Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Road to Zard Kuh. (Part I)

The soldiers of Temna were exhausted but they couldn't rest. Dacia's forces continued after them like a band of howling demons. As dusk faded into darkness, Sorenan looked at them from the dunes. General Zalaz knelt beside him. As they looked at the watch fires gleaming in the dark, the pair considered their tactical options. "You don't need to lead them personally," Zalaz said, "I have men who can do this."

Sorenan nodded. "I'm sick of riding and doing nothing. I have the men and the experience," the Lion of the North said, "For the past three nights, you've sent in your own men. Now, I am bringing mine. I expect we'll cut a good sized swath through them before they get organized enough to come after us." Zalaz frowned.

"And how do you expect to get out?" he said, "The plan is hit them and fall back." Sorenan nodded. "Don't you start doing the madman's errand too," Zalaz warned Sorenan. Marcos had turned bold to the point where Zalaz wasn't sure if he was quite in his right mind. Sorenan, however, remained sober and solemn. He was focused enough that he was generally able to talk Marcos out of some of his more rash ideas. Zalaz was fairly sure that Marcos's problem was that he was god bothered. Ashur was not known for being careful with his chosen and old stories spoke of priests that descended into madness before walking out into the desert to seek the god of the eagles. Zalaz was concerned that his emperor was upon such a path.

Sorenan reached over and clapped Zalaz on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he said, "We'll get out. If nothing more, because Theon wants to get back to his drinking." Zalaz scoffed at Sorenan's mention of his band mate. Theon was quickly reaching semi-legendary status with his capacity to drink and remain clear headed. Despite Sorenan's warnings of the big man's temper, Theon had proven remarkably well suited to the work of serving as part of the emperor's personal guard. Sorenan stood up and moved down the dune to where the man in question stood waiting.

Theon's curly black hair looked to be the color of pure darkness in the wan light of the triple moons. His eyes were otherworldly in their darkness, giving him an ominous air. It was a thing that made some of the rank and file soldiers of Dacia's army uneasy around him after the sun had set. Between the whispers that passed through in the wake of Sorenan's battle prowess and Theon's appearance, the pair frequently found themselves being avoided or having battle hardened soldiers making subtle warding gestures against evil when they passed. Sorenan was annoyed with it but Theon was amused.

His great booming laugh often followed the superstitious gestures, making people all the more unsettled. Now, however, Theon's expression was sober. Sorenan noted that Theon had gathered the others from their company. All dressed in dark colors, they blended shockingly well into the dark colored sands under the cover of night. "We go around from the west," Sorenan said, "Stay together. We want to get in  at least three rings of their encampment before we fall back. I want to take down a few of their captains."

"Three rings is pretty deep," Theon said. The fresh faced man at his right opened his mouth to make a crude remark when Theon fixed him with a dark look. "What if alarm is raised faster than you expect it?" Theon said. Sorenan gave a quick grin. Theon shook his head with a look of disbelief. "This is a stupid plan," he said, "This is a really stupid plan."

Sorenan motioned them forward. The party of eight men moved around the western flank of Temna's army. As they observed the guards, a pattern to their watch emerged. Silently, Sorenan motioned them forward. Passing between the guards when their backs were turned, Sorenan's party penetrated Temna's outer most defense. They moved with apparent ease and command through the soldiers who were bedded down for their rest. They passed the first ring of fires with out challenge. As they reached the second, a few eyes looked up at them.

Looking to be the mercenary party that they had always been, they were ignored. At the third ring of fires, Sorenan spotted a few captains lounging at their ease. One of them sat up at Sorenan's approach. "What news is there from the guard?" he said lazily. Sorenan walked up to the black haired man. He leaned down, as though to speak with him, while his men came to the fire in apparent desire for the warmth and light. Shielded from the view of the second and third captains of Temna, Sorenan parted the throat of the first. What would have been a scream came out as a breathy gurgle as Sorenan looked about himself.

His men dispatched the other two at the fireside with equal stealth. Soon, they were bundled up in their blankets and seemed asleep at the fire. Theon motioned Sorenan over as they moved towards the next fire. Theon muttered to Sorenan, "Stay back out of the light." Theon then lead the remainder of the party into the circle of the second fire. Their fight was quick. The second trio gave more resistance but not enough to draw the attention of others around them. Sorenan motioned towards the third and Theon shook his head.

