I’ve been asked to provide some insight into my creative process. This made me feel like a total ~*hipsté-artisté*~ – I never really sit down and open my laptop thinking “ooh, it is time indeed to engage in my creative process” – but it coincided with a curious event.
The book I am now working on, Children, will tell the stories of Magni, the son of Thor, and Maya, raised by Freya – and the stories of Thor donning a wedding dress to recover his stolen hammer; of a giant blacksmith building a wall around Ásgard, the world of the Gods; of Loki seducing the blacksmith’s horse, then giving birth to the eight-legged stallion Sleipnir; Thor’s duel with the giant Hrungnir and his subsequent dealings with the wise Gróa. The follow-up, Land, will tell about the first journey from the Nine Worlds into the tenth, a journey the goal of which will be the discovery of the new Ásgard.
At this point Children is slowly heading where I want it to be and Land is a sketch of a first draft with plot outline. Land will take much less time, since it will be a sequel, but by now I have rewritten Children more than ten times. I don’t even feel ready to send it to my editor. A part of my creative process is that I’m an obsessive perfectionist.
The great unknown
My beta readers reported that they were confused by the names of the Norse Gods and the setting(s) – the Norse Nine Worlds. I was surprised, because I believed that everyone must have seen the Thor movies. Not that I’d recommend them as a primer on heathen faith. This added an extra part needing to be written: an index and possibly a companion e-book. It was also another conformation that the beta readers are indispensable. Sometimes when I rewrite something ten times I forget that I took things out and it isn’t until a fresh pair of eyes lands on the text that I find out what I’ve done.
Most “normal” authors write a few drafts, revise and edit, then they’re done. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, but it doesn’t work for me anyway. I end up rewriting everything, sometimes using a few sentences from the previous version. Storytellers was rewritten 21 times before publication. As for Children, I lost count around rewrite #11. I see this as a good sign, if time-consuming. In the beginning of the year I started, then stopped working on another book with the same setting and characters because I was not interested enough to continue working on it. Children kept my own attention for eight months now. Which is not to say that I don’t sometimes want to bite off my head and eat it…
The book has a multi-part structure, with chapters written alternately from Magni’s and Maya’s point of view. Chapter 4 is what I call “the outlaw section” and initially didn’t exist, as I felt that this part could be briefly glossed over. All but one beta readers were unhappy with it and demanded more. So I began to expand the outlaw section with each rewrite, as I continued trying to both flesh it out and shorten it. The book ballooned from 110 thousand to 125 thousand to 136 thousand words. At that point I decided that no matter what, I would edit down the outlaw section. I put a lot of effort into it and ended up with 148 thousand words.
Clearly something wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out what and why.
It transpires that writer’s block doesn’t necessarily mean not writing anything at all. It can also be writing in circles, trying and failing until you’re sick of the text. My mistake was following a writing rule, “show, don’t tell”, too far. I was showing too much and not telling enough. Each of the outlaws had their own goals, agenda, secrets, all of which needed to be shown not told. Only one, Ludo, was a bit of a stick figure that appeared when I needed an extra. It never occurred to me that the reason why the section was too long was that I didn’t give Ludo enough space.
A few days ago I saw a photograph of Joel Kinneman from TV series The Killing and it felt as if a particularly ecstatic combination of my neural buttons was pressed.
When this picture popped up on my screen all of a sudden I didn’t just see Ludo, I could hear him, see him moving, nearly smell him. The most important thing about him was that he wasn’t an extra you could put aside. I would describe Ludo as budget Conor McGregor on speed. Ludo describes himself as “a fucking delight”. (Yes, I am writing a book called Children that features a significant number of f-bombs and yesterday I told a friend that I was “still fiddling with Children”. I need to think about my branding.)
Giving Ludo a personality and lines allowed me to show Magni’s reactions to Ludo’s behaviour, rather than painstakingly describe each gesture and decision. One particular event, previously stretching to three pages, became two sentences. During the event the funny, if exhausting prankster turns out to have a cruel, cold side. Two pages of text were replaced with “Ludo turned to me and his face was not really his, as if he had a fever or as if Odin The Slayer entered him, and there was nothing funny about this Ludo at all”.
Magni (Kristofer Hivju). Magni is 14 years old.
As an aside, I later watched a short YouTube compilation of Kinnaman’s scenes from The Killing and I was surprised to discover how completely unlike Ludo his character was. Had I seen the YouTube clip instead of the photo, I would still have been looking for the solution.
A traditional agent-editor-publisher system is largely built on the book’s marketability. This requires, among other things, a clearly defined genre and target audience. I only realised that Children could be grimdark when I thought “this is becoming really quite grim and dark”. (Why, yes, I’m very bright like that.) It definitely sounds better than “literary Nordic mythic historically accurate fantasy which is also quite grim and dark except for the funny bits”.
Fantasy has been becoming more inclusive and diverse in the last years, which makes me very happy. There are characters in the book that are not straight, not white, non-binary. That sound you’ve just heard was me flushing my potential popularity with many Nordic fantasy readers down the toilet. The problem, however, with writing something unusual is the difficulty with finding “comps” – titles that I could compare my book to to give you an idea what you are about to read. “Harry Potter meets The Testaments” is a good sales pitch. “I have no idea whether another book like this even exists, so let me give you a short three-page summary” is not a good sales pitch. I haven’t found a way to solve this problem yet. In January I will have a second version for the beta readers and maybe one (or more, I’m polybetareaderous) of them can help me come up with comps…
I don’t have any pictures of myself deeply engrossed in the creative process, so the above is a random shot from Iceland.