Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.

Submission Advice from a Failure

I’ve gotten to that point in my writing (pre)career where I’ve written some stuff, I feel pretty secure in my abilities, and I’m putting myself out there. I’ve sent out six query letters for my novel (two rejections, more to come), and spent a little time looking for homes for a pair of short stories.

Obviously, this does not make me an expert. I’ve only gotten rejections, and not many of those yet. But I’ve learned three important things that I would like to share with my fellow would-be-published-speculative-fiction-writers.

(1) Read this before writing your query letters. Apparently I wasted my time with those first six query letters, because I hadn’t read the SFWA’s guide to finding an agent yet. Turns out I messed up about six different ways. Giving information that I shouldn’t give, withholding information that I should, that sort of thing. I can’t prove that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America know what they’re talking about, but since they’ve all been published in my genre of interest I’ll assume they know a thing or two.

(And note: you’ll probably have to personalize part or all of most of your query letters. Every agent or publisher says they are looking for different things, so you’ll have to tell them how your work fulfills their desires.)

(2) Have some patience, and season your work. Put it in a drawer, or leave it alone on your hard drive, for at least a few months — six, if you can stand it. Then read it and edit it before sending it out. This advice comes from Steven King, enshrined in his excellent guide to writing, On Writing. This book should be your bible — it is mine. I followed this rule for my novel, but not my short stories until a kindly editor rejected my work and called it “rushed”. I know I can do better than rushed — but I’ve got to let some emotional space grow between me and my work before I can take a critical eye and editing-pen to it.

(3) Form rejections break your heart, personalized rejections are precious lessons. Notice how I called the editor who rejected my work “kindly”. That’s because he let me know WHY he rejected my work, in the form of real, critical advice I can use. I would rather he had accepted my work, of course, but I’m not even mad he didn’t, because I know what to try next. The form rejections I’ve gotten for my novel, on the other hand, have upset me. I don’t know what I did wrong, so I don’t know what to try next.

(The good news is that a few rejections do thicken your proverbial skin.)

If I have more professional query letter (see item 1) I assume that agents will take me more seriously, even the ones that reject me. If they take me more seriously, my hope is that they’ll send me personalized rejections with clues that will guide me to acceptance by another agent.

To reiterate — I am on this journey with you all right now. I have not reached the Peak of Publication yet, but I hope to soon. We’re running this grueling emotional marathon together, so if you have any additional advice or a cool anecdote feel free to leave it below in the comments.

I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Renn and the Wyrms

Illustration is Hard!

The life stuff that’s been keeping me super busy is not over, but at least it’s taking up a lot less of my time/energy.  So hey look, another illustration. Finally! Right?

Wrong.

I just spent about six hours inking this beautiful thing, and I was going to post it with a short preview from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Proper Magic. Namely, with the scene it illustrates. But when I went to copy-paste that scene into this blog post, I realized that I had drawn my character Renn holding the wrong weapon. Renn was holding a knife in the first two drafts, but in the third, present draft I had switched that out with his trusty sword. And completely forgotten about that.

I try not to swear too much here, but there is only one proper expression for this:

FUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!

So next chance I get I’ll be redoing this illustration. Which isn’t so terrible. Really, this was practice, getting back into the swing of things. I tried out some new techniques I learned from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s illustration blog. I had to run to the art store halfway through because I lacked the right brush as well as the “white ink” I used to make those bubbles after salt and rubbing alcohol did not do at all what I wanted them to do. The pose could be tweaked a bit to make it look more active, and maybe more bubbles would add to that action-feeling.

Besides, odds are that IF my future publisher lets me illustrate my own work, they (specifically their art director) will make me redo everything because the aspect ratio is wrong, or I shouldn’t have used cold-press (slightly bumpy) paper (hey, it’s what I still have leftover from art school), or they don’t like some other detail. Heck, maybe I’m wrong in assuming they’ll prefer black and white ink drawings over full color. I love color, but I’m working black and white because it’s cheaper to print — something I assume a publisher will find attractive.

My point is that, just like writers, illustrators have to produce a lot of, “I’m never showing this to anyone, it’s awful!” before they become satisfied with their work — it takes practice, practice, practice. And even then, once they finally like what they are producing, they still work in drafts. And that “final” draft may not be so final after all once a publisher and their very specific expectations get into the mix.

