And on the seventh day, he rested…

sullivanspub

For six days of the week, I’m primarily focused on getting words on the page. I’m concentrating on my word count (whether editing or writing new stuff) and getting the book that much closer to the finish lines. But Wednesday is a special day for me.  Usually I won’t schedule interviews or worry about word count (although I might get some down in the morning). But the main point for Wednesday is to give me a break so that I can “think.”

Wednesday is my day out.  It doesn’t matter how cold, rainy or nasty it is out, because although I may dread it while sitting in the confines of my cozy office, I’m always glad I did it after I finally step out the door.  I have about a mile’s walk (maybe a bit less) from my house to the Metro station and it’s a nice one.  It goes through a forest, over a stream, then down a pedestrian path used by bikers and walkers to commute.  This is great “me” time and I generally am either running over what I’ve written over the past week, or thinking about what is coming up next and planning for that.

I never take a laptop, and even though I have my ipad I almost never use it. This is a time for pen and notebook.  For jotting down things and letting my mind make connections.  If I leave the house early in the day I’ll go to North Side Social (a coffee shop in Clarendon) or Iota (another local haunt best known for its music).  For some reason being out keeps my mind awake (as if I’m home I’ll get drowsy in the late afternoon.

Come evening, I’ll head to O’Sullivan’s (no relation) and get a Guinness and some dinner.  I know everyone there, a very “Cheers” like atmosphere for those that are old enough to remember the old television show (maybe it runs on Nick at Night).  I might make some more notes, or chat with whoever’s there.  There are many who know I go there on Wednesday so often a fellow writer will stop by and we’ll chat.  It’s also my “writer’s group” night so I’ll sometimes go there to offer input on someone work’s that’s being critiqued.

All in all, my “day off” is usually my most productive and it either clears a roadblock or paves the way for the next week’s writing. I’m not sure if such a technique will work for others but I’d thought I’d at least put it out there.

Disruption and Recovery

This weekend was a disruptive one and as such I had my first day with zero word count on Rhune.  So what happened:

  • My publisher reported that they loved my book “Hollow World” but given the state of the market they just don’t think it will sell well so they decided not to pick-up the option
  • I showed my wife the first two chapters of Rhune and got her feedback – there were many criticisms
  • In order to keep the release date of The Rose and Thorn on schedule my time to review the copy edits on that book went from 14 days to 9 – so I spent most of Saturday doing that.

Part of being a writer is to get back up on the horse when you are bucked off.  Robin has declared that “Hollow World” will be a huge success…she feels the same way about Riyria as she does that book and so it WILL be willed into existence. She has already hired a great cover artist, and is lining up content editors, copy editors, and proof readers to self-publish it.  The caliber of people she wants to hire are expensive – but she feels the book deserves nothing less.  So we’ll be doing a kickstarter on that soon. If you want to follow how that project is going…there is another site like this but whereas this site is focusing on the “writing” of the series.  That one is going to focus on the production and the marketing of  that project.  If you want to support that effort you can sign up to be notified when the kickstarter…well..kicks off.


With that out-of-the-way, let’s return to the focus of this blog which is writing Rhune.  So Robin was given the first two chapters and while I won’t say she hated it she had a number of  “grave concerns” about what she found.  While this should have depressed me, especially having come in on the heels of a rejection that means I’m going to be losing a good amount of income that I had hoped to carry me over while writing this, it ended up re-invigorating me.

Some of her concerns were:

  1. Showing too much of the iceberg. Having come off 2-weeks of extensive world-building I was anxious and letting a fair amount of that bleed into the story. It wasn’t done in the way of  long descriptive paragraphs or exposition, so I had been very proud of  how it was being worked in subtly.  But it was still too much too soon.  In her words it was feeling more like a “standard fantasy novel” rather than a “Michael Sullivan fantasy novel” I was adding spending too much time on the “setting”  and it felt heavy. 
  2. Characters not engaging. Having only had a scene each there really wasn’t enough “there…there.”   Part of it comes from still getting to know these characters, and wanting to make them distinctive from some of my tried and true favorites, but as she so deftly pointed out, she couldn’t tell me much about any of them after first meeting.  She then went on to provide examples how this wasn’t the case with: Revelations, Chronicles, or Hollow World.  So it was time to step up my game.
  3. Too much dire – not enough fun. The first two chapters I wanted to be exciting, and so there was danger and death in both of them.  While that does start off the book with a bang, it also makes it a bit of a downer.  Part of what makes my books “mine” is the humor and levity and there wasn’t much in the way of that.

Late Sunday afternoon Robin came to my office, depressed that she had been so critical of the book…and probably a little afraid she’d have to start looking for a job.  As it turns out what she thought my reaction would be was exactly the opposite of what it was.  It was good getting this feedback early on, and some of the issues that I were concerned about turned out to not be an issue, whereas some of the things that were bugging me were solidified and armed with a new direction I “dug in.”  Bottom line, I had been starting to lose steam, and now I’m back on track and excited again.  So all in all it was a good thing.

