Passing 50,000 words is the halfway mark in the current writing project, a milestone that gives me the imperative to get cracking.
Worldbuilding sits behind fantasy writing – creating credible, logical environments for the characters’ journeys. Jaysin has come from the Harbin dragonwarrior world, lived for three years in the Machutzkan city, and now ventures into the Kermakkian Empire. The three societies have different languages, culture, beliefs, practices. I have made the Machutzkan and Kermakkian languages similarly aligned in that Machutzka is a city of refugees from the Kermakkian Empire whose language has become a working dialect over time.
As a once-avid D&D player, the language barriers broken by the implementation of a Common language in the game sometimes irritated me, although in DM roles I made certain language barriers were commonplace. Where a common language does transfer across cultures – as in the case of English in this world – it is almost always by necessity for commerce/trade. For the world I am creating in The Last Wizard saga, I am also creating potentially up to six languages (if I include dragon) and that means not only generating sound combinations and words but also grammar – “Not easy it is” (said in Yoda-ese) – as we know is true for the differences between Romance languages and Germanic languages and so on. Jaysin, adept and intelligent, can learn languages with reasonable ease, but he learns also that language has dialects and nuances that a mere memorisation of words and phrases and grammar does not capture in everyday communication, and that can lead to misunderstandings.
A long time ago, when I first read Feist’s Magician, before I ever read Tolkien’s books, the cultural gaps created between two worlds revealed to me that I need to be aware of the same gaps when I write.
Yesterday and today, for example, I had to work back through the manuscript to establish a religious practice in the Kermakkian Empire that Jaysin slowly comes to recognise as he searched for his brother. The Kermakkian population, totally misogynistic in religious practices, are Men of the Faith, following One True God – He Who Cannot be Named – and they perform a prayer ritual twice a day at sunrise and sunset. Once a ‘week’, the men spend a day in prayer, called Shebaal, and that is the only day women and children can be on the streets and in the markets. That’s a quick example of building culture in a society for the story. There’s a lot more going on.
To keep track of the cultural build, I keep notes. Some notes are developed before writing, but many are built as the story demands. Political structures I often build before I begin because they dictate possibilities. Trade and commercial infrastructure, travel and transport all have to be noted and accounted for as the tale builds.
The snapshots with this blog are quick examples of notes and sketches I complete as I build the world and the story. Sadly, much of the information seldom makes it into the final novel, or is created to ensure a paragraph or character comment is not contradicted at another point. But it is essential, nevertheless.
So, the above is a little ramble about what goes on in the background of writing a fantasy story.
A quick update this week…
Bridging chapters – it’s a term I use for chapters that connect one set of important events to the next. For example, a character may have been captured and imprisoned in a chapter on the way to completing an important mission. In order to connect the imprisonment with a return to the mission, a bridging chapter – the escape – is necessary.
This past week has been devoted to completing a bridging chapter in Jaysin’s Song. In trying to reach his brother, Chasse, who it seems has been captured by the Kermakkians, Jaysin is also caught and sold into slavery. In order to find his brother, first he has to escape.
Bridging chapters often introduce new minor characters who provide ‘help’ to the main character. These characters can have once-off appearances in the story, or may later reappear because of the relationship they briefly establish with the main character. Bridging chapters also provide opportunities to have the central character reflect on why he/she is doing what he/she is doing. The trap with bridging chapters is they can become mundane if they keep the reader too far from the main plot or the main character is too ‘trapped’ in their situation.
This particular chapter presented several challenges. The first was how to enable Jaysin to free his hands in order to escape. The second was how to enable Jaysin to escape a town overrun by the enemy. The third was how to deal with certain injuries Jaysin receives in trying to escape. Creating the moments in such a way as to allow logic to be present is always satisfying when they come together believably (within a fantasy context at least). I think I’ve managed that.
Completing this bridging chapter brings the project to 45,000 words, and moves events back onto the main plotline.
On a different note, this week provided two inspiring moments for me. One was finding four of my novels sitting at the front of a second-hand book shop – nice promotion. The second were two emails; a complimentary one from a country student who has just finished reading Caught in the Headlights – the second from a reader of the Amber Quatrology who wanted to share how much she enjoyed the series. In recent years, I’ve seen myself as a ‘forgotten writer’ because it’s been so long since I published in mainstream, so the occasional fan mail reminds me that what I’ve written has entertained or touched people. That is the nicest feeling. It’s been a good week.
