Category Archives: Book One

On end-of-year reflections

Chrysanthemums_by_a_stream_with_rocks
Chrysanthemums by a stream, with rocks. By Itō Jakachū. Part of the series Doshoku sai-e.

It’s the end of the year, the time of year that inevitably brings with it much reflection. For me, specifically, it’s the time of year I finished the first major round of editing on The Butterfly Crest and began considering what to do next. I also happen to have just completed a another substantial step in that journey. So, it’s only natural that I currently find myself obsessively preoccupied with evaluating my progress.

Looking back at the past year, one thought constantly rises above the others:

Every step of the process, no matter how large or small, is equally as important and laborious as the last.

I started out this journey thinking (naively, I admit) that writing the book itself would be the hardest part and that everything after that would be, in a sense, “down hill”. Having finished the book, I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. That was almost three years ago. I am done with writing. I am now (thank the gods) done with editing. My list of things to do, however, has only gotten bigger, and the road has become no less uneven.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

The editing process, for me, turned out to be a three year endeavor, after first thinking that I was done in just a couple of months. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back thinking, Okay, this is it, and then it wasn’t.

I finished the book back in 2011. The first round of editing took four months. Once that was done, I thought I was ready to roll; next up was publishing! With that in mind, I started looking into my options; traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to explore both, so that opened up several avenues of exploration (literary agents, query letters, the torture art of a well written synopsis, submissions, social media, platform building, etc). With exploration came many realizations, several of which started the editing process all over again.

To increase the chances of capturing an agent’s interest, I had to make changes to the beginning of the book. Then I shared the book with a few trusted friends/relatives for feedback; that inevitably led to round three of editing (much more in-depth than the last). After that, I got the insane idea that I could read the book completely, and enjoy it like any reader should. Not so much; that seemingly innocent goal led to the most extensive round of editing. At the same time, I was building up my newly-opened practice, executing a limited foray into submissions to literary agents, reading up on the world of self-publishing (which has changed quite a bit since then), and starting my (mis)adventures in social media and platform-building.

You can see how something I thought I had finished in early 2012 ended up taking me until November 2013 to complete.

I remember thinking to myself these past few months, Okay, this is it, after this it’s smooth sailing (sound familiar?). Once again, I was wrong. Now, while continuing to work on the social media/platform-building aspect (here’s looking at you, Pinterest), I’ve decided to revisit my book cover, something I thought I had finished in mid 2012 (around the same time I started sharing the book with friends and family). The past week alone has given birth to two new covers, and still counting; I might just end up posting them here for comment, to see what y’all think.

That all being said, I hope this little exercise in reflection hasn’t discouraged anyone, because that certainly wasn’t my intent. I just felt the need to share a little of what the process has revealed to me this time around. Writing and publishing a book (be it through traditional or self-publishing means) is a perpetually arduous task. It is not as simple a process as just writing, editing, and publishing. It is a multi-layered beast that is ever-changing and exhausting, and which for me is now impossible to live without.

On destroying your work

Image

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

― Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette)

Going into this, I was certain that at some point the editing would stop.

I was convinced, by some inexplicable notion, that there would be a magical moment in time when I could flip the switch and go from author to reader; a moment where I would be satisfied and would be able to read my work with the same fervor I read other books.

That magical moment, however, has yet to come.

Every time I think my editing is finally done, something else comes out of the woodwork.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew editing would take time. I knew enough to know that I would seldom be satisfied (I have a tendency to over-think and overcorrect). I also knew that once I handed the manuscript off to my husband for editing, we would probably differ quite a bit in our opinions (he’s far from my target audience, and I’m set in my ways).

In the end, I approached editing in two ways.

First, I edited as I wrote. I know some people are of the opinion that editing while writing is a mistake, but it works for me. I would write a full chapter without stopping, review it, revise it and then send it to a trusted friend (she’d been my only audience for 14 years, so I knew she would be the perfect critic). We would discuss her suggestions, I would make the corrections and then move on to the next chapter.

After five months, I had myself a finished manuscript.

Now it was my husband’s turn. Several weeks after I finished, I handed him the first physical copy of the manuscript. He went chapter by chapter, and as he edited I would revise. Once that process was complete, I would be done.

A year and four months later, my editing is still not done.

My first mistake was editing so soon after finishing the book. You see, I made most of the corrections my husband suggested, but there were several I was unwilling to make that turned out to be absolutely critical. The problem was, I was too attached to what I had just written. Not enough time had gone by, and I couldn’t find the resolve to destroy my work.

In all honesty, I didn’t think I needed to destroy it.

Now, so many months later, I realize I was completely wrong. Somewhere between trying the read the book myself (a long and arduous process, since there is always something, some minute detail, I want to change) and getting feedback from the handful of people I’ve asked to read the book, I ended up making those difficult changes I was unable to make in the beginning.

