WIP, Utterly Engrossing

Maple TreeI remember so clearly setting up the progress bar for Tally the Betrayals. I’d already written 4,000 words, and I’d been reporting my word-count-per-day all through those 4,000 words to a writer friend.

Me: “I think I’ve done most of the research and world building I need in order to start writing. I think I’ll start next week!”

Friend: “Start tomorrow!”

Me: “Huh. I suppose I could.”

That was a Wednesday. I did, indeed, start Thursday, and it felt great. I’d been focused on publishing tasks (covers, blurbs, etc.) for many months. Then I went through the medical emergency of a retinal tear. And then I had a troll citadel to design. 😀

It had been 5 months since I’d done any writing. I missed it. But I felt wobbly. What if I’d forgotten how?

I hadn’t forgotten how, of course. I think writing is a bit like bicycle riding. Once you know how, you don’t forget.

But I felt like I needed training wheels! So I reported to my writer friend that first week.

“Only 300 words today, but I started.”

“Better today: 800 words.”

“Now I’m getting into the rhythm: 1,200 words.”

When I reached 4,000 words, I realized that I shouldn’t lean on my friend through the entire 120,000 to 160,000 words that my novel would require. (Tally felt like a longish book to me.)

And, really, I didn’t need that much propping up. But I’d really liked reporting my word count to someone. I found it motivating and encouraging.

Just saying, “I wrote 1,600 words today,” to someone other than myself felt like getting a treat.

So I decided to set up a public progress bar on my website.

I worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to do so. (Google is your friend.)

I worried that I wouldn’t like it once I’d set it up. (“You can always take it down again, J.M.”)

I worried I would disappoint those of my blog readers who watched that progress bar, when there were days that I didn’t make much progress.

Holly TreeBut I wanted to do it. So I did!

And you know what? It worked beautifully for me.

I did figure out how to create a progress bar. I plan to blog about that process soon.

And I love updating my progress bar each day. “See, I did write 1,200 words today! Really!”

I’ve also enjoyed seeing the darker blue color that indicates words written slide farther and farther to the right. It was a very tangible marker, more so – for me – than seeing the page count grow in my manuscript file.

Now, as I look at the 113,000+ word count and the 94% slider bar visual, I feel amazed that I am almost finished.

“How can this be? It feels like just yesterday that I was putting up that progress bar with 4,000 words!”

But I am close to the finish. And, as is usual for me, I’m finding my story to be intense, engrossing, and hard-to-put-down. If only my brain didn’t become soggy with fatigue, I’d write far into the night, saying, “Just one more page,” the way a reader does when reading a good book.

But my brain ceases to hold the necessary edge around 5 PM or so. Sometimes I’m so beguiled by the events in my story that I push until 7 PM, but that’s rare. Better to get a good evening’s rest and a good night’s sleep, and start fresh in the morning.

Deck View

As I write this blog post, it is 7:15 AM, and I am sitting out on my back deck – as I do each morning to keep my circadian rhythm in sync with the sun. But now it’s been half an hour.

I’m going to go in, eat breakfast, and get started writing Tally for the day!

I can’t wait! Gael – accountant to the “dark lord” in my “dark tower” – is going to make a crushing discovery in this scene! 😀

(No, Tally does not really have a “dark lord.” It has someone much more interesting!)

The links from this post:
5 New Books!
My Torn Retina
Gael’s Tally Chamber in Belzetarn
How I Rehabilitated My Sleep



Behind Troll-magic

Talented fantasy author, Stuart Jaffe, invited me to write a guest post for his blog several months ago. He’s recently migrated his blog to a new web site with stunning visuals. Pay him a visit. It’s worth seeing. And he’s collected quite an interesting bunch of thoughtful posts on how writers create – both his own and those of others.

My post for Stuart featured my perceptions of the artistic influences behind my novel Troll-magic. I thought you might enjoy a break from the story openings of the last few weeks, so I’m reproducing that guest post here on my own blog.

*     *     *

The Twelve Dancing Princesses? Superb, but no.

Rapunzel? Lovely, but . . . also no.

Beauty and the Beast? Getting closer!

Were they favorites? Very much so!

