Now I Understand


It has been one week since my first query letters were sent.  It feels like it has been one decade.  Now I understand why agents always insist you wait a good six to eight weeks before even thinking about asking after your query; otherwise they would be pestered day and night.  I want to follow up but I know I need to wait patiently and allow my chosen agents a chance to get through the many submissions they must surely get.

I’m thinking of querying another couple of agents while I wait even though I had hoped to see what feedback I got from the first two.  Time to practice my mindful meditation and allow these feelings to come and go like a summer breeze…


My First Queries Are Away


After spending the last couple of years working on raising children and landscaping my garden I have returned to my writing projects.  After reading through The West Queen one more time I found it was in better shape than I thought.  I attribute this to having forgotten much of the finer detail and becoming less familiar.  It is so hard to see what you’ve written when you’ve been staring at it for weeks on end.
So, following my cousin’s advice, I have sent off my first two query letters.  I did a search for fantasy agents on Writer’s Digest and found two profiles that were added recently and after reading up on the agents I sent off my queries.  One agent has just started their own agency and specialises in fantasy and the other represents fantasy but specialises in international authors.  Since I’m an Australian author who writes fantasy I think I fit the bill for both agents.  Two queries is not a lot, but I wanted to dip my toe in the water before diving in.  I’ll see what it is like getting rejected by agents (though secretly I believe my work of such excellent quality they will fight to get me) and I’ll see how I handle it.

I’ll write back here with my results and my analysis of the process.  With any luck the agents read here and check out some of my short stories.  That hope is naturally based on the optimistic belief that my short stories will sell me better.  I don’t really know.  The only real feedback I’ve had has been from family members and I suspect they are biased.


Tough Work


Well it has been tough finding time to write this past month.  A new baby and more work on my plate than I can code my way out of has put a dint in my progress.  But I’m now ready to start proofing my query letter for The West Queen.  I’m initially going to send it out to my online writing group and see what feedback I get.  The group includes a couple of authors who have managed to snag an agent and at least one who has books in print.  I’m hoping I can get my letter ready over the next couple of weeks and then send it out.

I’m still not entirely sure The West Queen is ready to go.  I think it may need more words in it and more proof reading.  I also think I may be over analysing it.  I’m not sure how to determine which is true so I’m going to just read it out loud to my wife then start querying agents.  With any luck the first couple of agents (ok, maybe 10) will provide some feedback.  Not necessarily personalised feedback, but you never know.  I may get a hint about book length, genre or similar.  I may get a personalised rejection or a request for partial.  That would be awesome because it would mean better feedback.  At the moment I’m kind of swinging in the dark without professional response to provide direction.

After I proof the query letter a couple of times I may post it up here so others can see what I’ve come up with and maybe someone will point out something that will help me.


Back in Black


I’m back and wearing a black leather jacket. Yes, that’s how bad I am. A black. Leather. Jacket. But where have I been? Sadly not off to London to visit the queen nor write about one either. I was at the birth of my second child. A baby boy no less, thus completing the set. So for three weeks I’ve been away from the keyboard but now I’m back, yes I’m back, I’m back, I’m back in black. Queue the guitar riff…

Short story

Last time I left you I said I was writing a short story for a competition. Well I finished the story, but not in time for the competition so I’ll post the story here.

I started writing this as a horror story. That’s why it is set on a remote sheep station with ominous hills in the back paddocks. A storm is rolling in and the main character has just arrived after receiving news of her father’s death. A perfect set up for a horror. Isolation, a sense of misery and an uncomfortable environment. But I found as I wrote that it would turn into a bit more of a novella if I continued with the horror aspect. I had too many things going on. I had the main character’s coming to terms with her father’s death, her dealing with a sheep station she wasn’t keen on keeping and I’d even thrown in a helpful neighbour who may have turned into a friend or more. Top that with a monster lurking in the hills and the necessary build up to its arrival in the story and I be fifteen thousand words in. So the story is just about the woman coping with her feelings about her father and her growth through her troubled memories. In a way it is still a horror, but not really. Anyway, here it is:

The Fleece of a Strange Animal

To start at the beginning I’d have to recount all the fights and the unresolved tension between my father and me before I told you about the high country.  At the heart of it was the clash of two equally strong wills.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn about farming or that I didn’t want to follow in his steps, not exactly.  It was that I needed to walk my own path.  Regardless my desire I found myself arriving home on a stormy Wednesday afternoon in June.  Dad had died.  He had been in the helicopter when it went down in the hills.  I never had the chance to tell him I was sorry for the way I left or that I had still not found the connection I had been looking for.  A lawyer had simply called and informed me I was required at the reading of his will.  It was a pure formality since I was an only child and mum had died several years prior to my leaving.  I had been left the entirety of my family’s land and all the debt that entailed.  Still, there had been considerable growth in the value of good grazing land and I had planned to sell.  I just wanted to go home and absorb as much of my heritage as I could before the last of the sheep were picked up and I signed the exclusivity agreement with the real estate agent.

The house was exactly as I remembered it, larger maybe, less full, but still the drab silvery brown of heavily aged wood and the old-blood red of the rusted tin roof.  The original building had been here for over one hundred years.  It had served as shelter for five generations of my family and in a way it called to me; it begged me to stay in the way that the same menu item always looked best everytime you visit the same restaurant.  The yard, lush with autumn grass spread like a green inkblot dropped on the page of an old book.  The grubby grey sheep clustered and shuffled in a thick mob toward the back fence, under the enormous peppermint gum that grew near the gate to the high country.  Dad didn’t let the sheep into the back paddocks in winter.  He never explicitly told me why, but I assumed the gullies and ridgelines got too perilous with the rain and wind.

That first night I sat in the kitchen for a long while after finishing dinner just staring at the window behind the sink.  I’d broken it when I left.  I didn’t do it on purpose but I was so angry that I threw the coffee mug I was holding.  I think I’d intended to throw it in the sink.  It doesn’t matter much what my intention was because it sailed through the glass and into the back garden despite my desire.  The sound of the window shattering had been like someone had hit pause on a remote.  Dad looked at the shards of glass still clinging to the frame while I looked at my hands.  It was silent and uncomfortable.  I just walked out.  That was five years ago.

Beyond the feeling of emptiness for lack of people I rediscovered the feeling of oppression that settled on the place after the sun had set.  In all the time I lived there, when I was young, we only went outside a handful of times at night.  In the city there was always noise and light.  In any direction there were thousands of other people going about their business.  On the farm there was just you and the sheep and whatever else might lurk, waiting in the high country perhaps.  I don’t know what I thought would live in the hills and gullies amongst the limestone boulders.  Australia was devoid of any large predators, inland at least.   As I lay in bed later that night listening to the thunder rolling across the plains and battering the landscape I recalled my childhood fears.  That’s when I remembered imagining monsters living up there, coming out only in the winter nights to steal sheep and whoever might be foolish enough to wander about.  I imagined it was their calls and shouts I heard; that it was them and not my parents arguing, usually about money.

In the morning, standing under the steel grey light of a feeble sun I rubbed my hands over my face.  The gate behind the great peppermint had been thrown open by the storm.  The sheep, so neatly penned the day before by our neighbour, from the next farm over, had wandered.  Most were just near the gate preferring the shelter of the gum tree.  But two white smudges had strayed into the first of the gullies of the high country, the back lots.  I had told the transport company to come today to remove them.  Now I’d have to spend the day rounding them all up again.  I sighed and went back inside to get changed.  My boots were still by the door as if they had known I’d return and my oilskin still hung on its hook as if nothing had changed.  Things had changed.  Five years ago dad would have made the sigh and pulled his boots on.  He would have stopped at the door to my room, taken a breath as if to talk but then move on.  I would have rolled over and pretended not to have seen him.