Slow. When my daytime job becomes intense, writing steps back. Jaysin’s Song has only grown by 5,000 words in a fortnight, and only by pinch-hitting paragraphs at a time.
I’ve been asked over the years how I manage to sustain writing against the background of everything else, especially in the early 2000s when I was teaching and working part-time for the IBO, undertaking a PhD, coaching and playing volleyball and completing projects for HarperCollins. Long nights, very little sleep, and not many of the simple pleasures people do to fill their leisure time. It was ultimately unsustainable. I dropped the PhD when HarperCollins offered the Amber Legacy contract, and eventually dropped the IBO work. Nevertheless, anyone who has worked in education knows education roles in themselves, done well, are 60+ hours a week employment commitment and mentally exhausting, so sustaining writing in that environment is challenging enough. How do I manage it?
First, I do plan a novel’s structure and story arc. In the early years, learning the craft, I would meticulously plan the sequence of chapters from start to finish so that I had a journey map to follow. This meant that whenever other matters intruded or required more time, I could step out of writing and step back in knowing where I was at in a project. In recent times, I map with less detail, but I do retain an overview of key moments to make the story work – a rough plot guide basically. For example, in the current project, although I haven’t reached these points yet, I know Jaysin does have to be challenged in prison, he does have to reach the Empress, he does have to establish his own identity, he does have to make a choice between family or the Empire and power etc etc (without giving away too much here). I also know, as written in previous blogs, that I have to manage this within thirty chapters or around 100,000 words.
Second, if I am writing and I need to break for sleep, work, functions and events, travel, visitors and so on, I stop the writing either at the start, or in the middle, of a significant story event. This might be a confrontation, a fight or battle (action of any kind), a conversation, and sometimes a chapter opening. The reasoning is simple. For me, it’s much easier to slip back into the mood and intent of a piece if it has an established dynamic. There is also less for me to re-read to re-ignite the writing moment. Instead of trawling back through perhaps an entire chapter to remember what I was doing, or wading through notes, I can get straight into writing and the bonus is the interrupted scene is completed and I get some immediate personal satisfaction.
Third, reflection. Just as many people have worries and concerns and hopes and challenges swirling in their heads during every day – as I do – I also have writing doing the same in my head. It’s like having a music track playing in the background as you do something else. My music background is writing. It churns away, formulating, considering possibilities, even as I go about daily work and other activities. The only time it intrudes without invitation is if I walk into a bookshop. Then it explodes and all I want to do is get home and get on with my projects. Basically, I rarely stop thinking about the project I’m working on.
Fourth – and the hardest – is being ruthless with everyone else about writing moments. For example, as I’m writing this blog, my partner, her mum and a neighbour are sitting in the garden, in the sun, drinking coffee, eating cake, laughing and enjoying the moment. And I’m here, writing. I have to discipline myself to be at the keyboard, and – as weird or wrong as it might sound – I have to discipline those around me to let me do this. Writing does mean choosing when to write and when to play, because it is much easier to have the coffee, read the book, watch the tv show, go for a drive and so on. Weekends, I demand an equivalent of a day to write. If we socialise throughout Saturday, then Sunday for me is for writing. If we split socialisation across both days, then the morning of one and maybe the afternoon of the other is for writing. During the week, the evenings are divided accordingly. Life is full of changes and inconstancies, and so I can’t have inflexible writing times (as much as I would like to), but I do have to be demanding about having writing time some time in the week.
Way back in 1993, I took three months off work and wrote The Last Wizard. The same length sequel last year in Chasse’s Song took most of seven months to complete the first draft. This year, Jaysin’s Song, has taken three months to reach a third of its planned length, so the process has slowed significantly because of interrupted time. Hopefully, the strategies I’ve employed over the years will enable me to have this draft done by October in readiness to begin the fourth book.
Blog done. I have writing to do!
Make a saving throw...
