Archive for March, 2012

My work in progress, Kikimora, contains several short stories within the story, which serve to illustrate various points. Innessa and the Terrible Witch is one. Its meaning, and the motive of the storyteller are deliberately ambiguous – although should become clearer by the end of the novel. What do you think its meaning is?

Innessa and the Terrible Witch

SkeletonsFrom the moment she was born, everyone knew that Innessa would grow up to be heartbreakingly beautiful. Her mother and father were not rich or important, but the whole town turned out to Innessa’s christening. And they sighed and blessed the tiny infant, and foretold only the happiest, luckiest fates for her.

But when the oldest and wisest woman in the town came to Innessa’s cradle, and peered down at the angelic little face, she gave this prophecy, “Innessa will marry the richest, most handsome and bravest man in the world – if the terrible witch doesn’t prevent her.”

Innessa’s parents and the townspeople were all thrilled to hear this. They didn’t worry too much about the witch, because everyone knows that stories like this always turn out right, and the handsome prince vanquishes any obstacle to his true love.

Innessa grew more beautiful with each passing day. Her skin was like fresh milk, with apple blossom at her cheeks. Her eyes sparkled like warm and tranquil seas. Her long, gently waving hair was like sun-ripened wheat, just before the harvest.

News spread far and wide about Innessa’s beauty. Many princes and knights came to visit the town, just to catch a glimpse of her. The town grew larger and more prosperous with all the visiting nobility, and the people knew it was all thanks to Innessa, and so they loved her even more.

When there came news of a powerful witch living in the next Kingdom, the townspeople decided that they could not risk any calamity befalling Innessa, and so they all came together to build a strong tower. Innessa went to live in the tower, where she would be safe from the witch, and she could look down at all the brave and handsome men who came to claim her hand in marriage.

So many men wanted to marry Innessa that it was decided tasks should be set for them, to find the bravest and cleverest. So the men were sent to fight dragons, seek fortunes, vanquish evil wizards and find magical objects.

Many of them never came back to Innessa’s tower, but one who did was Prince Alexander. He had successfully found the water of life, and brought back a vial of it for Innessa, so that she might live forever.

Innessa thanked him graciously, and drank the little vial of burning liquid. She invited Prince Alexander up into her tower so that they could drink tea together and discuss what kind of wedding they might have.

But as they drank their tea, Alexander slurped his. He ate more biscuits than Innessa could count, and got crumbs all over his cloth-of-gold tunic. Innessa decided that after all, he was not the most handsome or clever man in the world, and that a better one would come along soon.

Some time later, Count Yuri came to the tower, having killed a fierce wyvern in the nearby mountains. He carried its huge, horned head back to Innessa slung across his shoulders. He was immensely strong, and very handsome, and was certainly brave, so Innessa invited him to come and dine with her in the tower and to discuss their future life together.

They ate roast chicken and peacock steaks, provided by the townspeople, and Count Yuri said it was a long time since he’d eaten anything so good. He admitted that his estate was in a very poor way. His peasants were starving, and his house was in sore need of repair.

Innessa looked around at her richly furnished tower, and thought it would be a shame to have to move into a draughty old hall with leaking ceilings and damp cellars. She decided that after all, Count Yuri was not the man the wise woman had in mind to marry her.

The following year Prince Igor brought her a magical looking glass. He was both fabulously rich and extremely handsome. But he was afraid of the dark, and he whimpered and trembled as he climbed the spiral stairs up to Innessa’s chamber. It transpired that he’d paid some other, poorer knight to steal the enchanted glass from a powerful magician.

Innessa sent him away. The knight who had really fetched the enchanted glass was no longer poor, thanks to Prince Igor’s payment, and so he presented himself at Innessa’s tower. But his legs were rather short, and his face a little coarse, and Innessa didn’t much care for his haircut.

Seasons passed, and none of the men who came to claim Innessa’s hand in marriage were quite up to scratch. Innessa grew from an angelically pretty girl to a ravishingly handsome woman. Her parents grew old and frail, and began to urge her to perhaps look past the odd crooked nose or ignoble birth. They feared they would never see any grandchildren if she didn’t consent to marry one of her suitors soon.

In time her mother and her father died, and they were buried with great sadness by the townspeople. Innessa watched the funerals from her window, for she was too afraid of the terrible witch to leave her tower.

Fewer and fewer suitors came to call at the tower. The little town went into decline without all its rich and powerful visitors. People still left the odd pot of stew or baked potato at the foot of Innessa’s tower, but they grumbled while they did so.

