On writing

An approach to revising – how ‘placeholders’ helped me not freak out

IMG_5845Revisions are tough. I mean, drafting is hard too, but you get to ignore the bad bits and the lumpy plot and the endlessly repeating ‘looked’, because everyone tells you to “Just get it out! words on a page! You can edit a bad page you can’t edit a blank one!”. You can’t escape this in revisions.

I’ve been carrying out a lot of revisions lately and am super happy to have completed the third draft of my Dust Bound fantasy novel. (SUCH a relief). When I first started the revision process I found it very overwhelming and difficult to get a handle on. I could do a couple of tweaks, sure, but I found really improving it a harder thing to figure out. I didn’t know where to start.

Sandcastle from Sand Shannon Hale Quote

This advice about sand to sandcastles is often given, and during my drafting stage it was really reassuring. But not for the revisions.  I had no idea how to get from vast quantities of sand, some pristine, some with bits of cat wee, some left best unmentioned, to glorious turrets of a mighty sandcastle.

Then I had an epiphany.

I didn’t have a vast sprawling sandpit with nothing on it. My manuscript wasn’t a virgin beach. There were lines, small heaps, markings in the sand. Foundations. Placeholders. These are the statements that are usually ‘tell’ statements. “They walked through the lush fields.” It’s a sentence that doesn’t do a lot. It’s a placeholder. It helps tell the writer the story so we can go back and flesh it out.

I realised this was my process.

Find the StoryTell the StoryShow the Story

This made the whole thing far less overwhelming. I wasn’t starting from scratch. I wasn’t trying to get from finding to showing, or from sandpit to sandcastle. I was moving slowly in stages, each point moving me that bit further on.

The way to get from tell the story to show the story, for me, was to identify the placeholders and focus on developing them.

An example is probably best to demonstrate what I mean:

This is the first draft:

They noticed the quiet hum of the nomad camp the closer they got. It wasn’t silent, but it wasn’t just the dust that muffled the noise. It had the feel of people who knew exactly how loud they could be before they started drawing the attention of the boogieman in the dark.

Around a small fire, which was responsible for the glow, sat 15-20 people. A rigged cloth stretched high over the flames to catch the dust, allowing the fire to smoulder without being damped.  There were no old people and no children around the fire. That didn’t mean there were none. Covered carts ringed the clearing and it was through two of them that they walked, weapons down but out.

This is full of placeholders. Key signal words – ‘noticed’, ‘wasn’t’, ‘was’, ‘it had’, “there were”, “they walked”.

Focusing in on these words and statements, recognising that they provided a foundation for my sandcastle, enabled me to develop them into something more immersive:

The flickering light turned into the steady glow of a small fire. Thin trees opened to a clearing ringed by covered carts standing guard against the outside world. The quiet hum of people, all too aware of the threat of black tipped wings in the dark, grew louder with every step. Addie edged closer to Ryder, her sweaty palm slipping on her knife handle. Flames threw shifting shadows over the Dust, sending shivers crawling over her skin.

The carts loomed on either side of them as they walked a pathway into the centre, whispers trickling out from frayed canvas covers. A warm glow danced over the people gathered around the fire. Their eyes fixed on the newcomers. Rigged cloth stretched high over the flames to catch the Dust, allowing the fire to smoulder without suffocating under grey powder. No children played, no old people talked. The clearing filled with an expectant hush.

The biggest thing for me with my placeholder epiphany was a liberating acknowledgement that I didn’t have to have it right the first time. That it was a process. It helped me feel less overwhelmed and gave me a strategy for my revisions.

What are your best revising/editing tips? Share in the comments below!

fiction, Story Snippet Sharing

weekend story snippet sharing – Merlin and Arthur are attacked.

ricardo-cruz-31577 sword

The cafe had emptied except for a few patrons, and Merlin was hardly through his second coffee. He listened to Arthur reading out some of the more outlandish things from the paper when his friend’s voice was interrupted by a sharp tingle running up his back. Slowly placing his cup on the table he cocked his head, motioning for Arthur to stop talking. Arthur took one look at his face and his hand went down to his hip, only to come up again more slowly, his face a twisted grimace.

