Anyway, in the meantime, I am going to resume my AQ reread project with book two, Alexandra Quick and the Lands Below.
I wrote my first AQ novel, Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle, in about six months, from July to December of 2007.
Within days after posting AQATTC, I started working on Hogwarts Houses Divided. Unlike my AQ novels, I posted chapters of HHD while it was still in progress; I wrote and posted the whole book between December 2007 and April 2008.
Immediately after that, I began working on Alexandra Quick, book two. I spent about six months writing the first draft, from April to October 2008.
Unlike my first two books, this time I solicited beta readers. I was becoming more serious about my writing, and I also felt like expectations were higher. swissmarg, one of my first fans since she got to read my submissions in the moderation queue at Fiction Alley, volunteered, and has been a most excellent beta for all of my subsequent AQ novels. I also got a second pair of eyes from hermoinejean7, who I knew from Mugglenet Fanfiction.
Swissmarg and HermoineJean read my chapters over the next couple of months. For the most part, I sent them a chapter at a time, took in their feedback and revised that chapter while they read the next. Of course sometimes changes in one chapter meant revising details in others, and occasionally I'd have to consider a structural change. (I don't actually recall a lot of major changes of that nature being made in AQATLB though.)
In general, I think AQATLB was a much stronger novel than AQATTC, partly because I now had two novels under my belt, partly because I now had betas, and partly because I had a more definite idea of where I was going, whereas the first book was mostly just a one-shot adventure based on a setting and a character. With AQATTC, I had only a vague idea about long-term plot arcs and maybe doing something more in the future. But with AQATLB, I was laying my plans in earnest. I now knew that I wanted to do a whole seven-book arc. Though the end of that arc was still very hazy in my mind.
(It's somewhat less hazy now, but there are a lot of details about how the next three books will play out that are nowhere near settled.)
So, when I started writing book two, as with all of my books, I had mostly a few key scenes and plot points in mind, and no real idea how I was going to string them together.
I'll talk more about key details as I go through each chapter, but here is what I remember knowing and not knowing when I first began writing AQATLB:
1. I knew what the "Lands Below" were, obviously. I knew it was going to involve evil elves and a seven-year tiend, which would somehow tie into Abraham Thorn's vendetta and the Confederation and something something. (Yeah, I hadn't really worked out the Deathly Regiment yet.)
2. I knew, at least fairly early on, that Alexandra was going to meet her father in this book. I wasn't entirely sure when I first started, thinking I might drag it out for another book or two, but I soon decided (especially after she met Maximilian) that it was time for her father to enter the story.
3. I knew Alexandra would have siblings, including a brother, with whom she would go on an adventure. I did not write down all her sisters' names, and the whole subplot with her going to Croatoa and meeting Thalia King was something that developed later.
4. I don't actually remember when I decided Max was going to die. It was fairly early, probably while I was still writing the first few chapters, but I did not, in fact, create him to be a sacrificial goat right from the start. His death became inevitable as I worked out Abraham Thorn's scheme, the details of the Most Terrible Gift, and where the plot was going, and certainly by halfway through the book, there was no other way it could have ended, but unlike some other characters, Max was not actually a dead man walking the moment he stepped onto the page. Well, by the time you read him stepping onto the page, he was. But I hadn't already killed him off in my mind when I started writing him.
So, on to Chapter One.
Chapter 1 — The Mall
I have started each AQ book trying to generate a very particular mood, starting Alexandra each time in a similar setting (summer in Larkin Mills), much the way Harry started each book at the Dursleys.
In AQATTC, with Alex and Brian lying next to Old Larkin Pond waiting for a naiad, I wanted to invoke lazy, hazy summer days, and children still young enough to be able to skip around in fields and forests without a care in the world. Chapter one of book one was of course the moment before that all changes.
In book two, Alex is still very much a child, but she's been initiated into the wizarding world, she's had some adventures, and she now knows that the world can be a dangerous place, even if she doesn't yet fully appreciate the dangers.
More importantly, she's twelve. Not quite a teenager yet, but almost there. So I wanted to show her, well, being a tween. Pissy and bratty and overly dramatic, capable of a little more insight (and foresight) than when she was eleven, but also really annoying.
