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.
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...