Writer of the Future Past

Welp, I did it: I finally got my name up on ol’ L. Ron’s shortlist. My story entry for the 1st quarter of 2023 was voted a Writers of the Future semifinalist.

Check out these RESULTS. My name’s the sixth one down on the semifinalist list: “Austin Gunderson from Utah.” Out of a sea of over 400 honorable mentions, my story broke into the top 2% of officially-recognized entries, and into the top fraction of a percent of total entries.

As was the case with my two previous WOTF honorable mentions, this semifinalist entry was an unaltered chapter pulled directly from THE HEIR AND THE HERALD, my epic fantasy series now available on Kindle and in paperback. I can say with complete honesty that the only quality which sets this chapter apart from its many fellows is that it, as a flashback narrative, is relatively self-contained. I invested no more than my usual care in its crafting. It’s a representative example of my prose.

So if you’re looking for a 1,100-pages-and-counting epic noir fantasy adventure with WOTF semifinalist-grade work on every single page … if you’ve always wished someone would write an Indiana Jones-goes-to-Narnia yarn and care how the story was told … then you won’t regret taking a portal to the world of Arlam.

But this is a bittersweet pitch. WOTF is a contest for amateurs. The fact that I can now attempt to sell you on my novels means that I’m no longer eligible to submit—I’ve officially “pro’ed out.” I sent in my semifinalist story twelve days before signing with my publisher. Little did I know how high would be the note upon which I was about to go out.

But in the close of one chapter, there’s the opening of another. And this new chapter is all about you, Dear Reader. You’re the judge now. And I’ve submitted to you a vast and ambitious entry.

I hope you like it.

Beginning an Ending

The past month has been a writerly whirlwind. Forging ahead from my final editorial pass on Book 3, I proceeded to fully outline Book 4, and then to complete its Prologue, Overture, and first numbered chapter in short order. Book 4 now stands at 14K words, or roughly 12% of its estimated total length.

For me, this is an unheard-of pace.

Having an outline—and being constrained by the narrowing potentialities of a sprawling epic now barreling toward its climax—has certainly accelerated matters, but these early chapters had to do a lot of work that can’t be reduced to discrete plot-points. They had to establish and distinguish between the mental states and interpersonal dynamics of all the returning POV characters, establish a new POV character, establish several entirely new settings, flash back in time in order to tell a self-contained and emotionally-gripping story with huge-yet-opaque implications for the present situation, and, most importantly, establish the prevailing mood which will carry through the remainder of the narrative.

Since that work’s now done, I imagine the ensuing chapters will speed by even faster.

In recent years, it’s become a commonplace for epic fantasy authors to grind to a halt as their series’ conclusions loom. Now, granted, all four books that comprise “The Heir and the Herald” will together just barely surpass the wordcount of—to pick a totally random example—Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (~400K words), but at that length we’re approaching The Lord of the Rings territory (~480K words), and no one considers Tolkien’s magnum opus either short or shallow. Sticking the landing is, I believe, not merely an important step but central and essential to the integrity of the entire work. A good series with a bad ending is like a house with sturdy walls and a leaky roof: one single oversight compromises everything else. A strong ending validates whatever led up to it, and a weak ending makes readers wonder, quite reasonably, whether all the time they invested in said run-up was ultimately wasted.

The ways in which an ending can suck are innumerable, but the things it must do in order to meet or surpass audience expectations are simple (not easy!). Firstly, it must proceed organically from what came before. If the story swerves into seemingly-unrelated territory at the last second, or if a plot-device solution appears out of left field, then the ending will feel tacked-on, as though the author stayed up all night to finish it before a deadline. A truly great conclusion, by contrast, will in retrospect feel inevitable from the very first page.

Secondly, the ending must confront and solve the real problems (not necessarily the problems readers are focused on!). Hopefully the author knows better than the reader where the fault-lines lie, and which tectonic plates need to shift in order to relieve the narrative tension. Since problems tend to proliferate, this typically requires multiple layers of resolution: within characters, between characters, in the practical realm of the story-world, and, most importantly, within the minds and hearts of readers. If the story has explored a theme, an idea, a way of viewing the world, then the logical implications of that concept must be dealt with so that a conclusion may be drawn.

Thirdly, the ending must resonate. What I mean by this nebulous term is that the reader must feel it. This is, after all, the payoff, the moment of truth. Narrative fiction is art, and all true art inhabits the realm of the emotions—of instinct. Beauty is sensed, not scrutinized. So if the protagonist goes on an emotional/psychological/intellectual/spiritual journey, if he or she experiences growth, an arc, or any degree of catharsis, then the reader must experience it too. If when the curtain drops readers are still coldly deciding what they think, that’s a failure mode. They should be feeling the ending despite themselves.

Fourthly, a genre-specific directive: the ending must blow the reader’s mind. This is the “unexpected” element of the coveted “unexpected-yet-inevitable” designation. Whether this takes the form of a eucatastrophe, a Sherlock Holmes-esque retrospective monologue, a “Sandersonian avalanche,” or some other form of sudden blinding illumination, the reader must be surprised. A lot of this depends on writerly opsec. Have you sufficiently covered your plot tracks? Thrown in enough red herrings? A solution that can be figured out ahead of time is boring, and it fosters readerly contempt for characters who fail to pick up on the seemingly-obvious. The element of surprise—the future’s unpredictability—is one of an author’s most powerful tools precisely because it forces readers to get down in the trenches with the characters and sympathize with their frustrations.

These are the sorts of things I’m constantly mulling over as an author. Whether my writing meets these criteria—scene by scene, chapter by chapter, book by book, and ultimately as a holistic series—is up for you to decide. But I promise I’m making the effort.

