"He says he was there for five hundred days."
"Five hundred days. Impossible. How?"
"No idea. He said he learned to breathe air."
"Crazy. I know. But you've seen the changes, you saw how his skin was
all red and rough when we brought him back."
"The crew did say his chest was heaving, when they saw him. Thought it
was some kind of spasm. Some kind of sickness."
Kam can hear the voices outside the ward. Doc Forvin, and the skeptic,
another man he doesn't recognize.
"This is crazy. Crazy!"
Forvin walks in.
"Kam? I'd like you to meet Chief Scientist Lavell. He wants to run some
"Not too painful, I hope." Kam coughs into his fist. His skin still has a
pinkish tinge; his throat is sore, the Wine irritating it. He feels foggy.
(Back on the island: no fog, clear thought, octopus strength. Glowing
skin. He could move boulders under his own power, do trigonometry in
his head. All without the Wine, like it was the most natural thing...)
"We'll need to draw some blood. That's all for now."
"Fine by me."
Forvin and Lavell are gray, granite gray. People are gray, that's the
way they are; babies are born pale, start to turn a healthier gray with
their first breath of Wine. But it no longer looks healthy to Kam.
He talks to Lavell as Forvin takes out the needles.
"How long were you stuck on that island, up there?" Lavell asks.
"Five hundred days, give or take."
He remembers: the thirst, the pain, the suffocating feeling in his
chest. Collapsing to the black soil. Finally opening his mouth to gulp
in air; first in mad desparation, then in agony, and finally in relief.
"I figured out how to breathe air."
"That's impossible, Kam. Human bodies are designed for Wine. A few
breaths every few hours -"
"But here I am." He raises a pinkish-gray hand, turns it over. Coughs.
It feels strange to be talking without breathing, his trachea closed;
but the air down here in the city provides no nourishment, and tastes
of tar and filth.
"You didn't have a supply -"
"No." Kam thinks. "Mr. Lavell, don't you wonder what I ate and drank on
Lavell raises his eyebrows. "It's not as big a mystery, but -"
Kam continues. "There was a spring on one of the hills, for water.
There were fish and octopuses on the beach - squid too. Little ones,
not Wine producers."
"How did you catch them?"
Kam grins. "Bare hands. Air makes you faster. Makes you think clearer,
Lavell is looking at Forvin. He looks... frightened, Kam thinks. He
"You think he's on to something," Forvin says.
"I think he's telling the truth."
Lavell looks directly in his eyes, gray face grim. "In my capacity as
Chief Scientist, I am ordering to be utterly silent about this. Speak
of it to nobody else. On pain of death."
Kam's face betrays him. "You have got to be kidding me."
"There will be panic if this gets out, Kam -"
"Dr. Lavell." Kam can barely contain himself. "We have been at war with
Gannishmen for over forty years now."
"Do not even think about -"
"We have been at war, for forty years, because of the Wine. The squid
population's declining, we all know that. More and more don't produce.
And the ones that can, don't produce as much. Attempts to farm them,
to breed them in tanks, have all been for nil.
"And now you know that people, at least some people, can breathe air.
Sure, it has to be clean enough - well, you could pipe the stuff down
here from the mountains. The point is -"
"The point," Kam bludgeons on, "is that people are getting shot to
pieces out there, and being bombed, and living half-lives or even
dying of suffocation because there's not enough Wine to go around.
People cannot breathe, man! Think about that -"
"Enough, I said!"
"Think about what it would mean, if we didn't need it. If people could
breathe something that's everywhere, and doesn't cost anything.
"It could stop the war. It would save so many lives..."
"Lavell - he's right. Listen to him."
"Lavell - "
"Dr. Lavell, have you wondered why I'm not taking to the Wine again?
Where the withdrawal symptoms came from, when I started breathing the
"Kam, just -"
"I think humans evolved to breathe air, in the first place. The Wine
"Humans didn't evolve. This is nonsense."
"Think about it, Lavell. Think about it. Fish and octopuses evolved
in water, and they breathe it. Humans walk on land. What if we weren't
"How would we even happen in the first place, Lavell, if we couldn't
breathe the stuff around us?"
Lavell sighs. "Alright. Alright. But one word of this, and I'll have
you both executed on the spot."
He turns, paces out of the room.
"Goddamn. And I didn't even get to take any blood."
"I thought it might work. For once, I thought something might work."
Forvin shrugs. "The vaguaries of the state -"
"It's garbage. Absolute garbage." He looks Forvin in the eyes. "How much
do you spend on Wine a week?"
Forvin mumbles something.
"Over ten thousand creds. Over a third of my salary."
He has a wife, Kam thinks. And a kid, maybe two.
"When I crashed on the island, it would have been -" his brain drags it
out, foggy on Wine. "Seven thousand, probably. Maybe a little more."
Forvin nods. "And the quality's been getting worse, too. The Wine
we've been getting is usually stale, half-depleted. Sometimes makes my
"This can't go on."
"No. It can't."
Forvin starts putting the tubes away, slips the needles in a sharps
Humanity, Kam thinks. Oh, what a state we're in. To have once breathed
the free air, and now rely on squid exudate, walking through dirty
gray cities with raw throats and gray skin and closed-off trachea.
Walking in a perpetual fog, delusion and war and government hypoxia all
in one giant greasy ball -
"I'm going back."
Forvin opens his mouth.
"You can come with me. You can bring your family."
"I - it doesn't -"
"I'll teach you how to catch fish, build a fire."
Forvin averts his eyes. "The Gannishmen."
"Yes, what about them?"
"The week after we pulled you off the island, a Gannish missile went
slightly off target."
"Oh, no -"
"Gone. Blown to radiactive pieces."
Kam buries his face in his hands.
Never again. Kam's chest burns. He'll never get away.
"Do you... " He clears his throat. "Get me some Wine."
Maybe I'll get used to it, Kam thinks, as Forvin retrieves the dark bottle
of squid-stuff, hooks it up to an aspirator tube. Maybe. Give it time.
But God, it hurts.
My writing project is still slowly going along. It will eventually end up as at least one finished novel. I don't really have a lot of time to work on it, but I hack away when I can. Sometimes I plunge ahead writing; sometimes I step back, frown, and gun down darlings. Up to a point I have high standards, but I'm not trying to write a Great Novel; just write something I like. If you want to make money from writing, I am no-one to advise you, but I can recommend writing a novel as a hobby. It's fun.
What was originally going to be one book has expanded into a trilogy. First I cut it into two. Then this summer I recognized that the first volume was getting too big because it was really two stories, and I decided I had to surgically separate the conjoined twins, to make a total of three books. Compared to what was going to be that single, fat first volume with one sequel, the new result for the first and middle books of the trilogy would be two books that were each less densely packed with wild and crazy stuff; but I decided that this was for the best. A dense story that seemed cool to me, having lived along with it for years, would be incomprehensible to a reader. I'm writing to please myself, but still the task with which I'm trying to be pleased is writing a book that could be popular with other readers, at least in an ideal world.
When I first carved off the part of my story that will now be Book 3, I was still at an early stage in the project. Splitting the first volume into Books 1 and 2 is being done now in a heavily re-written second draft. So it's really quite a surgery. It's an interesting task. Some things that I like don't look so easy to save in the separated version; for one reason or another, things they needed to work will no longer work. Some of these may be salvageable, with effort; and that's an interesting puzzle. Some may just have to be lost. That's disappointing, but everybody says you have to kill your darlings. I'll try my hand at that, too. And some things that were kind of pinched into the previous story now have room to expand to a natural length. So it's not all disappointing.
I think I've learned a few basic things about writing longer stories. Who knows whether these are things that will help anyone write commercially, but they're things that, when I first started writing, I didn't realize that even I myself wanted them. Now I realize I do.
One is that there's a kind of physical limit to how complex your plot can be. Past a certain point, you can make your logical connections as solid as you want, but the mere fact that there are too many of them makes the story feel rickety. It just becomes too hard to take seriously. I think that what goes on is that every reader knows instinctively that in any real scenario there are bound to be a bunch of unknown factors. It's plausible that two or three clear and basic reasons are decisive over all these unknown factors; but it's just not plausible that a string of ten reasons would really hold together without getting screwed up by something unknown. So complicated scenarios are just inherently unbelievable. You have got to keep it simple. Ingenious answers for nitpicking hit a plateau of diminishing returns.
A sort of related thing is that you have to give the reader a sense of where your book is going. You may get a certain grace period at the beginning, a couple of chapters in which the reader is prepared to simply gawk and nod Uh Huh. But pretty soon, you have to give your readers a confident sense of which issues they are supposed to be keeping in mind, so they can relax and let the rest of the stuff just wash over them without trying hard to keep it all straight. You can't expect your readers to keep perfect track of everything. It needs to be enough for the reader to be clear on just a few things — and the reader has to know which those things are. They could be things like your protagonist's love life, or where the Maltese Falcon is, or what lies over the mountain. Probably all kinds of different things will do; but by around Chapter 3 the reader has to have a sense of what these main issues will be, for the long haul of the book. You cannot wait until The Two Towers to bring in the Ring.