 

The door exploded in fragments and splinters of wood, dust circling through the air.  He was already on his feet, arm flung out to try to ward off the heat of the blow. From the corner of his eyes he saw the waitress flung across the room. The crack of bones and Sally’s anguished cry as she landed shot steel down his spine. Arthur stood at his back, fists clenched.

 

“Tell me what to do, Merlin, I don’t know how to help.”

 

“We need to leave, get away from any civilians, there’s a back door.”

 

“Do you mean the one over there with the big scary man blocking it?”

 

Merlin risked a glance. Bugger.

 

“Okay, new plan, slightly different from the old plan, we get rid of the big scary man and then we go out the back”

 

“Right.” Arthur scanned the room. “I need a weapon, Merlin, something I can be useful with.”

 

Merlin’s arm was barely shaking with the power needed to hold back the onslaught of the women from the hospital. It would be easier if he was just covering himself and Arthur but the remembered crack of Sally’s bones and her frighteningly still body pushed him to extend the shield as far as he could. His eyes darted towards the fireplace. Brilliant, he thought he’d seen one before.

 

“There, Arthur, by the hearth”

 

“I see it, thanks Merlin!”

 

Arthur ran, barely pausing to snatch up the heavy iron poker from beside the fire. Whirling it, he charged through Merlin’s barrier, striking the big man on the side of the head. Although he stumbled, he didn’t go down and Arthur ducked as Big Man swung his own baseball bat, narrowly missing Arthur’s head. Merlin edged his way slowly towards the door – if he could block the magic of the two women, Arthur might have a better chance.

 

Movement caught his eye. Lance, forgotten in the furthest corner, stood with his mouth open, staring at Arthur.

 

He bit his lip. “Oh well, as good a time now as any I suppose,”  With a flick of magic he sent a lampshade flying towards his assistant. Lance snatched it out of the air and knocked the lamp off the wooden pole before hoisting it like a javelin. He froze, eyes wide.

 

“Oh come on! Lance! Get on with it! You need to help Arthur!”

 

Lance dropped the wooden pole like it was on fire, stumbing back, his hand reaching out behind him to the wall.

 

Merlin cast a glance around the cafe. Apart from Sally’s still figure they were the only non-assailants left in the room. He risked it, switching all his power from his shield, thrusting it towards his cowering assistant.

 

“Lancelot! Awaken and serve your King!”

 

The force of the energy bolt hit Lancelot, knocking him into the wall. Shattering pain drove Merlin to the ground as a blast from the nurse hit him full in the chest.

 

He gasped for breath, winded, and pushed himself up, shaking his head to clear it. His eyes flashed gold and he sent a blast of power towards the approaching women. The matron was flung backwards but the other, the one who seemed in charge, flung up a barrier that held against his. His eyes narrowed. She had power indeed to stand against him.  He cast a glance over to where Lance had stepped forward and taken up the makeshift spear. His former assistant met his eyes and lifted the lamp stick in a salute. After years of looking into Lancelot’s face and seeing only Lance, his friend had returned.  Exhilaration swam like fire in his blood. A smile quirked the corners of his eyes and he left Big Scary to the two best knights in Camelot. The witches were his.

 

He moved closer to them, picking his steps carefully over the broken table legs and upended chairs.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Who we are does not matter so much as what we will do, which is kill you and your king”

 

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.” He flicked a hand and she staggered back but did not fall. He paced slowly closer to her.

