To Answer the "Are You Published" Question? Working On It - Seeking Representation for "Tree Warden" + Prologue
Something I've been asked at all of my presentations and more than a few other public events is where people can buy my book. The truth, even now, is that I have no published works. None. This meager, badly-updated blog is the sum total of my literary achievements. Now, the reason why it has been so badly updated the last couple months, that is a bit of news I finally have time to report.
I have finally begun to query agencies on my novel titled Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen. It was not the first book I completed, but I decided to focus on it over my other projects. Partially, this was because I thought it would be more easily marketed due to its relatively small size (only about 86k words in total), and partially it was because, as a novel which is written as a stand-alone but has the potential for future installments, it would be a good place for people to begin reading my work.
So, I'm going to talk it up a bit, plus give the first roughly five pages of the manuscript, the Prologue, for people to enjoy! That can be found at the bottom, but first I wanted to talk a bit about finding representation, and the particular difficulties someone like me - no publication history and trying to publish what has become an atypical example of my selected genre - faces when finding an agent.
Now, finding an agent is like finding a good job. You don't just throw your resume at some place because it looks like a place you have experience in. You research the company, the projects they've done, their business philosophy, and, of course, you make sure that they're hiring for your position. In a similar way, you can't just query every agent whose website you come across, using the same, bland letter every time. Doing that, you will likely find that you query agencies that are not even open for submissions, and might make a negative name for yourself among those you query.
But hold on, you might say - query? I see this word but do not understand it in the context of the conversation so far.
A query is essentially a fancy way of saying "submission" of your material. It usually consists of a query letter (like a cover letter in the aforementioned job hunt metaphor), a spoilerific synopsis of all the major plot points of your book, and the first five to... well, pages most of the time, though I've seen some agents ask for up to the first ten chapters, which in my case would encompass half the book! There are a lot of great articles out there that cover how to write such a letter better than I could, so I suggest searching around and finding reading as many as you can - they all have valuable advice.
The most important thing is to make sure that you look into the agent or agency that you query. Most of the time, agents will have specific email addresses for themselves on their agency's website, as well as preferences which go beyond what their agency has as the standard. Always abide by these guidelines, or else you may be rejected out of hand for a sloppy submission. I already have one query I expect to be rejected for this reason, a stupid little flub in my email's subject line. Also, research your agent. Interviews, their bio page, Reddit AMA's - anything to learn more about them. Just because you like the look or sound of an agent does not mean they are right for you. When you're looking for an agent, you want someone you can see yourself having a good relationship with. Finding an agent who does not only sell your genre to publishers that you want to have on your work's spine, but who you will want to work with with for as long as your writing career might last - maybe a lifetime.
Back to me personally, my novel's problem comes in several forms. Firstly, I am not published. No books, no short stories, no articles aside from what you see here, as stated at the beginning of this post. I've given presentations, yes, but only on an amateur level, so it's not like the cons I've gone to have front-paged me on their websites (which reminds me... is Otakon open for panel submissions yet? Not until February? Okay, I didn't miss it.). This means that in the area most people writing articles on query letters say to put your prior publication experience, I need to fill it with something else. Most suggestions are for you to put something from your life which makes you better-connected to your subject matter... but we're talking about fantasy here. Fortunately, this is one place where my upbringing plays to my advantage. Tree Warden is set, as one might guess, in a forest, and I have had the wilderness of a state park right across the street from me my whole life. A perfect prime source almost literally at my doorstep!
My second issue is the atypicality of my manuscript. It's very different from a lot of fantasy you see these days. It does have the standard fantasy tropes: youth x has abilities that none other possess, youth x faces hardship before saving the world from calamitous force/person/organization y. However, it is not gritty and realistic; rather, it is decidedly fairy tale-esque. There are a few moments of violence, yes - some fighting, check, and a guy getting stabbed to death just before he has the opportunity to stab someone else to death, check. Pretty metal, huh? Well, yes and no. These moments are few and far between, and are not by any means the focus of the novel. It's meant more to be about the inner struggle than an outer one, a tale told through the eyes of a boy without much control over his own life, let alone those who are trying to use him for their own means. I don't like it when main characters are immediately and conveniently the answer for every problem that crops up around them, and specifically wrote this book so that the main character was anything but convenient. If anything, it makes those rare moments when he gets it that much more magical, but also means that he runs around without solving anything until the very end.
