Since Wisp of a Thing is my second novel about the Tufa, a mysterious and secretive group of people living in Appalachia, you’d think the story behind it would be, “I had to write a sequel to the first book,The Hum and the Shiver.” But Wisp (or at least, a very different but still recognizable version of it, an Ur-Wisp, if you will) was written first.
I wrote this Ur-Wisp in the early 2000s, inspired by the story of the Melungeons, my experiences at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN, the movie Songcatcher, and an idea that music might be more than just a way to pass the time. Some elements of the final book appeared in this original: the hero still came to town after getting his heart broken, he still met the Overbay sisters, and Rockhouse Hicks was still the villain. And it was good enough to get me signed with the agent who still represents me today. But it never quite worked well enough to sell, and I had to write a whole other Tufa novel, which eventually became the first one published, to realize why.
First, my hero wasn’t very likable. It was a deliberate choice: I wanted him to grow through the events of the novel. Unfortunately, I started him a bit too far back on his story arc, with a huge chip on his shoulder, and nobody stuck around to see him evolve into a nice guy. He wasn’t terribly motivated (his girlfriend had simply left him for a sailor, and he had no real goal for coming to Cloud County), and he was drawn into the Tufa conflict through a vague threat to his masculinity, rather than sympathy for someone else.
Second, there was no “ticking clock,” as my editor likes to call a story’s sense of urgency. Events transpired, people fought and loved and struggled to understand, but there was no weight to these things. You got the sense that life would go on as it always had, whatever the end of this particular story.
Third, my two female protagonists had no goals of their own; they simple wandered through, alternately fell in love with the hero, and wandered out. My ending flirted with wish-fulfillment, and certainly didn’t achieve the frisson of dangerous faery magic I was after.
So after the submissions had run their course, I put it aside and wrote a second, stand-alone Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver. Since I’d already created the world, I was now free to play in it. And it worked.
When my publisher wanted a sequel to The Hum and the Shiver, I thought I’d simply polish up the Ur-Wisp and send it out. Heh. I’ve been more wrong in my life, but not by much. I ended up totally deconstructing that version, followed by a careful rewriting that tried to save the good stuff but put it into a much stronger story. And let me tell you, that’s much harder than just writing from scratch.
But it’s also, in some ways, more rewarding. I was able to create a lot of the emotional effects I’d been after in that earlier draft, both because I was a better writer ten years on, and because I just stayed out of the story’s way. The process also taught me many things about own writing process that have been a tremendous help. And readers get the benefit of both the original inspiration behind the Ur-Wisp (which will never see the light of day), and the polish and skill I was able to bring to the final version.