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Character Sketch (3): Eulicia Khamytzes

We come now to Eulicia, one of the most enigmatic of my viewpoint characters, even to me. I’m still exploring her character quirks, her desires and motivations, but here’s what I’ve discovered so far.

Born into the powerful and influential House Khamytzes, she has known from an early age that she was fated for great things. While her elder brothers pursued the cursus honorum that would lead to their political futures, she decided that she would pursue her power through the auspices of the Church. It had been several generations since a member of her family had done so and thus, in consultation with her father and mother and the other leading magnates of her House, she saw the Church as a viable pathway to power.

Unlike some of her fellow Prefects and others in the Church, she is not primarily interested in the intricacies of theology or language, philosophy or the sciences. Instead, she is interested in politics and, above all, ensuring that the Imperium and the Church remain wedded in their mutual partnership. Naturally, this has also meant ensuring that heretics are expunged, but she does this not out of any doctrinal loyalty, but out of a desire to ensure that the world that she cherishes remains stable. For her, the costs incurred in this mission are never too large, for stability means that everyone, of high or low estate, is able to rest at night knowing that their lives are secure. (Of course, being born to wealth, she really has no idea that this doesn’t always work out so well in practice).

Given her upbringing and her birth, she moved quickly through the ranks of the Academy, and while she did not attain the highest marks, she was a competent student and teacher, able to impress those who encountered her with her erudition and the precision of her thought.

When one of the key places on the Council of Prefects fell vacant as the result of the death of Prefect Plakidia, Eulicia was in the perfect position to fill it. Her noble birth and her rank within the Church ensured that her election would not be too acrimonious, though there were a few ruffled feathers among the other noble families who also had their own members primed for the accession. The Duke Childerick, for one, had hoped that his own daughter would assume that position, and his resentment, and that of his son, will come to have significant consequences for the present actions unspooling.

Eulicia, like most of her fellow Prefects, has actively sought out a political role for herself. Unlike most of them, however, she has fostered particularly strong and close ties with the current Imperator Talinissia, with whom she has been close friends since they were both students at the Academy. Indeed, she has been by her side since it first became clear that her father, despite the wishes of many in his innermost counsels, was going to make sure that she acceded to the throne. Thus, it was Eulicia who was given the sacred task of investing Talinissia with the regalia upon her accession.

From the beginning of the reign of the Imperator Talinissia, she has thrown in her lot with the unlikely heir and done everything in her power to make sure that she has the support she needs from within the Church. This, despite the fact that a significant number of the Great Houses–and a large number of the Lesser ones as well–conspired and sided with Talinissia’s brother in his ill-considered bid for the throne. Though it would have been easier for Eulicia to abandon her friend, she did not and has not done so, strong-arming the more ambitious and rebellious members of her own family into supporting this particular member of the imperial family.

It should be clear, then, that Eulicia is more than a little ruthless. She does not necessarily see herself that way, however. Instead, she firmly believe that what she is doing is for the best of the Imperium, the Church, and the fundamental order that they represent on the temporal plane. She has made many enemies, but there are also many that respect her as a woman of integrity, ironclad as it may seem.

All of this probably makes her sound like someone who is merely hungry for power and is jealous of her class status. I suppose to some extent that’s true, but there is something else going on with her, as well. Eulicia is a woman who is utterly convinced that she is in the right, and it takes a great deal to convince her to change her mind. As the events of the novel unfold, however, it remains to be seen whether she will be able to weather the storm that is about to overcome her world and all that she knows.

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Dissertation Days (42): Back at It

At long last, I have returned to the Dissertation. The poor thing was languishing, but now that my traveling has abated for a bit, I can now return in full force.

Today was quite a productive day indeed. I even managed to write 1,000 words of the chapter, mostly concerning the general introductory and theoretical sections.  I also wrote a bit in the section about Cleopatra, which is actually coming together quite nicely. Ideally, if I keep on at this pace with that section, it should be fairly ready and polished by the end of next week.

I’ve really determined that this will be the version of the chapter that I submit. I’ve reached the point where I have to make a concerted effort to bring my arguments together and tidy them up. Otherwise, I’m going to run the risk of spinning my wheels and not making any productive headway, and that is not the space that I want to be in again. So, it’s full steam ahead.

As far as research goes, I have begun reading Peter Brooks’ magisterial Reading for the Plot, which is a really interesting piece of literary criticism and theory. I’m hoping to use bits of it to add some layers to my theorization of the tension between spectacle and narrative that I see as a core part of how the epic film negotiates and engages with the terrifying nature of history. I’m not very far into it as of yet, but I’m hoping to finish it up by next week.