Lastly is the way my novel starts: slowly. Now, this has proven to not be as much of an issue as I thought it would. Being that this is a low-action book, I have to hook people with mystery rather than some quick burst of fighting or a scene in the wake of a recent battle. I think I do this relatively well, and feedback from my beta readers supports this belief, but the fact is that this book starts without the metaphorical bang. That means it might languishing on shelves while other books with immediate scenes of action fly off beside it which, depending on how exactly the distribution method being used functions, could mean a lot of lost money for publishers unless it gets some positive blurbs from well-known authors and reviewers to push people into giving it a chance. Of course, not all great fantasy books are high action, nor do they start quickly. One of my prime influences, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, is a book such as this, but LeGuin had something I don't: an established history of publication prior to selling that book to a publisher.
So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me hoping for an agent who likes what they see in the sample I give them via my query, or one who somehow takes a special interest in me personally. I have a lot more stories left in me to write, many of them more immediately marketable than Tree Warden, and one of which could turn into a multi-age epic spanning up to twelve books - not including side-stories I've thought of. I'm also working on a couple of short stories that have been rattling around my head for a while, one of which floored a writing workshop when I presented it and I think might be the basis of a full book at some point. But, for the time, I'm very proud of what I've written in Tree Warden, so let me tell you a bit about it.
Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen is the tale of Eiben, a young man on the cusp of manhood. He lives at the far south-east of the Life Realm, a habitable stretch of land amid an otherwise inhospitable world. To the north and south are lands of extreme heat and cold respectively, and the west is cloaked in a pall of mist which chokes the ground and blots out sunlight. To the east, however, there is The Wood, a place of frightening legends and unplumbed depths. Brave Woodsmen enter when needed to harvest the wood and pelts abundant nowhere else, but always they must worry about The Wood's protectors, that aspect of the fay realm which is most frightening of all: the Tree Wardens.
By the events which take place in the Prologue below, Eiben is thrust into the world, destined to become a Tree Warden himself. As he proceeds with his training, however, Eiben comes to discover that not all is right in The Wood. A blight which turns trees to shadowy husks appears in seemingly random places, accompanied by a dark, featureless figure whom only Eiben seems capable of seeing. The Wardens, not knowing how to counteract this blight, become even more deeply entrenched on opposite sides of a hateful schism which has divided them for centuries. All the while, Eiben is acutely aware of his own shortcomings as a developing Warden, and of the dark figure's seeming attention on him in particular.
Tossed upon the crashing waves of unavoidable fate and pulled apart by the schemes of those he has no way of stopping, Eiben must stay alive and sane long enough to find his place in a design which has existed since time immemorial. What he discovers might simply be the final strokes against the Life Realm, which exists already on a perilous balance between continuation and destruction, or it might prove to be the sole salvation for all life, now and to come.
Now, with that being said, please enjoy the Prologue of Tree Warden: Trials of the Chosen.
After the years of his life had passed into their waning, Eiben would look back on the day his life began with a mixture of wry amusement and helpless wonder. It was such a small thing to be the catalyst of so much change; a child's toy given innocently to holocaust. Admittedly the toy had been a fine one. It had been a model Woodsman, obtained by Eiben’s parents from a traveling peddler. Eiben had idolized the intrepid souls as a lad, and this was a marvelous rendition of one such man, carved with intricate detail, with recesses for eyes and small hollows of nostrils bespeaking great care given and time spent on the part of the creator.
The craftsman had known his subject very well, or at least heard enough stories to know them head to toe; the likeness to the Woodsmen Eiben had known was extraordinary, from the lines of pained clothing to the stout leather of their footwear. It was not all one piece, either, but had legs and arms which could be moved, just tight enough in their fastenings that they could be positioned and expected to stay, making it possible for the figure to strike several poses. Perhaps most shocking of all was not the attention to physical detail or even the moving limbs, but the small axe clutched in the fellow's hand. It was blunt, yes, but made of real iron, a rich commodity even for the Jarl to whom Eiben’s parents paid tribute.