 

“I have to say though, you do seem familiar. I’ve seen you before, but I don’t think it was this century.” He frowned, trying to catch the elusive memory. Her teeth bared in a snarl and he felt the memory slide past again. “At least tell me your name, I’m guessing it isn’t really Kelly”. Something pinged in his mind as he said her name and he shook his head. “No, not Kelly, but like it”

 

She shouted wordlessly and jumped at him, fire shooting from her hands. He smiled. Effortlessly, a wall went up from his outstretched hand and her flames dissipated around the edges. The magic flowed from him, through him. Fierce joy at the magic teased at his mind.  Her fire sputtered out and her hands dropped to her side, her chest heaving. Her chin sank down and when she looked up through her lashes the shock of recognition caused his own shield to fall.

 

“Keliandra?”

 

Her lips tight, her eyes burned him more than her flames. He stepped back, shooting a glance at Arthur. Her laugh brought his hand up again.

 

“Emrys. It has been so long. Youth suits you.”

 

“You look well too. Unfortunately.”

 

“Oh, always so snarky! I must admit I rather hoped you would have had some regrets but it appears not.”

 

He kept his guard up, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart. “You never did understand the true purpose of magic.”

 

Her eyes flew to Arthur and he refused to follow her gaze despite the noises coming from behind them.

 

“So, this is the man you spent eternity waiting for? Well, we have been waiting for him too.”

 

“Who is ‘we’?”

 

“You’ll find out in due time. Of course, you might not last that long.”

 

Her eyes flashed but he was faster. She flew across the room, colliding with the wall. He strode towards her as she dragged herself up and stumbled out the door before he got there. He looked down at his clenching fist, memories swirling.

 

She had always been strong.

 

***

 

Arthur twirled the poker. What he wouldn’t give for Excalibur. He’d have to remember to ask Merlin what he’d done with it. His first hit against the giant in the doorway crunched satisfyingly into the side of his head, but the big man just shook it off and glowered at him. Bugger. He swung the poker in a tight figure eight.

 

“You could make this a lot easier on yourself and just leave,”

 

A wooden post sailed through the air, knocking his assailant sideways and slamming him to the floor. Arthur swung the poker smacking the big man on the side of the head. This time he stilled and stayed down, his eyes closing.

 

Panting, Arthur turned to thank Merlin for a well-timed throw but saw him closer to the other door confronting one of the nurses. The man who walked towards him was dressed in the jeans and sweatshirt everyone seemed to wear now but there was no mistaking the walk, or the eyes. His heart stopped.

 

“Lancelot? Do my eyes fool me or is it really you?”

 

The man dropped to one knee in front of him.

 

“Sire, it is indeed and my heart is full that I should see you again”

 

He laughed,  delight a flame inside him.  He moved to draw Lancelot up to embrace him but memory came crashing in and he froze. A vision of Guinevere wrapped in Lancelot’s embrace, the soul-destroying pain of betrayal. He stepped back, absently trying to put the poker back in a scabbard that did not exist.

 

“Well. This is all unexpected. Merlin didn’t tell me you were here.”

 

“I didn’t know myself, sire. I have but now awakened.”

 

Despite the sense of betrayal still churning his gut he reached out and cuffed his former knight on the shoulder.

 

“Good timing as always Lancelot, you always seem to be there to save the day”.

 

The other man’s eyes darkened but he nodded. “My destiny has always been to serve you Arthur”

 

“Yes, destiny seems to be pretty busy really.”

 

He looked around for Merlin and saw him kneeling beside the still body of the pretty tavern girl. Waitress. She was a waitress.

 

“Come on Lancelot, let’s see if we can help”.

 

It was pretty hopeless but the stricken look on Merlin’s face tore at his heart.

 

“Merlin”. He put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Is there anything we can do? Is there a healer nearby?”

 

Merlin shook his head, tears making streaks in the dust on his face. “There’s too much damage. I’m going to have to try, I’ll need you to stand guard in case Keliandra comes back.”

 

“Keliandra? You know her then?”

 

“Later, Arthur, I need to do this now. Sally was always kind to me, even when she thought I was a grumpy old sod who drank too much coffee.”