Sorenan wanted to cut a few more of them down but decided that Theon probably had the better idea. With all the same air of confidence as their entrance held, Sorenan and his party found their way out of the camp. They were a short distance past the edge of the perimeter when a cry went up. The warriors of Dacia ran. When they reached the dune closest to their own camp, Sorenan paused and looked back. A knot of points of light was seen moving around where they had penetrated the encampment. Sorenan watched the searchers of Temna in their desperate effort to find who had killed their number. Sorenan was about to consider his work done when he saw a few of those points of light move out away from the encampment along the path that his party had followed.

Theon stood at Sorenan's side and spat in the direction of the searchers. "Told you this was a stupid idea," he said. Sorenan looked over at him. "This isn't the mountains," Theon said, "Sound will carry." Sorenan's quick grin returned. Theon shook his head but readied his weapons. At the fact that their leaders weren't moving with them, the rest of Sorenan's band doubled back. Drawing their own weapons, they waited. "There's going to be more than six of them," Theon said, counting the points of light bobbing as their pursuer's moved along the sands.

"Good," Sorenan said, "Then you'll get a few after all." Theon scoffed. The men from Temna soon had reached them. Their party was of almost twelve. When Theon saw the number, he spat at the ground near Sorenan's feet, silently conveying he blamed Sorenan for their ill luck. There was no time for anything more. In the dark, the men of Dacia clashed with the men of Temna in brutal fashion. The soldiers of Temna were not as experienced as the mercenaries cum guardsmen that they fought. Though they were out numbered, Sorenan's men managed to strike mighty blows on their foes.

An impasse arose between the two groups. And then Zalaz's party arrived. The warriors of Temna were cut down like grass before a scythe. Zalaz walked up to Sorenan, glowering. "Was that your idea of clean work?" he demanded. Sorenan's expression sobered. "What in the black sands are you trying to do?" Zalaz hissed, "Scratching your itch could have opened our flank up to trouble, and you know it."

Sorenan raised his hand and tipped his head slightly to the right. A sound came from over the sands to the east that didn't meet those of the night that he heard earlier. They looked towards Zard Kuh, a squat mountain that stood like a hulking creature. Sand was blown towards them from the mountain's direction. The noise of a catastrophic crash in the distance awakened the forces of Temna and Dacia alike. Where Temna's men scrambled for weapons and some looked towards the mountain agog with confusion, Dacia's arose with their weapons in hand.

Zalaz looked over and noticed that the encampment behind him was abuzz with activity. "Now for part two," Sorenan said to Zalaz, clapping him on the shoulder. Zalaz watched Sorenan walk into the encampment with confused irritation. Little did he know that Sorenan and Marcos knew that Zard Kuh was to awaken and that he stood on the even of a slaughter beneath the Mother moon and her children's eyes.

Craft of Writing: Editing.

To steal an expression from my country's armed forces and manhandle it a bit, editing is weakness leaving the manuscript. It is very tempting to declare that first draft complete when you finish the last sentence. It is painful at times to step back when you're riding that emotional high. But step back, you must, for the sake of your work.

I have a friend who is very good at editing. She understands the importance of this step to our craft. At one point, I was struggling in the editing process on a manuscript. I began to complain about how much non-fun was happening. Then she reminded me that the goal of editing is not fun. It can be fun, but the goal is not to have fun. The goal is to refine your work and prepare it for your audience. It can be hard work. It is tempting to invert Hemingway's wisdom and edit whilst drunk in an attempt to dull the pain of it. (Do not ever, EVER do this. I did it once and the results were horrific.)

It may be apparent that 99% of my blog posts are unedited. It probably is not as professional as I can be but it is in keeping with my casual style. If you look through my serial story, you will find little errors here and there. I know that I have some misspellings littered through my work. And my grammar is not as good as it once was. (One thing that writing 3 or more collegiate level papers a week is good for is keeping your grammar on point. The other thing it is good for is boosting your word count for typing sessions. It is, however, a lot of work and kinda painful.)

I may skip the editing on my blog posts because I just want to get the work out there as quickly as possible, but I don't take that approach with my manuscripts. Blog posts are like what I whip off in a journal or a notebook. The ideas are cobbled together quickly and my focus is more on getting the concepts down before I lose them rather than crafting the best sentence I can. In many ways, this is how I approach rough drafts. After that draft is finished, however, the game changes.

Once you have your ideas down, it becomes time to polish them and make them easier to read. Sometimes this will be difficult. Taking technical writing and turning it into something for the general populace is very hard, especially if there is a lot of specialized language. Other times, it will be easier. Editing a 5 line poem in blank verse takes me about 15 minutes, at most. The common point between both extremes is that the focus of editing is to take what you have written and make it better.

