Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy and the novel Borne. VanderMeer shares his five writing tips.
Writing the rough draft of a novel might seem hard enough all by itself. But after you have a draft, the work is still just beginning because for most novels revision is the key to success—as is finding enthusiasm for revision to make your manuscript everything you want it to be. Such enthusiasm means not just renewed energy and having a positive outlook after the initial adrenaline rush of inspiration, but also being patient. Often, this means not seeking out “efficiency” in your process. Getting too quickly to where you want to go, getting there too smoothly, is antithetical to thinking through complex issues. You want roadblocks, confusion, chaos, and doubt. Unexpected, wonderful things come out of this approach.
But at some point, no matter how good your partial or rough draft is, you may also have to methodically test your novel—in all ways, from the structure down to the paragraph level. For my new novel Borne, I made a number of revisions based on taking a step back and thinking about what I wanted the book to emphasize and what the characters told me about the story.
The novel is set in a ruined city of the future threatened by a giant psychotic bear and told from the viewpoint of a climate refugee named Rachel, who one day finds a bit of abandoned biotech. She raises “Borne” as if he is her own child, and in the process changes the fate of the city. The main creative writing question I was faced with was: “How do I balance the personal and the epic?” Many of my decisions in revision of an initial third of the novel, with scene fragments and rough draft of the rest, came out from answering this question. Here is what I learned.
1. Changes to structure can relieve pressure and allow your novel to breathe. Initially I had thought of the book as being in two parts, and the sort of book where you receive much of the context up front. But as I weighed how much information to provide to the reader and where, I realized I should experiment with a three-part structure because I was in danger of off-loading too much context too quickly on the reader. In novels not set in the present-day, this can result in an undesirable thickness that weighs down scenes. As soon as I mapped out what this change would mean, I felt a huge sense of relief. Suddenly the whole idea of even what scenes had to go where changed drastically.
2. Finding space for proper introduction of characters does not mean sacrificing tension. Once I knew the novel would have three parts, roughly corresponding to stages in Borne’s development, it meant that scenes involving other characters could now be spread out across all three sections and I could introduce characters like the Magician, an antagonist, in a more leisurely way. Ironically, this “leisure” would create more tension in the novel because I no longer had to do more than allude to the Magician until the point at which her entrance would be most dramatic. The Magician needs her own space in the novel to be understood and appreciated by the reader. Any rush to do so would have blurred her personality and created confusion as to her role in the story.
3. The emotional depth of your story can be affected by how you provide exposition. A change in structure meant a change in the length of the novel to some degree, but more importantly it meant I had more space for context related to setting and landscape and history to be situated at regular intervals along the way—only in the places it was needed and thus made more active than simply inert exposition. This changed the texture of the novel by making individual moments of description or explanation shorter. The space left behind is filled instead by the emotional lives of the characters—a kind of interiority with regard to the narrator that hopefully deepens the novel and makes it more emotionally complex. Ultimately, then, whereas in my prior Area X novels the setting deliberately seems to devour the characters, the characters in Borne stand out in stark relief from the setting.
4. A multi-level narrative voice requires detailed attention at the paragraph level. Because I saw Rachel as an educated, sophisticated voice, the rough draft often had too many words better suited for an essay. I felt this was necessary in the draft to establish voice, but in revision, I cut or changed a number of such instances while leaving others. What I left was enough to signify the kind of narrator Rachel was, but the cuts also supported the changes to structure that resulted in fewer “lumped” descriptions of setting. In a way, the simpler the language became, the more complex the effects. This is because some of the more complex word choices drew too much attention to themselves in the midst of highly emotional scenes—scenes in which I wanted the reader fully engaged in the moment of the scene. However, leaving in several of these complex word choices was essential not just to characterization but to the frame of history through which Rachel tells the story. The diction must move from informal to more formal at moments when Rachel thinks she is imparting something of historical importance. Without the signifiers of more complex vocabulary, I could not make this shift without it being jarring.
5. A character’s past can be parceled out in aid of balancing the personal and epic. Rachel’s history is incredibly important both to how we think of her but also how we think of the city and the world beyond the city. At one time, I had a long separate early chapter that detailed her past, thinking this was necessary for characterization. But I later realized, in the new context for the novel’s structure, that this chapter would be more effective broken up and spread throughout the novel, with more of it dramatized than summarized. This was possible because in revision Rachel’s relationship with Borne became ever more central to the heart of the novel. Which is to say, the emotional resonance of that relationship created, I hoped, enough reader sympathy that the backstory of how Rachel came to the city wasn’t needed upfront and could be redistributed throughout all three parts of the novel. But, again, only in those places where it had the most relevance—and where these scenes would serve to ground the novel in the personal, as a counterbalance to the epic events going on in the city (in the third act especially).
For Borne to approach success as both a story about heroic, larger-than-life events—as well as big issues like climate change and tech-gone-wrong—but also “quieter” themes like parenting and the striving to be one’s better self…all of these elements had to be brought into perfect alignment. Whether I was successful or not is up to readers. But I do know that the changes I made during revision helped Borne have a chance of being what the characters and situations told me it should be: personal yet also with the context of history brought into focus, with raging monsters and action scenes, as well as filled with quiet moments of reflection and love.