Pruning Your Work by Storm Constantine

Most writers tend to fall into one of two categories: the under-writer and the over-writer. Let’s call these the starveling and the bloater. The starveling produces bare, stark first drafts; there might only be slashes of dialogue without any ‘stage directions’ to show what the characters are doing, or hardly any description, or scant exposition. Some starvelings I know write first drafts that read like synopses. Their subsequent drafts involve adding all the extras – the ornaments, if you like – to the basic story. But this piece isn’t about starvelings. Their problems will be discussed another time. No, this is for the bloaters among you.

Bloaters are greedy for words. Not for them the crisp-bread and Philadelphia Lite of first drafts. They often say the same thing over and over, but in slightly different ways. The trouble is, when the words are pouring out and some of those sentences are just so tasty, they seem too good to waste. Bloaters might go over the top with description. Disciplined descriptive detail makes for good story-telling, but too much of it gets in the way of the story. Readers get bored and lose interest.

Sometimes, when you’re writing, it’s easy to include dialogue and description – even whole scenes – that have little or no bearing on pushing the story forward. In later drafts, all that can go. But the problem is, when you’re so close to a piece of work, it’s often difficult to determine exactly what’s essential and what isn’t. After all, the story is a virtual living world in your imagination. You know everything about it and you want your readers to share that experience. Cutting too much might damage that vision. In a full length novel, it isn’t always necessary to junk all the sub-plots and ‘asides’. They can enrich the story rather than hamper it. The trick is to achieve a balance.

It’s important to remember that the short story and the novel are very different animals. You have to be much stricter with yourself about extraneous detail in a short story, which should be as polished and perfect as you can get it. Editing and writing are two distinct skills. But despite this, I believe that all writers can train themselves to edit their own work to some extent. So, how do you start learning the skill?

It helps to get other people to look at your work, especially if they read a lot themselves. Tell them what you want them to look for, stressing you want an honest response – you won’t bite their heads off if they come back with negative remarks. (That’s something I could write another whole article on – accepting helpful criticism gracefully!) The main things for them to search for are repeated and unnecessary information. Once your readers have come back with their opinions, take a look at the story again. On your computer, create a copy of the story, make those cuts, print the piece out, and read it once more. Does the story work better now? Has the narrative flow improved without losing any of the atmosphere you set up?

Another helpful practice is to read your story aloud – you can be sure that repetitions and tedious sections will make their presence known. If you can, read to an audience of one or more – their comments will be helpful too.

The object of the exercise is to remove all information from the story that waylays the reader unnecessarily, that does nothing to progress the plot or plump up characterisation. It’s often tempting to keep sections in, because you think they build a character up in the reader’s mind. Pages of personal history about your protagonists might be useful as a reference source for you – but how much does the reader need to know for the story to work for them? Be severe with yourself here. Don’t let your story get drowned by torrents of irrelevant personal detail.

It helps to try out different readers until you come across the one (or more) who seems to give the best advice. If you can join a writers’ workshop or creative writing class, even better. (If there isn’t one in your area, you could start one). This is because another good way to learn how to edit your own work is to edit other people’s. It’s surprising how much you can pick up from their mistakes!

Once you’ve found your unofficial editor, nine times out of ten their suggestions will bring unexpected new life to a story. I’m often amazed at how judicial cutting seems to electrify the prose, bringing everything into focus. Observing what other people regard as non-essential information helps train you to recognise it yourself.

Bloat notoriously shakes the meaning of a piece of text out of focus, such as when a writer says in twenty words what can easily be said in ten. I’m not talking about description here (although that can suffer from this fault), but simple narrative. Most commonly, the problem manifests as an army of words that colonise your sentences, thereby obscuring the meaning and creating an area of mud in which the reader loses their footing.

Here’s an example; a sentence from the original draft of a story, which once appeared in a magazine I edited. The protagonist is just taking a bite from a chicken leg. The original sentence read:

‘Her jaws moved, but as far as she was concerned it was nothing more than an inedible pulp’.

There is a grammatical problem with this sentence too, but after he reworked the story, the author’s final version read:

‘Her jaws moved with effort.’

The reworded sentence conveys all the meaning of the first – she didn’t really enjoy the meat – without all the padding. To keep more description, the sentence could also have been reworded as: ‘Her jaws moved, but the meat was an inedible pulp in her mouth.’ The wording is still more concise than in the original sentence and the meaning is clear.

A good exercise is to take a paragraph from one of your stories and chop it by half. Be harsh with yourself. This is just an exercise. Do it in three or four different ways. Cut different words. Reword sentences more concisely. But notice the effect on the whole.

