In the Beginning…

Sometimes the beginning of a story is hard to find, like trying to locate the beginning – or end – of a rainbow. I have a story like that. I have written and rewritten the beginning by moving it backward and forward along the timeline of my characters’ lives.

The first time, I tried starting with some exciting action and used an unprecedented number of flashbacks (I’m not kidding) to do character development. I also did a bit of info-dumping. This was before I really knew anything about writing fiction, and before I attended my first writers workshop. I’ve learned a few things since then.

Next, I tried moving backward in time so most of those flashbacks would be in the present. The result was that I ended up skipping vast spans of time to get to the meat of the story. It kind of worked, but not really.

Then, because of all that writing I did to fill in the earlier stuff in the timeline, I thought I could split that whole thing into two novels. The problem with that was the lack of an actual story in that earlier content. Yes, there were character-building moments that made my main character’s connections to other characters strong. We care when the character cares. Stuff happened to my character that pretty much sucked for her to go through but, while they were compelling events, those things weren’t the real story that I wanted to tell.

While every good main character (probably any character) should have a solid back story, not every event of their lives needs to be laid out, fully, as part of the novel. My character has experienced a lot of pain in a short period of time and, while that pain fuels her thoughts, actions, and reactions, I don’t need to start the story deep in the past just so I can include those events. The relevant parts will become known as the story unfolds. Those are the things that can be drizzled into the story like syrup on a pancake but, at the time I wrote it, that’s something I hadn’t yet learned.

Over the past few months, I’ve started the story in two other places. The first one didn’t work (I found out after four days of writing #facepalm) but, with the second one, I think I’ve found the sweet spot. This new beginning is a place where the world, character, and action come together in one moment. It’s a place – a beginning – I had to find through a lot of trial and error. I had to imagine and reimagine how to get the story started, but the time it’s taken (all the frustration included) will pay off.

I’m working through the scenes in my composition notebook, and things are looking good. Once I get the scene notes hammered out, I’ll start writing a fresh draft of the manuscript. This is my story, and it’s worth the hard work it’s taking to get it right. I believe every story we write is worth that kind of patient persistence.

Revision = Perseverance

I’ve spent the last month revising my Sci-Fi book Rifted. My last draft was 114,400 words, but I’ve whittled it down to 99,962. I chopped 14,438 words from this thing. I killed off a lot of scenes that I liked, but they had to go. I dumped a whole chapter. I fixed dialogue and cut tags. I murdered widows (those single words dangling on their own line at the end  of a paragraph).

Yep. I killed lots of widows by rewriting or cutting sentences.

Overall, I cleaned this manuscript up a lot. I’m happy about it, and I feel satisfied with the result. I think it’s probably ready to shop, but I’ve thought that before. So I’m going to give myself some time. I’ll sit on it, reread it, and re-evaluate. But later.

Right now, I’m going to enjoy the sense of satisfied euphoria at accomplishing what I feared was an impossible task when I began. I knew I needed to get the word count below 100,000, but I didn’t believe I could possibly cut that many words.

Still, I buckled down and did the hard work of revision. And I proved that I could. Self-doubt is the most debilitating kind, and I proved mine wrong.

#Perseverance

From Revision to Querying

This evening, I finished revising my fourth novel this month. In my last post, I talked about how I revised and reduced the word count of my first novel, The Lesser Betrayal to under 100,000 words. Well, after that feat I went ahead and revised The Betrayal of Hoqra, Incursions, and Rifted. It seems like revising never ends. I find things to fix every time I read one of my manuscripts, whether its reworking a sentence or restructuring whole paragraphs.

All four novels feel pretty solid to me right now. But, in the past, I’ve felt that way about my novels before revising the heck out of them. If I don’t stop, I’ll revise forever.

It’s probably time to set the revision process aside for a while and query like mad. I’ve done some agent research, and have several candidates who might be interested in The Lesser Betrayal.

Time to write some emails and hit send.

~Christopher

Reducing the Word Count

The other day I had an agent very kindly tell me the concept for my novel, The Lesser Betrayal, “is great.” However the word count (110,700 words) is too high. Debut novels are between 60k – 100k words long. If I could reduce the word count, perhaps she could take a look at it.

Undaunted, I began the task of cutting 10,700 words from my manuscript.

I knew where I could cut an immediate 4,752 words easily. I had three flash-back scenes in the story that I absolutely love. They shed light on life in Hoqra and Ashura’s relationship with her sister, Tesha. After some thought, I realized the scenes aren’t integral to the story. They’re great, but not necessary.

In fact, these scenes are perfect candidates for expansion into a short story or novella about Ashura’s life prior to the events of The Lesser Betrayal. But that’s a project for the future.

There are other ways of getting similar information across without these scenes taking up 4,752 words.

