Submission for Coaching – Me

Writing is hard. It takes years to get to a point where you can produce something worth reading. Even after reaching that point, an author has to keep striving to become better. I fully believe that the best, fastest approach for improvement is the following:

1. Write something.
2. Revise it until it is the best you can make it.
3. See critique on it.
4. Learn from the critique.
5. Go back to Step 2.

I feel I’ve reached a point where my writing doesn’t completely suck. I get positive feedback. I had a story accepted for publication in an ezine. I won an award (yes, I’m still hanging on to that.)

Even so, I have yet to scratch the surface of the writer I will become, and I actively seek to improve. As such, when a fellow Mythic Scribes member mentioned that a professional editing service, Flourish Editing, offered free critiques of 750 word excerpts every Monday, I jumped at the chance to submit.

In this post, I’ll share the editor’s (Tim) comments and tell you how I’ll use them to make my future writing better. First, though, let me say how impressed I was by the quality of the response I got from them — really first rate stuff. If you’re looking for an editor, give them a look. Disclaimer – Tim did really get on my good side with the following comments:

“First of all, your writing is excellent. I don’t say that lightly. Yours is by far the best piece I’ve worked on today. Xan is an engaging character and there’s lots of mystery surrounding him to draw the reader in. There were a number of nice touches and observations which helped add some character and flavor. I thoroughly enjoyed working on it, and after a long day of editing, that’s quite something. So thank you for that.”

My wife is quite mad at Tim for that; she feels my ego is quite large enough and that people shouldn’t feed it. I, on the other hand, appreciate the validation. It makes me feel that I’m not completely delusional in my self evaluation of my writing.

The bottle slipped through Xan’s fingers.

He bent to catch it, but it tumbled past his outstretched hand. It arched inexorably toward the hard wood floor.

Tim doesn’t like my use of the double space after a period. My views on that subject are well documented; I’ll let it slide. He also “arched” implies that Xan imparted a forward momentum to the bottle. That’s a great call. His suggestion of “plummeted” makes much more sense.

This comment highlights one of my big flaws — I don’t immerse myself enough in my scenes. I need to be less lazy about visualizing these things actually happening.

Scrunching his face in anticipation, he intercepted the vial with his foot. Sharp, throbbing pain exploded as his big toe took the impact, the tortured leather of his boot doing little to soften the blow. The glass, at least, thudded to the floor undamaged.

Tim called this “too writerly.” He’s probably right. Still, I don’t hate a touch of prose that shades purple every once in a while. I think I can live with it as is for now.

This situation illustrates an important point. Even though a knowledgeable, professional editor is pointing to a potential change, it’s still my call as to whether to make a change. It helps, in this case, that he qualified the statement that he didn’t feel the “mistake” was particularly egregious.

Xan shook his bruised foot but otherwise ignored the sting, counting himself lucky. He much preferred suffering fleeting discomfort over spending two weeks’ pay to replace Master Rae’s bottle.

Tim noted that this statement is distant from Xan’s point of view. Already, he’s pointed out, perhaps, my two biggest weaknesses — the lack of visualization above and not being close enough to the POV character here.

It’s so important to filter the scene emotionally through the POV character. I have to continually remind myself to bring the writing closer. I think I’m going to write my next book in first person!

“Way too close,” he said to himself, stifling a yawn as he retrieved the wayward container.

Young for a journeyman apothecary at seventeen, he knew what the position required. He must be precise in his movements. Each pinch of powder should contain the same amount of material. Each chop of a blade should cut the same length.

Xan couldn’t afford accidents. He looked at his hand. His grip on the container had been firm. His fingers had simply released on their own accord.

As he turned to a small pile of powder on the table in front of him, Xan’s eyelids grew heavy. He blinked a few times, on each occasion letting his eyes stay closed longer. His head nodded, and he swayed on his feet.

His eyes snapped open. “No! I can’t.”

Tim made minor suggestions on word choice and sequence throughout this section.

Those kinds of comments are valuable for improving the work in question, but I didn’t take away any great change that I need to make to my writing.

He shook his head rapidly from side to side, but the action did nothing to clear the fatigue. A fog blunted his thoughts. “I’m sleeping through the night and more. I still don’t understand how dreams can leave me so tired.”

Tim suggested cutting this to, “How can dreams leave me so tired?” He’s right. My version is too telly and unnecessary.

Sometimes it takes an outside influence to point out this kind of thing. Every time I go through a scene, I ask myself if I can make it more concise. Since this is scene 1.1, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gone through this one. See why hiring a professional editor is a good idea?

He ran his hand through the disheveled mess of brown curls atop his head.

Tim suggests getting rid of brown. From Xan’s POV, he knows the color of his hair. Why would he think it?

This is one of the few points where I disagree with the advice. POV is important, but it’s there to serve us, not us it. Instead of going through gymnastics to get information to the reader that Xan’s hair is brown, I just say it here. It’s efficient, and I don’t feel that it detracts from the reader’s immersion to make a POV tweak like this. Who knows though, maybe I’ll change my mind on this in the future.

Despite the fact he manned the shop alone, Xan scanned the area. Cabinets and shelves obscured every inch of wall space. Neat rows of glass canisters of all sizes and baskets filled with all manner of plants lined the roughhewn boards. Three worktables stood in the center, two empty and the one in front of him covered with piles of herbs and glass vials. Two oil lamps supplemented the light of the afternoon sun streaming through the shop’s sole window. The room gave him comfort he never felt at the Diwen’s.

Secure in his solitude, he pulled a leather container from a bag stowed near his feet. He kept his gaze steady on the entry as he worked the stopper out. The door didn’t move. His heart beating rapidly, he gripped the hard, molded cowhide and tipped it toward his open palm. Before any of the contents tumbled out, he hesitated.

Xan righted the container and hid it behind his back. He traversed the width of the room in a few strides of his long legs and pulled the door open while standing to the side. Peeking around the edge of the doorjamb, he searched the street for potential interlopers.

Stone structures with thatch roofs lined both sides of the hard-packed dirt street. The grays of the mortared rocks and the deep brown of the wood trim complemented the granite mountain tops looming over the roofs. A lone horse-drawn cart laden with wooden casks provided the only sign of life, and two men led it away from the shop.

Xan closed the door and leaned his back against it. After taking several long, deep breaths, he tipped a seed into his hand. He frowned and added another before tossing them into his mouth. Immediately, the world brightened, and his mind snapped awake.

“Five already today. At this rate, they won’t last another week. Where am I going to get money for more?” A single seed had lasted him the entire day when he started taking them a week ago.

Xan shrugged off the disturbing thought and set about finishing his assigned tasks. After washing the fresh herbs, he tied them into bundles to dry. Mixing two potions for later delivery took an hour. Sweeping the floor and cleaning the used glassware took another.

His work complete, he looked longingly at the door. Instead of leaving for the Diwen’s to go to bed, he walked to a cabinet in the far corner and pulled out a small glass bottle filled with brown powder. He turned and took three precise steps, ending in front of the shelves on the opposite wall. After selecting two fronds from a basket of red leaves, he returned to his worktable.

Tim makes more comments throughout, but none that I believe point to a systematic problem with my writing.

The main takeaway I hope you gain from this post is that you should constantly evaluate your writing and seek to improve it, no matter your perceived talent level. Examine all critique critically and try to understand how that micro feedback can be applied on a macro level.

If you’re looking for feedback on your writing, check out Tim’s website above or check out the Submissions page for my blog. http://brianwfoster.com/submissions-for-critique/

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Excerpt from Power of the Mages

In honor of the completion of my 2nd Draft of Power of the Mages, I’m posting an excerpt of one of my favorite scenes.  Since the sample is from Chapter 28 and most of the readers of this blog have no more than a passing acquantance with the plot of the book, I’ll set it up first:

Xan is an journeyman apothecary, the medieval equivalent of a lab geek.  All he’s ever wanted is to find a girl who likes him.  In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” he found himself engaged to Ashley, the daughter of the duke and a girl who is out of his league in every way.  Now that he has everything he thinks he wants, he finds out the price.  The duke asked him to sign an oath of allegiance that Xan knows to be a horrendous mistake.

