Here we are now, going on two months since I had my novel, War Witch: Rise, accepted by Booktrope Publishing, and there are some things I've been thinking on since the day I got that email. Not just about the actual acceptance, but about the manuscript itself, and the story it conveys.
First off, I'm going to admit that the editing process remains one of the hardest parts of publishing. There is, and always will be, a difficulty involved in knowing that someone is going over your story with a fine tooth comb, preparing themselves to point out all the flaws, weak points, and stupid parts. I imagine it carries a certain sense of dread for them as well. It can't be fun to look forward to contending with that fragile ego all us writers tend to possess.
We do, too. Don't lie, fellow writers. None of us like hearing it. We all tend to think our work is better than it actually is. I am no different, and I know when that first round of edits hits here soon, there is going to be a lot of internal flinching and the urge to whine at my editor. Like every writer, I am too close to my work and I think the story is almost perfect the way it was accepted.
It takes a good deal of mentally slapping myself to keep in mind that my editor is my new best friend, here to help me, and everything she is going to tell me is meant to help make a good story great. It doesn't make it easier to look forward to, and I admit to being very nervous, but the realist in me knows I'm not as awesome and profound as I like to think I am.
I've got a rather antagonistic relationship with myself. Devout realist who spends most of his time in fantasy worlds of his own imagining. Even I'm aware of how contradictory I am.
That aside, the editing process is the next big step in things, and while I wait for the first round to be ready for me to digest and accept as improvements, I sit here worrying. Did I do this right? Did I convey that properly? Was I as consistent as I hoped? Does the plot make sense? All the questions that go rolling about in your head at this point in the process.
There are a few things about War Witch that make this worse than usual, too. During my time self publishing, my good friend Beth served as my proofreader and sounding board, going over my manuscripts and giving me her two cents. We've got a great relationship, and I trust her to never steer me wrong. She helped make Bunny a better character, and a better read.
War Witch is not Bunnypocalypse, though. It's a completely different beast. While I wait for my new editor, Wendy, to helpfully hand me my heart on a plate, I wanted to touch on some of what makes this novel different than anything I've ever done before, as well as reminding anyone who keeps up with this blog that, yes, it is still coming out.
I'm kidding, by the way, Wendy. I know you aren't actually going to cut my heart out, and look forward to everything you have to say. Especially when it hurts. That's what I need to hear the most.
She's a rock star for taking this project on, folks.
The first reason why has to do with the long and rather winding road this novel has taken to get to this point. The first concepts and drafts of this manuscript were written close to twenty years ago, and it has gone through several revisions just to get to where it is now.
Originally, I had planned it as a series of short stories connected by an overarching plot and continuity, which served to flesh out a world I had only just begun to detail. I have a deep seated love of the old radio and cinema serials, a type of storytelling we don't see much of anymore, and it's something I've always wanted to work with. To that end, each installment of the story was as short as possible, with a clear resolution of the immediate problem at the end.
I'd written about six of these when I realized that it wasn't going to work as I had planned, for several reasons. Each installment was getting too long as the problems faced by the characters grew more complex. The overarching plot began to take center stage, with each antagonist they faced being tied to it in some way. Most of all, the characters were getting short changed, as I had little time to focus on their development.
I backed up and took another run at it, this time with the idea of each installment being a part of a greater whole. I saw it as a trilogy, each book made of six parts. I had the first two basically done when I noticed that I was still not letting the characters develop, and the central plot was still overshadowing everything.
The problem with that is that the characters had begun doing what the plot needed of them, without regard to whether or not it was a thing the characters would do if left on their own. I have always preferred character driven stories, but here I was, not doing the very thing I wanted to do most.
That fact set me back a lot. I stepped away from the manuscript for some time to really think about it, play with the world setting, and work with some other ideas I had in order to become a better writer, the kind this story deserved. During that time, Bunny Beckman wandered into my head, and a lot of things changed about how I wrote.
Bunny is where I always mark the point I became a decent writer.
So, I turned back to War Witch and took a look at the first book again in July of 2014. I saw all the potential, that it wasn't just a bad idea I desperately wanted to be good, and decided to take another run at it. To see if I could do right by both the characters and the plot this time. I'd learned a lot since my last go around with the story, after all, and figured I could make it better.
