Archive for April, 2013

As discussed yesterday, I had to add in a new scene to the gutted opening chapter of Kikimora.

Kikimora is a monster, created for the purpose of terrorising humans. But she has been raised by a natural philosopher type of magician, and so her education is intellectual as well as practical. In order to give a flavour of her peculiar upbringing I wanted to mention some of the obscure texts she is required to read, and the words she doesn’t understand and has to ask to be explained to her.

These texts are largely concerned with the nature of evil, with death, horror and torture. What kind of strange words might she encounter in them?

This has brought me back to a perennial issue of how you decide what age group you are writing for. It’s such a big topic that it deserves a post of its own (and will get one shortly). But for the time being, I’m veering towards the middle-grade camp, (9-12 year olds), rather than young adult.

The Stora Hammars stone from Gotland

The Stora Hammars stone from Gotland, demonstrating ‘The blood-eagle’ [Source: Wikipedia]

One of the terms I’m thinking of using is ‘Blood-eagle.’ The passage in question reads,

“Blood-eagle: a method of execution practised by the Norse-men, in which the ribs are severed from the spine, and splayed out like wings, followed by the lungs.”

You might think: that is far too gruesome for children! Are you insane?

But although it was long ago, I kind of remember being ten. What I recall is that although real death and misery upset me greatly (I remember running away from the TV news and locking myself in the bathroom to cry) I was fascinated by abstract horror. I loved visiting medieval castles, and was always most interested in the torture devices.

Of course, that horror was once visited on real people, but at the age of ten, medieval times seemed as far away and as unreal as myths and fairy tales.

Another reason I’m uncertain about it is that it occurs on the first page or so. I wouldn’t want anyone to read that and be put off, thinking the whole book is going to be gruesome and sensationalist.

It is so hard to get the correct balance in the opening pages of your story, and there are so many subtle little ways you can screw it up.

I suspect that the deciding factor in whether or not it’s acceptable is not so much how graphic the description is, but whether it is an abstract idea (like the definition of blood-eagle), or whether it’s an actual event happening in the story.

Thoughts, anyone? What’s the most gruesome thing you’ve read in a children’s book? And did you think it was too much, or was it okay? More importantly did the kids think it was upsetting? Or did they laugh gleefully and tell all their pals?

YodaI am increasingly asked to proof-read documents at work, although it is nothing to do with my job, which is web design.

I’m good at proof-reading, and kind of enjoy it – I think a mild streak of pedantry runs in the family.

Proof-reading implies that the manuscript, paper or whatever is finished and just needs the grammar and spelling checking. But often when I start to proof-read it quickly turns into editing, and sometimes re-writing.

Just last week I destroyed and re-wrote a document my boss had prepared (yeah, I know how to win friends and influence people :-S), as well as eviscerating the marketing department’s output (“This is a fragment, not a sentence … Who are ‘they’? … Talk like Yoda you do…”)

I have learned to be a ruthless editor through painstakingly honing my own writing over the past 25+ years. Even so, I still sometimes baulk at tearing apart weeks-worth of work.

I have known for some time that I needed to rework the opening chapters of Kikimora. They were still pretty much as I wrote them two and a half years ago when I was making my first forays into the story, and didn’t really know where it was going yet. So much about the story has changed since I wrote those opening chapters that they don’t really work any more.

Kill your darlings,” they say, and I have done many times. But I baulked at this more than most. Perhaps because it was a larger piece than I normally have to cut; because it’s the opening passage; or because I felt that it set the scene so well.

But after all that ruthless editing at work, I felt that it was time to turn the same gimlet eye on my own manuscript. I printed off the opening chapters, sitting down at my table with highlighter, red pen, and much trepidation.

I slashed and burned.

One of the passages I was fond of, but which I grudgingly decided had to go is as follows:

Occasionally, emissaries from distant corners of the world came seeking Anatoly. They called him, Master of Mysterious Arts, Lord Shape-Changer, the Finest Magician the world has ever known. And then they poured gold and jewels at his feet, flattered him some more, and finally asked him to do something for them.

Sometimes Anatoly simply said, “No,” and sent the emissary on his way. Sometimes he asked for more details of the assignment, and then decided it didn’t interest him. Only rarely did he take the gold and accept the commission.

I was fond of that passage, and thought it a nice summation of that character’s set-up. However, in the very next chapter an emissary arrives from a distant land, bringing Anatoly rich gifts, and begs his help in finding a missing princess. You see the problem? In swift succession, I tell what the character does, and then I show what he does.

The opening chapters are vital to hooking your readers. There is no room for sloppiness and redundancy. The above piece had to go.

I was okay slicing through the prose with a red pen, but when it came to stitching back together what was left, I felt lost and bewildered and didn’t know where to start. Yesterday I began the slow and painful process. I produced far less work than I’d hoped to, and was not proud of a single word.

Today I dragged myself back to the keyboard, gritting my teeth to carry on. But… the new scene I grudgingly crow-barred in has begun to settle in and find its feet. New details occurred to me, fleshing out the characters in a similar way to all those lovely first draft passages I had to cut.

It is hard taking the knife to good words, but they have to serve the story, or else they’re pointless. Yesterdays and todays new words will need further polishing, but I know the story will be much stronger by the time I’ve finished. And that makes me happy.

What’s the hardest passage you ever had to cut? And did you ever regret it, or even put it back in later? I’m betting not.

I know I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit the past few weeks, but I’ve been racing through the final chapters of Kikimora‘s second draft, and couldn’t bring myself to break off for any other writing commitments.

And this morning, at nine a.m. I’m done. It’s only taken two and a half years to reach this point.

There is of course much still to do. I have added so much new material during the second draft that a lot of it is still actually first draft, if you see what I mean. It will need smoothing over with a third draft before it’s ready for some beta readers, but hopefully the remaining changes should be minimal.

Also, I’m still hoping to cut a significant amount of material. The manuscript is currently 124,000 words! That’s 13,000 longer than Darklands, and that was a bit longer than I really wanted it to be. I had always thought that Kikimora would be quite a brief and simple story, but it grew, and it grew, and it grew…

There is certainly a lot less plot than Darklands, but the prose is a little more expansive. I have been writing stories all my life, and I recognised some time ago that the greatest failing of my early work (as with many beginner writers) was a tendency to prosiness. A foray into attempted screen-writing many years ago helped me develop a more stripped back writing style, and I have endeavoured to hold on to that although I gave up on the screen-writing idea.

With Darklands I was very wary of falling into the prosy waffle trap, and I edited it mercilessly, keeping the chapters short and the action coming.*

Having gained a little confidence through my experience of writing and selling Darklands, I have allowed the prose of Kikimora to be a little more free-range – just a little. Also, it is in many ways a smaller story, concerned with character and relationships, rather than ‘we have to save the world!’ The convincing development of those relationships needs space and time to grow.

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”. I’m aiming to lose at least 12,000 words on the third draft of Kikimora. And although I’m itching to get to it, it is saturday morning, and the sun is shining (for once!), and I think I deserve a little break before launching into the next stage. Also, I’m sure there’s a family around here somewhere that I sometimes like to spend time with…

Path through snowy woods

Path through snowy woods (one of the tentative ideas for Kikimora’s cover)

* If you have only read the prologue of Darklands you might wonder at my judgement on this matter. As it happens, yes, the prologue is deliberately slow and descriptive, building to one awful revelation. But the tone of the rest of the book is much punchier.