Today’s post will be a little more personal. For years now, off and on, I’ve been working on a fantasy story about a shepherd, Foldwin, who crosses paths with a wild, beautiful, enchanted young woman. Call it my pet project. Or maybe my apprenticeship.
I started the story as a gift for my wife, who loves fairy tales. In fact, the bones of the story trace back to a road trip in which, to while away the time, she and I hatched a short adventure about an enchanted girl driven from home by a jealous mother, and the farm boy who agrees to escort her home—not knowing what he’s in for, of course. When I sat down a couple of years later to write the tale down, it came out much longer than I’d expected. Challenges and twists presented themselves, and—in the spirit of Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories”—I met them, unafraid to dip into the cauldron of tales, such I knew it then.
Some things I drew out of that cauldron included talking donkeys, a snowy mountain, a wicked queen with an enchanted mirror, and a golden realm—faerie within faerie, so to speak. The girl, unbeknownst to me, was a kind of Snow White figure, though without the gullible passivity. In fact, she scared the life out of that poor shepherd, half the time, even though—predictably—he fell in love with her.
In the end, the story stretched to almost 50,000 words—a short novel, and one of the longest things I’d written up to that point. I combed out some of the worst tangles and presented it to her. And she liked it very much.
That probably could have, and maybe even should have, been the end of that story. But I took in my mind that, rather than just working at a factory forty hours a week (as I was then doing), I might be able to write my way out of such tedium and into something much better. Or at least, I thought, maybe I can write my way out of debt. So I began the long process of trying to learn about publishing, and I edited and completed earlier stories and started sending them out. I worked over Foldwin too, and sent it to several publishers. They all liked the sound of it, all ordered a fuller sample, and all passed on it. (Shrug)
So I shelved it. Then re-edited it, sent it out a couple more times. Then shelved it again.
And came back to it years later. (It’s on my shelf again, but that’s not where this is going.) In an earlier post, I referred to the perils of embarking on a journey to faerie. This is my prime example. “Foldwin the Shepherd” was (and is) in essence a fairy story. As such, it had the tendency (in the earlier drafts) to pass over as assumed things that, in a novel, ought to be explained. Such as why a shepherd would volunteer to help a wild, standoffish young woman. In the fairy tales, the shepherd would obviously do that—it’s how he and the reader embark on the story itself. So it was in my story. But at 50k words, you don’t get to pull that stunt. Novel readers expect some probing of the characters’ psyche, or at least an account of their motivations.
Putting in that kind of insight added thirty-five thousand words to the second draft. But then other things had to be explained. And, for that matter, angles and tensions and suspense suggested themselves for inclusion. After all, in a fairy tale of three pages, you don’t have a lot of time for themes or suspense. In a story of 75k words, you better have those, or your reader will feel like a part in an assembly line, experiencing discreet whams from a series of dies (with apologies for the factory metaphor …).
When it comes to themes and tensions, though, a fairy story presents unique challenges. For one thing, it strips away the limitations of our mundane life and, in their place, it demands an accounting of the laws of the story world. It demands that I, the writer, know why certain things can (and must) happen there, and what the new limitations are. For me, this meant becoming a more astute observer of nature in all its guises. I needed to learn how and why there was enchantment and magic, why donkeys could speak, and why the witch-queen surrounded herself with snow. All this while I was trying to learn the mechanics of good novel writing.
But aside from these technical matters, a fairy story demands from the writer an honest self-knowledge that, at that point in my life, I was still learning to embrace. Or maybe I should say it requires an openness to self-disclosure, a willingness to encounter oneself in strange places, to see oneself as something you had not expected to be. I think—I’m far from alone—that fantasy makes peculiar demands here, though my experience with quality literary fiction suggests a similar process.
In the end, my own complex rendering of a Snow White tale has turned out to be a kind of apprenticeship in fairy story creation. What I didn’t expect, was that I would be fashioned so much in the process.
Postscript: An excellent article on the Snow White strand of folk tales, by Terri Windling, can be found here. Among other things, it gives other examples of more pro-active Snow White figures.