Vodnik Chapter Commentaries: Chapter One

I’ve been wanting to do chapter annotations for quite some time. What are they? A write up of what went on behind the scenes in a specific chapter. If there were significant deleted scenes, I’ll throw those up. Any interesting stories involved in the writing of the chapter? Those will go in, too. Pretty much anything I feel like saying about the chapter is fair game. Who knows where that will take my rambling mind?

I think it should go without saying–there will be spoilers in these commentaries. They’re intended to be read after you’ve finished the book, in much the same way that you might watch the director’s commentary for a movie after you’ve watched the film once or twice. So don’t read them if you don’t want to know what happens.

For now, my plan is to do one a week, every Monday. We’ll see how it goes.


Vodnik changed a lot over the writing process. A large part of that is due to the way I wrote it. I just wanted to write a book about a haunted house, to start with. Then it turned into a haunted castle, and then it turned into a haunted castle in Slovakia. This book didn’t write itself–it evolved. Take the beginning. In the first draft, the book opened with Tomas having a conversation with his best friend, Peter.

Poor Peter.

He played a fairly significant role in the first draft. Tomas’s one friend from home. They chatted back and forth on the internet about Tomas’s experiences. He provided Tomas with stability, and I ruthlessly cut him out in the revision process, turning Tomas into the loner he is at the start of the book as it now stands. Why did I do this? Because after about a third of the book, Peter stopped being relevant. The internet conversations became too random. There was no need for him as a character.

The sad truth of the matter is that I can’t even have my fictional characters keep in touch with each other in the absence of Facebook. (Before Facebook, I was notoriously bad at staying in touch with friends. Tomas was the same way. Since the first draft happened in a pre-Facebook world (I finished it in March 2007, about five months before I would be on Facebook myself–and the book takes place in 2004, I believe. (I might be wrong on this one. I worked it out once to make sure I had the timing of all the events down. It all comes down to the day of the week the Fourth of July lands on. I think it’s like a Tuesday in the book, which  limits the possible years. The book can’t take place in the present day–Slovakia has changed too much even in the last five years. And it can’t take place in the 90s. It was a different country then, too. So you could actually figure things down to the exact dates as you go through the entire novel. Not that I’d recommend it, but it’s possible.)

Anyway–where was I?

Oh yeah–pre-Facebook. The book’s before then, and Tomas and Peter drifted apart. It’s structurally stupid to have a character be introduced as a main character in the first three chapters, only to have him disappear a third of the way into the novel. What if Ron totally vanished after the first bit of Harry Potter? Wouldn’t make much sense.

So Peter got the axe.

Another big difference? No fire. In the original version, Tomas’s parents move because they choose to. They want to. This naturally makes Tomas even more of a whiny wreck at the beginning than he is now. Part of me liked that. I moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s just how it goes, you know? And I liked the fact that Peter was envious of Tomas for getting to leave for Europe, when all Tomas wanted was to just stay in America.

But the beginning was just. too. slow. So what did I do?

I burned the house down.

And why did I do it? Not just for kicks and giggles. I needed a way to introduce magic earlier in the book. As it was, there were hints–the conversation Tomas has with his parents about what happened in Slovakia when he was little is pretty much unchanged from the first draft (except for the setting)–but nothing concrete. Having the house burn down around him–while he stayed untouched–is a pretty exciting way to introduce the mystery.

In fact, I had the actual fire in the book up until the last draft or so. I’ll throw it in here to finish off today’s commentary. Why did it get cut? Because it was repetitive. We go through all the relevant details again in the hospital. So structurally, you had Tomas live through the fire and experience it all first hand, and then had him relive the fire in his memory, just pages later. That didn’t work. The big goal was to get him to Slovakia as quickly as I could, although it was also important to me to show where he started accurately. Tomas had to be grounded, so we could see who he was as a character. That’s why the America chapters are still there, instead of on the cutting room floor. (Plus, have any of you wondered why his house burned down? Especially in light of the fact that there’s a certain vila in his life? I’m not saying somebody–or something–started that fire on purpose. But I’m not saying she didn’t, either . . . )

Anyway. I’m about out of time, so here’s the fire scene, for your reading pleasure. It’s short–this is the trimmed down version that almost got included. The original was a bit longer. But sifting through something like 7 drafts of Vodnik isn’t exactly how I want to spend my Monday today. Sorry. 🙂 Onward.

By the time I woke up, my room was engulfed in flames and smoke. My mind froze, unable to take in everything I was seeing: the closet, flames shooting out the doors and spreading up the ceiling, the walls nothing more than four sheets of pulsing orange and red, interrupted by the space where the window used to be.

The need for air brought me to my senses. My body shook with coughing, and I rolled out of bed and into a crouch, hoping there might be some cleaner air down there. Smoke kills in a house fire as easily as flames.

            This couldn’t be happening. Part of me prayed it was a nightmare–a flashback to the earlier accident–but I knew it wasn’t. My eyes never stung in my dreams.

The window was my first thought. Jumping from the second story might result in some broken bones, but I’d rather do that than rush through a house fire. But even as I crawled toward the window, the ceiling collapsed. My way was blocked with a half ton of flaming beams and drywall.

I scrambled to the door, but the hallway was just as bad as my room. Worse: the floor was burning, too. I blinked a few times–my eyes tearing in the smoke–and stared at the fire.

None of this made sense. If things were already this bad, I should have been burned to a crisp.

Instead, I wasn’t even sweating. I looked down.

My t-shirt and shorts were on fire.

I fell back into my room–where the floor had yet to ignite–and rolled around. The room spun in a tight circle, the flames blurring into orange streaks as I tried to put out my clothes. Maybe my skin had already been badly damaged, the nerve endings fried even worse than when I was six. As I rolled, I couldn’t stop coughing. The air smelled like a campfire, and I could taste the ash as it poured down my throat with each gasp. My energy began to fade as my body shut down without oxygen.

I was still in my barrel roll when I saw a face next to mine. Black helmet, clear gas mask: a firefighter. I coughed twice more. My vision dimmed. It was as if my body, seeing help arrive, had given up on me. The firefighter leaned over me, and I blacked out.

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