Why Names Matter

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

blank journalThe Chinese poet Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Your writing journey doesn’t begin when you put words on paper. It starts earlier than that: it begins when you claim the title Writer.

You have stories within you; you must otherwise you wouldn’t be here, reading this right now. You have stories within you, but maybe you can’t get them to come out. Maybe you jot a few ideas down. Maybe you don’t even get that far – you shrug your shoulders and say “Some day.” Some day I’ll write that novel. Some day.

Start Now

No one is guaranteed a tomorrow. If you have a desire to create stories, you must begin now, today. And to begin this journey you need to do two things. First you need to say aloud, “I am a writer.” And second you need to ignore the voices in your head telling you that you are not a writer. These are two separate acts, designed to handle two parts of your psyche.

Names matter and if you claim the title “Writer” for yourself, it’s like a magic spell. Say “I am a writer”, and it’s true! The phrase “I am” is powerful. You are staking a claim to time to think, time to dream, time to write. You may feel foolish affirming your identity as a writer, but it is vital.

For some time you will be the only one to acknowledge this truth about yourself. As you begin to share your work with others, they will help you affirm this mantle you’ve claimed, but no one can claim it for you. It must come, like creativity itself, from within.

Writers Write

For a long time I had to have a second part to my mantra because each time you sit down to write it is a leap of faith unlike anything else in life. To combat the fear I would say, “I am a writer. And what do writers do? They write. So get going.” I had to do this every. single. time. For about a year. Was it tiresome? Yes. Did it help? Decidedly. I completed a novel. It wasn’t very good (more on that later), but it was the best story I could tell with the tools I had available.

vincent-van-goghThe second part of the strategy is learning to ignore the negative voices in your head. As the Van Gogh quote above illustrates, ignore the voices; they will fade. Notice I didn’t say “The voices will go away.” I can’t promise that. I can promise that with time their volume decreases, and their import in your life dissolves.

Build confidence by Doing

Each word you write, each paragraph completed dampens the voices a little more. As you write each day, your skill and confidence grows and that also tunes out the voices because the voices are fear-based. I guess ultimately they think they have your best interest at heart. They want to protect you from the mean old world. Isn’t it better to stay safe in this dark room than to venture out into the scary world? That’s what the voices say. That’s what they promise: safe, beautiful stagnation.

Dare

Dare to create. Dare to tell your stories. You won’t likely be very good at first, but practice does make perfect. In the same way that you can’t sit at a piano as a novice and start playing a concerto, you can’t sit down with notebook or netbook and create a bestseller. You learn and practice and fail and succeed. It’s a journey, a glorious journey.

When I sat down to write what would become my first novel, I had just three things. A burning desire to write, the bones of a story, and years of exposure to great storytelling. I would argue that’s all you need. The first one will get you over the worst of the doubts. The second one will keep you coming back to the page, and the third one is your basic toolbox. I went time and again to one of my favorites – JRR Tolkien – when I needed an example of how to put an action in the middle of dialog or how to do a paragraph break in the middle of a speech or how to set up a description of a setting.

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced……
Van Gogh’s quote presupposes that you have a yearning to create. If you didn’t, there would be no need for the voices to tell you not to. The fact of the negative thoughts, that alone tells you what I cannot – it tells you that you are a writer. Take that name; wear it proudly; dare to dream. It is a journey worthy of you.

True North

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb…. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ~ Calvin Coolidge

Perhaps it’s unusual to look to a president for writing advice, but Silent Cal sums up the grit you need to write. That writing is lonely work is a cliche, except that it’s true. And even more, writing is screaming into the void. You have no idea, as you are putting words on the page, if anyone will ever read them. There is no guarantee – especially given the sheer volume of words being churned out for Amazon Kindle alone – that anyone outside your immediate family will ever read your work.

Forward motion

You have to put those thoughts out of your head during your writing time (and try to keep those thoughts away even when you’re not writing!) You must face true north and keep moving forward! Persistence will serve you well. The difference between Stephen King and your friend who says that he’s got a million great ideas is persistence. King has famously talked about his rejection letters. We all get them and that’s fine; it’s part of the process. The way to become a better writer is to write. And that means persistence of action and determination of purpose.

Goals

Writers need goals. Set a meaningful goal for yourself – something do-able but just slightly uncomfortable. If you think you can write 500 words during a session, set your goal to 600 words. Set a goal to write a first draft in six months and then map out the word count you’d need to have a 60,000 word draft ready in six months. If that seems too easy, great! Nothing wrong with easy. The point is to finish the draft.

There will be days that you don’t want to write. It will feel useless, pointless, fruitless. Too bad! Do it anyway. No self-fulfilling failures here. We are determined to create a new piece of art. We will persist in our quest to tell our story. We will not be discouraged.

Discouraged. What an interesting word! The absence of courage. We don’t think of it quite that way when we use the word. We’re not thinking in terms of being courageous or fearful. We mean that we’re feeling down and dejected, but as Coolidge put it in the opening quote, persistence is the key! I can’t think of a more courageous act than creating art because you want to see it. You create something that didn’t exist before! It’s nothing short of a god-damned miracle, when you think about it.

Courage

I still need courage pretty often – I’m not exactly a huge success in the book world (not yet anyway!), but my feelings when I sit down in front of the computer are different than when I was writing that first novel. Every day of creating that first story felt like I was walking a tightrope – and I’m afraid of heights! My hands would shake sometimes from the emotion of it. The bad thoughts in my head – the fears that we all face when we dare to raise our hands – I had to push them away. Sometimes it felt physical. I had to consciously, forcefully think a new thought. I had to consciously, forcefully turn myself back to true north and start typing again.

I’m here to say that it gets easier. My compass tends toward true north now. I rarely have to battle self doubt – not while I’m writing anyway. Persistence and determination are mostly baked-in now. I persist in creating new stories, and I’m determined to share them with the world. And as I think about it, that makes me a success.

The world is full of people who want to be writers, of people who are “working on a novel”, of people who started stories and haven’t finished them yet. That’s all fine; we each have our journey. For me, writing is one of the most important actions I take on a daily basis. It’s one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, and I want other people – people who crave that experience – to know that it is attainable.

Write For Yourself First

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”
~ Virginia Woolf

Virginia_Woolf_1927

While there could be many reasons why someone starts writing a piece of fiction and then never finishes it, one big factor is other people. Other people! Whether people we know or the faceless specter of The Reader, other people and their opinion, reaction, perception can derail even the most motivated of writers.

The Virginia Woolf quote comes from A Room of Own’s Own and whatever else the essay may do, this powerful quote transcends gender and circumstance. We must write first for ourselves. Write the stories that you want to read! You see that advice in lots of places, but you usually don’t find out why it’s important.

Writing is hard work. Writing with an eye to publishing is even harder because you have to revise and polish and rewrite the piece several times. It’s a marathon. It’s being trapped in an elevator for a day – you better like the people you’re trapped with because otherwise it’s going to suck. So if you dislike your main character, that’s a problem. How in the world are you going to devote the effort needed to write the best story you can if you can’t stand to be around that character?

It’s foolish to imagine that you will complete every story you begin – ideas are not created equally, after all. It is, however, paramount that you complete a story. I see too many people who say, “I’ve been working on my novel for ten years.” They haven’t finished even a first draft of it. For whatever reason, they remain stuck – literally in a rut that they cannot surmount, and each day the rut gets deeper making it harder and harder to ever escape.

Writing short stories is by definition different than writing a novel, and I am the first to admit that I went about it all wrong. I would advise first time writers to start with short fiction and graduate to long form. Ray Bradbury famously suggested that a new writer write a short story a week for a year as a good foundation for writing. You may prefer, as I do, the long form, but you can learn a ton about writing using the Bradbury method.

