The more we change, the more we stay the same.
2022. Wow. Here it is. This year we enjoy Soylent Green as a food option. Christmas 2021 is done. New Year 2022 is done. Covid, social media fake news, the conspiracists, right and left wing extremists and inept government continue to disrupt the average life (whatever that is). The draft apocalyptic novel sitting on my device from 2018 looks less and less like a novel and more like a documentary. I will get back to it later this year, especially as life has provided better research than I previously completed for the novel.
The past three weeks were laborious from a writer’s perspective: editing, editing, editing. Back in the October 2021 post I mentioned some of the editing matters I continue to address – especially overused words. I also worked through the degree of adjectival and adverbial description, replacing or eliminating unnecessary ‘ly’ words. In a simple example it means taking a statement like ‘moves quietly’ and replacing it with ‘crept.’ Another simple example is changing ‘passionately cried’ to ‘howled’ or similar, choosing single words that as equally or even better describe the action. It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – variety in writing is essential, but it makes me focus on possibilities with expression.
Another editorial matter is ensuring a sense of time and place – season, weather, physical world – is evident throughout the story. This involves exploring where smell, touch/texture, temperature and so on can be effectively included. Jaysin’s travelling aboard ships opens the maritime experience – salty and fish smells, the creaking of wooden planks and spars, the pungent stench of tar and sweat. The visceral effect of snow and rain and heat and dust can be included to enhance the reader’s experience. Marketplace sounds – rattling tins, shuffling feet, ox dung, spices – can be added to bring places alive. This is the current process for the drafts of The Last Wizard series.
sales sit, and I feel as if teachers are the forgotten warriors during the pandemic. I’ll do the little I can do to help them remain amazing people who continue to build the community and our future through our children.
For now, it’s Sunday – back to editing while I have the chance.
It's beginning to feel a lot like...
Life in South Australia is topsy-turvy since the border opening and the vaccination and testing regime ramped up. In a world of lockdowns and closures, I am fortunate to have a job that was uninterrupted by the events – and a job that escalated in pressure each time schools moved to online learning. The school year rushed to a frantic conclusion and today I start a holiday break long sought since the 2020 outbreak.
So, to the writing.
The Girlie manuscript is with a publisher awaiting a decision. I have my fingers well and truly crossed.
I am currently editing the two new drafts for The Last Wizard series – Chasses’ Song and Jaysin’s Song – with the aim of making a first approach for the project to a publisher late January. This will require transferring the physical manuscript edits onto the digital copies hopefully by New Year, and then writing three detailed synopses and a cover letter in early January, a task alone that will consume significant hours.
Now I am churning through ideas for the fourth The Last Wizard book, Harmi’s Song, which is the dragon’s story as Tam, Chasse, Jaysin and Harmi are called to face the threat of the Kermakk Empire that is determined to hunt and kill the last dragon and wizard. I am unsure as to when I will start this project – although it is already nudging me to begin.
I have also completed a draft edit and update of the novel In My Father’s Shadow, written a synopsis for it, pulled it from the Amazon store (it was never promoted and sold maybe five copies to family), will retitle it (the first title is an echo of far too many other works), write a cover letter and see if a publisher will consider publishing it. Recent beta readers have told me it is one of my better works with the exploration of a young man’s coming of age as he unravels a family secret and his father’s terminal illness covering currently important topics around sexuality, faith, identity and love, so I really don’t want it to languish as an unknown and basically inaccessible novel. Like The Last Wizard project, I will make the first approach to a prospective publisher with this novel late January.
And I am trying to work out how to reconnect with the writing world in general. I am planning on submitting different short stories to various magazines in 2022. I have about twenty existing short stories to draw on. While Robert Stephenson published five for me in different issues of his Altair magazine, and Paul Collins published two others in anthologies, I have many more that have never been shared, so a new challenge for me is to start submitting stories.
That’s the update. I promise to make the next entry in January more informative about techniques and approaches and thinking. I’m pretty excited about where the work over the past four years has gone. This entry is just to say I’m working on stuff. Merry Christmas to anyone who reads this. I hope you are all safe and can spend time with family and loved ones.
