Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
When I relaunched The Bloodlet Sun here a year ago, I honestly didn’t know how it would go. I’d been optimistic for the original launch as well, but that first effort died after a single chapter was posted, and then the story went quiet for more than a year. I promised myself that if I were to try again – posting a sci-fi web novel on my blog in weekly installments – that I would have to do it right. Well, now that I’m officially more than a year into this second attempt, I think things are going as well as I could have hoped (okay that’s a bit of a lie, I could have also hoped for droves of readers but that’s beside the point).
I’ve recently completed my first full cycle of POV character chapters, introducing the readers to all six characters that are spotlighted in the first “book” of this sci-fi epic. With established characters it’s beginning to get easier to move the story forward and it’s personally exciting when I get to dive back into each story.
My buffer, though it’s not quite as robust as when I started (I was taking no chances so it was a hefty one) is still quite healthy and has grown in the last few months. No chapter has given me quite as much grief as much as chapter 2, which is what had originally derailed the publication in the first place. This chapter was Kalirit’s first chapter (released as chapter 3) and I’m coming up to writing her second chapter so let’s see if she was the real culprit here all along. But other than that little ominous aside, things have been going well.
Since bringing The Bloodlet Sun back to this blog, I’ve also searched for other publication outlets for the space opera, launching on Royal Road late last year, where I’ve gathered 24 readers, and then launching on Tapas a couple of weeks ago, where only have a handful of views and 2 subscribers. Now I admit it doesn’t sound like much for something that’s been up for a year and I’ve learned to be okay with that. I kind of have to, otherwise it becomes too easy to get discouraged.
What I have to remind myself is why I started publishing The Bloodlet Sun in the first place – that it was a project I had been contemplating for years and I could no longer see any other viable outlet for other than through the web novel format. I think though looking at my current commitment to it, what was intended to be a side project has actually become the main focus of my writing resources. Sometimes I question this path, but I have to remember just how much fun I have writing it, and also sharing it with the world. That handful of subscribers is my one true tangible readership, and I can’t dwell on how small it might be compared to anyone else, because it’s the most I’ve ever had.
What I’ve learned over this past year is how much I still love this project, that once it started taking shape, I was not bored of it, but rather only became more excited as to where it could go, and already I built more on top of my original outline than I could have imagined just a couple of years ago. I’m finally, in my 30s, beginning to learn to write for the fun of it, and not for some hard-to-pin-down external concepts such a publication, praise and accolades. Maybe it’s this new attitude that would inadvertently lead me to all three. Or maybe I just continue to have fun with it and to spin these tales set in the Known Reaches two thousand years from today.
Okay, for anyone who’s reading my blog, there’s plenty of evidence in my entries about how The Second Magus isn’t dead, and is actively being worked on. However, the last major update had me estimating that it might be released on Royal Round in early September, but given that we’re basically there, and you haven’t heard anything concrete from me, means that’s not happening anymore.
I’m not sure I can really give a definitive answer as to why my estimates keep proving so wildly inaccurate. I think when I first set out to do my fantasy web novel, I had thought that I’d be able to start posting it by June, and then I had to revise to September and now I’m not even sure what I’m revising it to. Realistically speaking, if I can’t launch by early November, I don’t want to end up competing with Christmas break, so I might end up waiting until January to launch. So I guess what I need to do now is ask myself if I can launch by the second week of November and honestly, I have my doubts.
That is not to say I don’t have plenty of material. Just recently I wrote about how I have 50K words done. It’s the editing that’s been the bane of my existence my entire writing career, and this situation is no exception. I’ve only gone through a single edit of about 24 chapters (my benchmark being 29 chapters before I’m ready to launch in order to have a good buffer) and I won’t be able to consider it as a finished product until I get through at least three edits. So to me it sounds like a lot of work, especially since when it comes to time management, editing for The Second Magus is also competing with editing for The Bloodlet Sun, and I won’t even mention my novel for which I swore I would go through another edit before the end of the year but I actually haven’t touched in months.
There is a little nagging part of me that’s wondering if a commitment to two regularly updated web novels is taking up too much time away from other writing (given how they monopolize my editing time, I begin to wonder what’s the point of writing all the other projects if I don’t have time to finish them into a polished product?), but so far I’m trying to deal with the issue by finding ways to carve out more time for editing. Will I have to reprioritize in the future? Hopefully it never comes to that and I’m able to get my act together here.
