The cover of the book Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors: How I Almost Wrote Too Much Story

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The cover of the novella Ashes of the Ancestors

Ashes of the Ancestors had a slightly unusual beginning, and a writing process that didn’t go the way it normally does.

Back in June 2021, I submitted a novel to Luna Press. In her rejection email, Francesca said that there was a lot to like about it, but that it wouldn’t fit with Luna’s novel line. She asked if I’d be able to trim it down to novella length, for a submission window coming up in 2022.

It’s great when editors and publishers give you an encouraging sort of rejection, and I like to seize those opportunities. After all, when someone asks to see a revised version of a story, you know that they’re interested in something about it. But that novel was too unwieldy to trim down below 40,000 words, so instead I decided to treat this encouragement as motivation to write something new. An editor liked how I wrote a story, so I’d write something specifically for her call.

I went diving into my big Evernote file of writing ideas, a rich mulch of snippets and concepts that’s been slowly composting into inspiration for years, and pulled out the idea of writing something about history and tradition, themes close to my heart. Of course, I needed something more concrete to hang the story on, but there was also a note about a monastery full of ghosts. Nothing speaks to the past like ghosts, so it seemed a perfect fit.

I tend to go heavy on my planning when I write. I find that stories flow best for me if I’ve got a sturdy structure to work with. Sometimes that planning gets very intricate, as I weave in all the ideas that have been floating around over years of considering a story.

For Ashes, I started with the characters. Having different characters to represent different approaches to history and tradition seemed a good way of expressing my theme. The different approaches could directly conflict through those characters. So I created a bunch of characters with different history-related agendas, from casting off the past to wallowing in it. Then I worked out what plots would arise from their interactions, mapped out the highs and lows of those plotlines, and spaced those beats out into a sensible number of chapters for a novella of up to 40,000 words. So far, so good.

Normally, my next step would be to write the whole story, but this time I hit a snag. It very quickly became clear that I wasn’t used to novella length stories. I had too much going on, and within a couple of thousand words, I could see that it wouldn’t fit.

I went back and worked out which characters, with their own plot arcs and story strands, I could lose while still keeping the core of the story. That hurt. I was pleased with my outline and proud of how clever I’d been in making these lovely symbolic characters. But I forced myself to ditch or combine a bunch of them and rewrite the outline around their absence.

This time it worked. Based on that outline, I hammered through the first draft of Ashes of the Ancestors in less than a month.

By the end of that, I already had some ideas of things I could do better, what I wanted to emphasise or add more of. So I went back through for an edit, tidying up prose and reinforcing characters, then sent it out to some lovely beta readers, all of whom had previously given me useful feedback on my work.

The beta readers came back to me with comments on the book’s strengths and weaknesses, and some general ideas for changes to make it stronger, most of which I used and a few of which I decided didn’t fit what I was after. Other people can give you a more objective perspective on your work, but that doesn’t mean that everything they suggest will fit your aims. This isn’t improv, and knowing when to say no is as important as mostly saying yes. Before editing, I compiled the comments from different readers together, grouping them by chapter where relevant, or by some other connecting thread, for example stylistic stuff or comments on a particular character. That meant that I could compare comments, see the recurring themes, and not end up revising the same thing multiple times.

After I’d done those edits, I read the book once more to look for any mistakes I’d added during the editing, before setting it aside. It waited on my hard drive until Luna Press opened their submission window for novellas, and then it was out of my hands.

Writing this book was immensely satisfying. I learned some valuable things about my craft, including what’s too much plot for a novella. And I’ve produced something good enough to get published.

Here’s hoping I can pull that trick off again.

If you’ve gotten something from this, or you’ve got you own experiences of the writing process to share, then why not find me on Mastodon or Twitter and tell me about them.

And if what you’ve read so far has got you intrigued, you can buy Ashes of the Ancestors here:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook