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Fate of the Darlings

Good news is sometimes almost as stunning as bad news can be. I finished my series Shards of Light this week, and feel dazed to think that something I started a big chunk of a decade ago is now completed. It’s a time of reflection for me, and of course anticipation too, because soon I’ll finally be able to move on to a new chronicle of The Lands of Hope. That’s good for Advent.

The work involved in bringing four novellas to fruition, my first real series as an epic fantasy tale, was far greater than I figured. That’s what happens when characters demand attention and you give into them. I triggered recently on that old saw about “killing your darlings”, a phrase I took an instant and lethal dislike to. It’s apparently as old as the hills, and just as hard to get over. Where the hell would I be if I had taken a step in the direction of such advice? It’s not a rhetorical question, and there are people who follow such advice and I imagine are very successful. My best wishes to them. But I wouldn’t be among their number, as any kind of author. Killing my darlings has been off the table from day one for me.  I have three quarters of a million words in print, more or less, because I followed my instinct instead of market wisdom. Only the reader can decide if I’m any good, but I couldn’t have written a postcard with a broken heart.

What’s it Even Mean?

My two cents: “kill your darlings” was presented to me as a euphemism, a wise-person’s code for being a “real pro writer”. Some folks think it’s about making sure that characters die in the course of the book. We in epic fantasy have a phrase for that: Game of Thrones. Works for him!

But if only it was as mundane as the idea that you should write your characters into death scenes. No, this was more about taking a treasured character/ theme/ plotline, more or less BECAUSE you treasured it, and just cutting it out completely. Highlight and hit delete.

And throw it away forever, as much as the advice giver cared.

Being a Pro

Because a big-time writer, you see, supposedly equals the ability to dump what YOU cared about (full of emotion, no common sense, I mean jeez these are things you LOVE after all), and instead being able to follow the trends, change the genre and length and scope of your writing from month to frickin’ month. The only way to write like a pro is to do what THEY want. As in the readers, this week. To jump on the market of Now. To be on the cutting edge. To serve fads.

Kill your darlings was the litmus test of whether you were a grown-up, or just a dilettante, a whining amateur, and most importantly, a loser. Before you can submit your work, find some aspect of it that you loved, that if you were still being honest with yourself, you would admit brought you to the blank page to begin with. Then cut it. Trash-delete it and forget it. If YOU wanted to write that, it can’t be what people want to read.

Why am I Doing This Again?

Which is probably true. In the same way that surveying the damage of a battle scene would teach you the truth, that the defeated side were the losers and must not really have known what it took to win this thing. It’s faux-adult behavior (and if you can’t tell, I hardly loathe anything more); it’s cruel and unhelpful but it soothes the advice giver because they already sold their soul based on the mistaken belief that writing, by itself, doesn’t have any rewards. It can only be about money. And since NOBODY is making any money, they can derive the bizarre satisfaction that at least they are doing it right.

Sorry for the long rant, I’m an epic fantasy author and I don’t even use Twitter!

Nurture and Follow The Characters

I have followed a different path with my writing. I see the connections between characters and plots, and I recognize how messy and asymmetrical it can get. And I tell their stories anyway. I look at it as a challenge. And no question I learned a ton by working on Shards of Light.

The Ring and the Flag: Straight Up, with Some Wrinkles

After finishing my first big novel and getting roundly rejected, I fell into the arms of a supportive online group called Write Stuff Extreme. There I was exposed to the idea of e-books and the notion of shorter formats. I figured I was no good at a true short story, but when I heard that series were all the rage it hit me. I knew there was one heroic deed I had witnessed that ran the reverse of the usual plot. Instead of the heroes gathering and going on the quest, these three began completely separated and only much later become aware of the others’ existence, moving into closer and closer orbit while the clock runs down. I called it a Surrounded Plot, and I realized I could pull out each tale on its own (at least at first), bringing them together only in the finale. Captain Justin was clearly the first up. The Ring and the Flag is a classic tale of heroic fantasy with a flavor of military history. Only in a few places along the way to his crisis and response– shortest of the four books by far– are there a few hints dropped of something more going on beneath the surface. I could see a great standalone ending for his story, with several of those hooks already in the water if the reader wished to continue. {Psst! Makes a dandy holiday gift!}

