Once More Unto the Freytag, Dear Friends

So I gave in and submitted another entry to the Writers of the Future contest. I wasn’t planning on doing so, but the fact that my first entry made it up onto the scoreboard has given me what may be false confidence that I can top myself. But a single rangefinding strike, no matter how visible, is still only one data point. It’s impossible for me to know whether I’ve adjusted correctly for windage until I see further results.

Out of curiosity, I recently read an article that purports to delineate the characteristics of a strong WotF entry (after I entered in December, of course). I laughed at how badly I’d handicapped myself. First, because trace elements of fantasy don’t even appear in my story until right toward the end. Second, because the story is set in a very specific historical time and place—one which I know only through Internet research. Third, because the coordinating judge is partial to a “traditional Freytag triangle with three Try/Fail Cycles” … whatever the heck that is. Basically, I’m lucky the thing even got read.

So did I buckle down and do my due diligence and pick the brains of successful entrants and research plot structure and map out an optimally-calibrated story specimen on a grid? Of course not! That’s not how I write, and it’s not how I got where I am. Why on earth would I switch gears now?

What I have done this time is to create original content for inclusion in my second entry. I have neither the time nor the inclination to write original stories simply to enter them in contests, but in order to continue cannibalizing “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow” I had to do some retrofitting. Last year I tossed Book Two’s overture in the WotF hopper because it was the only chapter in my series that was entirely self-contained. This time, my selection made more of a ripping sound upon extraction from its surroundings. This time, I’d turned to the overture from A Sea Sought in Song.

If you’ve read it, you know it’s full of questions. I originally wrote it as an exercise back when I was first fleshing out the character of Ilina Lightkeeper, without ever intending it to see the light of day. It’s a petri dish of thematic ambiguity from which the whole novel burgeons. Yes, it has an arc. But it was never intended to stand alone.

So I went to work. First I had to figure out which threads could be left to dangle and which needed tying off. Turned out there were two that felt out-of-place sans closure: Forkbeard’s relationship with Ilina, and Ilina’s relationship with her father. A Sea Sought in Song explores both of those relationships in detail later on, and its overture—”To Face the Night”—concerns itself primarily with the Ilina/Rikard dynamic. Nonetheless, I had to bring those supplementary relationships to some kind of conclusion if I wanted to refashion the overture into a self-contained narrative. They needed little arcs of their own.

And hey, you can decide for yourself whether I succeeded, because I ended up liking my additions enough to include most of them in the story proper. So if you click through to the initial chapters available on my website, you can read a version of “To Face the Night” that’s nearly identical to my WotF entry. I think it’s a strong contender, but what do I know? After all, I’m not even familiar with the traditional Freytag triangle, lol.

Delay of Gratification

So at the end of December, on the final day before the quarterly deadline, I submitted the “Overture” chapter from Book Two to the famous Writers of the Future contest. I imagine everyone who enters WotF entertains delusions of Rothfussian grandeur, and I may or may not have been no exception. I was told to expect results around mid-March. Well, March came and went, and I heard nothing, so I shrugged, resigned myself to continued obscurity, and dispatched a bevy of queries and submissions to agents and publishers.

Then, two nights ago, I was notified that my entry had received an honorable mention.

*epic fantasy facepalm*

It’s not like I actually won or anything, but I’m still quite pleased. The chapter was never intended as a contest entry, and barely contained any fantastical content. I submitted it because it—as a flashback episode from Hugh Conrad’s past—was able to stand on its own as a self-contained narrative. That it received any recognition at all is quite gratifying. I only wish I’d restrained my horde of solicitous missives a tad longer.

And now, a treat: the honorably-mentioned story, on the house to readers of this blog! It’s spoiler-free for the same reason it worked as a contest entry, so those inclined may indulge without regret.

Through an Image, Moodily

On a primal level, my novels are rooted in imagery—very specific imagery that evokes particular emotions in me. For my “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow” tetralogy, the prevailing mood of each installment finds its source in a visual impression.

Book One (A Sea Sought in Song): Fire in the night sky.

Book Two: Blood in the snow.

Book Three: Silk in the desert.

Book Four: An arch over emptiness.

The subtle centrality of such impressions devolves to the individual chapter and scene level. It’s nearly impossible for me to write anything that feels cohesive until I identify a visual vehicle for the mood. To paraphrase Lewis, I do not see the image so much as I, through the image, see everything else.

