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National Finish Writing this bloody Novel Month

Or, why I’m writing 75,000 words in the month of November.


It’s been a busy year for me. Lots of game writing contracts, some work I’m doing with a secret collaborator, and the launch of The Iron Hound have kept me busy. On top of all those things, I have the third and final book in the Hallowed War series to write. We had to get an extension on the deadline, but in order to have the book out on schedule next year, it needs to be done by December. This December. Like, in thirty days.

Along comes NaNoWriMo, urging participants to write 50k words in a month, and I think to myself “Well, that’s about what I need to get done, so I’ll play along.”

Problem is, my actual math is a little more. It’s not really 75k words, it’s 30 chapters, but my average chapter is 2500 words long. Truthfully, that’s as long as they go, with a lot of them coming in at just over 2k words, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I pretty much need to write a chapter a day to finish the book.

There are complications. Right now I’m riding a hell of a head cold. I have family coming in later this week. I’ve never tried to write every day for thirty days, and am not sure what that’s going to do to my creative reserves. And I still have game contracts that I need to work on. But I’m going to set myself this goal, and publish it, and then offer daily updates on my progress.

And… I guess I’m going to get started right now. Ta.

Bookday for The Iron Hound

The Iron Hound releases today! I’m excited because this is the first time two of my books have been on the shelves at the same time. I’m hoping that will provide a boost to book one, as well as additional support for the series as a whole.

Right now it looks like The Iron Hound is in most stores, though there might be a delay in databases updating and shipments arriving. I was in a B&N yesterday and they hadn’t received their copies yet, and said books sometimes didn’t come until the day of, or possibly a day delayed, so I’m not worried yet. Ideally the book would be on every shelf that has a copy of The Pagan Night on it, but that’s not the case yet.

I drove a little farther today than I usually do, to write at the Starbucks where I first started writing oh so many years ago. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, taking the appropriate classes and making the appropriate sounds in college. I even landed a few freelance jobs in the gaming industry my senior year, which had me thinking that maybe I could make a living at that. But as soon as college was over I got too involved in my daily life, and took a forced break from writing.

That all started to turn around at this Starbucks. On Tuesday nights, my wife took a pilates class at the park district across the parking lot, and I would come in here and write. One night a week, for one hour. That’s all the time I was able to get. Fifteen years ago I made a commitment to deliver on all this talk about being a writer, and came out three or four times a week, almost always to this coffee shop, never here for much longer than a couple hours before it was time to head home again.

I wrote my first three books here. Four, actually, but one of them is never going to be published. I wrote almost all the original Veridon stories at one of these tables. There used to be a B&N in the same shopping center, and when Heart of Veridon came out I walked over and signed my first ever published novel, then came back here and worked on the next one.

Decades after all these things happened, my fifth novel is coming out. Today I’m working on the sixth, with a short break to review the three pitches I have for my next project, and probably tinker with the thing I’m working on with my dad.

I’m not going to get much actual work done today. Most of this is ritual, things I’m doing to mark the anniversary, to talk publicly about what it’s like to be a writer. The work takes time. Persist. Twenty years ago, this kind of success was only a dream. Twenty years from now, it might have been my high water mark, or just one more step in a greater success story. Or something else. The fact is, we don’t know what tomorrow will be.

So work.

The Iron Countdown Hound

Today marks one week until The Iron Hound is on store shelves everywhere. This is a big deal, possibly even bigger than the release of the first book in the series. Why, you ask?

Because it’s the first time that two of my books will be on the shelves. Sure, there are some independent genre specific bookstores that stock everything I’ve written, but for general release, none of my books have lasted longer than six months. Considering that an average month sees fifty releases, and bookstores are not an ever-expanding gas, swelling to provide the necessary space for all these new books, it’s inevitable that the calculation of which books stay and which go back to the warehouse is particularly mercenary.

I’ll admit, it was pretty depressing the first time this happened. Heart of Veridon, my first book, was a work of love. There were years of development in the world, and decades of hopes pinned on its success. And while I hesitate to say that it failed, there’s no way to describe its release as a roaring success, either. But by the time it was falling off shelves, I already had a contract for another book, and plans for a third. So I was okay.

But as each of those books in turn hit shelves and then fell off six months later, I started to see a worrying trend. Was I going to be an author who could only be on shelves briefly? Would I even be able to keep selling ideas to publishers with this kind of sales record? Is there any way that this leads to a career?

This led to a deep think, and a five year pause. I was writing during that period, of course, but the project that I spent my days on was unlike anything I’d written before. Much bigger, much more fantastic. It took me back to the books I fell in love with in the first place, the Shannara series, Saberhagen’s Book of Swords, Tolkien and Lewis and McCafferey. Big fantasy.

