The Big Picture

Some days you wonder if the process of preparing your first manuscript for publication ever ends. There are days when countless hours of hard work seem to not progress your plans or move your goals any closer.  It is at such points that it is easy to become frustrated and want to stop trying, to cease the endless cycles of edits and corrections, and walk away from whole project.

It is fair to say I have put a lot of effort into improving my skill as a writer, and that I have made tremendous progress over the last few years.  But the last meeting of the Magic City Writers’ Group also made it abundantly clear that even with extensive corrections, rewrites, additions, POV shifts, and so on, that my manuscript is still not at an acceptable level.

My writing is mediocre and often boring, my most important characters are problematic, my opening paragraph makes people not want to read further, and those few readers willing to plow on past the first chapter will likely stop reading before reaching the point where the various characters and plot threads come together because they don’t feel invested in those characters or the unfolding plot.

Compound this feedback, and the ensuing work required to address these problems, with my efforts to rebuild my author website from the ground up and it is enough to make me feel like I’m starting over from scratch.

Step Back

It is at times like these that it is important to step back, take a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Yes, my writing skills are still well below that of good professional writers.

But it is also true that I am currently better than the vast majority of amateur writers, which is the category I still belong to. The reason I spent months interviewing professional editors is because I knew intellectually I wasn’t ready to compete with professional authors. All the reader review demonstrated is that my belief in my writing skills is significantly greater than my actual skills.

This information hasn’t altered my decision to move onto working with professional editors, but it does impact the types of professional edits I must consider.

Currently I am waiting on the results of a professional manuscript assessment, a high-level review of my manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses.  After that assessment I have to decide whether to next pursue a developmental edit, a line edit, or copy edit.

Uh…What’s the Difference Between These?

Without going into excessive detail, a developmental edit focuses on plot, structure of the manuscript, and character development; a line edit focuses on flow, logic of what happens within the plot, and tone of each characters voice; and a copyedit is a nitpicking pain-in-the-ass looking for grammar errors, misspellings, continuity problems, and logic lapses.

Basically a developmental edit is performed early in the life of a manuscript, a line edit is performed once the story and characters are well-formed, and a copyedit is done to wring out any remaining problems prior to typesetting a manuscript for publication.  After typesetting is performed, a proofread is performed to catch any errors that crept in during the final stages of preparing for publication.

The Decisions Before Me

Prior to the reader feedback I was thinking I could skip the developmental edit and move on to either a line edit or a copyedit. In fact, prior to making specific queries about the material, I ask the group which edit they would recommend I pursue next; two members recommended I go straight to a copyedit, while the other person believed a line edit would be of benefit.

But when I asked specific questions about how much each person read, where they stopped reading, why they stopped, and elicited feedback on what exactly they liked and disliked about the manuscript, it became clear  that what prevented them from enjoying the work were problems with character development and plot structure.

In other words, the types of problems that require a developmental edit to correct.

In addition, the group made clear their continued (and even enthusiastic) dislike of my opening paragraph. While I personally believe the current opening serves as a solid anchor for the series, I cannot continue to ignore repeated warnings about the obstacle it poses to potential readers. I must seriously consider replacing the series’ opening with something more gripping. There are several possibilities that have occurred to me, and some of these alternate openings might allow me to address some character and structural issues that continue to plague the manuscript.

Currently I am leaning toward an opening like:

My fate is sealed, Damon Roth scribbled in a large leather bound tome at the top of a crisp white page, the flawless marks left by his quill belying the speed with which he wrote. My apotheosis is inevitable, offering Earth its last hope for salvation. But I have at long last deduced the cost I must bear for daring to become the God Among Men. Knowing now what must befall me, I would turn aside if I could. But great endeavors, once begun, have a life of their own. They grow and feed, claiming more and more from you. The task becomes the master. Worse yet are labors that cannot remain buried, that demand to be exhumed. The beginning becomes the end, creating a new beginning. I am trapped in a web of my own devising, caught in a cycle that can never end. No matter my choices I am damned, and the most I can hope for myself is that my evil deeds will not be all I am remembered for.

