The Thousand Names Blog Tour: Launching The Shadow Campaigns
The phrase “In writing, you must kill your darlings” comes to us from William Faulkner, and like any pithy aphorism it has often been misused and misinterpreted. It doesn’t literally refer to killing your characters. Rather, ‘darlings’ means bits of prose, pieces that you’re particularly happy with or proud of.
It’s often passed on as writing advice, but (to my mind, at least) it’s not so much advice as a warning. Every writer has pieces of the story that they love: a clever exchange of dialogue, an apt simile, a telling detail. We’re not being advised to eliminate these things—why would we?—but reminded that they are ‘good’ only in service to the story as a whole.
When the time comes for editing, sometimes they have to go. There is always the temptation to twist the story to save them, to rewrite another dialogue so you can use that bon mot, or divert the heroine to Australia so she can experience that beautiful sunrise you spent so much time on. Faulkner (and generations of writing teachers since) tells us that sometimes you have to let go, to consign your favorite phrases to the trash in the confidence that, when the time comes, you’ll come up with some more.
The original draft of The Thousand Names we submitted to the publishers was about 15% longer than the final version. My editors (I’m in the unusual and excellent position of having two great editors who work together, one from the US and one from the UK) agreed that the book’s pacing could be improved by slimming it down, and offered some hints on what could go.
One of the things we agreed to take out was a series of dream sequences, in which Winter remembers her life back in the Vordanai orphanage known as the Prison and her meetings with the girl whose face haunts her dreams. I liked these sequences a lot, but with an outsider perspective I could see they didn’t fit—they were completely different, tonally, from the rest of the book, and occupied a lot of pages without moving the plot forward. (Plus, as my editor pointed out, dreams don’t usually work like a movie reel of convenient flashbacks!) Getting rid of them was painful, but it was the right thing to do. Kill your darlings.
But in this wonderful new age of the internet, sometimes they can come back to life! The following is a scene from the “cutting room floor” of The Thousand Names, taking place when Winter was a young teenager, several years before the events of the book. Enjoy!
The grounds of the Royal Benevolent Home for Wayward Youth—universally known by its inmates as Mrs. Wilmore’s Prison for Young Ladies, or simply The Prison—had once been a ‘country’ estate, far enough from the city to boast rolling parklands and sprawling manors, but still close enough to visit on fashionable occasions. Some nobleman, unable to meet his tax obligations, had long ago forfeited the place to the Crown. The Crown, in turn, had bequeathed it to Mrs. Wilmore, in what she continually referred to as ‘an act of unparalleled munificence.’
That lady and her mistresses had worked a great deal of change in the years since they’d taken up residence. The great square manor looked much the same from the outside, but it was surrounded by the long, low wooden dormitories where the girls ate and slept. The grounds, which stretched for miles, had been remade completely. The gardens and walks had been pulled up, the ornamental ponds filled, the hills leveled and the delicate willows and cheery trees chopped down. In their place Mrs. Wilmore had divided the land into a hundred tiny fields, separated by boundaries of piled stones. It looked like a whole county’s worth of farms, squashed together and reproduced in miniature.
It was the lady’s intention (she proclaimed to them, at her Sunday morning sermons) to remake her charges’ troubled characters and cure their various deformities of mind by introducing them to ‘the notion of good, honest toil.’ For Mrs. Wilmore, the honesty of toil seemed to be directly proportional to the amount of dirt involved. The filthier one was at the end of the day, the more honestly one had toiled. Thus her girls were set to planting crops, tending animals, mending fences, and generally learning all the skills that their dishonest urban upbringings had failed to teach them.
Winter was engaged in some very honest toil indeed. Spring had come at last, and the flowers and the warm rain had come heat enough to soften a winter’s worth of hard-frozen dung in the cattle and sheep pens. A detail was at work there now with shovels, and another relay gathered the full buckets and hauled them to dung-heaps. It was always buckets. Winter suspected the wheelbarrows would have encouraged sloth.
There was life all around, after an interminable season of snows and long, cold nights. She walked down the neat little path between the thigh-high piles of stones, between a field of vines and another with a few fruit trees. Both looked dead at first glance, but on closer inspection tiny buds were showing at the ends of the branches. Ahead, the brown grass of a fallow patch was breaking out in eruptions of brilliant spring green.
She always tried not to think when she was carrying buckets of dung, and not to inhale, either. This was far from her first summer at the Prison, but repetition had not made the task any less repulsive, nor woken any great love of honest toil in her heart. Any pleasure she took in the spring colors was tempered by the work that would have to be done, to keep it all in hand. The trees and vines would need to be pruned, the fields tilled, the seeds planted. Winter’s lip twisted at the thought, and she took a deep breath to calm herself, which she instantly regretted.
