What Women Read (on What Women Write)

Skolani Warrior, blade over shouldersToday I have the pleasure of being a guest on my good friend Kim Bullock‘s blog, What Women Write. Kim’s a very talented writer I met through Writer Unboxed, and she and I serve together on The WU Mod Squad–the moderating team for the WU group page. Kim is a talented writer, and I’ve had the opportunity to read her manuscript and sure-to-soon-be-a-hit-book, The Oak Lovers, based on the fascinating life and times of her great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens. She shares contributing duties on What Women Write with five other talented writers, so being invited to post there was a bit daunting. Being a guy was just a small part of it. But, since it’s almost Independence Day here in the US, I decided to take a bit of a gamble, and write my take on what women read. I figure this time of year, even with the chance it’ll be a dud, or worse, blow up in my face, it’s worth the risk. If it flies, it could be fun to watch the fireworks.

So please join me on What Women Write, for my take on What Women Read!

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_9780536_blonde-girl-in-the-scandinavian-suit-on-a-blue-sky-background.html’>demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Goals & Desires—Not What but Why

Give me a story and give me a bed, Give me possessions,
Oh love luck and money, they go to my head like wildfire
It’s good to have something to live for you’ll find
, Live for tomorrow,
Live for a job and the perfect behind—High time!”

~Harriet Wheeler & David Gavurin—The Sundays (from Can’t Be Sure)

Thomas Cole, Voyage of Life - YouthCan’t Be Sure:  I’ve been conflicted and uncertain of late. It’s not so much that I’ve been unsure of what I want, although at times that’s part of it. It’s more that I’m not always sure why I want it anymore.

It’s the new year, and rather than making resolutions, I’ve been looking at my goals and asking myself some tough questions. In my writing mentor Cathy’s Rock Your Writing January newsletter she bid us to ask ourselves not just what we want but why we want it. Those of you who know me or follow this blog know I’ve long been seeking publication for my historical fantasy manuscripts. So that’s what I want, right? Publication. Seems simple enough. Ah sure, there are other goals for the year—polishing edit for book two, revision of book three, outline for a new project—but my primary goal is to seek representation and a traditional publication deal for book one. The really difficult question Cathy asked was the second part: Why?

I’ve paid plenty of lip-service to my gratitude to my muse (and my wife) for the opportunity for self-discovery and enlightenment bestowed by my writerly journey. Writing the books has been wonderful, and I’ve met so many wonderful folks along the way, including many of you reading. So isn’t that enough? What more could I want?

“And did you know desire’s a terrible thing,

The worst that I can find,

And did you know desire’s a terrible thing,

But I rely on mine.” ~Wheeler & Gavurin (from Can’t Be Sure)

Fame & Fortune: Would you believe me if I told you I’ve outgrown the desire for fame? Seriously, of all the selfish things I could wish for, fame would be at the bottom of the list. I’m not a fan of pop culture. If I pick up a People Magazine in the dentist office, I honestly can’t identify most of the celebrities pictured. I follow very few famous writers, I like alternative music, and I rarely go to movies. I don’t enjoy being put on the spot even at a large dinner party. I’ve done my share of public speaking, so it’s not fear. I just don’t care for that sort of attention. I’m certainly not driven to seek it.

Financial success is another subject. Everything seems to come back to money at some point. I understand that to make money as an artist, a certain amount of renown, or at least recognition, is required. In publishing, making money means selling books. To sell enough books, readers not only have to buy and like your books, they have to tell others about them. I understand this.

Even with an understanding of the workings of the free market, money is not a primary driving force in my quest for publication. I spent the first twenty-five years of adulthood focused on striving for fortune. Although I am far from financially independent, I have a roof over my head, food in the larder, and warm socks on my feet. I have a smart and successful wife who supports my artistic endeavors. Don’t misread me, I want my writing to make money. I’d like it to pay a fair share of our living expenses—for my artistic output to be self-sustaining of an artistic lifestyle. But the desire to make money does not adequately answer the question of why I want to be published.Thomas Cole, Voyage of Life - Manhood

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: I admit it, there is a part of me that occasionally says, “I’ll show them,”  in regard to getting published. Surely by now even my staunchest supporters have had their moments of doubt that I would get the job done. It’d be nice to have that tangible proof—evidence in the form of a physical book—that I am indeed a writer, that I made the grade.

