In the beginning, my advice when starting a novel

In my last post, I talked about the process I used when starting Rhune, and I mentioned that while this worked well for me, I don’t suggest it for others.  So, what do I suggest?

Well, first it’s important to note that the opening is the most important portion of the novel. Agents and publishers will decide, usually within the first page, whether to cut bait immediately or whether you are worth a more thorough read.  Readers, too, are going to go through a similar process. In the days of ebook samples and Amazon’s Search inside the book, few people will purchase a new book (especially if by an author they never read before) without reading the beginning.  Even those in browsing bookstores are going to read the first page, and might even find a chair and read a bit further before proceeding to the checkout counter.

Because it’s so important, it’s easy for authors to get wrapped around the axle and spend days, weeks, even months on their novel opening.  My best suggestion for authors just starting out is to get past the opening as quickly as possible.  Think of it as a burning building that you have to sprint through as quickly as possible to reach safety.  Spend as little time as possible and get distance between you and your opening as quickly as you can.

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

  • More often than not what you “think” is your opening won’t be your opening when all is said and down.  What was once page 1 in Nyphron Rising ended up on page 105 of the finished book.  What was once page 1 of Avempartha didn’t make it into the book at all. I deleted the entire first chapter as I hadn’t yet realized “where” my story should start.
  • Writer’s block is common when just starting out, and there is no easier way to get blocked then to churn on something. The best way to beat the block is to produce. Word count has its own momentum. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that what you are writing is going to be thrown away or heavily edited. But at least if you feel progress you’ll not obsess and become paralyzed.
  • Once you have the novel completed, and you know the whole story from soup to nuts you’ll be a much better position to determine what should be your opening.

Now, don’t take what I said here as carte blanche to be lazy in regards to your opening.  On the contrary, I spend a huge amount of time on it.  And polish, polish, and polish some more. It’s just that I do all that much later on.  Heck if you add up all the hours I spent on multiple revisions to a first page it probably weighs in at 5 – 10 hours, over many, many sessions, with dozens of approaches tried on for size.

As you can see, the two approaches are very different, which points out an important aspect of writing…each author has to discover what works best for themselves. It’s all fine and good to find out what others do, and try their approaches on for size, but eventually you’ll start to develop your own sense for how you should approach things, and that’s all that really matters.


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.