Limitations

With regards to my current manuscript, I believe I have reached the limits of what the writers group can offer me as constructive feedback. I could continue to make changes and ask their opinion, but that would be of little value. Their feedback would be far more valuable on the next book in the series, the one I need to start writing in the not too distant future.  I have written many scenes that will be in the second book. A product of my participation over the last two years in NaNoWriMo which I can expand on and restructure until I have an acceptable first draft.

I will be receiving the professional manuscript assessment in about a month, at which time I can make my final decision about whether or not to pursue a developmental edit next or move onto a line edit.  At the moment I believe a developmental edit is called for.

Performing a developmental edit and making the changes required by that process, on top of the already planned line and copy edits, will likely push my publication date into 2014.  This is not a total negative, as that gives me extra time to master the intricacies of self-publishing, overhaul my website, plan my book launch, work on the second novel, establish my presence on various social media sites, and so forth.

The bigger questions are the ones nagging me in the back of my brain. It is clear, despite my innate passion to tell stories, that I am not an innately gifted writer. The progress I have made so far has derived more from hard work at developing crucial skills than from natural talent. Stubborn persistence has proven sufficient to turn what once was a truly terrible manuscript into one that is now mediocre.

But is that same persistence enough to turn the current mediocre manuscript into something exceptional? Are my problems with writing compelling prose part of the normal learning curve all writers must go through? Or are they reflections of my own limitations as a writer?  Am I at a plateau that I can move beyond with the aid of professional editors? Or do I lack some some critical element from the mix of skills required to produce great writing?

The only way to answer these questions is to keep trying, keep working daily, and hope that the final published novel was worth all the effort.

Audio Reading of my Chapter Two Now Available

Last night I finally finished adding sound effects to the audio reading of my chapter two.  The MP3 can be downloaded from my website at http://gods-among-men.com/blog/books/book1.  I also made some improvements to the audio file of the first chapter.  Specifically, I added an effect so it will be easier to distinguish someone’s thoughts from dialog.

The Big Picture, Part 4: The World of Tomorrow

Foreword:

This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

The World of Today

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I see Gods Among Men as being set on earth in the very distant future.  At some point where Arthur C. Clarke’s adage, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has finally come true.  

In my last post, I explained how in my mythology the faerie world exists, but broke off most contact with humans in our early pre-history.

Adopting this mythology lets me both claim that supernatural entities—and hence supernatural or magical powers—exist, and explain why mankind at our current moment in history would be largely unaware of that fact.

It also, however, begs the following question: From this point, meaning our present, how does our modern society twist and turn to become my fantasy world of the future?  A world that draws heavily on Medieval and Renaissance imagery with Gothic overtones.  A place where Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedies are plot elements in a battle of wills between the protagonist, Damon Roth, and the antagonist Demiurge.  The kind of world where spacecraft coexist with spellcraft.

Where Do We Go From Here

It is my belief that certain trends in mankind’s past will continue into the future.  First and foremost, there will be scientific and technological progress.  Mankind will learn more about biology, genetics, physics, and a host of other subjects.  Computer technology will advance, as will space travel, engineering, and the like.

Take these assumptions forward an indefinite period of time; a thousand years or more, tens of thousands if need be.  What might be possible at the furthest reaches of these broad trends?

In my mythology, in the far future there will be practical space travel within the solar system.  There will be many colonies on asteroids, moons, and planets that are functionally self-sustaining. 

Nanotechnology is perfected and able to operate down at the atomic and possibly sub-atomic level. 

Genetic engineering has reached the point where building custom life forms from scratch is possible if one has the right tools. 

The differences between quantum mechanics and relativity theory have been resolved, and we have discovered how to draw vast amounts of energy from the universe itself.  (Or from alternate universes or parallel dimensions or the space between universes or some other techno-babble explanation.  The details here are not important. What matters is that there is nearly unlimited energy that can be tapped and converted to a myriad of uses.)

The Daemons in these Details

But I do not have a utopian view of the future.  There are now, and will continue to be, those who oppose progress of the nature I describe.  We have terrorist and dictators now who seek to disrupt the stability and peace of our world.  Who, if given a chance, would cast us into a dark age. 

