My New Year’s Resolution was to stop giving writing advice on the internet.
I used to spend hours giving advice on reddit and twitter, and most of what happened in response was people arguing with me because the truth wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Which you know, I get it. When The Fever King was still a 145,000-word draft and I saw people talk about how YA fantasy needed to be closer to 100,000 words at the querying stage, I didn’t really believe them. Or if I did, I thought my book was the exception.
Spoiler: it wasn’t.
But anyway, point is, it’s really hard to see the big picture or to accept unwanted truths about the industry when you’re starting out. And even now, I find myself falling prey to the same biases. That doesn’t apply to me.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that my judgment of what counts as good writing is constantly changing. When I reread The Fever King now, all I see is a list of things I would have done differently.
So I figured for this, my sophomore post on this substack, I’d edit a section from the published version of The Fever King to show you how I would have written it differently today.
Bolded content is new additions from me.
Italicized content is deletions from the original content.
“I’m sure it’s not personal,” Bethany reassured him one evening, after Noam had pitched the third crumpled-up attempt at his intro math assignments at Dara’s empty bed. She lowered her copy of They were both up late with curriculum work, Noam’s intro math books sprawled next to Bethany’s Cardiovascular Physiology to offer him a tiny smile.
Noam flushed. “Sorry.”
He was pretty sure Bethany had never lost her temper in her life. Maybe infinite patience was something that came as a bonus to her healing magic.
Her presenting power was healing, apparently. Bethany had her toes tucked under Noam’s leg and holoreader propped up against her thighs, slouched so far down on the sofa her head was below the armrest. She was the only cadet willing to spend time with him—and that, he suspected, was just because she was nice.
“But… How is locking away their socks not personal?”
When Bethany glanced up to meet his gaze, Noam made a face.
“Dara’s a really private person,” sheBethany said. “Taye’s probably just taking his lead.”
As usual, just hearing Dara’s name sparked a new flame of irritation. Of course Bethany made excuses for him. Dara was perfectly charming nice enough when she and the others were around, all smiles, but as soon as it was just him and Noam,—or him and Noam and Lehrer—all that charm switched off like a lamp going dark.
Noam took it as a compliment. If the only person Dara despised as much as Noam was Minister Lehrer, then Noam must be doing something right.
“Where do you reckon they are, anyway?” Noam asked, tipping his head toward the empty bed barracks.
“The others like to go to this club over in Raleigh on off weekends,” Bethany said, putting her book aside at last tapping her holoreader screen. “I expect they’re still out.”
And Bethany hadn’t gone with them. Was that because she didn’t want to go, or because she felt sorry for Noam staying home alone?
Noam had never really enjoyed partying. After Carly died Noam had tried to get out more he went out some, mostly from a misguided sense that he needed to move on, to meet somebody. And yeah, he met people. But he’d never been able to muster the energy for much more than fumbling hands in anonymous backseats, names forgotten as soon as they fell from Noam’s lips. the kind of relationship they wanted from him. Those romances fizzled out, quick and ephemeral as the rush from a tequila shot.
He chewed the inside of his cheek to keep from saying anything he might regret and tried to pay attention to precalculus—a difficult task, as he couldn’t quite ignore the little blips of electrical current every time Bethany’s word processor autosaved.
He eyed his precalculus problem set. The prospect of trying the assignments for a fourth time made him want to crawl under his bed and never come out again.
“Do you ever get to go home?” Noam asked, tossing his math book aside. giving up. “Your mother’s still alive, right?”
Bethany snorted. “Yeah, she’s alive. I never see her, though.”
Noam tried to imagine not visiting his mother, if he had the option. He still saw her body sometimes, when he was trying to fall asleep, her face swollen and red and her neck bruised where the rope bit into her skin. Her limp feet dangling inches above the floor.
He put his book aside and twisted to face Bethany properly. “Why not?”
She shrugged. “My mother doesn’t understand magic. It’s like she’s in awe of me and scared of me at the same time. The way she acts, you’d think her real daughter died in the red ward and I’m some impostor come to replace her.”
Noam hadn’t considered that. His mother died a long time ago, but what if his father hadn’t gotten sick? What if Jaime Álvaro had survived the outbreak, only to watch Noam transform into a witching and be snatched away to Level IV?
There was a strange guilt about witchings among the older generations. Seeing a witching was to remember your grandparents’ sins, a stain that wouldn’t wash out. Noam went to the memorial with his school once, the black basalt monument carved with more names than Noam could count.
His parents fled Atlantia because they were worried about the virus outbreaks there. They thought Carolinia was safer.
They’d been wrong.
Atlantians didn’t share Carolinian guilt over the catastrophe, even though their ancestors were equally complicit in the genocide. To them, witchings represented Carolinia—Carolinia, with all its careful protections against the virus, with its militarized QZ border, weekly disinfectant sprays, and government-subsidized respirator masks—Carolinia, which refused to use those same protections to shelter Atlantian citizens. Carolinian armies, which marched south with promises of humanitarian aid and then refused to leave.
No. If Noam’s dad survived, he’d hate Noam just as much as Brennan did.
