Note: To help avoid potential spoilers, book-specific story questions are indicated by one of the following:
[CS] = Crimson Sword
[OK] = Obsidian Key
[DT] = Divine Talisman
Regardless of who you’re talking about, I can safely guarantee you that I didn’t merely forget. I keep extensive notes on every character I’ve ever introduced, no matter how small or large the role. Even some of those without names in the books have a name and some sort of description in my list. I do that not only to maintain consistency, but to make sure that no character falls into oblivion once they have slipped my mind.
One of the benefits of a thorough outline is that you get to play with all of the pieces ahead of time, to make sure things fit where you want them to. That always changes, somewhat, in the course of the writing, but when it does, I make sure to go back and keep my outlines up to date. What that means is, nothing of consequence ever happens on a whim. If a character behaves a certain way, it’s because that behavior says something about them that I’d like the reader to know. If the plot takes a surprise turn, you’ll most likely find clues before or after that suggest why. In the case of a character’s role—or lack thereof—it’s because somewhere in the course of devising the story, I decided that that’s what was needed of them—that and nothing more.
Are my decisions correct? Not necessarily. The characters and events that I choose to focus on may or may not be those that a particular reader would focus on. To me, that’s one of the greatest aspects of storytelling: Each reader’s reaction is somewhat unique.
In an epic fantasy, there are usually a lot of characters jockeying for screen time. As interesting as many of them might be, an author’s job is to tell the story in the most efficient manner possible. Before I think about characters, I think about roles. There is a job to be done, and I need a character to fill it. When a job comes along that cannot be completed by the first character, a new role is created, and a new character cast. You never want to have more characters hanging around than there are tasks to be completed.
Yet every now and then, roles overlap. Sometimes, two characters created for two entirely different reasons end up coming together in a place and time in which only one is needed. Often, this creates a direct and natural conflict, which is good, since conflict is the driving force behind any story. At other times, all it creates is redundancy. We can’t have character A come in to deliver a piece of news, only to have character B saunter in behind him and say roughly the same thing. In these cases, a decision has to be made on the part of the author to let one of these characters fulfill that task, while the other is asked to stand aside. Suppose I go with character B. Readers may then want to know, what happened to character A?
When you get right down to it, there is a lot of juggling involved. An author may do his best to weight his characters so that those with the most screen time are those the audience most wants to see. Invariably, however, characters crop up that resonate more strongly than expected, and leave viewers wanting more. (Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back, anyone?) Sometimes, that’s precisely what is intended, and what you have is what you get. Then again, it may just be a matter of time before there’s a strong enough reason to have that character show up again.
Do you really want to know?
Any reader of fantasy knows that even death can be fickle, especially when one is dealing with magic or beings from another realm. I really don’t want to be any more definitive than that. Part of the fun of stories, I think, is the role the reader gets to play in deciding for himself the long-term fates of the characters. Telling you what plans I might or might not have for reintroducing slain, vanquished, or roving characters later on would only spoil the intended surprise.
By and large, if it feels like a character’s role is incomplete at the time of his or her disappearance, then there’s a good chance you’ll see that person again. For major characters, this is almost always true, since, as a reader myself, I don’t like to be left hanging. With minor characters, there’s a bit more left to chance and the reader’s imagination. After all, consider the number of folks you’ve met in real life (neighbors, classmates, coworkers, et cetera) who managed to slip away without you ever really knowing what happened to them. Sometimes, even those who make a dramatic impact upon our own lives are never heard from by us again.
I suppose it would depend on the speaker. (To-MAY-toe) / (To-MA-toe), right? One of my brothers pronounces it “OZ-eye-eel”. Another insists that it’s “AS-uh-heel”. I usually go with the latter, when forced to speak it out loud. But mostly I try to avoid doing so. I’d rather listen to others try to pronounce it. Other variations I’ve heard include “ACE-uh-heel” and “A-zuhl” (like “Asia” and “Tool” smashed together). One of these days, I’ll have to have my webmaster run a poll and see which readers prefer. But I don’t think there will ever be a single correct answer.
Update – Jan 2010: My brother has kindly added “official” audio pronunciations to the World pages of this site (Artifacts, Characters, and Locations). So if you don’t already have a preferred pronunciation of your own for one or more of these alien terms, you can check these pages for suggestions.
People do behave strangely at times, don’t they? And isn’t “strange” largely in the eye of the beholder?
I generally view such character issues from a somewhat different angle. In film school, they taught us to avoid classifying a character’s behavior as erroneous, but to instead ask: What does such unusual or impractical behavior reveal about this individual? With fantasy in particular, where almost anything goes, the problem with bending reality does not really come into play until an author allows inconsistencies to creep into the world he or she has created. In other words, readers should accept the extraordinary until such time as the writer begins to break his own rules.
In The Crimson Sword, for instance, Xarius Talyzar does not always exhibit behavior we might expect from an ordinary assassin. It has been suggested by some readers that his skills and his methods stretch the bounds of believability. Of course, as we learn more about his character, we find that he is far from an ordinary man. His behavior need not seem probable, only plausible. I for one don’t automatically assume that a writer has erred simply because his or her descriptions differ from the norm. Again, it’s up to the author to establish the norm, and only then must he or she abide by it.
That said, I’m always on the lookout for new test readers. The very best are those who are both knowledgeable and unafraid to speak their mind. Should anyone out there be interested in proofreading one of my manuscripts prior to publication, when they can help weed out some of the more questionable material before it’s too late, I’d certainly be grateful.
Good observation! In The Obsidian Key, I know that Torin, for one, asks himself that very same question.
Unfortunately, there’s no single, universal answer. The motivation is somewhat different in each instance. Generally speaking, it’s because the captors want something from the captives that could not be gained by simply killing them—be it information, bargaining power, as a sacrifice, or as food later on. The captives may not always have what the captors (or the captors’ bosses) want… but those doing the abducting don’t necessarily know that at the time.
As Red Raven puts it: “Only cowards go about killing foes recklessly, so as not to risk facing them again. Men who believe themselves impervious think first as to how they might profit by keeping others—even enemies—alive.” That’s not intended as a copout. There are plenty of instances in which characters are killed without a second thought. It may seem that certain characters are unduly lucky in escaping death time and again, but it should make sense that the decision to kill or spare a character will always boil down to the objective of the captor. Because, no matter what you’ve seen in those early James Bond films, if someone wants you dead, and is in a position to make it happen, they’re not likely going to sit around and give you a chance to escape.
I hesitate to answer a question such as this, because I believe in letting readers draw their own conclusions, irrespective of what the author intended. What I’ll offer in response is what drew me to tell this particular story. Many of the fantasy adventure tales I’ve read—particularly in recent years—chronicle the emergence of a sort of superhero in hiding. All this hero need do is learn who he (or she) is, come to terms with the fact that he is the “One”, the most powerful person in the universe, and strut forth to let the bad guys know it. I’m simplifying, of course. And I don’t mean to be derogatory, for many of these are excellent stories. But I don’t think that being the only person capable of doing something is what makes a hero; being the only person to do it, is. Oftentimes, the hero is merely the person willing to step up to the plate. And, in my mind, the less formidable that person is, the more courage it takes.
In other words, the stereotype about the hero being the one-and-only person who can save the world has always seemed unrealistic to me, so I thought I’d try something a little bit different.
I decided to hearken back to what Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings. In that epic, the superhero wizards and warriors were secondary cast members. At the crux of the story were the hobbits—ordinary characters swept up by extraordinary circumstances, with little to draw upon but stout hearts and the faith each placed in his comrades. That was who I wanted for my protagonist—an “anti-One”, if you will. A character who gets caught up in the lure of destiny and his own potential, only to find out that when it comes right down to it, destiny is what we make of it. He goes then from a “chosen” character who merely fulfills his destiny to an everyday person (like you or me) who must forge his own through sheer determination.
Some have complained that the lack of special powers makes Jarom a bland person to follow around. I thought I could pass some of that onto the secondary characters and have it work just as well, but I’ve since come to realize that there are those who expect their primary hero to be nothing short of a bodice-ripping, magic-spewing superman. With Jarom, well, that simply isn’t the case.
And yet, when you get right down to it, this is only the beginning, the initial stage in Jarom’s development as a character. The slate has only now been set, and there are several other hero myths I’m anxious to explore. Without giving too much away, I’m a big fan of Greek tragedy, in which heroes are knocked down a peg or two by the unforeseen consequences of their own hubris-driven actions. Let it suffice to say that Jarom and friends haven’t suffered anything yet, and are eventually going to be forced to grow up in a big way.
In earlier drafts, there was a feeling that Jarom’s initial quest was a little too easy. Not only that, but there were a couple of decisions on his part that seemed somewhat illogical and thus, required a tremendous leap of faith by the reader in order to follow along. To help smooth over these rough spots, it became necessary to show that even the man making the decisions was not entirely comfortable with them—before, during, or after.
For better or worse, I wanted to depict Jarom not as a fully-focused individual of single-minded purpose, but as a young and conflicted soul feeling his way through a complex situation he never could have imagined—and for which no clear resolution is in sight. He thus spends a lot of time trying to reconcile what is in his head with what is in his heart. I believe we’ll find that as the story progresses, and Jarom becomes more comfortable in his own skin, he won’t spend quite so much time questioning his every action, or rationalizing his hopes and his fears. Then again, the fact that he is such an introspective person plays a key role in how the story develops, so it’s not something he can or will simply turn off.
That said, I’ve always been the kind of writer to use three phrases where one will suffice. That’s something I shall try to cut back on—I promise.
I haven’t—yet. As one of the characters clearly states, an explanation is still owed. There are some hints peppered throughout, but I’m hoping to forestall any clear-cut answer to this particular riddle, since it might be used as a key to unravel additional mysteries later on. A dangerous move by any writer—to withhold information from the reader for the sake of dramatic impact. You can let me know later on whether or not it worked.
For now, I’m hoping this resolution proves satisfying enough in that it was set up with seeds planted throughout the story, and that I’ve acknowledged—both within and without the book—that there are pieces yet missing.
The idea behind Kylac’s accent was to help illustrate his vagabond nature. For several years, he has wandered high and low across the lands, living with various peoples—and races—for various lengths of time. Spend enough time around those speaking a different language or dialect, and oftentimes you’ll end up adopting their speech patterns as your own. Because of his wanderings, Kylac speaks in a broken dialect, a random gathering of speech patterns cobbled together from the various people he has met in the course of his travels. And since none other have shared his adventures, his is an accent all his own.
This was touched upon in earlier drafts of The Crimson Sword, but the explanation felt superfluous, and was thus cut before it ever went to print.
I can. But the mystery of these particular weapons is one that I’d prefer to unravel within the natural course of the story. It was a bit of a cheat, on my part, to offer only hints in the first book, rather than an outright explanation. However, providing that explanation would add little to the story unless I took the time to bring in a much larger piece of the puzzle. And had I brought that much larger piece into play, it would mitigate some of the dramatic impact that I hope to achieve later on. The cardinal rule of storytelling is: “Show, don’t tell.” And I saw no real way to show the truth behind Kylac’s blades within the first volume without going off on a tangent. Before the conclusion of the trilogy, that tangent will become part of the main storyline, and the answer to this question will be revealed.
In the meantime, there are enough clues, even within Book One, to support an educated guess as to where these blades came from. Though I hope to keep readers guessing until near the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if a reader or two out there were to figure it out long before I spill the beans.
The simple answer: because they had to share it with one another.
The use of multiple villains in Book One was done primarily to create a major escalation halfway through the story. In essence, I wanted to dial up the threat level as the Sword was recovered, so as to deal our heroes a blow just as they are starting to feel confident. While Spithaera and her demon minions were introduced ahead of time, we don’t really get to see what they’re up to until after Jarom and pals emerge from the ruins of Thrak-Symbos.
I could have had our first major villain, the wizard, achieve something to generate this sense of escalation; that’s what is typically done. But I thought it would be much more fun to have competing villains. Instead of having one big bad wizard, what if, halfway through the story, that villain became just another pawn in another’s grand scheme? If it works, then all of a sudden you’ve dialed up the tension level exponentially. By the end, of course, one can argue as to which was the true pawn, but that’s one of the reasons it was so fun to write it that way.
The downside to crafting things in this fashion, of course, is that with multiple villains, you’ve got less time for each. Even if you combined the two best villains in history—going with AFI’s list, let’s say Hannibal Lector and Darth Vader—neither is going to seem as daunting or well fleshed out as they would when starring in a story all their own. Another example of this in my story is the villain’s primary hunter. The wizard uses his assassin, Xarius Talyzar. Spithaera uses Raxxth. I might have had the Demon Queen send Talyzar after Kylac and Allion. But it did not seem plausible to me that she would rely on the wizard’s minion over one of her own—especially since Talyzar had already failed once. And again, there’s an escalation in terms of strength and savagery. But in doing it this way, some readers want to know what happened to the Shadow, while others wish there had been more build-up for Raxxth.
Whichever your preference, this is a good example, I think, of the types of decisions an author has to make. No matter which route you go, there are always trade-offs to consider. At the end of the day, you have to decide what is best for your particular story. And either way you turn, there will be some readers who disagree with your decision—which is only one reason why crafting each new story is such a fun and interesting challenge.
After all the build-up, why was Spithaera so easy to kill?
Because I was running out of pages?
That’s a joke. Believe it or not, nothing about this novel was scribbled out haphazardly. I was very deliberate in how things unfolded. If matters seemed rushed at the end, it’s only because when you get to that point of a story’s arc, events are supposed to unfold in a manner fast and furious, as if you were running downhill.
