Back to Square One: Rewriting My Novel, Six Years On

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Six years ago today, I started writing a novel. I was fourteen years old, and it was the third novel I went on to complete — the first that wasn’t shockingly bad. Six years later I’m rewriting it.

What’s this book about?

When people ask what my novel is about, my usual response is “Ehhhhhhh.” I have the same response when asked what genre it is. The short answer is “it’s complicated.” But “it’s complicated” doesn’t sell books. And when I finally complete it, I do want people to actually read my novel. So here is the long answer.

The genre is somewhere between science fiction and fantasy. I will be able to answer that better once I’ve finished editing. I don’t know whether to go full sci-fi, or leave the cause of some things ambiguous. I feel like the style and the plot is closer to the fantasy genre, but at the same time: one of my protagonists is a scientist, my villain is an evil scientist, and there are robots. You don’t get more sci-fi than that.

What’s it about? The premise is: it’s a retelling of the myth of Persephone and Hades, set in Russia and Estonia, three centuries in the future. The “three centuries in the future” bit may also change, depending which direction I go with the world building. The world my novels are set in is different to the world we live in now. But I don’t know if three hundred years is the right length of time for such changes to fall into place. I may reduce it to two hundred years, perhaps even 150. We will see.

This premise is rather vague, and only captures one element of the story. It’s a story about friendship, and about womanhood, and about the strength of platonic love. Ultimately, it’s a story about what it means to be human. Are we human because that is our species? Are we human because of how we act, how we think? Are we human because of the structure of our brain? Are we human because we feel emotion, think rational thoughts, have a human body? Where do we draw the line on what is and isn’t human? Are there circumstances where the lines between human and robot can be blurred?

It follows the lives of two young women, Phoenix and Persephone, as they battle their personal demons and overcome trauma, to search for autonomy, to find a place to belong. It is about their friendship, and so much more.

There are robots, there is romance, there are revolutions. 10/10, would recommend.

Why this book?

Why go back to square one and rewrite this novel, when I could just write a new novel. Surely that would be less hassle?
This book, because it has so much potential, and at 14, I wasn’t equipped to fully tap into that potential. This book, because I can’t let it go. This book, because it’s been six years and I’m still passionate about it.

I would say this novel is the great love of my life, but I’ve used that term to describe everything from pasta, to Estonian rye bread, to my favourite lecturer. So perhaps it’s lost its meaning.
I have another novel that I never finished writing, because the file got corrupted and I lost 23,000 words. I think of that novel as the one that got away. In comparison, this novel is the one that kept coming back. Years would pass, and those characters would come back into my head. They would ask me “what if you’d done things differently?” This is the book I could never give up on.

The decision to rewrite:

My mother wrote and published parenting books, and eventually novels. She had a cult following in the natural parenting world, because of the magazine she founded and edited for twelve years. So when I brought out my books, it made sense for her to market them to her audience. They were interested in reading my novels. If my mother was Queen Elizabeth, I was Prince Charles (albeit with smaller ears). If my mother was God, I was Jesus. You get the picture. My value came from being Daughter of Veronika, rather than from being Eliza.

The response to my novels was surprisingly positive.

Fast Forward three years. We were at my aunt’s pub, in Oxfordshire. My mum did a book reading/book signing that weekend, and so did I. The audience was her fans. People who had read her magazine and books, seen me grow up in pictures, had an image in their head of who I was. An image that was perhaps entirely different from who I am. The reception to my novels was different this time. They were described as “scary”, met with comments of “Oooh, probably not for me.”

To quote Sabrina Benaim, my favourite poet, “I wouldn’t say I’m sensitive; I would say I’m highly susceptible to feeling a lot.” In short, it hurt. Seventeen-year-old Eliza didn’t have as thick a skin as twenty-year-old Eliza does. And twenty-year-old Eliza doesn’t have thick skin at all.

But I, at 17 and at 20, am a problem solver. When I feel sad, I ask myself “why am I feeling this way?” and “what can I do to change it?”

I had been dissatisfied with my novels for a long time. I was homeschooled when I first wrote them. But at fifteen, I went to school. I was bullied a lot for having written novels (amongst other things). I was made to feel worthless, for something I should have been proud of. I was embarrassed to be a writer, embarrassed to be published. I still feel insecure about them not going through a traditional publisher. I considered it a lot with this second version of the books, and I decided again that I will self-publish — for a variety of reasons — but that’s a whole other blog.

So after this book reading, I was wallowing in self-pity, drowning in self-loathing. I’m not blaming people for saying what they said — everyone’s entitled to their opinion. In retrospect, I’m glad they said it. But at this point I was ashamed of my novels and ashamed of myself.

But as I said, I’m a problem solver.

The next week, I was in London for a work experience placement at Working Title Films. (Not only am I a problem solver, I’m ambitious as hell. Why do work experience somewhere local when I could find something relevant to the degree I planned to study?). I had a lot of time to kill in the evenings, because I was alone. It was my first experience of being alone away from home. One night I travelled to the South Bank, to the BFI (British Film Institute). I’d been there on a school trip the previous year, and it was a pretty cool place. I was browsing the bookstore there, when I came across a book called “Psychology for Screenwriters.” It was rather expensive, but I bought it anyway.