No one has ever written something that was perfect on their first try. If someone is trying to sell you on the idea that your rough draft is perfect, be wary. Especially if they are claiming to be a professional. It takes multiple rounds of editing to smooth out the rough edges of your work and polish it up so that it shines with all its own unique glory. If you have a deadline to worry about, make sure you factor in time for editing. Trust me, you will not regret it. If you don't have a deadline to worry about, take your time and go over your work closely. And when you have reached a point where you feel like you are finished, grab a friend to look it over. It will take a couple rounds of this process to get your work to the best level.

The other half of the editing coin is rewriting. It is a little more fun. If editing is the act of cutting apart your darling and taking parts out, rewriting is act of putting new parts in and putting your darling back together better than before. It is part slasher flick and part mad scientist flick, if you're looking at it in terms of horror movies. But hopefully with a lot less screaming. I'll talk more about the mad scientist element of working on your manuscript in another post.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Stuck, aka Author vs Writer's Block round 4,672!

It has been several days and I am struggling to write pretty much anything. I have this thing where I have to write something every day. If I don't do it, I get cranky and generally unpleasant to be around. I am pretty sure it is something to do with how writing helps me manage my problems with anxiety and such. Still, writer's block happens from time to time. It appears that after the writing fest of NaNoWriMo, my old nemesis has arrived to rain on my parade.

I suspect it is because I have been sliding into another depressive episode. I don't like it when my Bipolar gets in the way of the rest of my life. This makes so very many things difficult. I keep trying to press forward despite it but sometimes I find myself feeling discouraged and hopeless. At the moment, I am struggling with that feeling. I suppose acknowledging that I am struggling is a step towards resolving the problems created. At the same time, I feel like nothing good is going to come from this.

Now, you, my dear Reader, may question why I am making this revelation. To be honest, I am not entirely sure myself. I sat down intending to state that I am attempting to resolve a bit of writer's block and it turned into something more. Some of you may be struggling with writer's block right now also. Some of you may have another sort of creative block. Or perhaps you are feeling like your work is not good enough to see the light of day. Gods know I struggle with that one on a daily basis as well.

I know, however, that persistence is key to overcoming this kind of slump. Sometimes the question of what we personally view as quality output needs to be set on the back burner. At times, we just need to focus on producing something. Several people who I have read that wrote about the creative process cal this type of activity despite the pull of inertia things like 'priming the pump' or 'chopping wood and carrying water.' It is a practice of determination and discipline.

Even though I feel like the work I am producing right now is utter garbage, I continue to write. I just don't post it here (or on any of my other blogs) because I have very low confidence in it. Usually, when this kind of thing strikes, my writing goes off-line and my hands get writer's cramp from the volume of paper journaling I do. The nice thing about keeping an old fashioned journal is that I can put it somewhere private where no one sees it unless I want them to. That kind of privacy makes it easier for me to give myself permission to write poorly.

That is the other half of overcoming writer's block. Allowing yourself to produce work that doesn't meet your typical standard feels counter-intuitive. Or at least it does for me. (I am something of a perfectionist, so this is something I struggle with in pretty much all areas of my life.) Producing what you feel is 'bad work' somewhere that you can control access to it makes the act of producing it easier. You don't get as much of an opportunity to be anxious over someone judging it because you are the only one who sees it.

Lowering standards of performance is very hard to do for me. It may be for you as well. Something that my therapist taught me was that the temporary relaxation of high standards leads to a better ability to meet said standards at other times. I thought it sounded somewhat weird until I gave it a try. I still struggle with the feeling that every word must be a perfectly crafted thing with all the emotional nuances and shades of a masterful tone poem from Liszt or another composer of legendary stature. It is not fun to fight myself on these things.

My therapist has asked me why I continue to write when I feel like I shouldn't and when I don't feel like it is fun. It really throws her for a loop when I say that I have to do it because it is what I am. Writing is as much a part of my identity as the color of my hair, my favorite food, or my ability to mess up telling a joke nine times out of ten attempts. Some days, I don't like myself. I look in the mirror and I feel awful about what I see there. I have problems getting things done and I feel like I am the village idiot for having those difficulties. It is something that happens but those struggles don't change the fact that I am what and who I am.

I write because I am a writer. Writer's block, depression, anxiety, or any number of other hindrances to getting the words on the page doesn't change the fact that I feel that I must do it. It doesn't change the fact that I still have worlds inside my head that I want to put on paper before I depart this one. My work on a few days being poor doesn't make the rest of it bad. It just means that it is something I need to improve with some editing.

And, honestly, that is ok.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Some rambling thoughts.

So, I was in the midst of writing at the laundromat earlier this week. As I was doing so, I noticed that I was the only person there doing something productive, aside from washing clothes. Everyone else was talking on their phones, watching movies on their tablets, or something similar. It struck me as odd. Then my laundry needed put in the dryer and I decided I wasn't going to worry about it anymore.