A fine toy indeed, but not one meant for his enjoyment. Eiben was practically a man, fifteen by the count of his winters, but his brother was not yet six. It brought a smile to Eiben's face to see his brother so enthralled, running around and showing his prize off to the rest of the children in the village. Eiben warmed at the sight every time, not spiting the boy for the simple happiness he himself was now too old to partake in, but allowing himself to take a measure of vicarious pleasure in it nonetheless. The toy might fade to dust, lost and forgotten long before its owner drew his final breath in old age, but for now it served its purpose in making the child happy.
The incident came some three count – sixty short days in all – after the toy Woodsman had entered the boy's life, practically a fifth member of the family. Spring was turning quickly to summer, and some folk from villages nearby had come to celebrate the season with dance, drink, and story, as since the days of old. Of course, that wasn't the gathering’s sole intent. Men made trades of tools and rarer commodities, the Woodsmen - true men, not simple toys - were huddled together discussing ranges into The Wood only they dared to enter, and all the while the women traded anecdotes, herbs, and, most pertinent to Eiben, none-too-subtle hints of whose daughters were of marrying age.
Eiben was growing older, his height filled in nearly to its fullest, and they eyed his thick, dark hair and strong, ponderous face appraisingly. Eiben’s mother took her son’s happiness into consideration, however, and so would never promise him away without giving him a chance to see and speak to those in whom she took an interest. Make him look she would, however, and many of those young ladies were surely about for just this purpose. Eiben was a thoughtful sort, and he might take some time coming to a decision, thinking of how his family stood to benefit and not just of whose face was prettiest, but he knew he would have to come to a decision before long. Such was his duty and his fate, a fate he would someday press upon his own children in one way or another. Or so he thought, at the time.
It was after darkness had fallen, with folk pressed closer to the fire pit than earlier, when it all happened. Nobody could have said what caused the accident, though few even remembered it in the shock that came after. In one moment, Eiben sat smiling at some bawdy joke told by one of the visitors, the women tisking and men roaring. Then, there was a cry from his right, and Eiben looked to see his brother reach a hand helplessly toward the fire, the shape of his toy Woodsman just coming to rest within the flames licking off the outermost logs.
Eiben sprang forward without a thought. He did not consider his own safety, what others would think, or how long it would take for his hand to heal. The value of the wood and paint was immaterial; what mattered to Eiben was that he acted to save a source of such great joy for the one he loved most in the world. His hand plunged into the blaze, clutching at the toy and ripping it from the deadly heat, a heat he did not think anything of not feeling in the frenzied adrenaline of the moment.
Eiben stepped back a pace or two, the crowd parting behind him as he did so. There had been a small number of shouts as he sprung up, more screams as he reached into the fire, and quite a few worried calls after he was out, but now a hush came over the assembly. Eiben waited one, two, three seconds for the burn to begin its throbbing, agonizing punishment for such foolhardy abandon. But, there was nothing. Eiben finally looked down at his arm, to the hand where the toy was grasped, and gaped. Instead of burnt flesh, there was instead a thin layer of glimmering frost which covered his entire right side, where he had been in and closest to the fire, from his chest down to the toy in his hand. Slowly - far more slowly than the warm summer night warranted - the ice turned to water and dripped to the ground. The toy itself was practically undamaged, the paint slightly burnt in a few places but otherwise in better condition than even such a short time in the fire should have left it. Eiben, however, could not say the same for his state of mind.
His eyes wide, Eiben looked up at the crowd, searching for the faces of his family. His brother was too young to understand just yet, but he saw his Woodsman uncle, brow lowered and mouth slightly agape, a look of disbelief colored and confused with anger. Most of the expressions in the crowd were fearful, but finally he found those of greatest consequence.
"Mother," Eiben said, taking a step forward, "Father, I-"
"You must be mistaken, stranger," Eiben's mother said, eyes staring straight but expression otherwise distant. "We have but one son. You hold his plaything in your hand." Her words were cold, and as she spoke them her husband sagged, pressing his face into her shoulder as he began to heave with silent tears.
"So it has been," Eiben turned to Old Halaii, who clutched her cane tight as she spoke, "and so it must be. From time unknown unto times yet to come. We all know the words, stranger, as surely must you, too."
