Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
“Angzal gan Mreniyaur.” The Ambassador’s formal address was short and to the point and she faced a camera that was positioned well below her eye-level, just to drive that point home.
“Ambassador.” Angzal pressed her ears as flat as she could against her head, a gesture of calmness and docility in front of someone whom one would never dare challenge.
“I take it you are now well-settled into your position.”
“Yes, thank you, I had hoped to be able to –”
“I understand that you met with Congressmember Frances Reyes earlier today.” The image was clear, and the signal delay was minimal, even so, speakers would normally pause to make sure the was no cross-chatter, so the Ambassador was quick to establish that Angzal had earned no such courtesy.
“Yes, Ambassador I had the, uh, opportunity to meet – well, you can imagine how it went.”
“That I can.” The Ambassador absently looked away from the screen.
“She insisted that she wanted to speak to you directly.”
“My only solution for her is that she unwant it.”
“You, on the other hand,” the Ambassador returned her gaze to Angzal, “will need to schedule another meeting with her as soon as possible.”
“I’m sorry, Ambassador?”
“I’m sure you are. But we need the Human Congress to pass this vote, and she represents the most reasonable faction that could be swayed to our cause.”
“I’m not sure ‘reasonable’ is a word I would use to describe her.” Perhaps an early retirement was in order, to live off the family estate as hired help if that was all that was available to her, then recommend Rzena for a promotion and find happiness in knowing he was the one who had to deal with this instead.
“You’ll find that Congressmember Reyes is not such a unique specimen among Humans. If you think this is an impediment to the duties of your current assignment then we can always –”
“No, no, not at all,” Angzal cursed the signal delay that couldn’t cut the Ambassador’s admonishment fast enough, “I just meant that maybe there was not another way.”
The fur about the Ambassador’s face turned a shade darker as her eyes narrowed on the viewscreen, and Angzal wondered what sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods would take to restart this day.
“If you’re already aware of some kind of alternative, please share.”
“No, I’m sorry Ambassador.” Any flatter and Angzal’s ears would have to roll into little tubes and crawl inside themselves. Angzal was well aware the ensuing silence by the Ambassador was deliberate.
“There’s someone here on Mars I’ve had several discussions with, another representative in the HID Congress.” Hearing that during Angzal’s tenure the Ambassador had time for multiple meetings with a Human made Angzal strangely jealous.
“Congressmember Ferrety is one of a handful of colonial representatives willing to support our request. He told me he should be in Malbur in two days, ahead of next week’s vote. The Winti Reagent has already said they will follow whatever decision the Human Interstellar Dominion makes, and the Fusir hardly have any opinions of their own. As long as we can break this deadlock in the HID government, all the other pieces are already in place. What I need from you, is to get Ferrety and Reyes in the same room, and make sure they don’t leave until Reyes can pledge enough votes for the motion to deploy the ORC fleet to succeed.”
The Ambassador once again stared off languidly past the screen, suggesting to Angzal that her importance had run its course and to close off the conversation. Angzal, evidently not intent on learning any lessons that day, continued.
“If you permit me asking, Ambassador, but it may help me to know why we’re so interested in the Humans and the ORC sending their fleets to Krevali?”
The Ambassador’s expression, her cowl darkening further, suggested she was not used to being asked questions, especially such rudimentary ones.
“I know it must be difficult for you to comprehend, being so far out from home, but the Thorians’ obtuseness about Krevali has complicated matters. Dismissing our involvement in the Nabak Insurrection as mostly humanitarian had pacified things back home initially, though the unforeseen losses that we sustained turned the tide against any such future intervention. That said, there are many who believe that despite the fact that the Thorians had not posed a significant threat for more than two generations, this Krevali business is all a portent of more sinister machinations. If the Thorians have gone so soft in the head as to start something bigger, then likely the Hatvan will be ready to take advantage. The Humans, for their part, share a much closer relationship with us than the Hatvan. Not to mention that they’re potentially promising almost the entirety of their fleet. Having the Humans there sends the Hatvan a strong message, while keeping all but a cursory part of our forces safely occupied elsewhere.”