Book 4 Begun

The fourth and final volume in “The Heir and the Herald” epic fantasy tetralogy has rapidly taken shape. I have the blueprints in hand and am on the jobsite. Last week I completed a chapter-by-chapter outline and started and finished the Prologue (at over 4,200 words, it’s my longest yet). This week I began work on the Overture.

For a guy who didn’t outline a single thing until beginning work on the second half of Book 3 six months ago, this pace feels supersonic. The Book 4 outline will allow me to plan ahead and avoid the brick walls I typically run myself into and then despairingly stare at for half a year at a time. And the added financial incentive of actually being a published author (in case you missed it, A Sea Sought in Song and Wrath and Crimson Rime are both available for purchase, with Loose the Sealed Tongue due to hit the market soon) will help keep the creative fire lit.

Book 4—Bind the Tree of Time—is going to be insane. Insane. And that’s really all I can say about it. If you enjoy its predecessors, then it will blow away all your expectations for a cataclysmically grand finale.

Get hyped. And in the meantime, get reading!


As I continue roughing out the overall shape of Book 4, I thought I’d reflect on the high-level structure of the first three installments in “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow.” Here are their respective tables of contents, side by side:

I approach narrative structure the same way I approach poetry: I want it to rhyme. It pleases me to pull back from the grit and grime of scene-level trenches and see them as but components of a greater and more beautiful whole. It’s my imprint, my signature as the storyteller.

So. Each novel begins with an Epigraph: a five-stanza poem which immediately sets the mood—priming readers for what’s to come, and persuading them to take it seriously (I put effort into this, dangit! it’s more than a dimestore pulp!). Book 1’s epigraph, which you can read right here right now(!), is a series of quatrains in trochaic tetrameter, but the other epigraphs vary in their poetic structure. (Deep lore: the novels’ titles are taken, respectively, from each of the lines in the opening stanza of Book 4’s Epigraph.)

Next is the Prologue. This is a short, punchy passage—untethered from the subsequent timeline—to whet the appetite and establish vital context.

Now we get into the story proper. Each novel contains sixteen chapters (2×8, 8 being a divine number in Arlam) divided into two parts, with an Overture at the head of Part One, and a Cadenza at the head of Part Two. Each chapter title is comprised of a representative word or phrase lifted directly from the given chapter’s text.

As its name implies, the Overture introduces us to the novel’s major themes in microcosm, encapsulating the book as a whole. It’s a “flashback” which explores some significant event from a main character’s past. Most importantly, it’s packed with action. I view the Overture as a pre-credits sequence in a Bond film: a mini-movie, largely self-contained, which comes out of the gate with a bang. Both of the chapters that received Honorable Mentions at the Writers of the Future contest were Overtures (for Books 1 & 2).

“Cadenza” is another musical term. It means “a virtuoso solo passage inserted into a movement in a concerto or other work,” and that’s precisely the function it serves here. Like the Interludes in Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” novels, my Cadenzas serve as palate-cleansers which allow me to showcase alternate perspectives on current events. The difference is, they always give you the enemy perspective. And because my enemies are all insanely dedicated and freakishly effective, it really does feel like a “virtuoso solo passage” every time we cut to their POV.

Finally, we come to the Epilogue. No carefree breather, this: it’s the springboard which propels you into the next installment. I don’t let readers off the hook until the final page of Book 4. Like Rothfuss in his “Kingkiller Chronicle,” I’ve nested the main action within a separate frame. He achieves this via a story-within-a-story, and the power of memory to shape the present. I achieve it via temporal distortion, and the power of relativity to heal wounds which otherwise would’ve festered too late. My Epilogues are there to remind you of what’s really going on behind the spacetime curtain.

Rather than crimping my style, these structural strictures empower me to make sense on a meta-level. Like poetry itself, storytelling requires form in order to achieve its fullest aesthetic flowering. Unlike chaos, order makes nothing dull; it imbues a work with beauty no matter how far back you stand.


The third novel in the “Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow” saga stands completed. A five-year journey has reached its end, and that end is spectacular.

I’m very proud of this installment. With the plot of a spy thriller, the vistas of a travelogue, the action of an Arabian-Nights-meets-Cold-War swashbuckler, and a climax as frenetically involved and emotionally wrenching as anything Sanderson has ever written, Loose the Sealed Tongue takes its place as a unique and crucial volume in the tale of Hugh Conrad and Ilina Lightkeeper’s struggle to reconquer Arlam.

Here’s the story so far:

  • Book 1, A Sea Sought in Song — 116,559 words (~389 pages)
  • Book 2, Wrath and Crimson Rime — 101,753 words (~339 pages)
  • Book 3, Loose the Sealed Tongue — 121,434 words (~405 pages)

The fourth novel—Bind the Tree of Time—will be the last. As of this moment, the epic saga is 3/4 finished with a running total of 339,746 words, or approximately 1,132 pages.

The outline I made on September 13th—103 days ago—encompassed six chapters: the bulk of the novel’s second half (aside from the entr’acte Cadenza and the ending Epilogue, which I’d already written). I largely adhered to this structure, although I ended up eliding/combining some scenes and adding additional ones as the need arose. It’s interesting to review the analytics:

  • Chapter 11 — 9 scenes outlined — 11,141 actual words
  • Chapter 12 — 11 scenes outlined — 8,940 actual words
  • Chapter 13 — 8 scenes outlined — 3,520 actual words
  • Chapter 14 — 10 scenes outlined — 3,571 actual words
  • Chapter 15 — 26 scenes outlined — 7,105 actual words
  • Chapter 16 — 5 scenes outlined — 1,405 actual words

The final installment will take a while to arrive. In the meantime, I’ll be doing everything in my power to get the dang series published, God willing.

I can’t wait for you to sink your teeth into this thing.