More specifically, the way in which Spithaera met her end was foreshadowed well in advance, so it should not have come as a terrific surprise. Could I have done it differently? Of course. But it didn’t feel right to me, having this relatively weak protagonist (Jarom) go toe-to-toe with this demon avatar (Spithaera) in some epic fight sequence. Enabling him to do so would, to me, have weakened her from what we had already established. I felt she had to be destroyed abruptly, or not at all (as we see in most “David versus Goliath” confrontations). So I went the route of Achilles. Achilles, if you’ll recall, was never truly bested in combat. But he did have that one weakness, and, in the end, that’s what caught up to him. Same with Spithaera.
The true difficulty is in the choice Jarom has to make. Is he willing to sacrifice the one person he most loves for the greater good? Whether or not I staged it properly, that’s where the drama of their confrontation was meant to lie—not in which character had the most hit points.
Is Torin really dead?
I’ve answered this sort of question before in a more general sense. When a character disappears from the story, he/she is gone. To learn whether that character will reappear in some form, well, I’m afraid you have to keep reading. Knowing what will happen before you read about it can only deaden any potential impact.
I recognize, however, that this instance is somewhat unusual, in that for two full volumes, it seemed that Torin was the protagonist. Given that, I suppose readers deserve a more specific answer. Yes, Torin really did give his life in order to restore Allion’s. A sort of passing-of-the-torch, if you will. Not only did he think Allion would make a better hero, but he did not believe his friend deserved to perish for mistakes that he made. Hopefully, readers think more kindly of Torin than he thinks of himself, but he gave it his best shot, and failed. Time to let someone else try.
Please remember that this is a true Aristotelian trilogy, meaning that Book Two has only taken us through the second act of the overall story. There are twists yet to come, one or two of which I hope will come as a surprise. For those who really want to read about the consequences of Torin’s sacrifice and other events, I would recommend sticking around for the final act. All major plot threads will be resolved by the end of Book Three. Until then, I can only plead for patience, and hope that the story proves worth the wait.
Why isn’t Kylac in the second book? Where did he go?
Hmm, this is another one that falls under the question regarding the future fate of characters, to which I’ve given a general answer before. But here goes…
You’ve probably noticed that in many coming-of-age adventure stories, there comes a time in which the mentor character perishes so that the protagonist is forced to carry on alone. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, or Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. I felt the same dynamic was needed in this series. Jarom and Allion relied rather heavily on Kylac in Book One. For Book Two, I wanted each of them to face their respective challenges without being able to use the youth as a crutch.
However, I wasn’t ready to kill Kylac off entirely, because I have other plans for him. So I decided that he would be away on his own adventure, while Torin and Allion continue along on theirs. Given the youth’s nature as a wanderer, it made sense to me that he wouldn’t simply hang around while Torin worked at getting his city and land back to normal. Daily life within a castle would be much too boring for him. As stated within Book Two, Kylac’s friends (and enemies) are left to wonder where exactly he has gone, because Kylac himself isn’t sure of his destination at the time of his departure.
Removing him from this story was certainly a risk, since he seems to be the most popular of my characters. While I knew he would be missed, I’d hoped that the introduction of characters such as Arn, Lancer, and especially Dyanne and Holly, might help to fill the resulting void. I also made sure that his former friends commented on his absence whenever it seemed appropriate to do so. His influence was and will continue to be felt.
As to where exactly Kylac has gone, stay tuned. I believe it’s safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of him.
Was Darinor’s betrayal meant to be a surprise? Part of me suspected it all along.
First off, let me say that it’s truly hard to create a genuinely shocking ending any more. In any given story, there are only so many possible outcomes. The tool to use is misdirection. Lead your readers down one path only to bring them to an unexpected destination at the end. Naturally, you have to be careful in doing so, because you never want your readers to feel cheated. You want them thinking: “Ah! I should have known!” as opposed to: “Wait a minute, where the heck did this come from?”
Mentors as betrayers is not an original concept. Generally, the way to handle this is to portray the villain as a kind and noble helper, masking his dark intent. This would have been the most obvious way to handle Darinor. However, I wanted to create an ominous presence right from the start. There is no “black horde” pouring out of the hills in this book, so I felt that Darinor was the best way to provide that sense of impending dread and danger and conflict. It also made more sense to me that he would be fairly ticked off about having his life interrupted and this great scourge unleashed—to go along with the fact that by the time we meet him, he’s really an Illychar. For these reasons, I decided to make him seem villainous from the outset. Have everyone question him from the get-go, and throughout the story. That way, the characters listening to him don’t look like complete dupes at the end. They constantly echo the reader’s suspicions. Little by little, the characters are reassured, and the reader along with them. Just as we begin to maybe trust the guy… boom, the reveal is made, and we’re left telling ourselves: “I knew it. I knew it all along.” In other words, the reaction you describe is precisely the reader reaction for which I’d hoped.
To help make this work, however, the story needed another villain upon which to deflect suspicion. That’s where Rogun comes in. His strategies may seem more sensible at first. But he’s made to seem like a warmonger, out of control, looking out only for what he feels is right. He refuses to accept that his lack of understanding about his enemy should affect the actions he must take. He threatens and badgers and deceives. Little by little, reader suspicion shifts from Darinor to Rogun (hopefully). Only at the end are their roles as hero and villain reversed back to what one might have expected in the very beginning. Since that expectation already existed, there is a certain sense of satisfaction. All I did was try to cover it up for awhile.
Before dropping this topic, I must say that upon second reading, there are several scenes involving Darinor and/or Rogun that can be seen in an entirely different light. Aspiring writers might take a closer look at how I did this (and to decide for themselves if I actually pulled it off). Because writing a scene with double meaning can be a challenge, but is very rewarding if you manage to get it right.
I can see where readers would find Book Two depressing. Bear in mind, this is an Aristotelian trilogy, meaning that Book Two equates to the second act of the overall story. And second acts are always depressing, because that’s when all the worst trials are thrown at our heroes, culminating in the darkest moment. Think of the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. The Rebel base is destroyed… the Rebels themselves are harried and chased throughout the galaxy… C-3PO gets blown up… Han Solo is placed in Carbonite… Luke Skywalker loses his hand and discovers that Vader is his father (and that Ben lied to him). There’s not much in all of that to take heart in. But if you stick around for Act 3, things are bound to get at least a little better, because that’s when the heroes find a way to overcome the worst of it (or so we expect). You can blame me for all of the depressing events in Book Two, but I prefer you blame Aristotle for defining the formula that the rest of us follow.
Why sever the relationship between Torin and Marisha after what they had been through?
I’m actually surprised by the number of readers who were disappointed to see the relationship between Torin and Marisha erode. While their fondness for each other in Book One was meant to reflect the conventional protagonist romance, the bond between them, if you follow closely, was never really that strong. For example, you may recall that Marisha was not the first girl to catch Torin’s eye…
As for why? Well, most every fantasy I’ve read follows the same general formula: Boy meets girl; they fall in love; and, together, they live out the string. It always seemed to me like these fantasy hookups are essentially relationships born of a crisis situation. You said it yourself: “After what they had been through.” Well, what I wanted to explore was the notion of: What happens after the crisis has ended? Is there enough between them to keep them together? In this case, there wasn’t.
The closest thing to a direct explanation within the book is when Marisha is consoling Allion after Weave’s demise (Chapter 40, I believe). In that scene, she tries to make Allion understand why she no longer feels as she once did toward Torin, and hints at why she has become enamored with him instead. As for Torin’s side of things, well, there are several instances laced throughout the book in which he tries to understand his fading interest in the woman he once intended to marry.
One could argue that any time a relationship fails, all that went into it is rendered meaningless. So, for those who enjoyed the romance between Torin and Marisha in Book One, I can see where events in Book Two would seem deflating. On the other hand, failed relationships are a fact of life, and I wanted to reflect that in my story. Perhaps, in this case, I tried too hard to be different from what fantasy readers have come to expect.
Did Cianellen orchestrate Soric’s abduction of Torin?
Not at all. Soric’s plan to abduct and seek revenge against Torin was his own. But Cianellen foresaw it, and wanted to be there to witness the confrontation between Torin and his brother. She further saw that Red Raven would be the one whom Madrach recruited for the task of delivering Torin to the wizard’s isle. Thus, she manipulated the wind and waves in order to bring Raven’s ship to her shore, where she came aboard under the guise of a castaway. Later, when Madrach found them in port, Cianellen allowed herself to become the piece of bait that lured Red Raven into doing Soric’s bidding. Her foresight is imprecise, since the future itself is imprecise, but she uses it to the best of her ability in order to involve herself in this matter that has captured her interest.
Cianellen speaks of erasing the memory of Torin’s journey. Does this refer to his entire quest?
No. She is referring to his journey to the nether-realm in which they meet following Allion’s death. What no one will know is that Allion died, and that Torin sacrificed himself in order to resurrect his friend. Allion, Marisha, and other survivors will still have the knowledge and information that Torin related to them upon his return from Yawacor—which isn’t much, since circumstances prevented him from revealing these details to any but Darinor. If you read Book Three, it should become clearer as to who knows what, and how this knowledge (or lack thereof) affects them going forward.
Glad to see a reader or two picking up on this, because how a person says something often speaks louder than the words themselves. Bear in mind, these friends are all out of their element. It’s not like they’re hanging out at the lake, enjoying good times. Just as they are beginning to settle down from the last set of trials, their lives are upended by a harrowing tale featuring several hard truths (and perhaps some hidden lies). Each is wrestling with any number of emotional fears and personal demons, to go along with the obvious shock and confusion of their circumstances. The stiffness you feel is meant to reflect the tensions mounting between them, marked largely by a growing division in ideological course. While the friends themselves may not fully understand their own feelings yet, there’s a lot of pent-up frustration getting set to boil over later on. What you’re seeing is merely the seeds of that being sown.
Why is there so much emphasis on Torin’s pining for Dyanne?
Maddening, isn’t it? Torin himself says so. An example of form following function. Believe it or not, the idea is not to bore the reader with something they already know. But I do want to make them feel the relentless turmoil that Torin himself is feeling, especially toward the end as his emotions become all-consuming. Certainly, some readers will relate to his situation better than others—and those who don’t may wonder what the point of it is. Hopefully, the larger ramifications of this plotline become clear in Book 3, and thereby justify its emphasis. If not, a reader shouldn’t find it too hard to simply turn the page and skip ahead to something they find more interesting.
Why isn’t Kylac in the third book? What happened to him?
Wait a minute, didn’t I already answer this question after the release of The Obsidian Key? Evidently, my answer didn’t suffice, so I’ll try again…
As was well-established in The Crimson Sword, Kylac is a wandering soul, an adventurer, always looking for the next bit of excitement. In my mind, it made no sense that he would sit around helping Torin and Allion with the mundane task of rebuilding a city and realm following the so-called War of the Demon Queen. So he took off, shortly after returning to Krynwall with Allion. He had no particular destination, just someplace more exciting. He assumed that after the dragonspawn, life would be pretty quiet on Pentania for awhile. As it turns out, he was wrong, and might have done better to stick around. In any case, he didn’t reappear because he found something else to tangle with. I could go into further detail, but not without spoiling a future book series, which attempts to explore where exactly Kylac went, and why. I hope you can bear with me while I endeavor to write that story.
Why does Torin shoulder all the blame that Allion throws at him?
First of all, thanks for sticking up for Torin. My hope was indeed that readers would not fault him nearly as much as he faulted himself. And one of the surest ways to have people rise to someone’s defense is to have another persecute that character unfairly. Allion is entitled to his views, but so are those who suggest that Allion is at least partly to blame for so much of the chaos resulting from Torin’s resurrection as an Illychar. Had he cremated Torin as Marisha urged, and stuck around to guard the Sword from the likes of Thaddreus, perhaps a lot of the death and destruction his people suffered could have been avoided.
But the question of blame is up to interpretation, isn’t it? Just because a character sees the world a certain way doesn’t mean it is that way. It depends on whose worldview you choose to believe. Is Allion the most reliable narrator? Is Torin? After all, Torin is every bit as hard on himself as Allion is… perhaps even more so. In the end, I wanted Torin to be a well-intentioned guy who just happened to make a few terrible mistakes. Happens to the best of us every now and then. The fact that Allion cannot forgive him any more than Torin can forgive himself says something, I think, about each of those characters. Where one is focused on finding a scapegoat, the other is more concerned with facing his responsibilities and setting things right—whatever that entails. Is one right and the other wrong? Does one or the other deserve further punishment, or have any greater right to happiness? That’s something the reader must decide.
And yes, I realize it’s disappointing to some, the way the brotherly bond between Torin and Allion deteriorated throughout the course of this trilogy. As with many aspects of this story, I wanted to take a standard convention (such as two inseparable best friends) and turn it on its head a bit. Instead of remaining inseparable to the end, we see them grow apart, as sometimes happens in real life. A sad notion, perhaps, but there it is.
Will Torin ever find a genuine love interest?
Sharp-eyed readers have observed that Torin seems to “fall in love” with a different girl in each book, with no clear idea of who he really is or what he really wants. I’ll take it a step further by saying that, from the very beginning, Torin/Jarom becomes infatuated to some degree with just about every pretty girl he meets. I thought this made for an interesting change from the typical fantasy romance aspect, in which the hero pledges his heart and soul to a single innocent maiden and thereafter never wavers in his devotion to her. I realize the latter is the kind of romance many women aspire to (and men, for that matter), and that Torin’s model takes a much more cynical view of the quest for love, but it was for that very reason that I thought it would be fun to explore.
