The Value of Encouragement

I mentioned last time that something interesting happened while I was working on the revisions for Black Wolf.

This needs a little backstory, so here we go with a flashback scene.

Go back twenty years. I finished the first complete version of Black Wolf (then, the full title was Black Wolf, Demon Wolf – I got tired of typing that). It wasn’t my first novel, but we don’t talk about the first two; this was the first one I had hopes for. A very good friend and mentor, a local mystery author, read it for me and gave me her thoughts. She also heard that a Canadian fantasy author, Charles de Lint, was Writer in Residence in Ottawa, a rather larger city than ours, and that he would read work sent to him and send it back with his thoughts. What she didn’t discover from her source was that, quite reasonably, one was only supposed to send the first 100 pages or so. We sent the whole thing. Oops.

He was kind enough not only to read the full thing, but to say some very encouraging things and write me a rather long letter breaking down his observations and suggestions. He also offered to meet with me to discuss it. So, in May of 1995, my father gave me a ride to Ottawa (I was 21, and I never did get the whole driving thing) and I spent a very instructive afternoon. I was at least as shy then as now, and I was nervous, and I remember I started to giggle a couple of times at comments that were meant to be serious, but I also remember that he was very patient. Between his letter and that discussion, I learned the fundamentals of how to take what I had written, this wonderful ecstatic creative outpouring of raw material, and look at it in a whole new way, so that I could work it into something not just good, but much better than good.

I went home and applied it all, and that was, approximately, the version of Black Wolf that existed for two decades.

While doing the recent revision, I thought of that letter and went looking for it. Sadly, I could find only the first page of it, and that’s damaged, so I think it must have had an accident. I’ve moved a dozen times and sometimes conditions were less than ideal, to say nothing of my housekeeping. While I was grieving for this and cursing my younger self for carelessness, several wise friends helped me with perspective on it. The material letter is gone, but what it said, what I learned from it, that lives forever, because I internalized so much of it and it became a major force shaping my writing forever more.

What did I learn?

One of the things the surviving page says, emphatically, is that these are his thoughts, but it’s my book and my name going on it, and any final decisions are mine. That, I think, is a valuable lesson for anyone, in any context.

I learned that antagonists need to go beyond being trotted onstage as an excuse for the hero to act. Antagonists need their own internal reality, and need to make sense within their own context. I’ve tended to struggle a bit with this, since inside the head of a bad guy is often not a comfortable place to be (and Elena from Yin-Yang is the least comfortable yet – that woman frightens me). If I get in there too far, sometimes I find that I start sympathizing with them in ways, even liking them, and that makes it hard to keep seeing them as bad guys. But y’know something? That, I’ve come to realize, is actually a good thing. It helps take away the black-and-white good-and-evil dichotomy and make the whole thing infinitely richer.

I learned to do research. That’s much easier now that the Internet exists. Trying to find answers to some of the questions that arise was nearly impossible with only the local physical library in reach, with of course many of the books outdated because no library has enough funding. Now, I can track down answers on the most peculiar and esoteric subjects. However, I wouldn’t be doing that if I hadn’t come to value accuracy and plausibility so highly. What kind of wildlife is suitable for a given environment, is it actually possible to wear a sword across your back and still draw it, how big a medieval-ish settlement would have to be in order to support a given business, how far can a horse travel per day on a sustained vs short-term basis, what kind of car in 1995 would have the characteristics I need in a scene, when was the full moon in May 1995… the list is endless. Most of them flit by in a sentence or so, if that, and many no one will ever notice, but the fabric is the stronger for it, and it’s much less likely for a reader to be jarred out of the flow by a factual error.

I learned to chart things out. Characters, chapters, point of view shifts, pacing, chronology, locations. This used to involve large volumes of grid-printed office paper, rulers, and pens in every colour I could find. (So I’m colour-oriented. Hey, I’m the prysma-kitty. This should not be a surprise.) And, therefore, folders and paperclips holding things together, and redoing them if I had major changes. Now, I actually use a spreadsheet program. Different tabs for different sorts of info. Each novel has its own spreadsheet, with everything neatly bundled together where I can find and update it easily (still with colours!). Plus, I can generate cool pie graphs with the word counts for my various characters, which I certainly wasn’t going to do on paper!

I learned to watch how I phrase things, how I put sentences together, how to spot ambiguity and clean it up so the reader doesn’t need to pause and think something through multiple times to work out what it means. Words should be invisible, and only meaning should register.

I learned not to make my heroes too perfect. Everyone beautiful, everyone always rational and calm, everyone perfectly in control, is boring and monotonous and hard to relate to. It’s the flaws and the vulnerabilities that make characters truly three-dimensional and give the reader a better chance of connecting to them.

While my stories are my own, all these things became bedrock goals, things to strive for, no matter what I’m writing. I’ve come a long, long way with all of them, in the nineteen years since.

Another thing I learned was this: someone who had no personal connection to me, someone who wasn’t biased by friendship or blood-ties, someone who truly knows not only books but the fantasy genre in particular, thought that my work was good enough to be worth spending the time teaching me all this, and encouraging me to market it, and giving me suggestions for people to contact. That was completely unprecedented. Do I need to try to explain how much that meant?

The world went the way it went, and I got bogged down in other things. Lamia nearly sold to a small publisher, which closed, but also helped encourage me. I kept writing, but rejections by several agents along with waiting a year to hear back from a publisher about Black Wolf led to my rethinking priorities – did I really want to try to write what they wanted, what might become commercially successful, what might actually catch their interest? Or did I want to simply write what I want to write, how I write it, and put everything into that instead? Health issues and several overwhelming life stresses made the whole question moot for most of the past decade.

Here I am now, though, and I think I have the best of all worlds. In that time, I’ve been refining my writing skills. In that time, I’ve been down into my own depths, and my protagonists and antagonists both are more vivid and more alive than ever because of that. In that time, I’ve been building a network of friends all over the world, some of whom read fantasy, some who don’t, all of them supportive and understanding, who are my test readers and cheerleaders and sounding boards, and in one case, my introduction to the concept of indie self-publishing. I have a chance to get my work out into the world – without the backing of a publishing company, but on my own terms – and that work is much better than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago.

I wouldn’t have gotten here, though, without Black Wolf and a good friend and a professional who took the time.

The moral of the story? Nothing original, I’m afraid: taking a very little time can make an immeasurable difference for someone else. In this case, I was the someone helped. Will I ever have a chance to pass on that kind of gift? Do those who gave it to me know that they did so?

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