James Patterson MasterClass on Writing Tidbits [Part 3]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss by the Bloodhound Gang)

This will be a short one, because I don’t have too much to say about it; it’s completely new to me.

Today in the MasterClass lesson, James Patterson was talking about writing good characters, and he said something really insightful about villains. He was talking about how, in the final scene of Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal intimates that he’s going to kill and eat the prison warden, the audience kind of cheers for him – roots for him, almost. And then he said something along the lines of, “The ethics and morals of the readers fall away if they’re really digging the villain.”

I’ve definitely had issues with writing villains before. I remember a conversation or two with Ram about new ideas I had for villains where they were absolute pieces of human filth – literally the worst people I could think of. And he would look at me and say, “Dude, no. No one can get behind that.”

The thing is, there are definitely villains you can hate fully and completely – that’s what, to me, Big Nurse/Nurse Ratchet is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But not every villain can be that way – and in many writers’ opinions, the best villains are the ones that, at a certain point, you might empathize with and root for.

Hence Hannibal. Here’s a dude who’s a vicious, clever, utterly insane cannibal – and yet we’re on his side because he’s just that good of a character. In a way, he reflects the more horrific sides of ourselves.

So I’m trying to think of villains that are people first and foremost – people who take a character flaw and drive it a little too far into the bounds of ‘evil’, if I can put such a black-and-white word on it. Those timeless villains like Hannibal, or the Joker from Batman, are so exciting because they’re so deliciously complex, just a broken-mirror image of what we could be if we were pushed a bit too far.

This is also arguably what made the Inheritance series not super great – all the time, Galbatorix was just this intangible, all-powerful, definitely evil foe which Eragon had to work towards, and in the end he beat him and we were all like “Well, yeah. Good for you, Eragon.”

So right now (SPOILER ALERT!) I’m working on a book in which one of the main characters, whom you meet as just another person, slowly develops over the course of the book into a villain, and their friends – the ones they grew up with throughout the book – are the ones facing the villain in the end. Kind of a reverse Zuko thing. I’ll see how it goes and let you all know what I find!

Until then, toodles.

Yours, villainously,

-R.R. Buck

My Tattoos (and the Meanings of Them) [Part 2]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You/DVP by Pup)

It occurs to me that I haven’t written a personal post in a while. Everything has been about writing because I’m trying to force myself back into the mindset – that way, when I end work in a few weeks, I’ll still stick to a rigorous schedule.

Still, we all have to take a break every once in a while. I’ve been working on a scene for the past few days and unable to finish it; maybe it’s time to indulge myself and talk more about me.

If you haven’t already, check out my first post about my YH8 tattoo before diving into this one, because I believe the ink on my body is a four-act play of transition from adolescence to adulthood, and walking in during the middle of the second act would be dumb (and bound to piss some theatergoers off).

So, act 2.

On my right thigh, just above my kneecap, I have a tattoo of the silhouette of a deer. It’s facing head-on, so you can really just see the antlers and the neck, with the two ears splaying out to either side. If you look at it upside-down, from my perspective, it actually looks somewhat like a penis.

(Would you believe I noticed that when first getting it and still decided to go forward with it? You should, because I really don’t give a shit about those kinds of things.)

Anyway, the silhouetted deer was the end of a very long battle for a family crest between me and my three brothers. Since his first tattoo, my older brother “Ram” has wanted to get a family crest with his two biological brothers and a friend of ours who’s so integral to our family that we introduce him as our brother.

The only issue was my little brother, “Antelope”. For a while he resisted the idea of getting a family crest tattoo; then he wanted a very specific style and location. In the end of things, we let him design the tattoos, and that’s why I have a penis on my leg.

But in all seriousness, I adore the tattoo. It’s so much darker and heavier than my YH8 tattoo – it’s almost like a brand on my skin. And that’s what I loved about it from the very beginning.

See, the first layer of significance was in the crest itself – we all four have a different “Buck” on our legs. It turns out that the males of many different animal species, among them deers, rams, antelopes, and goats, are all called Bucks (or if they’re not, then Ram bullshitted all of us and we believed it).

So we each got a buck that meant the most to us. I had the deer because it’s Reed backwards (derp) and also because I was the middle child, certainly not the shyest but definitely victim to middle child syndrome. My little brother got the antelope with the crazy curved horns because he’s the artistic one, and the finicky one. My older brother got the ram because he’s an Aries and because he might be the hardest-headed person anyone has ever met. And my brother-friend got the goat because he’s a goddamn goofball, but also the Greatest Of All Time.

So that’s the top layer of significance, the one I knew prior to getting the tattoo. But there’s always another layer that I only seem to discover afterward.

In this case, it was in the ‘branding’ effect. My family is… abrasive, to put it lightly, and we’ve gotten into more than our share of fights. But somehow, in the year or so after I got this tattoo, we seemed to be fighting more than usual. Antelope and my dad were at each other’s throats; I found that Ram, whom I had always looked up to, was making me more and more upset each time I saw him; and every trip home became a stressful event.

I struggled with this for a bit, all while looking at the goddamn black stain on my leg and wondering why I had gotten it, if my brothers and I were bound to upset each other to the ends of our lives.

Family isn’t an easy word to define, even when you’re close with yours. When I think of Ram, I think of so many things – the times he’s brought me to tears with arguments and discussions; the moment when, after the worst breakup of his life, I asked him why he hadn’t killed himself; the time when I was heartbroken over a high-school crush and he hung back for nearly an hour on his girlfriend’s birthday to keep me company. When I think of Antelope, I can summon up hateful confrontations and one-sided fistfights just as easily as moments of bittersweet emotion driven by texts about how much he looks up to me. There is no way to separate these muddled solutions of anger and joy, frustration and triumph, secrets and screaming matches.

There is only the word: family.

And family is branded into us, stronger than the bonds of friends because we can remember growing into ourselves alongside one another, loving and hating each other as we did so. Family is the social group you don’t choose – you’re stuck with them to the ends of the earth and the end of your life, even if they do blow out your candles on your birthday or hit you in the eye with a shovel. That bond is ironclad.

Or, at least mine is. And that’s where the realization came in. When I heard stories of friends’ fractured families – stories of true hatred untempered by something lighter. When I saw my uncle meeting his nephew for the first time at my grandmother’s funeral, after years of no communication. That’s when I realized that for some people, family is not what it means to me.

And that’s when I realize how lucky I am to have been branded. I would take on all that pain again, live through all those moments of black anger and boundless hurt, to be close to these three idiots I have to call my brothers.

I love you idiots.

Yours, sentimentally,

-R.R. Buck

Where to Start Your Novel

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Gay Bar by Electric Six, Say My Name by Peking Duk)

I know I’m not like a lot of writers. Some people have issues even thinking of an idea; some people make it 5,000 words into a first draft and collapse into themselves, tossing the whole work in the trashcan. As I’m taking the MasterClass taught by James Patterson, I’m noticing that, although there are great little bits of wisdom in each lesson, I’m not getting as much out of the earlier lessons as I will out of the later ones because the early writing process is easy for me at this point.

So where do I find my critical issue in writing? It’s usually twofold. I’ll have an idea for a trilogy – something sprawling and grand like the epic fantasy I’ve been reading since high school – and I write the first book all in a tizzy, flying through the first draft and growing to love my characters and situations and world.

And then I face the crisis: to edit, or to continue writing?

In some cases I’ve given myself a break and then jumped right into Book 2, trying to keep the momentum going. In others, I’ve forced myself to wait on Book 2 and instead worked on editing Book 1, to make sure it was solid before moving on. Both cases have historically ended disastrously for me.

Like I said, I see the problem as twofold. The first part of it is that I lose a lot of momentum on my second book because it’s the low point of the trilogy. Book 1 is all the exposition and worldbuilding and characterbuilding and really exciting introductory stuff; Book 3 is the wrapping up of the major plotlines and the epic climax of the whole series. But Book 2 is just the filler, in a sense – the things that need to happen to bridge the gap and set up for Book 3, but are boring in and of themselves.