So that’s been your non-update on The Second Magus. No hard launch date yet, tough I think I can safely say that it comes it in January at the latest. Maybe I should bite the bullet and declare that official, but for now, optimism will prevail.
Even though I’d just written about hitting important word counts on both my second novel and my upcoming fantasy web novel, The Second Magus, it appears I wasn’t’ done with my cluster of milestones. This one, on reflection, is a little bit bittersweet.
This past week, I’d reached 100K words on the fantasy story that I’ve been reading and writing for my kids for a couple of years now, and to which I simply refer to as “Cassia and Mateo”. You can read more about it here but long story short is that I’d taken two characters from a short story I’d written, and then expanded their world into a tale of treasure hunting and mysterious magical powers that I thought I could read to the kids in little chunks at bedtime.
As you can see, at one hundred thousand words it’s grown way beyond a simple bedtime tale, and seems to have also grown beyond my kids’ interest. I remember when I first started recounting it to them, they’d be asking me for “one last part” over and over again, even when I’d say that it was for real going to be the last part this time. The light that those words would shine inside me, both as a father and as a writer – I will carry that warmth with me forever. Now though, it’s been at least a month since I read them any of the story.
The “one last part” requests had slowly morphed from genuine enthusiasm into tradition, and even that was eventually dropped. I’ve prepared all my segments that I would read to them with a little encore, and now was forced to prompt that encore myself. I’ve asked them about this of course, and they told me that there weren’t enough monsters in the story anymore. Sure enough, early on in the tale there’d been flying sharks, and croco-jaguars and even bear-eels. Then the story went in its own direction and try as I might I see little room for those kinds of beasts right now.
Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe I let the story get away from me when I should have kept it more towards my kids’ interests – found ways of incorporating the elements they wanted and turning away from the vision of the story that had formed.
It’s like, you kind of expect it, but you’re never truly prepared for how much parenting is one constant struggle with second-guessing yourself. I just never would have imagined that there would be such a crossover with my writing as well. They grow up unfairly quickly. Just when you think you’re hitting a groove with them, they’re older and they’ve moved on to something else. You want to hold onto these moments so tightly but the truth is you never know when they’re about to slip through your fingers.
I’m continuing to write Cassia and Mateo because I know I will finish reading it to them one day, I’ll let them know how the story ends. But what I really want is to find that spark again. To chase that story where I can again capture their imaginations like I did before, even though their imaginations are maturing so quickly. If not with Cassia and Mateo, then with another story, perhaps this one catered entirely to them, responding to their cues and their whims. After all, I’ve got many years of writing ahead of me, but precious few years of my boys being kids.
Not going to lie, I choked up a couple of times while writing this. You’d think hitting 100K in anything is a cause for celebration and nothing but, but I’ve made it about self-reflection, it seems. Oh well. If any of you out there have kids, be sure to hug them extra tight tonight. Wherever you’re finding joys with them right now, whether in the big things or the little things, those are the only things that should matter right now, because this part is so preciously small.
Update: After I wrote this entry and before it went live, I had a brief chat with my kids about the future of the story. Not surprisingly, they did say they didn’t really have much interest in seeing it to its end (poor things, they looked so guilty even though they don’t owe me anything). I said I figured as much but wanted to know why and was it the lack of monsters. They agreed, and then I asked them if there were monsters closer to the end, but it would take a little while to meet them, would they be okay sitting through the parts leading up to that. They both agreed that this was a good plan. My eldest also rushed to tell me that he’s still interested in The Second Magus even though it’s got no monsters. I told him yes, there won’t really be any monsters in that one and he said that’s fine, he still likes it. So there you go, lessons learned for me about how to approach writing that I intend to cater towards my kids, a reminder that it’s vitally important to talk to your kids., and further confirmation that I’m raising a couple of absolute sweethearts.
With the writing productivity I’ve been having since last year, it’s no surprise that I’m hitting milestones with all my projects. A few nights ago though, I managed to hit two major ones in the same hour – my destined-to-be-a-web-novel fantasy called The Second Magus crossed 50K words, while my second novel whose working title is Maple Vodka has hit 80k.
