Reader-response time on The Thieves of Traska excerpt!

As I mentioned earlier this week, I wrote a brief scene in The Thieves of Traska that has me conflicted. While writing it, I didn’t go into too much detail because the action and violence wasn’t the focus. But that little editor voice we all have in our heads won’t let me proceed until I figure out whether it reads like it should, or like the writer downed too much coffee too late in the day and just blazed through before bed. And it also shouldn’t read like I’m putting Claire through the wringer just to win some sympathy points.

That’s where you all come in! Please read through the scene and leave a comment!

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A shadow moved through the light seeping through the cracks around the door, and before Claire could reach for it, the door swung open. With his arms crossed, the muscles built by years of hard labor bulging ominously, Reed filled the doorway. His lips were pressed together in a thin line, his face almost as red as his hair.

A lump formed in her throat. Had she really hoped he wouldn’t already know what she’d done? Stupid. Reed always knew what she was up to.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

Cold fear trickled down her spine. She almost wished she was back in the windowless cell. “I came home.” She winced inwardly; she sounded weak even in her own ears.

“You think I’d let a lying thief sleep under my roof?” He crossed the distance between them in three strides and took her by the shoulders, shaking her. “Do you?” She shook her head mutely. She knew where she’d be sleeping tonight. “Filth like you belongs in a gutter.”

She closed her eyes when he drew his hand back. She felt each stinging blow, felt the blood on her face, and eventually the cold ground under her cheek. One eye cracked open, searching for Reed’s blurred outline in the darkness. He was there, one hand around her ankle as he dragged her to a nearby tree. Without a word, he propped her up against it and tied her hands on the other side of the trunk. It was always the same whenever he caught her stealing; he’d make her return whatever it was, then she spent the night tied to this tree. In the morning, she’d go back to work in the fields.

She rested her head against the tree, clarity slowly returning. “Reed,” she croaked. “What happened with Garrison?” Silence stretched on so long, she thought he’d already gone inside. Then she heard his voice right in her ear.

“I told you he was arrested.” He paused. “Did you see him while you were in jail?” She nodded weakly, wincing at the bark grating her face. “I would have thought they’d hanged him already.”

“Tomorrow,” she said. “The jailor said he’d hang tomorrow morning.”

“Good. There’s a rope for every mangy thief in the world. I’m glad he’s found his. And if you ever try stealing anything ever again, I’ll put the rope around your neck myself.”

She heard quiet footsteps and sighed in relief that he was leaving. Darkness was starting to drag her under, and she welcomed it. Rest called to her, and not even the pained cries and sounds of fighting nearby would keep her from it.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Dave Higgins invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour (and, incidentally, wrote the best bio paragraph of me I’ve ever read). I greatly enjoy Dave’s writing and his input, and I’m glad he’s given me this opportunity to ramble on about my writing process.

What am I working on?

The main focus of my efforts is The Thieves of Traska. I finished the first run-through two months ago and am currently filling in gaps and fixing plot holes.

Last week, I started a side project called Asra the Shade. It centers on one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and was originally going to be a webcomic to help promote the full novel. However, since the all the sequential artists I’ve contacted have fallen through, I decided to turn the story into a novella.

My self-imposed deadline for The Thieves of Traska is fall 2015, but I fully expect to have Asra the Shade done first.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I tend not to peg a genre first. Sometimes it’s obvious (Alien invasion? Smells like science fiction!), but other times I just work with the idea and figure out the genre later. With The Thieves of Traska, I wasn’t clear on what genre it fell into at first. It’s certainly an adventure and it has action, but the locations are all made up. It’s currently resting in fantasy, but I’m a bit hesitant to call it that.

Our protagonist is, as the title implies, a thief. Her successes are all based on breaking laws and doing bad things. Even so, she has a strong moral compass. She still steals things and gets into fights—and doesn’t feel guilty about any of it—but she’s dedicated to doing the right thing for the other thieves, even if they’ll resent her for it.

Why do I write what I do?

I like the antiheroes—the people who do bad things for a (relatively) good reason, but also have something to gain. It creates tension between selfishness and selflessness that’s fun to play with.

With The Thieves of Traska, I really wanted to write about a thief. Instead of having her realize the error of her ways, give up thieving and do something for the greater good of humanity, I wanted her actions to be for the greater good of bad without being “evil.” I spend a lot of time thinking about morality and where the line is in various situations. It’s something I like to put my characters through and see what compromises they make.

How does my writing process work?

