Of all the chapters in Petition, this is probably the one that I learned the most from even though it is one of the chapters that changed the least.
Because I write very similarly to how Naomi Novik writes—by starting with a character’s voice and inhabiting that character’s viewpoint—I generally have a very strong sense of whether a scene or sequence is or isn’t working. When I get the voice and the viewpoint right, the words just flow.
Such was the case with this chapter.
Chapter 21 concludes the mystery part of the cultist subplot and marks the turning point into the first climax of the book. (Petition is structurally weird because I consider there to be three climaxes altogether—but we’ll talk about that in later annotations.) There are five scenes in total:
- Rahelu and her team in the alleyway
- An Evocation of Xyuth and Dharyas’s last moments
- The immediate aftermath of that discovery
- An argument over dinner at the inn
- Rahelu trying to sleep (added post beta read)
Aside from filling in 112 XXX placeholders and minor line edits (a net change of -266 words), what you read in the published version is basically the same as the original alpha draft. Scenes #1 through #4 were about as clean a draft as I typically write. The voice, the viewpoint, the character moments, the emotional beats, the overall arc—all of it was right. It worked.
Then the first piece of beta reader feedback came in.
I remember reading it and being absolutely devastated. For a few hours, I just sat there, thinking, “Oh god, they hate it,” over and over and over.
It didn’t work.
Why? Why didn’t it work?
I had no idea.
I kept looking at the feedback. While harsh, it had been honestly and thoughtfully written with a great deal of care behind it.
When I had gone through every line of the text and considered every question they had raised, I couldn’t agree.
Fundamentally, I still felt like those scenes and that sequence were right. If they weren’t—well, I didn’t know how else to write them. But it took me three days of hard thinking to be able to articulate my reasons for writing these scenes and this sequence in this way.
Tragedy—and by extension, grief—is tricky to handle. Tragedy is an event but grief is a response; an individual one.
Considering the characters and their relationship to Dharyas:
- Ghardon and Elaram: Dharyas was House Isca and they’re House Issolm. They may have studied together; they may have even interacted at social events. Most likely, this would not have been a frequent occurrence, given how much Dharyas likes to duck out on social events. They’re not colleagues or friends; they’re casual acquaintances.
- Rahelu: She likes Dharyas. But, as Rahelu pointed out to Lhorne in Chapter 10, they’ve been friends for less than a day. After Petition Day, Rahelu never saw Dharyas again until she stumbled on her corpse in the Tattered Quill.
- Lhorne. Not only are House Ideth and House Isca allied, he and Dharyas were close friends from childhood. Of all the characters present in this chapter, he is the one whose life would be the most impacted by her death.
For all of these characters, Dharyas’s death is personal.
They are graduates of the Resonance Guild. They were the ones who discovered her body at the scene of her murder.
But for Ghardon, Elaram, and Rahelu, it is not a personal tragedy.
They knew her but she was not their friend, their protégé, their daughter. Her death does not leave a gaping hole in their lives. Their reactions should, therefore, be proportionate to reflect that the shock, horror, and distress they feel is not, cannot, and therefore should not be treated as comparable—or even approachable—to what Lhorne or Tsenjhe or House Isca feel.
Ghardon, Elaram, and Rahelu can’t grieve for Dharyas, in the same way that Lhorne does. Portraying what they feel as grief doesn’t portray what Lhorne feels with the gravity that his feelings deserve.
For most of the characters, Xyuth’s death is confronting, but not personal. They’ve never met nor heard of him, prior to this. For Rahelu, there’s personal guilt from the possibility that her actions might have directly led to Xyuth’s murder and, by extension, Dharyas’s murder.
Though this is never explicitly stated, Rahelu is affected by these two deaths.
There is a marked change in the prose style in the aftermath scene, with long, run-on sentences and extensive parentheticals. This is not the analytical, structured thought process typical of Rahelu’s POV, nor do the sentences and paragraphs have the same cadence of her usual narration.
You have to read between the lines in the prose—how she remembers Xyuth had a consort and a daughter, how she reacts to the workers discussing how to arrange Dharyas’s hair, how later, at the inn, she eats everything in sight other than the pheasant dish—and connect these details together to deduce how she feels.
I could make this more overt but I’m not a fan of spelling out things that can be inferred.* The heavy reliance on subtext does make the prose more cognitively demanding to read but it’s an authorial choice I stand by.
There’s also the matter of how people in a high performance culture handle and express strong emotions in a high pressure, high stakes situation.
From the outset, the assignment is established as a stretch challenge even in the best of circumstances. The consequences of failure are life-threatening. None of the Petitioners can afford to go to pieces, so none of them do.
They have evil cultists to stop. They can break down afterwards.
One thing I’ve learned to do is to not action every piece of feedback** immediately. Reading is an individual experience. As feedback came in from the rest of my beta readers, it became clear that, for the vast majority, the emotional moments and the overall arc in the chapter did land. Nevertheless, I didn’t dismiss that one outlier in the beta reader feedback.
Neil Gaiman has famously said that people are generally right about how they feel but wrong about what the problem is and how to fix it. In my experience, this is true.
Originally, the chapter ends on a character moment I like quite a lot: my little dig at the trope of two guys fighting for/over a girl and ‘winning’ her.
There’s no such gendered practices in my setting and Rahelu has nothing to do with the conflict between Lhorne and Ghardon but people are people. Lhorne is romantically attracted to Rahelu and she to him. Ghardon knows this and has been goading them both. When Ghardon makes a bid to exploit this attraction and Lhorne falls for it, the implied sleeping arrangements are clear. Except Rahelu stymies them both by rejecting the game.
As fun and satisfying as this subversion of expectations might be, what it doesn’t do is close the emotional loop opened when the characters discover the murders. Throughout the chapter, there’s simply been escalating tensions but no release. Even though the personal conflict between Ghardon and Lhorne comes to a head with the duel, the outcome doesn’t resolve the question of how they’re going to stop the cultists or provide any emotional catharsis.
That’s why there needed to be one more scene.
When each of the characters are somewhat alone, the illusion of privacy allows them to be more honest. That’s when the prose can be more overt without coming across as either on-the-nose, overdone, or patronizing. And that brief moment of vulnerability is what provides the emotional catharsis we need.
*One of my favorite books is The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, whom I think is one of the most thoughtful and brilliant SFF writers of our generation. Baru is the kind of glorious, tightly written masterwork that I don’t even aspire to write some day; I simply like to read it repeatedly, admiring the beauty of its elegant construction, the way Dickinson’s deft understated prose uses subtext to express more emotion through restraint than most people do with an entire dictionary, and sing its praises to everybody I know. (back to reading)
**These days, I try not to read beta reader feedback as it comes in, because it’s better to look at it all at once so you can a sense of how the story is working across the board for the majority of readers. Makes it a lot easier not to freak out too! (back to reading)