Once you've established that sense of direction, of course you can mess around with it. Instead of just pulling a plot twist, it's a subtler but deeper way to pull off surprise, to make what seemed like a minor theme turn out to be more important than it seemed to be. Of course you have to watch that this isn't just annoying or disappointing. But at least at this point, my feeling is that those problems are not so impossible to avoid. A well-managed surprise can be good, I think, but a lack of direction is just boring to read.
The other surprising thing I've found is that Anastasia Morandau has taught me to write. Literally: she's my narrator, and in an effort to give her a distinctive voice, I gave her writing a couple of characteristics that I thought would be interesting and yet still easy to take in large doses. In particular, I made her follow most of Elmore Leonard's rules for writing — not because I thought his was the only way to write well, but because I thought it was one way to write well, and it suited her character.
So Anastasia is spare with adverbs, especially emphatics and superlatives. She almost never says 'very'. She has no fear of short sentences. She doesn't use cliché expressions. She almost never reports dialog with anything other than an unqualified 'said'. And she never ends a sentence with a preposition, because she saves the emphatic last place in a sentence for a word that carries more than a preposition's worth of her thought.
Well, after writing a bunch of chapters in her narration, I found I preferred Anastasia's style to my own. I felt that her style was blunt and forceful. I thought it made you take seriously whatever she said. I started writing more like her, all the time.
The other quirk I gave her narration was an aversion to commas. She hardly ever uses them unless they're grammatically necessary. I try hard to make her sentences comprehensible just by making them clear and simple, and by avoiding ambiguous antecedents. So if the sentence is comprehensible at all when read all in one breath, she writes the sentence that way. This is supposed to indicate the high speed of her thought. Her brain is always in top gear. When she speaks to other people, though, her dialog has plenty of commas. She knows instinctively that she has to slow herself down for other people to follow.
Whether this works, I don't know. Maybe I'm mistaken about how clear her sentences are, and they're really misery to read, and at some point I'll have to go through the whole book line by line, adding commas. But these are fun experiments to make.
So I wrote a 130K-word first draft in a year, and I thought I'd try to finish the second draft in a second year, but that deadline passed four days ago, and I wasn't even close to making it, despite a lot of steady work over all that time. I did manage to hammer out an improved version of the most difficult part. The revised version held together and I thought I was over the hump. But then I asked myself, Why did this take so long?
It took so long because it was hard. I thought that was okay; sometimes writing is just hard, I thought. But now I think that this was hard in a bad way. I was trying to fix an engine with tape. That's hard work, all right, but it's also futile.
In this one part of my story, the engine was broken: there was a basic problem in the plot. Because of timing constraints that I felt I had to respect in order to keep my story's integrity as a realistic fantasy, my secondary protagonist was sitting around for six weeks, waiting for the main protagonist to show up.
This basic problem was concealed in the first draft because I didn't directly describe the six-week waiting period. It was backstory. I introduced the second protagonist at the moment he meets the first one. So in the first draft, the six-week lull came out in reminiscences and background data dumps. I thought it would be harmless this way, but dull and implausible don't really taste any better for being spread thin. I missed seeing the basic problem for what it was, I think, because it hid in the interface between two ideas: "fill in backstory" and "timing constraints". The timing constraints seemed to stick me with this six-week lull in my backstory; of course I had to fill in backstory. So I didn't connect the dots to realize that my writing and re-writing was really all about excusing a bizarre lull in what was supposed to be an urgent plot. The six-week stasis was like a tumor in my story that my scans failed to detect.
Over the past year I moved a lot of backstory into main story, by starting to follow the second protagonist before the two meet. I invented some interesting things that would happen during the six-week lull, and I turned my second protagonist into a vengeful schemer with a suitably nasty scheme. It was all still hard going, however. The episodes that I invented to pass the boring six weeks were interesting but mostly pointless; I tried to present them as parts of the nasty scheme, but they really mostly weren't, because it was nastily simple and didn't really need them.
I believe I have a simple solution to this problem. I'm going to let my second protagonist spend four weeks traveling to the climactic setting. He was always supposed to have traveled there, but his starting point has never been pinned down, so I can easily make his trip take longer. I think I can salvage almost all of the stuff I've invented over the past year, by just transplanting it from the destination castle to a river barge en route.
I think this single trick will really help a lot. Right from the beginning, my guy can be making clear progress towards a clear goal: he's going to the castle. And the interesting episodes that played no genuine role in the nasty revenge scheme itself can now become genuine solutions to problems of the journey. Having the hero solve genuine problems helps a story even more than you'd think it would, I believe. All kinds of nice details seem to fall naturally into place, when the basic plot makes simple sense.
My main concern is that this will end up lengthening the book too much. I think I'll just have to try it and see how it goes. Anyway, I think I've learned something.
When writing gets hard, is it right to just keep on writing? Up to a point, I think it is. By hammering away on my second protagonist, even within his crippling time frame, I improved him a lot and invented some neat parts of the story. But I think I took this too far. There's a level of effort that is too hard, and past this point the difficulty is a signal that something unrecognized is basically wrong. If I had taken this hint a bit sooner, I might have saved myself a lot of time.
And if this trick works, then the next time I find that a story seems to be lacking momentum, I'll try putting in some literal movement. Maybe journeys are the ketchup of fiction, and every one-line plot summary can be improved by adding "... on a road trip."
I worked on my novel for about a year and half using Apple's Pages app. It gave me no problems even as the story stretched well past 100,000 words. Pages is a general-purpose word processor and doesn't claim to be optimized for writing novels in particular, but it's robust and easy to use.
I liked that it wasn't anything more than that. I knew about fancy-pants apps like Ulysses or Scrivener, that offered all kinds of corkboard views and index cards and stuff. I was afraid of them. I thought they would be great tools for someone who wanted to be writing a novel — as opposed to someone who actually wanted to get one written. They would give you endless things to fiddle with, sustaining an illusion of production. The reality is, of course, that the only thing that really counts as progress is the bare text of your book itself. No matter how nice all your index cards look on your corkboard, no readers will ever buy and read your background notes about your world and your characters and your themes and your blah blah blah.
Writing in Pages kept me honest. Every word in the file was a word of the book. If I needed to make notes to myself, I wrote a separate Pages file for notes. I had one big file for my book, and I couldn't kid myself that anything else counted.
But a couple of months ago I decided that I had actually done pretty well in bringing a draft to a conclusion, and maybe I wasn't at such a high risk of getting bogged down forever in navel-gazing. I really didn't just want to be writing. I wanted to finish, and I would.
The task of re-writing the third quarter of the book was just difficult. I knew how the story would end and I knew its first half, so I was painted into a corner in a lot of ways. It was a jigsaw puzzle, to fit everything into the existing frame. I knew I needed to cut some fresh pieces, but I wasn't sure exactly what holes I needed to fill.
I decided to give Scrivener a try. Its killer feature is that it lets you carve up your text into little pieces, give them little titles and summaries and comments, and move them around or see them all together. It makes it easy to do all that, with just a few clicks or keystrokes. It makes moving between big picture and small pieces fast and easy.
That's pretty good, in fact. There's definitely an opportunity to spill your effort into character notes and stuff, which are all part of your Scrivener document and so feel like they're part of your book even though they're not. But the app really does something, with its carving up text into chunks, that is hard to do with a general purpose word processor. Maybe for a first draft you're better to just pour everything into something like Pages until you've got the story told, baldly and badly; but for revisions, I think Scrivener may be a really useful tool.
I've even started using Scrivener for scientific papers now. Scrivener doesn't do equations properly, so I'll have to export into LaTeX for the final version, but for getting the text itself right, the outlining feature of Scrivener may be even more useful for scientific papers than it is for fiction.
After writing quite a lot more of this story than I had at the point of my November 2012 post "Cordite and steel and everything nice", it seems that Anastasia works quite well as a character. The people who have read my drafts so far are all family members, so they're an easy crowd, but everyone seems to really like Anastasia.
Liking the protagonist is really important, especially when she's also the narrator. An unlikable narrator-protagonist makes the whole book painful, but with a likable one even a broken shoelace can raise a bit of suspense. My second protagonist-narrator, Thomas, was less appealing. I abruptly switched narration to him, half-way through the story, and everybody found this disappointing. They wanted Anastasia back.
Anastasia has issues and limitations and deep mysteries to solve, but my book is an action adventure, and for my female protagonist, all that stuff is really chrome. The engine is being an escapist super-heroine with uncanny presence of mind in a crisis. Anastasia is sympathetic and nice and all, for a stone cold killer, but being nice isn't enough. The most important thing is, she makes things happen. I'm thinking this may be the simple active ingredient in a good protagonist — the special sauce, as it were.
It's not so easy to pull off. You can have your heroine solve a problem, for instance; but does she really do it? Or does it just solve itself automatically, while the heroine poses for the camera? I don't think that has the same oomph. You've got to show the protagonist making things happen, not just tell it. You've got to write a credible sequence of causes and effects that resolves the problem, and the protagonist's actions have to be crucial links in the chain. Every little problem is a story in miniature, and you make your big story's protagonist work by making sure she's the protagonist of a lot of little stories. In my story, Anastasia herself is the main plot device. She keeps making things happen. I think this goes a long way to making her appealing.
