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.
As outlined last post, I’ve spent several sessions working through the historical fiction, Girlie, since the new year, adjusting sentences, checking and adding (and sometimes deleting) details around colour, smell, texture, sound and so on. Working through the manuscript, searching for excessive adjectival and adverbial use – and deciding when to keep them – reconstructing sentences (splitting longer ones into shorter expression, introducing conjunctions and punctuation to extend others), eliminating word repetition where appropriate, correcting expressions, probing and testing character dialogue to see if the story progresses or characters are better understood because of it, speaking dialogue aloud to hear if it scans in the conversations, inserting sections of Girlie’s reflections on moments to add depth, removing patches of dead description and expanding other pieces to paint clearer pictures, is a slow, methodical process that soaks up an amazing degree of time. And, honestly, I’m still not satisfied with sections.
Interviews with Eileen’s (Girlie’s) brothers and sisters in 2020 added important information, but also posed a conundrum on what to add in and what to leave out. Because this novel was always ultimately to be a work of fiction, I’ve been willing to compress, alter or skip factual information of Girlie’s real life in order to develop a character and plot, but I definitely wanted to capture the historical events – larger and personal – that Girlie passed through as she grew toward self-actualisation to position the work in a period of South Australian time. The interviews revealed to my interviewees and myself elements of the family’s experiences that Girlie neither witnessed nor participated in – for example, the periods of homelessness and time the younger siblings spent in the Fullarton Girls and Kent Town Boys Homes. Neither, as another example, were her siblings aware of the extent of Girlie’s ‘adventures’ in Melbourne and Tasmania. Editing and adjusting, and sometimes leaving out family facts proved very challenging. As with the language, I’ve tried to include what helps to build Girlie’s character and move the story, and exclude what might be accurate family history but only leads to side plots or information alone. I am incredibly grateful for what Girlie’s brothers and sisters shared.
Reflecting on a process in my notes that was seeded as a concept in 2009, became an active research project in 2010 when I started ‘formal’ interviews with Mum on Wednesday afternoons (there may have been cups of tea and Scrabble involved), before finally morphing into a writing project in 2015, the journey has taken me back through time in a variety of ways – through conversations, online research in the libraries, readings of newspapers and magazines via Trove, collections of family and library photographs (Mum proved selfies were ‘a thing’ way back in the 1940s and 50s). The first full draft of Girlie came in at 118,205 words early 2019. This ‘final’ draft, ready for sending out to publishers, sits at 122,091 words. Although there is a 4000 word difference between first and final draft (with four draft versions between), and an increase at that, I’ve estimated almost 3000 words were cut from the first draft, but an additional 7000 words of story/detail was gradually included.
Unlike this time last year, where I hastily sent a draft to a competition in the somewhat overly hopeful chance it might be considered, this time the story is ready. Covering Girlie’s growth from 13-22, across the years 1944-1953, each year a chapter, each chapter headed with a quote from a movie of the time that also speaks into Girlie’s life at the time, I’m done. Girlie now needs a publishing benefactor to read it and think it’s worth sharing with other people. Here we go.
A new hope (sorry George)
Where does time go? 2021 is rushing forward as if it is deliriously delighted to escape the embrace of its predecessor and we're hurtling through February into March. In January, I promised a fortnight break between posts - ummm make that six weeks then...
The writer in me was subsumed by the educator in recent weeks, but school is up and running, and students and teachers are settling into the familiar routines, so I can return to the projects in my 'other' life. I am working only four days a week this year, so Fridays will become a focussed writing day.
Currently, I returned to another edit of Girlie, the novel set in 1940s/50s South Australia based with some facsimilitude on my mother's teen to early twenties life. The purpose of the edit is to remove any glaring mistakes/typos and adjust expression. This novel is ready to submit, so I've started researching potential publishers. Last year, in haste, I submitted Girlie for consideration in a Writers' Week competition with a publishing contract on offer from Wakefield Press, but it didn't win. It was a long shot, considering I hadn't even shared the draft with beta readers at that stage. I was distracted by other projects thereafter. I will approach Wakefield Press again with the manuscript through the normal submission channels because it would be apt for the novel to be published by a South Australian company. If there's no luck there, I'll cast a wider net.