I imagined jewel-themed bedchambers for the twelve princesses and enchanted castles for the Beast. I wondered how the tale might have changed if Rapunzel’s wisewoman never did transform into the wicked witch. Or what if the woodlands of copper, silver, and gold in the underground realm transformed into writhing metallic hydras when the crystal palace shattered?

As beguiling as I found the classics, it was the Norse folk tales in East of the Sun and West of the Moon that evoked my greatest wonder. My copy of the 1914 edition belonged to my grandmother. My mother enjoyed its stories in her own childhood. Eventually the book came to me: a family prize passed down through generations. How bizarre were its villains! How alien its culture! Grotesque crones challenged resourceful young women and men to pursue adventures weird and wonderful. Fascinated, I read and re-read it. If only there were more!

The illustrations by Kay Nielsen were an integral part of the book’s charm. Their strange beauty and elongated style presented a cool landscape of alpine flowers and glacier-scraped rock. I wished I could step right into the paintings to wander the quirky meadows, to encounter the knights on their magnificent horses, to liberate the imprisoned sun from the castle dungeon.

illustration by Kay NielsonLike C.S. Lewis, ravished by a cold clear magic of “northerness” that embodied the sacred for him, I too was seized. I did not chose my re-telling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon (the title story from the collection). It chose me! Troll-magic’s opening scene cascaded into my imagination and out through my pen (I wrote the novel longhand) like a geyser, its flow challenging my ability to keep up.

The landscape, as much as the capable protagonists (and troll crones), was a source for my creative energy. Storm-tossed waves – from “The North Wind goes over the sea” – crashed against the spire of basalt thrusting into a frigid sky where a turreted castle surveyed the arctic expanse surrounding it. Who lived there? And how did she come there? The places captured me first, and then showed me their inhabitants and histories.

In spite of my fascination with setting, it’s the characters that drive my tales. I wrap their lives around me and see what they see, think their thoughts, feel their choices. The moments that really matter – when heroic compassion emerges or grievous mistakes are made or deep wisdom coalesces – arrive as I write the scenes, surprising even me at times.

The first such surprise in Troll-magic occurred with Helaina. She’s an herbalist trapped by a curse in the insubstantial body of a ghost, and she experiments with the wrong remedy to cure her malady.

I knew the results would be poor. But the intensity of her reaction was an astonishment to me. In ghost form, Helaina can see, hear, and touch the world around her almost normally. But her hands pass right through her own body as though it were not there. Her only certainty that she is more than a dream or a figment of imagination comes from her ability to touch things. After inducing a migraine headache, her herbal remedy erodes her sense of touch, starting at the feet and edging upward.

Helaina panics. Totally logical, when you analyze it, but I didn’t arrive there through analysis. I was Helaina, feeling the sensation in her feet disappearing, feeling it fade from her legs. I felt her dread. I felt her mad run for the swimming grotto nearby, where she flung herself into its pool. The water counteracts the disaster wrought by her herbs, and her relief is as strong as her previous terror.

Then Helaina notices that her ghostly body is visible beneath the water, its boundaries delineated where the liquid ends and her incorporeal self begins. She revels in it, ecstatic. And I reveled in the wholly unexpected scene. This was creativity at its most exciting. I’d almost say, “This is why I write,” except that the first inklings of a story are equally fun. And pursuing my characters all the way through their adventures satisfies something deep inside me.

Ancient folk tales, art nouveau paintings, and the magic evoked by the writing process itself all inspired Troll-magic. Other wellsprings of inspiration contributed, but instead of exploring more of what generated my tale, I’ll invite you to experience the story itself. Here’s the opening passage in which we meet Helaina’s foster son, Kellor.

*     *     *

In darkness he touched his nose, felt his ears. Oh Sias! They were larger. More deformed. Horror shook his fingertips. What should he do? What could he do?

Chaotic memory gripped him. Stabbing tangerine light and agonizing pain. His body taken by unfathomable force and twisted, reshaped.

What was this? Where was this? None of it made sense. And the absolute blackness didn’t help. He took a deep breath. And another. There. He was steadier now. Some sort of solution existed. He could sense it, just out of reach. Closing his eyes against the dark, he stretched his mind. He’d done . . . something . . . last . . . night? It didn’t matter when. What was it he’d done? He tried again to call it to mind, pressing against the blankness in his thoughts. Breathing was part of it; patterned breathing. Which reminded him that holding his breath wouldn’t help. Someone . . . a teacher, had told him that tension inhibited . . . something. He sighed. Patterned breathing. Fine, he would do some. He breathed out to a slow count of three, then in for the same.

