Crafting a Series

In one of my first blogs I wrote that I enjoyed writing a fantasy novel that was stand-alone. The story was completely encapsulated. In Ahvarra the mystery at the center of the story is resolved, and each of the characters finds resolution. I have always been fond of Guy Gavriel Kay’s works, because most of his works are also stand-alone.

However.

Several of the first handful of reviews on Amazon indicated liking the world I’d created so much that they hope for sequels that will explore more of it. And so I indulged my imagination and started down the path of what that would mean. Should I write a direct sequel? What would the conflict be? Which of the key characters would it involve? Would it require going back through the Heart again?

And I came to various conclusions. The first is that, yes, the world on the other side of the Heart can support additional stories. The second is that, no, those stories do not require all the same characters. 

What I have, therefore, is an idea that will span four books. The first, obviously, was Ahvarra. I am busy writing the second, which will not involve characters that were in Ahvarra. The third book won’t involve characters from the first two either. But, like Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere universe, the world-building, magic systems and terminology inherent in Ahvarra will stretch across the series. The fourth book will, in my mind, bring characters from the first three together for one epic conclusion. 

So, three separate books, separate stories, separate characters, all in the same world with that world’s rules. With a fourth that brings matters to a head, as it were. 

One of the more interesting trends these days is major writers using self-publishing to bridge major books in their series via novellas. Brian McClellan is doing this successfully with the Powder Mage series and Patrick Rothfuss has also gotten into the mix with a novella in the Kingkiller Chronicles. Which of course gets my imagination flowing. Because certainly how each of the story threads–and the characters who will retain importance in the world–will need to get from their point of origin to where book four finds them, may be of interest to fans. And so telling those stories might also involve novellas. 

For those of you who think “ugh, another series” fret not. Like Ahvarra, book two will be stand-alone. And so will book three. You could read them by themselves and be entertained. Book four will likely be a challenge, as familiar faces from the first three will return. 

All in all it’s been a fun challenge over the past couple of months, seeing how readers have responded positively to Ahvarra and setting my imagination to how to craft more stories from its world. I hope each of the books entertains the readers as much as imagining them–and writing them–entertains me.

Making and/or Finding Time To Write – It’s Called Prioritizing

Some of the best novels ever imagined were never written. The would-be author had a fantastic idea, a vivid set of characters, interactions, conflicts, worlds to explore … and the would-be author never found the time to write. One of the keys to writing, of course, is the actual writing. Yes, interaction is key, living is key. People who tend to closet themselves in a, well, closet, don’t tend to write the most believable characters nor do they write stories most of us can relate to. Why? Because they aren’t out there interacting with the rest of the human race to determine what interests us.

And so the challenge, of course, is finding the time or making the time. Almost every author you run across will tell you this simple recipe: “Write.” They will follow that up with “Write write write write write write” because, quite simply, to get from that blank page staring at you to the last period on the last page takes quite a bit of energy. You can do it, but it’s going to be like the caterpillar turning into a butterfly. There’s a transformation that takes place when the images in your head become words on a page, and when those words begin to flow of their own volition and begin to create new images you hadn’t originally imagined, it’s something that will transform you. 

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first shot at it or your nth, the process begins anew each time you start with that blank page one.

One of the biggest challenges is time. The magic words will be “find the time to write” or “make the time to write.” While we could work with Neil deGrasse Tyson to try and slow the Earth’s rotation to add a couple hours to each day, what this boils down to is “stop doing something else you’re doing and write instead.” Because, let’s face it, life is busy.

For instance: I have a job. A full-time-get-up-at-6:30-don’t-get-home-til-after-5pm job. And it can be exhausting. I’ve had days where I’ll have 14 or 15 meetings strung together like Christmas lights: a green meeting where everything is good followed by a red one where everything is in the ditch. I also have a renewed interest in getting back into shape. I have two teenage boys who regularly need homework attention. We like to have dinner together. We like to do all sorts of things together. My wife and I like to watch a little TV to unwind before we go to bed.

