Friday 25 July 2014

A bit of writing revisited - the power of editing

Way back in December 2012, when I was only halfway through the first draft of THE SERPENT SWORD, I posted a small sample of the novel here. Well, since then I completed the draft and then made quite a lot of changes in subsequent edits and I thought it might be interesting to compare the same passage in the version of the manuscript that is currently under consideration with publishers.

Have a look at the before and after if you like and let me know what you think. Anything surprise you about decisions I have taken? Are there any bits that you think are significantly better? Or worse? Any comments, don't be shy.

Before you get into reading the sample, just a quick mention about where I am at with the sequel and how the search for a publisher is going.

I am still waiting to hear back from some publishers, so fingers crossed and watch this space. Positive thoughts, everyone!

The sequel to THE SERPENT SWORD, working title, THE CROSS AND THE CURSE, is now at 104,000 words of the first draft. I can see the light at the end of the creative tunnel. I'm looking forward to completing it and then having a break before getting stuck into the edits.

Until then, enjoy the summer and I hope you enjoy this snippet from chapter 3 of THE SERPENT SWORD.

Comments welcome.


Bassus woke Beobrand the next day before dawn. Men were readying themselves all around them. Many were vomiting, leaving steaming puddles dotted throughout the encampment. Bassus handed him his spear and made sure he was holding his shield correctly. Bassus was wearing his full armour and in the dark he looked like a giant from a scop's tale.
"Here, take this." Bassus handed Beobrand a seax. It was short, not much more than a knife, with a simple bone handle. The single-edged blade shimmered with the patterns of finely-forged metal. "It doesn't look like much, but it is a good blade and holds its edge well. Once we are in close, you'll find it more use than the spear. Your brother gave it to me and it served me well. He would have wanted you to have it."
Beobrand thanked him and they walked together towards the edge of the camp. The shieldwall was forming there. Edwin had taken Bassus' advice and set up camp to the east of the Mercian and Waelisc host, so that when they attacked, the sun would be in the eyes of their enemies.
Nearing the centre of the line, Beobrand saw that Edwin and Osfrid were standing there, metal-garbed, battle-ready and proud, with their gesithas around them. They parted and allowed Bassus and Beobrand to take up places in their ranks.
Beobrand looked along the line. Spears bristled, held aloft, a deadly winter forest. Armour and weapons jingled. Somewhere a man laughed. A short, wiry man to his left drew a stone slowly along the length of his seax with a grinding rasp. Beobrand's whole body thrummed. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest.
Bassus said in a calm voice, "Easy now, Beobrand. This is your first battle and you will not be wanting to die in it, so listen to me." Bassus took off his helmet and Beobrand could just make out the scar running above his left eye. "Use what I have shown you. If you stick by me, you'll be all right. And remember, if I get one of their shields down, get in quick and skewer the bastard."
Beobrand nodded and turned his attention towards the enemy. Cadwallon's and Penda's hosts had seen the Northumbrians readying for battle and they were forming their own shieldwall. They stood in a ragged line at the top of a small rise, the sky behind them a dark purple. In between the land was flat and boggy. To the centre of the enemy line Beobrand made out a standard bearing a wolf's head and several wolves' tails. To the left of that he saw another banner, this one carried a human skull and a crossbeam from which dangled what appeared to be human scalps. The men below those standards were lifting up spears, and hefting shields. Preparing for battle. Preparing to kill.
Smoke billowed from the campfires behind them, mingling with the ground fog.
Would one of the men he could see in the dim pre-dawn light kill him soon? He felt sick all of a sudden and started breathing through his mouth in an effort to calm his stomach. He closed his eyes and leant his head against the ash haft of his spear.
Images from the last six months flooded his mind. Edita's tiny body, swaddled in a shroud being lowered into the ground. Rheda, sweet Rheda, her hollow eyes boring into his as he mopped her burning brow with a cool cloth. She tried to smile for him even then. His mother, shaking with fever, lying on the straw-stuffed mattress, soaked in sweat, reaching out to clench his hand in a grip that belied her frailty.
"Don't stay here, Beobrand!" she had hissed. "You have nothing to bind you here now. I know you wish to be gone, to seek out your brother. You were meant for greater things than tilling the land, my son." She had closed her eyes. Her breathing was so shallow he'd thought her spirit had left.
Then her eyes had opened again and she had spoken for the final time, summoning all her strength to say those last words.
What had she meant? He would never know. Her breath had left her with a sigh and his father's bones now lay in the charred remains of his house.
 "Wake up, boy!" Bassus' gruff voice brought Beobrand back to the present. To the battle. To kill or be killed.
All of his dreams with Octa and Selwyn had come to this. He had taken heed of his mother's words and left Hithe. His father had confronted him for the last time. He was a farm boy no longer. He was a warrior in Edwin of Northumbria's warband.
He cast a glance at Bassus and the huge warrior flashed his teeth in a grin.
The sun was just beginning to peak out over the trees, shedding a pale light over the battlefield. The Northumbrian warriors cast long shadows in front of them.