What is nice about short stories is that you can complete one with fairly small amounts of pain. You write 5,000 words with a beginning, middle, and end. You edit it, revise, rewrite. And it’s done. You have completed a work – start to finish. And you didn’t stop and rewrite the opening before you finished the first draft. And you didn’t have to quit your day job. And you didn’t put the story on hold while you spent months researching trade practices of 6th century Bedouins. And you didn’t suffer a crisis of conscience about writing a story about a magic-using girl truck driver while people are struggling with real issues like poverty.

You had an idea; you created a main character, some motivation and some challenges; you wrote a bunch of description and dialog, and Bam! there’s a completed work of fiction. Completing a story has built in motivation for you to write more. Tell more of this character’s story; explore this universe more fully; branch out into mystery or horror or romance because you are a writer. You wrote a story that you wanted to read. You created something that has never existed before, and you did it for yourself. Bravo.

While the applause dies down, take a moment and re-read the Woolf quote. She uses the words, “beyond reason.” Don’t entirely discount other people’s opinion of your writing, just don’t let it paralyze you. Likely anyone who is kind enough to read your work will have both good and bad things to say. There will be a passage they love and a scene they hate. They’ll love the opening and not understand the ending. And they might have a really good point! The ending might need work.

So in order to do the thing that we love to do – write stories – we need to write what we want, tell the story in the way that makes sense to us, write it the best way we know how, and then absorb what other people say about it. As you write more and open yourself for critique, you will write better first drafts, and become a stronger writer.

The work comes first. Complete the story. Edit the story, then share the story.

Imagination Wanted

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” — Stephen King

Sign on the door says: “Imagination Wanted”. Some days, I will walk through that door with confidence to spare. Some days, not so much. It’s easy to imagine that other writers — writers like Stephen King — spend their days in an imagination-fueled dream while we fiddle around with fonts (or worse – close the computer all together!) and wait for an idea to hit us.

You can’t wait for imagination to find you — you have to look for it, and the best way to look for it is to write! When I started writing I had one idea. I knew I wanted to tell the story of how two women fell in love while trying to save the princess (sort of). And as I started writing out that story, it grew and blossomed and, and more ideas hit me, every day, every hour. I jotted them down and went back to The Soul Thief.

Imagination is alchemical – the more you call upon it, the more it hangs around. As you begin to flex your writing muscles daily, imagination sticks around to see what you are up to. It might contribute an idea or two, but it might whisper a brand new idea in your head.

The second draft is where imagination really plays her part. The first draft — that’s just you telling yourself the story. But in the second draft, you get to relax and enjoy (and by that I mean embellish) the scenery. You know where you’re going, right? So you can begin to hang some clothes on this skeleton of a story.

What was that? You said that this idea’s been done a hundred times, a thousand times? Yes, but — you haven’t written this story. Your story is uniquely yours. Take the basic idea of a knight saving a princess. If it’s my story you can bet that the knight is female and the princess, she might not want to be saved, thank you very much.

And even if the story’s been done before, so what? There is nothing wrong with using an established universe as a springboard to your own worlds. Many writers like me have used Dungeons & Dragons (take a look at all those Dungeon Divas posts) as a launching pad for our own endeavors. What matters is that you’re telling your tale. Maybe it’s a spin-off of Harry Potter, or Star Trek, or Twilight, but it’s still your story.

Imagination wanted? Imagination is at your elbow, ready to explore whatever realms you want.

Frustrations of a First Draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
― Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayA first draft is just you and your imagination; it’s just you telling yourself a story, and that can be frustrating or even paralyzing. Some aspiring novelists never make through a draft because they can’t allow themselves to write badly.

I am not an outliner so the first draft really is me discovering the story as I stumble through, and I have to remind myself of that every time I begin a new story. Once the concept settles into my thick head I’m fine. I nestle down in the fictive dream, and then I quite enjoy the wonder of it. But I realized if I, after 4 years of serious writing, have to wrestle with this concept, what must new writers feel?

