Revision, or, In the Trenches

Last year I read a really good essay about artists – whether they be painters, writers, musicians, whatever. I wish I could remember who wrote it, because I would give you the reference. The gist of it was that when a person starts out in her craft, she is doing it in part because she has been inspired by the creatives who came before her. And she sees those others ahead of her, and basks in the enjoyment of the marvellous art they have created.

And then she puts pen to paper, or brush to canvas, and creates garbage. Because she has not been doing the craft long enough to get the techniques and foundation down well enough to enable her to create a masterpiece. And the woe of it all is that she can see the wonderful art Da Vinci has created, and knows what she is aiming at, but she is only capable of stick figures.

The challenge becomes to keep creating art in the midst of knowing that what you are creating is awful. And your pathetic stick figures are really very poor, indeed, but try as you might, that’s all that seems to appear.

Until eventually, if you persevere long enough, your creations will finally catch up to your knowledge of what is good, and you start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But, oh, that road is hard. I’m somewhere in the middle of it, I think.

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And it’s actually a little more tricky than that, because you don’t always think it’s garbage. At times you think it’s pretty good. But when you look at that “pretty good” stuff a couple of years down the line, a couple years in which you have been working at the craft and continuing to grow and develop as an artist, you realize that what you thought then was “pretty good” is, in reality, not so much. It is certainly better than the stuff you did a couple years before that, but not as good as what you are doing now.

You see the problem? You soon get haunted by the feeling that your current work, although perhaps acceptable and even good in your eyes, will no longer be so good when you look at it in the future.

It’s maddening, because this kind of thing tends to paralyze you. The only thing to do is to keep going and do the best you can. There are lots of writers, painters, or other artists who cringe a bit when they see their earlier work, so you have to take heart at that and continue.

It’s helpful to have objective third parties look at your work, which is why beta readers and editors are so very good for writers. But in the end you have to make the final decisions, sometimes operating more by instinct than anything else.

For example, here is a passage from my MS that I am working on right now. The first is from the original first draft. Keep in mind I wrote this over seven years ago (Ack. I know).

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode, and in an hour’s time they were once again closed in by trees. The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars. Smoke curled through the trees around them – the breeze was blowing it towards them. Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. 

“How much further, Father?” he asked. 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It – “ he stopped abruptly. A thin moan pierced the air, brought to them on the breeze. A human voice – someone in distress. 

“God have mercy!” Eata breathed, as Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s sides again. 

Eata was right. After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees, and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. 3 structures burned, snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger structure stood unharmed – obviously the main dwelling for the family. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard – chickens, dead, their feathers lifting in the breeze as it passed. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes and lungs. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

So. It’s not bad, but there are definitely things to fix. And keeping in mind that I am striving to cut as much as possible where I can, here is the revised version.

The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rode. Soon it was visible in the air around them, curling through the trees. 

 Celyn reined in Arawn, putting up his hand, and they all pulled their horses to a halt. “How much further, Father?” 

“The trees thin out ahead, and then we will be upon it. It—“ Eata stopped abruptly, interrupted by a thin moan which pierced the air. “God have mercy!” 

Celyn pulled his sword out of his sheath.“Follow closely!” 

After a short gallop, they broke out of the trees and reined their horses to a halt, surveying the scene before them. 

The holding was ablaze. Three structures burned, the flames snapping and crackling, throwing heat into the winter’s chill air. A fourth, larger, structure stood unharmed. There were empty pens where pigs had been, and a dead goat lying stiff-legged in a pasture. Small lumps of feathers scattered around the yard—chickens, dead, their feathers intermittently lifting in the breeze. The air was full of smoke from the burning structures, stinging their eyes, mixing with the steadily falling snow to obscure the details. Thomas pulled up his scarf, to try to filter the smoke out of the air he breathed. 

You can see that first of all, I fixed the paragraph problems, putting the dialogue in the same paragraph with the person speaking it. In doing so it not only flows better, but I am able to cut out some of the unnecessary speech tags, like he said and he asked. Bonus.

I also fixed the places where I added action that I didn’t need. I find that I do this a lot. I over-explain things. You see this in the first section, where I write,

“Follow closely!” he said, and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again. 

I took the and touched his heels to Arawn’s side again out, because you can see that in my revised version I don’t need it, right? I have to watch this in my writing. Too often I am explaining things like the character stood here, or walked there, or whatever. I have to back off and let my readers fill in the blanks.

