Stuck in Rewrite Mode

It’s hard to write the second half of a story when you’ve only ever written the first half. Extraction is done, and I’m working on its sequel, which I’ve tentatively titled The Incoming Tide. Drafting The Incoming Tide is a completely different experience than rewriting Extraction—as I mentioned in this post , Extraction brewed for years and was the fourth completely overhauled draft of the book. Extraction was a matter of writing the same story over and over; I knew what its themes were, and I knew where it needed to go before I ever sat down at the keyboard this time around.

The thing about The Incoming Tide is that it’s only ever existed as sketched-out worldbuilding notes. Because I’ve written past this moment in Aerdh’s history (notably in Ariah and sections of Sound and Song) I know how the story ends. And I have a fairly detailed outline worked out already. I know what I’m writing, but writing it the first time and writing it the fourth time are different experiences.

Since The Incoming Tide is yet in its infancy, it’s a strangely reflective process. According to my writing log*, I started The Incoming Tide on Halloween, which means I’ve been working on it for about three weeks. And I’ve made progress:

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16k words in three weeks is not bad at all. Three chapters in as many weeks is nothing to smirk at. So, the writing is clipping right along. The thing about it is that I’m trying to work how how to write the story right along with what the story actually is. This two-headed discovery process characterizes first drafts for me, and sometimes it’s thrilling and sometimes it’s unnerving. This time, for whatever reason, it’s unnerving. I’m second-guessing everything—are these the right viewpoint characters? Is the pacing alright? I think I have to many plot threads going already and need to scale back; Extraction really crystallized as a book when I pared it down. Right now, the draft has two storylines working in parallel, and I think they could feasibly be split into separate books. But I like writing the characters in both! Argh.

The solution is simple, but it’s not all that easy: just keep writing. Just write it all and sort it out in the rewrite. Just write and write and write some more and get some fresh eyes on it to get it where it needs to be. Something about moving from a final iterative draft of Extraction to this completely new initial draft of The Incoming Tide has me doing something I haven’t done in years—it’s got me trying to approach a first draft like it’s the final draft. 16k words in and I’m still struggling to change my internal frame of reference.

*Spreadsheets for everything! It even has aggregation formulae and shit embedded in it!

Writing in seclusion

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a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

Between Projects: The Publishing Hustle

Now that Assassins is finished and out to beta readers, I am between projects. And the thing is that in spite of the always glorious sense of accomplishment I get when I finish a piece, being between projects kind of totally sucks.

I think that for every writer there are parts of the process that are easy and parts that are hard. My process goes something like this:

  1. First spark: a sentence or an image or some such fleeting glimpse into what a narrative might be which seems to come from the ether
  2. First Draft: start writing about that spark
    1. plan out if need be. go with it if the story is crystallizing all by itself.
    2. take all the notes along the way
  3. YAY IT’S DONE AND THE BEST THING EVARR: send to beta readers to get some perspective.
  4. Let it sit around awhile until I can face up to the fact that it’s not actually perfect.
    1. hey look another spark! I’ll go write that for awhile (new process begins)
  5. Second Draft: rewrite this motherfucker!!
    1. go back through the first draft and make some plans
    2. burn everything to the ground and rewrite it (the story RISES like a PHOENIX from the ASHES!!)
    3. Proofread to the best of my ability (which is not all that great)
      1. convince a life partner to proofread it so I don’t look like such a dumbass
  6. Send back to beta readers & do one last round of edits
  7. Think about pulling together query materials
  8. Think about puling together query materials some more
  9. Poke around the internet looking for agents/presses/competitions the project might be a good fit for
    1. get intimidated
  10. Whine to various life partners about the publishing industry
  11. Edit the manuscript for possible self-publishing
  12. Daydream about covers
  13. Start a query letter, abandon it
  14. Repeat steps 7-13 for an inordinate amount of time
  15. Decide to focus on that cool other project I started between drafts 1 and 2

Ok. So you can see where my weak spot is: the whole getting things out there part. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Certainly, I write primarily for myself, but I won’t lie and say that it’s anything short of awesome when someone else reads my writing. Storytelling is communication, and communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I love sharing my work, but the publishing game leaves me cold. It’s not fun. It’s not easy. It gives me no creative high. So I have to force myself to do it.