No thinking about it didn't work out so well for me. I found myself going back to that moment during my idle moments through the day today. I sat here and asked myself questions about why it happened and what I felt about it. The more I considered it, the more I came to the conclusion that it was a difference between active and passive entertainment. While I am not one to go out and play sports, I write and I make stuff. My hobbies are numerous and allow me to have a robust post-apocalyptic skill set that would allow my family to survive pretty much anything, with a little effort. I am not active in the way that most people think of active entertainment. But the act of making things (and writing counts as making stuff, in my opinion) is something that we use our brains for and it makes the entertainment more of an active participation rather than passive observation.

And then there was the other random thing that came to mind last night as I was getting ready for bed. (I think this is when our brain ambushes us with stuff it was cogitating during the day. It always seems to happen to me.) I found myself thinking about characters and how they seem to come alive in my mind. I don't know about any of the other authors who are following my blog. I know that for myself, the stories don't really get any legs to them until the characters have moved from two dimensional background images to three dimensional egregores. I reach a point where I can't predict what a character is going to do in a given situation. I just find myself either a hapless observer or a strange participant in the story.

There are many scenes in the Umbrel Chronicles that I found myself as a bit player on the side. It made the vision of the scene and all the other sensory input even more intense. I could close my eyes and literally see the setting as though I was standing there. With a little concentration, I could smell the scents of the place and hear the noises of it. Indeed, there are times where I can even get some measure of textural or taste related concepts out of it. It doesn't happen all the time when I'm writing but it does so frequently enough that I sometimes wonder if I am quietly going mad.

I have noticed, however, every time I find myself at a place mentally where the character sasses me back or the setting has become 'real' that my writing is better for it. I don't honestly know how much of this comes out of my rather fractured psyche and how much of it comes out of my tendency to be very strongly based in the imaginative side of my mind. (It makes anxiety attacks wonderful fun, let me tell you. [/ sarcasm]) I have talked to my therapist about stuff and she assures me that I'm not going crazy, but these incidents happen and I question that.

On the writing front, I am presently taking a little bit of a break from working on book six. I clocked in just shy of 70k for my word count over the month of November when all was said and done. You'd figure with a high word count like that, I would have finished going through my plot map. It would be nice if it worked out like that this time.

Instead, I am sitting here squarely in the middle of it trying to determine how to get to the next major scene in a logical fashion. I worry that my rough draft is going to end with some insanely high number for the word count. A friend of mine suggested that it may need to be split into two books. I don't know how I feel about that idea. It is a logical one, but a part of me wants to keep the whole story together in one volume. I just have no idea how I am going to manage it.

It has me thinking that having multiple plot lines running through the series may not have been the best way to write this. But, it is the only one that makes sense to me, thus I continue. I am, however, wondering if that was a tactical error.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Desert's Edge

Sorenan sat upon his black horse and looked down the line. Soldiers who ranged in experience from their first time handling a true weapon to those who had killed almost as many as he had stood in the ranks. Marcos sat upon his white horse in his gleaming white armor. With the former mercenary in black, the pair were an unexpected sight. They had ridden along the length of the line. Marcos gave his speech urging them to courage and fearlessness. It was an passionate speech that Sorenan was surprised by. He had not anticipated Marcos as the spontaneous orator, yet that was precisely what has just happened. And Marcos's impromptu speech roused cheers from his men.

And then they moved forward. Sorenan was surprised by the quietness of their approach. A force so large, he was sure they would have made enough noise to be noticed. Still, they had reached the rise at the edge of Temna's encampment with out any incident. Now, the sun was due to rise at their backs. They awaited the breaking of true dawn to attack. Someone somewhere to Sorenan's left coughed. Small noises of men waiting for combat sounded loud to him. To Sorenan, the world had taken on a sharp clarity that made him feel as though if he wanted he could count the grains of sand. The purple of night fading in the west made him think of the sash that General Zalaz had given him.

Where Marcos wore his sash at his waist over his armor, Sorenan chose not to. He attempted to make Marcos see the danger of wearing it, to understand how someone could grapple him and pull him from his horse with it. Marcos merely replied that Ashur would protect him. Sorenan gave up the argument at that answer. So, he considered his options for how to remain close to help Marcos when trouble came but still be effective in combat. Ideas raced through his mind as he watched the skies lighten.