And I must also admit that it’s nice to be praised and admired—respected, even. When you’ve spent years on a project, pouring so much of yourself into it, few things compare to the high of having someone tell you that they enjoyed it. Sure, it’s external validation. But I am human. Yes, for me, this one is insidious.

Although the quest for validation comes closer than fame or money as a driving force, I am doing my best to resist allowing it to be my motivation. There are many good reasons to self-publish these days, and they’re only getting more numerous. I even have a few of my own (genre mash-up, manuscript length), but for now my goal remains representation and a traditional deal. I’m convinced that, besides being stubborn, I am seeking this route because I want the books to be the best they can be—to have undergone a strenuous vetting process. At some point this might change, but I want to make sure it’s not for the wrong reasons (to thumb my nose at gatekeepers or in seeking an easier route to external validation).

I know that public validation, however sweet, would be fleeting. I know I have to find deeper meaning or I will end up perpetually, if cyclically, disappointed.

“But if desire, desire’s a terrible thing,

You know that I really don’t mind,

‘Cause it’s my life,

And though I can’t be sure what I want anymore,

It will come to me later.” ~Wheeler & Gavurin (from Can’t Be Sure)

Digging Deeper: Even if I can look in my heart and honestly reject the motivating factors above, I still haven’t answered the question. I had to go back to the beginning. I’ve mentioned here several times that my fantasy writing dreams go back to my school days. And yet those dreams were all but abandoned. In between my youthful notebook scribbling and starting the trilogy, I had another successful career—another life. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d all but abandoned reading fantasy during those years as well. During my years in business I read mostly nonfiction.

Then something changed. A series of tragic events led to epiphany and life-change. If you are interested in details, Erika Liodice interviewed me about it here. In asking myself what I wanted this year, I asked myself what I sought when I started writing again.

It’s gonna be so good now,
It’s gonna be so good
Can you see the lark ascending?

Oh so romantic, swept me off my feet,
Like some kind of magic
Like the light in It
Lost its way across the sea.”
~Kate Bush (from Prologue)

Thomas Cole, Voyage of Life - Old AgeMagic & Light: Tragedy always brings change. 9/11 and the death of loved ones had shaken me. In the months after our life-change I was seeking comfort and reassurance. I wanted to remind myself that life could be good again. I found solace in working with my hands again, and in spending time with my beloved. I found healing in music and art. And in books.

In the first winter after leaving our business, I wanted to revisit my favorites, and first on the list was The Lord of the Rings. I read voraciously that winter. I read or reread Guy Gavriel Kay, David Eddings, M.M. Kay and Marion Zimmer Bradley. I reveled in the glory, the friendship and the honor I found in the pages of historical fantasies. I felt renewed by the sacrifices for love, and experienced cathartic sorrow and release in the losses. In a real world that seemed unmistakably darker, I found light in fiction. I was healed, in no small way, by reading. I was reminded of the magic. And once again I wanted to be a part of making that magic.

Arcane Aspirations: I discovered an even bolder sort of magic in writing. The process of creating story has brought me to laughter and tears, and has filled my heart in an extraordinary way. There is mystery and majesty in the vocation I aspire to, and I am still but a humble apprentice. But I know I want to bring the magic and the light into the lives of others. This is what matters. I want to be worthy of being read. And to continue to grow so that I am worthy of it again and again. This is why I am seeking publication.

Happy New Year! May you all find your ‘whys’ as well as achieving your goals for 2013. Wishing you all writerly magic, as both practitioners and recipients.   

