In Beta.

There’s a point that you reach in the process of writing a piece of fiction where you don’t know what to do anymore.  You don’t know what to add or to take away, or even if what you’re looking at specifically makes sense in the broader context of the piece.  It’s not a lack of ability or a lack of knowledge or understanding… it’s that you’ve spent months elbow deep in the thing, and all you can see is the gore, and you’ve lost the sense and structure of the thing.  I reached that point tonight.

It’s not that we don’t understand story structure, or can’t see instances of passive voice… it’s just that it is utterly impossible to read a piece as a reader would when you’ve just written it.  It just can’t be done.

It’s at that point, when you’ve become lost in that peculiar writer’s myopia, that you need to put the work away.  For a week or two.  Or a month.  Of course, this resting time could be considered idle time, and that’s not necessarily bad… when one is engaging in creative activity, even idle time contributes to the whole.  But why wouldn’t you use that week or two or four to have it read over by people who don’t suffer from that myopia?

Tonight, I handed my novel to a handful of intrepid readers who have agreed to read the damn thing for me.  The feeling of shuffling an almost-novel from my desktop to my pre-readers is not a feeling of happiness or even of satisfaction.  It is a feeling of deflation and relief.  This is the first time that I’ve given something to readers that I intended to publish at some point, and while it’s a relief to get the thing out of my hands for the time being, it’s also nerve-wracking.

These people, these kind volunteers, have the responsibility of telling me, honestly and truthfully, whether or not this thing has good bones, whether or not it’s worth pursuing.  I can’t tell… I read through it a couple of days ago and thought it might actually be good… and that was a moment that brought trumpeters down from heaven.  But I read it one and a half times today, and I’m suddenly feeling like it’s probably not so good.  Which feeling is right?  I can’t tell… can you?

In addition, they’re also responsible for telling me which of the curves need refining and which of the points need sharpening, a thing I might be capable of in the future, but which I’m not capable of right now, and I have to decide whether to take or leave each piece of feedback, without involving my pride. Do you see how complicated this gets?

But that feedback doesn’t even come right away!  It can take weeks for someone to make a reasonably attentive pass over a novel-length piece of writing, and I get to spend all of that time with this story and all of this anxiety peppering me in the back of the brain, like background radiation, even when I sleep.

And that’s not even getting to the worries of publishing, which I will need to do eventually if it turns out that the bones are good.  Publishing is still a subject that mystifies and terrifies me, but it’s one of those things that I’ll have to learn by doing.

It’s pretty amazing to think about how many people it really takes to write a book.  I guess that’s what dedications are for… because they can only fit one name on the cover.

In the meantime, now that I’m free of the damn thing for a while, it’s time to try to get caught up on my housework, and get my ducks in a row for Bhutan… which I can’t believe is happening in just six short weeks.

And you know, maybe write a short story.

If I find the time.

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The Hanging of Adlai Grainger.

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.  Any feedback you might have is welcome.

Barnaby woke suddenly, gasping and lurching up from the bed.  It was the same every night:  the soft thunk and the creak of the wood the only sounds falling into the silence, and Adlai’s purpling face swinging from that damn rope.  A curl of yellow dust, disturbed by the man’s brief fall and precipitous halt, rose into the air, against a clear sky and a sun so hot that it burned away the heavenly blue into a ghastlywhite.

The hanging of Adlai Grainger had been a humble affair.  The tiny town that it had occurred in had no gallows; had never had use for them.  So they had erected the tree in a rush, and with no platform, had simply stood the man in the back of a hay wagon and then taken a switch to the rears of the two horses, causing them to leap forward.  He remembered Adlai’s heels dragging along the wood of the cart as it moved forward and the noose lost its slack, and then they fell into space.  Only briefly, though.  Then they danced in midair, the same dance as danced by countless dead men before him.

This improvised gallows resulted in a short-drop hanging… possibly the cruelest execution available to the authorities at the time.  Adlai had struggled in the air for around ten minutes, his face swelling and his eyes bulging and desperate.  His feet kicked and then jerked helplessly as the strength drained from him, and though his hands were tied behind his back, his shoulders jerked up and down.

Barnaby had often wondered at the fear his brother must’ve felt as his feet dragged along the wooden planks.  He wondered at what those ten excruciating minutes had been like, and whether he dreamed in the five minutes after he lost consciousness but before death set in.  Did he see anything?  Was it beautiful?  Did he get a moment’s feeling of peace before the end came?

It was the one thing he could never forget, and he felt that he knew so little about it.

It was that day, at the young age of nineteen, that Barnaby had learned about the bright line between life and death. Contrary to the ideas his mother had put in his head, there was no easing, no process of passing from life to death. One moment you were alive, and the next you were dead.  It was obvious in that instant that Adlai had died.  There were no doubts or questions.  It was as though one could see the hole left in him where his soul had been.  The spirit no longer animated the face and it was slack; even distorted by the violence of a slow strangulation, it no longer looked like Adlai.  It looked like a crude sculpture of him, or like some kind of strange human-sized reptile. Like a death mask. Even the smell of shit and death and sweat seemed to hit suddenly.

Barnaby had met death before.  As a young man on the bush homestead, he had been responsible for hunting, for slaughtering livestock, and during the drought, for mercy killings of animals as well.  But it was different for animals than it was for people.  The light in a human face was the same but so much more intense than that in an animal’s face, and the loss at seeing it so suddenly flown was so much keener.

Barnaby found the whole thing strange.  After the light left his brother’s eyes, he didn’t feel sad.  He did feel an immediate emptiness, a loneliness, that this familiar man was gone, but there was no fear, no grief.  Just a feeling of absence uncolored by emotional overtones.  He also found it strange that so many of the townsfolk had gathered to see the event take place; much like the rough cross outside the church, it seemed to engender a kind of worship of death among the viewers.  Such reverence for a thing so very ordinary, and also so incredibly extraordinary.

Adlai had been hanged for murder, theft, and general marauding.  After the government had been unable to offer help to their family after a drought killed off all their sheep and most of their goats, Adlai had taken to the life of an outlaw in an attempt to keep the family from starving.  He kept away most of the time, sleeping out and sometimes staying among the aboriginies.  But when he came back to the homestead once too often, the authorities were ready for him, and they interrupted a family meal of mutton and gravy and good bread.

Barnaby, who their mother had described as a good, solid boy, but not terribly bright, had also been arrested.  He had not gone roving with his brother, but had stayed home, working to get the flocks out to pasture and toting water for the vegetable garden.  But the government would not accept their mother’s word on the matter and both boys were sentenced to hang.  For their mother, the farm would be confiscated, and she would likely die in a poorhouse somewhere.

They executed Adlai just a few days later.  The boys had been incarcerated in separate cells in a makeshift jail at the nearest town.  The morning of the hanging dawned bright and heated up early, and Barnaby himself had watched the spectacle from the back of the hay wagon, with his own wrists tied behind his back.  Because if fate had not intervened, Barnaby would’ve been next.  In this case, fate took the form of a slight and quick man with a flour sack over his head, who leapt onto the back of one of the horses and kicked the thing into a mad lather, escaping with both horses, the wagon, and with Barnaby.

No Chance in Hell; Excerpt.

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I have decided to post an excerpt from my first NaNoWriMo novel… in fact, my first ever novel.  Keep in mind the “It Doesn’t Have to be Good” portion of my NaNoWriMo post.

“The battle raged on and on for hours, and the losses on either side were incredible. Chance himself seemed to dance through each encounter unscathed, rending with his knife, blasting with the shotgun, sometimes squatting in the mud behind his companions to reload the Remington. Abaddon watched him with a growing fury, this insignificant mortal who had been the source of so much frustration, and who now presumed to fight alongside angels in this final battle. The sheer nerve of his presumption angered Abaddon, but worse… if this man somehow lived, he would walk away with the prize that Abaddon could not have for his own. And so, as he cut down lesser angels with his sword, moving through the throngs like a black scythe, he knew that he must do the next best thing to killing Rachel herself, who was at the moment out of reach. The upstart must not be allowed to live.

Abaddon regretted now his failure to capture Rachel’s body at least, for although her heart belonged to this hairy savage, her life had value to his enemies. What a pretty picture it would have made, him presiding over the battle from his stone throne, with Rachel bound and wallowing in the mud beside it. How the sight of his own sword at the woman’s throat would have cut the heart of the mortal man before him now. It would have drained the strength from the man’s spirit and his body.

Nothing for it now but to do the best he could. He would enjoy killing the young man, and regretted that he would have to dispatch him in a relatively quick manner. Not nearly as satisfying as the agonizingly slow death he would have experienced had the bargain been kept and Abaddon’s supremacy on earth assured, but it would have to suffice.

Exhausted by the work of several hours of fighting, Chance stumbled in the mud and fell to his knees in a puddle of water that was penetratingly cold. He planted the knife, now sticky with gore, into the ground and heaved himself up to his feet. When he looked up, it was into a pair of intense green eyes set in a face wearing a grimly amused smile. Chance recoiled, raised the shotgun, and fired twice, the force of each blast taking him back a step. The man before him still stood, looking down at his midsection thoughtfully. The deformed slugs fell away from him, not even having penetrated the black shirt he wore. The man looked up, and chuckled. The two of them resided in a circle of calm within the frenetic battle around them. Chance’s numb mind worked to come up with the identity of the being he faced, and slowly, painfully, the answer came. Abaddon. A fallen angel. The arm holding the shotgun slowly sank.

“Oh, shit,” Chance said, as Abaddon raised his darkly shining blade, and swung.

The pain was terrible, a searing hurt that went from his belly all the way to his backbone. He looked down and saw the raw cords of what must have been guts in his hands. It was all covered in a mess of blood and bile and shit; the reek was terrible. The first thing he felt was intense shock, followed by a feeling of intense panic. He knew he couldn’t do anything, though… just stare at the terrific wound and gape and gasp. His body started shaking, and after what felt like an hour, his knees hit the spongy wet earth beneath him with a squelching sound. The meaning of what he had seen sank in. He realized he was dying. After he had admitted that, it suddenly didn’t feel like such a big deal. He toppled over onto his side and smelled the clean smells of green grass and wet soil, and they made him happy. The pain was starting to fade away now, and he could feel the blood pouring out of his body, gathering in from the fingers and the lips and the toes and flowing out of the hole in his stomach. He felt very cold, but as feeling started to leave his hands and feet and face, He was gripped by an intense feeling of peace and contentment. He felt a warmth start in his chest and spread slowly outward, like butterfly wings. Or maybe like angel wings. He smiled at that thought, and closed his eyes.

Abaddon knelt, and wiped the mortal’s blood from his blade with his own cloak. It gleamed brilliant red in the nightmarish light of the storm. His lips stretched in a smile, and he felt his hatred fade a little as he watched the expansions of the man’s chest come more slowly, and more shallowly, with every breath. He would exist in a world of pain for now, and would die. There was no saving him, even if anyone had noticed his fall, which they did not appear to. Some allies, Abaddon thought mockingly.  Some friends.

He stood, and turned to seek his next foe. What he found was the fearsome sight of the Archangel Michael bearing down on him, heavily muscled torso now visible through the few remaining shreds of the white fabric he had worn. One shoulder strap from the armor harness dangled where it had been shorn, but no marks were visible on his skin. He raised the shining angelic blade in challenge.

Abaddon planted the tip of his sword in the wet ground, and waited with a casual air as a dozen and more of his minions sprang forward unbidden to protect their master. Michael heaved mightily with his sword, cleaving a path through the crowd of demons that only grew thicker in response, creatures seeming to spring up from nowhere to fight in Abaddon’s defense. Michael screamed aloud as one arm was clawed down to the whiteness of bone. Abaddon laughed aloud at his cries.

Abaddon was still laughing when Lord Michael’s blade plunged through the monster before him and ripped it in half. They now faced each other alone, and Abaddon’s light blade sang through the air after being freed from the wet soil, and it cut a glittering arc toward Michael’s throat.

The swing was deflected by the angel’s already injured arm, which absorbed the strength of the blow. Michael’s hand fell into the mud at their feet, and now disconnected from the power that maintained it, it dissapated into component molecules, to become part of the soil, the air, and the water.

Abaddon the Destroyer was still looking at the dissolving limb when Lord Michael’s sword took his head from his shoulders. As his body slowly collapsed to the ground, Lord Michael, Prince of Seraphim, felt claws burning into his back, and was overtaken by minions of Hell.”