It was a gradual process, but before I knew it I was destroying my work without feeling guilty about it. As I started trimming the unnecessary parts, and rounding out the parts that were lacking, I started to feel like I was finally close to the finish line.

But that brought with it it’s own set of problems.

With the momentum came the overcorrections. Suddenly, everything was suspect. The things I had been sure of before became uncertain. I started questioning dialogue formats, obsessing about the number of times I used the word ‘said’, and went so far as to doubt the beginnings and endings of my chapters. I became so consumed, that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Moral of the story? Once you learn to destroy your work, the rub is being able to recognize that almost imperceptible moment in time when destruction becomes complete and total annihilation.

On the in-between

Peonies and Butterfly by Hokusai

Impressions in writing are important.

They are what you are striving to create. What you hope the reader takes with them.

Sometimes they’re the inspiration for something or the reason behind a particular choice. They can fuel the creation of a character, for instance, or unexpectedly bring about their demise.

They have a lot to do with rhythm, tone and instinct. Very little to do with rules, preconceived notions or overly-worked designs.

Recently, I’ve come to realize that they are the cornerstone of my writing process.

I chose to write in third-person narrative because it allowed me the most flexibility in creating the impressions I wanted to evoke. There’s no right or wrong answer in the choice of narrative point of view. It comes down to personal preference, and for me it was easier to create the atmosphere I needed for The Butterfly Crest by using third-person narrative. Elena’s journey is rife with contrasts that could only be elicited in that way; a human’s view of the divine is limited to the human perspective, and I needed the reader to see beyond those limitations.

Impressions also influenced my writing method. I wrote The Butterfly Crest chapter to chapter, each chapter building on the one before. The starting point and the end point of a chapter were clear impressions in my mind that began as images but had nothing in between. The goal was to transition from the first image to the second, the in-between developing on its own. I knew the stages of Elena’s story, so in that sense the starting and ending points of each chapter were planned, but they evolved from images and impressions rather than an overly-worked design. I had an outline, which was pivotal to the process, but the bullet points were concise, and it was the image they conjured that propelled the story forward.

The title of the book was ultimately chosen because of an impression left in me several years ago, when I purchased my first Japanese textile. I bought a haori, a coat that is worn over kimono, made of black crepe silk and decorated with a beautiful floral pattern stitched in silver, gold, blue, green and coral threads. The black crepe has a swirl-like water pattern woven into the fabric, designed to act as the backdrop. The inside lining has a delicate hand-painted design of pink magnolia flowers on pale branches, the petals lined in gold. I fell in love with every aspect of the textile, but the most curious element was the single kamon painted in white on the back panel, several inches beneath the collar.

Kamon are family crests, and in kimono they are used to indicate levels of formality. After seeing the emblem on my haori, I researched the subject and came across a butterfly crest that I never quite forgot. As I developed Elena’s story, the butterfly became a very prominent symbol, and the crest I never forgot naturally became the emblem for her story.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been considering how to begin the second book in the series. It’s been a difficult process because most of my time is being consumed by my law practice. I have an ongoing list of ideas, and as I looked them over this morning I realized they are a list of impressions; experiences like the ones described in my last blog post. Each impression has a link to the story. The front runner is the image of a single red camellia blooming in snow. Believe it or not, the image ties into several aspects of Elena’s journey.

Moral of the story? Structure is necessary but magic happens in the in-between, when a an image or impression evolves into something greater than itself (be it a single sentence, a chapter or an entire book).

On the intention of words and the creation of a journey

What I remember most about a book is where it has taken me, emotionally and metaphysically.

When the words strip the world around me bare, refashion it into something entirely different, and it affects me in such a profound way that it becomes as much a part of me as any step in my own story—that’s what every writer strives for.

It is the intention behind every written word.

In order for me to channel that intention effectively, I have to immerse myself in what I’m trying to create. That can prove to be difficult when what I’m creating only exists in the abstract or, worst yet, when it exists but it’s a place I’ve never been.

Most of Elena’s journey in The Butterfly Crest takes place in worlds that exist only in mythology, and the beginning of her journey is born in a country I am irrevocably devoted to but have, regrettably, never had the pleasure to see with my own eyes.

It is easier to convey an intention when you have experienced it with every sense in your being; when you’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it, smelled it, heard it. Your senses are necessary tools in conveying your intention. But what do you do when they aren’t in your arsenal; when the only experience you have is abstract?

It’s in those moments when I turn to other people’s experience; immerse myself, vicariously, into some else’s senses until they supplement my own. I’m sure it was a much more academic exercise before, but today we have an endless supply of blogs, video, and information to learn from.

I was fortunate enough to have a history with the things I chose to write about—I had years of books and resources I could turn to at first—but it was the “virtual” information that really made the difference. Photo blogs. Travel videos. Endless articles on a particular culture and aesthetic. Information on archeology and myth.