An excess of unnecessary words might not be the problem. Perhaps you are one of those writers who has to say everything at least twice. You think of one metaphor to describe the moonlight, you think of another. They both make your skin tingle, so both have to go in. As they’re both so evocative and sensual, surely no-one will mind them being there? But there are hundreds of ways to describe something creatively – so why waste them all on one story? Again, learn to recognise when you’re repeating yourself, and keep the repetitions in a separate file or on paper. Use them somewhere else, on their own, where they can shine like gems.

It’s taken me over ten years of professional writing and fourteen novels to train myself to spot occasions of bloat. Even now, I don’t notice them all, especially when I’ve just finished writing a novel or story, and I’m still too close to it. It’s usually after a month or so, when the copy-edited manuscript comes back from the publishers, that the repetitions, over-long descriptions and unnecessary details, scenes and dialogue leap from the page at me. My writing now is a lot more concise than it was. But one thing I have learned over the years: I don’t expect my first, or even my second, drafts to be perfect. Criticising yourself too harshly at this early stage can lead to writer’s block. There’ll be plenty of time later to get out the polishing tools.

Writing can be a difficult process. The stories blossom in our minds, but when we sit down to commit them to screen or paper, the words often don’t come out as scintillating as we imagined them – or worse, they refuse to come out at all. We have the vision in our minds, the essential feeling, but sometimes despair of capturing that in the written word. It’s important to just write. Train yourself to think as you write rather than before you write. Editing a piece of work is the easy part, the enjoyable process of tinkering with the words. Most of us are either starvelings or bloaters. Sometimes I’m one or the other. The main thing is learning the techniques of your craft, so you can polish your stories yourself.



Ecstatic Ritual: Practical Sex Magic by Brandy Williams

Review by Mike Gleason

Ecstatic Ritual: Practical Sex Magic  by  Brandy Williams © 2008 

This is a revision (perhaps enhancement is a better word) of a book issued in its original form twenty years ago.  During the intervening decades there have been many changes.  Some of these changes have had a major impact on the world of sex magick (the AIDS epidemic is one example) while others are less obvious (more works by female writers).  Nonetheless, they have all contributed to changes.  Ms. Williams did an excellent job the first time around, and has made only minor changes to this second edition. Unfortunately, there are numerous dropped words in the text which should have been caught during the revision process, but which slipped through.

Ms. Williams has produced a very useable “101” book on a topic which is slowly gaining acceptance within the magickal community.  For far too long the topic of sex magick (or, in my opinion, more properly, sexual magick) has been hidden away from the average magick worker, restricted to “higher initiates” and often relegated to the Left-Hand path or dark magick (don’t even get me started on that topic).  Whether or not one uses sexual magick, everyone should be familiar with the concepts and tenets.

One of the few major alterations to the text is in Chapter Seven dealing with bodily fluids.  AIDS has caused major changes in attitudes and understanding. Appendix Three deal with ethics which is a topic that is seriously under-dealt with in most books on magick. Most authors dismiss the topic with a few words or sentences.  At three pages this is a good beginning, but could still benefit from a further expansion.

My overall impression of this book is quite favorable.  It covers the subject well, while still allowing for further explorations.  Ms. Williams’ style is very readable and her work definitely stands the test of time.

For those readers who are uncomfortable with the topic of sexual magick all I can say is “Don’t buy this book.”  For those looking for all kinds of salacious suggestions, I say “Don’t buy this book.”  If, on the other hand, you want some sound ideas on the use of sexual energy in your magick, this is the book for you.

Ms. Williams does her best to be gender- and judgment-neutral in terms of the various potential partnerships, although she has a few “unacceptable” scenarios (which should be upheld by any competent, caring individual).

Although it is not an area of great interest to me, I found the book well-written and informative.

Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick by Frater Barrabbas Books 1-3

Review by Mike Gleason

Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick  Book 1:  Foundation   by  Frater Barrabbas  ©  2008

Ordinarily, I don’t read other reviewers’ comments before I start reading a book, but the author alerted me to a review which had panned this book, so I took a look to see what had caused the dislike.  The gist of the comments amounted to the fact that this book was confusing.  While this may have been true, it is somewhat expected for two reasons.  First, this is a book of Ritual Magick, which is slightly different from the more common Ceremonial Magick.  Second, this is NOT a “101” book, but is designed for intermediate (at least semi-experienced) practitioners, so it makes certain assumptions.