"Come, my countrymen!" shouted Edwin. "The moment of truth is now upon us. You have answered my call to the fyrd and stand here shield to shield with your kinsmen in defence of the land that is ours by right of blood.
"I am Edwin, son of Aella, direct descendant of Woden. The blood of the old gods flows in my veins and the new God, the Christ, is on our side. Paulinus has blessed us in His name and I have promised to build Him a great church when he grants us victory.
"We cannot be defeated this day. Together we will send these pagans to hell where they belong.
"I will quench my sword's thirst in the blood of these Waelisc and Seaxon Mercians."
He flourished his fine battle-blade above his head. It glinted in the dim sunlight.
"Take up your weapons with me. Guide them with cunning and might. 
"Kill them all! Attack them now and kill every one of them!"
"For Edwin!" came back the raucous response from the host, Beobrand's voice as loud as the next man's.
The shieldwall surged forward. Beobrand felt his shield bang against the man on his left as they ran. He tried to keep pace and to hold his shield in the right position. He could hardly believe what was happening; what had been a distant dream was now vivid reality. And then there was no more time for thinking. The men around him let fly their javelins with shouts of defiance. At the same time, the enemy threw theirs. Beobrand had no javelin but he watched as the light throwing spears were silhouetted against the sky. Those of each side mingled together at the apex of their flights, and then he could see the burnished point of one spear glinting as it fell straight towards him.
He raised his shield above his head and kept running. Something hit the rim of the shield, but he was not wounded. The man to his left screamed, tripped and fell. Beobrand caught a glimpse of a javelin piercing the man's right leg just above the knee. He looked away. The enemy were mere steps away.
The two shield lines crashed together like waves hitting a cliff. Beobrand's shield smashed against another. He pulled back, trying to get an opening at the warrior in front of him. As he did so, he realised it was a mistake. His opponent, a brutish, red-bearded Waelisc, wearing a leather helm, pushed hard as he stepped back. Beobrand lost his balance and fell sprawling to the muddy ground. The Waelisc warrior, smiling at how easily he had broken through the shieldwall, pulled back his spear for the killing blow. Beobrand tried to rise, but the Waelisc moved in too quickly for him to get to his feet.
But at the moment the spear point came hurtling towards Beobrand's exposed chest, Bassus turned and parried the blow with an over arm swing of his barbed spear. He swung with such force that the warrior lost his grip. The spear fell harmlessly to the ground next to Beobrand.
With practised skill and uncanny agility, Bassus thrust his spear into the Waelisc's wooden shield. The barbs caught, and Bassus leant on the spear shaft, using his weight to pull the shield down.
"Now, boy!" Bassus shouted, struggling to hold on to his spear and avoid the cleaver-like blade the Waelisc had unsheathed. Beobrand scrambled to his feet. He snatched up his spear and, letting out a roar that was lost in the tumult of battle, thrust his spear at the Waelisc's midriff. The man attempted to parry, but was hampered by his trapped shield. He only succeeded in deflecting the spear upwards towards his unprotected face. With all Beobrand's weight behind the thrust the point grazed over the man's right cheekbone and pierced his eye. He collapsed instantly and the sudden dead weight on his spear pulled Beobrand down. He stumbled, landing in a heap on the warrior's twitching corpse.
The anvil sound of metal on metal and the screams and grunts of warriors crashed around him. He struggled to free his spear from the eye socket of the warrior, but it was lodged fast. He pulled for a few heartbeats and then remembered the seax that Bassus had given him. He unsheathed it. It felt natural in his grip and with abandon, he threw himself into the rift in the shieldwall. He had killed an enemy and all his fear had vanished like morning dew in the light of the sun. The noise of battle subsided around him and an inner calm washed over him.
A snaggle-toothed man with blood-shot eyes, peeked over a shield in front of him. Beobrand's seax flicked out over the shield and rammed down the man's throat. Bassus was screaming beside Beobrand, hacking and slashing with his sword, splinters from the enemies' shields making a dusty cloud about him. The Northumbrian line was moving forward. A fallen warrior clawed at Beobrand's leg, whether friend or foe, Beobrand neither knew nor cared. Battle lust was upon him and he had no time for the wounded. He stamped on the man's fingers, feeling them snap under his foot and pushed his shield forward to meet the next enemy.
The enemy shieldwall parted and a grey-haired man wearing a fine suit of scale mail stood before him. He was wielding a blood-drenched sword and there was a pile of corpses at his feet. Beobrand thought not of the danger. He saw a gap in the line and walked forward to fill it. The old warrior looked surprised and almost saddened as Beobrand, with no armour and only a splintered shield and short seax for protection, walked towards him.
Something in the warrior's grim features penetrated through the red mist that had descended on Beobrand. He looked around to see where Bassus and the other Northumbrians were, searching for aid against this mighty warrior. Too late he saw that he had become cut off from his shieldwall. The tide of the battle had shifted and the Mercians and Waelisc had outflanked the Northumbrians. Edwin's host had fallen back towards the encampment, leaving Beobrand stranded and surrounded by enemies.


