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Calvanni Preview

by Chris McMahon

Hi, everyone. I am on holidays at the moment, out of reach of the internet for the next three weeks – yep it’s back to pen and paper:)

In the mean time here is a sneak preview of The Calvanni. I will post Chapter 1, followed by the first half of Chapter 2 next week, then the last part of Chapter 2 on the 13th January.

The Calvannni print version, and the second book in the series, Scytheman, are both coming soon in the new year!

Enjoy!

The Calvanni

Chapter 1

Sarlord Myan Cintros lay on the dais below his overturned throne.

‘Father!’ Ellen cried as she pushed through the ranks of scythemen. She sought him across the Bridge of Minds, but there was nothing, not even the formless colours of his sleeping mind. Fear sent her heart racing and the vast chamber contracted to a roaring tunnel.

Ellen rushed forward; she could not lose him — not now. At the thought of her life without him a frightening emptiness filled her. She would be left alone with the secrets of the Cintros, forbidden to share her knowledge with anyone.

As she neared the scene she saw five Druids of the Temple surrounding her father’s body, shielding him from further harm.

She longed to go to him, to embrace him, but her limbs were suddenly weak, as though reluctant to bring her any further.

He cannot just die like this, Ellen thought as she watched two physician-Druids, their robes dull brown, work a potion into his mouth. Her father had been one of the most powerful defenders of the old Empire, the man who had turned back the Sorcerer-Lords of the Eathal. Who remained to stem the tide of chaos and war that was engulfing them? She looked at two black robed Moon-Druids, their necks adorned with gem-studded effigies of the twin moons Asic and Rea. They knelt together in open supplication and prayer, determination creasing their brows.

Crephis, a big Moon-Druid with straight, dark hair watched gravely, softly directing their combined efforts in a calm even tone.

‘Is he dead?’ Ellen cried as she pushed through the Druids and sank to the floor beside her father. The pungent smell of the potion made her dizzy, burned the back of her throat. He looked so pale and grey. She took his calloused hand. It felt as cold as the marble beneath her, his skin clammy with approaching death. Tears fell. Ellen struggled with her royal composure. Lifeless, she thought, reaching once more across the Bridge to be again confronted with formless grey.

‘Close,’ said Crephis. ‘He is just clinging to life.’

The throne room, usually so noisy with debate and conversation, was strangely silent. The ranks of robed courtiers and Suulqua messengers were absent, replaced by scythemen and palace guards. The sound of a squad of soldiers marching on the gravel of the courtyard below came up through the wide open windows, the coarse commands of the Razor seemingly loud as he disciplined a soldier, oblivious to events above.

‘Crephis, tell me he will live,’ pleaded Ellen, looking up to the Druid’s bright golden eyes. ‘Please tell me you can bring him back . . .’

Bowing his head, Crephis said nothing.

The ranks of scythemen guarding the chamber parted, their long white cloaks, emblazoned with the grey Cintros raptor, swishing across the floor. She turned to see the Regent Kerril, robed in a fine grey cloak edged with white fur, approaching, with the tall, skeletal Warlord, Aris Cinev, hard and unemotional, at his side. Always austere, Aris distained the use of cloaks, preferring instead to wear plain trousers and shirt of white, a small Cinev crest of the Yos’s twin suns, Larus and Uros, emblazoned in yellow and red over his heart — a mark of his family’s ancient allegiance to the Temple of the Sisters.

As one, the gathered assembly bowed to the Suulvey lords.

‘Where is my brother?’ Ellen’s voice shook. ‘Torren should be here.’ Her brother Estle was in Raynor, days away even by war-galley.

Aris appraised her coolly, adjusting the patch of dark leather that covered his left eye; it was a mark of courage, which he wore as a symbol of his power. ‘I have ordered him to remain with his troops,’ he said dismissing her question. ‘The Captain of the Wall must never leave his post.’ His long, lined face, framed with short-cropped silver-grey hair had never looked more severe.

Ellen let out a ragged breath. Torren would be relieved. No doubt he would be waiting for news of his succession as Sarlord. Her bond with her father was one Torren had never shared, and she had always felt his resentment, his jealousy, like a knife. She loved her two brothers, and had wanted all three of them to be like a family around Myan. Now. . . it would never happen. Her heart twisted as she looked into the future, seeing them split apart even further as the fractures between them finally cracked open; Myan, the centre of their lives together, gone.

‘Can we save him?’ asked Kerril.

