Like I alluded to last week, I’m always striking a kind of balance when I communicate with you guys online.
On the one hand, if I don’t post every week or so, some people forget about me or start getting antsy and sending me messages asking what I’m doing.
But the reality is that the less you hear from me, the more productive I’m being. When I have free time, THAT’S when I check Facebook and screw around online.
However! These last few days, I’ve been blazing through OKAK far faster than expected, so I get to reward myself with some Internet time and the chance to press my forehead against the bars of my cell and wonder what the sun used to look like.
A while ago I did a post on coming up with names, and in October I wrote about one technique I use for developing magic systems.
This week, I said I’d talk some more about my writing process, and I wasn’t sure how to narrow that down. Most of the general writing advice has been covered to death by far better writers than me, so I wanted something that I had at least somewhat of a unique perspective on (and something that I could address in just a few paragraphs).
Ultimately, I decided to address the number one problem I see new writers (especially fantasy writers) facing: they don’t know how to start writing their book.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: you have a fantasy novel you’ve been working on in your head for years. It’s going to be brilliant. You just have to make sure that all the character arcs are fully defined and in place, and you’re good to go.
But you want to make sure that these arcs are in line with your themes. And how could you possibly start writing in a world when you haven’t finished building it yet? You know there’s an elf kingdom, but you don’t even know who its founding king was!
On and on it goes, and you draw and re-draw the map, and you come up with backstories of your main characters. Maybe you write the first twenty thousand words and it doesn’t come out like you imagine it, so you start over, but this time you have a clear vision for it.
This is what I wanted to address today, because it’s a problem I see people make at least as much as anything else.
They think they’re writing a fantasy novel, but they’re not.
People get stuck in planning, especially world-building, for years. It goes around and around and around in their heads, shifting and evolving but never taking shape.
There are a number of reasons for it. Coming up with ideas is fun, but hammering them into an effective story is hard. And it can be hard to know when you’re ready to stop planning and start writing, because planning is important.
Fortunately, if this is you, I have a solution. I was going to say something snappy like “Just write the book,” but that’s more glib than helpful. So here’s the question to ask yourself:
What is the minimum I need to know before I can start writing?
In my personal experience from struggling out of this mental trap over and over again, you have to stop thinking about the first draft of a story taking place after you’re done planning it. The first draft is part of the planning process, and anything that happens in the first draft can be fixed later.
I will say, there are some things you do need to know before you start writing. What’s your plot? I mean, is this “A lonely beautician starts robbing banks in the hopes that one of the cops coming to arrest her will be the man of her dreams,” or is this “A humble kobold’s attempts to pretend to be a real dragon go too far when his fake persona is elected the Dragon King”?
Once you have your one- or two-sentence plot to guide you, then you do need a sense of how it falls out. There are far better story structure gurus than I, but the point is that you don’t need a detailed beat-by-beat understanding of every scene in your book to start writing. You just need to know the general shape of what’s going to fall out.
Then you need to answer the necessary questions that will help you start writing. If you think the scene should open on a couple arguing in a cafe, for instance, you need the names of the two people in the couple and the name of the café.
Don’t get bogged down in details. Remember, what is the minimum you need to know before you can start writing?
Then write until the end.
There are some things you’ll run into that you won’t know, so make them up. Or put a note and go back to them later. I wrote an entire draft of Ghostwater in which Ziel, the tired old man in a young man’s body, was basically an energetic Ash Ketchum.
But that was okay, because anything in the first draft can be changed. You’re just trying to lock down the shape of the story and figure out which of your ideas are good enough to carry the book and which don’t matter.
I’ve heard it said this way: if writing is like making pottery, then writing the first draft is creating your lump of clay.
Asking this question might be the key to stopping your procrastination-disguised-as-planning and starting you writing.
Caveat: People write in different ways. If you plan and plan and then when you’re finished, you stop planning and diligently move on to writing, good for you! Ignore me. But if that describes you, know that I have found people like you to be extraordinarily rare.
I know it's been almost a month since you've heard from me, and as those of you who have followed me for a long time know, "fewer social media posts" means "more writing."
