Sand Dancer – A Reflection

It has been over a month now since Sand Dancer was unleashed onto the world and it makes me ecstatic to know people are reading it or have read and enjoyed it! Of course, for me, the world and characters of Sand Dancer has existed a lot longer.

I wrote the first draft to Sand Dancer in November 2012 and it went through a lot of changes before being published. I’ve spoke about some of the changes I made, but I want to reflect a little more on those changes, whether I think they were worth it and made the book better, and what I would change now if I could go back and start again.

What Changed?

There were lots of little changes from deleting scenes to merging characters, but here I’m going to cover the biggest ones. From draft one, I changed the world to include more fantasy elements such as the blood bonds, the fire magic, the creepy Shadows, and the sand wraiths. These elements became so entwined with the story that I simply cannot imagine Sand Dancer without them. The plight of the Fire Walkers and Mina’s ability to interact with the Shadows is now a key plot point of the whole series, and to remove those would be like taking out the heart of the book. True, I changed the series based on these additions, but without them I think the story would be pretty boring and generic.

So with fire magic firmly set in stone, some of my other changes were to make the story more Young Adult friendly.

Like most writers new to the world of fiction, when I began Sand Dancer, I wasn’t sure what this story was or what it was trying to be. A lot of writers who write stories with teenage protagonists inevitably get confused; is this book Young Adult or Adult? I happen to be a big lover and reader of YA fantasy, but I still wasn’t sure if my story was YA or not, partly because the story began with Mina a lot younger at age twelve, and I wasn’t sure if real teens would care for a protagonist that young. I didn’t want to cut the childhood sections completely so instead I just aged Mina up to sixteen.

I’m actually happy with this. The solution to age up the character didn’t come to me at first; instead I cut those chapters. I missed them so much I put them back in. These childhood chapters are basically the time between Mina leaving her home in Khalbad and joining House Arlbond. The pace of the story does unfortunately slow down during these early House Arlbond chapters which a few reviewers have noted, but I felt it was important to establish Mina’s new life and also create a bond between her and the reader with Mina’s new family. If I could make any changes to these, it would be tweaking the pace and adding more conflict here.

Another change which seems relatively minor; I changed the main character’s name from Gail to Mina. I did this based on beta reader feedback because they felt the name didn’t match the setting. I’d used the name “Gail” for so many drafts that it was weird for me to change it to Tamina “Mina”; but now I can’t imagine her as anyone else. She is Mina, and when I look at her, that is the name I see. It suits her well!

The other biggest change for me was cutting the book in half.

The story of Sand Dancer was split into three areas; Mina’s childhood and adoption into House Arlbond, her rivalry with the Prince and standing against him in the tournament, and then a war with the northern kingdom where Mina and her Academy friends would be forced to fight and ensure loss. The first draft came in at a cool 170,000 words, and whilst I was happy with the new addition of fire magic, I realised pretty quickly that I needed to make a serious change regarding the wordcount. Relegating the war to the sequel was obvious, but it meant I needed to give the book a tighter focus and ensure the ending made sense. I also had to cut out any elements relating to the war as they were no longer necessary.

The sequel instead focusses on the war and I’ve managed to re-write it in a way that makes sense and stands alone. And considering the size of the early draft of my sequel, I think I did the right thing!

There’s only one real change that I regret; cutting the travelling circus.

Sand Dancer once began with Mina running into the desert and seeking shelter with a passing Neu Bosan circus. It was here in the circus that she is taught sword dancing by a circus dancer named Furi. And it was Furi who encourages Mina to disguise herself as a boy. These circus chapters were full of mystery and a little danger as the circus was in possession of Fire Walker slaves. Instead of travelling with the circus to a new life, Furi instead dropped Mina off at Arlent to be taken in by Lord Talin. I absolutely loved these chapters and the relationship Mina develops with Furi, but as I kept re-writing drafts and looked for content to cut, I found it hard to justify keeping them.

I couldn’t work out what to do with Furi’s character. My beta readers loved her, but when I removed her and the circus chapters altogether, they admitted the story worked fine without her. That’s when I knew Furi and the circus had to go. If I could go back and re-write Sand Dancer again, I’d try and find a way to bring them back. But for now, I’ll look at ways to add Furi and the circus to later books!

What Changes Would I Make?

Sand Dancer is now published. Finished. Done. There are no more edits I can make! This is both stressful and freeing for an author.

Now I am working on the sequel. I do outline my books and have the series completely planned out, but as noted above, plans can change and stories evolve as I write them. As I go into the sequel I sometimes think “Damn, I should have foreshadowed this more in book one” or “Well I want to include this element in book two but I didn’t set it up in book one for it to make sense” so my ideas for book two are dependent on the events of book one. This isn’t a major thing, since I DO outline my series, but as a word of caution for any new writer beginning a series; you want to make sure you’re lining up your plot points! It’s a lot harder to use a character in book two for something if you killed them off in book one. But hey, it’s fantasy, you can do what you want.

When Sand Dancer was picked up by Uproar Books, I made a few changes which tightened the story and added to it. I’m completely happy with these changes although they did unfortunately increase the word count. I’m always terrified of large word counts because readers are sometimes scared by thick books, but so far no one has complained about my word count (except myself) so thank you all for putting up with me!

I almost made a big change at the first hurdle. I considered removing the “girl-disguised-as-boy” trope from the story altogether even though it is such a big part of Mina’s character. Uproar Books convinced me not to, and I’m glad I didn’t. I was worried that this trope was an outdated one in our modern world and that people might find it distasteful and anti-feminist, despite other new releases using the same trope. I’ve explored my own feelings on why this trope is important to me and what it means for Mina to be a tomboy who explores her own gender.

As stated above, if I could re-write Sand Dancer again, I would find a way to include Furi and the Neu Bosan circus.

And I would cut the story in half again. What do I mean by this?

As I wrote the draft which became the published version, the story grew and grew and there were certainly elements which felt a little rushed to me. For example, I wish I could have spent more time with Mina in Arlent. I also wish I could have expanded the Academy chapters. If I was to write Sand Dancer again, I think I would push the tournament to a second book/sequel and therefore spread-out the Academy and tournament more, allowing both to have their own (shorter) book each rather than shoving them together. I am ultimately happy with the plot of Sand Dancer and the character arcs, but it would have been nice to have more.

That’s ultimately my problem as a writer. I always want to do more!

I think the solution in this case, as will be the case with future sequels, is to create that more via additional short stories set in the Sand Dancer world. Watch this space!

What’s Next?

The next step is the sequel to Sand Dancer! I have now finished the first draft and will be looking at what changes to make, thus starting this journey all over again. I can already see where content will need to be cut and possibly set aside for future short stories. I can also see a sequel to this blog in a year’s time. The sequel will hopefully be published in 2020.

More short stories set in the world of Sand Dancer will be coming soon based on deleted scenes and cut content from the first book, as well as a few ideas I wanted to explore but couldn’t fit in the book. If you want me to explore certain characters or elements of Sand Dancer, I’d be happy to consider it!

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