Often, one of the great challenges in writing fiction, be it contemporary fiction or science fiction, is prosing away on that which you have no experience, or that where your experience is limited. Sometimes it’s easy – a Google search, imagination, or a few memories to guide you, and sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult, especially when you realize you’ve really just missed the mark. Now missing the mark can be everything from mistakenly writing cubic litres instead of cubic meters and having the stuffing taken out of you in a book review – yes, that happened to me, and as embarrassing as that was, sometimes the more subtle omissions wrench the realization from you, that you were remiss.
I had that happen yesterday as I walked my dogs. I grew up in the Okanagan Valley where winter was a reality, but on Vancouver Island, real winter is a rarity. We’ve been anticipating snow, generally a treat as long as one is prepared to park the car and walk, and when it began last night, I hitched up the dogs for the first snow walk of the season. My walk was not much different than normal – cooler, still keeping my eyes open for the distraction of deer, and of course the inexperienced drivers as the flakes fell and stuck. Then as I walked throughout my neighborhood a slow dawning came over me as I enjoyed the muted silence of the evening – it was the sounds of winter, and sometimes the lack thereof.
It’s been over thirty years since my last full winter, and as I paused with that first snowfall falling around me, I appreciated that in my many descriptions of the season, I had forgotten that overall dampening silence of snowfall and the many softer sounds that can be associated with it. The Scarlet Bastard series takes place on the colony of Samsāra, twenty light years from Earth. It’s a cold world with long, dark winters and cool wet summers. My many written sketches of the world take place in the depths of winter, and although I focus on the bitter cold temperature, the various colours of white, the misery of darkness and perpetual cold, I had forgotten that simple pleasure of winter’s many sounds.
With snowflakes falling, all sound ceases and the interruptions of the outside world – traffic, machinery, dogs, all fade until it is simply that solitary you in the world. I can imagine myself on that distant planet so far from Earth. The darkness, the snow falling around me with only the softest whispers as snowflakes settles in the trees, or perhaps the soft ‘scrunch’ of my boots – these are a few of the many and varied sounds that I had forgotten in my characterizations of a Samsāra winter. So here I am refreshed with new tools in my author’s toolbox as I work on my latest work, The Scarlet Bastards – The Rule of Nine, and I will reflect upon the simple yet most pleasurable sounds of winter.
My latest book from my Scarlet Bastard series, The Bone Witch, sits with my editor – one of many projects on her particular slop chit, and even though she is my wife, I am unable to exert any influence to nudge it forward in the queue. I’m not particularly bothered, for I suspect I’ll sit down and give it another run through even as I begin to sit down and give the first two books in the series another run through as well. Nothing better than taking an opportunity to tighten up the writing. It has also given me plenty of time to work on book four, The Scarlet Bastards – The Rule of Nine.
The Rule of Nine was a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Project that I completed in 2017, and it sat for a solid eighteen months while I finished another project and fiddled around with another. When The Bone Witch went in for editing, I figured now was a good time to blow off the dust and begin a rewrite. I had envisioned the project as being a little bit light-hearted, more of a return to the first book in the series, A Company Soldier, which mixed the darker bits of service in the Off World Legion on the colony of Samsāra with the a more cheerful and fun style of story telling. It was hardly a dark comedy; more so an adventure that was not reticent about the telling of that which would bring a smile to your face, or a tear to your eye. The second book, The Cardinal of Gleann Ceallach, was deeper, more sombre, and in the end, a little bit darker. The Bone Witch was much darker still, tackling some uncomfortable themes for me as a writer to inflict upon my title character, seventeen-year-old runaway, Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Armstrong. All that to say, my original plan for book four was a return to the more light-hearted adventure.
What was written so far could not be further from my vision.
Themes change, that much I’ve learned as I carry out the process of weaving a tale, and the events of The Bone Witch have played havoc on both the vision of my book, and the character of Alex.
It became uncomfortable, his squinting eyes pouring over me and penetrating the weak and permeable protection that I had surrounded my damaged soul with. I winced under his gaze and wondered what he thought of the son he hadn’t seen in nearly eighteen months. The carefree and baby-faced lad was gone, replaced with a mute, savage-looking creature shorn of hair and with a tattoo of Let not hatred of a people incite you not to act equitably written in sprawling Arabic around the circumference of his head. My one ear was a centimetre below the other and was covered in scar tissue after a near death encounter with a ferocious Et’moru Gliesiun warrior and I had a deep scar across the bridge of my nose and along one cheek. My beard had begun to come in, scraggily and thin, though there was enough length there for a small braid nearly lost amongst the rest of the reddish whiskers. In short, I was almost surprised that he recognized me when he picked me up at the airport a month before.
