what i’ve been working on


So you’ve probably noticed that posts have become few and far between. Mostly, this is because I’ve spent the last year or two feeling as though I have everything to learn and nothing to teach.

In lieu of my once-common craft essays, I thought I’d post the first scene of my latest novella, Painted, which I hope to completely finish before November.

Chapter 1

Wyrren had wondered, from time to time, if things would have turned out differently if she’d been able to smile at Sebastian. But she couldn’t, and they hadn’t, and now Wyrren stood at her stepsister’s bedroom window to watch the man she loved offer another woman his arm.

The formal greetings took place on the front steps of Sebastian’s home, the Palacia del Torlo, on a cool, sunny spring afternoon. Trees laden with violet and pink buds swayed in the wind, casting lacy shadows on the drive. Lady Kartania Reise dressed in white and wore her dark hair loose. Her people, a host of women in armor stood to one side, his elite bodyguard the other. Carriages pulled away to unload the guest’s luggage. Sebastian leaned close to Kartania, a kiss or a quiet word, Wyrren couldn’t tell which.

They filtered into the palacia; two of Sebastian’s bodyguard, then Sebastian and Kartania, splendid and regal walking arm in arm. The rest followed after, finishing with a man in a long green coat. The tall palacia doors closed slowly, but with a sense of finality.

Wyrren stared at the empty front steps for several minutes more, leaned on the wall with her forehead against the window frame. She shut her eyes, listened to the sound of her breathing and the trees below shifting with the wind.

It didn’t matter anymore.

writing the beginning of a story (too fast?)

I’ve been working on a new series with a co-writer lately– a somewhat experimental venture at that: a series of novellas telling a too-long, epic, episodic tale of cursed immortals, other worlds, demons, high magic, technology, and everything from dinosaur-riding cowboys to cyborgs and big guns.

Since novellas aren’t really published traditionally, and because this is a project that builds on itself (like seasons of tv episodes instead of a movie), we’re going to put the first novella online for free, then sell each ‘episode’ for e-readers for a dollar each.

So my co-writer and I started the first book. Stopped. Talked about form, composition, motivation. Cleared the board. Started again. Stopped, rearranged everything. In doing this over and over (we’re halfway done with what I think will be the final first draft now), I’ve noticed something about the writing.

I have a lot of groundwork to cover. I only need a few of the characters for now, but I need to hint as to the presence of other important figures that will come in later in the series (we’ve already written about fourteen novels of raw material for this project). I need to hint about three countries’ cultures, introduce the main character, several forms of magic, the tone of an unrequited romance…

And I’ve just noticed that I have a tendency to try to jump into action and skip the foundations of the story I’m writing. I rush beginnings like I rush music, thinking that playing faster will impress more people.

Which leads me to a question: how much time do you get, to lead into the conflict? A paragraph? A page? A chapter? I’ve had ‘hook the reader’ chanted at me so many times that I wonder if I overdo it now. Have we as writers (and readers) really limited ourselves to material of instant, flashy gratification?

And has writing, in response, lost a quality of its traditional graceful entrance?

The author of the book ‘Hooked’, Les Edgerton, seems to think so, but then, Hooked leaves no room for such openings as ‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.’ I wonder if Edgerton would have started Tolkien’s masterpiece with Bilbo and the dwarves about to become troll-food.

And if I need to set a character’s routine before I throw a wrench into everything, can I take my time enough to do it right?

the artificer’s angels – chapter thirteen sample

For Write Anything‘s Spoken Sunday exercise.

The Artificer’s Angels, chapter thirteen, part one. Steampunk fantasy.

This is the start of my novel’s chapter thirteen. Miss Merrily Soarin and Miss Polly Owens are traveling in each other’s company aboard a steam tram, continuing their search for young Leo Gallows.

Somehow, their tram ride ends in Merrily protesting loudly that she is not violent, seeking medical attention for a pair of thieves, and getting their snapshot in the newspaper for discovering the body of a murdered lady from a prominent family. But then, that comes in later in the chapter.

