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Refuse to Be Done

Updated: Apr 15

That’s the name of one of the many books on my shelf full of advice on how to write a novel. It could also be my personal motto.

Around the turn of the century, I began writing a historical fantasy called The Weathermaster’s Tale. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and after a year or so I felt like I was 90% done with a 40,000-word novella. Another couple of years, and I was 90% done with a 70,000-word novel. The word count went up and up and up, but how much of it was done was pretty much stuck at 90% while the main character kept wandering off to do things that interested him but not the rest of us. There was one big battle scene where I was stuck for at least a year. When I finally “finished,” it was just shy of 100,000 words. The pacing was uneven, the characters’ motivations confused and confusing, and my Chinese villain was a stereotyped wannabe Fu Manchu that makes me wince when I look back now.

I sent it to an editor (Deborah Turner Harris at who flagged several major problems with my narrative style, and in another six years, give or take, I had completely rewritten it and renamed it The Weathermasters’ War. It was better. The action flowed and my characters stayed focused on what mattered to the reader. I bucked down over the summer of 2017 to get it finished, done, complete, in time to pitch it to agents at my first big writers’ conference. Eight of them requested the manuscript, Only three of them read enough of it to send my rejection letters, but these rejections were the kind that are like gold, full of very specific feedback about what was working and what wasn’t.

They all said my writing was terrific, line-by-line, but there were some deep flaws in the underlying story. Looking back at my manuscript, I could see they were right.

But I felt the problems were subterranean, buried too far down in the bedrock of the story  to be fixed.

I shelved it rather than try to self-publish, not wanting my debut novel to be less than stellar. I took a year-long writing class during which I wrote a second novel, a space opera called Symbiont, which wasn’t bad when it was done, but apparently not quite good enough. Querying something like a hundred agents got me three requests to see the full manuscript, but no actual takers.

Then it came to me, how I could fix the problems with The Weathermasters’ War. I cracked open the whole premise, reworked the timeline, and reduced the eponymous weathermaster to a supporting role. I gave the relationship between the two protagonists room to breathe. I also replaced my Fu Manchu villain with a young English sociopath, did some deep research into Daoism and Chinese literature, and hired a sensitivity reader.

It was a palimpsest now, a parchment rubbed out and written on again and again until the original text barely shows. The title is still eponymous, but now it’s called Waterlily, a nickname given to the female protagonist in her youth. My peer critique group says it’s turned into “romantasy,” a new genre category that happens to be exploding with popularity this year. The teacher in another writing class agrees.

I’m happy with it. I wouldn’t be ashamed to see it published. I started querying agents with it a couple of months ago.

So that means I’m done, right?


…except that last week I realized it really needed a denouement to anchor the emotional resolution at the end…

…and that meant tweaking a few earlier scenes to make a smoother lead-in to that resolution…

…and now I’m thinking of a couple more even earlier scenes…

…and that brings me back to my personal motto, the name of that how-to book on my shelf:

Refuse to Be Done.

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1 Comment

Apr 03

Peter, This captures the whole paradox of writing: "the main character kept wandering off to do things that interested him but not the rest of us."


The part of us that writes keeps coming up with new ideas...about new ideas...about new ideas....


I haven't written fiction since the turn of the century, and I never went the next step of showing it to anyone. Kept saying, 'I'll write when I retire." Hmm....


Good for you that you stay at the task for so many retakes. I'm now doing this sort of thing with my non-fiction.


Yay for you. Mike Shell

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