One Scene After Another

Recently, I was reflecting on how I got better at drawing. Not ‘good,’ not in the context of all the truly good artists out there. But good enough to make me (and even a few other people) happy. Good enough to make fan art of the stories no one else is making fan art for—mostly, the stories in my own head, or in the heads of my friends.

I realized that I’d been trying to get good at drawing the same way I’d gotten good at writing—on one project. For years, I wrote and revised and re-wrote and re-revised one book until I was a good writer. That was how I learned, and it worked for me. But every time I sat down to draw, I would slave painstakingly for hours, trying to erase and redo bad lines while leaving the good lines intact—just like I’d done with writing. I wanted to be able to tweak this one picture until it was good enough, but I’d have to give up in frustration and settle for what I got, because drawing doesn’t work like that.

The thing about a novel—one scene can take a dozen hours, and one novel can take scores of scenes. If you write a novel that’s not quite right, that might be a few hundred hours that you poured into this Not Quite Right Manuscript. It makes perfect sense to spend another twenty or fifty hours making it Quite Right. But here’s where I fell down. A drawing isn’t a novel. It’s more like a single scene. You can fiddle and tweak, but after a bit, even if it’s not perfect yet, you’ve got to leave it alone and move on to the next one or you’ll never get anywhere.

Then I decided to try gel-ink drawing. I had a new sketchbook, and I determined that I was going to draw at least one face or figure sketch every day. And man, a gel-ink pen is unforgiving. It was so much bolder than I was, and mistakes had to be integrated or ignored—they couldn’t be erased. And that forced me to work faster. I couldn’t perfect them if I couldn’t employ erasure–or even much in the way of subtlety. So I turned a new page and drew, every day, for a couple of months.

And what I had at the end of that time? It wasn’t even the improved skill level that mattered so much, though that was nice. It was the difference in the way I sat down to draw. The mindset that if this one wasn’t good enough, instead of editing it until it was, (an improbability, since at a low skill level I might not even really know what was wrong,) I should do it faster, let it go, and save the time and energy for trying it again tomorrow. Which led to my drawing a lot more figures and faces, because with the freedom to leave them mistake-riddled, even bad, I was drawing a lot faster and more easily. Not looking behind me, not “line editing,” just looking ahead to the next, better thing. Just putting one scene after another.

Maybe there’s something in that for writing, too.

Act One: Magic in the Air


Syawn here. Taking a break from our regularly scheduled 100-word wonders to showcase a piece of my author’s latest work—and mine. She’s revamped the opening of my novel, Ever the Actor, and we want to know what you think of it. All adulation and/or brutal commentary is welcome below. Without further ado, the unveiling.Danielle Shipley's beloved handiwork--an impression of the predatory fox.


I suppose you’re wondering what this is about.” The von guard’s district commander sat with the practiced tension of a man who finds danger in every living minute. His tone was nonchalant but low, though theirs was the only occupied table in the small patio gardenboth parties had backup lurking just out of sight, and such were known to grow too curious for their station.

Not acutely,” Syawn answered with a smile, the redhead’s facade of ease far more complete than the commander’s. “Old friends may call on one another for a pleasant round of drinks without any underlying purpose, may they not?”

Javvin gave him a look that struggled to be wry, but ended up looking simply amused. Javvin had requested his presence in his office at the guardhouse, not at this Kapatak grindery. Sy had returned a suggestion that their meeting take place on neutral ground, and suggested this place according to the man’s preferences. This meeting was not likely called for pleasant conversation, any more than it was likely that a von guard commander would consider the city’s thief lord to be an old friend.

The von commander declined to defend the obvious. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I have called you here on an account of a multiple homicide that occurred this morning, some ways outside of,” the man hesitated, “my district.”

He’d very nearly called it Sy’s district, hadn’t he? Sy concealed a rising grin. “Then is that not outside of your jurisdiction?”

Not entirely. They were all men of your court, which is under my jurisdiction.”

Yes.” Sy frowned. “Talk’s come running, of course, but the rumors are fresh as the best. Seven dead in one instant, broad daylight, hmmn?”

Javvin’s already thin lips went thinner. “Four. Rumor, as is its wont, has lied. The tale of it is truly remarkable.”