By the time Friday morning’s alarm wakes me, I’m pretty much toast.

So, let’s pull out the recipe book and make some time. Or don our Indiana Jones hat and whip and find some.

Bottom line: there’s no magic pill to take to find or make time. There’s no amount of preaching a writer can do to you or you can do to yourself to “just write.” It comes down to prioritizing. 

Do you want to write?

Then do less of something else. 

There are writers who carve out the same schedule every week to write. Three hours every Saturday morning is writing time. That won’t work for everyone, because there will be times when you stare at the screen for three hours and it stares back. Not everyone can schedule inspiration. But you do need to determine what works best for you and then stick to it. 

Trust me: getting your novel written is just step one. You need to get feedback on it. You need to incorporate feedback. There will be moments when you’ll want to drag the entire thing to the trash bin, hit the empty button and go watch Game of Thrones. There might be tears. There will undoubtedly be arguments. 

But what this comes down to is you. Not making time, but making the decision to write. I can promise you this: the journey from blank page to last period is a daunting one, a quest that will push you, break you, build you back up again, and ultimately fulfill you. But only you can make that journey. 

If you prioritize it as part of your life.

Now, I could write tonight… but I’m going to watch Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals with my family. And that’s my decision, my choice on how to prioritize my time tonight.

Fitbit One – The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is Not A Line

This review has some back story to it. A few years ago, I had gotten quite … what’s the word… chunky. Chubby. Pudgy. Definitely thick around the middle. My wife and I both went into overdrive to get healthy, using a site called SparkPeople to log our calorie intake and making a concerted effort at exercise. At the time, I was working from home and the boys were being home-schooled. So no commute to work meant I had about 70 minutes every day that I wasn’t stuck in a car. I got into running and, during the winter, made it to the gym.

The pants went from a size 38″ to a 36″ to a 34″. Had to go to the jeweler to re-size my wedding band because it was falling off my finger. Long story short: I lost almost 30 pounds.

And then life changed. 

I changed jobs and needed to go back to the office. I figured, “All I need to do is maintain my weight, so how hard can that be?” In other words, I stopped using SparkPeople to log what I was eating. Here’s a quick formula for you: Stop exercising + Stop counting calories = Weight Gain.

The 34″s are in the back of the closet. Didn’t quite need to take out the 38″s thankfully, and while the ring is a bit snug I didn’t need a trip to the jeweler’s. But both of those things lurked if I didn’t change something.

So …. ugh. Enter Back on the Program Take II. 

Definitely went right back to SparkPeople. Great site for logging everything you eat. Just about everything and anything you can eat can be found there. And now they have a handy “scan the barcode” portion of their mobile app that makes it even easier. Other members of the site share their foods as well, so there’s a massive database of food. Once you get your favorites going over a period of time, they’re right there for you to click on and add as you’re eating. 

The bigger challenge was exercise. The new job doesn’t leave a ton of time for getting to the gym, especially during the week, so how to ensure I was burning more than I was eating? 

Enter the Fitbit One . As usual I hemmed and hawed over which fitness tracker to use. And with so many new ones about to hit the market, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to jump in or wait it out. But my wife, who is the Queen of Research, finally took the plunge on a Fitbit One. And like the iPad and the laptop she also brought into the house, I oooh’d and awwww’d over it and bought myself one a week later. 🙂

The Fitbit tracks a lot of stuff. Your steps, your active minutes, the number of floors you walk up (it has an altimeter), and works that out to calorie burn. It syncs with SparkPeople so that you can see whether what you’re burning is more than what you’re taking in. And it allows you to change all the settings for each one of these for daily goals. It also has a sleep mode to tell you how long and how well you’re sleeping, which I find very interesting. And then, to boot, it sends you a weekly view of all of this data in an email or you can pull it up directly from their site or the mobile app. 

All of which makes it a great little device. But how do you make sure you’re getting your steps every day? How do you get from Point A (your current weight) to Point B (your goal weight) when you have to commute to work every day and sit in meetings?