The good thing about writing on mythology is that history already provides you the footprint; you just have to fill in the blanks with a little innovation. Writing about a place that exists is a little more difficult. You have to honor it, be mindful at all times of striking a balance between artistic and ethical integrity.

Blogs like Patrick Latter’s Canadian Hiking Photography were pivotal; photographs that affect me in the same way as a well written book. I’ve never been to Canada, but he makes me want to write about what he captures in his photos (not just scenes, but a visceral expression of something outside of ourselves).

Using blogs like Patrick’s, I researched the places I wrote about – whether real or myth. I studied photographs and videos, searched for as much sensory information as I could, and then wrote with that intention in mind.

By the end of Elena’s journey, I felt as if I had visited all of those impossible-to-reach places; a feeling I hope to have in common with my readers by the end of their journey into Elena’s new world.

Creating a setting is as important as creating a character. It should live and breathe as viscerally as their animate counterparts.

On the importance of prologues

“What’s past is prologue.”
              -William Shakespeare, The Tempest

With my sincerest apologies for the radio silence of late (life keeps getting in the way), I wanted to take a moment to talk a little bit about prologues.

In the process of writing a book, the prologue is the last thing you write.

How many of you have heard this before? I’d heard it a million times, but in my case it turned out not to be true.

Or so I thought…

At the onset of everything, three paragraphs gave life to my book (guided, unknowingly, by the hand of the immodest Mr. Muse). They were not my best work, but they were pivotal; after all, they had been the catalyst for everything. These three paragraphs became my prologue.

As I worked to finish the book, I knew in the back of my mind that I would have to revisit the prologue at some point. That point didn’t come until I was ready to begin submissions. As I am sure most of you know, when making submissions to literary agents you only have a few pages to make an impression. That means your prologue and/or the first few dozen pages of your book need to be good (to say they’re crucial is the understatement of the century). You need to make an impression that sticks.

This is how the first words I wrote of this book also turned out to be the last.

As I’ve mentioned before, the first few chapters of The Butterfly Crest follow Elena’s very ordinary life. The story doesn’t stay ordinary for long, but it just so happened that the submission lengths were never quite long enough to reach the extraordinary parts (in most cases you get 10-15 pages, that’s it!). This meant I somehow needed to find a way to infuse the beginning of the story with some of the magic of the rest of the book.

Enter new prologue.

I initially played with the idea of doing away with a prologue entirely (better no prologue than a weak one) but I got over that pretty quick, because it still didn’t solve the issue of making an impact with the first few pages. So I pondered my options for a few days. At some point between frustration and utter hopelessness, it hit me—I had already written the prologue.

Halfway through the book, I had written a passage that broke from the narrative of the story. For the first time in the book, Elena’s consciousness was not the point of view. Like a tear in the fabric, the reader is given an insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. The same thing happened three or four times throughout the story, and one of those moments was a perfect fit.

With that brief introduction behind us, I’d like to share the final version of the prologue with you. It’s short, but I think pretty effective. What do you think? Comments are welcome.

As the fractured light of dawn breached the threshold, two voices spoke in whispers in the fading dark.

“Are you going to coddle her the entire time?” hissed the female voice, the quality of her tone brittle and wispy, like the rustle of desiccated leaves. She was the Keres, the goddess of violent death, believed by humans to be three spirits but in truth was only one.

Death, her brother, sat across the room from her, holding a mortal woman in his arms. The woman writhed and twisted, struggling with the demons in her sleep. With careful hands, Death brushed the hair out of the woman’s face and then lifted his icy gaze to his sister’s.

“Why do you care?” he asked.

“Because I do not want you to end up like Dionysus. She’s going to die just like the rest of them,” the Keres said.

“Up until a few decades ago, you were all certain the bloodline had died out. And yet here she is, the Heir of the House of Thebes.” The sarcasm was lost in the apathetic tone of his voice. Death brushed his fingers against the back of the mortal woman’s neck before continuing. “If I was a betting man, Keres, I would bet you were wrong again.”

“I am seldom wrong, Thanatos.”

“It is of no use to me when you are wrong at the most important times.”

The Keres hissed, and the shadows trembled in the dark. “I grow weary of this side of you. I have been asked to inquire as to your intent.”

“Isn’t it obvious, sister? I intend to bring her to Tartarus.”

The Keres laughed, the sound hollow like the rattle of bones. “Are you mad? It is forbidden.”

“It is the will of her father, and I intend to see it through. Tell my mother, we should not be long.”

With a baleful cry, the Keres was gone.

