Saturday, May 23, 2009

Taking It to the Next Level

It's weird. I've had two things happen in the last few days that are both encouraging and illustrative of how far I still have to go for GWENDOLYN'S SWORD to see the light of day.

I submitted the first 10 pages to the Texas Writers' League's annual Manuscript Contest. I submitted in 3 categories, and I've heard back from 2 so far and I'm a finalist in both. Yeah! That's encouraging. And just today I heard back from a professional editor who does reviews of just the first couple of chapters to offer critique on how well you've set up quest-motivation-conflict and just the general flow of those crucial opening pages, and she gave me GREAT feedback.

I've been feeling like I'm polishing, polishing, polishing, but not really getting to the guts of what needs to be fixed in the manuscript. And I've been sort of thrashing around trying to get a hold on what it is. I've figured out some of it on my own, getting rid of the reams of exposition at the outset, but now I'm realizing that's just the beginning. It's not just about weeding. It's about picking up the pace, sweeping the reader off their feet in the first few pages and never setting them down again until they're ready to jump up and cheer when Gwendolyn finally triumphs at the end. I get it now. I've had it in my head that I needed to focus on the "writing": have a clear voice, write readable sentences, don't smother the dialogue. Now I'm realizing from my success with the contest and the editorial feedback that I've got the "writing" part of it pretty well in hand; it's the STORYTELLING that I need to work on. I'm writing an action adventure with a little paranormal thriller thrown in set in medieval england. This is not the time to wax prosaic about manor life and court politics. This is "Lethal Weapon" starring a woman set in 1192. I get it now.

Man, you get all involved with your characters and the setting and your own writing, and you lose your way. They have a story to tell, and it's a heart-thumping page turner, and I need to get myself out of the way of it.

Whoa. I get it now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Currently Reading: Ash by Mary Gentle

Ass kicker. I was going to wait until I was finished with this book before I blogged about it, but it's about 1,000 pages, and I'm only at 677. I'm reading slowly, savoring. I'm already getting panicky about what I'll read next, when I'm done with this, that won't taste like table wine after a fine claret, Lone Star after Guinness.

Ass kicker.

Wanting to read stories about tough broads with swords doesn't leave many choices for the library shelf. There are cute broads with swords, romantic broads with swords, religiously devout broads with swords. But a woman mercenary set in medieval times? Delightfully yummy. And it turns out that Ms. Gentle herself is an expert swordsman with a Master's in War Studies.

Mary Gentle's writing is as brave as her heroine. She takes chances, and most of the time, she's spot on. The narrative has made a few turns to some very dark places, maybe a few that I wish I hadn't gone to, having two small babes at home. But the writing is pheonomenal. Ash won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2000, and has received consistent critical praise since then. The themes are complex and the characters beautiful and terrible.

I probably need to read all of Ms. Gentle's works.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Deep Breath

Taking an axe to GWENDOLYN'S SWORD. Now that Chapter 1 is fixed, I realize that Chapter 2, an extended flashback, needs to go.

Steady, girl.

I was afraid the months and months of revisions and fixes would take the luster off of the characters for me. Turns out I just love them more. Their little idiosyncracies are coming to light.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Three Seconds To Live

She traces a lazy finger through the bead of blood standing on the table, watching the gummy smear trace a maroon river ending in her distinct fingerprint. There is no need to worry about cleaning up. Not this time.

Voices carry over from down the hall. Arguing.

Her nostrils sting with the bitter scent of gunpowder and singed hair. Comforting in its familiarity. Her hands feel light, empty without a gun in them.

Footsteps, one person approaching, pausing in the doorway.

"Get up." He sounds apologetic. His gun is tucked into the waist of his jeans. He's pretending he isn't going to kill her.

"Fuck you."

He swallows, but it doesn't help. His mouth is dry, his hands are wet with sweat. Everything is backwards.

"Please."

She turns to look at him, eyes narrowing, taking in the details. In a manual for reading body language, his posture would be labeled "SHAME." She wonders if the scratches she left on his back two nights ago have healed. She should have dug in deeper. She sucks her lip in and chews the edge of it between her teeth, a distracting gesture while she collects herself. The body seated next to her, torso and remains of head sprawled across the table, will block a bullet. The slender man standing in the doorway in front of her will not.

"I'm going to kill you." It seems only fair that she should inform him, not that she owes him anything, but because that's who she is. She knows who she is. That's why she can do this work, disappear into the vilest worlds to live and breathe in the muck and bring the worst of them out to the surface, to the light of day, to answer for what they have done.

She didn't count on her partner betraying her. She didn't count on him forgetting who he is, switching sides, choosing to stay in this world.

"I don't think -"

"Hey!" She cuts him off.

A tall, thick man walks to the doorway.

"Why is she still here?" he asks the slender man, ignoring her.