The eventual result was The Pagan Night, which came out a year and a half ago. And wouldn’t you know it, that book is still on shelves. Nearly every Barnes & Noble in the US has at least one copy in stock, and if that copy sells, they’ll reorder another. That may not seem like much to you, but it feels like immortality to me.

And now we have The Iron Hound. A book that I’m proud of, a book that is a worthy successor to The Pagan Night, and more, a book that I think you’re going to love.

A book, in fact, that you should buy. Today, if you like to preorder, or in a week on this shelf or that one.

I hope you enjoy it. No, I hope you love it. Because I sure do.

Middle Book Syndrome

Even though The Iron Hound is my fifth book, it’s my first second book. The two Veridon books were connected, but they were written in serial, rather than in series. Dead of Veridon was a sequel to Heart, but it wasn’t part of a longer story I was telling, and there was never going to be a third book. (Though, seriously, if someone wants to pay me to write more Veridon, I will write the HELL out of that. I love Veridon)

But The Hallowed War series was sold and contracted as a trilogy. The Pagan Night was written (though in need of revision) and I had a synopsis for the other two books. The act of revising The Pagan Night created significant change in that larger synopsis, though, so when it came time to write The Iron Hound, I needed to rewrite the synopsis. And it’s a good thing that I did, because my first attempt was… poor.

After a few rounds with my editor, I realized the problem was that I was writing a good book, but not a good second book in a trilogy. The story I was trying to tell required a full trilogy to tell, but I wasn’t advancing that larger narrative the way I should have been. I was tracking my novel-sized goals, but not my trilogy-scale targets.

This is part of the reason The Iron Hound took so long to reach shelves. I lost six or seven months in this process. It didn’t really take me any longer to write, but it took nearly the same amount of time to conceptualize. That’s what happens with writing. Sure, I can write 1000 words a day without much effort, and should theoretically finish a first draft in about 160 working days (maybe I should start writing shorter books?). But there’s a lot of work around that work that slows things down.

So what makes a second book? For me, the main thing is keeping an eye on character development and plot progression. If you look at the outline for the entire trilogy, the whole story is about the same shape as an individual novel. Book one is about introducing the characters and the world, then presenting the core problem that’s going to motivate the entire trilogy. Book two involves rising tension, reversal, and movement toward the final confrontation. Book three tells the story of the long anticipated final confrontation, the moment of darkness, and the ultimate triumph of the heroes. This is for really standard storylines, and playing with that model is both necessary and interesting, but for purposes of illustration it’s sufficient.

It’s also important that each individual book have a satisfying conclusion, so that the reader doesn’t feel tricked into buying the next book. It needs to stand alone, but still point toward the next book. Each book needs to be a self-contained microcosm of the larger narrative, satisfying but always contributing to the big story. Otherwise you’re just treading water. It’s better than drowning, but you’re not getting anywhere.

Book two is still similar. The characters are already established, and the threat pointed to at the end of book one needs to be developed into the true motivating force of the trilogy. By the end of book two, the reader should be anticipating the final confrontation coming in book three, while still being drawn to a satisfying conclusion. Too many hanging narrative threads will be unsettling. Too few, and the reader has no reason to look forward to book three.

I’m pretty sure the middle book in a trilogy is the hardest to manage. You have to balance the larger narrative without ignoring the page to page motivation of the characters. You have to hint at the final confrontation of the trilogy without diminishing the final confrontation of the second book. And you have to give your characters an appropriate amount of personal development while still giving them room to grow in the final volume. It’s tricky, maybe the trickiest thing I’ve ever had to write.

Unless the last book is trickier. I don’t know. I’m still writing it.

Waiting as art form

I was talking to a writer friend last night about the disconnect between the release date of a book and the last time the writer worked on it. Unless you’re a top tier seller, the gap between the day you turn in the final draft and the day it appears on shelves can be significant. For The Iron Hound, which comes out in just under three weeks, it’s nearly a year. There were a couple rounds of revisions thrown in there, but those came with several month gaps between them, so I had to reacquaint myself with the story to make sure I wasn’t revising in new mistakes that I would have to correct later.

This gets weird when it comes time to promote a book. The author has often moved on to the next project, and in some cases is several books down the line. Since I submitted The Iron Hound, I’ve written two pitches, completed three gaming contracts, written a short story, and started book three in the Hallowed War series, tentatively titled The Winter Vow. That’s a lot of words between me and that book.