Sometimes tech just doesn’t play nice – or more accurately, I wasn’t vigilant. Part of the last two weeks has been devoted to expanding the Kermakkian culture that Jaysin is entering on his quest to find his brother Chasse. This involves:
The above takes time and recording, which is where last week’s disaster comes in. The document I developed didn’t save, did it? Correction – I didn’t save the document. Rookie error. I get to start some of that work again. At least I can now improve on the original concepts.
I’ve been asked what I do to keep work safe during the writing process, especially as I create novels entirely on a digital device (ever since 1989!!). So, I write on a document stored on a cloud service that is saving constantly (except last week’s effort where I worked locally – doh!) At the close of every writing session, I also save the work to three backup hard drives – one on my device, one that acts as a time machine automatic backup and one on a separate hard drive. Basically, I need four sources to fail to lose work. I take one hard drive with me when I leave the house, in case the computer is ever stolen. And last week was proof that if you ever get distracted or don’t concentrate you can still lose work.
The current draft has moved close to 35,000 words. Jaysin’s character is being challenged by different events, currently leading to his entrapment and sale into slavery. This week’s aim is to help him escape his predicament. Again, I have several options:
Dilemmas and choices...
The central character in the current project, Jaysin, exhausted in his search for his brother, camps in the early pre-dawn hours in a small glade. Certain events and circumstances surround his situation. He found an abandoned wolf pup and is attempting to care for it. Kermakkian soldiers – the enemy – were seen on the road. Because the soldiers are on the move, there is a chance his brother, Chasse, is in serious trouble. Unable to stay awake, Jaysin falls asleep. When he wakes, he sees a figure moving through the trees, and then another, and realises he is surrounded by soldiers. The wolf pup, frightened by the humans, creeps toward Jaysin. A Kermakkian soldier takes crossbow aim on the pup.
So, here’s the dilemma – for the writer. How will Jaysin react? What will be the consequences of his reaction? He has arcane ability, but he’s no warrior. What will be the best choice for moving the story forward?
Plot-wise, ultimately, I must have Jaysin reach the capital city. Although this incident in the story is long before the endpoint, Jaysin’s identity and reputation among the Kermakkians might be influenced by what happens.
I see these options laid out in the situation:
The writing process is a constant interplay of possibilities and myriad outcomes from every moment and action and interaction that is created. I need Jaysin to be ‘true to character’ in the situation above and yet it also presents a moment for character growth – an opportunity for the character self-realisation – and an event where the reader might see something in the character they had not previously been privy to.
This week was a slow writing week, the draft only gaining an additional 3,000 words as it moved into the eighth chapter. As always, finding time to write was a challenge, but the bigger challenge this week was deciding character fate. So many possibilities – so many outcomes…
Jaysin's Song passed the 25,000 word mark this morning, a quarter of the draft novel completed.
Word length is an interesting challenge when writing. From the outset, way back in 1990, I was advised a fantasy novel should be around 150,000 words. Why? I honestly don't know. I remember, at the time, being told multiple reasons: traditional practices (whatever that meant), reader expectation, print binding issues. As time proves, none of those reasons are valid. Probably the only validity for why a novel is a certain length is the story being written.
Research and industry practice identifies the following divisions when determining the form of a creative prose fiction piece:
For The Last Wizard series, the word length of each novel is determined predominantly by the story being written, and partly for consistency. The original novel, now first in the series, was 98,000 words, so I've set a similar target for the subsequent novels. In unedited draft, for example, Chasse's Song is currently 93,000 words, which gives me space to add and embellish aspects when I do the next edit of the draft.
A word length target also provides a level of discipline to the writing process. For this project, the chapter lengths are set loosely at 3,000 words. This compels me to ensure each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of the story eg a day, an event, a key moment, even a sequence of fast-paced events that make a whole event. The discipline enables me to progress the story/plot in 'logical' chunks (the word 'logical' isn't exactly accurate to describe the aggregate parts of the story), and sets me progressive challenges to meet when I write. In the same way, at a macro level, an overall word length creates a project target and challenge to meet, and forces me to focus my thinking of the story as a whole.