"Congratulations, the business is yours now." she says loudly, sure of herself. "So you've got to choose which of us you can trust. Which of us is going to work for you, and which of us is going to screw you. Are you sure you're picking the right one?"

The larger man is young, flush with victory and bloodlust. Easily confused.

"Fucking kill her now or I'll kill you both."

"Ask him what's in the right front pocket of his jeans."

Her partner - ex-partner - freezes, mouth hanging open, staring at her with wide eyes.

The man looks down, thrusts stubby fingers into the other man's jeans pocket and fishes out an object. It's a key to a locker.

"Now ask him what's in the locker."

She knows what's in the locker: spare equipment and supplies for the job. An emergency cell phone, two hundred dollars, an untraceable 9mm and extra bullets. What is not in the locker is the two hundred thousand that went missing two weeks ago, that made everyone nervous, that made the mutiny possible and led to the dead man beside her. That money was long gone.

But the thick man in front of her doesn't know that. All he knows is he's got two cops in his new organization, and only one of them is going to be useful. The other one is going to be dead.

"You stupid -"

In the time that it takes the thick man to pull his gun, the slender one turns and she dives behind the body beside her, waiting for the popping sounds to stop. Shouts and men running up the stairs. Two bodies slumped in the hallway. She picks up an empty chair, throws it through the window, jumps onto the ledge and teeters for a moment. There is nothing to hold onto that isn't jagged and sharp. She bends forward and propels her body out, landing on the grass one floor below. She tries to roll with the impact, tries to protect her ankles and knees and roll under the bushes. In her boot her foot turns badly as her weight crashes on top of it. The crunching is like gravel under a tire. She grits her teeth to stay quiet and rolls against the wall of the apartment building, cutting her arms on the shards of glass lying around her. She has to get up. The men's bodies block the doorway, giving her three more seconds. Three seconds to live. She puts all of her weight on the good leg, pushes with the bad one. She crosses the lawn, into the street, waves down an approaching car and gets in, grateful for unlocked doors.

"Take me to the hospital."

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Sound of One Heart Breaking

I heard back from Goddess Literary Agent. She passed. She gave excellent criticism and I'll dive back into the book and make the narrative stronger and more compelling. But not with her. And so, I'm sad today. I know there are plenty of other agents out there, I just sensed a bit of a kindred spirit with this one, plus she comes across as Smart. As. Hell. Love that in a woman.

I'd love to hear other people's stories about losing out with the agent that they had really hoped to work with. Rejection, in the general form letter sense, is one thing, and I'm seeing it all as just data and feedback to pay attention to and consider but not feel badly about. But this one strikes at a deeper level. I'm actually grieving the lost opportunity. Being a Goddess, her feedback was spot on. If she had a fan club, I'd join it.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kindlicious

I've been resisting ebooks for a long time. I like my physical paper and bound books. You can have my leather-bound volume of Don Quixote when you pry it from my dead fingers.

Then I became a writer.

Then I started to study the publishing world and trying to understand the seismic (there, I'm the eleventy millionth person to use that metaphor - and "eleventy" for that matter) changes happening there.

Ebooks are going to free authors from publishers.

Ebooks are going to free readers from publishers.

Not sure what traditional publishers are going to be doing 10 years from now. From what I can tell, they're either in massive denial and still think their current business model will be relevant ten years from now, or they're trying to come up with some way to "own" the ebook space and give the appearance of embracing the future when they're really still following the same dead formula.

I just read this article from Slate. I may have misunderstood the article, because I have a hard time believing that a professional technology writer could get it so wrong, but you are NOT limited to only buying from the Kindle store if you buy a Kindle (although their not-so-helpful user information would seem to suggest that's the only outlet available to you). Case in point, go to the support page on an ebook website for simple instructions for Kindle owners to read the bright new content being published, sometimes directly by the authors themselves.

Authors and their fans are taking matters into their own hands. The technology is here. And if you want to get access to reading material that is maybe too darkly humorous, too niche, too fan fiction, too personal or too whatever to be picked up for publishing by a conventional publisher who is forced by their costs and overhead to only pick up works with a broad appeal, then go get ye some kind of ebook reading device. And then go gorge yourself. There is some great writing out there.

And maybe publishers should work on finding out what's going to drive people to purchase a print book instead of an ebook. For me, I'll be buying print books that I feel have some sort of "heirloom" value - it's a classic that I want to be able to look up at and see resting on the library shelf, or an important reference, or it has a personal sentimental value, or the pictures and graphics are too good for ebook consumption - or it's a beloved book that isn't available as an ebook. Ebooks will also dramatically affect the aftermarket for used books in the same way iTunes/mp3's have for CDs, since people won't have so many print books on hand to need to sell again to make room for the next one.