“I’m sorry,” Noam said.
“Why? It wasn’t your fault.”
“I know. It just felt like the right thing to say.”
“Anyway, she’s the reason I got the power I did, I think. So I’m grateful to her for that.” Bethany shrugged gave him a slight smile. “She’s a doctor, so I was exposed to a lot of medical stuff growing up. She used to take me in with her to work and let me watch the med students dissect cadavers.”
“That didn’t gross you out?”
“Me? Nothing grosses me out. Seriously. Try me.”
Noam grimaced. “I’d rather not,” he said. “I just ate.”
She laughed and kicked his thigh.
They worked in silence for another hour or so until Bethany went off to bed, taking her books with her. Noam wandered back out into the common room, taking the math books with him stayed. Sleep seemed a long way off, a reward he’d only earn if he finished this goddamn problem set. chased away by an anxious determination to read just one more chapter, two more, three. Everything was finally knitting together, concepts he learned in math reappearing in physics, the physical laws threaded into the fabric of chemistry, chemical reactions shaping biology . . .
He could catch up. He could.
Ames and Taye returned around one, draped in clubbing clothes and exhaustion.
“Hey, Noam,” Taye said. He was so drunk that when he waved, even his hand looked slurred.
Noam’s grip tightened on his textbook. “Hey.” A beat, Noam turning the question over in his mouth a few times, before deciding he didn’t give a fuck what they thought of him for asking. “Where’s Dara?”
Ames tried tugging her jacket off and got her arm stuck in the sleeve. She laughed, stumbling as Taye tried to help her get free. “Dunno,” she said at last. “Probably went home with someone. Probably suffocating himself on dick as we speak.”
Right. Noam tapped the tip of his tongue against his teeth. Well. It wasn’t any of his business what Dara did. “Does that a lot, does he?”
Taye laughed. “Can’t take him anywhere.”
Ames’s mouth twisted, her expression was somewhat less amused. “He usually makes it about fifteen minutes before abandoning us for better prospects.”
She must have seen the look on Noam’s face because she shook her head. “Whatever. If he hasn’t given himself alcohol poisoning again, I’m sure he’ll stumble back here eventually.”
Noam felt like they were talking about two totally different people. Dara being an asshole was unsurprising. Dara losing his grip on that perfect self-control for even a second, on the other hand, struck Noam as less characteristic.
Ames and Taye departed for their separate bedrooms, leaving Noam in the common room still clutching his math book. Any hope of sleeping tonight had evaporated; Noam got up and made himself coffee instead of following Taye to bed. No point in wishing he’d gone to Raleigh, too, when he could barely summon an electric charge. Better to focus on p-sets. Better not to be such an embarrassment to Level IV. And then maybe one day Lehrer would say, I’m impressed, Noam—you learned this so quickly, and Noam would perform feats of magic far more magnificent than eating a goddamn apple.
He wasn’t worthless. He wasn’t.
The door finally opened again around five in the morning. It was still dark out, the world blanketed in a midwinter silence broken only by the click of Noam’s keyboard and the turn of the latch. Dara slipped inside. He didn’t see Noam at first, too focused on pulling the door softly shut and glancing down at the glowing white screen of his phone. His hair was messy, like someone had been dragging their fingers through it over and over, party glitter caught in the curls and dusting the line of a cheekbone.
“Ames and Taye got back ages ago,” Noam said, just to watch Dara startle. A dark twist of schadenfreude coiled up through his gut. He smiledHis lips twisted in a grim smile. “Where’ve you been?”
Dara stuck his phone in the back pocket of his jeans, which were tight—really tight. “At the library,” he said.
Noam arched a brow and sank back against the sofa, coffee cupped between both hands. He was exhausted, and he’d held his tongue for weeks now—so he said, in a light tone that was very nearly teasing and tapped his fingers against the curve of his coffee cup. “Oh yeah? Those jeans’re so tight I can see your religion. Does the librarian make you bend over to get the good books?”
His words didn’t quite garner the reaction Noam anticipated. Dara, usually so cold and dispassionate, turned a delicate shade of red. It was fascinating, a sea change that sent little shock waves of anger radiating between them. Or it would’ve been, if Noam didn’t suddenly taste magic crackling in the air.
I’ve gone too far.
Dara looked like he wanted to reach for that magic and fashion it into a weapon. Like he might be far more dangerous than Noam anticipated.
“I don’t need to pull all-nighters to do well,” Dara said at last, voice laced with frost but steady—too steady. He started off past the common room toward the bedrooms, but he paused right by Noam’s sofa. Noam could smell the alcohol on him.
Dara’s gaze dragged over the books Noam had scattered across the coffee table and seat cushions, the discarded eraser nubs and scribbled notes. It lingered on the cover of A Physics Primer, then lifted to Noam’s face. Dara’s eyes were black wells, pupils bleeding into iris.
“You can study all you want,” he said softly. “It isn’t going to make a difference.”
And then he vanished down the hall, leaving Noam to clutch his coffee and stare at those same notes, wishing Dara hadn’t carved out the guts of what Noam already feared was truehe didn’t know, deep down in his gut and bones…
Dara was right.