Excerpt from Chapter 28 of Power of the Mages:

Feeling deserted by his friends, Xan cast his gaze at the ground.  “My lord, I can’t.”

“You must, son.  There is no other option.”

Xan met the ruler’s eyes, his tone defiant.  “And still I can’t.”

Ashley stepped forward, her posture resolute and her face harsh.  “You would refuse my father in this?  You would refuse me?”

“Ashley?  Please trust me?”  Xan winced at the pleading in his voice.

“Sign it.  Now,” she said.

“Can we at least talk about it?”

Her father nodded in response to her questioning look.  Without a glance behind to see if Xan followed, she entered the nearest alcove.  He lumbered after her and inched the curtain shut.  Turning to face her, he steeled himself for the onslaught.

Instead, she smiled.  “It’s good you have a backbone but don’t embarrass me in front of my father.”

“I’m not…  I mean, I didn’t…”

She fiddled with the engagement ring, holding it in front of the light from an oil lamp burning in the corner.  “Did I tell you how much I love it?”

He shrugged off her baffling change in demeanor.  “Ashley, I’m not doing this because of some kind of power struggle between you and me.  I won’t sign that statement.”

The cutest bark of a laugh escaped her lips.  “I know what drives men.  I’ve known since I came of age, and they stood in line for a chance at my hand.”  Her finger drifted to the soft velvet of her scarlet dress, idly tracing the corseted curve of her waist.  “Aren’t I what you want?  Sign and you’ll have me.  All of me.”

A wave of heat washed over Xan.  “Of course that’s what I want.”  What he’d implied registered.  “I mean, not what you said.”  He felt the flush rising on his face.  “I mean, not that I don’t want…”

She turned her head to the side and raised a hand to her mouth.

“You’re laughing at me!”

She moved to him, nearly touching his body with hers, and stroked under his eye where the sword had cut.  “Only because you’re so cute.”

“You don’t fight fair,” he said.

“I fight to win.”

“I don’t want to fight at all.”

She smiled.  “Then sign the agreement.”

He threw up his hands in frustration.  “I can’t.  You don’t understand.”

Instantly, her countenance changed.  Her lips tightened.  “You think you understand governance better than me?  What I do, I do for the good of Bermau, for Vierna, and for the people.”

“For the people?”  He tried and failed to keep the incredulousness from his voice.  “Don’t you mean for the sake of power?”

“My father being in power is what’s best for the people.”

“It isn’t if we sign those agreements.”

Her nostrils flared, and she placed her hands on her hips.

He shook his head sadly.  “Won’t you even listen to my reasoning?  Do you care at all?”

“Do you care about mine?”

“I understand more than you seem to think,” he said.  “With a cadre of tame mages under your father’s control, his rivals will have no choice but to develop their own magic users.  By the time any have a force strong enough to counter his, the reason for fighting will have vanished as everyone will be breaking the edict.

“It only works, though, if he truly has control.  Otherwise, it’s too much of a risk.  He sees no other options.”

“If you agree, why are you arguing with me?” she said.  “Sign the damn paper!”

“Even to save your father’s duchy, the price is too high.”

She glared at him.

“Don’t you see?  This is the first step to another Wizard’s War, more cities destroyed, more devastation.”  He tried to take her hand, but she pulled away.

“This is how it starts,” he said.  “We can only use our magic at the nobles’ command.  Then come the other limitations.  We can only travel with special permission.  Our spouses are chosen for us, or maybe we’re forbidden from marrying at all.  Our children are taken away at birth.  Every aspect of our lives is dictated by our overlords.  We become nothing more than slaves, weapons to be pointed at the enemy, stripped of anything that makes us human.”

“Father isn’t like that.”

“Maybe he isn’t.  Maybe he’ll be a benevolent ruler, uphold everything he said.”  Xan’s tone pled for understanding.  “What about the other dukes?  Will they be so kind?  Can’t you see what kind of precedent we set here today?”

“What I see is our only choice.”  She exhaled sharply and ran her finger over Xan’s cheek.  “You’re intelligent, and there’s a fire within you that I admire.  I told you I’d make a good wife for you, but I gave you a condition.  Do you remember it?”