I get antsy between projects. There is always a moment when I finish something and haven’t started a new project where I manage to convince myself I’m tapped out, that I have nothing else to write. It isn’t true, I know that rationally, but that nagging fear combined with how much I just love writing means I tend to rush into a new project before following through on the publishing part of a just-finished project. No one likes writing query letters, or synopses, or the inevitable rejections (or, even worse, utter disinterest)  from the vast majority of the agents you query. Whenever I sit down to pull together a query package I have a moment of revulsion, like I’m wasting my precious writing time for this?

But, really, I’d like my manuscripts to do something more than sit on my hard drive in perpetuity. I’d like to build a readership, publish, get a body of work out there in a more professional and overt way than passing my pieces to friends, who pass them to their friends. So lately when I finish something and get the edits back from beta readers, I’ve started forcing myself to query it. New rule: no writing something new until a query has been written and some agents ave been queried. So far so good. Here’s hoping I can follow my own self-imposed rules.

A Sneak Preview: ASSASSINS Draft 1

Below is the first chapter of a new piece i’m working on. It’s coming along quite quickly, pulling together quite well. I’m excited about this project, and I thought I’d share this with all of you! A note for clarity: the characters are satyrs whose language is musical. Dialogue in italics denotes that they are using this sung language; dialogue in quotes means they are speaking a spoken language. I hope you enjoy it! Any and all feedback is welcome!

Gahvi and I tracked the mad bastard to this ramshackle house on the Lothic coast. It slants towards the sea, the slats and boards cured a gray-brown by the salt winds. All the windows have been boarded up. There is a paltry garden along the side of the house, a well behind it, and a grave marker beside the well. Nothing else. There is no one around for miles; this house sits far too close to the Pokelocken for anyone’s comfort. The air tastes of magic even to my mundane tongue. He’s in there.

A frown twitches across Gahvi’s face. He takes a silent step back and to the left, hidden suddenly in shadows. But I feel him. I feel his hesitance, his distaste. He’s always been more idealist than me. It balances my pragmatism. I reach over to take his hand, but his fingers dance from mine. He sighs.

Gahvi, he’s a renegade.

How are we not renegades, Bet?

We’re not villagers. He is.

What if he’s not mad?

Now it’s my turn to sigh. Gahvi.

There’s madness, he sings, and there are broken rules. They’re not always the same.

Name one.

One what? he asks.

One we’ve killed who wasn’t mad.

He retreats into silence. He darts off towards the house without waiting for me, and I can’t help but revel in the fact that I am right. He swings back behind the house. He stops and peers at the marker, and I watch him try to read it. When he shakes his head and moves on I move on myself. I slink along the front of the house, low and silent. It faces a craggy inlet of the sea and overlooks the gnarled trees of the Pokelocken. Something on the wind disturbs me. Large gray birds fly too low, cawing and staring. A clutch of them alight on the crumbling remnants of the house’s chimney.

I spot the glare of dull sunlight reflecting off an attic window. As far as I can tell, this clouded pane of glass is the only remaining one. A shadow passes by, darkening the window. Of me and Gahvrielo, I have always been the better climber. There is no good way to climb when you’re a satyr — we can get very close to silence, but not when our hooves are knocking against the sides of buildings — but sometimes you have to risk noise to make it clean. I climb the front of the house board by board. One comes loose and I nearly fall, but I make it. I crouch beneath the window, trying to make out the lay of the room, trying to see if anyone is in it, but the glass is too cloudy to see much of anything. I listen instead, my ear pressed to the pane. I hear nothing but the drip of a leaking roof. I slip one of my throwing knives out of the bandoleer and shatter the pane. One shard scrapes my ribs as it falls to the overgrown grass below; another lodges in my forearm when I climb through. There are time I wish we assassins wore clothes.

The room is empty. I wait for a handful of seconds, but no one heard me break the glass. I suck in a breath and pull the glass out of my arm. A thread of Song comes to me — something built of anger and challenge. These fucking mad renegades. It’s been getting worse lately. We hardly even had a chance to catch our breath from the last hunt before Maro sent us out on this one, and now I’m standing here bleeding already. Fucking renegades.

Footsteps in the hall. A door creaks open. The throwing knife rights itself in my hand, my fingers on its tip. It is alive and vibrating with anticipation. The ones nestled in my bandoleer hope and are vaguely bitter. I stand tall. There is a dignity in the confrontation. I am not Dahv; I might kill from a distance, but mine always turn to face what they’ve done before justice falls. I open the door and step out into the hall.

I see him through an open door. He stands in a shaft of diluted light. Something about the light this close to the Pokelocken bothers me. It’s too insubstantial, like a reflected reflection of real light. The light seems to drain him of color: he stands tall and still, black-haired and white-skinned. And he is hideous. He is drowning in a sea of madness.