I pondered over the first paragraph for awhile, because this is one of those places where it’s a bit of a grey area. The original has some details that I cut in the revision. The time indicator (after about an hour’s time) was an easy cut. Again, too much detail. But the next sentence, The path up ahead curved around a stand of poplars, was trickier. I like the addition of the poplars into the scene, as they bring some detail to life. But do I really need it, especially in the light of the fact that I have to cut about half the words from my MS to get it into one book?

Well, no, I suppose not. So out it goes. But I do worry that taking too much of the details out will make it bland, with no zing. I have to find the happy medium between too much and not enough, and I have to do it sentence by sentence. I’m also wondering about that longer paragraph, with the details of the chickens and the burning buildings. Too much? I should probably take that hyphen out (I tend to overuse those, too) and rework that sentence. Decisions, decisions.

Even as I am looking at this, I can see other things I can fix, little things, words here and there. At some point, though, you have to set it aside and move on.

 

A lot of this comes down to style, personal preference, and the genre you are writing. There is a lot of second- and third-guessing. And you have to constantly ignore the niggling voice that’s telling you it all belongs on the garbage heap.

The other difficulty of  doing these micro-edits, word by word, is that you tend to lose the sweep and emotional resonance of the story. Recently I downloaded the sections I have done to this point to my Kindle and did a read-through, just to see if it is working at all, and was heartened to see that it was.

I think. Hah. Ask me in a few years.

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Lookee me go! The chapters with the white flags are the ones I have revised. Ones in blue are yet to be done. So…I have four chapters to go until my MIDPOINT of the story. Yay!! The clapper icons are chapters that I am debating about cutting. I’ve indicated them so that when I get to the end of the story and find I still need places to cut I can go back and reconsider.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

A Celtic Litany to Christ

On this Good Friday, I share with you a litany that comes to us from the Irish monks of the tenth century, but could have been used much earlier. A litany is often used during a procession, or it could be a prayer in which the participants (the monks, for example) would chant the lines back and forth.

This particular one is much longer, but I have given you enough to get the flavour of it (after “believers” on the second last line, there are thirty-two more!). These short little lines are all various ways to describe Christ, and are worth slow contemplation on this very somber day.

May God bless you as you contemplate the mystery of the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection with joy!

He lives!

Featured image is a detail from one of the surviving high crosses from the monastery at Monasterboice, likely erected sometime between 900-923 AD. Image from bluffton.edu.


 

Have mercy on us, O God the Almighty,

Jesus Christ Son of the Living God. 

O son twice-born,

O sole-begotten of the Father. 

O First-born of the Virgin Mary. 

O Son of David. 

O Son of Abraham. 

O Beginner of all things. 

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This is one of the earliest surviving images of the crucifixion in Ireland. Dating from the 8th century, it is made of hammered and engraved bronze and was likely made to adorn a book, a cross, or a shrine. The two figures at the top are angels, the two flanking Christ at the bottom are the two Roman soldiers, one who offered him wine and the other who speared his side after he was dead. From Irish Archeology.

O Fulfilment of the world. 

O Word of God.

O Path to the heavenly realms. 

O Life of all things. 

O eternal Truth. 

O Image, O Likeness, O Model of God the Father. 

O Hand of God. 

O Arm of God. 

O Power of God. 

O Right-Hand of God. 

O true Knowledge.

O true Light of love, who enlightens all darkness. 

O guiding Light. 

O Sun of truth. 

O Morning Star. 

O Brightness of the divinity. 

O Radiance of eternal brightness. 

O Fountain of eternal life. 

O Intelligence of mystic life. 

O Mediator of God and humanity. 

O Promised One of the Church. 

O Loyal Shepherd of the flock. 

O Hope of believers…

…O eternal judge, have mercy on us. 

 

Casting a Pod, or, Podcasts

One of the great blessings of living in this internet age is easy access to information. Even though it is easy to get lost in an internet jungle filled with trolls and bots, if you tread carefully you can find some pretty great treasures on your travels.

There is all sorts of wonderful information out there that you can access with just a click of a mouse. And for writers, in particular, there are great tools, websites, and podcasts that can be a great deal of help.

Podcasts can be very useful for writers. Over the last few years I have come across some that I have found to be very valuable as I seek to learn and grow as a writer.