The world of books is changing at lightning speed. And if it means my kids will carry a Kindle instead of a massive backpack full of books to and from school, how cool is that?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Now I've Done It

Yep, I've gone and started book two of a series for which I have yet to sell book one. Heck, for which I have even to get representation for book one. I just couldn't hold off any more. The story is there. The characters are there. It's the end of the month and clients aren't calling, already worried about how much they've spent in fees this month. There were other things I could have done today, but I'm writing. I could be writing a business plan or the site map or ordering my MIL's birthday cake. But I'm writing.

I wish I could tell you what the second story's about. I wish I could talk with someone about it. It's like going to a movie that you really enjoyed and then finding out you're not allowed to discuss it with anyone. Somewhere I read that if you're doing a series, you have have have to keep the plotline and driving conflict for the subsequent books under wraps. I guess this makes sense. Arggh.

It feels good to be writing new material again, though. It feels especially good to return to this particular story, to allow it to proceed again. The rewrite process on the first book helped me understand what the story was about. Now I feel like I have a better foundation for this story, but I also know that I do not, at this point, understand the full significance of what's going to happen to the characters this time. I have a very general sense of what they will be faced with and how it will happen, but the meaning, that deeper level where the story starts to resonate with universal human themes, won't emerge to me (or I won't figure it out - duh) until much later. For now, it's just write what flows and then go back and go back and go back. And then, eventually, "Aaaah. I get it."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Longing to Write

I can't get the next book out of my head. Or other future books I'd like to write some day. Thoughts, strings of words that I can see on the page, pass through my mind while I'm changing Ada's diaper, doing the dishes, filling in timeslips for January billing. I want to stop doing whatever it is that I'm doing and run to my computer and write. I don't want to make dinner. I don't want to sit on a conference call. I don't want to feed the animals and fold laundry. I want to write. It doesn't matter to me whether it's good or not yet - I'm missing the creative process, the feeling of building something, and then starting to see what it is emerge, cutting away what was wrong or untrue. Writing is like sculpting. The story already exists, perfectly told, tantalizing and enthralling, out there in the ethers. I tease out a thread of it. A character makes a surprising decision. Ah, I see now. I didn't realize that about you. I write on. Someone new shows up. I don't know why yet, but I explore them with my words. I shut out everything else. The characters keep trying to tell me their story when I finally go to bed at night. I get up again and write down notes, then beg them to leave me alone for just a few hours. I watch them behind my eyes, showing me their scenes and who they are. When I get stuck, I get up and make tea, water the garden, weed. When I sit down again I make myself write through it. I probably don't have it right yet, but I discover where I'm supposed to go next, and then while I'm driving to pick up the kids it occurs to me how to get there. I give hugs and kisses and admonish for running ahead of me, make dinner, change diapers, do bathtime, two bedtime sets of songs and cuddles, and then back to the computer and write until my eyes hurt.

I'm uncertain about my future as a writer, until I get an agent and start to figure out a direction. So I'm not writing more just yet. Maybe a little more polishing on the manuscript, because there's always more polishing to do, but that's all. If I can't get an agent with this book, then who am I to keep doing this?

Indeed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Awkward Timing ... And Now a Breather

Well.

I sent out a wave of queries in November, and promptly got doused by a wave of rejections and one request for a full. Which ended in a rejection. So I went back to the manuscript. I read and I researched and I thought and considered. And I came up with a whole mess of deep, structural revisions that I needed to make to the story and to my writing, and started to psyche myself up for the effort.

And then, out of the blue, a goddess of an agent responded to my query (a month after I sent it, which is totally reasonable, but explains how I got into this pickle) with a request for a full.

Gaaahhhh!

Rule #1 in queries, don't send your query until your manuscript is ready. So, I had to *very delicately* communicate to her my desire to take just a little time on the manuscript without appearing off the bat like an unprofessional rube. Did I mention she's a goddess? She took it in stride, very graciously, and I worked my ASS OFF for 2.5 weeks and sent it to her. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, it's nice to be able to start to feel like a human again. Agent Nathan Bransford asked in his blog what's the hardest thing about being a writer. I was amazed by how many responders said it was the writing, in some way or other, that was the hardest thing. I don't get that. For me, writing a story is bliss. Even revising it over and over is bliss, because by then, I'm coming to understand the story and the characters and why they matter and I feel like I'm toiling in service to something outside of myself, something greater than me, and I'm the lucky SOB who gets to discover it from the creative consciousness of the universe and get intimate with it and be used by it as a mouthpiece.

The hardest part is the guilt over how much it takes out of me to write, on top of my day job, and the hollowed-out leftovers of a wife and mom that my family has to put up with for those periods when I'm deep into it.

And if this story goes nowhere, I might be selfish enough to write another one anyway and try the whole thing all over again with a new and completely different book. I love writing that much. And I have a file of ideas that I've been tinkering with over the years just waiting for my attention.