‘No, my lord,’ said Crephis. ‘The poison has all but destroyed his nervous system. The assassin chose his time well, striking in twilight when the Sun-Essence fades and the Moon-Essence is yet to rise,’ the Druid paused. ‘What meagre Essence we have gathered has merely delayed his death.’

Uros the Destroyer, the red Sun-Goddess, had turned her terrible face toward her father. Not content to wait for Storm Season, her time of power when she eclipsed her yellow sister Larus the Protector, she had given Myan her dark blessing.

Ellen buried her face in her father’s cold chest. ‘No, no …’

Then twenty-three years of court life asserted itself. She straightened, smoothing back her braided, honey-blonde hair; refusing to appear weak in front of the Suulvey lords. She may only be a Suulqua — the lowest rank of nobility — but she was the Sarlord’s daughter. Myan had been a traditionalist, insisting his sons and daughter earn their rank as full Suul lords of the court like any other Athrian noble. Most nobility remained Suulqua throughout their lives. Only those with senior positions at court were rewarded with the title of full Suul lord. The Suulvey, members of the Council, ranked above all.

Her knees began to ache with the cold, but she did not move from his side. A gust of wind came in through the window sweeping away the fumes of the potion and carrying the scent of the sweet incense burning near the throne toward her. It seemed inconceivable that it should continue to burn as her father lay dying.

‘So there is no hope for him?’ asked Kerril.

Crephis shook his head gravely.

‘Uros’ blood!’ Kerril shouted, for the first time showing emotion. He turned away from Myan’s body, looking out the wide windows of the throne room. His brown eyes glistened with moisture. His brown hair, shot with grey for as long as Ellen could remember, now seemed more grey than brown.

Kerril was one of her father’s closest friends and advisors and Ellen wanted to say something to ease his grief, but she was barely containing her own.

Outside the twilight was fading. The sky was full of dark shapes, thousands of bats flying silently to their nightly feast. The children of Kallor, the Lord of Death, rising from his realm of Llors. Ellen’s hands tightened into fists.

Kerril turned to Crephis. ‘Can you rouse him long enough to confirm the succession?’

The big Moon-Druid raised a chubby hand to his chin, his eyes flashing with intelligence. ‘It is possible. I can reverse the paralysis and restore his powers of speech, but only for a short time.’

‘How long will he remain alert?’ Kerril looked anxious.

Crephis sighed, the symbols of office clattering against each other as his massive chest rose and fell. ‘Only the briefest of moments, my friend. Llors will have him within the hour.’

Her heart skipped a beat. She could save him. She could use the power of Sorcery — the Matrix of Form — and save him. And in doing so damn herself. Sorcery was forbidden by the Temple.

Ellen stood.

‘There must be a way,’ said Ellen looking directly at Crephis. Only Crephis, in all of Athria, knew of the hereditary powers of Sorcery she shared with her father.

Crephis’ eyes widened. He shook his head.

‘No, Ellen,’ said Crephis.

‘I must,’ she said, reaching for the Fire.

Crephis gripped her shoulder, stopping her.

‘No. His veins are filled with poison. His nerves destroyed. No magic can save him. Even if the Moons were full and we could heal his tissues, the poison would destroy them again, and again. It would only condemn him to more agony.’

‘You must accept this, Ellen. Myan is beyond their arts,’ said Aris, unaware of the subtext of their conversation.

Ellen’s knees went weak. She leant into Crephis for support, who grabbed her arm to steady her.

Father.

‘Rouse him,’ said Kerril, walking across the room to where another body lay.

‘Is that …’ said Ellen.

‘Yes. The assassin. It was Kerril himself who killed him. The Regent was talking to your father when the assassin struck,’ said Crephis.

The assassin’s body lay at the base of the Sister’s Dance — a vast statue of cast ceramic depicting the two Sun Goddesses, Larus and Uros, locked in their endless cosmic struggle. Coagulated blood soaked the assassin’s rich clothes and his dead fingers still clutched the blowpipe. The deep and ruddy colour of last twilight, the light of blood-red Uros, bathed the statue.

The handle of Kerril’s throwing knife still protruded from the body.

Kerril ripped open the soft silk of the assassin’s shirt, scanning the tattoos on the torso.

‘Here! The mark of the teremb, the night-hunter.’

Ellen shivered. Assanni.

‘Uros spawn,’ said Aris in disgust.

Kerril viciously pulled his knife from the corpse and straightened. He waved at a palace guard who stood stiffly at attention against one of the columns.

