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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.

On Patience

Some people are able to write with a prolificacy that leads me to question their humanity. Authors such as Brandon Sanderson and Will Wight consistently churn out multiple novels per year with a quality that’s at minimum workmanlike. I know they have support teams that scurry around like pit crews servicing Formula 1 supercars, but still. I imagine the authorial equivalent of losing eight pounds’ worth of water-weight per race must be brutal, if temporally distributed.

Perhaps I, too, would be capable of such feats if I made it big and could afford to quit my day job. But I doubt it. Even after a decade of regular writing, I still need to take breaks from time to time to refresh my imagination. And yes, it really does make a difference to the quality of my work.

So prolificacy isn’t my goal. That would be depressing. What I aspire to is constancy. A little bit at a time gets the novel written. Let the proverbial tortoise be my guide! I won’t win any races with Hare Sanderson, but in this business just crossing the finish line is all it takes to win. That, I can do.

Subcreative Startlement

The division between “outliners” and “discovery writers” seems of primeval provenance, although, for all I know, it may have been formalized and jargonized only recently. There doesn’t seem to be much overlap between these two approaches to creative writing. Most of the writers I’ve queried haven’t had trouble categorizing themselves, and I myself hail from the latter camp: I work sequentially and make stuff up as I go, constructing a lived-in storehouse of narrative material which I continually draw upon as momentum builds.

All my life I’ve been told to outline. From elementary school to high school to college to employment, the expectation has always been that I’ll iterate a finished product into being. In fact, most of my school essay assignments required me to submit multiple drafts along with the finished product in order to “show my work.”

The problem was, I don’t do “drafts.” I write from beginning to end, steadily feeling my way forward toward conclusions that encompass and encapsulate everything which precedes them. I’ve never done it any other way. I don’t know how I would. Sure, I edit the work when I’m done—but what I’m editing is a completed facade, not a scaffold.

So as a student, when asked to “show my work,” I’d just complete the assigned essay extra fast, then reverse-engineer a few dumbed-down “drafts” to make my instructor happy.

Things aren’t much different now. Even when I try my darndest to outline a scene or a chapter, the story only ever comes alive in the telling, when all the minute subliminal nuances of setting and character expression are vivified in active flux. Before I hit “play” and start typing, the story’s just a static image. I can guess what it’ll do and where it’ll go, but my guesses usually suck. It’s in the moment, when a character opens his mouth, that I suddenly know the right thing for him to say.

Case in point: I spent last week attempting to outline my latest scene. I was straining to envision the specificities of various interpersonal conflicts and how they’d affect the plot. I thought I had a pretty okay structure. So I dove in and started writing, and immediately a character started saying something unexpected. I wasn’t quite sure what it implied, but it felt right, so I went with it. And then a lightbulb ignited and I realized what a gift this character had given me—how I could leverage his revelation to ratchet up tension in the plot, and explain various incongruities, and foreshadow future developments.

I never could’ve outlined that. I’m simply not smart enough. I lack the requisite foresight.

But one of the benefit of my shortsightedness is that I’m often just as startled by events as my characters are, which helps me to write them empathetically. Also, it’s kinda thrilling to know I can always be surprised, even in my own subcreation.

The Truth Will Weigh You Down

As part of my Great Reorganization of Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow, I’m amplifying several previously-downplayed subplots in what is now Book Two, as well as introducing brand-new locales and characters. One aspect of the latter project involves going back in time and out-of-world—to visit Hugh Conrad before he’d ever heard of Arlam.

This is a thrilling prospect, because Hugh has an eventful backstory. And not only does this allow me to open Book Two with a James-Bond-style “featurette intro” as I do with the series’ other installments, it also sets the stage for Hugh’s latter, more controversial decisions—planting the reader more deeply into his mindset from the outset, building sympathy for a character who simply doesn’t care about your opinion.

However, this new, chapter-length scene takes place on Earth. And not a small-scale fictional location, either: in a very specific—and foreign—historical time and place. Previously, my narrative forays to Earth hadn’t ventured beyond tightly-controlled environments: mainly an isolated rural estate in upstate New York.

This is different. This time, I may actually offend knowledgable readers if I get details wrong. So my first day writing the scene in question was spent poring through online archives that covered everything from historical social relations to the provenance of specific backroads to the inner workings of very dated technology.

Ugh.

I have huge respect for writers of historical fiction (and nonfiction!), but this experience reinforces my lack of desire to become one. Writing fake worlds certainly has its perks.

Verse Sans Context

One of the results of my series’ subdivision has been the need for more poetry. It’s no secret that I love epigraphs. I love the sense of mystery, significance, and anticipation they can create at the outset of a hefty fantasy tome, and I want to provide that kind of experience for my readers.

This is the poem which now opens Book Two. I knocked it out last week while waiting for an animation to render at work. I don’t mind sharing it, as it wasn’t so long ago that Book Two was just the second half of Book One. I’m pretty happy with the tone it sets for what is now the dire Second Act of the Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow saga.

OhArakul01_v02

Split Your Darlings

It’s been an eventful week-and-a-half since my last post, both in real life and in Arlam. Usually, my silence on this blog indicates some kind of frantic activity elsewhere, and that’s certainly been the case on this occasion. In point of fact, I’ve been restructuring my entire novel.

Yes, that’s right. One of the indie publishers to whom I pitched A Sea Sought in Song at the Realm Makers conference responded with interest, but said in no uncertain terms that a 650-page novel would be cost-prohibitive to print. This got me to thinking, and I decided I’d better field-test a counter-proposal in the event that length proved the only dealbreaker.

So I thought and thought, and at last apprehended what had eluded me for years: how to split my novel without sacrificing its narrative arc. The problem had always been that the novel’s internal fault lines didn’t translate well into external boundaries. I solved this by making an incision halfway through Part Two. Suddenly, everything fell into place. After a few minor rearrangements, Book One stood complete at 113,000 words—77,000 less than before. This left Book Two—formerly known as the concluding section of Book One—about 80% complete, pending a few additions and subplot elaborations I’m excited to begin integrating. What’s more, I was able to carry this truncation forward into what had once been Book Two, thereby giving rise to Books Three (~50% complete) and Four.

So now instead of two ~200k-word books, I’m looking at four ~100k-word books. Unless I’m very much mistaken, this effectively doubles the series’ profitability potential while halving a publisher’s initial capital investment. As in the case of subdivided pizza, more pieces create the perception of more content.

The old ~200k-word structure is still viable, of course, but in truth I’ve already grown quite fond of this new structure. Though a number of narrative and thematic through-lines had to be postponed, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the way the restructuring emphasizes slightly different ones. I’m especially pleased by this opportunity to further develop my characters in the New Book Two, which has, for the first time, enough space to accommodate such depth.

So yes—if an imposter had claimed authorship of A Sea Sought in Song, I would’ve failed an intellectual property test devised by King Solomon. ;-p