What I’ve Read: Blood of Elves

cropped-rare-books.jpgThis installment of my reading enjoyment comes at the hands of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Blood of Elves. For those who aren’t videogamers, this is the first novel in the Witcher series, in which the game The Witcher is based on.

Brief Summary:

The thing with this book is that it is hard to briefly describe the book as a whole because the chapters are 50-some pages long and each are more similar to vignettes instead of chapters. The first chapter is a story told by a famous poet named after a plant (Dandelion) about the Witcher and his ward, Ciri. The poet is then attacked by a wizard and saved by a magician at the end. The second chapter has another magician going to the home of the Witchers to meet Ciri. The third chapter has the magician stating that the young Ciri is a wizard and she needs to be treated like a normal girl and not like one of the Witchers. The fourth chapter has the three leaving to take the girl to a temple to learn. Along the way they are ambushed by this rogue elf clan. Chapter five takes place some time later with the Witcher on a job hunting a monster in a river. The Witcher is then attacked by a group of thugs by the wizard in the first chapter as well as the monster. The Witcher obviously wins. Chapter six starts by a bunch of royals planning to start a war. Then the Witcher is attacked by the wizard after Dandelion leads him to the Witcher. And the final chapter is where the first magician meets and trains Ciri before leaving somewhere.

The Good:

The book is a very fast read. Though each chapter does go for 50+ pages, there are enough scene breaks that one can put the book down and pick up again later.

The characters are expertly detailed and well-written. There is enough mystery with each character that it isn’t truly known what their motives are.

The world is also a well-rounded entity that you feel like you are plopped down into without missing a beat.

The Bad:

As I said in the summary, this feels like a series of small scenes. And this is definitely true throughout the book. The book just ends and it doesn’t feel like there is an active plot within it. I know this books is part of a series, but I like books that have a set plot within the overarching arc, and this books doesn’t have it.

One thing that does tend to drag is that Mr. Sapkowski likes to add characters into scenes that just like to talk. There is a ton of back- and-forth dialogue with secondary characters that don’t necessarily move the “plot” along. Perhaps some of these characters come back in the next volume.

Rating:

3 out of 5

The writing process: The Query(ing) game

typewriter-1144164-639x426The Query – the dreaded next step from actually writing the story, manuscript, novel to getting it to the masses for consumption. To be able to share your story with the world, you have to first get it into the hands of someone in the industry who could make it happen. It is a difficult step for an author, especially new authors.

Whether you want to have your finished work published via traditional markets, e-books, Print on Demand or in journals/magazines, you need to Query. Querying can come in the form of a letter to an agent or publisher, but it is basically a pitch of your story to someone who has no idea what you have written. As many authors soon come to find out, it is harder to do a proper query than it is to write the book or story. And the pitch is not a step-by-step covering of your plot, it is a hook to grab the reader’s attention so they become interested in your book. The hook is nearly similar to what you would commonly see on the book jacket – it is the few sentences that either interest you or make you put it down.

For myself, it was a long arduous learning curve that I am still trying to master. When I first wrote my original book, my Query was shock full of mistakes. And those mistakes still carried over to the contemporary thriller, but where my fantasy failed, my thriller succeeded and I chalk that up to the market and genre. The point is, what works for one, does not work for another – and that goes especially true for agents.

Agents are people and they have their own tastes and wants. As an author, I forget that from time to time when I get a rejection or don’t hear anything. Agents have to be interested in the story, otherwise they are just wasting their time, which is as important to them as it is to you.

The same goes for the Query letter itself. I have gone to workshops and done webinars and bootcamps and learned one thing – everyone’s idea of a good query letter is different. Some agents want and expect one style, while another says something different. It is a difficult path to travel for authors because we think it should be easy since we wrote a full story – but we are wrong more often than not. While many agents follow a similar pattern, it is really pertinent to tailor each Query to the specific agent or publisher (even though most publishers want agent submissions, not unsolicited). It is good to have a stock letter, but to alter it each time with different tweaks to meet the agent’s needs/wants. It is good to have a solid few points to touch on from the plot, but make it fluid enough to alter if needed.

For example, in my story, I have an LGBTQ main character while also discussing a different take on religion in the future. In my basic letter, I don’t mention either because I know what type of hot topics those can become. But as I research different agents, I will add those parts if they mention they are drawn to that particular thing or if they want to see different perspectives. It is all about playing to the wants of an agent, but also not lying about your storyline. Not all agents request a Synopsis (another difficult piece to do for authors – keeping it one page, come on, that is super hard for us wordsmiths!), but that doesn’t mean you should exclude those things in the Synopsis. The Query and the Synopsis are two different animals and though I might not mention sexuality or religion in every Query, they are both in my Synopsis because they are integral to the overall plot.

With all that said, I am still trying to find representation for my novels. I have four completed books that are ready for the next step and it is up to me to persevere to get them to see the light of day. The query process might eventually be longer than it took me to actually write the books, but that is where a writer becomes an author.

Rejection is part of the game and you have to not take it personal. At first, I took it personal whenever I received a rejection, but I was younger and new to the process. Now, I look at it as part of the overall process. Querying is like taking a piece of you and putting it out there, it can be shot down and it does hurt, but like all things, to succeed, you have to push through. I know that there is someone out there who will fall in love with what I have written and it is up to me to find that person. If it takes me 1000 rejections to find that one who will take me to the next step, I will continue on (hopefully it doesn’t take that long!) with gusto and determination. That is the great thing about writing, it allows you to pour your heart on the page and let others into your world. I wouldn’t want to waste all that time I spent on writing it to just let it sit there and not be seen because a few people didn’t connect with it.

Interestingly enough, the day before writing this post, I participated in a Twitter pitch for my series. At first I thought it was even more difficult to condense the query down to 140 characters, but after the first few, it seemed easier for some strange reason. Social Media has changed the game, even from 2007 when I started the process. It has opened up new avenues for writers, created a larger community for us to get out there. I love it and truly enjoy interacting with others like me, other dreamers.

Dream on my friends and don’t give up on those dreams. I know I won’t. One day, the Dies Irae will be available for Fantasy Readers.

Saying Goodbye – on finishing the series

farewell-1531953-639x488Just this past weekend, I put the final touches on the Phoenix Rebirth, the last book of the Dies Irae Cycle. Let me just say that when I wrote the epilogue chapter, it gave me all the feels. I had waited to write this chapter until I did many rounds of edits because I knew that it was going to hit me that it was done.

I first conceived the story for the first book in 2005 and started writing it while still being a college kid. I knew what I wanted this first book to be, but I didn’t have the greatest plan of how I wanted the entire series to go. It wasn’t until 2014 that I knew what direction the series would go and how I wanted it to end. It was around that time when I added Hunter as a character and her love story with Brynn. It was when I changed the overall story and the setting. I would call that my turning point – the burning grow within me to actually sit down and write.

It is nearly the end of 2016 and I can say that I am proud with, not only the story, but my enthusiasm for the project. I had to re-write the first book and I also had part of book two written before said turning point, but in the past two years, I have written nearly three full books (2 in this year alone!). And that is an amazing feat to accomplish. Writing isn’t easy, but because I had a great story to tell, it wasn’t all that hard. I would churn out a chapter of 3,000 words+ in a day when I was on my game. Overall, my four books are 481,000 words with 16 Points of View characters – 14 of which have at least five or more chapters in their arc.

I know I am not done with the world of the Dies Irae because I am going full out in trying to find an agent or publisher (or self-publish if those don’t pan out) because I want to share my work with the world – whether it goes to small or large audiences. With that will come more edits, but for the time being, I know my story is done and that makes me somewhat sad. I spent many years with these characters and it is like my wife said, it is like saying goodbye to old friends.

So I saved that last chapter until I felt ready to say goodbye. Letting go of Brynn, Finn, Ashe and Hunter was an emotional moment. Those four characters were good friends, trusted allies and exceptional individuals. It saddens me to know that I am leaving them where they belong in their journeys, but I know they pushed me to tell their stories. That last chapter was tough to write, but I ended on a high note (while also setting up future stories with their descendants!) with them, especially Brynn and Hunter, whose love was not only amazing, but also tinged with tragedy.

With those final words between Brynn and Hunter now written, I can finally say goodbye to them and know that they are where they ought to be. As for me, I am meeting all new friends for the next journey in a new and different world.

The writing process: Editing is like a dance, but only with yourself

typewriter-1144164-639x426Edits – the most feared and foreboding word in the publishing industry. I don’t remember who said it or if I am butchering a paraphrase, but “being able to write does not make you an author, but being able to hack into your writing does.” Again, I probably did a terrible job saying that quote or might have even put multiple quotes together, I am not a philosopher.

However, I truly believe in those words.

Now that my focus had been re-directed toward my fantasy series once more and I had a plot I thought was original, I needed to re-visit what I had written. I mentioned how I added a new POV character and had to re-work her (Hunter) into the story. Well that, in the basic sense of the word, is editing. The first thing I did was replace the main male POV (Finn) with Hunter in many scenes that revolved around the love part of the story with the main female POV (Brynn). That was a challenge because I had to basically turn a male POV into a female, and we all know (especially myself after the contemporary thriller experiment) that men and women don’t think the same. So I had to shift the vision of each scene that was to be changed to fit a female voice.

Another thing I had to do was shift other characters in each scene to show there was a new character there. It sounds easy to drop a new character in a scene, but you cannot forget about the minor characters as well. The minor characters have their own opinions on how things are to be viewed and by adding a new character into the fold, they would also be impacted by it.

But that entire business with the new POV and the new plot/setting was just the first of the edits I had to do.

I have chosen fantasy for my preferred story genre, which is a blessing and a curse. Because fantasy (or Science Fiction) has more lenient guidelines in terms of publishing & writing, it gives some freedom to hone your world. Most books follow strict guidelines for work count and SFF genre typically allows a bigger window. My initial story, prior to the addition of a new character, was 142k words. A typical SFF book falls around 100-115k, so I knew I had to cut it down.

I had always planned a series, so I tried to find a good cutting point in there. When I did that, I added more characters and more chapters to fill the remaining words. It became a five book series. But I didn’t feel confident in the story at that point, it felt convoluted. So I decided to try and build a trilogy. I had it in my head that I could build the trilogy and then cut it down as needed, but I found that hard.

And then something strange happened and I am not sure how it came about but my writing became more clipped and concise. Looking back at my original manuscript, there were so many long sentences and way too much description. Don’t get me wrong, I love description but there are authors out there who put way too much description that I think it takes away from the story.

I think part of this came from working with a very close friend on editing the story. This lovely lady, who I will go by her initials AM, helped me not only fix my neverending grammatical errors, but also to shorten my writing. She has edited the first two books so far, but with her guidance, I have been able to carry that over into the final two.

Notice how I said final two? Well I had that trilogy in mind and I took a course from the Writer’s Digest (fantastic resources for all types of writers) that had us work directly with an agent. The agent then gave feedback and we were to take it to help our stories. I couldn’t have received better feedback at a time when I was feeling down about the prospects of getting published  (topic for part 5).

While I was finishing the final book, I saw this change come over my writing where I started to do more showing than telling the story. And with the agent’s feedback, I was now motivated to go back to the beginning and make it better. And that is what I did. I went back and decided to make it a four book series and was able to take the 3 books I had written and fit them into 4 solid books. I went back and cut useless scenes/dialogue, I cut out POVs (though I still have 8 major POVs in book 1 alone!), I moved POVs to different books in the series, and finally, I showed more than told. All in all, I now have 4 books all within those magical word count ranges (minus book four that is a bit over but still not terribly long).

It was a tedious process, but now that I have done it with all that I have learned over the last couple of years, I truly feel that getting the Dies Irae Cycle published is not as outlandish as it once seemed a couple of years ago…

The writing process: Putting in the work & quirk

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I spoke of Originality in my last post and this is where I can build upon what I wrote there and lead it to where I am now.

I had all this great knowledge publishing the contemporary thriller and now it was time to translate it to my fantasy series, you know the one I really cared about and worked on for many many years. But how was I to do all that? Basically I started from scratch…

But not really. I still had a solid concept (at least what I thought was solid) and it just needed some polishing – to an extent, in all honesty. One night I had a crazy dream about God not being immortal and I awoke during this dream and vividly remembered it (which is interesting because I never remember my dreams). I thought it was an interesting concept that I could eventually write a story about it. I sat on this dream for a few months while I tried to figure out how to re-work my fantasy series to make it better and more original.

And then it dawned on me, why not utilize the dream and insert it into my series. Lo and behold, that worked seamlessly because I had a plot-thread about Gods, just not the God from this day and age.

My brain started rolling with ideas at this point. I wanted to challenge the notion of God as most people know him today. So with that, my entire fantasy series shifted, it had this overarching religious theme and then it firmly planted my existing book into our world. I decided I wanted to make the story fit into our world, so I used today’s sciences as a means of destroying the world and magic rose from the ashes, as well as everyone becoming ruled by the church (in this case, the Christian belief but not any particular version of it).