My mother, on the other hand, had cried out in horror.
The son they’d known eighteen months before was gone.
“So, what happened to you?” he finally asked.
Our waitress appeared, and I had to clear my voice a couple of times before ordering a chicken and avocado wrap. My father, his eyes never straying from me, ordered the same. Once she left, a silence fell between us again. It didn’t last long.
“So, what happened?”
The theme of The Rule of Nine had originally been about risk and taking chances in life to achieve one’s dreams. I think most of us look back and wonder what would have changed had we taken that risk, had we flouted convention and all those social pressures to conform, and simply did what we wanted to. In the case of Alex, his risk of running away from the plans of his overbearing parents and joining the Off World Legion, his unknowing risk I might add, was his life.
“Don’t be shy about taking chances, Alex,” Graham said after a long silence. “Don’t you ever be shy. If you do, you may end up seeing Elinor Lake when you’re eighty-two years old and at the end of your life.”
I felt a lump in my throat as I looked upon Graham joyfully gazing into that night sky. “I won’t Graham.”
“Good, lad, Alex. You’re a good lad.”
Of course, the other aspect of risk, is that sometimes the chance you take has a terrible cost. Several times in the series, Alex has found that to his great peril.
“I reached down and pulled out my hatchet and Khyber knife, then dug my feet in for grip.
“What do you say, Iris?” I cried over the cacophony. “Are you ready?”
Iris Ngowa; greying, weak chinned, and with fleshy jowls covered in days of grime, flashed me a look of absolute horror.
“No,” she replied as her wide eyes took in the roiling mass of Gliesiuns. She pulled out her own Khyber knife, looked at it for a moment, then focused on me again.
I gulped, allowed the tinniest flicker of a smile. “This is what happens when you take chances.”
“You die?” she asked in a sickly half smile which disappeared in an instant. I nodded.
“Yep, you die. Just don’t be shy about it.”
With the events of the previous books, it felt bizarre to return too closely to the oft flippant form of story telling of A Company Soldier where tales of canoe trips, cattle wrangling, and prehistoric mammal rustling paired well with an assault on a Tong fort. No, the experiences had built up on Alex, and now that I’ve exposed him to so many horrors, I must reflect on what they had done to him.
My father was always up with the dawn. He was a man of routine – wake up, pour himself a large cup of strong, black coffee, and when the weather was nice, he would go out to the porch and sit in his favourite Adirondack chair. It was weathered with much of the red paint peeling off, but for some odd reason he would not refinish it. Perhaps he appreciated its unpolished maturity, much like his own, or perhaps he was simply too busy with the vineyard and life in general to bother with such a little thing. It didn’t matter really, for he enjoyed it as part of that consistent morning routine that began his every day.
My first night home on leave was a tempestuous one. A weeping mother that held my battered face in her hands as she looked upon the son she barely recognized, and a father, stolid and aloof, who gazed upon me with something undefinable – not worry or joy, just something I couldn’t quite fathom. Their relief gradually moved to concern, then anger as they ran the gauntlet of emotions as they welcomed home their wayward son. In the end an argument concluded that first night, and I stumped off to bed in a pout.
Not that I slept at all.
I lay there awake in the darkness with the horrors so recently experienced rolling around in my mind.
“I am a monster,” Lejaub had said. Yes, she was, and so was I.
Unable to sleep, I gathered my kitbag and made my way out into the darkness of our backyard. With my scarlet salwars rolled up into a pillow and my heavy wool sharwani coat used as a blanket, I bedded down on the soft lawn of our backyard overlooking Okanagan Lake. The darkness was much different than Samsāra’s – no utter blackness in the Okanagan night as Penticton and Naramata cast their eerie ochre hues into the sky. It was also warm, being late May, but at least it was outside in the fresh air. I’d spent so much time sleeping on the hard ground that often a soft bed gave me a sleepless night – it still does to this day – and it can only be remedied by a blanket and a pillow on the grass.
I finally fell asleep sometime in early hours before dawn, but it was the creak of my father’s chair that brought me awake. He was there, watching me as the first hints of dawn broke over the valley. I tried to ignore him, tried to force myself back to sleep, but I couldn’t. I wondered what he thought of his son, curled up in a coat on the lawn after being away for over a year. I could see him in my mind’s eye, a cup of coffee in his hand, his battered fedora pushed back on his head, the deep crow’s feet of his eyes as he considered me in silence. He had said little the previous night, and I wondered if he was terribly angry. My mother was the vocal one, chastising me for my decision, haranguing me for the worry I had put them through, and demanding I end all this nonsense and stay home. My father, on the other hand, was mute and just gazed upon me with what I wondered might be an air of disappointment. That perhaps hurt more than my mother’s bitter words. I couldn’t quite read him – hurt, disappointment, anger, worry – all these conclusions passed through my mind, but I couldn’t pin him down in the end.