I guess that as writers we exist in the space between finishing a book and the reader actually reading it. There’s this terrible delay. Other than the direct feedback of my agent and my editor, I don’t know how well a book is working until readers start reacting to it, and that reaction trickles in over a long period of time. My first book recently got a positive review nearly nine years after I wrote it.

In some ways, a writing career feels like piloting a tanker through the dark. Adjusting for failed experiments, improving the craft, finding new and better ways to reach your readers, these are all incremental changes that a writer makes, the effects of which won’t be seen in public for years. It’s one of the faults in the art form, and it’s especially apparent in a world that expects agile response times and constant interaction.

I don’t write with you in the room, looking over my shoulder. But maybe that’s a good thing. These books I write are the purest possible artistic expression for me. Maybe you’ll like them, maybe you won’t. There are certainly things I can improve. But if I do, you won’t see the result of that for a long, long time. Be patient. Writing is a game of creative waiting. Reading is a hobby of creative anticipation.

Why Grimdark is OVER

It’s time to declare an end to Grimdark. This manifesto will outline the inevitable demise of an entire subgenre, which is obviously failing, despite consistently high sales numbers and the ongoing popularity of dozens of authors who identify as Grimdark. I am going to singlehandedly eviscerate their careers and launch a brilliant new subgenre that will take Grimdark’s place. So. Why is Grimdark over? Two reasons:

  1. It’s not over.
  2. I’m just tired of reading it

There you go. Manifesto complete.

To be honest, I’m not completely tired of reading it. I’m sure I’ll come back. I still haven’t gotten around to Richard K Morgan’s fantasy series, beyond the first one, which was perfectly fine but not compelling for me. There’s a lot of Joe Abercrombie on my TBR pile, but I stopped somewhere in the middle of Best Served Cold and never really got back to it. And while there’s plenty of reason to argue whether or not A Song of Ice and Fire is truly Grimdark, it’s fits well enough into the genre for my purposes, and I’ll be reading Winds of Winter when it comes out, and hanging on every episode of the new season.

For that matter, there’s a lot of grim darkness in my current series, The Hallowed War. Feral gods terrorizing the countryside, corrupted inquisitors forsaking the god of winter to swear allegiance to the god of nothingness, and families tearing apart along fault lines of betrayal and honor… there’s darkness. My personal writing style notes include making sure I don’t overuse the words “shadow” and “blood”, so yeah. Grim.

If you’ve read this far and haven’t caught on, I’m not actually saying Grimdark is over, or in any way failing. But it’s failing me, creatively, so I’m putting it to the side. I think there’s a heaviness in modern fantasy that isn’t serving us well. It’s grinding the joy out the genre, and out of life itself.

That isn’t to say that the genre shouldn’t address difficult themes, or try to reflect the genuine complexity of human experience. The common criticism of fantasy among fans of serious literature is that it’s pure escapism. But the themes of Lord of the Rings sprang from Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War, and there are clear parallels to the rise of fascism in Europe and the creeping corruption of civilization on the natural world throughout the books. Frodo’s final confrontation isn’t some sword-swinging action scene, but really an internal struggle with the weight of evil and the possible release of suicide, a struggle that he only overcomes through the companionship of Samwise and the intervention of his own evil reflection, Smeagol. There’s some heavy shit going on on the plains of Mordor.

But that’s not all there is to the story. Things get dark, but heroes rise. Evil encroaches, the idyll is broken, the shadows creep across the map, but then good people get together and say “Enough. This has gone far enough. We have to stand. And we have to do it together.” And sure, they’re flawed, they’re fallible, they’re weak. But they overcome those things and push through. They’re relatable, but they’re more than us. They’re heroes.

The most important thing that a hero does is give us something to aspire toward. I think we’ve lost something of the heroic in our fantasy. I think we’ve fallen victim to the flaws, glorifying in our mutual grimdarkness, without aspiring toward heroism.

That has always been the role of fantasy, to me. It’s not escapism, it’s aspiration.

So that’s why I’m done with Grimdark in its purest form. I’ve had enough of miserable people doing bad things to each other, glorifying in their faults without overcoming anything besides their own inhibitions. I get the anti-hero. I get the flawed champion. I get the sympathetic villain (which is hilarious when compared with our inability to empathize with people with slightly different political agendas on facebook) and the complicated moral compass. I get it, and I’m done with it.

I’m all in on heroes.

George Martin is Kurt Cobain

The first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones premiered last night. My wife and I don’t have HBO, so we’ve only been able to watch each season once it’s on DVD, and we never bothered to pick up last season. Fortunately, our cable provider made HBO free on demand for the week leading up to the premier, so she and I mainlined GoT for the last five days.

