If It Were a Snake, It Would Have Bit You.

Daemons were not part of Philip Pullman’s original idea for the Golden Compass. Pantalaimon was merely a solution to a problem Pullman had with his opening scene. And understanding this may have saved the novel I’m working on.

Like forgetting to make sure the program you need is selected, or moving the day’s mail to reveal your lost keys, his solution to the problem I have is impossibly simple. Obvious.

But, it never occurred to me. My grandparents (mom’s side who haled from Kansas), used to chid me when I overlooked something laying almost at hand by saying, “If it were a snake, it would have bit you.”

And I’m feeling a rather snake-bit now.

For a long while, I’d known something was off in the first few chapters of The Book of Visions. The pacing was slow. Felt bloated with verbiage.

BUT, I would tell myself, the reader NEEDS to understand what’s really going on even if the hero does not. Especially because he does not.

Full of hints, suggestions, emotions, contrasts, confusions, the flabby lines contorted themselves in order to reveal the truth to the reader, while at the same time concealing it from the protagonist, reaching into the past, pointing to the future.


Oh, I thought I could power through the mess with pure technique and sheer wordsmithing skill. A new scene-by-scene outline grew. Word counts found themselves put into excel sheets. Scenes were shuffled. A few paragraphs were scrapped.

I knew where it needed cutting. Even how many words needed to go, roughly. About half of the journey through the space called the Between and tightening of the other parts.

And I reminded myself, it’s about the reader, not me. Pleasing them. Not my vanity.

Confidently, I waded back into the draft chapters, armed with my outlines and Excel spreadsheets full of numbers, a Magic Mouse machete in hand. I rewrote and hacked at the words.

Lumps of exposition, description, exposition, internal monologue were cut. But not too many—the reader had to understand what was going on after all. Even with the protagonist remaining ignorant.

So, most of the text ended up being reworked then put back, more cleverly and with trimer word counts. Overall, leaner to my eyes.

Proudly, I gave it to readers, and the most common observation: It was Bloated. The advice


Hadn’t I? I spend weeks reworking this and…

Worse, most readers said they probably wouldn’t turn the page.


Turning to a lecture series by Brandon Sanderson, I searched for a solution: Lectures given to the same class at BYU he says helped him more than any other to become a professional writer. The solution must be here. MUST BE.

Lots of good stuff, much having to do with knowing what you are promising the reader, giving them a sense of progress, and then pow—delivering the payoff.

So, back to the manuscript with Sanderson’s 3 Ps in hand.

That trimmed SOME of it. Helped dump a couple of useless parts from scenes. Gave me a sense it was somewhat better, but, damn, readers weren’t especially impressed. Hair pulling would have ensued if I had enough to sacrifice.

Then, the snake slithered into my hands. Staring out at me from a Kindle book I’d picked up from BookBub for a couple of bucks on a lark. It just happened to be next in my reading queue—Deamon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling by Philip Pullman.

After a fairly long introduction, we get to the transcript of a talk he gave called “Magic Carpet Rides,” where we find this (ephesis mine)

I didn’t actually think of dæmons at first. My first dozen or so attempts to write this opening chapter failed because at that stage Lyra didn’t have a dæmon; I didn’t know that dæmons existed.


WHAT!? Probably the COOLEST part of his whole world and integral to the stories was not even part of its conception. I read on in stunned fascination.

She went into the Retiring Room at Jordan College on her own, and the story didn’t work, because there was a sort of dynamic missing, and I wasn’t sure what it was until the dæmon turned up. But then she could say, “Let’s go in there” and he could say, “No, we’re not supposed to” and she could say, “Oh, don’t be such a coward” and he could say, “Well, only for a short time then”—and so on.


Daemons—Pantalaimon and the others—were an afterthought. A Solution to a PROBLEM he’d tried to solve dozen previous times.

And thus, the snake that would bite me rose from the pages of this book, extending its fangs—

“You often need more than one person in a scene to make it work.”


Gobsmacked, I reread that line. Several times.


Not flashy technique or fine wordsmithing. Not Excel sheets and minding word counts. Not new outlines and shoving things about. But an interlocutor. A person to argue with. To illuminate. Challenge. Fight. To partner with.

Now, I can dump at least half of the journey, filling the rest with disagreements and revelations. I.e. with dynamics. Simply by adding the obvious.

Much like remembering to select the right window as you type. Or moving aside the papers you just dumped on your desk. Or checking the top of your head for glasses.

Stupidly. Obvious. But missed. Repeatedly. Almost to madness. (Listening to a collection of Lovecraft stories right now—do forgive.)

This proved that one need not whip out master skills, little-known hacks, and higher analysis to solve problems. Many times, one needs but only to look for the obvious. The snake laying right there at hand. A snake willing to help, rather than harm.

For, after all, not all snakes are venomous. In fact, many eat vermin. Including of the mind.

Leave a Reply