Carving My Niche

My Hue & Cry: Many of you reading have come to know me as a member of your online writing community. I’ve often written about how important community has become to my writing journey. I’m not afraid to use the word tribe when describing those I’ve connected with in the writing world. I don’t know quite where I’d be without the help and support of my tribe. Last week I struggled, and admitted to it in this space. The outpouring I received in response to my call was astonishing and humbling. It made me realize not only how much I’ve grown to enjoy this form of communication but how nourishing it is to my life as an artist. In our tribe, we take care of our own.  

Orange Appled: Even with my new appreciation for blogging, questions linger. One of the reasons I resisted blogging for so long was my belief that writers’ blogs had very little to do with cultivating a reading audience or finding one’s Right Readers. I felt as though the two—my future readers and my writing community—were a bit like apples and oranges: both desirable but entirely different. This seemed particularly true because my genre, historical fantasy, and my tribe’s primary home base, Writer Unboxed, seemed to have little in common. But it seems like the distinction is blurring over time. I’ve met more fantasy writers in WU than I would’ve dreamed possible two years ago, primarily though the WU facebook group.

Hitherto: While I was writing my trilogy, I had absolutely no idea who would read it—who my Right Readers might end up being. It might not be fair or wise, but I’ll admit I consider it a point of pride that I didn’t try to gauge the marketplace while I wrote it. I’m not knocking those who can find the pulse of the market and then tap into their creativity to serve it. But I don’t think the approach would work for me. For me a writing project has to start with passion, and I rarely feel passionate about anything in mainstream culture. I can’t recall the last bestseller I read or the last time I bought any music from a popular top twenty list, and I very rarely go to movies. But I know I’m not alone in the things I love.

An Elan: (élannoun \ā-ˈläⁿ\ Ardor inspired by passion or enthusiasm.) One of the amazing things about the internet is its diversity. It may sound bass-ackward,  but I believe that very diversity can actually be a unifying force. David Byrne of the Talking Heads recently commented on the fragmentation of music through the diversity of satellite radio and the internet. He said, “It makes you a member of a tribe. And your taste in music ties you all together. That need is almost more important than the music itself.”   

In almost any artistic niche, one can become a member of a community. Through shared passion tribes are born. Just as with my tribe (we are all passionate about our writing), so too are there tribes built around epic fantasy, midcentury modern décor, and Lady Gaga, to name three of a million-plus unifying passions. Having an élan can be delicious, but sharing it only makes it all the more enchanting. And today any élan, no matter how unique, can be a shared experience.   

Seekers Who Are Lovers: For the sake of illustration, I’ll share one of my musical élans. I love The Cocteau Twins. I clearly remember the first time I heard their music playing in a funky little college record store (remember record stores?) in the late 80’s. It was instant attraction, but it only grew. In subsequent years, I sought out and bought all of their previous releases, most at import pricing, and instantly snatched up everything they did thereafter. Before the internet, finding rare cuts and import EPs was not so easy. All through those years I didn’t know another soul who felt that kind of passion for them. Their music is not an easily acquired taste (although over the years my wife has grown fond of them, thank God!). In fact, I know several people who dislike them. But it never mattered much to me. I love everything about them, from their overdubbed echo-laden ethereal sound to their unintelligible lyrics to their otherworldly album artwork. Heck, I even love their song titles. [Side-note: Each of this post’s subheadings is a Cocteau Twins song title.]

Treasure Hiding: At some point in my early days of internet browsing, I decided to search The Cocteau Twins, and (you guessed it) to my amazement, there is a large and thriving international community of ardent CT fans–to this day. They even have an annual festival in the UK (in spite of the CTs  having disbanded in 1996). There are remixes and rare cuts shared, and fan forums, and hundreds of videos, and so on. I don’t participate much, but the Cocteau Twins community makes me feel less alone and my élan  all the more enchanting. With the advent of the internet, treasures I once had to search out are now hiding in plain sight.

Atlas Dies Laughing: Back to writing. I mentioned my lacking when it came to preconceiving who might read my work. It’s actually worse than most of you know. I always enjoyed reading fantasy that featured elaborate world-building. So naturally, I built a fairly elaborate world for mine. But in the pursuit of my own passions and interests, I did things fairly uniquely.

