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Monday, September 7, 2009

The Soul Mirror Redux

Here we go again. After intensive revision on The Spirit Lens, some family fun and summer timeouts, writing the Song of the Beast story, and spending almost ten days doing nothing but reviewing Spirit Lens copyedits, the new book has sat sorely neglected over the last few months. Scarily neglected, in fact.

As always when I've been away, I take the first couple of days to read through what's there. I can't really fault it, except that it's wordy and perhaps a bit repetitive in some areas. (And who is surprised about that?) The first three chapters feel pretty solid. But something nags about the five following.

There are lots of interesting tidbits. Our heroine - yes the narrator of The Soul Mirror is a young woman, whose family has been torn apart by the events of The Spirit Lens. Anne is smart, well educated, and braver than she thinks. She considers herself plain and very dull compared to the rest of her family. She has a terrible habit of thinking of what she really wants to say hours or days after the opportunity to say it. All of which results in a person who is very reserved. And she has nasty case of hayfever. Bummer.

But after being away from the story for a while (yes, this is a really good thing, even though that February deadline is much larger than it appears in the mirror) I could see two things:

First, there wasn't enough spooky music playing. Spooky music is not just for murder mysteries like this one, where bad guys are playing around with spectres and ghosts. Spooky music is what a reader hears when something bad is going to happen. It's what tells the reader that things are not going to always seem as peaceful as they are now. It is tension, of course. Tension signals potential conflict, one of those words writers sling around like reams of paper.

A story is populated by [we hope!] interesting people. These people want certain immediate things, whether it is a shelter for the winter [like Valen, in Flesh and Spirit] or to survive the rest of his horrid life without thinking about the past [like Seyonne in Transformation]. If the characters are realistic, they have longer term wants, too, as we all do, but sometimes they can't articulate what those are at the beginning of a story. But tension is the growing certainty on the reader's part that these poor people are not going to get what they want - at least not for very long. Tension draws readers into a story and keeps them reading.

In the case of The Soul Mirror, we're starting off four years after the end of The Spirit Lens. Though the overarching mystery posed in that story was solved, some strange things were happening in the world by the end. Anne is forced out of a self-imposed blindness and into the wider world, a place far out of her comfort zone. Trouble happens along the way (chapter 3) but then, godlike, I lifted her up and set her in the new place without allowing her to get a sense of the effects of the badness of the first book. No effects implies no unsettling certainty that she's found herself in the middle of things worse than she can imagine. No tension. No story.

The second problem, as one of my critique partners so eloquently confirmed: "Geez, Carol. This is all good stuff. She meets some interesting people. I can see clearly where she is. But...nothing happens!"

Well, yeah, OK. Once she gets through the traumas of the first three chapters and is dropped into this new place, Anne meets a lot of people, some nice, some not. She takes stock of her surroundings, hears some gossip, gets set up to look into some Very Bad Things that triggered the opening of this story. But in chapter 4 and 5, nothing of note really happens. You can get away with this for a chapter - maybe, but not two, and certainly not three or four. (Yes, by Chapter 8 things were popping.) But you need action to keep the story moving forward. We can't let Anne just observe and prepare. Being a retiring sort, she needs to be challenged with events.

Now this wasn't all bad news. Everything I had written was necessary. Most of it, I'll use (except for the usual reduction of wordiness and repetitions). Writing it got me into Anne's head and her world and the situation and her feelings about what had happened to her family.

So my work is set out for me. I need to consider the ramifications of the "strangeness" at the end of The Spirit Lens and thread them into the background as Anne arrives at the center of the new mystery. And once I've wired these chapters for "tension," I'll know what events need to happen.

I start back with the beginning of chapter 4, where instead of jumping ahead to find Anne in her situation, Anne and her escort are just approaching the gates of Merona:

"Will they truly shut the gates with all these people outside?" I asked. My crawling skin and buzzing skull worsened with every centimetre closer to the city. "We’re not at war — not with anyone close enough to threaten Merona." Not that I’d heard, at least.

"It is certain...disturbances...inside the city cause the gate closings." Duplais did not shift his roving gaze from the crowd, examining the multi-hued sea of faces as if the king himself might arrive to explain further. "Officious fools believe they can stay the wind by locking the gates."

Do you hear a bit of spooky music here? Let me see if I can go find it.

I'll keep you posted.


Anja said...

Hi Carol:

I only dare to comment since you have asked!

