Monthly Archives: April 2012

Submissions

Recently I set myself some goals , so I thought I’d better keep you up to date on my progress:

Firstly – Today this blog went past 500 views! I’m pretty happy with that. So far this week I’ve had 100 views and it’s only Wednesday. I’ve also got over 40 followers and the blog has been read in Europe, Asia, the US and Australia. So over-all I’m calling the goal of ‘set up a blog’ a successful one so far.

Secondly – I haven’t got an agent yet, but really that’s a longer term goal. I’m hoping I’ll get one this year, so I’m calling that goal in progress. The next agent on my list requests paper manuscript samples rather than electronic so next week I’m going to do some printing and put together a really enticing package that’ll make them thrilled to represent me. Or at least that’s the plan.

Thirdly – I have submitted two short stories this week. One to a paying market and the other non-paying. We’ll see how they’re received but it feels good to have them out there. I also submitted a third story to a third market but it was automatically rejected because it was shorter than their minimum fiction guidelines. This was entirely my fault and I’m a bit embarrassed about it. The lesson of  course is to always read the submission guidelines carefully. Even if you’ve submitted to that magazine before and you think you know them.

Fourthly – I’ve been writing some more on my Untitled Novel project and I’m pretty happy with most of it. One conversation sticks out to me as a bit forced. It’ll need some drafting work, but the protagonist’s voice is flowing well and I’m getting a feel for the piece. Thanks to my wonderful wife’s patience I had a good block of writing today, adding 3,000 words to take me past 8,000 and almost completing chapter 3. I’m about 10% of the way there I think.

Fifthly – (and lastly) I tried writing a query letter for my novel Exile which I plan to submit to a small press when their submissions open next month. I’ve got the manuscript complete. Now all I need is a good synopsis which summarises 240,000 words and at least six Point-of-View characters across split narratives into a page or so. Then I have to improve this query letter in which I use about 300 words to entice the publishers (and hopefully readers) to pick the book up. Not easy, but if it were easy everyone would be doing it.


Ups and a down

So I’ll go in reverse alphabetical order and deal with the good news first.

The blog seems to be going pretty well. Today was my third best day since the big opening day of the blog in terms of views. I’ve got more than ten followers through wordpress (thanks guys!) a couple of followers via e-mail (thanks guys!) and nearly 30 followers on Facebook (thanks to you guys too!). If you aren’t following yet it’s easy. Just look to the right-hand side of your screen and use either e-mail or Facebook to stay up-to-date with my posts!

Not bad for the first week.

Even more importantly than the stats the blogosphere has exposed me to lots of other people doing lots of cool stuff and to helpful resources and opportunities I wouldn’t have found otherwise. It’s also been really inspiring me to write, and I suppose that’s the most important function it can serve. If I feel there’s an audience for what I’m writing then it’s more than just me bashing a keyboard, it becomes a more shared experience of creating something, and I think that’s been really energising. A week ago I hadn’t even conceived the novel project I’m working on, but now I’ve got a plan and characters and some major plot points and I’m drafting.

Which brings me to my second ‘up’.

Despite all the distractions of life and the competing commitments that have needed juggling I wrote over 1,000 words today on my untitled project and have a total of over 5,000 words. That’s a complete prologue and chapter one and a start on chapter two (in draft stages). I’ll keep posting some excerpts in the drafting section as I go, as I did with the prologue and with chapter 1.

And now the bad news…

I’d put a query in with a Literary Agent here in Australia whose website suggested they were open for submissions and accepted Fantasy manuscripts. The list of Australian Literary Agents who fit that description is quite small, so I was hopeful of at least being able to send them some of my writing.

Not to be. They’re “not looking at manuscripts such as the one I describe”. It was a basic form letter (e-mail) rejection but they sent me a link to a list of Literary Agents. It was the same site I’d used to find them but at least they’re being a little helpful.

Anyway rejection is always bad news, but it also means my search for an agent is now a little more focussed. Not too many more can reject me here in Australia, and it may mean I need to find one overseas, but in the age of the internet that shouldn’t be an insurmountable hurdle. New York and London are as near to me a Sydney for all intents and purposes.

So I leave today feeling energised, with a little more written than I had this morning, with a little more clarity of focus, and with determination to keep working at it.

I read an interview with Joe Abercrombie wherein he said his First Law trilogy was rejected several times and kicked around failed submissions for almost a year… and his First Law trilogy is excellent, so I’ve got a few months and a few more rejections and revisions up my sleeve yet.


‘Exile’ Prologue Part 2 (excerpt)

This is an early draft from part of the prologue I had planned to my completed novel manuscript titled Exile. The structure of the prologue was to be three short vignettes of related events which affect the main characters but don’t directly involve the main characters.

I’ve posted the first one before. This is the third. I’m going to keep the second up my sleeve. As with the first this too has been cut from the manuscript in its current form as I revise and edit toward a goal of 120,000 – 130,000 words.