For example, I’m not particularly fond of dragons, or any kind of intelligent non-humans for that matter. So I didn’t include any. Also, I am often put off by systems of magic in fantasy. They can feel like a cheap way for the hero to gain the upper hand. So I have no magic. I’ve also long felt that fantasy series with an overt delineation between good and evil were too simplistic. The real world is complicated. There is no black and white, only shades of gray. So I created antagonists with complexity and what I hope are relatable motivations. They believe they’re doing the right thing. They think they’re the good guys!

Turns out the joke’s on me. To many readers, all of these elements I neglected or rejected are the de facto definition of epic historical fantasy. The elaborate world I built fits into almost no one’s preconception of the genre I selected to explore.  

But I’m Not: I understand I won’t convert fantasy readers who expect dragons or elfin magic. And a large portion of the established epic fantasy community might reject the strong elements of romance in my work. But I’ve come to see my work’s uniqueness as a potential strength rather than a weakness. I don’t need to conform to anyone’s preconceptions regarding genre. I never had even the tiniest hope that the trilogy would be a bestseller. But those who do like a bit of romance for the MCs and complexity in their antagonists, and who aren’t so enamored of magic or dragons, might be all the more ardent about my work.

Cathy Yardley recently wrote a post I love called The Slow Writing Movement. Do yourself a favor and go read it. In it, she says, “I believe that writing means connecting with readers. I think that it’s important to know who you’re writing for. I think that this audience should be larger than simply yourself, although I think it can be considerably smaller than most would have you believe.”

I’m still striving toward figuring out exactly who I’ve been writing for, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. With the help of my beta readers, Cathy, and my tribe, I’ve come to believe a niche of Right Readers exists, that it can be more easily cultivated than ever before, and that it’ll be large enough.

Grail Overfloweth: I harbor no illusions that the readers of this blog will be the readers of my books, nor even a significant portion of you. I’m sure a few of you might read, and even enjoy them, but still not be my Right Readers, and that’s all good. After all, just because someone might occasionally enjoy hearing a Cocteau Twins song, it doesn’t mean they’ll start collecting albums. Like the CTs, epic fantasy is a distinct taste, let alone adult epic historical fantasy with romantic leanings and no dragons or elfin magic.  

But I clearly see how much my tribe and this forum are contributing to my understanding of who my Right Readers are. And as my journey progresses, and my career continues to grow, the content here will undoubtedly morph and change, and its readership with it. In the meantime, I feel quite blessed to have you beside me along the way.

Hearsay Please: Do you see a niche for your work, or does it have broad appeal? How do you think you’ll find your Right Readers? Who are your Cocteau Twins? Are you fond of something no one else seems to know about or care for? If so, who or what?

Losing My Religion

Disclaimer: As a reader of blogs, I prefer the uplifting, supportive, and/or educational variety. I’m not so sure this particular post will be any of those. In fact, there may be whining and pleading. Use your discretion in proceeding.

“Consider this, The hint of the century;

Consider this, The slip that brought me to my knees, Failed;

What if all these fantasies, Come flailing around?

Now I’ve said too much…”

~Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Michael Mills, Michael Stipe (Losing My Religion, by R.E.M.)

by Gustave MoreauLiterary Gods and Mere Mortals: As most of my posts do, this one came about because of cosmic coincidence. This time it was the juxtaposition of hearing the song referenced in the title after reviewing the Writer Unboxed newsletter, and while pondering my circumstance and unloading the dishwasher. My head was swimming with Donald Maass’s Column, and his brilliant (as always)  advice about being the god of your own work, and acting like one. I was also mulling my own column, in which I reference the courage it takes to write. While I can’t link to the specific content of the WU newsletter, if you aren’t getting your own copy, you can click here to remedy that situation.

I’d just opened the doc for my rewrite of book one of my trilogy, and I wasn’t feeling very godlike or brave. Which may explain why I was unloading the dishwasher at 10am instead of actually working.