So the purpose of this post is to say Relax and write badly. It is the only way that you’re going to get words on the page and ultimately that is what any writer — every writer — needs: words on the page. This is why I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo. The whole point of it is to keeping going forward until you have 50,000 words. First draft or Bust — that should be the NaNo motto.

It’s all fine to say these things. It’s quite something else to have to live through it. There’s another famous Hemingway* quote that also applies: “Writing is easy, just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” It certainly feels that way some days — each word is painful; each thought has to be plucked from your brain.

I have two tricks to combat the reluctance to write badly. First, if you are truly good and stuck, grab a pen and paper. You might still have the urge to edit, but you can’t fiddle with the prose very much — it is quite fixed on the page. Added benefit that later, when I transcribe it to the computer, I can do light editing. It feels a bit like cheating.

The second trick is to think aloud with a recorder. You can get a recording app for your phone. At first you may feel self-conscious about it, but since I rarely listen to old recordings, I’ve learned to get past that. Thinking aloud can be transformative — you will make connections you couldn’t see before. You’ll spin out ideas, plot devices, even dialog as you talk through the story. You’re not technically getting words on the page, but I usually end a brainstorming session eager to write.

If you are an outliner, if you plan the story out ahead of time, it’s even more imperative that you allow yourself to write badly. I imagine that it might be harder for outliners to do that because the story structure is so clear in their heads and writing is just such messy business. All I can say is trust the process; trust your imagination to get you through the first draft.

Much of my advice is for novelists — I went from writing poetry to writing novels. No need to go half measure! — but the same principles apply for short stories. Drafting a 3,000 word piece can be just as painful as drafting 50,000 words.

The key is to remember that this really is just the first pass at the story. As I wrote those words I realized that for some writers that’s the most depressing thing I’ve said so far. They want to write it once and be done. No one does that. Every work of fiction (and nonfiction!) you read has been edited half a dozen times at least.

The sequence goes like this (for me at least):
First draft = get the story down
Second draft = expand the story and flesh out characters
Third draft = world building, adding foreshadowing and backstory
Fourth draft = polish for continuity and tweak structure
Fifth draft = final polish for beta readers
Sixth draft = fix all the stuff that beta readers found
Seventh draft = fix all the stuff that new beta readers found
Eighth draft = let Debbie read it
Ninth draft = fix the stuff that Debbie found and publish!

See? Easy*

*That’s a joke.

The Art of Stealth Writing

I’m working on a series of posts best categorized as “An Adventurer’s Guide to Storytelling”. As I’ve been slogging away at this writing thing, I’ve formed so theories about how best to be a good writer.

The first piece of advice I got was also the best — Don’t show anyone your story until it’s done. Pretty simple, right? I still remember when Debbie said it. I had confessed to her that I wanted to really try to write fiction. That was a scary moment — saying my dream aloud to the person who matters the most to me and committing to actually doing the hard work of making it happen.

She’s got a degree in creative writing, so she knows a thing or two about the creative process, so once I sat down to actually write she said, “You’re going to want to get my feedback, but write until you think it’s really, really done and then show it to me.” I nodded as though this made sense to me, and I let my imagination begin to spin out the start of what would become The Soul Thief. I probably wrote for an hour, maybe two, and I was thrilled with my progress. And naturally I wanted to show it to Debbie. Was I on the right track? Did she get the Lord of the Rings reference? Was it too much? Did she like the main character? What about the…..?

She smiled and said, “Remember what I said earlier about not showing your writing until it’s done?” I explained that I was writing a novel — a novel — and that it could be months (years) before I’d be done. “It’s not fair! You write short stories” I said. “Maybe just take a peek at the first chapter?” I felt desperation rising.

She explained that having someone else read your work gives you a sense of accomplishment, and when you are a thousand words into a hundred thousand word endeavor the last thing you want is a sense of accomplishment.

I thought back to other false starts I’d made — the murder mystery series I’d planned to write when I was in my 30s. I’d written a scene, showed it to a friend and never went back to it. If memory serves she didn’t laugh as much as she should have. I thought about the coming of age novel I’d started in high school, the SciFi novel, the alternate history with the wolves….  every time I’d written a few pages, a few chapters at most, and then went looking for someone to read it and tell me that it was worthy — that I was worthy.

