Archives: Writing

Editorial Choices

Back in May, my friend Keith asked for a few more details about what goes on behind the scenes at a magazine. Specifically, he wrote: “I’d love to read about what it’s like to edit a magazine, not just about submissions and what you look for in a story (although that is of much interest), but what all is involved in putting a publication together. In other words, I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of what goes on behind the scenes.”

I can’t speak from a position of great authority, as I’ve only worked on two magazines, but I can speak with familiarity about Tales From the Magician’s Skull, the caveat being that each issue has been a little different. With the third issue underway, though, it feels as if routines are getting into place.

Novel Lessons 4: Stalking the Beast

After delivering a draft of The Bones of the Old Ones and while waiting upon editorial comments I wrote my second Pathfinder novel, Stalking the Beast. And while it proved much simpler in composition than writing Bones, it presented its own issues.

By the time I sat down to write it I was beginning to understand that every novel has its own challenges. Stalking the Beast was a sequel novel to The Plague of Shadows, which was in some ways a search for identity by its protagonist, Elyana. By the end, Elyana was comfortable with herself and her past. I wasn’t entirely sure how to create a new struggle for someone who had found a way to get her sh*t together, so I decided to focus my efforts on her loyal half-orc friend, Drelm. Except that he was such a simple character I knew he couldn’t carry the narrative on his own.

Inspiration hit when I developed the third viewpoint character, Lisette, a gunslinger hired to kill Drelm. Her chapters were the easiest to write in the entire book, despite me knowing her the least. It was the oddest thing. Previous experience had shown me that knowing a character well was a great way into their head, but I learned that being INTERESTED in the character was real fuel as well. Lisette’s complicated life and motivations were so much more fun to write that they were vastly more simple to explore, so much so that I barely had to revise any of the chapters from her point of view at all.

Updated Hard Writing Lesson: Word Count

I’ve run out of time to write a lengthy essay this morning about my fourth book, so I’ll resume that series of essays next week. Today I thought I’d draft a brief note about another writing matter that’s been a challenge to me for years: word count.

Like a lot of writers, once I got a steady writing gig I began to fret about my daily word count. It was always smaller than I wanted it to be. Some days I could get 4 or even 5 thousand words and occasionally much higher, but more often it was 3k or a little less. I last wrote about this in 2016, when I had realized that the overall weekly or even monthly word count was much more important than the daily word count.

That was an important realization, because it helped me stop getting frustrated every day when my words weren’t coming as fast as I thought they were supposed to arrive. I went so far as to read a number of books on writing faster to see if I could glean the secrets. I gleaned some, but I knew at that point that few writing tips are absolute. What works for one writer may not work for another — you have to be willing to try of course, but there are many different ways up the mountain.

Writing Notecards

Sometimes I re-learn writing lessons without pain. Or maybe I should say sometimes what I know is a good writing technique gets confirmed, because I actually remember to apply what I learned.

Yesterday I had to run a bunch of errands on the far side of town. I grabbed my writing notebook just in case… and when I took the wife’s car in for an oil change saw that I’d be waiting a loooong time, because there were so many customers ahead of me. No worries, because I had the writing notebook.

Even better, I had some index cards. I got more plotting done there waiting for the oil change than I’d managed in the last month. Sometimes you have to have the right tools at the right time.

Novel Lessons 3: The Bones of the Old Ones

Three weeks ago I mentioned that it had taken me a year, writing in my spare time, to create the first Dabir and Asim novel, The Desert of Souls. Well, when it came to its sequel, it took just as long, even though I was writing full time. Sadly, it proved one of the most challenging books I’ve yet written, even though up until the most recent, unpublished novel, For The Killing of Kings, it was my favorite and the one of which I was most proud.

What went wrong? Well, that’s where the lessons come in.

First, I thought that my skeletal outline method was the way to go. It turns out that worked just fine for the first book, which was an origin story. I wanted to do something more complex with the second book now that my main characters were brothers in all but blood, and a wiser man than me should have realized that meant he needed a more complicated outline. I sure wish I could talk to that guy, because he would have saved himself and his poor, long suffering wife a whole lot of anguish.

You see, I ended up writing The Bones of the Old Ones no less than three times from almost start to finish. That certainly wasn’t my intent. Nearly everything about the plot changed apart from the general concept and the first three or four chapters. I had a strong beginning scene, but I cut it early on, and it took my wife and my editor, Pete Wolverton, some serious convincing to get me back to that start when I began it the third time.

Second, I only had a vague idea about my villains. I THOUGHT I knew them better than I did, but I was so eager to get started that I hadn’t thought them through very clearly. As a result I didn’t completely know their powers, or even their motivations. That was, frankly, an idiot move, because the middle got really muddy when I didn’t have an idea how the bad guys would be reacting to what was happening.

Novel Lessons 2: Plague of Shadows

Maybe I should label this novel as “2.5” because I’d started my second Dabir and Asim novel, The Bones of the Old Ones, before I set to work on Plague of Shadows. But I set Bones aside and gave this one my attention all through the summer.

I didn’t write it as I’d written my first novel, in part because as a work-for-hire, I had to present an extremely detailed outline and get it approved before I started working. That meant I had a pretty solid blueprint, even though that blueprint ended up changing a lot as I went. It was a little harder than my first novel, but not so hard as the next one would be, probably because of that outline, one that a talented editor had provided me with feedback for.

