’t have homes, and they didn’t have fami­lies to look out for them. In two cases, the fami­lies they did have were looking out for them­selves in partic­u­larly damaging ways. People who have — in real life — suffered abuse and trauma assumed it existed in the past because of the den’s circum­stances; people who haven’t missed some of the cues.

But putting things explic­itly on the page gives them a different weight. I didn’t — and don’t — want these char­ac­ters to exist only as the sum of their suffering. They accept the past, some­times without grace, and they look toward the future in the hope that the future will be different.

The ending of Hidden City was about Duster and Rath. The ending was the only thing that made sense of them, to me: Duster was willing to stay, to try her hardest to believe because of the ending. It was the only thing that tipped the balance for her. And Rath was willing to kill and, out of char­acter for Rath to that point, die because of it.

I do not like to torture my char­ac­ters. I don’t enjoy it because I’m in that frame of mind with them while I write. But some­times the books take a turn that I didn’t neces­sarily plan, and I am left with what’s on the page. So I write.

It took me six hours to write four hundred words of City of Night because it was the scene in which Lefty goes missing. I did not want to write it. I didn’t have a choice. I am willing — for story reasons — to write things that almost kill me. I wrote Hunter’s Death, after all. I wrote the first third of The Broken Crown.

But all violence has a strong emotional weight, for me. A lot of readers have told me my West novels are very grim — but I think, when I point at violence & death on the page, I’m one of the least grim fantasy writers I know.

I want my char­ac­ters to have hope. Even when things are dark. Maybe espe­cially then. I want them to struggle against their own desires and the changing shape of their worlds because of that hope. I suppose, for me, part of hope is that: the people you love. The people who make the struggle so impor­tant.

I’m of two minds about this: loving people makes you vulner­able. It makes you vulner­able to loss, and the pain of loss — and that pain can be profound. I under­stand the desire to avoid it. But … I think it’s human nature to want those connec­tions, and if you protect your­self by avoiding hope — as Duster did for so long — you court despair in its place.

And I guess this is a long winded (very) way of saying: I don’t want to write from a place of constant despair. I under­stand that there are things that will happen that will give me ulcers to write — but I desper­ately want my char­ac­ters to continue to move, even if hope is painful.

17 Responses to On writing (Spoilers for Hidden City/City of Night)

  1. Paul Howard says:

    There’s one char­acter type that I hate reading about. This is a char­acter trapped in despair/depression. So far, your char­ac­ters have escaped that trap. [Smile]

  2. Hilda says:

    I believe, after reading so many of your books, that you balance your char­ac­ters real well. It’s drama and can’t all be happy feel­ings and life if they are to seem human to us. I said before, you left the door open, I think, that maybe there will be in the future room for Lefty. I don’t know, it’s, I think, the struggle of good against bad, and he was the less of the lesser, but there was a lot of good in his small body.

    Rath is next, I think one of your very best char­ac­ters. I’m still waiting for the time, you promised, that Rath will speak with Jewel again. She needs that to let him go into his future life. I don’t think his story is over. Yes, your hero­ines have lots in common even if their world are so different. You know how to give them life. They are happy, suffer, grow up, love, hate, and are always human. Take Diora: she suffered a lot and even­tu­ally, became not exactly happy, but was ready to find happi­ness and work for it.
    I found it inter­esting that both, Kaylin and Jewel, are marked in ways that permit, the special man in each life to have some commu­ni­ca­tion with them and, possibly, some control. But, it’s a great tool for times with no cellu­lars.

    I think all your femal char­ac­ters are very real­istic very life­like. I don’t think I can say the same about the men.