Sy raised ginger brows, bright green eyes shining with interest. “Please, tell away.”

The commander gave him a rightly suspicious look. “We’ve reconstructed the circumstance as well as we can from all accounts.” He leaned forward, his grey eyes intense as he settled into some place between reporting and storytelling. “Four fellows, all lower district men, are walking west along Axen Street.”

Sy had known the false-front tailor’s shop they would be making for, and the time they would rendezvous there, even before his lookout and backup had sounded the signal.

They’re stepping into the intersection—right where Vilee’s hotcakes shop is.”

Seeing them, Sy had risen from his crouch on the roof, stepped onto the horizontal awning of the hotcake shop beneath them, raised his bow, and drawn to his cheek. His palms had itched with the prick of quick-racing blood, but his fingers were steady. His quiver hung at his side with more arrows waiting. Absolute speed hadn’t been vital, precisely, but Chance take all, he’d wanted it.

Suddenly, arrows come whizzing ‘out of nowhere.’ The first two men are shot before people can even properly see what’s happening.”

Sy hadn’t needed to use a bow in ages. In truth, he hadn’t needed one then; he could have used knives, gone closer range, and had other fighters with him. But he’d wanted to claim every kill personally, if he could manage it, and with a cluster of targets together in the morning light, bow and arrows from a discreet distance was his best bet.

The last two draw their knives. The first of them is hit before he can throw. The last one manages to orient, spot the assailant, and throw the knife before he’s struck, but his throw misses the attacker. And seconds after it’s begun, it’s ended.

Eyes on the approaching blade’s trajectory—it had been a fine, strong throw—Sy had snapped his torso backwards and out of its path, his feet never leaving the beam beneath him. The blade had clattered against the clay roof tiles behind him and fallen to the cobbles below as he’d righted himself.

Witnesses did get a good look at the bowman, though,” Javvin continued, a new tone to his voice as he leaned back. “He stood still for a moment afterwards, as if he wanted folk to see, then went darting away over the rooftops, moving very swiftly for a man his size. A black cloth masked his whole head, so all we can say is that he’s very large, muscular, and fair-skinned.” His eyelids half-lowered. “Can you give me any leads from that, old friend?” 

Sy shook his head, eyes widening with a slight hyperbole of disbelief. “Outlandish. I can’t think of anyone with such incredible skill and generally attractive body type.”

Javvin merely scowled. “It sounds rather familiar to me. Seems to crop up in a number of reports of late.”

I’m glad your officers know true talent and beauty when they see it, Sy was tempted to say, but deemed it unwise in the current conversational climate.

Their drinks arrived, and both men went quiet. The commander took his coffee, breathing in the exotic scent with reverence. Sy sniffed then sipped at his chocolate, a drink just as foreign, but safer. He’d found the other to make his fingers jitter; not the best effect for a thief lord whose survival might depend on steady hands.

This quadruple homicide fits into a larger theme of killings in the area,” Javvin continued as though they had never paused. “Knives have been the predominant weapon, but they have all been, to my knowledge, members of your court, and all have been killed in (or their bodies removed to) publicly visible spaces.”

They sipped silently for a moment, watching one another through the steam. “Surely,” Sy said quietly, “you don’t need me to draw the lines for you.”

Javvin’s gaze broke as he took another swallow. “No. No you don’t. And your spring cleaning is your affair. But not when it starts touching the public.”

Sy’s full lips pursed slightly. “Touch the public? Sir, I’m ever careful not to. You know I am an expert at avoiding collateral damage.”

The commander rubbed his chin. “To the public psyche, Syawn. I can’t have corpses lying about it the streets, no matter how justly.”

He meant, of course, that he couldn’t have the thief lord displaying his victims like the law was permitted to, or people would begin to question who the ultimate authority was, anyway. It would be best for him if he permitted the von commanders and their chief to assume that it belonged to themselves and the nobility. He looked down into his chocolate for a moment, pondering.

My spring cleaning (or autumnal cleaning, more accurately,) is nearly complete. There is one more display to be made, and it is the most important one. It would not be wise for me to permit the illusion that these dust bunnies had escaped the broom.”

Javvin’s lips wrinkled back from his teeth. “Dust bu—please don’t take my metaphor any further, I might gag on it. You’ve one more kill to make and body to toss about, please don’t mince.”

