Fic Postmortem for "Breathing"

"Breathing": part 1 / part 2 / part 3

The long nightmare is over. Now I get to write a post-mortem for it. It has some good things and some bad things, and is mostly, to my view, a mess of unrealized potential. But now I can move on. And maybe in a month I won't hate it so much.

Okay, it wasn't actually a nightmare and I don't truly hate the story. There are things about it that I love a lot, to be honest. I just had a long guilty struggle with writing it.

Request and intentions

The request was short and sweet: "post-Grave, h/c".

It started as hurt/comfort, but I'm pretty sure it didn't end up as actual h/c.

The first thing I did was watch "Two to Go" and "Grave". I decided on Buffy as comforter, and on her point of view. (There's a great story lurking there with Anya, but I'm not ready to tell it.) And then Giles did what he did in the first scene. I resisted writing Buffy/Giles for a while before yielding.

I had three sections of writing first:

The opening scene with zonky Giles. I wrote this more or less immediately after watching "Grave". Get Buffy & Dawn in England, taking care of Giles, I thought.
The middle scene with Buffy looking out the window.
Willow waking up from amnesia.

When I first watched "Becoming part 2" I said, "She's possessed. Right now. Somebody else is doing that magic for her." The series never picked up those cues, but they've been lurking in me and I decided to run with them in this story.

I also had a bunch of ideas about what Giles was really up to during his time away, and what on earth was so important that he would leave his obviously emotionally-damaged Slayer on her own. I thought: well, what if his own emotional damage was reaching critical point? You can list the crappy stuff that happened to him in Sunnydale, and wonder when he took steps to recover from Jenny dead in his bed, torture, relationships ending, his Slayer committing suicide in front of him moments after he murdered a man to save the world. And then there's the issue that in "The Dark Age" we see a man with a very nasty case of survivor's guilt, 20 years after he participated in killing a friend. In the real world, if Giles hadn't been talking to somebody, he'd be pretty fucked up.

Then I had the exorcisms past & present idea. Then I got stuck, and drew the Oblique Strategy card that said "water". And then all the newagey stuff made an appearance.

What worked

The struggle against the entity possessing Willow provides the external conflict and the main plot points. It also was an opportunity to be mean to my protagonists: what if Giles needs once again to kill somebody close to him to end a demonic possession?

I wrote straight through until the bit where they go to the coven for the first time, then realized I had no idea what I was doing. I stepped back and outlined, and had a basic story shape to write to. Then I saw how long it was going to be and panicked. Then NaNoWriMo month happened, and I had to pick it up again cold in mid-December. The outline saved me.

I didn't figure this out until late in the writing process, but there's elemental imagery all over this one. I leaned on the water thing because of the Oblique Strategy, but the other stuff appeared unconsciously. Fire & heat, dust & ashes. Water & air. Earth & water. I kinda like the bit where Buffy thinks about the differences between vampires and Giles with this language.

The Giles magic: can't kill houseplants if they try! There are growing things all over the Giles family places. And Giles cannot stop himself from being what he is, even through the years when he bottles up his power. He is prevented from helping Willow, so instead he helps Buffy. Successfully. Buffy is on a definite upward arc at the end, ready to do some mega-Slaying in London. I like this. I like healed, strong Buffy. Half of the h/c in this one was about Buffy.

What didn't

I flinched and didn't directly depict them needing to be ready to kill Willow. Once again, not hard enough on my characters. In retrospect, I should have had Willow kill somebody in the coven, have the coven ready to deliver the coup to her, and then Buffy finally figure out the possession. Bring her one step closer to execution. Scare the crap out of the reader while I'm at it...

I'm not entirely sure I made the deal with the possession operate under reasonable rules. The possessing entity is a being with motivations and desires. It wants to survive and stay in the cute human body, and satisfy its appetites. How much of the last four years was Willow, and how much the possessor? I needed to be entirely clear on that, even if I didn't say anything about it directly in the story.

The outline was once again indispensible, but the early writing I did put the story off balance. Too much stuff up front, and I didn't have the heart to cut any of it. And all the good writing happened before NaNo.

Giles needed to be more pissed off with Willow. More of a human being. He's still the man who snarks, post-recovery.

Xander is a bit of a deus ex machina. And his role recapitulates the role he plays in "Grave" too much.