The second part of the problem for me is in editing. I take a look through things myself or with alpha readers, and I examine what I like and don’t like about my writing, and it’s almost always the same – I love my characters, their dialogue, the world they live in, but something is always wrong with the plot, goddammit. When I started to look closer, I noticed the pacing was off – there would be this overarching plot line for the first book, but it would only be advanced in a select few chapters while 75% of the book was dedicated to ‘other’ stuff.

Vonnegut says “Start as close to the end as possible.” I used to hate that quote – still do, if I’m being entirely honest. I exercise my wit in saying, “Well, I can write just the very last chapter and there’ll be a story without any exposition or significance whatsoever, can’t I? But no one would read that.”

(Bear with me, I promise I’m coming to a point.)

When I started outlining my trilogies as a whole instead of outlining book by book, I noticed something. There was a lot of dead space in Book 2 which necessitated subplots and other arcs – but also in Book 3 where, without exposition, there was really only the wrap-up.

It struck me, in the matter-of-fact way that only intelligently ignorant people can understand, that maybe I didn’t have enough material for a whole trilogy – that maybe I could condense the whole thing into one book.

But Book 1 is so chock-full of great exposition and character development; there’s no way that could be condensed.

And yet even as I thought that, I looked back and saw that wasn’t true. James Patterson talks a lot in the MasterClass about every scene propelling the book forward; a lot of my expository scenes in Book 1 did nothing of the sort, as I’ve already said.

So I had a delicious thought.

What if I forced what seemed to me to be 300,000 words of a trilogy into one book of 120,000 words in which every single chapter, every single scene, directly impacted the main plot as well as the characters’ arcs? What if this was a high fantasy book written like a thriller, in which the sense of drama continued to escalate and climb in a rapid-fire pace antithetical to most modern fantasy books?

Veteran writers would probably roll their eyes at this and say, “Well, duh.”

(It’s a good thing veteran writers probably don’t read this blog, huh?)

But anyway, to get to a very roundabout point, where should you start your novel? If you’re like me, you’ve written out the last five hundred years of fantasy backstory and the whole epic scope of things. I would encourage you to pick the first major plot point of your first book – and if you’re like me, that plot point probably occurs after five or six chapters of exposition – and make that the very first scene of the entire thing. Challenge yourself to move at a frenetic, ceaseless pace through the events of your book, never letting up – because that’s what’ll keep a reader hooked.

Yours, feeling rather enlightened and a bit cocky,

-R.R. Buck

My Biggest Writing Pet Peeve

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: The Archers’ Bows Have Broken by Brand New)

This one actually does originally come from a James Patterson MasterClass tidbit, but I don’t want to house what will almost certainly turn out to be a rant in that otherwise unmarred bounty of wisdom.

In one of the MasterClass modules concerning research for a project, Patterson says something to the effect of “When you’re writing third person limited perspective, be careful about which parts of your research you’re putting into that perspective. If the person would really notice the architectural features of a building, that’s great, but if they wouldn’t, don’t put it in just because you researched it.”

(Despite the quotation marks, that is hella paraphrasing, so please excuse me. Also for the use of the word ‘hella’.)

He brings up a great point – your research should not be spewed all over the reader like cat vomit, especially not from the perspective of a character who has no right knowing about such things.

This is where Patterson ends, and the rant begins.

My least favorite thing I’ve ever seen in writing (mine or anyone else’s) is when characters do something that they *clearly* wouldn’t do just for the sake of [plot device/badassery/description]. You have this wonderfully ignorant sailor who’s spent her whole life on a boat? HER INNER MONOLOGUE SHOULD NOT BE ABOUT THE VARIOUS SPECIES OF TREES IN THE FOREST SHE’S JUST STUMBLING ON FOR THE FIRST TIME.

As an alternative, she might say, Wow, who knew there were so many different trees here. Who knew the land could be as interesting as the sea?

But dear lord, if she starts noticing that a deciduous tree is out of place in this coniferous forest and, as a result, finds a trapdoor under the roots of an old oak, you know I’m gonna lose my shit.

That may be a way over-the-top example, but I see littler, still egregious errors in writing all the time. You have a character considering the minutia of something they would never really notice, just so you can get a point across. For instance, a self-centered character should not pay as much attention to the other characters’ reactions to situations as you might want, just to drive a point home.

The place I find this happening most often (in my writing especially) is in internal monologue. It’s really easy when you’re writing descriptions to just get carried away with the scenery and start expounding on the beauty of the outdoors and the wonders of the natural world. But if your character is a sullen city-slicker, that just isn’t what they’d be thinking. Instead, they’d probably be staring daggers at chipmunks and swatting at tree branches (which makes for some fun and unique descriptions through action).

Here’s an example I really like from a project I’m currently working on:

“Buildings rose from the horizon with every step they took. In the changing morning light it looked almost as if the Arietta was igniting, its glimmering steel surface reflecting the sun’s rise in a spectacular clash of pinks and yellows. Qin had heard tales of the beauty of Imperik, of buildings that rose towards the sky as if to conquer the clouds. She’d tried and failed to imagine such grandiosity.

Now it stood before her.”

This isn’t just description – it’s description through Qin’s eyes. We feel her wonder, her excitement, in a way that a character who’d been born in Imperik might never see. In fact, an Imperikan might see these same buildings as dull compared to the palaces they’re used to.

Just do me a favor please, writers – get into character before you start writing as your characters. Nothing they think or say should ever be anything less than authentically them. And when you write that way, it doesn’t just make your descriptions and dialogue more interesting – it makes your characters three-dimensional.

Yours, late for D&D and signing off in a hurry,

-R.R. Buck

James Patterson Masterclass On Writing Tidbits [Part 2]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Jalopy Style by Citizen King, Walkie Talkie Man by Stereogram, Communication Breakdown by Led Zeppelin)

Hello everyone,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’m kind of bad about doing the whole “writing every day” thing. Maybe when I finish my part-time appointment with the Library at the end of the month I’ll start forcing myself into a schedule.

Anyway, I still have been doing the MasterClass lessons with James Patterson. A lot of the earlier lessons are not quite yielding that much for me (just because I don’t have any issues with starting projects or coming up with ideas – all my shortcomings lie in finishing out and editing) but there are still some great nuggets of wisdom to be found.

Today’s is “Story is built around revealing character.”

As a SFF writer, it’s really easy for me to get stoked on my own worlds and cities and forget about the characters as much. I have this great, grandiose idea for a world and a plot, and this is before I’ve even considered characters. In fact, sometimes it seems like the last thing to fall into place is the characters.

Now, at this point I’m going to remind you the same thing I remind myself every day when hearing advice from other writers – Listen to everything, and then figure out what works for you and screw everything else. So if you write worlds so engaging, so achingly real and beautiful, go ahead and just ignore me.

My problem is, I think my worlds are so engaging, so achingly real and beautiful, and they’re not. The proof is in the pudding – as of right now, my fiction publishing experience is all of ONE short story and ZERO anything else. So, I challenge any eye-rollers to take a hard look at their writing and see if this tip might not be more up their alley than they’d initially assumed.

Back to the actual advice. “Story reveals character.” What I’m realizing more and more is that, when I write characters that I truly love – not just as functioning elements of a plot greater than all of them combined, but as unique, motivated, emotional and rational individuals struggling to live in my sadistic creations – people want to read my stuff more. And not just SFF readers – people like my mom, who recently said of the Oasis “You know how much I struggle with science fiction or fantasy of any kind, but your writing in The Oasis is the best of yours I’ve read so far! And I actually became caught up in it, which says a lot coming from me.”

Thanks, Ma. You can go back to reading your historical autobiographies now.