Innessa’s beauty faded. Her skin grew sallow and wrinkled. Her back stooped over. Her once golden hair grew knotted and grey. But she had drunk of the water of life, and no matter how old she grew, she could not die.

Innessa still lives in her falling down tower in her quiet, little town. The local children dare each other to knock upon her rotting door, telling each other tales of the most beautiful girl in the world who once lived there – until she was swallowed up by the terrible witch. The witch who lives there still.

As discussed in the preceding post, I wanted to see how far I could trim the word count on my prologue whilst retaining the spirit of the piece. I got it from 1700 words down to 1200, and I don’t think it loses much. Which is astonishing, a little worrying, but ultimately encouraging (since I want to do another edit anyway). You can read the original version here.

What do you think? Is this version as good? Is it better? I’d love to hear your opinions.

However, it has taken four or five hours to edit 1700 words, so… (come on, brain, you can do maths…), that means I’m looking at another 275 hours of extreme editing… Ouch <:-o


30 years ago…

Catherine ran through tall grasses, the dry stems whispering past her legs. She scrambled over a fallen-down wall, and followed the ridge down towards the trees.

Last game,” warned her sister Ellie from the stone circle behind her. “I want to read my book. And it’s too hot for running around.”

Catherine didn’t answer. At the edge of the trees, she ducked beneath a broken fence, and carried on running, sandalled feet thumping on the dry earth. She plunged through carpets of bluebells, past pale, papery birch trunks. The sunlight grew muted and greenish, filtered through new spring leaves.

She ran until she reached a gnarled and hollow oak. She crawled inside, wriggling round, and pressing her back up against the dry wood. Then she waited.

She watched spiders idling in their thick webs, a millipede questing blindly against her sandal. Her breath seemed loud in the still, musty air.

Ellie would never find her, she was quite certain. Her sister was almost 16, more interested in lipstick and fashion magazines than rummaging around with dirt and creepy crawlies. Smiling to herself, Catherine reached above her head, gathering cobwebs around a stick, like candy floss. The spiders scattered, and showers of dust and dead leaves rained down into her upturned face.

She heard a soft, grass-muffled footfall from beyond the tree, but was too late to hold back a dry cough. Still as stone, she waited, ears straining for a further sound. There was none for a moment, as though outside Ellie also stood still, waiting. Then – another footfall, light and delicate. She was near. Catherine held her breath, ignoring the tickle of a spider web across her arm.

So close it sounded as though it came from the dark interior of the tree above her, “I hear you.” Hoarse and cracked, and soft as wind soughing through dry leaves, it was not Ellie’s voice.

The blood beat heavy behind Catherine’s ears. There was a sound like little bubbles popping. A sudden pressure behind her eyes made her gasp with pain, burying her face in her knees.

As quickly as it came, the pressure lifted. Catherine cautiously raised her head, looking out across the clearing. There was a soft, low sigh, and a dark figure filled the sunlit gap. She had an impression of long, ratty hair, ragged clothes, blunt fingers reaching towards her. She lunged forward, bowling the figure over.

Catherine pelted into the trees. She ran headlong through stands of nettles, stumbled on fallen branches, regained her feet and pushed on – never daring to look back for the ragged stranger.

Reaching the low wall at the edge of the trees, she climbed and jumped, hardly noticing the barbed wire catch at her ankle. She fell awkwardly, twisting round to gaze up at the serene blue sky.

She climbed slowly to her feet, peering back into the quiet, dappled woods. No dark figure pursued her. She backed up the hillside towards the stone circle, sunshine slick and heavy on her skin.

ELLIE!” she yelled.

There was no answer but birdsong and the lazy chirring of insects. Catherine called again. She thought of Ellie alone in the woods, searching for her, unaware of the shadowy stranger. She ought to warn her. But her skin prickled to think of encountering the ragged man again. She called again, and her throat felt raw.

As she hesitated, a gentle breeze whispered past her ears. The sweat cooled on her forehead. She could see their house from there, down on the edge of town. It all looked so normal and safe and reliable. Catherine began to wonder if perhaps she had overreacted. She’d seen a tramp in the woods. He was probably just looking for somewhere to crash out. She probably scared him more than he scared her – bowling past him like that. Ellie must have got bored when she couldn’t find her, and simply gone home.

She tried not to think about the quiet, insistent way the man said, I hear you. It didn’t mean anything. Everyone knew tramps were crazy. Otherwise they’d live in houses and have jobs. Catherine hurried down the hillside towards home, telling herself that when she got there she would find Ellie already sitting on the sofa, eating the cake mum had promised to make.