And then he had it. Patterned breathing and patterning. He was a pattern-master. Or, at least, an apprentice one. And he’d done . . . not patterning, last night, but a forbidden version of it. Something other. He should try it again. It had worked. Maybe it would work again. Could he do it?

*     *     *

There’s more, of course. Most online bookstores, such as Amazon or Kobo, make many pages available for sampling so that prospective readers can decide whether a story is to their taste. And then there’s the whole book! If Norse folk tales intrigue you, if fabulous worlds excite you, and if surprises delight you, give it a look.

Troll-magic at Amazon I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

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For more about Troll-magic, see:
Silmarish Magic
What Happened to Bazel?
Bazinthiad’s Fashions



Writing Sarvet

170903424_2c9eb32bfc_bI love reading fantasy (as well as writing it), largely because of the sense of wonder and possibility it evokes. The journey through a strange and imaginary landscape feels magical. And that magic compels me.

Yet setting isn’t enough. It’s the people and their doings – the story – that sustain my interest.

As a writer writing, finding the balance between story and setting can be tricky. My reader must understand enough to understand what’s at stake. Yet that necessary information mustn’t bury the protagonist and his or her very human concerns. It’s easy to err in either direction: presenting so much wonderful strangeness that the connection between reader and protagonist grows tenuous; or gliding over the setting so lightly that the protagonist’s challenges and desires seem obscure.

A brief aside . . .

Some readers prefer not to watch the sausage being made. If that describes you, this post may not be your cup of tea! I’m going to peer under the hood of one of my stories and discuss a revision prompted by my first reader’s feedback. For those of you who enjoy nothing better than seeing how an author does things, read on!

My first draft of Sarvet’s Wanderyar erred in the direction of flooding the reader with too much information about Sarvet’s culture. The women and men of the Hammarleedings live segregated from one another in sister-lodges and brother-lodges. This fundamental difference ripples through their entire society, their religious rituals, and their daily routines.

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie wandering the mountainsI dove right into those differences, and my first reader felt disoriented by it. The interesting thing to me was that the slight gap between heroine and reader didn’t manifest immediately. My reader cared about Sarvet, became invested in her wellbeing, and grew genuinely scared for her when Sarvet ran into danger. But when Sarvet encountered the crux of her dilemma – could she find the courage to confront and let go of the resistance within herself that shored up the external barriers she faced? – that was where my reader felt distance.

Not good!

I didn’t immediately know where I’d gone astray. I reviewed the climax scene. Had I failed to depict Sarvet’s dilemma fully? Did I not evoke her struggle to change vividly enough? Did I need to give more detail to her internal challenges? After re-reading the passage, I felt all that was present. And my reader agreed. She wasn’t really sure where the problem lay, what was provoking her sense of remove.

At that impasse, I was blessed with a flash of intuition.

The problem did not lie in the climactic scene itself. It occurred back at the very beginning. My reader was so preoccupied with understanding Sarvet’s milieu that she was distracted from forming a full bond with Sarvet herself.

Along with my diagnosis of the problem came inspiration for how to fix it. I would give my reader two additional scenes that not only took us deep within Sarvet’s experience and showed us a pivotal part of her history, but that also included universal human experiences: enjoyment of a light-hearted holiday and the connection between a child and her father. Here they are . . .

* * *

But Other-joy was . . . complicated. Lodge-day was just fun. She’d spent it with her friend Amara last summer.

They’d greeted the men of Tukeva-lodge with traditional tossed thistle-silk streamers – a shower of crimson, gold, purple, amber, and blue pelted at the visitors as they approached the mother-lodge. Amara’s father was a bear of a man, big and round and laughing, with a pillow of a beard. His hello hugs swooped Amara, Amara’s mother Iteydet, Amara’s aunt Enna, and Sarvet off their feet. His arms felt like tree limbs. Flexible ones. Only after his enthusiastic civility did Feljas gaze in puzzlement at Sarvet’s face.