This mortal round...
You may not have heard of Russell Ebert. He was a South Australian football star and icon, and an integral part of my teen years when I was learning to play the game. As a centre player, I wanted to emulate his style, his ability to read the play and break the lines, his sportsmanship and general demeanour. He died this week, aged 72. Lots of my teenage icons have died in recent years, as have friends and colleagues. I am 67 next year. Mortality walks close beside me and I’m increasingly aware of its presence.
Family history is an imperfect jigsaw puzzle of oral anecdotes, photographs, documents and experiences, full of facts and interpretations, inaccuracies and aphorisms, realities and dreams. I was inspired to write Girlie because of the snippets and tales my mother shared about growing up in the war years with hints of romances and scandals of broken hearts and adventures. When the inspiration became a serious intent on my part, very conscious that if I didn’t capture the stories my mother’s mortality would intervene, I interviewed her over the course of a year, sitting with her in the War Memorial Home on Wednesday afternoons (weekends were for shopping and lunches), asking questions and typing notes, gathering a sense of the identity of the girl and woman who morphed into my mother. Of course, she shied away from intimacies and secrets as she unfolded certain aspects of her teenage years, blushing and giggling sometimes at her admissions, which showed me the sixteen-year-old girl was still running around inside the eighty-year-old woman, so I was left, when I started plotting the novel, with gaps to fill, and deductions to make. Some of the unexpressed secrets became very obvious as the pieces were laid out of the jigsaw. For example, she left Adelaide to go to Melbourne – in itself, not overly unusual – although when you know the side stories (family pressures, a cheating lover – especially the cheating lover, her reasons for leaving become clearer. She would cheekily chastise me for being nosey when I asked her for the truth behind some of her choices and decisions, and then she would laugh when I told her I’d have to ‘make up’ the gaps when I wrote the story, almost taunting me to do so. We had some good times.
The novel is now finished because I ‘found’ the missing pieces – although they were not difficult in every case to find when the puzzle, as a whole picture, lay on the table. Whether I’ve been successful in laying out the overall picture will be the readers’ judgement. I have to modestly say I like what I see. I see the young woman who was my mother, and she is truly a beautiful, naïve human of her time.
Now the work is finished, I have a very different dilemma. The novel is, after all, part biography, part fiction. Many background or supporting characters are not real, although people like them were. But the main characters carry real names of real people, living and not. Many of the depicted events happened; at least they happened in the way my mother said she remembered, but we know memory is often only our interpretation of what we believe happened. My mother’s memories, therefore, will not be everyone else’s truth. And many of the events most likely never happened because they are the gaps, the ‘missing jigsaw pieces’ I’ve had to make to complete the picture. That means real people might read this and say what is written is lies. And that could also be true. Part fact, part fiction. My dilemma. Part of the plan, when I started the project, knowing it would always be an ‘interpretative memory’ of the lives of many people, was to write the draft using real names and then substitute the real names in the final edit with alternatives to mask the reality. For example, while my parents’ patriarchal family names are Eileen Bonney (Mum) and Bill Shillitoe (Dad), it would be easy to substitute the names with the matriarchal line: Eileen Stephens (Mum) and Bill Green (Dad). There are many advantages to doing this. In particular, while the novel could then be ‘marketed’ as ‘based on a real story’, it would remain essentially historical romance fiction and not be seen as a biography. It would also effectively dissociate me, as author, from the characters as my parents, even though family members and close friends know the truth. I don’t know. I will know in the next week or two, when I look to approach publishers. Maybe I already know because I have always leaned toward changing the real names anyway.
A three-year writing project is done (pending the last decision above). I’ve not published with a publisher for more than a decade and the publishing world I knew is long gone. I start from scratch, even down to writing the pitch email. Any recommendations of potential publishers from out there will be gratefully considered.
Vale Russell. Thank you for being a sporting role model, on and off the field. And thank you for reminding me to put my priorities in order this week.
Flicking between projects...