Eiben stared at the old woman, back at his parents, and finally at the toy in his hand. Such a small thing, to be the catalyst of so much change. He wished to hurl it back into the flames, to deny what this all meant. He saw the villagers around him, staring as though at a monster – or worse, a traitor, and he wished to repay their resentment in kind. There was a tug on his shirt. Eiben's eyes focused, his gaze shifted slightly right, and he saw his brother staring up at him.
"What is it, Ben?" the lad asked, too young yet to understand. "What's going on? Why is father crying, why...?”
The boy trailed off as Eiben knelt down to look him in the eye. "You mistake me for a friend, child," he said, voice thick with emotion. "I do not know you, but it seems this is yours. Now," he put up a finger as the boy opened his mouth to speak, "no more questions. Someday, you will know why things are as they now unfold, but for now, I must leave." Eiben rose, and turned his face toward the east horizon. "I must go home."
The words Old Halaii had spoken of were murmured low and shouted loud the rest of the night. They were spoken by those who had seen it, those who would hear of it, and the rest of the world over, whether it was Eiben’s name which touched their lips or another’s. All who knew them knew such must happen from time to time, and they were Eiben’s mind loudest of all as he walked toward the dark swath of irregular contours which defined the Eastern horizon of the Life Realm.
Those who belong in The Wood, belong to The Wood.
Hello everyone. So, November was a bit crazy. Not gonna lie about that. I'm gonna go ahead and make a change to the site, not promising updates every week. Not by a loooong shot. I just can't promise that. Who would I become if I tried to insist on that?
But I'm here now, and I'm writing on a subject which I was thinking about while watching the new Star Wars movie today. There are two parts to this, the first is spoiler-free, but the second, which I will denote clearly, is not.
First, I want to touch on the subject of black-and-white morality. Growing up, most of the stories we're presented with are pretty clear-cut when it comes to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. White hat, black hat. Clean clothes and smooth voice, dirty ones with a harsh tone. Usually young and beautiful and... not. We're given these hero figures who must overcome foes whose unscrupulous methods usually give them an upper hand against the moral and upstanding good guy(s). Or good people, if we're being politically correct.
However, when we grow up, things are rarely so simple. The heroes we once idolized and wanted to be in some way become flimsy, brittle, and rigid to the point of being plain annoying. The obvious, stark line which could be drawn between what is good and what is evil doesn't cut it anymore. The world doesn't work like that. For every just cause, there are people who have ulterior motives using that cause for their own goals. Do they accomplish something good in the end? Yes, but not for the right reasons. More importantly, though we want to believe in the concept of the righteous revolution against oppressive dictators, the methods used to accomplish such a feat are far from pretty. Anyone who thinks Che Guevara was some bright and shiny man with nothing but the good of the people in mind need to read his biography. It is frightening what the man did to ensure that his ideals won out in the end.
The Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was one of those shiny rebellions in media during the early days of the series. There was nothing but good intentions in their hearts, and everything they did to sweep the Empire's feet from under them was justified by what they meant to accomplish for all people, not just the human men who ruled at the time. It was good to root for them, but left the cause without many dimensions. The mention of Bothans who died to get the information on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was practically the only sign of subterfuge in the name of the Alliance we saw that entire time.
Rogue One shows us something different. Something dark and a little disheartening, but something important. The male lead of the movie, Captain Cassian Andor, is not afraid to take actions most of us would consider pretty dark to delay or destroy his enemy. Killing innocents, potential allies, and those who have risked themselves to help him in some way. He states in no uncertain terms that the Alliance has been willing to murder, sabotage, and otherwise be bad people to accomplish their goals. It's the opposite of the man who does the right things for the wrong reasons, and even though we like the darker characters more, what they do can make us uncomfortable.