‘Have this body removed,’ commanded Kerril.

‘Yes Lord!’ said the warrior, bowing.

Kerril watched the guard and his two comrades carry the body out, his jaw clenching and unclenching. The guards avoided his gaze.

llen looked on numbly as the two Druid-physicians packed away their potions and stood, looking to Crephis for instructions. He nodded gravely and waved them away.

Crephis knelt with the two other Moon-Druids, sweat sheened his smooth brow as he sought to harness and direct the weak Moon-Essence. The chant of the Moon-Druids now rose steadily to a final crescendo then ceased.

The weight of expectation grew heavy in the silence.

Myan’s eyes flickered open.

‘Thank the Goddess!’ said Ellen, smiling as she wiped away her tears. She knelt at his side, next to Crephis, and took her father’s hand. ‘How long does he have?’

‘Only minutes,’ replied Crephis.

She gripped his hand tighter. She could not believe her father would be gone so quickly. She sniffed, trying to stifle another wave of tears. Once her father was gone, a new, empty world would begin. It was only moments away, and nothing, nothing she could do would delay its arrival.

‘My, Lord. The poison has left you paralysed,’ said Crephis. ‘We have driven back its effects for a time, and given you a potion for the pain.’

Ellen took a cloth from her robes and gently wiped away a trail of the green potion, which trickled from the corner of his mouth. She clenched the cloth in her hand to keep it from shaking.

Myan closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, he seemed resigned.

Kerril came forward and knelt. They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, a silent exchange passing between them. They had been friends since their childhood.

‘The heir, Myan. We must know,’ said Kerril finally. ‘Can you confirm that as eldest son, Torren will succeed you?’

Myan’s eyes swept from side to side.

No.

‘Then who? You must choose one of your two sons. Do you want to recall Estle from his duties in Raynor to be Sarlord?’

‘No. Ellen,’ whispered Myan.

‘Ellen?’ said Kerril. ‘Are you saying you want Ellen to be Sarla?’

‘Yes,’ said Myan, his eyes clouding with pain.

Impossible!’ exploded Aris. ‘He is confused. This must be a mistake.’

Crephis placed his hand on Myan’s brow then looked levelly at Aris. ‘No, Warlord. He is quite lucid,’ said the Druid.

Myan looked at Aris, his face set with determination.

‘Ellen,’ repeated Myan.

‘No. Torren is the only one fit to rule!’ snapped Aris.

Kerril’s eyes flashed dangerously. ‘It is Myan’s will, Aris.’

Ellen was stunned.

She was to be the next ruler of Athria.

Her world collapsed. All the things she regarded as important – her liaison with Palsus, her ambition to be an ambassador, the endless indulgence of the young Suulqua – all seemed trivial and shallow. How could she sit on the throne of Athria? She was a scholar, not a ruler. The only thing Myan had ever put her in charge of was the administration of court records and legal documents. Her empire of bookish scribes, as Torren called it.

Myan looked to each of his old friends one last time and indicated with his eyes they should leave. They bowed low and withdrew, along with the Moon-Druids.

Myan turned his head towards Ellen, staring into her with dark green eyes, the twin of her own. They glowed with the unwelcome shine of coming death.

‘Father,’ she said, her voice choked with grief.

‘Listen,’ he said, drawing her gaze. ‘Belin was here.’

She struggled to clear her mind.

But father Belin is long dead …’ she said, convinced the delirium of the poison had begun to destroy his mind. Belin was one of the generals of the old Empire. Even if he had survived the destruction of the Cinanac dynasty, old age would have taken him long ago.

Myan’s gaze grew in intensity. ‘Listen!’ he repeated. The cool clarity of his voice caused Ellen’s heart to miss a beat. ‘Cedrin must be found. He bears Belin’s signet ring. You must find him and protect him.’ Weakness suddenly overcame him and his eyes rolled. He was fighting for consciousness. ‘I had hoped to … prepare you,’ said Myan his voice weak.

‘Father. Father!’

She took his face in her hands, looking down into his eyes. He was fighting and losing a desperate battle. She felt the Fire surge within him, his mind seeking hers.

The Bridge of Minds was formed.

Her father’s desperation flooded over her in a wave, amid a thousand images of his past; people, names, places, laughter, war-cries, love and battlefields. Far below the torrent pulsed a spinning gem, barely perceived as it followed the flow; spinning, coherent, it pulsed with its own energy, rapidly slipping from her vision.