I sat up in the dull light of dawn and shrugged off my sharwani. Okanagan Lake was still dark and Mount Nkwala was a duller shadow in the night. I ran my fingers over the fuzz of my shaved head, scratched the scraggily beard on my chin, and then dropped my hand to my stomach as the last pangs of nausea from hyperspace sickness passed. All that time, I could feel my father’s eyes upon me, and after breathing a deep sigh of resignation for another day of conflict, I stood up, turned around and walked towards him.
What he thought of me, pale, slender, and battered after my experiences on Samsāra and sleeping in the backyard instead of my bed I didn’t know, but I was shocked to the core when I walked up to him to say good morning and saw the tears running down his weathered cheeks.
My father said nothing as I stood there in dismay, he simply reached out his hand and grasped mine. A gentle squeeze, a nod of his head as he gazed upon the dawn beyond me, and that was it. My own tears fell quickly, and I fled the scene.
That was the moment that I truly understood what I had done to my parents.
I would forever feel terrible about it.
So now as I conduct both a rewrite, and a completion of the draft of The Rule of Nine (I was not so far along as I thought) I reflect upon the change of themes of my character and of the story he is now writing. It’s a wondrous thing as a writer to imagine this most basic person, weave a story around him, and then watch as he grows so much more complex. It makes my role a little bit more difficult as I must now tell a more complicated story, and it makes my job a bit easier when he begins to tell his own tales.
I'm truly terrible at self promotion. A glance at the thin trail of blog posts suggests as much; a dirge about my underwhelming efforts to establish a brand and gather an audience that will not only produce sales, but more importantly, spread the word. That hasn't happened and as is normal, I can only point the finger back at myself. It's odd as I thoroughly enjoy social media - love my Facebook and Instagram, rather puzzled by Twitter, and blogging is something that I should enjoy, but fear would be an exercise in boring people.
I find branding is a difficult proposition for an author. My wife is a painter so Instagram was made for her, and because she is also an instructor, blogging is a great tool. Not so much for me who posts a few writing memes on Instagram and then pictures of my life, which varies from boring to I suppose, mildly amusing. Because I can't quite make my way around Twitter, I have not been able to work that opportunity, and with blogging, I find the handful of times a year I bash out a post, it's usually to moan about my lack of blogging. So what does an author do?
With five books published, one with my editor, another a finished draft, and a third being written, I have enough material to muse about, so once again, I need to step back from the dripping and get on with figuring it all out.
So here's to trying... again.
See you on social media!
Being a West coaster and an Islander, it's not often I get to experience a traditional Canadian winter. I had this opportunity with a quick four days in Ottawa where I spent the days in a conference, and the evenings enjoying the cold and snow. I missed the big freeze by a few days, but minus 15 was fine and an opportunity to play on the frozen Rideau Canal was well appreciated. I also had the opportunity to pause at the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider - a truly humbling and solemn experience, as well as view the seat of Federal power in Canada, our Parliament Buildings. In general it was a pleasant time and gave me, as a writer, a few days away from the computer while also reminding myself, through experience, what the cold and snow was like. As an Islander, I can speak well to rain, wind, and mud, but since several of my books take place in snowy environments, I enjoyed the reminder of what those snowy environments were actually like. Cold, crisp, and hard work to live in.
Happy New Year all! I type this missive bathing in the glory of my new office. Yes, boxes are still cluttering the floor and nameless items sit on my bookshelves blocking my library, but it is finished and it is mine. No more lamenting, whining, and excuse making...it's time to write. Looking back at my handful of blogs over the year, I can see that I did not meet many of my goals from last year, so I renew those goals for this year. My writing projects are many: publish The Scarlet Bastards - The Bone Witch (now sitting with my editor); begin the first edit of the draft of The Scarlet Bastards - The Rule of Nine (now underway); begin the first edit of the draft of Titan Rising; and prepare for NaNoWriMo by getting my contemporary fantasy, A Child at Play in the Trees, fully fleshed out. In between, I hope to look at my published books to see if some tinkering is warranted - I usually find something that I now don't like. The other part is marketing, a topic I'm always harping on as my most significant challenge as a writer. More social media, more blogs, more advertising, and hopefully some new novel covers. In the end, I'm aiming for a productive writing year and hopefully, an uptick in sales. Stayed tuned.