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If you’re interested, here’s a quick look at the process I used today:

Renn and the Wyrms Process
1 and 2 are preliminary sketches — the proportions on 1 turned out awful, so I did 2 to try and get them in hand. To be perfectly candid, this pose is a real stretch for me. I don’t usually draw two figures touching each other, let along wrapped around each other and underwater.

3 is a Photoshop composite of 1 and 2. Yay Photoshop! This is a trick that Law frequently uses. She then prints out her composites, and transfers the sketch onto an appropriate piece of paper or other ground. This way, she gets a nice, clean sketch without any extra pencil lines or eraser marks.

If she can cheat that way, so can I.

I used a simpler transfer method than she does — I rubbed graphite all over the back of my printed-out composite (4), then traced over my drawing (5) with a red pen so I could see what I was doing and make any minor corrections I wanted to (proportions are still off, as you can see).

6 and 7 are just shots of the work-in-progress taken with my smartphone. In 7, you can see the black blobs the rubbing alcohol and salt left behind. Sprinkling on salt or rubbing alcohol is supposed to be a good “resist” technique — they move pigment away from an area, leaving a white, aesthetically pleasing splotch in the middle of a dark field. But mine left black blobs in the middle of those resist areas.

Clearly I have something to learn about how to properly use these techniques still. But I was still able to turn them into pretty bubbles by painting over the dark blobs with “white ink”.  I then used some on Renn’s head, his knife, and a little on the wyrm trying to drown him.  Using a technique throughout a piece instead of in just one area makes it look more like it belongs, and less like a mistake.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn just that knife into a sword with liberal use of white ink because the sword in question is curved, like a saber or a katana.

The Village of Aunbry from Proper Magic

A Home for Heroes to Leave From

This is Aunbry.

It’s a village, home of farmers, herdsmen, and a lone priest of the Five Temples of the Aegis.  It’s  small, dull, and narrow minded.  It echoes many other such small villages in fantasy literature, all designed to be left behind by the main characters.  I don’t know if my readers will like it much, or think it warrants a fancy map.

Certainly not, since Aunbry exists only so two of my main characters, Thades and Jenna Morgan*, can run away from it.

Yet I’m fond of Aunbry.

I think that’s one of the quirks of world building.  You generate piles of notes, and (if you’re like me) piles of sketches as you invent cultures, settings, and characters.  You end up knowing and loving corners of your world that are going to be overlooked by your readers, or that don’t even make it into your novel.

Besides, just because you leave a place behind in your narrative doesn’t mean it ceases to influence your characters.  Fantasies often begin in villages so the characters who leave them (and the readers looking over their shoulders) can view the rest of the world with wonder.  Characters left behind (or perhaps killed) give the new heroes quick and easy motivation.

But what else, what makes Aunbry special or memorable compared to all those home villages from Eragon, and The Eye of the World, and A Wizard of Earthsea that I can’t be bothered to remember the names of?

Unresolved conflict.

I don’t want to give too much away, but Thades and Jenna don’t get along with their neighbors in Aunbry for reasons that are not entirely their fault.  That conflict remains strong in their minds because it is the same conflict they find everywhere in their world; the conflict between magi and manuals**, between knowledge and ignorance, between youth and adults.

Aunbry isn’t the Shire — it isn’t remembered fondly, even its cranks seeming quaint from miles away.  But Thades and Jenna do remember it.  Hopefully, so too will my readers.

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*Magus Thades Morgan and his little sister Jenna star in my first fantasy novel, Proper Magic.  It hasn’t been published yet — you’ll hear about it here at The Drakehall Broadsheet first when I get lucky with an agent or publisher

**the non-magical — I couldn’t call them muggles, now could I?

I Like Big Books*

I have a soft spot in my heart for tomes.  Big, meaty books a thousand pages long.  It’s even better if that first thick volume is followed by several others.  I like the marathon.  I like settling in with a cast of characters and getting cozy.  I like all the odd nooks and crannies a story can wind itself into when there’s no rush, we’re a hundred thousand words from the finish yet.
We don’t learn to read fiction like this.  I can’t remember being assigned a single book over 400 pages in grade school English, and we never even considered anything in a series worthy of note.  Big books are textbooks, and they’re punishment.  That two-inch-thick spine just intimidates some people.  But it’s always beckoned to me.  There isn’t just a story within those widely-spaced covers, but a whole world.