Ahead was another girl, in the same shapeless brown dress that all the inmates wore, crouching at a gap in a hedge-row beside a bucket like the one Winter carried. Her back was to Winter, but the long red hair that shone darkly in the sun was unmistakable. Jane wore it loose, rather than in a bun as per Prison regulations, whenever she thought she could get away with it.
The two of them had never exchanged a word, though they were the same age. Jane was in the Third Dormitory, the home of all the trouble-makers and the most incorrigible of the vagrants. Winter, a good Second Dormitory girl, never ventured into their territory. But the rumors had come filtering out, and Winter had seen Jane at various all-Dormitory functions, where the others had giggled and pointed her out.
Jane had punched a proctor, they said, and broken her nose. She’d bitten Mistress Gormenthal, and tried to run away three times already. The last time she’d been whipped so hard she’d spent a week lying on her stomach in the infirmary. She’d sewed her skirts into crude trousers, and kept doing it once the proctors caught her and took away the first pair. When Mistress Gormenthal told her that if she ruined all her uniforms, she’d have to parade about naked, Jane had done just that, and spent a week proudly marching about without a stitch. Her back was striped and scarred from all the lashes, they said.
She was clothed now, thankfully. Winter, arms screaming from the weight of the bucket, came to a stop beside her and set the heavy thing down. Jane looked up at her briefly and made a hissing noise.
“Get down!” she said.
“Down!” Jane grabbed her hand and tugged, and Winter automatically sank into a squat, concealed behind the hedge. Jane took a quick look around the hedge and pulled back. “Here she comes.”
“Mary Ellen Todd.” Jane pronounced the name as though it were something vile.
Winter frowned. The First Dormitory proctor was a common sight on the grounds, prowling to make sure the other girls were sticking to their duties. “What about her?”
Jane gave Winter a look that said she couldn’t believe the stupidity of that comment. She took hold of the base of the manure bucket when she heard the crunch of gravel under sensible wooden shoes, and before Winter could so much as protest the Jane stepped out around the hedge, hefted the filth, and hurled it. A shriek suggested that her projectile had found its target. Then Jane was coming back the other way, grabbing Winter’s hand as she went past. Winter stumbled into a run for a few feet before she managed to snatch herself away.
“What are you doing?” Winter said. “They’ll whip your back off again!”
“Only if they catch me,” Jane said. “And they’ll whip you too.”
Winter blinked. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Tell that to Mary Ellen!”
The proctor, dripping and brown, had just emerged from behind the hedge like a particularly foul vision of Hell’s furies. Jane took off, spraying gravel in her wake. Winter, swallowing a curse, took off after her.
They were caught, of course.
At least Winter managed to talk her way out of the whipping. It was Mistress Hodges she ended up explaining things too, while Mary Ellen Todd, washed but still redolent, had looked on. Winter said that she and Jane had been playing a game, and running where they should have been walking, and hadn’t meant anything to happen. She apologized, tearfully, for horsing around when she should have been working. Jane at least had the sense to stay quiet and look contrite.
Mary Ellen looked sour and still suspicious, but Mistress Hodges accepted her claims at face value. A fat, florid-faced old woman, she was the least horrible of Mrs. Wilmore’s assistants, and occasionally showed some spark of compassion towards those in her charge. This time she decreed that Winter and Jane should spend their upcoming exercise period in the sanctum, cleaning the tiles behind the altar. It was a lighter punishment then Winter had expected, even though she hadn’t done anything.
The sanctum was small, dating back to when the house had been a country retreat, but elaborately furnished. Behind the gold-inlaid altar with its silver filigree double-circle, the walls were tiled floor to ceiling with painted scenes from the lives of the Hundred Saints. The candles that the priest lit with every service left streaks of black grit across the polished ceramic and turned the grout between them gray. Mistress Hodges left the two girls with a pair of wire brushes, a bucket of water, and strict instructions not to emerge until every saint sparkled.
Winter dutifully picked up a brush and went to work, scraping the smoky grit off the tiles and working the edges of the brush into the cracks between them. After a few moments, she looked over her shoulder, and saw that Jane wasn’t helping. She sat on the altar, playing with the double-circle. The delicate icon hung from the ceiling, an inch over the altar’s surface, from a slender chain. When Jane tapped it idly with a finger, it spun round and round, flashing in the light from the high, narrow windows.
Winter flung down her brush, angry all over again. She glared at the other girl.
“I am not doing this whole thing myself,” she said.
“So don’t do it,” Jane said.
“We have to do it. Mistress Hodges said we’d be stuck in here until we finished.”
“She doesn’t mean it. They never do, when they say things like that. They’ll tell you, ‘You can just sit in there till you rot!’, but it’s never more than a couple of days.”
