So what have I been up to since turning in The Spirit Lens? Besides catching up on some business around the house, I've been working on several writing projects.
First, despite my best intentions to avoid looking at The Spirit Lens for at least a month, I spent about a week rewriting those last 30K words. I sent it in having scarcely read it over, so there was lots to do. It is now much cleaner and I've put it aside. Giving yourself time away from a manuscript is the first rule of Revision.
Second, I've been dabbling with the opening of The Soul Mirror. I've written some notes in the line of "Unanswered questions" and "What's been happening in the four years between the books?" Much more about that in another post.
But my most serious work has been on a short story for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' 2009 anthology called Broken Links, Mended Lives. This is a 5K word story, as opposed to the 25K word novella Unmasking (Elemental Magic, Berkley 2007). As you may have guessed, I just don't write short, mostly because I don't read short. I like to get invested in characters, and I just hate it when I've just gotten involved and it's over. But I agreed to do this story - the editors are my excellent friends - and I had to do it quick. And my enjoyment in writing Unmasking had a lot to do with my agreement to do this!
So 5000 words. Not much time for world building. Not much time for character development. I am convinced that people who write excellent short stories are akin to poets. Because the trick seems to be, Make every word count. No time for those wishy-washy verbs or weasel words like very, quite, half, really, almost. No time for a plethora of adjectives or extra dialog tags.
Even more difficult, you still have to produce a story arc. Some kind of beginning, middle, end that incorporates a fundamental change. My first draft turned out flat, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world finds out something stunning that changes her life, only...I didn't show it. Her reaction was so subtle, her character so accustomed to holding everything in that she...held everything in. I knew it. I felt it. My critique group confirmed it. And...
I fixed it! It only took a few extra words. A few reactions on her part. A clearer presentation of her choice. A slightly more visible struggle. And just three or four words at the end that demonstrated her fundamental change. And it came out 5017 words.
Want to read a teaser?
Now don't think me unfeeling, but when one is ten years old and the whole world seems to be dying of plague, or slaughtering each other for fear of it, or taking flight to escape it, one has little time to grieve, or even to recall why one should. When civilization has erupted into chaos, the next meal looms much larger in importance than past grieving.
Six years I spent scrabbling in search of that next meal before I trudged up a rock-blasted hill and through the iron gate of Fenwick Priory. By that time I had seen far more of men and life than was really necessary, and taking up residence with a group of similarly exhausted women seemed sensible. The sisterhood grew vegetables, kept to themselves, and did no good works to speak of. I had no illusion that this would be a permanent situation. The sisters didn't seem that agreeable, and entanglement of any sort made me want to cram a shiv in someone's craw.
"You'll tend a plot, Girl," said the bony Prioress, licking the beaded honey from a suckle blossom grown right out of the crumbled courtyard wall. "Each of us has one."
"Don't know how," I said and scratched my itchy foot on a cracked step. "Not opposed, but I never learnt. My parents called planting hireling's work. I'll scrub for you. Fetch and carry. Steal, if you want. I'm good at those."
"You don't tend a plot, you don't eat. Go or stay, as you will."
I stayed. The road had got tiresome of late. My boots had fallen to pieces, and a thieving tallyman had jacked my knife. Bare hands or sticks weren't enough to fend off the skags now I was ripe. Last thing I needed was a squaller planted inside me. My own belly was empty half the time.
Early on my second morning, Prioress marched me down the long valley back of the priory, past twenty or so vegetable patches. "Choose," she said, waving her hand around the empty scrubland.
I didn't know squat about gardens, but I walked about and settled on a spot. "Here."
With sticks and knotted string pulled from dead women’s dresses, the Prioress staked out a square of hard gray dirt. "There's wood in the shed and a chisel to make your tools. When you're ready to plant, we've seed stock in the vault."
One of the sisters, digging nearby, mopped her sweat and snickered. She sounded like the cicadas rasping in the dry brush. "Can't eat the weeds, stupid Girl. Got to pull them before you can plant. You just chose yourself more work."
So I had. Spiky thistles and snarls of threadweed littered my plot. Thistles would sting, and tough, fibery threadweed would cut my hands, but it made sense that if something grew there now, something other might.
To be sure, the cultivated plots roundabout looked little better. Stunted beans. Wilted greens. The sisters saved them from parched oblivion by hauling water from a nearby stream, doling it out drop by precious drop. The stream itself was scarce but a trickle of spit.
You see, our land had been thirty years without rain...