This led to other changes as well, the main one being the setting. I decided to change the setting from a traditional setting to being a more industrialized steampunk vibe. This allowed me to do more things than a regular sword and sorcery setting. It made certain things accessible that was not available in the other world I created. I was able to mimic things from the world I know and put a unique spin upon them.

Another thing I decided I wanted to do was add more POVs and change the romance from the traditional trope I had in my story. I created a brand new POV (a sister to my main male character). I changed my main female character to fall in love with this new female character. Our world today is changing, but there still exists a bias against those different than what the greater populace considers “normal” and that bias creates tension, especially in a religious thought process. Now that I had this religious backdrop, I wanted to explore the love of two people who the “normal” people consider going against the grain. But I didn’t want this to overshadow the whole story, because, let’s face it; a person’s love life does not control their entire story. I firmly believe that builds a character, but is not a character’s entire journey. I wanted to use this self-doubt because both these characters are members of the church, and the church gives them their magic. I thought it any interesting perspective to build their stories, but they are not driven by this fact. I also enjoyed writing a little love-triangle where the male character falls for the main female, but comes to accept his sister’s feelings.

Back to what I learned in publishing the thriller: writing women better. Now that I had what I wanted to make the story more original, I had to go back and edit this story. I realized I had written my main female from a male perspective, so I had to fix her completely. I always planned on having the main female and main male be the heroes of the story, but the original version had the male dominating the outcome of the plot. So I changed this and now the female (Brynn) is the overall hero A, with the male (Finn) and his sister (Hunter) heroes 1A.

By adding Hunter, it made re-organizing and writing the chapters difficult. I had to re-write whole chapters to make this addition, but it benefited me because I was able to change these characters and make them stronger. I made these women more life-like, with dreams and aspirations, but also logic and intelligence. It was quite rewarding  because I had a friend beta read/copy-edit and she truly thought I had written very strong female characters and was rooting for them (she even told me that she was gratified when a female character did something badass, because most of the time, this is something a man would do). I felt justified after my learning experience that I created even more strong, independent women for later books in the series – which led me to writing more females with different back-stories and races.

Now I had everything in place and had to do some edits, and more edits after that. I will discuss that process in another installment.

The writing process: Originality

typewriter-1144164-639x426Originality is the key to becoming a successful author. They say there are only 7 basic plots in all of literature: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage & Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Though this can be up for debate, it rings true in some respects; all stories can fall into a common bucket.

And that means, if you want to be a successful author, you need to be original. It needs to be something that hasn’t been done or seen before. Or taking that common plot and turning it on its head, making it seem different than before.

In my case, I had a very basic story, all the common things a fantasy would see, yet nothing breaking, nothing new and different. So what do you do when you write (what you think is fantastic, ground-breaking) novel only to realize it isn’t all that special and original? You write another novel in a completely different genre, that’s what!

Joking aside, this is exactly what I ended up doing. I was so bummed about my fantasy novel, and though it was done in 2007, the genre didn’t yet explode like it has today, thanks in large part to Game of Thrones. The genre was still a big draw, but the books churned out were much better than what I had written. Though it has, and will be, my favorite genre to read and write, I decided I wanted to try my hand at another genre.

I wanted this next manuscript to do two things: 1) enhance my writing skills and 2) get a publishing credit to my name. I can honestly say that I accomplished 2, but number 1 still remained to be seen after all was said and done.

Though I always read fantasy, I definitely liked a good thriller, so I put my brain to work to come up with a plot within that genre. I was a fan of Chuck Palahniuk’s offbeat and interesting takes on the human condition, so why not try to come up with something along that vein? The story I crafted was a great learning experience because I began to write in 1st person (which I don’t ever want to do again) and from a female voice. Looking back on the story now, you can definitely tell it was written by a man…more on this later.

Long story short, my novel was picked up by a publisher in 2011. After a long and winding road, Daddy’s Little Dancer was published. The whole process opened my eyes to the greater world of print and publishing. I never knew about things like marketing the book, the editing phases, the cover design, obtaining blurbs. It was a whirlwind experience and I learned so much from it, and that made it the most worthwhile experience in my writing career. The book didn’t do terrible, it sold a few copies here and there, mostly e-book, but I will definitely say it accomplished my 2nd goal.

