Tag Archives: epic fantasy

Novel Update #3

Just a quick update on the progress of The Lost Tower:

Returning visitors to this blog may have noticed the progress bar in the upper right hand corner of the screen.  I draw your attention to this bar to spotlight the fact that this week I hit the 25% threshold of my original target word count of 100,000.  Now, that length is a standard novel, not the epic door stops typical of the genre, but good-sized for Book One in a series.

So, at 25,000+ words, why have I only written seven chapters?

Some of you may recall how I discussed the ever-changing traditional publishing market for fiction from first time authors, even within the realm of fantasy.  My goal this year was to outline and write a novel closer to that marketable length of 100,000 words.

Alas, two important things have happened:

  1. Although my target word count was and still is 100K words, after outlining and breaking down the outline by scenes, my revised estimate word count is close to double that.
  2. I have decided not to pursue an agent or traditional book publisher.  When completed, I will publish as en eBook directly to the Amazon Kindle store, the Barnes and Noble Nook store, and a few others.  So, if you don’t have an eReader yet, the make really great Christmas gifts for the readers in your family and circle of friends.

Some of you may be wondering if publishing electronically and bypassing the regular publishing route is wise.  I will post in the near future about the logic behind this decision and the tremendous opportunity it is when compared with the old way of publishing books.  In short, more people will be able to read my stories at a better price.

So, am I really 25% of the way finished?

Yes and No.

Yes to my original target.

No based on revised projections.

What does this mean?

It means I have a lot more writing to do to finish this novel by the end of the year so it is available for download by all those new eReaders everyone will be purchasing.

–Mark

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Outlines are still for Wimps

Back in January, I wrote about how outlines were for wimps, and how I finally had the courage to become a wimp. If you missed the original post, you can read it here.

The courage has paid off and although I didn’t finish the outline process in January as planned (I finished March 31, actually) I am very pleased with the process. I expect the next time I outline it will go much faster.

How did a discovery writer, like me, even attempt an outline when my only previous attempts at outlining were for college essays? A co-worker—who also happens to be a published writer—introduced me to a writing guru named Randy Ingermanson. His fiction writing web site is here.

Randy advocates his “Snowflake Method” of story design, or in other words, a method for outlining. So, I read the free article on his site. You can read it here.

The short version of the process is simple. You start with a single sentence description of your story and build on it in deliberate steps until you have a four-page story synopsis, a full scene and chapter list, and full-page character synopsis/description for each major character and a ½-page synopsis for secondary characters.

This process can take a month or more, and for me it took two. However, the results were worth it, because I now have well-defined characters, core story, and a plot that flows consistently and builds gradually from beginning to end. I even tamed the typically vast wasteland of the middle of the book by a careful outline detailing the scenes and goals for the characters in that section of the story.

Now that I’ve invested energy up front in what amounts to story planning, I expect the process of writing the first draft will be smoother and more consistent than for my previous works. I don’t expect to be stuck anywhere along the way wondering how I painted my characters and myself into the proverbial corner. There are no corners at this point, only smooth curves ahead.

What about the siren’s song of discovery writing? What of the joy some writers derive from experiencing the story as it unfolds along with the characters? Well, I had that satisfaction while I developed the outline. I conjured the important high level events and determined the path and obstacles the characters would face.

The Snowflake Method has a built-in revision process so that after each of the ten steps are achieved, you go back and update earlier design elements so that everything is in harmony. For example, you have written a one page story synopsis which describes the beginning middle and end of the story with key events and outcomes. In the next step, you do a more detailed character description and you discover that your character would do things a little differently than you first thought and so the outcome of one event would be different. You like the new idea better so you update the earlier story synopsis to match.

This is part of why this process talks a little longer because you are evolving the story/plot in parallel with the characters and cross-pollinating ideas and revising both to stay in sync. When I finished, in essence, the scene list combined with the four page story synopsis (and major character synopses) became a mini first draft and I see the whole story now with all its core elements. The discovery part that remains is how the characters will navigate this path. How will they react? What will they say and do? Will they decide to veer of course and cause me to change my outline? It may. I have already given myself permission now to change the outline. It is, after all, my outline and as the writer, I should not hold myself to any structure that gets in the way of telling the story in the best possible way.