As I sat alone in my hotel room, reading about Freud and Jung, and how to use psychology to build characters, I realised just how much these ideas related to my novel.

That was then the idea came to me: I should rewrite my novels. I was older, less afraid of my own voice. I would write them my way, they would be uncensored. And, most importantly of all, I would market them correctly, to the right audience. I don’t want writing to be a hobby, I want it to be my business, I want to take it seriously. My books have my name on them, and they must meet my high standards (I’m a bit of a perfectionist). The new versions of the novels had to be as close to perfect as they possibly could.

It’s 2.5 years later, and I’m still in the process of rewriting. That’s how seriously I’m taking this. I’m deconstructing everything I once created. I’m reinventing it, turning it inside out, giving it new meaning. This book is my baby, but it will also be my business. I am in charge of creating the life I want, and I will do myself justice. I will make myself proud.

I don’t want to be embarrassed to tell people I’ve written novels. I don’t want to be ashamed of my work because of nasty people I went to school with, or one book reading with the wrong audience. I owe myself more than that. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into these novels. I put six years of my life into these novels. And I am determined that that will not be for nothing.

I don’t want to be Prince Charles, and I don’t want to be Jesus. I want to be the Queen. I want to be God.

How much as changed?

A lot.

A huge part of rewriting my novel is trying to make it more “woke” than my 14-year-old self was. I was a feminist at 14, but I didn’t know enough about intersectional feminism at the time, so pretty much all my characters were straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, etc. And, to make that worse, the first gay character in the novel died. I recently wrote an essay for my Film and Television Studies course about the “bury your gays/dead lesbian syndrome” trope, and how damaging it is to the LGBTQ+ community. And 14-year-old Eliza used that same trope in her novel!

The problem is: that character’s death is a major catalyst for one of the main storylines of the book, so I can’t keep him alive. At this point I’m changing some of his other storylines, and making him heterosexual (there will be other LGBTQ+ characters in this version, so I’m not hetero-washing it), because that is probably the less problematic option. But it is something that has bothered me for all the time I’ve been rewriting. I knew I had to change it, but I didn’t know how, and I’ve been trying to figure it out for two and a half years. If I tug too hard on that one plot strand I will unravel the entire tapestry of the novel. I have driven myself half mad trying to fix it, to the point where I doubted the worth of my novel, because I felt my writing was so cliche and problematic.

I have tried hard to undo every problematic element of the original novel. It’s no longer whitewashed. I’ve changed several characters’ races. That is something I can do. But the lack of LGBTQ+ characters is harder to change, because I can’t change major plot points. I had one character who I’d considered making bi for years, but she dies, so that would fall into the “bury your gays” trope again. A lot of my characters die. Or at least, a lot of my characters appear dead for quite a while. So I’m currently at the point of: character a, character b, and character c are canonically LGBTQ+, but I can’t have them come out until after their stint of fake-death, because I don’t want to be the writer who casually murders all their gay characters.

The sequel (which I will also be rewriting) is going to have a lesbian protagonist in its new version. Most of my closest friends are part of the LGBTQ+ community; I understand how important LGBTQ+ representation is. I don’t want to be the kind of writer who has token gay characters that she casually kills off. But I am also aware that this is not my field of expertise. I’m going to get things wrong sometimes, I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m trying my best.
I’m stubborn about changing things in the first book, because it impacts the rest of the series too much, but anything from the second book onwards is fair game. And I will try as hard as I can to make my books intersectionally feminist, because that is what’s right. This world isn’t just filled with straight white people. I wouldn’t want the world to be like that. I don’t want the world of my novel to be like that.

The other issue preventing change in the first book is I’m very protective over the couples I’ve already paired up. If two people ended up together in the original version of the book, it’s unlikely that they’ll be separated in the rewrite.

That is, until approximately two days ago, when I decided I might want to break up one of my favourite pairings. Maybe they will come together eventually, but I don’t want to do it at the end of the first book.

I read this thing the other day about how the “19 years later” in Harry Potter was a baby boomer ending for a millennial audience, and something about that stuck with me. The concept of what constitutes “happily ever after” changes with the generations. I’m technically not a millennial, I’m a year or so too young. But most of my friends are millennials, and I presume that many of my future readers will be millennials. I don’t know what my own generation’s concept of “happily ever after” is. We’re only just becoming adults, we haven’t had a chance to fully assert ourselves in the cultural imagination yet. But I know that getting married, having 1.5 children, and living in a house with a white picket fence is not my idea of happily ever after. So why am I forcing it onto my characters?

Furthermore, the odds of my characters finding forever-love at 16 is just ridiculous. It was easy to write stuff like that when I was 14 and lacking in life experience. But now I’m 20, and still single. The last time I told a guy I had feelings for him, he left my message on read for 19 weeks before responding. But sure, it’s totally plausible for my characters to marry the first person they ever get a crush on.

