Friday, 26 February 2010


Frustration is producing nothing worth showing to a professional in seven years.

Fear is not knowing if I ever will.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

black moment fail

How can you tell when you’re an idiot? You make the same mistake twice.

During the first draft of my urban fantasy THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I nearly blew the third act by copping out. Failing to make things bad enough for my protagonist. Then I stumbled over the concept of the black moment, the lowest possible point at which all seems lost, and had a little epiphany. I ended up writing some of my favourite and most violent scenes -- a rampage of vengeful destruction that carved up most of the cast.

Guess what I did to IRONBANE? Yep. Blew the black moment.

In fairness, there is a black moment. The antagonists come together to cause a huge cascading series of disasters, which the protagonist has to fix alone thanks to what she did to her devoted companion. She comes up with a plan, but it’s horrific even by her standards. She’s terrified of what the antagonists will do to her, what she’ll have to do to her friends, what she’s becoming. There’s supposed to be a real danger of not being able to go through with it.

At this point, I apparently decided that we needed a flashback to a much scarier situation in which she successfully overcame her fear. Thus murdering any tension and burying it in a shallow grave. I mean, this black moment is bad, but at least it’s not that bad, right? If she faced that, she can face this.

Yeah, I’m a structure genius all right.

Happily, I think I can fix this. But I’m thinking carefully about how I can avoid black moment fail in the future, and I’m coming up with some rules of thumb. The black moment is only black enough (for my taste) if:
  1. The protagonist is totally alone. Everyone they relied on must be dead, alienated or gone in some way. It should seem like the protagonist may never regain those close friendships.
  2. The protagonist should be facing certain death.
  3. The protagonist has to doubt themselves. You can be a hero in the face of certain death, but during a real black moment the protagonist can’t be a hero -- they can’t be proud of themselves at this moment. They have to be afraid, ashamed, despairing.
  4. The black moment should be the worst the protagonist can remember. Period. If the protagonist has been in worse situations, the black moment isn’t black enough.
Maybe if I consult these rules when planning my next novel, I can avoid ruining the third black moment in a row.

What do you think, team? Is the black moment important to you? Do you structure black moments into your novel? Do you stumble across them by accident? Can you improve on my rules of thumb?

seven years

Lately I’ve been thinking about my history as a writer. Past novels, past writing groups, past critique partners. What kicked me off was a comment on last week’s teaser from my old friend John Zeleznik, better known to me as Ebenstone.
"Your writing has gotten so good. This was beautiful and so well written. I'm blown away!"
I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with many of my old writing friends. I’m still swapping chapters with Dystophil the way we did three years ago. But Ebenstone is hands down the oldest writing friend I’m still in touch with. How old? I joined our then writing group in late 2002, when I’d just turned fourteen. So -- seven years and counting.

In those seven years, I wrote:
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from Tamora Pierce.
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from Robert Jordan.
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from George RR Martin.
  • Three hundred pages of world-building for a projected multiple-book series I had to tear up.
  • Fanfiction in several fandoms.
  • My first novel, an epic fantasy I have since thankfully lost.
  • My second novel, a monster novel I have unfortunately not lost, because it is saved on my writing LJ.
  • My third novel, an urban fantasy I often wished I’d lost.
  • My fourth novel, an epic fantasy I love too much to lose.
Objectively I think, and Dystophil often tells me, that my writing has improved a metric truckload since the early days. But only Ebenstone knows the truth.

So I’m glad to hear that I’ve learned something in those seven years. :)

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

teaser tuesday leaves a rose for the dead

Second last scene in IRONBANE. Anjen has now picked up a new title: Kingkiller.


It rained during the funeral. Black carriages rattled through Summerholt under a sky the colour of iron. Crowds threw leaves and flowers under the wheels and braved spatters of mud.

Anjen watched from the crowd, jostled by elbows, the rain wet on her cheeks. The dead man’s kin rode up front in the place of honour. She ought to be up there; she was his true family, his right hand, the only one who would never have betrayed him. But she had to trudge through the mud and the rain to get even a glimpse of the man she’d loved.