As these readers have pointed out, Torin is still learning who he is and what he wants, so it remains possible that true love is in his future. Of course, love has to work both ways. One might argue that, had any of the girls to catch his eye reciprocated his feelings, this question might already be resolved. In any case, I wouldn’t say unequivocally that all doors have been closed on him with regard to Dyanne or Annleia. He may not feel like pursuing them now, but even the best-laid plans can go awry. His future at the end of The Divine Talisman is a blank canvas, so to speak, in which boundless opportunity awaits. Will he end up with someone from his past? Will he find someone altogether new? Will he live the rest of his life alone? I have my own ideas, of course, but I intentionally left this portion of his saga open-ended, so that, in a way, the reader’s guess as to what lies in store for him is every bit as good as mine. Don’t you hate it when authors do that?
For now, yes. The story of Torin’s rise and fall and unlikely second chance has been told. However, as any reader of epic fantasy knows, the first book/series is just the tip of the iceberg. Each new story seems to open up more threads—and that is certainly true in this case. Several of those threads have been planned from the very beginning. There’s a reason why this initial trilogy was set on an island. Beyond the surrounding ocean, there’s a great big world out there, meaning new lands, new characters, new conflicts…
All I can say for certain is that future plans will be revealed in due time. I’d hate to establish any sort of false expectations. Just know that I have every intention of building upon the legend of Asahiel at the soonest possible juncture, and I hope that whatever comes next will prove to be worth the wait.
Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to fulfill even a small percentage of these requests. The good news is, there are a lot of writers out there who have banded together in various groups for just this sort of thing. If you’re looking for feedback, support, or general advice on the craft of writing, I would urge you to find and join such a group. If you’re not sure where to look, the Internet is a great place to start.
If you feel you have written something of publishable quality, the next step is to get it into the hands of an agent or editor, or otherwise gauge its marketplace value. One of the best ways to do so, in my experience, is to find and attend a good writers’ conference. There are plenty to choose from. Some can be quite expensive, but are often well worth the investment. My personal favorite is the Maui Writers Conference. This and others should be listed on the “Links” page of this website—though rest assured, my list only barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s out there. If Maui is too far to travel, perhaps you can find a conference in your area. You can search for them on the Web, or else inquire at your local library or bookstore. As with everything else, the key is to find one that supports your genre. For example, a lot of them don’t do much to support science-fiction or fantasy.
Having said all of that, I am in full favor of seeing new writers achieve their publishing dream, and am anxious to lend what small help I can. If things get really desperate, folks are more than welcome to send me short writing samples such as query letters, outlines, or maybe a completed chapter—provided, however, they keep the following in mind:
I am not an agent or editor. As much as I may love your work, there’s really nothing I can do in terms of getting it into the marketplace. At best, you might list me as a reference in your search for a buyer. But I can’t promise that may be of much help.
Life being what it is, you may not receive a response from me right away. You’ll find this is quite typical of the industry in general. It often takes months to hear back from an agent or editor, due to the high volume of material they must sift through. Be patient, and continue writing. Keep working—on this or something else—while you wait.
I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am. Therefore, any comments or advice I might give may be of no use whatsoever. Fortunately, there are times when even the most ridiculous comment can trigger something of value in your own head. As with any outsider’s advice, you should take into account that which you consider useful, and discard the rest.
When you get right down to it, writing is a lonely business. No one knows your story like you do, and more often than not, the best instincts are your own. I understand the desire for professional validation, but in most cases, when you’ve reached that level, you won’t have to ask. Should you seek the opinion of someone you believe to be knowledgeable and trustworthy? Certainly. Especially if you believe they will be honest in their appraisal. But at the same time, be honest with yourself, and learn to trust your own judgment as much as you would anyone else’s.
I don’t actually have much experience with fan fiction. I seem to recall taking an early stab at George Lucas’s Return of the Jedi before the real thing was released, but only because I couldn’t wait to see Han Solo freed from that slab of carbonite. All in all, it always seemed somehow disrespectful to me to play in another’s world. So when I began writing, I set out right away to create my own.
Not that there weren’t a lot of similarities, mind you, between my worlds and those of my favorite authors. Heck, that much really hasn’t changed. It’s only natural, I think, to imitate that which we most enjoy. Everything is derivative of something that has come before, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. If it were not, if it were truly “original”, then how would a reader find a frame of reference through which to relate?
Personally, I think reading and writing of any kind are a good thing. For those who are thinking of pursuing publication, fan fiction brings with it a lot of obvious pitfalls in the form of copyright infringement and what-not. But I imagine that most of those writing fan fiction are using it as an exercise, and are not necessarily looking to publish it for a mass audience. As with any form of exercise, it’s not a bad a idea to start small, with something you know you can handle. For some writers, that means using another’s characters and settings until they have a grasp of plotting and basic story structure, before moving on to create their own worlds from scratch.
In that case, I really don’t see the harm in it. I’d certainly challenge anyone taking up writing to move on as quickly as they can to that next stage of development, in which they are not intentionally using someone else’s work as a crutch. But if that’s what it takes to get someone going, then by all means, have at it. I think you’ll soon find, however, that an existing world is actually rather limiting, no matter how large or vast, and that to truly let your imagination run wild, you’ll want to develop your own.
First and foremost, I studied the craft. In my case, that meant twenty years of reading everything I could get my hands on, writing almost every day, and paying attention in school. By the time I earned my college degree in English Literature, I had written half a dozen unpublished novels. They weren’t any good, but when it comes to learning something, there’s no substitute for sheer repetition.
After college, I searched for ways to continue my education. The first step was to study screenwriting at UCLA. I also started attending the Maui Writers Conference, where I got to work with bestselling authors such as John Saul, Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George, Ben Bova, Susan Wiggs, and others. After several years of workshops and even more discarded novels, I did finally finish something that I hoped an agent might like.
After a bit of research, I found one who I thought might be open to receiving my submission. Fortunately for me, I managed to catch him at just the right time. As I understand it, he read a bit and decided it showed promise. He then contacted one of the authors I had studied with and who I had listed as a reference. Evidently, that author was kind enough to put in a good word for me, which undoubtedly helped my cause.
Even so, this agent did not offer to represent me right away. He said that my work had “potential”—an almost dreaded term, since I’d been hearing it for so long. It took four rewrites over the course of about nine months before he finally said that he believed we had something salable, and that he would work to find a buyer. He managed to do so in a relatively short amount of time, which I’m convinced to this day had more to do with his knowledge and standing in the publishing world than in any talent I might possess.
That’s how it worked for me. But every author’s road is a little bit different. It has been said that while writing is a craft, publishing is a crapshoot. It’s all a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right project. That said, here are some tips to help improve your chances, based upon my own experiences:
Study the craft! It won’t do you much good to contact an agent or editor if you can’t convince them that you know something about what you are doing.
Do your homework. Use Writers Market or other tools to research the names of agents and editors you feel will most likely be open to your style of work.
When querying, keep it short and simple. Your letter should briefly tell them why you selected them, what your credentials are, and what your work is about. It might help to list similar works with which they may be familiar.
Attend writers’ conferences. Conferences can be invaluable in terms of meeting authors, agents, and editors face-to-face. In addition, they will help you to gauge whether or not your work is ready for the marketplace.
Have patience. These things happen at a glacial pace. While waiting, keep writing!
Show that you’re willing to take criticism and improve your work based on others’ notes. No one wants to work with a know-it-all.
Don’t force it. If an agent or editor doesn’t seem excited, keep looking until you find someone who is.
Don’t let discouragement stop you from taking action. Rejection is part of the game, and often has nothing to do with appraisal of talent. Keep plugging away until you make those stars align.
I apologize if all of that seems like a cardboard cutout, but it’s really the best advice I can give. This is a hard game, but much of it is about perseverance. If this is your passion, then don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.
If it’s such a good idea, why give it to me?
Seriously, I love listening to great ideas. What I love even more are great stories. My advice, if you’ve got an idea, is to sit down and write it yourself. Why? Because there’s a good chance that what you would get from me in execution would in no way match what you yourself were thinking, and would therefore be a disappointment. I’ve seen it proven in group exercises time and again that no two people are going to develop and carry out an idea in exactly the same way—not unless they are working in concert the entire time. And I’ve never been one of those writers who likes to have someone staring over his shoulder while the work is in progress.
I realize that there are a lot of ideas out there that never come to fruition because the person who conceived it is not the type of person who wants to sit down at a keyboard for endless weeks, months, and years, hammering that idea into fruition. I’ve also met too many people who claim they lack the vocabulary or grammar or spelling skills to write a complete story. To that I say, you might very well be selling yourself short. But writing does in fact require a huge commitment of time and attention—which is another reason most authors prefer not to work on another’s ideas. Quite simply, most of the authors I meet have more ideas of their own than they are ever going to have time to fully explore in one lifetime. And taking time away to work on something else only makes it less likely that they’ll get to finish what’s in their own head.
Even for those who love to do it, writing can be a painful process. And if you’re trying to write an idea that you’re not passionate about, the pain level ratchets up exponentially. For whatever reason, most people find it easier to get excited about their own ideas than someone else’s, and that is certainly true of me. That’s not to say that I don’t ever read books or watch movies so wondrous that I wish I had written them. Happens all the time. But if you were to take me back in time and show me just the idea, I’ll bet you that I—and most other fans of that work—would not be nearly as excited as we were about the final product.
In most cases, there is no magic number on how long a manuscript should be.150,000 words might be long for some types of stories, but is well within the bounds of epic fantasy. The Crimson Sword is just under 240,000. Bestselling fantasy authors like Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Tad Williams, and others have been known to leave that number in the dust. Take a look at George R. R. Martin’s amazing A Storm of Swords, for instance. It clocks in at a whopping 423,000 words. And yet, you won’t hear too many readers complain that it was “overwritten”.
Does that mean you or I could get away with writing a 400,000-word book? Not likely. The larger the book, the more expensive it is to produce, so many first-time authors (myself included) are encouraged to keep the length down. Heck, even the most successful authors are asked to keep it within reason. But a story makes its own demands, and you really shouldn’t put an artificial limit on it. Certainly, as you go through your manuscript, look for repetitive phrases and unnecessary descriptions that could be cut. If a scene doesn’t move the story forward in an obvious and direct way, try to rework it so that it does—or else delete it. But once you’ve done all that, I wouldn’t worry about it until an agent or editor says otherwise.
Pacing, I believe, is more important than overall length. By that, of course, I mean knowing when to speed things up and when it’s okay to let them slow down. Many fantasy readers love big books. They just don’t want to become bored before they hit the end. So be sure to mix it up. Better to have a 200,000-word book that feels like 100,000, as opposed to the other way around.
It’s been said that in most cases, the best way to spell “prologue” is C-H-A-P-T-E-R O-N-E. Why wait? Get to the action. Show us the brick smashing through the window. Don’t waste time showing us how the neighborhood was built, the window set in place, or the brick formed.
That is not to say that there is never a good time or place for a prologue. For example, maybe yours is one of those stories that opens calmly before building to a dramatic conclusion. Perhaps, in that case, you use a prologue to give us a glimpse of the ending we’re aiming toward. There are countless examples of this. Take the one in which our hero is tied up in a dark room, getting beat up by some baddies. We then flash back to see how he got into this predicament, and catch up later on to this same moment via the present-past-present structural model. I believe Warner Bros’ Maverick (1994) provides a good example of this, opening with a scene in which the lead character (Mel Gibson) is about to being hanged, then backtracking to show us why.
But even this type of scene could be written as chapter one. So what is a true prologue? A true prologue is an event or summary of events that will have an impact upon the story later on—often after a significant period of time. For instance, if you were to write a story about a modern-day hunt for sunken treasure, your prologue might be of a battle at sea between a British warship and a pirate ship full of stolen gold—that gold, of course, being the treasure that our modern-day explorers are seeking to recover. Some more specific examples? How about Universal’s The Mummy (1999), Columbia’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), or any other story dealing with a curse resurrected from ancient times.
But the question remains: should you use one? That of course depends. Keep in mind that the purpose of a prologue should be to whet the reader’s appetite for the story that lies ahead—not put them to sleep with chunks of backstory that can be revealed gradually later on. If your prologue does that—if it lends an air of excitement or mystery or foreboding that would otherwise be lacking in your story’s opening—then sure, go for it. But if all you’re really doing is delaying the meal to show us how the food was prepared . . . well then, I’d suggest setting it aside and letting us eat while the story is warm.
First, don’t think in terms of the entire thing. There’s an adage which says: “How do you feed an elephant?” The answer is: “One bite at a time.” Whenever I think of beginning a new novel, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. But if you focus on doing just a little bit each day—even just one or two pages—you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish as time goes by. It just takes focus and discipline and a passion for what you’re doing.
Second, don’t rush. Let the ideas percolate until you simply can’t hold them in any longer. Too many would-be writers make the mistake, I think, of rushing off to explore an idea without thinking through what it is they really want to say about it. That initial enthusiasm is great, but likely won’t be enough to sustain you through the weeks, months, or even years it takes to write a full-length novel. So make sure this is something you feel compelled to do, as opposed to setting forth on a whim.
Third, do your best to plan ahead. I personally recommend outlining the story from start to finish, but I know plenty of authors for whom the very notion sends shivers up their spine. At the very least, know where you are going. Getting from point A to point B is tough enough without some kind of road map, and next to impossible if you’re not even sure that point B is where you’re trying to get to. For many writers, that’s part of the fun, but it also makes you more susceptible to frustration and writer’s block, since you can’t see how much farther you have yet to go.
Finally, if this is your first attempt at writing and you’re not sure about it, try your hand at something shorter. Short fiction is not necessarily any easier to write than long fiction, but in most cases requires less of a time commitment. And many of the basic storytelling principles are the same.
Some say that if you can think of something you’d rather do than write, then do that instead, since writing is such a tough profession. But I say there’s no such thing as an easy profession. No matter what you choose to do in life, you’re going to take your lumps every now and then. My feeling is, it might as well be at something you enjoy. If writing is what makes you happy, and you think you might like to do it professionally, then don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Prove them wrong by working at it every single day until you’ve achieved something that even you may not have believed was possible in the beginning.
I’ve heard this myself a time or two—although I’ve also heard the exact opposite. Typically, what this means is that the reader feels you need to “cut to the chase” by skipping certain sections—be it the unnecessary description of a setting, superfluous character development, redundant dialogue, et cetera. Of course, words like unnecessary, superfluous, and redundant are often subjective. In a nutshell, the reader is becoming bored, and wants the story to unfold more quickly.
Now, I understand the desire of many for a blistering narrative in today’s “fast-food” consumer marketplace. However, I’m also a big believer in the design theory that “form follows function.” If your heroes are going through a long, drawn-out ordeal such as hiking over a mountain, you want to give the reader some sense of that through the prose. Make the reader feel almost as if they are slogging alongside—without getting to the point that you are boring them, of course. By the same token, if a character is in the middle of a battle or a race for his life, he’s not going to take the time to stop and notice the scenery, except as it applies to his predicament. In these cases, the language and pacing should reflect this, by being every bit as fast and frenetic as the surrounding chaos.
It’s a balancing act. My idea of proper pacing is knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. Just like knowing when to throw the changeup in baseball, and when to come at them with the heater. As Roger Ebert says: “There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring.” For me, the key is to be true to the mind of the viewpoint character at all times, while being careful to keep only what’s necessary to the story.
History and facts can be interesting. But in storytelling, the challenge you face is to stage everything in a way that engages the reader and invites them to participate in the action. You don’t want your prose to read like something out of a history book. Doing so denies us a chance to “become” any of the characters and to feel what they are feeling. Such backstory might work as a prologue, sort of like the opening scroll in a Star Wars film. However, as in any Star Wars film, that introductory text is quickly followed up by individual scenes which let us live and breathe within that universe.
The key phrase is: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Try to create individual scenes that bring to life some key story event. As much as possible, let each scene be driven by the conflict between two or more characters with opposing objectives. Instead of having us listen to an old man talk about a fight, for instance, let us actually witness it for ourselves. Show us the blood, sweat, and tears of the combatants—culminating in the thrill of victory or the bitter taste of defeat.
If it helps, think in terms of how your story might be filmed. If you find that scene after scene would require a narrator to explain matters, then I would recommend reworking it so that the narrator is not necessary. Better to watch interactions between characters that help to shed light on their struggles.
The other advice I generally give on any issue such as this is to lay out your entire story in a sort of rough sketch before you actually begin writing it. Explain quickly what is going to happen in each scene as the story unfolds, so that you know all of its twists and turns. While working from this sketch or outline, it’s easier to see which areas may need to be pared back, and which could be fleshed out. Take the time to look at each scene individually, and never stop asking yourself if there’s a more compelling way to share that information with the reader.
Finally, if you must explain something in expository form (commonly known as information dump), try to space out those chunks—like cutting a giant steak into bite-sized pieces, making it easier for the reader to digest. I’d also recommend waiting until the last possible moment before revealing a particular morsel. Make it so that the reader is begging for that information by the time you deliver it. They’re more likely to gobble up what you have to offer if they’re hungry—as opposed to feeling force-fed.
It’s very much possible to tell a war story without spending much time (or any) describing actual battle scenes. The Greek stage plays used to do it all the time. And George R. R. Martin, a #1 NY Times bestselling fantasy author, has been doing it to great acclaim. His A Song of Ice & Fire books are massive, and yet, after four volumes and nearly 4,000 pages of story, he’s really only shown us half a dozen battles or so. The rest all take place behind the scenes of shadowy council chambers, clandestine meetings, messenger reports, and the like. Kind of like a medieval-era soap opera. Of course, it takes a great deal of skill to hold a reader’s attention with dinner scenes discussing battle instead of showing the battle itself (which probably explains why I usually just dive into the blood and guts of combat, in most cases). But yes, you can frame your story any way you wish. Just make sure your characters are dynamic and the conflict between them engaging. Easier said than done.
I think it’s a little bit of both. I believe that some people are indeed blessed with a natural affinity for storytelling, and a clearer understanding than others of how to go about it. But I also believe that writing is a craft that can be practiced and learned by anyone. These days, a 7′ tall person has a better chance of becoming a professional basketball player than a 5′ tall person. But Spud Webb and Mugsy Bogues both managed to play in the NBA, even though both were well under 6′. I’m sure that their determination had a lot to do with their success.
Natural talent certainly helps, but even the best talent can go to waste if it is not nurtured and cultivated. In my mind, passion and determination are perhaps the most important ingredients when it comes to writing—more so, perhaps, than any god-given ability. Those of us with less natural talent may have to work a little harder at it than others, but it’s the effort we apply that will make the biggest difference in the long run.
I’m a big believer in outlining, myself. The more I know in advance, the better. That doesn’t mean that plans don’t change when I finally sit down to write. The story will always reveal things to me that weren’t obvious in the planning stages, and must be redesigned. But I liken it to building a house: Always draw up blueprints first. Much easier to sketch it all out in advance in order to avoid any huge missteps—or, if any are made, to fix them without having to tear the whole thing down. And yes, I most definitely write it all down. The best ideas, and the ones I’m most passionate about, will stick in my head, but there are literally thousands of details that would escape me if I didn’t have them there to review later.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with doing it another way. I’m told that some writers are architects (outliners), and others are gardeners, who simply plant a bunch of seeds, spend time nurturing each one, and watch how they all bloom. For me, doing it that way just leads to a lot of rework later. I also enjoy being able to foreshadow future events early on, which is much easier to do when you know where everything is going. But each writer’s methods are somewhat unique, and you have to find what works for you. If your current efforts aren’t providing the results you demand, then it might be worth it to change your methods and see what happens.
My outline is quite detailed. The more I can figure out up front, the easier it is on me later. It starts at a macro level—just the basic premise and story vehicle. At the same time, I do in-depth character sketches, so that I know who these people are and what their goals and objectives are. That usually starts shedding light on the plot, because if I’ve done my job, I have characters whose goals end up opposing one another, which gives me the conflicts that will drive my story. Plot and character always go hand in hand.
Eventually, I’ll line up the “tent-pole” moments: inciting incident, first act break, midpoint, second act break, and climax/conclusion. From there, I try to fill in the gaps with obstacles leading up to each major event. Once I have the major beats down, I work at it scene by scene, one paragraph for each, jotting down whatever information comes to mind. Some of these paragraphs might be very long, going into depth as to the characters’ objectives—maybe even with snatches of dialogue thrown in. Others might consist of something as simple as: “They infiltrate the tower, only to become trapped.” Obviously, I’ll have to put a bit more thought into that scene’s choreography before I sit down to write it, but in the early going, I try not to bog myself down with details. I will, however, start jotting down any questions that will need to be answered (e.g. “How do they get in? What are the obstacles? Who all is present? How are they caught?” … etc.)
It doesn’t happen in a linear fashion at first. There is a lot of rearranging, and stuff I figure out later on forces me to go back and rethink earlier material. But a properly crafted story is driven by cause-and-effect, so what happens in one scene generally dictates what must happen next. Often, I’ll play an entire storyline through to its logical conclusion, then go back and work on secondary storylines and play each one of those through, as well. Only then do I work at tying the separate storylines together.
For me, outlining is the hardest part of storytelling. So many possibilities. The only way to narrow it down is to reason things through, piece by piece. By looking at it from all angles, it eventually comes together to form a solid framework. If I’m not sure about something, I just step back and ask myself, what would this character do in this situation? Explore as many avenues as possible, so that you know where each might lead. Know why you’re taking them down a certain path, but also know why you’re not taking them down others. It’s a little bit like selecting a single flavor of ice cream. You’ve got all these choices, but still have to pick just one. If someone were to ask how you came to settle on that particular flavor—and why not this or that other one—you should be able to tell them. When finished, you should know the both the reasons and ramifications of every single story choice you’ve made.
I also use a timeline when ordering scenes, to make sure merging storylines tie together in the correct spots. Once I have my scenes ordered, I work at fleshing them out by resolving as many unanswered questions as possible. When I feel I’ve got a good hold on the purpose, structure, and placement of each scene, I then make an educated guess as to how they will unfold chapter-by-chapter. Really, that’s all any of this is: an educated guess. Because the story still changes during the writing of it. Things become obvious that weren’t before. Minor character become major ones, etc. Often, I have to stop writing and go back to the outline to see how these changes shake things up. And while I hate breaking away and losing that momentum, I find that it saves me time in the long run to make sure that I understand at all times the blueprint I’m building from. If that blueprint has to change, so be it. But I’m always working from sketches, building from the foundation up.
There are books a person could read to study up on the subject, but none that I could mention offhand. Most of what works for me I’ve picked up through writing courses or trial-and-error. A writer really has to find what works for him/her, because everyone’s preferred methods are different.
Description can be a difficult balancing act. Too little, and the world becomes bland and lifeless. Too much, and the reader might lose sight of the story. If there’s ever a perfect middle ground, it lies on a sliding scale. The genre of your story, your personal preference, and your character’s voice should all factor into play—but so too will the mood and preference of any particular reader at any given time. While some readers find copious amounts of description tedious, others can’t get enough of it. I tend to use a fair share because that’s what I enjoy reading. And since I also write screenplays, where dialogue is the order of the day and description is all but forbidden, novel writing lets me stretch my legs a bit in that department.
But let’s look at it from a more functional standpoint. The following is a set of guidelines that I believe are worth keeping in mind:
1) Description slows pacing, and should be applied accordingly. If you’re writing a scene in which a character is relaxing contentedly on a warm, lazy summer day, then longer, more descriptive sentences might be called for, helping to lull the reader into the appropriate mindset. For an action scene, you’ll typically use shorter sentences—or even fragments. Heavy on the verbs. Light on the modifiers. Doing so will serve to generate a more frenetic pace, mirroring the action. The saying in architecture is that “form follows function,” meaning that the shape of an object should be predicated on its intended purpose. The same applies to the written word.
2) Focus on details pertinent to the story. Any time I read a passage in a book, be it on setting or character, I assume that it must somehow impact the story—now or later. The more time the author devotes to a particular item, the more important I assume it to be. If you were to open with a ten-page description of a city, for instance, only to leave that location and never return to it, I’m going to wonder why in the world we needed to have all that information. If an item has no real bearing on the story, then it has no place within your narrative.
3) Be true to your point-of-view character. Is this something the character would notice if he/she was really in that situation? If it’s something new to them, or they otherwise have time and cause to make note of it, then I feel they should do so. Imagine the first time you saw the ocean, snowfall, or the skyscrapers of a major city. How did that affect your senses physically, emotionally? On the other hand, if the article or situation in question is something old hat, or if your character is in the middle of a fight or some similar stress/trauma, then certain details are bound to fall by the wayside.
4) Try not to let the language draw attention to itself. In most cases, you the writer want to remain behind the scenes, invisible to the reader. Language that is too flowery or clever or inconsistent tends to draw the reader out of the story. Even if they’re drawn to you in a positive way (noticing a wonderful metaphor, for instance), that moment of admiration becomes about you, not your characters. As much as you might want to be appreciated, the best way to go about it is to fashion a gripping tale that doesn’t let go of the reader’s heart and mind until the last page has been turned.
5) Don’t bore the reader. This is the most important guideline, inclusive of all the rest and any others I may have forgotten. However you choose to tell your tale, be it with a thrill a minute, a gradual eruption of events, or variable pacing meant to keep the reader off balance, you never want the reader to lose interest. And too much description is one of the fastest ways in which to send readers nodding off or skimming impatiently ahead.
Ever heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings”? That is what you must consider doing any time your description violates one or more of the above suggestions. Simply cut it from the story. Store it away in a separate file, if you must. Perhaps there will come a time in some future story in which the excised language will fit. But beware any use of language that exists solely for the sake of its own beauty.
Or, when in doubt, go with what your editor tells you.
First, do your homework. Take the time to research a particular agency or publisher to make sure they’re looking for your type of material. Look into their submission guidelines, to learn what they will and won’t accept. Along with that, try to track down the name of a specific individual within that company to whom your letter may be addressed. A personal touch can go a long way. If you can, express that you have done this research by opening with a quick sentence explaining why you chose them for this submission.
Second, tell them who you, outlining your credentials and qualifications. Why should you be the one to write this book? Why should they want to represent you? Be brief and professional. Many agents and editors and assistants receive these things by the dozens. They don’t have time to read a ten-page bio on a perfect stranger. Don’t try to be too clever; now is not the time. Instead, be direct and polite with the information you present. Don’t include information about yourself that is irrelevant to your proposal. And don’t waste words telling them that you are unpublished. They will always assume that you are a new, unpublished writer unless you tell them otherwise. Insert the name of a professional reference or two, if you think it will help, but expect that your recipient may actually contact those references at some point. The publishing community is not as large as one might think.
