Flash Fiction: The Last Tokelauan

Tokelau is a very small country, halfway from Hawaii to New Zealand—tiny dots of coral reef in the vast Pacific Ocean. I almost went there once—when I sailed with my husband around the South Pacific—but the anchorage was too iffy. The atolls that make it up are Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo. The total land area is four square miles. About 1,400 people live there.

No significant land is more than six-and-a-half feet above normal high tides. Tokelau is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Cyclones are devastating. They wash over entire atolls, killing all the vegetation and eating away at what little soil exists. Survival there is tenuous, at best, but it is where Tokelauans have called home for a thousand years.  They have the distinction of being the first nation in the world to be 100% solar powered.

More Tokelauans live in Wellington, New Zealand, than in the islands. They bring their culture with them, but their government would like to continue to exist. From a conference in Kiribati in 2015: “So the questions related to forced migration because of climate change and rising sea levels are also critical to Tokelau: we need commitment from the international community, .., we need protection for our displaced people, we want to retain sovereignty and our Exclusive Economic Zone.” The question to the world is, where do these people go and how do they continue to be Tokelauan?

I wrote a Flash Fiction story about the not-too-distant future. It is best read while listening to Te Vaka’s ‘Te Namo,’ from their first album ‘Te Vaka.’

The sun rises, at it always does, creeping across the ghost white rim of the atoll. Mele watches its magic turn the lagoon from grey to shades of teal, then returns to kneading her bread. Her gnarled knuckles ache, but the action loosens the joints. She misses the birdsong. She looks longingly at her old clay oven, but there has been no wood to fire it in a long time—and burning is illegal, anyway. When the dough is ready, Mele shapes it into buns—a real loaf would take hours to bake in her little solar oven. Everything has changed.

She remembers running, naked, down to the lagoon—te namo—as the sun rose. She was four or five. She helped her father push the canoe—te vaka—into the water. She was there when he returned, midday, with the fish they would eat for dinner. There are no more fish in the lagoon. When the reef died, the fish disappeared. The sea is too warm, too acidic.

The sea is also too high.

“Mama”—Ione returns from loading the cart—“what are you doing? You should be packing.”

She peers up. How could this middle-aged man be her baby boy? “The bread needs to rise. I’m sorry it won’t be ready before you go.”

Ione squats beside his mother. “We’ve been over this. There is nothing left for us here. We can no longer grow food. The ocean rises higher every year. We have to go. Today. The ship is here. It won’t be coming back.”

Seagulls squawk overhead. They must have followed the ship.

“You pack. You go.”

“Mama, a cyclone is coming. They think it’ll make a direct hit. The island hasn’t recovered from the last one.”

“I remember.”

“Then you know, we have to leave. All of us. That includes you.”

“You pack. Hurry now. You don’t want to miss the ship. I need to put the bread in the oven.”

Ione stands. “I don’t have time to argue.” He goes into the little concrete block house where he was born.

Mele turns back to her bread. The flour will last another ten or twelve days—longer, now that she will no longer need to feed everyone, so maybe a month. She wonders if the supply boat brought more. She places the tiny loaves into the oven and makes sure it is facing the sun.

Copyright ©2014-18 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

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Tishta the Crystal Orb: Outline Finished

I am ecstatic. I finished the outline of “Tishta the Crystal Orb” today. After cruising through “Part 4: Colmaria” in four days, “Part 5: Mondar” was more of a slog—it took twelve. Granted, at 42,402 words it is 65% longer than Part 4.

Even though, as I have said in past posts, this pass through the book was meant to simply provide an outline, I was hard-pressed not to edit along the way. As I noted each beat in each scene—a technique author Anaea Lay suggested—it seemed prudent to trim the ones I felt were extraneous, especially this far into the book, where I feel more confident that whole scenes are unlikely to be cut. I also could not refrain from rewording, or removing words, where appropriate. At the same time, I ended up adding bits and pieces, where I felt the story would be better with the new words—there is more of this to come after I read through my notes. In the end, I trimmed the word count by 9%, down from 46,521.

While the page count dropped a bit, and the scene count stayed the same, I ended up splitting a long chapter into two, making the break at a tense moment in the story, to add to the tension. This was on the advice of author Elizabeth Guizzetti, after she graciously offered to read my second draft, and provide feedback and comments. This was a good call on her part. I like how it broke up the flow.

My next work will be to analyze the outline, looking for beats or whole scenes that do not move the story forward. Because I know this will mostly affect the first half of the book, I held back earlier on making the copious edits I allowed myself in Part 5. After taking a quick glance at the current revision in .epub format, I could not help myself—I immediately made some edits. It is interesting how I notice things in this format that do not pop out when I read the same thing in Scrivener. It is going to take discipline to finish the analysis before diving into edits like these—that is work for the next phase.

