About five years ago I wrote the short story Stories of Erondell, which I then had workshopped in a short story writing course I was taking at the time. That was a great class, and I got a lot of great notes about my story, which I then incorporated into the final draft. Not really sure what else I could do with the story, I then decided to self-publish Erondell on Amazon (a fairly easy process), about a year later.
A few of my friends and family purchased copies, for which I was eternally grateful. But beyond that initial marketing (if you could even call it marketing), I didn’t do anything to promote the story. Occasionally, and much to my surprise, someone would buy it on Amazon, but that was pretty much it.
I’m still really proud of that story, but I’ve also changed quite a bit since its original writing, so I wanted to revisit Erondell and see what I thought of it now, five years after finishing it and four years after self-publishing it.
What I learned was pretty surprising.
Am I Really the Underdog?
When I wrote Erondell, I was much more left-leaning than I am today. I still consider myself a liberal, but not left, if that makes sense. I’ve been exposed to some conservative thinkers and thinking over the past few years and, while I don’t agree with everything that is traditionally/politically conservative, I find that I do agree with quite a lot.
As such, I can see now just how much a, let’s call it socialist, thinking permeates this story. Part of the reason for that is that when I wrote it, I considered myself somewhat of an underdog, someone part of the lower class, like the oppressed characters living in the underground dystopia of Dell 5. Fast forward to today and of course nothing could be further from the truth.
When I was a child and growing up, my parents (who defected from Communist Hungary to Canada) worked hard to provide a great life for my brother and I. While we weren’t wealthy, we also weren’t poor. We were probably somewhere in the lower middle to middle/working class, if I had to categorize it. Today, my partner and I have great jobs and live a very comfortable life. The same was true of my circumstances when I wrote Erondell. So it’s interesting to think that I had this underdog mentality. Perhaps we all want to think of ourselves as the underdog.
I was so entrenched in this idea, that when a guy in my short story class pointed out that nobody in that class was actually an underdog the way the citizens of Dell 5 were, I actually got offended.
In today’s culture, there seems to be an incentive to present yourself as a victim, but I think before you do that you really need to take a good look at your life and circumstances. There are people out there who genuinely need help, who genuinely need a roof over their heads and healthy food on the table. Rather than pretending like we’re victims, a much better use of that energy would be helping people genuinely in need, and simultaneously being grateful for all that we have in our own lives.
Likeable Characters: The Poverty Personality Trap
Another thing I learned during that short story writing class, but that has only sunk in over the past couple of years, is that being part of the lower class or underclass for a character is not enough for the reader to sympathize with them.
In Erondell, the main character is a girl named Olivia, who is part of the oppressed class living in the underground Dell 5. Another character, Patricia, is part of the upper class living above ground in Dell 4. One of the pieces of feedback I got from my class (if I recall correctly, though it’s possible I may have received this feedback at another time), was that they sympathized more with Patricia.
This made sense because I had put more effort into making Patricia a sympathetic, likeable person, because I thought I had to since she was part of the oppressing class. But in doing so, I neglected to put the same amount of effort into Olivia, assuming that readers will automatically have sympathy for the underclass.
Being part of the underclass, or any class for that matter, doesn’t automatically make you a likeable person or character.
This is just a good writing tip in general. It’s an easy trap to fall into. We think that our protagonists, by virtue of being the protagonist, is automatically likeable and will be sympathetic to our readers, and so we often put more effort into developing side characters at the expense of the main character. (One of the reasons, I think, that people liked the character of Sawyer better than Jack on Lost.)
All this is to say that I have grown beyond seeing everything as a class struggle. I still like Erondell and the underground/above ground concept. I still really like this story that I wrote. But my political views at least have certainly changed. I’m no longer as sympathetic to socialist ideas as I once was. (It’s weird that I ever was considering my parents escaped communism for very good reasons. Though, of course, some ideas I’m still a fan of, such as paying taxes into a communal healthcare system.)
Unless I Can See the Story, I Can’t Finish It
Stories of Erondell, and my other short story The Spaceship, came to me as largely completed concepts. Real lightning bolts of inspiration, which I think is easier to obtain for a short story than for a novel. That’s why I was able to finish both those stories, and feel comfortable putting them out there, in a timely manner.
My novels, on the other hand, have taken a lot longer to write.
The first novel I ever started writing, tentatively titled The Evolution of Rolf Pebbleton, I’m still not done. And I started writing it in 2013! I actually put it down at the beginning of 2021 because I was having so much trouble with it. By that point I’d written more than ten drafts, hundreds of thousands of words at least, and even had an editor provide me with a manuscript critique.
I had managed to finish those many drafts but they were all a mess. Part of that was because I spent much of the time since 2013 learning how to write a novel in the first place, using Evolution to do that. And part of it was that I just didn’t have the story itself down. I experimented with so many different plots and still hadn’t found the story, or the heart of the story, for that novel. So, eventually, I realized I had to put it down to get some distance from it.
The novel I’m currently working on, titled The Man in the Red Paisley Suit, was actually a short story that I finished around 2017, but occasionally went back to, to edit it and make some improvements. Then, last year, since I was on a hiatus from Evolution, I figured I’d go back to it again and ended up deciding to turn it into a novel. After a few false starts, I finally landed on the story and, more importantly, the heart of the story. I think I was able to manage this relatively quickly since at that point I had eight years of attempted novel-writing experience under my belt. I’m about halfway through that novel now, at the time of this writing, which I’m really excited about.