To me, discovery writing is like riding a raw wave of creativity. It is exciting while it lasts, but eventually the tide turns and you are left with still waters.

Creativity in a raw form is also like a bare light bulb shining in all directions, bright and diffuse and illuminating everything. However, we can’t look at everything at once. Our binocular field of vision is ~140 degrees. So, by focusing that creativity via planning or outlining, we are in effect putting that light bulb into a cylinder with a lens and a reflector. Now we have a means to focus and aim that light to help us find the best path forward. A focused light also helps us see further down the path than we could otherwise see with an unfocused exposed light.

Creativity needs focus to produce results. Outlining provides focus for writers.

This may not work for everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with the middle of stories or novels, or sustaining a plot through the full length of your WIP, you may find that investing some bandwidth in story design is a possible solution.

The process so far has been successful for me. I am very pleased with the results. I’ll revisit this topic down the road to see if I still feel the same about the value of outlines when I’m deep in the middle of The Lost Tower first draft.

Has anyone else had any outlining success stories or learned any new tips or tricks since the beginning of the year?


Spring clean your mind

…and how to reboot those resolutions/goals you have already forgotten about.

It’s early March and the weather has turned.  Here in Phoenix it was 82 degrees today and that is okay with me.  On Saturday we recently decluttered our yard and garage and dumped a huge pile of debris on the sidewalk for the quarterly bulk goods pickup.  Today, that huge pile is gone, and our garage and yard look great.

This is the month where many of us go through this annual ritual of cleaning out the winter dust, rust, and cobwebs.  We toss out the stuff that has been collecting in the corners of our yard or garage because it has been just too cold or snowy or rainy to dispose of properly.

That time is now.

But should we stop there with the annual spring ritual?

I propose that we also need to cleanse our minds of all those useless, wasteful, irrelevant, and discarded artifacts of thought and memory that linger in the proverbial corners of our minds.  It’s junk, it’s clutter, and it’s in the way of a clear and present path forward.

What are some examples?

  • New Year’s Resolutions that you stopped pursuing the second week of January
  • The new hobby or project you started and then gave up on because it was too hard, too time intensive, or too expensive
  • The unformed or unfinished idea you had for a story, blog, or journal entry
  • The idea you had to improve a process or product at work that you wanted to spend more time developing
  • The trip you thought about planning, but never got around to it
  • The call you never made to that family member or friend who hasn’t heard from you and could use your support or wisdom

Now think of your own unfinished business, something that has been bugging your all winter that you just haven’t dealt with it.  That stuff piles up inside the mind and doesn’t go away unless it is addressed.

What to do?  Well, sort the piles and like that cable show, Clean House, create three virtual piles of your mental debris.

  1. Trash: to be thrown out and never worried about again
  2. Sell: to be given away to someone else who will have more use for it
  3. Keep: this is the stuff you value and you can keep using

Once things are sorted, administer the piles and move on.  The idea here is to toss or sell over 2/3 of the junk.  If you are keeping too much, the point of the exercise is defeated.  Your decluttered mind and psyche will thank you.

Okay, you’ve dealt with the piles, now what?  Is spring cleaning over?

Not quite.  You need to make a deal with yourself to keep things clean.  Don’t let the junk pile up again.  Monitor that unnecessary stuff and sort and clear daily or weekly.  Write it all down if that helps.  Especially the mental junk you want to throw away.  Write down a useless thought, feeling, memory, or idea on a piece of actual paper and either crumple and toss in the wastebasket or burn in the fireplace.  Sometimes the physical act of destroying such mental debris is cathartic and frees you to focus on what is really important.

You’re asking yourself if I follow my own advice….okay, let’s work though an example.