But little Hilla never grew from belt high to chest high since Nerich!”

Amara broke into giggles. “Hilla’s picnicking with her best friend, mapah! This is my best friend, of course. Sarvet.”

Then you’ll excuse a mapah’s zeal, little sister, won’t you? I thought you were mine!” His eyes twinkled.

Sarvet found herself giggling along with Amara. “Of course,” she answered. And knew a moment’s wistfulness. I wish he were my mapah. But Ivvar would never visit Kaunis-lodge, even on the greater fete-days like Other-joy.

Feljas was more like a wixting-brother than a father. He claimed the very tip of the valley-rock for their picnic blanket, teased Enna unmercifully about the damage her long eyelashes would do to the hearts of unlinked brothers, juggled their luncheon pears in fancy patterns before passing them to each sister for eating, dropped kisses on Iteydet’s cheek every fifth sentence, and pulled a sack of luxurious dried cherries from his capacious pocket for dessert. Then he fell asleep under Sarvet’s amazed gaze.

Her expression must have conveyed her astonishment, because Iteydet ventured a laughing explanation. “He’s always like this. Never stops until he really stops. In sleep. If I had to live with him day-in and day-out, like a sister, he’d wear on me.”

But Hammarleeding women didn’t live with their men. Sarvet had heard rumors that the Silmarish lowlanders did. Here in the mountains, sisters lived with sisters in the mother-lodges. And brothers lived with brothers in the father-lodges. As was proper.

Iteydet continued: “He’ll wake again soon. And I’ll be glad of it. It’s not a proper fete-day without Feljas’ jokes!”

He did wake. And proposed a game of tag combined with rolling down the mountain slope. Enna refused, but the sisters occupying three blankets near theirs were persuaded to join the fun, even including the normally staid Teraisa. Sarvet surprised herself when she abandoned keeping Enna company mere moments after her own plaintive refusal. Her limp was no disadvantage when rolling, not running, was the mode of movement.

The whole day had been like that: merry and easy and . . . loving. Would she trade Other-joy for Lodge-day? Yes! Well . . . maybe. Sarvet ducked her head down under the covers. No. Other-joy is special.

* * *

Sarvet still didn’t want to think about it. And yet she did.

What was her first experience of fathers? She didn’t really need to ask that question. She knew the answer. I’m just delaying. She’d been little, really little. How many years did I have then. Maybe five? It was one of her earliest memories. She was sitting in a clump of alpine flowers making a chain from the blooms, carefully selecting all the pink ones, when a shadow fell over her. She’d looked up to see . . . a father looming against the sky. He seemed as tall as the clouds, and his bearded face scared her.

Sarvet?” His voice was gentle and his eyes kind.

He knelt so that she wouldn’t have to crane her neck to look at him. “Do you remember me?”

She didn’t, but her fear ebbed. He looked nice.

I’m Ivvar, your mother’s linking-brother.”

She still didn’t remember him, but she held up her flower chain to show him. It was nearly done.

Beautiful,” he told he. “Would you make one for me?”

And she did, a yellow one, not pink.

He’d just draped it around his neck and was thanking Sarvet when her mother arrived, hot and bothered and annoyed. “You shouldn’t be here,” Paiam declared.

I’ve a right.” His voice was equable, but he stayed seated on the grass.

Paiam went on to argue with him. Sarvet couldn’t recall the words, but Paiam’s rage seemed to cover another feeling. She would have been crying, except that Paiam never cries.

Sarvet did remember the end of it. While Paiam stood by in fury, Ivvar had taken his daughter kindly in his arms and kissed her forehead. His lips were warm and dry. “Goodbye, little Sarvet. I’ll love you forever.”

You’re going?” He’d been a fun play fellow. It seemed a shame to lose him just when she’d found him.

Yes, I’ll be living at Rakas, not Tukeva, now. The brothers of Rakas visit a different mother-lodge.”

Oh.” She’d been placid then, accepting his farewell. Now . . . now she felt differently. Paiam drove him away, shun her! I could have been like Amara and Brionne, seeing my own father several times each year, if it hadn’t been for her. With a small shake of her shoulders, Sarvet opened her eyes.