The renegade stands staring down at his hands, the look on his face lost and confused. His hair is longer than mine. It falls down past his elbows. It is a sheet of black, a hard and cold black like the feathers of a raven. He wears a linen shirt cut loose, the collar turned up. And he wears pants. Sackcloth pants, what would be knee-length is he was human or elvish. His Sindhelli legs jut out from the hems, and they are unsightly. Naked. The fur shaved. The skin a translucent white.

The renegade stands in profile. He was handsome once, even I can see that. A strong jaw, an imperious nose. Thick, dark eyebrows and thick, dark eyelashes. But now his face is angular and gaunt, his eyes sunken. He’s disfigured himself: his horns are gone. On his forehead, near his hairline, a lump of bone juts out. The edge is rounded and smooth, filed down. The pain when he broke his horns must have been excruciating. And now I know why Maro sent us. I am one with a deep capacity for pity. I cannot stand here and see what this man has done to himself and hate him. My heart breaks for him. He is a renegade, and renegades are arrogant. He has tried to change his path, change himself, and it was always doomed to failure. You can’t change anything in this world. There is and there isn’t; it is that simple. The tormented ones who try to bend the world to their will, they wreak havoc and they cause destruction, but they are deserving of pity. Maro sends Gahvi and I to the ones who need a clean death, a merciful death. The mad ones who are given one last chance at sanity before their crimes claim them.

It is my lot, but it is never easy. I am at peace with it, but it always sits heavy. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have been sent. I sing to the renegade. I treat him like he is sane and Sindhelli one last time before I bring down justice. Tell me your name.

He looks over and sees me for the first time. And as far gone as he is, he knows. His eyes widen. His shaved legs stumble and sway. He holds on to the door frame and shakes his head. “No. No! I have a son!”

We know. Tell me your name.

“His name is Kellibin! Just let us be. Please. Please, I just…I —”

I take a step forward. The knife heats in my hand; the edges sharpen themselves. Tell me your name, I sing again, willing him into the custom. Take it, renegade. Take a Sindhelli death.

He stumbles back. A metal plate clatters on the floor. “No!”

I take another step towards him. Your death has come, and your child’s, too. I will make it swift. I offer you Sindhelli death. Tell me you name, and I will see your instrument back to the mountains.

Something hardens in the renegade. He laughs. “I don’t have anything for you to take back. I burned it.”

He…he burned it? He burned his own instrument?

He stands taller, harder, and advances towards me. “I burned that fucking violin when she died. It brought me nothing but trouble. Take your Sindhelli death and fuck yourself with it, assassin. I am many things, but I am not Sindhelli.”

Shockingly fast, the renegade picks up a hammer. He lunges at me. There is nothing in him but brute force. No artistry, only fury. Madness and fury. The emptiness in his eyes is terrible. But, I am trained, and this is my kind of music, and I dodge him easily.

They don’t usually fight back. Mine don’t, anyway. Dahv gets sent for those. My heart races, and my blood sings. The spectacle of violence stokes me higher and higher. I play with him. Taunting and teasing, letting him close, and letting him fail. His frustration sets me grinning. I smell his sweat, listen to the percussive staccato of his breath, and I being to sing. I sing him the Song of Death, Maro’Shalivni. I skirt away from him as I sing. The distance between us widens. As the Song crests, the knives fly from my fingertips. They sail in languid, unhurried arcs through the air and lodge into his tortured body, thunk thunk thunk. One in his heart, one in his throat, one through the lung. The blood pours out of him, his breath stops, and he is dead in less than a minute. I drink in his death, drink in the peculiar stillness which lingers in the air after death. I drink in this feeling that the world is set again to rights. I drink it all in, and drunk on it, dizzy and grinning, I drag his body down the stairs to the main floor of the house.

The renegade’s body is heavy, but I am high on his death and it feels light to me. I hum under my breath as his body thuds rhythmically down the stairs. Such madness in this one. One for the stories. I’ll sing of him to the rest and he’ll have a ghost’s life as a cloister song.

Bet.

I look over my shoulder. Gahvi stands in the front doorway, all shadow. Come look at his corpse, Gahvi. He was so far gone.

Gahvi doesn’t move. I wipe the blood from my hands on the renegade’s shirt and stand up. A second shadow appears in the doorway. A child’s shadow. And I know. Kill him, Gahvi.

No.

Gahvi and I are bound together, but there is nothing in me but the cloister. It is not even a thought. A knife flies from my fingers.