This is where the title of this little blog comes in. This is how the Fitbit motivates. Need to make a Mother Nature stop? Don’t visit the nearest bathroom. Need to have a 1 on 1 meeting with an employee? Ask if they’d like to walk (either outside or inside) for the discussion. Need to carry groceries in from the car? Make two trips instead of one. The son’s breakfast is in the toaster? Don’t stand there and wait for it, make a couple trips around the island while you wait for it to pop.

You get the picture. This is where the Fitbit really makes you work for your steps. Unless I’m really in a hurry, I’m taking a meandering path to where I’m going. I actually don’t mind having to go back upstairs for something if I’ve forgotten it on the way down. 

The Fitbit has made me cognizant of how much I’m moving, and it’s making me aware that I can take those extra few minutes to put a few extra steps in between where I am and where I’m headed. And that’s helping me get from where I was weight-wise to where I want to be. After three weeks I’m down more than eight pounds, thanks to both Fitbit and SparkPeople.

And it’s also working for our dogs, because my wife and I get a few extra steps in after dinner walking them around the neighborhood. 🙂

From Good to Bad – Why Fantasy’s Heroes Are Changing For the Better

I came across two entirely separate comments recently that got me thinking about the heroes in modern fantasy. The first comment actually came from a reviewer of my novel who indicated that she was surprised that one of my bad guys had “kind of” redeemed himself. The second comment came from Mark Lawrence, the author of Prince of Thorns, whose series is being considered for a television show. The question was this: “Is Jorg too bad to be commercial as a lead”?

And so I got to thinking about the morality of fantasy heroes. James Sutter wrote a guest essay about this very topic a few years ago, and it contains many of the thoughts I considered putting down here: http://suvudu.com/2011/11/guest-essay-james-l-sutter-the-gray-zone-moral-ambiguity-in-fantasy.html. To summarize: fantasy has grown up. It is no longer a world where good and evil are easily identified as separate players on a chessboard.  

And that’s a good thing.

Why is moral ambiguity, the “graying” of characters, a good thing? Because when you read a work of fiction, it always works best when you can relate to a character. And most mature readers are going to relate to mature characters… and most mature characters are neither a Knightly Paragon of Virtue nor the Harbinger of Ultimate Evil. Most characters fall somewhere in between, and when as writers we can bring the realism of a character’s moral compass, that tendency to “sway into the gray,” then readers relate.

Sutter wrote about the success of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and certainly there is plenty to like in Martin’s world. But Martin is just one of the modern fantasists helping to mature the characters in this genre. Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers is a perfect example of a character you absolutely love, but who has a dark side a mile wide. The aforementioned Prince Jorg of Lawrence’s Broken Empire series is another such anti-hero. You both cheer for these characters and cringe at what they’re capable of doing.

And so too with my own characters. Even those readers would call “bad.” I didn’t necessarily want to write good characters or bad characters. I want to write characters who resemble real people. Characters with goals, loves, hates, ambitions, dreams. Those goals might be seen as worthy or reprehensible, but the important part is that those characters truly believe in what they’re doing. 

Perhaps more important than what these characters are capable of is how these characters feel afterwards. Logen is almost apologetic at what he accomplishes as The Bloody Nine. And anyone who’s ever seen or felt the passion related to an athlete saying “whatever it takes” can relate to Jorg. These characters don’t necessarily want to be bad, but they have to do bad things to achieve their goals. And those goals are typically things the reader recognizes as worthy.

What all of this means is that when you pick up a fantasy novel, don’t expect the typical cardboard cut out of a one-dimensional character. That knight in shining armor isn’t automatically a “good” guy, and that guy with the dark cloak and the pointed beard isn’t automatically a “bad” guy. 

Or maybe they are. But it’s also quite possible that that knight will do terrible things to achieve what you’d consider a “good” end. And that that “bad” guy with the pointed beard can redeem himself in the end by doing something amazing.