A month later, I had a new problem. The story was better, and of that, there was no doubt. The problem was that my vision of it as a trilogy no longer worked. The first three parts of the first book stood at over 200,000 words and 800 pages on Times New Roman with a font size of 12. There was no possible way to include the other half of the first book without it being the size of an encyclopedia.
I hadn't just reworked the book, I'd rewritten the entire thing, on a much larger scale. Don't even ask what else I did that month, because it seems the answer is nothing. The word count still staggers me. I didn't know I could do that.
I stepped back and gave what I'd written a second look after about a month, and it was far better than the versions that had come before it. The characters were center stage and drove the plot, the way I'd wanted. The size, though, that was something I wasn't sure what to do about. I cut everything I thought I could, that wouldn't compromise the story, but that ended up being negligible, and I was still looking at a rather massive book.
So, the best thing, I figured, was to step away for a bit and come back later. With Bunny, I had always managed to keep the story right in the frame I wanted, so maybe what I needed was some distance. This particular story had always been a bit of a problem for me, so it seemed sensible to give it room again and come at it fresh after some time had passed. Maybe the things I thought couldn't be removed could be, once I had some perspective.
That is not what ended up happening. Instead, Booktrope opened up for submissions. My good friend and fellow author, Mike Munz, had been encouraging me to take a stab at getting published by them for a while, and it was something I really wanted to do. I just didn't have anything to send. Bunny was already out there, but more than that, I wanted to send them something that hadn't already been seen. On a snap decision, I sent War Witch.
We all know how that worked out.
This brings me to Worry the First. A 200K word novel is like trying to take Cerebus for walksies in the dog park. Something is going to go wrong. What, I don't know, but I am waiting for it. It's bound to come. It's also the first reason Wendy is an amazing human being. She knew, going in, just how big this project was, and did it anyway. That takes a certain amount of guts, to dedicate yourself to editing something that outlandish.
There is always the possibility that she's as crazy as I am. Time will tell on that front, I'm sure.
Despite the number of revisions this story has already undergone, and the massive size of the end result, it has been accepted for publication, so somewhere in there, I must have done something right. While it is all a worry to me, it's not the biggest. There is another issue that causes me a great deal more anxiety.
Namely, the cast is predominately made up of women.
Before we get to far into why this makes me nervous, let me say something about the fantasy genre and women. It's not a good field for them. Even the best fantasy of the modern era often does wrong by women. Most of what is out there tends to cast them as the damsel to be rescued, or in support roles. There is not a lot of fiction in this genre that casts women as the heroes, the main characters. This is dumb, because there's no reason why they can't be. There is no indisputable law of fantasy that says only men can be the heroes.
When I first started working on War Witch, I wanted to have women be the central characters, in large part because my girlfriend, Storm, had always been hesitant to dive into playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group, solely because she wasn't sure she'd be welcome, for the single reason that she was a woman. As much as I was already aware that fantasy and gaming was not a women friendly field, this still irritated me.
Storm and I had played some on our own, and I really wanted her to get to experience how much fun it was with a group. She was hesitant, and as much as I thought she would be welcome, I admit, I was worried, too. We both ended up having nothing to worry over, as she was warmly welcomed by the group I played with, but it was that there was a worry about in the first place that bothered me. I think I wanted to believe things had improved more than they had, and while our group was fine with it, others still wouldn't have been.
This idea had sat in the back of my head for a while, since high school, and I decide to write an epic fantasy with women in the leading roles. Because I could, and there was no reason in the world not to. Regardless, my first drafts didn't live up to what I wanted. The most recent drafts, I like to believe, have done a much better job of it. There will be those who disagree, but if I've learned one thing in life, it's that you can't make everyone happy, but you can sure as hell piss everyone off without breaking a sweat.
To that end, let me tell you a little something about the women in my life. Storm thinks a good chick flick is Iron Man. The more violence, blood, gore, and explosions there are, the happier she is with whatever it is. She doesn't enjoy what is typically thought of as women's fiction. Too much sighing and damseling for her taste. As far as she is concerned, the heroine of any story could solve whatever problem she had by kicking it in the face while riding past on a motorcycle and downing a beer.