With The Second Magus, all I had originally set out to do, was to try to bolster my readership for the Bloodlet Sun on Royal Road by producing something in a genre that was more popular on that website and then hoping for some cross-promotion. I started writing it last December and already I’m at 50K, which is hallway into a decent novel length (maybe not so much for epic fantasies, but I’ve got no interest in writing something so voluminous).
What I didn’t expect to happen was just how invested I would become in this. In order to accomplish my original cross-promotion goal, I dusted off an idea I’d been brewing for years, and decided to build something on top. Much to my surprise, I ended up building way more than I bargained for. The amount of story I have going on in my head – I’d barely scratched the surface with these 50K words. And what was supposed to have been a side project, feels very real now. I’ve got the kind of feelings for this story that I have for my long-term projects like my first two novels and The Bloodlet Sun. I want nothing more than for my baby to succeed and I’m putting in as much effort as I can in order to see it happen.
I’m very excited to have shepherded The Second Magus to that much content in less than a year, and I’m getting more and more pumped about eventually releasing it. Last estimated debut date was sometime in September, but now I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get it out the door by early November.
For my second novel, the reason I care about the 80K milestone is because that is generally considered the healthy minimal threshold for the length of a contemporary fiction novel. I’ve recently run into issues with word count on my first novel, since from a 96K I managed to edit it down to 71K, and now have to figure out how to get the word count up without looking like I’m forcing it.
So reaching something like 80K on my second novel doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods yet, since I can always pare it down to less than that, but there’s still a few things to consider here: one, is that there’s still plenty of plot left to tie up, so if I had to guess, first draft will clock in between 100K and 110K, and two is that with all this extra word count I will have a pretty decent cushion to edit myself down to something that is still novel length, and finally, it’s just the sense of relief of being there again – having a manuscript that’s long enough that it can be a novel.
They always say that writing a novel is the marathon of writing accomplishments, and now being in that territory for the second time feels like an important hurdle has been jumped. It’s not some mysterious once-in-a-lifetime event for me anymore, but something that I can do, and something that I can tell myself that I can do over and over again.
If I had to guess, I’ll end up finishing the first draft of this novel either before the end of this year or early into the next one, and then off into the editing process, which is another mental hurdle I’m yet to clear, but that’s a future me problem. For the time being, I’ll just bask in my current milestone, and stoke the excitement that comes from actually accomplishing something instead of just endlessly throwing words onto paper.
It appears that I may have accidentally burned myself out when it comes to my writing.
The foundation for these unfortunate circumstances was laid last month, when I was preparing to go on my first vacation since the pandemic started (didn’t go anywhere, just a good two weeks where I could unplug from the emails and spend more time with my family). When I’m on vacation and therefore tend to be away from my computer, I usually put in less time for my writing. So in anticipation of this productivity dip, I thought it would be a good idea to build up a buffer.
One flaw in this plan was that my daily goals already account for vacations and stat holidays, so I’m already building up a natural buffer. Seems like riding the high from having my most productive writing year clouded my judgement a bit.
To meet these goals, I really did try to fit any spare minute of my day with either writing, or thinking about writing. And to my credit, I met my buffer goals, and was in a position where if I wrote moderately over my vacation weeks and then jumped back into the same pace once my vacation was done, I wouldn’t have skipped a beat and would have been well on my ridiculous 1,000 words per day rate.
About two days into my vacation I realized that I had overdone it.
The moderate pace that I expected from myself turned into a trickle – sometimes putting in only 50-100 words just so I can maintain my write-every-day streak. Where my mind would normally be racing through scenes while I was doing the evening cleanup, I couldn’t even force it to focus anywhere. Silently washing the dishes for twenty minutes thinking of random junk seemed to be preferable.
I assumed that this was because the entirety of my brain preferred to head on vacation, including my creative side. I also remembered about the built-in daily goal buffer, and decided I wouldn’t stress too much about it – I could pick it all up again when I’m hanging out with my computer the entire day.
That didn’t happen either.
I found my mind in an unusual spot where I couldn’t even force it to think about writing. And that wasn’t specific to any particular project but across the board – there was nothing I wanted to pick up any more, even at the end of the day where there were no particular priorities.
