The Homophone Issue

March 4th, 2014 by David No comments »

Do you try to ‘rein in’ or ‘reign in’ an abuse of power? If you chose the latter, you are incorrect–but you have good company. More people seem to be falling prey to incorrect usage of homophones (words that sound the same) as the original meaning of words and phrases fades from memory.

The confusion in this case stems from the assumption that since a monarch has a reign of power, one might seek to ‘reign’ him or her in. But the original phrase comes from horse riding. If you’ve ever ridden, you know that it takes some work to rein in a horse with a head of steam–it’s an apt phrase. Similarly, giving something ‘free rein’ (deriving from letting the horse choose its path) is often mis-used as ‘free reign’. (Continuing with an equine theme, when you are excited you are said to be ‘champing at the bit’, not ‘chomping’ as many people assume.)

If the ultimate goal of writing is communication, not much is truly lost when an incorrect homophone is used–the reader will probably know what you mean. But when the homophone substitute has nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase I believe we are diminishing the English language. And once a mistake begins to be commonly made, it spreads like a communicable disease. The next thing you know, serial commas are virtually eliminated from usage, its and it’s are used interchangeably, and nouns are turned to verbs.

Whoops, we may already be there!

But we CAN remember to compliment someone who complements us with their presence, re-sign the player who we thought had resigned, and above all keep a tight rein on our word choices.

Peace.

Ordning and Old Magic Excerpt #1

November 13th, 2010 by David No comments »

Here’s a relatively short scene from my National Novel Writing Month project in progress, Ordning and Old Magic. This was about 1/3 of a day’s writing, and it’s pretty much as typed out—I did look through it to fix a few typos, but that’s about it. This is a fantasy novel concerning the antics of a young warrior named Beowulf, his almost paramour Freya, and their friend Thirl. Along with agriculture, anti-empire rebels, the fading of magic from the world, and water rights.

***

Beowulf equipped himself for a night journey with sword and axe, dagger, and another dagger tucked in his boot for good measure. He wrapped himself in a sturdy cloak with a hood he could draw low over his face so he could travel with less notice. He found the fourth room behind the tavern, which served a stew that smelled none too good and small beer. No wonder this Maldin travels to sup and drink in an alehouse less conveniently located than this one. The door to the room was locked and the window was dark.

He had a long wait in the cool autumn evening, passing the time by mentally moving through the weapon forms Riven had taught him.

“My best student was a fighter named Carnic,” the old man had told him once. “He practiced constantly in his mind, even when his body was tired. He thought of new combinations for attack in defense in the abstract then put them to use the next day. Soon, no one wanted to face him, even with wooden staves.”

“You don’t mean Carnic the Conqueror?” Beowulf had asked wonderingly. Had the one-eyed swordmaster taught that great a man?

“He got that name later,” Riven said. He had seemed irritable about it, so Beowulf had not questioned him further. But slowly, he had tried to emulate Carnic’s practice, and now he had advanced to the point where he could envisage entire battles in his mind, working through scenarios where he was attacked by multiple men with different weapons. But he kept one eye on the stairs while doing so.

His combat reverie was interrupted by a creak on the stairs several hours after sunset. A bulky man wrapped in a dark cloak hove into view as Beowulf faded around the corner. He waited until the man fumbled with a heavy iron key, cursing as the simple lock refused to turn. Finally, it raspingly opened and the cloaked man pushed the door inward. Beowulf waited until the man was halfway through the door and then sprang forward, shoving him inside with his dagger against his back. A dagger was better than his sword for close-up work like this.

Maldin extended his arms carefully with his back to Beowulf. “Who sent you?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“We have a common friend who gave you Ordning coin. I want conversation with you, nothing more. Turn around so we can talk man to man.”

Maldin’s face was surprisingly handsome, although bearing the marks of debauchery. Too little exercise and too much food and ale had expanded his body, but his visage showed the hallmarks of the good-looking youth he must have once been. He stared at Beowulf sullenly.

“I hear you’ve been getting money from the spiders. What are doing for them?”

“You heard wrong.”

“I gave you a chance to talk. You should take advantage of the opportunity.”

“Get stuffed.” Maldin’s lip curled.

Beowulf crashed his fist into the knife man’s nose, blood spraying from the impact. Quicker than he expected from a big man with his body going to rot, Maldin’s hand went to his belt for one of the knives he had strapped under his jerkin. Beowulf had noted the bulge, however, and was ready for him. With the butt of the dagger in his left hand, he smashed the back of Maldin’s wrist. The larger man released his hold on the knife he was drawing and howled in pain. He put his left hand first on his hurt wrist then on his bleeding nose.

“That’s just a taste so you know I’m not a lad who can be trifled with,” Beowulf said. “I’m not interested in killing you. I will if I have to, but I’m more interested in the generals than the foot soldiers.”

“Whud do ‘oo want to know?” Maldin said through the blood running down from his cupped hand.

“That’s more like it,” Beowulf said approvingly, keeping a careful eye on him. For all he knew, the knife man was ambidextrous and might let fly with a dagger with his still intact left hand. “What are the spiders up to?”

“I don’ know, havump dun nuffin’myet.”

“Speak clearly, man!”

Maldin took his hand from his nose, inspecting the blood on it. Beowulf had figured him right. Most knife men liked to let their blades do their fighting for them rather than their fists. Maldin was probably unused to having his face pounded, especially by a youthful opponent fifty pounds lighter than he.

“I haven’t done anything for them yet. Just took a retainer for future services.”

“They’re so flush with cash they can pay you do nothing?”