Angzal chewed over Reyes’s admonishments of the Mraboran Protectorate and the Hatvan Empire and her own belief that the Protectorate had become too content to define its identity and direction through constant contrast with their neighbours and oldest rivals. Despite the incessant twitch in her ears she decided this is where she’d draw the line and chose silence instead.
“Thank you, Ambassador, I will do my best.”
“The Protectorate doesn’t need your best, Angzal gan Mreniyaur, it needs the best. Figure out what that is, and report back to me with good news.”
Finding no need for additional fanfare, or for a final word from Angzal, the Ambassador ended the transmission.
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
For a while, Angzal sat watching her washed-out reflection in the blackness of her desk monitor.
Big scraps from a big carcass. Congressmember Frances Reyes may have gone, but she had left behind a whole host of words that took residence in Angzal’s mind like a ghost only she had the burden of seeing. Rzena was focused on his work which largely remained a mystery to her, though he appeared to derive a somewhat begrudging contentedness from his position. Or was this simply a form of unofficial exile, where having outgrown his ambitions or outliving his usefulness, he now served a life sentence? No mate with him here, nor his litter – he was a solitary figure in the still paltry Mraboran community on Earth, destined to leave no lasting footprints on a world that had become his home and his prison. This all made Angzal feel a bit better about her own situation, though she admitted a lot of the sheen had been rubbed off her new position.
“Are you heading out to lunch?” Rzena asked, sounding almost as if he might genuinely be concerned in her comings and goings, though Angzal figured it was probably because he’d hoped to get the office all to himself for a little while.
“No, I’ve had enough of Humans for today.”
Whereas Mraboran subsisted on a single large meal eaten before bedtime, Humans had the habit of breaking up their whole workday to eat. It was a trait of Earth culture that Angzal normally enjoyed, either getting together with her Human colleagues or heading out into the vibrant commercial district by herself. Today, however, was going to be a desk day, even if she suspected that half the time Rzena was just watching her work and silently judging, though she was yet to catch him doing it.
It hadn’t been an hour since Reyes’s exit from her office, which time Angzal spent going through her messages and accumulating a to-do list she had no intention of tackling until tomorrow, or possibly ever, when Rzena informed her that she had an incoming call.
“So? Send it through.”
“It’s from the comms hub.” Angzal could clearly see the flash of fang from Rzena, mostly because he made no effort to hide it.
“Oh great.” She was sure the timing was no coincidence.
“Don’t look so happy,” Angzal said as she walked by Rzena’s desk, even though he actually didn’t look like anything at all, which Angzal was certain was intentional and intended to irritate her.
Angzal took the stairs up five floors to the comms hub. Humans had an infatuation with elevators; really with anything that moved them from place to place. Sometimes she’d catch them taking elevators up only one or two floors, and though they seemed to feign embarrassment at their submission to sloth, she knew full well they had every intention of doing it again. At least in the stairwells she was pretty much guaranteed to only bump into other Mraboran, so if she could only ignore the wood paneling that was so ubiquitous in Human architecture, it was almost like being back home.
It wasn’t a busy time at the comms hub. The only other user was a bored Human sitting in the reception area waiting for the requested call to patch through. While calls out of system had to do be done through one-way messaging, live calls that were off-world but within the stellar system needed to be handled through designated comms centres as no personal tablet or terminal could handle that kind of load. And there was only one individual within the system who would have any interest in speaking to Angzal.
“I will let the Ambassador know you’re here to take her call,” the comms operator told Angzal and she also took a seat. The way these calls worked, one party would either show up at their comms hub, make a call, and wait for the other person to arrive at their respective comms room, or else the originator would place a call request, and then the other would confirm their availability and wait for the originator to return to their call. Either way, someone was always waiting. If ever one needed to discern the relative social status of two individuals, all one had to do was find out who waited for whom during off-world calls.
In the end, Angzal was forced to sit almost a half hour, which made her thankful she’d brought her tablet, and since the waiting itself was part of her job, she figured there was no need to do double duty and spend even a minute of that time working. The Human that had been in the waiting room with her must have been particularly low on the pecking order because he was still there when the comms operator called up Angzal.
The Ambassador’s image appeared on the wall-to-wall screen of the sound-proof call booth, her yellow eyes standing out starkly against a cowl of dark fur that marked her for an individual of particular rank and prestige. Her clothes too, which for most Mraboran consisted of tan leather straps crisscrossing each other in various arrangements, stood out with their shades of austere dark green and brilliant blue.
Time to share a success story! Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tiny milestone, but when you’re a writer that barely has one foot off the ground floor, I think it’s important to focus on the little things. As I’ve mentioned recently, I started posting my science fiction (space opera or science fantasy, labels are so passé) web novel The Bloodlet Sun, on Royal Road on the same release schedule as I do here. And now over the weekend, The Bloodlet Sun reached ten followers there. To put that in context, the best fictions on RR have followers in the low thousands. For further context though, how many fictions have no followers at all?
For those of you unfamiliar with Royal Road, following a fiction is essentially just saving it as a bookmark, which, again, doesn’t seem like much, but it’s crucial to look on the bright side of things. Don’t see it as “just” a click on the “Follow” button. See it as someone who read your work, and found something in there that was worth spending more time on. That’s how I choose to see it, which makes that round little number that much more exciting. Also exciting then are the two people who chose to click the “Favourite” button, therefore showing that in their mind my work is at least somewhat elevated above the others things they read.
I feel like, when it comes to little rays of sunshine in your writing, you have to sweat the small stuff. You deal with so much criticism, constructive or otherwise, and so many rejections for a craft that is deeply personal. It’s like taking your heart out from your body, where it has the protection of your sternum and ribcage, and putting out for the world to handle. A world that frequently ignores the “Caution: Fragile” label. So when it comes to the negative stuff, sometimes it’s in your face, hard to ignore and easy to internalize.
Which is why successes, no matter how small, are a precious thing that require all your attention. They’re good for your motivation and even more importantly, they’re good for your mental health. Plus, if you choose to put them all together into a single mental reel, then you’ll be better able to see your worth as a writer above all that noise.
Not only that, but successes snowball. Sure, I have ten followers now, and sure, that might be the only ten followers I ever have. But that’s for the universe to decide, not for me to dwell on. Those ten followers could be the first ten followers out of that coveted thousand, or two thousand. That’s how I will choose to see them. If someone else chooses to think it’s not a big deal and thinks that I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill then guess what, every mountain starts with a molehill and I’ve still got a bucket and a shovel.
The request for assistance from the Protectorate to the Humans was another piece of information that would have been very helpful for Rzena to have passed on. Forget snapping his tail in half, she should just bite it clean off at the base.
“In that case,” Angzal replied, visions of violent retribution dancing before her eyes, “I hope your Congress eventually makes the wise decision that recognizes Humanity’s role in a greater world.”
“If I were you,” Reyes’s tone suddenly grew glacial and her body assumed a far more relatable stillness, “that’s not what I’d be pinning my hopes on. If we do somehow vote to send our fleet, and if Human lives are lost, there are those here who will put the blame solely on the ones they think should’ve been fighting instead, and I’d have great concerns about the safety of your people both here on Earth and elsewhere in the Human Interstellar Dependency.”
Had this been another Mraboran, Angzal would have freely laid out in grotesque detail everything she thought about Reyes’s brazen threat against her people. Other species though, and Humans in particular, had more delicate sensibilities, and it took all her strength to keep her instincts from bursting onto the surface, probably to the eventual deep regret of Rzena.
Angzal measured each word carefully so that none of what she actually yearned to say slipped by.
“That sounded an awful lot like a threat, Congressmember.”
“Coming from me? No.” Reyes’s tone was frustratingly casual. “But I’m not the one you need to be worried about.”
“So what is this, then? A warning on their behalf?”
“It is what you make it to be,” Reyes answered with a slight shrug. “I would imagine someone with your influence would consider this a call to use that influence for the good of her people. Or is it that the Mraboran have that little regard for the lives of others, even their own kind?”
Angzal was aware one of her fangs was showing.
