Tag Archives: Exile

The revisions

I almost entitled this post ‘the re-write’. It almost feels that complete, but in truth it’s not. This is a normal stage of the writer’s craft, the revising.

I likened it in a previous post to sculpting and if I could extend the metaphor a little (indulge me I pray) I’ll refer to pottery (try not to picture me as Patrick Swayze to your Demi Moore)

The 300,000 or so words I had once were a massive block of clay. Too massive. I got that down to 241,000 and sat back and thought ‘that’s a lot of clay I hacked off that sucker. I don’t think any more clay could come off that.’

It took me a while to realise I was wrong. Even when people looked a bit sceptically at my ‘finished piece’ and said ‘gee, it’s pretty big’ (keep your mind out of the gutter!) I thought to myself: ‘yes, yes it is. It is a great big fantasy novel that I have written and I’m fine with that.’ (when really I wasn’t)

I was asking the wrong question, and all those nagging little anomalies I knew were there I ignored because I wasn’t really ready to ask the right question and expose them. So when I did. When I said to myself ‘it’s a big Fantasy novel, but is it really a good one?’ I found that it wasn’t really finished. I had finished drafting. I had started revising. But then I had stopped.

So in the last month or so I’ve been hacking clay away. I’m hovering around 200,000 words now and more must go. That said word count is a secondary concern. Some will be lost, because that is the nature of these revisions. Only the worthiest scenes and sentences may remain. The herd will get stronger because I will kill the weak (to jump from clay to buffalo for a moment. It was a brief visit though, back to clay).

As an update I am currently on page 62 of my revised draft. That’s 18,500 words which have survived my scrutiny. The manuscript is 201,000 words on 649 pages in its current state. (These are MS Word pages based on double-spaced, size 12, TNR font). So in one sense I’m just under 10% of the way through.

That accounting is a bit misleading though because the plot-point I am currently revising took place on page 180 of my 241,000 word manuscript. That manuscript was 766 pages long (MS Word, double-spaced, size 12 TNR). So on that measure I’m about 15% of the way through on page count. I’ve cut out 117 pages and 40,000 words so far. Of the nearly 60,000 words I’ve revised less than a third have survived.

Now it’s worth pointing out that there are reasons for this that mean extrapolating that rate of word-loss is unrealistic. I am not planning to (or going to) end up with a manuscript of 80,000 words. Sure that’s in the range of recommended novel length for a first time author, but I don’t see it happening here. I will end up under 200,000 though, of that I’m quite certain.

 

The goal is to have this thing pitch-ready by Genrecon in November. It’s a daunting goal to be honest, but the exercise is cathartic and I am very confident it is improving my novel, and my writing craft. It is making me a better writer, and that is, after all, my stated goal.

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The need for (safe) risk taking

I have always been more a solitary writer than one who actively seeks a community of the like-minded. The reasons for this are manifold:

Firstly I haven’t found a strong community of like-minded writers. Possibly (almost certainly) this is a bit of a chicken/egg argument, as I haven’t really actively sought one out. When I have, and I was for a short time part of a group of writers, the ‘like’ in like-minded was quite strained – incorporating everything from Hard SF to Paranormal Fiction to Epic Fantasy – and didn’t really fit within the genre niche I was carving for myself.

Secondly I have (until recently – more on that to come) been quite guarded about what I was doing. It was really only when I finished the ‘Exile’ manuscript (I’ve posted excerpts from the prologue here before) that I felt I had something I wanted people to read. Sharing scenes, excerpts, even chapters felt a bit false because they were so de-contextualised.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, I was just in an utter state of fear that it would all be rubbish. I had this thing I’d been building and crafting and drawing forth from my own creative energies for years (over a decade). How could I risk putting it out there and having it savaged? How could I risk being told that all that time and effort was wasted? Wasn’t it safer to keep my work of genius locked safely away from the harsh judgements of those that would seek to judge it?

No.

Of course not.

And yet it was a prevailing mindset. I recognise it sometimes when I think of my boys growing up. My eldest is off to school next year and I’m excited for him, but at the same time some part of me wishes I could hold him back – hold him locked in time – so he wouldn’t have to go out there and get bullied and fail at things and have his heart broken and risk all the myriad tragedies and tribulations of a life lived. That’s fair enough isn’t it? I’ll just keep him here in this happy (mostly) state of early child-hood where I can enjoy the beaming smile I get when he sees me and he will never tell me he hates me and storm out, and no one will be able to say a bad word about him?