  3. Ralph Walker says:

    I think I under­stand what Estara was saying about your char­acter thread. Kaylin, just as Jewel did, gath­ered a makeshift family around her. She gath­ered Marcus, his wives and kits; Night­shade; the chil­dren in the orphanage; just to name a few. Kaylin, I believe, would die to protect them from harm. That is the same that Jewel would do for her den-kin.
    Both Kaylin and Jewel are on jour­neys that are teaching them that caring about people does not have to be “personal”. They do not need to have made the aquain­tance of someone to include them in her “family”. They are learning to care about a society (the visi­tors in Kaylin’s situ­a­tion and House Terafin and Aver­alaan in Jewel’s). People they have never met, and possibly would not like if they did, are now becoming included into their vision of family. They are also included in their desire to protect and defend.
    I did not find Hidden City hard to read. I found it very emotion­ally grip­ping ( I needed more than a few hankies when Jewel found Teller and his mother :).
    West novels, IMO, are not grim. They have grav­itas. Scenes and speeches, some­times even a single word, spoken by a char­acter has meaning. If not in the moment, then in later actions or scenes. Every­thing in a West novel has substance. There is very little fluff. That is why we can read and re-read a West novel and pick up new things that we never saw before. It is part of the joy of reading your works.
    In closing, I have noticed your theme of Love equalling Loss and/or the pain of Loss or it’s threat. To me, that is a true fact of life. And to have not expe­ri­enced it, is to not have lived.

  4. Addy Rae says:

    You books came to me when I was very sick, possibly dying, and strug­gling every day. The themes you write of hope, of contin­uing to believe, of refusing to give up, of family and working together all helped me keep trying.

    When I hated being stuck in a body that was failing me, I wished I was Kaylin. I wished I could be honest and strong and compas­sionate like her, and I tried my best to be. She prodded me when I wanted to give up because she wouldn’t. She reminded me not to lash out at the people around me who were only trying to help.

    Your books gave me hope and an escape. Your char­ac­ters are wonderful and flawed and dear to me.

    Thank you.

  5. Irene Hyland says:

    of help I had not even beeI was delayed in my reading of June 10 missive. My response comes after a weekend that went from poten­tial disaster to the real­iza­tion that I could maybe cope with my life even if some of the people who help me and were kind enough to remember me with apparent plea­sure only see me once or twice a year.
    When I read your comments about Kaylin and Jewel I travel the journey with them. On reading the book a second time I become aware of more aspects and some things fall into place more firmly.
    These two femi­nine heroes are very rele­vant to my view of life.We all live very different lives and the present gener­a­tion tweets and texts, very often without even expecting a response. just making a comment they felt at that time.
    Your two char­ac­ters seem to have a code they live by and to do the best for the group and the indi­vidual within the greater context of their stage and they grow with the major events that occur.
    I should think that most peoples live through events not dissim­ilar in inten­sity even though they do not realize this until those events are at a distance.
    Yesterday I received a gift from someone I meet once a year because of help I had not even been aware of giving. I was greeted by three other people of varying knowldge and skills who clar­i­fied some issues for me and then all of us began to discuss not global warming per se but all the other disas­ters that had befallen Earth and left evidence of those events..I learnt several facts I had not known
    before.
    It was almost restful to drive through another rain­storm home, which also describes the feeling I have at end of a Cast book even if the complete story is still
    and jncon­clu­sive.

  6. Michelle says:

    The best novels are ones where you connect emotion­ally to char­ac­ters. They make you laugh and cry. I know a book is good when, no matter how many times I re-read it (and trust me, I re-read my favorite books a lot), I cry at the same scenes — it means that I care about what’s going on, and hurt for them EVEN when I know they make it through this. Michelle, your novels all have that. Because your char­ac­ters convey the strength of their bonds to each other and the vulner­a­bil­i­ties that brings, their hopes and fears for one another, we, as readers, feel their joy and pain (as well as their amuse­ment, frus­tra­tion, annoy­ance, anger, etc.). But I would say you are focused more on familial bonds, and less so on those within a personal rela­tion­ship of a couple. You always give me that sense of hope that things will improve, the silver lining inside a some­times very dark cloud. I would say that your novels are not grim but that they are more like real life in that there is no neatly tied up happy ending, no final reso­lu­tion. There’s always more to come, which leaves me longing for the next install­ment, because I just have to know what’s going to happen next. I am a romantic, though, and would love to see some of your char­ac­ters find some happi­ness and joy in a romantic rela­tion­ship, even if it’s only briefly. I keep waiting, but it’s almost painful to wait five novels for char­ac­ters to share a single kiss — more often than not there’s only one or two brief scenes per novel where the char­ac­ters’ aware­ness and sensi­tivity towards each other in a budding rela­tion­ship is mentioned. Happi­ness in a rela­tion­ship is some­thing you only seem to allude to, and gener­ally during a moment where the char­acter is dealing with the diffi­cul­ties in a rela­tion­ship may bring (Duarte and Alexis). The closest we’ve gotten is at the end of the SunSword where you give us the hope that Valedan and Diora will be able to find love with each other, and Jewel and Avan­dar’s embrace on the bridge in the Riven Shield.