Sy smirked. “As you like it. I have the usurping upstart himself remaining, and I can’t let people think he escaped me. I’m sure you understand.”

I understand that I’ll not have any more of these publicly displayed bodies.” The commander’s grey gaze was steady and stern. “I’m sure you understand that equally well. Display it within your court proper, if you must.”

Sy frowned. The court was no place for bodies to be flung about. It was to be a place of revelry and sanctuary, not fear-mongering. It would not do. “I don’t like to leave the epicenter dirty,” he said, his voice lighter than the matter at hand. “A compromise?”

What do you have in mind?” Javvin sighed, used to Sy’s wheedling.

The man is a thief, as it would happen. Caught, convicted, sentenced, and escaped.”

Would it just so happen.”

If the von were to find his body in a discreet alleyway, could they not find a way to… put that body with the other executed?”

The man frowned. “You want us to display your example among our examples?”

Sy shrugged one large, rounded shoulder. “He’s an escaped convict. Your people laid hands on him. What difference is it if he’s cold before you do? Most wouldn’t know the difference.”

Your court would know.”

My objective exactly.” Sy swallowed the rest of his chocolate before it could grow lukewarm.

Hmmn.” Javvin rubbed his chin, the afternoon stubble showing grey. “I suppose it’s suitable. If my people find a corpse with convict marks, we’ll place it up with his record.”

Sy smiled. “That’s all I ask. Thank you, Javvin.”

He could see the man struggling against the instinctual“Your’re welcome,” instead grunting and taking another swallow of coffee. “What keeps the peace.”

And that was why the von tolerated thief courts in the first place, when some might suppose they should be against such organized illegality. As any experienced guards of the law knew well, the underworld was going to exist, and it was better to have a finger on its pulse and a hand on its neck, to try to control it and keep things orderly, than it was to try to quash it altogether and make a many-headed monster of the thing. That was where thief lords came in handy. The von always knew who was at the top of the heap, could develop an uneasy relationship with him, could control them to some degree—the danger being, if the thief lord was very good, they would only think they were controlling him.

Sy would negotiate, Sy would compromise, Sy would let them think they had the upper hand. And Sy would get what he wanted. There was a time to seem hard—a time to slaughter four upstarts in the middle of the street, for instance—and a time to seem soft. With the von, he wanted to cultivate respect, appreciation, and a confidence in him with an underlying unease. Simple enough, for an actor who knew what they were about. In fact in a way, it was easier to tether the law than it was to manage his own court.

Sy caught a slight frown at the edge of Javvin’s mouth, a tightening around the eyes, which themselves flicked downward and away. The commander was contemplating something, something Sy guessed was not altogether pleasant, and by the slight shifting in his seat, he was deciding whether to speak his thoughts aloud.

The theif lord reached up to tug one of his own carrot-colored curls, wondering whether there was any good way to draw the man out, then figured that his best bet was to say nothing. A silence between two conversants was a thing begging to be filled.

I’ve heard some interesting news from the chief,” Javvin said, his voice pitched lower than when he’d spoken of quadruple homicide.

Aye? What’d she have to say?”

She was just passing along information from above. I don’t rightly know what she thinks of it… nor what I think.”

Sy only raised his eyebrows again, impressed. News from above the chief? The von, while they served the local nobility, didn’t consider the nobles to be their superiors in a hierarchical sense; a higher caste, but not their officers, as it were. If Javvin’s chief had gotten her information from above, she’d have been referring to the captain of the von of the entire realm of Yaa. This was word from the Crown City.

The new king has decided that he’s going to be taxing you.”

Doesn’t he do that already? And didn’t the old one? It’s a kingly habit.” Sy smirked.

Javvin gave him a sharp look. “What I tell you now, I tell you not as a commander, but as a friend. It is a serious warning, and I would not have you make a jest of it.”

Sy immediately schooled his face in sobriety, inwardly cheering that the man had admitted to a friendship. “I’m sorry, Javvin. Go on.”

Your fronts are taxed, certainly,” the commander went on. “Your money-lending business. Your legal stores and trades. Your brothels. But the court is not taxed.”