Given that I work fulltime (and more), and the precious nature of time to write, word targets serve a powerful goal and sustainer in the writing process for me. They can be as arbitrary as challenging myself to write 10,000 words in a week (almost unachievable in my circumstances), 3,000 words at a sitting (ie a chapter or a couple of sittings - a common approach for me), and they allow me to predict a timeframe for completing a draft. In the case of this current project, this past week saw an additional 5,000 words added. At that pace, Jaysin's Song is a 20 week drafting project. The Last Wizard four book project then would represent 80 weeks for draft completion at that pace. Then there is re-reading and editing and editing again. Writing fulltime, as I did for the original novel back in 1993 on leave fom teaching, the 98,000 word project took 10 weeks to draft.
Out of curiosity, since starting this blog project, the blog posts from Dec 2018 represent 24,000 words of writing.
Texts to Concepts to Images...
Kirsi Salonen has completed two of four book covers for The Last Wizard series project. This post explores a little of the process we undertook together for creating the covers. It’s a lengthy post. Grab a beverage for the read and relax.
For the reboot of the original novel, retitled Tamesan’s Song: The Last Wizard Book One, I imagined an image of Tam from the opening chapters, standing on the mountain overlooking Harbin village, watching the dragonship return. I also wanted to pay homage to the original Otto and Chris colours, along with the references to amber throughout the story (and all of my fantasy novels). I shared this concept image, along with the sections of text from the novel with Kirsi. In return, Kirsi asked a series of key questions around Tam’s posture, hair, clothing style before she sketched an initial image. After the initial sketches, we consolidated clothing style and Tam’s hair. Early on, Kirsi floated the notion of a dragon motif in the clouds. The idea waned in subsequent updates, but we both loved the idea so it re-emerged in the later versions and I think it looks amazing in the final.
I intend to publish the series in 9x6 format, so Kirsi has designed the cover art with these dimensions in mind.
While Kirsi was developing the cover art for the first book, I was drafting the second; Chasse’s Song: Book Two of the Last Wizard. By the time she completed the final version of the first cover, I was ready to send concepts for the second cover. Because it is Chasse’s point of view, I sent text and ideas for scenes with Chasse as the central figure, but I also included a third scene where Chasse watches his younger brother, Jaysin, engage with a wolf pack and especially the cubs. In discussions, Kirsi and I were both enamoured with the wolf cub scene and she began developing a concept around it. Her research led her to a beautiful painting as an inspiration and she used it and a range of references to build the preliminary sketch. Again, her use of light in the scene is stunning and carries connection between the first cover and this one. We discussed referencing Chasse watching the scene and I suggested we don’t. Kirsi worked details into Jaysin’s face, the forest, the cubs, plants – it would be fair to say this cover became a labour of artistic integrity and beauty. Each preliminary sketch shows how additional detail was steadily worked into the final. Kirsi has documented her process at this YouTube link.
In the end, what emerged in the second piece was not the cover for book two but a unique cover for Jaysin’s Song: The Last Wizard Book Three, the draft I am currently developing. Jaysin does re-encounter wolves in the third book and rescues a wolf cub to become his companion, so the scene is very apt.
I appreciate the collaborative process Kirsi and I engage in to develop the cover art because as a reader I like books with great covers that mirror imagery within the story. As for the cover to Chasse’s Song, well, we start that one again sometime soon, when we both have time to commit to it.
Update: Jaysin’s Song is now at the 20,000 word mark and going strong.
A Moment's Reflection...
The decision to resurrect a twenty-five-year-old novel isn’t made lightly. The Last Wizard’s publication in 1995 led to it being short-listed for Best Fantasy Novel in the inaugural Aurealis Awards, eventually being rightly beaten by Garth Nix’s awesome Sabriel. The original was always planned and written as a stand-alone coming-of-age tale, although the end also deliberately set the stage for a sequel. Unfortunately, that coincided with a tsunami of events in the ensuing five years – Pan MacMillan’s decision to cut its experimental stable of Australian fantasy writers, winning a job in Brunei, a divorce, and HarperCollins taking on the rights to the Ashuak Chronicles – all meaning The Last Wizard slipped into history. With one exceptional moment – in 1999, Robert Stephenson snagged Time Warner interest in a movie deal for The Last Wizard, and for six months it appeared the novel was going to grow wings and fly. Sadly, in early 2001, we learned the option was dropped. And I moved on.