It's been a real storm of word processing over here, and I've made huge progress on Elder Empire since Halloween. Enough that I'm updating the progress counter over to the right in just a second.
Thanks for your patience, everybody! I'm tearing through Elder Empire, after which I will return to Cradle.
And here in America, it's Thanksgiving today, so I wanted to say that I'm thankful for you today. Whether you're reading me hoping for news on Cradle or whether you've been waiting forever for new Elder Empire updates or if you'd prefer more Traveler's Gate over either of those, I'm humbled and filled with gratitude that you would spend your time on me.
Wish me luck, because I'm not out of the writing tunnel yet! I have a lot more words to churn out between now and Christmas.
P.S. I'm planning to do another writing post as my next blog in only a week or so! I don't like these four-week gaps either.
I don't have time to write an actual short story for today, working as I am on Of Killers and Kings, so I thought instead I'd share with you what happened to me last night.
For context, I'm writing in the mountains of northern California, in a cabin I rented from some acquaintances. It's a very nice place, with amazing views of peaks and mountain ski slopes visible from the huge living room windows, and the temperature drops to single digits at night while remaining sunny in the 40s during the day.
I've been here for a week now, and I've had trouble sleeping. That happens to me sometimes, especially in new places, so it's not too much of a surprise when I jolt awake in the middle of the night because a gust of wind or a creak of the ceiling makes my half-dreaming mind believe there's someone else in my room.
But as soon as I'm awake, I remember where I am, so I just turn over and go back to sleep.
Last night, I woke myself up screaming. As far as I remember, I've never done that before. I had the usual...I hesitate to even call it a 'nightmare,' because it's more like that sense of unease you get as you're falling asleep that jolts you awake.
But when I woke up, I saw very clearly something pale--the size of a large dog, or so it seemed to me--dash across the shadows of my bedroom.
I screamed, which was when I fully woke up, and scrambled for my phone light. Of course there was nothing there, but now my heart was pounding and I was way too keyed-up to go to sleep. I ended up moving from the large, open room upstairs to sleep in a smaller room downstairs, which had no big windows and a door I could easily lock.
It didn't take me long to figure out that I hadn't really woken up the first time, I'd just dreamed that I had, and then dreamed that I had seen a figure running across the room, and it was my panic at that dream that woke me up. A dream within a dream, if you will. But that didn't help my emotional state much, and it was another hour or two before I could fall asleep.
Only today, when I told my brother over the phone about last night, did I recognize a few other things that have happened since I've been here.
The first thing he asked me was "All right, so have you seen any dead animals around the property recently?"
I laughed and said no, and then halfway through realized that wasn't true. Two days ago, a bird ran into those wide picture windows in the living room and killed itself.
Then he asked me "Are there any secret doors or passages in the house?"
No, of course not. Except...there is a whole added wing, kind of like an additional house unto itself, that has remained locked the entire time. I don't have the key. It's where the cabin's relative stays when he visits during the summer, and the property's owners said he likes to leave it untouched during the rest of the year. I haven't seen what's in there, and indeed couldn't if I wanted to.
After telling me that if I were the protagonist in a horror movie, I should be running for my life right now, my brother said one final thing: "What a crazy thing to happen on Halloween."
Honestly, I'd forgotten that it was Halloween. And I remember the time when I turned on my phone for the light last night: 12:01 AM local time.
P.S. Hilariously and coincidentally enough, every word of this account is true. I realize that I lie and embellish with fiction all the time, as is my job, but every part of this is 100% true. This really did happen last night, my phone really did say it was 12:01, there really is a locked wing of this cabin in the mountains, and so on and so forth. No joke, everything is true.
P.P.S. If I am living in the plot of a horror movie, me waking myself up screaming would be the break into Act 2, where all the characters and setting have been established and now actually spooky stuff starts to happen. If unseasonal early snows block my way to the airport, trapping me in this house longer than I'd planned, then you will know that I am indeed trapped in a horror movie, so just go ahead and resign yourselves to my inevitable death.