Then, at last, his mind found hers, the torrent ceased.   Ellen. There is no time … left. Remember, the Scion must stand in the Temple of the Iris.

For a brief moment their minds lay silent, touching like breath above their mingling seas of emotion. Her father’s love flowed through her, lifted her, and then abruptly he was gone.

Ellen screamed, her hands clutching at his shirt.

The throne room was silent as she closed her father’s eyes, forced herself upright to stand looking down on him. Her father’s cryptic pleas meant nothing to her at that moment. All she could understand was that her beloved father was dead; taken from her by an assassin.

She felt Kerril’s touch on her arm and let him lead her through the throne room to her father’s ante-chamber. It was full night now and guttering torches filled the room with the familiar, acrid smell of oil and pitch.

Ellen was numb. Around her people moved, quiet words of grief were spoken, but she heard nothing. Gradually the room emptied, leaving her alone with the Regent.

Kerril poured her a goblet of strong bakta, a clear spirit distilled from the baal cereal crop. She drank deeply, letting the liquid’s warmth spread through her, easing the empty numbness that had replaced her father’s love. Vaguely she became aware of the Regent and stared at him.

‘Ellen?’

She focussed on his face. The sharp lines were drawn tightly with the burden he now carried. His brown eyes seemed darker, duller with grief, as though he had receded within. He had always been a distant figure, part of her father’s life of power.

When she spoke it was like another person, self-assured, stern. ‘What do you require, Regent?’

Kerril looked at her, searching her face, waiting for something. A moment passed before he stood and poured himself a goblet of bakta.

‘I need to know of Myan’s last words, it is my official duty.’

‘He talked of Belin. Said he had been here.’

‘Belin?’ Kerril sounded surprised, concerned.

‘He told me to find Cedrin and protect him. That he would have Belin’s signet ring. Then he talked of the Scion.’

‘The Scion,’ said Kerril, nodding grimly.

Downing his small cup of bakta Kerril moved to the window to look out over the lights of the great port-city of Athria.

‘It’s hard to believe this is where it ends,’ said Kerril.

The Regent turned, looking deep into his now empty cup. ‘We left Athria together, you know. Two young Athrian Suul at the Emperor’s court, invincible — at least we thought we were.’ He looked up at her, a softness she’d never seen before touched his eyes. ‘Your father and I fought together on the Plains of Poulos, walked side-by-side through the streets of Raynor with the world at our feet.’

Kerril walked over and sat opposite Ellen. ‘And together we watched as the Empire fell, the provinces squabbled while petty warlords and pirates thrived in the carnage; the Eathal nation waiting like a carrion bird to consume what remained.’

Ellen nodded, at last understanding. After the fall of the Empire and the death of Emperor Riin Cinanac and the slaughter of his family, her father and Kerril had dreamed of nothing but the rebirth of the Empire. Riin’s Empress, Evylin, had given birth scant days before her death. The legends claimed the child was saved, delivered from the Eathal shapechanger by the mysterious Hero of the Last Days. Myan and Kerril had devoted their life to finding the Scion. Yet after decades they had found nothing.

For Ellen and her two older brothers, Torren and Estle, it was a vanished time. A shining dream for old men. Everyone knew the Eathal were finished as a power. The Yasser States had smashed them at Raynor thirty years ago. The strange, cavern-dwelling humanoids had not attacked since, and their forces remained south of the Yasser river.

‘What has Belin got to do with this, and who is Cedrin?’ said Ellen, touching the Regent’s hand.

Kerril shook his head.

‘Cedrin was Belin’s bastard. He was brought to Athria after the Last Days by a faithful lieutenant of Belin’s after his death. Myan had become obsessed with finding him. He was convinced he possessed some key to finding the Scion. Perhaps it’s this signet ring he spoke of.’

‘Then what? Was Myan going to present the Scion at the Warlord’s court in Raynor?’

Kerril looked back at Ellen, his jaw was set.

‘I know what you think, Ellen. Restoring the Empire is a quest for fools. For someone like you it is difficult to see what has happened to Kelas since the fall of order. We were looking to the future, Ellen. Not the past. How long is it before the pirates, given shelter by the northern ports, grow too powerful even for us to control? How long before Athria is in flames and we lose it all? Ruled by an upstart Warlord like the cities of Swebas or Lyfis? Men who care nothing for their own people? For justice?’ Kerril’s eyes lost the brief softness and were again hard with anger and determination.