Tomorrow, it’s onward into the weeds of Chapter 4. I am hoping to work mostly on the historical context, which is coming together in its broad outlines but needs some more flesh in order to make complete sense. As I continue my work on this chapter, I’m really working on making sure that the various pieces all move together, and that each piece leads to and intertwines with the others. It’s easier said than done.

Starting in August, I am also going to start revising Chapters 1 and 2 in earnest. They are badly needing some tender loving care from me, and the revisions should be fairly minimal, so I’m ready to get started. At long last, I’m beginning to see the finish line. And let me tell you something, dear readers, that is one hell of a good feeling.

So, it’s onward and upward tomorrow.

Novel Weekends (5): World Building and a New Prologue

Two major accomplishments to report today.

First, I published a blog post (which you can see here), that is a bit of world building. As I’ve said before, that is one of the most exciting–and most challenging–parts of writing epic fantasy, but I think at last that the pieces are coming together. It’s surprisingly difficult to build a religion from the ground up, but luckily some actual faiths from the history of our world have provided at least something of a skeleton.

Second, I also managed to write over 2,500 of a new prologue for the first book.

This prologue looks significantly different than its earlier iteration. There are now two viewpoints rather than one, reflecting a pretty substantial plot development I discovered during yesterday’s outlining. The prologue narrates the meeting of the enigmatic Conclave of the Nameless, particularly two of its members, the Stranger and the High Queen of the Anukathi Y’Narra, both of whom are given tasks by their master the Demiurge (who appears as male to one and female to the other). While we know the Stranger’s task (at least in broad outline), I’m leaving Y’Narra’s a mystery (which probably won’t be revealed until Book 2).

I probably won’t have a lot of time to work on the Novel this week, since I want to finish up a novelette I’m working on and a short story (the latter of which will debut here!) Still, I hope to chip away at some outlines, just so I have an idea of how the larger series is going to work out.

Ultimately, I hope to make this two quartets, with the second taking place some years after the first.

The first quarter will be titled The Heretic’s War, while the first volume will be The Blooded Sword. 

I feel really good.

Novel Thoughts: A Brief Synopsis

So, as some of you know, I’ve been posting for a while about my Novel. However, you probably don’t actually know what it’s about. Hopefully, your interest will be piqued enough that you will want to take a look at it in that far day when I actually finish it and hopefully see it shepherded into print.

The basic plot is this. The cleric Theadra inadvertently discovers a palimpsest that contains one of the heretical gospels that were burned and obliterated during the early days of the monolithic Church. This cannot be tolerated, and her superiors in the Church, including her erstwhile mentor Prefect Antonius and his rival Prefect Eulicia. The latter, having gained permission from the Imperator Talinissia, hires assassins to kill the young woman before the taint of heresy can spread.

Fortunately, Theadra is rescued by the woman known as the Huntress, a half-human/half-Fae youth whose real name is revealed to be Rowena. Together, they flee into the lands of Korray, and after they are captured by a sequence of chieftains, they gradually become lovers, each finding in the other the emotional fulffilment they have long sought.

Theadra’s flight threatens to reignite a long-simmering conflict between the Imperium and Haranshar, the two great powers that occupy the continent. When she flees into the the lands of the Korrayin–who for centuries have served as proxies in the wars between the Imperium and Haranshar–she disturbs the fragile balance that has been the status quo. Soon, the various chieftains, including the Poison King Ibrahim, begin feuding in an attempt to gain custody of her.

In Haranshar, the dubir Osroës, scion of one of a disgraced noble house, serves as the chief minister to the Shah. When word reaches him of the heretic’s flight, he sees in this an opportunity to at last bring the Imperium to its knees. He has long been fostering the Church of the East in the hopes that they would be able to challenge the hegemony of the Church of the West, even as many of his fellow nobles despise them as apostates from the Faith of the Flames. With the Shah’s backing, he sends a group of soldiers to collect Theadra.

In doing so, however, he ignites the flames of war, and the cold war soon ignites into a hot one, and the lands of Korray are engulfed.

This conflict gradually widens until it consumes the Imperator Talinissia, her counselor the Prefect Eulicia, and everyone else. The conniving and belligerent Duke Childerick, aided by his wily aide Count Pepin, manage to leverage their success on the Killing Fields of Korray to a popular uprising against the Imperator who, faced with the will of her people, is forced to resign in favour of her cousin the Duke. Anastatius, along with his lover Trystane, also flee into exile.