Sure, they take longer.  The stakes are higher.  If the book doesn’t ultimately satisfy, more time has been wasted.  You can’t read a book a week if you dig into The Pillars of the Earth or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Reading Lord of the Rings will take even longer than watching it.  But what does a book stand for if not for a leisurely pace?

In this culture of click-bait and instant, viral gratification, it’s so important to slow down every once in a while.  You know that already, that’s why you’re here.  So sit back, relax, turn off the screen for a little while, and grab yourself a nice, long book.  You know you want to.

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*Ordinarily I write about writing, specifically about speculative fiction, with reviews of books and movies thrown in as I see fit.  But I’m mixing it up to write about reading for this post and the next.  It’s an odd shift in focus from the act of creation to the act of consumption, but it’s a fun exercise.  And hey, maybe Book Riot will like it.

How to Write Time

My writing follows a yearly cycle, and once again I have followed that cycle into — and by now mostly through — the creatively barren months of December and January.  The days are short, the sun-angles are low, and these things trick my brain into thinking I should be eating and sleeping more and working less.

We remain tied to the physics of the world around us, humbled by the tilt and spin of our planet, despite the best efforts of Tesla, Edison, and general industrialization.

It’s easy to forget how dependent we are on astrophysics while writing a novel, particularly one set somewhere other than Earth.  There isn’t a ready-made calendar; no system of days in a week, or months in a year, or annual holidays.  The writer has to make all that up, and then keep track!  That isn’t an easy task, and many writers simply don’t bother.

For all the work J.R.R. Tolkein did on language for Lord of the Rings, the scale of Middle Earth remains vague.  He usually doesn’t tell us how long the Fellowship of the Ring remains on the road, or how far they have traveled.

The Midworld of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is pointedly timeless, space and time both stretching and thinning as the Beams that support the world erode and break.

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, summers and winters both last “for years,” whatever that means.  Two or three years pass between books one and five, yet the unchanging season and lack of annual holidays left me feeling as if the events had taken place over maybe six months.

Obviously, you can write something brilliant without worrying too much about time.  But my body goes through monthly and yearly cycles.  Holidays mark my year, weekends punctuate my weeks.  I wanted the time in my world of Endrion to be palpable, just as it is in the real world.

To that end, I set about building a calendar for Endrion.  I decided to use 24-hour days, 7-day weeks, 28-day months, and a 336-day year.  These values are all similar enough to the values of Earth’s calendar that my readers will be comfortable.  My calendar also lacks leap-days, months of different lengths, or other irregularities.  Partly this is to make keeping track of my calendar easier for me, but it also fits the character of Endrion.  It’s a magical world, watched over by beings that might as well be called Gods.  Wouldn’t such a world have an eerily perfect calendar?

However perfect, though, it had to be imposed by the people of my world upon themselves.  I’ve not only invented a calendar, but a history for that calendar.

The days of the week are named by number — First Day, Second Day, and so on though to Sixth Day.  (Many human languages name the days of the week after numbers, including Hebrew and Japanese.)  The seventh day is Sabbath, the day to go to temple and otherwise rest, the weekend.

The months are given names which I meant to be evocative of the time of year, but which are ultimately meaningless.

On a larger scale, I also invented twelve major constellations for Endrion’s skies that fulfill the same role as Earth’s Zodiac.  No, they don’t influence the lives and fates of my characters — they serve as the basis for deciding what the current age is.  We count our years beginning with the assumed birth year of Yeshua of Nazareth.  The people of Endrion count their years by which constellation sits where the sun rises on the vernal equinox.

I keep notes on what day it is as I write — the year, the month, the day of the week.  My characters likewise notice time passing.  They vary their activities on the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  They feel the seasons passing, they note the phase of the moon, they know what day, month, and year it is.

It may be tricky to do all the world-building necessary to have these details at hand, but it is the little details that give a fictive world the air of solidity.

Limited Vocabulary

When I first began to write seriously, I received one particularly good piece of criticism.

“Your characters sound too modern.”

Nailing down that “timeless” narrative voice is a major struggle for anyone writing medieval-ish fantasy.  Language changes over time.  Words come and go along with advents in culture and technology.  Some words change meaning, and some evolve in spelling and pronunciation.  Others are locked away in a dusty corner of the dictionary, preserved but generally unknown.  And if you are writing about a place that is not on Earth, what do you do about the names of flora and fauna?

First, you must remember that you are writing for a contemporary audience.  Even if your character is technically wearing a “cotehardie”, you might want to call the garment a “dress” or “gown” (or “tunic” or “coat” for a man).  Forcing too many unfamiliar words on your readers is a great way to spoil the flow of your storytelling.  In general, if a smaller or more common word will work, why bother with a longer or less common one?

Of course, there are always times when you need to use the right word, even if your audience may not be too familiar with it.  That’s alright.  Just don’t make them look something up on every page; you’ll only be killing your own flow.

That brings me to “hello.”  I have had actual heated arguments about using “hello” in my medieval-ish writing.  It is semi-common knowledge that “hello” only rose to prominence with the invention of the telephone, but various forms of this attention-getting word have been used all the way back into the 1400s.  Hullo, hallo, holla, hollo, and so on.  While my characters usually great each other with “good morning” or some other time of day, I will occasionally sneak in a “hello” when it seems appropriate.  And I use “hello”, not “holla”, because I’m not writing for Elizabethans.  I’m writing for contemporary English speakers.

There are also common words that I pointedly avoid.  “Shock” is one.  While “shock” predates the discovery of electricity in the English language, the modern understanding of the word derives from the jarring sensation of touching a live wire.  It’s just easier to keep my readers in a world without electric lights if I avoid describing anyone as “shocked”.

“Galvanize” and “mesmerize” are right out, as both of those words come directly from the surnames of 19th century scientists.  I don’t use “earth” to describe dirt, soil, loam, sand, stone, or the ground.  My characters aren’t on Earth and don’t know about Earth, so why would they ever mention it?  “Infection” is another good one to avoid, even if your world has excellent magical healthcare with zero reliance on balancing humors.  My characters aren’t worried about germs and bacteria when they boil dirty water; they don’t want to be poisoned.

Diana Gabaldon has an excellent scene early on in the first book of her Outlander series, where Claire Beauchamp, a WWII nurse, tries to explain that she is a nurse to her new friends in the 18th century.  The word “nurse” originally relates only to the feeding of infants, and so the 18th century Scots think that Claire has just told them that she is a “wet-nurse”, a surrogate pair of milk-producing breasts.  It’s little relativistic touches like this that make me jump up and down and cheer when I’m reading Gabaldon’s work.

Oh yes, I am absolutely that nerdy.

I do like to mix and match a bit when it comes to the names of plants, animals, musical instruments, and items of clothing.  It comes down to readability.  If I was working on a comic book or movie, I might go ahead and invent hundreds of new species because you could actually see them on the page or the screen.  James Cameron’s Avatar and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind both create entire alien worlds to great effect — but how could I ever describe so many strange plants and animals in words alone?

So even though I write about the world of Endrion, it is peopled with humans (and elves and orks).  They have cats, dogs, horses, fish, flies, apple trees, grapevines, wheat, and so on.  I do include several species of monster or magical animal, all taken from the mythology of various cultures.  I will also invent specific species of plant or insect, and give them names that are evocative of their overall form and function.  “Moon leahs” are nocturnal flowers with bioluminescence, and “good eyes” are butterflies with gold-colored eyespots on their wings.  And you can probably guess what “pinstripe ivy” looks like.

As to clothing and musical instruments, these are items that vary in flavor but not much in overall form or function from culture to culture.  I try to use real words for the most part, and so my elves traditionally wear “obis”, those wide belts that the Japanese wear over their kimonos.  On the other hand, I wanted to give my minstrel an instrument to play that set her up as an outsider to the kingdom and culture that she lives in.  So I invented the “vesvel”, an onomatopoeia for the sound of striking the strings of an instrument similar to a guitar.

There are also subtle, grammatical rules at work if you want to sound more like JRR Tolkein and less like Terry Pratchett (no disrespect to Pratchett, his medieval-ish characters sound modern on purpose), but it all comes down to flavor.  Avoid anything too slangy, remember to add “ly” to your adverbs, and read.  Read a lot.  Eventually you’ll have a good feel for how to achieve that “timeless” narrative voice.

Sometimes it is frustrating to stick to my own rules, but limitations spur creativity.  The point isn’t to sound like Chaucer, but to impart enough of an old-timey flavor that my readers can  leave behind our high-tech age for a little while and get in touch with the rawness of the world.