Author Leigh Bardugo is visiting SciFiChick.com today with a guest post! This is just one stop on her blog tour promoting her latest release Shadow and Bone, reviewed here.


Plots, Schemes, and Teenage Dreams

Recently, while putting together a post for Dear Teen Me, I went digging through some of the boxes in my mom’s basement. Among the cringe-inducing diary entries and photos of me in my prolonged awkward phase, I also found the beginnings of a lot of stories.

The best (and by “best,” I mean hilariously awful) is the first few chapters of an epic fantasy called Tinscritalswhim. The title kind of says it all, and clearly, 12 year-old me got wise to this too, because in later drafts, I seem to have changed the name to Ladinphur.

The story revolves around a teenage assassin named (wait for it) Blood. Honestly, if you name your daughter “Blood,” what career paths are really open to her? It’s like calling your kid “Candee” then getting upset when she becomes a stripper. Then again, Blood’s brother is named Jereth so I don’t really know what her parents were thinking. Maybe it’s a family name.

Here’s how I describe my heroine:

“Blood didn’t believe in killing for fun. In fact, the thought made her relatively nauseous. She was no sadist either. She hated killing mainly because it was wrong in her mind, but also it reminded her of her own mortality. If they could be killed, so could she.” Wow, okay, I’m not sure if Blood is just a narcissist or firmly in the sociopath camp at this point. (Also, I think my favorite part of this is that she’s relatively nauseous.)

Blood spends a lot of time smiling wryly and leaping down onto her enemies from branches, rooftops, the occasional lintel. I go on:

“Blood had shut up her heart and carefully packaged it in her bundled up soul.”

Admittedly, the physics here are iffy, but I think you get the idea. And I’M NOT DONE:

“She had a dry wit and was a master of satire.”

I’d like to believe that Blood was penning amusing send-ups of the Tinscritalswhimian ruling class in her spare time, but I suspect that preteen Leigh was just confusing satire with sarcasm.

Blood and Jereth (a gentle giant with hidden depths) join forces with a slightly psychic (it’s a thing) tavern-keeper’s son (love interest!), a spiteful fairy named Una (natch), and… a woodchuck. Here’s where things get really weird:

‘What’s for dinner, Lorenzo?’
The woodchuck turned around and placed Una’s glasses on the edge of his small nose, trying to look studious. He instead succeeded in toppling off his pile of books. ‘I’m not sure,’ Lorenzo replied. ‘Everything I’ve made has blown up.’
‘It would help if you used less sneezweed,’ Jereth said, walking over to the counter to remove a root that looked somewhat like celery. Lorenzo could have been incredibly smart. Woodchucks were known for their intelligence and he had all of the advantages of education. However, Lorenzo had been more interested in battle and adventure than becoming a lawyer.’

Okay, let’s stop right there. Apparently, I was reading too much C.S. Lewis and Piers Anthony, because… a woodchuck who doesn’t want to go to law school? There is such a thing as too much whimsy.

So, other than “Burn the evidence,” what possible lessons can I take from this horrifying artifact?

On a personal level, it’s pretty clear that I was trying to make Blood into everything I wanted to be at age twelve: beautiful, deadly, emotionless. I had just started junior high and every day was like going into battle. I didn’t get it as bad as some kids, but that was only because I managed to hide just how much the jabs and snubs hurt. It was all about bravado, pretending I didn’t care. Blood wasn’t pretending. Plus, she had a brother, a confidant, someone she could depend on. I wanted that desperately.

As a writer, I can’t help but notice that there are a lot of drafts of first and second chapters to Tinscritalswhim. They’re written with slightly different names and variations, but they never move much past the introduction of the cast of characters and the beginning of the quest.

These days, though my stories involve fewer talking animals, I still find that starting is the easy part. I may not begin at the beginning the way I did when I was a kid, but there’s nothing like the momentum when a project is new. The characters feel vibrant. The dialogue clamors to be set down. Everything is loud, thrilling cacophony, driving me through the first few thousand words. And then… silence.

Finishing my first book meant making the transition from pantser to plotter. Now when I start a story that I think may have the makings of a book, I don’t let myself linger over specific scenes. I jot down the bits and pieces that I don’t want to forget. Then I force myself to move on to the next moment and then the next. When I get stuck, I write questions into the outline: “How does this work?” “Does this make sense?” “Why would she want X?” (Although my favorites are always things like, “Insert awesome moment here” and– no lie, this was in the first draft of Shadow and Bone– “Villain rant: Kneel before Zod!”)

That initial outline is a tangled, crazy, rambling mess, but it has a beginning, middle, and end. Knowing the structure is there, that I have a final destination, makes returning to the work each day easier for me.

It can be hard to let go of the myths we create about process: I’m a pantser. I’m a plotter. I work best a night. I need my fuzzy slippers to write. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not the process you’ve committed to actually works to get you through the draft. I’m new enough to this that it still feels like there’s some mysterious alchemy involved in taking a book from idea to finished manuscript. But I do know that magic comes easier when we shake off the old habits and old ghosts. Sometimes, you’ve got to make like a woodchuck and just blow stuff up.

Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co., I have a copy of Shadow and Bonefor one (1) lucky winner!

Contest is open to US and Canada only. No PO Boxes, please. To enter, just fill out the form below. Contest ends June 29. I’ll draw a name on June 30, and notify winner via email.

Good luck!