Flying Monkeys See the Forest

Wow, has it really been only two months since my last progress report? Seems like longer. A lot has happened.

First and foremost, Book Two is now complete. I finished those two additional chapters I mentioned last time, and a new prologue, as well as various minor insertions throughout the preexisting manuscript, juuuuust eking it over my 100k-word target. These efforts deepened some of my characters’ motivations and fleshed out a key subplot, firming up the novel’s narrative arc by shifting its emotional emphasis slightly. (Dear reader, you’ll have to forgive all the abstraction for now. This is a spoiler-free blog, after all!)

So with Book Two behind me, I updated my generic query letter accordingly and turned to my Book One synopsis. I hadn’t revised it since the Big Split, and knew it needed some finessing beyond simple subtraction before I could feel comfortable dispatching it.

However, it quickly became apparent to me that Book One, in its then-current state, simply couldn’t support a good synopsis. I found I kept having to provide supplemental information. I’d finally climbed high enough above the treeline to see that parts of the forest were missing. Fortunately, fixing these omissions proved easier than replanting timberland. All it took was a few surgical insertions here and there, followed up by a continuity sweep.

So now I have two completed novels—the first at 115,000 words, the second at 101,000 words. The first half of my tetralogy could theoretically hit the presses tomorrow.

Of course, that part’s not up to me.

So now I must loose another swarm of queries and manuscript submissions upon an unsuspecting publishing industry. Fly, my pretties, fly!


Arc de Omphe

Neither this blog nor the forthcoming fantasy series to which it’s dedicated are dead!

Much inspire, amirite?

After this summer’s writing conference failed to net me a publisher, I’ve returned to the grindstone. Book Two (the sequel formerly known as Part Two of Book One) is nearing completion as I fatten it up into a fully-fledged novel. Over the latter half of 2017 I wrote its Overture (a standalone novelette detailing an event from Hugh Conrad’s past, which I subsequently submitted to the Writers of the Future contest) and its Cadenza (a deliciously ominous vignette). Currently, I’m crafting two additional chapters for insertion in the central narrative flow. They are “breather” chapters that delve into character development and allow the reader to pause and reflect on events while the protagonists transition between tentpole action scenes.

I’m glad of the opportunity provided by my New Structure. The conclusion of Old Book One always felt rushed to me, but I convinced myself that momentum covered a multitude of omissions. Now that I’ve freed up space for various dropped subplots, however, I think their inclusion is a net-positive development for the story as a whole.

Of course, every chapter needs a plot arc to justify its existence, and “character development” doesn’t count as an arc. So that’s why it’s slow going: I need to surgically splice new sub-arcs into the existing overarching arc while preserving a sense of integral continuity. The new chapters need to be distinct enough not to feel like filler, but not so distinct that they become episodic detours. That’s a difficult balance to strike, which is why it’ll probably take me another few months to finish.

During which time I’ll have to studiously mortify my urge to leapfrog straight into Book Three (the sequel formerly known as Part One of Book Two), because I left that novel in such an exciting place.

Retrospective Tuning

While others have spent the month of November churning out 50,000-word first drafts, I’ve been finishing up the big new adventure sequence that opens Book Two. Yes, the bulk of that novel has been complete for some time, but when I peeled it off from Book One I created the need for additional introductory material.

Each installment of my series begins—after its punchy prologue—with an “Overture”: a largely self-contained episode which encapsulates themes explored by the novel as a whole. The Overture in A Sea Sought in Song covers Ilina’s encounter with the spiderworm, thereby introducing her relational fears and religious doubts. In Book Two, it’s Hugh Conrad’s turn to get encapsulated.

Which means he gets to go fight Soviets in the backcountry of postwar Iceland. Woot!

Though this was a fun sequence to write, it wasn’t without its difficulties. Not only was I forced to conduct historical research, and maintain the plot discipline of a functional short story, I had to do so under awkward circumstances. The two other Overtures I’d written had preceded their respective books, and I’d used them as opportunities to tune my thematic orchestra. Here, I needed to conjure the same effect after the symphony had already been performed. I needed to reverse-engineer a spontaneous manifestation of theme.

This felt disturbingly like outlining.

But it’s done now, and I’m pleased with how it turned out. And in celebration, I present to you … Hugh Conrad. I finally convinced him to sit down and have his portrait painted by the inimitable Hannah Gunderson.