I think that "making things happen" can also apply at different levels in a story. The least effective level has the protagonist jumping through a series of hoops that are presented by others. The jumping may be ingenious, but the hoops aren't the heroine's doing. I think the protagonist makes things happen in a bigger way, that makes her more appealing, if she is also doing things to select the hoops. Anastasia works well in this way, I think. She is pro-active to the point of recklessness. She tends to choose her own targets, and very seldom is it up to anyone else to judge whether she succeeds or fails. She's not trying to make anyone like her. Her success or failure is usually as objective as surviving or dying.
Anastasia is an active protagonist and not just an observer. She is anything but a victim, even though bad things happen to her; she does a lot of dangerous things, knowing the risks. Her decisions drive the plot. This does more to make her an appealing character than anything else, I think. It has nothing to do with her being female, but I think this itself may be an important point about female characters. Stupid habits and preconceptions tend to turn them into bystanders. Avoid this, and you have a more interesting character right away.
Anyway, for what it's worth, both my wife and my mother seem to like Anastasia. Both complained when the narration switched away from her.
That's my main problem now, as I try to hack and hammer out a second draft. I have a second narrator, who is supposed to be a second protagonist, and who should be an adequate foil for Anastasia. She's a hard act to follow, but I have a monstrous mutant with superhuman strength and speed, driven by a fanatical cause; and I have a ruthless manipulator who reads people like comic books by instinctive recognition of micro-expressions, and can play any part but himself. These are both Thomas MacLayne. He's a throwback descendant of a line of bio-engineered special forces who were designed to foment revolutions. People are puppets to him, but he has been conditioned from birth to hate abuse of power, so he's sort of a good-guy psychopath, like Batman.
As an action-adventure protagonist, Thomas seems promising. Yet in my first draft he came across as all dressed up with no place to go, in comparison with Anastasia's abrupt action.
The problem is all in the third of my book's four sections, in which Thomas has entirely taken over narration, but has not yet shown his Hulk side. My draft squandered all his preternatural insightfulness on narratorial observations and gloomy commentary. He watched things go by. He dumped a lot of data. He didn't make things happen. The third section was trickily plotted, and in tying it all up to get Anastasia apparently burned as a witch, I let my second protagonist-narrator retire from protagonism. In effect I finally got the whole thing put together, and discovered I had a lot of parts left over — all the things that Thomas should have done.
I have spent months trying to fix this. I think I'm on the right track. Thomas does make things happen, now. When I first started trying to revise this section, I had the idea of making him a persecuted victim who was just managing to survive; but I've reversed direction completely on this, now. Now he is an expert conspirator setting up a bloodbath of revenge. His schemes derail, because the mysterious bad guys are finally showing their hand, and because Thomas himself will change his mind about who his real enemies are. So he will inevitably look less unstoppable than Anastasia, when the dust has all settled. He'll have made more mistakes and had more things go wrong; he'll have failed to solve some of his problems. Okay. I guess that's just how it is. Maybe it can be enough for a good and likable protagonist to try to make things happen, if he tries well enough, and fails in a good cause.
It was morning in the Contested Lands. The young blademaster stretched, yawned, rolled stiffly off the pile of dried grass and blankets that had served him as a bed, and fumbled into his clothes. A quick meal of last night's leftovers washed down with a mug of herbal tea, and he began to feel almost human again.
He stepped outside the abandoned barracks where he and his scouting partner had bivouacked the previous night, blinking and squinting as he strode purposefully towards the outhouse. A few minutes later, he reappeared, washed, refreshed and fully awake.
Now he was ready to start the day's work. He drew his longsword from its scabbard, got into a fighting stance, and began. Stroke and counterstroke, thrust and follow-through, attacking, parrying, defending; right hand to left hand to right hand, then two-handed, with ever-increasing speed and fluidity - was he battling invisible enemies, or simply dancing with the sword for his own enjoyment?
The sound of his name broke the blademaster's concentration. He misjudged his footing, tripped, staggered, tried to catch his balance, failed, and sat down hard, facing the woman who had called his name. His sword went spinning out of his hand to land with a muffled thump in a patch of nearby grass.
"Damn it, Silke, don't scare me like that when I'm holding a blade!" he sputtered once he'd gotten his breath back.
Silke just grinned. "I'm not the one whose warm-up exercises make more noise than a pack of hungry wolves," she reminded her trainee. "Anyway, you'd better get off your rear if we want to get today's patrol started. We're due back at Rockridge Keep tomorrow. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to hot bathwater and clean clothes. Come on."
Fionn couldn't help but smile back as he got to his feet. "Agreed. Clean clothes, a hot bath and not having to eat my own cooking will make a nice change for the better." He bent over to pick up his sword, wiped the blade against his breeches (not that that helped much) and put it back in its scabbard. There would be time to clean it properly later.
"Your cooking has improved, I'll say that for you. It doesn't taste like feet marinated in week-old vomit anymore." Silke moved to the door of the barracks and peered inside. "Time to break camp."
As of September 22nd, the Ermarian Network is being prepared for a gradual move to a new home. After more than seven years of being served by DreamHost (who I've been very happy with, but whose shared hosting plan isn't sufficient anymore), I'm going to be renting a virtual server from CloudSoarer.
I'll be posting the status of the move periodically on here.
For a start, the Encyclopedia Ermariana is the first site to be hosted on the new server, eris.
(Edit: Better title - "Putting the clop in Encyclopedia.")
He can almost use his eyes, this starving writer. Perhaps I must tell my invisible angels to draw up their hoods. But of course I have none. I do have servants, many servants, and some of these might be called invisible. Few of my agents are aware that they serve me, and none needs frequent direction. But my affairs are involved, and directing them requires ample time. My young author has seen this much truly, that I have needed more time than is normally given to mortals, and have secured it decisively. That was indeed the first condition of my career.
How much more will he see? What magic will he have me do? I am content to join in his game of questions, hoping it may distract me from my cares. I am impatient, but not demanding. Impatience I have patiently carried, but I abandoned high standards long ago.
* * * * *
The old man is in the parlor again tonight, but in the side room, by the crackling fire. He is settled in the largest chair, beneath heavy blankets, looking all the more like a doll. He stares at the fire without moving, without seeming to breathe. If he weren’t a magician one would suppose he had been dead for some hours, but being a magician, a few hours without breathing would not harm him. He might simply forget. In fact, though, his breaths are only slow and shallow, and from time to time he slowly blinks. A plate of thin wafers and an empty glass sit on a tray beside him. Some of the wafers may possibly be missing, but there are no crumbs and the glass looks clean. It is impossible to decide whether he has consumed anything. The wafers are pale; in fact, they are even translucent. Who else would dine on food that could be mistaken for dragonfly wings? What other house would have such fare on offer?
The magician is gathering his strength, in the house of his closest kin.
The old man is no merely ancient mariner, but a sailor who has sailed away from time. How old can he be? Surely he has seen kingdoms rise and fail; has he also watched their ruins sink in sand and sea, till new kingdoms rise in turn?
He has, and it must be many times, for the question is not how old he is, but whether he is really a man. He is a magician, a true magician, and true magicians must be older than men dream, because true magic takes half eternity to learn. It is foolish and ignorant people who suppose that one approaches magic by opening the mind and accepting unlikely things. Nothing could be more mistaken, because true magic is only approached by the most caustic skepticism, scorning premise, despising conclusion. Only by exhaustive testing of minutest details, long past the point of human endurance, does one detect the infinitesimal signs of the deeper patterns. Only the labor of centuries can make them plain, and only after many centuries can one begin to apply their control. To extend life indefinitely might perhaps have been the summit of the magical art, if it did not have to be the very beginning. Even a journeyman mage must be frightfully old, to have advanced so far. The old man who has slowly drifted into the parlor of this fine little inn is a great master.
Why does he not hover in a cloud of light, or proceed attended by a guard of fallen angels? Who can tell? Perhaps the dark angels are there, only hidden from sight. Perhaps he would travel quite differently if he were entering his enemy’s stronghold; but he has come to this inn to see his granddaughter, so many times over great. After so long a span, is his line not extinct? If it is not, why are his descendants fewer than millions? Somehow the art he has followed must have strange rewards and constraints, as legends hint, and the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter is the old magician’s only living fleshly relation.
She has welcomed him without words. Fossil and flower are not more different, but see how he raises the tiny glass to his withered lips: the crooking of the fingers, the tilting of the hand, is the very mirror of her motion in setting the glass before him, only so much more slow. Seeing this now, one perceives the uncanny grace of his barely perceptible movements, so slow but so perfectly smooth, as the heavens wheel. Seeing that, then, one understands at last how the flight of her hands through the air can comfort a bruised heart, and bruise it again.
[That just came to me this evening, when I saw the weird old man glance at me in Miss Greta’s mirror. Suddenly it was all there, and I’ve been at it all morning, hammering it into words. I’d forgotten what that’s like. Damn. I used to write pages in a morning. I think there’s more. Dear gods let there be more. He really looks like every bit of it. He looks like a dressed up stick. But he does move like that; I watched and watched. It was like watching clouds change, so slow you don’t notice but once you do you can watch for hours. And Greta too — it really isn’t just her face and turning thirty, she’s like that but quick. That’s a brilliant aperçu this time, you inky gods, not a stupid little conceit.