No.

Of course not.

 

We know lives need to be lived, despite – or perhaps because of – all the inherent risks in the living. Books need to be read for the same reasons (I just compared my manuscript to my son. How droll. Forgive me.).

So I sent my book out to some (highly) trusted readers. Close friends. Family. People who have read and enjoyed the books I believe inspired me in the writing of ‘Exile’. The feedback I got was positive, and in some ways and in some cases constructive, but really it was a comfortable and familiar blanket in which to wrap myself. I mean no disrespect to my readers in saying that – they performed their role perfectly. My point is I needed someone to play another role.

I needed the harsh, but fair, critic. I needed the bald-faced truth. I needed someone to cast aside the flatteries and the positive reinforcement and to go straight to the heart of anything in the novel which didn’t work. I needed a critical eye to find the faults I had been denying to myself: the faults I most needed to fix before I pitch this tale.

And I found my man, and recently he gave me what I needed. I’ll give you all more detail on what that is in a series of subsequent posts. It’s a work in progress. Suffice it to say that some fairly drastic cuts are recommended and some significant changes to characters and characterisation. That in itself doesn’t amaze me (though to be honest I was amazed by the extent of the recommended cutting). What amazed me most was how well the advice I was getting struck those loose nerves that I had been soothing over. Almost everything which was identified for me aligned perfectly to some sense of uncertainty I’d been feeling, or some concern about the manuscript which I would occasionally glimpse and turn away from. It had become a ‘wilful unseeing’ of the faults in my work, and I’d gotten so fixated on looking at words within a scene that I hadn’t asked myself ‘does this paragraph need to be here?’ ‘does this scene?’ ‘does this chapter?’ ‘does this character?’.

I feel the answers may be difficult to nail down, and maybe all these alterations will take something away from the manuscript which will be lost forever. This is the risk involved in following these recommendations, but I’m at least now at a place with my writing that I have the courage to take the risk.


Query Letters

Query letters are hard!

Sure there’s plenty of sites that give you some advice*, and often agents have blogs where they explain what thye like or don’t in a query letter. Often though these contradict, and what one agent recommends another despises. Sometimes the same agent will advise against something in early posts and change their view over time. Other times there’ll be a query letter that breaks all the ‘rules’ and yet gets the desired attention.

So here’s my (humbly submitted) take on query letters:

They have one purpose – get you to the next step. 

This sounds simple (I hope), but it sometimes gets lost in the minutiae. Query letters are a tool with a purpose. That purpose is to intorduce yourself and your work and get someone interested enough to want to read more. That doesn’t make them simple to produce, but it needs always to be the guiding principle. All the other rules and recommendations support this goal, but they are subservient to it. If you break all the rules and yet someone is interested enough in your letter to want more, then it’s a good letter. If you follow all the rules meticulously and get a dozen rejections before someone wants to see more, it’s still a good letter; it’s served its purpose.

They need to be honest.

I think query letters are a case of don’t try to please everyone. If your query letter does a good job of introducing you and your work then consider it a success. If it gets rejected that doesn’t mean the letter’s not a successful letter. It might mean that the agent or publisher you queried is not a good fit for you, or for your work. There’s nothing to be gained from a query that represents you or your work as any way other than truthfully. If an agent does make a request based on that query they’ll soon find out that your chapters or your manuscript aren’t exactly what they were looking for anyway. That’s another rejection and back to square one. All you’ve gotten is false hope and it’s cost you time when you could have been finding an agent that wants to work with you.

They need to show your talents.

It’s not just about your work; it’s not just about your bio. It’s a combination of both, and it’s also a kind of demonstration piece. Being able to explain your novel succinctly shows you have a plan, and a structure. Being able to attract interest shows that you have the hook, or point-of-difference, that will make your work marketable. Being able to discuss your work as a product shows that you consider yourself a professional. Being able to write an engaging and interesting letter shows that you have the command of the language to write engaging and interesting prose.

