I decided to look through some old files, and it's kind of amazing how obvious it is to me now how messy it is, in terms of storytelling structure and just basic craft. But I'm also amazed how at the time it felt like it was very solid work that just needed a bit of tweaking.
This stuff won't see the light of day-- though last year at PhilCon I did a selection of readings from the graveyard that showed my journey from there to here. But it's good to hold onto, and definitely good to check back in with from time to time. Especially in moments where you need a reminder of how far you've come.
So, here's a sample from one of those early works, The Fifty Year War, which I wrote as a NaNoWriMo novel back in 2003. I present it to you not as a standard of quality, but as an example that you can get from there to here.
The walls of New Fencal had not been built with any serious thoughts of defense. The walls had been made quickly and simply, mostly to keep wild animals out. To call New Fencal a colony would have been an overstatement. It was a resort, a discrete compound on one the tropical Napolic Islands where the wealthy and noble of Druthal would come to engage in pleasures both subtle and gross. The local tribe of Napolics were friendly—or at worst merely uninterested.
The walls were not meant to withstand an assault and neither was Lieutenant Terrent Highgrove.
“Highgrove, old boy,” Baron Trelcourt had said early that morning, “What do you make of those ships, there?”
“Ships?” he said, looking out at the clear sea, where no less than five large ships were on the horizon, moving towards the island, “Well, those weren’t out there last night. They must have sailed through the dark. Rather foolish in these waters.”
“Indeed,” said the Baron, “But who are they?”
“Well, they certainly aren’t Druth. Our sailors would know better than that, no?”
“Certainly, Lieutenant, certainly.”
“Well, I’ll send a few of the boys down to the beach to get a closer look. They’re too big to be pirates. More like cargo. Probably a merchant fleet of some sort. You there—Weaver!”
“Sir” said Weaver, coming up to Highgrove. “What is it?”
“There’re some ships coming up on the island. Take two men to get a closer look at them.”
“Yes sir,” said Weaver, giving a crisp salute. He whistled to two other soldiers and they headed to the beach.
“Good man, that Weaver,” said the Baron.
“He fought in the Kellirac War, you know,” said Highgrove. “He’s served for ten years now.”
“Well! Good man, indeed. What say we look to some breakfast then, eh, Highgrove?”
Breakfast was a casual affair in New Fencal. A main dining hall had been built for visiting nobles—at this point about fifteen of them—and they usually ate together, with Lieutenant Highgrove. As ranking officer at New Fencal, he was greatly respected. His twenty soldiers, including Weaver, usually ate at the barracks. They were a token garrison, to make the nobles feel as if their safety was of great importance. The nobles’ personal servants served at breakfast.
Sadly, Highgrove had barely had chance to sit when Weaver came running into the hall, out of breath.
“Sir—those ships—” was all he said at first.
“My!” said Lady Mara Breckenrill. “Is it too much to expect some decorum from the soldiers?”
“Indeed,” said her cousin, Julietta, “To come stampeding in like that…”
Highgrove gave an apologetic wave to the Ladies, “Now, I’m sure he had good cause. Come, Weaver, what’s the news?”
“Those ships, sir, you did see them?”
“Yes, of course. What are they?”
“What are they?” said Weaver in a voice strained with incredulity. “Those are Poasian transports, sir!”
A series of gasps went through the dining hall, as well as the clatter of dropped plates and silver.
“Now, now, Weaver,” said Highgrove, stammering, “Are you sure about that? We don’t want to be upsetting the ladies here.”
“Lieutenant,” said Baron Trelcourt, “Perhaps you and Weaver should step outside.”
“Yes, certainly, Baron,” said Highgrove, “You are very right. Ladies and Gentlemen, please excuse me. I’m sure this is simply a misunderstanding. We’ll get it all cleared up in no time. Weaver, with me.” Highgrove gave a small nod to the nobles and walked out, with Weaver right behind him. Outside, he turned to the soldier.
“Are you out of your mind, Weaver?” he asked with a snarl. “You come running in their like a crazed dog, talking about Poasian transports. It’s ludicrous, and you upset people. What are you trying to do?”