So what on earth is he going to be up to now, if he’s a magician? Not just drifting in for a drop of that seabreeze elixir. What on earth must it cost? He must be truly rich, at least; the perfect model for a magician, of course. Why did I ever try to write a wizard as a busking rogue? No wonder that never worked. But what does a magician do, anyway? Well, magic, I suppose. He’s here for magic. But what will that be? What will it mean? Where is it going? I have to go back to Miss Greta’s again, two nights in a row just this once. She’ll let me sit once without drinking, I’m sure she will. I’m a regular after all even if I don’t spend so much. An inn needs its regulars. Even if he’s not there maybe I’ll remember something. Maybe I could even ask about him? Just ask around.]
No-one in the inn even saw the old man before he appeared in the doorway, but the eyes that flicked to him there are staying to stare. He is so far beyond old, it takes very good clothes just to keep him from falling apart. His small grey coat is fine and new. His shirt is clean, his trousers are white, his shoes are black. His shriveled head sits in his stiff collar like the head of a doll. An ivory cane hangs down from within each sleeve, as if his arms are just long white sticks; but inside his cuffs he has hands that grip the canes.
He moves to the bar very slowly, swinging on his canes in such small steps that he seems to be gliding upright. He looks straight ahead but he knows they are staring at him. In a few moments they will look away and be ashamed, but he does not resent their attention because he knows what they see. If he were borne on a litter or propped on a throne he might almost pass for a normal kind of ancient, but his softly creaking unassisted glide is an outrage. Anything as old as that should be under glass.
He is only half way to the bar when the last gaze drops away, but by the time the first glances return he has somehow achieved a perch on the near corner stool. Pretty Greta, a being of a different species, has placed a tiny cut crystal glass in front of him. He looks at his thimbleful of pale blue liquor. The faint scent from its pouring has made everyone in the room think of sailing, without knowing why. He makes no move to drink. It is not clear that he can.
The most ashamed eyes in the room are those of the starving young author. Young he certainly is, from my point of view, but he has just perceived how it comforts him to be so clearly upon Greta’s side of an age divide, and he cannot help blinking. His last ten years have been slower than they were supposed to be. His life has faltered like the plots of his half-finished tales.
I am slow but I do not falter. I am the very old man. Once I was young. I was born just as everyone is, but it is hardly important. As far as the present is concerned, I have always been old. There are scarcely six persons in the world who understand my concerns, and these will not advise me. So I choose my own tasks. Some think I am wicked because my work gives nothing to anyone, but I act for the best as I see it.
I must wait for one week. I can neither afford nor achieve any signs of impatience, but I hate to be bored. I will fill this week by reciting. The young author will have an inspiration, and tell one of my stories. The current one, of course, even though its ending is not yet certain. I have no interest in the past.
I watch in the cloudy mirror behind Greta as his head jerks up and his eyes go wide. The two of us together, our contrast, have spoken to him. He has kept paper and pen on his table every day for ten years, but he seizes them as if it were luck to find them at hand. He has something to write.
Okay, it turns out that there's a big difference between having a first draft of a novel, and having a novel. In principle I knew this, but I didn't appreciate what the difference was. I had the idea that if all had gone well it would mainly be fine-tuning prose; and that otherwise I might have to make major changes, like adding or removing characters, or radically revising the plot. It turns out that there's a whole lot of stuff that I now have to do, in between those extremes.
Having a first draft means that you have a lot of stuff. Around 100,000 words, if you want to call it a novel. You may have more than that, and think that's good. That's a lot of stuff, all right.
Is it all the right stuff? That seems to be what the second draft is mainly about.
With the first draft I found that I had the main characters, and the main plot sequence, and a lot of nice individual scenes and episodes. But going through it again, now, it's depressing to realize how many of those nice scenes and episodes are really digressions from the main plot. I wrote them, and racked up word count to make a chapter, and thought that was progress. It was; but it was the progress of a pretty meandering river. Some of my nicest scenes are little oxbow lakes, totally cut off from the main flow as it later evolved.
The emphasis is off in a lot of places, too. Things that actually turned out to be rather minor still take up too many lines, because when I first wrote them in I thought they would be more important. And some things that turned out to be major themes got pretty short shrift.
And I also completely missed some stuff. Like, somehow my main villain ended up with way too little presence in the book. He appears for a quick scene now and then, and says a few words, but he doesn't actually do much at any point. On re-reading, he's a pretty token villain. Kind of a patsy, only there to get beaten. In my mind he was more than this, but too little that was in my mind made it into my book. Whoops.
I believe now that I would have been smarter to work harder on a more detailed outline. But I also see that extensive revisions in a second draft are probably unavoidable. A lot of good stuff comes up as you write. Some things that started out as digressions grow into major threads. Pounding out a detailed outline and sticking to it strictly would probably make a pretty lifeless book. You can definitely save a lot of time, though, by asking sooner rather than later: this is a cool scene, but does it move the story along? Or, conversely: is there something missing that should be in here already?
It's as though there are two quite different tasks involved in writing. Maybe a good writer is a kind of symbiotic organism, like a lichen. One half generates energy, and the other provides structure. There's having ideas and writing along to see what happens with them, and discovering more ideas as you write along. But then there's being disciplined about making a book that someone else will actually want to read, by making sure the plot is coherent and avoiding bloat. I doubt that either kind of writing by itself will make a good novel. Probably it's the first kind of writing that most people think of when they think they'd like to write, but I can definitely see how the first kind alone will produce something that only the author can read. The second kind is really necessary, and it's not as much fun.
Or at least, it's not fun in the same kind of way. It's more of an analytical task, and less creative. Sometimes it will generate interesting creative challenges, though. For instance, once I realized that I really needed to beef up my villain in his final scene, I had the fun idea of giving him a gun, even though he's a medieval type who's not supposed to have anything more sophisticated than a crossbow. I think that'll do the beefing up job very nicely, and it also ties in well with the main thematic threads.
On the other hand, I'm going to have a tough time getting in more dialog among my villains, giving their point of view, because my narrator is one of the objects of their villainy. Since my overriding goal is to avoid stupidity, I can not have the bad guys just start monologuing to the hero to explain their plans. I think I'm going to have to figure out a way for the hero to eavesdrop on them. It's totally in character for him to try to do that, but it's not going to be easy for him to accomplish it. He's in their castle, he has only medieval technology, and he's too big a guy to hide behind an average curtain.
I hope I'll figure something out; the challenge is interesting, anyway. I'm beginning to wonder whether this could be a shark that's better left unfixed. So far I've considered a couple of neat ways of fixing it, but they seem to have fatal flaws.
There's more to do for the second draft than I thought.
For example, for a long time I had imagined my first chapter as this perfect thing, because it came to me kind of out of nowhere and wrote itself quickly and launched the whole story with a bang. Once it actually occurred to me to think about whether it needed revision, though, I found that it needed quite a lot.
Some things had changed since I wrote it. Anastasia had gotten quite a bit more backstory and it had become clear that she had never been even as close to normal as she seemed in parts of chapter 1. One of her first lines had explained that she flung her book away and stomped downstairs for sheer satisfaction, but in fact she's a cold and purpose-driven person, apart from a weird impulsive streak, who wouldn't know satisfaction if it bit her on the nose. Her original persona was appealingly wry, I thought, but as she developed it became more clear that that just wasn't her.
The Morandau, her people, had also been explained rather more. So some of the things that Anastasia and her people allowed to happen in chapter 1 might have been plausible for ordinary people, but they made no sense for what she and her people had become since I first wrote the chapter.
And there were also embarrassingly many things that I simply hadn't thought about when I first wrote them, little stupid things that no intelligent people would really do in the situation I described, even if they weren't hardened mercenaries trained from birth. Like, why would the raiders dismount from their horses? There were several obvious reasons why they should not, starting just from the fact that getting on and off horses is quite an exertion. And why didn't Anastasia post a few of these sharp-eyed children on watch?
I wanted to fix all these little discrepancies just because that's my goal with this story, to eliminate stupidity. And even if few of whatever readers I get will ever be nitpicky enough to care about such things, I have an idea that there's some threshold of realistic consistency that I need to get above, in order to achieve the gritty tone that I want for my story. I don't want to bog down in detail, but I want to be sure I make it above that threshold. So there were a lot of details to revise, or else to justify. And there was stuff to take out, because it just wasn't something Anastasia would do or say.
Finally, Elmore Leonard died, and I read an obituary that linked to a short piece by him about how to write. I really liked Elmore Leonard's writing. Writing like him was definitely something I was hoping to do, as much as I could, at least with part of this book. And he said to do things like cut down on descriptions. He said never to use the word 'suddenly' — I think his point is that the suddenness should come from the shocking abruptness with which whatever it is hits the reader, not just from the author declaring that it was so. He said never to introduce dialog with any verb other than 'said', and never to qualify 'said' in any way. His point was that the characters' speech has to stand on its own, and not be helped along with stage directions from the author. Well, I'm not sure that's the only good way to write, and it might be especially worth reconsidering with first-person narration by the protagonist, since then the protagonist's choice of stage directions is also characterization. But in that spirit, it seemed to me that Anastasia Morandau probably would write a lot like Elmore Leonard.