It got me thinking about the state of fantasy in popular culture. At this point I’m not talking about superhero fantasies, which have waxed and waned for decades, or urban fantasy mediums like True Blood, or science fantasies along the lines of Star Wars. I’m presenting a very strict definition of fantasy, here. Swords. Sorcery. Wizards and supernatural occurrences and maybe (God, please let it be) dragons.

Basically, I’m not at all sure what to think of the mass popularity of GoT. I’m glad for it, because it draws eyes to the genre and dispels some of the common stereotypes about fantasy. It sells books on shelves, it raises the genre in the eyes of editors, developers, and producers (hopefully leading to more movie deals for authors, more contracts for writers, and a broader potential market of readers), and it adds fantastic elements to the social conversation.

That said, I don’t think simply writing a GoT analog will get you readers. I strongly believe that the broad swathe of GoT fans are exactly that – GoT fans. They’re not going to read very deeply in the genre, if they read at all, and they’re not going to stray very far from their comfort zone of licentious knights, medieval politics, and a host of bad guys you’re just hoping will die in this episode. That isn’t to say there aren’t GoT fans who are fans of the whole genre, and avid readers, and a tribute to the fandom. In fact, some of the best fantasy fans I know are GoT fans first (I’m looking at you, Brotherhood Without Banners!) The fact is, GoT brought fantasy into the mainstream. Martin is Tolkien’s Kurt Cobain.

But what does that mean for the rest of us? I’ll admit, the pitch sentence for The Hallowed War was “Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke”, so I’m far from innocent, here. How do we as writers resist the immense gravitational pull that is GoT, and how do editors steer clear of the trap of churning out copies of such a successful series, in the hopes of catching some of its gold? Further, should we be resisting at all? Readers clearly like this thing. Why not give readers what they want?

As writers, we have an obligation to push the boundaries of genre, to experiment, to avoid the pitfall of safe writing. But we also need to make a living. When Martin sat down to write A Song of Ice and Fire, his intention was not to do what was popular, what was selling, or what would make him a lot of money. He wrote what he wanted to write, because he loved it. There was no financial pressure on him (he had essentially retired), no time pressure, nothing but his internal drive to create. He produced the best book he could, and because he was a great writer, the fan base followed.

That’s the spirit we have to follow. Not the sales numbers, not the tastes of this editor or that popular blogger. We need to write the books that interest us the most. The readers will follow.

Or they won’t. But you’ll never know until you try.

The Game Writing Nebula

Yesterday, SFWA announced that they were adding a Game Writing category to the Nebula Awards. The exact specifications for eligible material aren’t available yet, though the announcement says “all forms of game writing”, so it doesn’t seem they’ll be actively limiting nominations, at least initially. I have some thoughts.

First, yay, good for SFWA. They need to expand their fold to include storytellers in the new media, since the old categories of novel, novella, novelette, and short story are antiquated and terribly arbitrary in the current market. I’m not sure where they stand with graphic novels. Some part of my brain says that graphic novels have won Nebulas in the past, but I could be wrong, but if not they should probably expand in that direction as well. But for now, they’re including game writing, so let’s talk about that.

I’m worried that this award is going to become “Writing that happens to appear in games” rather than a proper game writing award. What do I mean by that? Well, a good game writer is creating narrative through the game, through the player’s interactions with the game world, the rules systems, other players, and so on, and so forth. It’s a great deal more than the words that appear on screen (or in the printed supplement, more on video games versus tabletop in a different post) or the dialog spoken by the characters. It’s a matter of narrative, driven through game play.

Let me give you two examples in the same game. I play a lot of World of Warcraft, and the latest expansion has seen both some of the best narrative storytelling and some of the worst. The story progresses through patches, and at the end of the last patch, the players were involved in freeing an ancient elven city, Suramar, from its oppressive rulers. During a great disaster in the past, the rulers of this city were forced to isolate their civilization from the rest of the world (this happens a lot in WoW, letting the developers reveal new gameplay areas by ending the new area’s isolation through various mechanics) and now, as they emerge from their exile, those same rulers have made a deal with demonic forces to ensure their continued survival.

The players get involved with dissident forces in the city, slowly loosening the demonic grip on the city, and eventually leading a revolution. It unfolded over several months of gameplay, starting with the players sneaking around the city, avoiding guards, making contacts among the resistance and manipulating political shifts in the city council, and then evolving into a full-fledged military invasion. It was very well written, with the missions leading through a narrative campaign that really made the players feel involved in the fate of this city.

It was fun. It was involving. And, frankly, it was a good story, well told. It wasn’t the dialog or cut-scenes that made it, though those things played a role in making the characters feel alive and the player’s interactions real. The quality of that patch was in the mission design, the natural flow of the narrative progression; in short, the game was well written.