Ellen was only too aware of how important sea-borne trade was to the island-Sardom of Athria. So far they had been insulated from the devastating wars that had crippled the mainland, Kelas, since the fall of the Bulvuran Empire.

But surely more co-operation between the Sardoms was the answer. Trying to restore the Cinanac line in Raynor seemed unrealistic. The former provinces — now Sardom’s in their own right — would never accept rule again.

Kerril stood abruptly, his demeanour becoming official. Kerril too would have his own private grief to deal with.

‘Did Myan say anything else? Who would want him killed?’ Kerril straightened his robes, squared his shoulders to take on what he knew would come from Myan’s death.

Ellen shook her head.

‘Then that’s the end of it. For now at least.’ Kerril put down his cup. ‘You should get some rest.’

She could see part of the burden of the last hours lifting from him, leaving only heavy weariness.

‘May Myan walk the caverns of Llors in peace,’ said Kerril.

Ellen lowered her head, but said nothing.

‘If you will excuse me, Sarqua, I have other duties.’

‘Yes of course, Regent. When will my father’s choice be made public?’

‘I will address the Council tonight, but have no fear of it being kept a secret, most of the Athrian Suul will already be aware of it, I am sure. Even so, a public announcement is impossible this close to Storm Season with most of the population indoors.’

As Regent, Kerril would technically rule Athria until she formally took the throne. Even so, with her father’s choice clear, the power was already hers.

‘I understand.’

Kerril bowed and withdrew.

Sarqua. Heir to the throne.

Ellen’s sense of unreality was lifting. The grief returned in a savage wave, but she withheld it. She must be strong, she told herself. Sarqua. Yes, she must be very strong.

She rose.

She could still hear her father’s voice in her head and see the cool clarity of his gaze.

The Scion must stand within the Temple of the Iris.

The world shifted, her vision spun. She cried out, throwing out a hand and grabbed at the small table beside her to stop herself from falling to the floor.

‘Uros!’

Ellen put down the cup. The bakta must be too strong for me at the moment, she thought. She needed rest.

Despite her own views, she was bound to follow her father’s last will. The force of those words had taken on a compelling quality in her mind. The Temple of the Iris was hidden somewhere beneath the Cintros mansion, but her father had taken its secret location to the grave.

The Scion?

It seemed she would have to join this insane quest for the lost heir. For the thousands of dispossessed refugees and starving peasants on the mainland it had become an easy banner to hold. In her view it was nothing more than a destabilizing political force with no hope of achieving anything positive. Even so, there were plenty of people who stood to benefit from controlling and manipulating the mob, especially in Raynor itself, the old capital of the Bulvuran Empire. Idealists like Myan and Kerril were rare.

Wearily she raised herself to her feet. Time to brave the court, she thought.

Ellen walked over to a mirror and looked at herself critically. She gathered her braided hair and let it fall over her left shoulder, pushing stray wisps back from the golden Suul mark on her forehead. The small bird totem on her left cheek looked livid and dark. She smoothed her cheeks, wiping away the ghosts of tears and tried to get some colour back into her soft oval face. She looked nothing more than a distraught Suulqua.

‘Better start acting like a Suulvey,’ she told her reflection.

Taking a deep breath, she moved from the ante-chamber into the throne room. The two spearmen guarding the entrance took up position behind her as she walked across the great room.

Her eyes were drawn to the dais, the cold marble where her father had breathed his last. A hard knot of pain made her catch her breath, and she blinked back tears. With father gone, she was alone. Alone with her power — and her secrets.

‘My, lady.’

Ellen turned to see Galsian, the Overseer of Records, who worked directly beneath her, helping her manage the hundreds of court scribes.

‘You have my sympathy, my lady. Myan was a great man,’ said Galsian. He was solidly built, a balding former officer who lost his left hand at the siege of Raynor. He was efficient, but prone to intimidation by the highborn.

‘Apologies for bringing this to you now, but the Leygen ambassador is demanding an answer on his proposed changes to the trading agreement.’

She silenced him with a look. ‘He can wait, Galsian. I will come to see you tomorrow.’

Galsian bowed and withdrew.

At the ornate archway of the entrance, ten scythemen stood in precise ranks. They came to attention and lifted their scythes as she passed, also falling in behind her. I see Kerril is taking no chances with me.

The hallway was packed. The crowd turned to her and surged forward, filling the air with excited chatter.

‘My lady,’ said one woman, touching her hand. ‘We are with you in your time of grief.’ More people spoke. Too many to make any sense from the words.

