I’ve been thinking about and referring to this book by the working title Renko’s Challenge since its inception. I thought the book was mainly going to be about the teenaged Dragon-Girl confronting her draconic and human natures, her European human appearance and her cultural identity in Japan. This is truly hard for Renko. But her older sister, Otohime, also dual-natured, is wrestling with her anger at their father and finally facing the way she’s become stuck in a particular tragic period of her life. Trapped together in a cave-in that robs dragons of their powers, they come to grips with their difficulties and find ways to move on in their lives and grow as dragons, humans and always themselves.
Of course much more happens in this book. There’s a growing ensemble cast who all face opportunities for personal growth as their world changes around them. “May you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse. These characters definitely do.
Starting out with a title and a fixed dramatic arc is like wielding a two-edged sword. It cuts no matter which way you swing it, and sometimes it cuts what you hadn’t planned it to. I tend to be what’s called a “pantser,” a writer who doesn’t outline extensively, who writes, at least to some extent, by the seat of her pants. I usually know my first line and my last, and have a rough idea of major conflicts and the history that will bring them forth. I set fictional and folkloric characters in a very real historic period. I use these literary devices to explore and expose authentic Japanese history and character in a way that’s more accurate than most fiction and more fun than any history book.
As I write, things change. Characters insist on telling different stories, on growing in surprising ways, on exploring different kinds of folklore and different aspects of history. Characters I thought had moved out of the series come back with new adventures to explore.
Don’t get stuck in your preconceived notions. No matter how much you like your outline, your character arcs and your plot points, don’t become wedded to them. Let your story and your characters talk to you. Listen when your victim sits up and tells you she’s your murderer, when your romantic hero isn’t the least bit enthralled by his designated love interest, when your dutiful maid decides to set fire to the hay barn, steal the horses and lead a serf rebellion. You can only transcend genre if you let your work dictate to you rather than constraining it with your expectations.
That’s why Renko’s Challenge is now The Dragon Sisters, and is now a much better book. I hope you’ll think so, too.
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