I had already developed a few deliberately consistent notes for her style, which I then varied drastically in the second part of the book, which has a different narrator. She is quite capable of using long sentences but she's much more comfortable with staccato rhythm than I am myself, so even in my first draft I'd been immediately rewriting most of my paragraphs to break up her sentences. She always says 'perhaps' and never 'maybe', and she says 'perhaps' a lot. So I decided to take this further, and Leonardize her narration.
I'm turning Anastasia's every 'answered' and 'replied' and 'recalled' into a 'said'. I'll keep 'asked' for questions and I've left in a 'muttered'. I'm eliminating all descriptive attributes of 'said' or 'asked', and deleting every 'suddenly'. I'm also deleting an awful lot of commas. Anastasia is smart enough to know where commas are needed for clarity but when they aren't strictly necessary she'll leave them out. Her thought should feel fast and aggressive so I'll see how this works. It's possible that having too few commas actually works in the opposite direction, so I might need to put them all back.
After tinkering and polishing a bit on my first draft of A Lady of Morandau, which was completed in exactly a year, I began work on the sequel. I didn't consider the first book finished, but I had some ideas for what came next, and I wanted to write them down. Now, after some time away from the first book, I'm coming back to it and seeing what it still needs. I post this because I've found it interesting to discover just what kind of thing you do in a novel's second draft. In my case, at least, I'm not really going to make any enormous changes. The basic plot outline isn't changing. But there's more to it than just tinkering and polishing.
My situation is that the first book that I originally planned was turning out to be enormous, so I decided to make a cut at around 125,000 words, and save the rest for the sequel. I think this was a good decision for several reasons. Polishing and tinkering have tended to add more words than they remove, so I'm pushing 130,000 words now. That's already long for a first novel.
Also, since my ambition is to write an exciting adventure story, I've been trying to make the story work as a movie, too. Actually having it turn into a movie would be a pie-in-the-sky best case, when I'm by no means sure the thing is publishable at all, but what I mean is that the kind of book I want to have written is a book that reads like an action flick. Imagining it as a movie is my way of trying to keep up momentum. If I write a chunk and realize that it wouldn't really work in a movie, then I need to take it out. This is not supposed to be a novel of ideas. Anyway, action films normally only run about two hours. I'm not sure whether that's just a coincidence of cinema economics or something, or whether it reflects some kind of medium constraint for fast-paced stories in general, but rightly or wrongly, the movie metaphor was telling me to wrap things up. And I think that is right. For me, books much longer than 140,000 words have mostly been books that seemed to drag in places. My aim is not to drag.
So, fine, I realized that I actually did have a good ending point at a reasonable length. It just wasn't the ending point I'd originally had in mind. What I have to do in the second draft, I've discovered, is to deal with the consequences of this.
The truncated story lacked coherence as it was. It didn't have a clearly discernible shape to it; it wasn't clear where it was going. The shape that the longer version was going to have was classic: girl meets boy, girl leaves boy, girl goes back to boy. There were going to be all sorts of alarums and excursions, but what was going to be the basic shape of the story was just, Here are these two people; look how they get together.
In retrospect, of course, that was very probably a ridiculous basic shape for an adventure story; but it did hang together, such as it was. Assuming that any readers would actually sit through the thing as I had it planned, you could have poked them and asked, "So what's this about?" and I think they could have answered, correctly, "It's about this girl, and this guy she meets." Then they could have gone on to describe what they two character were like, and I'd have been happy to think that my book had been understood.
The shortened version now only makes it as far as girl meets boy. If adventure-novel-as-character-study was a stupid idea in the longer version, it's totally broken in the short form. There's no tension and resolution in merely meeting up. So what I'm doing now, in the second draft, is something I think of as re-balancing. I have to redistribute weight, in a sense, so that there is a clearly recognizable thread running through the whole story — what in German is called a roten Faden.
In fact there will be three threads, related but distinct. One of these will still just be developing the two main characters, to the point where it's clear that if they get together, they will change the world. But since that thread just doesn't go far enough in this volume, there will be two others as well. One new thread is the source of the mysterious skull artifact that appears in Chapter 1: who made that thing, and why? The other new thread is the relationship between the Morandau, as gunslinging mercenaries, and the quasi-medieveal 'natives' who are their clients and victims. The natives are barbaric, but is what the Morandau are doing really the only alternative to something far worse?
Neither of these two new threads is really new. Both were already important in the first draft of the story; in fact, they were the obvious two important threads in it, apart from the characters themselves. It's just that, before, they were clearly sub-threads. They were always running in the background, but they were only really highlighted now and then. You could lose sight of them for several chapters, in places, before they would come back into focus.
So what I'm doing now, in the second draft, is promoting these prominent sub-threads into top-level threads, throughout the story. I'm making sure that they figure somehow, at least, in every chapter, and that they receive enough emphasis that they never fade from the reader's attention. Mostly I'm doing this by adding dialog — sometimes just a line, sometimes a couple of pages — in which the characters talk about these two threads. The major events of the plot already did feature both threads prominently; what I'm mostly doing now is just pointing this out.
In principle there may be a risk of overdoing this kind of thing. Maybe at some point it just becomes monotonous, to keep banging the reader over the head with the book's main threads. The only way to check for this, I think, will be to get reader feedback once I've got a finished second draft. For now, though, I'm going on the theory that it's much better to err on the side of keeping on yanking the major threads into prominence.
I think it's too easy, as an author who has been living with the story for more than a year, to know where it's all really going and what it's about. As an author, I know what parts are meant to be important, and what parts are meant to just be decorations. But unless you resort to boldface and footnotes, which is certainly weird and probably ineffective, then as far as the reader is concerned, major threads and decorative details are just paragraphs in the same font. If you give something space, then the reader takes it as important. Importance is also raised, I think, when the same thing gets mentioned repeatedly within the reader's short-term memory. So if you spend three whole pages describing some gadget, and then give it another paragraph in the very next chapter, then the reader is going to look for it to be a major plot device for at least the next several chapters, even if in your authorial intention it's just a bit of background color. Conversely, if something goes unmentioned for three chapters, then for the reader it's unimportant, even if in the author's mind it's the Main Plot. (Yes, your book might still survive if you let the Main Plot simmer in the background a bit; but I really believe this: if you do that, your book will be seriously weakened.)
This is the sort of thing I mean by 'balance' in a story: keeping the right things prominent, from the ignorant viewpoint of a first-time reader. I suspect that somebody reading a book they haven't read before needs quite a lot of blatant cuing in order to recognize what's going on, and I think this must be one of the tricks of writing that is almost impossible to notice just by reading, because I think a reader takes narrative coherence too much for granted to even be aware of all the mechanisms that keep it maintained. So I'll be going through each chapter, working in clear emphasis on my three main threads. Maybe later I'll have to go back yet again and soften this a bit, if it's too heavy-handed; but at this point I think it's a clear improvement that will make the whole story much sharper and faster-moving.
I've also decided that the third of the book's three main sections — the one with the really confusing tangle of deceptions — is still not working, after all. The deceptions work okay, I think, but the general tone is somehow wrong. Too much depressed musing, too little action. It's good for this section to be somehow oppressive, and for its violent ending to come as both surprise and relief, but ironically detached depression is too static a form of oppressiveness, for an action novel. Rising panic will be a much better alternative, I think. So I'll try to modulate the same tune into this different key. I'll do that by making the villains more vivid and active, and having them persecute the oppressed narrator much more aggressively. I'll let him survive repeatedly by using his wits, but I'll show him being steadily backed into a corner.
This will mean keeping most of what I already have in this section, but kind of re-forging it. It will mean another big bout of moving exposition into dialog — that's just always a good idea, I'm coming to think. And I'll have to add a fair amount of new dialog and action, as well. The finished second draft will probably approach 140,000 words. It will be the same story, but better.
Somewhat to my surprise, I have finished a complete draft of A Lady of Morandau. It's just shy of 125,000 words, so it's long enough. It's well short of the ending that I originally conceived. I have enough material left over for half of a sequel, and I think I may have a couple of good new ideas that will fill that out to full novel length. If the sequel starts looking skimpy or padded, I might still fold it back into the first volume, making a big, fat book. But at the moment I'm optimistic that volume two, tentatively titled Slow Poison, will stand on its own.
Assuming that a more detailed outline supports this hope, then A Lady of Morandau can end as it is now (very far along from the last chunks I posted here). It's absolutely a To Be Continued ending, with a small army of bad guys chasing our heroes, but it's one of those light kind of cliffhanger endings, with only relatively slight indications that this pursuit problem may not be slight. All the major themes and plot threads that have dominated the preceding story have either resolved, or passed a decisive turning point. I feel as though a listening audience would be folding their hands, hopefully in contentment. I could suddenly grab their attention again, for a wild final reel, but you know: this is a first novel. Something tells me it'll probably be best not to overdo it.
What'll I do now? Push this whole thing onto a back burner for a while, I think. I've put a bit too much time into this hobby lately. I have work to catch up on. And I should give it some space.