As is so often the case with Alex, my struggle was to make her an annoying, bratty pre-teen without making her so annoying that everyone would hate her.
So I started with her being grounded (of course) in a sweltering apartment, bored and sweaty and wishing she could do magic. Every teen ever who's been SO BORED they're going to DIE OF BOREDOM because there's NOTHING TO DO!!!
“At least you can go out, Charlie,” she said sullenly. The raven squawked at her again – a little smugly, Alexandra thought. Then she saw that there was a small gold chain dangling from Charlie's beak.
“Not again!” she yelled. She sat up and lunged for the dangling jewelry. Charlie went flapping up to the ceiling, then fluttered to the top of a bookcase. Alexandra chased Charlie around the room, slamming the window shut so the bird couldn't fly back out, until she accidentally knocked the fan over trying to snatch the chain away. It hit the floor and made a horrible sound as its blades went 'Whack! Whack! Whack!' against the inside of the wire safety cage, and then the cage split open and the fan died.
Alexandra cursed, set the fan back up, snapped the wire cage back into place, and tried to turn it on again, but something must have broken during its fall. The motor just hummed ineffectually, while the blades refused to move.
She beat her fists on her desk, and turned to glare angrily at her familiar.
“Isn't it bad enough I'm grounded?” she yelled. “Now you're stealing stuff, and I'm going to die 'cause it's so hot in here!”
Yup, she's even taking it out on her familiar. Though she would never go so far as to abuse Charlie. That would be a definite Moral Event Horizon.
I believe swissmarg commented while she was betaing that Charlie's newfound habit of stealing things was an obvious Chekhov's Gun. :)
So Archie, being his usual kind of dickish self, gives Alex some money and sends her to the mall. Alexandra takes off, after nagging him about a cell phone.
I didn't really have any big plans for the cell phone. I meant it to be a running joke of sorts for the next couple of books — Alexandra wanted a cell phone because most kids her age want one, and it was a way of making her a little bit "normal". But I was hoping I would actually think of a way to make it significant. So far, I haven't really.
Vacation Bible School!
The flashback to Vacation Bible School was a fan fiction indulgence, something that wasn't really necessary for the story and would probably be cut from a published novel because of that. But I am glad I got to include it.
Yeah, I went for the easy target with this one. But lemme tell you, for those who have never experienced it, I was not even exaggerating in my description.
Obviously, not all vacation Bible schools are like Larkin Mills Baptist Church's, but there are places that make the one Alexandra went to seem radical. So while I was playing it for humor, mostly, I really didn't have to do much caricaturizing.
I enjoyed adding the touch at the end where Alex spoils all their food — exactly what "real" witches were often accused of doing.
There was, however, a point besides me taking cheap shots at fundie Bible schools:
That was how Alexandra came to be grounded, and she still thought it was unfair. What was worse was the fact that she couldn't really tell her mother why she'd pitched a fit over the stupid Vacation Bible School in the final week, after having endured it for almost two months. Her mother and her stepfather still didn't really know that Alexandra was a witch, didn't quite grasp that Charmbridge Academy was not a normal school, and Alexandra had yet to figure out how to explain it to them, or whether she should.
She waited nervously all the next day for an owl from the Trace Office to arrive, or a Howler, but nothing happened as a result of her spontaneous magical outburst. Maybe they could tell when it was an accident and wouldn't count it against her, she thought, but she suspected she was going to hear about it, sooner or later.
Alexandra is becoming increasingly estranged from her parents, especially Claudia, because of her magic. She isn't mature enough yet to realize how much this is hurting her, but it is.
This is also where I sort of lampshaded the fact that Alexandra has been getting away with an awful lot of stunts that should have gotten her in trouble before now, before I reveal part of the reason why.
So, since we now know that Claudia knew exactly what Alexandra was all along, you may be wondering: whatever possessed her to think sending Alex to Bible school was a good idea?