Why was it a little more difficult? Well, the characters and their relationships were all brand new to me, so it took a little writing and rewriting to get used to them and how they’d react, something I hadn’t had to do much with The Desert of Souls.

The most obvious lesson in writing Plague was to be flexible. Somehow I managed to roll with the punches on this one far faster than I’d roll with challenges in later books. I was about a third of the way into the draft, about 30 thousand words, when I heard from James Sutter. James, by the way, is a great editor — and a talented writer as well — and this wasn’t at all his typical way of communicating. But the Paizo Pathfinder novel line was new, and they were still working on marketing. He said that they had realized that novels with dragons on the cover sold better and asked if I could work some dragons into the plot. I said sure, I already had one, but he wondered if I could have a big fight with a dragon. So I said sure, why not? And I found a way, and I think it ended up strengthening the book.

Language Use

My friend Troy asked the other day about my ” ideas on usage of language – how you change it per the setting and world you are writing in, how you find not only the narrator’s voice, but the voice of your characters.”

When it comes to altering language for the setting and world, most of the time I turn the dial only a little. The big exception would be the historical fantasies I’ve written in the voice of an 8th century Arabian swordsman. In preparation for writing those I read a lot of translations of work written from around the same time I set the stories in, and that prose was a lot more formal. Many of the writers were also highly religious, sprinkling in praise to God every few sentences or so. I knew that if I wrote in exactly the same style I’d put off modern readers and erect a barrier between them and the work, so I wrote in sort of a faux version of that. It’s a little more formal and flowery, so that it sounds different without (hopefully) being too distant. I mention praise to God every now and then but far, far less often, and the sentence structure is more varied.

Submission Reading

When I stepped up to be the Managing Editor of Black Gate, I started running a live journal. It seems hard to believe that was already so long ago, but when I got to looking up a post I’d written that might be of interest I saw that it dated from 2007, which kind of floored me. The years have sped past.

Anyway, prior to this post I had just finished reading through a big batch of Black Gate submissions, and the percentages of rejections I discuss seemed to hold in the years going forward. I expect they’ll be true when I start reading magazine submissions again, so I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to pull manuscripts from the envelopes, or e-mail. Have a look at what kind of things I found there, and perhaps most importantly, what submitters have done wrong. Better than learning from your own mistakes is learning from those that other people have made, right? That’s less painful.

Believe me, when we finally get around to asking for subs for Tales From the Magician’s Skull, these are the things writers really need to be aware of.

Novel Lessons 1: The Desert of Souls

I’d like to think that I learn a little more about writing with every book, and I thought that it might be useful to my fellow writers if I shared what I’ve learned… often the hard way.

Before I ever got to the first published novel I had at least five others that didn’t make the cut. I write “at least” because three of those five were rewritten numerous times, sometimes nearly from scratch, so maybe the total is more like ten or twelve. Yeah, that many.

I am reminded of what I heard as a creative writing minor in college when a published author dropped by to talk to us. He said that it might take us multiple novels before we got published, and he cited a figure close to ten, because that’s how long it had taken him. I remember thinking to myself that I would certainly figure things out faster. Hah! The arrogance and optimism of youth. I sure thought I was special (even as I was brimming with insecurities that I really wasn’t). Would I have stuck with it so long if I’d known success wasn’t waiting around the corner? What if I’d known the advice I later heard, about having to put in about 10,000 hours before you were good enough to be professional with a skill? I think that little gem is probably pretty accurate for most of us, as it turns out.

Probably I’d still have kept at it. I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, even if I thought I had more of a natural knack that wouldn’t require quite so much time to get right. Of course, some people get it right the first time out of the gate, like Lynch and Rothfuss. That wasn’t me, alas. Maybe to write your first one it helps if you’re a more seasoned human being, because some of my challenge was that I hadn’t experienced enough life to write a convincing novel when I was in my teens or early 20s.

So what did I learn in the writing of my first published novel, The Desert of Souls?

Writing Observations: Backstory

I finished reading a slim, hardboiled novel the other day of 142 pages and marveled again about how much story these good writers from the ’50s could cram into a tiny space.

One of the things I liked best was that the backstory wasn’t front loaded into the plot. I think a lot of modern writers would have spun it out twice as long and shown us a bunch of scenes of the youthful years of the character as he experienced the things that shaped him. Instead, the story starts with Jake Wade’s new identity already established, then the threat to that identity is introduced. The story is in motion from the very start and anything we don’t know acts as an enticement to find out the secrets behind it all. Boy do I love that style more.

I wonder if it says something about the era in which I grew up, where as a boy I admired and emulated men who had still waters that run deep, and didn’t talk about problems. Not that I was successful, because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I aspired to be more like that. Those were the models I saw around me and those are the models I saw on television and in the movies. Of course those models had some things wrong with them, too — the inability to communicate, for instance — but I still admire the habit of not spewing your problems and backstory over everybody you meet. Maybe the tendency to do that in some modern fiction is a backlash against being too closed in.

Anyway, two thumbs up for The Law and Jake Wade, and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie now, which is supposed to be a pretty strong old western.

It’s not until page 134 (of those 142) where we finally get a little window into how a man who’s good now ended up running with a bad bunch in the past, because it’s necessary for Jake to try and explain himself to the woman he loves over breakfast before he makes his final goodbye. Here, I’ll excerpt this text from Marvin Albert’s book: