St. Mantid ACEO

Working itty-bitty these days, apparently!

2.5 x 3.5, mixed media

St. Mantid, just to get the joke out of the way, did indeed spend a lot of time praying. He was the head of one of the largest order of mantis monks, followers of St. John the Baptist (male mantises often choosing celibacy and strongly identifying with those who have been beheaded, for obvious reasons.) Several miracles were attributed to him, including the Miracle of the Loaves and Aphids and the Reattachment of the Head of Brother Ignatius, who fell victim to carnal sin and later returned to the monastery carrying his severed head in a sack.*

*Brother Ignatius was never quite right after that, but did receive flowers from an unknown admirer every year on his birthday.

 

This is an ACEO (art card) sized piece, matted to 2.25 x 3.25, with metallic copper halo. The original is for sale, and will probably go to AC unless somebody wants to jump on it. I’m also doing a limited run of 7 prints, also matted, hand-painted to also have the metallic copper halo. (I like Luminere fabric paint for that–much more opaque metallics than you get in straight acrylic.) The first and last of the series will be saved for con art shows, the other five are for sale for $25 apiece until I sell out—send an e-mail if interested to get shipping info and whatnot.

So you want to buy a minion badge…

Proving yet again that You Just Never Know, Do You?, there seems to be a lot of interest in Minion badges!

At the moment, the best way to get one is to e-mail me. They’re $10 plus $2 shipping US, $4 international, and the problem is that my shopping cart, while very flexible in many regards, tends to choke and die on shipping issues, so we gotta do this the hard way.

So! E-mail to ursulav(at)gmail.com,* tell me what country you live in and how many you want, and I will get you a quote! (I tend to start giving discounts on larger orders, which is another point over the automatic shopping cart system.)

If you’d like to reserve one for AC, to be picked up there, also send me an e-mail, and I’ll do so!

 

*This is the one that really works all the time. Some of the old ones go to my ex-husband, so, err…update?

Minion Badges

His name is Minion-Bob.

Made up a “Minion” badge for AC, since a large proportion of the con always claims to be there as somebody else’s minion. I figure I’ll print up a couple of these pre-made, in case anyone wants to really prove their point. (Given that people tend to buy Their Species Only, I anticipate selling maybe three, but you never know.)

Kevin says that if I make one that says “SHERPA” with a yak on it, he will wear it. But I doubt anyone would notice it amongst the SparkleKevin badges…

Still not dead!

Back from ConQuest! Very fun little con, really enjoyed it, got to meet some fans and talk to some fascinating people—there was a woman who worked with cadaver-finding dogs! This was so interesting! And apparently awkward, because of course the dog is out there to find dead bodies, and if they do their job, you have to reward them and make a big fuss over them, so the handlers have to have a spotter to talk to the family and sort of get them aside so that they don’t notice that there’s a woman going “Who’s my good doggie? Who’s the bestest dog ever?” and playing with the dog in an enthusiastic manner that would be wildly inappropriate in such a situation, except that–well–dogs.

This was great stuff. Loved it.

We did have some unfortunate flight problems Friday, when our plane was discovered to be unsafe to fly, and being the Friday before Memorial Day, there wasn’t a seat to be had anywhere. So we had to fly out Saturday, and missed part of the con, but everybody was very nice about it.

And there was a fruit and cheese plate in the room. Seriously, I cannot stress enough how happy this makes your GoHs. You come in tired and a bit hungry and sloggy from a long trip and you get to the room and all you want to do is fall down for a few minutes and OH MY GOD, SOME KIND SOUL HAS GIVEN ME CHEESE! Seriously, you will never spend a better ten bucks on guest relations.

Got back fine, turned thirty-five yesterday (woo!) and took today off to go buy plants for myself. Tomorrow I have to start making art for the AC art show. I have the big pieces done, but all my medium-sized stuff sold at ConQuest, and now I gotta scramble.

Loathly

I think about folk music more than I should.

I listen to a lot of it, you understand, and being me, I find myself wondering about all the bits around the edges—did Lord Donald marry again? Who was tithed to hell instead of young Tam-Lin? Did William Taylor’s bride have anything to say when his jilted lover showed up and shot him at the break of day?

Child Ballad 32 is a loathly lady story. The only popular version I know of is Steeleye Span’s “King Henry,” on Below the Salt. I have had this album for well over a decade, and occasionally I found myself wondering about the monstrous lady in the story, and even more about King Henry, who agreed to kill his horse and hawk and hounds to feed her. I don’t know that I’d easily forgive someone who forced me to kill my dog.

This had been kicking around in my head for the better part of a decade, and then I was privy to a very odd conversation in a bookstore about people with extreme forms of body dysmorphic disorder, and then I drank a lot of coffee and drove for about forty-five minutes and “King Henry” came on the CD player and I went home and wrote the story in one long jag, which probably explains a few things about it.

I cannot tell you if it’s good, because it may not be. It was painful to write, and I can’t say I enjoyed doing so, and I didn’t feel like I fit back into my skin quite right afterwards.

One could, with justice, write this story from any number of points of view. This is the one I wound up with. If it reads anything like it wrote, then it will be a sad story and a bitter one, and I don’t know that you’ll enjoy reading it. (And if it does not read like it wrote, and is merely overwrought and gloomy and plagued by adjectives, then you will not enjoy reading it for entirely different reasons. So there’s that.)

Still, I think I feel on some level that if I throw it at the blog, I can be done with it, and rather like having your ears finally pop after a plane flight, I will fit between my skull bones properly again, and need not worry about it anymore.

If you are fond of trigger warnings, take a handful from the bowl.

 

“Loathly”

 

My husband never forgave me for the hounds.

Everyone knows the song by now, I suppose—how the king was hunting, and stayed the night in a haunted hall, and a monster came in the night and trapped him inside. He killed his animals—“his hawk and his horse and good greyhounds”—to feed her, and then she demanded that he lie down beside her as man and wife.

When he woke in the morning, the monster was gone, and he held a beautiful woman in his arms, with the whiff of elder days about her.

The song is true, more or less. He wasn’t the king, but a younger prince, and no one ever comes up with a suitable rhyme for “goshawks.” And I would deny categorically that I was “the fairest lady that ever was seen,” then or ever. But most of the other details are right.

I did not want him to kill the hounds or the horse or even the mad-eyed goshawks, which made such pitifully small mouthfuls of feathers.  But I was given no choice in the matter. These things were, you might say, the conditions of my parole.

I was enchanted two or three hundred years ago, as near as I can determine. The reasons don’t matter now. Everyone involved is dead, except for me. I have not been able to find records of my father’s house, or of the sorcerer that enchanted him, and my sense of time passing was blunted by the years. Acorns turned into worm-ridden oaks and came crashing down, tearing holes in the forest canopy around my hall, and I endured.

I should have started marking the seasons, I suppose, but I was not thinking clearly. Being turned into a monster will do that to you. I was sunk into despair, curled up in the back of the ruined hall. Hunger was the only thing that drove me outside. It may have been several seasons before I travelled more than a hundred yards from the hall, and ate more than lichen clawed from the stones.

I was—well, I suppose I was a sort of bear-like creature, but a bear crossed with something else, and larger than any mortal bear had ever been. I had shaggy fur and horns like a cow, and enormous claws.  My eyes were very large, and the edges of my tongue turned up against my fangs.

It was a long time before I could look at myself in a still bit of water without screaming. Screaming only made it worse, because they weren’t proper screams at all, but the bellows of a monster. It was too exhausting. I stopped looking.

My claws bothered me the most, because they were always in front of me,and I couldn’t ignore them. But they were useful for tearing into rotten logs to turn up grubs, sometimes even honey, and I learned to flip fish up onto the banks with them. The magic would not have let me die of starvation, but it did not much care if I felt hungry, so I learned to fish and eat grubs and mushrooms and anything else I could find.

The first knight came to the hole a year or two after the enchantment took hold. I tried to hide from him.  I was ashamed. I had been beautiful, and now I was a great shaggy monster reduced to eating insects and gnawing strips of lichen off the stones with my teeth.  I did not want to see him. I was afraid that he would try to kill me, or worse, that he would recognize me.

It was the magic that dragged me out of the ditch where I was cowering. It walked me up the pathway like a marionette and forced me through the open doorway. The knight started up, looking shocked, and I dug my claws into the floor until the nails split and tried to beg for mercy.

The magic pried my jaws open, and in a voice like stones grinding together, I demanded meat.

He attacked me. The magic used my claws to kill him.

 

I think I went a little mad after that.

I did not eat him. I want to be very clear on that. Sometimes the songs say that I did, but the bodies vanished into the magic without any help from me. But I went blundering out of the hall, bellowing. I rolled in mud and wiped my claws endlessly in the grass, trying to get the blood off. I tore at tree trunks, trying to scrape it off in the clean heartwood, tearing down great swaths of ivy that fell across my face and back until I could hardly move.

Eventually my claws came clean again, but I could smell his blood for days afterwards, a coppery stink that clung to my fur and stuck in the back of my throat.

It was a long time before I could go back to the hall. I don’t know that I would have, but the magic poked and pinched at me, the murderer returning to the scene of the crime.

And yet, when I did return, I was glad. The twin saplings growing on either side of the door, one a little closer to the wall than the other, were like friends. The tumbledown wing with the shattered beams and the nests of wood-doves were familiar. I felt glad. It was an unexpected sweetness, like tearing open a ruined tree and finding wild honey inside.

The body was gone. The bloodstains seemed old and faded. I allowed myself to hope that it would not happen again.

The second knight came in winter, and he had such frightened eyes. I would have let him go—I swear I would have—but when the magic took me by the throat and I growled “Give me meat!” he fell down and begged for mercy.

Mercy is not the same as meat. I killed him, still on his knees.

 

I tried to commit suicide several times after that, but the magic would not let me. Monsters do not drown easily, and I tore the hide around my throat to shreds without ever getting near the vein. When I ate poisonous mushrooms, I shook and sweated and lay in a puddle of my own vomit for three days, but I did not die. It was a cruel immortality.

There were more knights after that. Some of them attacked me at once. One or two listened to my demands, but they balked at killing their horses to feed me. I appreciated that. It was an unkind thing for the magic to ask. I bore their horses no ill-will, and when their masters were dead, I cut the traces and sent them wild-eyed back to their stables.

The magic was very particular about knights. I suppose the sorcerer had some grudge against them. I saw a woodcutter several times and while I did not show myself, the magic had no interest in him. A band of gypsies moved into the hall for three nights while it hailed outside, and I slept in a den beside the river and offered none of them violence. It was only ever knights.

One knight brought a priest who threw holy water in my face. “Begone, fiend!” he cried. I laughed like an earthquake because it was all so stupid and hopeless. I killed the knight—I had to—but the magic did not care about the priest, so I let him go.

