After writing Dragon’s Heart, I felt things were starting to come together. My writing was improving, and with Sean’s helped I’d identified a few key flaws that had been hindering my stories. My goal for 2012 was to apply those lessons and write something I could submit for publication. I knew that meant learning how to polish and edit, but I figured that would come easily once I had a solid foundation to work with.
I’d been trying to develop a storyline starring a canine character for a while. My ideas folder had a half dozen sketches, but none of them gained any traction in my head. Then, I read the first few books in the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne (check him out here). The books are light-hearted, fast-paced urban fantasy starring Atticus, an immortal, super-powerful druid who goes around kicking paranormal ass. Atticus is accompanied by his Irish Greyhound, Oberon, whom Atticus gave sentience and the ability to telepathically communicate.
That gave me an idea: what happened if you took the powerful, kind of snarky urban fantasy main character (like Atticus or Harry Dresden), and made him a dog?
I thought that sounded fun, so I came up with the idea of Gare, the immortal German Shepherd. Two hundred years ago Gare had been a regular dog, raised by a powerful gifted human named Roland. Roland, a mad-scientist type, was always experimenting with magic and managed to give Gare sentience. He trained Gare in magic as well; shapeshifting (to human and other forms), elemental manipulation. He even gave him the gift of immortality.
When Roland died, Gare found himself alone in a world that he didn’t understand. Though shape-shifters were common, they were all human at the core. More then once humans tried to take advantage of him, and he learned not to trust anyone.
Gare decided the only thing to be done was to find some kind of magic to resurrect Roland, so he managed to steal a magic crown held by the tyrant Yaroslav that was rumored to do exactly that. But the crown’s power turned out to be sealed, protected by a code that no one had ever been able to break, much less a dog.
Gare learns that in the real world, it’s every dog for himself, and the best bet when trouble’s coming is to run. He spends the years bouncing between various human companions, leaving each when there’s any hint that Yaroslav is on his tail. He tries living as a regular dog, other times as a human, but most of the time it’s neither and he finds none of it satisfying.
Finally, Gare finds someone who might be able to help him. Ben is a newly-minted math Ph.D. who’s already hit global headlines by cracking a centuries old cipher. Gare offers Ben a deal – Gare would teach Ben magic, in exchange for Ben trying to break the crown’s seal.
But just as Ben begins to make progress, Yaroslav tracks Gare down, eager to take his crown back and extract some revenge. Helped by a group of mindtwisters, gifted with the ability to manipulate thought and emotions, Yaroslav begins to make Gare and Ben’s life a living hell.
Gare’s first instinct is to run again, but that means abandoning Ben to whatever cruel fate Yaroslav has in mind. For the first time in his life, he decides to stay in fight.
I wrote the first draft, finishing it in late January of this year. I thought it was a clear improvement over Dragon’s heart, so now came the big question: how to polish it? How far away from something publishable was this?
I ran my own post-mortem over the draft, and, well, found more flaws than I liked. I spent most of February working on the plot, and more importantly, trying to figure out what the story actually was supposed to be about. I had this notion of the book being about Gare’s journey, but frankly, I was pretty undecided on who Gare was. His personality came off as inconsistent. I couldn’t decide how to balance the dog qualities and human qualities. I thought his goals were vague at times, and worse, his voice just wasn’t coming through on the page.
Other issues included the secondary characters all being paper thin, and the tone of the story being undecided, starting off light-hearted and growing rather dark by the end. A number of scenes were obvious filler and border-line boring. My dialogue attempted to witty but, due to me not being as engaged with the characters as I needed to be, came off as stilted.
In other words, it needed a lot of work.
But no problem, I thought. I came up with a long list of improvements and started in on the second draft, maintaining a lot of the structure by writing the scenes from scratch. The first third or so went well; the characters came together, the action was sharper, the dialogue better.
The second third still fell flat. I ended up leaving the second draft incomplete about 80% of the way through. I stopped because I realized I was compromising the story I wanted to tell with a plot that wasn’t serving that purpose.
This was depressing, to say the least. I was a month away from my first big writing seminar. I had this fantasy of having a complete manuscript to show off to interested parties. I’d told family and friends I expected to have something to show them for critique in by May or June. None of that was going to happen.
But it wasn’t all storm clouds – there was a real epiphany here. In the shambles of the failed second draft I found the real Gare, so to speak. I found the story I wanted to tell, and I found the way to tell it.
And next week, I’ll tell you all about it!