Third, describe the basic hook of your story in a logline. Again, be brief! Boil it down to 25 words or less. This can be very difficult in and of itself, but is well worth the time and effort. Focus on what is at stake, and/or who is in peril. Remember that it’s people readers relate to and care about, not the fate of some generic world. Be sure to include the most interesting aspect of your story: the dramatic question or the twist that sets it apart. Do not hold back your hook for the sake of surprise. Surprises are for your end readers. Agents and editors want to know upfront what makes your property fresh or unique.
Fourth, follow up your premise (if it is necessary or helpful to do so) with a comparison to known works. This is most often seen in those classic Hollywood hybrid pitches: “It’s [x] meets [y].” The examples you choose will help to specify the tone and genre, and the combination may contain a hook in and of itself. Obviously, you’ll want to select examples that are both well known to the recipient and appropriate to your work. If it’s a novel they represent, even better. Whatever you do, don’t add your own personal review as to why yours will be the “greatest story ever written,” claim that it is “certain to sell a million copies,” or include any such self-indulgent praise. No one wants to hear how wonderful or funny or incredible or original you think your story is. The marketing department (and reviewers/critics) will assign any such superlatives they feel are warranted. It is not your job to do so.
That’s about it. The order in which you place the above information doesn’t really matter. If you cannot think of any useful content with which to fill one of the above items, leave it blank. In terms of the letter’s overall length, keep it under a single page. Less is more. Remember, the goal here is to entice the recipient to ask for additional materials or the manuscript itself. The best way to do that is to tease him/her with easily devoured bites.
Most agencies and publishers who ask for a synopsis are expecting one to three pages—just a quick story summary. Mine are always two pages, since that’s what I was taught at UCLA regarding films. The point of a synopsis, regardless of length, is to reveal all of the major story beats. Try to keep it weighted properly—i.e. Act I is roughly 25% of a story, Act II is 50%, and Act III is the remaining 25%, so the synopsis should be broken up the same. For example, don’t spend two pages on Act I, introducing characters in great depth, only to rush through the rest of the story in a couple of paragraphs.
In most instances, the reading of a synopsis is a bit dry. In that sense, I think they do as much harm as good. So much of a story is dependent upon execution. A synopsis is like showing someone a mere sketch and letting the viewer use that to judge the value of your eventual painting. Synopses can also be confusing, since you have to introduce all of the major elements, but don’t necessarily have the time to fully explain them. But that’s just the nature of the beast. The idea here is to demonstrate your understanding of plotting and story structure, while enticing the reader to ask for the manuscript in order to fill in the gaps.
That said, don’t withhold any pertinent information, such as your “surprise” ending. Save that sort of enticement for your marketing summary or jacket copy. Your audience at this point is a prospective agent or editor who needs to know precisely what makes your story marketable. If the shocking, mind-bending, or heart-wrenching plot twists are integral to their ability to sell this story to readers, then let them know it by revealing what those key moments are.
As for whether to submit a synopsis to a prospective agent or editor, my recommendation would be to read their particular guidelines. Submit a synopsis to those who ask for it. Otherwise, stick with just a query. You might get lucky and have them request the entire manuscript, rather than just your skeletal version of it.
To me, the most important thing about creating characters is knowing their motivation. Do they want to be rich? Do they want to be recognized? Do they want revenge for something? Are they in search of love? Stories are built around conflict, and the surest way to create conflict is to create a situation in which two characters have opposing objectives: a race for the Holy Grail, a boxing match, two princes fighting over a single crown—that sort of thing. So the first thing I ask myself is, what does each character want? This allows me to set characters at odds with one another. The next would be, why do they want it? This often helps to reveal backstory. In Conan the Barbarian, Conan wants to kill Thulsa Doom. Why? Because Thulsa Doom killed his parents when he was a boy. Or maybe you have a character who wants to be a healer because her parents died of illness when she was young. You get the idea. You should also know how each character responds to stress. If placed in a life-and-death situation, what are your character’s defensive mechanisms? Do they laugh? Do they cry? Do they become sullen and silent? Do they become angry and fight back? Most people, of course, have a range of emotional responses, but those responses should seem consistent in order to be believable.
That’s a very general answer, I’ll admit. There are a lot of nuances involved in crafting a character’s psychology, just like there are in real life. But I think those are the big three: knowing what they want, why they want it, and how they react when things aren’t going the way they wish.
In terms of physical description, the best advice I can give is to not simply create a laundry list of features: tall, brown hair, blue eyes, etc. You should have all of that in your head, or written down in your notes. But when describing a character to the reader, it’s often better to focus on just a single, dominant characteristic: a broken nose or a savage scar or pudgy cheeks or stubby legs, etc. It doesn’t have to be just a visual feature, either. It might be the way they move or the way they talk or the way they frown or the way they smell. That’s often much easier for the reader to remember, and thus makes the character that much more memorable. Readers are very good at filling in the blanks, so it’s best not to overburden them with unnecessary details. Easier said than done, sometimes, but most things are.
As with most aspects of writing, there are pros and cons to telling a story through multiple points of view. I don’t know that I’d call it a philosophy, but here are some things to consider when determining when and how to juggle those disparate voices:
Multiple viewpoints can help to keep the reader off balance in terms of who the main hero is, making everyone expendable. While some readers might find this frustrating, I’m one of those who enjoys this aspect.
Seldom does a single person have all the right answers. Through the use of multiple viewpoints, an author can shed light on the same topic from several different angles. This allows the reader a choice as to who he most relates to, and to choose for himself the truth of things.
The main use of secondary POV characters is to make the reader aware of things that the hero is not, which helps to create tension. It’s like letting the audience know that a bomb is about to go off while the hero takes his time, oblivious.
A principal downside is that multiple views lack the seamless, driving impact of a strong, singular voice. Worse, it can become jarring or downright confusing to the reader, switching back and forth. Even when using multiple views, then, the fewer the better. To help manage mine, I try to stick to a prioritized system, assigning each character a numeric ranking. Number one would be the protagonist; number two might be his best friend or sidekick; number three might be the primary villain, etc. Whenever two characters share a scene, the character with the higher ranking is going to assume the POV.
When in doubt, I’ll simply write the same scene from different angles to see which makes the most sense.
Usually, I’ll write scenes from the view of he who knows the least about what’s going on in that moment. I don’t want to give away all the answers; instead, I put the reader in a need-to-know position and try to foster a sense of gradual discovery. For example, picture the scene in Star Wars in the hut of Ben Kenobi, in which Ben first tells Luke Skywalker what happened to his father. Although you could maintain the mystery either way, it’d be much easier to do if you’re Luke asking questions, rather than Ben debating whether or not to answer them honestly.
In general, stay out of a character’s POV if he/she is to remain mysterious and/or unsympathetic. Once you’re in someone’s head, you immediately begin to identify with them to some extent. If you want to foster sympathy, then spend as much time with that person and his/her reasoning as possible.
If you do choose to use multiple viewpoints, each voice should be distinct, since no two people view the world in exactly the same way. This can be a challenge at times, but can also lend spice to an otherwise bland narrative.
These are mere guidelines, obviously. There are very few hard and fast rules. Right or wrong depends on what your particular goal is for that scene, and for the book as a whole.
Names are extremely important to the feel of a novel. Hannibal Lector would not seem nearly as menacing if his name was Grover or Jay or Bob. Names of both characters and places set the tone for who/what that person/place is. While something like this can be difficult to quantify, you’ll know it when you get one right—and it’s definitely worth taking the time to do so.
That said, it’s rarely a good thing to stop your narrative flow during the actual writing process. If you’re writing about a character whose name you don’t care for (or whom you haven’t bothered to name at all), I’d recommend using whatever comes to mind and go back later to replace it.
I keep a long list of names from which to draw, so that when I do need a name in a pinch, I don’t have to work from scratch. As for where they come from, well, in most cases, I steal them. Street signs, peculiar town names, things like that. Visiting foreign countries is great in this regard. Of course, I seldom use the names exactly as they are. Usually I end up tweaking them somehow—changing letters, turning them inside out or backward, that sort of thing. Occasionally, after coming up with a name I like, I’ll even search the internet to make sure that it hasn’t been used a million times before.
It’s only natural for a writer to experience some degree of burnout once the initial enthusiasm for a project starts to fade and the questions and doubts come creeping in. In most cases, I find that this is the result of insufficient outlining. No, not the “Roman numeral I followed by capital A” kind, but the kind in which you have laid out all of the major beats of your story ahead of time, and have taken the time to get to know your characters inside and out.
I’ve covered this before, but it’s probably worth doing so again. Before beginning any story, I like to sketch out its structure, like using a blueprint to build a house. I start with the tent-pole moments: Opening, Inciting Incident, Act One Break, Midpoint, Act Two Break, Climax, and Conclusion. Then, I start to look at what has to happen in between each of those major events, and start devising logical obstacles—roadblocks that must be overcome in order for that event to unfold.
The other thing I do is create detailed character sketches for all of the major players. I like to know who they are, where they came from, what their likes and dislikes are… all kinds of stuff that may never make it into the actual story, but that gives it resonance. The most important thing is to know what they want, why they want it, and how they react to stress. Conflict is the driving force behind any good story, and nothing creates conflict quicker than setting a standoff between two characters with opposing objectives. If you can do that for every single scene, you’ll be in good shape.
However… nothing will reveal story like the actual writing of it. As you work your way through the outline, characters will do unexpected things, new plot wrinkles will occur to you, etc. At that point, I always go back to my outline and modify my sketch. You don’t have to be married to the thing, but it sure helps to use it as a guideline.
My point is that if you already have a good idea of what’s going to happen before you sit down to write each day, it’s much less likely that you’ll get stuck or burn out before reaching the end. It simply becomes a matter of taking the time to hammer out that page or two or five or ten—whatever you can manage. It allows you to focus on smaller chunks, to achieve small goals each day, rather than always staring down a long dark tunnel, wondering what awaits you at its end.
This doesn’t work for everyone, of course. Some people actually find extensive outlining to be counterproductive in that, by knowing all the twists and turns of their own story, they become too bored with it to actually want to write it. In these cases, I’d suggest finding some other way to entertain yourself. For example, maybe you’re writing a murder mystery and are disinterested because you already know who the murderer is. Because of that, however, you’re better able to use foreshadowing and misdirection throughout the first draft, planting clues and red herrings and the like. Sometimes, these are the most enjoyable aspects of writing, knowing that you’re setting the reader up to believe one thing when, by the end, you’re going to surprise them with the exact opposite.
Another possibility is that you’ve lost track of the emotional core of your idea. Something drove you to write this story to begin with, and every now and then, it’s worth taking a fresh look at that basic premise to remind yourself of what that was—giving yourself an emotional boost, so to speak.
Finally, it may be that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Something about the story is no longer working as you know it should, though you can’t quite pinpoint why. In these cases, it’s often best not to plow through, but to step back and consider matters from a different angle. Stop to take a fresh look at the characters involved, to see if their motives and behavior are consistent. Look at the staging of the scene, to see if maybe there’s a more dramatic way to present that particular story point. If these efforts don’t help, it may be that you’re trying too hard, and have to distract yourself from the story altogether before a solution will present itself.
Quite simply, there’s no simple answer. Burnout comes in many different flavors, and the solution to it may not be readily apparent. The best thing I can recommend is to take what time you can to reevaluate what you really want to say with your story, and how you mean to say it. Even the very best story ideas are going to leave you crawling through the muck at some point—especially if you don’t have a map as to where you’re going. The choice then becomes to pull yourself out and find the road again, or to keep slogging your way through. Either way, if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to overcome.
Are we talking book agents or screenplay agents? Usually that response comes from screenplay agents. I’ve been told that it basically comes down to personal referrals in those situations. How does one get personal referrals? Well, by networking. Many writers (myself included) find this to be a bit of a nuisance, as it takes us away from what we really want to be doing—writing. And yet, if there’s an easier way, I haven’t discovered it. It’s amazing what a difference meeting someone face to face can make, as opposed to submitting a blind query letter. The more functions you can get to that are attended by agents and editors and producers, the better. More than likely, 99% of your leads will come to a dead end. But, as they say, it only takes one “yes.”
Bear in mind, too, that while it’s possible for a disinterested agent to become interested, my experience is that you don’t want to have to twist someone’s arm. You want someone who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work, else they’ll never be able to carry on through all of the hurdles that lie in your path. And, typically, those who say “no unsolicited material” are doing so because they have a full slate of established professionals and are uninterested in taking on newer writers. Better to just look for those who say that they don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking on that challenge—because it is indeed a challenge for agents to sell new talent, and in most cases, they’re simply looking for the path of least resistance.
Hope that doesn’t put a damper on your search. I don’t mean to be cynical or depressing, but the realities are what they are, and most people I know have had much better luck seeking out willing agents rather than pursuing those who keep closed doors. Which is not to suggest, of course, that it can’t be done. Whatever route you choose, have faith that good material will always find a way, and focus therefore on perfecting your craft before you worry about how to put it in front of someone.
Of course! You’re more than welcome to contact Matt Bialer at Sanford J. Greenburger when you feel your manuscript is ready, and let him know that you found his name on my site. If you’re asking that I put in a good word for you, well, unless I’ve met you or am otherwise familiar with your work, I won’t have one to give. On the other hand, rest assured that agents and editors tend to make up their own opinions before they ask for professional references. Or at least, that’s how it worked in my case. I happened to have worked closely with a number of well-known authors before I began my search for an agent. But Matt didn’t contact any of them until after he had decided for himself that my story showed commercial potential.