At the end of last year, I hit a mini-slump in writing my epic fantasy novel when the market changed to limit the size of first books from new authors.  After spending over a year on it, I had developed an unhealthy pile of useless thoughts and emotions about the subject.  I had two choices, I could despair or use the information to my advantage.  So, at the beginning of this year I began outlining a prequel that will more closely align with the market AND will better set the stage for my original novel.  I knew it was the right plan for 2011 and I was comfortable with my path.

Early in February I started have winter thoughts about the setback.  I had lost 15 months of time on that halted novel.  I was starting over and the outline was going much slower than expected.  I got sick and missed two weeks of writing.  Woe is me!

Waa, is right.  Play me a violin.  To anyone else it would be no big deal, but to me it was becoming a big roadblock that I was creating for myself.  I was starting to question my decision to write using an outline (click for a previous post on outlines).  I was supposed to start writing the first draft on February 1st and as March approached and the personal deadline was missed, my frustration trebled.

Then I had enough of the nonsense and took a figurative Mr. Clean to the roadblock thoughts and recommitted myself to a well designed plan of writing an outline so my first draft goes smoothly, and I don’t hit any dead ends.

That’s it.  Done.  Junk thoughts have been trashed.  The soil of my mind, after a long hibernation, is now ready for new seeds to be planted, new ideas (click for a previous post on ideas) to take root and grow because I’ve pulled all the weeds and killed all the pests.  Only good bugs remain, and good seeds.

Spring cleaning of the mind can be done.  I just did it.

Get rid of what is in your way and revisit those goals and resolutions you thought important at the beginning of the year.

It’s spring.  Things grow in spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can too.

–Mark


Where do ideas really come from – part 2?

It has been a full growing season since I compared ideas to seeds planted in the soil of our minds and compared the development of an idea to a seedling that needed care and tending.

The original post is not surprisingly, named: Where do ideas really come from?  You may wish to refresh you memory by reading it here.

That was a fairly comprehensive discussion on my perspective on the age-old question writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  There were some great comments worthy of review as well.

So, what else is there to say in the matter?

As gardeners know, not every seed planted, however rich and prepared the soil, germinates and grows into a seedling and eventually a full-sized plant capable of bearing fruit.  Every seed packet you buy from the hardware store or nursery has instructions on the back about how many seeds to plant together, how deep, how far apart, and how long the seeds typically need to germinate.

Even then, some seeds just don’t grow.  Why?

Consider the incredible, but true, story of the Chinese bamboo tree:

“The process goes like this: You take a little seed, plant it, water it, and fertilize it for a whole year, and nothing happens.

The second year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens.

The third year you water it and fertilize it, and nothing happens. How discouraging this becomes!

The fourth year you repeat with the same frustrating results.

The fifth year you continue to water and fertilize the seed and then–take note.  Sometime during the fifth year, the Chinese bamboo tree sprouts and grows NINETY FEET IN SIX WEEKS!

Life is much akin to the growing process of the Chinese bamboo tree. It is often discouraging. We seemingly do things right, and nothing happens. But for those who do things right and are not discouraged and are persistent things will happen. Finally we begin to receive the rewards.”

What does this mean for writers and other creative types?

It means that often the best ideas take significant time to germinate in our minds, to develop those deep roots into our subconscious to strengthen and stabilize the idea so that when it does sprout, it can be dramatic how quickly the idea matures and is ready for harvesting into a story, painting, poem, sculpture, music composition, or whatever you are pursuing.

Some ideas take time to develop and mature and while it may seem that nothing is happening, you must continue to nurture and fertilize and fill your creative mind with nutrients so that the long period of germination for those great ideas have a chance.

If you give up and let the idea die, you will never know how much foundation had been already laid in your mind.

Some ideas will sprout and grow quickly, take advantage of those opportunities, but like most gardeners will tell you, your garden should have variety for the most satisfying yields.  If you focus on one big idea, your patience may be tested.  Why not invest your time and energy in both short-term, quick win ideas AND the long-term ideas than can bring great rewards down the proverbial road.

I’m doing this very thing with my own writing.  As some of you may recall, I started world-building for my epic fantasy trilogy back in August of 2009.