You would think that the priest would have warned others away, but instead more knights came in a flood, ten or twenty of them, sometimes as many as three in a week. It is terrible how rapidly killing becomes banal. The murders became a horrible play that we acted out together, and I began to hate the knights for forcing me into my role. I hated their bravado and their foolish metal weapons that barely marked me. I hated their stupidity. I hated the magic that drove me, but the magic did not needle me if they stayed out of my hall, so it became easier and easier to kill them.

A philosopher would probably say something wise about becoming a monster in heart as well as form, but we did not get many philosophers in the woods.

I don’t know which knight it was that finally killed his horse. The magic drove me stomping and snarling into the hall and I uttered my lines—“Give me meat!” and instead of attacking me or begging for mercy or looking at me with total noncomprehension, he said “Very well,” and cut his horse’s throat in front of me.

I hated him more than any of the rest put together. The horse was entirely blameless, which was more than you could say of the knights. It was a gray horse, and it made a horrible choking noise as it died.

He brought the meat into the hall, and the magic lowered my head. It was still warm, and I thought with every bite that I would be violently ill, but the magic had hold of my teeth and tongue, and I swallowed and chewed and swallowed and chewed and thought that the nightmare would never end.

The only virtue of being a monster is that we take very large bites.

 

When the horse was nothing but bloody bones and hide, the magic took my voice again, and I demanded something to drink. “Very well,” said the knight, and threw me an entire skin of wine that had been draped across his saddlebow. I drank it. It was probably drugged, but if the mushrooms hadn’t killed me, I had little hope of this doing the job.

Both the knight and I were listening closely to see what I would say next. I licked the last drop from the wineskin—mercifully, it blotted out the taste of the gray horse—and opened my mouth and said “Lie with me tonight.”

Oh, you may think that being a monster renders one immune to shame, but you would be wrong. If I could have blushed under my fur, I would have. To say such a thing—to say such a thing to a stranger—and I in the form of some disgusting horned beast with claws like daggers—dear god!  I wanted to tear a hole in the stone floor and hide myself in it. I had been a virgin girl, you know, before the spell, and certainly there were no males of my kind in the wood.

Revulsion showed plain on his face. I was glad to kill him then, as he choked out his refusal. Horse-killer. Did he think that I wanted him? Once he was dead, no one would know that I said such a thing.

It was just as well that the wine was drugged.  I slept in the corner of the hall for a week, until the first thought in my mind upon waking was Food and not Lie with me tonight.

There was a long stretch without knights and I dared to hope a little. The ground where the gray horse had been butchered was cloaked with ferns and I could look at it without seeing bones. But eventually spring followed winter, over and over, and another warrior forced his way through the woods to my hall.

The device on his shield was strange to me. He did not kill his horse, but the next one did—his horse and his hound as well. I wept over the hound. I don’t know what he made of that, and he did not live long enough to tell anyone about it.

So it went for a long time. None of them agreed to my last demand. There was a group of a half-dozen that came with a net and boar-spears. They were the closest to killing me, I think. I was not able to get the last spear out of my hide by myself. My claws could not grip a spear shaft easily, and it was high up on my back, under the shoulder. I pawed at it until it festered, driving the broken shaft deeper, and while the magic would not let me die, it did nothing to heal me either.

The pain might have driven me truly mad at last, but a mad hermit had settled into the forest that year, and when I came blundering and feverish out of the woods, he did not run away.

I say a hermit—he might have been a saint. St. Francis, who preached to the birds, might well have ministered to monsters.  This one kept up a steady stream of nonsense and prayer, and when I flopped myself down on the ground, he came towards me, muttering of Androcles and the lion. He stepped up on my shoulder and pulled the spearpoint out—I bellowed—and that was the end of the matter.

“Eh?” he said, waving the spearpoint at me. “Eh? All right and tight inside your skin now, Beast? Shall you eat me now? Perhaps I should eat you instead! You look as if you would taste of onions. I might, you know. If I had cheese.”

I visited him often after that. Never when I had just killed. I did not trust the magic to lie quiet when there was blood on my claws. But after a week or two, when I had lain in my den and dreamed red dreams, I would shake myself off and roll in the stream, and go to see my friend again.

“Now where do you go, Beast, when you are gone for so many days?” he asked. “No matter! I am wearing the moon in my hat tonight, do you see?”

I had no speech, except when the magic dragged it out of me, but I liked to hear him talk. It reminded me of being human. Sometimes I brought him fish. He didn’t seem to mind the toothmarks.

“Such a great beast you are!” he said. “Your eyes glow in the dark, and your claws are larger than my little knife. You will have the larger share of the fish, then, and I will have the smaller.”

I had not known that my eyes glowed in the dark before. It is not the sort of thing you notice yourself.

You may think that it would bother me to have myself so described, but it had been…oh, a very long time. You get used to things. When I caught a glimpse of myself in a still pond, I expected to see a monster now. My eyes saw very well in the dark, much better than any human. My hide was coarse and hairy and knobbed with scars, but it turned spearpoints aside. I did not love my claws, but they were mine, and they were useful for dispatching fish.

And knights.

 

The hermit grew old and died. I think it was that that made me most aware of the passage of time. His beard had been black when he came to live in my part of the forest, and when he died, it was dirty white and thick enough for a swallow to nest in. The saplings by my door grew into trees, and one came down in a windstorm, and three more grew up in its place. Seasons had piled up together while I brought the hermit fish and listened to him twitter like an old bird.

I dug him a grave with my paws. I was clumsy picking him up. My claws tore at his skin a little, and that distressed me much more than killing the last few knights had done. I howled my distress until the ground shook, but I believe that he would have forgiven me. He was a kind man, although he ate far too many mushrooms.

I lost track of the years then, in grief. In my father’s hall, long ago, they used to say that it is not a good idea to mourn someone for more than a year and a day, for fear that their ghost will not lie quietly. If the old hermit’s ghost walked in the forest, I never saw it.

Does it seem strange to you, to say that in my great grief I also found moments of great joy? Perhaps it was strange. I grew very old in the forest, but not among people, and my understanding of human hearts remained that of a girl.

Nevertheless, there were moments. I recall standing in chest-deep water, the sun glittering hot through the trees, and watching minnows tug at my fur where it drifted in the water. When I climbed on the shore and turned back to look for them, I saw myself in the water. Duckweed hung from my horns like garlands, and I bellowed with laughter at the sight. When I tossed my head, the duckweed flew in all directions, and I laughed harder, stamping and prancing and howling until the trees shook.

There was a spring when the foolish wood-doves built a nest low to the ground, inside the hall itself, and raised three chicks. For weeks I did not move more than a hundred yards from the spot. The chicks were endlessly fascinating—first wet and slick and unfinished, then awkward balls of skin and fluff, and finally graceful deep-breasted birds with round eyes. When they fledged at last, I missed them terribly, but I was prouder of their first flight than I had been of anything I had accomplished in my short life as a human.

Time passed. I endured.

The last knight came to me in autumn. I was not surprised to enter the hall and find him—his horse was tethered outside, and had shrieked and pulled violently against the rope when I came into view. I didn’t blame him. I was a terrifying beast, and I had eaten far too many horses.

They had cut down one of my saplings. It took me a little time to realize why the face of the hall looked different, but I roared when I saw it.

There were huntsmen in the hall, in addition to the knight. They had set up a temporary camp in the hall, it seemed—there were rings with red-eyed hawks on them, a deer roasting over a fire, and a pack of hounds cowering in the corners. They had smelled me coming long before I arrived.

The huntsmen fled through the tumbledown slabs of stone, clambering over the rafters and throwing apologies over their shoulders to the knight. “My prince,” they called him.

Interesting.

The hounds were more faithful. They crept to the prince’s feet and whined in their throats.

I stomped on the floor, up and down, until the walls shook. “Give me meat!” I thundered.

Refuse me, I thought. Let us end this quickly.

“As you wish,” said the prince, taking the deer from the spit—a spit made of my sapling—and tossing in down in front of me.  “This is your hall, and I have trespassed.”

I ate the deer. It took five or six bites. It was the first time I had eaten cooked meat since the hermit died.

“More meat,” roared the magic.

“You have eaten it all,” said the prince.

“Kill your horse then,” said the magic. Please, say no. Your life is forfeit already, prince. Please refuse me. I do not want to choke down your horse’s flesh.

“As you wish,” he said again, and went outside to kill his horse.

None of the other knights had brought hawks with them. I ate them next. They died with hoods on, their necks wrung, and they were not even a mouthful each.

I wept for the hounds. So did he. That was the moment that I remember most clearly. He sobbed as he killed them—one hoarse dry sob apiece—and I sobbed as I ate them. The last one whimpered piteously as its fellows died, and looked up at the prince with terrible trusting eyes to the last.

I prayed to fall down dead, but the gods had abandoned me long ago. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted the world to be unmade, so that it never came to this moment at all. He looked at me, and I saw that I had made him choose between his own life and something that had loved him, and the knowledge of his choice fell between us like a blade.

I ate the hounds. He has never forgiven me for that.

“Lie down beside me,” I said that night, in a voice choked with wine and misery. The prince nodded jerkily and laid his mantle across the floor. “As you wish,” he said aloud, and then, in a whisper, “God have mercy!”

My hearing was very good. I shuddered and lay down.

The prince was as good as his word. He lay down beside me, on stones slicked with the blood of hawk and horse and hounds, and we touched. I could not feel him—my hide is far too thick for that—but I could smell him, and hear his heart beating against the stones. I stared into the darkness. I was sure that beside me, he was staring into the darkness as well.

He was revolted to lie down beside a monster. I was revolted to lie down beside a man who would kill his own hounds to appease a forest beast. Our mutual loathing was a strange and unwelcome intimacy. I felt as if I could smell his thoughts.

The sleep that came upon me was the magic’s doing. I slept as one dead.

 

When I woke the next morning, I felt small. I went to sleep larger than a bear and woke as a woman. My hands were tiny clawless things. My hide, that could turn swords and spears, had dwindled to skin as thin as paper. There was a naked man beside me, and he was awake as well.

He did what men do with women. I did not fight him. I was too small in my new skin, and my bones felt as fragile as a goshawk’s. If I had put my hands against his chest and pushed, surely they must have snapped, and gained me nothing.

Regardless, I do not think he took much joy of it. It was all of a piece with the terrible night that had passed, with the dead hounds and the dead hawks and the dead horse. It hurt, but not as much as a boar spear in the back, and I did not make any sounds at all.

There is little enough left to tell of the story. He was a younger prince, and could marry a mysterious woman of questionable origins without stirring too much outrage. The magic may have laid itself on him, or perhaps he felt that it was only just, after having lain with me in the hall. He is always an honorable man, my husband.

Well.

