How AHA moments changed A Study of Ash & Smoke

We all have little aha moments while writing. Those moments come to us either through brainstorming, talking to others about our work, feedback from betas or editors–heck, even the most random of places–but those aha moments spark the changes in the story that pull everything together.

You could probably guess I had plenty of aha moments in the 5 years it took to write the book that would become A Study of Ash & Smoke. I mean, I have 5 complete drafts of it stored in the cloud.

Here’s how it went down.

In the Beginning

So. I wrote this book, right. The Physician’s Apprentice. A story about a young woman, Cara, who has to hide from her murderous father, while working as a physician’s apprentice for Magnus Cutter, and his son, Nathaniel. When a deadly plague breaks out in the slums, all physicians and their apprentices are needed to fight this disease. Pretty similar to what the core story is today, but that’s about where the resemblance ends.

In the first draft, Nathan knew Cara was hiding something major, but had no idea what–a fact that pretty much drove him insane. His father (who has always known everything) and Cara continuously stonewalled him instead of answering his questions, which made him a little agro (Nathan was a huge arsehole in the first few drafts because he was so angry).

Additionally, Cara was so afraid and so untrusting that she didn’t get much done.

The first two chapters were told by viewpoint characters who died at the ends of their chapters. These were the carriers of the plague, who brought the illness into Aelland. The rest of the book was narrated by Cara and Nathan, with a kind of omniscient third thrown in now and then to tell us what was happening in the slums. Sera, a secondary character, didn’t have much stage time, while Pointy, Magnus, Jerry, Amhed, and Nita floated around in the background.

The story was much simpler than it is today, and Nathan and Cara were both pretty vanilla in character, which meant it was boring as hell. 😛 When they weren’t arguing, they were thinking of arguing, and all of this drove them so far apart in the readers’ minds that NOBODY shipped them.

To me, it made perfect sense–they were at odds because she was so afraid to trust and he so desperately wanted her to trust him. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the skill to convey that idea. And the story suffered.

Once my brilliant editor, Nerine Dorman, was done with the first draft of the story, she sent me an editorial letter as thick as the first five volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. One of her notes was that the story going down in the slums was okay, but that this plague–which, BTW, was one of the biggest events in the story–didn’t translate as urgent enough. Meanwhile, a good friend had made a similar comment–she didn’t really care about the sick people.

And the heavens opened and a blinding light shone down on Yolandie, and she said to herself, ‘Let there be Lance,’ and there was Lance.

Okay, all jokes aside, Lance really was inspired because of those two comments. I needed a character on the ground, right in the shit-flinging zone. And because he needed to read like a person and not just a plothole plugger, he needed a backstory and something to fight for. So Puck was born.

But Wait, There’s More

The aha that birthed Lance filled one plothole and dug another. Because I realised the rulers of Aelland didn’t really give a damn about what was going down in the slums either. Just like the reader, they didn’t feel much need to intervene.

And, once again the heavens opened, and… Well, you get the idea. 😛 I realised I have a character in the palace, one with relative power, who might care about the slummers and their fate. Why not use her? And that’s how Sera was drafted for her point of view.

Again, she needed a backstory and some sort of side-plot that would make her interesting enough for people to want to read about. Which, of course, meant her father. Now, much more was happening in the palace, and Sera was on the ground to tell us all about it.

This window into the palace opened a glimpse into court politics and tied in so nicely with my idea to include spies and lies.

Meanwhile, one of Nerine’s comments also helped me see that the emperor and his fight outside Aelland meant pretty much nothing for the overall plot. There was no urgency, and nobody really cared what was going on outside the Mantle.

It meant a rewrite, sure, but what I needed was a character outside, in the rest of the world. One who had been touched by the war, one who had suffered loss due to the war, and one who would fight in this war. Enter Varda.

Let me tell you, folks, the creation of Varda made waves. She was outside, right? Privy to information Cara and the others could only dream about. She created opportunity like none of the other characters did, and I could build an entire world around her. Because of Varda, most of the story as it is now developed.

Five Flavours of Vanilla

I still had the vanilla issue. I’m so lucky that Nerine Dorman is connected, though. She introduced me to the fabulous Cat Hellisen, who edited the fourth draft of TPA.

Cat was the first person to really get it into my thick skull that characters needed motivation. If they were just doing stuff for the hell of it, they wouldn’t appeal to readers. And that switch finally flipped in my brain.

Motivation. Why did these characters want what they wanted? Once I figured that out, it was so much easier to fill in the blanks.

Meanwhile, though so many beta readers had told me they didn’t really ship Nathan and Cara, I didn’t understand why until my brilliant friend, Tom, said it was like Nathan and Cara were working against each other more often than working together.

And the heavens opened, and the light, and yada yada, and it suddenly clicked. I mean, looking back now, it makes SO MUCH SENSE. Back then, though, it was like a holy light. They needed to work together.

In the final draft of TPA, Nathan finally stopped being an arsehole 90% of the time, Cara actually faced her fears, and the two worked toward the same goals. And, hey presto, we had a working plot. Now, beta readers were rooting for them. The ship sailed at long last.

Change of Title, We Have a Book

These, of course, weren’t the only aha moments that altered the plot of ASOSAAS. Some of them involve the antagonists of this series, some of them involve characters yet to feature on a page. Some aha moments will mean the demise of characters, ships, and our trust in characters or ships. You know, all in a day’s work.

Are all the plotholes filled? No. I’ll never fill every plothole. That’s just how it is. Still, I’m happy with how it turned out.

Until next time.



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A Study of Ash & Smoke
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