Then there's my sister, Amber. Who I've never beaten in a single wrestling match. Because she bites the fuck out of me when she's losing. Like, leaves teeth marks bites the fuck out of me. Like Storm, she doesn't have time for all this waiting around shit. Her approach to solving problems is to drive over it in a muscle car without dropping her whiskey while cussing it out.
Amber's wife, Jesse, can catch a squirrel with her bear hands, skin it, and cook it, all without batting an eye. She's also smarter than most anyone I know when it comes to tech. She might not be the kick door in and kill 'em all type, but make no mistake, she could, and if she couldn't outsmart the problem, she'd do just that.
My point is, I have a certain view of women. One that states, in no uncertain terms, that they are every bit as capable, skilled, and ballsy as any man I've ever known. I'm surrounded by strong, smart, tough women on all sides, so when I sit down to write a fantasy novel with women as the leads, these are the people I draw on to inform my characters.
I said not to long ago, that the key to writing women is to write characters, not a gender. It isn't hard. I do remain aware, however, that my particular view of women is influenced heavily by the women in my life. Which is how I end up with these characters.
There's Ramora, the War Witch of the title herself, a cleric of a war God, capable of hurling spells with as much ease as she swings her greatsword. She's known massive tragedy in her life, and is scarred mentally, emotionally, and physically by it. Despite that, she's a good natured character, funny and warm, generous and kind, with a keen tactical mind. She's not a brooding hero, there's not a lot of grit in her character, and she doesn't spend long hours sitting in the dark, contemplating vengeance. Instead, she focuses on bringing light, happiness, and safety for others into the world. Her battle against the forces of evil is one she chose, and will carry out, for the good of others. Because it's the right thing to do.
Chara serves as her counterpoint for much of the story. Where Ramora is pretty upbeat and happy, possessed of little ego, Chara is pretty much the opposite. Her sense of humor doesn't lean towards sarcasm, it wallows in it. Most of her story arc is focused around her own internal struggle, between who she wants to be, and who she feels she is obligated to be. She's torn, angry, bitter, and arrogant. She rejects what she is told is her place in the world, preferring to seek out her own, even though she has no idea what she even really wants. She's smarter than she knows, but again, has no idea how to even really use that, causing her more frustration and anger. In the end, the only thing she is sure of, is Ramora, and her quest, but constantly questions her role in even that.
While they are the two main characters, there are secondary characters of significance as well. Such as Izra, the Elven martial artist. More than anyone, she is the stereotypical girly girl on the surface, in love with shopping, fashion, and looking pretty. Bubbly, outgoing, personable, and flirty, when it's time to fight, she's a fearsome warrior, trained since childhood in a martial style that gives her a heavy advantage against spellcasters. Unarmed, she is deadly, and knows it. Beyond that, though, she's a warm, comforting presence to others. The ease with which she befriends people, her accepting nature, and charm makes her a wonderful character to write.
Then, there is Rayne. I'm not even sure where to start explaining her. Mad, wild, unpredictable, volatile, charming, brilliant, and egotistical all suit her. She's a whirlwind of action and words. A powerful mage and a genius engineer, she makes everyone around her dizzy with her seemingly crazed antics. Behind it all, though, is someone who is genuinely frightened of people, of being judged by them, and hides her true self from the world under a mask, keeping everyone at arms length, so no one can hurt her. Rayne is sad, and feels small, so acts larger than life, in the slim hope that someday, someone will push past the many walls she has built, and just be her friend.
There are others, too many to really list, from Chara's mother, to the kindly innkeeper who cares for our heroes for much of the story, to the mysterious personal aide to a king. There are likely more women in this story than there are men, and each is a person, with their own hopes, dreams, fears, skills and talents.
This is Worry the Second. As I said, it's hard to make people happy, but pissing them off is simple. While I will always be happy to say I am a feminist, I remain aware that what I write will not always make everyone happy. I won't always be able to present things in a way that makes everyone satisfied. There will always be those who find fault, and criticize. Which is a good thing, really. We can only grow when it is pointed out where we have failed, and I am sure, I have, and will. When those criticisms come, I want to hear them, so I can keep growing, and becoming a better person, and a better writer. The worry I have is the story itself being overlooked, or ignored, by fans of the fantasy genre for having women in the leads. I worry about insulting people, by not doing it exactly right.
It's really easy, after all, to piss off everyone, and I find myself in a great position to do just that.
