I feel like a broken record saying this, over and over again, but in writing these annotations, it becomes really apparent just how mysterious my writing process is to myself: when I got to this point in the story, I had no idea how I was going to get Rahelu back into Petitioning after I’d decided that she had been eliminated.
But even though I detest repetitiousness in books, I feel like it’s important to be utterly clear that when I am writing and constructing a story, I never have a clue what I am doing.
I am, literally, just making it all up as I go.
I feel like this is important to reiterate because when I first began thinking “hey, I’d really like to write a novel someday” the biggest misconception I had was believing I had to know what I was doing in order to start writing.
No, no, and no!
Human beings are inherently wired to understand story. We literally can’t stop ourselves from seeing story in everything—attributing correlation and causation to random events and complex motivations to the acts of strangers, acquaintances, and close ones—because story is sense-making.
I didn’t need to memorize half a dozen story frameworks and watch fifty YouTube videos on “how to write a novel” or “how to plot” or “how to create characters”.
I just needed to sit down and start writing.
So that’s what I did.
I’m not trying to do anything fancy or groundbreaking with Petition—it’s written in third person limited perspective in accordance with current genre fiction conventions—which helps a lot.
To get writing, I just had to put myself in Rahelu’s shoes and work through a bunch of questions. Here’s an example of what I mean for the beginning of this chapter:
The starting point: Rahelu has failed in Petitioning and knows her mother is in danger of being murdered. Onneja has told her the only way to save her mother is to go back to the Guild and get into a House.
What must have gone wrong for her to fail in Petitioning? She mustn’t have convinced enough Houses to pass her to the next round.
How can she fix that? Find out how the Houses voted and convince the naysayers to change their minds.
Who would have those answers? The two Elders and the Atriarch who she had audiences with. But she can’t approach them so the next best person is Maketh Imos.
Where might Maketh Imos be? Most likely at the Guild.
The Guild is a big place. Where, exactly? She last saw him in the grand hall but he’s not there. He could be teaching, so the training yards or the classrooms are logical places to check—but he’s not. Maybe the admin staff at the Guild would know…
And that’s it.
That is literally my thought process when I’m writing in a character’s POV.
That’s how I write.
Which is why I have to write sequentially and why I struggle with outlining. It’s not so much the stereotypical “discovery writers can’t outline because once they’ve outlined, they’ve lost the thrill of discovering the story”, it’s because anything can look good to me in outline (bullet point) form but I can’t connect one bullet point to the next—can’t know if it makes sense to do so—until I start writing prose.
In a work of prose fiction, there is no story without the prose, because the prose is the story. Everything about the story—character, setting, tone, plot—is conveyed through the prose. One sentence has to flow to the next; each sentence has to build on those that came before. And when you do this over and over again, you get story.
Let me show you what I mean.
I began this chapter with this sentence:
Rahelu burst through the Guild gates.
Six words to establish POV (Rahelu), setting (the Guild gates, which we’re familiar with from earlier chapters), and tone (the desperate urgency of “burst” as opposed to the neutral “entered” or the lackadaisical “dawdled”; “through” implying overcoming a resistance as opposed to “in”).
This sentence leads to the next, and the next, and so on for the rest of the scene. Rahelu has arrived back at the Guild, she’s fired up because she’s moving at speed with forceful purpose (the implications of “burst” as a word choice again) and you know what her purpose is thanks to the close of the previous chapter and the current chapter title: she’s going to find some answers.
That leads seamlessly into the next set of lines—her introspection as she searches for those answers which shows us more of the Guild and the sociocultural norms of the setting—and the conclusion of that beat: Rahelu has gone full circle back to the grand hall and hasn’t been able to find anyone who can or is willing to help her.
What if I had started with this sentence?
Rahelu barged past the Guild gates.
Six words again. Same POV, same setting. But “barged past” implies unmerited self-assurance or a sense of entitlement or a blatant disregard for her surroundings. It signals some sort of direct confrontation ahead; perhaps with a comeuppance attached.
It could work, but I don’t think it would work as well. At least not from Rahelu’s POV, because in her mind, she’s motivated by desperation, not entitlement.
What if we changed the action and/or the setting?
Rahelu stole inside the Guild’s grand hall.
Seven words this time. We’ve cut straight to the Guild’s grand hall—with “stole” implying that she knows she shouldn’t be there—and skipped past all of Rahelu’s introspection and searching for answers.
Whether or not that beat is necessary is a different question. I could see people making an argument that it isn’t, considering her search is ultimately unsuccessful. But I think it is important to show that failure, otherwise we don’t feel just how lost and desperate she is. That way, when she’s sitting in the dark running her fingers over the resonance board—the tangible representation of what she’s failed to achieve—we understand what she’s thinking and feeling and why she decides fantasy hacking the matrix might be the thing to do.
After her previous failure, we get the thrill of watching her succeed—and then the terror of seeing her get caught immediately. And I don’t think Maketh hauling her off would hit quite the same if we hadn’t seen Rahelu spend all that time looking for him at the beginning.
Anyway. I hope that makes it clearer on what I mean when I say that prose is story, why I write the way I do, and why I recommend that if you want to write a story but you don’t know how to, you should just sit down with a blank page and start asking questions. Treat writing your story—whatever it may be—like it’s all just one, giant improvisatory exercise.
Ultimately, what you want to publish is a collection of written sentences that describe the situation, the emotional reaction to the stimuli, the physical action taken in response, and the consequence from the action, resulting in a new situation and new stimuli—over and over and over and over until you get to the end.
Because prose is story.
No prose? No story.
The very last scene in this chapter was added during my beta read revisions. Mostly because my beta readers got to the end of the interrogation chamber scene, went on to the next chapter, and were aghast they didn’t get a moment of Rahelu celebrating the win.
That feedback confused the hell out of me. Why would Rahelu celebrate? She failed…and was let back in based on some technicality she doesn’t even understand. She’s still got a long way to go before she’ll achieve her goal—and there’s no guarantee of that either.
Eventually, I realized that while the whole Petitioning process was clear in my mind, it wasn’t necessarily super clear in the text. That exposition also wasn’t something I felt like writing because every time I tried, my brain screamed “BORING BORING THIS IS SO BORING” at me.
I know this because I tried writing this last scene with Maketh as one where he lays out all of those rules to set up the next stage of Petitioning. And I just…couldn’t.
What I mean by that is “I couldn’t write a sentence that felt like it was authentic and consistent with how Maketh would act based on his characterization as already established in earlier chapters and in the context of the sociocultural norms of the Houses”.
It is the perfect example of how my outlining intent (“Maketh explains how the next part of Petitioning works”) falls apart the moment I have to write prose.
Maketh is pissed. He thinks Rahelu is a spy. He’s just been overruled by his superiors. He’s not going to explain anything nicely.
Nor do readers actually need Maketh to exposit any of the rules and regulations behind how Petitioning works at all; what they need is to have their expectations reset.
The solution that was staring me in the face: just have Rahelu be as ecstatic as readers expect she ought to be and then let Maketh bring her crashing back down to reality.
It’s one of the easiest revisions I had to do for this book…and one that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure it out.