Answer: Claudia, as we also now know, has had deep issues of her own all along, which are tearing away at her. In this case, she reacted in an extremely ill-advised, passive-aggressive manner. Yes, on some level she probably knew that this was going to end badly. But she was punishing Alexandra for... well, for being a witch, basically. Yes, it was horrible of her. No, she didn't consciously realize she was doing this. Yes, in her own way Claudia is as messed up as Alexandra.
Maybe not quite as messed up as Petunia.
Bonnie Goes Bad
Alexandra walked quickly across the aisle, between two racks of sunglasses, and tapped Bonnie on the shoulder. "What do you think you're doing?" she hissed.
Bonnie squealed and jumped almost a foot in the air, before spinning around to stare at her, red-faced. "A-A-Alex...andra?" she squeaked.
"Put them back, now!" Alexandra whispered. "Don't you know there are store cameras overhead?" And when Bonnie went white and started to look up, Alexandra hissed, "Don't look at them! Just put the scrunchies back, now! Are you crazy?"
Trembling, Bonnie reached into her pocket, and pulled out not two, but half a dozen scrunchies, and hastily put them back on the rack. Alexandra shook her head. "What were you thinking?" she demanded.
Oy. I still hadn't broken my habit of abusing dialog tags.
While I didn't know exactly where I was going with this, I knew that I wanted to foreshadow Bonnie's gradual rebellion against her strict home life, which has only ever been hinted at. I mentioned in an earlier author's notes that the Seaburys are evangelical Christians. Brian is a goodie two-shoes, trying to please his parents; Bonnie is the one in danger of turning into a train wreck. But it starts with very little things, like shoplifting.
Then Brian shows up, there is an Awkward Moment, and then they are interrupted by the other AQ summer tradition: Billy Boggleston and his friends.
"Give me my bag," she demanded, advancing on them angrily and speaking in a voice that was calm, quiet, and very menacing. Billy sensed the edge in her voice that conveyed more than mere embarrassment, and looked as if it was taking an effort of will not to back away from her, but Tom just laughed, and turned on his heel. Alexandra realized with dismay that he was about to take off – probably he'd make a run for the exit, carrying her book bag with him, and she'd have to chase him all over the mall unless she were lucky enough to persuade an adult to intercept him.
Then the female store mannequin behind him reached down and caught his wrist.
Tom started, looked up to see who'd grabbed him, and then his jaw dropped. He opened his hand and dropped Alexandra's book bag immediately. Billy and his other friend looked as if they might wet their pants.
"Ow!" whimpered Tom. Alexandra thought he was about to cry.
The plastic mannequin, clad only in a lacy thong and matching brassiere, raised its other hand, held up one finger, and slowly and deliberately waggled it in front of the terrified boy's face, shaking its head. Then it released him. Tom took one step backward, grabbing his bruised wrist with his other hand. All three boys stared at the mannequin as if expecting it to step off its stand and come after them, but it merely returned to its previous pose and became rigid and motionless again. Then they turned and ran.
Alexandra dashed over to where her book bag had fallen, keeping her eyes on the mannequin at all times as she stooped to pick it up. It didn't move. Then she turned around, to see Brian and Bonnie both staring at her and the mannequin behind her, wide-eyed.
She took a breath. "Brian... Bonnie..." She stepped towards them, and Brian backed away, pulling his sister with him. "I swear, I didn't do that!" she said.
"Right," Brian gulped. He swallowed as he continued backing away from her. His face was white. "It's totally normal for store dummies to move by themselves."
Alexandra shook her head. She met Bonnie's eyes, then Brian's again. "I can't even do that!" she protested.
"Like it matters?" Brian shouted. "Stuff like this always happens around you! Stay away from us, okay?"
Poor Alex. This time it totally wasn't her fault.
In early reviews, some readers initially thought that this was Alexandra's spontaneous magic acting up, but I think most people knew immediately that something else was going on. Great way to uphold the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, Ms. Grimm!
Rereading chapter one, I really like the scene, and the set-up, and the little clues I dropped, and how I ended the chapter. I do not really like the writing, though — there's a lot of telling and some clumsy dialog. Better than book one, but I have a ways to go.