I’ve finally come to what I think is a good stopping point for my work-in-progress, tentatively titled “Kingdom of Salt.” This story has a long and fraught history. For those of you who haven’t heard the backstory before, a quick recap:
About twenty years ago, I started a writing group in Newport News. We met at a small bookstore in Port Warwick (I still miss that place!), trading manuscripts and commenting on last month’s submissions. The first couple of meetings were kind of weird; one kid came in with a story that began with a very explicit sex dream and was offended when we all panned that offering. (It was not well done.) Membership fluctuated, eventually steadying down to four people, if I recall correctly, including myself.
I will not claim this was a good writing group. I look back on it as a failure mainly because I allowed — and participated — in the critiques being overly sharp, even savage. I haven’t permitted that in any group I’ve led since, and I’m deeply ashamed that I thought it okay back then.
Why is this relevant, twenty years later?
Because the book I proudly presented to the group, the original Kingdom of Salt, was savaged by two of the readers. In retrospect, it was a hot mess, with a lot of self-inserting, improbable moments; a generic white-european-medieval setting; unsupported romances; and so on. But I loved it so very much, and I was cut to the quick by some of the comments. Specifically, the angry proclamation by one person that poor Tank, who was and remains one of my favorite characters to write, was a manipulative rapist.
Oh, that pissed me off. That wasn’t what happened in that scene AT ALL, I protested to myself, but I had a rule of not arguing with the critiquers: if they misunderstood a point that badly, it meant the writer had failed to present it clearly, and it was on the writer to go fix it.
So, in a fit of angry spite, I decided to write Tank’s backstory, in order to show that meanie how wrong she was. Instead, I wound up writing what became Secrets of the Sands, in which Tank, while tangentially referenced, doesn’t even appear.
By the time I brought Tank and his history back into the light, in book three of that unexpected series, that initial writing group was long since dissolved, I’d moved to another town, and my writing had improved a great deal. The original draft of Kingdom of Salt sat in my “pending work” folder, and I poked at it on occasion, using it as a practice board for my growing skills. I could see why the group had misunderstood my intent in several spots, and how to correct it, and, increasingly, I saw what was wrong with the story in general and in specific. And I was still mad about that misunderstanding, and I still burned to make it impossible to ever see Tank that way, ever, by anyone.
Hey, I don’t get spiteful often, but when I do, I burn it, baby.
Once I wrapped up the series in 2017 with Servants of the Sands, in which quite a lot of things — personal and geographical — go boom (and in which series there are, in fact, actual, manipulative rapists — I’ll talk more about that choice another time), I had the leisure to put the book that started it all on the front burner and really whale it into shape.
A few things kept interfering with progress. My mom passed away in April of 2017, and when I say it wrecked me, it’s like saying a volcano is slightly warm. A mammogram turned up a beginning breast cancer that had to be dealt with — radiation and surgery, yay fun — but thankfully it had been caught at the absolute zero stage and was very easy to handle. We moved again, and had to adjust to life on two acres of woodland. (We can barely see one neighbor, and can’t see any of the others, at the moment. That’s a big change from suburban life! I thought I was ready for the work it would take. I wasn’t. Oh, I was so not prepared for the labor involved.)
Then the pandemic came roaring in to turn everything inside out again. (But I was, and still am, very glad we’re on these semi isolated two acres right now!) Recently, Angela, the one member of that original writing group who stayed with me over all of these years — died: not entirely unexpectedly but far too abruptly all the same. (I wrote about that here.) Various other family, friends, and financial Things ate up my energy and brain space.
I kept writing, of course. I stopped tinkering with the story and committed to a complete gutting, keeping only the key plot points and a few scenes. This book has been in my thoughts more or less constantly for the past four years: sometimes pushed aside for more urgent projects, sometimes riffled through at one a.m. when I couldn’t sleep. Finally, in recent months, I’ve devoted myself to it.
The original story ran much longer, and ended much further along in the planned plot than this version does. I reached a point in this overhaul where I had to decide whether to stick to the original progression — which would add another thirty to forty thousand words — or cut it a bit early, wrapping it up at a lower point. I chose the latter, obviously. I’m not real interested in producing another doorstopper.
The characters are much more complex than in that long ago first draft; the world is definitely more developed and less generic; the politics are tangled and the relationships less simplified. Tank is most definitely not going to be misconstrued as a rapist in this version. It took me twenty years, five books, three side books (well, under-the-bed books; they’re honestly and irredeemably terrible), a handful of as yet unpublished side stories, and a whole lot of notes, but a labor of love (and spite) is tottering to its feet at last.
Let’s hear it for the motivating power of getting pissed off!