In the beginning….how Rhune starts out

Today’s post is going to be another quick one as I want to get back into the thick of things.  But since I started writing recently,  it seems important to at least mention some things about my first chapter.  Keep in mind that this blog is not an “advice” blog, but more of a chronicle of what I’m doing and why.  It’s apparent to me that there are some writers who are planning to extrapolate some of  what I’m saying here to their own writing…and this may be one of those cases where you shouldn’t do what I say.  I will provide a post for what I “advise” writers who are staring out…but keep in mind that I’ve been doing this for 20 years and have 22 novels under my belt so my approach probably isn’t appropriate for new writers.

So, on Sunday (one day early) I started writing Rhune.  I’ve struggled with the opening, reworking it several times, and coming at it from different approaches.  I wanted to start out with something compelling so I began with a murder.  When I got done it was “good” but not “great.”  For me, the first chapter being really good is very important because:

  • I use it to set the tone and balance for the rest of the book
  • When I get “stuck” later on in the book I usually re-read starting at the start, and if it sucks I’ll become discouraged, but if it’s really good it lets me know there is hope.
  • I’ve done several books where what I “think” is the start really isn’t the start when all is said and done, but as my skill grows I pretty much know where to start nowadays.

So what was wrong with my beginning?  Well you would think a murder would be pretty exciting, but I found myself having to do too much to set the stage for the murder that it didn’t start out quick and exciting out of the gate.  This is a huge problem for me.  I  like openings that grab you by the throat and don’t let you go.

So after a few different approaches I decided to slide the timeline back and actually start it with the chase of the murders just after the murder occurred.  I found this worked better for me.  It has some fast-paced action, but the more important aspect is it provides some mysteries and questions to engage the readers.  The trick is in walking that line between holding back and providing a foundation.

  • Sunday was spent trying on the various openings for size and by the end of the day, I had pretty much settled on the approach.  I wrote just over 3,000 words.
  • Monday was spent polishing, tightening, getting it to the stage that I’m happy with it. This trimmed it down to about 2,800 words, even after writing the “second section.
  • Today I can concentrate on advancing along the outline.  The start will be edited several times as I go do some re-reading but for now I find it at a stage I need to in order to move on.

As I said this is the chronicle for “me” and for the writers following, I’ll give my recommendations for YOU in tomorrow’s post.

Dialog

My topics that people want me to write about are piling up, and I will get to each one. But the requests that are going to take longer to compile a post are being pushed back and while I didn’t plan on writing this post yet I can bang it out rather quickly.  So bear with me.  You see I started writing the book a day early, and so I need to have my full attention on that.  I’ll also be posting about how my first day went but again, I don’t want to right now.

In any case, one of the things I didn’t call out about my character studies (although it exists) is some indications about their speech patterns.  It drives my wife and editors crazy because whenever they attempt to edit dialog of one of my major characters, I almost always undo their changes.  I have things that I do intentionally but they may see them as mistakes.

    1. Incomplete sentences – I purposefully do this when writing dialog, as I think it makes it more believable. Few people speak in complete sentences and by saying, “That so?” can come off more natural sounding then having someone say, “Is that so?”
    2. Liberal use of  contractions.  Again people are more likely to say it’s rather than it is and we’ll rather than we will.
    3. Dialects:  I try to avoid them because they can make the reader work too hard and get in the way.  Do they add flavor, sure.  But there is a trade off between atmosphere and easy reading that you must juggle. When used in moderation, I think you can get a little more heavy handed. For instance Erandabon Gile the Tenkin Warlord of the jungles in Calis certainly had a heavier accent than most. But there are some (usually the peasants or lower classes) who will have slight modifications such as using “ya” rather than “you” or “yer” rather than your.
    4. Modern language – except for a few instances where speech is done in middle English for plot reasons, I write my dialog very casually using what some would consider “too modern” for an epic fantasy.  It’s a conscious decision on my part and done to remove barriers between the reader and the characters.  My theory is that it’s my world and they can speak anyway I damn well want.  For me I prefer accessibility over atmosphere so while a term like “pal” or “buddy” might rub someone the wrong way, it isn’t because of a mistake.  I do, of course, draw the line at certain things and would never use “dude.”