Ellen looked down at her hand, surprised at the touch, then up to the woman. It was Yasthel, plump now with her second child. They had been childhood friends, but like so many of them she had married long ago, taking the full Suul rank of her husband. Yasthel had passed her in the corridor only this morning and barely acknowledged her.

‘Thank you,’ said Ellen, slowly pulling back her hand.

Kerril’s son, Palsus, broke through the crowd. He was handsome, bare-chested, as was the custom, wearing a leather harness of the finest harena hide inlaid with bright ceramics and jewels. He was flanked by four other men, the sons of other senior Suulvey lords. Together they dominated the politics of the young Suulqua. One of them was Halsur, who wore the red cape of a court messenger, a sweeping tattoo of a drakon spread across his toned pectoral muscles. A friend since childhood, it was he who had brought her news of the attack on her father only hours ago.

‘My lady, allow me to escort you,’ said Palsus, reaching to take her arm.

She knew she should appear strong, as invincible as the stone edifice of the palace itself, untouched by grief, unbowed by the sudden responsibility of ruling Athria, but at the sight of him she longed to collapse into his arms and weep like a broken child.

She felt the warmth of his hand on hers, and let him draw her forward. She embraced him, feeling a sudden weakness as a new wave of tears threatened. Ellen hugged him fiercely then pushed away, whispering, ‘Thank you,’ into his ear. Her unique bond with her father had always been two-edged, strengthening her love for him, while at the same time creating a distance in her other relationships. So many times she had longed to tell Palsus of her powers; awkward pauses where she had smiled unconvincingly and retreated into formality, longing secretly for a love without boundaries.

Ellen could say no more then, surrounded by the crowd.

She leant over and gave him a lingering kiss on the cheek. ‘I will come to see you soon,’ she said, walking past him. Despite the continued warnings of her father, maybe the time had come to reveal herself. But would Palsus understand? No. She could not risk losing him too, not now.

Halsur smiled sadly as she passed, his face homely but kind. He had been one of her closest childhood friends up until she received her totem tattoo, at which time she was forced to separate from all males her age, except at formal occasions. He was now a follower of Palsus, and always held back when he was with him.

There were others, many others. She bowed and passed formal words of grief, the automatic mask of court life slipping over her like a shroud.

The crowd pressed in.

She pushed through them all. Outside the palace, the sharp chill of the night stung her skin. A reminder of the cold the Storm Season would bring.

She led her escort through the wide ground of Regent’s Hill to the Cintros estate, dismissing them at the entrance. Here she had her own household guard.

She closed the door to her room and turned to greet the emptiness inside. She collapsed back against the door and sobbed, falling to the rich carpets as her knees gave out. The night around her grew deeper, colder as she finally gave into her grief.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.

 

Plot Can Never Dull Her Infinite Variety

So, you’ve got all your ducks in a row. Unless your plot is about misaligned ducks.  You’ve sent the pope for a swim.  You’ve Heinleined your info.  You’ve let go of what you can’t control.  Your plot starts with action.  You throw us in head first.  Your middle sequence is a rising series of battles.

And yet, your first readers, or, worse, your reviewers, read your book and say “It’s so boring.”  So you scratch your head and you say “Uh, but I did it all right.”

And you might have done.  But what you might be looking at is a failure of foreshadowing technique.

Foreshadowing is one of those things no one tells you are essential and which, when it fails, mimics several other issues.  So you might get told you don’t have a plot.  Or that your timing is wrong.  Or that the plot is too predictable or not predictable enough.

If you’re getting told stuff like that, and you’re absolutely sure you have a plot and that the plot is long enough for your needs and that it does in fact have some surprises in the structure, you might have a foreshadow failure.

How can that be a foreshadow failure?  Well… To explain, let me give you an overview of a situation in which foreshadowing – what we make sure readers know ahead of a scene and which they need to know for the scene to work – is essential.

Okay, here’s the situation, not unusual for a woman-in-peril or a thriller.  Your female character comes home to her apartment.  She’s showering, undressing, putting make up on.  And while she’s doing all this, there’s a serial killer hidden in the closet, watching her, waiting to strike.

You can make several mistakes with this kind of situation.

1 – killer from the ceiling, a variant of elephant from the ceiling.  This is page 120, the killer has never been mentioned yet, and suddenly he springs out of the closet and tries to knife your character.  This almost kills your reader with shock, as until now he thought this was a book about mutant chickens.  Don’t do this.  If your mutant-chicken stalking serial killer is needed now, but you didn’t plan on him, go backward and make sure that he’s mentioned, hinted at or somehow suspected from the beginning.