Courage/Encourage: As I was unloading the dishwasher, I was suddenly struck by the word trust. I’d just reread my most recent version of the book’s opening, and (can you guess?) was instantly convinced it sucks. I was telling myself I just needed to do as my column advised, and have the courage to simply forge ahead. I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement of late, from my incredibly supportive wife, my mentor extraordinaire, Cathy, and my great writer friends and tribe mates.

In other words, I know there are no few people who believe in me. They trust that I can pull this off, and I trust that they believe it. All I’ve got to do is trust myself, right?

“That’s me in the corner, That’s me in the spotlight;

Losing my religion, Trying to keep up with you;

And I don’t know if I can do it,

Oh no I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough…”


Pantser Parishioner: When I started writing, trust was not an issue. I didn’t have high aspirations for what was then a hobby. Then, as the work progressed, it became something larger than I could’ve imagined when I started. I became amazed, as many new writers do, by what some call the gift of the muse. It’s truly an awe-inspiring thing to have story and characters take on a life of their own—to be left wondering ‘where in the heck this stuff is coming from.’ Even though I’d started with a rough little outline (that now makes me laugh), and long before I’d heard the term, I became a pantser.

For years I trusted that if I worked hard every day, and gave my all, I would be rewarded by the muse. So I kept writing, and story kept coming. I laughed and cried with my characters, and poured myself onto the page with (if I do say so) fearless abandon. I prayed at the Parish of Pantsing and it seemed my dedication was rewarded, to the tune of four large manuscripts.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think they were anywhere near good-to-go, but I knew there was substance at their core. My muse does not bestow fluff. I just had to polish, cut away the excess, to get the work into the proper form. It would take hard work, but the manuscripts would ‘get there.’ And anyone who knows me knows I’m not afraid of hard work. I still trusted myself to get the job done.

Oh Ye of Little Faith: There’s nothing quite like a bit of rejection to knock the faith out of a pantser. And it’s a slippery slope.

I knew I needed help. So I joined a new writerly religion, and knelt at the Parish of Plotting. The message made sense. The evidence is clear: good characterization through the development of their internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts, laid into a sound story structure, works. I’m a bit of a closet pagan, still believing in my muse, but I willingly dedicated myself to the study of plotting and story structure. I am actively seeking to adapt.

But for me there’s a problem, and it was Donald Maass’s WU newsletter post that pointed me to it. Don says “You are the God of your work—Act like One.” Good advice, except I realized: if I’m not trusting my old work ethic and my muse anymore, what’s left to be trusted? Just me! It comes down to my ability to make sense of a complex story and its adaption to story structure.

And honestly, most days I feel like a chimp with a Rubik’s cube.

In Me I Trust? Not So Much: In spite of often feeling chimp-like, I have forged ahead. I recently finished a Scene Outline, wherein I analyzed each scene to determine how and why it fit, whether or not it applies to the Story Question, and how it advances the characters into ever escalating conflict or toward the resolution of their now well-defined goals. And honestly, I felt like I could’ve made a case for and against every friggin’ scene—old or new. Since the outline, I have a new opening. I’ve discarded some old scenes, kept others, and created a few new ones. But I haven’t got a clue if any of it’ll work.

Part of it might be the nature of rehashing scenes that are now nine years old. Some days I feel like I’m merely recycling stuff that didn’t work the first time. G-M-C questions arise and swirl in my head with every paragraph. I wonder if I’m losing readers with every sentence. Is this too much description/too little? Too much world-building/too little? Does this distract from or conflict with the Story Question? And I realize there are no ‘right’ answer. Everyone would have a different opinion on each issue.

I’m Close, But I Still Can’t Reach the Damn Cigar? Don’t get me wrong. Thanks to the help I’ve gotten from the aforementioned Cathy and the feedback from some really super beta-readers (thank you all very much!), I feel like I know the story and the characters better than ever. I feel like the trilogy is worthy of becoming something special. It’s so close! But that makes this all the harder.