 

Now with all that being said, there are certain people whose speech I’ve designed for particular reasons. Nimbus (the imperial secretary and courtier from Vernes), for example, is extremely formal. He would never use a contraction even in the most casual of settings. It’s just not within him. Also he always adds a “my lord” or “my lady” to any interactions he has with anyone of position. Therefore there are notations on his character sheet indicating so.

But there are other aspects about character’s speech that I note.  For instance, Royce isn’t a big talker. He is terse, harsh, and unapologetic. If he were to use “please” or “thank you” it is something to take particular note of, because such niceties are something he really has to force himself to do. He also doesn’t generally have to resort to an outright threat.  For instance he wouldn’t say, “Do this or I’ll kill you.”  His demeanor seeps off him so that’s not necessary.  The person he is speaking to knows the danger without having him saying the words.

Hadrian, on the other hand, is more loquacious. In some regards this is because he is a friendly, amiable sort, but in many cases, its done to compensate for Royce. A harsh comment from Royce usually needs some smoothing over in produce the desired result. For instance, when trying to convince Myron to come with them and leave behind his burned out home Hadrian’s response is, “Listen, it’s time to move on with your life.” If Hadrian wasn’t there Royce’s response would be. “You’re coming,” because it is one word shorter than, “You’re coming, period.”

With dialog, consistency is important, but context should trump it.  For instance, Bishop Saldur speaks very formally in public, and especially when giving a speech, but when sitting around sharing a drink with a confidant, his speech patterns relax. In fact that is a subtle hint that he is comfortable. So again this is noted in his sheet.  Someone like Nimbus, who I mentioned before, does’t drop his formality even with those he is closest to.

Then there is non-verbal communication. Royce, for instance has his boots on almost always, on the few occasions he removes them it is a signal that he feels safe and completely free of any threat. (Again this is noted on his character sheet and in those instances I’m sure to mention their removal. It’s not that I’m expecting the reader to pick up on such subtle nuances, and even if it is only I who know such things, it gives me a sense of satisfaction with the work just knowing that something as insignificant as that has a reason.

Then there are the times where you can say more by saying nothing. There is a scene in Nyphron Rising where Royce an Hadrian are preparing camp.  The scene is played out through Arista’s point of view and there isn’t a single word exchanged between the pair.  Each sets about doing “their task” and knows full well what the other will be doing.  So much so that a tool can be tossed from one to the other without even a “Heads up” comment.  This shows a familiarity formed over years of doing similar tasks over and over. Without any  words spoken, we get a sense of how long the two have been together, much more efficiently then them recounting a story from their past while sitting around the campfire.

I’ve read enough reviews praising the dialog of my characters to make me feel as if I have a pretty good handle on this part of my writing.  Still, dialog is one of those things that will be criticized no matter what. Art is subjective and what works for one person, grates on another, so if you see complaints about your own writing, don’t start breaking out he flail too quickly.  If, however,  it seems to be a common complaint from a large number of people, then you may want to take a closer look, and make adjustments.  Also keep in mind that a complaint can actually be a compliment.  There have been some instances where people will mention they were put off by stilted dialog, but since I have a great number of characters whose adherence to formality is an important aspect to their personality, I’ve actually hit the mark I was shooting for.

Character Studies – The Basics

So I mentioned in a few of my other posts that I do character studies.  I’ll talk a little about this today.