All this is to say, that I’m definitely a planner. Using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, I planned out how The Man in the Red Paisley Suit would go, really focusing on crafting the heart of the story. I’m really happy with this story now and, even though I’m not finished it yet, I can see it all the way to the end.
A lot of people thinking planning locks you into a creativity-deprived box while you’re writing, but I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. But that’s a post for another time.
I’m a Pretty Okay Writer
Not to toot my own horn too much (but also to totally do that), I’m a pretty decent writer. In rereading Erondell, I found many passages that I still really like and that I objectively know are good. It might not be the best story in the world, but I’m still proud of it and I think that’s worth noting.
I think this is a good lesson for anyone. We tend to be the hardest on ourselves, but if you go over your early works and accomplishments, you can usually find something to be proud of. As Jordan Peterson says, treat yourself as though you’re someone you’re responsible for. Pretend like your previous work was written by someone else. You’ll surely be able to find something to complement.
Do Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures?
The main impetus/inspiration for Erondell was twofold. The first was to write a short story about the same events from two different perspectives (which I later expanded to four perspectives). The second was to meditate on right and wrong.
The main characters, Olivia, Patrick, and their friends, objectively commit a crime/terrorist act by blowing up an embryo warehouse above ground. They are driven to do so by their desperate circumstances: the above-ground population has drastically reduced their rations of water. I thought of this premise because I figured not having water would be a strong driver for any action to obtain water since it’s such a critical resource. And I wanted to meditate on how far people can be pushed before they resort to crime and violence. The characters know that what they are doing is wrong, but they feel they have no choice.
This brings us to the question: do desperate times call for desperate measures? The age-old adage.
But I think an even better question is, do desperate times justify desperate measures?
I still don’t have a clear, cut and dry answer.
On the one hand, I want to say no. I don’t condone violence or hatred in any way shape or form.
But does that mean it was wrong for the Allied forces to invade Germany and German-occupied territories to put an end to World War II and liberate Jews, Poles, and others deemed “unworthy of life” from concentration camps?
At the time I wrote Erondell, I don’t recall ever answering the question for myself of whether or not Olivia and Patrick’s plan is justified. Now, I think I can confidently say it is not. The reason: they’re going after the entire warehouse, which houses both immunity boosters (which the above-ground population need to live) and embryos (which the above-ground population need to reproduce). If I had had them going after only the immunity boosters, maaaaayybe the argument could be made that their actions were justified and morally right, since they are objectively being oppressed. But since they’re going after the embryos too, going after innocents, their actions are much harder to justify.
We all have the right to peacefully protest and to live free lives. We all have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, freedom of love. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as the Americans say. But we don’t have the right to hurt other people. My freedom ends where your nose begins, as the saying goes.
But what if someone, or some government or state (which is really just a collection of someones), is objectively, legitimately screwing you?
Do you have the right to take back your freedom, even by force?
This is what happened in Hungary during the 1956 Revolution against the USSR, which initially started out peacefully but then very quickly turned deadly and was ultimately totally suppressed by the USSR, leaving Hungary under Communist rule for another thirty plus years. Many Hungarians escaped at that time as political refugees.
So Olivia and Patrick’s plan was probably on the right track, if the (literal) execution was misguided.
How Does Change Happen?
I lied just now when I said that the inspiration for Erondell was twofold. Another theme/idea that I wanted to explore with this story was how can change happen?
When two factions are at odds, warring, and both have committed violent attacks against each other, how can that cycle end? Someone needs to make the first move towards peace, but who? When both sides have been viciously harmed?
How does change actually happen?
This ties in with the previous question. Olivia, for example, knows that what she’s doing is wrong. The plan to attack the warehouse is objectively a terrible thing to do. But she feels justified because of the suffering she’s been through and that her parents, specifically, have been through.
There’s a part in Erondell, right after they detonate the charges to blow up the warehouse, when Olivia thinks:
“Non-augs everywhere would unite now that we hit ’em where it hurt. We wouldn’t have to live underground anymore, banished away like monsters.”
I think this is really naive because it implies a line of thinking wherein the elite class, the above-ground population, don’t retaliate in any way and just think to themselves, “Oh darn, these non-augs are really serious. Guess we should stop oppressing them and let them live above ground.”
Of course, that’s not at all what happens. And I’m not just talking about my story. I don’t think that’s what happens in real life either.
Later, I do have another character say that they need to be ready for the augs to retaliate, but these teens are so in over their heads that they don’t realize the retaliation has already happened, until it’s too late.
Then Olivia realizes that violence simply breeds more violence.
The real answer to the question, then, of how does change happen, as far as I can tell, at this point in my thinking on this subject, is with an ally from the other side. I don’t know if history bears this out, maybe sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it seems to me the only way real change can happen is if both sides on board. At least, that’s how you can get non-violent change.
That’s where the character of Patricia comes in.
The Answer? Patricia
Patricia was my answer to this question. She’s the augmented, elite, above-ground character who realizes, even though she is directly harmed by the attack on the warehouse, that she needs to put her personal feelings aside if Erondell is to have a hope at peace.
Looking back at her chapter and Patrick’s chapter, I do think this about-face happened a little too quickly and conveniently for the story. I pretty much just ham-fisted it in there. Her husband did die in the explosion, after all. But my intention at least was to show that the non-augmented, underground people need help from allies if they really are to have any hope of improving their situation. If I were to rewrite Patricia and Patrick’s chapters, I would certainly develop Patricia’s realization more realistically.