See, the world can vary drastically. The plot can be prone to all sorts of eccentricities and loops. But the characters – the raw, potent pieces of ourselves we imbue with life and a single-minded goal laid into a multifaceted psyche – these are universal. Their struggles, be they on the harsh deserts of Hyperion, the crags of Mordor, or the middle of downtown L.A., are the same.

If you can write worlds like Brandon Sanderson or J.R.R. Tolkien, then fine. Make your characters as flat as you want (God knows Brandon Sanderson did in Elantris). But if you really want to capture your reader, if you really want to ensnare them and make them live your work out in their minds, what better way to do it than by creating a piece of themselves in your characters? A person to identify with, fight with, cry with, love with, and possibly die with?

Okay, I’m getting a bit full of grandiosity. Better to sign off before I do something I regret. Just… do it. Think of characters that engage you. Work with those archetypes, remember?

Yours, dreaming and dreaming on,

-R.R. Buck

The Oasis – Draft 3 [Short Story]

The finished product, to be compared with the first draft.

“The Oasis”
By Reed Buck

The sun was lengthening in the sky when Terjjen found himself standing in the shade of the northeastern portcullis of Trastor, patting his mare Celtoer in a wholly unnecessary attempt to calm her. She was not the one who was upset.

The parting crowd announced the arrival of a carriage. It rolled to a stop on steel wheels – a rarity in Trastor – led by a team of four sleek black geldings who eyed Celtoer with regal contempt. A manservant, vested in ghastly purples, leapt from the front of the carriage and tucked a stepstool under the door, which he opened in a flourish.

“Announcing Her Grandeur, the Contessa Aurevieu, Lady of the Seventh Court of Trastor and – ”

“You’re late.”

Terjjen offered his greeting to the heels of the woman just now stepping from the carriage. After a suitably gratifying moment of stunned silence, the manservant finished:

“…and Heir to the Duchy of Southern Trast.”

The Contessa descended from the carriage in a flood of coats and skirts which stirred up dust on the path. Her eyes, a piercing silver, found their way to Terjjen’s in due time.

“I presume you are our Waymaker?” she said.

“Aye,” Terjjen said, stalking up to her. “And you’re late.”

“I am aware of the time of my arrival,” the Contessa said, her one hand resting on the carriage door. “I am also aware of the time it takes for a woman of my stature to make preparations for travel; and here I am, not a moment later than I needed to be, nor a moment earlier than I could.”

Terjjen spat to the side in answer.

“We shall require a few moments to transfer our essential belongings to your mount,” the Contessa said. Behind her, the manservant hustled to obey.

“That’s just fine,” Terjjen replied. “I’ll be over here.”

“I was rather hoping you could take that time to introduce yourself to our last companion.” The Contessa rapped upon the carriage door with one hand. “Olienna?”

A woman leapt out as if her entire purpose had just been realized. Perhaps ten years Terjjen’s junior, her face bespoke an innocence Terjjen could only faintly remember having at some point in his life. Her eyes a soft blue like calm waters, she regarded him with a balmy smile and a curtsey.

Blue eyes meant she was not a relative of the Contessa Aurevieu. Perhaps a bastress, but unlikely given her traveller’s clothing. The Baron had previously implied that she was not a traveller, but she did not have the bearing of a personal servant. The only conclusion, impossible as it seemed, was that she was a….

“Waymaker,” the woman said, offering her hand and an even brighter smile. Terjjen was surprised to find himself taking it.

“Waymaker,” he replied. Then, to the Contessa, “One guide not enough for you?”

“Olienna is a friend’s relative,” the older woman replied. “She has only just begun her career and asked to be taken along.”

“What?” Terjjen glanced back and forth between the Contessa and the Waymaker, but neither seemed to signal an impending joke. “You think this is some kind of joy-trip?”

“Of course not. The exact opposite, in fact.” The Contessa stepped aside to let the manservant struggle by under the weight of a large crate, which she tapped meaningfully. “We carry precious cargo on this journey, and as such need as many of your kind for protection as can be afforded.”

“As many of my – ” Terjjen gritted his teeth and exhaled. “This is highly inappropriate, Your Grandeur. Waymakers don’t work in pairs, as this girl well knows; or if she doesn’t, she has even less experience than you claim.”

“This occasion, for this price, they do.” The Contessa patted Olienna on the arm and offered her a warm smile. When she turned back to Terjjen, the smile had disappeared. “I believe the two of you will… quite enjoy each other’s company. Now, may I get acquainted with your mount?”

* * *

By and by, the three companions made their way into the Torn Forest on a vaguely northeastern bearing. Terjjen led, followed by the young Waymaker Olienna, and then by the Contessa on Celtoer’s back. The rich fool had tied the crate over the mare’s rump, secured with thick lengths of twine around her belly. Terjjen could sense her simmering distaste with each clopping step.

They wove in between wraithlike trees twisted into bizarre and disturbing positions. They were the products of a world torn apart, their tortured frames bowing and crying out without a sound.

“My Lord, how horrifying,” the Contessa Aurevieu at one point muttered.

“This is what happens outside the cities when the quakes come,” Terjjen replied, picking his way through a dense patch of creepers. “Out here, there’s no shockstone to absorb all that wrath. The land takes the brunt of it.”

They made good time, despite the frequent stops for Terjjen to hack through foliage for Celtoer. Only two quakes hit by the time the sun dipped below the horizon, and they were as children’s tantrums – loud and ineffectual.

Before setting up camp, Terjjen took one last moment to secure the position of Helzevejn on the horizon. He closed his eyes, blocking out as much of the sunset as possible, and let the petals of his mind bloom. Upon the plains of his consciousness, many bright lights appeared, each shimmering with a different twinkle and hue. Helzevejn gave a steady burnt orange glow, situated directly on their course, some several dozens of miles away. He noted its barely perceptible movement northward before opening his eyes once more.

“We make camp here for the night,” he said

“And what of Helzevejn?” the Contessa said, collapsing to the ground and massaging her saddle-sore legs.

“Heading northward, not quickly. I think we should reach it in an eighth’s time at most.”

“Check again for me, if you would.”

“There’s no need to – ”

Check again.

Terjjen glowered at the Contessa; she held his stare without flinching.

He sighed and closed his eyes, letting the locations come back to him. “Yeah, just like I said. Moving north.”

The muscles around the Contessa’s mouth tightened as she frowned. “Well. I suppose that will have to do.”

* * *

Dinner was a simple affair of the kind Terjjen preferred: a wholesome stew of goat meat and thick mushroom broth, filling his stomach with a pleasant warmth.

As he ate, he regarded Olienna. “So,” he said.

“So,” she said, turning to him with a smile.

“From where do you hail?”

“Vetyn,” she said, her eyes clouding with memories. “It has been my home for as long as I’ve known.”

Vetyn…. “Isn’t that the trackless district?”

“Aye.”

“Yes,” the Contessa Aurevieu corrected from where she sat upon a down blanket.

“Yes,” Olienna repeated, her smile faltering for a moment.

“They’re the ones who killed all their Waymakers fifty-some-odd years ago, right?”

Olienna shook her head. “Nothing nearly so cruel. There was a forced exodus, though. The Vetynae… well, they’re strange folk. They believe the answer to the world’s major problems can be found in technologies.”

“Technologies… what, like metalworking?”

“In a way.” Olienna paused. “They think everything can be done with the right sort of device. Travel, energy, home comforts… all within reach if someone cunning enough can develop a perfect machine.”

“And how did Waymakers get in the way of that?”

Olienna shrugged. “They didn’t. Vetynae just don’t like what they can’t explain, and Waymakers’ abilities lie in that realm. So they banished them. We have these guides instead – they act as pseudo-Waymakers, but without any real skill. We use them for short-range travel.”

A bunch of scientists, lost in the woods, insisting they didn’t need a Waymaker’s guidance. The thought made Terjjen chuckle.