I'll get some feedback from family members, hopefully. After that, I guess I'll polish the draft up for a while. I may end up making substantial revisions; I don't know. I've thought very hard while writing it, not just raced to get it on paper. The thing is that it's a really tight and tricky plot, with wild and crazy stuff. My sense is that it either works, and if it does there's not much to be done to improve it, or it doesn't, and there's not much that can. It's a quadruple toe loop that either lands, and that's amazing, or crashes completely.
Astonishingly: it was one year ago to the day that I started writing this thing. I may have started thinking about it before that, but that's the date the oldest file I have was created. So I've averaged rather more than 10,000 words a month on the thing, considering that I have quite a few thousand more words of scenes and notes for future volumes.
Without mentioning any details of the actual story, I have something to say about the latest episode in writing my novel. It's really confusing.
Total length is just over 110,000 words, now. The current section is about 40,000 words of confusing stuff. Without my quite realizing it, the plot in this section has somehow turned into a dense composite of deceptions. It's bad enough that there are three different characters within the story who are currently all trying to deceive each other. What makes it absolute hell is that I, as the author, am trying to deceive the reader about all three of them, so that the reader will think they are following every character's cunning plan, but then be shocked and amazed at what actually happens. So the number of cunning plans has just multiplied out of control.
Each of the three characters has a real plan, with a shocking denouement — I mean, something totally over the top. A gruesome villain will turn out to have deceived the world about her race, sex, sanity and loyalty. A character who has seemed to be dying of fever will fake her own death by burning at the stake, and send a large fortress over an immense waterfall with an ANFO bomb. And an apparently effete wimp will turn out to be a four-armed mutant killing machine, go on a rampage with an enormous broadsword made of depleted uranium, and then fly away with a huge pair of artificial wings. Seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up. Well, apparently I could. But it's pretty insane.
So my first task was already hard: find some way to make all of those insane things realistically possible. Amazing as it seems, I think I've done that. These bizarre denouements are not things I'm trying to awkwardly work into another story; they are the story. I can bend the entire universe around them, to make them work. I have. And I think I have done a fair job of covering my tracks, too, in that the things I have written into the world and the previous chapters, in order to justify these crazy things, seem to me to fit smoothly into the rest of the story. They resonate with other parts of the world and the story, well enough that I don't think they stick out as arbitrary elements that have obviously been added just to make something else happen. Given how bizarre the stuff that ends up happening is, this is not trivial; but I've worked hard for quite some time, and taken forty or fifty thousand words to lay it all out.
The next layer of difficulty was that each of these plans is a deception, aimed by each of the three characters at the other two. So each of them involves a cover story. These are all very intelligent people, and they know that about each other. Their efforts to deceive each other have to be realistically effective. Having laboriously made all these outrageous things possible in the world, I have to conceal them with cover stories that can deceive two smart characters. Again I think I have managed this, though. The three characters are all clever and resourceful, but there are a lot of things they don't know about each other — and of course what they know is entirely up to me. So I believe I have made it completely plausible that each of these characters would be attempting to deceive the others in the ways that they do. The ones that should be deceived are believably deceived, and the ones that see through the deceptions do so believably as well.
Only recently, however, did I realize that this still wasn't enough. There's a third layer to the challenge, as well.
The reader will know more than any of the characters. In particular, one of the characters is the narrator of this section, and one was the narrator of the longer section before it. Neither narrator has any reason to deceive their readers deliberately. And anyway, these two are the main protagonists. They have to remain reasonably sympathetic and credible, so the reader has to reliably know quite a lot. This means that the reader is unlikely to believe that the one character is really dying of fever — it has already been mentioned that her people have turbo-charged immune systems — or that the other is such a coward. The reader will have serious doubts, at the least, about two of the three cover stories. And if the reader starts looking around at all, at what else might possibly be going on instead, all my efforts to make the crazy denouements possible will probably be too obvious. I think I managed to stop them from sticking out as totally weird, but if you're actually looking for a cunning plan, because you know too much to swallow the in-world cover stories, then there are obvious possibilities.
So I need yet a third layer of cunning plans. In addition to the three in-world-plausible cover stories, and the three amazing real plans, I have to construct three red herring plans. These need not be plans that the three characters actually consider using. They are alternative plans that the reader will imagine. They should distract the reader from the more astonishing real plans, so that the big surprises can come unspoiled. This may be the hardest challenge of all. I have to contrive additional cunning plans, clever and realistic enough that the reader will accept them as worthy of the story and the characters. In fact the red herring plans have to be pretty compelling; they have to completely stop the reader from looking any further. Yet I have to have good reasons why the characters don't use these plans, but follow their own real plans instead. And finally I have to get my narrator to suggest these red herring plans to the reader — his own red herring, and those of the other two characters as well, even though he himself may be taken in by their cover stories — yet without the narrator ever just lying to the reader.
Nonetheless I think I'm getting there. The third of these deceptive characters, who is not a protagonist, has just entered the story in this section, and will die at the end of it. So I have a lot of flexibility to redefine her character and her knowledge, in order to make things work. Neither the other characters nor the reader know much about her, anyway. So she's fairly easy, actually. And I think I have it pretty much worked out for the guy who is the current narrator. His real plan is so monstrous, and his cover story is so wimpy, that it's pretty easy to insert a much more realistic-seeming red herring plan in between. I can make the red herring plan be an actual plan that the narrator has in mind, though half-heartedly and with doubts. The narrator can quite realistically write things that will sound to the reader like hesitations between the realistic red herring plan and total cowardice, when in fact they are hesitations between the modest red herring plan, and the extreme rampage that will ultimately be chosen.
The toughest one will be the red herring plan for Anastasia. She's the character who is best known to the reader, and she is established as a preternaturally resourceful heroine. She already has a track record of getting out of tight spots with creative tactics. Moreover she narrated everything up to just the week before this episode, and in the past tense; she even told the reader directly, early on in the story, that her role in it would not be that of a victim. So the presumption that she is somehow going to get out of this must be very strong, and the reader will be on the alert for anything that might offer her a hidden opportunity. My only advantage with her is that she is no longer the narrator. So there can now be things that she knows, that the reader does not know. She can also do things out of sight of the current narrator — and the reader knows this, so the reader can also be made to think that she has done some things, when in fact she has not. I guess my other advantage is that I don't really have to deceive the reader for ever. I only need to keep the reader in the dark until close to the climax, when there's enough action going on that the reader will just read on to see what happens, instead of sitting back and thinking.
And maybe I can undermine the reader's confidence that she must survive because she still has to write the first part of the book, by suggesting that she may be writing it all now, and the book may be put together by someone else, from her notes.
Anyway, whew. This has all become quite the brutal tangle. And as if the plot weren't thick enough with deception, there are motifs of deception scattered around in setting and character as well. The massive sword that gets used in the end is not what it seems; it appears to be merely an impractical symbol, and its uranium core is covered in a layer of steel. The current narrator's realistic red herring plan will probably be to hide an ordinary greatsword inside an enormous wooden sword that's a prop for a play. The whole episode takes place in the castle of a rebel earl who is still pretending to be loyal to his king. And the narrator's cover story of wimpiness is specifically to be an effete thespian, who keeps talking about stagecraft and acting.
What a hall of mirrors. I don't know if any readers will ever be able to make head or tail of it, but as the author I can say that there's a tremendous satisfaction in finally blowing the whole place up and flying away from it, with everything finally straightened out and simple. There's an excellent chance that this is story is now hopelessly overwrought and overburdened, and its elaborate plot is either incomprehensible or blatantly contrived. I think there's still a chance that it will actually work, though. Almost anything can make sense, in the right context, and with science fiction, the author has an awful lot of control over context. If it does end up working, it will be one of the most intricate episodes of plotting that I've ever seen. It's been a lot of fun just to try to make it work.
The Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, who introduced it in a comic strip in 1985, but Bechdel herself attributes the idea to her friend Liz Wallace. A work of fiction passes the test if it contains two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. It sounds like a pretty low bar to jump over, but apparently it's alarming how few books or movies pass this minimal test. (I'm reluctant to start checking through my favorite sci-fi and fantasy books — and the majority of my favorite authors are women.) This should be surprising. It's not asking the moon in political correctness. Have a couple of female characters talk about something other than a man, even very briefly, once in three hundred pages of novel or two hours of movie. How hard can that be?
Well, it's not actually quite so minimal a test as it may at first sound. If there are equal numbers of male and female characters, and they pair off at random to talk, then only about one in four conversations should be between two females. And then a fair amount of any story's dialog is likely to be about other characters in the story, so even without any gender bias at all, there would be a a fair number of conversations between female characters that did at least mention some man. Some stories may not have so much dialog in the first place. It doesn't take an absurd amount of bias to fail the Wallace-Bechdel test. It's easy to not notice that it's being failed.
And that is really the point. Finding books and movies in which no two men ever discuss anything besides women is hard. A book that failed that test would stick out like a sore thumb, for having either very little dialog or unbelievable characters. Even if it weren't necessarily unbelievable that the men were constantly thinking about women, men only talking about women really is unbelievable. Even soldiers and convicts in prison talk about lots of other things. Men in fiction always talk about other things. A book or movie that failed the sex-reversed Wallace-Bechdel test would be ridiculous. Yet it's easy to get through a book or movie that fails the Wallace-Bechdel test, and not realize anything amiss. This is the point.