The thing is, both these characters are needed to make a cause succeed, and that is something writers need to remember when writing for the young adult crowd and up. People don't want to see a Disney Prince Charming ride in wearing armor as shiny as his morals because that just isn't a real person. That's part of the reason why Rogue One is a good thing for Star Wars. Aside from when Darth Vader was going through a bit of inner turmoil near the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire was a pretty cut-and-dry bad guy through and through. Its members were willing to put rule by fear over the common interests of their citizens, and by in large considered the deaths of their superiors to by welcome shortcuts to greater power themselves. The Rebel Alliance fought them bravely, mourning the loss of each precious member and resource, but as a wise man once said: "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties." Rogue One shows us the side of the alliance which was ruthless and conniving and just not good in any sense of the word, the kind of dark side which could easily become some manner of secret police in the New Republic.
Perhaps the best example of this grey morality I've seen is in the novel and subsequent anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The two sides of the conflict which drives this series are the Galactic Empire, an absolute dictatorship, and the Free Planets Alliance, a democratically-elected government. Most of us would like to think that the democracy is the better of these two, but in truth both sides have their shining models of righteousness and downright deplorables. Both make excellent points for why their system works, as well as showing times when it is lacking in some vital way. More importantly, the characters are forced to make decisions and take actions they do not like, but see no other choice in order to accomplish their ultimate goals. It's fantastic, and the characters feel real, which is the most important thing for a science fiction or fantasy story, where characterizations need to be strong in order for readers to latch on, as so often the places they go and actions they take are completely new or somehow alien to the everyday world.
A subject which goes along with this, **and yes, this is where things get a little very spoiler-y for Rogue One,** is the idea that individuals and causes are not equal. Yes, there are people who come to embody a movement, such as Gandhi for the liberation of India from British colonial rule and Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in the USA, but in the end, these people are just one piece of a much larger ideal. In some stories, almost all of them, the tale would end without the hero. Without them, there is no way that the evil can be vanquished, and while I'm not saying that this is necessarily wrong, tales where a character is foretold to be the salvation of the world can end up giving that character and almost annoying sheen of plot armor. This then takes any drama out of a life-or-death situation, as the question becomes less "will they survive?" and much more "okay, how will they get out of it this time?"
Now, I'm not saying that we should not have strong main characters with an air of destiny surrounding them. In the novel I am currently wrapping up and looking for agents and/or editors for, the main character certainly has this going for him. However, much like black and white morality, those who read many stories will eventually get to the point where this just plain bugs them, especially when the story is trying to go for a more realistic, gritty tone. Some of you might wonder where this doesn't rear its head, and I can point right to my favorite series, The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson, who I finally got a chance to meet at a book signing in my area (Brandon, if you ever see this, come to the East Coast more often!). While all three of the main characters certainly have a sense of importance to them, any one of the could die and the story would continue. It would be a loss, but there are other strong characters with just as strong a sense of purpose and importance in the story to hold it up, and there are other characters who, if they so happened to pick up the position left behind, could do so believably.
Here's where the spoilers start, by the way.
Rogue One showed us a story where all of the characters we were made to fall in love with did not make it. To a man, woman, and droid, they fell in battle. Now, you could scoff and say that the Star Wars universe could not contain them. Where would they, having become such big heroes, have been during the events of Episode IV and onward? They had to go, and while that sucks for the characters and their actors who will not be making any further appearances in the franchise proper, it showed us a bit of the heroism which went into getting that vital information Princess Leia is guarding in the subsequent events, just how desperate they all were to get away from the Empire, whom they had so recently struck an embarrassing blow against before narrowly escaping with their lives.
I will never take character death lightly. When I once saw a person asking blithely whether they should take such an action just to spice things up in their story, I gave them a good, hard stare over the Internet and asked what actual impact it made. Characters dying for no reason is just a shame, tossing possibly useful tools for the future down the tube for a flash of drama before their time. But if you ever think of the deaths in Rogue One are frivolous, think of the Rebels who, after committing horrific acts for the cause, died to deliver the hope their rapidly fading rebellion needed. Think of the temple guardians who saw their faith rewarded in the moment they needed it most, leading into the events which would prove that faith worthwhile as the Jedi returned. And, of course, think of the daughter who salvaged the legacy of her family from a mire of shame and destruction, and in doing so finding something worth living – and dying – for. These moments are made all the more precious by the fact that those who experienced them did so in the pursuit of accomplish a greater goal, and that they were able to accept death for that cause makes the cause much more significant in light of their loss. I think that it was a very good addition to the series, and made me care much more about the Alliance, as well as questioning what actions they were willing to take in the films thereafter.