“Okay, so then how did you manage to live there for – what, twenty years? Without being noticed as a Waymaker?”

She laughed. “I had the good fortune of not being aware of my gift until just recently.”

Terjjen sat up. “Beg pardon?”

“Not all districts outside the Empire encourage the awakening process. In Vetyn, I was too busy stretching the capacity of my mind with mathematics to stretch it in other ways.”

Terjjen nodded, draining his bowl. “So what happened?”

“Well, I became a mathematician – one of the district’s best. They wished to move me to the capital city, but without Waymakers, we quickly became lost en route. Our guide – well, you can imagine. Apparently starvation is enough of an incentive for awakening.

“Suddenly I could see all the districts in mind. I led my group out of the mires and was promptly exiled from my home as reward. I made my way to Trastor, where I knew my father had friends. And here we all are now.”

Terjjen nodded and returned to his stew.

“Wait just a moment,” she said, beckoning with a finger. “You think I share my story without expecting recompense?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Let’s start with where you’re from.”

A half-grimace curled on his face. “Kval.”

“Oh.” Olienna bit her lip. “Were you… born in Kval? Or… taken there?”

“You mean abducted?” Terjjen sighed. “No, I was born there. I never knew anything else for my first twenty years.”

“Is it as bad as they say?”

“Worse.”

“Oh.” And then: “How?”

He swiped one finger around the edge of his bowl, scooping up the last of the stew. “How do you mean, how?”

“What can be worse than torture?”

He sighed. “Olienna, you seem sweet enough. I don’t want to ruin your conceptions of the glamorous life of a Waymaker.”

“You shouldn’t patronize someone you barely know,” she said, folding her arms across her chest.

He smiled without mirth. “Fine. What can be worse than torture? Torture implies interest. To torture someone, you must have an investment in their pain, develop a bond with them. I had my share of torture when I was in Kval, and I learned to prefer it.”

“To what?”

Neglect.”

His attempt at vehemence failed him, and the word came from his throat like the cry of a wounded animal.

“I – ” Olienna began.

“Have you ever starved because your master had so forgotten of your existence that she couldn’t be bothered to remind a servant to bring you food?” He turned, affixing her with a stare that finally made her avert her gaze. “Have you ever been hitched to the front of a wagon with the horses and ran alongside them? Been whipped with them? Ate where they did? Have you ever had to cross the endless stone wasteland with no sleep for an eighth, running barefoot on blistered heels, because your master didn’t see you as a creature that needed rest?”

His tears glimmered in the firelight. He didn’t reach up to wipe them away. “When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”

He stood and moved to Celtoer, unpacking his sleeping roll.

“But you got out,” Olienna called.

He turned. “Sorry?”

“You got out, didn’t you? You’re in Trastor now, under the protection of the Empire. The Contessa told me you lived in a mansion! You have a future to look forward to.”

He tried to grimace, but eventually settled on a rueful smile. “You really aren’t a Waymaker, are you?”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“If you were one of our kind….” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t be talking about futures.”

“Oh, ignore him, dear,” the Contessa called from her perch on the blanket. “It is always a good thing to mind one’s future; that is how one rises to greatness, despite one’s birthright.”

“And you would know about birthrights, wouldn’t you?” Terjjen muttered. Celtoer nickered.

“For your information, Waymaker,” the Contessa said, “I have dealt with and risen above more than my share of adversity and issue.”

“What, the silver spoon made your food taste strange?”

“The only difference between you and I,” she continued, “is that I face my problems, and learn to turn them to my advantage. Did you know I was not born a Contessa? I only ascended to this office on the wings of my own cunning and vision. And should I continue to move upward, I believe it will be for much the same reason.”

Terjjen barked with laughter, to push the tears back. “Right. Well, while you move upward, I’ll be getting some sleep for the night. Olienna, I suggest you do the same.”

* * *

That night, Terjjen surfaced from tumultuous dreams to find a new light in his mind. A deep, shimmering azure shade, the color of clarity. The color of an oasis in a desert.

He sat up, eyes still closed, observing the light soundlessly. There was something different about it – other than the fact that it was new. He watched it for some time, trying to determine what it was. It was only when Irridia crossed it that he finally realized –

It was not moving.

He waited several long moments, his posture rigid, breathing slow and calm. The oasis refused to move, even slightly, from where it lay.

A powerful sensation of tranquility washed over Terjjen, accompanied by several thoughts. Whatever this city was, it contained human life, else he would not be able to sense it. Its recent appearance suggested it had just been constructed. And the shameless grace with which it stood still amidst the drifting of the other districts told him something else.

This oasis had almost assuredly been built by Waymakers.

A sudden vision coursed through his mind: all the Waymakers, every single one in the Empire and the outer districts, leaving in the night, stealing away to this oasis. He imagined his people finally coming to a place where they felt safe – a place where, without knowledge of the location, the rest of the world could never find them.

We could be at peace.

His mind was set. The oasis called to him; he needed to move to it immediately.

Terjjen opened his eyes to sudden dim firelight. Olienna sat at the fire, heedless to his gaze, bent over some kind of notebook. Her pen scribbled furiously across the page, filling it with symbols. She startled slightly when he tapped her on the shoulder.

“What are you doing up?” she whispered, her eyes sliding to where the Contessa lay prone in the throes of slumber.

“Same as you,” he said. “You felt it, didn’t you?”

“Felt what?”

He frowned, feeling the errant threads of the past few days weaving together into something resembling an unpleasant truth.

“Where is Weijrne?” he asked, his voice devoid of emotion.

Olienna’s brow furled. “I’m sorry?”

“Right now. What bearing is it on?”

She half-shrugged. “I don’t – why does that matter?”

“Just tell me. Close your eyes and see it.”

She bit her lip, hesitated. Her eyes flicked for the merest moment toward the notebook still clutched in her hand.

It was over in a flash. Terjjen held the notebook, dangling it in close proximity to an astonished Olienna’s face. She reached out but hesitated when he wiggled it over the fire.

“What are you?” he asked.

“I – ”

“You are no Waymaker.”

She gave a jerk of a nod.

“So what are you?”

“I’m… a mathematician.”

Terjjen scanned the book from his periphery. It did appear filled with numbers, not that he knew them particularly well. Teaching himself to read had been difficult enough. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked, brandishing the book at arm’s length.

“It’s formulae,” she said, her voice pitchy. “They predict the movement of the districts.”

Predict the…. “What does that mean?”

“It’s what a Waymaker does with their gift, only with math. I can use it to predict where the districts and cities will be located in the future.”

“That’s not possible.” Terjjen took an unconscious half-step back.

“It is,” she said.

A deafening whirlwind of thoughts howled in Terjjen’s mind, and all that came to mind was the oasis. He could still feel it on the verge of his consciousness, a tide pulling him inexorably toward the light.

He shook his head slowly, spat sideways into the flames. Sizzling filled the air as he tossed the notebook back to Olienna.

“Doesn’t matter to me. You can lead the noble pain-in-the-ass to Helzevejn on your own with your formulae.”

He turned back toward his crumpled sleeping roll.

“Wait, you’re leaving us? Just because of… this?”

He snorted. “You couldn’t make me leave a job. I just… need to go. There’s a calling. Your kind wouldn’t understand it.”

She exhaled a bark of sardonic laughter. “Why don’t you try me, Waymaker?”

He knelt by his roll, listening to the padding of her footsteps as she advanced on him.

“There’s an oasis,” he said. “I need to – ”

“What did you just say?”

Her tone gave him pause to swing back about and face her. Her whole body had gone still, her white-knuckled fingers clutching the notebook to her chest.

“I said there’s an oasis,” he said.

“Why do you use that exact word?”

He shrugged, turning back to his sleeping roll.

“Terjjen, listen to me.”