 

He tightened his grip on Merlin’s shoulder briefly then stood back. “Of course, do what you can.”

 

When Merlin’s eyes turned gold and he began chanting he had to restrain himself from a sudden movement. He’d forgotten about the magic. He’d assumed Merlin would use the healing arts Gaius had taught him. Casting a glance at Lancelot he was surprised to see his face relaxed.

 

“I did not think you of all people would be so comfortable around magic, Lancelot.”

 

The other man smiled. “I have known about Merlin’s magic for a long time. He used it many times to save lives. His healing power doesn’t surprise me at all.”

 

Arthur looked blankly at him, his mind focused suddenly on one thought. “You knew? You knew all the time that he was a sorcerer?” The hurt was new and it stung.

 

He looked down at Merlin, his friend’s hands gentle as they stroked over the girl’s head as the words of magic surrounded them.

 

“When did he tell you?”

 

Lancelot shook his head gently. “No Sire, he never told me. I guessed. I did not betray him because I knew deep in my soul that he would only ever use it for good.”

 

Arthur inhaled deeply. “And indeed he did”

 

A moan from their feet brought both men’s eyes down. Merlin was smiling as he lifted Sally to a sitting position. Merlin’s tale of a gas explosion, whatever that was, seemed to satisfy the girl and they left her calling the police and the insurance company, the body of the dead soldier covered by a table cloth. The arrival of the nurses who were clearly witches was worrying, but he couldn’t deny a certain exhilaration in the midst of the fight.

 

Blue sky and green hills lifted his heart. So much had changed but some things were eternal.

 

“Where to now, Merlin?”

 

“You and I are going to my place, in London, and Lancelot – I need you to do a couple of things here and then join us.”

 

His smile was quiet, but fierce.

 

“It’s time to waken the others.”

 

________________________

From my Merlin fanfic i wrote in 2016. I tried to improve it a little before posting but it still needs a lot of work!

 

fiction, Story Snippet Sharing

Weekend Story Snippet Share – Escape from Enstam – from Redemption

Redemption Collage Brave Jelena

Daegal saw Jelena hesitate in front of the chest. Her rapid breathing and white knuckles on  the dark wood of their escape tugged at his heart, and at his memory. Anton had told him of a time in their training when some of the younger men, fed up with being beaten by Jelena, had taken her and locked her in a cupboard. Anton freed her, thinking she’d be furious but had opened the door to a white faced and trembling young girl. Something happened in her childhood, Anton had gathered; but he’d never asked.

 

Her beautiful face set rigid and harsh with self control. What would it feel like for her to turn to him for comfort? A grin sparked and he pushed it away. It would feel like someone other than his Jelena.

 

“You know”, he said quietly “It’s a very deep chest. Even your long scrawny legs won’t cramp up in there.”

 

She took a breath and turned to face him. Something that might have been gratitude flickered in those big eyes that he saw when he closed his own.

 

“Are you sure your big head will fit though, Daegal? I’m quite concerned about you.”

 

He grinned. ‘I knew you cared, really. Here, let me be the gentleman for once.”

 

He gently peeled her hand from the edge of the chest and stood ready to hand her in. She froze, tension running down her arm and into his.  Muffled complaints from Malinda that her hair had caught on a splinter floated over to them, as did Alaea’s attempts to convince her brother that he wouldn’t fit in there with her and she would be fine without him.

 

He pulled Jelena closer to him and, surprisingly, she let him, “We’re all a bit anxious, but it will be alright.” She nodded stiffly and he stroked her wrist, his heart melting. “I’ll have to go in a minute, rescue Malinda from her hair.”

 

She smiled a bit uncertainly and let him hand her in, her breathing shallow and her legs shaking.

 

“I have to put the lid on now Jelena.” he said, wincing inside at the panic that darted across her face before her control wiped it away. “I’ll be right back after sorting Malinda out so if you decide you need anything or the lid isn’t sitting right just bellow and let me know.”