******

The village of Grusby had only one inn, and some nights even that one was all but empty. Not tonight. On nights like these it heaved to the joyous strains of bawdy songs and clumsy dancers. Men from the mines had come in to town with raw nuggets to trade and deep thirsts to fill. A shambolic attempt at a minstrel band strummed and stamped in one corner, one man keeping the beat by slapping his meaty palms onto an empty barrel. The press of humanity had opened a circle in the centre of the room; benches and tables had been pushed against the walls and then climbed by grubby children grinning idiot grins through a latticework of crooked teeth. In the centre of the open circle a whip-thin boy who would have seen maybe sixteen summers blushed deep and awkward in ill-fitting clothes. The girl who danced around him was younger still but free; a picture of innocence as she twirled in the traditional circles, following paths that her mother and grandmothers had carved over generations.

The stranger from the capital stood isolated in the crowd. He pressed his tired shoulder-blades against the rough wooden walls and didn’t move more than arm’s length from the barkeep and his tapped barrels. Even as he raised the tired old tankard to his lips he reprimanded himself for drinking. He shouldn’t relax yet, he was north of the Lascon now, nearly home, but nearly was not quite enough. At first he had showed some resistance, when there had still been a sun in the western sky and the inn had been his alone, but the crowd had crashed through the doors like a wave upon the shore and he had been swept along like so much flotsam.

He watched the girl curtsy in that clumsy provincial way, and the boy’s red face lit up with childish delight. He couldn’t help but be drawn along. It was a ceremony far removed from the King’s Court, and the finery here was aged and faded; family heirlooms or relics of long dead ancestors, but it was a betrothal none-the-less, and the father of the bride was generous. No one had asked him his name, and he was glad not to have to give it, but they had clapped him on the back and filled his tankard and when the spitted boar had been brought in from the fire-pit the smell had been irresistible.

He had been in the saddle for over a week to reach this point. He had survived on salted meats, scavenged berries and stolen crops. He couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted ale, or mead, or roasted pork still hot from the coals. He relished the opportunity to have a meal without looking over his shoulder, without waiting for the sounds of pursuit, without suddenly starting up from his food at the slightest sound and reaching for the reins of his horse. Here, ironically surrounded by strangers, he had found himself relaxing; relieved. His full stomach rumbled contentedly and the ale kept sour memories at bay.

The King’s forests on Ile Aux Cerf seemed farther away from this dirty little mining town than the mere miles of road and stretch of sea that lay between them, farther even than the days of travel he had spent. Ile Aux Cerf and and all his past was a lifetime away – a world away. When he had started in his service to the Duc he had been little more than a boy. His initial nervousness had been expected and easily passed off as normal for a peasant among the peerage. Over time he lost those nerves; lost himself in the role he had been asked to play. Despite himself he had even come to like the Duc’s son; an ambitious man, having been of an age to rule for nearly two decades, waiting for the old Duc to die, but personable and given to treating his serving staff well. As a man in the Duc’s service he found that Latonville had been open to him. Merchants, whores and minor nobility had offered him bribery in goods, services or coin. He had refused them all, adding polish to a veneer of loyalty, ignoring dozens of gilt-edged chances to fulfil his true purpose, until eventually that purpose was all but forgotten.

Until that day.

It wasn’t his first trip to hunt the forests on the King’s own island, and nothing had seemed amiss… not until the ferryman’s bony hand had brushed his sleeve and the wrinkled old man had nodded in a way that may have meant nothing and yet meant all the world would change. For a moment he hoped he had read the man’s gesture incorrectly, but the pale blue eyes, piercing and sad, had left no room for doubt. He nodded a reply.

It had been easy to accomplish. Ridiculously easy. Idiotically. He shook his head even now at the thought of it. With one final wrench in his gut he had loosed the arrow, so mortally accurate as to seem accidental. The Duc’s son had slid from his horse with almost comic slowness and it had seemed like long moments before he joined in their panicked rush back to the ferry. He had worn a mask of grief and shock and was never suspected. The ferryman’s eyes had burned into his back the whole way back to the capital but he didn’t dare return the glance.

He had stayed for a week in the capital, waiting for news of the festering wound, feigning dismay at the blood-loss. Eventually the inevitable death was announced, as he knew it would be, and he had borne their consolations and pushed the guilt down deep. That had been the start of the nightmares, and they had followed the next day, as he fled toward the River Laton: northward and homeward. They must have realised his betrayal soon after he left. Perhaps the same day, perhaps the next. He had ridden one horse into the ground and stolen another outside Fourche. He had eaten in the saddle, even slept at times despite himself. If they had followed they would surely be well behind and they would surely not have come this far north of the river.