Olienna sighed when he did not turn. “Despite what most think, the movements of the districts aren’t random. They’re tectonic patterns – they have to do with the surface of the earth shifting around. Those patterns can be deduced through mathematics. In Vetyn, I was the leader of the team attempting to make those deductions.”

Terjjen turned, ignoring a rising feeling of unease.

“One night I was working late and I stumbled upon something – an overlooked variable that fit into the equation and solved it.” Her eyes glimmered in the firelight. “I was so excited, I had to talk to somebody. So I went wandering throughout the Vetyn research center, looking for anyone who was still working, and I stumbled into a room for a project coded Oasis.”

She inhaled deeply. “Terjjen, Oasis is a trap for Waymakers. The Vetyna government created it with the goal of attracting all the Waymakers to one location. They planned to reveal it contingent upon my team’s discovery of a mathematical alternative to Waymakers… so they could then massacre them.”

It took a moment for the full meaning to sink in.

“You wanted to destroy us and replace us with formulae.” Terjjen’s voice emerged hoarse from his throat.

“You have to understand how they think in Vetyn,” Olienna said. “They loathe what they cannot explain with science. For the longest time, the only thing that stood between them and complete progress was a dependence on your people.”

“You were going to kill us all. You were going to slaughter us just because – because what? Because we can see where the districts move?” Terjjen clawed at the skin of his forehead, scoring gouges above his eye. “I would give anything to be normal. And you were going to kill us?!”

His scream fell upon the wretched trees.

“Not me,” Olienna said in a small voice. “As soon as I found out what they were doing, I left, and I took my formulae with me.” She gazed at him through eyes laced with tears. “But don’t you see, Terjjen? We can do something to stop it! We can – ”

“No,” he said, his voice trembling with rage.

“But we – ”

“No. Do not speak. Just leave me, please.”

The tears finally fell from her eyes, drawing trails down her cheeks.

“As you wish.”

She withdrew, her footsteps beating a steady path back to her own sleeping space. Terjjen crawled into his sleeping roll and lay still until the soft sounds of sleep filled the clearing.

Then he sat up.

Crept over to where Olienna lay snoring, facing away from him.

Extricated the notebook from where it lived in her satchel.

Returned to the fire and fed the pages to the coals.

On a whim, he moved to where the Contessa’s crate of precious cargo lay near Celtoer and pried it open. Inside, a hollow black emptiness greeted him.

He felt gorge rise in his throat. Nothing they say is true.

Terjjen secured his belongings atop Celtoer and left. Behind him, the fire finished devouring Olienna’s notebook and collapsed into smoldering ashes.

* * *

The next day, as the sun reached its zenith, the outer wall of the oasis appeared on the horizon. The Torn Forest had given way to a prairie of waist-high grass, through which it became obvious that Olienna was tracking him.

He stopped until she caught up, out of breath and out of her usual grin.

“You track well,” he said.

She panted for several seconds before answering. “I thought you were going to ride your horse, but you walked instead.”

“The Contessa will be dead because of you,” Terjjen said.

Olienna shook her head. “It was… odd. I told the Contessa Aurevieu you’d left, and she just smiled and said she knew it was going to happen. Then she told me to follow you.”

Terjjen shrugged.

“Where are you going?” Olienna asked.

“I’m going to enter the oasis and see whether you’re telling the truth.”

“You know I am.”

He sighed. “I guess I do.”

“You’ll be throwing your life away for nothing.”

He watched her, noting the care with which she watched him back. “Olienna, I have never had a life,” he said.

They were silent for a moment.

“Look,” she finally said. “I know how you feel.”

He snorted.

“I do. You may think no one else can know suffering, but I have. I left everything I knew behind – my family and friends, everyone I loved – because I couldn’t be a part of the Vetynae’s plans for your people. And those loved ones? They sold me out in an instant to the Vetyn military. I almost didn’t make it out. I suffered, same as you, but I also did what you’ve forgotten to do.”

“And what’s that?”

“Fight.” She grabbed him by the wrist, formed his hand into a fist under hers. “You don’t have to just accept the status quo. You can enlist the Emperor’s help against the Vetynae, or against Kval. You can change things, Terjjen.”

He pulled his hand away. “Things don’t change, Olienna. The Kvallians have enslaved their Waymakers for the last five hundred years. You said yourself the Vetynae exiled their Waymakers half a century ago. Our leaders haven’t lifted a finger against that kind of treatment, just because those districts are outside their precious Empire.”

“Fine,” she said. “Then do it yourself.”

He sighed. “Do what myself?”

“Fight back.”

“It’s not – ”

“That thing, the – the Oasis – is anchored in place by steel cables as thick as a man’s trunk,” Olienna said. “I saw them in the schematics. They’re driven hundreds of feet into the earth, perfectly balanced to prevent the city from moving. But if even one of them were shut down or released, the whole city would face a massive pressure imbalance. It would tear itself apart, and then the Waymakers wouldn’t be heading straight into a trap anymore. Terjjen, you could save your people and deal a blow to the Vetynae all at once.”

“Olienna, please. Just stop.”

“No.” Olienna stopped walking, folding her arms across her chest. “You know what else the Contessa Aurevieu said before I left? She told me that you were her precious cargo. Terjjen, I think she believes in you. I think she wants you to do this.”

Terjjen’s eyes narrowed. “Wait. What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know, just the way she talked. She wants to help us, I know it.”

“How would she even know about the Oasis?”

Olienna fell silent.

“Those were secret projects, right?” Terjjen continued, rounding on her. “Your people shared them with no one. How did she know about the Oasis?”

“I – well….” Olienna shrugged. “She was close with my father; maybe he told her. She’s had dealings in Vetyn before. I don’t know!”

“She has friends in Vetyn,” Terjjen said, feeling an uncomfortable prickling in the nape of his neck. “Close enough to trust her with the knowledge of the Oasis. But she’s willing to betray them and send us to sabotage it. Why?”

“Like I said, to help Waymakers.”

“Oh, no,” he said, stalking away from her. A groan of laughter filtered up from within him. “Oh, no. No, you can’t really believe that, can you? Could you really be that stupid?!” He clutched his scalp with both hands, fighting back tears.

“What, then?” Olienna said quietly.

He thought, his eyes scanning back and forth as he thought.

“If we destroy the Oasis, the Vetynae will seek revenge. The Contessa could easily spread lies that you were a spy from the Empire. It’ll start a war.”

Olienna’s eyes widened. “You think she wants a war?”

Terjjen shook his head. “Not the war itself – what the war can bring. There are ways for smart people to profit. She’s… looking for something.”

He rose, feeling the realization sinking into his chest. “The Emperor is old. Placid. He’s maintained peace for over thirty years. There’s no way he would start a war with the Vetyn. The Contessa will force a conflict and then depose the Emperor when he refuses to fight a war. If she does it right, most of the Empire will be behind her.”

Olienna lifted an eyebrow. “Isn’t that a touch preposterous?”

“Preposterous?” Terjjen shut his eyes against the sun. “Olienna, I opened her ‘precious cargo’ last night. The damned crate was empty. She told you I was her precious cargo? What does that sound like to you?”

“Like – ”

“Like she orchestrated this whole thing,” he said. “Like she knew that if she put us together – you, the one who knew about the Oasis, and me, the one unstable enough to destroy it – then we would swing the sword for her.”

Olienna was silent for some time.

“This is bad,” she finally said. “What if she actually seeks war against Vetyn? She could use the opportunity to crush the Empire’s most powerful opposition.”

“So?” Terjjen folded his arms across his chest.

“So then there’s nothing to keep her from imposing a dictatorship. Do you see? She could enslave the whole of the continent under a military state.”

“So?” Terjjen repeated.

Olienna stared at him. “You don’t actually want that. You pretend you don’t care, but you do.”

He raised an eyebrow and said nothing.

“Terjjen,” she said, a note of desperation creeping into her voice.

He turned away and continued through the field.