Moving on, though, there's a smaller topic I want to touch on. Namely, the character of Ramora. You see, she's mute. There's no physical reason why, as her disability is psychological in nature. However, it remains that the title character has not a single word of dialogue in the entire book. You cannot even begin to guess how hard it is to write a fantasy story with a character who can't utter a single sound.
Bear in mind, there is no set sign language in the world where they live. No hard and fast one that anyone can learn. Much of Ramora's difficulties over the course of the story come from her inability to communicate. There are a number of scenes where she tries to mime what she wants to convey, and only a couple are done in a humorous way. She and Chara develop a sign language they teach others as the story progresses, but communication is always an obstacle for Ramora, and the only times her disability is ever played for laughs is with her friends, in much the same manner Toph of Avatar: The Last Airbender joked about her own blindness.
Disability is not a laughing matter. With Ramora, it's a source of constant frustration and difficulty. She resents her inability to talk, to laugh, and often feels left out of casual conversation. It's all in how she deals with it, though. She is the sort of person who faces obstacles head on, and this is no different. She finds ways around it, learns to live with it, and in some ways, even uses it to her advantage. It's part of who she is, and she doesn't mope around over it, instead focusing on how to cope and overcome.
Nor is she the only one in this story who has a disability. Tana, a major secondary character, was born blind. Though she has developed an ability to see auras, she cannot interact with the world the way others do. This doesn't stop her from being a capable fighter when the need arises, and she is every bit a hero, same as Ramora.
Still, this is Worry the Third. I didn't set out to create a disabled hero in Ramora, and due to the psychological nature of her inability to speak, personally hesitate to really call her such. Her muteness is something she can overcome and regain her voice, after all. This goes back, all the same, to that annoying reality about how easy it is to piss off everyone. It isn't something I want to do, but can't appear to avoid, as Ramora being a mute is a part of her character, and a facet of who she is.
We'll see how well that plays out, I'm sure.
Now we come to the final thing I wanted to talk about. I saved this one for last, for while it is not my greatest concern, it is something I am nervous about. To be blunt, it's my nature, as a writer, to tackle heavy subject matter. Fiction is a great way of talking about things that aren't always easy to discuss, after all, and the fantasy genre is one of the best platforms in the world from which to tackle any number of social issues.
To be clear, I do not hold myself to a be a great writer. I'm good, decent even, but I'm the last person who will ever use the term great when talking about my work. The realist side of me keeps me from having much of an ego, you see. It reminds me often that I am as capable of having a wet fart in the middle of the grocery store as anyone else. It pretty much kills any notion of greatness to have that thought in your mind while standing on the coffee aisle.
That doesn't mean I'm not willing to take on any and all issues that I feel need to be addressed. As a writer, I do that through fiction. So you know, when it comes to this part of what I do, I make no apologies. I will never be sorry, to anyone, for doing this, because it is the best use of fiction. Even when I do it clumsily, or don't manage to nail it perfectly, I am at least willing to try. I am invested in using my talent to do something about the wrongs I see in the world.
I expect and even anticipate criticism for it. I will always listen to it, too, because again, that is how you learn, and grow. I won't apologize for it, however, as that implies being sorry I made the effort. That is something I'm not ever going to be.
In the course of War Witch, both Rise, and the books that will hopefully follow, I will address topics that I feel strongly about. Some of them will be issues women face, due in no small part to the large female cast I have. Issues such as sexual assault. I won't shy away from talking about the horrors of it, how it affects them, or the long road they face afterward as they try to heal the wounds left by it. There will never be any easy fix, a simple solution, or a quick way out of dealing with the ramifications and scars left by this. Offering anything less, what I call the Very Special Episode solution, undermines the reality of this issue.
In the same vein, there is sometimes going to be discrimination against women featured. It is rare, due to the nature of the world the story is set in, but it does exist, and it is ugly. Also rare in this world is discrimination against people of color, but it does happen, and I have a number of characters who are people of color, most notably, Izra and Rayne. There are also Orcs and Ogres, Trolls and Goblins, so discrimination works a little different in this world than it does in ours.