The second part of the book follows the fortunes of war and those whose lives are affected. Eulicia, now ensnared and in service to the new Imperator Childerick, helps Talinissia escape imprisonment, hopefully to find sanctuary with the Fae and possibly reclaim her throne. Osroës and the Shah, each working on their own designs, manipulate Theadra into taking up the crown of the Episkopa of the Church of the East, an elevation that strains her relationship with Rowena, who eventually leaves her.

Meanwhile, the Alchemists at the Academy reveal to Childerick that they have recovered the lost Art of Binding from a captured Korrayin and that, using an athame made from the blood iron found in Korray, they can bind the spirits of the daimons–entities of fire and air–into the bodies of human beings and thus forge a powerful weapon.

This radically changes the course of the war, but I won’t go into too much more detail. I have to leave some surprises, right?

At a larger cosmic level, the entity known as the Demiurge, long banished from the material world, yearns to return an reclaim his hegemony. He also seeks to bring together the many worlds that were shattered during the conflagration that erupted between the Name (the male and female godhead) and the Demiurge. To do so, he employs men and women known as Strangers, one of whom wanders this world manipulating those who are in power, hoping to bring the old systems and institutions crashing down into ruin, thus setting the stage for the bringing together of the shattered worlds into a terrible and primal unity.

That’s basic idea of the project. I really want to engage with the larger philosophical questions that motivate the best fantasy. How do people make sense of their historical worlds? How does the body impact one’s ability to move into another realm? Are those who are defeated really the villains that history–and often religion–makes them out to be? How do great powers that bestride the world like colossi come crashing down into ruin? How does love in all its forms–agape, eros, etc.–influence people and even gods to do things that might prove dangerous and destructive, both to themselves and others? Is there, in the final analysis, such a thing as true evil?

Of course, I’m also drawing on some historical parallels, both recent and ancient. In particular, the Imperium and Haranshar are based on the Byzantine/Late Roman Empire and Sasasnian Persia, respectively. However, to be quite upfront, this project was influenced by the 2016 elections, too, so take that for what it’s worth. Note that I’m not intending to write an allegory, but instead a reflection on what it means to live in perilous times.

More details of the project will come as I make my way through the chapters that I’ve already written. The broad strokes of the book are laid out (thank you NaNoWriMo!), and I am pretty happy with it. I envision the project a whole as a a tetralogy but, given how other fantasy epics have worked out, I’m hesitant to make those kinds of limitations.

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue working on it. Though my dissertation must always occupy the front burner, that doesn’t mean that I’m not also going to give my novel the attention that it deserves.

Dissertation Days (28): Chipping Away

Today was a remarkably productive day, considering the fact that I just got back from traveling and that I had to take Beast for a vet visit. I managed to chip away at Chapter 3, getting rid of some extraneous sentences and other bits of fluff that were clogging up the works. I am still not as happy with the prose as I would like to be at this stage, but I’m also realistic enough to know that at some point you just have to move on. As one of my committee members always says, the best dissertation is a finished one.

Fortunately, I’ve been in an editing frame of mind lately–thanks to an editorial project I’m still interning for–so that has really helped to hone my instincts in terms of chopping out bits of Chapter 3 that aren’t necessary and finessing some of the clunkier bits of prose. Despite the challenges, it actually feels good to be at the point where taking stuff out is actually a good thing rather than an absolute pain.

Chapter 4 is also coming along much better than I had expected it would, given that I have a few key concepts that are forming the core of the chapter. The historical gaze has actually proven to be more central than I had realized, and it fits in pretty seamlessly with my dissertation’s emphasis on the unknowable and inexorable power of history. I’m still fleshing out the links between the various parts of the chapter and how they work together, but today for the first time it felt like I was really making some genuine progress.

To that end, I focused most of my writing energies today on the close reading portions. I’ll get back to the historical context soon, and I still have to figure out how exactly I’m going to work in a theoretical context, but it’ll get there.

Tomorrow, I need to make sure that I stay a little more focused than I did today. I sort of was writing all over the place, but I want to start writing enough in each section that it begins to fill out. That way, I’ll have a stronger sense of how each part will look when it’s fully developed. Now that it’s the final draft (hopefully), it’s time to get really serious about this.

Onward and upward friends. As the lady says, tomorrow is another day.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Onward.

Novel Weekends (3): Scattershot

As a lot of you know, I tend to be rather scattershot in my composition process. I’ll often write a scene or a chapter completely out of order, rather than writing each piece in sequential order. It’s not always the most efficient or economical way of doing things, but it does allow me to work on those parts of the narrative that I find the most interesting at a particular moment.

Such was certainly the case today, as I started on a chapter that will actually be one of the ones that has a lot of action. Most of the book so far has to do with religion and politics, and that’s true here too, but this is a pivotal scene that sets the stage for a later religious conflict that will consume the second and third books in the series.

I also found that this chapter is told from the viewpoint of both a minor character–destined to be a larger presence later–and from an incidental character, the latter a soldier in the Imperium’s army. For some reason, though, I find this character to be quite compelling, so perhaps he’ll come back to play a rather larger role. Still, though, I have a rather large set of characters to start with, so I don’t want to overdo it.

That’s not to say that I don’t have a strong idea of the entire narrative arc of the book. One advantage of starting this project during NaNoWriMo was that I was able to sketch out the entire story in very broad strokes.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this novel is turning out. I do think I can crank out a fairly coherent version of this by the end of the year. It’s ambitious, but it’s doable.

Let’s do this.

Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (16): Chapter 4!

In keeping with my promise of last night, I did indeed manage to do a bit of work in Chapter 4. At this point, I’m still sketching in the broader outlines of the historical context, because I think that doing so will help me to get a stronger sense of what it is that I am trying to argue in the chapter as a whole. I’m still doing some of the primary research that I need, but I do think that I have enough basic material to make a solid start in my close analysis of the films.

I’m really trying to work out the tension I see between the spectacle of imperial zenith and the narrative patterns that inevitably connect such splendour with immanent and imminent decline. I’m looking at this phenomenon through three of the final films of the postwar cycle: Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Bible: In the Beginning. I’m not sure how well this is going to hold together in the final analysis, but I do think that are some interesting things to argue and say about the utopian longings for a more stable political world that can never really be attained.

Produced in a world that was increasingly full of political doubt and philosophical instability, these films express a form, I think, of imperial melancholy. They mourn a world that was never actually brought into being, a world that is always subjected to the relentless forces of historical change and the inexorable forward movement of time.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get as much work done on Chapter 3 as I would have liked. Family commitments intervened in those attempts, though I hope to get some bits of it done tomorrow. I would like to highlight this particular bit, though, which I think nicely sums up what I’m doing with Nero’s queerness: “He is, in other words, the embodiment of all the terrifying power of history writ large on the great stage of the cinema.”

Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be another day that’s rather tied up with obligations, so who knows how much I’m going to actually be able to get done. Hopefully, though, I can manage to get through some more portions of Chapter 3. If I keep on as I am, it should definitely be ready by the end of next week. Then I can just edit.

On we go.

Dissertation Days (13): Breakthroughs

Somehow, it seems that revision and incremental writing seems to take so much more energy and time than producing new material. It’s one of the bitter ironies of writing a new chapter draft. As a result, it took me several hours to work my way through a mere few pages, but luckily I had some substantial breakthroughs.

This came about as I was finishing the section on queerness and communist subversiveness. It actually provided me with the final piece of the puzzle that I needed, so that I can finally make a compelling and (I hope) original point about the way in which Nero’s queerness in Quo Vadis works as an expression of the pleasure of terrifying history. There’s nothing like a bit of collective queer fantasy to encounter the ineffable nature of history, am I right?

Still, despite the fact that today was a bit of a slog, I made good progress today. The queer section is pretty much done in its broad contours, and the same is also true of the section on colour. A little more fine-tuning might be needed to make sure that that section is ready for submission, but overall I think it does the work that it needs to do.

Since this is a pretty large and complex chapter, I’ve found that I’ve had to use a bit more signposting than I usually do, just to make sure that the reader is able to follow my logic and understand why I’m including the evidence that I do. It does pad out the chapter, but I personally think it’s helpful to have those rhetorical bits when you’re dealing with a 40-50 page piece of academic writing.

I’m quite happy with the way that this day turned out, really. The queer section was a hot mess this morning, and now it feels like it actually works in the chapter as a whole. Not too bad, if I do say so myself. Now I don’t actually feel bad about not doing any work tomorrow.

Yes, you read that right. I am indeed taking off tomorrow. Then it’s back to work on Monday to finish up the close reading sections of both Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. Once those two sections are done, the home stretch will finally be in sight. What a glorious feeling.

It’s going to be a great day. I can feel it.