* * *

They approached the oasis together, the outer wall rising from the ground in front of them like a monument to the sun. As they drew closer, Terjjen began to pick out a portcullis, several windows, and a lowered drawbridge. The tension in his gut refused to abate, and though he knew better, he still found himself hoping that this might be a haven for Waymakers.

How pathetic was that? He knew it could not be the case; yet his heart could not let go of the idea of a place where he could finally live free.

They drew closer to the entryway, close enough to see a figure or two atop the walls, pacing back and forth. The tension spread and grew until it felt as though Terjjen’s chest was imploding.

“Terjjen,” Olienna whispered.

He didn’t turn. “Don’t try to dissuade me.”

She sighed. “I was just going to say that, when we enter, don’t tell them that you’re a Waymaker.”

He nodded, mouth dry. They entered the shadow of the portcullis, and it was now that Terjjen could clearly see the thick steel chains snaking from the outer wall into the ground at regular intervals, like the stakes and ropes of a massive tent.

“Halt!”

The voice belonged to a bearded man standing inside the threshold of the oasis, who held a strange machine – the length of an arm, it looked to be a metallic tube with an open hollow at one end. Apparently a frightening weapon, because Olienna shrank back from it.

“How did you find this place?” the man said. The moment the words left his mouth, Terjjen knew his hopes were lost – the man had a thick Vetyn accent and was clearly not a Waymaker.

“Our guide – he -” Olienna began.

Terjjen moved faster than she could finish her sentence. His broadstaff came down upon the man’s skull with a sickening crack. Before his body had fallen, Olienna was dashing to the left, tugging Terjjen by the hand. Several angry yells came from behind them, along with thunderous booms and zipping noises and rocks that pelted at their feet and past their heads. The Vetynae carried some sort of super-slingshots.

A last boom rang out and Olienna pitched forward, her hand catching on the door of a small shack. She thrust it open and beckoned Terjjen inside.

The moment the door was shut, Terjjen grabbed the nearest heavy object – a half-full bookcase – and pushed it over the threshold. A moment later, a furious rattle sounded from outside as at least five Vetynae tried to shove the door open. Terjjen put his whole weight against the bookcase.

“Olienna, help,” he said, glancing to the side. And then again, this time taking in the whole scene.

The bloody streak across her hand. The pale, clammy quality of her face and skin. The weak smile she offered him as she slumped down to the floor.

“Have you decided yet?” she said in a halting whisper.

The world shrank to just the two of them. Even the curses of the Vetynae outside faded.

“What?” he said.

She spoke slowly, each breath a labor. “We’re in… the control room… for one of the cables.” She pointed with a shaky hand to a desk upon which several buttons and levers stood in neat order. “The western piton, I think.”

“I don’t…” He fell silent, staring at her wounds. How could a slingshot have done so much damage to Olienna? She was bleeding so liberally.

“The others… don’t have any record of my breakthrough,” she said. “And you burned my notes. When I’m dead… they won’t be able to figure it out, maybe for years. That’s as much of a head start as you’ll get.”

“Olienna….”

“Shut up, Terjjen,” she wheezed. “All you have to do… is go over to that panel… and find a button marked emergency release. You press it, and this city will rip itself limb… from limb. You’ll save your people… and damn the rest of us.”

Terjjen felt his breath coming in short gasps. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“And when it’s all over, and you’ve – you’ve paid for your freedom in blood… you’d better look back and ask yourself something.”

She was quiet for a long moment, so quiet that Terjjen thought she might be dead. Then, in a raspy gurgle, she said:

What happens when the tortured become the torturers?

 

 

 

“General Terjjen, born a slave with no name, has lived to incite the Waymaker rebellion, the consequences of which have given birth a new age for the Empire. He is unequivocally the most selfless man I have ever met, and I fully expect his success in putting down the Irridian dissidents in the West.”

-Grand Empress Aurevieu,
in her commendation speech to General Terjjen of the Waymaker Corps

James Patterson MasterClass On Writing Tidbit [Part One]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: the Malo Mart song from Twilight Princess)

Well, here we are.

As a Christmas gift, my older brother purchased a subscription to a MasterClass on writing for me. If you, like me before December, have never heard of MasterClass, they’re exactly what you’d expect – classes on skills (vocational and otherwise) as taught by masters of the craft. They have Steve Martin teaches comedy; Christina Aguilera teaches singing; and my newest excitement, James Patterson teaches writing.

It is a testament to my laziness that I haven’t started the MasterClass until just today. Still, better late than never, right?

Anyway, I wanted to share the love with all of you new writers looking for inspiration, so I’ll be starting a new series of posts in which I take a tidbit from a lesson I’ve been given in MasterClass and examine it here. If you at any point want to read just those posts, I’ll be placing them all in one catagory for easy back-to-back reading.

So, to business. Today I watched the introductory lesson and then Lesson 2, which was about passion in writing. The tidbit I really wanted to take away was this:

“You have to pick out the advice you can handle.”

Such an incredible bit of wisdom, thrown casually in between other words as though it deserved no standout. I’ve been a writer for some time now, and I still face problems with this, which is why I chose it over all the other optimistic “don’t worry about rejection, just keep plugging” messages in the lesson.

When I started writing (and when I witness a lot of other new writers examining their own writings), I could not divorce myself from my work. I was like a high-school geek with his first significant other – inseparable, whiny, and all too prone to raging at the slightest criticism of our ‘relationship’.

I remember one time I was talking with my two older brothers (I will be calling them Ram and Goat, even though I don’t think they care if their names are dropped) about the naming system in one of my recently finished manuscripts, and Ram told me one of the names of my tribes was not great. I told him to piss off. Then Goat and Goat’s girlfriend agreed with him and proceeded to explain why, and I broke down crying. Like an actual toddler.

I couldn’t explain why; it was just a bit of honest criticism, well-delivered and ill-received. But as I sat in the car while the others left for the restaurant, I realized just how close everything was to me emotionally. I really, honestly couldn’t hear the slightest bit of criticism from anyone at that point in my writing career.

I like to believe I’m better off now; if someone criticizes my writing I have the emotional fortitude excuse myself, to go to my room, and then burst into tears.

Okay, but all jokes aside. The one thing your non-writer betas will have a hard time understanding is why you beg them for criticism and then seem to get super offended when they offer it. It’s not their job – it’s yours, as a writer, to recognize how close you are to your work and what you can and cannot hear at that time. Be brutally honest with yourself about whether you can hear a critique; better your brutal honesty than someone else’s.

Or, to save 550 words, I could just refer you back to the quote. “You have to pick out the advice you can handle.”

Yours, excitedly,

-R.R. Buck

Theme and Subtlety in Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Video Killed the Radio Star (cover) by the Presidents of the United States of America)

The age-old question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Or, to put it another way, if an author is making an extended metaphor in their writing and no reader notices it, does the meaning still matter?

I had a long discussion with my brother (we’re gonna call him Goat for reasons I’ll explain later) about artistic integrity and whether something written for oneself and no other audience can actually be considered art. My opinion was that art as self-expression is still art, but that it loses some ephemeral factor (what I might call that factor, I have no idea) which makes it… well, not lesser, but certainly different.

Whew, I’m jumping right into it.

Let’s step back for a second and examine why I’m even writing about this. As you know if you’ve been keeping up, I’ve been working with an editor from Westwind, UCLA’s literary journal, on a short story called The Oasis that will be published in the winter edition of Westwind. (If you haven’t read it yet, take a few minutes to do so; this will all make more sense.)

In a previous post, I talked about the changes I was making in moving from the first to the second draft, and why. Included in that discussion was an explanation of one of the themes I had hoped my audience would get out of the piece – that of inter-minority war, the idea that the white majority subtly manipulates minorities into expressing their institutionally  created anger at each other instead of at the systems that oppress them.

I thought my themes were there, latent but available to the deep-reading audience. My beta readers – all except one – disagreed. Despite multiple changes to the level of subtlety in the expressed theme, none of my beta readers were able to discern what I considered the true purpose to my story.