 

She nodded again, her lips tightly pressed together, and he smiled at her.

 

“That’s my brave girl” he said, and closed the lid on her indignant snort.

 

The tedium of waiting, holed up in a small cramped space, was shot through by constant worry over Jelena and the fear of betrayal.  Despite this, he fell asleep on the wagon trip as the chests bumped and jiggled their way along, waking with a guilty start when they stopped.  He had to fight himself not to just burst out of the chest. When he heard Marius’ voice he heaved a sigh of relief and kicked upwards with his feet until the lid came off. He was greeted with the welcome sight of twilight glinting off soft tendrils of mist winding through dark trees. He heaved himself out and into the forest clearing, wincing as cramp hit his calf, limping in a beeline for the chest he had marked down as Jelena’s.

 

He hauled the lid off and made sure he stood so he hid her from the others. She sat, still and white and quiet, her hands clenched so tightly he’d be surprised if there weren’t nail marks in her palms. A foul smell rose from a puddle of bile in the far corner. She looked up at him through tight wide eyes and his heart stopped at the shame he saw there. He held out his hand and she looked at it, but didn’t take it. He was sure she was trying not to cry.

 

“Come on then, sleepy head,” he said, “I know it’s comfy in there but some of us have work to do, towns to flee, can’t hang around for you all day.”

 

She took a shuddering breath and took his hand, for the second time in a day allowing him to help her. Her legs shook slightly as her feet hit the ground and he held on to her hand, stroking his thumb over her wrist as he made inane comments about the trees and complained a bit about the cramp in his calf while they watched Malinda clamber out, fall onto Tiernan’s neck as he helped her and ask for the privy.

 

Eventually, the trembling in the hand he held stopped and Jelena gently disengaged. She didn’t meet his eyes as she adjusted her vest and tightened her braid. Settling her hand on the pommel of her sword she took a deep breath. He smiled, seeing her poise return. She took a step towards Marius, who was shaking the hand of a large man who bore a strong resemblance to Finn, and then stopped. She didn’t quite glance over her shoulder at him, but he could see the effort it took her and didn’t mind.

 

“Thank you, Daegal.”

 

She walked off, straightening her shoulders and holding her head high and he didn’t think he could have felt this proud or this sad.

fiction, Tuesday Trying

Tuesday Trying – Disturbance in the Court Room – a historical rewrite

Victorian woman shutterstock_223843117

Years ago after I wrote my Master’s Thesis on women criminals in Auckland in the late 19th Century, I wrote a couple of starters of stories based around some of the cases. This is one of the pages I discovered the other day – it was written maybe 16 years ago? The dialogue is based pretty closely on what was recorded in the deposition books of the court and this is a true case that happened.

I thought it would be fun, since I always have intended to write historical fiction at some point, to rewrite it for today’s Tuesday Trying. (NB: I changed the POV character’s name because Harry is my son’s name and I find I can’t comfortably use it in fiction…). I found it interesting to see how my style has changed. (the picture below is the original writing).

IMG_8711

 

The wooden bench was narrow and Matthew’s knees banged against the back of the seats in front. He had to stand twice to let people pass as they filed in, loud voices in accents from all over the world filling the room. It was odd that the court would be so full. Shivers of excitement tickled his spine. Perhaps there would be a good story today.

 

Pulling out his pen and notebook he started sketching the courtroom. The magistrate had to be included, of course; his large nose lent itself perfectly to caricature but Matthew’s pen was mindful of those who paid his wages and focused on the stateliness of the wig and gown.

 

His eyes darted around the room as on the page he scribbled likeness after likeness. The woman with the massive hat that made her head look like a pin, the large man with the bright red face and the worker’s apron sitting stolidly with his cap in his hands. Twisting hands, Matthew noticed. Not so stolid then.

 

The magistrate called for the next case, a woman directed to the bench by a policeman. He turned over the page of sketches and got his pen ready to jot down the details, hoping for something worth the page space.