I doubt the current batch of thugs have much chance of success, but suppose that desire continues to burn in one form or another for generation after generation.  Suppose evil itself has a form, perhaps intangible, that will return over and over, searching for a way to break the foundations of civilization. 

In my mythology, at the very height of our technological prowess, those who would do great harm found a way to do so.  A way beyond their imaginations or ability to control.  These evil men and women destroyed themselves, and unleashed forces that sent earth spiraling into a new dark age. One which isolates people on earth from their brethren in the space colonies. 

In the process, the destroyers of civilization unleashed Daemons on the world of tomorrow.

Daemons are hybrid humans whose descendants will be called Wizards because of the powers they command which appear to be magical.  Powers rooted in the merger of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, computer science, nanotechnology, biology, and genetic engineering.

I shall go into further details about daemons in a later post.  One point worth noting is that my antagonist, Demiurge, is the last and most powerful of the original daemons.  At the height of his power his name became synonymous with the honorific people hailed him by: God Among Men.

What Is Important To Damon Roth?

The events leading up to the fall of the scientific and technological civilization give rise to the magic that permeates my story.  In a later post I will detail the scientific nature of magic in my mythology, and how its creation resulted in the new dark age.  The key point right now is that Damon Roth and Demiurge are the only characters who have knowledge about the true nature of magic.  This knowledge allows both of them to control people and events in ways impossible for anyone else.

Damon also has detailed information about how the societies on earth and in the space colonies developed.  He knows the strengths and weaknesses in both, understands their history and goals, and is prepared to bend both to his will.

Damon’s plan to confront the future threat he knows of requires those on earth and those in space to unite with elves and other races.  Both humans on earth and those in space must agree to abandon their existing governments and social structures and adopt new ones of his creation.  Damon gives each side the chance to do so willingly, knowing their leaders will refuse.  After their refusal, Damon violently destroys those who oppose him, saving those who are more amendable to his plans.

The details of what happened to those on earth and those in space are important, and beyond the scope of this post.  Later posts in this series will explain what happened to each and how their respective experiences are needed for the survival of humanity and the rest of life on earth.

And On Another Note…

I am approaching the complex hub of my mythology.  The events that foreshadow the tale I am trying to tell in Gods Among Men. Many times in this article I have had to use a phrase like, “In a later post I will explain…”  This is because there is much information that I developed in fits and starts over many long years.  Details which I have never formally expressed in spoken or written words. 

I hope I am clear in my explanations, and the world I describe understandable.  I believe this exercise helps me order my thoughts and answers my own questions about my own work. 

It does take a long time to write these posts, however.  Much longer than it took to write most of my earlier posts.  The amount of time I spend actually writing and editing on Gods Among Men has decreased dramatically in recent weeks. 

I may need to intersperse some smaller, less complicated topics amidst this exploration of my mythology.  But I don’t want to stop writing on this subject out of fear that the clarity I have been blessed with recently will fade if I do.  I am uncertain how to resolve this quandary, so I will have to wait and see where inspiration leads me next.

Until next time, have fun.

The Moment Of Epiphany

I am late with the posts this week  for two reasons.  First because of issues with my back, but more importantly I had and epiphany about my story, Gods Among Men.

It was strange for a plotter like me to admit this, but I had until recently put precious little thought into the machinations at the end of the story.   Which is not to say I did not know the ending, merely I hadn’t figured out how to get there.  The distinction is important.  Knowing the endpoint is a matter of plot, getting there is a matter of character and story.

I had all the characters, I knew I needed all of them, but I was uncertain why I needed all of them.  I knew many things I needed Damon to do, but it was all tactical maneuvers; I was missing a strategy to  tie the details together.

When insight strikes, you notice.   It is like when a puzzle makes sense, or a math proof becomes obvious.  Archimedes may well have yelled, “Eureka” at such a moment.  I, on the other hand, whispered something a trace more vulgar and gaped at mid-air.

I now know why Damon is doing certain things.  And I can explain, simply, the importance of each action to his plan. I understand the twisted plot now in a way I could not before.