2 – The killer has been talked about so much that when he shows up people go “Oh, it’s just the killer.  This is so boring.  We’ve expected him all along!”  Master the art of foreshadowing without making it so obvious that people are going “Oh, the killer.  DUH.”  One way to do this is – to paraphrase Heinlein, misdirection, indirection and razzle dazzle.  Mention of the killer is in a talk about mutant chicken eggs.  Alternately he’s mentioned, but your character laughs at the idea. When it happens it’s not out of the blue, but you also don’t expect it all along.

3 – We don’t know killer is in the closet.  Let me put it this way – your character showering, putting on her best clothes and applying make up is NOT riveting.  However, if we know killer in the closet might jump out at her at any minute, it becomes fascinating.  We watch and wait for the killer to attack.  Good suspense.

Unless…

4- You tell us everything about the killer ahead of time.  We know he won’t jump out till midnight.  This takes all the interest out of the dressing scene.  This is a failure of TOO much foreshadowing.

Now you’re sitting there, holding your breath and threatening to turn blue if I don’t tell you how to do this foreshadowing thing just right.

I can’t.  This is something you learn by doing.  One small thing you can do is make yourself aware of it.  Take two of your favorite books re-read and mark or compile all instances of foreshadowing.  And then practice, practice, practice.

You wouldn’t expect to dance the ballet without practicing, and I guarantee you Mona Lisa was not DaVinci’s first picture.  So, to learn foreshadowing, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Goals for the New Year

by Amanda S. Green

As the year draws to an end, I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and news articles about the “Year in Review”. I guess I could do one of those today but, frankly, I’d rather not. I’ve written all I could ever want to about the Borders bankruptcy and what locally owned bookstores need to do, in my opinion, to survive. I’ve been vocal in my opinions concerning those who automatically damn Amazon for doing things other retailers have been doing for years. After all, it is so easy to attack the 800 lb. gorilla. My thoughts on the ability for authors to release their back-lists or publish their books on their own through programs like KDP from Amazon and PubIt from Barnes & Noble are well-known. So, what to blog about today?

I guess I could blog about writing resolutions for the New Year. The only problem is, I hate resolutions. They are so easy to break. So how about some writing plans for the New Year? Why plans instead of resolutions? That’s simple. As writers we have so much more control over our careers now that we have to plan. It isn’t enough to just write anymore. So, what should we, as writers, plan for?

First, we have to write. Whether you set a word count by day/week/month or butt in chair time, you have to write. That’s a given.

Going hand-in-hand with writing is the need to finish. It is so easy to just write, jumping from project to project without ever finishing one. So, that is the second plan or goal. Something has to be finished. Preferably seveeral somethings.

Then there is the need to know what to do with that finished project. It is very easy to say, “I’m just going to self-publish all my work instead of going the traditional route.” While I’m not saying don’t do this, I am suggesting you consider all your options. There are good and bad points to both traditionally publishing your work and self-publishing it. So research and determine which route will work best for you.

Edit. Whether you are submitting through traditional routes or not, your work needs to be edited. And this comes after the beta readers.

Promote. Tell your friends what you’re doing. Blog about it. Tweet. Facebook. You get the idea. If you aren’t getting word of your book or story out there — and it needs to be beyond your immediate circle of friends — your chances of making back your initial investment (which includes your time to write it) decline.

Research — not only your market and publishing options but research what you are writing as well. Whether you are writing romance, fantasy, historicals or whatever, there is always research involved. It can be making sure you know what a certain restaurant serves for dinner or the history of a region. Believe me, if you make a mistake, someone is going to tell you — usually AFTER the book or short story has come out.

Study — study the market, and not just the numbers put out by Publishers Weekly or the best sellers lists from the New York Times. Study what readers are saying in different fora. Study what is selling in hard copy v. what is selling in digital version. Study what other authors are doing to promote their work.

Learn — learn where your local indie bookstores are and who the owners/managers are. Go in and talk with them. Build a relationship with them and then brainstorm ways you can help one another.

Learn – how to build your own e-books that are properly formatted for all the major e-book readers as well as smart phones. That means remembering that just because something looks good on paper — or looks “pretty” — that doesn’t mean it will translate well for an e-book reader. (I’ll start the “How to” series on e-publishing Sunday).