I found that breaking the query letter down into these three focus points helped me cut out a lot of unnecessary plot synopsis and really hone in on what was important. I don’t know if it will work yet, but I’m a lot happier with what I have now than what I first sent out.

This is a query letter I had for a while and submitted to a couple of agents. It relates to my novel Exile, and it was not successful. I’ve changed it because it’s not honest. Reading it I get the wrong impression about who is the protagonist of the novel (Duc Abastille isn’t introduced until about a third of the way through the novel).

I was too focussed on exposition of back-story that I barely introduced the characters which my novel is about. I think it’s an engaging query (but I’ll let you judge that), and some of it I’ve retained for the revised queries, but it is not an honest one.

Specific Agent

Specific Agency

Address

As a young man Gerard Abastille was an acclaimed hero of the Battle of Three Fords. His victory brought peace to the warring families of Alterre, and brought him the noble title of Duc… but that was seventy years ago. Now Duc Abastille is old and the peace he won is worn and brittle. When his sons are killed in suspicious circumstances he is left without an heir, and his legacy is threatened. He suspects his old enemy Jarl Blodax, but in the internecine politics of Alterre no one can be fully trusted.

Jacqueline, only daughter of Duc Abastille, has been disowned for her love of the commoner Selwyn. Together in exile, they have raised a family beyond the borders of Alterre, but their past is not so easily left behind. When become victims of a broader conflict their children are thrust unprepared into a brutal world. Rymon must conform to a role demanded of him by his birth, Marianne must find her place in a world that treats her as chattel, and Jolyon must somehow overcome his guilt and perhaps find a way to bring his family back together.

EXILE is a Fantasy with minimal, ambiguous references to magic and non-human races. The morality is gray, and while the setting is epic in scale the plot is focussed on the narratives of Selwyn and Jacqueline’s surviving children, not the fate of the world. It is complete at 241,000 words. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

* Some of the linked sites here are for cover letters, not query letters. Cover letters are usually either for short fictions (and therefore you’re sending the whole story so a synopsis is, in a sense, redundant), or will accompany a synopsis and/or sample chapters. There’s plenty of other sites too. Google ‘how to write a query letter’ and you’ll have more to options than you know what to do with.


A Gordian Knot

Today I finished a short story that I started maybe two years ago and which I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off occasionally ever since. I had reached a sticking point, and I feel I may have solved the problem today.

When I write a short story it often starts with a character, or a scene. I have plenty of scratchings and notes of this sort which may never become short stories of their own. Some of them might be chiseled and shaped, or molded into new things and added to or inserted within another project or a different story.   Many of them remain as notes or scenes or character descriptions for characters who will never be given a story. Hopefully I’ll come back to some occasionally and expand on them.

This short story started out with two characters, young boys, our protagonist and his only friend. As I wrote it I reached a point where the two characters were, I feel, well developed and the relationship between them was well-defined with a few nuances. The lesser characters with whom they interacted were shallow, as is often required in a short story where an economy of words is essential, but I was overall happy with the characterisation.

The setting was part of the world I created for my novel “Exile”, so it was well developed. If anything it was perhaps over-developed for the needs of the short story. As with “The Green Monkeys” and “A Choice of Kings”, also set in this fictional world (“The Green Monkeys” also set in ‘Talamh’), there was a challenge in leaving out some of the irrelevant detail I had developed. This is sometimes a problem for Fantasy writers and authors. Once someone has created a highly-detailed alternative world there is a compulsion to tell your readership all about it. In detail. Too much detail. George RR Martin has spoken of how important it is to use only the details of the setting that are relevant to the plot, and invented only a few words of Valyrian or Dothraki (only those that the text required to demonstrate how the languages were different and foreign). Joe Abercrombie has spoken of his distaste for maps and his novels always reference their setting with a deliberately lack of specificity. Tolkein on the other hand created a meticulous history and several languages for Middle Earth. In truth the stories of Middle Earth, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were by-products. Tolkein was a professional philologist and his central concern was to develop languages, from these he created Middle Earth so that people could speak his languages; the narratives that resulted were never his intended goal, and while in many instances the detail of Tolkein’s setting is what set him apart and spawned his legion imitators really few people complained when the film adaptation cut whole chapters of Tom Bombadil out. It didn’t detract from the narrative at all.