Not this time. This time I was going to follow the advice of my brilliant wife and keep my writing to myself.

shadowAnd that is how I cultivated the art of stealth writing. No one except Debbie knew that I’d taken up this crazy idea. I’d spend my weekends writing away on the novel and Monday morning, when people said, “What’d you do this weekend?” I’d shrug and say, “We just hung out. You?”

On writing forums and the subreddits I follow, I often see new writers posting a first chapter or few thousand words of a project and asking for feedback, and I understand that impulse, and it’s so easy! It’s so easy to go to Critique Circle or /writing and say, “How’s my writing? Am I any good?” But it’s such a trap! You might get the gamut of responses from “brilliant” to “meh” and then what do you do? How do you get back to that dreamspace of story when you know that McDuck45 thinks it’s derivative? How do you do the hard work of editing if someone named SloJo thinks it’s perfect just like it is?

Practicing the art of stealth writing gives me the incentive to keep going to the very end of the story, and then beyond to the second draft, and the third, etc. And these days I don’t show Debbie the story until I’ve polished it to a high gloss. And because I like to write and then wait, and then edit, that means that it’s usually a year before she sees the story I’ve been working on.

Stealth writing becomes easier with time. Once you’ve been writing steadily for a few years you know that a first draft is always a mess and it’s easier to resist the urge to solicit feedback during the early stage; you know that it’s crap and that you just have to keep at it until it’s not crap.

The time to ask for feedback is when you think that it’s the very best story that you could write. Then you hand it to your brilliant wife and you say, “What do you think?”

 

Thornbury Confidential – 1st chapter

Chapter 1: Boleian Investigations

It might sound ghoulish, but I’d been waiting for a murder case to come along. I just didn’t recognize that’s what this was right away. A dwarf burst into the office, but I barely looked up from my book. We get all kinds at Boleian Investigations, and an out of breath dwarf isn’t all that unusual up on the third floor.

He put his hands on his knees, gasping for air. “Where’s the wizard? Where’s Boleian?” His words came out in huffs.

I shrugged. “Who’s asking?”

He slapped his hand on the desk. “Cirdore’s dead. Cirdore Forlone. Someone’s killed him in my sawmill!”

You can only work purse snatches and missing persons for so long before your mind craves a challenge. And murder, that’s where the real detective work happens. I’d read some of Boleian’s old files, and there were plenty of times when he could have used another set of eyes and ears, another mind to tumble through the clues. With this case, I could show Boleian that he needed me full time.

To the dwarf I said, “Murder? Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I tossed the novel on the desk. “Let’s go.”

“Wait. Where’s Boleian? I need the wizard, not some elf assistant.”

I brushed the hair from my eyes, straightened my tie. “I’m not some assistant. Just because I’m not a wizard doesn’t mean I can’t investigate a crime scene.” I glared at him. “Boleian trusts me to look after his affairs when he’s— when he’s occupied.”

The dwarf’s eyes narrowed. “And he’s occupied now?” He craned his neck to look at the inner office door.

It was almost five; chances were he’d been at Sharkey’s since three. “Yeah,” I said. “He is.” I grabbed my tattered coat and sniffed the pink stain on the lapel. When had I last eaten strawberry jam? “Besides, if we’re talking murder, I’m your elf.”

As I jogged down the stairs, he tried to keep up with me. “Wait!” cried the dwarf. “Stop just a moment, lad. Murder? Who said it was murder?”

He stood a few steps above me so our faces were level. “You did.” I stared hard into his eyes. Was there something lurking behind that knobbly face?

His eyes slid to the side. “It’s all very confusing.”

“What’s your name, friend?”

“Duri Sholedaz.”

“You own the sawmill on Maple Leaf. I’m Vox. Vox Swift.”

#

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How’d an elf from the Swift clan end up working for a wizard? I met Boleian of Vedasa the day I delivered a message to him. Life’s funny sometimes. You never know when something small’s gonna become something big.

Day had barely broken the first time I arrived at Boleian Investigations, message in hand. The man who’d hired me paid double the usual rate, so I pushed my other deliveries to the side and put his note at the top of the list.

I’d half expected a closed office – you know the saying, “By moonlight the wizard crafts his spells and only sleeps ere morning’s bell.”

That’s the stereotype anyway. But the sign said “Open” so I pushed at the door. It only opened a few inches then stopped. I pushed harder, gained another inch, and slipped through the door. The morning was bright, and the window blinds cast shadows in the room. As I took a step forward, I kicked a pile of ash, sending bits swirling through the air. It stung my eyes and coated my mouth.

I moved blindly toward the windows, hoping for fresh air, and stumbled. As I turned, I saw I’d tripped over an old man stretched out on the floor. Had to be Boleian – long gray hair, a tangle of a beard and robes of gray and purple. Even in the shadowy light I could see some patches on the robe. Business must not be too good for him, especially if he was sleeping on his office floor.

I coughed and yanked on the blinds. Light streamed in, and that’s when I saw the wild flowers. The old man had a sprig of flowers tucked between thumb and forefinger of his right hand. I didn’t know much about magic then, but I knew that flowers and herbs are popular ingredient in spells – good spells and bad.

On the floor above his head sat a pile of fish bones and near the door, a pile of ash – the pile that I’d disturbed, and my first thought was murder, a magical murder, and I, Vox Swift, lowly messenger, would be the one to solve the crime. In my mind’s eye I could see the certificate that Mayor Ritter would present to me. I was just imagining my acceptance speech when the body groaned.

I hate to admit that I let out a scream and jumped onto the couch. The man groaned again and sat up. He looked at the scattered ash and let the flowers fall from his hand. His eyes burned red with anger, and his voice boomed like a clap of thunder when he said, “Who the hell are you?”

“Don’t hurt me!” My voice squeaked. “I’m a Swift! I didn’t try to kill you! I don’t know the first thing about magic.”

“Don’t be a fool; you couldn’t kill me. But you did disturb my hangover cure.” He scratched his beard, groaned, and fell back to the floor.

I carefully stepped down from the couch with the letter in front of me like a shield. “Are you Boleian? Boleian of Vedasa? A man gave me this and—”

“And you broke into my house—”

“Office,” I corrected him.

“What?”

“I broke into your office.” I suddenly realized what I’d said. “Wait! I didn’t break in. The door was unlocked. The sign says ‘Open’. See?” I pointed. He lifted his head an inch and peered at the door. I stretched my arm over his body to put the note on his desk. “I’ll just see myself out. No need to tip me this time.”

His hand wrapped around my ankle. “Pass me that bottle,” he said, “and there had better be something still in it, or someone will pay.”

I spied a corked bottle on its side by the window and retrieved it. The old man propped himself up, using his desk as a backboard. The bottle made a loud POP as the wizard pulled the cork free, and I jumped, in spite of myself.

“You’re an elf. How can you not know magic?”

“Well, I know a little theory I guess. From school.” I glanced at the bookcases lining the walls. What I could do with a few spells in my pocket. “Can’t cast though. There’s so much to know. To be a magic user, I mean.”

He drank from the bottle. “But you want to learn?”

“Do you need an apprentice?” I tried to keep the excitement from my voice.

“No.”

“But you just asked me if—”

“What’s it say? The letter? What’s it say?” He took a long pull on the bottle.

Here I was thinking I might line up a side gig with a wizard, but he slammed that door right in my face. “I don’t know! I don’t read the messages; I just deliver them. Sir.”

“‘Course you read it! Any Swift worth his salt—” he peered at me. “His, yeah? Hard to tell with elves. You all have long hair and smooth skin.” He took another drink from the bottle.