  • Name: This may seem simple but coming up with a name isn’t an easy or trivial thing. I have to take into consideration ease of pronunciation. Other family members, race, part of the world they were born in etc.
  • Appearance: I usually do find a picture to associate with the person so I can keep them straight in my head. Sometimes its going with a famous person (actor or actress for instance) and other times its just doing random internet searches for things like “females in their fifties” or “middle aged women.”
  • Sexuality – this may surprise some people because, historically people in my books have not had sex.  It’s not that I’m opposed to sex, or think that my characters don’t have it. But just as I don’t share my sexual activities with others, my characters really have no reason to share them with the readers.  So while it may not be seen, it can effect people’s behavior. In my current Riyria Revelations series some people pick up on the fact that Lanis Ethelred (former King of Warric and Regent of the New Empire) is homosexual.  I don’t make a “big deal of it” and if people notice, fine, if they don’t that’s fine too – but it does effect how he feels about things like his marriage to become emperor.
  • Sex: I’m sorry to say that females in fantasy have gotten the short shrift. And I think writers are becoming more conscious of this fact and working to address any inequities. I’ll actually cover more of this in another post but I’ve “flipped” the sex of many of my characters in Rhune, and I’m working hard to design the world such that  women can play important roles and do so without becoming either women in men’s bodies or flipping roles by, for instance, making a world matriarchal.
  • Other physical attributes – Amelia is plain and ordinary. Royce is slender and on the small side. These attributes affect how they see themselves and in Royce’s case helps with his chosen profession as a thief and assassin.  But there are other notes I make to remind myself of things. A fairly minor character, Dixon Taft, loses an arm in the Battle of Ratibor – was it the right or the left? Trust me there are fans that will notice if you change it between books so worth nothing.
  • Notes about their pasts:  Lenare Pickering used to practice sword play with her famous brothers Mauvin and Fanen. As she grew older she followed in the footsteps of her mother and declared that swordplay wasn’t a proper pursuit for a woman.  I’m not overly fond of having women sword fight against men and have them victorious (no it’s not misogynistic it has to do with weight and strength), but Lenare does end up picking up a blade and given the training she had, it makes sense that she can hold her own.
  • Goals – are probably the most important thing to make sure you have very clear in your mind, and antagonists have to have goals that make perfect sense and allow them to think of themselves as heroes of their own biographies – No want thinks they are bad or evil.  As this is very important i’ll probably do a whole post on this but for now it’s important to note as one of the primary things about them to keep focused on.
  • Quirks – As mentioned in my last post about outlining, Archibald Ballentyne hates being called “Archie” – why? Well a have a little background history written up in his character profile that I can leverage at some point.  Also as he makes such a big deal about it, others know it and can use it to insult or enrage him.
  • Obsessions – Mauvin Pickering is obsessed with learning sword fighting skills, Magnus the Dwarf is mesmerized by Royce’s dagger Alverstone. Just like goals obsessions will motivate people, usually steering them to bad decisions, if you’ve already established these then readers will seem them as logical…if you don’t they’ll feel it was forced or unrealistic when a person does something we (the readers) know they’ll regret later.

These are the basics, and I’ve got some things in my head I have to get down before I lose them (I’m seriously thinking of changing my opening based on something that happened last night) so I’ll come back at some point with “Character Studies – Advanced” but that should be enough to get people thinking of things for now.

More on outlining

In the comments of some of the other posts someone asked me for more details on outlining…ask and ye shall receive 😉
As I previously mentioned I have two steps to outlining.

  1. The initial outline 
  2. The detailed outline

Amazing…I know!  I have a patient pending on this method–it’s such an original idea.  😉  The initial outline really just establishes the skeleton of the book(s) and I have a Scrivner folder (one per chapter) that gives just a few bullet points.

When it comes time for the detailed outline, or as I create characters, places, and groups), I add meat to the bones. I still keep it simple (more bullet points). It’s a dynamic flow. In some cases filling out the detailed outline will cause a person/group/place to come into existence (sometimes just added to my master list, sometimes requiring a character study or place/group description. In other cases, it’s when I create this “thing” that I think about where would be the best place to introduce them, and I’ll open up the summary outline and add a detail bullet point for me to introduce them.

The best way to illustrate the technique is with an example. I’m going to use the first chapter of  Theft of Swords because it is a book that is already released and you already read the first chapter that was created from this outline on Amazon just click on the cover (to use the “look inside feature”).  I suggest you look over this outline first then read the chapter to see how the various bullets play out.

Initial Outline 

  • Royce & Hadrian robbed on their way to Chadwick Castle
  • Archibald’s fails an attempt to blackmail Victor Lanaklin

Detailed Outline

  • Robbery
    • Who? – ex-members of Crimson Hand
    • Reaction? Royce impatient – Hadrian attempts a “peaceful” resolution
    • Humor? Royce give’s pointers to robbers
  • Blackmail
    • How? Letters – that will be stolen by R&H out from under Archie’s nose
    • Love letters between Alenda and Gaunt
    • Details? Show how well protected room is – let reader try to figure out what happened and how