Maldin shrugged. “Dunno. But I ain’t done nothing against you and your lot.”

“But you were paid with the expectation that you would.”

“Maybe so.”

“Who paid you?”

“Can’t say.”

Beowulf flexed his knuckles. “That was just a love tap I gave you before. There’s plenty more places on your face I can hurt. And it’s the last intact part of your body from the look of you.”

Maldin bent his head in submission. “All right, all right, but you have to keep this secret. If they know I squealed, they’ll kill me.”

“If you don’t squeal, I’ll kill you now, so pick your poison.”

The knife man tried to breathe through his nose to calm himself, but choked on the blood, which was just beginning to slow. He drew a shuddering breath through his mouth, coughing on some blood and then swallowing it. “It’s the bag man who paid me. His name’s Gask. Flinder Gask.”

“Gask. Got it.” Beowulf gave Maldin a long look. It would be safer to kill him to keep him from telling tales. It would send a clear message to other thugs that they should think twice about opposing Beowulf, too.

But he could not bear to slaughter a man over whom he had the advantage. He thought about giving Maldin a chance to go for his knives so he could kill him in battle. But that would be cruel, like trapping animals just so they could be hunted, as some of the nobles did for sport.

“You were in a bar fight and got your nose bloodied. You never saw me and we never had this little chat. It’s better for both of us that way. Understand?”

Maldin nodded slowly, as if unsure Beowulf was not softening him up before cutting his jugular.

“If I ever find out you’ve done differently, I’ll come for you again. And there will be no pleasant chitchat, just blood to satisfy my sword. It doesn’t like to go long without feeding, so it’s hoping you didn’t listen well to my words.”

With a final glare, Beowulf turned and left the room, slamming the door closed behind him. A year ago, he might have felt trepidation confronting such a one as Maldin. Now, it was no more than a job, one that gave little satisfaction. It’s the root of the weed I want to pull, not the tendrils.

Beowulf went straight home and went to bed, nodding to the guard at the entrance to the Copper Dragon as he passed.

Libraries

June 30th, 2010 by David No comments »

As a child, I haunted both the local libraries in my area: the school library and our local county library (which was 30 miles away from my house). An avid reader, I grew up surrounded by books. But aside from my own small hand-me-down collection, the books in our house were Serious Books—the classics (which I had read to me from a very young age), science, history, etc. I wanted more “interesting” stuff.

I probably checked out and read a couple hundred books a year. I couldn’t afford to buy my own books, but the library kept me up to date with both the latest fiction and a the ability to browse science fiction and fantasy of the 50s and 60s and regular old kids’ books (I loved adventure yarns of the mythical west). Librarians put aside new books for me so I could read them first. They knew I’d read them quickly and that I’d tell them if I liked it or not.

One of my favorite moments was when our school librarian handed me A Wizard of Earthsea, a book she’d gotten in and had heard was good. (It was years after it had come out, but this was a very small town in a remote—and poor—county. We were the last to find out about cool things.) What a wonderful discovery that was! That book has influenced my writing to this day—the silvery feel of magic in a world of small islands dotting a world of water has always enchanted me. Of course, I read a lot of junk as well—from the racist Tarzan books to potboiler mysteries. If it was there, I read it.

After college, I abandoned the library. I bought my own books, and accumulated bookcases in which to store my treasures. I enjoy the books I have and don’t regret a dime I’ve ever spent on books.

I still loved the idea of libraries, which made me receptive when I met a library volunteer at a community event where I was playing music. As I was setting up, she came and asked me if I had my own library card. My wife had a library card, but I didn’t have my own, I told her. She explained how it helped library funding if we had separate cards so we counted as two people using the system, so I filled out the form.

When she handed me my card, I felt like I’d stepped back into a magical society. For no money, I could again tap into a treasure trove of books. I could even search for and reserve books online. Honestly, isn’t that the sort of thing we pay taxes for—a service that makes life better? Might as well take advantage of it!

Of course, the library system isn’t as healthy as when I was a kid. State, city, and county cutbacks have driven many libraries out of business (including the one at my old elementary school) and forced others into reduced hours and smaller catalogs. I was lucky enough to grow up before California’s Proposition 13 gutted the state’s tax revenue base. Kids today have it harder.

My hold on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest had 43 people ahead of me (it’s down to 39 now), so it’s not as fast a run down to Barnes & Noble. And the selection, while better than a bookstore, especially in terms of back catalog, is not huge. But the waiting makes the book feel that much more special when the email comes in announcing its availability.

If you don’t have on already, go get a library card. Do what you can to support your local library. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to download massive quantities of free books, filling the void—but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll pay for anything we read, licensed to our individual account, unable to trade it in for new books like you can with physical books—and authors probably still won’t make much on the deal. In that context, the copies that libraries buy seem like a good deal for everyone—authors and readers alike.

Retreat to Go Forward

December 28th, 2009 by David 3 comments »

I finished Sword, Staff, and Chalice on Yuletide Eve, which was a nice present. Starting with a plot that was fairly solid but had some gray areas in it, I wrote 120,000 words in under two months, which is a good pace for me. The first draft has been described as a ‘page turner’ by its intrepid first reader (I haven’t even re-read the book myself yet), which is something no one said about Beowulf Stormbringer.

When I was midway through book one, Scott Sigler gave me some good advice, namely that my first book would suck. I resisted that wisdom at the time, but after learning how to do it properly, I can now say that story-wise book one is too internal, linear, and simple. Things come too easily to young Beowulf, and as a result, he has more conflict in his own mind than he does with the world. Not ideal for sword and sorcery… My task right now is to discover my events that complicate and enrich his path toward discovering his own strength and the sword that is a two-edged, um, sword for him.