I know that it may seem at times as if the entire publishing industry is conspiring to keep new authors out, but believe me, even busy agents like Matt are on the constant lookout for that next bestseller. The names of great agents aren’t all that hard to come by. Your primary focus, then, should be on making sure that your manuscript and proposal are in the best possible shape before you start pitching it.
Best of luck!
That depends. Is your book scheduled for publication? I’m more than happy to read manuscripts for the consideration of providing a quote/blurb, once that book has found a buyer. If you’re still submitting your book to agents and editors… well, that’s a different story. I’m not saying that to be snobby, only that I’ve been taught there’s no great value in quotes/blurbs until a publisher has bought a story and is looking for ways to help market it. Until then, they’re not even sure who they may want quotes from, and thus, one from me might prove to be of no value at all. At the submissions juncture, all you’re essentially doing is listing references as you would on a resume. To that end, mention in your query the names of any authors you may know, or who may be able to speak positively about your work—if you feel that will impress your prospective agent/editor. If they wish to follow up on that reference, they will call us. Generally, that won’t happen until after they have already decided they may want you as a client.
If you don’t know any authors… well, why not? Most are in the public eye at some point—signing books, teaching at conferences, etc. You might be surprised at how accessible many of them are. And while none of us can get your books published for you, a positive reference can indeed be very helpful in closing up that first deal.
Getting back to the question at hand… authors are contacted by publishers on a regular basis with manuscripts seeking quotes… and can rarely read all that are sent to us. For instance, a number of authors who agreed to read mine never got around to doing so, despite their best intentions, because they simply didn’t have time. As I am constantly behind in that department myself, I feel I should catch up with those seeking quotes whose books are scheduled for publication before I dedicate time to those that haven’t quite reached that stage.
Point is, if you don’t yet have a publisher, then a quote from me would be premature at this time. But do keep me in mind, so that I can provide due praise when the time is right.
Until then, stay focused, work hard, and finish that book!
This is one of those aspects of writing that is almost entirely subjective. After all, some novelists don’t use chapters at all, but rely solely on scene breaks. That said, here are my thoughts on the subject…
My chapters average about 4,000 – 5,000 words. Every now and then, I’ll have an extended battle scene that’ll stretch out for 6,000 or 7,000 words, but I try to keep those chapters to a minimum. James Patterson writes chapters that are often only a page or two long. As with everything else, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but shorter chapters generally increase pacing (just like shorter paragraphs and sentences read faster than longer, drawn-out ones). So, when you want the reader to feel like things are moving fast and frantic (battles, chases, etc), shorten things up. When you want the reader to slow down and feel languid or leisurely (long marches, getting lost in a forest, romance scenes, or something of that nature), then let form follow function with longer stretches of prose.
It’s difficult to define because sometimes a chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, while at other times, a single scene might stretch on for multiple chapters. Most often, a chapter should cover a single major event. But it’s something the author has to decide by feel. You want to break in such a way that the reader is compelled to hurry up and read on, yet you don’t want to cut things off midstream. Think of chapter breaks like a commercial break in TV. Give us a complete movement of thought or action, tie things up with some kind of “hook” or “button” that makes us want to continue, then let us catch our breath. Don’t cram too much story (or too many emotional peaks and valleys) into a single session. As much as readers enjoy reading, they are constantly looking ahead to see where the next “stopping point” is. A 30-page chapter is obviously much more daunting than a 15-page one. Too many of the former, and you run the risk of making your story feel laborious, rather than entertaining.
Let’s see… I took a number of creative writing courses en route to earning my degree in English Literature. I then went on to study screenwriting at UCLA. Basically, any class that calls upon you to analyze or create literature will help you. History classes can be great, too, in terms of generating story ideas. Just don’t forget to have some fun while you’re there. I recommend plenty of softball and weight-training classes in which to hang out with the cute girls. Trust me, your college years will go by fast!
Who said anything about being organized?
Okay, you got me. Organization is definitely important when it comes to writing an epic fantasy novel. It becomes even more important the farther you delve into a particular series. Details about character, setting, etc that may seem unforgettable one moment will in fact slip your mind as time passes and your story lengthens. And having that information laid out somewhere—where you can find it easily—will save you from having to read back through your novels… or worse, making a mistake that readers will quickly point out to you.
My notes happen to be compiled in a single electronic help file—like a website, really, where I have separate pages/files for the various types of information. For each book, I have a story summary, a timeline of events, a cast of characters (including basic descriptions), a list of locations, an outline, a chapter-by-chapter treatment, a page for miscellaneous notes… you name it. I also have a separate page for each major character, where I can delve further into their background, psyche, etc. What’s nice about the electronic layout is that I can hyperlink all these separate files together. I can also search for information that I know is buried in there somewhere. It’s not an exact science; writers out there have to find what works for them. But I would definitely recommend putting as many of your notes as possible on the PC, and sorting it by type (character info vs. plot notes, etc). Better that than having to flip through some loose-leaf notebook or a stack of Post-It notes when, for instance, you forget whether your heroine had blue eyes or brown.
Whenever writing about something with which you don’t have personal experience, you really only have three choices. One would be to research it. For example, if you’re writing about a mother’s pain at having lost her only child, you might interview someone who has gone through it, or else read a book or two featuring characters in that situation. The second choice would be to take an educated guess at how something like this might make a person feel. Use your imagination. It might help to think of a painful situation to which you can relate, and extrapolate from there. It’s also necessary, I find, to know as much as you can about that particular character, since none of us feel things exactly the same way. Something that causes one person a great amount of distress might not bother another person at all. The third option a writer has is to avoid the emotional description altogether. Simply relay the facts, and let the reader fill in the blanks. Most of your readers will have experienced love, loss, joy, pain, and all those other emotions to one degree or another, and readers are generally good at projecting their own emotions onto the characters they read about. In other words, if you can successfully describe the situation, you don’t necessarily have to tell us precisely how those events make the person feel. You can let the reader imagine it on their own.
Ah, back to the question of theory versus execution. Obviously, you must have both to have a story. For most people, theory (idea) is the easy part. But how does one begin to take inspiration and execute (develop and carry out) an actual story? The formula you’ll hear over and over looks something like this:
Success = 10% inspiration + 90% perspiration
That’s right. Inspiration usually comes first, but is really only a small part of the overall equation. What matters most is the thought and time and energy spent sitting in your chair, hammering that story out to its bitter conclusion. Most likely, you’ll encounter a number of hurdles and roadblocks along the way. You may have to correct a few wrong turns or even catch yourself from falling off a cliff now and then. Point is, you have to work through it. You can’t just stand around wondering.
Okay, enough with the general metaphors. The first concrete action I’d advise would be to jot down all those creative thoughts that strike you. At the inspiration stage, you don’t want anything to go to waste. Just get it all down. The trick to actually writing a story is indeed on gathering up all those potential bits of creativity and seeing how those pieces might fit together. It’s very much like building a puzzle. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s like someone went and dumped the pieces to a dozen puzzles in one big pile. Your job now is to separate them into their various piles, to see what goes with what. Start with the central theme of the story you want to tell. Who and what is it about? What’s at stake? What lessons must be learned? What sort of character roles are needed? A hero, obviously, along with a villain, a mentor, and most likely a love interest. There should be others in supporting roles, those who will help or hinder the hero in his journey (whether physical or metaphorical—and usually both). Once you know what roles are needed, examine the various characters who might fulfill them. At this stage, it’s essentially a casting process. Hire those characters who best fit the roles you need, and ask the rest to come back another time, for the casting of a future story. Don’t throw any piece of plotting or characterization away, because it might become one of the keystone pieces to another puzzle down the road.
As I’ve preached before, I’m a big believer in outlining. I wouldn’t build a house without first sketching a blueprint. Same goes with storytelling. Your outline should be flexible, because changes and improvements will reveal themselves during the actual telling of the story. New plotlines will emerge. New characters will appear. When that happens, I go right back to my outline to see how the overall story is affected, to make sure it’s what I want. Point is, once you have it all sketched out, it’s much easier to fill in the blanks with actual prose, and to remain confident as to where you’re going… and why. Without that foundation to build upon, writing becomes a much harder (and scarier) business.
Of course, you’ll also have ample opportunity to revise your story once you have that initial draft down on paper. So don’t spend forever in the planning stages. At some point, you simply have to dive in and trust in the editorial process to clean up the trouble spots.
Rewriting is absolutely a part of the process. By the time your book hits shelves, you’ll have rewritten some passages at least a dozen times. So, best get used to it.
That said, I don’t believe it’s wise to let your overall progress be stalled while trying to make your beginning perfect. The analogy I was taught suggests that when mopping a floor, you go over the whole thing once or twice before going back to scrape or polish the obvious trouble spots. You don’t sit there and polish one tile at a time.
No matter how carefully you plan, your story will evolve as you write it, and those evolutions will necessitate changes. When that happens to me, I simply make a note to myself of things to go back and double-check. I don’t like to stop my train of thought to go back and address them. Time enough for that in the editing stages. Now, if you’re submitting the first chapter or something to an agent or contest or what-have-you, it would probably be worth your while to go through and make it as tight and clean as possible. But my overall advice is to press on, make notes to yourself as to anything you might want to revisit, and simply forge ahead to the completion of your first draft.
Way back in junior high school, when I first began these stories, I developed only a bare minimum of the world’s history—no more than I would touch upon in this particular story, really. Later on, I realized that to be a beginner’s mistake. To properly tell a story set in a make-believe world, a writer must know the most important aspects of that world inside and out. For a character or place to seem real, you the author, at least, should know how they were formed. Think of the people you know. The more you know about their past circumstances, the better you understand them. Same with our own world’s history. Tough to explain today’s conflicts without having a basic understanding of religious extremism, World Wars I and II, capitalism versus communism, etc.
When I set out to rewrite these stories with the intent to publish them, I first took quite some time to develop a thorough understanding of how my particular world was formed, and how it had evolved throughout the ages. I know much more about the world now than has been revealed in the first three books. The hope is that readers will sense some level of depth and timelessness to the world and its peoples, even if I haven’t given them a full accounting of how it all came to be. It also allows me to plan ahead, planting the seeds of story threads that will sprout up later on.
On the other hand, I believe there is such a thing as too much prep work. You don’t want to use planning as merely an avoidance technique for doing the actual work. The story will change as you write it, forcing you to rethink some of your history and planning as you go along. That’s just how it works. My general advice to writers is to take as much time as you need in the planning stages to set a strong foundation, yet realize that very little is set in stone. The sooner you complete that first draft, the better you’ll know what you have before you. You will get many chances during the editing process to fine-tune things like languages and what-not that help to give your story a more authentic feel, so don’t feel like all of those nuances have to be perfected in advance.
I subscribe to the school of world-building utilized by the likes of George R. R. Martin and Terry Brooks, in that history, religion, economics… all is meant to support the story, first and foremost. For instance, while I know which races speak which languages, I haven’t created entire sets of vocabulary like Tolkien did. When I need a foreign word, I’ll come up with one on the spot, making note of it in case I need to use it again. Setting is indeed critical, but there’s no sense in spending your entire life naming rivers and mountains and races and languages and what-not if doing so means that you’ll never get around to telling an actual story. True emotional resonance with your readers stems not from geography, but from characterization. If you can succeed in that department, then as long as your characters aren’t walking around in a void, you should be all right.
This goes back to the notion that I’m somehow an expert on the commercial potential of someone else’s work. Truth be told, I rely on the opinion of my agent and editor to tell me if my writing is publishable. Outside of that, the only way to measure the validity of one’s work is in how badly you want to write it. Rather than read and pass personal judgment on the work of fellow writers out there, let me say this: Whether or not your work is ready for publication is almost entirely up to you. My opinion isn’t going to make a bit of difference in the grand scheme of things. Neither will most of those you encounter. What matters is your dedication to the craft. Like anything else, professional writing is mostly a matter of passion, practice, and perseverance.
In general, I’d say that most people have the potential to write. There are always certain aspects to be improved upon—my own work included—but what fledgling writers need to do, more than anything, is to go ahead and finish a story. When it is finished, write another. And another after that. If you’re like most writers, you’ll find that your skills improve every time out.
Believe it or not, the biggest thing that separates published writers from unpublished writers is that published writers actually finish what they begin. There are a lot of other factors that go into it, but job number one is to write a story you believe in. If you don’t believe in it, then no one else will.
I apologize to those in search of specific feedback. I regret that I’m unable to analyze your work more closely, and flattered that you would think me capable of doing so. It can take a lot of courage to share your work with others, and you should never hesitate to do so. My main goal here is to encourage you to continue writing and to reach your full potential—regardless of what anyone else says.
In all honesty, that’s difficult to imagine. Because if I couldn’t be published, I’d still be a writer, as I was for 20 years or so before my first book was released.
My profession before becoming a full-time novelist was that of a technical writer, creating online help files and such for software applications (a useful skill, by the way, when it comes to maintaining story notes). But that is “technically” still professional writing. The only other careers I ever earnestly considered were professional football, architecture, pharmacy, and dentistry.
Of course, like most professional writers, I live in constant fear of sales and/or ideas running dry. So, when it comes to choosing an alternate profession, perhaps I’ll still get a chance to find out.
Better than I expected, though less than what I would hope.
That may sound facetious, but it’s the best answer I can give that won’t ever need to be updated. No author is ever going to tell you that he or she couldn’t stand to sell a few more copies. At the same time, I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist, and thus remain grateful that I’m in the position where people can buy my books at all. So, no matter what the royalty statements say, it could be better, and it could be worse.