Sorenan felt more than he saw the first rays of sunlight cutting through the twilight gloom. He drew his sword and raised it skyward. Acting on pure instinct, Sorenan gave a mighty roar. The cry was caught by the others. Even Marcos gave a savage sounding battle cry. With that cry, the entire force moved forward. On the other side of the rise, the army of Temna was in the midst of preparing for their daily march when they heard to cry of the army of Dacia.

When Dacia's forces swept over the rise and fell upon them, it was pure chaos in Temna's camp. Sorenan and Marcos rode at the forward edge of the wave of men. As they trampled Temna's foot soldiers beneath their horses and hacked other men down, at the inner most portion of the camp, Temna's general, the sons of Omauranth, and the raider Althar armed themselves and shouted orders to their men. When it became apparent that Dacia's forces were still surging forward despite the defenses that were being mounted, the general turned to his companions.

"We must withdraw," he said, "We lose too many if we do not. I do not think this is their full force. We have others behind us. We must join them." The three sons of the bane of Julara's daughter grew angry at the suggestion of retreat. As they began to argue, Althar took up his horn. It was only a brief look he gave the general but in it he sought and received confirmation to sound the call for retreat. He blew the call and others of rank took it up. Soon, the surprised army was divided. A body of men continued to engage Temna's warriors.

As the others fled, Marcos noted the direction they ran. They passed southward. He grinned. And then a hand gripped the sash about his waist. It pulled in an attempt to unhorse him. The sash untied itself. The man was in the midst of throwing it aside when Marcos's sword flashed. It cut through the attacker's forearm. With a scream, the man watched as his hand flew from him, still holding the royal purple sash as it moved along the path he was attempting to cast it. He gripped his arm and Marcos cut again. This time, a great blow struck the man's neck. With a gurgling noise, the man staggered back.

Sorenan, who had been divided from Marcos in the chaos of battle, looked about himself. He realized that the battle was won almost as quickly as it began. He saw Temna's men fleeing and considered leading a body of men in pursuit. Looking for Marcos, he watched as the incident with the sash happened. Sorenan shook his head with amazement. As a soldier of Temna desperately threw himself at Sorenan, the warrior pulled hard on his mount's reins. The horse reared up and kicked. The man, who was struck in the head, dropped to the ground. When Sorenan's horse was again upon the ground, the man had begun to twitch from his head injury. Sorenan recognized it as a sign of a fatal blow to the head and turned his attention away.

He found Marcos striking down a man who attempted to grab the reins of his horse from his hand. With a sharp turn to the left and a swift strike, the would be assailant was grievously injured. He slumped to the ground as Marcos wheeled his horse around in a tight circle. Finding that the majority of Temna's remaining force was subdued, he looked for Sorenan. When Marcos saw him, he raised his bloodied sword in salute. The rush of combat gave Marcos an almost drugged feeling. He threw back his head and howled. Others around him echoed that cry or gave their own cheer of victory.

Sorenan rode over to Marcos who was alight with victory's joy. "Don't get cocky," Sorenan warned Marcos with a half smirk, "You may be Emperor and such, but you've still got the rest of the war to fight." Marcos laughed. He looked back towards the direction they had come. General Zalaz had arrived with the reinforcements to discover they were not necessary. He looked over the field and nodded with approval that more of Dacia's men were standing than he had anticipated.

"It seems," Zalaz shouted as he rode over to the sword-bearers of Ashur, "that your plan worked." Sorenan shrugged. "What of the rest?" he asked. Marcos looked over, the wild light of excitement from being victorious in his first true battle dropped out of his face. A look of something grim replaced it. Zalaz recognized the look. It was one he had seen on many a man when they were on the hunt of something wretched.

"South," Marcos said, "I do not think you were right. I think they have reserves waiting as well." Zalaz looked in the direction Marcos had mentioned. Open warfare in the desert was not something he had wanted to engage. He did not like the idea of trading their chariots for a force that was strictly mounted. As Zalaz's expression turned calculating, Sorenan coughed. The other two men looked over at him.

"They move towards the black sands," Sorenan said, "Zeguma stands on the edge of there. They will need support if Temna goes any farther east in their route. I don't know how we're going to out run them." Zalaz thought about the mountain of Zard Kuh and the creature rumored to live within it. As he considered these things, Sorenan looked at him expectantly.

"They can not run faster than us. They have more wounded with them. They are more weary than we are. At best, they will be a day ahead of us," Zalaz said, "If we drive them to Zard Kuh's western flank, We may have a chance of keeping Zeguma out of the fray." Zalaz found himself wondering if they were serving as Ashur's hand yet again. He questioned why the forces of Temna were to be driven into the black sands. His head filled with these uncomfortable thoughts, Zalaz moved off to find his field generals and their sergeants to get reports of how they fared this morning.