It’s tougher than ever keeping a fresh perspective, and thereby difficult to trust that I’m a good enough deity for the world I’ve created.

I realize the onus is on me. No muse, no muscling through on hard work, a la butt-in-chair/write, write, write. Nope, this is a tougher nut to crack. I’m going to have to think, think, think. But even that won’t do it. At some point, I have to trust. And then I’ve got to get it on paper and put it out there again. A frightening thought for someone who’s lost his writerly religion.

Anyone still there? If so, here’s where You come in: Have you ever lost faith in your writerly self? If so, did you regain it? How? How do you keep an old project fresh? Any tips on finding ways to trust yourself again? Thanks!

Taking the Longview

Opposites Attract (my attention): I read two blog posts yesterday morning that stayed with me. Do yourself a favor and go read them both. The first was an excellent post about fear, aptly titled What’s the Worst that Could Happen? by my friend and fellow writer Lisa Ahn. In it Lisa relates how her mother used to try to allay her fears by offering her the title’s query. But, as she relates: “It turns out this is not the best coping mechanism for a child with an adroit imagination. My ‘worst’ is always catastrophic.” I’m the same. I’m not claiming my imagination is as adroit as Lisa’s, but I can come up with some pretty bad stuff.

The second post was Thinking A Career, by Steven Pressfield. In his post, Pressfield makes a marvelous case for keeping a positive perspective on our potential. He says that our muse has plans for us, and that the future exists for us as writers in the form of a shelf full of our books. He asks if we’ve heard ‘the call,’ as in the invitation to our own Hero’s Journey. And he asks if we are doing everything in our power to bring our ‘work-in-potential’ into material form. I believe I have a shelf full of books, and I consider it my solemn duty to strive toward bringing them into material form.

The two posts are quite different, nearly opposites—one a witty take on the power of our imagined fear fueling our writing, the other an almost mystical take on the power of staying optimistic about the future of your work—and yet both resonated for me, and led me to this post.

Imagining the Worst—A Specialty: Lisa’s post reminded me of one of my most powerful fears. I’ve always had a fear of heights—at times it’s been near debilitating. Between my time in the business world and devoting most of my energy to writing, I did quite a bit of carpentry. It started with the building of my own house, which I’ve already written about here. As you can imagine, framing a multi-story structure, or doing any job on a rooftop, is damn difficult for a guy with a fear of heights.

I remember when I framed, sheeted, and shingled the backside of our two-story garage (the top half is our guesthouse, or FROG—free-room-over-garage). The drop to the ground is only about twenty or so feet. It wasn’t the highest work I’d done, but just below it, about where a falling object—say a person’s body—would naturally land, is a wooden fence (see picture). When I did as Lisa’s mother advised, and imagined the worst, I pictured falling backward, landing with my back (or worse–we won’t even talk about a straddling landing) hitting the fence top. Then I easily conjured an image of myself laying there with a broken back. Of course in my imagined scenario I’d be paralyzed, so there would be no way to dial a cellphone for help. And so on. Imagine yourself there, and let your own fears run wild if you dare. Might I suggest the addition of a wandering bear or wolf pack?

Good-To-Go With Vertigo: So you might be asking yourself how I did it. The secret will sound pretty simple. Forward focus. It’s more like a philosophy than a way of seeing with your eyes. It involves more than simply not looking down. Whenever I was on high, I focused all of my attention on each and every movement needed to get the job done. I’m not talking about big stuff either, like ‘today lay and nail the plywood sheeting onto the rafters.’ I’m talking, ‘put your left foot there, now your right there; now put your weight on your left hip; now reach to your tool belt, get out a hammer and a nail; now drive the nail into this corner of the plywood, etcetera, etcetera.’ I know it sounds cumbersome, and it was, but it got the job done each time. By truly focusing my all on getting each step done, I didn’t have the time or attention to be diverted to imagined paralysis or wandering wolves (no, we don’t actually have wolves or bears in our woods). And each day I survived added to a small store of accumulated confidence—until the next roof job, where the process starts over again (damn it!).