“Save lives, sir,” said Weaver, stepping closer to him, “We are woefully unprepared for any attack.”
“Attack?” asked Highgrove, stepping away. “You don’t think they would actually attack us?”
“I’m not sure, sir, but it seems likely.”
A young soldier came running in through the gates as quickly as he could, heading straight for Weaver.
“Longboats,” he said, “They are going to make a landing.”
“Landing?” asked Highgrove. “Then they are coming here?”
“How many, Pip?” asked Weaver.
“I’m not sure. I don’t count too well… but each ship had at least ten boats come off of it, and those boats were full. A few score in each one.”
“A few… score?” asked Highgrove, “But… but… what do they… why?” Highgrove sputtered. Weaver glanced at him, and then turned back to the young soldier.
“All right, Pip, listen here: get to the barracks, get everyone on their feet. We’re going to need every weapon, shield, arrow; everything we have. Get them here as quickly as you can.” Pip looked at the Lieutenant, and seeing no order, nodded to Weaver and ran off.
Weaver turned back to Highgrove, who had dropped to his knees.
“Lieutenant,” said Weaver, grabbing the man by his lapels, “Pull yourself together. Poasian soldiers are about to swarm through here, and for good or ill, you are the ranking military officer.”
“But… but… Weaver. What do we do? There are—how many?”
“Hundreds, sir. Hundreds.”
“We’re doomed, Weaver! We’re all going to die!”
Highgrove felt the sharp crack of Weaver’s hand against his face. He fell to the ground.
“Weaver! How dare you!”
“Sir,” said Weaver, “We are a short time away from being overrun. Have you even been in combat before?”
“Well, I’ve studied battles and tactics. But… no.”
“Fine. Then let me make myself perfectly clear. If you want any chance at living through today, do exactly what I say from here on out.”
“Weaver… that’s... that’s an utter violation of protocol. I’m an Officer. You’re just a soldier.”
“Maybe so,” said Weaver, “But you’re an officer with only twenty soldiers who is about to face an entire Poasian battalion.”
“What the blazes?” said a voice behind them, “What kind of nerve do you have, soldier, talking to your superior like this?” Weaver turned to see Earl Rettinwood standing behind them.
“My Lord,” said Weaver, softening his tone, “We are facing a dire situation. At this moment, hundreds of Poasians are preparing to land on this island.”
“Poasians? What?” said the Earl, “What do they want? Come now, Highgrove, tell us what’s up.”
“I’m not sure, My Lord,” said Highgrove, regaining his composure, “But with the kind of numbers we’re looking at, I would say they intend to take control of the entire island.”
“Whole island? Bah!” said the Earl, “This island is a Druth Protectorate. We’ve reached an accord with the local natives.”
“I don’t think the Poasians particularly care about that, My Lord,” said Weaver.
“Why is this soldier speaking to me like this, Lieutenant?” Highgrove coughed and stepped between Rettinwood and Weaver.
“My apologies for my man, My Lord,” he said, “You must understand, these are excitable times. Tempers can flare. Why don’t we go inside so I can brief you and the others on the situation? Weaver, be a good man and give the boys their orders. I think you know what they all need to do.”
“Aye, sir,” said Weaver, with a nod. Highgrove and the Earl went into the dining hall. By the gate, various soldiers were coming from the armory, bringing out every weapon they could find. Most of them, thought Weaver, were Pip’s age. More like boys than men.
“All right, lads, listen up,” he said, approaching them, “I’m not going to soften this for you. Right now, the odds favor none of us seeing the sunset. We’re outnumbered twenty to one, at least. But let’s not forget one thing. As far from home as we may be, this island is Druthal. As much ours as the streets of Maradaine. So unless we’re ordered otherwise, we hold it to the last. And I intend to hold it. I’ve put ten years into this army, so that means I’ve got ten acres coming to me. I will stand on my land, lads. When those Ghosts come to me, they will find out what it means to face a Pikeman of the Druth Army. Do you understand?”
The scared looks had vanished. Wide eyes had narrowed and steeled with determination. None spoke, but all nodded at Weaver’s words.