The plot I also had mapped out. I don’t usually map a plot too early in my process. As I said the story will start as a scene or a character, I’ll build on that, hopefully develop a conflict and some complications and at that point sit down to map them out. In this instance I had an initiating circumstance, a conflict, rising complications, a conclusion, and a resolution. I knew what would happen, how each event would lead to the next, and how the story would end.

In short I had everything I needed: characters, setting, plot. And yet one scene was holding me up. I knew what needed to happen in the scene. I knew who was involved. I knew where in the narrative the scene belonged. I knew what brought the characters together at that point. I knew where they had to go after that scene… I just couldn’t write it. I tried. Several times. It always sounded naff. Not terrible. Kinda ‘passable’ but just… not good enough.

It was frustrating.

So today I took a different path. No more chiseling at the edges, no more gentle molding, no more sanding back or polishing, no more pulling at threads hoping the knot would unravel. I took the sword to it. I cut it right back, made the dialogue do a lot more of the heavy lifting, took out some unnecessary details and…

And I think it’s worked. Maybe I wake up in the morning and post a retraction. Maybe it was horrible and needs to be re-written, but for the first time I am confident that at least structurally it’s right. The drafting and revising process isn’t finished, but it’s close, and the story actually looks like a story now. There’s not a great big chunk missing out of the middle like there had been.

It’s called “To the Iron Hills”, and it’ll be between 7,500 and 8,000 words complete. I’ll post a couple of thousand words as an excerpt here soon, but I’m keeping most of this one up my sleeve for now and I’ll definitely be submitting it to some publication markets when it’s ready. I reckon this one’s a good one.


Strong female protagonists

Where are they?

I recently got drawn into a discussion about whether Katniss Everdeen is a strong female protagonist (SFP). I haven’t read the books so I’m basing my arguments on secondary sources and what I know of the film and plot synopses of the novels. This may lead to a flawed understanding of the character (and please point out those flaws when you see them), but I’m not sure she’s what I would be looking for in an SFP.

The discussion broadened, as it so often does, and I realised I was struggling to find examples of what I would call SFPs. Hence this musing.

One problem I think comes from what we see as strong. Often an author will attempt to create an SFP by simply making a male character and assigning female pronouns and a female name. This creates a character that most people see as strong, but at the expense of any femininity the character possesses. This, aside from being lazy characterisation, kind of defeats the purpose of the SFP. Surely the protagonist is there to show that female’s can be strong, but I don’t think the message here should be that strength is only achieved at the expense of femininity.

Part of the problem here is sociological. Carina Chocano wrote this last year in the New York Times Magazine:

‘ “Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues. It has resulted in characters like Natalie Portman’s in “No Strings Attached,” who does everything in her power to avoid commitment, even with a guy she’s actually in love with; or Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy… ‘

In part Katniss is one of these SFPs’ (if Salander is a protagonist, I suppose not exactly). She fights, hunts, avenges, assassinates, with the best of them. Better than the best of them. Twice. Occasionally she feels kind of bad about it, or contrives ways to kill in which she’s less morally culpable, or scatters petals on a corpse in a moment of ‘femininity’, and it has been argued that she is feminine in that she is motivated as a family matriarch and that she does all she does to protect her family. But is this a feminine trait? Would we really be surprised if a male character was motivated to protect his sister?

One of the other issues I have with this whole discussion is that we have to specify ‘strong female character’ as an archetype. This is not necessary with male characters. The label ‘Strong male character’ is seen as being unnecessary, even tautology. Often the default means to give male characters ‘depth’ is to load them with weaknesses, uncertainties or neuroses. Is this some sense of ‘feminising’ them? And if so what does this say of our default view of the feminine?

The example I gave was Jane Eyre, of whom China Miéville wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.”

I think too that there are several examples further back in literary history. Shakespeare’s women are often strong female characters. Lady Macbeth belittles her husband for his perceived weakness. Juliet is prepared to take all manner of risks for the sake of her love and is arguably stronger than her melancholy Romeo. King Lear’s daughters, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Viola, Katherine…

But perhaps the problem was one of differing definitions. The ‘kick-ass chick’, Buffy imitators, are common enough, but when I speak of a strong female protagonist I mean a character which is at once feminine and strong, not a character in which one aspect is sacrificed to the other. Too frequently a character is de-feminised in an effort to make them ‘strong’. This is not helpful. I can’t accept as examples those characters who seem to be strong only to be dis-empowered by their femininity or by the consequences of their feminine aspects.

