From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Moving On

In Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing, the one that has always resonated with me is this one: “Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”

The tendency to keep refining my work is there. I can agonize over ever word, moving them around, adding, subtracting, to see if my intent is better expressed, if the emotion is stronger, the scene more intense. But if I do that, my books will never see the light of day. And I have more writing to do.

Empire’s Reckoning is done. It’s been structurally-edited, line-edited, revised, copy-edited, beta-read, sensitivity read, revised again, and the first ARCs are out. Twenty-two months of the most difficult writing I’ve done. I threw out the first draft almost completely and began again after 80,000 words. I excised 45K to become the novella Oraiáphon. I had difficulty finding my protagonist’s voice; I had difficulty with the two-timeline structure. And I had difficulty telling the story, because to tell my characters’ stories honestly and authentically, I challenge perceptions and presumptions about them. Not all my readers will be comfortable with how the story unfolds, I think, and that too was another difficulty.

“Move on, and write the next thing,” Mr. Gaiman says, but I can’t, not yet. I need time to let these characters who have lived so intensely in my mind for up to twenty years step back. They’re not disappearing, but they are giving way to the next generation; they will become secondary characters over the next two books in the series. I need time to get to know my new protagonist as an adult, to hear her voice clearly. I know the major story arcs of the next book, political and personal – or at least I think I do – but she needs to be living those conflicts, not being a puppet I move around within them.

I’ve lived, over the past almost-two years, a period of about eighteen months in my characters’ lives, a period for them of intense emotion, political intrigue, and personal growth. When I see them again, they’ll all be four years older, my original main characters feeling the aches – physical and spiritual – of middle age; the young ones the challenges and frustrations that come with taking their places in the world. It’ll be a bit like visiting friends or family you only see once or twice a decade, and get holiday and birthday cards from, but not much else: there will be a lot of catching up to do.

Sometime in the next week or two, I’ll clean up my study. I’ll take down the pictures of the actors that represent my characters at the stage of life they were at in Reckoning, and the pictures of northern Scotland and Vindolanda and Hadrian’s Wall and the Caledonian Forest that have kept me in the landscape of my book. The mindmaps and charts and even the song lyrics that line my study wall will go in a banker’s box and be relegated to the basement. I’ll back up all the files.

And then, in a few weeks, I’ll start replacing them: I’ll find pictures of my new protagonist as a young woman, not the girl she is in Reckoning. I’ll find the pictures of Rome that will inform the streets of Casil, its analogue city in my series and where most of the story of Empire’s Heir will take place. Empire’s Reckoning will be out in the world, for better or worse, and it will really be time to move on. Knowing that, following one more of Neil Gaiman’s rules, I’ve written my story as it needed to be written, honestly, and as best I can.

Empire’s Reckoning releases May 30.

Witch (Freya Snow Book 5) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

Witch is the fifth book in the Freya Snow series, following the experiences of autistic, bi-witchsexual, non-human Freya as she learns to navigate both the human world and the world of magic, discovering the complexities of both.

In the human world, Freya has a job as a barista; in the non-human world, she is mostly concerned with finding a way to lift a curse that has placed a friend into a coma-like state. As she solves this problem – with noticeably more skill in negotiation and communication than in earlier books – she also learns more about herself, her non-human family and her place in the hierarchy of magic. Freya’s friends play a larger part in this book; her human family is barely seen, and this is appropriate given Freya is older and more independent.

Freya’s developing maturity is paralleled by author L.C. Mawson’s development as a writer. Witch is perhaps a more thoughtful book than earlier installments, with less physical action and more development of, and insight into, Freya’s character and personality. The ending of Witch is indicative of Freya’s ability to accept responsibility, moving her from adolescent to adult.

Four stars to a pivotal installment in the series. For an overview of all the Freya Snow books, I suggest the author’s site here.

Xan and Ink, by Zak Zyz: A Review

Many fantasy books start out well but lose their way somewhere in the middle. Xan and Ink does the opposite: I found the first third of thxanandinkcovere book fairly rocky going, but once the author had his characters where he wanted them – trying to stay alive in the insect jungle of Kalparcimex, caught up in the feud between the Ranger Xan and the sorceress Ink – the story found its feet.

Banished brothers Sandros and Gregary, and their companions Brakkar and Osolin, are on a quest, to find a way to rid Joymont of the insectine creatures that are destroying it. Chance takes them in search of the legendary Xan, scholar and ranger of the Kalparcimex, to ask for his help. Both the world and the characters the author has created are complex and multi-layered, and we are given only glimpses of the back-story and motivations of the four sworn to find help for Joymont. We learn the most about Osolin, the escaped, condemned slave. Nor do we learn much more about Xan or Ink, except hints and little tastes of what made them who they are, and the past history between them. I found this intriguing; others may find it disappointing. We are only beginning to understand the complexity of the characters when the book ends, but as the ending demands a sequel, more may be revealed if that sequel is forthcoming.