Giant Bamboo in Ecuador with a person next to ...

Image via Wikipedia

Nearly two years later I am still planting and cultivating new ideas to supplement the harvest of the big idea that got me started.  Since I plan to write at least three novels in this series, I need sustainable ideas that will yield continuous results.  That is a different idea gardening strategy than planting small quick idea seeds to write short stories or poems.

In addition, I also have my own bamboo idea that is in its 10th year of germination (okay so this one stretches the bamboo metaphor too far, but bear with me).  This is another epic fantasy world that I began designing in 2001.  It was way too ambitious for me as a younger writer, so I am letting this big idea develop very slowly.

I hope the roots are going deep so that when I’m ready to write it, it will grow into a complete series as fast as the bamboo tree, relatively speaking.

Some ideas take time and the time waiting for them to mature can often yield amazing results.  Who knows, you may soon have a whole forest of ideas.

Have any of you had bamboo tree-like experiences with ideas of any kind?

In everything you do in your family, keep in mind the miracle of the Chinese bamboo tree. After the seed for this amazing tree is planted, you see nothing, absolutely nothing, for four years except for a tiny shoot coming out of a bulb. During those four years, all the growth is underground in a massive, fibrous root structure that spreads deep and wide in the earth. But then in the the fifth year the Chinese bamboo tree grows up to eighty feet!“Many things in family life are like the Chinese bamboo tree. You work and you invest time and effort, and you do everything you can possibly do to nurture growth, and sometimes you don’t see anything for weeks, months, or even years. But if you’re patient and keep working and nurturing, that “fifth year” will come, and you will be astonished at the growth and change you see taking place. 

“Patience is faith in action. Patience is emotional diligence. It’s the willingness to suffer inside so that others can grow. It reveals love. It gives birth to understanding.”

From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen R. Covey (pp. 22-23)


Escaping market slavery

There are two schools of thought, residing at opposite ends of a spectrum, about how creative people approach the market with their works.  One side advocates writing (or filming, painting, programming) what makes you happiest, regardless of the market.  This often leads to quality work that may never find an audience.  The creator’s satisfaction coming solely from the work itself.

The other side advocates writing (or creating) what is popular, what people already like, or what the market already endorses.  This perspective may take advantage of an existing audience, but often the work is of inferior quality and doesn’t keep the audience engaged for long.  The creator may find an audience and get compensation , but the satisfaction may be either short-lived or hollow.

What then is a writer (or artist) to do?  Be true to one’s art and broke, or sell out and earn a few bucks?  Does it even matter?

Well let’s take an easy pot shot at Hollywood.  How many of us have observed that Hollywood seems to churn out more sequels than original movies?  How many of those original movies seem like movies we’ve seen before, just with different actors and settings?  How often have you left a movie with the same feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much theater popcorn:  a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

But then every so often a movie comes along that seems ahead of its time, is true to the vision of the director and writer and is a movie that you either watch again soon or talk about with everyone you know.

For me, Inception was that movie.  It was unlike any movie I’d ever seen and yet was so compelling, so watchable, so intricate, and so satisfying.  A satisfaction that still lingers.  A satisfaction that reminds me of a New York strip steak  from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  It was savory to consume and a pleasure to digest.  Just like the movie, Inception.

Movies like that and The Matrix, ten years ago, show that creative vision and execution can create a new market or tap into the existing market in a different way.  Let’s face it, a great movie grows through word of mouth, or buzz, much more than advertisements and TV commercials.

So, the lesson to be learned for creative people pursuing the art of their choice, is to understand the market well enough to mold your vision into a form that will satisfy both needs, self-actualization and a connection with an audience.

If you choose to write (or create) for your own interest, then it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else wants.  You will find joy in the creation and achievement or your artistic vision.  And you will likely get supportive comments from friends and family.  And that is a great way to go.

However, if you intend to sell your work in any form, then you will need to understand the audience enough so that your vision allows a connection of ideas.  This does not mean that you jump on the latest trend and become a copycat creator.  Those bandwagons are usually already full and by the time you complete and present your work, the trend may have passed and you will be left behind.