And so, for perhaps the first time, I shall jot down what my story is about in a way anyone can understand.

This story is about Damon Roth. 

Its tag line is: One man’s quest to change himself starts with his attempts to change the world. 

The plot is about the fall of one empire and the founding of the greater empire that shall follow it. 

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying whole civilizations to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

Damon will destroy the old empire and create a new one dedicated to confronting the future threat.  He will not rest, nor falter, nor turn aside in his quest to become the god of a new age.  To become known as Demiurge, God Among Men. 

But first he must  defeat the old Demiurge and steal his power.   Then he must identify the enemies and traitors who might move against him or  Tara Rihtwis, the woman he has chosen to rule the new empire.  He will empower these enemies until he is ready to destroy them, and in the process slay the old empire.

Damon is the hero of the story.  And he may well be a power-hungry madman.

The Nature of the Hero

Over the last few months I have come to realize that my story, Gods Among Men, has a subtext I did not originally intend. Implicit in the characters and their interactions is the question of what it means to be a hero or a villain. Given the parts of the story I have focused upon so far, I have written mostly about the characters I think of as heroes in one way or another.

I have always thought that some of my characters where “more pure” in their heroism than others. I am familiar with various mythic traditions and did weave ideas that appealed to me into various characters. Before now, however, I never tried to formally define the various types of heroism and how they applied to specific characters.

The formal concept of the hero can be traced to Greek mythology. The word hero originally meant the person was a demigod; the offspring of a mortal and a deity. At this point the word does not imply any moral virtue, merely parentage.

Looking back, I realize now that this idea influenced the development of my protagonist, Damon Roth, and his relationship to my antagonist, Demiurge.

An important step in Damon’s true quest is to become the God Among Men. To achieve this goal, Damon must form a bond with Demiurge, a god-like being. The relationship Damon seeks with Demiurge is not dissimilar to that of a grown child with an aged, ailing, parent. Symbolically, Damon becomes Demiurge’s child and in so doing become a demigod and hence a hero; at least by the criteria of classic Greek mythology. By becoming a hero, Damon steps closer to his true goal: redemption for his past sins and the salvation of his soul.

In later mythology, the concept of the hero became associated with other characteristics. Courage, self-sacrifice for the greater good, the willingness the face danger and almost certain death, and various moral qualities. The moral qualities become especially important. A hero in later works is often defined by the lines they will not cross, the acts they will not commit, even when everyone else says the acts are necessary or even required. A hero in later mythology is the person who risks all, including the safety of those closest to them, because their moral center demands it of them.

By this standard for heroism, Damon fails to become a modern hero. Yes, he has courage and will face danger and certain death. But he is also the ultimate pragmatist. If the surest way for him to achieve a goal is a dark deed, then he will cross that line with little hesitation. And, while he will ultimately sacrifice himself, it is not so much for the greater good but to complete his redemption. Mankind as a whole will benefit, but Damon’s reason is a selfish one designed to benefit himself. To be a modern hero the end result is not sufficient; the means you use and the reasons behind your actions matter.

Damon wants to be a hero, but never can be. He can become a demigod, he can be a protagonist that provides the story with a direction and a plot, but his own moral failings keep him from being more.

In Gods Among Men the role of classical hero falls upon Morel Rihtwis, a man willing to sacrifice the world rather than let innocents suffer. A man of destiny who wants power solely so he can help others. He actively pursues greatness and seizes his destiny. He regrets the personal sacrifices he must make, but never seriously considers not making those sacrifices.

A more modern version of the hero is embodied by his daughter, Tara. She wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, until she sees the cost she must bear to do so. At this point she would turn aside, except she comes to realize how many would suffer if she did so. She accepts her personal sacrifices for the betterment of all. Greatness is thrust upon her, her destiny is set by forces out of her control.

I will revisit this exploration of the concepts surrounding heroes and heroism in later posts. I plan on focusing more upon Morel and Tara and delving deeper into my motivations for how I have developed their characters. After that I will look also at other variants of heroes including Byronic heroes and antiheroes. After that I will turn my attention to the villains and antivillains in Gods Among Men and the mythic roots behind their characters.