I am not, it must be said, quite as I was. I can still see in the dark better than a mortal woman should. When the light flares up, my eyes reflect it back green, like an animal’s. My fingernails are very sharp, and I take care to keep them blunted. We have had no children. It is, I think, for the best.

I still have a hard time with mirrors.

I am not aging quite as I should either. They have had priests in to bless me, but it does neither the priest or my husband any good. He is growing old, and I am not. This is another thing that he cannot forgive me for.

Before too long, he will be dead. He has taken a cough that will kill him soon, I think. His people do not love me, and I am very tired of them, of all their voices that never stop chattering, and of this closed-in place, and this brittle skin that keeps me bound.

On that day, when he has died, I will leave this place. The forest is still there, and the tumbledown hall. The magic is there, too, in rags and tatters. I hope that enough is left.

I will walk through the open doorway, framed by the trees that used to be my saplings.  When I set foot on the stone floor, on the stain left by the blood of men and dogs, my hide will grow thick again, and the ground will shake under my footsteps. These fragile, foolish fingers will be replaced by my own strong claws. I may die of the change, but I would rather die than live like this.

If I live long enough, I will drag myself down to the still water, and look down, and see myself.

As I should be.

 

So Your Book Just Got Edited…

Enough people made vaguely interested noises in the editing process that I thought I’d talk about it a bit. It’s definitely the tedious, grim, discouraging bit of the process, but it occurs to me that you, O Prospective Author, may find it even more traumatic if nobody tells you what to expect!

First, two caveats. I’ve had…I think…twelve books edited at this point, and that’s awesome, but the vast screaming majority were Dragonbreath books, and as editing goes, that’s a walk in the park with singing and dancing and happy bunnies frolicking in the grass. Only two or three required actual serious story-construction editing, where I had to grab whole scenes and shove them somewhere else, and my editor said things like “I don’t know–this bit just isn’t working here.” In 15K, you have to get everything done RIGHT NOW, and there is not much time for subtlety. This makes them tougher to write, in some regards, but it also means that I can edit most of them in an evening. (I believe I once edited one in an hour, at about 3 AM when I couldn’t sleep.)

This is not what happens with novels. It is not what happened with Nurk, although that was certainly a very short book, and not what happened with Black Dogs and not what is happening with Bread Wizard, which is the book that lies before me, quivering, with its delicate little organ meats splayed out on the slab. (Seriously, this is kinda what it feels like. Editing is like major surgery. On both you AND the book.)

Second caveat—I would love to hear from some other authors on their experience. This is JUST what’s happened to me, and may not be universal by any stretch. You’re talking to someone who’s first book sale (Black Dogs) was less than a decade ago, and I’ve only ever been with three presses, one small, two large. I simply haven’t been around long enough to say “This, here, is universal.” So take everything with a grain of salt.

The process starts when I get a note from my editor saying “Here’s the edits!” Generally there are two documents attached, or one document and the body of the e-mail, or one document and a long phone call, or whatever. This is gonna vary from house to house and from editor to editor. One is the Broad Overview and one is your manuscript covered in red ink (although in this day and age, it is most likely a Word .doc with little comments attached to the sidebar.)

The Broad Overview usually starts out with praise. I don’t know if I’m just lucky and have very nice editors, or if they all do this so that when you open the attachment, with your heart in your mouth, going “Did they LIKE it?!” you don’t immediately burst into tears. I’ve had three different editors—four if you count the tag-team of Sofawolf on Black Dogs—and they all started by saying something nice. Bread Wizard’s praise is sufficiently effusive that I would be embarrassed to recreate it here.

Then…we get to the important bits. (I’m just going to quote this bit, and hope my editor won’t mind. She does a sterling job, and I don’t think that this is vital proprietary information.) “So, I think this is an incredible first draft, and from here I’d love to see you really dig back in and build upon this world you’ve created, to raise the stakes by helping the reader understand them better, add more emotion and heart and kids, and pick up the pace of the middle section.”

This is, you might agree, a tall order. Deciphering exactly what some of that means would be difficult in and of itself, (“heart?” What is “heart“?!) but if you have a good editor, they are absolutely clear and will talk until you both know exactly what’s expected, which is why the Broad Overview in this case goes on for six densely typed pages, and addresses each specific issue, and by the end of it, I know exactly what she’s talking about, and have been grudgingly forced to agree.

While I don’t want to add spoilers for the book, some of the issues include:

1) Needs more world-building. It’s not clear how many wizards there are, why our heroine is suddenly the last one, how rare they actually are, and what sort of consequences there are for various actions. Since it’s a fantasy world, more needs to be done so that the readers can get their bearings.

2) The villain’s motives are unclear. We need more about the relationship between villain and the ruler of the city, which ties back into the world-building. There isn’t a clear enough sense of what’s at stake.

3) The heroine is likeable, but could stand to be a little warmer—she comes off as unintentionally aloof.

4) We’re getting on the high-side of a middle-grade novel, edging into YA, and it would be nice to add more kids to the mix, insomuch as it’s possible, to help yank it back.

5) We don’t get a good sense of how the heroine’s magical powers develop as the story goes on–for all we know, she’s just as powerful at the beginning as she is at the end–and she doesn’t spend enough time on-screen experimenting with her powers. There’s room for some really spectacular failures. Let’s see ’em!

6) The middle is slow.

7) And a couple more things that are so specific that I can’t get into them without spoilers.