With The Last Wizard project now at three completed manuscripts, and editing and beta reading underway, I returned to visualising the region in the expanding world for Tam, Chasse, Jaysin and Harmi. The original Harbin maps will come from the first novel, but Chasse’s Song draws the party into the mountains beyond Harbin and Dragon Mountain, and Jaysin’s Song widens into the expanse of the Kermakk Empire. I’ve sketched the regions and will insert names and details later this week, but thought I’d share the initial raw maps.
Beta readers have provided good feedback on flaws in Jaysin’s Song and I will commence the next edit of that manuscript in a couple of weeks. In the interim, I’m running yet another edit across the Girlie manuscript, tightening language and double-checking ‘factual’ information in the historical backdrop of the novel. The Girlie project started late 2018 and was finished as a raw draft in 2019, so it’s interesting reading a piece that is now technically two years old since I completed the draft manuscript. The time distance is allowing me to read it with refreshed eyes and spotting stylistic aspects I do need to adjust. I was originally planning to start chasing publishers for this project last year, but I wasn’t totally happy with it and held it back – and then The Last Wizard project jumped to the forefront – so now the plan is to start inquiring at the close of this year.
The fourth The Last Wizard, Harmi’s Song, I’m hoping to commence by Christmas time. Writing from the dragon’s perspective will be a fascinating challenge.
That’s all I have this week.
Three to edit: one to bind them all...
Everything seems to be revolving around fortnights of late. The past fortnight has been very productive, however, partly with the school holiday break being on offer.
Editing. Like, seriously, who would want to do it as a fulltime job? Oh. Wait. I spent 40 years as an English teacher. I’ll park that comment for another time.
I spent the past few days editing and also reorganising the three books now completed in the Last Wizard series into basic manuscript layout – font style and size (Calibri 11, double-space, 5cm margins etc – which turned into a bigger chore than I imagined when I realised that I’d been drafting using a template that corrupted the tab spaces. So, I manually replaced all the tab returns throughout 700 pages!!! Grrr.
Anyway, the editing process is underway. First raw edit is completed. For the record, much of it has been dealing with the following personal foibles: reducing the frequency of overused words, for example ‘said’, ‘turned’, ‘saw/looked’, approached, and reducing unnecessary verbosity/description. I’ve also read through all three texts to ensure any foreshadowing, personal traumas, promised actions are either followed up or at least explained away by characters.
Another challenge is working through to eliminate passive writing eg ‘She had done’ becomes ‘She did’. It’s mainly finding past tense words like ‘had’ and ‘haven’t’ and testing their validity in the sentences.
The editing process is really just starting, despite my observation in the previous blog. I’m envisaging the process will consume my writing time for the next month before I suspect I’ll be sitting here writing I’m starting to look for a publisher.
But it is very nice to have three manuscripts lying on my table awaiting the next round of editing. It feels real.
A new child...
Done. Gestation period, nine months. I wrote the final sentence to the first full draft of Jaysin’s Song today: 108,000 words. That’s the easy part finished. Now I begin the first full edit.
The last month of this project, representing probably around 10,000 words of writing, has proven difficult, moreso because it demanded time to read back over parts of the growing manuscript and reference further back to the previous two books leading to this one. I mentioned that part of the editing process about to commence will be ensuring consistency of all aspects of the story across all three books now. Reaching a conclusion in the third book forced me to do more work on the consistency and linking process than I planned to do, but I should have expected it because this will be the fourth fantasy series I’ve written, and every series demands the care in ensuring characters and places and languages retain accuracy across the series.
But, for now, the first draft exists, and I’m satisfied.
The editing begins almost immediately – well, maybe in a couple of days. Apart from factual consistency and spelling and grammar, what will I be looking for? The far from exhaustive list includes:
I’m laughing, reading the above, because it makes me want to walk away and not do the hard work ahead, but that’s the key part of moving writing from a creative escape exercise into a crafting process, taking the detailed palette sketch and refining it to move it toward a full painting – 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.
Once the first raw edit is done, it will be on to some trusted beta readers who will let me know what extra editing and work is required.