The exorcism: there are some elements there of Giles resuming his Watcher/Council role. I had some ideas about the reconciliation of the two sides of himself, and the other side being something foreign to the coven. But I didn't pull it together well enough.

The ending is not enough. It needs more than what I gave it. Not a lot more. Must avoid nervous underlining of points, but still.

See? I can complain about anything.
  • Current Music: The Six Parts Seven : Cold Things Never Catch Fire : Things Shaped In Passing
I disagree about your feeling you weren't hard enough on Willow. I was worrying, in fact, that you were crossing the line into character bashing. I see now that the bashing had a lot more to do with the possessing entity, but you must remember that you're writing against a whole body of fanfic where character bashing while getting a "ship" together is standard practice. As is the practice of taking All elements of a story in a new direction, when a writer changes one thing to diverge from canon. Buffy and Giles get together-- about damn time. But Willow-- not the penitent, cute, timid girl we see in early S7.

Of course, your exploration of what reasonably must have happened makes more sense-- people would be mad, and not just Anya, over Willow's betrayal of years of friendship and love, and everything their long fight against evil had been about. I see why you didn't want to bring Xander back too soon, to discover, as he undoubtedly would have, that Willow was not Willow. Buffy needed to be the one to see that. But there would have been scope for some very interesting examination of Xander's own feelings of betrayal and conflict.

And maybe more-- I think the willingness to kill Willow fails not because it's not strong enough, but because the deep love they all feel for her is not so much in evidence in the story-- it relies too much on knowledge of the previous 6 years. The cost seems like maybe it was too painful for you to go there, so you didn't.

And maybe I'm noticing it because I was shying away from it myself. Maybe if anything, you weren't hard enough on me as a reader. But then again, I don't know that you, or anyone, could have done as fine a job with the changing relationship between Buffy and Giles, if either of them were struggling so hard with feelings about Willow. And that part of the story was exceedingly well done.

You bit off a lot with this one, and I agree with your final assessment-- you can't complain about anything. You stretched yourself, and the reader, a lot, and a lot more than you would have had you stuck to safer territory. Well done indeed.
Okay, you have my head spinning with these comments. And I think you're right: I think there isn't enough affection for Willow shown early on from Buffy & Giles. In particular, emotions Buffy really has to be having about her best friend. There ought to be some resentment (some reasonable, some unreasonable, as Xander & Willow both experienced after Buffy's runaway summer), but I ought also to have shown her fear & worry for Willow. Especially at the end.

Such a juggling act. The more balls you can keep in the air as a writer, the more satisfying the story. (To a point.)

Character bashing never occurred to me. Though probably it should have as something readers might experience. This was in some ways a "hey, real!Willow never did that stupid stuff!" reclaiming of the character for me.
I'm not entirely sure I made the deal with the possession operate under reasonable rules. The possessing entity is a being with motivations and desires. It wants to survive and stay in the cute human body, and satisfy its appetites. How much of the last four years was Willow, and how much the possessor? I needed to be entirely clear on that, even if I didn't say anything about it directly in the story.

I don't think that would have fit in the story as written. The story, as written, is not really about Willow except insofar as her actions are a problem for B/G to deal with. The story is basically a B/G story about healing from all the crappy stuff they've been through over the years. Willow's possession is a manifestation of this and a way to bring their damage into the present so they can deal with it more visibly. The stuff about Willow's possession is important, yes, but it belongs in a story that really is about Willow. Like, a story after the exorcism where she's trying to put the pieces of her life together and fill in the holes, and maybe having flashbacks/nightmares of the time she's missing. It's too important to be a subplot, and in order for it not to be a subplot in this story you would have had to totally re-write the entire thing to focus on the possession. Since I like the story as written, I'm glad you didn't do that.
Well, my thinking on this issue and related writing issues is that the writer has to know, though not everything necessarily makes it into the story. In fact, I'd almost go so far as to say that lots of stuff the writer knows shouldn't make it into the story. The background setting & character histories & so on are all contexts in which the writer works. They give us a wide range of details to choose from when telling a story. Choice is good.

Scaffolding around the building, assisting in the construction. Goes away when the construction is done, but is a huge help while you've got workers running around riveting things together.

What I'm saying here is not that I want more about the entity in the story, but that I didn't have a coherent theory of its motivations as I wrote. So the choices I made about showing it in action weren't as good as they could have been. I totally agree with your point that the story didn't need to focus on that, because it was primarily about Buffy, with Giles.