  7. Kirsten says:

    I wish I had time to write all I feel, but a few sentences will have to suffice.

    Some books concen­trate on situ­a­tions or special abil­i­ties. Your books are about the feel­ings and inter­ac­tions of people. I continue to be a little bewil­dered by the intense need of some of your readers to have romantic rela­tion­ships because your books are not about romance really, and if your books were to adopt a real romantic tone they would cease to be the books we’ve all known and loved. This is an awkward way of saying I want to coun­ter­bal­ance all the posts longing for romance with another one which says I think we’re better off as we are.

    I would be disap­pointed in a romantic rela­tion­ship between Jewel and Avandar, for example, because that is not what their rela­tion­ship has been about thus far — to me. To me the happy ending with Avandar is that he gets the death he craves, but in a way which gives meaning to the commu­nity of love he has been a part of. If I were to root for anyone, I’d root for Devon, but to be honest, I’m not really rooting for anyone. I think you wrote a post once that said it didn’t feel right to you to descend into high romance in the middle of a struggle for exis­tence (poorly para­phrased). That’s a bit how I feel. It would be selfish to let the romance steal the atten­tion away from the poten­tial end of the world — or the personal journey Jewel is having to make.

    As for the Cast novels: I think I’ll be inflam­ma­tory and say I think you’d disap­point half your readers if you had Kaylin choose defin­i­tively for Severn or Night­shade. It’s the tension between the two which grips us from book to book to book.

    Strangely, I didnj’t set out to write about the pros or cons of romance in your novels. I don’t really know where that outburst came from, but I can’t disown it either. What I wanted to say, though, is that I agree with Ralph that your books have grav­itas, substance and weight. The emotion is perva­sive, but not cloying and there are always more nuances to explore. I couldn’t count how many times I’ve read and reread your book. They are perma­nently around for a few minutes of scat­tered reading plea­sure each day (which occa­sion­ally turns into unex­pected hours of reading plea­sure, much to the dismay of my more schedule-oriented husband). The imagery is strong and memo­rable. It reminds me of poetry, because it is so deeply packed with mean­ings both direct and indi­rect.

    So I love your books and your story and your char­ac­ters. I hope that none of the comments of your readers  — including mine — influ­ence your writing. I want it to stay true to the vision which is within you. You have an inner beauty that shows through to your char­ac­ters. And that, in the end, may be the connec­tion between them.

  8. shauntel says:

    I don’t think that the cast series is a dark series at all. Its just life with laughter and sadness and with alot of hope. I think this is great!

    The Hidden city books are really good, but it does go with some evil wins and good wins. It’s a lot of give and take. We are talking about a war. The only thing i really dislike is a book ending with total hope­less­ness. Thats just DEPRESSING, where’s the enjoy­ment there? I will stop reading those books imme­di­atly. Authors have to balance the books. You’re doing great. I don’t know if this has been asked, maby it’s a spoiler did Duster become reborne yet?

    I think that your reading actu­ally comes with moods, some­time you want some­thing light, and other times some­thing with a depth and some dark­ness.. For me I read so many different series that some days I re-read the ones that make me laugh or crie.

    I wonder if you have read the Anne Bish­op’s jewel series? It has dark parts, but it is one of my all time best book series EVER !! Now remember I love your’s too, I just started reading her’s first, before i found your books.

    Well to sum up: I think you are doing GREAT. I will continue to wait impa­tiently for the next book. YEAH:)))

  9. Chelsey Holmes says:

    HEY! I can’t wait for cast in peril and war! I’m eagerly waiting for some sample chap­ters :). anyways my prom just went by this weekend, and my mom took loads of pictures. So here they are just like I promised, http://​www​.face​book​.com/​m​e​d​i​a​/​s​e​t​/​?​s​e​t​=​a​.​4129327401287​.​2171212​.​1526533135&​t​y​p​e=1 . You have my mom as a friend on face­book so you should be able to see them. Anyways if you have any problem let me know and I will just e‑mail them to you! :) Can’t wait to come back up to Toronto and buy more books :) .