Okay. I have work today.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on:"
Last night I woke from an incredibly sad dream, about loss and loneliness. I’ll spare you the depressive details, but the impact of dreams in our lives for me has to translate into the lives and experiences of characters whose stories I tell. In fact, I insert dreams in stories to give readers greater insight into the subconscious matters affecting and influencing characters for deeper understanding of those characters.
In the current project, Jaysin is challenged on several matters as the story draws to a conclusion. He wants power and identity. He wants to become his ‘best self’, to stand apart and be recognised for who he can be. He feels his siblings overshadow him and hold him back, while his new mentor offers him opportunities to grow. But there is a double cost involved.
First, there are ethical dilemmas for Jaysin in serving the Empire – the determined will of the rulers to subjugate those who do not want to be ruled. The parallels with protest marchers over COVID restrictions is a prime current example of how the ruling class have to use ‘force’ to keep the population safe against a population that believes it is being oppressed by the ruling class. Who is morally right? Is there any ‘right’ in the clash? In order to stay with his mentor and grow in his magical prowess, Jaysin must be willing to become involved in politics and social order imposed by the Imperial laws and leaders, and that means dealing harshly with ordinary people who fight for their version of freedom. In almost every scenario in life, choosing to follow a mentor means changing your perspective of the world and human behaviours. When I was mentored to become a better teacher, I had to alter my perspective of the classroom, my practices, and my understanding of the nature of what teachers and students are in that environment. When my volleyball mentor set a goal for our team to enter National competitions, I had to change my perspective of what playing a game meant and my practices to be a better contributor in a team role. To become something different, you cannot remain the same.
Second, to accept his mentor and the law of the Empire, Jaysin must become increasingly estranged from his family. This is partly a physical separation – Tam and Chasse are hiding in the western mountains, Jaysin is in the Imperial capital. It is partly a political separation – Jaysin must choose between serving the Empire or rebelling against it, and his family are outlaws by default. It is also partly an emotional separation because they are family and the siblings struggled together to survive the collapse of their home village and loss of its culture. Jaysin was nurtured into beginning his journey into magic by Tamesan, and he admires his brother’s physical prowess even though he, personally, was never destined to become a Harbin dragonwarrior.
To draw Jaysin away from his family, his mentor offers growth in magical knowledge and power. She offers comfort and status. She offers a broader understanding of the wider world – at least from her point of view. Every day, worldwide, people leave families behind to pursue careers and passions – children leaving parents, spouses leaving partners and families. We must acknowledge and remember and reflect upon the fact that some of the most revered and successful individuals in human history only achieved success by severing ties with family or abandoning family to chase their dreams.
And so to dreams. The complex psychology that makes us dream of the things deeply concerning us – sense of loss, abandonment, injustice, confusion, loneliness, fear, frustration and anger – is a valuable vehicle in opening and explaining characters in stories. In itself, a creative story is a form of dreaming because it allows readers to journey with characters and share their experiences and wake from the end perhaps wiser or more confused, but awake nevertheless. Revealing character’s dreams reveals the character’s deepest struggles that cannot be easily revealed in waking action and interaction.
Jaysin’s Song is at 90,000 words – just over – with approximately four chapters to write. Today, having finished this blog, I enter one of Jaysin’s dreams to start a new chapter.
The Source of Magic
Jaysin’s Song is at 80,000 words – roughly with nine chapters remaining to write. I can see the end – it’s just within my grasp, though I’m not entirely sure what it will look like when I reach it. So, let’s talk a little about magic.
I have, from the outset, way back in 1990 when Guardians was barely ten chapters in draft and a concept proposal on its way to Roxarne Burns at Pan MacMillan, wrestled with the ‘science’ of the magic that would permeate my fantasy novels. I was caught between magic emerging from certain beings understanding and manipulating the auras and energies at the core of all things, and an alien intervention – a source of magic that falls from the stars. In the end I combined both, allowing a character I named A Ahmud Ki to explore and become adept at what were called the five Kis – each school of magic understood, and misunderstood, by some but not by others. The oldest form of magic was born from the Elvenaar and the Aelendyell who learned how to manipulate the energies residual in all matter. To warm a rock, the secret was to learn the phrases that would cause the rock to resonate, its energy being released as warmth. To that, they added the ability to affect and control the mind, allowing illusion and similar magic to be applied. But then I introduced to the world history of my works a cataclysmic event – a meteor shower that brought with it the alien magic of amber – not amber as we know it, but a material that could amplify the energies and illusions of the older magic and make it many times more powerful. In the Andrakis trilogy, the power of amber is mentioned, but not truly understood by all. However, in the Ashuak Chronicles, amber is recognised as the conduit for and source of powerful magic, and by the Dreaming in Amber quatrology it is understood for what it is.