Each project begins with some random little inspirational nugget (if you’ve ever had a bug fly into your eye, it feels pretty much like that). After a couple hours, I usually have a name for the main character or some basic idea of who they are and what the main conflict of the story is. Hopefully I have a title, but I’m seldom that lucky.

For The Thieves of Traska, the first half of that inspirational nugget was the name Mackinley. I had a roommate last year with that name, and I really wanted to name a character after her. The second half came when I was walking home from my fiction writing class. I’d been plotting a short story about a thief for my next assignment when it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried writing a full-length novel about a thief. It was kind of mind blowing since I love thief characters.

There’s a lot of writing in my notebook after that. I get a basic outline of the beginning, an idea of where it might end, and I’ve probably changed the main character’s name a few times. (Fun fact: Claire’s name used to be Adelaide. It changed after I read the first chapter aloud and discovered how much I hate saying “Adelaide” repeatedly.)

From there, I just write the scenes in order. I tend to skip over a lot of setting description and the “breather” scenes between plot points. Once I get to the penultimate chapter, I stop writing. I let it sit for a couple weeks, then start revising.

This is when I fix the plot holes, add in descriptions, set up the mood of scenes, add filler bits, etc. Once I’ve gotten through that, I can write the ending.

Hopefully this insight has got you curious and not sent you running for the hills. Time to hand it over to some other writers:

 Jordanna East – Journey of Jordanna East

Jordanna East is a wonderful person and author of the infuriatingly delicious thriller books Blood in the Past and Blood in the Paint. She’s something of a role model for me, and I sincerely hope you’ll mosey on over to her blog and check out the latest with her.

Cassidy Frazee – Wide Awake But Dreaming

Ms. Frazee identifies herself as a Roleplaying God and a bit of a nut, but what writer isn’t? She has delightful posts on her blog, and she can also be found frequently posting in the NaNoWriMo Facebook group. I’m looking forward to seeing what great things she brings us.

Tristan Lueck – The Aberration

old-manTristan is a fellow SCAD student from the writing department, as well as my future roommate in the fall. She’s sent me a bit of her novel-in-progress and I can say I like where it’s going (but I won’t spoil any of it for you!). Blogging is a new practice for her and she’s still getting into the hang of it, but her posts are well worth the wait.

Callous: Why I didn’t want to be a writer

Elementary teachers love to predict the careers of their teachers students.* Several pegged me as a writer even during that time when I insisted on being a scientist. I liked to tell stories, like the one I wrote for some fourth grade English assignment. I couldn’t tell you what happened in it, but I remember it centered on a knight and a farmer. That story stands out in my memory because I decided I never wanted to be a writer after I wrote it.

This decision had nothing to do with the story itself; apart from my terrible handwriting and issues with spaces between words (“tome” and “tothe” frequently appeared where they shouldn’t have), there wasn’t anything really wrong with it. I didn’t want to be a writer simply because my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mullenax, had a callous on her finger.

She was tall and largish in the way many elementary teachers are, with gray hair streaked with silver down to her shoulders and the crooked yellow teeth of a habitual smoker. I rarely remember seeing her wearing something other than a denim overall-dress over a white T-shirt.

Mrs. Mullenax didn’t like me for a number of reasons. Every time we started on math, I got a headache and asked to go to the nurse (in retrospect, this was likely dehydration or hunger). Sometimes I would slip out of the classroom with the other cool girls and hang out in the bathroom (just to stand around giggling, then hide if anyone else came in). And sin of sins, I wouldn’t shut up about New Mexico.

I was born there, in what I remember as a land of cracked dirt, scraggly bushes, vacant lots, black widow spiders, stucco walls and mountains. The year I started fourth grade was my first year in Virginia (the second time around; I was born in New Mexico, moved to Virginia, then back to New Mexico, then back to Virginia when I was very young). Virginia had tall, bushy trees surrounded by swampy terrain, brick houses, an unusual affinity for sports and frightening pride in its history.

I couldn’t stop pointing out the differences, both in landscape and education. Mrs. Mullenax used to pull me aside and say, “Stop talking about New Mexico. You aren’t there anymore.”

The day she graded that English assignment, she called us to her desk one by one to go over our grades. When she called my name, I sat next to her and beamed at her praise for my story. Whatever happened between that farmer and that knight was enough to make her think I would be a writer one day. I would have gone forth completely neutral on the subject if she hadn’t held up her right and in front of me and said, “And you’ll get one of these, too.”