A better strategy is to look for gaps or lulls in the market and fill them with the best quality work you can produce.  Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight at a time when the teen vampire market was concentrated around Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television and Anne Rice had long since moved on to non-vampire writings.  There was a gap and she filled it with a compelling emotional story that became hugely popular in just a few short years.

There are many who claim that J.K. Rowling is a genius of audience analysis because her Harry Potter series is set predominantly against the backdrop of a school for wizards.  Her young audience is all in school, and so it is a setting they can relate to.  And older readers all remember their school days, so it brings back memories for them.  Add to that the wonder of a hidden world of magic and likable, three-dimensional characters and you have a recipe for success.

Now we all can’t strike proverbial market nirvana like Meyer or Rowling, but we can understand what has been produced over the past twenty years, attempt to forecast what the next ten years might look like and then seek to carve out our own market niche.

This means we avoid either extreme of the conventional schools of thought and blaze a new path, one that leads to a synthesis of our creative vision and the wants of our target audience.

For me, I pay attention to the fantasy genre.  I’ve read the classics and the not so classics.  I’ve read as many of the newer releases as I could and I’ve studied what makes them work.  By understanding what was come before, I can ensure I capture those universal elements in fantasy fiction that readers expect.  By tracking what is being released and is successful now, I can ascertain what new elements are attracting readers to the fantasy genre.  Also, I understand what I should avoid, so that my work does NOT appear too derivative or imitative.  Armed with this market knowledge, I am now writing my contribution to the field, hoping what I sow will give me something to reap in the near future.

While the adage “a writer writes” is true, that is not enough for a career in writing.  Perhaps I should revise that mantra to “a published writer writes to capture a share of the market”.

Does anyone out there have any success in escaping market slavery and becoming a master?


Novel Update #2

As is often the case when starting a big writing project, a writer finds himself at a crossroads.  My writing pilgrimage began in the summer of 2009 with the intent to write the first book in an epic fantasy series.  15 months and 90,000 words later, I discovered that the market currently does not support first novelists with long books (meaning 120,000 words is the ceiling).  Since my book was on pace for 180,000 words, I was going to be significantly over the acceptable limit.

What to do?  Stop writing and grumble about the state of the market?  Resurrect old writing projects, like a romantic comedy screenplay?  Read some more how to books?  Play a new video game?

Or all of the above, in my case.  So how is this a novel update?  After several weeks of writerly angst and some very good advice from my wife, who is also my muse, I decided to write a “prequel” novel to my epic fantasy series that is much shorter and more suitable for the current market.

Why do this?

Here are the benefits:

  1. I’ve already done all the world building for this series of books.  Many of the same characters are already developed and a prequel just captures events when they are younger.
  2. The prologue to my last year’s big novel is actually the end of what will be the prequel.
  3. The whole story deepens and all characters have much greater motivations be telling the story in the prequel.
  4. Just like The Hobbit is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, my prequel will tell an earlier, but essential beginning to the overall story and sets the stage nicely for all this is come.
  5. The last year’s big novel will need far less back story and fewer flashbacks because those events will actually occur in the prequel.
  6. When I resume writing last year’s big novel, I will already be half-finished.
  7. I will be a better writer after the prequel is written and will be able to add new skill to complete last year’s novel.

So, the very short version of the update is that I’m starting a new novel with a working title of “The Lost Tower.”  For those who recall, last year’s big novel was called “The Tower” but is now entitled “The Codex of Shrines.”

I am currently outlining the story and writing new character biographies.  I expect to begin writing the first draft by the first of February.  I did not outline last year, so I expect to be more focused and more productive with fewer stalls or detours this year.

As a reader, we don’t often realize what happens backstage with the writer and his story before it is published.  We only see the books on the shelves or online in a catalog.  Often each published novel has an interesting story of its own in how it came to be.  And hopefully THAT story is not more interesting than novel itself.

May we all overcome perceived roadblocks in our pursuit of goals and at year’s end be able to look back with satisfaction at what we have accomplished.