Well, I'm tired now. Enjoy the rest of the night, all. Here's to hoping that you see more of me soon!
Occasionally, I take a break from reading or listening to fantasy and sci-fi novels. Switching between the two helps keep things fresh, each acting as a sort of neutralizing force against the other (breaking physics with fantasy, trying to make them seem plausible in sci-fi, you know the routine), but then there are the times when I’ve listened to a huge series or singular behemoths and I have to step back and ground myself in reality. This might take the form of listening to backlogs of a podcast for a week as I drive around, something light and funny, or perhaps I’ll delve into a non-fiction book which has been suggested to me.
Most recently, this has taken the form of Ken Jennings’ book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. Jennings, for those who somehow weren’t aware of or were too young at the time to remember, was and still is the longest-reigning champion in the history of the game show Jeopardy!, racking up seventy-four wins and over 2.5 million dollars of prize money. He solidified his place in quiz show history and the hearts of those who watched him demolish the competition night after night, and has gone on to use his talents to help others. The book is very interesting, and highlights how our understanding of the world – as well as much of our common phrases and habits – are tied to geography, and while I want to go into what he said about maps in fantasy another time, there’s a phrase which has gotten stuck in my mind that I’m more eager to expand on for the present: the fantasy Learning Curve.
Fantasy and Science Fiction, in their own different yet similar ways, are not books you open up and passively glide through. Well, perhaps that’s not universally the case – there might be some novels which are easier to skim than others, but for the most part there is a definite learning curve one must ride in order to understand the world you’re in and the magic or technology presented to you. It’s part of what makes these genres so enjoyable: you must not only find out what’s going on in the story, but how everything ticks and where people are in this vastly different version of reality. It’s why maps are so invaluable, receiving places of prominence in the first few pages after the table of contents or inside the front and/or back cover(s). Particularly savvy authors will also include an index of terms and place names in the back, which cause some fantasy nerds to go absolutely ballistic. Jennings referenced Brandon Sanderson, prominent fantasy author and his former roommate, who absolutely loved this aspect of fantasy books, and has always made sure to include such resources in his own work.
This learning curve is a signature of the cousin genres – sci-fi and fantasy – a rite of passage through every novel’s first act or so which fans pride themselves on overcoming and enjoy dealing with to reach an understanding of what’s happening in what they’re reading. If this learning curve were somehow taken away, it would destroy much of the reason why we take on world after world in story after story. Knowing the common themes of the cousin genres and assigning them as we go along can help, but this is something learned through years of experience, not given away at the time one is first handed a book. It’s part of what stops some people from being able to enjoy these genres, especially if they were not initiated into them at a young age. Funnily enough, my father – not the biggest fan of high fantasy, in part due to this learning curve – was the one who started me on this path when he gave me The Hobbit.
Of course, how this information is presented to the reader is vital to a novel’s success. I recently attempted to start Steven Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon, and was unable to get much further than an hour into the audio book, if even. Erickson’s book has received some good reviews, and was suggested to me on Audible’s site so often that I eventually caved and bought it. It took me a little while to get to after the impulse purchase, but when I did, I was met with a learning curve far too severe to enjoy at all. It broke something which I’m going to go ahead and call the Law of Conservation of Perspective.
What this shiny new law tells us is that, particularly while setting up exposition for a new story, the author should endeavor to:
To put it a different way, try to limit the number of characters introduced as primary PoVs during the first part of a book, but if you must have more than a few, limit the number of locations they appear in severely. This limits the amount of information a person needs to absorb beyond the basic set-up of a world and, if introduced early on, its magic/technology. Expanding later is always an option (which some authors do with admittedly reckless abandon), but even then, one should consider this law when branching out far and wide with more and more characters. This gives readers a more concise view of what’s happening and keeps authors from going crazy trying to give too many characters in too many places enough page time to remain memorable.