Fast forward to the digital book revolution and my rather sad and messy experimentation in 2015-17 with publishing via CreateSpace and then Amazon Kindle. I really was wandering in the wilderness, looking to bring life back to the original Andrakis series and also to publish a couple of teenage novels that I’d allow to languish. The whole publishing process was fun – even the silly errors I made – but neither lucrative nor easy to complete because of the time and money factors. But what did ensue were conversations with readers about any chance of a sequel to The Last Wizard.
At first, I did not want to go there. The challenge of picking up characters and a fantasy world long buried in the past was terrifying and I knew there would be a lot of time and work involved in doing so. Besides, I have still way too much to learn about marketing in the digital world, and so little time to manage my work. And what would the sequel be? Tam’s continuing story? That made perfect sense, of course. But she had come of age. Her older brother was struggling with his identity. The younger brother was an offstage enigma. And there was the dragon egg. Which parts of the story should be told next? Whose story?
I know it will sound awkward, or foolish, or pandering, but I decided to not pursue Tam as a character, partly because I had written what I wanted to write about her as a model for my daughters at the time the novel was written – a girl finding her own voice and not being driven by social norms to conform to what men, and women, expected. Tam had emerged. Sure, there is plenty more she can and will learn as the saga unfolds, but as a writer I was no longer following her arc.
More importantly, I realised that a sequel – and a potential series – could focus one book at a time on the emergence of each character. The earliest iteration of The Last Wizard was titled ‘Tamesan’s Song’ because it was her story, her ballad. As the story unfolded, the working title that went to Pan Macmillan was ‘The Last Dragon’. We knew there’d been a martial arts film in the 1980s with the same name, but figured the associative reading audience wouldn’t be affected by that link, but then the editors decided the title was already too evident in popular culture, so the title was altered to ‘The Last Wizard’: ironic, because that in itself is a well-overused title.
Last year, I began toying with sequels, landing on the original title concept as the lever for the series – Tamesan’s Song, Chasse’s Song, Jaysin’s Song, Harmi’s Song. Each book would focus on the ‘coming of age’ of each character, dragon included. The titles are distinctive, original in names at least.
So, with Tamesan’s Song: The Last Wizard Book One, and Chasse’s Song: The Last Wizard Book Two fully drafted, and 12,000 words into Jaysin’s Song: The Last Wizard Book Three, the project has grown from a concept into a major work, and I’m confident the wider tale is taking great shape. But…where will it go?
My greatest fear is that because the first book was published so long ago in mainstream publishing that I won’t find a publisher willing to take the series on board. I do believe there will be a much greater and fresher audience for the books, because there is a generational change in the target audience and The Last Wizard never made it out of the very tiny Australian publishing arena back in 1995 (publishers were highly parochial about regions back then – that has changed, I believe). I have been out of touch with the writing arena for a decade or more as well, which means I am starting from scratch as far as working out who to send the project to. In the past, I would approach a publisher with the first book, seal the deal and write the rest after that. This time, I’d like to be able to offer the completed project. Ambitious? I don’t know. I still have to do the research to find out who would even want to look at it.
There is, of course, self-publication. Personally, I want to find a traditional publisher, but if the work doesn’t attract a publisher I’m learning enough through my experimentation and online guides to make a fist of publishing the project alone. That dilemma is still a year away on my estimations. I have two more books to complete first.
Next blog, I want to focus on the cover design process. In preparation for publication of the books, as I’ve said before, a friend and great artist, Kirsi Salonen http://www.kirsisalonen.com/ is creating cover art for the books. I’ll unpack how we arrived at the cover design for Chasse’s Song.
For my Christian friends, happy Easter! For my non-Christian friends, enjoy the long weekend break, if that is given to you, and stay safe.
Discipline, rewards and direction...
This past week Jaysin’s Song grew to 7000 words with drafting of the first two chapters. Like the previous two books, the average chapter length is set between 300-4000 words for consistency of story reading. What I’ve learned over the thirty years since first writing a fantasy novel is the chapter word limit is not constraining but a form of self-discipline and a reward.
