I started work on A Precarious Balance, sequel to A Lonely Magic, last week. I didn’t get very far, partially because I kept getting distracted by Grace, but also because I was flailing a bit. I’ve got lots of notes, and there were things I’d already written that I wanted to re-use, so I compiled everything into a Scrivener file and got started. But as I tried to write, I was having a tough time finding Fen’s voice.

I finally decided two days ago that I needed to re-read the book again and refresh my memory on all the details, not just the ones that I’d put into my notes.

I didn’t like it.

That was a weird experience. I don’t always like what I’ve written (understatement, yes), but I LOVED writing A Lonely Magic. It was so much fun and I liked being in Fen’s head so much, and her adventures were so surprising, and such a beautiful blend of things I enjoy, science and adventure and fantasy and romance. But four years later, I’m re-reading and I didn’t like her at all. She’s bland and a little whiny and annoying.

And then, at about the halfway mark, I read the line, “Her own reputation had been shot to hell even before she dropped out and she hadn’t given fuck one.” and the “fuck” was startlingly out-of-place. It wasn’t the first time she’d used the word, but it was pretty close. And I realized that the version I was reading — which was in Vellum, which is the software I use to create ebooks — was the version I had once-upon-a-time tried to delete all the swear words from.

I wrote about it at the time. I was tired of getting negative reviews about Fen’s swearing so I tried to edit it into a “clean” version, and I realized partway through that Fen’s cursing is part of her, that it didn’t work to clean up her language, and I stopped. It REALLY doesn’t work to clean up Fen’s language. She goes from a character who is internally tough, a fighter despite her relative level of helplessness, to a… well, leaf in the wind.

In the hotel room scene, Swearing-Fen is stuck because she’s considered her options and she can’t find a way out but you know that she’s still fighting, even if it’s only in her head. (She never swears aloud in that scene, it’s all in her inner dialogue.) In the same scene, Clean-Fen is stuck and she’s passive and helpless about it. She’s going along with what other people are deciding for her future because she’s got no choice. Losing her inner obscenities takes her from edgy and angry to blandly accepting. She is not an interesting character to me when she’s being bland.

Largely, I think, that’s a good realization to have. I can’t write a book with Clean Fen. She is not someone I want to spend the next six months with. But it was not at all a happy realization to discover that the version in Vellum was the bland version. That means that the one available online is also the bland version. I know that because I only have one Vellum file and it has the latest cover. But oh, what a screw-up. I suppose it doesn’t matter terribly if I publish another version online, but these were non-trivial edits. They changed the flavor of the story. I don’t even know how long that’s the version that’s been available. Sigh.

The good news, I guess, is that it doesn’t really sell much — 100 copies in the past 12 months — so not many readers are going to know or care. Yay for being an unsuccessful author, I guess?

It is interesting, though, as a writer, to discover how such a seemingly minor change can become so important. One of my favorite occupations is playing with ideas for book covers. I’ve got probably at least a dozen designs for A Lonely Magic that I’ve toyed with — it’s literally been published with at least five or six different covers, but I’ve got a bunch more that haven’t seen the light of day — but I’ve never been satisfied, because somehow I’ve never found one that conveys the feel of the book to me. Maybe that’s because I don’t really know how the book feels?

I do know that the last time I read the book, which was in a print edition just a few months ago, I laughed when I got to the ending. Despite all the reviews that criticized the cliffhanger ending, I never believed it ended in a cliffhanger, not once. Fen found family, she found magic, she’s in a safe place, she knows who wanted to kill her, she’s defeated the bad guy — what the hell is a cliffhanger about that? Except it’s totally a cliffhanger, because when I was reading it with the perspective of time, I ended it really, really wanting to know what happens next. Everything with Malik is interesting and even though he’s the bad guy, and his resolution technically doesn’t matter, I absolutely want Fen to figure out how he’s bound and how to get him unbound.

A few of the many covers for ALM that I’ve made and never used. Which one looks most like the story to you?

Sample cover for A Lonely Magic

another sample cover for A Lonely Magic