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Awesome feedback!

Wow.

I’ve received some really, really awesome feedback from my beta readers over the past month.
Feedback definition

A huge “Thanks!” to all of them; I’ve tried to take their constructive criticisms on board by making a few changes and adjustments here and there, and am trying not to let the praise go to my head. Though I’m not trying hard enough not to brag about mention some of the best bits.

… definitely makes me want to keep reading.

Seriously well-written fight scene!

THIS IS SO INTENSE!

I wasn’t looking forward to reading the chapter on the hunt because I like to read stories about teenage girls making googly eyes on teenage boys, but this whole scene just deepens the story and makes everything – the characters, the setting, the culture – that much more real.

… amazing.

Such a rich world you’ve built.

… very polished…

I was hooked by the end of the first chapter…

… very fluid style.

… altogether really exciting.

… in summary: cool!

Each of my readers brought something different to the table, from catching a few awkward-sounding repetitions to pointing out that I was throwing quite a few new terms at the reader in one of the early paragraphs to giving very detailed feedback about many chapters from a first-time reader’s perspective. All of this is just what I was after, and has helped me tremendously. Again, many thanks – you’ve all assured yourselves a spot in the “acknowledgements” section if when the manuscript-that-could gets published.

Still a long way to go before that happens, but… baby steps.

[Update: If you’re looking for a wonderful beta reader, one of mine has told me she’s happy to be mentioned, so head on over to Suzanne’s blog and ask her – she knows what she’s talking about, and her feedback was the most detailed I’ve ever received.]

What’s next? Well, I’ve recently upgraded to a new computer, and it’s taken me a bit of time to get everything set up the way I want again (grrr, Windoze can be so annoying, but it’s a necessary evil for some things in my case), but I’m there now, and will be drawing up a battle plan for the next few steps in my journey towards getting published.

What could possibly go wrong? 😉

 

Drumroll… Blurb reveal!

It is with much excitement, spiced with a hefty dose of trepidation, that I’d like to reveal a couple of versions of my blurb. No big deal, I’ve only worked on this for, oh, 11 years or so now.

First off, here are some details about my debut novel.

The Essentials

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Name of book: First Drop
Name of trilogy: The Mage Academy Journals
Approximate word count: 130,000
Status: Polishing and finishing epilogue
Intended audienceAdults (not necessarily YA)

Tropical Island

Quite close to how I imagine the tropical setting of my novel. Heavily influenced by my experiences of growing up in Papua New Guinea. (Image taken from public domain and modified to smudge out anachronisms, etc.)

One-sentence Pitch

I find it extremely hard to sum up my story in a single sentence, but it’s something that is often requested, so here is what I think is its essence:

My story is about a boy who returns to his tropical island home after years amongst pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

Extended Pitch

If I had a few more sentences to pitch my work, it’d go a little something like this:

My story is about a boy who returns home after years amongst the pale-skinned northerners to find himself the focal point of intrigues and prophecies due to his unique heritage and blend of abilities.

His own people won’t accept him unless he undergoes their initiation rites. The martial Vennar want to deny his family even exists, let alone escaped from slavery. The pale Nothrans, who’ve built a Mage Academy on his tropical home island, want to manipulate him.

All he wants is to be reunited with what’s left of his family.

Longer Blurb (250 words)

So this is what I’d ideally like to have on the back cover if it were up to me:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who have been allowed to build their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, Miniri, opens up a whole realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having already spent several years amongst the Nothrans in their lands far to the north, he knows he will have to endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin, and studying at the Academy will only serve to further ostracise him from his fellow Quemin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled Vennar in his veins means Kentos can master their ability to discern the visualised intentions of others, which makes that martial race peerless fighters. Yet this stain upon his family’s honour must remain secret, for the Vennar’s enslavement of the Quemin was officially supposed to have ended many generations ago.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle, even as he recovers from an attack that killed his sister and crushed his foot. What he has yet to learn, however, is that his parents have escaped from slavery with even more secrets – secrets that will make him the subject of prophecies, and of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected angles.

As his friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, begins to blossom into a tender first love, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, Kentos will have to face decisions: most of them difficult… one disastrous.

Shorter Blurb (169 words)

If I had to limit myself a bit more, although cutting each word hurts like heck, I might be able to live with shortening it to this:

Having the potential to learn the magic of the pale-skinned Nothrans, who’ve built their Mage Academy on his tropical home island, opens up a realm of possibilities for fifteen-year-old Kentos. But, having spent several years amongst Nothrans, he knows he must endure racism from those who cannot see past his dark skin.

Carrying the blood of the reviled martial Vennar in his veins means Kentos can learn to discern people’s visualised intentions, but this stain upon his family must remain secret, for the enslavement of his people ended long ago – at least officially.

These are challenges Kentos believes he can handle. What he has yet to learn is that his family has even more secrets that will make him the subject of manipulation attempts from multiple unexpected directions.

As the friendship with fellow student Tesliah, who uncovers his story by reading his journals, deepens, and as his path converges with that of Ri, a Vennara he once called friend, many decisions Kentos must face will be difficult… one disastrous.

What’s Next?

Well, once I finish up the epilogue of Book 1 (quite tricky getting the right threads tied up and leaving enough open to promote interest in the larger story) and complete my current editing run, I’d love to get feedback from beta readers. I have two fellow bloggers who have expressed an interest, and I hope they’ll be as honest as they can with things like pacing, repetition, character development, whether dialogue feels natural enough, whether I have some “pet expressions” I’m not aware of, etc. Thus far, I’ve only had family and close friends read my work, and as grateful as I am to each and every one of them, it’s not quite the same as feedback from objective readers, especially ones who have been through the writing process themselves and know what to look out for.

After that (and I have no idea how long that will take), I’ll have to go through the whole daunting submission process, reading rejection letters and so on. Fun times! 🙂

The challenges of ending a “Book One”

Nearly two months without a blog post (which was just a rant about something that seemed important at the time)… I’ve really been dragging my knuckles. Slacking off. Procrastinating. Sorry.

I’ve come to realise that the ending, which had seemed so good initially, was missing a certain something. Not that it wasn’t exciting the way I’d planned it, but, the closer I got, the more obvious it became that I needed more connections between characters, more things that I could hook into in later books. I don’t just need to end a story; I need to wrap up the first part of that story while setting the stage for bigger things down the line and weaving in hints and threads to be tied in later. I love reading the conclusion to a trilogy or series, and thinking, “Ah! So that‘s why she put in that morsel of information in the first book!” I want my readers to experience some of that as well.

Because of this uncertainty about how I could manage such a thing, I’ve been having a really hard time sitting down and writing the ending that I intended. Whenever I tried, I got that nagging feeling that I’d forgotten something, that I should improve something before I wrote the ending. And I just couldn’t bear to compromise on the quality of my story.

For weeks, it escaped me what that something was, and I was less productive with my writing than I’ve been for a long time. A bit of editing, a few pages of new stuff, working on background notes and the like. Just not really writing, dammit! Sure, I’ve had plenty of times where I hadn’t written much for a longer stretch, but that was always because of external influences, like work, family, or other projects (yeah, let’s call it “projects” – sounds better than “passing fancies”, doesn’t it?), not because I was stuck. I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block (maybe I just haven’t been at it long enough to experience that?), but I guess this is the closest I’ve come to date.

I found myself putting off writing during the few precious hours each week that I’m able to dedicate to writing. As a result, I wasn’t inclined to write up a new blog post, either. It just didn’t feel right; I’d just done a few non-writing-related posts in a row and wanted to be able to report on some sort of tangible progress.

A few days ago, it finally clicked in the deep, dark recesses of my head.

And you know what? It even helped me with one of the other things I’ve had a really hard time with: writing a blurb. I’m not sure how the two things are connected, but connecting Book One to the larger story helped me to see more clearly what the essence of the first part of my story is, and helped me to make the choice of which bits I could leave out in my blurb – something that always seemed wrong to me before. (“But that‘s an important component of the story, and so is that part, and I can’t leave out that bit!”)

Now I know what I need to do. It won’t be easy, and I need to make some changes that will ripple through other parts of the story, but at least I’m out of the doldrums.

Better get to it. Better get back on that horse.

Excitement building about building excitement

The reason I’ve been slacking off with my blog-writing lately is that I haven’t been slacking off with my book-writing. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally finished the major rewrite of the section I was, er, rewriting.

I’ve written about what had happened and what I was planning to do a while ago in The Road So Far, from finishing a manuscript to early rejections to planning to do a huge revamp of my work, and now I’m done with what I set out to do. I’ve completely transformed the story while keeping core aspects of it, constructed a “story around the story” that I think works quite well, brought in a bunch of new characters to join the reader in discovering the main storyline, woven together the pre-existing threads with new threads and the threads around them, and I think it helps to give the whole thing a sense of building up to something.

It’s taken me a fair while (I have a family, a day job, and hobbies…), and to some extent it’s been frustrating because I had to slow down from my normal “just let it happen in my head” style of writing and think more about how all the individual threads interact and make sure that the story as a whole is cohesive, that some bits don’t contradict others and that the timeline is consistent from all perspectives. I even went to the trouble of using a mind-mapping tool to plan out my timeline visually for myself, with all the little occurrences noted of where a character may say something happened “three days ago” or was planning to do something “in three days” to make sure it all matches up with what’s in my head and what everyone else says. A very different aspect to writing than what I’m used to, but it’s been an interesting exercise, and most likely one I’ll have to repeat as the series progresses beyond Book 1 (which I’m hoping it will).

Of course, as I’ve read through it all multiple times to make sure all the little details are lined up, I’ve also let my inner editor run amok and did lots of reviewing, correcting, and polishing.

I think I’d even be willing to let some people read what I’ve got so far… which is both exciting and scary.

Now that I’m done with all the “weaving”, I get to finally go back to really writing because it still needs an ending to round off the first book (much, much more material in the series is still spooking around in my head, and I’ve got over 150k words from one character’s first-person perspective already written that I can use/adapt/weave into the main story when the first book is ready to send off… hey, it’s epic fantasy). I’ve got some ideas of how it’s going to go, but the details will grow like an independent organism writhing in the back of my mind while I try to keep up with putting it down on paper screen.

At a little over 70k words, the story should need about 15-25k more to give the reader an ending that will hopefully offer some explanations, some excitement, tie up some threads while leaving others dangling to be woven into Book 2, and leave her with an aftertaste of, “Hey, that was a great story set in an interesting world. I’m looking forward to visiting again and finding out what happens there next.”

Oh Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy!

Excitement ahead! (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

The end is so close I can smell it! I look forward to seeing where the story will take me.

Put some “Leeroy Jenkins!” in your writing

It’s been a long weekend here with Monday being a holiday, and I’ve had some time to indulge in one of my time-wasting fun hobbies, playing Guild Wars 2 (don’t worry, the post is writing-related… I’ll get to that). The guild I’m in is small, but we have our fun, including a spreadsheet shared on Google Docs in which we document all our hilarious (mis-)adventures and references to some gaming-related things we feel everyone in the guild should be aware of.

For those who don’t know the reference, “Leeroy Jenkins!” became an infamous battle cry by a character of the same name in another MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game, World of Warcraft (which I don’t play but like most people I’ve heard of it). Apparently, his guild was meticulously planning their strategy and setting up their forces out of range of where the one of the harder boss fights in the game would begin when he simply charged into range of the boss, kicking off the battle, and yelling “Leeeeeerooooy Jenkins!” His guild attempted to come to his aid, but all the careful planning was out the window and he got everyone killed.

So what’s the point of my post, and how does it relate to writing, I hear you ask? Well, here it is:

The next time you write a story, I challenge you to introduce a character into it (not the main character, but a side-kick maybe, or the “bad guy”) who adds an element of chaos and unpredictability. The extent of chaos added is up to you, and will of course depend on the genre. But having a “wild character” who doesn’t always act the way someone with more common sense would expect can be both fun and a nice way to direct the action in an unexpected direction (of course it shouldn’t be abused as a deus ex machina plot device, but you get the idea; use within reason). Make sure that character’s motivation is a good fit – is he (I tend to think it would be a “he”, though a “she” could work just as well) deeply troubled, or does he have a twisted sense of humour, or perhaps a social or mental disability? – and plant some seeds for it early on. He could be anything from a “troll” to a “sassy mischief-maker”, from a “compulsive impulsive” to a “common-sensically-challenged dolt”, or from someone who thrives on beating long odds to a plain “tool” – and have fun with it.

Some characters that come to mind in some of my favourite stories who are unpredictable to some extent are the Fool from Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, and Auri from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Both were very positive characters; a negative example was The Joker from The Dark Knight (brilliantly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger), whose absolute lack of fear and lack of respect for anything arguably made the story much more interesting.

