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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!

UnlinedSorrowfulAfricanhornbill-small

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.