More important to me is knowing whether or not my publisher is happy with the return on their investment. Because if they are, then there’s a good chance that I’ll get to keep doing this. If not, I may have to go back to washing dishes. My editor and publisher have given me a terrific opportunity, and I want more than anything for their faith in me to be rewarded.
In the end, however, book sales are something that an author has very little control over. I believe in doing everything I can to help with promotion. I enjoy attending writers’ conferences and fan conventions. I’m always willing to do interviews, presentations, and signings. Beyond that, the only thing I know to do is to sit down and focus on the craft, to make sure that each new book is better than the last. While I can’t control the opinions of critics and readers, I can control my own work ethic. So that’s what I prefer to focus on.
I think most writers will tell you that characters are like their children—each is special, in his or her own way, and you love them all, even when they misbehave. Certainly, I do my best to inject life and personality into even the most minor character. In fact, I sometimes get accused of spreading my character focus around too much, rather than keeping the emphasis on those with primary roles. But to me, that’s what makes a fantasy world come alive—when even the so-called “common folk” (the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker) are real people, rather than cardboard stand-ins.
To choose a singular favorite, the answer would be: “Depends.” If you mean, who would I choose to be if I could live the life of only one of my characters, then the answer would be Kylac Kronus. Not only because of his unrivaled swordsmanship and athleticism, but because of his easygoing confidence. If you mean, who was the most fun to write, I’d have to say Necanicum. Put simply, she views the world differently than most people. And it’s always fun to write from the perspective of someone with an unusual—or unpredictable—point of view. Finally, if you mean, who would I most like to meet on the street, I’d have to choose Dyanne, to see for myself what it is that other characters find so darn special about her.
Because murder in real life is illegal?
The short answer is: to suit what I believe are the needs of the story. The long answer? As with most aspects of writing, there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to the function of characters. There are many legitimate reasons for which a fictional character may be called upon to take one for the team. What it usually boils down to is plot—otherwise known as the various conflicts between characters. If Character A has sufficient motive and opportunity to kill Character B, well then, it’s usually going to happen. After all, these are adventure stories in which war and intrigue are central themes, be it a battle between armies, a duel between competing individuals, or a struggle of survival between creatures who occupy different levels of the food chain.
The idea is to orchestrate these conflicts in a way that: a) feel true to the world and the characters’ objectives; b) have a direct and necessary impact on the story (such as fueling another character’s response); and c) elicits some sort of emotional impact from the reader—be it sadness, outrage, or joy. Sometimes, the desired emotional response is met by allowing a character to escape a harrowing situation. Sometimes not.
In some cases, the primary function of a character is, in fact, to die. I’ve never watched much Star Trek, but I know well the joke that if you put an unnamed ensign in a red shirt, that kid is toast. To me, the key in these situations is to hide from the reader the fact that this is an “unimportant” character whose only real purpose is to illustrate the threat of an enemy. To that end, I’ll take my time and do my best to try to make that character seem real, worth caring about, even if this is his or her only scene. That way, by the end of the scene, the reader believes you’ve killed an “important” character, when really, you have not. Under all that fine livery, it’s just another no-name ensign.
The downside to this tactic, of course, is that some readers become desensitized. They’ll try hard not to invest themselves in a character for fear that as soon as they’ve developed a rapport, that character will bite the dust. For that reason, it’s always good to mix things up, making sure that unexpected victims and unexpected survivors are represented in equal measure. I don’t believe I’ve ever killed off a character simply for fun. But I also believe that the threat has to be there at all times in order to maintain tension. My goal is to be unpredictable enough as to keep my readers off-balance, but without being so unpredictable as to simply annoy them. Perhaps sometimes I go too far.
Ironically, I usually hate it when I’m reading a story in which a favored character dies. I understand that death is inevitable, and that a war story in which no one perishes is not very realistic, but part of me still hates to see it happen with characters I’ve grown to care about. For whatever reason, killing off my own creations simply never bothers me. Maybe that means I don’t care about them like I should. But I think, as an author, you have to maintain that mercenary tack, and not allow your own feelings to get in the way of those you’re trying to elicit.
Were it not the same as stealing, there are a number of authors out there whose sales numbers I would gladly swap for mine. Does that mean I envy the Terry Brookses and J. K. Rowlings and Robert Jordans of the world? I suppose. Do I feel jealous or contentious toward them? Not at all.
For one, I am not even in their stratosphere. Might as well arrange a bout between King Kong and Jiminy Cricket. But more importantly, I honestly believe that the success of any fantasy book only helps us all. I laugh when people suggest that all genre writers are somehow in competition with one another. While it’s true most readers can only select one book at a time, I read dozens of books in the time it takes me to write even one. Hopefully, a reader who enjoys my books is not waiting around a year or so for the sequel, but is enjoying many other works in the meantime.
In fact, most readers want more of something they already like, so it works out well when I run into fans of another writer whose work is similar to mine. Makes for an easy—and honest—sale.
Bottom line is, I’d be willing to bet that every “successful” fantasy author has earned his or her sales numbers, be it through wonderful writing, dynamite marketing, consistent production, or some combination of the three. And my response is always: kudos to them. Hopefully, with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I’ll be able to follow in their footsteps. But it’s hard to think of myself as “envious” when I’m such a fan and cheerleader.
What do you mean “becoming”? I thought I already was!
I was raised on fantasy. From Star Wars at the movies to The Lord of the Rings, Shannara, Narnia, Prydain and others at the library or bookstore. There did come a time in which I intentionally stayed away from it, wary of using others’ ideas in my own writing. But as they say, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. Some might argue, but I truly believe that all writers end up exploring one another’s ideas—whether or not they even realize it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I thought I had come up with something that had never been done before, only to later read a book in which it had. Being ignorant to the prior use of an idea does not make your use of it “original”.
In fact, the whole notion of originality is, to me, somewhat overblown. Why do film viewers continue to enjoy romantic comedies when the plot is essentially the same every time out? How about horrors or westerns or any other genre, for that matter? Can changing names and faces really make a difference? In short, yes. Originality is an element of storytelling, not the sole root of it. Style, execution, plotting, voice, theme—these and a myriad other components are called upon when crafting a story. Granted, the nature of fantasy, by its very definition, places greater emphasis on originality than, say, your latest slasher flick. And if you’re a new author, having an “original” idea is the easiest way to make a splash. But it’s still just one of many cogs in the machine.
I hear it said all the time that audiences want the same, but different. They want stories and themes to be easily identifiable, and to fit with what they already know to be true of a certain genre or classification. But they also demand twists and surprises and a fresh take on age-old questions—a new spin, so to speak. I think this is true, and thank goodness. Otherwise, we’d all still be watching, say, Stagecoach instead of subsequent westerns by John Wayne, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and others.
For that reason, I once again read all the fantasy I can get my hands on, so that at least I’m informed. That way, I’m less likely to cover someone else’s ground in exactly the same way. It also allows me to dissect what it is the better writers do—how it works, and why. The better my knowledge of what has come before, the better my work going forward will be.
A great example of this is none other than the patriarch of modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Believe it or not, Tolkien did not invent dragons or trolls or orcs or halflings. He just found a fresh and exciting way of putting them all together, and thereby helped to popularize them. Did he do so accidentally? Of course not. As a professor, he was a student of language and myth. He spent years studying the stories of his predecessors before putting together his own. Looking back, his was a monumental achievement, to be sure. But even The Lord of the Rings derived to a great extent from prior legends and mythologies and world events. I, for one, see nothing wrong with that, because that’s how it has been done since the telling of stories began.
I should mention, too, that I don’t read fantasy merely to educate myself on what others are doing. I read it because I enjoy it. I’m often asked which authors and stories I enjoy most. I’ve already mentioned some of my early favorites. These days, I mostly enjoy being surprised. I like being led down a certain path, only to end up somewhere I never expected—but in a way that makes perfect sense to me once I get there. It’s the same thing I strive for in my own stories. Whether I ever manage to do so—or am just a two-bit hack—is up to readers to decide.
I prefer to write in absolute silence, if at all possible. I generally use music only when necessary to help drown out background noise. In these cases, I never listen to anything with lyrics, which I find to be as distracting as the voices in my head. My favorite source of instrumental music happens to be movie soundtracks. Those I turn to most frequently are:
Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris) Gladiator (Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard) The Passion of the Christ (John Debney) Braveheart (James Horner) Rob Roy (Carter Burwell) The Lord of the Rings (Howard Shore) Plunkett & Macleane (Craig Armstrong)
All work pretty well to help clear my mind and set a “fantasy” mood. It probably helps that these are some of my favorite films (though I should admit, I haven’t seen Plunkett & Macleane).
Outside of writing, I mostly listen to death metal. Much of what those bands “sing” about is pretty harsh, but I find that listening to horribly sadistic deeds mitigates the need to commit them in real life. Besides, most of the time you can’t understand what they’re saying anyway.
Of course, I’m always on the lookout for something new. So if anyone out there has any recommendations, I’d be all too happy to try them out.
Although it can vary, I do have a specific schedule I try to adhere to. Without it, I’d never get anything done. In detail, it goes something like this:
Monday morning, I’ll wake up early, eat breakfast, and write for 4-5 hours. Around 1:00 PM, I’ll head to the gym for a couple of hours, to relax the eyes and get the blood flowing again. When I come home, I write for another 3-4 hours, until I get to the point where I’m just staring blankly at the screen and no longer being productive. I’ll then fix myself some dinner, check and answer emails, and read a book / pay bills / perform odd chores until 10:00 PM or so, at which point I’ll lay in bed thinking about the next day’s work until I fall asleep.
Tuesday through Friday is an exact repeat of Monday. The only difference is that I’ll begin the morning by reviewing and editing the previous day’s work, usually during breakfast.
On Saturday morning, I’ll review Friday’s work. If I don’t feel that I got enough done, or am burning to finish a scene, I might continue writing until gym-time. But I try to give myself the afternoon off to catch a movie, do some shopping, or otherwise catch up with life in the real world.
Sunday morning is spent reviewing any chapters completed during the previous work week. That allows me to go over things for the third time—typically after a few days have passed in order to give some distance. Once again, I try to give myself the afternoon off.
Very exciting, as you might imagine. I generally aim for 1500 – 2000 words a day, so in a typical work week, I’ll have written 7,500 – 10,000 words—along with some editing and reviewing mixed in. If I fail to reach that target, I tend to become very crotchety, and will often make myself work throughout the weekend to catch up. I don’t have a television, rarely answer the phone, and do my best not to take vacations, because all of that would just put me farther behind than I already am.
Of course, I hope the day might come in which I’m not afraid to take some time off every now and then—maybe even settle for half a day’s writing instead of working at it all day. But for now, this is what it takes for me to meet my contractual obligations, and, as a creature of habit, that’s okay with me.
Money and girls. What else?
Wait a minute. That’s rock stars I’m thinking of. Never mind.
The truth is, it happened so long ago, I’m not sure I can accurately remember. I certainly don’t recall a specific moment in which a light bulb when on in my head and all of a sudden I had to do this. I’ve always had an affinity for stories, way back to when I was a child. It didn’t matter if they were books or movies; I couldn’t get enough. And the great ones, well, I didn’t want them to end. At some point, I realized that they didn’t have to—that I could make my own and keep them going for as long as they held my interest.
When we were young, my brothers and I spent countless hours playacting: Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones—you name it. Writing was an extension of that, which didn’t require the involvement of others, and in which I could challenge my imagination to come up with its own worlds and characters.
It helped, I’m sure, that I received a positive response early on. Parents, brothers, teachers, schoolmates—all seemed to greet my efforts with enthusiasm and encouragement. For that I feel very fortunate, since many writers have only horror stories to tell about the reaction of others to their early efforts. When a young person receives positive attention for something, he or she tends to repeat it. So it was with me.
And yet, I wrote dozens and dozens of pages for every one that was read aloud in a classroom. I was very protective, in fact, of most of my work, refusing to share it for fear of rejection or ridicule. I was less concerned with attention or validation than with seeking my own entertainment. I wrote for myself, first and foremost, as a means of escaping the real world.
Not that I had a terrible childhood or anything, and not that I have much to complain about today. But no matter how extraordinary one’s daily life may be, the sheer repetition makes it ordinary to them. Since my life was less than exhilarating to begin with, I found a way to share in the fictional lives of others.
Besides, I’ve never been terribly impressed with how the real world functions. We respond to events, but seldom can we control them. With writing, everything happens for a reason, as part of a grand design. Those with strong religious beliefs might argue the same for our world, but if that’s the case, then the overall design is something that few of us are meant to understand. In writing, the author is creator and architect, and there is satisfaction to be found, I think, in being able to know and manipulate the universal order of things—even if it is confined to just the small, fictional scope of a single story. And no, I don’t believe that means I have a “God complex”, only that it’s nice to dwell now and again in a world that has structure and purpose. Good may not always be rewarded, and evil may not always be punished. Things don’t necessarily have to be fair in a moral sense. But they have to be justified. They have to appease a certain expectation that the reader has. And there’s a fairness to that which has always appealed to me, and that I have yet to find anywhere else.
Sure I do. Those that I stumble across, anyway. Usually someone has to point them out to me, since I seldom make a concerted effort to seek them out. Reviews are for readers, a means of helping others decide whether or not to try a particular work. They’re a marketing tool, pure and simple, and can be effective in that regard. But they really aren’t much help when it comes to bettering one’s work. First off, most authors have a pretty good idea as to what their strengths and weaknesses are, so listening to another summarize them only tells us what we already know. Second, opinions are never universally positive or negative. What one set of readers enjoys, another set doesn’t—and vice versa. Third, it’s a bit late to change things, isn’t it? Even if I were inclined to act on a particular suggestion, it’s tough to do so when the work is already out there.
