The Joys and Pains of Re-Reading My First Novel—Part 2

My task for February was simple. I wanted to re-read The Changelings, the 530-page epic fantasy tome I published back in 2015. But the challenge proved greater than I thought. For most of February, I hemmed and hawed, read a few chapters out of order, got inspired to write the sequel novel, stopped reading… and was back to hemming and hawing. As the month of February came to an end, I began to wonder whether I should extend the deadline to March.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

This was my make it or break it day. If I buckled down and really got to reading, I might be able to make it. With 5 days left and 20 chapters to go, I was far from optimistic—less so, when I sat down to read and hit a wall. Yet again.

I took out my notebook and journaled out my feelings, until I could figure out the nature of my mental block. Surprisingly, it had less to do with my book and more to do with the act of reading itself. Last October, I’d read an older book called Song of Years that shed light on ideas embedded in American culture… ideas I didn’t necessarily agree with… ideas I realized had been repeated in books I’d read as a child… ideas that had rooted in my psyche. This shook me. Suddenly, I felt less trusting of reading, this act of surrendering to another author’s ideas.

But if there was any author I’d trust, it was myself, right?

The fact remained, though, that reading was no longer relaxing, so I decided to make it relaxing by any means necessary. I put off reading The Changelings until that evening. Then I filled the bath with warm water, added some drops of scented oil, and opened my book.

This time, I didn’t skip around. I started with the prologue. And, knowing how the story unfolded, that first scene was really adorable… and a little heart-breaking. As I sank further into the warm water, I began to enjoy myself. Reading my book was starting to feel less like a homework assignment and more like… well, how reading ought to be. Fun.

I started on the first chapter, and that’s when a vivid memory flashed upon me. I was living in Kanoya, Japan, working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), and one summer, I was assigned to help with a language camp for junior high school students at the KAPIC Center, or the Kanoya Asia Pacific International Cultural Center, in the middle of the lush green countryside. I was supposed to be one of the teachers, but I felt as much like a kid as any of the students: playing with the toys and musical instruments at the museum, hiking around the riverbed, staying overnight in the little dorm rooms, meeting new people. In the midst of this activity whirlwind, I got inspired to write the first chapter of The Changelings. I had drafts of it I’d written in college, but at KAPIC, I was bombarded with whole scenes and dramatic dialogue. Whenever I had spare minute, I snuck back to my room and wrote in a frenzy.

KAPIC Center in Kagoshima Prefecture Japan, where I got inspired to write the first chapter of The Changelings. This, I believe, is the museum building.

Most of that inspiration made it into the final book. That’s why I remembered KAPIC so vividly. It’s such a contrast. I was so happy and relaxed, in such a peaceful, beautiful place, while poor Sylvie, my main character, was stressed and upset and living in the dry, ugly desert.

Another view of KAPIC.

I liked the slow build-up of the first chapter, but I wished that I had ended it with more of an emotional punch. Then, thinking on it more, I realized, at the time, that was the best I could do. I could only imagine so far, I could only express emotions up to a certain point. At the time, I had pushed as far as I could. Now, though, I could probably do better.

I had stayed in the bathtub for 1 hour, long enough for the water to go cold. Though I had only read 2 chapters in that time, at least I was reading something. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t finish by the end of February, but since that deadline was self-imposed, what did it matter? I extended it until the end of March.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Reading in the bath had proven effective, so I decided to do it again, even though it meant waiting until the end of the day to read, and therefore, imposing a limit on how much I could get done. The most important thing, I’d found, was getting myself into a relaxed state, free from distractions.

I began Chapter 2 with some trepidation. In this chapter, I introduce Warden, a character that someone in my writing group vehemently hated. I took this critique to heart and it crushed me, and so I wondered, as I read, if I would see all my character’s flaws (and my flaws as a writer) laid bare. However, the opposite happened. I like Warden. I don’t care what anyone thinks. I know his journey, and I like how I wrote him. That’s my opinion.

I didn’t have any lovely flashbacks about writing Chapter 2, because writing Chapter 2 was a grind. So much set-up and so many introductions. I had to constantly re-work it, throwing out one scene, writing a new one, throwing it out. There was no bout of inspiration, just work.

