Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There was a time in my life when the protagonists of my short stories had a worse survival rate than early seasons of Game of Thrones characters. I guess back then it seemed like the most definitive way to end a story arc. Character’s dead, what more do you people want? Just go home. Eventually, I’d moved on beyond this, adding more nuance to my stories. Endings were still a troublesome beast that didn’t come easily, but at least I no longer took the simplest way out.
For this reason, death had become a less prominent feature of my writing, while as I grew older, became a somewhat more prominent feature of my life. So it goes.
Other than a few notable exceptions, like the novel that I’m finishing up which does include death in a fairly prominent role (though that could be explained by the fact that I plotted this out years ago), I haven’t had much opportunity to explore the topic until recently. With the ramp up of both my science fiction and fantasy web novels, I’m delving into the kind of adventure whose stakes necessarily involve characters dying. Whether a bandit attack or a starship exploding, someone out there is bound to be caught in the crossfire of plot and meet an untimely end.
I don’t know about other writers, though there is the common stereotype that writers enjoy torturing characters and/or their readers, but this exercise brings me no joy. Sure, there’s some satisfaction to putting together an emotionally impactful death, but that’s a feeling detached from the characters themselves. When it comes to the characters, I have a sense of responsibility for the fictional lives I’ve created (perhaps why I might never be as brave as other writers who have no qualms in making the lives of some of their creations a living hell). What I had recently discovered, is that I have particular sympathy for the “red shirt” characters I write.
I use the term “red shirt” here in reference to how it’s used in Star Trek fandom – characters that are specifically put into dangerous situations alongside the main cast for the simple reason that their deaths will highlight what a high-stakes situation this is for characters we know will survive no matter what’s thrown at them.
I don’t use my red shirts in quite the same blatant way, but sometimes one does need a tragedy with no handy well-established disposable characters to spare. Out come these little side characters, who may be introduced a chapter or two in advance, that I know will need to meet a terrible end in order to advance the plot. I feel terrible for these figments of my imagination.
As their writer and creator, I can pull them out of the ether and into existence – give them a family, hopes and dreams, in short, a life. Instead, I’ve nothing to offer them but death.
They’re grumpy, or bubbly, or stoic, or cheerful. That’s all the red shirts ever hope to be. The reader gets a glimpse of their personality and then the window is shut.
One of my earlier writing idols, Michael Crichton (problematic views on climate change notwithstanding) was a master of these. A new character is introduced in the chapter. Within two pages, you know their sister’s name, their relationship with their father, their entire career trajectory up until that point and their short-term and long-term goals. By page three, they’re stung by a paralyzing octopus and dumped into the bay.
I wonder if the author of Jurassic Park and Westworld had similar reservation about dispatching his disposables or if he approached it more coldly and methodically. I also wonder if it would make me feel better or worse do give them more backstory, though perhaps not in the same rapid-fire way that Crichton used to do it.
In the meantime, I’ll continue serving them up as sacrificial lambs to the plot, and thanking them profusely for their contributions.
I you hadn’t realized this by now, the best solution to having too many projects on the go and feeling that you’re barely keeping up with what you have on your plate is to put more onto your plate. This has obviously worked for me at buffets, the ensuing bellyache but an irrelevant detail, so surely it will work with my writing. Okay, yes, no rational part of my brain believes this. Unfortunately, the Venn diagram of the rational part of my brain and the writing part of my brain are two non-overlapping circles, so somebody please send help, I’ve done it again.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve recently set out to find new audiences forThe Bloodlet Sun and joined Royal Road – one of the internet’s premier homes for web fiction. You can find the page here. It currently follows the same release schedule as my blog, but an account on Royal Road makes following stories easier if you prefer.
Growing my story on Royal Road has been a slow process, which comes as no surprise so I’m not kicking myself over it. My installments tend to fall below average in length and frequency, and science fiction is not the genre that does best on the site. Still, I have five followers, which is success any way you cut it. Looking round Royal Road for the stuff that does do well, which is frequently hardcore progression-style LitRPGs, I had a brilliantly terrible idea – to try my hand at one of those stories myself.
I’ve always enjoyed the fantasy genre, but outside of the story I’ve been telling to my kids over the last two years, haven’t made a serious attempt to write in it. This would be a great opportunity to flex those muscles, and on the off chance that I’m actually decent at it and the story attracts an audience, then I can use that platform to cross-promote The Bloodlet Sun and my other writing. Worst case scenario, the story is bad or falls flat with the website’s audience. It will get deleted and I will pretend it never happened. Either way, I would have had some crucial practice in and hopefully even get feedback out of it as a bonus. Time spent writing is never wasted.
The other benefit of this particular project or experiment, however you want to label it, is I’ve had an idea for a fantasy story that I’ve been developing in my head for years now, unable to figure out what medium to commit it to. I’m sure other authors have that dusty shelf in their mind where ideas gather other ideas but mostly dust, never to see the light of day. So it felt good picking that up, plucking out the stray hairs and dust and whatever gunk collected on it, and then actually trying to polish into a full-fledged plot now that there’s some pressure of delivering a coherent product. Not sure if I ever would have tackled it without finding the web novel outlet for it, but I am certainly intent on giving it all I’ve got now that I’ve started.
As of the time of this entry, I’m about 9,000 words, which translates to maybe 6-7 installments. However, we’re talking rough first draft here where most names are still placeholders and there’s a sea of red underlines and probably some unfinished sentences that I was totally going to complete later but “later” hasn’t arrived yet. If I had to guess, release is still three to four months away depending on how big of a chapter dump and buffer I want to start with. So it’s not exactly like it’s a slipshod hasty solution to getting more exposure for my other story. My whole writing career is a long game, and this is no exception – I’d rather take the time than put out some hot garbage out there.
Speaking of things I’m putting out there, I just want to say that this decision isn’t easy. My writing will now span the entire gamut from a light(ish) fantasy story released on the internet to my continued attempts to get my novel-length contemporary fiction traditionally published. Whether fair or not, there’s a fear that delving into these genres and publication methods would hamper my ability to market myself in this other world I’m trying to break into. And maybe the fear is justified. At the same time, I’m not a fan of trying to cater myself to the tastes of others just because they might unfairly judge me. Life is too short to hide.
So if you’re looking forward to a plucky orphan discovering the world, developing special powers and fighting great evil (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), then look forward to my own take on this, The Second Magus, coming some time this spring/summer.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.