The Artificer’s Angels, chapter thirteen sample (audio)

the hero’s journey – refusal of the call

Be not afraid of greatness:
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

The third ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot: Refusal of the Call.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

The refusal of the call. The reluctant hero. The glance back. The lingering doubt that leaves a peculiar letter sitting on the kitchen counter.

This is an odd step in the list because it can be easily omitted. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, two chapters. Or it can last most of the story. (As said, Campbell’s ‘list’ is squishy.) The reason, though, that this is an important step and belongs in the list with the rest is that we expect people to be reluctant to pursue herculean tasks. It humanizes them, for one, and it puts the road ahead in better perspective. People who charge up mountains make the mountains look small.

Tolkien used the Refusal of the Call in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing to do with this mad ‘adventure’ that Gandalf had invaded his home with until the dwarves started wondering if Bilbo was too pathetic to do the job (and his regrets echoed for a long while after when things got hard). Later on, Frodo tried to make Gandalf take the ring from him– surely, such a great wizard would be able to handle such a quest better than he.

On the other hand, in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Jon Snow recruits himself for his quest, as part of the Night’s Watch. He even has to talk his family into letting him leave. Yet there is still a Refusal in his story line– first as he rides North with the watch, and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Then later his refusal is personified not as an escape home, but by clinging to the attitudes he was raised with through his training. Not all refusals directly counter the call to adventure.

Omitting the Refusal of the Call colors the tone of the story. Take ‘The Princess Bride’, for instance. The eagerness of Westley to rescue Buttercup would not be denied. He would not falter. He would not change his mind. Death itself can not stop him– all it can do is delay him for awhile.

Incidentally, The Princess Bride is a strange story that doesn’t follow the pattern exactly. No mentor, no refusal of the call, no First Threshold. The Call to Adventure is behind the scenes; there must be a call to adventure, because Westley is not with Buttercup. This in itself is a fundamental flaw in the universe, and there is no more to be said on the matter. It is as if the story begins halfway through the formula. This is a good example of a very good story that breaks and stretches out Campbell’s theory, yet still has identifiable parts to it.

After I visit each of the twelve points, I’m going to go through several stories to analyze how their plots are structured. So far this list includes The Princess Bride, A Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit– something that runs with the formula well (The Hobbit), something that breaks and stretches the formula (The Princess Bride), and something amazingly complicated (A Game of Thrones). If anyone has any suggestions about a good foil, feel free to make suggestions.

Next up: Meeting the Mentor.

the hero’s journey – the call to adventure

Onto the second ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot– what Joseph Campbell called ‘the call to adventure’.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Once we have a good feel for the character, the character’s circumstances, the way the world works, it’s time to break it a little.

Cue the eccentric billionaire with a suicide mission to the man with the brain tumor: “Live like a king! Die like a man! You’re on your way out anyway. You know that!”

Cue the cliche reveal of ‘The Chosen One’. Cue the call to explore the south pole– bad living, bad pay, bad food, horrid weather, honor and glory on return. Cue the messenger with news of unknown connections to royal blood. The twins’ dream that calls them to vigilantism. We know these forms. The rise of something new and looming on the horizon, the approach of something that cracks open the life the characters previously had known.

This can be the sudden crash of something new into a character’s life. Or perhaps it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. The run-down sister whose abusive boyfriend has hit her one too many times, for instance. Or maybe it’s even a temptation, or an escape from the ordinary world, a flight from life as it’s previously known.

The difference, though, between “The Ordinary World” and “The Call to Adventure” isn’t the magnitude of the event, by any means. The Ordinary World certainly builds events up, provides motive and setting, leading on to the Call in one way or the other, whether the Call unexpectedly smacks the character in the face or appears well in the distance. The trick to identifying the Call is simply the effect on the protagonist, a turning point that clearly stands out from the rest.

I think The Call to Adventure is probably one of the more obvious points of The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, so I’ll leave my thoughts there. The next point is something that I’ve had to study more thoroughly, because at first glance, it’s one I didn’t like: The Refusal of the Call.

More soon!

where did you get your novel ideas?

Nathan Bransford started this question, but I thought it interesting enough to relay. How did you get ‘the’ idea for whatever it is you’re writing?