The sheep still under the tree were easy to move into the loading pen.  The ones that had strayed a little further on took a bit more coaxing and one or two needed some considerable chasing on my quad bike before I could get them going in the right direction.  The loading pen was crammed full of sheep when I stopped for lunch.  I rode right up to the door ignoring the rule dad had about not driving on the lawn.  Before I went inside I looked up at the back lots again.  Heavy clouds rolled across the sky from the west.  I was of a mind to leave the last two sheep to their fate in the gullies.  If they were too stupid to keep out of the hills in winter then they deserved whatever fate befell them.  I shook my head.  Before mum had died she was always worried a sheep wouldn’t return, that it would stray from the flock and get lost or injured.  I didn’t understand then, but with age comes wisdom.  Back then, around dad, I was always quick to dismiss anything that took too much effort.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care it was just a kind of mask I could use to hide.  It was like I was afraid of caring too much but knowing no matter what I did I wouldn’t be able to do enough.

Half an hour after lunch I managed to get my quad bike stuck.  I had been following the course most likely taken by the sheep when I’d foolishly thought I could make it up a grassy ridge but the wet turf slipped under my wheels and I got lodged on a chunk of limestone.  I’d have to get the other quad up here to pull this first one off.  A cold wind howled down the gully I had been trying to climb out of.  Goose bumps prickled my flesh as I slogged the rest of the way up the ridge on foot.  From the top I looked back.  The billowing and sagging branches of the peppermint were visible, but nothing else.  Heavy clouds roiled overhead.  I decided I’d climb the next shoulder to see if I could spot some sign of the sheep before I headed back.  Gravel slipped under my feet and I dropped to my hands and knees.  A viciously sharp rock stabbed my hand.  On my knees I looked at my palm to see red blood oozing to the surface.  I went to wipe it away but looked at the mud and grass on my other hand and stopped.  There was enough of this place in me as it was without adding more and tetanus besides.  Instead I curled my fist in an attempt to stem what little flow there was.

I half crawled, half walked the last few meters.  In the valley on the other side of the shoulder blackened and broken scrub retreated from an ash grey scar.  Chunks of twisted aluminium and the odd charcoal lump erupted from the desolate area like broken bones exposed through bruised skin.  Dad’s helicopter had gone down in the hills.  I shuddered as I drew in a breath.  It felt as if I’d inhaled fishhooks and they were now being drawn out along with some part of me.  In my mind I saw dad stopped at my door, hand raised as if to knock even though it was open.  I’d squinted, watching him but pretending to sleep.  He’d sighed, that was true, but was it a sigh of resignation or satisfaction before, with his lips twitching a smile, he turned and strode out to round up the sheep?  I fell back on my knees with my arms dropped to my sides, hanging uselessly as I absorbed what I saw in the high country and in my memory.  I remembered that last moment in the kitchen.  I’d been looking at my mug.  Had dad been commanding me not to go, or begging?  It all seemed different now.  Less important; they were one and the same weren’t they?  Was it his dream for me to stay or was it his way of reaching out?  I shook my head as the first tears rolled down my cheeks.  Dad would never have left.  He’d have never sold.  The fact he died in a crash made no difference.  This day would have come sooner or later.  In a way I was glad it was sooner.  I struggled to my feet and turned away from the crash site to face my home.  The cut on my hand tingled; dirt had gotten into it despite my efforts.  There wasn’t really anything for me in the city anyway.  Everything I’d ever loved and needed was here, even if I could defy it any more.  The bleating of the sheep pulled me around.  Both had walked into the burnt area and were heading toward me.  I had to get them back and cancel the transport.  By the time I returned the storm had passed without shedding a drop and I was able to pull the bogged quad out.  I locked the gate to the back paddocks with a chain this time.  It wasn’t good to let the sheep into the high country in winter.  Because of the wind and the rain in the gullies.

 

The end.


Do I Rewrite and Submit?