  1. I think the writing is definitely tighter in this version, and I got a real sense of both impetus and focus, which was great. Sticking with Beobrand's point of view really helped with that, I think, as well as little changes of emphasis - e.g. 'the sun would be in the eyes of their enemies' is crisper than 'the sun would be in the eyes of the Mercians and Welsh', and really highlights the fact that these are dangerous opponents, rather than just 'names'.

    Also liked the way you fleshed out certain parts, such as adding to Edwin's speech before the battle, and telling us more about the fate of Beobrand's family.

    The only thing I wondered about was the change of Oxa's name, since Bassus immediately made me assume he was Roman or Romanised in some way...but perhaps he is? The name certainly intrigued me, anyway.

    Great piece of writing. :)

    1. Thanks so much, Beth, for taking the time to read both the before and after versions and for writing such thoughtful comments.

      I'm glad you liked the extra depth and the tightening up of the prose. Overall, the final version is nearly 10% longer than the first draft, so throughout the book I have done the same.

      Re Oxa/Bassus, there is an easy answer to that. Oxa has a role to play in the life of Edwin's family and when I read through the primary sources again, I discovered that the Venerable Bede mentions a thegn called Bassus by name who performs that role. Therefore, it seemed only fair that the character should receive the historical name of the real person. There is some conjecture about the apparent Romanised nature of the name, but I decided to leave it as it appears in Bede.

      By the way, Bassus is one of my favourite characters and is extremely important in Beobrand's story.

      Thanks again for the comments.

    2. My pleasure. The creative writing student in me likes to delve into these sorts of things, and I always find it particularly fascinating seeing how a piece of writing grows and changes.

      I had a look for Bassus in Bede, and I can see what you mean. I hope I'll get to read more about him soon! The name's puzzling, but it's also intriguing, which has to be a good thing.

    3. I hope you get to read more about him soon, too! :-)

  2. The battle reads really well and I loved your description of how Brassus pushes on the spear so Beobrand could spear the man. Good stuff. By the way, where does that name Brassus come from? It sounds more Roman than Anglian

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paula. I have read about that tactic for getting the shield down, whether accurate or not, I'm not sure. But it makes for a good scene.

      Re Bassus, have a look at my reply to the comment above.

  3. What a great post Matthew. It's good to be able to see a progression, post-edit. I really enjoyed reading this scene. Battles are difficult things to pen correctly as you are aiming to capture not only the individual characters' emotions, but the atmosphere and then the technicalities of the fight. One thing I would recommend is getting your hands on a shield/spear/sword/axe if you can, even just to hold them and feel the weight. I had the chance to fight a mini battle with a shield and axe, wearing a helmet and it was quite revealing! Everything is so heavy it's the best you can do to stand.

    The new draft is a lot tighter and the scene flows more. The addition of Edwin's pre-battle speech adds to the anticipation and trepidation. One of my favourite lines is 'all his fear had vanished like morning dew in the light of the sun'.

    As with Beth and Paula, I did at first wonder if Brassus' name was Romano-British. However, it's conceivable many names were passed down or indeed that some names were fashionable, just as they are today. I like the change in that it refers to a noted man written about by Bede. It rolls more easily off the tongue than 'Oxa', but that may just be me!

    I can't wait to hear more. All the very best with the publishers.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Elaine. I really appreciate everyone taking the time to read and then to provide detailed comments.

      The battle scenes are the bits I enjoy most. This is the first one I wrote (a long time ago, and then with more recent edits), but I think it does the job.

      I haven't stood in a shieldwall, but I used to fence with a sabre, so I have some inkling of the exertion of wielding a blade, though of course, the styles are extremely different, as are the weights involved.

      The Bassus thing is very interesting. I don't think anyone knows where it comes from really, but I agree with you that it rolls of the tongue easily and sounds like a strong name.

      Thanks for the positive vibes about publishers. There has been a long period of silence after a flurry of rejections, so fingers crossed. Time will tell!