Let me state unequivocally that every single one of these points is both accurate and justified and if I fix them, it will make a better book. The simple fact is that if your editor doesn’t get something, the odds are good that your reader won’t get it either, and you will be left looking like either an idiot or a bad writer. I believe with every fiber of my being that my editor is right on every single point she mentions, and also the notion of how much work this is going to entail kinda makes me want to slit my wrists.  I close the file for the night and go drink heavily.

But the human brain is a marvelous organ, even when slightly pickled, and by the time I open the e-mail again in the morning, I am full of ideas about how to Make This Happen. That one scullery maid can become a named character, that’s another kid in the mix, and we can shore up the saggy middle with some wild and hopefully hilarious magical experiments to make it feel like the heroine’s powers have been earned. Sort of a training montage with croissants. Yes. I can do this. I dash off a note to my editor thanking her for the edits, telling her that I think it’s doable, possibly seeking clarification on an issue or two (as needed) and mentioning a couple of my ideas to see if she agrees with them before I pour twenty man hours into fleshing out a character she wanted to cut entirely, or something equally tragic.

Then I go down to the coffee shop—“Hey, Ursula? The usual?” “You’re so good to me.” “Well, you keep funneling money through here like a Colombian drug lord…”—and settle in to my dark corner with the painting of Titania and Bottom staring over my shoulder, plug my laptop in next to the toaster oven, and call up my manuscript with edits. The screen fills up with text, and on the right-hand side, little multi-colored word bubbles indicating word changes, rogue comma executions, and comments.

There are a great many word bubbles on the first page. My heart sinks again.

This is not, I hasten to add, copy-editing. Copy-editing happens much later. There’s no point in copy-editing a manuscript if you’re going to change large swaths of it—it’ll only have to be done over again. My editor may catch the occasional typo, or swap out a word or two to help the flow (and it’s only ever a word or two—major edits on the sentence level are generally proposed on a sidebar, rather than being unilaterally applied) but major fine-toothed comb copy-edits are the last stage in the process.

(It is worth taking a moment here to say that the manuscript I hand in is not crammed with typos and punctuation errors. I write with the spell-check on, and it’s at least up to the level you’re seeing in this blog post here. I play fast and loose with grammar for effect—you may note that I’m writing in the vernacular, as ’twere—but if you can’t write at least this accurately,* without really trying, you need to practice and get that DOWN before you submit anything anywhere.  The occasional typo is entirely forgivable and not that big a deal, but if the first page of your manuscript is littered with solitary lower-case i’s and there, they’re, and there have had a throw-down in the middle of the page, the slush-pile reader will be reaching for a form rejection instantly. There are people on the internet who will carelessly proclaim that the story is more important than the grammar and only industry Nazis care about spelling. You may listen to them or not, as you like, but if I open a sample page and see that, I, like the Keeper of the Slush Pile, will not turn the page)

I crack my knuckles, take a swig of my coffee, and begin to write.

Sidebar comments fall into three basic camps. One is straightforward and concerned with word-choice: “This feels too modern.” “This seems like an odd word choice here.” “It seems weird to mention this here.” One is concerned with broader details: “You say this, but then there’s never any follow up.” “How does Character X know this here?” “I love this, but I’m worried kids won’t get it–can you explain the difference?” “Shouldn’t we know this sooner?” “Please expand this more, it’s a great detail!” “Can we hear more about this?” (On Black Dogs, many moons ago, the comments often included “You said this before,” and a running tally of how often the character’s eye-color changed. It is due entirely to the heroic efforts of the book’s editor, Dale, that I repeat myself much less these days, and don’t bother nearly so much with eye-color. Even so, I found the villain’s robes changed color without me. Sigh.)

The final type of side-bar is “Ha!” or a smiley-face or “Love this!” or “Awwwww.” Judicious sprinkling of these through the manuscript is what keeps your humble author from tipping a bottle of whiskey over into the cup of coffee.

Okay, so that being said—how do you FIX matters?

Well, that’s kinda up to you. I am a one-evolving-draft writer. I would no more start writing with a blank page than I would jump off the roof with a javelina parachute. Not gonna happen. Instead, I go through the existing manuscript, start fixing all the small stuff in the sidebars, and set up a second document that’s nothing but my own notes about how to solve some of the bigger systemic issues. “Name the scullery maid. Have a homing pigeon arrive here, addressed to the heroine. Include hilarious magical experimentation in middle. Make it clear that when the army leaves town, they’re going to fight these guys here.”  I also leave my editor’s Broad Overview document open in the background, so that I can go through and hit it like a checklist.

After fixing or vowing to fix each of these points, I go into the little side comment and write under it—“Fixed!” or “Will try to do that later,” or “addressed this in the previous paragraph” or “Will this work?” That way I know that I’ve dealt with the comment, and the editor knows I’ve seen it and am trying to deal with it.

I do not, it must be said, do every single thing the editor says. Ninety-five percent, yes. She’s usually right, and we’ve worked together long enough at this point that she can slice a rambling statement in half and chop out stray verbiage without having to say things like “Maybe this line is a little long.” But it takes awhile to get there with an editor. Now and again, in Dragonbreath, I will go to bat for a word choice. Sometimes I will say “No, I really really love this line.” (Not often. After a point, lines are no longer precious. There are always more of them. If you love your lines too much, become a poet.) Sometimes I will say “I think the kids are smart enough to get this.” Once I had to explain what an end-boss was. And she’s not omnipotent—she occasionally misses places where I explained something, or something was mentioned before, or whatever. But in general, her comments are spot on, and I pay attention.