Here are mine:

Blue Crystal

Why do ghosts wear clothes?

It’s not part of their soul. Neither is their face, their body… these images that represent them aren’t them, not really. They can’t be. You’re seeing a spiritual memory. And if bodies and clothes can be conjured from memory, what can’t?


The Artificer’s Angels

Resurrection is possible, but illegal. They’re going to kill him, if they can.

starting to suspect my steampunk is ya…

Maxwell felt as if he had gone to hell. A hell with cows.

Though it’s… quirky at best.

The only ‘rules’ that I’ve been able to find for deciding between young adult and adult fiction tends to be 1) the protagonist’s age, 2) the style of writing, and 3) the length of the book. But surely, there must be more to it than that?

The project is something of an action/adventure maypole dance– I’m aiming for something light, fast, clever, and complicated. Probably much longer than my last book (which is short for a fantasy). I have teen characters, I have middle age characters, I have old characters. No absolute protagonists. My last book was dark and serious– this one is funny and forgiving. Victorian-esc expectations and manners, so quite clean as well.

Is there a reason to aim for YA over adult, or vice versa? It probably won’t make much of a difference, but I’ve started eyeing agents for the previous novel, and I’m wondering about the advantages or disadvantages once The Artificer’s Angels gets a little further on.

a book recommendation

I can’t really review my latest read, as I’m only just a third of the way through it. So I thought that I’d heap some glowing praise for what I have finished. It’s just that good.

The Blade Itself The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

This is one of those novels that I can’t actually read through in a day. Not for its length (though it is a good five hundred page long book), but because I have to put the book down at least once a chapter to digest it.

Wonderful characters. Amazing violence. Fantastic intrigue. And sortof funny, in a way that makes my perverse heart squee with joy. If anything can take the edge of of my Martin kick, it’s this guy.

Here’s hoping it ends well.

… Or not.

(No spoilers in the comments, please!)

the end

After months of sweat, tears, and very probably blood, I bring you the most beautiful image I’ve created in some time:

For those of you who may not understand what this is, allow me to explain. This is the last page of the last chapter of the last draft of my novel.

Three drafts, from 52k to 96k to finally 105k, bringing us up to over 250,000 words written on this novel over the last year and a half– my first version was written because of a spur-of-the-moment decision to join NaNoWriMo 2007.

It needs to be revised, proofread, ect..

I also think I’ll need an agent, or at least an agent-hunt list, by the end of the year. And a new project for this November.

writing and death, as taught by chickens

Finals are over at school– I’ve still got assignments to grade, but for now, the worst is over. Academically speaking. I almost feel like a kid again. Summer vacation! Energy for my own projects! A return to my blog!

But… that’s a far cry from what I wanted to talk about today.

I’m a firm believer that to be able to write, and write well, one must have a certain amount of life experience. Artists can’t learn to draw the human figure without having a model to practice from, and a live model is always better than a photo; I think that describing a life when you haven’t lived one is even worse. My early novels in my teens reflected this– difficult problems would be trivialized, aspects of the characters underdeveloped, because I wasn’t aware that someone older than myself would have grown further than I could imagine. I see this in published novels as well, a one-sidedness to stories and a flatness in some areas that make it so very clear what the author thinks, assumptions she’s made about all characters. Flavored stories, limited by author experience and maturity.

I’m sure that I do the same. Like not being able to smell yourself, it’s not apparent until you’re four years older, find a cache of your old work, and either laugh or cry at how trite it all seems now.

A few weeks ago, I bought my first chicken.

I’d ordered some from a hatchery before then, and the anticipation could only be cured by ogling other chickens that I couldn’t have. I’d go to farmer stores where chicks would be put into wire cages with a heat lamp overhead, plastic water dispensers and feeders that resembled UFOs. And then I’d sit and stare at them. They’d cheep and mill about and be adorable fluffy beasts, only the tips of their wings grown in with feathers. They’d be colored like chipmunks, black and white, gray with crazy black stripes all about, or the cliche yellow, as seen in every other representation of chicks scattered over Easter decorations. It’s not hard to hold them– the pros showed me how, cupping their hands over the chick’s body so that only their head could stick out.