How do I deal with it? Whether good or bad, I grant them the momentary consideration they deserve, and move on—just as I’ve been taught. And by “good or bad,” I’m not talking positive or negative. I mean those that are competently written by someone who is both unbiased and insightful, versus those scribbled out by someone who simply wants to make noise. After all, in this day and age, any first grader can go online and tell the world what he thinks. Though I sometimes wish there were greater accountability against flippant or even erroneous statements, that’s obviously not something I can control. Besides, this lack of oversight works both ways, since readers who enjoy something aren’t always able to articulate why.
The thing to remember, if you’re a writer, is that these things are not debates. You can’t go around highlighting the reviews you like and crossing out the ones you don’t. Nor should you waste your time trying to do so. The best way to affect how others perceive you is to keep your focus on the craft and learn to write a better story. After that, just remember that nothing out there is for everyone. Don’t savor praise, and don’t dwell on criticism. Try not to worry about what anyone other than you or your editor thinks.
Well, my writing definitely “picked up” in that I was able to focus on it full-time rather than having to split time with a day job. And it’s been fun getting to travel a bit and meet so many of the authors I grew up idolizing. Aside from that, the everyday writing process hasn’t changed all that much for me. From what I understand in talking with other, better known writers, it never will. Writing is one of those jobs where it’s always about the next hurdle. You have to sell yourself to an agent, who then has to sell you to an editor, who then has to sell you to a publisher, who then has to sell you to buyers (with or without the help of critics, marketing, et cetera), who then have to sell you to the booksellers, who then sell to the public. And once you succeed with one book, you have to start all over with the next. I suppose anyone doing it for the money might simply stop after that first bestseller. But most writers I know are in it for the long haul, whether or not they ever earn a dime. I own a nicer computer than I did before, and a nicer desk and chair. Yet it’s still all about planting myself in that office and doing the work. In that regard, I feel no different than before. Every day is still a challenge, filled with signs of encouragement and discouragement both. The trick, from what I’ve been told, is to not get too high or too low, but to keep plugging away at the craft, and let the rest of it work itself out.
Stronger? In what way? Better glues and binding techniques?
Oh, all right. Yes, I think I know what critics mean by this. And yes, to some extent I would agree. The story is less derivative, the characters less formulaic, and the ending less predictable. A tighter narrative allowed me to cover a larger number of scenes in roughly the same number of words, and a greater percentage of dialogue means more white space (and thus, faster pacing). Storywise, there are a lot of curveballs thrown in, including a number of scenes with double meanings, making it great fun to write. Put simply, The Obsidian Key was the story I really wanted to tell, and I think it shows.
That’s not to say there’s much I would really change about The Crimson Sword. Looking back, I feel it did a capable job of fulfilling its role as the first act of this trilogy. While derivative in many ways, that was quite intentional, so as to establish certain reader expectations for the rest of the series. There are certain conventions I tried to play with, such as a weapon that is not the cure-all it is expected to be, villains who have legitimate gripes, and a hero who does not turn out to be “Superman” simply because his father was king. Yet when you get right down to it, Sword was supposed to be a conventional coming-of-age adventure story, in order to set up a not-so-conventional “ever after” story. In order to deconstruct a myth, you’ve first got to make it clear which myth you’re toying with. Sword did that, and hopefully led readers to make certain assumptions about what to expect from Key. Playing upon these false expectations is what allowed me to more easily tweak the reader with the second book’s plot twists. The challenge I’ve had with at least some critics is getting them to accept that Sword was more than just an unimaginative piece of fan fiction—that, in truth, I knew precisely what I was doing in setting them up all along.
I also learned long ago, however, that writers don’t get to make the ultimate decision concerning a book’s merit. It takes a reader to truly bring a story to life, and thus, it’s the end reader who determines whether or not a story works. Individual responses may vary from “useless piece of trash” to “greatest book ever written,” but that’s all part of the fun. By then, the author has already had his or her say. I can’t tell you which response is more valid, only that it’s always nicer to hear the latter.
Whichever, I won’t complain if readers feel that my storytelling skills are improving with each volume. Hopefully, they’ll like Book Three even better than Book Two.
Yes and no. I find it does help in the creation of characters to have a real-life physical description to go by, so sometimes I’ll take someone I know (or some random stranger I see in the gym or grocery store) and use him/her in the back of my mind as a template. I’ve also borrowed the names of some friends, and maybe a quirk of personality here or there. But I try never to put the three together, if that makes sense. Like building Frankenstein’s monster, I’ll take bits and pieces from different people, and assemble them in a completely new way. I don’t think anyone I know could point to a specific character and say: “Hey, that’s me!” Although, if someone were to do so, and take additional enjoyment out of the story as a result, far be it from me to suggest they’re wrong.
I’m a firm believer in the notion that no two people think exactly the same way. Because of this, I try to see the world in any particular scene through the point-of-view character’s eyes, rather than my own. To me, it just feels more authentic and dramatic to relay the character’s thoughts and opinions, rather than those of some lone, official narrator. In fact, I take considerable enjoyment in examining the same situation from multiple angles, letting the reader determine who’s “telling the truth.” Seldom can a single character be trusted to paint a complete picture; those who think they have all the answers are almost always unreliable. More often than not, there’s a bit of truth in everyone’s voice, with the rest shaded by ignorance, lies, or personal denial. That just seems to be the way the world works, and I want my fictional world to reflect that.
I’ve had readers who complain, saying that they want to hear more of “my” voice, rather than the often disparate voices of my characters. While I understand that this style can be jarring or downright confusing at times, I consider these complaints to be compliments, since I think the author and his/her opinions should be invisible in this kind of story. I’d rather my readers have to work a little harder to follow along than to lull them into following a singular, restrictive point of view.
In my mind, a book is comprised of two parts: theory and execution. Theory here refers to the book’s premise—that is, its central idea, its core theme, the dramatic question it endeavors to explore. Execution refers of course to how the story is structured, populated, and relayed to the reader.
I won’t judge a book solely on its theory, because a subject or idea that interests one reader won’t necessarily interest another. Nor will I judge a book solely by the elements of execution, since those elements—setting, characters, prose—do not exist for their own sake, but to give life to a particular premise.
Since both are required, my definition of a “good” book is one whose execution matches its theory. It may choose a comedic slant when I would have rather it taken a more serious tack. The hero may or may not be who I would want him to be, and may or may not get what I feel he deserves. But if the work succeeds in telling the story the author wanted to tell, making clear the desired emotional response, then I would consider that work to be of good quality.
A “bad” book, to me, is one that meanders all over the place without direction, or that fails to elicit the desired response. For example, if I’m laughing when I should be crying, then it stands to reason there’s a disconnect somewhere. Granted, that disconnect might stem from me, the reader, who may not be giving the work a fair investment of time or attention. But it might also be that the author has made a mistake somewhere along the way in how his/her theory unfolds.
Clearly, a reader’s interpretation is a huge part of the equation. The infinite variety of personalities out there on the receiving end is just one reason that success in writing—whether measured by commercial acceptance or critical acclaim—is so challenging and unpredictable. For my money, however, it boils down to this: A thriller should be exciting; a horror should be scary; a comedy should be funny; and so forth. If you tell me that you’re giving me one thing, yet deliver something else, I’m going to assume that you don’t know what you’re doing.
Not nearly enough.
Incidentally, why is bench press the only lift anyone talks about? Squats and power cleans offer a much better indicator of a person’s overall strength. And please don’t bother asking me how much weight I can lift with either of those exercises, because you’ll get the same answer I’ve given above.
Does it matter? Seriously, people…
Yes, from time to time, though not for the reasons one might expect. I look at storytelling as a craft, not the birth of a child. I don’t take it all that personally when someone points out the seams or stitches in what I’ve built. Editors point out these areas not to be demeaning, but to give me a chance to smooth them over before my work goes out to the masses. In short, I see editors as being on my side.
When I set forth to tell a story, I take time in the outlining stage to look at all the many paths available before me. Once I choose a path, I make personal note of why I chose it, what the alternatives were, and why I did not choose any of them. These inner debates often show up in the prose itself, in order to preempt the inevitable reader questions of: “Why do it that way? Why not do it this way instead?” And while it’s possible to completely miss some fork at such a crossroads, I’m generally criticized for being overly thorough in my reasoning, explaining too much as to why a road not taken wasn’t… well, taken.
Thus, what irritates me about editors and critics is that I can almost always see where they’re coming from. In most instances, I’ve already looked at their point of view during the outlining stage, and done what I could to stave off that and other potential arguments. Be it a plot point, a character’s behavior, the structure of a scene, etc, when they say something isn’t justified, or that something is missing, I’m frustrated in that I’ve already tried to address that issue. Either they missed something, or I didn’t make myself clear—or both. Whatever the reason, it’s disappointing to learn that I’ve failed to properly cover all my bases.
Then again, it’s the nature of storytelling that there will always be someone who wishes the teller had taken another path. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so to speak. Quite frankly, this is what makes storytelling an open-ended endeavor—the fact that there will always be endless variations of the same themes. So it’s not something you’ll hear me complain about.
The gestation period for a book is extremely tough to quantify. For me, it takes about a year to write the first draft. That doesn’t include the brainstorming and outlining time that goes into it beforehand, which is difficult to calculate. Nor does it include the time required after the first draft to edit and revise, which is typically another year. Most professional authors I meet are always working on three things at once: 1) revising the previous book, 2) writing the current book, and 3) planning ahead for the next book. That’s pretty much how it works with me.
A year of actual writing is what it took for each of my first three, anyway. And, given their length, that was a pretty good pace. The time it takes me to write the next book could obviously change depending upon its length and/or whether I’m still writing full-time. Some authors take several years to put out one volume. Others can write four or five a year. I don’t think I’ll ever set any speed records, but once I have the basic story in place, I’m fairly diligent about completing it in a timely fashion.
As embarrassing as this question is, I’ve heard it way too often to keep ignoring it. My first thought is always: How am I to take it? On the one hand, it would seem to suggest that my physical features are not quite as trollish as I’ve always feared—which is a flattering thought. Or are people merely suggesting that my writing is so bad that there must be some other explanation for getting it published?
The truth is, I don’t know. You’d have to ask my publisher. To my knowledge, neither my agent nor editor had any idea of what I looked like until the deal was all but on the table. Photos, biography—all of that came later. I, for one, have never picked up or put down a book based on the author photo. So why would an editor buy a manuscript from someone based on looks?
From a marketing standpoint, perhaps there’s something to the argument that an attractive author has a better chance of selling than an unattractive one. But who gets to define “attractive”? Suffice to say, People magazine’s list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World is quite safe from the likes of me. I won’t be cracking their list in this lifetime. And until I do, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that my physical appearance had much of anything to do with selling my stories to New York.
I’m not sure how you begin to quantify such a thing. Even so, I have a guess. I’m not foolish enough to state it in a public forum, mind you, for fear of offending the others. But I will say this: It isn’t me.
For better or worse, no.
First of all, I’ve been living with this story for quite some time, with early drafts of all three books completed years ago. Thus, most of the ins and outs were decided upon long before readers had a chance to express their opinions on them. Second, an annual publication schedule means that the first draft of a follow-up book is already written by the time the previous volume hits shelves. That leaves only a small window of time in which to gauge reader response and determine whether a predominant opinion merits application in the immediate sequel. Third, and most important of all, is that one reader’s dessert is another reader’s poison—and vice versa. If I were to run around trying to make one set of readers happy, I would be adding or removing elements that would make other readers less so. There’s too little time in the day for me to go in circles chasing my own tail.
Instead, I focus on telling the story as I see fit (with guidance from agent and editor, of course), trusting that if I do so, the story will be true enough to itself to resonate with at least some readers out there. After all, I have no delusions about blinding the world with my brilliance. If you could show me even one creative work that is universally adored, then I might be disappointed to learn that mine isn’t. Until then, I’ll just have to accept my imperfections like everyone else.
Remember, it’s impossible to please everyone at all times. So, as the artist, it’s best to focus on something you enjoy, and not allow yourself to get bogged down by negative feedback. While I have great respect for reader opinions and am wise enough not to completely ignore public sentiment, it’s not something I’ve ever set forth specifically to address. Like anyone else, I have my own ideas about what works and what doesn’t, and, as the author, it’s my prerogative (and challenge) to implement them. A reader’s prerogative is in choosing whether to read the book, and whether or not to throw it at the wall afterwards. Hopefully, the latter doesn’t happen with one of my books all that often.
Why must everything be done in threes?
Oh, very well. The first would be to travel. Visiting areas and cultures outside those I am most familiar with—particularly those of the ancient world—inspires all sorts of story ideas. Number two would be to read books, watch movies, and listen to music. For better or worse, most story ideas are an amalgamation of bits and pieces of stories we absorb from these various forms of popular culture. Third, and perhaps most critically, is to learn to look at life and events around us with an inquisitive mind. Instead of simply looking at something that is, writers tend to see things and wonder, “what if?” For instance, just sitting in a coffee shop and studying people around you—making up stories as to who they are and where they came from—is great storytelling practice. Another example would be one I encountered years ago when I traveled to Italy as part of a writers retreat. The instructors were touring the city when one of them spotted an abandoned coat lying in the middle of the street. Ignoring the many architectural and artistic marvels around them, the instructors immediately began focusing on the discarded garment, talking about how that coat had come to lie there, all by itself.
In other words, stories are all around us. You just have to learn how to spot them. Or not. Writers are all a little bit crazy, you know.