I’ve written the first book of my trilogy, The West Queen, and at least one third of my way through the second, The Fallen Prince. I had intended to finish book two and get underway with book three before I even thought about reworking book one again. This is because I got book one to a point where I wasn’t reading it any more. It was all so in my head that I used the words only as a type of progress metre so I knew where I was up to. As a result I missed typos, homonyms and some passive voice. Other than grammatical errors, some of the feedback I got was that I needed to go over what was happening more often. A couple of my readers said they felt as if they kept missing things or that they had to go back and reread sections to know what was happening. I had intended to keep the edges a little blurry to give an epic feeling and to make things seem less certain but I didn’t intend to lose readers.

The Point I’m At

So the point I’m at now is that I’ve got a stronger handle on what is happening and what is going to happen than I did while writing book one. While I had a story planned out I hadn’t worked through all the plot points. Now I’ve outlined book two down to the chapter level and got book three down to at least the large events I’m feeling confident in being able to describe the full story. My writing has slowed down for various reasons, one of which is the imminent birth of my second child. I think it might be helpful to go over book one, patch the grammar, patch together Candia’s personal journey from carefree princess to Machiavellian plotter and more often go over what has happened and the implications. If I do that I could start looking at pitching to some agents.

What I’m hoping for

I’m hoping that in completing book one and getting it out to agents that I will either get accepted or at least get some feedback to make the writing more “real”. I’m hoping to be encouraged in my writing and to take that extra step from having written something to having tried to sell it. I’m sick of being a wannabe, I want to be a published author! Yeah, The Simpsons are good for pretty much any situation.


Back to the short story


I’ve decided to try to enter a short story competition. The FAWWA (something something Writers of West Australia or something equally meaningless) is running a competition for short stories of any genre up to 3,000 words. I figure I could do with the practice and it is only $10 to enter, so why not? The main reason I might not is because I may not have a story ready in time. The 3,000 word limit is quite difficult for me because my stories usually require considerable set up and due to their subtlety require a fair time to run.

The real trick

The real trick with such a short story is to pick a single theme and a single conflict. It is an exercise in focus and is the reason I’m having a go. When writing a novel you need to start as close to the start of the main conflict as possible and end a quickly as possible once it is done. It might take five books each of 100,000 words to do that, but that’s the idea. Short stories are even more so.

To Explain

If you were to write a story about a young boy who discovers he is the missing prince and he must defeat his evil uncle to retake the throne (why not?) then you can’t just start anywhere. It might be tempting to start with the boy waking up one day to go about his usual daily chores, meet the various characters who will are important and then the next day have him escape from an assassin. The reader may well be lost before they get to the assassin. So start with the action. Start with the assassin trying to murder the prince who, while fleeing is told by his adoptive parents (as they die?) that he is the prince. Bang! That’s just how we roll. admittedly there are some stories that seem to start further from the start. It might be tempting to think a story like the Curious Case of Benjamin Button breaks the rule by starting with a child’s birth. But the story is about Benjamin’s life so you’d probably have to start with his birth no?

Back to the Short Story

A 3,000 word short story needs to have just one conflict and needs to start really close to it. If you were to break it down you’d have 1,000 words to set up, 1,000 words to climax and 1,000 words to resolve it. Considering approximately 250 words per page, you’d have to do each of those things in just 4 pages. The West Queen and The Fallen Prince both have chapters around the 2,000 – 3,000 word mark and each has about 30 or so chapters and there is a third book of similar size to finish the series. So I have to come up with a character, world, conflict and resolution in the space of just one chapter.

