The Big Idea: Gwenda Bond
The path to creation is not always a smooth and drama-free one, especially when deities are involved. Just ask Gwenda Bond about this, and how this idea manifested in her latest novel, The Woken Gods — and how she finally found the right road to her novel’s true form.
The Big Idea for The Woken Gods sounds deceptively simple: all the gods of ancient mythology, all of them, woke up five years earlier, rising from the ground around the globe.
In the book, as a result, the world has changed, both in large ways and in small, extremely localized ones. Most gods stay where they woke, and aren’t particularly concerned with humanity’s affairs. When the Awakening happened, everyone thought it was the end times, but then the mysterious Society of the Sun came forward, and demonstrated that the gods weren’t untouchable. During the long sleep, the Society collected relics infused with divine magic, and it uses them to mount a defense for humans. The Afterlife and the Heavens are sealed off by relics, and the Egyptian god Sekhmet is executed with one, cut down on the Mall in D.C. to prove that gods, now, can die. And, as long as the doors are closed, never come back.
This is the treaty that makes a new world. Seven tricksters agree to serve as divine representatives, ambassadors to deal with the Society, and, with its world headquarters in the Library of Congress, that means Washington, D.C., is now one of the most transformed places there is.
It’s also where my protagonist Kyra Locke lives. Kyra is just a girl in a rebellious phase, a girl whose family was torn apart five years ago, and who now sneaks out with her friends and argues with her dad. A girl who is going to have to negotiate with gods, and who discovers she doesn’t know much about who she is at all.
There are lots of elements in this mix that I have a lifelong love for — mythology mashed up against the modern, a powerful society that may or may not be good, oracles and prophecies, family secrets, friends that stick by each other, complicated politics,a weird urban landscape. I knew from the get-go that I wanted the book to be an urban fantasy set in D.C. and that I wanted the world to have already undergone a huge change.
Perhaps it’ll come as no surprise, given all this, when I tell you this was not a book that came together easily. Each draft was vastly different than the last. Finally, I put the third major overhaul aside, thinking I would just have to give up on telling this story. But then…my first book sold, and I needed to propose a second book for my contract. Despite the faceplant after faceplant, there was something that still called me back to it. I wasn’t ready to admit defeat.
I asked some of the smartest people I know to gather around a table at a retreat and asked them to help me reboot the world… Then, after a little back and forth, the publisher accepted the pitch, and I wrote a whole new draft. I turned it in.
This is the part where you’re expecting me to tell you this time, this time, it finally came together. And it had started to come together, but it still wasn’t working. I knew everything about the world, but I was still hovering outside my main character, above her, watching Kyra, but not feeling her. When I went back to edit that draft, the problem was clear to me.
And I was running out of time, because this book was due, this book was on a schedule.
These are the moments of which writerly despair is made. But then I thought over all those drafts, I talked to those same friends, and I realized something. The one commonality — in all those third-person drafts filled with lovingly explicated worldbuilding — was my main character, Kyra Locke. She was the constant. This was her story. This was a big world, but the story was hers, my just-a-rebellious girl’s and she could hold her own against the gods if she had to.
With the growth in YA, it’s gotten much easier to find big stories of political intrigue with young characters — including young women — at their center. But maybe that also makes it easier to forget, there still aren’t nearly enough of them. It’s still not the way we’re conditioned to imagine those stories.
And so, that big change I needed to make, that final change, was to rewrite the book from Kyra’s point of view. I bring in a few other voices of her friends, but mostly, it’s all Kyra.
That’s when I finally got to the draft I wanted. Sure, I had to lose some grace notes that explained underpinnings of this bit of worldbuilding or that, I lost some jokes and darlings, but ultimately, what was necessary to support this story, her story, stayed and fit. And I hope that Kyra’s story feels like the beginning, like a window into a big world, and that her eyes feel like the right way to see it.
Because without her, there was no story. There was only a broken world in need of saving. And a writer in despair.
In The Woken Gods, families who are longtime members of the Society have reliquaries, in which they also maintain some sort of Hunter’s Map that serves as a historical record of significant events and the collection of important relics. For many of them, this is an actual map, hand-drawn and hung along a wall. If I picture my life as a writer as a map, for most books I’ve written — sold or (thankfully, in other cases) trunked — it would be no trouble at all for me to mark the spot when the spark of an idea turned into a book, trace the line of it growing into a story. But for this one, it would be almost impossible. It would be a twisty confused road through a dangerous city…
Until that final decision.