–Mark


How not to set the stage

 

Photo by prozac1 on freedigitalphotos.net

 

How many times have you picked up a promising book based on an appealing cover design and an evocative title only to be disappointed a few pages into the first chapter because you don’t feel properly oriented to the time and place of the story?  Or on the other extreme, the author spends the first several pages describing not only the immediate setting of the story, but its history as well?

What is it that bothers us in these stories?  Even if we don’t recognize the flaw as being the setting itself, what signs point to either a too heavy hand or a too light hand in revealing the setting?  As we all know, according to Wikipedia: “A setting is the time, place and social environment in which a story takes place.”  Without setting, the characters act out their parts on an empty stage, a blank canvas, with no context for their actions.

For writers and readers of epic fantasy fiction and other speculative genres, setting is especially important for a new and different world needs to be explained to the reader so the story will make sense.  Again, I ask how is this done?  Rather than give a list of all the things you should do in your writing, or all the things that you shouldn’t see when you read a well written story, I’m going to do the opposite.

If you read or write any of the following (in no particular order), you will have successfully discovered bad examples of setting.

  • Assume the reader has seen all the science fiction or fantasy movies and does not need the flora, fauna, architecture, or weather described.  Let the reader imagine EVERYTHING, because after all, aren’t speculative fiction fans the savviest readers?  Everyone knows what an alien or a dragon or a sword looks like.  Why waste precious story time on describing such common things?
  • Readers don’t have an imagination and need everything described to them in infinitesimal detail.  How could a reader possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig, termite, and root.  Don’t forget the special way the wind blows through this tree and how it sways as if dancing to an inner tree music.  Remember to point out the way light catches on the silvery bark at sunrise and the seventeen distinct insects and animals that inhabit the tree in various ways.  The readers want to know all this.  A story about the trees and insects is more interesting than one about people and their struggles, right?
  • Why not make it easy on the reader and use phrases and descriptions that everyone already knows so the story can focus on the characters and plot.?  “Dark and stormy night”, “thick as pea soup”, “pretty as a picture”, “deep blue sea”, “smooth as glass”, and “quiet as a mouse” and dozens of others will do the trick nicely.  Why make it hard on everyone?  Use as many clichés as possible so that your setting is as clear as the blue sky.
  • Keep your thesaurus handy because the only words that truly describe the setting in the story are those obscure terms that no one uses or recognizes anymore.  Don’t they have just the perfect pitch of meaning for what is intended and doesn’t everyone want to learn new words while reading a story?  Doesn’t everyone like stopping in the middle of a scene to look up a word that make no sense to them?
  • Don’t bother with world-building, it is a waste of your precious writing time.  A time efficient writer, doesn’t lose hours in research.  Write the story and make up anything that you don’t know about castle drawbridges or the speed of horses or the winter weather patterns in a northern climate in mid-winter.  Readers and editors are forgiving.  No one will mind if the horse in your story can run eighty  miles an hour when real ones can only run in the forties.
  • Ensure that not a single fact of your two-year world-building binge is lost.  It is essential that the reader know every fact about everything you’ve researched or developed for your world.  And why not?  Your world is so unique that no one could possibly imagine the trees in the forest unless you describe them down to each leaf, blossom, twig and root AND make sure the exotic name you’ve concocted for oak tree, “egetræ”, becomes part of the reader’s vocabulary.  (For the record, “egetræ” actually means oak tree in Danish.)  You can’t possibly let a single bit of your research be lost, it must end up in the story to justify the time spent.

You’ll notice the bullets above are listed by pairs of opposite extremes.  If any of the above are happening in stories you are reading or are writing then you may be experiencing some examples of how not to write setting.

I’m personally guilty of the fourth bullet about using the thesaurus.  One reviewer in my writers group called me on this in the Prologue and Chapter One of my current novel in progress.  Needless to say, I’ve corrected the problem using more normal words.  Ironically, the meaning wasn’t lost.

Do you have any examples that stand out to you?


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.