But, at the end of the day, I got it done, and reading Chapter 2 wasn’t nearly as painful as writing it. I thought Sylvie’s point of view and emotions really anchored what might otherwise be a tornado of exposition. I enjoyed the political intrigue and grand speeches in Chapter 3. I was having so much fun that, once I was out of the bath, I continued reading. Chapter 4 had a couple of action scenes, one I found exciting, one I found dull.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The week was over, and I was tired. I wanted to rest and relax… I wanted to read. Now that reading was not associated with work, I found I could just pop open my book while resting on my bed, or sitting outside in the warm California sunshine.

Earlier in February, I had decided to skip to Chapter 5, the first of the “Sylvie chapters,” as I call them. The past few days, I had been reading in order, but now I had to decide: should I re-read the Sylvie chapters or should I skip them? Since I’d moved up my decision, I decided to re-read them, and I was not upset at my decision. A lot of the “Sylvie chapters” set up events in the chapters centered around my other characters.

I had hoped to read from Chapter 5 until Chapter 10. Instead I read until Chapter 13, and I didn’t want to stop. A couple times I got the chills, which was cool. The Gryphons were awesome and fun. And as characters started moving out of the desert, it fell into the adventurous travel mode I love. It’s one of my favorite parts about epic fantasy.

One thing I regretted was that I had spent so much time and effort setting up a battle, and while I loved the set-up, the execution was… a little lackluster. In my defense, this was one of the chapters I re-wrote the most. Trying to wrap my head around battle strategy was not easy. I did my best. That’s what gave me comfort, in the end. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best I could do.

Because I wanted to see if I improved on battles, I decided to look over my material for The Originals, the sequel to The Changelings. This included some detailed battles I’d written in spring 2019. I got better. I got a lot better. But reading chapters for The Originals made me eager to learn more about the characters, so I started playing around with some scenes and before I knew it, two weeks had passed. On the bright side, I’d written 50 new pages for The Originals. Unfortunately, I hadn’t gotten any more reading done for The Changelings.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Being exhausted due to writing was, in some ways, a good incentive to begin reading, again, because reading typically relaxes me. But reading my own published work (and cringing at the errors or imperfections) is never relaxing to start. Plus, I had some weird notion that reading my published work might somehow negate my new work. Thoughts are weird. Nonetheless, I did get 2 chapters read. I read in the afternoon, and I did find a typo, but there was nothing I could do about it. Gradually, my mindset shifted, and reading became more pleasant and relaxing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I’d planned to read 2 chapters a day, but I ended up reading 4. The first 2 chapters I read in the afternoon, and the second 2 chapters, I read in the bathtub, because I wanted to, because I was enjoying myself. There were more errors I found and cringed at—a few times where I used one word instead of another and the spell check didn’t catch it. Little details in the settings gave me more flashbacks of my time in Japan: a restaurant with a fire pit in the floor, people hawking souvenirs around sacred sights.

Food vendors outside a torii, or shine gate, in Kyoto, Japan. Sacred sites also functioned as tourist attractions was a little detail I added to my novel.

I kept wondering about why reading my own book was taking me so long. I used to read so quickly when I was a kid; I’d finish a book in a day and go back for more. A metaphor came to me. When I was young, I also used to gobble meals down quickly. I might like or dislike the food, but I never put much thought into what went into making them. As an adult, I prepare my own meals. I savor them more, because I know the time and effort it took to create them.

Friday, March 12, 2021

I’d had a terrible Thursday, which might have knocked my reading schedule off course, but since I read twice as many chapters on Wednesday, I was in good shape. I wanted to read 3 chapters this day, but I ended up just reading 1.

Chapter 20 contained more shout-outs to Japan—in this case, Matsushima, literally Pine-Island, a place I traveled to in Northern Japan. (Oddly enough, when I visited Matsushima, I was so caught up in reading a book, I hardly appreciated it; yet, somehow, the details of the place sank in my memory and emerged when I began writing.) More importantly, this chapter marked the point where I began setting up The Originals. I took a lot of notes while I was reading, mostly to help me remember details I might need for my second book.

Me standing on the bridge leading to one of the pine islands of Matsushima, the inspiration for one of the places in my novel.

I ended the week in a good place, and I figured I’d finish reading The Changelings by next week, for sure. But that really didn’t happen. Emotional stuff that hit me, which I then channeled into art. (Not my writing, visual art.) The next week, I was still recovering from my emotional tsunami, so reading my book got pushed to the side. I wasn’t in the mood.