His voice came out strained, barely a whisper.  “Be loyal to you and your father.”

“That condition stands.  Do this one thing, and I’m yours.”

“Please Ashley, trust me.  Give me time to figure out another way.”

The sympathy reflected on her face didn’t dent the hardness in her stare.  “Your decision?”

He felt moisture well in his right eye, and he turned from her.  “I can’t sign it.  I want to do it.  For you.  But I can’t.”

“Face me,” she said.

He wiped his eye and turned toward her, his back to the curtain.  Her left hand covered her right, and it took him a moment to determine what she was doing.

“No!  Ashley, please!”

Her hands parted, the left one holding the engagement ring.  She took his clenched fist and pressed it inside.  He opened his palm and stared at the gold band with the sparkling diamond.  The curtain opened behind him, and her footsteps trailed away.  He gathered himself and followed. 

Ashley caught her father’s eye and shook her head.  The duke signaled a page at the back of the room who disappeared out the door.  Seconds later, twenty soldiers rushed in.

The duke pointed at Xan.  “Guards, arrest him.”

 

Excerpt from Abuse of Power

Myths Inscribed, the new ezine from the creators of Mythic Scribes, accepted my novelette, Abuse of Power, for publication.  Follow the link above for the first half of the story (to be concluded in the next edition).  To whet your appetite, I’ve posted an excerpt below.

Abuse of Power by Brian W. Foster

Auggie crept through the moonlit forest.

He chose a specific spot for each step.  Despite his bulk, the resulting crunch of leaves and sticks blended into sounds of gurgling water and a gentle breeze stirring the canopy of treetops.  The cool night air and the excitement of the chase made him feel alive.

How dare she ask me to give up this.  The thought made him want to tear a limb from a nearby tree and crush it into splinters.  If she knew how I felt, maybe she wouldn’t have asked, and we’d still be together.  A quiet voice in the back of his mind reminded him of how many times he had told her just that.  Fighting not to scream in frustration, he picked a patch of ground covered in moss and stepped on it.

Behind him, Benj employed far less care.

Auggie glanced back.  Though he kept his voice low, he mustered sharp emphasis.  “Are you familiar with the concept of sneaking?”

His friend replied in a conversational tone.  “You said it’s another half mile to the camp.  No need to stress yet.”

“One of these days, your carelessness is going to get me killed.”

Benj rolled his eyes.  “We’ve done this a thousand times.  Simple horse thieves aren’t a worry for you and your faithful companion.”  He gestured at the dense woods.  “How are you going to find the clearing in the middle of all this anyway?”

“You didn’t recognize the description the scouts gave us?  The huge oak in the middle?  A couple hundred yards from a cliff?”

Benj started to shake his head.  “Wait.  That bandit who robbed Lord Hebert’s country manor a year ago.  The one who gave us the slip.”

“Took you long enough,” Auggie said.  “We’ll follow the stream right to it.  Now shut up.”

Behind him, Benj’s movements blended as much into the surroundings as Auggie’s, and they soon reached the edge of a clearing.

A dim orange glow illuminated the middle of the camp, and a man sat facing the embers.  Two dozen horses, some moving about and others sleeping, stood in a picket line on the other side of the fire.  Snores emanated from eight bedroll-covered shapes scattered about the site.

Catching his friend’s eye, Auggie raised a single finger before pointing it from Benj to the ground.  After gesturing at himself, he made a circular motion.  Benj nodded.

Dark hues and roughened buttons replaced the royal blue and shiny gold trim of his uniform.  His blond hair hid under a black cap, and a layer of mud covered the white of his face.  To keep his broadsword from moving, straps fastened the sheath to his thigh.

Auggie kept his profile low and slid from shadow to shadow outside the ring of trees before encountering a twenty-yard stretch of unshielded turf.  He eased onto his stomach and wormed his way into the moonlight.

As Auggie concentrated on the movements of the sentry, his hand found a stick.  He pressed without thinking, and the dry branch crunched.  The sound seemed to reverberate through the night.