At one point, I expressed a bit of frustration to one of my betas, telling him I didn’t know how to make the theme more apparent without slapping readers in the face with it. He in turn asked me if it wasn’t something that could be “just for me”, in a sense – something almost no reader would be able to notice, but maybe the crazy Reddit fan theory uncovers it years later.

(I think that’s doing me a little too much credit, to assume I would have Reddit fan theories spawned by my work.)

But it did get me thinking – if there’s an intended theme an author puts into a work that is then never picked up by any audience, does it still matter?… and now we’re caught up.

The obvious answer is yes, it does matter because it has meaning to the author. And I would agree with that, insofar as that theme isn’t considered core to the piece.

(DISCLAIMER: I change my opinions almost on the weekly about stuff like this, so please don’t read my words here as Biblical… Torical… Quranical…. If you’d prefer, read them in a funny voice to ensure their proper lack of weight is known and felt.)

What I do believe is, if a piece is built around a core theme (and I would say that The Oasis was built around two – the sense of isolation racial minorities feel in society and the inter-minority war concept), then that theme has to be apparent to the readers.

No!!!!! screams the literary giant, glaring at me with bespectacled fury and stepping on my ideas (squish). How dare you try to force conclusions on the reader that they haven’t come to themselves?!? Let them read whatever themes they want out of your work!

I weep a single tear over the word-jelly that used to be my opinions. Then I say, “I respect a reader’s ability to examine a piece at whatever level they want and come away from it with whatever themes they find important and meaningful.” And I do – I am a sure believer in the idea that art is a contract between artist and audience (this is the principal reason why I think art as self-expression is missing something).

“But,” I continue, lifting the giant’s weighty foot and retrieving my word-jelly from where it has been stamped into the earth, “I do think that the core theme is something you sculpt a work around – the very purpose for its existence. If its purpose isn’t recognized, then the work hasn’t achieved its purpose.”

For instance, some of my betas have pulled away themes I never even considered while writing The Oasis – stuff about human nature, stuff about the war between science and religion or technology and mysticism. And I would never discourage those readings of my story. But if people can’t tell that this is about race – that Terjjen’s decision to destroy the Oasis is a symbol for the incitement of a race war – then the story hasn’t achieved its purpose.

You may disagree, and I’d love to hear it in the comments if you do.

So, some of you may be asking, did you just edit the story to make the theme super unsubtle? You filthy, subpar literary plebe?

Yup.

Here’s what I’m going to do, after a discussion with my editor. I’m going to make it so that, on the path to the Oasis, Terjjen realizes that the Contessa is sending them purposefully to destroy it, and that in doing so she will destabilize the political situation in the Empire enough to weasel her way into the Empress’ throne. Then he will be left with the decision – act as pawn to the Contessa, or refuse and let all the other Waymakers die? He’ll choose to destroy the Oasis, knowing the implications – a powerful moment of characterization for him. And even worse is the epilogue quote – a sign that the single moment of rebellion wasn’t enough, that he’s now been conscripted to fight for the Contessa as a literal pawn, along with the rest of the Waymakers, against other minorities – enslaved in a completely different way.

Wow, when I get excited I start to get run-on. My apologies.

The minority war theme will no longer be subtle in any way. But here’s the beautiful thing about writing – the move to a less hidden frame story allows for all sorts of layers of depth to be injected into the characters of Terjjen and the Contessa, as well as a more drastic finale where the reader realizes the impossibility of escape for a minority in a system that forces compliance, which is only a step above slavery.

Again, run-ons.

My final version of The Oasis is due a week from today. When I’ve submitted it, I’ll post it up on here so you all can examine the differences from first draft to final. And hopefully, you can learn with me what makes for good self-editing.

Yours, unsubtly,

-R.R. Buck

What I Learned From a Freelance Writing Scam

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Clint Eastwood by the Gorillaz, God’s Grill by Cold Duck Complex)

Okay, it wasn’t actually a scam. But it did teach me a lot about freelancing.

A few months ago, while trying to look for opportunities to get more writing experience (this was before I’d started writing for the UCLA Library), I decided to try my hand at doing some freelance. My older brother suggested to me freelancer.com, so I made a profile and gave it a shot.

The way the site works is you make a bid on a job an employer posts online – both what you’re expecting to be paid for it, and how long it will take you to finish it. It’s actually a pretty cool platform – besides writing, they also have freelance web designers, content creators, and even artists. I’ve considered returning to it as an employer to get cover art for some of my projects, but luckily enough I have a badass talented girlfriend who’s willing to draw the sick creatures of my mind.

Okay, shifting lanes from the side track. I didn’t get a lot of success with the first few jobs I bid for, despite utilizing all the various tips I found online (don’t price yourself too low, make sure you’re checking the site constantly, get the in-site training modules to show your skillsets). Then, out of the blue, there was one job I got accepted for! I felt so special.

The person on the other end of things introduced himself and said he wanted me to do some basic article writing – he would give me a topic, and I would provide him with a well-researched, 500-word article on it after an hour or two. The first one he gave me was about tax fraud – choosing a particular type of fraud, researching what it is and how to avoid becoming a victim of it, and writing an article summarizing it for the lay public.

He told me it was an ongoing project, that there was room for me to do up to twenty articles a week. I thought to myself, Well, I definitely can’t do that many, but I didn’t speak up about it – I thought that after we tried the preliminary article, we could discuss my workload per week.

And so instead I wrote. It took me just under an hour and a half to create and edit the article – not the best writing I’d ever done, but solid. The employer was impressed and told me he wanted me to write another one; I asked him for an hour’s break for lunch and we agreed to get back online later that day.

At this point, I had started to receive some conflicting signals. On the legitimate side of things, he had officially hired me through Freelancer using a contract, was validated with the site as a legit employer, and was tracking my work through a Freelancer desktop app that automatically paid per hour. The funds were being credited to my account, and would be officially paid something like two weeks later.

On the shadier side, the man had never given me his name (come to think of it, I’m not even entirely sure he was a man, although there must have been something at some point that made me consider assigning a gender identity). His interactions with me inside the Freelancer chat were restricted to him telling me to contact him through Skype, and the Skype address he gave me was for a company that, as far as I could tell, didn’t exist online. Also, the workload he was insisting on – twenty to twenty-five articles a week, over forty hours of work – was ridiculous.

Okay, hindsight is 20/20, but at that point, I saw that I was being paid for my work through Freelancer and that was all that mattered.

Anyway, I got back on Skype at the proposed time and waited. For hours. The person didn’t contact me again, so after about two hours I sent him a message telling him I would be getting on in the morning the next day before lab, in case he wanted to contact me.

The next day I got on and he wasn’t there. I waited all the way until about five minutes before I had to leave for lab, and he finally got online. He didn’t say anything about his absence; instead he asked if I was ready to write another article.

I told him no, I was about to leave for lab, and that I had some questions about him and the writing I was doing. (At least give me a little credit for being suspicious.)

He told me he worked for XXXXXX (I’m not going to do the site a disservice by discrediting it), a website that produced short content articles for professionals’ pages to help them draw clicks and views. From my limited knowledge, it goes like this: a doctor wants to create a website to sell herself, because all business is done online nowadays. She wants a lot of traffic and knows that a lot of medical keywords on her page will increase her appearance on search engines. So she hires a site like XXXXXX to give her short articles about medical-related stuff, the kind of articles she can load up with keywords to better optimize her site on a search engine. (I’m sure tech people are rolling their eyes right now.)

The guy I was working for was a writer for XXXXXX – a very legitimate site of web content writers. However, a quick web search found a lot of blogs of people who were dissatisfied, either as writers or as site owners, with the quality of work being put up. They claimed that some of the so-called “writers” barely spoke English and instead contracted out their own work to young twenty-somethings who were starting out and looking to prove themselves as content writers.