There are many more word-choice comments towards the beginning of Bread Wizard. By the middle, she is apparently caught up in the story, or I’ve gotten into the groove, or something, because the only comments are broad details and occasional “HA!”

As I go through, I occasional find spots where I can wedge something. She wants the secondary character to talk about his dead sister. Okay, here’s a good spot for an extra paragraph—nothing major, we don’t want to wallow, but a quick anecdote. Okay, this is a good spot for a little of that world-building about numbers of wizards. Okay, here I can talk about the heroine’s parents. Okay, this section has some flab. I can dice out some paragraphs and replace most of a page with “The blacksmiths had the oven ready.” (Chopping is hard for everybody. As another dear editor friend once said “You always take the longest possible route to get anywhere. Fortunately, it’s usually an entertaining trip.”)

When all of this is done (and it isn’t done yet!) I slap it into an e-mail with a note that says “Tried to fix everything. Let me know if this works!” and pray that it all hangs together. The problem with skipping madly through a manuscript like this is that I cease to have any sense of how it is all connected. It becomes a dissected body, not a living organism. I trust to the editor to be able to make sense of it as a cohesive whole, because by the end of edits, I can barely remember what I did where, who I am, whether I am writing about humans or sentient chickens, etc.

After this—assuming that you have made the manuscript better and not worse—you get to do this entire thing over again, except hopefully with fewer comments, and more “Great, that works now!”

Possibly even a third time.

Then there is copy-editing. This is annoying, sometimes obnoxious, and the first time I got a paper page that had actual proof-reading marks, I freaked out and tried to hide under the bed (thankfully, Penguin does it all with Word) but it is a simple mechanical process and you are allowed to override the copy-editor when you think they’re being deliberately obtuse.

Then you are done. More or less.

And if you’re me, you go to the art director, but that’s another kettle of fish entirely, and a post for another day.

 

 

 

*I say nothing of well. It is possible to write very bad prose in words that are all spelled correctly and have their tenses lined up properly. I have done so myself many times.

Slice of Life

So I was down at Davenport & Winkleperry, our chosen (and indeed only) coffee shop, had finished about seventy pages worth of edits on Bread Wizard (ok, finished, ha! I had made the teeny little one-line changes and started up another document worth of notes about Things I Have To Address At Some Point In Here for about seventy pages worth of text.*) and packed up my laptop, took a last slug of coffee, and headed out the door to my car.

Partway down the sidewalk, seated on the curb (we have quite large two-step curbs here, owing to settling and historic districts) was an elderly woman. She didn’t look so great. It’s a hot day, and she had a tube in her nose attached to a little bag, and her husband was hovering over her, looking a bit concerned. When he saw me, he lifted a hand hopefully.

I was a bit worried that I was going to have to whip out my phone and call an ambulance, so I hurried over and asked if she was doing okay.

“Oh, well…” He spread his hands. “She’s gonna need a little help getting up…”

She wasn’t a large woman but he was clearly even older than she was. Apparently the heat was bothering her and she had to sit down on the curb, and then he wasn’t able to get her back up, and didn’t want to leave her to go get someone. “Our car’s right here,” he said. “Do you think…?”

“Of course!” I said. She was extremely pale, and I figured we should probably get her up and into air conditioning as soon as possible, however that might be.

“You should go in the shop and get someone,” said the little old lady, in the rather loud voice of the somewhat hard-of-hearing.

“We’ve got someone right here,” he said. “She’s going to help us.”

I stepped around so that she could see me.  She eyed me for a minute, then said, in what she undoubtedly thought was a whisper, “I’m not sure she can do it!”

He gave me a pained look. I grinned. In fairness, while I have been generously endowed in the hip and breast department, my wrists are exceedingly thin and I often wind up wearing children’s-size gloves, so she can be forgiven for thinking that I probably couldn’t bench press a baked potato. And it would be quite awkward–possibly even painful–to have someone try to help you up and fail.

“She’ll be fine,” he said firmly.

“We’ll have you up in no time,” I said, feeling like I should contribute something to the discussion, and reassuring her that I spent a lot of time slinging mulch didn’t seem like it would get us anywhere.

We each took one of her hands and pulled her to her feet. If she weighed more than a loaded wheelbarrow of topsoil, I would be quite surprised.

“Oh!” she said. “Why, thank you!” And then again to her husband, in the not-very-quite whisper, “She did better’n you!”

“Told you,” he said smugly. I tried very hard to not to start laughing.

He got her in the car, thanked me, and offered me a ride home if I needed it. (It occurs to me that they may have thought I was extremely young, which is probably due mostly to the fact that the older you get, the more everybody looks about twelve.) I declined, pointed to my car, and wished them luck.

There is no possible moral to this story, I just thought it was funny.

 

*If anybody’s ever interested in hear about the weirdass stage of the writing process known as “editing,” I would be happy to do a post about it sometime, but I’m not sure if it’s any more interesting to write about than to live through.

In other news…

…Dial wants Hamster Princess. Three books of Hamster Princess! Oh god, I am SO happy–A) I love that book, I love the heroine, I love her riding quail Mumfrey, and B) I hate pitching series ideas a lot and was down to “Lawn Flamingo with Lawn Gnome Sidekick. They fight crime!” and it was actually starting to sound GOOD in my head.*

And also they bought Dragonbreath 11, and upon consideration (translation: “Just park the dumptruck of money next to the mulch.”) I think I can manage that. (I swear, every time I start to think “Maybe it’s time to move on!” I get an e-mail from a parent thanking me for getting their kid to read. I’m starting to think my agent is putting them up to it.) We’ll be switching the schedule, however, so that only one comes out a year, with Bread Wizard and Hamster Princess taking the other slot, so I won’t be eyeball-deep in little dragons all the time.