Advice to Writers – Do More Than Write… Live

I follow quite a few authors on Twitter, and I read quite a few blogs on writing advice. The one thing it boils down to, what is repeated over and over, is that writers write. Write, the tweets say. Write! the blogs say. Write write write. Just write.

And I thought about this advice, and while I’m not going to say it’s wrong, I think the advice is making an assumption. That assumption is that you have something to write about. And finding that requires more than just sitting down at the writing device of your choice and just writing. 

Writing requires living first. And then writing about it.

The old adage, of course, is to write what you know. That’s why so many writers are more experienced; they know more. Or at least the assumption is that they do. I resemble this remark. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started, some thirty years ago. When I started, I sat down and I wrote. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. 

But I hadn’t really lived yet. Hell, I hadn’t even done much reading, so I was just putting words to page.

So – things to do if you plan to write. Let’s make a list:

  1. Read. Read as much as you can. Read in the genre you want to write in, read in the genres you don’t want to write in, read novels, short stories, blogs, news articles, screenplays, poetry, etc. Why? Because it helps you construct. Reading what others write can inspire you and will most certainly influence you. So read.
  2. Interact. Get out and talk with people. People older than you, people younger than you. Talk with a child. Talk with a grandparent. Dialog can be one of the most difficult things to get right when you’re writing. The best way to make it work? Talk to people. And not on Twitter. The other great thing about dialog is what people are saying with their eyes, with the slope of their shoulders, with their hands. Does the smile reach their eyes? Do they look tired, worn? Does that come through in what they’re saying to you? This is all critically important as you sit down to write, because it gives your characters depth.

  3. Act it out. Does your character like to cook? Try your hand at cooking. Does he swing a sword? Find one or something of similar weight and swing it around for a while. I have a sword. It’s heavy. It gives me a better appreciation for my characters who lug it around sheathed on their backs or drag it from a scabbard and start fighting with it. Have you ever been in a fight? I’m not suggesting you get into a fracas for the sake of your art, but if you’re like almost anyone else these days, you’ve either been in a scrap at some point in your life or played a contact sport where it feels like you have. Get to the gym and lift some weights, do some cardio… and remember how sore you are, because if your characters are active or need to push their limits, they might also be sore. In short, if your characters is doing it, try it out for yourself (without doing anything illegal, obviously).

Writing is more about just writing. It’s about the characters who are going to experience a conflict, which is the basis for a story. Those characters need to be recognizable to the reader. A writer who just writes is possibly not as skilled at making that character recognizable. 

So my advice to writers? Read, talk, laugh, drink, argue, smile, jump, run, cook, love, hate, play, eat, shop, frown, care for a pet.

In short: live.

And then write about it.

Influencers, Initiators, Inspirers, Intimidators

Conventional wisdom has it that there are no new stories, that everything we write has been written before. And so it’s no surprise that once we like an author, we hop out onto Google and ask “authors like <insert your favorite author here>” to try and find our next reading fix. Regardless of whether the story itself is new, the way it’s being told is new, the characters who are experiencing it are new, and most importantly, the readers can’t get enough of it.

So it’s not surprising that I was asked recently whom my influences are. People want to know the types of authors I read, with the expectation that those authors are influencing me. And they’re right. I wanted to answer that I’ve read thousands of books, which I have, across all genres, which is true, by authors across multiple centuries. But of course my interrogator was looking for something recent, something that would tell him whether it was worth his while to check out my book. And given that I’m in the business of selling my book, I revealed the following: Guy Gavriel Kay for his style, Brandon Sanderson for his magic systems, and Joe Abercrombie for his action. 

There is no doubt that these authors–these artists–influence my writing. But it goes deeper than that. For to be a writer, it takes someone to set your feet on the path, someone to initiate that spark. It takes others to inspire you to continue to write. And sometimes, those who influence you also intimidate you. 