Then one day, I came into the store and found that there was only one chick left. A small, yellow girl, sitting on an open feeder and peeping like a car alarm– I’ve since learned that they do that when they’re lonely. It’s bottom had been stripped of feathers. Pecked by the other chicks was the guess. I’m not a country girl. I don’t have the sense of the farmers that shook their head in pity at the poor creature when they bought the others. The employee at the co-op gave me the chick for free, put air holes in a little box, and I took it home. I had the box, the heat lamp, and the food and water all ready to go. As said, anticipation leads to gross over-preparedness.

She never stood up. She rested on her feet and legs, knees bent. We tried to feed her with water from an eyedropper, ground her food into a puree mixed with water and a bit of sugar. She ate nothing, refused to open her beak, and died in a homemade nest of cotton balls in her sleep.

My parents attended the unnamed chicks funeral (yes, I’m a sap). I buried her near a tree, wrapped in paper towels. My dad made a speech. “Chicken, born of egg. Your life was short, but meaningful. May you ascend to the great free-range farm in the sky.” He paused for a long moment, I sniffled and tried not to giggle, and he found the final words for the service. “Thanks for not pooping on me.” My mother made me swear not to bring home any more dying animals.

A week later, I found the Americauna chicks that I’d very much wanted, that everyone else was sold out of. That I hadn’t been able to order from the hatchery. The breed is very popular– these chickens lay blue eggs. It was ten days before my shipment of chicks were to arrive. I bought three, and named them. Piper was a brunet chipmunk that could not stand still– she raced around out of control, bowling over everything in her path; I was completely charmed. After the unnamed chick, I wanted one with energy. One that wouldn’t die. Rosamund (formally Rosemary, but after seeing that her real name was Death To Bugs, I felt that Rosamund fit better) was black, with just a hint of brown on her head. Anna reminded me of my little sister, Annie, just a bit. She was a blond chipmunk, and the first thing she did when she got home was to start grooming herself.

Anna and Rosamund did well. Piper stopped running around after the first day. She had the same symptoms: lethargy, a declining interest in food, then a noticeable difference in size. Anna and Rosamund outgrew her in days. Out come the eyedropper, the pureed food, the isolated nest. She lived three days ofter I bought her, and died on a sunny Monday morning.

Point one: Never, never treat healing magic as trivial in a fantasy world. The power to heal changes everything.

Point two: There is a good reason outliers are looked on as bad. A practical man will never take home anything with unusual traits. They’re the first to die.

The Monday after, last week, in fact, I had a box of day-old baby chicks, shipped from the hatchery through the postal service. Ten silver-spangled hamburgs, five blue andalusians, and ten silver phoenixes– a fluffy pure white chick with a single comb thrown in as my bonus for ordering them. They were put straight under the heat lamp, and they shivered for several minutes until they were warm again. Except for the wet chick that I found on the bottom of the box, stepped on by her litter-mates, barely moving and almost certainly near-dead. I did a count of the others, and decided that this was my tenth phoenix.

What do you do with dying birds? There’s really nothing to be done. Keep them warm, provide food and water, and hope for the best. I separated her from the others and held her close to the heat, and watched her brown and white feathers dry. She was noticeably smaller than the others– she barely weighed anything at all. I decided that she’d probably die, too, and kept her in a tuperware partition in the box.

… Except.

She dried out. She started pecking at the food. She yelled at me when I tried to dip her beak in the water. One week later, I can’t tell her from the rest. ‘Runt’ happens to be any phoenix that looks small and helpless.

One week later, one of my hamburgs has stopped eating. Once the same size of the others, she’s now much smaller. Her wings were different– mostly white with some black, as opposed to the standard black with a little white. Today she’s stopped eating and only wants to sleep. I’m guessing she’ll last until Wednesday– two days seems to be standard once the symptoms kick in. And I’m fairly happy that it’s just one out of the twenty-six. I’d expected to lose at least five.

I think my ultimate point is that I don’t think that I can treat character death the same way I did last month. The meaning has changed, and fairly quickly.

It only took a few chickens for me to catch on.