Without thinking it through I tugged my shirt away from my chest and tried to lower my voice. “My name is Vox.” It is my nickname anyway – no one calls me “Voxxa” except my mother.

“Sit down, Vox.” He offered the bottle. “Have a drink.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t.”

“First you destroy my cure, and now you won’t even have a drink with me?” His eyes narrowed. “Listen lad, who’d you say sent you?”

“A man. A human.” I coughed and tried to drop my voice and keep it there. “Stick thin. Yellow hair, no beard. He said to bring that note to you.”

“Peter.” The wizard held the note to his face and blinked. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “Here, you read it,” he said and thrust it at me.

“I couldn’t – I wouldn’t open your—”

“Read it,” he repeated, an edge of menace in his voice.

With shaking hands I broke the seal and read aloud. “Boleian, by the time you read this, I’ll be dead.” I scanned the next few lines and closed the letter quickly.

“What else does it say?” he demanded, but I shook my head, unable to go on. The wizard sat up straight and looked at me. “Peter’s never been that brief in his life. What else does it say, elf?”

I opened it again. “By the time you read this, I’ll be dead. And everyone will think you did it. You will finally pay for what you did to Penelope.”

The wizard was silent when I finished, and then we both heard footsteps on the stairs. The old man scrambled to his feet and put his finger to his lips. He flicked his hand at the door, and it clicked shut. He took one step toward me and stretched out his hand. I shrank away, sure that he was about to grab me. Instead he reached past me for his staff. I let out a sigh of relief, but then with his free hand he grabbed my arm. “You’re coming with me,” he said quietly.

“But—”

His huge hand covered my mouth. “Not a word, lad. Not a sound. You’re the only one who knows the truth about Peter Bane.”

#

Truth’s a funny thing. Everybody’s got their own slice of it. Two people see the same scene but don’t have the same experience. Shifting the facts, finding the common truths, that’s what detectives do. But sometimes it feels like an impossible task. Take the Cirdore Forlone murder case – too many facts, not enough truth.

The elf, dead at Duri Sholedaz’s sawmill, cut in half, right before quitting time. I’d never met him, but I didn’t need to – any elf who works at a sawmill is one tough son of a troll. Most elves are nature lovers, as a general rule anyway, but there are always exceptions. I can’t say I long for the forests of my birthplace, but I’d never stoop low enough to kill trees and chop them up. It takes a special sort of a mind to become a butcher.

I’ve never felt especially at home in the forest, even though I grew up in the Olden where there are still trees hundreds of feet tall, and the forest floor is a cushion of fallen leaves. I grew up there, and I left it. But I’m glad to know that it’s there. Elves need a place to call their own. The days still pass in relative peace in the Olden, and as long as the clans pay their taxes and keep the gold and silver mines open, Central leaves them alone.

But there’s nothing for me there – nothing but memories. Besides, Thornbury suits me just fine. The city is a humming beehive – an elf can get lost in the throng. No one asking me questions, no expectations. It has its tradeoffs, though. For months just the thought of the gargoyles made my skin itch. They’re atop almost every building, watching us and reporting trouble back to Central. After a while though I got used to them. You can get used to just about anything, I find.

But what matters most about living in Thornbury is freedom. I just need to make Neryssa understand that. Neryssa, the elf who married my cousin even though she loves me. It was for the best, she said, but things are different now. We could be ourselves behind closed doors and still walk hand in hand in the street because to the city I’m Vox, the male detective not Voxxa, a silly girl from the Olden.

And I’ll wear this disguise for forever, if it convinces Neryssa that we can be together. The life I’ve carved out here, it works; we can make it work. If only she’d trust me, trust my instincts, trust Thornbury in all her glorious, wide-armed indifference.

Until that day I’ll walk the city alone. In the city I can forget her lovely face, sometimes for hours at a time. Other times the loneliness just feels like it’s chewing through your heart, and you need something to hold on to. Thornbury’s there for me whenever I need her. The city opens her arms and takes in all the strays, not just me but all the lonely souls scattered across Varana.

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