The insect jungle, the Kalpa, is one of the most unusual and creative ways to pit the environment against the protagonists that I’ve come across. The insects – ranging from annoying to fatal, from mindless to sentient – are antagonists that most of us can easily imagine – anyone who’s hiked in a mosquito-laden wetland, or fought off blackflies or sand-fleas or leeches (or the black wasp of Uganda that stings just for the love of it) – can extend that experience to the horror of the Kalpa. It had me shuddering more than once.

Sexually explicit, this is a book for adults, not younger readers. Xan and Ink was far from the usual fantasy that crosses my desk, and I appreciated it more for that. Four stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, by Darrell Drake: A Release-Day Review

We are used to fantasies that involve either the magical, fey beings of Northern Europe, or star-reckonerthose of Victorian horror novels. Darrell Drake’s historical fantasy A Star-Reckoner’s Lot introduces us to the mythology of Sassanian Iran, its beings of good and evil, and the complex idea of star-reckoning, a type of sorcery that channels the warring powers of the heavens to the benefit – or detriment – of humankind.

Revolving around three main characters: Ashtadukht, the Star-Reckoner; Tirdad, her cousin and bodyguard, and Waray, a half-div (half-demon, more or less) stray befriended by Ashtadukht, A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is a long story in terms of passing time; it unfolds in a series of vignettes; the reader may sometimes have difficulty in grasping the immediate importance of the events, or the connections between them. Nor is the reader given much backstory; the world, both seen and unseen, its characters, and the interactions between them unfold gradually, but the story moves inexorably towards its climax and conclusion.

Ashtadukht is a difficult character to get to know, and perhaps too a difficult character to truly like, stoic and bitter, but our understanding of her and what drives her develops over the story; in the end, we understand her, and likely have sympathy for her. Tirdad is perhaps the least developed of the three main characters, but he too is a character of dimension faced with difficult choices. Waray, the half-div, is on the other hand the most developed character: at times appealing, at times annoying, and at times amusing, all those facets hide a depth of sorrow and regret, and a desire for redemption that drives her.

It would be easy to read A Star-Reckoner’s Lot as a simple adventure set in an unfamiliar mythos, but the themes of love and honour, exclusion and belonging, and regret for the prices paid for actions raises it above many fantasy novels. Do not be misled by the author’s light hand (and occasional bad puns); this is a story with some haunting imagery and deep themes, and not one I’m going to forget quickly. Five stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Year of Reviewing: My Top Ten

I wrote my first review on this site a year ago this week. Since then, I’ve reviewed 65 books. These are my top ten, in alphabetical order. All these received 5 stars from me; coincidentally, this were the only 5-star reviews for the year, so I didn’t have to make a decision of what to include or leave out!

Citizen Magus, by Rob Steiner

Falcon Boy, by Barnaby Taylor

Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice, by Devon Michael

Magic of the Gargoyles, by Rebecca Chastain

Prophecy by Benjamin A. Sorenson

Sailor to a Siren, by Zoë Sumra

Sapphire Hunting, by J SenGupta

The Quantum Door, by Jonathan Ballagh

The World, by Robin Wildt Hansen

Tom Cat, by Amy Holden Jones

Shivers up my Spine

You’re a writer. You write something – a short story, say; you think it’s good. Other people read it; you read it out loud at a couple of open mic nights. People like it.

But hearing it read by someone else, someone who is a really really good reader, is a whole new experience.bssh

Bob Daun at Bob’s Short Story Hour reads my short story A Spider’s Spinning so well, it sent shivers up my spine. (Which it is supposed to do – it’s a scary story – but I didn’t expect to have that reaction, given I’d written it.)

Got 10 minutes or so? Click on the link above and listen, while you’re cooking dinner or folding laundry or just sitting back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Not just to my story, but to the music and other readings on this episode. You won’t be disappointed.

Temporary Shift, by E.V. Baugh: A Review

Temporary Shift by E.V. Baugh is a cute little sci-fi romance with appealing characters:temporary-shift
essentially, chick-flick sci-fi. Klutzy temp worker Sally is assigned to a private physics laboratory….and when she drops her phone and accidentally bumps into some controls as she bends to retrieve it, the results send her into a series of multi-universe existences, playing out different scenarios in her possible lives. The attractive physicist whose lab it was, and to whom she feels a distinct pull, is a part of all of these different lives: he’s clearly important to her, but in what way?

I’ll be clear; this isn’t technical science-fiction. The time-travel is a device to play out different scenarios in Sally’s life, and that’s all. It reminded me of the film Sliding Doors, but with more alternatives than just two parallel universes. It’s amusing and there’s just enough twist to the romantic angle to keep the ending from being completely obvious.

The writing is competent and the voice appropriate to the story. I had a few niggles with the pacing, with perhaps too much time in the first third of the book taken up by one (or two) too many different scenarios in Sally’s possible lives. Even after that, some of the story was repetitious, but perhaps with so many early scenarios, the author needed to clarify which issues were important. Characters are fairly stock for this type of book, but nicely described and realized.