This might seem like a load of common sense, but Erickson’s book managed to break it both ways. In the first five chapters, four different perspectives were introduced, at least one of whom died at the end of his/her chapter. Not only that, but between each, there were time skips of varying degrees, each initiated by the relaying information – places, names, and other logistical details – concerning an ongoing war which I, as a reader just getting into the book, was neither very informed about nor interested in learning the specifics of through dry narration. These weren’t skips of days or weeks, either – these were whole months or years lost to unwieldy exposition.
I wanted to know about the characters whose eyes I had been seeing through, and learn about these events through their personal knowledge and feelings relating to them. I cared very little if General Sallyforth of the Forty-Second battalion had numerical advantage over the foe who beat him soundly at the battle of Portajohn, even if said General becomes important later in the story. That can be told to us through the eyes of the queen’s aide who we meet through her perspective, or perhaps talk between soldiers guarding the palace. I’m beginning to go off on a tangent, however, and I want to skillfully wrap around to my point, as I am ever wont to do. Before I do, though, I just want to say that I am not going to give Gardens of the Moon a score of any sort – I didn’t get though enough of it to make a sound judgement, and while there were things I did like right off the bat, I just couldn’t bear the way it was being introduced.
There are places to break from the perspective required by the story to give some sort of expositional dump or other information important to the story yet difficult to integrate smoothly to the central narrative. The first and most often used is the prologue. They are so commonly used, in fact, that when a story leads off with chapter one straight away, maybe after a brief poem or passage relating to the overall theme of the story, encompassing all of a half dozen lines, it feels somewhat abrupt. Of course, some stories don’t quite need one, especially if even the more alien concepts presented during the story are relatively mundane, something even a non-fanatic of the genre would understand. The second, used less often, is the interlude, which tells another story within the story, sometimes relating to the background of a character in the story, sometimes telling a tale which builds into something far more important further down the line. As the use of this is so uncommon, we’ll stick to the prologue for now.
To get an idea of what we’re talking about, let’s take an example of a good prologue. Though I have been challenged on this particular point, I think that one of the most stunning prologues in the entire Fantasy genre comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, first installment in the sprawling series The Wheel of Time. When Lews Therin walks through his broken home, he and the structure warped by the power unleashed in his madness, there are a lot of words, names, and concepts which are thrown at the reader in quick succession. Fortunately, it is grounded by the comprehensible facts we see laid before us: there is a man who can use magic, and who has gone mad. He’s calling out for his wife, not noticing in his insanity when he steps over her body. Another man appears from nowhere and, after spewing many of the unfamiliar words and names we hear in this section, heals the madman enough that he understands where he is and what he’s done to it. In his anguish, he calls down a great power, and with his demise comes the beginning of the story proper.
Now, why is this a good prologue, and why should we want to emulate it? On the surface, it looks like an overture meant to overwhelm, but that’s part of the point. We are shown two characters as they go back and forth about matters in which they are clearly well-versed. Very little is given to explain who they are or what events lead to this point – at least none which we are expected to understand just yet as readers. It leaves us a little lost, but Jordan does something more important than making readers feel comfortable: he embeds key terms into our heads. The Dragon, Shai’Tan, Saidin, The Hundred Companions, Killer of Hope and others besides – all of these are things we will eventually be able to connect back to that scene, and the dramatic actions taken therein make it easy to remember. As the real world tells us, it is often easier to make memorable connections with traumatic events, and a madman walking through his broken home, calling out for his loved ones even as he blithely steps around their bodies, being healed in painful manner before destroying himself in his anguish… it’s a pretty dark scene Jordan leads off with. That’s what makes it so effective.
That’s what makes a good fantasy/sci-fi prologue: it shows you what the characters will be able to do – someday. Even if your band of heroes begin with a sorcerer or engineer who has already been initiated into the higher arts of their craft, it lets the author use characters who may or may not turn up again in order to hurl some important place names and special terms in the hope that they’ll stick long enough for you to have that “oh, that’s what it meant” moment, and they aren’t violating Conservation of Perspective because, after all, these likely aren’t characters you’re likely to meet again as direct points of view. You know what it feels like if you’ve reached such a point. To those unused to them, it seems like they hit the learning curve at a 90° angle, but the truth, known to those who have seen a few such introductions and continued to the end, is that it’s just a bump to let you know you’re on the ramp up and onward.