Fear and Self-Loathing in Rewrite-ville: Turns out I’ve got some pretty powerful fears regarding my writing, too. Fear of rejection is the most obvious. It can be difficult to share something so personal, let alone offer it up for subjective judgment by the world at large. And it only gets worse, I know.

Turns out that the farther you go in the process, the deeper you must ask yourself to go. During the rewrite process, in order to make your work the best it can be, you have to dig deeper, for the darkest stuff inside you. The deeper and darker you go, the more dire the obstacles for your characters, the better the work—the more likely you are to succeed. As sure as you ratchet up the fear and peril for your characters, you are ratcheting up your willingness to lay your own deepest fears and most hidden inner demons on the table… For all to see! Ironic, isn’t it?  

I’ve been navigating the angst-inducing publishing minefield in the same way I approach carpentry on high. Taking it a step at a time. First draft, check. Rewrite without knowing what you’re doing, check. Find a group of beta readers, done; try to respond to their feedback, got it. Write query letter, check; submit work—scary, but okay. Rejections all around *Cue cartoon deflating balloon sound-effect*

Okay, what’s the next step? I know, write another one—a prequel (okay, that step was mostly avoidance, but it turned to be helpful, and at least it kept me writing). What else can I do while writing prequel? Hire a pro—very scary, but did it! See? Step by step, inch by inch.

From Baby Steps to Big Ones: I just shared the last manuscript of the trilogy with my fabulous development editor, Cathy Yardley of Rock Your Writing. Some of my deepest, darkest stuff, the toughest to share, is in book three, and I feared the worst. But you know what?—I survived. She didn’t laugh at me (I don’t think) or tell me it was awful or that it would never work or that I had to change any of the major elements. She told me it needs work (quite a bit). But that should’ve been a given, right? In fact, she singled out some of that very deepest, darkest stuff as being some of my most effective writing. Go figure.

My point is, the farther you go, the bigger the steps, but the more you gain of that accumulated confidence with each one. The next steps for me are big ones—a major overhaul of the opening of book one, an accompanying rewrite (all to dig deeper and go darker), and then resubmission. But I’ve been up on this roof for a while now. I’m still scared, every day, but I’m feeling pretty good about my footing. I can allow myself to glance up and see the peak ahead. This job’s nearing completion. I’ll have to start all over again on the next one, but those are steps I can’t focus on yet.  

Taking the Longview: Some of you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Pressfield’s ‘career-in-potential’ advice. A funny thing happens after you’ve been on the roof for a while, after you’ve accumulated a small reserve of that confidence. You can start to look around, and enjoy the view. It’s still scary as hell to look straight down. It can take you right back to imagining laying down there with a broken back, unable to dial your cell. But as you near the peak, you can take the longview. You see things from a new perspective. From where I am now, thanks to the encouragement of my tribe, the affirming praise of some of my beta readers, and inspiration and instruction from pros like Steven Pressfield and Cathy, I can even see the shelf that will someday hold my books, which I can imagine more clearly than ever before.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever fully defeat my fear of heights. But I know I can keep my fears at bay well enough to enjoy the views from wherever I am on my climb. And the higher I go, the more lovely the view.

And you? What are your fears? Does imagining the worst help you deal with them? Do you have a coping method or mechanism? Have you accumulated enough confidence to take, and enjoy, the longview?

Epic Impatience

Sonically Epic: I received an email alerting me to the upcoming release of a new Sigur Rós album. I’m excited by the news, and I’ve been playing their older albums almost nonstop since. Whether you’re familiar with the Icelandic art-rock band or not, you’ve probably heard their music. It’s often featured in film soundtracks, and rightfully so. Their music is lush and atmospheric. Even though their songs lyrics are never sung in English, powerful emotions are conveyed to the listener with a language that is beyond mere words.

Many of Sigur Rós’s songs are like miniature epics. Hoppípolla, one of their best known pieces, is a good example. It starts with a restrained but subtle urgency and builds to dramatic and joyous crescendo before fading with a cathartic sorrow. It leaves you feeling… something. I’m sure that something is different for every listener.