The first Hamster Princess is not due to hit stores until 2015, so it’s gonna be awhile, but I’m just ecstatic that Dial’s on board. I love my editor there, and I am so happy that they decided to give Princess Nibblemark a shot. Yay for Dial! Yay for my editor! Yay for my agent! YAAAAY!

 

*Lawn-related crimes, mostly. Fire-ants. Watering during drought. Y’know.

I Still Have Most Of My Organs, Actually

So there’s this publishing horror story making the rounds the last few days—the saga of Mandy DeGeit, who submitted a short story to a small press that did anthologies and discovered that it was published with a whole lot of changes, including animal abuse, which she never saw, never okayed, and never had an inkling of until the bizillion copies she’d ordered came in.

I feel for this woman, I do. I remember the first time that I got a cover I did back with an element that had been wee down in the corner blown up and pasted in the middle of the cover, about fifteen times the size it should be (and thus blurry) and with a white-pixel-cut-out line around it. I felt ill. (And no, it wasn’t “I HAVE BEEN VIOLATED!” because I’ve been at this way too long for my art to be my precious babies anymore. It was “Oh my god, somebody’s gonna see my name on this and think I’m a HACK!” I roll my eyes whenever anybody compares art theft to rape* but seeing a lousy thing with your name on it and the lousy bit isn’t your fault sure is a nasty shock and hits you right in the ego. Obviously I never worked with them again.)

The owner of the “publishing house” in question does seem to be a semi-literate piece of work whenever he shows up on the web, too. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t know either of them, I have no dog in this fight beyond the vague grey shaggy one with “GENERALIZED SYMPATHY” on its collar.

However, there IS something I want to say, because you and I both know that even as I am typing these words, someone, somewhere, is hitting “SEND” on a comment that begins “Sadly, I’ve heard far too many horror stories like this…blah blah blah traditional publishers want to kidnap you and sell your organs blah blah blah SELF-PUBLISHING IS THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE!!!”

Sigh.

I tell you now, O readers, mine, this is not a traditional publisher issue, a small press issue, an editor issue or an e-book issue. This is a douchebag issue.

There will always be douchebags. The world is full of them and we are currently prevented by law from hunting them in the streets. They are limited to no one particular craft or creed, and it is unfair to glom onto any particular example of douchebaggery in order to grind your own particular tangentially-related axe. Complaining that because this guy committed an act of serious editorial malfeasance means that we should all self-publish is like saying that because my cousin got screwed over by his mechanic, we must all learn to build our own cars from the axles on up. Knock yourself out—me, I’ll just go to a different mechanic.

Self-publishing is utterly fantastic for what it’s fantastic at, and you should absolutely do it if that’s the route for you, but do it for the right reasons. The right reasons do not include “Big publishers want to lure you into their den and tear out your still-pulsing spleen as an offering to Yns-Morgoth, Lord of the Slush Pile.” I would also be leery of “Because I am SPECIAL and do not NEED an editor.” And certainly I would avoid “Because the editor will totally rewrite my story!” because…well…

I’ve never encountered it. I know many authors who have also never encountered it. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data” but this sort of thing is really not standard and a lot of editors are expressing great shock at this. This is not “how the industry runs.” This is not normal.

We’re working on…let me think, math…Okay, not counting Digger collections, I just turned in my thirteenth manuscript, we’ve had edits and revisions on eleven of them, and nobody’s ever just started adding crap out of the blue. The sort of things I hear are “When we stick this scene here, I feel like we interrupt the climax in the middle, and then the momentum never quite gets back up. Can we re-arrange?” and “I don’t know if this bit here actually moves the story along.” I have had a couple of scenes proposed to me–“You’ve got a nice bit here that we end the first book with–can we get another couple like that, to insert in the second book, to tie it together?” but the editor does not sit down and write the scene. That would be kinda nuts. I would probably take offense. The closest I have ever had to an editor writing something in my manuscript is single sentences, usually accompanied by “I’m afraid it isn’t clear who’s talking. Would something like “She said, sitting down on the bench” work here?” (Even then, this generally occurs in the editing sidebar, in these Word-heavy days, and it is left for me to actually execute them in the text.)

Also, they send you a copy-edited manuscript or PDF or whatever. Everyone does this. This is your last chance to look over and say “Oh, crap! Changes!” People who don’t do this are not acting professional. Be afraid.

But not of publishers in general, and certainly not of small presses. Small presses are fraught with peril, mostly in the form of well-meaning people who have no idea how much work they’re getting into and how much money they won’t be making, so yes, vet your small press thoroughly. But don’t curse the lot of ’em because one moron with an e-book converter claimed to be a “publisher.” (Case in point, my buddies at Sofawolf are beyond fantastic, and I would encourage anyone with a story to check their submission guidelines, because they do it very, very right. Also, they send me gin. HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THIS?)

So. In conclusion, horrible situation, very sad, but not typical. If this happens (or has happened!) to you, then speak up! Don’t fear that you’ll be blackballed or anything like that! Tell people! Good presses treat their authors right, and they’re awesome, and nobody ought to have to put up with morons like this who aren’t.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming…

 

*If you try to argue this point with me, I will close the thread and delete it. I’m not in the mood right now.