Consider Éowyn. In many ways she is the warrior-woman archetype, but she is more than this. When Háma is asked to select a leader to defend Edoras he suggests Éowyn, and when the men return home she has ruled successfully in their absence. Her femininity is precisely her strength in defeating the Witch King of Angmar on Pelennor Fields.  But then what happens to her… she meets Faramir and her love for him reduces her to a wife. She discards what has, until this point, been the driving motivation of her character and settles into the life of wife and mother. She is, in a sense, tamed. This is of course in keeping with Tolkein’s Christian conservatism, but still a disappointing end for his strongest female character.

Consider too what Disney did to Hua Mulan. In the original Chinese ballad she is presented doing stereotypical women’s work, but takes her father’s place when he is called to war. By her own skill she rises to general and commands troops for over a decade. In Disney’s version she survives largely through luck and the interventions of men or magical creatures.

There are some success stories of course:

Hermione Granger is arguably the strongest of the three central characters in JK Rowlings books. She is intelligent and resourceful, the best magician of the three, and though she (spoiler alert) loves Ron her love for him doesn’t disempower or reduce her as Éowyn’s love for Faramir did. Perhaps this is the influence of the female authorship?

Molly Millions is a warrior-woman, and more. Her history and personal conflicts (such as her time as a meat-puppet) are uniquely female. She defines her relationship with Case, being at times unattainable to him and at other times tender. She has sexual agency and power which she uses not as a relative experience for men but for her own purposes. Despite her relationship with Case she remains independent and self-sufficient, never defining herself through this relationship.

Buffy has had more column inches of analysis for her role as a feminist character than I will be able to allude to here, but Whedon, and his fellow writers, never shied from her femininity. Given the initial concept of the character it is a remarkable achievement. She is stronger than she looks, figuratively and literally. She struggles with her sexuality and relationships, recognising her attraction to the wrong men. She becomes a leader, a nurturer, and we see her struggle with the responsibilities of her maturation. It helps too that she is surrounded by other strong females. Willow grows to power and her relationship with Tara is particularly genuine and mutually empowering, Cordelia (largely in her time with Angel) learns of the greater role of women than simply vapid beauty, Faith deals with her power differently to Buffy and demonstrates the dangers Buffy avoids, in series 5 Glory is given the role of the ‘big bad’, a rare role for a female character.

Action hero women like Ripley and Sarah Connor (in T2) are great examples because they are not just butt-kickers, nor are they defined by their beauty. Ripley was the security officer in Alien, so she already had some cred. Having a female security officer on a mostly male crew would still be noteworthy in film; Ridley Scott did it in 1979. Sarah Connor in Terminator 1 is a pretty standard damsel-in-distress, except that her protector male fails and she defeats the implacable terminator herself. Her strength is then so much the greater in T2, not because she is better at combat (she is) but because she has devoted her life to the goals she has set for herself. She’s motivated not by her relationship to a man (except her son), but by her own goals.

The greatest success story though is Game of Thrones. I can’t even pick one. Catelyn Stark’s absolute commitment to her children neither diminishes nor limits her strength. Cersei’s pursuit of power is unapologetic and though she uses her femininity as a tool she never does so in the service of a man but only ever in the service to her own power (or the power of her children). Arya’s refusal to submit to social expectation is in direct contrast to her sister Sansa. Daenerys’ ability to meet all the myriad challenges thrown at her. Asha is the preferred heir to Pyke and is judged for her strength. Even relatively minor characters like Olenna Redwyne can be strong, shown to be sharply intelligent and unafraid despite her frailty and age.

As a reader I want to read about these characters. As a writer I want to write them.

Jane Espenson speaks of the joy to be had in writing strong female characters, and though it has never been a strength of mine it’s something I’m working to improve.

I believe Aisha is a strong female character. I believe my novel Exile has strong female characters, in Jacqueline, Mallorie, Monique, and probably most significantly in Marianne. I also have been working on some short stories with female protagonists, either in my Fantasy setting, or in the modern day.