The discipline comes in making certain that each chapter is a self-contained moment (or collection of moments) that advance a section of the story as a whole. This makes me focus on keeping a tight plot and related subplots as I draft. Sometimes ideas flow freely, and I end up drafting way over 4000 words in a chapter. I discipline myself to then rework the writing until it fits within the word limit. Sometimes, not often, a chapter falls short of 3000 words in first draft. Again, I review the chapter and work on it until it meets the limits. This is not about padding out a story, but about adding richer detail and sometimes even pursuing a character or plot development that otherwise might be cut or altogether ignored.
The reward comes in seeing the structure of the novel grow as each chapter draft is completed, knowing the story must fit within an overall word limit. The reward is simply a set of tangible targets.
I like to open a novel creating a hook; an event or information that I hope will stir the reader’s interest and encourage them to know what will happen. Jaysin’s Song opens with the dragon, Harmi, flying into Machutzka with a warning that a war is raging to the east and the Empress is sending troops to pressgang young people from outlying towns and villages into her Great Army. This sets an immediate tension, threat and dilemma for our central characters.
For Jaysin in particular, now fifteen and an aspiring sorcerer, additional dilemmas and challenges arise in the opening chapters. First, he is keen to have recognition for his ability, but everyone reveres the dragon, his sister, Tamesan who is a wizard, and his warrior brother, leaving him without a clear identity. Second, he learns that important books of magic are locked behind a metal door in a building in Machutzka – locked there forty or more years earlier by Eric who was the Harbin Herbal Man, and wizard and companion of the dragon, Claryssa. The key is lost. But Jaysin is learning an ancient spell that might enable him to access the entombed texts.
Already, despite notes and planning ideas for the book, it has taken its own direction. For example, the concept of Machutzka having a library and a librarian was not in my original planning, but now Shika the Librarian has entered the tale. I wanted Jaysin to become increasingly more powerful, but was unsure of exactly how to give him access to arcane knowledge. He could, of course, learn it from Harmi, but the dragon is quite ethical, and she would be tempted to control what she allowed Jaysin to learn. After all, sorcerers don’t exist – Jaysin is an oddity. The world of magic belongs to dragons and their lifelong wizard companions.
Thus, the story has begun. Let’s see where Jaysin’s fortunes lie.
Jaysin's Song - the opening
Last week I started working on drafting the third book in The Last Wizard series – Jaysin’s Song. Book One – Tamesan’s Song – the original The Last Wizard – focusses on Tam coming of age in a small pre-medieval society where male warriors dominated the community and girls were expected to grow up to be women who served the men. Tam doesn’t fit the norm. Underlying the community is a legend justifying the men spending summers away from home, apparently on dragon hunts. Tam and her brother expose the lies at the heart of their community. Book Two – Chasse’s Song – follows a different coming of age for Tam’s older brother, Chasse, who has to learn to be a warrior, one whose duty is based on truth and honour. He helps his sister, his younger brother and a baby dragon escape the danger pursuing them, and learns who he must become. And, so, to Book Three.
Jaysin was a misfit in his village because he loves studying things and understanding how the world works. He showed no care in relationships with other children and certainly no interest in their games. But we learn in the second book that he has an amazing propensity for learning, for communicating with animals and for learning magic. Because his sister is paired with a dragon and can use dragon magic, and because his brother is an emerging great warrior, Jaysin feels he must create his own identity to step out of the shadow of his siblings. Rather than being suppressed by his station and treatment by his peers, he is determined to be better than anyone else in his ways. Book Three begins with Jaysin in his fifteenth summer, now having spent five years researching and learning and experimenting with sources of magic. He is keen to show others what he can do and thereby earn his status in the new city.
I have been writing plot notes for the novel, exploring how it can reflect Jaysin’s coming of age as an ambitious sorcerer in a much larger and even more dangerous world than he left behind when he escaped with his siblings from Harbin. Jaysin is different to his siblings for many reasons, and it will be fun developing a character who has an ‘edge’ to him – an interest in testing what is truth, what is good and bad, what is convenient, what brings recognition. He will test his siblings’ patience and their sense of what is right. And it will be challenging to keep growing Tam and Chasse and the dragon in the background to Jaysin’s story, giving them scope to adapt and learn and change through success, failure and suffering.
Today, the opening of this novel reached 4000 words, almost the first chapter done. It’s too early to explain Jaysin further. I have been developing a much larger world in readiness for his entry. I’ll write more about Jaysin, his challenges and the wider world in future blogs.
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...