Fencing Reputation: A One-Man Band

The concept I had in mind involved the characters overlapping slightly in time and showing crossover scenes from first one, then the other perspective. With the second book, I shifted to a very different kind of character in Feldspar the Stealthic, and used a new voice to tell you about him. I don’t want to give away too much but suffice to say when you go inside this guy’s mind you’re not going to get lonely. The way I see it, if a fellow who normally pursues gold and glory and doesn’t give a damn about politics decides to risk his life to help his people, then something must be happening. This tale can also be read as a standalone, in fact you could read the first two books in either order without much confusion. Still an heroic fantasy, still a happy ending. But by now it’s clear there’s more to the picture, loose ends that one could tie up.

And eventually I did.

Perilous Embraces: “You” Wouldn’t Believe

Introducing the third hero in the set proved to be the toughest challenge I faced as a writer. From third person narration in book 1, I move to first person in book 2, and now– yes, I went there– the tale of W’starrah Altieri comes in second person. I believe there are very good reasons for this and I hope you enjoy reading the series long enough to discover them. The plot definitely thickens, and the combined weight of writing about a female main character, taking in the impact of future-sight on current action, and finally getting into the conspiracy facing the North Mark… all those things slowed me to a crawl in my chronicling. At times I thought maybe I’d stopped altogether. I started The Eye of Kog later (200k words, the sequel to Judgement’s Tale) and almost finished it first. But Perilous Embraces ended with a bang, and it’s a safe bet the days of standalone endings are over. In fact, word to the wise, it is a completely unashamed cliffhanger.

That made it all the more important to get the finale written. And now it is.

Shards of Light: Harvest Time for the Character Crop

The final chapter, as it turned out, wasn’t nearly as hard to write as the one that came before it. By the time I started some of its characters had been on paper for six-plus years. I knew them intimately, saw the plot-arc clearly, found my way until quite near the end when of course everything starts to happen at once. I was very pleased to realize that I could now identify to the reader where they were, which character they were with, just by the voice I had been using throughout the series. Third person, first, second– as soon as the identifier popped up you were “there”, and I have sections where the switching is almost a paragraph at a time. Is it for everyone? Would the “pros” have accepted something written this way? I’m very sure, no. But I made the decision to write what I had seen and stay true to the tale. I’d compare the amount of labor and pain up there with anyone who highlighted an entire theme and hit the delete key. I cherished my darlings, and that produced the tale you see now.

Which is not to say that I didn’t kill any of them. But heroism like theirs, not to put too fine a point on it, survived everything. The passage of time, feelings of doubt, confusion and dismay, perhaps even death. It did not defeat them. Justin, Feldspar and W’starrah have been my Shards of Light for seven years. Now I recommend their story to you. They didn’t follow the trends, but they struck a mighty blow for Hope and I believe you’ll enjoy reading about their valor, ingenuity and above all their love.

Final Word About Artwork

My publisher the unsinkable Katharina Gerlach listened to what I wanted for the covers, added her own good sense about what would sell, and then found the ones you see sprinkled across this page. Just a while ago she showed me the finale cover art and asked “are you happy with it?”.

Happy? God as my witness, I could hardly breathe. Look ye on the scene:

People I’m telling you. That’s Cryssigens, that’s my city on fire there. Which of course is exactly what happens. This talented artist discovered by my publisher calls himself The Rafa and you can find him on Deviant Art. If you need somebody who can execute monsters, heroes and cityscapes, you could do worse. With that, here’s my cover reveal for the Shards of Light finale, curiously entitled Shards of Light. Enjoy! It will be available soon.

What’s Been Going On

I thought I’d write a quick note to let you know what’s transpired in my writing life these days. Let me rephrase- my publisher thought it would be a good idea to write a quick note, etc. And naturally I’m delighted to do so, because I couldn’t be happier with my career since I signed that contract. It’s open-ended regarding duration, and that makes me happy too.