What have I come up with

So what have I come up with? I’m not sure yet. It seems to be two different stories in one. Originally I was going to have a woman come home to a farm she has inherited to discover a sinister cave in the hills where it seemed her father was sacrificing sheep in a kind of religious fashion. This was done to appease a monster / spirit that lived in the cave. Since her dad died and stopped making the offerings the monster comes out and scares the woman until she decides to continue the sacrifice. But as I was writing I added more and more conflict between the woman and her dead father. She was remembering arguments she had, how she left in a huff without making peace with him and so on. She goes up into the hill looking for some sheep and finds the place where her father’s helicopter crashed. She has a cry and says sorry then the clouds clear up and the sheep wander in. She goes and decides to keep the farm rather than sell it like she was going to. That’s right, a sort of literary piece rather than a horror like I’d initially intended. But this is the nature of the short story. If I had 10,000 – 15,000 words I’d probably be able to have both the emotional conflict of the woman and the blood thirsty monster. Heck, I could probably drag the whole thing out into a novel by throwing in a handsome vet just arrived from the city and a large corporate farming company trying to buy the property. Add in a stack of unexplained deaths, a mysterious pregnancy and an ending without a clear future and I’d have an “airport” novel no worries. But I had just 3,000 words and my tense, angsty horror had to be dropped in favour of a more straight forward emotional journey. Besides, when they say the competition is open to any genre, I have a feeling you’d have to write an extraordinary science fiction / fantasy / horror story to get a serious look in.

Tactics

An interesting point with this competition is that the stories must be submitted with a pen name. The judges won’t see our real names. Because this story is about a woman and her emotional conflict with her father and the farm I might be a little tactical and pick a pen name that puts the reader in mind of a middle-aged woman author. I don’t for one minute doubt that readers are influenced by the name of the author when they read. Since I’m going for a post-colonial search for place with a feminist bent I should choose a pen name that puts the reader in that frame of mind with the hope of inducing the “halo” effect. After I submit and get results I’ll post the short story and the result here.


Children’s books


Now I have a child and another on the way I’m wondering what it would take to write a children’s story. I guess I’m talking about a book aimed at eight to ten year olds. It seems pathetically simple to write one of those “see spot run, run spot run” type of books. I feel it is significantly more difficult to write a book that a primary school kid would enjoy.

Themes

I don’t want to write a condescending book nor a book that introduces concepts alien to a child’s world. For example the ideas behind money and banking are a little abstract for even educated adults to grasp let alone an eight year old. I also doubt any kind of sexuality based concepts would strike a chord and complex emotional themes that lead toward cathartic drug use or self harm might be a bit much as well. So what does that leave? I think it leaves a great many things. For example loneliness, friendship and the joy of belonging. Ownership issues are wide open though just not the finer political points. I also don’t think you can be too subtle. It might be a bit much for a youngster to come to grasp with much subtext.

Language

For a story to be understood it must be written in the language of the target audience. That means picking a vocabulary and grammar approachable by a fifth grader. While at that age I’d imagine they understand pretty much all the words you’d want to use, they may not pick up on some of the more technical aspects of grammar. While considering that I think I’d also want to make sure I challenge them every now and then; I don’t want to patronise them.

Imagery

When writing for a young reader you have a responsibility to not frighten or disturb them. I remember I watched a bit of the movie An American Werewolf in London when I was seven and it scared the crap out of me. I had nightmares for years after. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, I became immune to imagery based fear and suspense. My wife refuses to watch horror movies because she simply can’t bare the suspense. I don’t see what the fuss is. A monster jumps out and rips a character in two and it doesn’t seem to bother me; I’m more interested in how realistic the effects are.

My Idea

I had an idea for a child’s book. It was that a young boy was born into a special family (aren’t they all?). It is a family of half dragons. Somewhere in the family’s past they descended from some legendary dragon who chose to live as a human. The special thing about this boy is that he has no dragon ability at all. Everyone else in his family can breathe fire, shape change a little, speak with lizards and are unaffected by fire and heat. This boy is perfectly human in all respects. Obviously this makes him the black sheep. He even has to go to a normal human school so he won’t be picked on. Well it so happens that his family, and the other half dragons, start to get sick. He is the only one to escape the terrible flu that has put his family and family friends in bed, unable to get up. He has to rise up and find a cure before his family all revert to simple lizards. I haven’t though much more than this, but I like the twist that he is special because he is the only normal one. Being normal of course means he doesn’t get the dragon flu but it also makes it that much harder for him to find the cure.

Maybe I’ll flesh this idea out a little.


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