I expect that cutting scenes will be the most challenging thing I have experienced, so far. I have heard stories of authors crying over favorite scenes that dropped to the cutting room floor. I am bracing myself for this inevitability, but I owe it to my readers to provide them with a properly paced book. I am beginning to understand how it can take years to publish a book, and how some books never are. I love my stories. I want to share them. I will do this.

Copyright ©2014-18 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

Tishta the Crystal Orb: Part 4 Is Outlined

Only four days since I finished outlining Part 3 of “Tishta the Crystal Orb,” I have outlined “Part 4: Colmaria.” Jury duty has a nice way of providing distraction-free time.

The word count went from 27,175 to 25,465, and the number of pages dropped from 90 to 74. This edit is not meant to reduce these counts, but to outline the scenes, and their beats, in a spreadsheet. Beats are each action or feeling that happens in a scene. Since I am reading each scene fairly thoroughly to identify the beats, I have edited to remove words, or even beats, as I go. That accounts for the drop in words.

In a previous edit, I broke out actions very discreetly. This was useful in identifying what I later learned are called beats. Although very insightful, it left the manuscript with each paragraph containing the actions of a single character. I went so far as to separate the dialog from any sentences around them. This resulted in a lot of one-sentence paragraphs. The second draft—the one I sent to a group of Beta readers—was structured this way, and much longer than it needed to be, as a result. As I have gone through the book since then, I have created more complex paragraphs that include all thoughts, dialog and actions around a single character-initiated action. The dialog in any given paragraph is all spoken by the same character. The number of pages has shrunk as a result, which is good. I think I am happy with this methodology, but need to wait until I next record the book to see how it sounds.

After I finish outlining, I hope to figure out which scenes can be reduced or eliminated, to pick up the pacing—especially in the first half—as well as to reduce the overall size of the book. At that point, I can realign the moon—I have at least two scenes that depend on it being full—and draw the final version of the maps. I tentatively plan to do one more full edit, looking for extraneous items on my ever-growing list of words and phrases that I “should not use,” or, at most, should use judiciously. I will share that list in another blog.

I am totally stoked about outlining “Part 5: Mondar.” It is where a lot of the action takes place on the way to the grand finale. I made some headway this morning, but then, duty called—I was included in a jury panel, which was my hope during this week of civil servitude. I am excited to see more of the legal process in action and will be more than happy to sit on the jury if I am selected. Tomorrow morning, I will find out. For now, I should get to bed. The six o’clock alarm will sound long before I am ready.

Copyright ©2014-18 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.

Lessons from the Fledgling Author: Editing Is Hard Work

I am fairly certain I will spend as much time editing “Tishta the Crystal Orb” as writing it. Granted, the editing involves some writing and re-writing, but, damn, the rest of it is very time-consuming. I know part of the reason it is taking so long is that I am a novice. I learn from my experiences, and I hope, that by sharing, you can avoid some of the mistakes I have made along the way—mistake is too a harsh word—and make your editing more efficient.

While attending writing panels at conferences over the last few years, I have heard many views on best practices. Some writers advocate starting with an outline, while others write by the seat of their pants—“pantsers” was a word I learned. The latter style seemed to apply to me, so I did not worry about outlines.

When I started writing, it was because a story was demanding to get out. So, I wrote it. The words flowed freely from my brain through my fingers into my computer. It was very stimulating. All my free time was taken by this single endeavor. I would sometimes write until two or three in the morning, so I would not lose the story. I knew, all along, that I was writing an epic fantasy. I expected to write a trilogy. Our brains are conditioned to this—beginning, middle, conclusion. Star Wars is the prime example.

When I lifted my pen, so to speak, I realized the first book was an epic unto itself. I did not note the word count, but when Scrivener told me it was seven hundred fifty pages—and I had a major section in the middle to complete—I knew I had a problem. The missing part was meant to be that failure of the hero on his way to figuring out how to win. It seemed like an obvious place to rip the first book asunder. And, that is what I did. Then, I had a tetralogy.

In finishing the “new” first book, which is titled, “Tishta the Crystal Orb,” I was cautious to keep it more terse. I succeeded, and the first draft was around eighty-seven thousand words. This seemed appropriate for a first-time author. A fellow writer, Anne Bean, who has done editing, agreed to go through the book. It was a very exciting time for me.