For instance, One of those flash-back scenes was 1,890 words long. The point of the scene – a discussion between Ashura and Tesha about marriage – was to show that women of Hoqra come of age at their fortieth birthday (40 segments = 18.25 Earth years). Instead of using up a whole scene for it, I reworked a sentence from a different scene. Same info, fewer words.

The rest of the word count reduction came from tightening up my writing. It came from chopping one word here, two words there, and rewriting whole paragraphs.

I can’t tell you how many times I something like, …kissed me on my forehead… or something similar. I reduced that to …kissed my forehead… and chopped two words. I alwo wrote things like, he smiled at me. Well, duh! You’re the only people there! Who else was he smiling at? I got rid of the “at me.” It’s cleaner, and conveys the same information.

The thing is, this whole process has been one huge learning experience. And I mean from very the beginning, with the first notes I wrote out for this novel back in 2004. I’ve probably made every mistake an aspiring writer can make, but I do my best to learn from those who know better, and clean up my mistakes.

I could look back at how I’ve written and think, Wow. That’s terrible style. How did I write that and not think it was horrible? But I don’t. There’s no point in getting frustrated or annoyed at my lesser-educated self. I learn, I fix the mistakes, I make my manuscript better, and I move on.

The good news: after six days of work, I reduced my count to exactly 100,000 words.

100k

Yeah. Right on the money. Even I was surprised.

I resubmitted my query to the agent (I’m not really sure about the protocol there). Hopefully, I’ll hear back from her soon.

The Read-Through

I finished the rough draft of my first Science-Fiction novel, Rifted, a few days ago. I was ridiculously happy to finish the novel (my fourth, by the way!) and celebrate another Draft Day. I started the novel on November 1, the first day of NaNoWriMo, and finished my 108,100 word draft EXACTLY 100 days later on February 8.

A novel in 100 days. I think that’s pretty cool.

But the thing is, my novel isn’t done yet. In fact, it’s far from complete. At this point, I would be embarrassed to let another human being read it.

When I finish a novel, I set it aside for a few days. Then, I begin my first read-through. For me, this is where some of the hardest work happens. My first reading of a rough draft is always a close reading. I look at the content and craft hard enough to burn a hole in my computer screen. I cut and rewrite. I tear things apart. Sometimes I rebuild, and sometimes I let the pieces lie.

I tend to slip a lot of passive verbs into my rough draft. And that’s okay. In the rough draft, my main goal is to get the story out of my head and shove it onto a workable medium. The rough draft it where I let myself be creative more than correct. Sometimes the result isn’t pretty. Not yet, anyway. That’s why we authors revise. The purpose of the revision process is to find, flag, and fix those pesky passive verbs, overuse of participles, and other bad habits of writer craft.

(I have a lot of bad habits of writer craft).

My first read-through is always painfully slow. I flag sentences in a chapter. Then, I go back and examine every sentence I’ve flagged. I consider how to fix the problem, whether it’s clarity, content, or craft. It requires me to think about the words I’ve chosen and how I’ve used them.

Sometimes I come across larger issues. I’ve said before that one of the most difficult lessons to learn about the revision process is nothing is sacred. I don’t care how great a scene is. If it doesn’t work for the story, it has to go.

Check out this post to see what I mean.

By the time this read-through is done, I will probably have cut somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 words. But I’ll likely have written an additional 20k to 30k words. Maybe more. I’ll heartlessly chop out the scenes that don’t work, and lovingly embellish the scenes that do. I’ll work until I think it’s perfect.

But I know it won’t be perfect yet.

I’ll set my new first draft aside for a few days. I’ll probably ask a few people to proof it for me. I’ll see what they find and make those corrections. After that, I’ll print it off (paper, I know, but it seriously helps me to have a hard copy) and go through the draft again.

Revise. Set aside. Repeat. Eventually, it’ll be ready.

I’ve finished another rough draft, and that’s awesome. It’s an accomplishment. Draft Day is always worth a little celebration. But it’s only the beginning. Now, the hard work begins.

Christopher

Revision and Re-vision

Yesterday, I finished a major revision of my novel, The Lesser Betrayal. A lot of this revision could be described more properly as a rewrite. I changed where the story begins. I moved things forward in the timeline. I… Gasp! [hangs head in sorrow]. I deleted scenes that I love. Scenes that had once been integral to the story. Scenes that moved me.

Ugh!

It hurt to rip those scenes out of the story! It was worse than removing a large bandage from my arm when it’s hopelessly stuck to my arm hair. But that’s what revision does to a story. Revision is a heartless monster that helps a story evolve and grow beyond what it was. As much as I might love a scene, I know that nothing I’ve written is sacred in and of itself. If it doesn’t work for the story, it has to go.