Here's a wonderful surprise for anyone who has yet to hear Travis Baldree's beautiful voice: Unsouled was selected for today's Audible Daily Deal! It's like two bucks for the rest of the day, so go pick it up if you're interested!
Why yes, you're correct, it is pretty late in the day for that information, so here's something longer-lasting for you: all of my audiobooks except Uncrowned are $5 or less on Audible until the end of the month!
I was planning to blog about some more writing stuff today, but this sale caught me by surprise in a cool way! Enjoy!
...and here were the two most popular suggestions of blog topics from the comments last time: 1.) more about the writing process, or 2.) talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So let me know in the comments below whether you'd like to hear my spoileriffic review of a movie you've all seen (Avengers: Endgame) or whether you'd like to hear me talk about some of the vague ideas and concepts I'd like to explore in a future series (if I ever finish the ones I'm already writing).
Thanks for reading!
Two weeks after a major book release, and here's a status update: I'm already back to work on Of Killers and Kings / Of Kings and Killers (books #3 of the Elder Empire series), Uncrowned is still selling unbelievably well, and I am finally over that cold I had on release day.
Seriously, it was bad. A day or two after release, I was basically in bed all day, responding to comments and emails on my phone and sniffling.
But now that I've returned to health, I'm going to share with you something I normally don't: my notes!
During my Subnautica stream for the Uncrowned launch, a few of you expressed interest in how I develop magic systems. Well, I recently started developing a few for fun, so I thought I'd walk you through what I did!
This particular system is my attempt at a general all-purpose magic system. I wanted to see what I could do with a magic system in which magic could theoretically do anything, like in Harry Potter.
First, the system as I wrote it out, followed by an explanation:
Name: All-Purpose Wizardry
—Wizards can do anything that could be done naturally, skipping the time and energy cost involved. The more time and energy it would take to do manually, the more it costs.
—A wizard can cast a spell to clean a room, and it will be cleaned as though he did it by hand. Teleport items across the room. Start fires instantly, strangle a target, lift objects without touching them, remove a tumor, stitch a wound shut, see distances far away, etc.
—I’m thinking each spell is highly individual, meaning you don’t have schools of magic or categories of spells, but should there be styles of magic? Does a spell that builds a house have certain rules that are different from a fireball spell?
—Wizards concentrate on mentally building the complex architecture of a spell, which takes a few seconds to a minute of intense visualization and concentration. Then they cast the spell, which takes effect directly, ignoring the method in between.
—Wizards can then see or sense a price for that spell and choose to pay it if they wish. The price is in energy; not in physical effort or time, which are precisely what spellcasting saves, but in magic points/tokens/slots.
—When the spell is defined and the price paid, the spell is cast and takes effect.
—Concentration. You have to hold in place the arcane architecture of the spell.
—Definition. You don’t have to define the spell as precisely as programming and defining every step, but you do have to define it to some degree, as in “Clean this room.” Intentions, not precise definitions, are what matter in magic; you therefore don’t have to lawyer the magic by defining your terms explicitly.
—Price. You have to be able and willing to afford the price, then you have to pay it.
—Action. I haven’t quite decided what, but there should be some external action associated with casting a spell; either a somatic gesture or a verbal component.
—Wizards cannot do anything inherently supernatural like shoot ice beams or reverse time or raise the dead. Spells can only accomplish things that are physically possible. Healing wounds quickly is fine, starting fires, controlling weather, etc.
—The more time and effort an action would theoretically take, the more energy the spell takes. “Theoretically” because distance, for instance, is calculated as the crow flies. Not about how many mountains or walls are in your way.
Spell slots = Points?
Spellcasters = Wizards
Spells = Spells
(Mostly standard terminology here.)
—Either the act of paying the price should be tangible or there should be some clear action associated with the spell.
—The price/point/slot mechanic is the biggest gray area here. I think it’s important to have the resource be clear and distinct and spendable, not just a pool like mana or madra.
—How do you earn points? Do they passively recover over time, or do you have to perform actions? Does everyone have the same number of points or recover them at the same rate? How do you increase your maximum MP?