Spooky music -- yes, for the first paragraph, though you were probably going to cut "trying to distract ... closer to the city" anyway, so I don't have to suggest it, right? OK, I think it reads spookier without it. WAR is the spooky word, not crawling skin. Buzzing sounds like a leisurely summer's day.

The explanation Duplais offers is too long-winded and vague, with few scary words in it. Fools I think is the scariest (a city or country run by fools in a time of crisis -- that's scary, isn't it?) Perhaps you could somehow start with it. King Philippe is the only other scary word (not knowing anything about him, but King means someone who has the power to help or hurt a great many people.)

I am mildly intrigued by "stay the wind" though it's a bit too vague? Perhaps because I have no idea what the story is about. I'm not sure if I should suggest a metaphor stronger than wind (storm, tide, or more sinister like: you can't keep the plague out by closing the doors), or something more specific: what is it that Duplais sees coming? Mass panic? Riots? Uprising? Revolution? Civil war?

Also, what is it that King Philippe is doing? One specific action (like: he's gone up north himself to crush the peasants' revolt) would be scarier than a vague: the spring risings have grown serious enough to engage King Philippe himself. The king isn't seen to act, only shown to have an opinion, which makes it feel passive. Give me something so that I can anticipate, and fear, the dangerous consequences of his -- possibly rash or cruel or foolish -- actions.

Hope some of my comments were helpful.

BTW, I love all the French names!

And I can't wait to read Spirit Lens. I've already preordered it.

Happy writing!



carolwriter said...

OK, Anja. Good points. So let's try it THIS way and see if the music gets slightly clearer.

Anja said...

OK, now I'm suspecting now that the crawling skin and buzzing skull has a magical explanation. Oh, no, wait, it's the hayfever. ;o)

Anyway, the passage does seem tighter and clearer to me now, and more shivery. Amazing, what a couple of ... can do. ;o) The "roving" gaze does stand out more now (and I like "roving" -- it suggests that he is worried.)

One thing I have just noticed, probably because it's closer together now: if the disturbances are INSIDE the city, how can closing the gates stay the wind? The gates would only keep the wind locked up inside the city, and I don't think that's what you mean.

I'm also a bit puzzled as to what Duplais expects the king would want to add to his explanation if he were there and where amidst the sea of faces I am supposed to imagine him (the king) appear or to be standing if he were giving an address to the people.

Ah, sorry, I should probably just keep my mouth shut. I'm sure you will come up with a wonderful solution without help from some nitpick who doesn't know more than two paragraphs of the story. :o)

P.S. Belated congrats on the Mythopoeic Award! I devoured the Lighthouse Duet. And I've just discovered the Spirit Lens excerpt and I love it. Now I'm off to read the interview at RisingShadow...



Anja said...

Back from reading the interview ...

I noticed you often call yourself a "small" author. Well, despite the quotes, let me just say that to your fans, you aren't small, but the greatest. Your stories, characters, and prose are truly memorable and really stand out.

Seriously, you are my favorite fantasy author, and I don't have many favorite authors at all. There's only Butcher for Urban and Bujold for Scifi (and recently fantasy too.) And of course Tolkien. Those are the ones I read and reread.

So I just wanted to thank you for all the wonderful books you've written and are still going to write!



carolwriter said...

Thanks, Anja.

And yes, Anne's crawling skin is part of her typical reaction to what she calls the natural energies that sorcerers call magic - sort of like her hayfever. She believes that all magic that works has a scientific explanation.

Kas said...

Small writer? Hm. I don't think I've been in a Barnes and Noble or Borders that doesn't carry your books, which suggests your popularity is such that they don't stop carrying your books :) After all, a couple books I'm reviewing right now for sfreader.com I've never seen on bookstore shelves. That's sad. I like the books.

mtbikemom said...

Not "small" for long, I think. I have personally been posting Carol Berg plugs on Brandon Sanderson's forum called The Time-Waster's Guide lately and some are promising to discover you, including their resident book reviewer. They are in for treat after treat and I am eagerly awaiting Spirit Lens. Thanks for this candid blog, Carol! The insights into the modern copy editing process was illuminating.

carolwriter said...

Thanks mtbikemom! Good words getting out on the internet are just GOLD!

Anja said...

My husband is finally reading Transformation! I've been trying to get him to read it since 2001. Ha! And he was reading during dinner yesterday and while waiting for the taxi to the airport this morning and he even took the second volume along to read on the plane.

So, I've managed to persuade 50% of all the people of my acquaintance who read novels in English -- and 100% of the people I know who read fantasy novels in English -- to read my favorite author. ;o)