Sy straightened his shoulders at this, and the move succeeded in making him look as significantly larger as he truly was. “And who would dare to tax the court?” he asked, warning and steel in his tone.

Javvin frowned. “King Vingorn, it seems.”

And how?” Sy spread his hands on the table. “Who walks into my house and audits my treasuries?” That, Javvin surely knew, would mean war. And just as surely, he would not want an all-out war with the denizens of alley shadow and windowsill crawlers. This would mean the making of the many-headed monster the von sought to avoid, and no agent of the law would be safe, dawn or dusk, street or bed. “How would he dare?”


Sy’s spread fingers twitched. “M—” the word caught in his throat.

Javvin softly snapped his fingers thrice. “Chance knows I think it’s a bad idea. You can’t riddle the government with magic. But there’s no telling his Majesty that; his lover is the head of the Yaa Mage’s Guild—his late Majesty never should have allowed them to band together under the law’s protection, but there you have it. I reckon Vingorn is in her thrall. But he’s sending those unnatural creatures out into the middle of my city, my district, and it’s going to walk into your house and audit your treasuries. And Hag only knows what else.”

Chances Daughters,” Sy whispered, his normally ruddy face gone pale. “I…” he let his words trail out, surrendering the fight to find something to say, and the two men simply stared at one another grimly across the table.

Tell—” Sy cleared his throat. “Tell me, please. What more do you know of this?”

Javvin snapped his fingers once more, then folded his hands deliberately, clearly restraining himself for fear of trying Old Man Chance’s patience. “I know little, but I’ll tell you what I know. Luck save us all.”

Sy leaned forward with fearful fixation that was not feigned, his green eyes growing more desperate with the commander’s every piece of news. The thief lord didn’t believe good fortune could be called by a finger click and wooed by small offerings, but he found himself suddenly wishing it were so.

If he was going to face down what he’d run from at every opportunity, he’d need all the luck on his side he could get.


A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation

I tried, a few times, to read Strunk and White, and never did manage it. I tried reading a few other grammar books, I tried looking up grammar guides online, and every one left me confused, upset, and still with little idea how to write any better than I did.

Then I found A Dash of Style, by Noah Lukeman. It did far more than I’d have asked of such a handbook. It revolutionized the way I looked at words and the tiny marks that guide them. The subtitle isn’t kidding when it reads “The Art and Mastery of Punctuation.”

The book trains your eyes to the subtle differences that separate a masterful sentence from a weak one, like a Jujitsu master trains your hands to the differences between a powerful wrist lock, and uselessly twisting someone’s fingers. Or like a chef learns that the difference between a simply good soup and the great soup he wants to make is a pinch of this, and a dash of that.

Here’s the full review I wrote on Amazon.

Sometimes, Nine > Fourteen

Mysst is my oldest character, for all she’s the youngest of my cast. She got her start when I was twelve, as my alter-ego unwritten-fanfic persona. She/I was a sword swingin’ Redwall otter. Yeah. You read that right.

When I first heard of National Novel Writing Month at fourteen, I decided to build her a story world, turn her human, and make her — surprise! — fourteen.

I failed at 30,000 words of dull traveling scenes and a combination of cliché and totally ridiculous drama. Still, it was a victory for my writing career; for one, it started me noveling. For another, there were a few gold nuggets in my pile of words.

Mysst, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.

Failing to see that she’d devolved into  a whiney, wishey-washey bore, I started in on her tale again the next year. Thank heavens Syawn hijacked that one early.

A year and another NaNoWriMo later, I’d finished the story. And boy, was Mysst still lame. Not to mention a little daft. Her main quest, which was intrinsic to the plot, was incredibly simple-minded.

Then inspiration, that fickle, occasionally abusive friend of writers, struck.

I rolled back the years, turning her into a nine-year-old, and with it, making an entirely different person of her. Without my trying to make her anything but five years younger, she overhauled her own character (I can only imagine she had been waiting for just such an opportunity), turning into a tough, disciplined little firebrand, a bossyboots with a wide stubborn streak and surprising adaptability.

She was exactly the kind of girl who would dream up a madcap plan and fly after it on the triple-wings of determination, guilt, and fool’s hope.

So there’s a trick to remember when your character isn’t shaping up: screw around with the numbers. It can turn out that, against all mathematical wisdom, nine is greater than fourteen.