“What influence do you think I’m able to wield, exactly?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Reyes briefly glanced to the side, as if she was growing bored with the conversation. “I’m not going to pretend to know how the intricate web of nepotism works in the Protectorate. Almost fluent in Earth Standard Commercial? Consular position at such a young age? A lot of aging diplomats wouldn’t mind having this view for a few years in what you consider a quiet backwater, yet here you are.”
Angzal recalled what she knew of her predecessors, and Reyes wasn’t completely off the mark.
“I’m one of a litter of five, Congressmember. Trust me, whatever it is you think I get is scraps from the dinner table.”
Reyes gave her head a slight shake and gave a crooked smile. “Big carcass – big scraps.” And before Angzal had found something in reply, Reyes continued. “If the issue is that you simply can’t appreciate the potential gravity of the situation, I would be more than happy to speak to someone who can. Maybe a direct conversation with the Ambassador would be more productive?”
“I’m told the Ambassador is off world,” Angzal replied, ignoring the rising heat in her ears.
“I’m sure she is,” Reyes said and put her hands behind her back. “I think I’ve wasted enough time here.”
Evidently finding as much use for goodbyes as she did hellos, Reyes headed for the door, sending one last volley without even turning around, “Next time, I expect to be able to speak to someone more senior.”
Angzal waited for her to reach the door and open it.
“Congressmember?” Angzal said and Reyes paused, still facing her back towards Angzal. “As would I.”
For another few beats Reyes stood with her hand on the door and then stepped out and closed it behind her.
It had become almost uncomfortably quiet after Reyes left the office, an eerie calmness after the passing storm. Angzal continued to stand for a few moments, as if expecting the door to swing open again and a disembodied wagging finger to fly into the room telling her what’s what, but it looked like the silence was here to stay, so she turned back to the window.
The sky over the bay was a bright blue that tapered off into milky grey towards the horizon, not much different from clear days on her homeworld. If she kept her eyes upwards, she could almost imagine being back on Mrabr, at the family estate, shady purple fronds looming just out of view. Her gaze drifted downward though, and the illusion was broken by the expanse of the bay, and the multitudes of weekday beachgoers spending their time on the sand and in the water.
The blasted Thorian she ran across on the journey here had been right – Humans were jittery and unpredictable. She had never before met a species so full of internal discord; it was no wonder they had nearly blasted themselves out of existence. The question now was, were they capable of doing it again, and would they drag anyone down with them?
The handle of the door to her office clicked, the individual on the other side hesitating, and then fully opened.
“Rzena, you coward, I will drown your litter in your own blood.”
Rzena hardly even looked in her direction as he made his way to his desk. “My litter is older than you are, and there’s three of them. Don’t think there’s enough blood.”
Angzal emphasized each word through clenched teeth. “I will make do.”
Rzena plugged in his personal tablet into his terminal and then peered over his desk-mounted monitor at Angzal.
“I take it your meeting with Congressmember Reyes went well.”
“Well as can be expected.”
“You’re alive, so that’d be accurate.”
“A little advance warning would’ve been appreciated.”
“Really? I’ve always been a firm believer in a practical, hands-on approach to learning.”
“The only practical thing I learned is I’d derive great pleasure from a hands-on approach to your neck.”
Rzena made a low hum at the back of his throat as he busied himself at his terminal, while Angzal permitted herself to sit back down at her desk and release the predatory tension that had gripped her body since before Reyes’s arrival.
“The Mraboran Protectorate is doing everything it can within the limits of the Treaty of Krevali,” Angzal assured Reyes.
“The Thorians took a giant dump on the Treaty, so how are your empty assurances supposed to help the Krevali? Do you know who had just been appointed the transitionary governor of the planet? Vekshineth, the Butcher of Nabak.”
The appointment of Vekshineth to lead the transition of Krevali to Thorian rule was, Angzal admitted to herself, terrible optics for the Protectorate. Over the previous three years after the Insurrection, a conflict in which the Protectorate had a role that was less clandestine than they would have preferred, Vekshineth had been overseeing the repatriation of Nabak, which earned him a reputation across the Known Reaches that rivaled some of the historic Anthar Kai and Thorian governors of conquered or pacified worlds. The particularly troubling aspect of the situation for the Protectorate was that prior to the Insurrection, the Butcher of Nabak built his resume through a series of stints on Thorian worlds that had formerly been Mraboran and continued to have a majority Mraboran population, rooting out any ambition of independence that formed in the decades after the Last Gasp. This seemed like the kind of information Rzena ought to have brought to her attention, so Angzal reminded herself to snap his tail in half later.