No matter how much it hurts.

Oh, I think I’m probably talented enough to shoehorn something in if I really wanted to. But if I force in a scene because of some nostalgic feeling about it, I will end up hurting my own story.

Other scenes, I shredded like a carrot in a food processor. That was painful, too! My former opening chapter was over 2,500 words. Less than a thousand of those words exist now that I’ve torn it apart and rewritten it.

The thing about revision is that it requires re-vision. It’s more than taking a another look at the manuscript. It’s a recasting of my vision for the story itself. As an author, I need to be flexible enough with my vision to allow it to change, evolve, and mature the story into something even more beautiful than my previous vision allowed.

Revision is a heartless monster. It’s hard work. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes, to perform this kind of open-heart surgery on something you love and into which you have poured so much labor and care.

But revision is necessary. Re-vision is necessary. They make the story better.

So, below is one of the scenes that I love, but had to cut. How I wish it could be otherwise! This was a flashback scene involving my main character, Ashura, and her older sister, Tesha. Tesha has claimed a husband (that’s how women do things in the Queendom of Hoqra), and Ashura struggles with the changes it will cause in her life.

Kind of the way an author struggles with the changes revision and re-vision can bring.

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Year 506, Segment 38

The 21st of Heyn

Our front door opens. Tesha and Vornes are standing in the doorway. He looks nervous, but Tesha radiates confidence. They step inside, and I charge.

“Tesha! Vornes!”

I leap at them from several feet away and wrap an arm around each of their necks. I laugh as they catch me, hug me, and lower me to the ground. I step back to look at them. Vornes reaches out to grip Tesha’s hand again. My sister’s normally neat dark-brown hair is a tangled mess, and her clothes look like they’ve been wadded up and sat on. Vornes doesn’t look much better, but now they’re both grinning at me. Vornes’s nervousness is gone.

Mother and Father walk up to Tesha and Vornes. They’re silent, as if waiting for Tesha to speak.

“Mother, Father, I have claimed Vornes as my husband.”

Mother speaks first. “I am pleased to welcome you into our house, Vornes.”

“As am I,” my father says.

“Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Father. I am honored to call Tesha my wife. I am happy that she has chosen me. I have loved her since we were children. I will fulfill every duty to her and to our family.”

Mother smiles at him. I do, too. Vornes is adorable.

“Breakfast is at the kitchen table,” my father says. “The upstairs bedroom and bath are ready for you. We can move Ashura out of Tesha’s room later.”

“Ashura doesn’t have to move out.” Tesha glances toward me. “She can have my room. She has slept there since she was five, and I don’t want her to have to change. I think I’d prefer the upstairs rooms anyway.”

I smile at Tesha in thanks.

She smiles back, then looks at her husband. “Come, Vornes.” She drags him by the hand toward the stairs.

“Do you not want to eat something first, my love?” Vornes looks longingly at the kitchen as they pass it by.

“Nope.” Tesha tugs him along. “You’re coming with me.” There’s a hunger in her eyes, too. But it isn’t for food.

I shake my head and get back to my chores.

*   *   *

Tesha and Vornes walk into the kitchen dressed in fine robes. My two brothers and sisters-in-law arrive a short time later. They congratulate Tesha and Vornes. I take notice when Tesha, my mother, and my sisters-in-law sit at the table to talk. They talk like adults about adult things.

I help my father and brothers put the final touches on the preparations for the celebration.

Soon, hundreds of extended family, friends, and neighbors descend upon our house. They greet and congratulate Tesha and Vornes, and my parents and his.

Tesha wears her sword in her belt. She looks proud and dangerous like a warrior of Hoqra should. Vornes looks handsome and happy next to his wife. As always, I’m in awe of my sister’s beauty. And yet, there’s something in her that I hadn’t noticed before: a power or strength that commands my respect. It isn’t blatant. It’s subtle, but at the same time it’s unmistakable.

Only now do I realize that my big sister really has left me behind. She has grown up. Tesha is a woman of Hoqra, a warrior, a wife.

I’m still a child.

She looks fearless while I see in myself only the stupid and irrational fears that every child has. On the battlefield, Tesha would fill her foes with dread and inspire her comrades with awe. I would be laughed at just as the Daedin scout laughed at me only a few segments ago.

My sister stands with a confidence that would stir others to great deeds. Yet, here I stand doubting everything about myself.

How can Tesha leave me like this? Doesn’t she know how much I need her? Doesn’t she know that she’s my strength and my confidence? Doesn’t she know that I want to be like her?

I hate her!

My heart shatters at the thought. My body shakes as rage turns to remorse. I hang my head and let my hair fall in front of my face to hide the tears that silently explode out of me. I hurry to my room.