It is for this reason many people wiser than I have argued that starting your novel-writing career with a series is idiotic—you have to sell the series on the basis of the first book, and guess which one is likely the weakest? However, even if I had gotten that sage advice before starting, I might still have started the way I did. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, and I believe I can finish a strong three book series. Writing a standalone second book might get me to market faster, but speed is not my goal. I don’t want to be published until I’m have something that is fun, satisfying, and just a little edifying, I am ready to maintain a pace of two books a year, and I already have one or two sequels or new projects nearly complete to follow it up.

At the same time as I work on the plot to book one, I want to push ahead with book three (just starting to flesh out the plot now), and I have at least three other projects I am itching to start. That means more living very simply (which as long as I have a roof over my head and enough to eat is actually fine with me), working hard, and writing 3,000 words per day when I’m writing rather than plotting, researching, or editing. All of which I’m really looking forward to.

Nano Wreflections

November 19th, 2009 by David No comments »

We have passed the halfway point of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo as the kids call it. I’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold on my current project (a sequel to my first novel, which is currently out in the hands of test readers), which means I’ve kept my daily production around 3,000 words. That was my goal, as that’s about the fastest I can write consistently while still keeping my first draft to an acceptable level of quality.

The November schedule forced me to move up my starting point for the book, but it still worked within my original plan, and even got me thinking I could finish book #2 by the end of this year—which would make two books finished this year (one in first draft and the other ready for a second round of revisions before going out to agents).

Following are the things I loved about nano and some things that didn’t work as well for me. If you’re doing nano and haven’t friended me, please do so at the username above (worldblee)—I’d love to see your progress!

The good

  • The competitive spirit helped keep me on track: 3K words every weekday and 2K every weekend day. Measurable goals help keep me from slacking off, even if I don’t feel well or am having trouble with a scene.
  • I exercised my ‘write ahead’ strategy whenever I got stuck, picking up the narrative thread past any troublesome spots and then coming to back to fill in the gaps later. I find it easier to write through a tough patch when the action before and after is completely filled in—it becomes more of a transition exercise in that case.
  • Making new friends and keeping track of everyone else’s progress—it feels good to have a group of similarly motivated writers working on their projects on the same schedule.

The not-as-good

  • Word count goals are self-reinforcing. They don’t measure quality, story progress, or anything other than the number of words you cranked out. There is little incentive to rein in description, back story, etc. This means that within the 54,000 words I’ve written thus far are little darlings that will have to be cut later.
  • The timing of November 1 came up before I was as far along in plotting as I would have liked. I had the main story beats worked out and certain sections pretty well worked out, but others just had loose notes about the outcome of the chapter—so that meant making up a lot on the fly. I prefer to separate plotting from writing as much as possible, and I wasn’t always able to do that.
  • I probably would have been better served to delay my start for a few days while working on the chapter notes in more detail.

Excerpt

I’m always curious as to what others are writing in their daily word counts. So here is a scene to show what my rough drafts look like. This was one day’s writing. Open, kimono!

Beowulf and Riven led them at as fast of a pace as they dared in the growing dark. In the space of a half hour, they reached sloping grassland that marked the end of the hills, pushing their horses to a trot. They could not risk a light for fear of alerting their pursuers, but the sky was still faintly luminous and the ground was even.

As the darkness became more absolute, the moon not being scheduled to rise for hours yet, they slowed their pace. Beowulf noticed the faintest of glows to the west. “Do you think they got ahead of us?” he asked Riven.

The old soldier shook his head. “Even riding hard, I don’t think they could have gotten that far ahead. And if they did, why they raise a light to alert us? No, it must be a village.”

“It is hard to tell in the dark, but I feel I know these lands,” Freya said.

Beowulf thought back to the story of her childhood she had told him. “You were born not far from here, right?” he said.

“We could be close.”

As they grew closer, the glow separated into a number of small lights. It was not the light of a city, or even a town, it was the humble gleam of open fires. These villagers must cling to the old ways, as Freya had told Beowulf. It made Woden seem like a modern city by comparison, which took some doing.

Riven looked to Born. “It’s as good as place as any to stop for the night. Perhaps we can barter for a meal and place to rest out of the wet for the horses and us.”

Gargarin sniffed the air. “It will rain again tonight. A dry spot would be good.”

They slowed to a walk as they entered the outskirts of the village, looking about cautiously.

An old woman, bent over and with a cloudy mass of gray hair, watched them ride into the village. The houses were glorified huts, crafted from rough wood, some even with bits of leaves and thin branches left on. Cookfires were set before the door, perhaps to keep the bugs out and perhaps because doing so did not necessitate a fire hole in the roof that would let the rain in.

“We do not often see travelers such as yourselves,” she said. Her voice was gritty, like rough pebbles, and her accent was strange. Yet it felt somehow familiar to Beowulf. I know someone who speaks so.

Born started to reply, but Freya overrode him. “We travel in peace,” she said, her voice formal. “Seeking hearth and home for the night, as we would share with you in turn.”

That’s where I heard that accent. Freya’s voice has smoothed somewhat since I’ve known here, but when she first spoke it had that air.

The old woman bowed her head. “You know our ways.”

“I was raised in a village much like this,” Freya said.

“You’ve risen far, then,” the woman said. “To wear such trappings and ride a fine horse.”

“One can never leave her beginnings behind,” Freya said. “No matter how far she travels, they are always with her.”