Perhaps that reviewer’s confusion arose from the fact that she was expecting a basic exposition of Ritual Magick, since the book is the foundation of a trilogy.  Since Frater Barrabbas assumes a working knowledge of Ritual Magick to begin with he begins in the “deep end of the pool.”  This is most certainly not a beginner’s work.  If you are a novice you will be confused.  You might want to buy this series and put it aside until you are ready for it.

Another potential problem regarding the other reviewer (in my opinion) is her youth.  She is not yet out of her twenties and may (potentially) not have enough magickal and life experience under her belt.  To an extent, this is evident since she dismisses Frater Barrabbass’ non-amplification of statements without realizing that they were more fully covered in his previous work (The Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick).  He consistently refers readers to this earlier work, and to attempt to understand the current work without having read it is like trying to understand advanced college courses without having covered the prerequisite material.

Although I am not a practicing magician on the level of Frater Barrabbas (I have not dedicated the requisite time or energy necessary to work at that level), I have enough exposure to those kinds of workings to recognize the essential truths of his work.  While the reviewer referenced earlier found reason to disagree with almost every aspect of this work, having had more exposure to magickal workings (I have been working low level magick longer than she has been in this incarnation), I recognize that disagreement about technique and attitude does not invalidate the workings of others.  Like the previous reviewer, I don’t entirely agree with Frater Barrabbas.  Unlike her, I took the time to read his earlier work and thus had a basis to understand his positions.

Keying off the title of this series (“mastering the Art of Ritual Magick”), I would not expect this to be a beginner’s book, since mastery of a subject does not come at the start of one’s studies.  This is obviously intended as an intermediate series of works, designed to prepare the reader (and encourage them) for further independent, unguided studies and practices.

Expectations can color one’s perceptions.  If you tackle a subject expecting to find a simple answer, it is easy to be confused.  Conversely, if you expect deeply profound insight, you may miss simply stated truths.  Go into this book only if you have clearly defined your own expectations and be prepared to give it more than one reading.  Do your preparation (Read The Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick), and your homework, and you can expect to gain new insights and benefits from your magickal workings; attempt it unprepared and unwilling to work at it, and you will come away (at best) confused and/or disappointed.

Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick: Grimoire   by  Frater Barrabbas  ©  2009

Once again, I need to remind potential readers that this series of books is NOT intended for the novice magician.  The author assumes an intermediate level of working and comprehension on the part of the reader.  If you have not been working magick, successfully, for a couple of years (on at least a basic level), you will probably have trouble making use of this material.

This volume, the second of a trilogy, is composed, primarily, of ritual forms.  They are not complete, nor are they intended to be.  It is intended to provide a framework within which the individual magician can create rituals which are significant and powerful for himself.

The system is one which was developed by the author, and has some unique (in my experience) terminology and concepts.  I will be the first to admit, however, that Ritual Magic is not my forte, and these items may not be as unique as they appear to me.  As an example, I had never heard of “the 40 qualified powers,” which consists of the ten aspects of Deity in the four elements and their relationship to the numbered cards of the Lesser Arcana of the Tarot.  It is logical and, for those dedicated to this style of magickal working, easy to work with.

The two books which preceded this one (The Disciple’s Guide to Ritual Magick and Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick:  Foundation [which is the introduction to the intermediate level of working] lead to the material in this volume.  The final volume in this trilogy (Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick:  Greater Key) should finish off the instructions offered, although it won’t come close to completing the work – which will continue until the end of the magician’s life on this plane.

There is a lot of information and inspiration herein.  Frater Barrabbas has devised a system which is easy to understand.  He has broken the rituals down into a standard set which can be easily modified by any competent magician.  Don’t be afraid to work with what he gives you.  Tweak it and make it yours.

This is not a book, or a series, I would recommend to everyone.  It is not suitable for one who only “dabbles” in Ritual Magick.  Nor would I recommend it to the “average” Pagan or Wiccan.  But, if Ritual Magick is your focus, and if you want a source of inspiration, this is where you want to be.  You must be willing to do the work, practice, and focus on your goals to make the most of what is offered.

Mastering the Art of Ritual Magic  Book 3:  Greater Key  by  Frater Barrabbas  © 2010  

This is the conclusion of a series of books dedicated to “Mastering the Art of Ritual Magick” (hereafter abbreviated to MARM).  It, like its predecessors ( MARM Volume 1:  Foundation and  MARM Volume 2:  Grimoire, both available from the same publisher) is designed for use by the intermediate student.  It is necessary to have a solid foundation and working knowledge of magick theory, technique , and practice before beginning the work laid out in this series.  This boon is designed to help the magician build a key of correspondences and the  apply that key to the rituals put forth in the series.  It also contains suggestions for setting up and maintaining a working group.