 The Eye of Kog

Created with Nokia Refocus

Most of my writing time is spent chipping away at the crucial last fifth or so of the long-awaited sequel to Judgement’s Tale. And I say “long-awaited” with confidence, because I’ve been here every day, waiting. The thought-flow with this tale has covered my entire chronicling career, and I’m sure this slow progress has something to do with this incredulous feeling I have that it might soon all be on paper. What remains ahead of me is the climax of both books, where the time-line accordions back in, so that characters are doing things at the same hour, and where many of the main heroes finally meet. Those would normally be interesting scenes on their own– add the fact that a liche and Earth Demon are also present, with the fate of the northern kingdoms at stake, and you’ve got a rather complex interaction of events to sort out.

One additional problem I’m starting to have is the Point of View; characters who have been off on their own for hundreds of pages are now meeting others who have served to narrate the action for their own threads. Judgement meets Gareth, Treaman meets Pol. Who wins? Which “side” do I take? It’s harvest time for all the work that’s gone into chronicling their deeds and these are happy choices. Still tough ones.

I plan to finish The Eye of Kog by July 4th. Yes of 2016, wiseass. The idea is to bring it out as I did Judgement’s Tale in a set of novellas (three this time), followed by the full novel, then paper. The tale I originally saw as a single book, if stacked up, would trip a rhino. I flatter myself that many authors might not know what to do with themselves then. For me, not a problem.

Perilous Embraces

My much-maligned “other WiP” is the third installment of the Shards of Light series, following The Ring and the Flag and Fencing Reputation. W’starrah Altieri is the protagonist and third member of the unwitting band of heroes who may be able to save Cryssigens, and perhaps the entire Southern Empire, from falling back into civil war and ruin. Just as the first two books told us about Captain Justin and the Stealthic Feldspar, Perilous Embraces follows the Lavender Lady in a tale of political intrigue with more than a little romantic heat.

So, in a nutshell I’m trying to chronicle the deeds and feelings, in second person voice no less, of a beautiful woman with tons of suitors, who is clever, ambitious and can see the future. In my personal dictionary that’s the definition of the term “away game”. The draft is about 60% complete and I’ll post the ticker on my website once I’m done with EK.

Chronicler Trivia: I never have a detailed outline of my tales, since I’m working from long-standing memories of what I witnessed. But I have had a curious ability to predict how long the stories will be, ever since I realized that “Judgement’s Tale” had to be two novels rather than one. I lob a word count out there, and I usually come quite close to hitting that number when the smoke clears. A bit spooky, but fun.

 I’m less sure about how long it will take but based on length I’m going to go with Labor Day 2016.

And by then, I’ll have been to several more places in the Alleged Real World where I can continue preaching the Lands of Hope to unsuspecting customers.

  • May 7th at the Hockessin Book Shelf, signing books and meeting folks
  • The biggest news I almost forgot since someone else is doing all the work- by the end of May, Fencing Reputation— the second installment of the Shards of Light series– will be out in paperback. I’m very excited that readers will get to see both Justin (The Ring and the Flag) and now Feldspar begin to unravel the conspiracy surrounding the city of Cryssigens
  • Early June, I will continue my author-dungeon interview series and I’m taking volunteers, so if you have something coming out this summer I’d be happy to torture the details out of you.
  • Near Father’s Day- if I’m good, new paints and brushes and then some progress on figurines!
  • August 6th at Dover ComicCon (my first con!), I’ll be setting up as a vendor and perhaps giving a presentation
  • October 12th at Appoquinimink Library, giving my presentation on “Hook ‘Em from the Start”
  • October 22nd, the Hockessin Book Fair where I had such a blast last year, and now coming the week before Halloween
  • If I can just get my act together enough to do another signing, and then find a radio interview gig, I’d be a very happy chronicler

sisyphusNone of that excuses a lack of writing! I’m back on it, now I promise. This is my favorite image to stand for my writing process– and I know about Sisyphus and all but to me this is a very Hopeful image. Forget the backslides, those happen (and usually caused by hubris anyway). No, man– that rock is MOVING! Unbelievable, but happening and all the time.

Just a bit slowly is all. But hey. Big rock.