How I Wrote Rebellion

The war is lost. The stone mage wakes. One slave will defy him . . .

The second book in a trilogy is always tricky to write. Unless the author is very careful it can be the weakest of the three books, because it’s neither the beginning of the beginning nor the end of the end.

The way I solve this critical problem is to give each book its own driving storyline, with a powerful beginning and an even stronger ending, both of which dovetail neatly into the overarching story of the trilogy. It’s easy to say that, of course, but not so easy to do, and it takes a lot of planning and rewriting to get right.

What’s Rebellion about?

REBELLION (US | UK AUS), book 2 of my epic fantasy trilogy The Tainted Realm, is set in an isolated island nation, once Cython but now called Hightspall, which is forever tainted by the brutal way it was colonised two thousand years ago. But now the conquered land is fighting back with one natural disaster after another, the Cythonians’ long-dead alchymist-king Lyf is rising again, and they know it’s time to take back their country.

Only one person can prevent Hightspall from running with blood – Tali, a slave in Cython who, as an eight-year-old girl, saw her mother murdered for the magical ebony pearl secretly cultured inside her head. Tali, now 18, is determined to bring the killers to justice, but discovers that she too bears an ebony pearl – the master pearl, in fact. And every villain in the land wants to hack it out of her head, including the killers.

In Book 1, VENGEANCE, Tali pursued the killers, and was hunted by them, through a land at war. To avenge her murdered mother she, a timid slave, had to take on the wizard-king, Lyf, who first died two thousand years ago.

In Book 2 the Cythonians, led by Lyf, have won the war and are tearing down Hightspall to restore their ancient realm of Cython. When Tali discovers that her fellow slaves face genocide she must confront her darkest fear, a return to slavery, before she can hope to save them.

How I wrote it

These days I do a detailed scene-by-scene plan, setting out the characters in each scene, the locale, and a series of dot points describing the main action. For REBELLION I did eight drafts of this plan, constantly analysing it and heightening the characterisation, drama, conflict and suspense, getting rid of clichés and trying to make it as fresh and original as possible. Also, honing down the structure so it flows from beginning to the end, with the tension rising steadily towards the climax, and making sure every scene in the book contributes to the story – either furthering the hero’s goal, or blocking it. It took about six weeks of full-time work on the plan before I was ready to start writing.

But no matter how good the plan is, the final story, as published, always has significant differences – I always get better ideas as I write the story, and because of excellent advice from my editors on what’s not working as well as it should.

Once I’m reasonably happy with the plan, I block out a few weeks where I can work uninterrupted, and begin. I work in two different ways, depending whether I’m writing first draft, or editing.

When I’m writing the first draft, I try to start around 5 am, or earlier. I write furiously all day, and sometimes well into the evening, if I can, writing 5,000 – 10,000 words a day. I like to write first drafts as fast as possible, seven days a week, because by working this way I’m always in ‘the zone’, i.e. fully in the story and the minds of the characters. The story works better, and requires much less editing, than when I grind out a draft over a period of months. For instance, I wrote the first draft of REBELLION, 164,000 words, in 22 days. This was a bit faster than usual, partly because I had a very good plan and partly because I was alone in the house for a week and a half and could work exceedingly long hours – it would normally take me 4-5 weeks.

I find writing this way to be exhilarating, but also physically stressful. These days I make sure to get away from the computer for 5-10 minutes very hour for a quick walk in the garden, or a few minutes on the exercise bike – after weeks in front of a computer without exercise I can feel my health going down the drain day by day.

I don’t work that way on the remaining drafts – it’s neither humanly possible, nor desirable. When I’m into the editing phase I do many drafts of a book – a minimum of 6, though more typically 8 or even 10, over a period of 4-6 months. When re-drafting, I generally start around 7 am and write until the early afternoon. Then I have a brief nap, do some gardening or go for a walk, then work through until dinner time. Evenings are family time; only when I’m up against a tight deadline do I work after dinner.

Where it happens

Fantasy novels take a lot of world-building and in most of my stories the whole world is new, so everything has to be created, starting with the land itself.

The Tainted Realm is a big story set in a relatively small area. You could drive across it in a day – assuming there were any suitable roads. Most of the action in REBELLION takes place in a few small parts of the large island called Hightspall:

  • Cython, the secret underground realm of the bitter, dispossessed and vengeful Cythonians;
  • The Seethings, a blistering geothermal plain dotted with boiling mud pools, geysers and poisonous ponds, next to a trio of active volcanoes called The Vomits;
  •  A decaying castle, Rutherin, on a coastline rendered barren and impoverished because the sea level has dropped and the shoreline has moved miles away due to the growing ice sheets.
  • The once-glorious Palace Ricinus which the victorious Cythonians are now razing to the ground.
  • Fortress Garramide, an ancient, labyrinthine structure set on the edge of a rain-drenched plateau surrounded by temperate rainforest.

Alert readers may notice a passing similarity between Central Hightspall and the central volcanic plateau of the North Island of New Zealand, and they’d be right. My first degree was in geology and I’m still fascinated by volcanoes. Where better to look at them than this part of NZ, which is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth, and the site of more of the most disastrous volcanic eruptions of the past million years than anywhere else. I visited this area before writing the story. 

Lowest point

REBELLION, because it was planned so carefully and written in one long creative burst, proved relatively easy to write (far easier than VENGEANCE) and it took me far less editing. The low point in any book is, however, when I’ve finished the first draft and begin the second. It’s the first time that the whole story exists, and it’s also the time when I inevitably think, as I read it, I’ve lost it. This is dreadful, I’ll never write again.

But all books go through that stage, and all writers think those kind of thoughts about their drafts. The advantage of being a professional writer is that you’ve revised lots of ugly first drafts and know how to turn them into finished, polished novels. Eventually. After much pain and angst.

What’s next?

Earlier this week I delivered the draft of JUSTICE, the final book of the trilogy, to my editors. For this book I’ve modified my writing process again, planning the story in a far more detailed and structured way than either VENGEANCE or REBELLION.

In JUSTICE, to give her country a chance of survival, Tali has to choose between gaining justice at any cost, or abandoning her quest and supporting her mother’s killer in his darkest hour.

But that’s another story.