But when she reached home Ellie was not there, and mum had not seen her. Mum said Ellie would be over at one of her friends’ houses, and she’d turn up in good time. She told Catherine not to be silly, and gave her a thick slice of chocolate cake, still steaming from the oven. She phoned round Ellie’s friends, but none of them had seen her.

I’d better go and find her,” she told Catherine. “Stay here. Listen for the phone. You can guarantee she’ll call as soon as I’m out of the house.”

It was an hour before she returned. “Did she call?” she asked, and Catherine shook her head. Mum’s face seemed to fold in on itself then. She made Catherine tell again everything that had happened, especially about the tramp. Dad got home from work, and he and mum spoke quietly in the kitchen, the door closed behind them.

Dad’s face was stony as he pulled on his boots and went out to the woods to look again. Mum sat quietly for a moment, then she phoned the police.

When dad came back, the police were already there. A female officer listened carefully as Catherine told her about the hollow tree and the tramp. “Sounds like you’ve had a fright,” she told Catherine. To mum, she said, “I’m sure your daughter will turn up. Nine times out of ten, they’re over at a friend’s house, completely oblivious of the worry they’re causing.”

Gran came over and sat with Catherine while mum and dad, Mr and Mrs Next Door and all the police officers went out again to search for Ellie. It was dark when they returned, and Catherine had been asleep on the sofa, snuggled up to gran’s side. Mum hugged her and she and dad both told her how much they loved her. Mum said to go to bed and everything would be alright. But she cried while she said it.

A photo of Ellie was sent to the local papers and made into posters and put up all around town. The tramp was found sleeping in woodland some miles away. He resisted being taken in for questioning, lashing out at anyone who touched him. Things looked bad for him when he was found to be wearing Ellie’s sunglasses – until they were taken from him, revealing a blind and mutilated face.

Horrified by the ragged scars where his eyes should have been, the police asked the man what had happened to him. He told them nothing, and was eventually sent to a psychiatric hospital. But he removed himself the same night, preferring to sleep rough and scavenge for food. It was remarkable how well he was able to move around, all the while muttering to himself, in little pops and whistles.

I’ve been invited to take part in a radio interview next week in which they would like me to read a short extract from Darklands. Naturally I’m delighted, and immediately set about practising my delivery.

First of all, I’m astonished how long it takes to read out loud. The brief is ‘no more than ten minutes.’ How many chapters would I fit into that, I wondered. The answer is one short one. Just the prologue took ten minutes for me to read out loud. I was surprised, but not put out. The prologue is a good taster that sets up the initial mystery. I would happily read just that.

Then I was asked if the reading could be split into two parts – because of the interview they might feature me across consecutive weeks. Even better! But, hmm, tricky… I don’t think the prologue would split into two very successfully, so I tried to find a couple of shorter passages that would each take five minutes to read.

I liked this idea because I’d get to read an extract from my work in progress, Kikimora. I knew just the piece as well. There are several short stories within the story. A good stand alone one is, Innessa and the Terrible Witch, a not-very-sweet fairy tale.

But I couldn’t find a suitably short piece in Darklands. So I thought, could I just give the prologue a really ruthless edit? The style of the prologue is intended to be lush and dreamlike. It chronicles a lazy, spring afternoon amongst birch trees and hawthorne blossom – and the incongruously terrible thing that happens in that serene setting. Consequently it has rather more descriptive passages than the rest of the book. What if I stripped it down to its bare bones? The original prologue is 1700 words. Could I get it down to 1000?

I’ve gone through it three or four times, pruning and occasionally hacking. I’ve lost plenty of adjectives, and don’t miss them. I’ve speeded up a couple of dawdly passages, and I’ve cut a couple of repeating motifs. I’m down to 1200 words, and I don’t think I can take it any lower without losing the essence of it. It takes six minutes to read. I think that’ll do.

You can read the resulting edit here. What do you think? As good as the original? Worse? Better?

It’s sobering to realise how much can be cut without impairing the reading experience. I have been meaning for some time to go through and do another cut of Darklands. It’s getting on for a couple of years since I last did any substantial editing of it (though only six months since I published as an eBook). People keep asking me about a paperback version, and I keep saying, ‘soon…’ Part of the hold up was my intention to do another big edit first. And part of my reluctance to publish a paperback is the prohibitively high cost of printing.

This week’s editing experience has encouraged me on two fronts. Firstly, I think there is merit in another edit; that the story could be honed and slimmed a little without losing any of the mood and tone. And secondly, the more words I can cut the cheaper my paperback will be. Excellent.