Literary archaeology

I have a new novel out today, an urban fantasy called Lies and Prophecy. Writers love all of their books, of course (just like parents love their children . . . which is to say, even when we want to put them up for adoption/delete them from our hard drives), but this one is particularly special to me.

It’s special because it’s the first novel I ever finished writing. I’d started several before then, but for a variety of reasons ranging from “insufficiently solid concept” to “bad working habits,” I never actually completed them. But I got a pair of ideas around the same time (my senior year of high school) that were both just better. There was substance to them, that my earlier ideas had lacked. The one that got written second became my first published novel Doppelganger (republished later under the title Warrior), and the one that got written first was Lies and Prophecy.

But that was years ago, in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. And while enough of the book’s original plot structure remains that it’s definitely still the same story, it has changed a lot along the way.

Prepping it for publication has sparked something of a trip down memory lane, remembering the Versions That Were in Ages Past. I used to be an archaeologist, and so (naturally) I think of it in terms of stratigraphy, superposed layers of alteration, that I can strip away one by one to find the remnants beneath. And some of what I find there is startling even to me.

I’m not talking about the recent changes, like the very brief (and ultimately unnecessary) scene I cut right before sending the book to be copy-edited, or the plot strand having to do with Kim and ceremonial magic, that got added in a couple of years ago. I’m not even talking about the changes I made after I sold Doppelganger, like restructuring the second half of the book to accommodate more scenes from the secondary point of view. Strip those away, and you start finding things I barely remember: Grayson used to be white. Julian originally did [something I can't tell you about, because it's a spoiler], before figuring out [really REALLY big spoiler]. There was an entire strand of worldbuilding, now relegated to a single passing mention, of the characters having special names for magical use.

Ye gods, Liesel used to be named Lisa. I don’t think that even lasted through the first draft of the novel; I think she was Liesel, and German, before I got to the fifty thousand word mark.

I’m not the sort of writer who writes multiple, radically different drafts on my way to a finished book. Some of my friends are, and changes in my process over time mean that my recent novels have seen more in the way of major alterations than my earlier ones did, but it’s rare for me to have this deep a stratigraphy, littered with the broken pieces of ideas and characters who didn’t make it into the final version. It’s almost like the stratigraphy of my own writing career, showing the improvement of my skills and growth of my ideas, replacing inefficient bits of plot with stronger pacing, pruning off the stumps of worldbuilding dead-ends. Or maybe I should switch metaphors and call it a palimpsest: the result isn’t the novel I would write today, if this idea came to me now. You can still make out (for good and for ill) the traces of the writer I was when I was eighteen, through the lines written in more recent years. But either way, it’s fascinating for me to see.

. . . you know, I still have the original manuscript somewhere in my files, the one I printed out when I finished the Very First Draft and was ready to start revising. I’m both curious and horrified to know how it would read now.

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Shakatany

    Yay I now know what I’ve been reading excerpts from the past few weeks.

  2. 2. Shakatany

    Yay I now know what I’ve been reading excerpts from the past few weeks. Looking forward to being able to read the entire work now.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Not excerpts so much as backstory, but yup — this is the novel it’s been building toward. Enjoy!

  4. 4. Keri

    I started writing a novel in college, but only finished about 2/3rds of it because I just wasn’t happy with the characters and most of the plot.

    Fast forward 8 years.

    Unemployed, stuck in the house, and with nothing better to do, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I also decided to resurrect my old novel (hard to kill a vampire novel!), but I started it from scratch and, boom, it turned out great (in fact, I just published it).

    A little while back, though, I started reading through the original version. Oh. My. God. It was horrible! Worse than I remembered!

    But you can clearly see where the plot and the characters evolved; they’re all there in the original version, in an embryonic state.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Keri — sorry for the delay in fishing this out of the moderation queue.

    I’m definitely leery of picking up that original manuscript; I know my prose alone has improved by leaps and bounds since the early days. But at the same time, it’s like driving past a car accident. I have this morbid desire to look. :-)

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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