I tried to blame it on the heat wave, or the transition to work back from being freely available for my kids. In the end though, as I finished up my second week of this strange lull, I figured out that I simply overdid it. Which I guess is surprising, since there is a certain expectation that if it’s something you’re enjoying or it’s not particularly laborious then what is there to burn out over? However, there’s a possibility of overdoing everything, and I’m an expert at overdoing (just ask my multiple running injuries even though I’m a casual runner).
So this will be a lesson learned – don’t push yourself to be so productive that you end up losing productivity over the long run. Worse yet, don’t make something you enjoy a chore.
The plan is not to beat myself up over it and not allow any stray thoughts questioning my worth as a writer from intruding. What I need to do is gently ease myself back into my previous groove, perhaps focusing on those projects that are going through an easier time of being written in order to build my confidence up.
Such an odd thing to have to do after taking a vacation – one would expect that you come back feeling refreshed, but it appears that in this case it just allowed my mind to process and to reject my previous pace. Just need to be smarter about all this, is all.
Just a short aside before hopping into the rest of the post – but this officially marks my 100th blog entry since I launched this site more than three years ago. It has been, and continues to be, an exercise in patience, but all that is to say that I’ve been enjoying myself. Thought I’d mark the occasion with a significant entry, so hopefully you find the following useful.
Sometimes I want to use this blog to provide more advice for other writers. However, impostor syndrome and a relative lack of publication credits makes me wonder who the hell am I to be giving advice to anyone? What about my writing career suggests that I can help anyone else in their own? I realize though that I’m having these doubts despite coming a place of some privilege where, sparse as they may be, I do have publication credits, whereas many writers don’t. So despite feeling like I still don’t know anything, obviously I know more than nothing, and quite clearly I know more now than I used to know before.
Perhaps what I should try to do is reframe my mind and consider the question as follows: what advice would I give to the me from fifteen or twenty years ago? See, now instead of presuming I know more than my fellow writers, I’m just presuming to know more than past me, which is not presumptuous but quite accurate. The fact that there are other writers out there who are currently in the stage of their careers where I was ten years ago is simply a fortuitous coincidence, and if they have something to learn from the lessons I learned myself, then all the better.
Back when I was a teenager and shamefully, also into my early twenties, I was an obnoxious submitter. Exciting to think that the world might be interested in my sub-standard scribbles most of which make me embarrassed to think about, I sent out my stories for publication without any sense of decorum. I wouldn’t be surprised if I landed on some blacklists that I still haven’t been taken off. I wouldn’t hold it against the editors if this was true. So from my very cringey past, I present to you a list of things to keep in mind when submitting their work. This will seem obvious to most readers, but for those just starting out and bursting with excitement, this might be a good way to avoid the mistakes I made.
For some added context, back when I first started sending out my short stories for submission, there was virtually no online submissions (few even accepted submissions through email, let alone a dedicated portal) and not a lot of journals had their own websites. For this reason, I went into the process mostly blind, learning everything I thought I needed to know by skimming The Canadian Writer’s Market, and putting my stories into big manila envelopes after organizing dozens of submissions on the living room floor and hoping no wrong cover letters were sent to the wrong publishers.
Things are far more civilized in the online world, particularly since every publication has a website now, and you basically have no excuse to not know any of the below.
One piece at a time
There are very few, if any, publications who want to consider more than one piece of short fiction from you at one time. Most accept multiple poems, though this number varies, and some might accept several pieces of flash fiction. This info will be available on a publication’s website, so make sure to double check this before submitting.
What you should expect is that nobody wants three identical manila envelopes showing up at their office and where you thought you’d be getting more of your writing out there for consideration, you just risk all of them going into the garbage.
Study the publication
This one I find is easier said than done. I have read many journals where the range of works that they publish escape any pigeonholing by my non-trained eye. Sure, I can pick up when a journal focuses on more experimental fiction, and therefore likely wouldn’t be for me in any case, but otherwise just when I think I understand what kind of story a publication prefers, they take a hard left. The number of times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a soft sci-fi story in an otherwise literary journal is heartening, though equally confusing when this story is an exception and unless I’ve read the entire back catalogue I wouldn’t have expected it to succeed. That is not say this is an impossible task or a task that can be ignored. You don’t want to be in a position where a publisher immediately picks up from your story’s style, tone or content that you have done zero homework. This is a huge waste of their time, and can be a waste of your time (and money) as well.