The woman nodded her head slowly. “Which village do you come from?”

“I do not know the name. I left when I was very young.”

Beowulf looked more closely at the woman. She was not as old as she first appeared. Life must have used her hard. Maybe stooping over a cooking fire had aged her skin prematurely.

“I had a daughter once,” the woman said. “But I had to give her up, and after that I had no more. I could not go through the pain of losing a child again.”

“What was the name of your daughter?”

“Freya.”

A tremor passed through Freya. Then she mastered herself. “That is an unusual name. But it must be common, living close to the Great Forest as you do.”

“It is rare. A name given only to those who have special talents. But the auguries of her birth turned out to be false. My daughter never spoke or showed any signs of having a gift. So she was sacrificed to the forest to let the trees decide. I don’t know how the tree spirits judged her, but in my heart I hope they took her in and unlocked her gifts.”

“What would you say if your daughter came back to you?”

The old woman looked at her. “In truth, I would say she was lucky to get away. There is little here to soften a hard life. If she has found a way to leave her roots behind, she should realize it can be a gift to become your own person, free to choose who you are.”

“I do not believe that is so,” Freya said softly. “If you loved her once, you would love her still.”

“Love? It is a luxury for those richer than me.”

“It costs nothing to care. My mother had little, yet I swear she loved me.”

“Perhaps she was a better woman than me.” The woman paused and then changed topics. “But what brings you and your party to our doorstep?” Other villagers had spilled out from their huts, looking at the strangers with curiosity. They wore simple clothes of linen and wool, in drab colors and varying states of repair. Beowulf watched them back, he and his gelding both breathing clouds of steam into the cold night air.

“As I said, we seek shelter for the night. For our horses and ourselves.”

“What do you offer in return?”

“We can offer coin, if that’s what you want,” Born said. “Or the blessing of Od from one of his stormcrows.”

Greshawk raised his head from Beowulf’s saddle, where he had been riding, tucked between the saddle and Beowulf’s thighs. “I’m not sure they want Od’s blessing,” he said.

The woman looked at the black bird and spit on the ground. “He has that right,” she said. “The All Father abandoned his wife when he left the world. We live close enough to the trees to know this and have no love for him.”

Surprisingly, Greshawk did not seek to rebut her.

“A silver coin then?” Born asked. “Do you have a barn where the horses can stay?”

Beowulf raised an eyebrow. A silver coin was probably more than the woman saw in a year, if any coin crossed her palm at all. Maybe Born believes she is Freya’s mother.

“There is a lean-to that will keep the rain off. And hay. There is enough soup in the pot to feed you, if you wish.”

Riven dismounted and Beowulf followed suit. “Point me to the lean-to, good woman,” Riven said. “Some soup would please me, and the sooner we get the horses settled the sooner we can taste your fare.”

She directed them to a bark-roofed shelter, set on poles on one side and trees on the other. Beowulf and Riven led the horses to drink from a trough, unsaddled and rubbed them down, and set a pile of hay in front of them.

“You think we’re safe to rest here?” Beowulf asked.

Riven shrugged. “We’ll take watches either way. But I see no goods for Norkassel here. I don’t think we have to worry about these folk selling us out. If the soldiers arrive, we have a better chance of slipping away into the night before they find us than we would if we camped alone.”

“But we might be able to make the forest tonight if we kept pushing.”

“The horses need a rest. And we don’t know for certain how far the forest is—could be five miles or it could be five leagues. Let’s enjoy a hot meal and we’ll leave before first light.”

When they sat to eat on logs pulled up before the fire, the children gathered around them, quiet and wide-eyed. They evidently did not see many strangers. The soup was at least hot, with greasy chunks of lamb amidst root vegetables Beowulf did not recognize by sight or taste. They were pale and chewy, and they filled the belly. Better than what we’d have gotten if we stopped on our own, anyway.

After he finished his bowl and mopped up the broth with a crust of brown bread, Beowulf got out his goat hornpipe and played a melody for the children. Thirl got out the hand drum he’d kept from their spell of minstrelsy with Darl in the Sveldtlands, and together they played one of the songs Darl had taught them when they’d backed Freya’s dancing.

Beowulf looked at Freya, asking with his eyes if she wanted to dance. She shook her head, her face sad. She had been very quiet since her conversation with the woman. Even quieter than usual. Beowulf finished the song. The children wanted more, but he shook them off. Gargarin had wandered away, always more comfortable in the wild than in the presence of strangers. The wolf was not shy but she was no one’s pet. She preferred to hunt for her own meals rather than eat human food. This left Freya with no one to talk to.

He wandered in Freya’s direction but Riven intercepted him. “Can you take first watch, boy? I’ll take the second, and Gargarin will probably turn up in time for the final watch.”

“I was going to talk to Freya.”

“You’ll have time tomorrow. Besides, looks like she’d rather have some quiet time to herself.”

How do you know, old man? But he relented. “All right. I’ll take first watch.”

Freya glanced in Beowulf’s direction. “I will sit with you for a while,” she said.

His heart rose at that. Even if she only wants comfort, it will be good to have someone to talk to. “Company would be welcome,” he said.

She walked with him as they moved east of the village. There was a tree there that would keep off the worst of the rain, if it came again. And it gave them a view of anyone approaching from north or east. They sat with their backs against the tree. Beowulf arranged his cloak over their legs and Freya snuggled against him to share their warmth.

