On Writing, Sand Dancer

From Draft One to the End

I’ve been writing Sand Dancer for a long time.

I started writing this book back in 2012 when the first ideas came together. Now that Sand Dancer is available for pre-order thanks to Uproar Books, I wanted to reflect on that journey; how long it took, what changes were made, and the process of forcing myself to make the cuts and changes necessary that lead to where Sand Dancer is now.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Draft One

The hardest part of writing a book is starting one. For years, I was one of those writers that loved to plan, world build, create fifteen-page character profiles, scour DeviantArt for inspiration, invent whole new languages, and everything except actually write. There is a fear all writers are familiar with. It’s rooted in perfectionism, in this idea that the first born baby draft must reflect the skill and talent you want to project. This newborn book needs to be right from the start, and to be anything other than total perfection is failure, and that failure is a reflection on you as a writer. So you outline, you read articles on what every chapter one needs, you spend an entire month agonising over those all-so important first lines.

If you can get past that first hurdle, you write a few tentative lines. Maybe a few others. For some writers, they get stuck going over and over these lines. But to become a writer you need to write. You need to embrace failure. You need to allow yourself to be a bad writer before you can be a good one.

That’s not to say your first draft isn’t going to be good, but there is a certain freedom in allowing it to be bad. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a plotter or a pantser, the writing journey is the same. Only by writing a complete full draft of a book can you understand what that book is, what it does, what it needs, and what themes it’s trying to tell you. Once you’ve passed that first exhilarating milestone can you begin the real work.

So my first draft was born during the dark nights of National Novel Writing Month 2012. If anything embraces the idea of haphazardly throwing words to paper in order to create a story, then NaNoWriMo is your conduit. In that month, I had a concept: desert girl wants to become a warrior, learns to sword dance, is adopted by a kindly mentor, goes into the capital city to join an academy and become rivals with the heir to the throne. I finished NaNoWriMo at 70,000 words and kept going into the Christmas period.

It rekindled my love for writing like nothing else.

Once that draft was finished, I went straight into the sequel. So an early version of my sequel does exist! I was so enthralled with writing I couldn’t stop. Once the sequel was completed, I started writing a third book. I didn’t quite get that finished as pesky real life got in the way and I realised I needed to slow the heck down.

I titled the first book “Dance of the Whirlwind” and ended up at 140,000 words. Not bad for a first attempt. Here are the first few opening lines:

“You dirty thieving rat! When I catch you, I’ll have your hands!”

Gail zigzagged between the smooth sandstone structures and skidded into the alleyway, her body crouched against the shadows. She risked a glance over her shoulder to check if her victim was still in sight. His familiar curses trailed off, so she stopped, leant against cool stone and steadied her breath. Her short dark hair stuck to her neck with sweat, sticky droplets that ran down her back.

Clutched in her hands was a small cloth bundle full of assorted dried meat and flatbread, enough food to last a couple of days. It was risky to poach at the butcher’s supplies, but what else could she do? She was hungry and now… Now she had to fend for herself, even if that meant making enemies.

In all my drafts, chapter one always started with a confrontation/chase scene with the town butcher. The very first drafts also had the main character of “Gail” aged twelve-years-old as the first half focussed on her life as a child before she grew into a teenager.

As stated above, real life got in the way. I put aside Gail’s journey in the desert for four years. Occasionally I would open it, re-write a bit, edit it some, but I was adamant the story itself was good and didn’t need many changes. Ho ho ho. Boy was I wrong!

The second part of writing a book is to accept that, oh hey it does need changes. Lots of them. After four years I came back and read my own writing. You know that dry-hacking sound a cat makes when it’s about to throw up a hairball? That was me, reading my own writing. It’s both disheartening and encouraging to read your writing and see all the ways it’s terrible. Because then you know what needs fixing.

As is tradition, I began draft two for NaNoWriMo 2016. It was also round about this time that I joined the Writer’s Block server on Discord. The discussions I had there, and the friends I made, really encouraged me to look at my own craft and develop it. I started taking part in their weekly writing prompt competition and that honestly helped hone my writing skills and teach me how to edit my own writing.

Draft Two

Draft two was a complete re-writing of my draft one, as though the idea was completely fresh in my mind. The outline, the characters, and plot stayed more or less the same. I liked the story as it was, I just wanted to make the writing better. I split this book into three parts covering the main character’s childhood chapters, her rivalry with the bad guy, and war against the enemy nation. The whole thing came out kicking and screaming at 150,000 words. A lot of words.

And that’s when I realised I was actually writing a young adult fantasy novel and 150,000 words was far too long.

That sounds rather daft when I say it like that, but when you first start writing a story you don’t always worry about genre and the target audience. But as my book took shape, I understood now was the time to think about those sort of things. For a while, I was confused by whether Sand Dancer was adult or YA, but with feedback, I came to understand what the story needed to be.

But before I continue, here is a look back at chapter one, draft two:

Soft sandals slapped against dusty stone, bouncing one after the other. Heavy stomps and laboured gasps followed, carried by the quaking thud of the town butcher. His loud bellow echoed round the stone corridors of Karood’s back alleys.

“I’ll catch-catch you girl!”

The girl paid no heed and continued to run, her feet skidding slightly on grime as she weaved between the tall sandstone buildings. Her breath heaved inside, sweat droplets matting the shaggy dark hair on her neck and streaking down her back. She kept to the shade, but no Duslander can outrun the desert sun or the whirling sands which rose and swirled with each hasty footstep, a remnant of the dunes which invaded every southern town and every surface in Sandaria.