In addition to the “what” happens I also have notes about “seeds” to plant  – and notes of world-building things to drop. These are things that generally will be used later

  • Points to make -Robbery
    • Hadrian – three swords – big one on back / Royce dark cloak (no visible weapons)
    • Amrath in Essendon & Ethelred in Warric, Colnora a trade city
    • Archie – the inept clotheshorse
  • Points to make – Blackmail
    • Archibald’s ambition & that he has powerful knights
    • Archie wants Alenda – mainly for increased position, but thinks she’s attractive too
    • Lightly introduce political structures
    • Mention of Myron, Enden, Breckton, & Degan
  • Name dropping
    •  Myron, Breckton, Enden
    • Political factions: Royalists, Imperialists, Nationalists
    •  Degan Gaunt

In the above, The Crimson hand came into being because I needed someone to rob Royce and Hadrian.  I already had a powerful thieves’ guild in Colnora that Royce had once been a part of  so creating another one in another city made sense.  In fact, this is a revised outline that was enhanced during the Orbit rewrite. In the “original” there was no such scene. But feedback from my editor and the fans indicated that the book should start with an introduction to Royce and Hadrian so they came into existence. Now that they exist, they are fodder for future works. For instance when I wrote The Rose and Thorn (coming out September 17, 2013), I was now able to “tap” this newly created group and provide more about them in that story.

But as I said it goes the other way around.  The city of Colnora,  the political parties, and Degan Gaunt already existed and I was making sure I touched briefly on them here. Putting them in the detailed outline of chapter 1 book 1 may trigger my mind to some ideas I have for other books further down the line, so I’ll open their initial outlines and put some bullets in them as well.

Because I write chronologically most of these detail points will go to future books, but it can go the other way around as well. For instance, when doing the simple outline of book #2 I needed a powerful knight.  Since my “places detail” already indicated  that the best knights come from Chadwick I created Enden and it made sense for Archibald to use him as bragging point – so that made me open up book #1 and make a note for Archibald to mention him. In the same way, Breckton is a major character for book #5 so it made sense to put a reference to him there as well.

These “little threads and details” aren’t supposed to be noticed by the reader of book #1 – but in a re-read people will see the connections that were there all along, lurking beneath the surface.  It provides the Easter Eggs that makes the re-reads more fun.

Outlining this way may seem like there is little room for discovery – but that is not so.  At the time of writing chapter 1 the letters were just love letters.  But as the book unfolded I realized that I could “up the ante” by making them “covert correspondence” between Victor and Gaunt with Alenda acting as a liaison to help her father. This gave her character an added depth that led me to add some bullet points to future books to capitalize on that “discovery.”

One other point I should make. There is much that the detail outline doesn’t cover that will affect what is written when  it comes time to start that chapter. For instance, in Archibald’s character study I note that he really hates anyone calling him by his nickname “Archie”  so I’m able to work that detail in to the exchange with Victor in this first chapter…both as a way for Victor to get under Archie’s skin and also to set the stage for something that will come up time and again throughout the series.  It didn’t show up as a bullet point here – but as I started writing other books I would review their detailed outlines and see if there were places that made sense to have similar exchanges.  This would cause me to add some more bullet points right before starting that particular book.

Well I hope this helps to understand my process a bit. In the next post I’ll talk a bit more about the character studies.

Numerous Numbers

A quick run down on what I have so far:

  • 2 – # of years I did conceptualization before starting the design process
  • 13 – # of days I’ve been laying out the design the series
  • 4 – # of main characters for the series
  • 3 – # of books in the series
  • 500 – # of names of places, people, races, etc I’ve come up to draw from as I create
  • 3 – # of maps I’ve created
  • 50 – # of images I’ve found that inspire me either as a place or a character
  • 20 – # of songs I’ve been listening to while doing the design
  • 25 – # of character studies I have done
  • 14 – # of groups of people – clans, tribes, and races
  • 15 – # of chapters currently planned for book #1
  • 4 – # of chapters in book #1 that I’ve done detailed outlines for
  • 2 – # of major plot lines in book #1

Process

So I thought people might want to know my process in writing.  After all that is what this blog is for…and here it is.