I lamented here last month, that I have not had a space to write for many months. It resulted in my not participating NaNoWriMo for the first time in a few years (not since the infamous getting a puppy in November mistake of 2016)
Anyway, the time of being an officeless author is coming to an end. I now have day use of my new space, and although it's a disorganized mess, it has given me the privacy to write some new work on a book in edit! With luck, renos will be done in the next two weeks and the office will finally be mine!
I am just too excited!
Yes, it's true. I opted out of National Novel Writing Month this year, the first time in several years that I have done so. I have of course participated and failed a few times, generally because of outside events interfering - a puppy being be the last time (I won't make that mistake again.)
This year was different. Last year's participation was a success. I added 50,000 plus words to a novel that had been sitting idle for years and finished it. (At some point I'll take a look at it and begin an edit.) This year, however, has been a bit of a dry year. I tried Camp NaNoWriMo in July and actually wrote about 10,000 words on a new contemporary fantasy project I'm working on, but summer is always a difficult time for me to focus a lot on writing, so the project petered out with the arrival of a paddleboard. The main issue I've been facing is being without a space to write.
We're knee deep in renovations and have been for several months. I had had a corner of a junk room before that - hardly an inspiring place but it did allow for some privacy, an area to reflect, and a space for wrestling with my muse without a lot of distraction. That space is now being renovated and as an author, I'm now 'homeless' in the dining room. There are certainly better authors out there who can push by this minor impediment, but in all honesty, this has been a creative brick wall of sorts. The ideas are there - the imagery, the emotion, and the words - they just don't seem to make it down to my fingertips and the keyboard.
The renos will end soon I hope, and then I move into my own office - my very own dedicated space to hone my craft. Until then, I couch surf as it were, and this single blog entry is me forcing my way through the doldrums of self pity to put pen to paper on something.
I have many motivations for writing. Mostly they have to do with getting the words and imagery out of my head and onto a piece a paper. I have stories to tell: some are humorous, some are dark, and some are thrilling adventure. Some of my writing is about me and my experiences (loosely based of course) and some are pure flights of fancy that seem fun or challenging to write. In the end though, my goal has been to write, and I have had little thought for the finished product once it has been published. I'd be a fibber if I said I didn't care much about sales - perhaps it's more accurate to say I haven't been motivated much by sales. I do want sales since my dream is to make a living from my writing, and since every year I try and fail to make a dent at the marketing wall that lives within me, I have decided to try a different approach. This year I will be chronicling my next writing project - A Child at Play in the Trees. I haven't quite decided upon my strategy beyond my normal use of social media. Perhaps more YouTube and Twitter and certainly I'd like more of of this website and blog. So, keep an eye out for this year's resolution. I'm hoping it's as successful as my gym resolution (which is usually pretty successful) Perhaps I can mix the two...
Happy New Year, friends! Have a safe and prosperous 2018!
I admit to a certain trepidation for NaNoWriMo this year. I've had success in the past, but adopting a puppy midway through last year meant utter failure (I caveat that though by saying that I did add another 36,000 words to a book I'm working on). So I rolled in with good intentions and found that with a strong start, I managed to maintain it with a couple of hours a day until I finished on 26 November, four days early! I've been basking in the glow of accomplishment since, and doing very little I might add, as I regenerate do that I can finally finish the third book in my Gliesiun Chronicles - Titan Rising. I had really hoped to finish it with this 50,000 word push but no such luck. Honestly I just want it done because I have a contemporary fantasy almost ready to pill out. However, there is work left though I predict, not much more than two or three chapters so I know what my holiday plans are. Until then, I look forward to some badly needed hiking, something which I've done without these last four weeks. Hestia, the cause of my failure last year, and a bit of a writing distraction this year, will be much happier for it.
I tried it last year - to complete on old novel that's been gathering dust for a few years now. It's the final book in my military scifi trilogy and I've simply been sitting on it too long. NaNoWriMo 2016 seemed like a great opportunity to punch out 50,000 more words and perhaps finish it. After a great initial few days I made one of the silliest mistakes a writer can make when trying to finish this challenge...I got a puppy.
Her name was Hestia and she was a ten week old shepard/husky cross that demanded constant attention (housebreaking was a massive challenge) and she ultimately sank my aspirations to finish. I wasn't too hard on myself, mind, as I did add another 36,000 words to the book - no small feat in the end, but I never finished it. I didn't touch it again since I was focusing on a hard edit of my third Scarlet Bastards book, The Bone Witch (my 2014 NaNoWriMo success story).
So here I am into day four of NaNoWriMo 2017 with the same plan in place - finish Titan Rising. I'm a day behind already though I'm hoping to play catch up this weekend, but I feel if I can finish this book, and in the end, this series, I'll be pretty happy and ready to move on to some new projects.
Wish me luck!