It took her a glare and some sharp elbow work to squeeze into the back of the cathedral. There wasn’t room to breathe; she forced down the memory of fingers digging into her throat. She could barely hear the church father above the crowd. He spoke at length about the evil Kingkiller and her crimes, assured everyone that the Summer King had died a hero, and wrapped up by painting a picture of the dead man Anjen couldn’t recognise. The real picture was beyond a crowd of mourners to appreciate. They hadn’t fought with him. They couldn’t know him.

Afterward Anjen queued for hours to see the grave. It was nothing, just a patch of freshly-turned earth, guarded by grim-faced Summerholt troops. She could have told them not to bother. If even a spark of him had survived he would never have lain so still; he would have clawed his way out fighting before now.

The white rose in her hands seemed such a small thing. She’d given him a kingdom; she would have given him the world. She crushed the stupid rose in a sudden savage gesture and flung the petals away. They scattered across the bare earth like snow.

A hundred times she’d killed for him. What she’d failed to do was die for him. Once again, the only thing she could do for him was butcher people.

She was going to have to kill the Winter Queen. Again. And then destroy the body so that nobody else could ever resurrect her again.

A better person wouldn’t have a clue how to do that. But she was the master of doing horrifying things nobody else would even consider, and she had a plan.

The last white petals fell through her fingers and tumbled to the earth.


Other teasers: Dystophil, firedrake, Amna ...

Monday, 15 February 2010

burn notice

“Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.”
- from Burn Notice 1x01, “Pilot”

I’m crazy about Burn Notice. Apart from the smart storytelling, sympathetic characterisation and all-around kickassery, I love its mastery of sneakiness. Cover stories. Frame jobs. Double-crosses. Most spy protagonists spend the whole series shooting at people: Michael Westen prefers to persuade his enemies to shoot each other. It’s good television, and it’s great fuel for a writer’s imagination. Thanks to Burn Notice, I think I’ve finally figured out how a character earns the bad guys’ trust.

He’s going to need a cheap disposable phone, half a pound of plasticine, coloured wires ... and some duct tape. :D

Thursday, 11 February 2010


Fellow AbsoluteWrite member Kirsten Rice, better known to me as Madison, has been asking me some fascinating questions this week as part of her interview series. We discussed YA, the One-Pass Method and world-building advice for the terminally lazy, and apparently I was suffering from a little zombie obsession at the time. (A baby zombie featured in a recent IRONBANE teaser.) And if that wasn't tempting enough, my twiftie friends Bailey, Emilia and Amna (my ninja apprentice) are enlivening the comments section. Intrigued? You can find my crazy-person ramblings here. Thanks, Madison! :)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

teaser tuesday is a bad guy

Today’s Teaser Tuesday is a scene from IRONBANE, in which Anjen demonstrates her amazing ability to turn everyone around her into bad guys.

(Context: Anjen is leading a train of refugees out of the marches one step ahead of the Winterfolk. In every village Anjen recruits whoever she can, seizes all the supplies and abandons anyone who won't come with her to die. Not everyone is enthralled with her tactics.)


Anjen needed a quiet place to plan, so she headed to a deserted fire on the outskirts of camp, a red gleam of embers. The warmth soaked into her bones; she could have cried for joy. She sketched a map in the dirt with the tip of her stick. Here lay the village, here the high ground, this slope was so thickly wooded as to be impassable ...

Footsteps crunched in the snow behind her. She’d thought she was alone here. She started to turn.

A branch smashed across her skull. Lights burst inside her head. She collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Her fingers twitched in the dirt. Embers glowed brilliant red in front of her; the pain in her head was so huge she couldn’t seem to focus on anything else.

Someone dragged her up by the back of her coat. Her knee locked when she tried to stand, she yelped and fell back. The stranger picked up her stick. Anjen clutched at a log but the frosted bark slid slippery under her fingers and she couldn’t haul herself upright.

The stick cracked down. Her fingers broke. Pain jolted through her; she strangled off a scream. She snatched her hand back, fingers throbbing, and the slightest move made the broken bones grind. Fuck.