In no particular order, they are:

  1. Writing Excuses. The tagline of this podcast is Fifteen Minutes Long, Because You’re in a Hurry, and We’re Not That Smart. But don’t let the title fool you. This Hugo Award-winning podcast is hosted by bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler, and they are pretty “smart” writers, indeed. This year they have added some others to the core crew, namely Wesley Chu, Piper J. Drake, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Each week four of the cast is  on the show, talking about all the various aspects of the writing craft. It isn’t always just fifteen minutes, they sometimes go over by five or ten minutes, but trust me, you won’t mind. This podcast is an excellent place to Writing-2BExcuses-2B-2BCoverlearn from experts about writing, whether it be writing great characters, pacing, world building or endings. Writing Excuses was created in 2008, and the first five years had seasons of only 25-30 episodes each, so the “seasons” overlapped the calendar years. Starting in 2012 the seasons mirrored the calendar year, with 52 episodes per year. In Season 10 they did a Master Class of writing, where they took you through every part of writing a book/story, from ideas to ending and everything in between. I am slowly making my way through this season and finding it excellent. The authors are pretty much all fantasy/sci-fi writers (Howard Tayler writes/draws the online comic Schlock Mercenary) but everything they cover on their podcast is relevant to any genre of writing. Each week they also give you writing prompts on the topic they are covering. This podcast is excellent for beginning writers and professionals alike, and I highly recommend it.

2.  Novel Marketing. This podcast, hosted by author James L. Rubart and Thomas Umstattd, Jr, CEO of AuthorMedia, is all about marketing your novel. There is lots of advice out there for how to market yourself as a non-fiction writer, but as a fiction writer things getUnknown a little trickier. How do you sell yourself when you haven’t been published yet?  A blog is recommended for authors, but what do you write about? How do you attract
readers to your website/blog? The hosts are sympathetic to the struggles authors face in trying to get their work “seen” by the right people. This podcast is especially relevant to self-published authors, but even those who have contracts with publishing companies will find something useful here, I’m sure. Each episode is around thirty minutes long, so it’s not a big time committment. If you are wondering how to market yourself and your book, this is a great place to start.

3. Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast. As you can tell, I am trying to learn about marketing myself and my books before I actually have a book to sell (hah). This podcast is hosted by writers Lindsey Buroker, Joseph Lazlo, Jeffery M. Poole, and Laura Kirwan. Each episode they interview authors about how they market their books, and in the process you get lots of tips and information about what works and what doesn’t. This podcast is longer, about an hour, so it’s more of a time commitment than theUnknown-1 other two. Really great information to be found here. I find it fascinating and a bit intimidating, to be honest, all of these authors are writing a lot more than I am, so at times I feel a bit inadequate, but oh well, the information they give is great and I learn a lot from them. Don’t ever think you can just publish your book to Kindle and wait for the money to roll in, there’s a lot of books being published every single day, and you need a strategy for marketing your work or it will sink faster than you can imagine. This podcast is a great place to figure out what to do when it comes to marketing, and they occasionally will cover other aspects of writing as well, such as the how-tos like plotting, characters, and the like. It’s aimed at sci-fi/fantasy writers (hence the title) but any fiction writer can learn from this podcast.

There are so many other podcasts out there for writers – those are the ones I listen to fairly regularly but if you do a search for “writing podcasts” you will see there are a whole lot more. If I had more time I would listen to more of them! 

And here’s a couple “extras” that are not writing-related per se but I find very informative! 

4. The British History Podcast. This is a chronological telling of the history of Britain, starting at the Ice Ages. Not dry history, but focussed on the lives of the people who lived through the various time periods covered. The host is Jamie Jeffers, and he doeUnknown-2s a great job of making history come alive. They recommend that you start at the beginning and work your way through it, but you don’t have to. I started at the Dark Ages section (no surprise there) and didn’t feel like I had to listen to all the stuff before it for it to make sense. If you are writing about any period of British history up to Alfred the Great (that’s as far as he’s got so far) this is an excellent resource. Enjoyable for anyone who is interested in history, whether you are a writer or not.

5. What Should I Read Next? You may have noticed that my reading series this year comes from  Modern Mrs. Darcy. I found out about it through this podcast hosted by Anne Bogel, Modern Mrs. Darcy herself.  Each episode Anne hosts various guests, from authors to bookstore owners to other podcast hosts, and has a chat with theUnknown-3m about books and reading. Specifically she asks each guest to tell her three books they love, one they hate, and what they are currently reading. Out of that list (and the conversation she has with them about the books) she recommends books for the guest to read next. This podcast is a great deal of fun, and you come away from it with all sorts of ideas on what you might want to read next, too. On the website she highlights weekly deals on Kindle, often featuring some of the books she has talked about on the podcast, so needless to say my Kindle is filling up with great books to read. Really enjoy this podcast. It has helped me to discover some new books and authors I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

There are so many good podcasts out there, on any topic you can imagine. If you have never dipped into the podcast universe, give it a try. You’ll be glad you did, come the next road trip you take!