Seithr the Kahn Rocks the House

In my last piece, I introduced you to Seithr the Kahn, my Inner Editor.

You may have thought him unpleasant. And you’d have been right.

But you also may have thought that he does nothing but tear me down. And, well, you’d have been nearly right. He does have a penchant for excessive verbal abuse, and his compliments are few and far between, but in all that he does, he bears one important thing in mind:

He works for me.

However rude and offensive this perfectionist may be, everything he does is for the good of his employer and for his highest ideal– the integrity of The Story.

This is why he cannot abide the messiness of my first drafts, and I do have to lock him out for that bit.

But once the first draft is out on the table, I turn it over to my Inner Editor, for his sensitive perception and brutal judgment. The icy detachment of this internal outsider is invaluable to my work.

His eyes seize on what mine do not; plot weaknesses, scene incohesion, lack of sentence flow and jerky dialogue. And then he cuts.

He once took his machete to a full 20+ page chunk, cutting a good seventh of my manuscript. He ran his fillet knife over the whole novel, slicing out a race of dragons and a central character. He ever whittles at my prose, letting words and sentences and whole paragraphs fall away like so many wood chips.

And then he adds. Write fifteen pages of replacement scenes, he ordered. Insert more of that girl’s family memories throughout, making the climax more poignant, he told me. Add more description of your main character, and I think “modify” is the word you were looking for in the first sentence of that last paragraph.

And you know what? My book is approximately exactly 7.452 times better than it was before he got his meticulously clean beefy hands on them.

It may be hard to listen to your Inner Editor once something is all written up, because they may ask you to do tough things; cut a piece of witty dialogue, kill a favorite character, or re-write the ending with a different climax. Or even re-write the beginning with a different motive (true story.)

But try to remember that they work for you– and then let them do their job. And if, once you’ve finished that first draft, you let your Inner Editor back inside, they’ll rock the house.

Seithr the Kahn in the Doghouse

Inner Editors can be the bane of a first draft.

You’ve been plagued, I’m sure, by the creature of which I speak; it lurks on the blank page, ready to pounce on your first sentence, erasing it all before you’ve reached the period.

It demands that you write a better first sentence next time, a better first word, a better first draft. Or better yet, don’t even start—forget the whole thing. You’re hopeless and you know it.

If you don’t look out, this overzealous naysayer will stamp out the flame of your novel before you’ve struck flint—and if it can’t stop you writing in the first place, it will be in your ear the whole time, whispering—or screaming—that everything you write is crapcrapcrap.

And of course it’s crap. First drafts are always crap(Hemingway said as much in stronger language). That’s what editing is for.

So you need to keep your Inner Editor’s grimy influence off your first draft. There are only two ways I know of to do this:

One, ignore its comments.

Two, shut it up altogether.

You could, I suppose, do this by an act of will, but I’ve found a trick that helps me take command of my Inner Editor.

I call him Seithr the Kahn.

No, not the trick, my Inner Editor. That’s the trick; I gave him a gender, a name, a species(human), an appearance(muscular, square-jawed, and stubble-headed), and a personality(tough as formaldehyde and more brutally cold than The Long Winter).

And I gave him a voice. A loud, barking, growling voice. A drill-sergeant voice that tells me that I have “The imagination of a wet dish rag”, and calls my book things like “the brainchild of a jellyfish’s whore”.

And then I lock that man, and his filthy drill-sergeant mouth, out of the house. I lock him outside of the noveling part of my brain, outside of my creative space, and he doesn’t get to come in until the first draft is finished.

Sometimes I hear him pounding on the door and howling as I venture out onto some grievous writing limb. Sometimes I see his blue-stubbly face pressed up against the window, his breath forming clouds in the air as he glares furiously in at me, at my blossoming first draft.

And you know what? While it’s kind of creepy, it’s also laughable. More laughable, certainly, than some disembodied voice of shame.

And whenever any thoughts of disgust and self-doubt creep in, I give them stern looks and send them outside to play with Seithr the Kahn as he stews in a moody huff.

So tell me, who’s your Inner Editor? And once you’ve figured them out, and we’ve met them and said our hellos—banish them to the doghouse.