I have two books which I have written to completion. One is a large project, something which will take multiple books - multiple series of books, even - in order to tell completely. The other is a shorter novel, something which may or may not spawn a series, but which I wrote in a short period of time for a yearly event called National Novel Writing Month. I actually completed the first novel just a week or so before last November, when this event - lovingly shortened to NaNoWriMo but participants - takes place.
Now, I have completed these books, yes. In a certain sense. Some people might be thinking, if they were not aware of the title of this post before reading it, why, then, I do not have anything published? Leaving aside the difficulty one has these days when seeking a publishing label, even with an agent behind you, it is because I am not actually done writing them yet. I am in the infinitely wonderful process of my first rewrite for each.
So here are the hard facts: your book - which you so proudly completed just recently - isn't finished. It's not even finished in a "let's send it to an editor or an agent" way. In its current state, the story which was just concluded is a mess, a series of contradictions and inconsistencies spread throughout like a bad rash. Even aside from the errors which are in it, the work is likely to seem off to you. Excited as you were when it began, looking over what you had written at the beginning of this venture just seems wrong. This dissatisfaction comes in two broad forms: simple recognition of the change in story tone, structure, and overall development of events, necessitating alterations, removals and/or additions to/of characters and events which simply do not fit with the overall narrative anymore. The next is a more personal recognition, that of your own skill having progressed, thus making what earlier had seemed like gold look more like copper. Nice, but time has taken its toll, and it doesn't seem quite as shiny. When I finished my second book last November, a bunch of people wanted to read it, but looking through even my edited copy, dissatisfaction of both categories made me hide it away like an embarrassingly bad drawing from my pre-teen years.
This is the part of a book's life where, according to multiple sources (including one of my personal favorite, the inspiring and joyful Wonderbook), it is most likely to either be shelved in favor of newer projects on an indefinite basis or abandoned outright. Why? Well, think about it. I don't know how long it took other people, but completing my first novel took over a year. Working full-time jobs, having to do managerial paperwork outside the actual location for one of those, and the general ups, downs, and grinds of life took up most of the time that I would have wanted to spend on the book. Then there was part three, an entire section - the longest, in fact - of which about 90% was not intended to ever be in the story before I started writing it.
Now, I look at my work and see a good, but oddly contorted mess. It's disheartening considering the time, effort, and pain which went into that first draft, and it's time to start over again. Oh, now I have a much better view of what needs to be done. Sections to be added or contracted, points to be made, and I'm a better writer while doing it, but it sucks. It sucks, I tell you. I almost wish I could just edit what has already been written and see it done with, but it would just push the garbage into a corner, still stinking up what would be an otherwise okay-looking story. I can see why people are so likely to give it all up at this point. Were I not so gleeful about editing, I don't think I would have the strength given the drains already existent from life all around me.
Once I started, however, I realized something, that what I was doing was good. Not just in terms of an ethical ideal of worthwhile labor, but from a qualitative viewpoint as well. There was so much which could have been said, but went unwritten, things I cut out in the beginning of my grand venture because they seemed too talky, or other parts which needed serious cutting but I just didn't know how to condense just yet. As an example, I managed to cut three whole paragraphs of bothersome exposition to a single paragraph and series of purposely fragmented sentences which conveyed all the information needed at the time. So much of what was explained before can be introduced at much more appropriate spots, and I had done just that, going over information already explained in an earlier, much uglier section. I streamlined my exposition and removed repetition, enriching the substance of the actual narrative. Beautiful.
So it's hard. It really is, especially since everything is already there, deceptively shiny to your innocent, loving gaze. It may even look good when put between two covers, as things tend to, but it wouldn't be the best it could be. And it may never be possible to perfect a story. There are different editions with revisions which might come out, but, as E.M. Forster once said, expanding on a similar quote by DaVinci: "A work of art is never finished, it is merely abandoned." Eventually, you need to send it off for review or into the maws of the printing press, but you will never even get close to that unreachable point of completion without first stating your story anew, with the previous draft as a guide to go by. It may be painful, but as another great (wo)man once said: no pain, no gain.
And here, because I love this illustration so much:
Francis van Zandt writes about writing, fantasy, and fantasy writing. Updates come once a week or so, time and inspiration allowing.