Sound familiar?

Well, I wasn’t able to do all that research until later in the day. All I got was this guy, very confused/borderline angry, asking why I wasn’t able to write another article. I told him I had work, and that I had been planning on asking him if we couldn’t cut down the number of articles to, say, ten a week (still a lot of work for someone with two part-time commitments).

He said no, the contract was for twenty a week minimum. And that was when I started to freak out. I was already late for work and I sent him a hasty Skype message saying that twenty articles a week wouldn’t be possible for me, and that I was so sorry but I had to leave, and that I would be back soon.

I went to lab and performed an experiment; the entire time, I was growing more and more anxious at thinking what kind of legal ramifications I might invoke by not being able to write the quota. Would I be forced to quit my job at the library to work full-time for this middleman writer? Would I face fines or even lawsuits if I broke the contract?

(Dramatic, I know, but that’s me.)

It got me so worried that I started to feel physically ill. I called in sick to work and headed right back home, intending to try to work things out with this person. When I got back, he had cancelled the job on Freelancer, dissolved my contract and my pay for the first article, and unfriended me on Skype.

My first inclination wasn’t toward indignation – I actually laughed. I was so relieved there wasn’t going to be anything worse than a slap in the face and an embarrassing story to tell my friends (you know, the ones I’d been bragging to about being picked up for freelance).

In the end, I learned a lot about the difference between legal and shady, and I really only lost an hour and a half of my life and like eighteen bucks. I have not since been on Freelancer; I decided pursuing writing through the Library would probably be enough for me without the stress of freelance.

If you’re planning on trying a site like Freelancer, don’t let my experience stop you. A lot of people do really well and go on to have great careers writing freelance professionally. And honestly, if I’d had a better first experience, I would probably still be trying to pick up jobs.

Just remember: if a dude tells you he would prefer to arrange business through Skype, you politely decline.

Yours, chagrined,

-R.R. Buck

Editing: From First to Second Draft

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Nothing, right now. Enjoying some silence.)

Hey everyone,

Sorry I’ve not been on in the past few days; I was attending my grandmother’s funeral. If you haven’t read the eulogy I wrote her, I’d appreciate it if you could.

Anyway, I promised this a while ago, so let’s dive right in. A month or so back, I wrote a short story called The Oasis. You can read the original version of it here. I started out with about 8500 words and a 3500-word limit for my submission to UCLA’s literary journal, Westwind. After some intense edits, I had a version that I thought was workable (the one I’ve linked to).

I met with my editor last Wednesday, and received some great news. I was allowed to extend my story past the 3500-word limit and add back in some of the content that I’d had to remove. To me, this was extremely helpful, as I had left some things out which disrupted readers’ clarity in the narrative and thematic content.

[Spoiler alert: read the story first before this.]

At its core, I wanted The Oasis to be about racism. More specifically, I wanted to point out the subtle pressures through which the white majority encourages tensions in minority communities and then channels that anger towards inter-minority clashes instead of righteous indignation towards the racist system. (Think Do the Right Thing, if you’ve seen that film.)

Readers’ feedback suggested that the theme of racial isolation and oppression came across fairly clearly in the original version; however, the theme of minority-on-minority war did not come across to literally everyone who read it. My editor, upon hearing my concerns, suggested that I do more to make the Contessa Aurevieu, who represents the manipulative white majority, seem more… well, manipulative.

My draft 1.5 is 5000 words, with a lot of stuff added back in and some new scenes and dialogues written. Eventually I may have to remove some of it in order to bring the word count back down, but honestly right now it feels like it’s at a good place.

So let’s take a look at some of the things I added to make the Contessa’s motivations a little more obvious:

 

From the original version:

The Contessa padded over and served herself. “What news of Helzevejn?”

Terjjen shrugged. “Didn’t move too much over the night. We got lucky.”

(Seems pretty tame, right? There’s a way to inject more of a power dynamic into that dialogue.)

 

From the new version:

“And what of Helzevejn?” the Contessa said, collapsing to the ground and massaging her saddle-sore legs.

“Heading northward, not quickly. I think we should reach it in an eighth’s time at most.”

“Check again for me, if you would.”

“There’s no need to – ”

Check again.

Terjjen glowered at the Contessa; she held his stare without flinching.

He sighed and closed his eyes, letting the locations come back to him. “Yeah, just like I said. Moving north.”

(Only 53 more words added, and a whole new tone develops.)

 

Another bit of dialogue that makes it a bit more evident that the Contessa is striving for political gain at the expense of her fellow travellers:

 

From the original version:

“When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”

Before Olienna could respond, he stood. “Come on – let’s get moving.”

(This comes at the end of the ‘torture is better than neglect’ monologue, but it doesn’t do a lot to characterize Olienna or the Contessa – just Terjjen. So I added in some more dialogue.)

 

From the new version:

“When you cease to be even a resource, Olienna,” he said, “when you are regarded as a fact of existence and nothing more, you will know what is worse than torture. And when the rest of the world turns its back on your plight, then you will know hell.”

He stood and moved to Celtoer, unpacking his sleeping roll.

“But you got out,” Olienna called.

He turned. “Sorry?”

“You got out, didn’t you? You’re  in Trastor now, under the protection of the Empire. The Contessa told me you lived in a mansion! You have a future to look forward to.”

He tried to grimace, but eventually settled on a rueful smile. “You really aren’t a Waymaker, are you?”

“And what do you mean by that?”

“If you were one of our kind….” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t be talking about futures.”

“Oh, ignore him, dear,” the Contessa called from her perch on the blanket. “It is always a good thing to mind one’s future; that is how one rises to greatness, despite one’s birthright.”

“And you would know about birthrights, wouldn’t you?” Terjjen muttered. Celtoer nickered.

“For your information, Waymaker,” the Contessa said, “I have dealt with and risen above more than my share of adversity and issue.”

“What, the silver spoon made your food taste strange?”

“The only difference between you and I,” she continued, “is that I face my problems, and learn to turn them to my advantage. Did you know I was not born a Contessa? I only ascended to this office on the wings of my own cunning and vision. And should I continue to move upward, I believe it will be for much the same reason.”

Terjjen barked with laughter, to push the tears back. “Right. Well, while you move upward, I’ll be getting some sleep for the night. Olienna, I suggest you do the same.”

(Okay, this was a lot more dialogue added in – 252 more words. But look at all the things it does: it characterizes Terjjen even more, as well as revealing Olienna to be a hopeless optimist and the Contessa as a driven power-seeking opportunist. It also explains some backstory – that Kval and Vetyn are not the norm, that within this ‘Empire’ they seem to treat their Waymakers well. And yet despite all that, Terjjen is still hung up on the past and believes no one could have suffered as much as he has. We all know good writing is when one sentence does the same work as ten – so even though I was adding to the dreaded word count, this had to happen, if only because readers need the early understanding of the characters and the setting.)

 

I’ll hold off on adding more examples – the post will get too long and I’m never sure if anyone reads this far down anyway. What I’m trying to explain is that the second draft is for major moves and edits. If there’s something that doesn’t need to be in there – say, the Baron’s character – remove it. Poof! He never existed in the first place.

On the other hand, if you need to add things back in for clarity, then you have to do that. Don’t worry about the word count for the time being – worry about your reader not understanding what the hell’s going on.

Determine why you’re writing this project, what you’re trying to say to the reader. And then ask, what is in here that doesn’t serve that purpose? If it’s more than just a few words of petty self-indulgence cut it. Then ask, what needs to be in here to serve that purpose? Add that stuff back in. When you finish up, you should have something that looks substantially different from the first draft.

I will repost The Oasis on here once it’s reached its final published version. That way we can examine what happened later in the editing process and how it culminated in the final project. Until then, get your red pencils out and go crazy!

Yours, hoping someone read all the way to the sign-off,

-R.R. Buck