Her mother was seated on the bench in front of her, a little to the right. She had the same expression on her face that Sarvet felt leaving her own features: faint distaste mingled with longing. Sarvet winced. I don’t want to be like her. She looked away.

* * *

photo of old manuscriptDid my revision do what I wanted? Would my reader walk more fully in Sarvet’s boots? That was the question, indeed. I sent the revised manuscript off to my first reader and waited with baited breath.

Her answer: a resounding yes! She’d experienced no sense of distance at all, feeling thoroughly there as Sarvet confronted her destiny.


My reader did suggest one other minor change. I’d made Sarvet a bit on the young side for the story that emerged. She needed to be closing on 16, rather than 14 approaching 15. Plus there were a few more typos to correct. But in all essentials my story was complete.

I’d learned once again how important a first reader is to my process. I’m too close to my story to always perceive how it touches my readers. I need one of them to report back from the reading front!

I also learned that an error at the story’s beginning may hide for an interval, manifesting only in a later passage. Who would have guessed? I love these unexpected revelations, whether they’re within a story or outside one. This is why I write!

For more about the writing experience, see:
The First Lines
Writer’s Journey



Dreaming the Star-drake

dragon profile against starry night skyOne line in Rainbow’s Lodestone inspired Star-drake.

“The star-dragons and the wind sprites, her usual companions, could not visit her here.”

I wanted to know more about the star-dragons and the wind spirits with whom the rainbow played. Surely they would have missed her while she sojourned on the mountain, shut away from her native sky.

It felt like a story awaited me within that notion.

My concept of a wind spirit came from a snippet in Raggedy Ann Stories by Johnny Gruelle. Two little girls – sisters – lose their rag doll at the beach. He is rescued by the Tide Fairies who pass him to the Undertow Fairies and then on to the Roller Fairies and the Spray Fairies. At last the Wind Fairies carry him home to the little girls’ garden. A wonderful illustration depicts beautiful sea spirits surfing the whitecaps and tossing Freddy (the rag doll) into the sky. My wind spirits resembled them, I felt sure.

But what was a star-dragon?

I settled myself to meditate on the question, hoping for an answer. These are my notes: star-dragons are creatures of darkness who dwell in the blackness between the stars. They are emptiness. Shadow. Nothingness. They are the terror of these things, and they are the potential within these things. Nothingness has space for beginnings and newness.

The star-dragon in my story takes a terrible vengeance. He seeks out evil, strips it down to nothing, and re-creates it transformed: a newborn star-drake, destined to seek evil and transform it.

The final stone of Star-drake‘s story foundation lay with the travelers who engaged the rainbow near the end of Rainbow’s Lodestone.

Who were they? Where did they come from? I thought some more.

Emrys, the “ice-man,” was brother to the king of Tuisil-land, a small island kingdom far to the north. Emrys journeyed because he mourned and hoped to ease his grief in roaming.

Haral came from the Hammarleeding enclaves in the Fiordhammar mountains. He’d extended his wanderyar (the year of travel that most Hammarleeding boys take when they turn sixteen or seventeen) to continue studying duoja (magic) under the unusual tutelage of a Tromme-man, Paavo.

Paavo’s discipline of energetic shamanism is completely different from the Hammarleeding duoja, and Haral is fascinated by it.

The moors west of the Tahdenfiall mountains form part of Paavo’s regular ambit. He travels from settlement to settlement, much like a circuit judge, but he brings healing and insight rather than justice.

Tor and Lilli – grandson and grandmother – hail from Silmaren’s lowlands. They stumbled upon a worrying clue in their home hamlet and set off to track it down. I won’t say more here, because I envision a full trilogy stemming from their adventure!

Tallis I know the least about, possibly because she holds the most to know. She’s a salver, a healer, and is connected to Tor’s and Lilli’s quest. Yet she has her own problem to explore and resolve, one that will likely require the entire middle book of that trilogy.

With these elements – the winds, the star-drake, and the travelers – I was ready to begin, to move from dreaming to writing.

“Láidir couldn’t find her anywhere.”

On the chance that my dreaming has inspired you to read Star-drake,
I provide the links for the ebook.

Amazon I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

Gefnen hunts victory, but a darker victory hunts him.

For more about the writing experience, see:
Behind Troll-magic
Writing Sarvet
Writer’s Journey