Auggie froze and imagined sinking into the ground.  Be the grass.  His offending hand inched toward the hilt of his sword.  A prone position is an ill-advised method for meeting the enemy.

He stared at the sentry and readied his fingers and toes to launch onto his feet.  Invigorated by hanging on the edge of danger, he couldn’t imagine giving up the life of a soldier to sit in an audience chamber listening to advisers.

Holding his muscles tense and not breathing, Auggie watched.  The sentry didn’t budge except to take another swig from a wineskin.  Auggie sighed and crawled into the darkness.

As he approached the horses, he kept his pace steady and his manner unthreatening.  Checking the left hindquarter of the first one, he found an unfamiliar brand, so he moved to the next.   He nodded at the markings on the fourth horse and ghosted back into the night.

He and Benj snuck away from the camp, not stopping until far enough away to speak.

“A circle inscribed by a star,” Auggie said.  “That’s the Greenfield’s brand.  These are the guys.”

They pushed their pace and reached their horses, hidden in a shallow ravine.  A half hour of hard riding found them at a fort.

After straightening their uniforms and cleaning the mud off their faces, the two entered a wood shack and requested an audience with the night commander.  A page disappeared into the back and returned a moment later to escort them into an office.

Auggie saluted a gray-haired man seated behind a small desk.  “Major August Asher, sir.”

“Lieutenant Benjamin Flynn, sir.”

The grizzled colonel didn’t look up from his paperwork.  He signed his name and flipped a page.  “Report.”

Grinning, Benj bugged out his eyes and puffed his cheeks.  Auggie made subtle pats with his hands trying to get him to stop.

“Well?”  The colonel raised his head and frowned.  With Benj’s face reverted to normal, he caught only Auggie’s movement.  “Is that how you were taught to stand at attention?”

Auggie squelched the urge to glare at his friend and moved his hands back to his side.  “No sir.”

“I’m still waiting for your report.”

“We left Asherton a week ago to investigate accounts of a horse-thieving ring operating between the City and Ruferburg.  Scouts related the presence of unknown persons ten miles from this fort.  We infiltrated the camp and confirmed at least one horse with a brand matching the stolen property, sir.”

“Very well.”  The older man returned his eyes to the paper on his desk.  “Write the location and pertinent details, and I’ll see to it.  Lieutenant Ebers will direct you to the visiting officer quarters.  Dismissed.”

Neither of the junior officers moved.

“Sir, we’ve come all the way from Asherton.”   Benj enunciated clearly the first part of the name of the City.

The colonel looked at them with an annoyed expression.  “Yes.  The major included that information in his report.”

“Sir, we’d like to be included in the apprehension of these men, to be in on the fight, to duke it out with them, so to speak,” Benj said.  “You know, make them rue the day their mothers met their father.”  The last word came out hard.

Not wanting to be caught moving while at attention again, Auggie could only glare at his friend.

“Major,” the colonel said, “how would you address a request by two officers unfamiliar with the troops here at this fort, who are visibly road worn and weary, to join in a last minute stealth expedition?”

“Sir, I would deny the request and tell them to rest.”

“Good answer.  Once again, dismissed.”  He returned his attention to his paperwork.  As the two junior officers turned to leave, he called out.  “Lieutenant.”

They stopped and faced him.

The colonel met Benj’s eyes.  “I know well who your friend is.  A little tomfoolery is to be expected in the young, but try not to act like a complete idiot.”  He bent to sign another sheet of paper.

Auggie stifled a laugh and rushed outside before letting his guffaws escape.  His friend’s expression reminded Auggie of the time the duke caught Benj trying to peek at the maid in her bath. 

“I swear,” Auggie said, “when I become duke, I’m making you my general.  It’s the only fitting punishment.”

Benj froze.  “You wouldn’t.”  He stared with wide eyes.  “Seriously, Auggie.  You’re joking, right?  You wouldn’t be that cruel?”

Auggie chuckled.

“I need a drink.”  Benj’s pale face shone in the moonlight.  “We passed a tavern in that village a couple of miles up the road.”

“I’ve been traveling for a week, I’ve barely slept in that time, and it’s after midnight.  I’m not going anywhere except to find a bed.”