**Copyright © Eva Vanrell, 2011 – 2012. All rights reserved.

On killing adjectives

Begging your pardon for the tardiness of my latest post (my day job and migraines were brutal this week), I had intended to write about several subjects (prologues, narrative, the hook, etc), but then I ran across a quote I haven’t been able to shake:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. —Mark Twain

I should have known better than to take it at face value, but I happened to run across it at a particularly vulnerable moment during the week.

As a writer, you’ll come across these moments (big or small) when you suddenly find yourself thinking it was all for naught, and every nerve in your body is screaming for you to tear it all down and start over again. I’m not talking about the usual artistic dissatisfaction—that’s normal; I’m talking about a sudden shift in perspective where what you had once considered brilliant now seems insipid and forced.

That’s where I was, mentally, when I ran across this quote.

To make matters worse, my shift in perspective happened to be brought on by a particular insecurity I have regarding my penchant for imagery. Truth be told, I couldn’t kill an adjective if it were coming at me head on with a machine gun in its hands.

I should have looked up the entire quote (because it would have saved me several days of mental torture). Instead, I ruminated on it as I continued my work for the week. Then an innocent comment from a dear friend added fuel to my mental fire. A discussion about action scenes versus epic settings, in my mind, turned into a private viewing of my book’s crucifixion.

There are as many different types of readers as there are books in the world, and each one of them has their own preference when it comes to styles of writing; it would be insane to think you can satisfy them all. I happen to be the kind of reader who enjoys getting lost in a book, in its scenery and the world it has to offer. Of course, action is important, but to me it’s more about the feeling I get when I read; the sensation in the back of my neck as the world I’m reading about begins to take shape around me (guided by the author’s carefully chosen words).

The more details the writer offers, the more elaborate the world taking shape in my mind can be. The experience, for me, has to be one of immersion. It can be a scene as subtle as a Japanese gardener teaching his craft (Gail Tsukiyama‘s The Samurai’s Garden) or as intense as a child’s first kill in self defense during Rome’s invasion of Britain (Manda Scott‘s Dreaming the Eagle), but either way it has to move me; speak to something deep inside of me so that it becomes ingrained in my mind, like a memory (that isn’t even mine).

The same thing is true when I write. I tend to lose myself in the world I’m creating or describing. Whether it’s a real place or one that exists only within the writing, I want the reader to experience it palpably; to feel awe and wonder as they step through the threshold. Of course, in my zealous fervor, I can get carried away; it is one of the things I know, going into it, that I need to keep a rein on.

As I wrote The Butterfly Crest, I kept myself in check by doing two things. First, I followed the Coco Chanel rule, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory. Less is always more.” Yes, she was talking about fashion, but the sentiment still applies, and, unlike Mark Twain’s rule (or so I thought, throughout the week), this method didn’t require me to kill all adjectives. My second weapon was having my husband edit the book, since he is the farthest thing from my target audience and particularly dislikes overly written books (if I got his seal of approval, then I knew I had something going).

Suffice it to say, I tortured myself with this frame of mind all week. I kept going back and forth in my head, dismantling the story and justifying, to myself, the choices I made and the reasoning behind every step of Elena’s journey. I ultimately came to the conclusion I had reached at the beginning of the writing process—I had to strike a balance to maintain the integrity of the story. I couldn’t just arbitrarily kill adjectives. Yes, quite a few met their demise (through the Chanel rule), but others remained and thrived in order to give life to Elena’s journey. Every step chosen was methodically thought out, and randomly sacrificing imagery (adjectives) for more action would only do a disservice to the story I was trying to tell.

So after all of that mental torture exercise, I had found my way back. Good for Mark Twain that he could sleep at night after murdering every adjective that came his way, but I just wasn’t that kind of girl (I love adjectives!). At some point this morning, I decided I would write about my little experience with Mr. Twain. I started to look for the exact quote online, and found that Coco and Mark (when put into context) weren’t too far off:

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.

If I would have looked up the quote earlier I would have saved myself a lot of grief, but I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write about this. I think for a lot of us, we are our own worst critics. No matter how much we believe in ourselves, there are moments when we falter (when our genius doesn’t seem so genius-like anymore). It is important to step back in those moments and regain perspective. The instinct that guided you to begin with will return, and then you’ll really regret it if you started killing adjectives arbitrarily while your genius was gone.

On ambrosia, beginnings, and the inner fangirl

Every year there comes a day, a singular, spectacular day, when you step out of your front door at the exact moment when summer has transitioned to fall. Sure, the process began long before you took that fortuitous step, but somehow you manage to tap right into the flow of it. It seeps in through your skin to the marrow of your bones, ravaging every nerve ending it encounters along the way. In that pivotal moment, the world stops. A massive silence drowns out every sound as one season shifts into the other, before the world takes a thunderous breath and is born anew; recharged, vibrant, and infinite.

Portland_Japanese_Garden_maple
A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portland Japanese Garden, photo by Jeremy Reding.

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