The next expansion was the opposite. The players are dumped on an island and given random quests, told to collect supplies, and set on an endless cycle of constructing buildings that are then torn down by the demons and must be rebuilt. As stories go, well, Sisyphus had a more complicated plot line.

That’s the difference. That’s good game writing. But it has nothing to do with the writing in the game. The dialog and cut scenes are just as good in the new patch, the characters just as interesting, but the game play is awful. The narrative has stumbled, and that’s what makes good game writing.

Look, I’m glad SFWA is trying to grow the relevance of their awards. They’ve suffered from Cool Kids Club syndrome for a long time, and hopefully this change can help that, but I’m not yet convinced. I get the feeling that if Neil Gaiman wrote the dialog on a mobile fidget spinner, it might get nominated. I hope I’m wrong. Because the stories the next generation will be listening to will come to them in games, not in books, and if we’re going to keep our gigs as storytellers, we need to start thinking outside of the page.

The Five Year Update

Today marks the five year anniversary of my writing full-time. The time has been fast, but it has also been a lifetime, something I worked toward forever and then, once achieved, haven’t really appreciated as I should. And while time is relative and calendars are arbitrary, five years makes for a nice and comfortable chunk. So today, a reflection.

I tell people that writing is really the only thing I’m good at. That’s not entirely true, but it’s the one clear talent I have, the one thing I’ve done for as long as I can remember and have always been a little gifted with. I wrote my first stories at a very young age, and decided it was what I wanted to do while still in elementary school (the only other profession I claimed an interest in was inventor, when I only understood that job in terms of the Wright Brothers and Tesla. I imagined days of whirling electrical orbs and new ways to do impossible things, but then I ran head long into math and realized it wasn’t for me. All the cool stuff, the stuff you could do in your garage, had already been done) and while I had a clear inclination for writing, I didn’t take concrete steps in that direction for a long time.

Once I started writing, though, I burned fast and bright. My first professional sale came in six months, and within five years I was selling every story I wrote. I had the attention of a great agent, so when I sold my first novel (on spec! what!) I was convinced that all of the good things were happening in the order they were meant to happen. And then they didn’t. I’ve told that story often enough. Go through the archives if it’s news to you, but five years after my first book came out I was pretty deep in the doldrums of an unremarkable career. My life was in chaos, personally and professionally. I had become self-destructive.

Part of coming out of that meant quitting my job and jumping out into an abyss of uncertainty. All credit and love for this go to my wife, without whom I would be a broken thing. Without whom I certainly wouldn’t be here, and happy, and on the way back up.

The first few years of writing full time were tough. I wrote a book, then I rewrote it, then I rewrote it again. I accumulated a lot of rejections. I started to doubt. And when I did sell it, that necessitated another rewrite, perhaps truer to my original vision of the book, but certainly different than what I had produced after three years of hard work. Nothing worth doing is easily done.

And now we’re here. The Pagan Night has sold well, certainly better than anything I’ve produced before, but it hasn’t been life changing. The Iron Hound was difficult, and I’m in the first round of revisions on it, and it’s not any easier. I’ve started The Winter Vow, but can’t get any further into it without resolving some issues in book two. It’s all a process, but one that I wish would get easier. Maybe it has, and I’ve just moved the goalposts, aimed for a better book. I don’t know. But it still feels like writing my first words.

What else? In the in between bits I’ve written a book called Wraithbound, which may or may not ever see the light of day, but which I quite enjoy. I’ve written half a dozen short stories, only two or three of which have sold. I’ve started four different YA novels, producing maybe thirty to forty thousand words on each before fizzling out. I’m just not sure I know how to write YA to my satisfaction or the market’s expectations. The first full novel I wrote was YA, and it was good enough to get the attention of my agent, but far from publishable. That might be a road I’ll never fully walk.

I’ve also written a dozen or so projects for various game companies, returning to the discipline that first published me (in college) and making enough to support my miniatures habit. I may do more of that, or less, or keep going at the current rate. Who knows?

So. Five years, which is fifteen years after I started writing with intent, and forty-four years after I was born, and God knows how many more to come. But if I put everything into each year, and each day, and each word… well. What more can we ask for? What more can we want?

The Gemmell

I’m more than a little surprised to learn that The Pagan Night made the long list for the Gemmell awards this year. Voting is open to the public, and without restriction, so I encourage you (and your friends and relatives and strangers you meet at bars) go and vote for me. It’s quick and easy, and will certainly change my life. Or at least please me greatly.

Vote here!