Temporary Shift is a quick read, good for a lazy Sunday afternoon (alternatively, I’d find it a good commuter-train read, not so demanding of concentration you’d miss your stop) for those who enjoy a light romance. Overall, 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Faerie of Central Park, by Bruce Graw: A Review

Dave is a first year student at Columbia University in New York city, unsure and adrift –faerie-central-park until the day an injured faerie lands on the windshield of his car. Thinking it is a high-quality doll he can use to impress a girl, he takes it home – only to find that it is an honest-to-goodness live faerie.

Tilly, the faerie, is the genius loci of Central Park, keeping its natural rhythms in place, taking care of the Land. She desperately needs to return – but Men are the age-old enemies of the Fey, so how can she trust Dave?

The Faerie of Central Park is a gentle, amusing story, a romance in the old meaning of the term. The story begins light-heartedly, describing Tilly’s actions in Central Park and Dave’s at university. Even after they meet, the story continues in a fairly predictable ‘human meets non-human and get to know each other’ vein, but well written and enjoyable.

The story bogged down for me in the middle, with too much description and repetition of situations that did not differ enough from each other to warrant inclusion. But it picked up again in the last third of the book as the story approached its climax and then came to an almost-satisfying conclusion.

I can’t fault the writing: author Bruce Graw constructs sentences and paragraphs with skill. The characters are as developed as one would expect in a light urban fantasy, with the characters of Tilly and Dave the most developed, as is appropriate. The e-book was extremely well edited, without the common errors that spell-check misses. Only the actual story-telling wobbled, in the too-long and too-repetitious middle section, and an ending that left me with one fairly large niggle, which I won’t describe so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall, three-and-a-half stars for a enjoyable urban fantasy, suitable for both young adults and older.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Community

Yesterday I read at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, in the tiny Ontario hamlet of Eden Mills. I was reading because the two pieces I had submitted to the Fringe contest, for not-yet-widely-published authors, had been chosen by the jury. Four poems in the first submission, and a short story in the second.

eden-mills-wall

I’ve been going to this festival on and off for the last twenty-five years. Eden Mills, a hamlet of many 19th century limestone and clapboard houses, spans the Eramosa River. Readings are done outdoors, mostly, in back yards running down to the river; in a sculpture garden, on the grounds of the old mill, in a re-purposed chapel. It’s been a way to spend a lovely September afternoon, listening to people read, eating ice cream, browsing the books in the publishers’ way.

Yesterday I saw a glimpse the other side of it, the heart and soul and sweat and generosity, of time and talent and spirit, that makes the festival. The Fringe readers were treated no differently from anyone else reading: we were invited to the authors’ lounge, (which had taken over the ground floor of a resident’s house) where there was coffee and breakfast pastries available when we got there, then lunch, and later wine and nibbles. Conversations were open and welcoming; I talked to Steven Burrows, another birder and author of birding mysteries (we talked about birding, not writing), and then I talked to the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, George Elliott Clarke, about the surreality of beginning a writing career in my fifties. (His take on it? It’s a good time; fewer distractions).

I read in a natural half-ampitheatre with the river behind me and people ranged in lawn chairs, on blankets, on the grass, on the hill in front of me. My readings both went well – I was sure I was going to stumble over the line “No survey stake or draughtsmen’s pen rules here” (try saying that!) in one of my poems, but I didn’t.

In between the readings, I mostly worked the table of Vocamus Press, the Guelph-based small press that also promotes and publicizes the work of other Guelph writers. This too is hard work, lots of chatting to people (many aspiring writers), selling a few books, handing out cards for the book promotion Vocamus is doing in October. I was a poor backup for Luke, the founder, whose natural salesmanship is far better than mine.

At the end of the day, in the middle of a conversation about literary theory and criticism with a young poet, after a glass of well-earned wine at the lounge, we took ourselves to the village hall for the dinner for all the authors and publishers. Salads, rolls, butter chicken and rice for the first course – and wine on the table, replenished when we’d emptied a bottle – but it was the desserts that were the crowning touch. Because residents of Eden Mills take it on to bake pies – goodness knows how many – for this annual event. How many pies do you need to feed more than fifty hungry writers, plus publishers, volunteers, and organizers? However many it is, they did it. And they were goooood.

There are two – or maybe three – intertwined communities here: the community of Eden Mills, which welcomes, organizes, hosts, bakes, provides food, opens homes, washes dishes (and puts up with writers taking over the village once a year): the supportive, involved people who don’t live, perhaps, in the village, but who are nonetheless integral parts of the Festival, whether it’s organizing the Fringe, arranging the buses, selling books on the Publishers’ Way, and doing a thousand other things I’m not aware of. And then there are the writers themselves, who were again most welcoming, generous, and open, with their time and their thoughts. I was proud to be, in a small way, part of these communities on Sunday.

Thank you, Eden Mills Writers’ Festival!