She had old hands, the knuckles wrinkled by a lifetime of curling and uncurling. Dry, cracked skin covered her palms and split around her nails. On the inside of her middle finger, just beside the nail, was the most grotesque dome of flesh. Cracks surrounded the layers of flaky white skin. It looked like some foreign object crashed into her finger and got stuck there.

That gross thing could grow on someone else for all I cared. I wanted no part of writing.

In high school, I noticed my callous for the first time. The years of handwritten homework gave birth to my own knot of skin just beside the highest knuckle on my middle finger. At first, I thought it was a blister. The little bump was smooth like skin over bone, innocuous and obscure. You wouldn’t see it at first glance. If you noticed any abnormality, you would probably think I just broke my finger long ago and it healed that way.

But here was this thing I never wanted, quietly cushioning my finger with every word I wrote. I chose to be a writer long before I saw it. Sure, if I stopped writing by hand and drawing, it would eventually soften and disappear, but why would I? Calloused hands have always been a sign of a hard worker. Small and subtle as it is, my callous is like a secret. My hands may be soft and well-maintained, but the signs of hard work are there if you look close enough.

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*The original sentence had the word “teachers” repeated by mistake. I do what I can, but nobody is perfect.

Another Thieves of Traska Excerpt (and a giveaway update!)

Have you entered my giveaway yet? If not, don’t panic! There’s still plenty of time. For those of you who have entered, I have two things to say to you. 1) I’m blown away by the amount of entries already. Truth be told, I expected maybe 25 total by the deadline, but it’s more than double that. Thank you so much! 2) Please don’t be a party pooper and click that you commented on the giveaway post when you really didn’t. I and the rest of the world can see who actually commented and whose pants are on fire.

On to the excerpt! Some of you had a chance to read the previous excerpt long before I posted it, so here’s something new to the second draft!

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Claire chewed her lip. She was in enough trouble as it was; did she really want to dig herself a deeper hole by breaking out of jail? When Garrison started coughing again, she revised her question: Did she want to let him die even if Reed wasn’t responsible?

“What do I need to do?”

In hushed tones, he instructed her to pull two thin strips of wood from the walls and break them into short, sturdy lengths. Her hands shook the entire time. She slid her hands back through the bars and inserted her makeshift picks into the lock on the other side. Garrison kept quiet while she worked, allowing her to focus.

She held her breath, making slight adjustments with every sound at her fingertips. Her arms ached as she worked, growing heavier as the candle burned lower and lower. Sweat gathered at her scalp. She pressed her face against the bars, thankful for the cool metal. The refreshing chill it sent down her spine crept into her fingers, revitalizing their deftness.

A satisfying click and the lock gave.

“Sounds like a job well done,” Garrison said cheerfully.

“Not quite,” she whispered back. She withdrew the picks and pushed on the door gently, a thrill of excitement going through her as it opened. Pulling it shut again, she put as much misery in her voice as she could muster and called out to the guards. “Do you have any more water in there?”

Some grumbling came from the next room before the door swung open again. It remained open, as it had before, the sudden light painful to her eyes. When the familiar outline appeared in the doorway, she looked past it to the other guard. At least there were only two.

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The Truth Can Speak For Itself – Guest post by Dave Higgins

One of the biggest fears we face, especially when we first share our work, is that our audience (family, friends, readers, co-workers) will find fault with, or even ignore, our work. While this strikes writers of all types, both fiction and non-fiction, it is often opinion pieces that bring the greatest fear. We have read articles by others which speak with a voice of authority, but cannot think how to mirror this air of self-evident correctness. But this striving after rules to seem right can be a dead end; while rhetoric can be learned, and evidence better analysed, a casual voice of authority is neither a conscious thing, nor the product of certainty.

Knowing That We Know

To understand confidence, we must consider how people learn. One basic model is the consciousness/competence scale:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: we do not know that we do not know how to do something.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: we know we do not know how to do it.
  3. Conscious Competence: we know how to do it and, over time, follow the steps in our mind more and more quickly.
  4. Unconscious Competence: we do it without consciously following the steps in our mind.

We do not expect to write with confidence about topics about which we are incompetent, so for our purposes we will only consider the last two sections.

The key division is between being able to do it, and being able to do it without thinking: in the context of a skill, we are slow, with pauses to consider and tentative movements; in the context of speaking with authority our mental process is slightly different, but the results are the same. Depending on whether or not we have to take ourselves through our points checking for correctness, our expression is either tentative or fluid, stilted or authoritative.