He said nothing for a time. Voices still came from the village behind them, chiefly Riven’s as he befriended the men of the village and sought to learn if they had any spirits to drink. But it was quieting down and he could hear the wind still blowing from the east. Stronger yet, he could feel it on his face, cold and presaging more rain. It made Freya’s warmth against him doubly cherished. He had to admit, though, that he would have appreciated her presence even if the night were sweaty hot. Probably because she’s the only girl I’ve been around since I left Woden. Save for Gargarin.

That thought made him smile and Freya looked at him quizzically. She did not smile in return and he saw again the hurt in her eyes. He was unsure what to say, feeling out of step with her.

“What does it feel like coming here?” That was all he could think to say.

“It makes me . . . remember things.”

“But not happy memories.”

She turned against him and he felt her warm tears on his throat. Her body shook and she put one arm around his far shoulder. Beowulf froze. If this were a fight, I’d know what to do. Then slowly, as if trying not to frighten a wild animal, he put his left arm around her body, feeling her strength as well as her softness. Her left hand was under his cloak, not far from his hand, and he found it with his other hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

For once, he was wise enough to say anything. He felt an overwhelming rush of emotions and sensations, which helped silence his tongue. Her breath against his chest, dampness from her tears seeping into his tunic below his neck, his heart beating against her chin. His eyes grew moist too, but not wholly in sadness.

In empathy because she had chosen to share her sorrow with him. He had thought her a skinny, wild girl when he first saw her. Yet I never felt this way with Sjani. Beowulf did not want the embrace to end, even though the position was uncomfortable to hold. He was afraid that if he moved it would spoil the moment.

But she slowly gathered herself, releasing her arm from his shoulder and drawing away. He released his arm as well. I do not want to hold on to her if she does not want to be held. But that was a lie. Beowulf still wanted to hold her.

Freya took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to cry.”

“I did not mean to cry after my first battle. But I did. And you were the one who gave me comfort.” He realized he had never thanked her for that, or even spoken of it.

She gave him the tiniest of smiles, a half-hearted effort that gave her mouth a sad, crooked expression.

Beowulf finally asked the question that was on his mind. “Was she truly your mother?”

“I do not think so. There are many women with similar stories. When times are hard, daughters are given to the forest.”

“But she said her daughter was prophesied to have gifts,” Beowulf prodded. “Like you.”

“It doesn’t matter. You heard what she said. She has no love for her daughter, save for a dim hope the forest took her and she still lives.”

“Perhaps I did not hear her right,” he said. “But that was not how I read her words.”

She abruptly straightened her leg, throwing off his cloak and kicking his foot in the process. “You’re so wise I’m sure you hear better than me, what with the spirit of Od inside you.”

Beowulf gritted his teeth, willing himself not to respond in kind. “You know as well as I people don’t always say what they mean. I think she hoped you were her daughter, but was too afraid you were not, or that you’d reject her.”

“Why would I reject her?”

“Because she cast you out. And now your station seems so much better than hers, riding into town in fancy clothes. Why would someone who escaped here want to come back?”

“Is your Woden so grand in comparison?”

“I’m not saying what I think. I’m saying what she might think.”

“Oh.”

There was a long pause.

“Would it be wrong if we helped the plants of the village to show her our powers?” she said, slipping into the third person she still sometimes employed, especially when she thought of her kinship with the sentient trees of the Great Forest.

“I suppose not.”

“There should be fall crops in the gardens north of the village.” She looked down, oddly shy. “Would you like to come and watch?”

“I should keep watch. But I guess I can see from there,” he said, finishing in a rush. Don’t trip on your heels as you follow her like a pup. “If you want.”

Beowulf made a show of looking out at the horizon and then they walked together. He felt awkward, the change in context having stripped away the intimacy he’d felt earlier. She just needed a shoulder to cry on. Don’t fool yourself.

The growing fields were largely bare, the harvest—which looked to have been meager—having been gathered. There were some spindly apple and pear trees and rows of leafy plants Beowulf assumed were the tops of the root vegetables they’d eaten in the soup. “Not much to work with,” he said.

Freya looked intently at the earth. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

She was focused on her examination, so Beowulf turned to his watch duties, looking out into the night for any interlopers. When he was convinced nothing stirred, he watched her again. Freya had her hands on the little trees, stroking the branches and whispering to herself. She moved from tree to tree, her face radiant and alive. Growing things are what she truly loves.

She finished with the trees and crouched by the vegetables, running her fingertips over their tops as she moved down the row. This took a few minutes, during which he once again stood guard. Then she walked over the empty ground where wheat, rye, carrots, potatoes, and other crops had been harvested. He watched her finish.

Then she came back to him, her eyes alight. “It is finished,” she said. “I had a good talk with them.”

“Where they shirking their duty?”

“It’s not like that. They needed encouragement and help gathering themselves to grow stronger.”

“What about the bare ground?”

“It only looks bare on the surface. There are seeds there, waiting for spring. I wanted to make sure they and the ground were ready to do their best when the time was right.”

“If you’re done, I should get back to my watch.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Yes. “No, you should rest. I’m sure the trees will have much for you to do when we reach the forest. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Sleep well.”

He watched her go then returned to his post. Nothing interesting happened, other than the usual nighttime sounds, until Riven came to relieve him sometime around midnight. His blanket had been unrolled by Thirl and Freya, and he took to it with pleasure.

It had been a busy day.

(c) Copyright 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.

Soliciting Test Readers

October 22nd, 2009 by David 1 comment »

I finished the second draft of my novel Beowulf Stormbringer this week, which means only one thing: it’s time to ask for your help. Dear Reader, I am looking for test readers willing to honestly critique my book.