I stopped posting installments of my story here, but I have kept on writing it, and I recently finished a major section of it, comprising what should be at least a third of the total text. It's just over 70 000 words. I only considered it a first draft of that initial section, and expected to revise it a fair amount. Well, I happened to read about the Wallace-Bechdel test.
My story passed, but only just, with squinting. So I fixed it and now it passes quite fair and square. It didn't actually take much re-writing at all, but it made the story much better.
The problem was that my story had far too little dialog. It has plenty of female characters. The protagonist-narrator is female, and I have carefully balanced genders among all the other characters, including roughly balancing for prominence in the story and coolness. The break in the story I've reached now is to switch to a male narrator. I don't think this comes off as fussily PC. There's no mirror symmetry, but there are lots of rough parallels, and I don't think you can avoid that if you have even rough gender balance in a story. Anyway, I didn't have trouble with Wallace-Bechdel for lack of women.
But the story has first-person narration, and I had far too many passages in which the narrator just told the reader things. Several of these had some character saying something to the narrator, and the narrator telling the reader what she thought about it. (The squinting that made my first version pass was to call a two-sentence response to a long monologue a conversation, and to note that the response was to the short last part of the monologue, the bulk of which had been about the narrator's father. All the ingredients for a much better conversation were being wasted in asides to the reader.)
By just re-writing a few of these scenes into dialog, though, I had three quite substantial female-female conversations in just the first few chapters. One of these does mention a man, but is not mainly about him, and the others have nothing to do with any male. (Well, they do mention people in general, but this is a very gender-balanced setting — people in general clearly does not mean men in particular, either to the characters or, at this point, to the reader. To me this meets the W-B criterion. And just to be sure, there are two more passages I still have to dialogue-ify that will be about strictly inanimate subjects.)
I'm not completely off the hook for gender bias, because my first draft did pass the sex-reversed version of Wallace-Bechdel quite straightforwardly, if still only minimally. It had one brief conversation between two male characters, entirely about something other than a woman. It had two conversations between males about the female protagonist. All the remaining conversations were male-with-female, some of them with several of each talking together. With the narrator being female, though, the number of female-female conversations should have been closer to half, and there are plenty of things for these women to talk about besides men. My problem was that I just didn't turn all these opportunities into interesting dialogue. I left them as monologues of one kind or another.
Now I'm thinking that I need to add more conversations among my male characters. It really livens up the story, and makes characters other than the narrator seem a lot more real. Dialogue is also fun to write. I have a thing for stories with multiple narrators. This one has two, and most of the other stories I've started over the years have had at least two. Well, even with only one actual narrator, a dialogue is a bit like having two narrators. You get to juxtapose two points of view. It's fun to shift back and forth.
Wallace-Bechdel is a good tool for revealing gender bias, just because it is such a minimal test. And yet I think that a work that passes W-B is probably not going to do too badly for gender bias. One conversation isn't much in itself, but if you write even one conversation between two characters, other than as a way of writing about a third character, then you're likely to write more than one conversation between those two, and you might even want to see what a third would have to say to them.
There is no reason to be afraid of the Wallace-Bechdel test as a PC shibboleth. If you're willing to have even just two female characters in your story, then all it asks you to do is to give them something to talk about, and write it as dialogue. The way I'm thinking now, that's never a bad idea for any two characters in any story.
The middle section of my story, with the male narrator, will not be scrupulously gender-balanced. It's set in a pre-modern society, and its narrator is an amateur actor-playwright, on the side from other things, to whom the Wallace-Bechdel test would never occur. This section may not pass it, but we'll see.
Elliot and James arrive at Waste Management's headquarters north of town to "collect Hank's belongings" and do a little snooping. Meanwhile, Linda does the same at the Town Hall.
Their visits follow an almost identical trajectory. The secretary offers polite regrets for their loss, then escorts them to the employee lounge, where personal affects are kept. They stay as long as they dare, searching the room for something awry, and reading coworkers for signs of deception. As she is leaving, Linda passes Liz Birch, visiting on some pretext, while Elliot and James encounter Jack Finch.
They meet to exchange notes at Java Joes, a coffee shop downtown.
"As a reporter, I've learned to find interest in almost every subject, but I'm not sure anyone could make a decent story out of that run down hole in the wall."
"The town hall is no doubt cleaner, but no less dull for that. Besides which, one of the P&Z guys tried to flirt with me. Men have no class."
James shoots Elliot an exasperated look. Linda continues as if she didn't notice.
"Anyway, the only thing I found that seemed out of place was this."
She pulls a manila envelope with a large, stylized hourglass (or is in an infiniti symbol?) scrawled on the front. They all lean forward as she opens it. Inside are a series of measurements. Various psychoactive chemicals present in the city waste water. Estrogen, alcohol, nicotine, and THC lead the charge.
"What in the-"
"I saw Hank sketching that symbol just a few days before his death. It's not nothing."
"Come to think of it, I think I saw somethin' of the sort in the bathroom at the trash facility."
The three stare at the papers in silence for a long time.
He packs his sunglasses in a mesh bag with his other effects- Glock .22 in a waterproof case, butterfly knife, an assortment of fake IDs, and a sizable wad of cash- and straps it to his back before diving into the river. The cold is almost unbearable, but he keeps his eyes glued to the park on the other side and gives it his all.
Ten minutes later he arrives, dripping, in Windsor, Ontario.
When he arrives at his small apartment nearby, he's nearly hypothermic, but he has an electric blanket and a shot of epinephrine waiting by the door. Once his condition is more stable, he steps into the shower and cranks the heat. He smiles as he lathers. In a drawer by his bed, his passport sits idle. One stamp entering Canada, nearly three weeks ago, and none leaving. The perfect alibi. He's beyond the reach of a law, and ready for some rest.
My story is roaring along. Somewhere around 40,000 words so far, I think. I'm working on chapter 10, now, and I have already done several pages of what is supposed to be the next section of the book.
After Chapter 12 there'll be a different narrator, for what is supposed to be about a third of the book, before coming back to Anastasia in the end. The middle chunk is the diary of this native princeling, Thomas MacLayne, which Anastasia acquires and pastes into her memoir. A lot of it is about her, but from a different perspective. I like how it's working out so far. The second narrator is another interesting character, at least to me. In part, he's a foil to her. He is suave and charismatic, an actor and a gifted emotional manipulator, where she barely knows what emotions are. My plan for writing him is to spend as long as it takes to come up with the perfect things for him to say in each situation, and then have him say them off the top of his head. He's actually not supposed to be a jerk at all, though. Where Anastasia is the fantasy about the sane and decent person having superior firepower, and never being fazed by anything, Thomas is the fantasy about the sane and decent person having guile and charm. Plus another bizarre superpower of his own. And yeah, he's a love interest, though it's an extremely problematic match from both sides, and the story as a whole is by no means mainly a love story.
None of the major plot twists have yet appeared, but I have them planned out. The whole thing may run to around 150,000 words if the later parts of my plot skeleton expand in the same ratio that the first parts have. It's still a lot of fun to write.
But: I'm starting to worry about the potential legal implications of posting it all here. Someday this thing may be publishable. I'm not planning to give up my day job in any case, and if it turns out that nobody but me really likes the story, Ehh, oh well. It will have been a hoot to do, just for myself. But why close any doors when I don't have to, you know?
I don't seem to be needing the rhythm of posting chapters here to keep me writing. I may post more chapters if I get around to finding out what the commercial consequences of posting them are, and discover that they are unimportant.
Otherwise, y'all may have to wait for a while to find out what happens. Thanks for reading.
As he steps over the police tape, he see her standing on the bank with her feet almost in the water. She does not look around at his approach, though his boots make a great deal of noise on the lose round rocks.
"What brings you out to the field, Liz?"
"The same thing that brought, I imagine, Jack. Doubt."
"I didn't know you shared my feelings on this matter. Your report was pretty conclusive."
"I established that cause of death was drowning, yes. He was alive when he went into the water. And no signs of struggle- hyoid intact, no bruising, no blood. Just perimortem damage to the cranium just above the foramen magnum. Easy to sustain in a chaotic environment like this one, but… If someone hit him hard enough to knock him out to but not kill him, and he fell into the river and drowned…"
"A plausible scenario. The question is, why?"
"That's your field, not mine."
"I know, but homicide isn't something I have a lot of experience with. And so long as it's officially an accident, I won't be getting any help from the feds."
She finally turns and looks him the eyes. Hers are piercing blue green with a cold, cerebral glint, framed by a pair of stylish green specs. His are a nondescript shade of brown, with a darker spot in the left one and a warmth behind them that brings calm to those they alight on.
"I believe in you."
"That means a lot."
The tension between them mounts until she can no longer bear it. She looks away.
"I assume you've ruled out his wife. Holt's got an alibi. I guess that just leaves his work."
"Very insightful. In the morning, perhaps."
"In the morning," she repeats in a flat voice.
He shrugs and starts turns back towards the treatment plant and his car.
He almost asks her.
"Take care of yourself."
"Sure thing, Jack. You too."
He trudges back up the hill. Another day.