    • Conceptualization – For me starts usually when I’m working on another book. Basically lightning strikes and I say, “That’s a great idea for a book.” But because I’m already engaged in another project, what I do is jot down a note. Usually in  my writer’s notebook for my “current” book I’m writing, but it can also be on napkins, in my ipad, or various other places.
    • Runway clearing – Means getting all my other projects wrapped up so they are not interfering with my next project.  Basically I’m about to take a big dive underwater and I don’t want to be distracted so all my other works have to be “done/done”
    • Collection – I start a new notebook for “this book”  I copy all the notes that are scattered across all the places mentioned above and I start putting them down in a notebook of their own.
    • Mood setting – I start gathering up music and images that set the mood for me to play / refer to as I start building my world.
    • Gathering words– Generally means coming up with a long list of names: places, people, races as well as phrases: slang, swear words or construction of words for a particular race and how their language is structured.
    • Research – Weapons, clothing, jewelry, customs, monetary systems, government or religious structures.
    • Mapping – Step one is to make a map and start defining regions and determining who lives where and what conflicts/alliances they may have with their neighbors.
    • Outline – The entire series from start to finish and determining what the focus will be for each book in the series and what will be its climax and major conflict/resolution.
    • Character Studies – Going through each person and defining what their motivations are, their strengths and weaknesses, their desires, their fears.
    • Detailed Outline – Putting some meat on the skeleton that was my original outline, so I know exactly where to start and where I’m going to.
    • Saturation – by this time the characters have started talking to me, I hear their dialog I see the scenes being played out. I know I’ve got to start writing as they are busting the seams of my brain to get out.
    • Writing – Finally sitting down and writing the book.
    • First reader – Giving the book to Robin to see what she thinks
    • First revision – Going through all of Robin’s comments arguing with her to make sure what she is saying makes sense, then adjusting the story.
    • Read as a reader – I’ll now sit down and read this as if I were a new reader coming into the book for the first time – while doing so I’ll make notes of what works, what doesn’t what adjustments have to be made.
    • Second revision – Incorporating all the changes form my reading session
    • Beta readers – Giving the books to “readers” and “writers” that I know and trust to see what they think of it.  This generally means changes, although minor in the overall scheme of things.
    • Submission for publication – Now it’s ready for my editor and agent to see.
    • Content adjustments – I actually skipped a step because this is assuming the book is picked up by the editor (which isn’t a guarantee) but if it is then the content editor will go through the book and write up what they think needs to be changed.
    • Third revision – Same process that I went through with Robin, but this time with Devi, or any other editor that might be assigned to the project.  Generally after this the book will be “accepted” by the publisher.
    • Copy edits – a copy editor will go through the book and mark up grammar issues, find continuity issues, restructure awkward sentences etc.  For the most part this is just a matter of  “accepting” everything they say.  At this point the book goes to “layout”
    • Proofing – Another read “like a reader” only the most egregious mistakes are addressed (like a typo or bad formatting).  No ‘changes due to content’ are made at this stage. The publisher’s proof reader is also working from this version
    • Sign off – The “official” version is provided with mine and the proof readers changes. At this point no more changes should be made. It’s just a matter of signing and being done.

And  that’s it.  I’m pretty saturated at this point and hope  to start writing in a day or two.

Some notes about the graphics

I thought I should mention a bit about the graphic that graces this website.  Part of my creation process is immersing in various stimuli during the process. As such I’m listening to a lot of music (which may be a post of its own some time. But also finding images that help inspire me.  For instance I came across an actor that really helps solidify one of the main characters for me…also for another time.

But because of the epic nature of this series, I wanted some very dramatic landscapes and so I started looking through matte paintings.  I came across this picture (Spring Sunset by Andres Roche) and knew it was perfect. Exactly how I imagine one of the places I’d recently fleshed out.  A bit of research and I found his email and reached out to him as to pricing for its use.

It wasn’t cheap, but worth every penny (in my opinion), and when the time comes to let more people know about this site (currently it’s mainly just members of the Dark Room who I’ve told) I’m sure it will generate some interest in the books.

The “white circle” represents a brooch, which have a major significance in the series. I like the “Celtic feel” of it, not surprising given my roots.

In any case, if you like the painting, and how could you not, please consider dropping andres a line. I can tell you nothing gets an artistic more excited than hearing that others have seen your work and like what you saw.