There are transgendered people in the world of War Witch as well, and to be blunt, pretty much everyone you meet there is bi-sexual. The Gods of that world teach different things than the religions of ours do, and among those things that they teach there is that love knows the spirit of a person, which has no gender. Because of this, people rarely bat an eye at same sex couples, or transgendered folks. Honestly, it's a world where sexual preference and identity is something nobody really thinks about much, because it just isn't that big a deal to them.
Love is found in the spirit of a person, and the spirit knows no gender. It's a major tenant of their belief system, so there isn't a lot of judgment over it all. You'll see more eyebrows raised over an Elf dating an Ogre than you will over a man who identifies as a woman, and that's just because it's rare to see Ogres dating outside their own kind. Something about the other races being too fragile to handle the sex.
Which brings me to the topic of sex. One of the big plot elements of War Witch is the existence of mortals granted divine power by the Gods. The Blessed, as they are called, are warriors against the Demon Gods, and face more horrors in their often short lives than most people ever dream of. Because they fight a war they can't win, and know their lives are typically short, they tend to be an earthy bunch. They live hard, so they can die well. Often, this means they fuck like bunnies in heat.
There are no apologies made for it, either. Izra is more than just flirtatious. She likes getting laid, and has sex whenever the chance happens to come by. Ramora is certainly not one to hesitate, but as the God she serves, the God of War, is also the Father of Honor, she tends to reel herself in, worrying over hurting someones feelings. If it's clear that it's just going to be a good roll in the hay, she's all over it, and carries on with her life afterward.
There is no stigma in this. One of the things Storm and I talked about over the years I've developed the world setting and this story in particular, is that women like sex, too. Many cultures in our world all but criminalize female sexuality, calling women who behave the exact same as a man whores, or worse. This is so far beyond idiotic in my mind, I've no words to describe how massively stupid it is.
There is no stigma on female sexuality in the world of War Witch. Or rather, it is exceedingly rare. Chara comes from a very small village in a very small, traditionally minded nation, and much of her character arc focuses on her coming to terms with her own control over her sexuality. Outside of where she was born, no one ever judges her, or condemns her, over anything she does with her own body. The struggle is internal, between the way she was raised, the way she sees herself, the world she lives in, and the things she wants for herself.
Elsewhere, Izra is having fun with whoever she pleases, and is very happy. Generally speaking, her attitude is taken as the norm, and everyone just carries on with their life. Because that is normal in their world.
Granted, I am aware this is one of those things that is going to get me looked at funny. The world War Witch takes place in would be considered very progressive by our standards, with some even calling it a liberal utopia or some other dumb ass thing. Just because it doesn't have the same social issues we do, doesn't mean it has no issues. The Demon Gods are trying to take over all of Creation. That's kind of a bigger priority than who is sleeping with whom. You'll have to pardon the people who live there for recognizing that, but when you have Hydras roaming the streets, eating people, you tend to not spend a lot of time worrying how those people sexually identify.
Funny how that happens.
Regardless, this brings me to Worry the Fourth. The outcry that I am not writing true fantasy fiction. To which I say, Well, Duh! There are magic powered blaster pistols. I think I've broken the stereotypical fantasy mold here. Which is fine with me. I never liked stereotypes anyway. So, yes, when the characters are having a conversation in a modernistic, magic powered kitchen, or taking a shower without the use of pipes, or any other element of this world that gets nitpicked for not being realistic fantasy, I am going to reply with one simple answer.
It's fucking fantasy!
I mean, c'mon! Fantasy use to be about trying to tame that flying horse, wizards having awesome spell duels, and heroes who battle against terrible odds. When did realism become the watchword of fantasy? Nothing against realistic fantasy, mind you. It's just as legit and enjoyable. It isn't the only serious form of the genre, though. Let's not act as if it is.
If you can't have fun and do crazy things under the umbrella of fantasy, then we have a severe shortage of imagination going on.
Still, I worry about it. That it'll get called too fantastical. For fantasy. I struggle to wrap my head around that, but I know it's likely to happen, and it's something I am concerned about.
Ultimately, though, I know one thing that eases all of these worries. It doesn't dismiss them, but it does make it a lot easier to live with. One thing that helps me not gnaw my fingers off with dread as my first publication with major backing draws ever closer to to being ready for release. The thing that has become my mantra of late.
It was good enough to get accepted.
It's funny how much that can change your perspective on everything.