The nightmares hadn’t eased, and even tonight among this crowd of local miners in full revel he had seen visions of the man he murdered swim across his vision. The ale was having its effect though. His tankard was filled again without his realising and even the discordant singing was not as offensive. The young couple had been tied at the wrists with a loose knot of ribbon and were dancing a waltz of intense concentration. It was sweet, he decided: innocent. He had missed that. It had been a long time since he had felt innocent and he doubted he deserved to.

A toothless old uncle, streaked with the dirt of the pit despite his best efforts, was chattering to him in the deep, guttural dialect of the hills. He had been away from home so long, had not spoken his mother’s tongue in so long, that he was having some trouble following the miner. The base accent, the ale and the man’s toothless gums conspired to further slur language already roughly formed. He nodded and grunted occasionally, smiling at the right times and joining in with the man’s exuberant laughter. In the middle of the room the empty circle collapsed as the ceremonies were completed and impatient revellers cascaded into a chaotic dance.

The constriction of bodies eased and the stranger realised the pressure on his bladder. With a perfunctory nod to the toothless old man he pushed himself away from the wall onto legs drunker than he had realised. From the corner of his vision he noted the women queuing for the inn’s single privy and steered away instead. In moments he was outside beneath a clear sky bright with stars. As he staggered away from the inn and down a narrow alley between empty houses his eyes stayed on the sky above. The fat red moon was swollen in the night, huge and full, and around it were spread so many glittering stars. Here, away from the city, away from the torches and oil-lamps, there seemed so many more of them.

He was still fumbling with his clothes when something struck him like a fist in the shoulder. He turned, expecting to see an enthusiastic partygoer, instead seeing only the empty alley. When he tried to call out he succeeded only in drawing in a painful breath. For a moment he was confused, until he saw the point of an arrow pressing against his tunic, spreading an ugly red spot across the fabric. He tried to touch it but his right hand hung limp at his side, refusing to respond. The pain hit him with realisation.

Over his shoulder he saw the feathered shaft. His head swum and he leaned heavily against the wall with his one good hand. He had turned enough that the second shaft glanced off his temple. It skittered away as he went to his knees and a flow of blood swept into his eyes. Chattering voices sounded in the dark. The black earth struck the side of his face and his breath came in shallow, wet, drafts. When a stalking figure resolved out of the night and flipped him roughly onto his back he tried to plead or beg or curse. His voice bubbled bloodily in his throat and spilled wordlessly in warm, red gouts. The archer yanked at his hand, trying to dislodge a thick golden band from his third finger. For a moment he thought that this was a robbery, a stupid piece of ill-chance, but even as he thought it he knew it was not. He had been followed, or he had been careless, and this was the reward.

In the end the ring would not be dislodged, but the man had taken it anyway, and his finger with it. The crack of his bone had sounded distant to his ears and the knife moved as if it were not him being cut. Even the stars seemed dim and distant. The knife hung above him then, its bloodied blade swimming in his narrowing vision. Swiftly it plunged – into his neck perhaps, or his chest. Once. Twice. Another just to be sure. The assassin pulled a hooded cloak over his head and returned to the embrace of the night from whence he had come while the stranger from the capital fixed his failing sight on the waning, red half-moon and felt his life’s-blood soak into the earth.

******

Once again let me know what you think.


Goal-setting

So I’m currently waiting to hear back from an agent with whom I’m seeking representation. There’s about three in Australia that I’ve shortlisted based on them being reputable, currently open to submissions,  and working with the kind of genre fiction appropriate to my novel Exile.

The process of getting an agent takes time. You can only submit to one at a time. There’s a few weeks turn around on any query and if that’s successful there’s the submission of a sample of your writing and if that’s successful they’ll want to see the whole thing and then if they like that they’ll talk to you about taking it on. That’s fine. I can be patient and I really think getting an agent is the way to go if  I’m able to get one.

Unpublished authors complain about the ‘gatekeepers’ of the publishing industry, but I think the gate-keepers are the people I want on my side. If an agent picks up my work it means it has some value beyond simply my dewy-eyed affection for my own words. Part of the reason this blog exists is to test the waters with the wider world and not just those obligated to praise my writing through the bonds of blood, marriage or friendship. But an agent goes beyond that. For an agent to take the manuscript on it would mean it has professional credibility, and perhaps commercial viability. An agent means an editor, and I want an editor. It also means someone who’s done this before, knows the process, can make professional contracts fair, and has connections in the publishing houses where the decisions are made.

In the meantime there’s the flip-side that the publishing world is undergoing tectonic changes and the Publishing House model is not the only path to the reader anymore. I’m not really keen to self-publish for all sorts of reasons and I’m even less interested in a vanity press. I’m not about getting my work published unless someone who knows what they’re talking about reckons it’s worth publishing.

The possible middle path though is in publishing through a small press. So I’m setting a goal to have Exile ready to submit on the 1st May. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s received.


Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.