Reader feedback instructions

Reader feedback instructions

If you’re a lover of young-at-heart fantasy, a connoisseur of books in general, or a cynical curmudgeon convinced all tales written after Gilgamesh are mere copycats, I’m looking for you. If you’re a reader, there’s a chance for an acknowledgment if the book is published and your feedback is good. If you’re a writer, I will reciprocate by critiquing a project of your choice.

Here’s a brief summary of the book to help you decide if you want to chance reading it:

Many know the legend of Beowulf who fought the monster Grendel. But that man was not the first Beowulf. Before the gods left his world to come to ours, a Skarlish boy named Beowulf stowed away on a dragonship to seek his missing father.

Cast ashore in unfamiliar lands, Beowulf discovers his father ran afoul of the Ordning, a monolithic religious organization that seeks to rule Midgard. He also finds that as his father’s heir, the latent power in his blood makes him an important player in the looming conflict between a group of rebels and the Ordning.

Beowulf and his companions take up the quest that eluded his missing father: using lore of the Old Ones to find the ancient sword Blood-drinker and challenge the monolithic Ordning—even if it means the storms that follow him will take his life. With untested young wizard Thirl and the wise but fey forest girl Freya as his companions, Beowulf sets out to overcome danger, doubt, and his own flaws on a journey to find the sword of his birthright and become BEOWULF STORMBRINGER.

You can read a sample chapter here. I should have an audio version of the first chapter up soon as well.

To participate, all you need to do is drop me a line, send me a message on Twitter, or leave a comment on the page with your email address properly set in your login. I will send you a PDF of the book along with a comment form.

For those interested in what the comment form looks like, here it is. In case any other writers want to use it, I’ve made it generic.

[Document draft] Feedback Form

[Date]

Dear [Reader name],

Thank you for reading a draft of my novel [Title]. Your feedback can help improve the book—if you like it, great, but I’m more interested in what you DON’T like. Getting praise from readers afraid of hurting my feelings won’t help me a bit if I overlook flaws that later disappoint publishers, agents, and paying readers. My goal is to create the best reading experience possible, and you can help me by pointing out the bits that aren’t up to par—as long as you tell me in detail WHY they fall short.

The good news is that if you get bored, frustrated, or confused, you don’t have to keep reading. You can simply let me know where you got stuck, and why, and send me back this form. If your experience corresponds with other readers, I’ll do my best to fix that problem. Only read all the way through the book if you’re having a good time doing so.

The only other thing I ask of you is that you return this form within 30 days of receipt if possible. This will help shorten the schedule to get the book to agents and publishers—it’s not going anywhere until I hear from YOU. Because you’re a STAR!

Thank you,

[The author]

PS: If you have friends who might like to read the book, let me know. I’m especially looking for [reader type]. The more points of view I get the better.

How would you describe yourself as a reader (voracious, fantasy reader, general reader, casual, picky, etc.)?

What kind of reader (if any) would you recommend this book to (young adult, general fantasy, male, female, etc.)? Are there any other books you would compare this book to?

What were the three things (characters, chapters, language, pace, clarity, dialog, etc.) you liked BEST in this book? Please explain why.

1.

2.

3.

What were the three things (characters, chapters, language, pace, lack of clarity, boring sections, dialog, etc.) you liked LEAST in this book? Please explain why.

1.

2.

3.

Should the book be published and your feedback be deemed helpful in this process, how would you like your name to appear in the acknowledgments?

Lastly, please let me know any other comments you have on the book. If you have ideas or criticisms, don’t be shy!

In structuring the comment form, I found my own past life as a marketing manager helpful as well as the kind advice of BubbleCow. I’ve just given the book a line-by-line edit, so I’m less interested in minutiae as I am big picture problems. I’m hoping readers will read through it just like they would a book from the shelf and I have a strict no-work policy. If it starts to feel like work, quit reading and let me know where it fell apart.

Have a wonderful day!

The Wrath of Dying Empires

October 6th, 2009 by David No comments »

Although I write speculative fiction, I look for interesting stories in the modern world. I have no choice but to do so. When I was a young writer, I didn’t have the life experience to write novels—I could write short stories but I couldn’t sustain anything longer. I needed to look outward and see more of the world, and I also needed to experience more.

Without being self-congratulatory, as a not-so-young writer, I feel much better equipped for the task. Having experienced many more highs and lows and seen systems from inside and outside, I have a better idea how they work, and thus a better idea of how to describe them. And observing what I see around me is a never-ending source for new story scenarios.

For instance, working for a large games publisher gave me many insights into the power games, corruption, backstabbing, etc. that one might see in a royal court or government. I’m sure many other writers have job experiences they turn into good fodder for fiction, and I’m no different.

Taking a macro view, the current death throes of the American empire—you may read about them in the mainstream press as ‘recession’ or ‘weak recovery’ or ‘military setback’—provide many interesting lessons for fictional settings in all eras. Consider some of the possible storylines:

  • A hated despot is replaced with a charismatic, younger leader. However, the new leader is no less beholden to the Powers that Be than the old rule. In fact, he gives them a new lease on life by providing window dressing ‘change’ that makes younger citizens feel like they have truly changed the system. We could look at the situation from the eyes of the young leader or one of his staff as they feel frustrated in their ability to change things. Or perhaps the leader is corrupt himself and sees nothing wrong with profiting from the current system. Or an opposition group, battling against odds, finds themselves pitted against a corrupt leader who is perceived as being a good man or woman, making their task even more difficult.
  • The citizen class who most benefited from the empire starts to feel—if not see—the end of the empire. Enraged at their loss of station, they lash out at those who are different from them, blaming them for the changing balance of power. The change is structural and the disadvantaged classes suffering the backlash have nothing to do with the change, but that’s of little solace as they are marginalized. We could view the action from a bigoted person who learns the error of his/her ways, or from the point of view of a person affected by the discrimination.
  • Rather than suffering from the failing economy, members of the oligarchy become ever more corrupt, siphoning off an even greater share of the empire’s wealth. They see this behavior not as negative or predatory but as their birthright. A boy raised to decadent wealth is forced to reevaluate his beliefs when confronted by the abject poverty that makes his lifestyle possible.
    Alternately, a girl who lives in a shantytown in view of the skyscraper towers of the wealthy struggles to understand why she has so little when they have so much. But her values come into conflict when she has an opportunity to join the clique of the wealthy, pitting her against her family and the friends she has known her whole life.
  • As the economic power of the empire declines, it increasingly focuses on its military might to try to move the balance of power into its favor once again. It attacks weaker countries all over the globe (or star system), seeking to reinforce the myth of its superiority over other cultures/races/belief systems. Despite the fact its wars are unwinnable, with little local support for its invasions and occupations, a steady stream of propaganda is fed to its citizens to convince them the empire is winning glorious victories week after week. A soldier in the armed forces of the empire gets the dirty job of fighting with locals, a task s/he at first relishes then views with increasing disgust as s/he realizes what s/he is fighting for.
  • The clerics of the empire start to see subversion in free thought and free action, putting forth ever harsher edicts that try to mandate how people are supposed to think. For surely the decline of the empire is a function of heresy in its population. A loyal child encounters difficulty when s/he starts asking why certain things as they are. The harsh treatment s/he gets radicalizes him/her—or makes him or her become a rabid conservative in the state church, inflicting suffering on anyone who dares question the status quo a s/he did (minus the declining empire bit, I used this as a backstory for an antagonist in my current book project).
  • With more and more of the wealth of the empire diverted into the hands of a select few, the infrastructure of the empire decays and education/transportation/utilities become unreliable. (Isaac Asimov portrayed this brilliantly in his Foundation series.) Not the most exciting of premises, but it could be made interesting through a strong character who only wants to his or her job properly but the empire’s disinterest in providing basic services to its people turns him or her into a dangerous rebel of the empire who rallies the people to fight for their rights and make the world better.

It’s fairly easy to see where my sympathies lie in these examples, but no matter what your core beliefs, if you open your eyes and look around you can see thousands of story possibilities. Every city in America—or other countries—has interesting stories that can inform your fiction. You don’t have to follow reality word for word, of course—but starting with situational premises that ring true with the experiences of people around you can inform your work with greater depth and believability, no matter what the setting, magic system, etc. that adorns it.

There has never been an empire that someone or other—usually with good reason—didn’t consider to be ‘evil’. Take that idea and run with it. Even if it doesn’t end up in a story, you may find yourself a better person for examining the world around you with the keen eye of a journalist observer.

Writing Ahead

September 23rd, 2009 by David 2 comments »

Back in my pantser days, I would start writing a story with only the foggiest idea of how it would end. I might start with an image, a character, a situation, whatever I found interesting. Then I’d see where it would lead. And sometimes it worked.

My current novel project started that way. I had the character of Beowulf, a red-haired Viking boy from an alternate world, in my mind, but other than the fact he was going to leave his island home in search of adventure I had little idea of what would happen. My first draft proceeded in fits and starts, and ultimately was abandoned for a few years while I kept thinking about the story. If it wasn’t meant to be, it would have stayed dead, but it stayed alive in my head and when I was ready to start again I worked on the plot before I returned to writing.

I eventually worked out a 1–10 outline with the major plot points, but still found myself meandering into plot eddies that I found personally interesting—but they weren’t driving the main plot forward. I found the best method for me (your mileage may vary) was writing present tense summaries of upcoming action in brackets in the manuscript. They might look something like this:

[On the third day of travel they play for coins at a rundown inn. The crowd is surly, but mellows as they work hard in their performance. Still, men in the audience pester Freya. Darl tells Beowulf to go outside and get a breath of air since he is getting angry. He will handle things inside. Beowulf, unarmed, goes outside. Two men recognize him from his performance and ask him where he is from. He shrugs and says he’s not sure; the road is the only home he’s known. They seem friendly enough, but he’s suspicious of their motives.]

They’re not all this detailed, but they have enough information to make writing out the actual scenes a writing task rather than a plotting task.

I can’t say that I’m an awesome plotter, someone who can map out a book perfectly with satisfying character arcs, conflict, etc. without requiring revision. But by separating the plotting into first an outline and then to crudely written descriptions, I can at least reduce the amount of simultaneous processing my brain is doing. First, I’m thinking pretty much purely about the story to come up with the best story I can without worrying about word choices, sentence structure, metaphors, etc. The story has to live and die by its essential details. Then when I write, I’m thinking just about capturing scenes on paper.

Now that I’m done with a first draft, I’m still playing with certain plot elements. Even with a story that was pretty well plotted out, I’m not so kick ass that everything works to my satisfaction. But I’m way better off than I would have been if I had kept writing without knowing where I was going.

Of Goals and Word Counts

September 15th, 2009 by David No comments »

We all need goals: make rent money, clean the kitchen, drag our butts out of bed. As a writer, I find myself in a quandary because the more quantifiable I make my goals vis-à-vis word count the more I find myself driven to gauge my writing by content rather than quality.