For those critics who insist that a TRUE magician doesn’t need books to learn, all I can say is “Why reinvent the wheel?”  Books can, and should, serve as inspirations and jumping off points.  They are  not intended to be followed slavishly, but to provide background.  As one of my instructors told me decades ago “I will teach you what has worked for others through the years.  If it works for you also, great; if not, we will find what works for you.”  My personal correspondences are colored by my own growth and experiences and depart from “standard” in many aspects.

Frater Barrabbas feels that the idea of a magician working in isolation is a bad idea, and I agree with him.  It is not necessarily desirable that such an individual be a member of a magical order or lodge (although there are some advantages), but it is desirable that they have contact with others of like mike and varying ability.  Feedback (aka “peer review”) keeps one from wandering off into dangerous (on many levels) territory without having backups on call.

Newcomers to the field of Ritual Magick will be well advised to either hold off on purchasing this book, and its predecessors, or else hold off on reading them, as confusion is likely to result.  Because a working knowledge of the subject is assumed, explanations are kept to a minimum, or else are couched in terms which could be unfamiliar to the novice.

The  author presents three basic forms of the keys:  Pagan/Wiccan, Qabbalistic, and Gnostic, thus providing frameworks which should work for the vast majority of practitioners.  His position is that SOME form of religious orientation is absorbed by everyone living, and that to make your magick work you need to account for that  orientation in your rituals.

The Glossary provided at the end of this book is composed primarily of words used in the MARM series, and thus is not as extensive as many.  Still, it is concise and clearly written.  The bibliography is relatively short, but is divided into eleven separate categories which even include some good Pagan fiction.  Lest you think this is strange, I will remind you that Dion Fortune (a member of the Golden Dawn) once stated that her non-fiction books contained all the theory while the practical information was in her novels.

For those students who are “mid-level” in their studies this book will be a valued resource.  The newbies and the more advanced practitioners will find less of use.

Graeco-Egyptian Magick: Everyday Empowerment by Tony Mierzwicki

Review by Mike Gleason 

Graeco-Egyptian Magick: Everyday Empowerment  by  Tony Mierzwicki © 2006  

Are you as frustrated as I am by all the “101” books available in the magickal field?  Do you want something with a bit more meat to it?  Well, this book is a good place to start.  True, it contains a great deal of “101” material, but it includes translations of the original sources, not just the tabulated results (although they are provided as well).

Assumptions ARE made about the level of commitment on the part of the magickian, as well as about the degree of comfort and expertise brought to the study of the material.

For those out there who are more interested in reading about rituals than actually doing them (you know who you are), this book will be interesting.  For those already familiar with Classical Greek writings, it may be redundant.  For those interested in working with pre-Medieval magickal systems, it is invaluable.

The first 82 pages provide a fairly comprehensive background on the deities and sources of the information, as well as explaining some individual modifications made by the author.  None of these modifications, by the way, are at all radical, and all are explained clearly

Each of the planetary rites consists of invocations, including the use of “words of power”, none of which would be particularly useful without the inclusion of Appendix 2:  Pronunciation, which helps the would-be Graeco-Egyptian magickian make sure that they are calling the appropriate entity.

Many modern day magicians might be uncomfortable working without the perceived protection of a magick circle.  However, since the magickians of the period lasting through the first five centuries of the Common Era did not use a circle, it would seem that the best way to duplicate their experience would be to duplicate their methods to the best of our ability.

Granted that the author allows his personal perceptions and biases to affect the invocations he uses (modifying the originals in order to achieve specific results), he is honest enough to explain what he has done, and more importantly – why he has done so.

Although I am not a Ceremonialist, by any stretch of the imagination, I found it easy to understand Mr. Mierzwicki’s directions.  I must admit that I found a few areas where he and I disagree in regards to the myths and their interpretations, and a few other items, but I kind of expected that going in.  I knew that my background in Graeco-Egyptian culture was weak, and so I was willing to accept the fact that I would find things to challenge my perceptions.

Although I am not sure how valuable this book will be for my own personal development, I am able to see its overall value and usefulness.  If “high” magick is your forte, this book definitely belongs in your library.  It is not intended to be a “quick fix”, as the rituals need time to work on many levels and cannot be rushed, but working within this system will definitely yield benefits.