What are your favourite “Leeroy Jenkinses”? Have you ever created characters who cause chaos? Do you think it could be a good idea or is it something you’d rather stay away from?

Planning the perfect murder

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re some sort of law enforcement type, please go away. I’m not really planning an actual murder. Well, ok, it’s an actual murder, but not an actual person – just a fictional character.

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re a fan of murder mysteries, please go away. Well, all right, you can stay, but if you expect this post to be about whodunit-type writing, you’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid. I write fantasy at the moment, but I suppose the topic of this post applies to writing in general.

So gather ’round, the Internet is a big space, I’m sure we can squeeze all three of my followers in here.

For reasons I explained previously, I’ve had a stop-start-stop-start relationship with my writing recently. Partially because of time constraints, but also because… well, I’ve been putting off writing the next bit of glue that needs to hold some other pieces together. Not because of writer’s block or anything like that – thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with that. No, for me, that’s usually a sign that there’s something I don’t completely like about where my story is going, or how it’s going there. Consciously or unsubconsciously, I stop myself from doing what I was about to do.

Don’t tell anyone, but I often have some of my best ideas in the shower. I’m a morning person, but only if I have my hot shower to wake me up. Prior to that shower, I’m a grumpy zombie, hardly able to open my eyes. Once I’m in, I wake up and sometimes have some great thoughts. (I apologise if that’s more than you needed to know. I needed to say that for things to make sense. To me, at least; I have to read my posts too, you know. I’m getting to the point now, don’t you worry.)

Anyway, so as I woke up this morning, it struck me that what I needed to do was to kill off one of my characters. On some level, I’ve known that for a few days, but I like… her. (Going with “her” but not admitting it’s a female character. I just don’t want to be continually ambiguous in the next few sentences.)

People die in books all the time, but when I say “killing off a character”, I don’t mean that a writer’s protagonist walks along and suddenly a tree flattens some guy in the background. I mean that one of the major characters, whom a writer has spent some time and effort endearing to his readers, meets an untimely death, the description of which is bound to bring a tear to the eye (or at least a mental “Awww!”) of the emotionally invested reader.

One writer who is well-known for killing off major characters is George R. R. Martin. Incidentally, one of the reasons I like epic fantasy is because the writer can invest some time in endearing multiple characters to the reader, only to have them kick the bucket when it suits the writer or the plot (or not kick the bucket, and the reader will be interested in how the story continues for that character). Shorter books have a harder time evoking that “Awww!” effect, because the only way to get it when a character dies who hasn’t had much screen time (“page time” for books?) is to make it clear that a protagonist is negatively affected by the death, and to hope that the reader’s connection to the protagonist is sufficient to carry that emotion across from the dead-guy-to-protagonist relationship to the protagonist-to-reader relationship.

How do you go about planning the best way to kill off a character?

First, it’s important to remember that the story is more important than the character. As a writer, you tend to form a relationship with characters you’ve created (at least I do), but sometimes you have to create some emotional distance and sacrifice that character to the Story God for the greater good. Then, find a way that character can die, hopefully in the right spot inside the boring-gory-cheesy triangle. I could draw a picture of that, but it would probably just look silly – I’m hoping you’re with me without a visual aid. You don’t want the scene to be boring, but not so overly exciting that it comes across as cheesy. I guess gory could work in some genres, but mostly you want to a) make it unexpected, yet realistic, memorable, yet not too exotic, and b) emphasise the impact this character’s death has on your protagonist(s). For the death to serve your story, it has to lead to the protagonist doing something he would not otherwise have done.

The death is also a great chance to tell the reader more about your supporting cast by describing how they are affected by it. Villify the bad guy by describing how he just smirks, or humanise him by telling readers that he didn’t really want to go that far, or is filled with regrets. Show how the protagonist’s best friend is trying to put on a brave face because she knows how much the dead character meant to him, but inside she’s struggling not to break apart herself.

Have you committed any good fictional murders lately? Know any good tips for writers about how/when/why to kill off characters? Or do you have any “favourite” (good or bad) character deaths that affected you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

The Neverending Story – A to Z: N

N is for The Neverending Story, the timeless fantasy story by Michael Ende. It was first published in the original German in 1979 and later translated into over 30 languages. Part of the story (roughly the first half) was turned into a film; Ende actually sued the filmmakers for using the book’s name without adapting all of it, but lost the lawsuit. Two more films were made, but did not follow the book too closely, only using some of its characters and drastically changing story elements. I won’t go into the films here; as an aspiring writer, the book is of much more interest to me.

