Tuesday, December 5, 2006

work in progress

Maybe I should be a bit more specific than 'the book'? The book I'm presently working on is tentatively titled The Willow Knot (63.7% chance of bestsellerdom at the Lulu Titlescorer) and is a retelling of the Grimm tale 11, 'Brother and Sister'. You can read an English translation of the story here, and Sur la Lune's version and notes here.
'Brother and Sister' has been one of my favourites since childhood, more than any of the better-known tales like 'Hansel and Gretel' or 'Sleeping Beauty'. The heart of the story, to me, is this:

And when they had gone a very long way they came at last to a little house, and the girl looked in; and as it was empty, she thought, "We can stay here and live."
Then she sought for leaves and moss to make a soft bed for the roe; and every morning she went out and gathered roots and berries and nuts for herself, and brought tender grass for the roe, who ate out of her hand, and was content and played round about her. In the evening, when the sister was tired, and had said her prayer, she laid her head upon the roebuck's back: that was her pillow, and she slept softly on it.
And if only the brother had had his human form it would have been a delightful life.

'Brother and Sister' hasn't been a hot pick for retelling. In Terri Windling's anthology The Armless Maiden, it inspired a short story and essay by Ellen Steiber and a poem by Windling. Bruno Bettelheim discussed it in The Uses of Enchantment. There are a couple of picture book versions, one of which has a lovely garden scene illustrating the ending where the stepmother-witch is burnt to death. This may create a dilemma for the parent reading out loud, though I don't know whether it would be easier if there were, for instance, a pillar of smoke rising from behind the garden wall.

Retelling a fairy tale poses specific problems. People in fairy tales are like people in ballads. They do not behave in a reasonable fashion. They're allowed to have motivations like 'just plain evil' and 'inhumanly long-suffering'.
People in novels don't get that permission. They have to be believable. Partly this is a feature of length, partly of format. The ballad 'Bonnie Banks of Fordie' (North American version is 'Bonnie Bonnie Banks of the Vergie-o') is only a few verses long, and the listener doesn't usually ask why not one of the three sisters runs away while the banished man is threatening them. Turn that into a short story and in 7,000 words the question will arise.
So I have to consider questions such as why the stepmother (aunt in my version) hates the children, why the young king falls in love with a girl who's been living rough in the forest for years instead of one of the lovely, clean, well-dressed young ladies at court, and what the witch did with the queen's body after suffocating her?
Answering the questions is fun, and helps to bump the wordcount.

Wordcount...I am not a speedy writer. Here's a rough progress of The Willow Knot:
August 05 3,600
September 05 7,400
October 05 11,100
November 05 12,800
December 05 14,000
January 06 17,000
February 06 21,100
April 06 21,700
May 06 22,600
June 06 23,000
July 06 23,300
August 06 24,000
September 06 25,300
October 06 28,600
November 06 35,400
December 06 46,400
I'm aiming for a complete first draft of about 80k, to be hacked down to 75k. So you see I have a way to go if I really think I'm going to have the first draft complete by the end of the year. I'll post my wordcount as I go.

Next time, perhaps I'll talk about my other works in progress, the ones I'm neglecting for the sake of The Willow Knot.

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