The more my characters breed, the more new characters I have to work with. My series spans two generations, so it’s in my interest for the protagonists of the first book to have has many kids as possible. In one scenario I considered, they ended up with four kids each.

But this is a novel about what it means to be human, not an experiment to see how many different combinations of co-parents I can create before all my characters are half-siblings. I don’t want to end it with all my characters marrying their soulmates and having lots of convenient babies. Life is about my than that. And I’m not saying that because I’m single and bitter (I’m not bitter, unless I’ve drunk too much cider, then I’m like “why does nobody love me?” *cries*). Life is about more than romantic love, and there’s no such thing as happy endings, because the only ending is death.

I have seen enough of life to know that there are so many ways to live happily. For me, those ways are writing, being creative, having a community of friends who are like family to me, travelling to far distant countries… That’s my happily ever after. Or at least, it’s my happily for now.

For one of my protagonists (ironically, the one who’s most like me), falling in love is the right happy ending. But for my other protagonist, I don’t think it is. Her happily ever after is probably a career, or travel, or finding a sense of self. Maybe her happily ever after is even motherhood. But I don’t think that is connected to marriage for her. And I am interested to explore her character in light of this, and give her the ending she deserves.

What’s next?

Originally, I wrote a trilogy. At this point, it’s looking like it will end up as six books. In one version it could have been nine, but given that I’m culling some of my characters’ offspring, I think I can reduce it to six. There is the original trilogy, a fourth book (which I have started writing), a fifth book, which will be a prequel, and a sixth book to tie it all together. I know roughly how the series will end, but that may change as I write the final books.

And after that? Perhaps I will return to the one that got away, and finish writing the book that’s haunted me for years.

How has writing this series impacted the past 6 years?

Writing a novel seeps into every aspect of your life. Every time I see a reference to the Persephone myth, I think of my book. Every time I see the word Phoenix, I think of my book. But it’s not just themes or character names. It is everything those characters say or do or touch. This series is set in Russia and Estonia. I’ve had an interest in Russia since I was about 9 (hence why the books are set there), but my love of Estonia came after I started writing the novels. I didn’t know Estonia existed, until I read an article in Lonely Planet Magazine when I was 13. A few months later, I needed a country close to Russia for my characters to go to, and I picked Estonia arbitrarily. Many intense Google searches later, and I had fallen in love with this country.

The same week I chose to rewrite my novels, I also made another decision: I decided to travel to Estonia the next year. I would be eighteen soon. I had a job and a passport. I could afford this.

Ten months later, I went on my first solo journey. It was the week after I finished high school. After three years of learning to despise myself (school was really fun), I ventured out into this whole new world.

Writing about a country is entirely different to visiting that country. For example, my novels are written in English, because that is the only language I speak. In Estonia, they speak Estonian. Whilst I knew this in theory, it was a massive shock to my system to be isolated in a country where I could barely say two words in the language. (Side note: this is extra fun when you’re vegan and have to figure out what you can and can’t eat but you can’t read ingredients). Long story short, I cried a lot. I got lost a lot. I got mistaken for a Russian prostitute. It was all a great adventure.

In spite of the language barrier, and the isolation, I had done something my 14-year-old self never would have dreamed of: I brought my characters to their home country. I went to the locations from my novel and saw them with my own eyes. I imagined my characters running through the streets that I walked. Estonia changed me.

When I returned to the UK, I was a different person.

I went back to Estonia last year, as part of a longer trip across Europe (if you scroll down you can read all about it in my travel blogs). This time it was different. I knew a little more of the language. Not enough to speak, but enough to read ingredients, enough to say please and thank you, enough to order coffee. My characters weren’t in my head so much this time, not until my last day in Tallinn. Because it wasn’t about my book this time, it was about me. My first journey to Estonia tricked me into believing that travel could cure my anxiety and remove my self doubt. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true, and by the end of my trip I was super depressed (my cat died when I was in Berlin, and my laptop was stolen in Prague, it was a wild ride). I swore I never wanted to travel again.

Now I’m desperate to go back. There’s something about this time of year that makes me want to run away. I think that “something” is called “exam season”, but it’s also more than that. I left my heart in Estonia. My hopes and dreams, my creativity, my identity as a writer…they’re all lying somewhere in the Baltic Sea. I breathed the air in the country where my characters belong. I walked barefoot along the beaches, I danced in the rain on those quiet city streets…. I felt alive in a way I never had before.

I’m not going to lie and say that travel was a positive experience. The first time I went to Estonia I basically cried for two weeks. The second time I went there I had a terrible cold and felt ill the whole time. I wasn’t always happy. Both times were filled with growing pains, but they made me who I am. And perhaps the same applies to rewriting my novel. It’s not always fun. It’s hard work. It’s changing my characters names, it’s removing cringey paragraphs, it’s choosing not giving my characters the things they and I once thought were happy endings. Rewriting is a lot like being twenty: you look back on all your assumptions, all the things you held to be infallible truths when you were a teenager. You look back on the foundations of who you are — or what your book is — and then you throw some dynamite at it and let it blow to pieces. Because change doesn’t come from your comfort zone.

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