The Last Wizard novels slowly embrace the amber and energy magics because they are set in a separate part of the same world as Andrakis, Ashua and Amber, though at a different time. The Herbal Man and his dragon companion, Claryssa, from the first book, were survivors of a past age when wizards and dragons made their powerful but flawed pact and infused their beings with the amber in the same way as dragons were infused with it millennia before by the Elvenaar. Tam inherits this ancient legacy through her union with the dragon, Harmi. I will unfold the dragon evolution in another blog because it is the background of the fourth (unwritten) book in The Last Wizard series.
The Last Wizard novels are ‘coming of age’ tales for the four characters – Tamesan, Chasse, Jaysin and Harmi the dragon – and the Harbin community from which they originate had little understanding of the wider world beyond the mountains and the ocean surrounding it. Each book takes our characters further and deeper into a world where politics and social fabrics are increasingly more complex and fraught. So it is with the magic that they discover, especially Jaysin. The section I’m writing now in Jaysin’s Song has Jaysin stumbling upon the oldest forms of magic from the Elvenaar and Aelendyell, the ones who eventually transformed large forest lizards into dragons using the alien amber and became the Dragonlords. I write in circles along a background and history planned thirty years ago. It’s fun.
Starting a new chapter today reminded me of the constant challenge of beginnings. In a universe far, far away, when I taught classes at TAFE, WEA and SA Writers, I would work with writers on beginnings, using examples of famous novel openings like the following:
“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” – Paul Auster, City of Glass
“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” – Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
“Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger
“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” – Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life Of Bees
“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” – Laura Whitcomb, A Certain Slant of Light
So, openings to novels and chapters, for me, must have something for the reader, something enticing, informative, mood creative. Out of curiosity, today I went back over the three manuscripts in this series and grabbed the existing opening lines to compare:
“Marc rubbed his thick stubble, his fingers tracing the long white scar running from his left eye to his collarbone.” – Tamesan’s Song
“Kevan limped onto the jetty, scars pulling against his skin, reminding him the past was close.” – Chasse’s Song
“Masha saw the shape appear against the white peak of Jenjaka Mountain and rose from his chair, his knees complaining at being made to move.” – Jaysin’s Song
The openings are deliberately designed to link the writing style and mirror similar content. All three men are watching, anticipating arrivals or changes. There are references to scars and arthritic or damaged knees, perhaps to suggest worlds with a history or trouble or war. All three characters are not central characters (Marc and Masha are very minor players in the stories). Each suggests a world in motion, one where the characters are living before the reader arrives. The sentences/paragraph that follow each opening line establish time, place and mood.
I also thought it would be interesting to grab the unedited opening lines to the last four chapters I’ve written in the current project to see what I’m doing:
“‘We are foreigners and women,’ Laseen reminded Jaysin.”
“Jaysin trailed in the wake of the black garbed Karudarteta along a wide corridor that penetrated deeper into the Imperial Palace.”
“He focused, whispering the phrase Tam taught him.”
“Two black robed servants and eight Kermakk soldiers marched across the dock toward the barge in the dawn light and crisp air.”
Each opening line leads the reader into the events taking place. In the first, as Jaysin prepares to use a disguise to reach the leader of the Kermakk Empire he is reminded of the oppression of women and strangers. In the second, he is being led into a sacred unknown. The third is a reminder of his magical skill and capacity to learn. The fourth sets a situation that is to unfold in the chapter. Yes, all four will be edited and change by the time the project is done.
