Boring and probably pretentious Process Stuff, FB&T edition
So here’s the thing: There are all these little unseen (I think, anyway – or at least seen only by me, as far as I know) bits of Fair, Bright, and Terrible that I am afraid I’m going to forget I put there, unless I write them down. I wrote my first book 15 years ago and while I have some very vivid memories of the process, I also know that my brain has lost a lot of the details. Which, frankly, bums me out. The second book was much more of a long slog broken up over many years, and so the memory of most of the choices I made is just…mush. It’s all very muddled, and I can only be glad that book ever came out as a coherent whole.
But Fair, Bright, and Terrible has a bunch of hidden features that are mostly Just For Me and I’ve recently realized that any moment, my brain will completely forget the inside meanings of these little things. I just imagine that in 10 years, I’ll re-read it and be like “Wait, did I mean to do that?” I’m writing this down so I have an answer to that, when my old-lady brain asks it. Also, I wish I had this for my other books, a partial record of why I made the storytelling choices I made, so I might as well put it down while it’s fresh and then I never have to regret I didn’t.
This is very insider-writer-y, but just in case anyone else noticed these things and wondered “Did she mean to do that?” then they can look here and see.*
1. There are certain inside joke-type references I put in there. Well some are inside jokes, many are just me wanting to include particles of my favorite things, so I could have them winking at me from the page. So most places that a phrase or a bit of imagery sounds familiar, it was intentional. (God, I HOPE there’s not a bunch of unintentional places that happens. I'm sure there are some, but here's hoping they are outnumbered by the intentional ones.) These are the references that come to mind, and they are either actual phrases or just specific imagery:
Chapter 11: a Peter Gabriel song
Chapter 3: A Prayer for Owen Meany and Les Miserables
Chapter 4: a Yeats poem
Chapter 9: a T.S. Eliot poem, and Jane Austen's Persuasion
Chapter 2: Cyrano de Bergerac and a Mark Knopfler song
Also, I chose the Pater Noster as the prayer for that particular moment in Chapter 3 because it was a double entendre back in the day. Nothing like a joke for the medievalists in the crowd, and at one of the least joke-y moments in the whole story.
I’ll add more if/when any others occur to me. These are just off the top of my head.
2. The quote from the Song of Solomon where the title came from - “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array” – set the tone for the language I often chose.
First, if you’ve ever said a rosary then you know those words should be said with a certain rhythm. Chanted, really, like a song. In general I’m always writing with my ear, but I made a point to really do so in this book. Anywhere in the finished product where there are sentences that just don’t work (for me), it’s inevitably because I couldn’t match the necessary words to a music in my head, and they make the writing lose the rhythm for a bit. I pretty much always knew when the rhythm was lost, and I fixed it where I could (except for those places where I intentionally broke the rhythm, for Reasons) but there are leftover spots where I never could get the rhythm right no matter how hard I tried. They stick out like a sore thumb. But I left them there anyway, knowing they didn't fit the tune, because conveying meaning is always more important in storytelling than some aesthetic ideal.
Second, I made a point to choose as much imagery as possible based on the quote. There are, purposely, constant references to the moon and the stars, the sun and the sky, the light or lack of light. Her face becomes like the sunrise for that reason, she stares at the cold stars and they look into the sky together and he’s transfixed by the moonlight on her face – all chosen with intent of having a continuity in imagery. Also plenty of ice/cold (moon) and fire (sun), but not so much with the battle-array imagery because I worked on implying it through Eluned’s worldview and actions instead – although she did very intentionally say that she’s like iron made steel and not like water made ice. She's not a soldier armed for battle - she is the armor, she is the blade.
3. Chapter 7 is titled “The Mirror” because of the obvious reason – that Isabella is almost like a mirror image of Eluned in so many ways – but also because the book is structured around that center point. There are 13 chapters and Ch. 7 stands in the middle of them, with six chapters on either side. (Unsurprisingly for me, I don’t count the epilogue.) The meaning of the chapter titles/content are meant to reflect one another, as you move out from that center point where the mirror stands.
So for instance, on either side of The Mirror are Ch. 6: The Longing, and Ch. 8: The Ashes. This is what each of them are left with, according to them, for all the years after their parting – he’s left with his longing, she’s left with ashes. (Also within those chapters, the contents/actions mirror and complement each other.) The symmetry and mirroring moves out from there, chapters 5 & 9, chapters 4 & 10, etc. The most obvious pairing is Ch. 3: The Choice, reflecting with Ch. 11: The Choosing. Lining those two up was so important to me that I fretted the pacing wouldn’t allow it and got almost superstitious about messing up the structural pattern. Fortunately it worked out, so I could have the past fact of The Choice reflected equidistantly by the present and active The Choosing. See the ridiculous games I can play with myself?
There’s other mirror-like elements within the story. Things that are reflected back on each other to show the similarity, or sometimes to show the same thing from the opposite side. Like how Eluned sees her revenge plan is so like Ranulf’s, for instance. How the story begins with an ending (all those lost dreams and lives) and ends with a beginning (saving & sparing lives, looking to the future .) How Gwenllian chose her lover over Eluned, years after Eluned chose Gwenllian over her lover. But those are just natural and unplanned, so I can’t really count them as intentional. Seeing them there is just what spurred me to create a structure that echoed the mirror business. The bit that took actual hard work was: taking a liked character trait, perceived as positive in the beginning, and revealing it to be a fatal flaw in the end (Robert’s blind romanticism/mildly delusional outlook) – and taking a hated character trait, perceived as an unforgivable flaw in the beginning, and revealing it as something enviable and admirable or at the very least making the reader cheer it on in the end (Eluned’s cold calculation and bloodthirstiness). That was a whole intertwining with the overall theme of perception/perspective, how every story is a reflection of the person who's looking at it and when and from what angle, how we all can look into the same mirror and see totally different things, etc etc blah blah blah.
Man, it all sounds horribly pretentious now that I’m saying it (writing it) out loud. But I really did get ambitious about challenging myself with this book, especially when it came to structure. Because apparently I didn’t think the characters and history was challenging enough, I guess? Nah, that’s not true, I was fully aware of how much work I was making for myself (and in case my old brain forgets this too: yes I did make a rule that chapters had to be in alternating POVs and adhere to a specific word count range, not like I'm likely to forget THAT headache) but I just couldn’t resist. It’s gotta be some form of intellectual self-punishment, I think.
That's all I can think of. I guess I should write down what the rest of the process was like, logistics-wise. My future old-lady brain will appreciate that too.
* However, please note that there’s one place where I wrote “less” when it should’ve been “fewer” and that was unintentional and I can’t even think about it, it upsets me so much. I didn’t notice it until the audiobook was finalized, so it’s like set in stone now. There are some poor word choices that I’d change if I could, for the record, but the less-instead-of-fewer thing is the one that really haunts me. Not intended. This other stuff was, though.