—Here’s a usage structure I like for the spell architecture: like Lincoln Logs or Legos where you’re building them a piece at a time and you have to mentally connect two targets. So for instance, to teleport a remote control over to you, you have to build a bridge between where the remote is and where you want it to be.
To turn someone into a frog, you have to surround them in “bricks” and then build a frog (NOTE: not sure I like that element of it, because it contradicts the “intentions not detailed instructions” doctrine).
As you can see, this is only a thought experiment, but it shows how I start and organize my thoughts about magic systems. Now that you have an example, I'm going to go over the sections quickly.
Abilities: What the magic can do. Strangely enough, I find that a lot of new writers working on their own magic systems fail to define what their magic can do, focusing only on what it can't do. It's important to establish what your magic can do, because that's what makes it cool.
Categories: Schools of magic, elements, etc. How are magic-users or spells categorized? This is the weakest area in the example magic system, because by nature it's hard to separate this particular system into categories. However, in many systems categories are important, because they provide a logical structure that the reader can follow. For instance, if you see an earth sorcerer and a water sorcerer in a story, you can logically infer that at least wind and fire sorcerers also exist.
Usage: How, practically speaking, is magic used? Asking this question can help you picture the process of casting spells or using magic more vividly, which can help you ground it in the world and think of rules or limitations you hadn't considered before.
Requirements: What you need to be able to cast magic. Someone else can prevent your magic from being used by preventing your ability to fulfill one of the requirements. People often lump this in with Limitations, but I think that's a bad idea. Requirements are what you need to cast magic and Limitations are the things magic CAN'T do. They should both be present, but are entirely separate things.
Limitations: What your magic cannot do. Sometimes this is lumped into Requirements because the cost of a spell is often in both categories. For instance, if a spell costs mana (or a technique costs madra) that is both a Limitation of the magic system (you can only do magic until you run out of fuel) and a Requirement (you need fuel to cast magic). However, if there are no ice spells in your system, that's a Limitation and not a Requirement.
Terminology: This is usually a lot more complicated than in this example. What do you call magic itself? Magic-users? The use of magic? The source? Is there a term for certain magic that isn't used for others? I normally spend a long time developing terminology, but this example uses the standard terms: wizard, spells, casting, etc.
Suggestions: This is where I include my own notes on what's missing from the system so far, ideas I have for the future, weaknesses that I'd need to shore up in the story, etc.
I make these for fun sometimes, and I'm sure a lot of you do something similar. Raise your hand if you've ever sketched out a magic system in your notebook.
Now never lower that hand. It's stuck there now, permanently above your head.
I hope this gives you some sort of insight in the process I use to at least brainstorm and think out magic systems. People ask me for this sort of post from time to time, so I could do some more here and there if you find it interesting, so let me know! If you don't, then let me know that as well. No skin off my teeth.
And let me know what you'd like to see me blog about next week! I have a few one-sentence ideas for future stories that I might one day get around to writing if I live long enough, I have other magic systems, and I'm certainly capable of talking about anything else.
People often ask me how the book is doing, so here I am to report in with one week down...
For the first time, we made it on the Amazon Charts for Fiction: #20 in Most Read and #14 in Most Sold. That's a big deal for visibility and also for bragging rights in the secret underground Author Fight Club.
Compared to Underlord, we've consistently sold 30% more up to this point. That's roughly 23,000 ebooks and paperbacks (mostly ebooks). This doesn't count Audible, because we don't have those sales numbers yet, but we know from our Audible ranking that we've done significantly better than ever before...which makes sense, because we've never launched the audiobook along with the ebook before.
All this speaks to how much the Cradle audience has grown this year, and how dedicated you guys are. We already have over 500 reviews, which is an astonishing number.
Speaking of reviews, opinions on this book were certainly more divided than usual, with a lot of debate going on in the comments, reviews, Reddit, Discord, and so on. Honestly, that's pretty cool.
It's encouraging to me that there are so many fans engaging the books, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it shows how many people are passionate and care about the stories.
It also shows how great the Internet can make an artistic endeavor. It's not just me in an attic writing a story; fans can share their opinions with me directly as the story unfolds, and we can shape the direction together. That's pretty neat!