  10. michelle says:

    I loved the pictures :). I failed to realize that if there was a prom, there was a prom date, and some of those pictures were adorable. Umm, I’m allowed to say this because you are my son’s age >.>.

    Thank you :)

  11. Chelsey Holmes says:

    Well I’m glad you like them :). My boyfriends mom took them so all the credit goes to her :P.

  12. Chris says:

    I would agree that both Jewel and Kaylin have gathered/are gath­ering a family around them that they are very protec­tive of. By no means do I think that that’s a bad thing. This seems to me a real­istic growth stem­ming from their origins.

    There are absolutely times where the House War focus strays from Jewel to follow someone else, such as Rath, Duster, Angel, Teller, Finch, Sigurne, Haval, Adam or Jarven. But I must confess that imho the focus is so often on Jewel’s pov, and her role at the center of the impor­tant events, that it still does feel to me like her story even when she’s not present or a partic­ular bit is not directly about her. You could write an entire book about one of the others (such as “Tales from The House War: Jester’s Story”), and not have Jewel make any appear­ance at all, and I would think there’d be a fair chance that it would *still* feel to me like it’s Jewel’s story. She is just so so central, that I can’t shake that feeling. I’d like to, my initial hope had been that the House War would have little in the way of the magical/supernatural to it, and that Jewel would take a step back and allow the family that she’s built around her to shine, some­what in the way that Haval seems to be doing, but obvi­ously that’s not how the plot has progressed. And I’m not complaining about that, just trying to explain some of why it feels to be so much about Jewel. She seems the indis­pens­able center around which everyone else orbits. Again, imho.

  13. Aww, I didn’t see this at the time at all.

    I think I said it to you on GoodReads.

    I added the thought — rephrased — to my Silence review.

    After reading Silence, I just didn’t want to sepa­rate from MSW’s voice and I realised that she is a sure­fire comfort read for me because the one story that is always at least one focus of all her books and a lot of the time the main focus (Haven’t read all of The Sundered and I’m not sure if it works for the Hunter’s Oath duology, apart from Evayne a’Nolan maybe) is a woman who has an incred­ible power (which she either desires — The Terafin — or for some reason has thrust upon her — Emma — or inherits — Diora, Jewel -) and uses it to keep her family safe, get revenge for her family, make a new family and keep that safe.

    … so I ended up rereading Cast in Ruins ^^. ”

  14. SPOILEEEEEEEEEEERS

    Yes, that’s more what I was going after — but I think the Terafin or Emma in their own way build and protect family (consid­ering the hard-hitting two losses that Emma has before the book even opens, and the way her chosen gather round her to try and bring her back to a life that is more than just surviving). They just all have their own prior­i­ties in how they do it.

    And the inner­most impetus of Diora for most of the SunSword books is revenge for the family she just had found and had to see be killed before her eyes. And even after­ward there’s always her aunt (who cared for Diora first because of her mother, who was her most beloved person and then came to care for the emotion­ally devas­tated song­bird as the daughter she never had).

    The trope shows up in all kinds of vari­a­tions. I think it’s a great feature of Michelle’s books ^^.

  15. Hilda says:

    If your stories were grim I would not be able to read and reread them. I can’t stand tragic stories. There’s enough of them at the TV news and our daily life. I’m prob­ably the only person that has not seen Titanic in color, and will never see it. The Black and White was enough for me. The reason Gone With The Wind is so good, it’s because there’s always hope: tomorrow is another day. When there’s a really emotion­ally sad/tragic situ­a­tion, you manage to write it in a way that takes away the horror of feeling, the revul­sion we may feel for the action itself. Maybe that’s why, at least for me, there’s an open door. I feel that there will be one more, at least appear­ance for Ararath and Lefty. Another example is the abuse that both Kaylin and Jewel suffered when they were very young; they have that in common too. I always wonder whether they were raped. The scenes in each book are there; we know it’s bad, but can’t tell for sure. You could have written them in a truly distressing way and make it clear, but it’s not your style. You make sure we enjoy your books regar­dles of how dramatic, real­istic they are, even in the fantasy world.

  16. Terry says:

    May have missed it some­where, but will battle also include anymore of the sun sword story or am I getting ahead of the book before it gets here. Can’t wait for it.

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