Still getting chased by that butcher.

So, realising I had a monster on my hands which needed to be tamed, I made the first important decision; I cut part three/the war scenes and relegated that to a sequel. My outline needed updating to reflect this wonderful new change and end the book in the right place without a cliff hanger. I wanted the first book to stand on its own. The second decision I made was to add in more fantasy elements. I was reading a lot of YA fantasy at the time (as you should!) and started to worry that my fantasy story wasn’t fantasy enough. I sat in a coffee shop with my partner and began discussing blood rituals, as you do. And this lead to Sand Dancer’s new focus; fire magic.

Draft Three

Of course, all these changes meant I needed to write a new draft. I again split it into three parts: the childhood sections, the rivalry with the pompous prince, and the tournament after. This particular draft went through various iterations as I kept going back and making changes. It was the first draft I actually got critique feedback on, and even after cutting out the war and splitting my book in two, I still ended up with a 130,000 word beast. Workable though, right?

Chapter one of draft three resembles the finished product more:

Stealing from the butcher wasn’t the most honourable act of a warrior. But as the daughter of a Green Hand, Gail wanted to prove her hands were more than green and capable of dealing with any adversary. Even those larger, much larger, than herself. Especially those.

Whispers stalked the markets of Karood and warned of the fat man with the red-stained apron and square-shaped knife. The whispers carried unspeakable deeds in the wind, things which even the Green Hands in their green temple refused to discuss. Those whispers drew Gail to the butcher. If there was one thing she could not stand, it was a bully.

And So On

It was after draft four was completed that I started submitting it to local competitions and was accepted onto the Middlesbrough Writer’s Block mentorship scheme. They taught me a lot about creating stakes and tension, and how a story is a cascading series of unfortunate events. I worried my twelve-year-old protagonist was too young for a YA audience and came to them with a new chapter one where the childhood chapters were cut. They didn’t like it. They preferred the Jedi-like moment of the main character training and developing, and I liked the childhood chapters too. My solution was to age the character up to thirteen, but the real solution didn’t present itself until later.

Draft five and six weren’t complete rewrites. They were an evolution of the ideas and changes I kept making as I completed reverse outlines and gained feedback from beta readers. This whole editing, re-structuring, and polishing process happened over the course of a year. I honestly thought draft six was the one until I got proper beta readers.

Chapter one was almost there:

Father’s rules for becoming a legendary warrior did not match the tales. Keep out of trouble, don’t play at sword fighting, stay away from Housemen, and never, under any circumstances, reveal fire. Over time, his words changed from mantras of honour to instructions of modesty, as though Gail’s father sobered and remembered his son existed as a girl all along.

But marriage? Father couldn’t be serious. Why teach her all those tales, of tribe warriors and heroes? Why show her how to swing a sword if he planned to ignore it all based on her sex? To marry her off to some goat?

Gail didn’t want to marry a legend. She wanted to become one.

Was it done yet??? Was it heck.

The beta feedback I received echoed my fears that the childhood chapters weren’t necessarily working and there was too much going on. I needed a new beginning, a new end, and a new focus. I didn’t want to cut the childhood sections entirely, so I thought of what I should have done before and aged the main character up to be sixteen. The ending completely changed and characters got snapped out of existence in order to drag the word count down. All of these changes had a ripple effect which meant half the book had to be re-written into draft seven.

I also made the hardest decision of all; I changed Gail’s name to reflect the setting. In the world I built, Gail was named after the goddess of nature, Gai, but many of my beta readers couldn’t get over that initial first impression of the name. Instead, Gail became Tamina “Mina” and a few minor characters received a name change for similar reasons. King Kaleb became King Khaled, for example, Karood became Khalbad and Sandaria became Sandair. Now, I can’t even imagine the main character as anything but Mina. I also wanted to ensure the story didn’t feature any stereotypes or harmful representation, so the idea of a forced marriage at the start of the story was removed entirely.

Uproar Books

I was happy with this draft. Satisfied. I queried it and that’s how I found Uproar Books. I always liked the idea of being indie and had considered self-publishing, but I didn’t know enough to go it alone, which is where a small press like Uproar Books can help. With their help, I added more to the world building and tightened up certain story elements, character motivations, and plot holes. There was a lot of back-and-forth and polishing, but Uproar Books gave me chance to breathe more life into the world without worrying about the word count, and believe me, I worried!

When I look back to my first draft and think about how adamant I was at refusing changes, I shake my head and smile. If I hadn’t gone through this process and learnt to change and adapt my writing and story into the best it could be, I wouldn’t have ended up with this;

A finished book.

Chapter one:

Father’s rules for becoming a legendary warrior didn’t match his tales.

Keep out of trouble, don’t play at sword fighting, stay away from Housemen, and never, under any circumstances, approach fire.

Over time, his words changed from mantras of honor to instructions of modesty, as though Mina’s father sobered and remembered his son existed as a girl all along. His training stopped the moment she bled. When pressed, he spouted nonsense that only men could wield a blade and Mina should drop all foolish notions of becoming a warrior to focus on her studies as a Green Hand. It was an argument she lost many times. Girls don’t become warriors. They become healers.

Why teach her all those tales of their tribe’s warriors and heroes? Why show her how to swing a sword if he planned to ignore it all based on her sex? Those heroes wouldn’t have followed Father’s cowardly advice. Who would have heard their tales if they did?

Girls could become warriors. Mina just needed to prove it.

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