My aim is perfect. I have perfect aim the way the villagers have perfect pitch. But Gahvi’s aim is perfect, too, and he drops down, blocking the knife’s path with his own body. The knife sinks into his arm, and I swear I feel it. My second knife drops from my hand, and I run towards him. Gahvi!

He holds out his other arm. Back, Bet.

Gahvi, the child —

He wrenches my knife out of his arm and holds it at the ready. He leans into the house, his eyes cold and wild. I know that look, that look he gets when his mind is frantic, burning with questions. That look he gets when he loses himself with Dahv in a cold and furious bout of sex that is more battle than anything else. This is the look of his will: a will as unbending and sharp as his push knives. Bet, I love you, he sings.

I love you, too.

I am going renegade.

My mind empties out. We can’t go renegade. We’re assassins.

I think we can, he sings. I’m not killing this kid, Bet.

We have to, Gahvi.

No.

Gahvrielo, he’s an abomination.

Turn renegade with me.

He’s an abomination!

He lurches into the room. His arm bleeds a river. The blood pools around his hooves, slipping between the cracks in the floorboards. I know his body as well as I know my own. His body is mine, an extension of mine. My knife nicked an artery. He will lose consciousness in about three minutes if he keeps bleeding out. I plot ways to keep him talking for those three minutes, and then the child slips behind him. I let another knife fly and he catches it, this time with his leg. He sucks in a breath. His face, finally, slips out of the shadows. The look he gives me is the look I gave the renegade: pity. Bet. I love you so much.

Why are you doing this? I ask, but I know why. All those nights, and all those questions.

He holds onto the door frame. He takes in a lungful of air, and then he sings me a Song of Love. I didn’t even know he had one. All these years together, and I…I didn’t know he had one to give. And I don’t even have one to give him back. Tears spill down my cheeks.

When the world goes so starkly black and white, there are only two things I know for certain. There is no me without him, and what there is of me belongs to the cloister. I am his, and I serve the villages. His Song fills me up. I feel everything all over again, every touch, every laugh. I am across the room before I even realize I’ve moved. I wrap my hands around his arm, trying desperately to staunch the blood flow. His Song falters. He drops his face to my shoulder, and his tears wet my hair. Turn with me, Arisyabet. Please turn with me.

My hands drop from his arm. I feel a coldness brewing in the pit of my stomach.

He takes a ragged breath. Arisyabet, I love you as none could have loved another. I will love you even when we are both ghosts.

Gahvi —

His push knife rakes across my throat. The cold steel slices me open, and my voice, my Songs, my life spills to the floor in a sea of blood. He catches me with his unwounded arm. He weeps into my hair as I die. Arisyabet, he sings, I love you, and I am sorry.

Uncharted Territory: Short Fiction

Earlier this week, I started a short story about a ghost. This is notable for two reasons: first, I rarely write short fiction; and second, it’s not set in the same universe as my other work (Aerdh), which has no ghosts.

The idea for it came to me unbidden on the bus ride home. I couldn’t shake it. I had done some writing on the second draft of Ariah during snatched moments of downtime at work already, so I wasn’t in the creative-stewing-wordsmithing frame of mind. But the idea took root, and settled, and I found myself writing the opening in my head while the bus trundled north. I got a strong 500 word opening down on paper as soon as I got home.

I have a clear direction for the story, a clear sense of a middle and an end for it. It’s like it fell into my brain fully formed, just waiting to be written. It feels, strangely, like a story that’s not really mine. But, i’m going to write it anyway. Even though I’m mired chest-deep in these Ariah rewrites, i’m going to write this odd little outlier of a story that, instinct says, will stay a story.

I have a problem (maybe it’s just an Aerdh specific problem) where what starts as a short story ends up as a 120,000 word novel. A minor characters ends up popping up in book after book until they get their own book. I have exactly one stand-alone short story set in this universe. Everything else ends up novellas, or linked stories that do not fare well in isolation, or as novels. It’s nagged at me, this apparent inability to write short fiction. Not quite a failure, but a decided lack of well-roundedness as an author.

There is potential in this story to just be a story, and more than that: just a story, perhaps completely in its own little universe. If it works, it I write it and it blossoms, then it will be liberating. I may have convinced myself I can only write novels, and that I can only write Aerdhish novels. And maybe that has been true – maybe it’s taken a few years of diligent, daily writing to get to a point where this story was possible to write.

It’s all very exciting. I will let you guys know how it works out.