Beta is better...
First up, Happy New Year for 2021 to everyone! While COVID remains a real threat, Trump is stalling to leave the White House, China continues to expand its Belt and Road initiative, the Taliban and multiple other organisations and nations continue to oppress women and people of colour, Australian leaders don't understand that white Eurocentric supremacy in world politics is no longer an unchallenged force, and greed and selfishness continue to drive too many ordinary people, I hope that, for you and your families, 2021 is kind and full of not just promise but fulfilment. Take a moment to tell those you love that you do love them. Do random acts of kindness. Smile and laugh.
I stopped writing on Dec 28 for a short break, but that was after I edited and shared Chasse's Song (Book Two The Last Wizard) with a beta reader for feedback and also shared sample sections with artist Kirsi Salonen for consideration as basis for the cover illustration.
The beta reader report is in and generally favourable, with some important but minor recommendations made, and I have attended to them today as part of my new year's resolutions.
My concern was capturing style after a 25 year gap between books, but the beta reader confirmed that it wasn't an issue. One challenge is to link Book One and Two for readers who might have a 'break' between books so they can recall key Book One events. In the case of the original novel, the dragon's egg and threats to it need to be clear from the outset in the second. I have made adjustments accordingly, without a ham-fisted recount.
Curiously, I also began book three (or did I say that last entry??) Anyway, I'm looking forward to growing Jaysin's character in the third book against the tapestry of a larger and more threatening world than either Chasse or Tam encountered in their initial tales.
I'm about to enjoy a week of family flying in from Queensland, daughters and grandson I haven't seen for more than a year. I doubt I'll be writing in that time. Next post will be in a fortnight then, when I've chosen what to work on next.
The hidden art of home libraries
The school year sags into holidays and this fascinating year of 2020 drags its feet, unwilling to relinquish its fervent grip on the throat of human hope. Coronavirus continues to rage in parts of the world, serums designed to reduce the virus' impact bring possibilities but not cures or prevention, Sydney has another outbreak while the rest of Australia holds their collective breaths as Christmas travellers clutch tickets, and I hope to see my daughters and grandson in the new year.
Daytime work for 2020 stopped on Friday. Actually, it was meant to end on Wednesday, but small unfinished tasks lingered through Thursday and Friday, drawing me back into the office to add detail and 'do the right thing', whatever that actually is in a working world.
There are also distractions. Friday and yesterday I chose to build a dream - a wall library in the lounge for our books (or at least for some of them). I'm no carpenter - I failed Woodwork at school - but I managed to recompose a combination of IKEA bookcases, Bunnings kitchen cabinets, assorted sections of melamine, sweat, determination, creativity and careful measurement into a library (picture below). Finally, a space in our house feels like a writer should be here.
Editing of Chasse's Song has therefore been interrupted and slow, but the aim is still to finish the first edit before Christmas Day weighs in. Rearranging word order to improve the scansion (yes, I know it's prose, but the inner poet can't let go of a sense of rhythm when writing), selecting 'better' words, finding one word to replace three, reducing same word repetition, testing alternative words, adding and removing details, and checking for typos, misspellings, grammatical inconsistencies and really stupid mistkaes (yes, Dad joke irony) continues to be the prime imperative in this part of the writing process. I'm hoping the next couple of days will be fulltime writer days to aid this process.
I suspect my next post will be either between Christmas and New Year or in the new year. Either way, I wish you all an amazing, restful, Coronavirus-free, loving Christmas. Let's see if the contract for 2021 has any fineprint or hidden clauses. I'm hoping it brings everyone a fresh perspective, energy, productivity and joy.
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...