The Neverending Story - Cover

The Neverending Story – Cover of my German hardback copy (sorry, caught a bit too much flash)

One of the things that makes the book unique is the lengths Ende went to in order to have the book published the way he’d imagined it. I mentioned in my A to Z Challenge post on the topic of chapters the fancy artwork (by Roswitha Quadflieg) at the start of each of the 26 chapters, where an entire page is taken up by the drop cap for each letter in the alphabet from A to Z.

The Neverending Story - Chapter 1

The Neverending Story – Chapter 1 begins with the drop cap “A”

But wait, there’s more! This fantasy story is set in both our “real” world and “Fantastica” (the original German name “Phantásien” sounds much better to me, I don’t know why but can only guess that they couldn’t use “Phantasia” for copyright reasons), and, to emphasise when the story switches from one to the other, they are actually in different colours – red for the “normal” world, and blue-green for the world inside the book which the main character reads and into which he is drawn more and more as the story progresses.

The Neverending Story - Colours

The Neverending Story – Alternating colours help the reader differentiate the two worlds in which the story takes place

There is also fancy scrollwork at the top of each numbered page and there are fancy fonts for chapter titles, including within the chapter body.

The Neverending Story - Before Chapter 1

The Neverending Story – Fancy fonts just before the start of Chapter 1

At the very beginning of the prologue, there is a mirror image of the inscription of the glass door of the antiquity store in which the story begins.

The Neverending Story - Beginning

The Neverending Story – Beginning of the prologue with mirrored writing

In short, the book itself, even ignoring the content, is a minor work of art. The story was written with children in mind (although Ende complained that he was being pidgeon-holed as a “children’s book author” while many other books received less attention), but also contains many lessons for adults. Another one I’ve added to my growing “must re-read pile”.

Chapters – A to Z: C

C is for Chapters. Chapters typically divide distinct sections of a book so that words, sentences and paragraphs that belong together form a logical piece of a book. We all know what chapters are, but have you ever given much thought to how many different ways there are to use (or not use) chapters?

The grouping of pieces of a book into chapters can happen for a number of reasons, such as different points of view, different spans of time, to give the reader a natural time to take a break (or intentionally the opposite, with a mini-cliffhanger at the end of a chapter), or simply because the author wants to emphasise a change of pace, or attitude. A chapter can be a single sentence, or dozens of pages long.

There can be “special” chapters: the prologue and the epilogue to start and end a book, respectively. Often, these can be separate from the main story, or tell a piece of the story that lies outside the “normal” narrator’s knowledge, to offer the reader special insight to what’s going on.

Some authors don’t use chapters, even in rather long books. Wilbur Smith’s African-themed adventure novels come to mind: they’re usually divided into sections (separated by a row of a few asterisks) that can be any length, but no chapters. Many authors number their chapters, but some don’t. A chapter can be called simply “Chapter 5”, or it can have a heading of its own. It can be numbered or not; chapter titles can be unique or repeated. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, uses the name of the POV (point of view) character as the chapter heading but leaves them unnumbered. Some books, especially in sci-fi, can use dates or timestamps instead of chapter names.

Some authors use simple chapter titles, some use very descriptive or poetic ones. In some cases, chapter names or numbers can even be used to give the reader meta-information of some sort. The number of chapters can be significant or completely coincidental. Wikipedia’s article on book chapters has some interesting examples of unusual numbering schemes. Robin Hobb’s Farseer and The Tawny Man trilogies use short “meta-story” excerpts describing the first-person narrator’s experiences as he is writing the main story. Her Rain Wilds Chronicles use short letters sent by bird between the world’s birdkeepers; taken together, these tell a “meta-story” of their own. Patrick Rothfuss prefixes some chapter titles with “Interlude” to emphasise that these lie outside the main story, in the “story around the story”. Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story has 26 chapters, beginning with the letters A to Z, with fancy-looking drop caps specifically designed for the book by an illustrator – how fitting is that for the A to Z Challenge?!? 😉

The Neverending Story, Chapter 3

The Neverending Story begins each of the 26 chapters with a full-page drop-cap letter of the alphabet; Chapter 3 begins with “C”

Which chaptering style do you prefer a) in books you read, and b) in your own writing? Let me know in the comments.