The tip of the stick lifted her chin. She shrank, kicked herself for shrinking, made herself look up the length of the stick. For an instant she knew, heart-skittering breath-stopping certainty, that it was --

Kellen towered over her, red hair wild, face white and gaunt. “Remember me?”

Having her bones broken encouraged her to think back. Night. Snow. Panic. A sword point bursting out of a man’s belly, a woman who screamed when she saw Summer’s disfigured face, trinkets shattering on the frozen ground.

“You robbed us and left us to die. You remember that, right? Taking all our weapons, our iron and salt, abandoning us?” Kellen slashed down. The stick caught her upflung arm instead of her skull; something cracked, numbness shot up the bone. “You led the Winterfolk to us,” Kellen spat, and hit her again. Stupidly, Anjen tried to defend herself with the same arm. The stick hurt worse the second time: she gritted her teeth and couldn’t quite lock the cry in her throat, tears stinging her eyes, pain red and shocking. “You led the Winterfolk straight to us. They were looking for you. They killed everyone, they killed my -- I could have saved her, I could have defended her, if you hadn’t robbed us and left us to die.”

Couldn’t get up, her knee was shot. Couldn’t fight back. On the edge of camp, with all her men making as merry as they could, nobody would hear. Kellen was just going to break every bone in her body. Nothing she could do but take it. “Screw you,” Anjen croaked.

Kellen braced the stick across her throat and leaned.

The words strangled off in her throat. Anjen panicked. She choked and struggled and Kellen leaned harder, watching her face and enjoying this. She scrabbled in the dirt, clawed herself halfway up with her good fingers digging into a tree, fell back. Her foot kicked a scatter of fiery embers everywhere. “My daughter was seven,” Kellen murmured, methodically choking her. “Just seven. They killed her. Because of you.”

Everything was a red blur.

Distantly she heard the sounds of footsteps and voices. She tried to warn them, tell them to run, but it just came out a broken sound in her throat.

It was Summer, saying “Absolutely, I’m easy,” in that lazy, warm voice he used to talk to girls. The girl laughed. She sounded happy. “Whatever you want. I’m not -- ah, fuck.”

The pressure ripped away. Anjen choked and found she could breathe, drew in a rush of sweet air through her burning throat. Her fingers hurt, her wrist hurt, her ribs felt dented from being knelt on. She coughed and sputtered and just lay there panting for a while letting the world slide back into focus.

Kellen lay in the dirt, mouth bleeding, sword point at her throat. Summer pinned her with one foot. “Anjen,” Summer said through his teeth, never taking his eyes off his captive. “Anjen, say something, tell me you’re --“

Kellen spat out blood. “Hope I’ve killed her.”

His jaw clenched and his hands tightened on the hilt. Surely he of all people wouldn’t hurt an unarmed woman, a prisoner, not Summer with his ridiculous urge to be as good as his heroic father. “M’ fine,” Anjen croaked, trying to soothe him. Her throat was on fire. She swallowed, and regretted it.

“I know hurting prisoners isn’t very heroic.” Summer spoke in a low even voice that was not at all reassuring. He leaned on the sword. The point bit in. Kellen froze; blood leaked into the hollow of her throat. “And I don’t care any more. Understand? I’d throw all that away. If you so much as look at her, I will rip out your spine.”

Kellen swallowed against the tip of the blade, eyes wide, and didn’t look at her.


Friday, 5 February 2010

third draft, this time with 100% more snarkiness

Lately I’ve needed some time away from my urban fantasy THE INFERNAL FAMILY, so I’ve been focusing on revisions to IRONBANE. I feel like I need more time to prepare for the second most dramatic change in my urban fantasy’s history: adding a new point of view character.