Usually I don’t let Robin read any of the book until it’s all done” but bringing her in early was a great decision.  It probably saved me a ton of rework.  So I spent all of Sunday adding yet another section (This time to Chapter 1) and going over the first three chapters again.  I’m not usually an “edit as I write” guy – but in this case is has been worth it, so even this old dog can be taught new tricks.

Balance and the First Three Chapters

It’s interesting starting a new series. I don’t feel fully comfortable yet with my new characters and I’m in that “getting to know them” stage where their own unique voice isn’t as solidified as they will eventually become. It just comes down to spending more time with them, and it’ll be easy enough to make the necessary adjustments during editing once I discover some of the things I don’t know now. But it does make writing much slower than say doing a Royce ad Hadrian project.

Also there’s a bit of a  “feeling my way in the dark” that I’m fighting and part of that is because I want to get the right balance between action and moments of introspection. I’m about to start chapter four, and all in all I think it’s going well. I’ve made some adjustments from from the original outline, and I really like the way these changes are helping out with providing good “balance.”

Originally, the first chapters were designed to “introduce” each of the four characters, one chapter each.  But doing so felt like the reader was being exposed to a lot of characters without getting time to connect with any of them.  So I’ve now added an “unscheduled” chapter that goes back and spends time with the first character and I like the way that breaks the introductions up.

Doing this also solved another problem I was having.  Chapter one has a very fast-paced opening but there is also some information I have to get out before we meet one of the other characters.  I had originally added this as a separate section in chapter one but that really wasn’t working.  It took all the energy out of the first section and the two really clashed stylistically. Moving that section and making it its own chapter solved so many problems.

For those that are here to find advice for writing, I guess the take away is don’t be afraid to move stuff around and don’t get overly concerned when something isn’t fitting in ‘just right” – just keep writing, and let your subconscious mind work on it. One day you’ll be in the shower, or taking a walk and the brilliant idea of how to ‘fix” it will come to you.  Well time to get “back at it.”

 

Mapping the World

I’m not terribly happy about the maps in my current novels.  When I created them I had no intention on publishing the books, so the map I created was really just for my own purposes – a way to keep track of places and distances. As such they don’t “print well.” Shading for mountains and forest compete with text for roads, towns, and regions and worse yet, if you tried to put the book on a “spread” the most important areas are right in the seem!  Doh!

It was created in a map generation program that is so ancient that I don’t even remember its name and the business has long ago gone out of business.  Basically I created the land forms, oceans, mountains, forest, lakes and the like and then I “generated” a colored version out of that program.

From that point I brought the map into Photoshop where I could add layers that would divide the land into areas that would be dominated by different people and rulers.  Riyria has the following regions:

  • Estrendor: Northern wastes
  • Erivan Empire: Elvenlands
  • Apeladorn: Nations of man
  • Ba Ran Archipelago: Islands of goblins
  • Westerlands: Western wastes
  • Dacca: Isle of south men

Apeladorn is then divided into 4 nations:

  • Avryn: Central wealthy kingdoms
  • Trent: Northern mountainous kingdoms
  • Calis: Southeastern tropical region ruled by warlords
  • Delgos: Southern republic

And then Avryn is further divided into 9 kingdoms:

  • Ghent: Ecclesiastical holding of the Nyphron Church
  • Melengar: Small but old and respected kingdom
  • Warric: Most powerful of the kingdoms of Avryn
  • Dunmore: Youngest and least sophisticated kingdom
  • Alburn: Forested kingdom
  • Rhenydd: Poor kingdom
  • Maranon: Producer of food. Once part of Delgos, which was lost when Delgos became a republic
  • Galeannon: Lawless kingdom of barren hills, the site of several great battles

The map in Riyria is indicative of a world dominated by “man” in a Medieval-type political system ruled primarily by monarchs.

——–

The world of The First Empire is a much different place. There are no kings, multiple races are competing for dominance and because horses are not domesticated travel is far more difficult, keeping people isolated and in general they don’t often travel far afield. 

When starting this series, I basically removed the overlays with all the towns, roads and regions.  Some structures exist in both.  For instance The Crown Tower is the last remaining portion of a much bigger fortress from long ago and Drumindor, which was created by elves, pre-dates even the time periods of The First Empire. 

But beyond just wiping everything out and then starting to add the details for how Elan is divided in the time of The First Empire, I started from scratch (black and white rather than colored) and all in all this version of the map is “much prettier” and will “print better” than the maps I’ve done in the past.

For those who like maps with their fantasy I think Rhune will have a vast improvement over what you have in Riyria.  I’m not posting it yet, because it is still in flux.  Whether I should expose it “early” I’m unsure of. On one hand, I’d like to share it so people can start “thinking” about what some of these things mean.  On the other hand, I don’t want to get “too locked in.”  

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.