“A couple of days? I’m not staying here for a couple of days.”
“Relax. They’ll need the sanctum for services tomorrow morning, won’t they?” Jane smiled at Winter’s horrified look.
After a moment Winter turned on her heel, snatched up the brush again, and went back to work on the saints.
I shouldn’t even be talking to her, she thought. It’s her fault I’m here in the first place.
“I will do the whole thing,” she said aloud. “And then when they ask why it took so long, I’ll tell them you didn’t help at all.”
“Mrs. Wilmore will be very proud of you, telling tales about one of your fellow prisoners. That practically makes you a proctor.” She could hear the sneer in Jane’s voice. “Is that what you’re aiming for? They get to wear such pretty little sashes.”
“You might be a little more grateful,” Winter said. “If not for me, you’d have been whipped for certain.”
“Why should I thank you for that? At least a whipping is over and done with right away. Besides, they can’t whip me anymore.”
“After the last time, I got an infection. The doctor said if they did it again I would probably die. A weakened constitution, he said.”
Winter turned and glared at her. “How often have you gotten whipped?”
“Twice a week, for a while.” Jane shrugged.
“You must be mad.” Winter eyed her suspiciously. She wondered if she was safe, alone with a lunatic.
“Maybe.” Jane smiled again. Her eyes were such a brilliant green they looked like chips of emerald, and they sparkled in the light when she smiled. “I’m hoping to convince Mrs. Wilmore of that, anyway.”
Winter was curious, in spite of herself. “Why?”
“You remember what she said, last week in the yard?” Jane’s voice shifted into an eerily accurate parody of the headmistress. “‘I’ve never met a girl who couldn’t be reformed, so don’t think you’re any different! Every one of you is going to leave these grounds, someday, and you’ll be different people by then.’” Jane gave another shrug, red hair tumbling off her shoulders. “I’m going to prove her wrong. I want to see if she’ll eventually give up.”
“She’ll never give up. Not Mrs. Wilmore. She’ll just keep you here until you’re old and gray. Or else keep whipping you until you do die.”
“Think so? We’ll see, I guess.” Jane unfolded herself and slid down from the altar, giving the double-circle a final tap to set it spinning again. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Winter. Winter Ihernglass.”
“I’m Jane. But you probably know that already.”
“I’ve heard stories,” Winter admitted, flushing a little. “Did you really have to spend a week walking around naked?”
“Only a couple of days. The proctors complained I was distracting the other girls.”
“And did you really bite Mistress Gormenthal?”
Jane licked her lips. “Tastes like chicken.”
Winter laughed. Jane looked at her, an odd half-smile on her face.
“Why did you get me out of the whipping?” she said, after a moment.
“I never meant to,” Winter said.
“You could have told them it was all my fault, and you were just walking along.”
“They never would have believed me,” Winter said. “There’s a trick to it. If you claim to be innocent, they never believe you. So you cry a little and admit that you did it, but admit to something that’s not nearly as bad whatever you actually did.” She frowned a little. “Or didn’t do, in this case, but it doesn’t make any difference as far as they’re concerned. The mistresses hate excuses, but they love confessions.”
This time it was Jane who laughed. Her laugh was loud and musical, and her smile mischievous.
“You’re not such a good girl after all, are you?” she said.
Winter shrugged. “I never said I was. Why did you throw that bucket at Mary Ellen?”
“They gave me a bucket of dung. I had to do something with it.” Jane waved a hand. “Mostly, though, because she’s a stuck-up little bitch who thinks the world of herself, and I wanted to see what she’d look like covered in shit.”
Winter laughed again and covered her mouth, automatically glancing around to see if any proctors had heard the language.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” she said. “This is a sanctum.”
“Oh, Karis’ holy balls,” Jane said, shifting to a dock-worker’s drawl. “Saints and martyrs. We wouldn’t want to fucking defile the fucking sanctum with my shitty talk, would we? God might fucking well strike me down!” She raised her arms and waited for a moment. Winter giggled. “Well, no thunderbolts yet. Might as well get to work.”
Jane picked up the other wire brush and dipped it in the bucket.
“I thought you weren’t going to do it?” Winter said.
“I changed my mind. I did get you in trouble, I guess. It hardly seems fair to do it twice in one day.”
Winter picked up the other brush. “Thanks.”
“I should be thanking you, remember? You saved me from a whipping.” Jane scrubbed a bit, then leaned closer and stared at the tile. “Hey, do you think if I scrubbed hard enough, I could take Saint Griswold’s face off?”
Want to know more about Winter? Check out the rest of Django Wexler’s blog tour for the inside scoop on The Thousand Names,
Book One of The Shadow Campaigns!
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.