 

“Minnie Knox”, the magistrate’s voice boomed, another caricature. “You have been charged under the Vagrant Act 1866 with indecent behaviour in a public place, to wit Queen Street at 11 o’clock in the evening on Monday 4th July. How do you plead?”

 

His pen had slowed as soon as he’d realised it was yet another indecent behaviour charge. Honestly, that’s all he ever seemed to hear. He thought of Barty and his scoop last week with the woman and her lover who had been found guilty of murdering her husband. The smarmy idiot had been drinking for free on that one for days. Pulling his mind back to the courtroom he heard Miss Knox stridently denying that she would ever behave in such a way. His eyebrow went up and he tried not to smile. She was dressed in a bright mix-match of clothes that looked to his, admittedly inexpert eyes, to be hand me downs from someone rather better off.  Her face was twisted in a scowl and her chestnut hair was tumbling down around her shoulders.

 

“Please, Miss Knox, just answer guilty or not guilty. How do you plead?”

 

“Not guilty”

 

A ripple of laughter shot through the room and the young woman’s chin went up defiantly. He started a quick sketch, caught by the angle of what was actually a rather pretty face. As the lines filled in he found himself noticing what others probably didn’t; she might be shouting defiance and standing with her arms akimbo and scorn writ large on her face, but her eyes were frightened. It was all in the lines around the lids. He looked up from his sketch, staring at her. Such clear blue eyes for such a woman.

 

The constable stepped forward to testify, his voice heavy and bored. “The defendant was drunk and was tearing her clothes off in the street. She is a common prostitute and a brothel pest.”

 

Harsh, he thought, as his pen stroked lines down that full mouth, noticing the tremble of her lips as the constable spoke.

 

“That’s a lie you blackguard!”

 

His eyes widened as Minnie pulled out a bottle from somewhere and hefted it confidently. “Take it back, Copper, go on!”

 

“Miss Knox! Be Quiet! Order in the Court!”

 

The bottle flew, Matthew’s eyes tracking it as it shot unerringly to its destination, hitting Constable Mason in the side of the head with an audible impact. The silence in the courtroom was split by shouts and laughter as the policeman clutched his head, blood oozing between his fingers. Matthew flicked his gaze back to Minnie. She looked rather shocked, as if she, like everyone else, couldn’t quite believe what she had done. He felt his lips twitch as she pulled herself together, crossing her arms over her chest and nodding as if this was exactly the result she intended. She was younger than he had thought, maybe only 20.

 

“Constable Gleeson, restrain that woman.” the Magistrate disregarded the noise in the courtroom, pointing at Minnie. “young woman, you are now charged with assault on Constable Mason as well as indecent public behaviour. The court finds you guilty on both charges and sentences you to 6 months with hard labour for the first charge of vagrancy and to a further two months with hard labour for assault.”

 

He frowned as he scribbled down the sentence. Excessive, surely. Minnie seemed to catch her breath and those blue eyes seemed to glisten. His heart sank. 8 months in prison. It seemed such a shame.

 

As the Constable took her by the arm the magistrate pulled his gown around him and peered at her over his glasses. Really the man was begging to be pilloried. “I can only hope that your time in gaol will bring you an awareness and regret of your sinful nature.”

 

Her lips curled up in a smile and he wondered why his heart hurt suddenly. “Not blooming likely, sir.” she said and went with the constable, shaking his hand off her elbow and marching out with a toss of her curly head.

 

He realised he was grinning, his pen motionless, and pulled himself together. Next case, next page. But his eyes were drawn once more to the sketch he’d done of her and his finger touched the line of her jaw. He remembered the look on her face as the bottle smashed into the poor policeman’s head and his lips twitched again before a laugh burst out. She was certainly a character. He looked up at the next case and knew a moment’s unexpected disappointment that he would, in all likelihood, never see Miss Knox again.