All too aware that she skipped a few beats processing the news, Angzal finally responded, “I’ve been told that an impressive delegation from Mrabr, including several high-ranking government officials, are on their way to Kai Thori to discuss this with the Presidium directly.” Angzal was, of course, told no such thing.
“I find it funny that it’s only now that a delegation is being sent. It’s precisely what your predecessor told me in our last conversation, almost two months ago, even though it’s at most a five-week haul from Mrabr to Kai Thori. In any case, even if you’re not straight-up lying to me, how’s ‘talking’ the only thing the mighty Protectorate is able to muster? The time for talk was when the Thorians were amassing their forces in violation of the Treaty of Krevali and everyone who didn’t have their head up their ass or their tail between their legs knew exactly how this was going to play out. And now the Krevali, who’ve barely reached the frontiers of their own stellar system, are absolutely terrified fighting a war against a technologically superior alien invader, without any clue that there’s a greater network of so-called allies out there who’re doing absolutely nothing to help.”
Even for a Human, Reyes was strongly inclined to use her whole body while talking. Arms moved about freely as if on their own accord and fingers stabbed the air emphatically. To a Mraboran, the whole display was distracting, as their own species tended to keep perfectly still, especially during confrontation, which was one of the reasons many of them preferred to keep their tails strapped to their bodies. During the whole conversation, Angzal was motionless, standing between her desk and the window, wondering if the reason Reyes declined a seat was because it made it easier for her to gesticulate.
“Congressmember Reyes –” Angzal tried, but there was no stopping this landslide.
“No, whatever you have to say to me, it’s become quite clear that neither the Mraboran nor the Hatvan have any interest in upsetting the status quo. As long as you feel safe in your cozy Empires, you’re perfectly content to do nothing. Not even help your own people who are languishing under Thorian rule.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Congressmember, but doesn’t the ORC have its own capable fleet that it could dispatch to the aid of the Krevali? Something that has the support of many of your own people?”
“Yes, there are supporters of this mad endeavour and they have their reasons. The point I’m making is this would not be the first time Humanity or the ORC had sent their ships into a conflict that should’ve been resolved by others closer to the source. Especially those responsible for what was happening because of their own complacency. We’ve been dying in wars on the other side of the Known Reaches for almost half a century, and have been paying a price for it at home. Meanwhile, species like the Mraboran are the ones benefitting from the peace our blood helps create. Enough is enough.”
That low growl again began to bubble in the back of Angzal’s throat and she reminded herself that this was an alien species and that they expected a certain amount of deference; however undeserved it may be. Still, she let herself slip just a little, responding with a bit of a gurgle in her voice. “The only reason a species like Humans was even able to have any meaningful participation in the Last Gasp was our convenient presence between you and the Thorian Empire, as well as our own complete lack of interest in you.”
“More like a complete lack of interest in anything beyond the pocket of Dead Space that lies between you and us.” There was nothing about Reyes’s smile for Angzal to like. “But that’s good to know, that the Protectorate’s greatest contribution so far has been its lack of curiosity and simply being in the way. Oh wait, there’s also the letter sent by the Protectorate to our government that had the audacity to directly request assistance in the mess that was largely their doing. The Senate, unsurprisingly, has already endorsed this lunatic course of action. Congress, on the other hand, so far has enough members without delusions of grandeur and who have no interest in sending others light years away to die in someone else’s war.”
When I started releasing The Bloodlet Sun in earnest last September, I had no idea what I was doing. I still generally have no idea, but I have learned some lessons on the way. I always argue that no time spent writing is a waste of time, because even your worst work will teach you something that you will use in your best work. Not to say that The Bloodlet Sun is in that “worst” category, just that any mistake is a lesson in disguise. And the lesson of the day is chapter lengths.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.