Monday, August 29, 2011

My Revision Odyssey

A few days ago, I started work on the sixth draft of my novel.  This is something I’ve been avoiding, because frankly it feels a little insane.  Why after four drafts, or even five, isn’t it finished?  I have no idea.  But this has become my Odyssey, and if I don’t get to Ithaca soon, I might dive into the jaws of Charybdis!

For those who haven’t read Homer’s epic in a while, the Odyssey depicts Odysseus’ ten year journey to return to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.  About everything that can go wrong does go wrong on his voyage, including shipwrecks, run-ins with Cyclopes and Sirens, enslavements by a sorceress and a jealous nymph, and a really bad decision involving a bag of winds.  So, using the Odyssey as an analogy, here’s the tale of my own journey.

The First Draft – This was my siege of Troy.  It took forever and had its ups and downs, but ultimately ended in triumph.  I had finished the first draft of my first novel!  I celebrated with a bottle of Chateau de Beaucastle.  Life was good.  All I needed to do was finish another draft or two and I’d be home free, right?  Yep, bet that’s what Odysseus thought too.

First Draft Triumph!
 The Second Draft – This is where the editing and re-writing began.  It started badly, though not unexpectedly, when I realized the first draft was 142,000 words and filled with lots of bad writing.  Yet it got better quickly when the editing kicked in and turned bad writing into good.  The story started to sing.  I even shaved the length down to 131,000 words.  Again, life was good.  Just like Odysseus escaping the Lotus Eaters and defeating the Cyclops.  He was making progress – until that damn bag of wind ...

Defeating the Cyclops Seemed a Breeze!
 The Third Draft – After the second draft, I sent it to some friends to read.  I received a lot of good advice, but a lot of this advice involved making additions to the novel.  “Add more to the ending to make it more exciting.”  “Spend more time developing the characters’ backstory.”  “Gives us more scenes with the villains.”  So I tried to do this.  And here’s where I opened the bag of winds.  For those not up on their Odyssey, after Odysseus defeated the Cyclops, the Master of the Winds gives Odysseus a bag containing all but the West wind.  This allows him to sail all the way to Ithaca, where he can even see the shore.  But then some dumb-ass opens the bag of winds, blowing Odysseus way off course, which ultimately sends him and his crew to the witch-goddess Circe, where Odysseus’ crew gets turned into pigs and ends up stuck on her island for a year.  And that basically sums up my third draft.  All the additions ballooned the novel’s length to 144,000 words.  The novel was much better in many places, but it was also fat.  Like Odysseus’ crew after Circe tried to turn them into bacon.

Curse that Bag of Wind!

The Fourth Draft – Here’s where I had to trim it down.  Big time.  It was excruciating.  I ended up rewriting the first 100 pages from scratch to front-load some conflict and introduce my antagonist earlier.  And I had to make some painful cuts.  I had reached the straights of Scylla and Charybdis, and whichever path I chose, a whole lot of story was going to die.  Though scathed, I came through it after killing a whole lot of my darlings.  The novel was 22,000 words shorter, and it was tighter. 

Scylla or Charybdis?
The Fifth Draft – After so much rewriting, the novel needed to be polished.  This was basically a line edit.  I shaved off some more words and did it in a fairly short amount of time.  It was like skirting the Sirens.  Just tie yourself to the mast and press on.

Tie Yourself to the Mast and Press On!
The Sixth Draft – This is hopefully the final edit.  I’m trying to shave another thousand or so words from the story and fix any leftovers from Draft 4 that still need some fine tuning.  I feel like I can see the shores of Scheria, which means Ithaca can’t be far behind.

Ithaca Looks Close!
Of course, after this, the journey continues towards publication.  Back on Ithaca, all Odysseus had to do was shoot an arrow through the handle holes of a dozen axes.  Easy, right?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are the End Times Approaching for Traditional Publishing?

Joe Konrath, a champion of the indie publishing movement, posted another great article titled “The End is Nigh,” about the potential demise of the traditional publishing model.  Konrath continues to make compelling arguments about the fate of traditional publishing and what authors should do in the face of it.  I’m a keenly interested observer in this debate, trying to decide whether to go the esteemed (or once-esteemed) traditional publishing route or embark on the bold new journey of indie publishing.  Articles like Konrath’s make me think.  But what are your views?  Is traditional publishing on the verge of an Apocalypse?

Are the Four Horseman charging down the streets of Manhattan?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Unpredictable Endings

Ann C. Crispin of Writer Beware posted a fantastic article today titled "How to Satisfy Your Reader Without Being Predictable."  It's about the need for unpredictable endings in genre fiction while still satisfying the reader's expectations.  She uses The Return of the King as an example of genre fiction which could have had a perfectly predictable and satisfying ending that was made better - and more satisfying - with its unpredictable twist.  (Think Mount Doom and a crazed Gollum!) 