Our dramatis personae can be encapsulated in a single photograph.
James Dalton, brother of the deceased, stands next to the gravestone with his hat against his heart. He cuts the figure of a movie star cowboy: a care worn face with a masculine jawline, eyes the same color as his faded blue jeans, a well starched white button up, and a turquoise-and-amber bolo tie. His eyes are upturned, his mouth set in a thoughtful grimace as he plots the next line of his ovation.
Linda has her back to the camera. She is wearing a black, lacy garment- whether it's a dress or a blouse is impossible to tell from the framing. No doubt, she's controlling her expression, and that is why the photographer chose not to show her face. Instead, her slumped posture tells the whole tale. Every hair seems to rest at an angle of loss. You cannot point to a particular feature, but you know that you're looking at a woman with nothing left to live for.
The county coroner, Elizabeth Birch, stands awkwardly to one side with Jack Finch, a detective with the Garfield County sheriff's department. Liz has somehow managed to be overdressed at a funeral, resplendent in a form fitting black gown fit for a Audrey Hepburn. Jack sports a well made but understated gray suit and boyishly handsome features.
No one else is in evidence. The photographer, of course, is Elliot Holt, brilliant enough to capture a man's life in a single photograph, and too cerebral to know how inappropriate the timing is.
The photo runs above a news brief in the local newspaper. It reflects in a pair of mirrored sunglasses in the waiting room of a Detroit high rise. The assemblage moves the man behind the lenses. Tragically small. Tragically devoted. It shifts something inside him. The vague beginnings of something new begin to assemble themselves in the back of his mind.
Through a extravagant mahogany door at the other side of the room, a man stands in front of floor to ceiling windows and looks out at the crumbling sky line, secure in his power and totally unaware of the cracks beginning to form in his maniacally brilliant master plan.
"You crazy son-of-a"
Elliot wakes to find a short, auburn young woman standing over him, fists on her hips.
A frock coat makes a remarkably warm blanket, but as he pulls himself clumsily to his feet, his limbs cry out in numb protest. The woman offers no assistance, and continues to fix him with a steady glare.
"I don't suppose you have someplace I could thaw out?"
She rolls her eyes and wordlessly escorts him down the hill.
A light breeze rustles the lace curtains of a beautiful Victorian Home. Outside, the air is so crisp that you could almost box it up and store it, sharp teetering on the edge of a chill. In the small front room of the Dalton residence, a tidy fire keeps the wind at bay, though the shutters are thrown wide and the curtains pulled back. The sun streams in through an eastern window, bathing the western wall in golden light and glinting off of a tidy collection of silver framed photographs. In them a common theme repeats itself endlessly: a man and a woman, sometimes alone but usually together, march through their lives hand in hand. Even when they don't touch, their mutual support is apparent. In one photograph, the man, tall with broad shoulders and a broader grin, perhaps thirty, has fixed the camera with such a delighted gaze that his wife, the photographer, might as well be in the picture. She is, in fact, reflected in his twinkling eyes, were any eye sharp enough to note it.
The bright, airy room is at odds with the mood that inhabits it. A strange man has intruded on this sacred space. His graying hair, untidy goatee, and worn clothing clash with the ornate wallpaper and delicate antique table. Across the table from him, seated firmly in a casual position she is clearly straining to maintain, the woman from the photographs fixes Elliot Holt with a look of purest revulsion and taps a nine iron against her shoe.
There is silence for a long moment. To anyone else, the awkwardness would be obvious, but Holt is too absorbed in the workings of his own mind to pay attention to such social underpinnings, blatant as they might be. He is quite content to sit and drink his tea, taking her in and composing the moving description of a grieving widow he will include in his magnum opus. Without the need for a note pad he logs her blue-green, red rimmed eyes, the new frown lines forming at the corner of her mouth, her disheveled auburn hair. He is dimly aware, as a few simple emotions sift through the reporter mode he has adopted, that he is not looking at the same Linda Dalton he once knew.
Finally, he breaks the silence.
"So... um... how-"
Elliot frowns in confusion. Hank was an enthusiastic kayaker, but knew his own limits, and would not have ventured into the river at this time of year.
"Down by the water treatment plant."
That makes a little more sense- Dalton supported his wife with a pair of humiliating part time jobs in water sanitation and garbage pickup."
"James said it was ruled an accident."
"That's what they're saying. But I spoke with the coroner, and the detective assigned to the case, and I get the sense that they're getting leaned on."
"What other options are there? Suicide? You and I both know that Hank would never-"
"If Hank was going to throw himself into the river, he'd chose someplace a little more scenic."
"But that just leaves..."
It's almost inconceivable. Hank Dalton was soft spoken, honest to a fault, and always tipped twenty five percent. What could anyone have against a hard working family man?
Even, so, there's a gleam of certainty in Linda's eyes as she leans forward and almost spits:
Observe Mr. Elliot Holt.
He is disembarking the California Zephyr on a brilliant but chilly January afternoon. As he steps down onto the platform, he pulls a pocket watch from the breast of his frock coat and checks the time- an action which draws several sidelong glances from his fellow travelers. A somewhat surly porter wrestles his baggage- a rough leather case containing a "portable" typewriter- from under a sea of rolling suitcases and duffles. Mr. Holt accepts it with a bow and tips the man- with a gold coin.
As he exits the station and slips on to Grand Avenue, Glenwood Springs Colorado, he illicits a stare from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, earbuds all but glued in and Jay-Z blasting loud enough to be heard clearly. Oblivious, he continues down the sidewalk like an actor that has lost his way to the theatre.
You may think that such behavior is product of a sudden shock. A good friend of his has, after all, recently passed away.The truth is, however, that Elliot Holt has clung to an out-of-date worldview almost from birth- although his mother initially took his love of books over television as a sign of genius rather than a symptom of budding psychosis. In any case, death is a subject of particular interest to Mr. Holt, and mortality, even in the form of a friend's demise, is not something to ruffle him. Indeed, in his role in crafting obituaries for the local newspaper, it is likely that a bit less objectivism on the subject might have saved him from the round of lay-offs to which he eventually succumbed. On the other hand, the rather menacing aura produced by his sense of the macabre almost certainly helped in extorting a sizable severance package from the rather ironically named "Post Independent" and its parent company, Swift.
During the course of this aside, our momentary protagonist has arrived at the regional bus stop, hesitated for a moment, and elected to keep walking. He will continue on this path, following a snow packed bike path along a small, turbulent river, for another ten miles, giving ample time to paint the scene in which he will shortly arrive.
The last mountain of the Elk Range- a magnificent double peaked monolith which draws the eye from almost anywhere in the valley- stands sentry over a small town at the confluence of two rivers. The town itself is fairly unremarkable- a historic downtown with a fringe of modern trophy homes and golf-course communities. On the pediment to the East, however, a holdover of bygone days is perched. Nestled against the foothills of the Elks, the Neislanik Ranch provides a picturesque foreground for Mount Sopris, complete with a red barn, a green tractor, and a few grazing deer. Continue along this winding country road, however, and you'll find yourself walking among the tombstones of an aging cemetery.
And that is just where we find Elliot Holt, as the last rays of light linger on The Mountain. He kneels beside one of the cemeteries few unoccupied graves, under the ominous branches of an ancient elm, and brushes aside the snow to read the name.
December 29, 1984 - December 31, 2012
Husband. Father. Friend
A female red winged black bird- sporting brown feathers from beak to talon- alights in the elm and surveys the scene as the sky fades from cold pink to warm blue. When the first stars begin to appear, they find Holt curled up at the foot of the stone, fast asleep and dreaming comfortably for the first time in more than three months.
The I80 between Omaha and Des Moines is one of the more godforsaken stretches of road in the country, and most people would agree that anyone who would ride a motorcycle through such a scene on a bitter January evening would have to be at least a little crazy.
This man, clad all in black, expression blank despite the cold and the speed, is more than a little crazy. Even as he takes a curve at just over ninety, he's busy reflecting on the deeds of the previous night.
Lights from the police cars and ambulance beat counterpoint in the lenses of the mirrored sunglasses the man wore, even at night, but his dark coat faded into the shadows of the rooftop, and he had no fear of being seen. The body had already spent hours in the river, but the ring of police officers peering into the gloom as if their charge might be attacked again. The man on the rooftop quirked a sour smile. These sheltered fools had no idea what their small town had been plunged into.
He glanced at the dark shape of the officer, standing with his back to the scene, head down, surveying the river. A hard man, to be sure. In his perch atop the Diner, he had seen Finch arrive, noted the calm determination of a seasoned veteran in the force. He had been warned about Finch; told that he would likely be involved, and advised to steer clear.
Would the police pull more than he expected from the scene? Unlikely. He'd become quite practiced at covering his tracks.
Lights suddenly loom ahead- a small town consisting of little more than a truck stop and a cheap motel.
"I reckon this is far enough," he says to himself.
He pulls up in front of the truck stop, swings down from his chopper, and prepares to light the day's last cigarette. As he clicks his Zippo, a bolt of pain shoots through his wrist. The last one had put up a helluva a fight. Almost like he'd had something to live for.
The man signs and returns the Pall Mall to the carton.
"I'm gettin' too old for this," he mutters as he strides inside.