It didn’t help that the chapter I’d left off at, Chapter 21, was one I dreaded. I could still remember writing it and feeling so awkward and embarrassed, I could hardly look at it. It was another Warden chapter, and this one dealt with God and religion, which is really difficult to write about in a sincere way. It was also a very important chapter to the set up of Book 2, so I knew I needed to look at it.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

I wanted to finish The Changelings before March ended, and I was running out of days, so I bit the bullet and read the dreaded chapter in the afternoon, right before making dinner. It was not nearly as bad as I thought. Actually, I rather liked it. I thought it started off strong and flowed smoothly. The ending was a bit too abrupt, a by product of over-editing and my own awkwardness. Anything that involved prayer made me feel very vulnerable and embarrassed, since I was writing down a lot of my own beliefs and grappling with my own spirituality. But that was a relatively small proportion of the chapter, and all the other parts, I liked.

I felt inspired. After preparing and eating dinner, I scribbled down some notes for The Originals.

The next chapter was a “Sylvie” chapter, and one of my personal favorites. When I originally wrote it, it was over 50 pages, and I’d figured out a way to sheer it down to about 20 pages, with all the drama intact. I was so proud. I took my book into the bathtub, started reading… and I didn’t stop until I finished the book.

I came out of the bathtub, of course. When the water went cold, I put on some p.j.s and relocated to my bed. I read until it was almost midnight. There was a chapter involving Gryphons that was fun and games, there was a chapter with big twists and reveals, there was a battle scene that was pure chaos and so much better than my previous battle.

But what I really enjoyed was how everything started to braid together, and how you could start to see all the little consequences of the characters’ journey add up and create a momentous event. You got a glimpse… just a glimpse… of the larger picture.

But once I finished the book, my first thought was, “Where’s the next one?” The answer was, “I’m still writing it.” So much of The Changelings is set-up, and now I’ve got to start paying it off. I remember, when I published The Changelings, it was a decade-long, exhausting effort, and yet, as soon as it was done, I knew I had to do it all over again, but better. It’s a lot of pressure.

Why exactly do I feel the need to write about this experience and post it on my blog? After all, it’s just me reading my own book. It’s hardly a notable event… not from the outside. Within me, within the turmoil of my mind and emotions, it is a kind of journey.

Whenever I write, I’m aware that I’m creating a “time capsule.” I feel like I’m chronicling something for future me to look back on… but I’m not sure what. Reading The Changelings was like finally opening the time capsule, looking back at my former self, and realizing that, yeah, I was still learning, I wasn’t perfect—but I really did pour my heart and soul into my project. The Changelings contains, for better or worse, the “me” of my 20s.

One reason I write fantasy is because, although I love the concept of epic fantasy, it is really hard to find a completed story I unconditionally love. I’ve been burned a lot in the past. It’s really easy to look at a less-than-perfect work, and say, “I can do better.” Well, this was my chance to prove myself, and re-reading my book after all these years is form of judgement. Did I succeed in writing a story I wanted to read?

So far, I’m going to say, yes. Whatever else, The Changelings was true to my artistic vision. I felt that the world was unique, I liked the characters, and the ending tied the different plot threads together nicely. That’s what I wanted. Yet, I also can’t look at it and say it’s my favorite book, because I wrote it. It’s different, reading a book you wrote versus a book written by someone else. You can’t be surprised when you read your own book; there aren’t any new ideas to consider or points of view to bounce off of. Knowing how it was created, all the effort and toil, takes away some of the magic. I cannot separate the story from my experience writing it, I just can’t.

Besides, the story isn’t done.

That is the next step. I’ve been working on The Originals for so long, and I don’t have a big following, I’m not making money off my work, so it’s sometimes hard to keep going. “Why bother?” I wonder. “Who cares if I finish it or not?” But the story is incomplete, and the story deserves an ending. Reading The Changelings reminded me of that. I want to know what happens next. And so I will keep going.

One thought on “The Joys and Pains of Re-Reading My First Novel—Part 2

  1. Wow it’s so cool you can do that. I don’t like reading my own work, because it feels like listening to my own voice in a video recording of myself. Great work you did there, and wishing you all the best for your follow-up!


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