Epic Pondering: And so it was that I spent the week considering the next steps on my journey toward publication to a backing soundtrack of Sigur Rós. The music got me thinking in a new light. Like a Sigur Rós piece, my trilogy is designed to be an epic. An epic, by definition, is a long-form narrative about the life and deeds of a hero(ine) or heroes. Because of a series of helpful rejections from literary agents, and advice from my editor (the fabulous Cathy Yardley) and my writer-friend/beta readers (thanks WU Mod Squad!), I am considering lopping off the front quarter of book one of the trilogy. This in the service of getting the reader into the action sooner, closer to the inciting incident. I understand the whys of the advice, and I’m grateful for it. The whole thing just has me wondering about patience in this immediate gratification world.

My Epic Reading History: Many of my favorite books are sweeping historical epics. They introduce you to the hero(ine) or heroes early in life, and build with a restrained urgency. They incorporate lush atmospherics. Many don’t offer up an inciting incident for many long chapters. I’m thinking of books like the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which we meet Morgaine’s mother, Igraine first. We learn all about the atmosphere of Cornwall and the vacuum in the politics of the Britons caused by the withdrawal of the Romans. The first of the story from the primary protagonist’s (Morgaine’s) point of view comes in chapter nine.

Another that comes to mind is Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. We are introduced to Carey’s heroine basically at birth. Phèdre narrates (in an incredibly powerful and unique first person voice) her own life’s story as she’s raised in the Night Court and introduced to the ways of Service to Naamah. Phèdre doesn’t move into the home of her patron Anafiel Delaunay until chapter six. And her introduction to the intrigues of the royal court, and her introduction to and involvement with her nemesis Melisande, proceeds from there. Many other books spring to mind—The Far Pavilions, The Thorn Birds, to name a few more—but I’m sure you get the idea.

Write What You Want to Read: It’s all I set out to do. I can’t get enough of epic historicals, fantasy or otherwise. And I still feel good that in the epic culture clash of the Germanic Tribes versus the Roman Empire, I have a unique setting and conflict foundation. But, in light of my situation, I’m questioning whether there is still room in the world for epics. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the story must be compelling from the first page. Every note of a Sigur Rós song draws you in, leads you on the journey. Every sentence uttered by Phèdre no Delaunay delivers intriguing atmosphere. This is the type of story I wanted to tell in Legacy of Broken Oaths. I wanted to begin with the meeting of my hero and heroine, hoping their being forced together, entwined by a destiny foreseen by their grandsires, who died long before they were born, would be intriguing to readers. I had hoped that I could create an atmosphere that drew readers in to a world of mysticism, political posturing, and looming war.

It’s on me: Then again, perhaps it’s not that the patience for epics is gone. Sigur Rós may never sell as many records as Lady Gaga, or even Adele, but they are internationally renowned. Jacqueline Carey’s historical fantasies may not always make the NYT bestseller list, but she had success with a whole new epic trilogy (Naamah’s Kiss, Blessing & Curse) set in Phèdre’s  world of Terre d’Ange, but which tells the tale of a new heroine (Moirin mac Fainche) who lives several generations later. And one has only to go to her facebook page to see that her fan-base is loyal and vocal.

It’s worth it: Perhaps I simply have yet to create the necessary intrigue. I understand that atmospherics aren’t enough. Perhaps I just haven’t struck the resonant notes needed to draw readers in quickly enough. I’m honored by the praise of many beta readers who have read on past the opening, and who have told me of their fondness for my characters and for the story. But I realize, whether I lop off the front or not, I’ve got to get them there. I’ve realized that it’s me who needs to be patient.

I’ve decided I’m up for the challenge. I’ve decided the trilogy is worth the effort. I’ve come this far, and I’m willing to continue to strive, for as long as it takes. I have the patience to read and listen to epics. Now I need to strive for the patience to perfect my own epic.

What about you? Do you have any favorite epic historicals? Is there still room in your reading or listening life for the longer form?