While Anne read “Tishta,” I felt an intense desire to know more about Coltan, my vampire and main character. Somewhere along the line, I wrote bits of his back story, including scenes from childhood and adulthood before he was turned into a vampire. It gave me a good feel for what kind of man he was, and some of the things he had gone through. I had also written the longer story of how he met Criften and was “tamed” by the wizard. I knew some of the pieces of his life between his beginnings with Criften and where the story starts in “Tishta.” I wanted more. I needed to know the story of Coltan dealing with his distress at killing a lover—during a passionate sexual encounter with her, his bloodlust overcame him.

What began as a simple backstory, blossomed into a novella of around fifty-thousand words. A month later, I had five books. Tentatively titled “How to Tame a Vampire,” this book follows Coltan on his journey to Soldur, to meet the wizard, Eido, who specializes in swordsmanship, as well as psychology. In it, Eido guides him as he learns to separate his desire for blood from his sexual passion. In this story, I learned to write explicit sex scenes.

During the first year, when I was writing the originally planned first book, “Into the Wolf Dream”—which is the title of the now second book—I wrote major parts of the final book, “The Golden Key,” and parts of the middle book, “From the Detritus of Evil.” Because so much goes on in so many places—which all need to align for the Coming Battle at the end of the last book—I fill in pieces of these future books as I write. I have easily written over a million words for the complete story.

Because the whole story is so long, authors I know have been suggesting serializing it—breaking it into smaller pieces so I can publish more frequently. This may be the way to go with self-publishing, but right now, I will stay focused on publishing “Tishta” as full-fledged novel.

After Anne provided feedback that the story was fairly solid, but the characters, places and time flow needed elaboration, I let myself go. After nine months, “Tishta” grew to one hundred eighty-seven thousand words—more than double. I edited it down to one hundred seventy-two thousand.

In the fall of 2017, I called the second draft of “Tishta” complete. I gleefully sent it to several beta readers. The benefit I am receiving from their feedback is immeasurable, and it gives me the confidence to continue. I know the book is too long, and the pacing is too slow in places, especially in the first third, or maybe half. I was lucky to have a published author, Elizabeth Guizzetti, offer to read the story. In a flash—literally, in just over a week—she got back to me with feedback and inline comments. Whoot! Her feedback and criticisms helped me make some decisions about characters and plot. I love the support my local Seattle writing community offers me.

After taking a month to explore editing methods—to help me decide what to cut and where to cut it—I began adding a goal, a conflict summary, and an outcome, to each of my scenes. This was a suggestion from a writing channel on YouTube. It gave me fuel for thought, but did nothing to give me insight into my editing. This ended up being a waste of time.

The idea to document what each scene involves was encouraged by another published writer in my Seattle network, Anaea Lay. She suggested outlining the scenes in a spreadsheet, including a list of each beat—or action—as well as a list of characters and whatever other notes seem appropriate. At the beginning of December, I began using a spreadsheet to outline. It has been a month, and I have gone through the first three parts—as of today. This approach seems like a good one, and I am planning to outline the whole book this way—two more parts to go.

Beside the beats, I am keeping track of the word counts, which nights transpire, who the characters are, and notes about what, of importance, happens. Several things have come out this already. I have become more conscious of higher level story beats, that I hope will help me figure out which scenes are not holding their weight. I also notice who is missing from a scene, or a series of scenes, and think about how or if they should be included. I already kept track of the nights as a means of understanding distances and knowing the phase of the moon. Now, I can see how much time passes not only in each scene, but also in each chapter and part. I hopes this helps identify places where I can cut days out.

I started out thinking I should simply document what was currently written, with the intent of coming back on a later edit pass—after I know more—to decide how to trim things. As I went, I found I was critically reading each beat—so basically, each paragraph—anyway, and started to feel I was wasting time leaving things that I could see needed editing. I might regret this decision later, but I have been reviewing and changing things that I notice. The word count has fallen by about five percent. And, my writing style is continuing to evolve in the process. Since I did not start out editing as I went, the earlier in the book, the less editing took place. The ending of my book always feels more polished than the beginning.

So, that is what I have been up to since I last updated you all. I might not get back here again until I finish outlining the final two parts. I will compare what that tells me with a map I already drew—the map points out that too much travel takes place in the beginning, which was already a red flag—to find the places I should consider trimming and cutting.

Although this has been a long, and sometimes grueling, process, I find a certain satisfaction in editing. Once I get the process down, I believe the next books will be easier and quicker to finish. I will be using the spreadsheet to outline much sooner in the process. It’s all good. I’m learning.

Copyright ©2014-18 Ramona Ridgewell. All rights reserved.