Although not strictly true for every opening I create, I like to take the reader directly into action, an event, a conversation so the reader is immersed and wants to know what is happening or will happen as a result. Where appropriate or useful, the chapter opening will offer connections with events in the previous chapter, as does each example from Jaysin’s Song.
Story openings and chapters are reader hooks and connectors. If effective, they keep the reader engaged and/or remind them of what has happened so far and hint at what might happen next. They can establish action, plot, character, mood and setting succinctly.
The project is now at 73,000 words – almost three-quarters done. I was aiming at 10,000 words of writing or more this week, and made 8,000, but it’s a fortnight filled with family birthdays, so maybe I was being overly ambitious. Either way, it’s been a good week.
What's your preference?
Today is always my Dad’s birthday. It feels strange to remember it is now thirty-one years since he passed. The older I get, the more I wish I was able to have the chats an adult me could have had with Dad. In all honesty, I never knew him enough to know how he felt about growing up, or the changes in himself and in the world he lived through. That saddens me.
Jaysin’s Song hit 65,000 words this past week and I’m facing a week off work which might allow me to add more words than usual.
Over the last fortnight, I’ve wrestled with plot and character. Jaysin has offered himself in exchange for his brother Chasse’s freedom. Of course, he intends to escape as soon as he knows his brother is safe, but the story demands he remains in the Kermakk Empire where he grows in stature and ability as a sorcerer, so it has been an interesting exercise to determine how to ‘lure’ him to stay. In response, I’ve created a mentor, a person who can show him how to become more powerful and able than he currently is, someone a lot like himself.
Determining character sexuality is, in itself, always a fascinating process in writing. Although I have mapped Jaysin’s sexuality, along with his siblings and other characters, it becomes interesting when sexuality forms a part of understanding characters and their relationships and motivations.
Tam, in Tamesan’s Song, is portrayed as heterosexual, given the interest the male characters have in her, and her own responses to events. However, as we learn by the story’s end, and definitely into the second book, Tam’s life is intertwined with Harmi the dragon, and she has no portrayed desire to seek a human partner, leaving her sexuality either subsumed entirely by her commitment to Harmi, or dormant, or asexual. Her story begins with her aged fifteen, on the cusp of being chosen as a wife in the Harbin community. By Book Three, she is twenty, but in a very different relationship with Harmi and Book Four (not yet started), Harmi’s Song, will reveal more of this aspect of her character.
Chasse is developed as a sixteen-year-old heterosexual male in book one and during Book Two – Chasse’s Song – he establishes an unrequited romantic relationship with Banni, a widowed village woman. In Jaysin’s Song, at age twenty-one, he is betrothed to a fellow and female warrior, but since his enslavement as a prisoner that relationship is yet to be developed further.
And then we have Jaysin. As described in previous entries, Jaysin is the odd child out, a loner, and circumstances and his passion for learning magic have isolated him from potentially romantic relationships. He is, after all, just fifteen by the opening of Book Three – naïve and inexperienced in matters of love and sexuality. What Jaysin hasn’t faced yet, but what is true about him, is that his sexual fascination is with males. In Jaysin’s birthplace, Harbin, no one even considered sexuality being non-heterosexual because the society was based entirely on a heterosexual tradition. The place all four escape to, Machutzka, sexual orientation is not questioned. People partner as they choose, and when they have chosen a life-mate the relationship is formalised and celebrated. To a degree, this is also true of the Kermakk Empire where Chasse and Jaysin are imprisoned (at this point). The Kermakk ruler, the Karudar Marfek, is a female with a female partner, and Jaysin is only about to learn the extent of this relationship, which will spark his exploration of his own ‘need’ for a lover and understanding of his sexuality.
The subject of sexuality is a very minor sub-theme across this series, neither included to titillate, challenge or shock (I leave that to my darker fantasy novels), nor to make statements. It exists to flesh out the characters as being multi-faceted within the context of their world and their social groups. It’s fascinating to determine a character’s sexuality, however, in line with how it affects the way they respond to other characters and to situations. It cannot be ignored, any more than how they eat, dress, speak and see the world.
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...