I have little interest in writing sprawling, 700-page novels. I really like shorter books. In fact, my first fear as a writer was that I could never write anything as long as a novel—I was a poet and short story writer in my college training and everything I’ve done in my professional life since has been shorter work. I have a love of story and language but not of the complicated plots required to sustain a really long novel.

That was one of the reasons (besides a true and abiding love for children and the literature that inspired me as a child) I wanted to write books for younger readers rather than just for adults. But I digress.

Writing to a daily word count encourages me to take my time with scenes, adding details that are not essential to the book’s main plot. It’s all stuff that I find interesting and helps flesh out the world and characters—and it endangers my 100,000 word count goal for the book.

To help this, I started giving myself goals such as finishing a scene or getting my characters to x place in the story by the end of the day rather than a strict word count target. I still try to hit a minimum of 1,000 words in a day, as novels do have word count parameters and one does not have the luxury of taking years to finish a book most of the time. But story goals help keep me focused on the heart of writing: the darn story.

I recently completed a #wordathon “contest” where I shared word (and page revision) counts with other writers. It was a wonderful exercise in motivation that helped me write 10,800 words in two and a half days, my largest output ever in that amount of time. In that case, it worked because I already had my scenes carefully plotted out and I just had to focus on the writing. The group project provided extra incentive to work hard.

But I’ve had other instances of days with good word counts where I’ll have to spend extra time in revisions tightening up scenes and dialog. The word count goals that seemed so impressive at the time ended up being ephemeral because I hadn’t set proper story goals.

The best words are the ones that stay on the page—and in the reader’s mind. Even a small number of them is better than a large number of forgettable words written to satisfy a daily word count.

Healthcare Not Warfare?

September 4th, 2009 by David No comments »

The healthcare system in America is a mess. Profit has taken what used to be a system based on General Practitioners (GPs; remember a time when there was such a thing as a family doctor?) and turned it into a bloated conglomeration of for-profit health insurers who have every motive to charge you high fees to enter their program and zero incentive to actually pay for your care, specialist doctors who can make more money by performing expensive procedures than they can actually keeping you healthy, pharmaceutical giants who take government money to perform research and then sell overpriced, heavily advertised pills to a brainwashed public, and revolving door government watchdog agencies who are fully in the pocket of the industries they are supposed to be regulating. It’s not pretty.

Now President Obama’s watered down, corporate-friendly ‘health insurance reform’ (remember when it started as healthcare reform?) won’t do anything to fix this. In fact, it will most likely create more profit for insurers by mandating that everyone must buy health insurance, thus increasing the pool of suckers, er, customers for their overpriced products. And yet, a sizable minority is up in arms over the so-called Obamacare plan, goaded on by what appears to be a coordinated campaign and talking points coming from right wing think tanks. But in the absence of clear information and logical thinking, any shouting can fill the vacuum of public debate. To get one’s point across, simply shout louder.

There is no more clear evidence than the following video clip:

When you peel back the facade of the protesters’ arguments (aside from the lovely street theatre of the Billionaires for Wealthcare folks who are the true heroes of this clip) it seems they are constructed from talking points fed to a populace fired by thinly veiled racism, which is in itself fed by poor economic conditions that cause people to want to lash out against someone, anyone as the cause of their problems. Americans know something is very wrong with our country; most of us just have no idea why things went wrong. (Here’s a hint: deregulating the finance industry and giving corporations more rights than people had something to do it.)

The answers the healthcare problems are actually fairly simple. A properly administered single payer plan is proven to be the most efficient solution to controlling medical costs. Our current system is burdened with both the need for profit (as opposed to effective medical treatment) and high administrative costs. As of 2003, the overhead for medical care was estimated at 31% of all costs.

DemocracyNow! has been doing a good job of covering this issue. Here’s Doctor Michael Rachlis speaking on DN!

That is, that if you have a single-payer system, like Canada has—and virtually every other wealthy country, as well, has some variation of either a national health system like the UK or, more commonly, a national health insurance program like France and the Nordic countries, etc.—that if you have a single-payer system, when you don’t have to have thousands of actuaries to set premiums or thousands of lawyers in your country to deny care, there’s huge savings on administration, both within the insurance system but also in doctors’ offices.

A recent report in the US said over six percent of all doctors’ revenues are spent on billing and reconciliation. The Massachusetts General Hospital has more people working in their billings and reconciliation department than we have at the Ontario Health Insurance Plan head office to administer health insurance for 13 million people. So, all through the system, there is increased administration.

And so, Canada spends ten percent of its gross domestic product of our national economy now on healthcare. You folks are spending 16 percent. Half of the difference is due to the increased administration of insurance, and the other half is due to the fact that a single-payer system can negotiate much lower prices than multiple payers in your system. And so, about half of the rest of the difference is due to higher prices.

In fact, Canadians get more of some services than Americans. We get fewer of some high-tech services, but even in the high-tech end, like for lung transplants, Toronto is an international center. We do more lung transplant surgery per capita than the US.

So, the first couple of lessons would be that single payer or a national health insurance program is going to be cheaper, because it will have lower administrative overhead and, secondly, because we’ll have lower prices. And then, that, too, that a national health insurance program, or single payer, also means that everybody is covered.

Seems fairly clear, no? And I haven’t even gotten into the ridiculous nature of spending hundreds of billions (we are into the trillions now) on unprovoked foreign wars that are causing misery while only putting the US in greater danger by giving millions of people greater reason to dislike the policies of the US. I’ll take love over war any day, and good medical care counts as a form of love to me.