Network — Get out of your house and to cons that are both writing oriented and also fan oriented. The writing oriented cons are necessary to meet and greet — and brainstorm with — other writers and editors. Even with publishing in the upheaval it’s in, this is still necessary, especially if you are considering keeping a foot in the traditional segment of publishing.  The fan cons are necessary to connect with the fans and in getting word of your work out to them. (If you haven’t been to a con before, and especially if you haven’t attended as an author, find Sarah’s post about con behavior. It’s a must read.)

Write. Yes, I know I’ve already mentioned it. But this is the base of how we earn money. So, along with all the other things we have to do — and I haven’t mentioned family, “real” jobs, sleeping and eating, just to mention a few — this is the one thing we have to do all the time. So, write. Then write some more.

Set a goal. My goal for this upcoming year is enough to make my head spin. I have at least one title, either short or long, due every month. It means I have to force myself to be disciplined enough to do my work for NRP and to find time for writing as well. Do I sometimes wonder if I’ve gone crazy? Nah, I’m a writer. That means I’m halfway there anyway.

So, what are your goals for this upcoming year and what steps are you going to take to meet those goals?

Boxing day

Well now, it’s Boxing day (do Americans have boxing day?) the day after Christmas, so called because all the kids found out what their friends had got for Christmas pressies and gave them a sock in the jib… hey I make up stuff for a living. It’s a more interesting theory than some to do with boxes… And here in Palazzo di Monkey (temp’ry) as we’re moving house out to a place called Nangetty (and no one can tell me why or what it means — they just say ‘be afraid. Be verrrrrry verrrrrrrrrry afraid’ and smirk a lot) it’s boxing day too. Or putting into boxes day… I was doing my study (aka ‘office’) this morning prior to another lovely day of scrubbing and sanding floors – That is why we pay writers so well and often, so they can scrub floors instead of writing. Heaven help us if they wrote more we’d have to read more. The hardship… yes, I _am_ in an odd mood tonight. Which has a lot more to do with the books I am packing up. Yes, I have too many. Yes I have read all of them, many a lot of times.

Some I have not read for years.

Some distracted me even while packing them up (I now have a separate box of to be re-reads. I came across Madelaine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time. Several of the Van Vogt’s where the writing irritated me, but the story and ideas were fascinating…

And one thing I realized, is that my reading tastes do not fit well into boxes. Not even in Non-fiction. From Astronomy to Zoology – with rather a lot of recipe books and books on fly-tying. Is this normal? Is this just writers? Is this just Hanuman-behavior? Is this just a belief of traditional publishing?

Tell me about boxes.

Here’s wishing you. . .

a Happy and Safe Holiday Weekend!

The Mad Geniuses will return Monday. Until then, we’re wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!

Sizing the Story

by Chris McMahon

After working on novels for quite a while now, I found myself surprised by a the desire to write a new SF short.

It got me thinking about the size of stories. Size is always an issue. For novels shorter is better for a first novel – some say even as low as 55k, but mostly in the 60-90k range. For a first novel 120k is a big. It seems you need to graduate to the fat fantasy epics after a few punchy (hopefully award-winning) shorter novels. Of course there are always exceptions – look at the Name of the Wind (Rothfuss) or the Eragon books. Those are big, big books.

My own experience with short stories has been that they seem to find their own shape and size. Mind you, if you need to write a shorter work, it helps to begin with that in mind. I find if I aim to write a 2k piece, it helps to focus and sharpen my ideas. It’s like the ‘story supplier’ back there in the subconscious takes a look at the box it needs to go in, scratches its head and shoves in what it can. That said, this helps me a bit – but there is not getting away from my natural tendency to bloat up the word count. It seems if I just look at something sideways words appear. I go in to edit, diligently remove 500 words then add 2000 fixing some other problem.

Still, if I aim for 2k, I will end up with a tight 3k, with the storyline appropriately focussed.

Mind you, I find starting with a word length against my natural process. I like to go on the whiff of an idea – to let it all unfold as it will. Usually it revolves around one core idea and the feeling of one or two key characters and everything sort of unwinds from there. I often end up with the ‘on the nose’ length of 6-7000 words, which has to ring bells and play an accordion to get an editor to take it over two or three shorter pieces. And don’t even get me started on my supremely unsaleable novellas. Hey. Most things see the light of day eventually – just a matter of being in the right place at the right time – waiting for an anthology with the right theme to come along.

So do you start with a specific word length in mind for shorts? How about for novels? Or do you walk the risky path of letting it develop how it will?