By moving beyond knowing our opinion is worth expressing, beyond even feeling our opinion is worth expressing, into not even consciously considering our opinion might not be valid, we allow the validity of our points to speak for themselves.

Knowing That We Do Not Know

Ironically, internalising the belief we are entitled to speak on a topic and be heard, is the first step in expressing our belief we do not know enough about the subject to speak without possibility of error or contradiction.

We can confidently admit doubts, safe in the knowledge our accuracy in other areas is not challenged by the admission.

This revelation of uncertainty where it really exists can even increase your authority. Consider scientists and politicians: which are more likely to say they are absolutely and totally certain about what they say? Which do you trust more?

Speaking in Voices

Just as we learn to drive a car or tie a bow-tie by doing it until we no longer need the steps, there is no single path to having a voice of authority. We must practice writing in the knowledge we have the right to be heard until we stop thinking about it.

However, there are ways of finding a voice within our work. Take a piece of writing and find the shortest truth in each sentence. For example, “The sky out of my window looks blue at the moment, but it could change later” is accurate, but so is “The sky is blue.”

The example is (deliberately) obvious, but might not always be as far from our style as we wish. Ignoring the slightly odd writing this trimming will no doubt produce, consider whether the edited writing feels more authoritative.

Once we have found the unconscious statements of uncertainty, we can focus on replacing them with the doubt that is appropriate for the specific work. Continuing the example of the sky, unless we are giving a detailed weather forecast, we do not need to focus on the possibility of change later.

Silencing Doubts

A voice of authority is exactly that, one method of expressing something the speaker knows or believes. It is not a trick, or a set of steps that must be followed, but an extension of our unconscious acceptance that we speak with authority when we give our name, age, address, and many other things already.

So the truth really can speak for itself, if we let it.

Do you feel authority must be free of doubt, or do you trust open expression of doubt? Do you feel more caveats and exceptional cases always add trustworthiness, or look for solid opinion?


Dave Higgins Thumbnail

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and speculative fiction.

He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.

He is the publisher of Fauxpocalypse (published December 2013) and blogs on writing, practical philosophy, and the absurdities of life at Davetopia.


Review: Petra K and the Blackhearts

The description of this book certainly mentions the complexity of the plot, but it does nothing to warn readers of the painfully disjointed way in which it is presented. Between a perfume turning Petra K’s classmates into ravenous lizard people, pet-sized dragons becoming outlawed, and the tension of a brewing revolution, it was difficult to tell where the plot was going.

Petra K and a number of the other characters are ten years old (or thereabouts), but they act more like adolescents going through a rebellious stage. And each one of those characters felt so inconsistent and undefined that it seems like the author gave up on any kind of characterization.

Unfortunately, this also applies to the various cultures present in the story. The Half Nots, the Newts, and the Kubikula all offered opportunities for this world to be as diverse as the real one. However, they are limited by superficial generalizations or a complete lack of description to make them distinguishable. The Half Nots like gambling, have wings concealed in their shirts, and tend to be psychic. The Newts remain a mystery, and the Kubikula are scaly hunchbacked people confined to the sewers.

The entire first half of the novel was written so dryly it diffused whatever tension the author constructed. The underground dragonka tournaments would have been a wonderful source of excitement, but Petra K (our first person narrator) was so detached from her experiences. She seemed to coincidentally stumble from one plot point to the next, unfazed by most of it, until she ended up in a place she feels she belongs.

The Communist elements where thick enough to choke on, making the fantastical elements seem like a last-minute addition to save it from sounding contrived. While the dragonka and their place in society was intriguing, they were not enough to make this book worth reading.

Recommended Reads: Blood in the Past

Here is a book I’ve been dying to see released for the past few months. Author Jordanna East delayed the original spring release, but it was worth the wait. (For those of you interested in getting your hands on this book, it’s available on Amazon for the Kindle.) And this novella is just a prelude to the main event, Blood in the Paint.

As a fan of murder mysteries, Blood in the Past completely satisfies my taste for the macabre. It’s also a refreshing break from the usual stories that follow those investigating the murders. For the first time, we’re rooting for the killers—and there’s more than one. It’s deliciously dark and twisted, and you can’t help but enjoy every aspect of it.

It was really fascinating to start out with characters so normal they could almost be someone I know, then watch their realistic spiral into obsessive and murderous behavior. It’s a different kind of adventure, one I definitely recommend everyone take the time to read. As Ms. East’s first book, I look forward to reading what she comes out with next.