No one has bothered to notice the little girl—the worthless, weak, and broken child—slip out of the celebration. I close the door to my room and cast myself on the side of my bed, grasping at my blankets as one who’s drowning grasps for the surface of the ocean.

How can I think such a thing? How can I? I love Tesha.

I can’t stop my tears. Shame stabs me again, and again, and again.

Guilt pours into my soul through the piercing wounds shame has already given me. They mingle together happily, rejoicing in my sorrow, dancing in my indignity. Together they’ll end me. They’ll drown me in disgrace.

It would be fitting. I should run away. I should throw myself off the cliffs. I wish I could disappear and never be seen or heard from ever again.

My world is a torrent of muffled moans and cries.

I know how and I know why I thought that horrible thought. It’s fear. I hated Tesha because of fear. I hated someone that I love because I’m afraid.

I’m a coward. I’m supposed to be a warrior, but I’m a worthless coward.

A gentle hand touches my shoulder. Then arms wrap around me and pull me away from my bedside. I hear my name spoken softly, but I’m too lost in misery to recognize the voice. I have no idea how long I’ve been crying in my room, wallowing in self-pity, hating myself for continuing to breathe. The arms pull me in tight so that my head rests on a slender shoulder.

“Ashura,” Tesha says, “What’s the matter? I saw you leave. You looked upset. I was worried when you didn’t come back.”

“You saw me leave?” I blubber.

“Of course I saw you. Now tell me what the matter is.”

I hesitate a moment while trying to figure out how to begin, but then the dam bursts. I tell Tesha everything. I confess to her about my sadness, my fear, my hate, my shame, my guilt. I tell her about my doubts, my weakness, and my worthlessness. I tell her about my desire to just disappear.

I tell her how I’ll never be like her, never be as strong as her, never be as disciplined as her. I tell her I’m a coward. I tell her I hate myself for being afraid. I tell her how much I love her, how much I need her, how frightened I am to lose her. I tell her how empty I feel to be left behind with nothing more than her shadow to cling to. I tell her I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that she has me for a sister. She deserves someone better. Someone stronger.

I don’t know how long I talk, but when it’s over I’m empty. I have nothing left but a few stray tears that slip down my cheeks.

Tesha puts her hands on my shoulders and pushes me away from her. I think she’s going to throw me aside and leave. It’s what I deserve. But she holds me at arm’s length. She holds me with such firmness that I couldn’t move even if I wanted to.

When I look up, I see that she’s crying, but she looks me in the eyes. Her voice trembles as she speaks.

“Ashura, is this really what you think of yourself?” She uses formal speech. “Because that is not what I see in you.

“I see a flower about to bloom. I see power and strength ready to break loose. I see a warrior in the making whose name shall make the ranks of our enemies tremble. I see such bravery in you that I cannot imagine how your little body can contain it. And you cannot contain it, Ashura! It keeps bursting out all over the place.

“I see a girl who outran twelve elite scouts from Daedin and raised the alarm. I see a brave warrior who stood her ground over a wounded sentry long enough to save the sentry’s life. You stood and fought even though you knew you were no match for the enemy you faced.

“You are concerned because that fool laughed at you when you raised a sword against him? Ashura, do you have any idea how much bravery that took? You are alive and he is dead. My little sister proved to a city that she is more than a child. Every warrior in our city took notice of what you did. They still talk about it! I get introduced to people as ‘Ashura’s older sister.’

“I see so much of myself in you that I sometimes wonder if I am looking at my sister or my own reflection sixteen segments ago. The only way I know it is my sister and not me is because my sister is so much better than I am. She has so much more potential than I have. She is so much braver than I will ever be.

“I see a girl who put my nervous new husband at ease by embracing him as soon as we walked through our door. I was afraid, too, Ashura. I pretended not to be, but your laughter and your embrace made all our fears go away. I see a sister who is selfless, loving, and kind. And, for those things alone I think she is so much more beautiful than I could ever be.

“Ashura, when I look at you, I see our mother and our father in one. You have his heart and his kindness, and you have her fearlessness and her instincts. I see in you the person I want to be like.

“I see a young woman of Hoqra whom I already admire and respect. I want to be brave because she is brave. I want to be good because she is good. I want to be fearless because she is fearless. I want to be kind because she is kind. I want to protect our people because she has protected us and fought for us already.”

Tesha’s voice cracks.

“And most importantly, Ashura, in you I see hope for our people. There is so much more we could be, and somehow my hope is wrapped up in you in a way that I cannot begin to explain. If you disappeared, my world would end. Do you not know how much I love you, how much I need you? Do you not know my confidence would crumble without you? Do you not know that you are my strength? How could I be what I am without you?

“Do not ever forget, Ashura. Do not ever forget how much I love you!”

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