Currently the story is shaped by the fact that the only viewpoint character is a trigger-happy borderline psychopath whose preferred method of communication is violence. Most of the other characters don’t trust him, so he’s excluded from key plot developments. Plus he’s not human and that limits who he can interact with. So I’m planning to supplement his story with a truckload of new scenes from the viewpoint of his smarter, sneakier, snarkier human partner. This is going to be a metric ton of work, but I hope it will solve a lot of problems:
  • I always dreamed of having the protagonist’s partner infiltrate the bad guys using his evil devious mind. That wasn’t possible when the only viewpoint character was excluded. Now I can try that.
  • My bad guys will have some much-needed screen time. I can show more hunters with names and faces and motivations. I can suggest what they’re doing when they’re offscreen. I can make things a little more complicated. I’m also going to add a new antagonist.
  • A whole ton of plot I always imagined was happening offscreen never got onscreen due to viewpoint limitations. One late-stage revelation will no longer be at all surprising, but apparently it wasn’t surprising anyway -- one beta reader called it 40,000 words in advance!
  • I’m looking forward to showing that the protagonist is as mystifying to his partner as the partner is to the protagonist. Neither has a clue what the other is thinking.
  • The partner is clued-up in several key places where the protagonist is clueless. For example, the protagonist doesn't know the true story behind how everyone first met.
  • I also want the two viewpoint characters to interfere with each other. The partner is prone to carefully-laid plans. The protagonist is prone to sudden explosive violence. The two should not mix.
  • The second half of the novel is derailed by romance stuff. I’m hoping to add more plot.
  • The novel has always been short -- the beta version is under 70,000 words. I'd feel more comfortable around 90,000 words.
The reason I’m thinking about this right now when I should be working on IRONBANE? I finally figured out something going on behind the scenes that the protagonist doesn’t know about, and it’s awesome.

Still not ready to resume working on THE INFERNAL FAMILY, but I’m getting there.

days six to nine of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

The revision train has hit a wall. Two walls, in fact. Firstly, the backstory has gaping holes and secondly, there is a giant 4000-word derailment in the middle of my battle sequence which requires major plot rewiring.

I’m actually kind of relieved. When everything was running smoothly I was imagining all sorts of ninja stealth disasters lying in wait for me. These are completely fixable.

Still madly in love with this kickass novel.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

teaser tuesday rises from the dead

This week’s teaser is another early scene from IRONBANE. Last week Anjen rescued a child, who survived long enough for new friend and fan of thematic naming Summer to dub her Winter, then died and resurrected as a zombie.

(Here be violence against children, zombie and human.)


They faced the dead child across a canvas of snow spattered with footsteps. Anjen clutched Summer’s arm, heart hammering against her ribs, fear and horror rising in her throat. He drew God’s threefold sign in a reflexive ward against evil.

“If you panic I will strangle you.” Frankly she could have done some panicking herself.

Summer said “Is this,” cleared his throat and had a second go at casualness. “Is rising from the dead a marcher tradition?”

“Must have forgotten to mention it.”

The child shambled toward them, tiny and intent. Please God, not this again. Anjen lifted a shaking hand and -- of course her throat was bare, he’d stolen the damn talisman. And she’d given her iron knife to him. And she’d run out of salt fighting the White Hunt. “Iron.” It was a croak. She swallowed. “The knife.”


“Cut it up. So we can burn it.”

“You want me to kill her?”

“It’s already dead!”

The child stumbled and fell. Snow hissed beneath it; steam curled up from under the edges of its body. It twitched and curled in the snow, like a puppet whose strings had tangled.

“Bollocks to your marcher customs,” Summer growled, took two quick steps toward it and bent to pick it up.

A hand shot out. Blackened fingers dug into the snow like a five-legged spider.

Anjen started: “What in God’s sweet name are you --“

It erupted out of the snow.

It crashed into him. He staggered. It locked one tiny arm around his neck, unhinged its jaw and bit into his throat; his yelp strangled off. Summer dug his fingers under its face and clawed it away. The child clung to him, spattering blood, the rune hissing in the ruin of its stomach. Summer tried to peel it off him, cursing and shaking, feet sliding in the snow, the child a squirming, bloody demon in his hands.

Anjen slapped her pockets, remembered she had no weapons and snarled “Iron, you fool!” He pried Winter off him and threw it away. It hit the ground and skidded, bones cracking. Frost feathered outward from the point of impact. “Iron,” Anjen shouted again. The child peeled itself off the ground in a sinuous slither.

“I don’t kill children,” Summer said through his teeth.

“It’s just wearing her skin!”

“I don’t care why, I’m not doing it!”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Anjen snarled, stalked the two steps to her house and kicked the door open. She leaned in and reached above the door. Cold metal met her fingertips. She curled one hand round the hilt and drew the iron sword, the marcher’s friend, the last defence against evil.

It felt heavy in her unskilled hand. Sunlight glanced off its never-used shine. She remembered covering bloody hands with hers as together they drove a sword through -- No. She was never going back there.

The child fell back from the iron blade. Anjen levelled the point on its face. She’d killed more things of winter than she could even remember, she could add one more.

Summer yelped “What are you doing?” and stepped between them. Winter peeped around him, twinkling frostily.

“My job.” Cold stung her hot face. She could do this. This was what she was for.

The ironwar child had been born too early, a tiny thing Anjen could hold in her cupped hands. It had cried and cried, and she’d cradled it against the warmth of her body, taken up her knife and --

“Are you insane?” Summer demanded. “Do you have a secret thing for killing children? Because I’d like to suggest that we not butcher her in the street!”

“You idiot.” Her voice shook -- even the point of her sword shook, which was stupid. She tightened her grip. “It’ll kill and keep killing, and everyone who dies will rise again, unless we cut it down with iron. Get out of my way.”

Summer crossed his arms, colour high in his cheekbones. “Let me think. No.

Move,” Anjen snarled, and he took the tip of her sword delicately between two fingers and pushed it down. For some stupid reason it completely undid her: she couldn’t seem to think past his serious face.

She didn’t want to do this, God, she didn’t. Maybe he was right, maybe there was another way.

Summer held her eyes. “We’ll find some way to save her, I promise. We can --“

Winter pulled the iron knife from his belt.

Its fingers melted to the hilt. It shrieked. Steam hissed. When that knife flashed out in a searing arc Summer caught its arm, hooked its legs out from under it and dumped it in the snow with a crunch. It snarled at him, the rune hissing and spitting, ice melting and God it could have killed him.

Nobody else would do it. It always happened this way.

Anjen drove the iron sword through the child’s heart.

Sword point hit frozen ground in an impact that jarred her to the elbow. Winter thrashed and screamed and spattered blood that burned, and finally went still.

Anjen took a steadying breath and for a second the air tasted of smoke and blood, of the failed rune in the choking confines of her house. Her hands were shaking. Summer looked at her as if she were the inhuman thing, the one in need of killing. Maybe she was.

She wrenched the sword free and wiped the blade with a handful of snow. She’d nicked it. If this kept up it’d be as battered as she was.

“Congratulations,” Summer said bitterly behind her. “Good work. Still time to kill more children before lunch.”

She was going to punch him in the face.


Other teasers: Dystophil, firedrake, Mad Hatter, pixydust ...

Monday, 1 February 2010

day five of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

Several chapters later, I’ve figured out why I’m not finding any huge mistakes: I wrote a badass novel. For serious. I want to write a list of all the things I love in the story so far, but (a) it would spoil the surprise for future betas and (b) the list would be ridiculously long.

Two things I noticed today:
  1. Printing double-spaced and single-sided was a mistake. There’s tons of white space at the top and bottom of each page, around the margins, between paragraphs, at the end of chapters. Next time I’ll kill fewer trees.
  2. My notebook is lopsided. I have a stack of world-building notes, mainly for consistency; a good few plot notes, to ensure continuity and plot logic and proper payoffs; a handful of backstory notes, for key scenes I ought to work into the novel somewhere; and absolutely zero characterisation notes. Puzzling. Perhaps when I’m scribbling notes all over the printouts I’m not remembering to write up big-picture characterisation issues in my notebook.
Tomorrow my protagonist gets crippled and her partner gets his pretty face ruined. It’s time for the act one climax battle! :D