My Initiator

I believe it was the 10th grade when Billy Budd was on the reading list for my English class. As many will attest, being forced to read anything, regardless of whether it is claimed a classic, can be considered torture, especially when you’re sixteen. My friend Kirk and I sat in English class, loathing Melville for putting this story and this character to paper. And this isn’t exactly a lengthy tome, weighing in at a mere 116 pages (according to the Amazon mass market paperback). But as many of you will also attest, when you’re sixteen, you really aren’t catching on to what you should be catching on to in classic literature. I was a much better reader of literature when I chose which books to read, when I picked up Hemingway and Steinbeck and others of my own free will. But no matter. At sixteen, toward the back of the class, on those hard chairs, staring at Melville’s Billy Budd, listening to our teacher exhort the power of the written word… it was like throwing wiffle balls at bricks. We just weren’t getting it. 

So Kirk turns to me and says, “We can write better than this.”

Now, there’s no doubt that this was incredible hubris. A boast. And yet… for the better part of my life since that day, I’ve been writing. So thank you, Herman Melville. Thank you for writing Billy Budd.

 

My Inspirers

I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, as that is the genre in which I write. I didn’t start there. I started with spy stuff, with a character named Ian Gemini in a horrible James Bond knockoff. When I published Ahvarra recently, a friend on Facebook told me he wouldn’t read it unless Ian was mentioned. I laughed because even I’d forgotten about that book. I stayed in that space for a while, writing books based on what I was reading: Ian Fleming, Robert B. Parker. But there came a point when my imagination wanted to run a bit wild, when I wanted things to work that simply don’t in the real world. 

And that’s about when a co-worker handed me Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair. I’d read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but we’ll get to those in a moment. What Williams did was open my eyes to the possibilities. Here was a world of his making that was huge and open, seen through the eyes of a boy running for his life. It is one of my favorite books of all time, and the series is a fantastic achievement. I was so thrilled at the recent announcement that Williams is returning to Osten Ard for a new trilogy. 

But now I was rolling. My imagination was let loose, and the previous books felt like a warm-up act for the main event. And as the years have crawled by, I fold more authors into the fold for their inspiration. Kay’s Tigana proved to me that you don’t need elves in a fantasy. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga showed me that heroes don’t have to be brawny knights bathed in glory and might. Abercrombie illustrated that every character is a shade of gray. Also, if you ever want to know what it feels like to be punched in the face, you can either ask someone to punch you in the face or you can read Abercrombie’s action scenes, because he puts you right in front of that fist coming at you. No one better. Sanderson turns magic into a character in itself, and its consistency across his Cosmere is a marvel.

These are just a few, and each year I add others. There is always something I’m reading that gets my brain churning, gets my creative juices flowing. There are a few authors, however, for which I’ll drop everything to read. When the galley edition of Abercrombie’s Half a King showed up on my Kindle tonight, I leapt in immediately. And so far, it feels like there’s a little bit of Bujold’s Miles in Yarvi. 

My Intimidators

Here’s where inspiration meets “holy shit what did I just read why in the hell do I think I could even come close to doing something like this.” Let’s face it. There are books that I have read that are so great, so awesome, that they actually intimidate me. Back to Kay again, whose A Song for Arbonne is such an elegant piece of art that I wasn’t sure I needed to read anything else, let alone write anything, for a short time after completing it. I mentioned The Lord of the Rings earlier. This monumental effort occupied Tolkien’s life. To read it is to clearly understand that you are getting but a glimpse into an entire history of a place and time that are outside anything else you’ve ever read, that each and every character has a lineage, that each and every place has a history that is steeped in time. 

I am in awe of Tolkien, as any writer should be. 

 

At the end of the day, those who intimidate are there to set the bar. I may have thought, at sixteen, that I could eclipse Billy Budd, but I know, thirty years later, that I still have plenty far to go to reach the heights of Kay, Tolkien and others. But that’s good. That’s why I write. To better my craft so that I can entertain my readers. And to aspire to one day inspire–or initiate, or maybe even intimidate–others who choose the same profession.