So all in all, I can't say thank you enough. I'm on a strange, exciting, and sometimes difficult or frightening adventure, and it's all thanks to you!
I'm going to do a full "state of Uncrowned" post on Thursday (because that's one week after release), so today I thought I'd express my gratitude to you, the reader!
First of all, a big heartfelt thank-you to all of you who have already read the book. Whether you're reading on Kindle Unlimited or Audible or you bought a copy, thanks for reading! I love writing, and you're the only reason I get to keep doing this.
A specific shout-out to Travis Baldree and Audible. The audiobook audience continues to grow, in no small part to the awesome skill of Travis, our narrator, and Audible has really gone above and beyond in promoting my books to other fantasy fans. In the coming weeks and months, we're going to continue seeing some awesome growth in the audio world.
Another thanks to everyone who left a review! Whether you loved the book or hated it or anywhere in between, I'm grateful that you cared enough to spend your time letting other people know what you thought. The book already has over four hundred Amazon reviews in less than a week, which is insane.
Speaking of insane...
As you may have noticed, Uncrowned peaked at the #8 best-selling book in the Kindle store and stayed there for over 24 hours. Both of those things are incredible, but if you remember, Underlord briefly reached #5.
All the while, Uncrowned was selling, is selling, and has sold significantly more than Underlord.
So why the slightly lower ranking?
Well, back when UL was released, we looked up the four books ahead of us in ranking. They were all traditionally published by publishing imprints of Amazon, which was immediately curious. What were the odds that the best-selling titles in the Amazon store would all be published by Amazon?
We did some digging and found out that all of those titles were in the Amazon First Reads program. It seems like those titles may gain sales ranking when they are given away to Prime members, which means there would be no way to compete with them. How can you sell more than someone else can give away?
To be clear: this looks to be a fantastic promotional program for the authors in it, and you don't get published by Amazon unless Amazon thinks you have a great book. No disparagement whatsoever meant to the authors in the program.
But our research made us wonder...if the ranking of the First Reads books isn't based on sales, then maybe Underlord was actually the best-selling title on the Kindle Store at the time of its release.
This time, we decided to release UC toward the end of the month, because Amazon First Reads seem to always release on the first of the month. Once we did so, we found that there were seven titles ahead of us...seven titles published by Amazon imprints and part of the First Reads program. Available as a pre-release before their official release date of October 1st.
Seeing that, combined with the fact that we stayed locked in eighth position for an entire day instead of peaking there and falling back down in a few hours (as is usually the case), has made us believe that Uncrowned was actually the best-selling title on Kindle on the day of its release.
Which is incredible! I can't claim that officially, of course, because this is all based on speculative information, but it might really be true!
As I said last week, that's overwhelming to me. I don't know how to live up to expectations like those.
But it's an illustration of the kinds of passionate, dedicated, awesome fans I have the privilege of interacting with every day.
You guys are the best, and I'm grateful and humbled by the experience you've allowed me to have.
P.S. All this speculation about how the First Reads program affects Kindle Store ranking is just that: speculation. We put it together from seemingly logical inferences and publicly available data, but Amazon could come out tomorrow and reveal that no, none of that is counted and those books just sold more than we did. In which case, I'll be relieved. Eighth out of thirty-two million is great!
Since Uncrowned is coming out in just two days, we’ve taken the opportunity to put some books on sale!
The first book in the Cradle series, Unsouled, is free for five days starting today!
On top of that, the Traveler’s Gate trilogy collection (my first series bundled into one book) has gone from its regular price of $9.99 down to $2.99 for a week!
Get them while they’re hot!
...but search for them on Amazon yourself, because I’m making this blog from my phone app, which isn’t as convenient for including links.
I’m on my phone because I’m on my way to Ringling College in Florida, where I will be speaking as a visiting writer tonight!
There I can teach everyone how to write about psychic dolls.
Of Killers and Kings Progress:
The assistant hurried it over, and Shera plucked it from his hand.
Killers Flashbacks: Complete
Kings Flashbacks: Complete
Killers Main Story: 40%
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