But back to goal #1. When reading the book now, even though I had a wonderful editor, I feel that my writing was still in its infant stage. I had the proper structure to tell a story, but I didn’t have the strength behind the words. First person POV makes things more difficult to tell a story, in my humble opinion. It limits the world to being only in that person’s mindset and it is harder to introduce more POV characters. While it worked for this particular story, I don’t see a benefit in my preferred genre. It limited it to how I wanted to write the characters.

It also showed my weakness when understanding a female voice. Even though I specifically wanted the female voice to have a more detached and unemotional thought process, I failed pretty much across the board with writing her as a normal woman. After convos with friends and family, I learned where I went wrong with her voice. It is the little things that are different (how women view other women, how they would describe something differently than a man would, etc.) and I have taken that to heart while working on my fantasy series.

And finally, I was able to learn a valuable lesson on the editing of the writing. My original transcript had quite a few swear words and a sex scene. Though they weren’t overly graphic, I felt they added chutzpah to the story. Unfortunately, my editor/publisher didn’t allow for it. And this is where I learned it was vital to give and take. My editor loved a particular sentence where the word “sh*t” gave real emotional power, but we had to remove and replace due to policy. I felt it took away from the scene, but I did it anyway. All told, I now own the rights to my story completely and maybe someday down the road, I will revisit it and tell it the way I want to, but it was valuable to know where to stand some ground on a piece of writing.

Overall, it was a deep learning curve of the industry, but I would not change it for the world. So how does all of this circle back to originality?

Well, for starters, it made me realize that having something different than the norm was key. My thriller was definitely different and that made me assess the fantasy story in a new light. It also showed me that to break into this industry, I needed to polish and re-polish the tried and true story into something wholly new and exciting.

The writing process: Conceiving a world

typewriter-1144164-639x426Being an author and being a writer is not an exclusive tag and one that I am learning to define as I go. A writer is someone who does just that, they write. An author, as least in my opinion, is someone who takes that skill of writing and puts it into a format that can be understood – whether it be this blog or a full-length novel. Now I know that my definition might not be the most well-received, but I do know that when one wants to be an author, they need to start with the basics – conceiving a plot.

The world of a story needs to not only tell a unique story, but one that draws a reader in. It needs to have structure, obstacles, environment and above all, compelling characters. The plot of a story has to take the reader on a journey that will inspire them to continue through to the end. A great plot will make the reader think they are right next to the characters and dealing with the challenges the character faces. But it must also maintain that draw, maintain the reader’s attention before the end. And this is done with a well-built world.

I know that it is overdone and not all that original, but I want to share my journey toward being an author for two reasons: 1) to show that there is always room for improvement to your work and 2) to illustrate that this business isn’t easy and that the true test of a person’s dream is to persevere through the tough times.

Ten years ago, while still in college, my fascination with fantasy books grew from just reading to actually creating a story within my head. The major I chose, Classical Archaeology, allowed me to begin the writing process – in the form of writing twenty page papers multiple times per semester. During this time, it allowed me to hone my writing ability, allowing me to craft a narrative as well as learning the system needed to be able to sit at the computer and churn out a bunch of words. Though it is a different format, it taught me the basics.

And those basics gave me my first plot. I always enjoyed fantasy and wondered what it would take for me to come up with my own story. I allowed the dreaming process to begin. I concocted the basic plot to my story, created the characters and setting, while outlining the early conflict. I had the components, now I needed to form those into cohesive thoughts.

The story was built upon the normal fantasy tropes the stories I read all the time followed. It was a story, it had the characters and it had the stereotypes seen in many of the stories of the time. It wasn’t all that original, but it was a learning time for me. I had never written for enjoyment (minus the time in High School where we had to write our own version of a Canterbury Tale = was a fun piece of writing there!).

The first draft of the story, called Through the Shadowed Heart, was a learning experience for me. I had this world I created and the characters that wandered throughout it. But they were wooden, stock characters fantasy readers have all seen before. They weren’t original, but it was my first foray into writing as a different voice, so I had to ease my way into it. I had to learn how to fit those characters into my world and the plot. It was interesting because I had always thought the plot would dictate the characters, but I don’t think that is true. These characters inhabit a world, and even if that world isn’t real, there are laws and rules that must be followed.

So with that in mind, the plot was a byproduct of that world I created. The plot wasn’t just the basic need to get a story moving, it was the story itself. In my mind, the plot isn’t just the conflict, it is the entire world within the manuscript: the setting, characters and conflicts. As a reader, it is simple to be drawn into a world another created, but to actually make one of your own is daunting, yet overwhelmingly exciting.