I thought Ms. Crispin was spot on in her views, which made me ask - what other great historical or fantasy fiction has an unpredictable yet satisfying ending?  During my drive home tonight, the ending of Stephen King's The Gunslinger jumped to mind.  In fact, King is an absolute master of the unpredictable yet satisfying ending.  The Stand and The Dark Tower are two other great examples. 

Read Ms. Crispin's post and then let me know, what's your favorite example of an unpredictable yet satisfying ending?

Did you think Frodo would be the one to destroy Sauron's Ring?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Great First Lines

The first sentence may be the most important sentence in a novel.  A great first line can set the tone for the story or convey the essence of a character in just a few words.  So for today’s post, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite first lines from historical and fantasy fiction:

  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • On a winter’s day in 1413, just before Christmas, Nicholas Hook decided to commit murder.  – Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
  • The small boys came early to the hanging. – The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there. – Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead
  • In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself. – The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
  • Creating a Golem requires patience, brilliance, study, prayer, and fasting. – The Book of Splendor by Frances Sherwood
  • Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.  – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Today I have been thinking about the dead. – Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell
  • It was just past midday, not long before the third summons to prayer, that Ammar ibn Khairan passed through the Gate of the Bells and entered the palace of Al-Fontina in Silvenes to kill the last of the khalifs of Al-Rassan. – The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. – The Gunslinger by Stephen King
I’m curious to know if you have other good examples.  So, what are some of your favorite first lines?

A Great First Line Requires a Sharp Quill!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum

Writing can be a lonely job, but I no longer lack companionship in this endeavor.

Earlier this week, the official six-year-old daughter of Fresh-scraped Vellum decided she really, really needed a dog before school started for the fall.  This was actually something she had been lobbying for the entire summer; she even created a song, "I want a puppy, no matter what-y!"  So on Monday, while at work, I'm informed we have a new dog.  Not that I get a vote; no, we have a new dog.  She came from the Humane Society, where they named her "Lil," short for "Little" because she's undersized.  My daughter decided to put a "y" on the end, so the dog's name became "Lily."  And that's how I came to have an 8 pound Jack Russell Terrier mix in my office every morning as I write. 

And I could not be happier.

Lily, the Official Dog of Fresh-scraped Vellum

Monday, August 15, 2011

Long Live the Epic! - A Song of Ice and Fire

This summer has been huge for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  First, HBO made Martin’s premiere novel in the series, A Games of Thrones, into a ten episode television series that concluded this past June and has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards.  HBO has renewed the series for another season, which will focus on the events of Martin’s second novel, A Clash of Kings.  Then, a few weeks ago, Martin’s publisher released A Dance with Dragons, the long awaited fifth novel in the series, which is currently No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (A Game of Thrones ranks 6 on the list, even though it was originally published in 1996).

The HBO series, for those who didn’t see it, is amazing and very true to the novel.  As for the books, A Song of Ice and Fire has risen into the pantheon of great fantasy works, right alongside J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Martin’s characters are richly drawn, making the reader truly care for them, so when tragedy strikes one of the most endearing characters in A Game of Thrones, the impact is profound.  Martin’s world building also places him at the top of his craft.  One of the ways he achieves both of these is through the novel’s length and its multiple viewpoint characters.  But few, if any, new authors today could ever get away with this.  Just imagine how most agents would react to the following line in a query letter:

Dear agent,

I am seeking representation for my fantasy epic, A Game of Thrones, a story of intrigue, murder, and war told through the viewpoint of eight different characters, complete at  298,000 words.
How fast can you say “form rejection”?  I suspect many agents and their assistants would reject this query on word count alone.  In fact, if you read industry blogs, the desired word count for a novel these days is barely 100,000 words, although fantasy manuscripts may survive if they’re in the 115,000 to 124,000 range – at least according to the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog before it moved to its current location.  But whether it’s 100,000 or 124,000 words, this is far, far short of an epic like A Game of Thrones. 

Other famous fantasy and historical epics well exceed the current “standard” for word count.  According to one Internet resource, Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,000 words long.  Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World weighs in at 305,000 words.  And Stephen King’s The Dark Tower totals around 288,000 words.  Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth has to be of a similar length, and while I haven’t seen a word count for the novel, my copy is 973 pages long.  Clearly these are all famous authors, but they were writing epic fiction, and sometimes – to be done well – epics have to be long.

I’m not suggesting that every novel should be as large as a phone book, but I wonder if the publishing industry hasn’t gone overboard with its restrictive view towards word count.  Once upon a time, a longer novel meant higher printing costs, but surely in the age of e-books that’s not the case.  Maybe that’s where things are heading.  Authors of epic fiction may have to go the indie publishing route, where word count won’t really matter.  Maybe that’s the only way to get past the “form rejection” when writing an epic these days.  Thankfully, George R.R. Martin didn’t have to deal with this hurdle, or we may have never had the masterpiece that is A Game of Thrones.

There's nothing like a good epic!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hope For Unpublished Authors!

This has nothing to do with historical fiction (at least that set in the Middle Ages) or fantasy fiction of any type.  But for all the aspiring writers out there, Kathryn Stockett, the author of the bestselling novel The Help, wrote an article about how she was rejected by 60 literary agents before finding one who would lead her to publication -- and ultimately a major motion picture.   I can't imagine how those other 60 agents feel today.  Yet I suppose the clear message to aspiring authors is - never give up! 

How many rejections would Shakespeare have had today?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pirates & the Caribbean

I recently returned from the Caribbean, which made me think of my favorite historical novel about pirates, Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes (okay, it’s the only historical novel about pirates I’ve read other than Treasure Island; in fact, I’m not even aware of other pirate novels, although I’m sure there are plenty).

The novel was discovered on Crichton’s computer after his death and is only his third novel I’d characterize as historical fiction, the other two being The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead.  (I’m not counting Timeline, even though much of the novel takes place in the Middle Ages, because it’s really about time travel, which I consider science fiction.)   I found the novel to be a well-researched and fun read, especially when imagining what the Caribbean must have been like in the days of pirates and privateers. 

I’ve reviewed the novel on and Amazon and posted a copy after the picture of the book’s cover.  But with thoughts of the Caribbean still dancing in my head, I wonder: has anyone else read a novel about pirates that’s worth reading?

At barely 300 pages, Pirate Latitudes is a quick read that will remind Michael Crichton fans of The Great Train Robbery – except with pirates instead of Victorian-era thieves. 

Set in 1665, Pirate Latitudes involves a team of privateers, each with unique talents, who are hired to capture a treasure-laden galleon from an island fortress ruled by a brutal Spanish commander.  The novel’s protagonist is Captain Charles Hunter, a Harvard educated privateer from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but it’s his crew that makes the novel so enjoyable, including a Jewish explosives expert, a French assassin, a female marksman (who disguises herself as a man), and a mute strongman nicknamed The Moor.  In addition to a seemingly impossible mission, there’s a thrilling battle at sea, a hurricane, and a twist at the end.  This is not Crichton’s best novel, and I’m not even sure he was finished with it since the novel was discovered on his computer after his death.  But I’m glad it was published.  Pirate Latitudes is a thoroughly enjoyable read set during a fascinating period of history.      

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Fine Line Between History and Fantasy

One of the questions I faced when writing my first novel was whether to pitch it as historical fiction or historical fantasy.  The novel is set in Medieval Europe, involves a number of historical figures, and concerns several historic events.  That said, I concluded it could only be pitched as historical fantasy because of supernatural elements in the story, including a book of magic (which legend attributes to one of Charlemagne’s paladins), the appearance of a demon or two, and a biblical artifact with supposedly mystical powers.  But sometimes the line between historical fiction and historical fantasy is more blurred.

For example, Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell, about the famous battle between the English and the French, is almost universally considered historical fiction even though the main character at times has conversations with two long-dead saints.  The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay reads like historical fiction and contains barely a hint of the supernatural, except the story takes place in an entirely fictional land, albeit one based closely on Moorish Spain.  And Frances Sherwood’s The Book of Splendor is an excellent work of historical fiction set in Prague during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II; however the book is about a golem, which almost certainly pushes it into the realm of historical fantasy.

Many readers disagree on where the line should be drawn between these two genres, but assuming the book takes place in a historical setting, here are five things I consider in determining whether the line’s been crossed from historical fiction into historical fantasy:
  1. If the main character talks to the gods it may be historical fiction; but if the gods talk back it’s probably historical fantasy;

  2. If the book takes place in a setting that looks just like the Middle Ages or some other historical period, but that place never existed on earth, it’s historical fantasy;

  3. If anyone in the book can use magic (and I’m not talking Houdini or David Copperfield type magic), welcome to historical fantasy;

  4. If there are any supernatural beings or mythical creatures who appear in the story and do almost anything, ditto on historical fantasy; and

  5. If the characters talk about places like the Otherworld, Alfheim, or Hades it may be historical fiction; but if they actually find a way to get there, they’ve entered the realm of historical fantasy.
This list is far from comprehensive and doesn’t even touch sub-genres like Alternate History or Steampunk.  But I’m curious as to your views.  When does historical fiction cross the line into historical fantasy?