This is largely only relevant for those publications that still only do email or physical submissions since online submission managers will be turned off when the window is closed and will sometimes helpfully identify when the journal will be accepting submissions again. That said, not everyone has switched to using submission managers, so you need to make sure the journal that you’re sending your work to is actually prepared to read. Again, if you think you’re being clever by sending it to them when they’re closed and you want to be on the top of the pile, you might want to rethink your plans – the only place your work is heading is into the shredder.
Pretty much the only requirement I fully respected when I was teenager, so apparently I wasn’t entirely a lost cause. This one is pretty easy to find on any publication’s website and pretty easy to follow. Some journals don’t have posted word counts at all, so use your judgement there based on the max length of stories other journals you submit to have. And don’t mess around here either for no reason, thinking your 3005 words aren’t “a big deal” when the limit is 3,000. Don’t be surprised there is a hard screening process at the beginning, and those five superfluous words land your story in the trash before anyone’s even read the first sentence.
A publication’s stance on simultaneous submissions refers to whether the journal is willing to consider a piece that you’ve submitted for consideration elsewhere. This is how publishers and editors choose to protect their time; by deciding whether they’re willing to take a risk investing into reading and considering a piece that might be pulled from under them before they get a chance to accept. It is vitally important for authors to respect this, instead of how the teenage me simply sprayed his submissions everywhere hoping something sticks. Publications’ positions on simultaneous submissions generally fall into the following categories:
Silent on simultaneous submissions – I think it’s safe to assume that simultaneous submissions are accepted.
Accepts simultaneous submissions: This one is pretty simple – fire away to any other journals without restriction, but always always always inform them immediately if the story was accepted elsewhere. No one wants to go through the process of selecting a story and then finding out that it was already spoken for, and the author didn’t bother to inform them as much. For this reason, make sure whatever system you use to track your submissions is robust enough that you know exactly where to fire these off.
Accepts simultaneous submissions but they must be noted as such: Same as above, but your cover letter must identify that the submission has been, or will be, submitted to other publications
Does not accept simultaneous submissions: just don’t, I mean it. You’re not being cute or sneaky, but rather like that child in the experiment who wants to eat the marshmallow now instead of saving it for later. If you want to potentially turn your successes into disasters that make you lose credibility in the industry, go ahead.
These are once again posted on a publication’s website and an easy-peasy Ctrl+F search for “simultaneous” will ensure that you don’t miss it.
Check Their Website
If you still haven’t gotten the gist from the above, here it is again as its own piece of advice – always check the publication’s website. And do so before each submission, because all of these things can change since your last submission. Here you will also find other things a specific publication requires such as the type of information in your cover letter, submission formatting including where your cover letter goes (some ask for it to be included as the first page of your submissions while others have a separate field where you can copy and paste it). Again, do take this seriously, not only because editors are hard working folks and often do it gratis, but also because some of them use this as a way to weed out writers, like my teenage self, who just don’t take the process as seriously as they should.
There are of course, other things to consider – other tips and advice you can use to improve your odds of getting accepted (other than, you know, that minor factor of actually being able to write well), and I encourage you to seek out this information where you can, and from more seasoned writers than me. This was meant to be a very basic guide, and one I wish I had handy when I first set out on this journey almost twenty years ago. Good luck with everything!
I’ve noticed a curious trend in my writing recently to do with the setting of my stories. First question of course is how does one “notice” their own trend, aren’t I the one setting them? To that I answer that you’d be surprised what you don’t notice about your writing until you’ve had a chance to step back and take a look. Specifically, in my case I’ve been setting more of my stories in Russia, and with a particular slant to them as well.
Thinking back on my high school churn of short stories, I can’t recall any of them being explicitly set in Russia except one – the mostly autobiographical story of a kid with a heart condition trying to play hockey (don’t worry folks, knock on wood but this seems to have resolved itself – the heart condition, not the hockey, which is an affliction that refuses to leave me). There was another one that was loosely based on the events of one of the bombings of the Russian parliament in the early post-Soviet Union days, but it was set in an otherwise nameless fictional European country. An odd pattern give how much of writing advice is “write what you know”.
This seems to have begun to shift in the past few years.
Firstly, my second novel that I’m currently 70K words into is set predominantly in Russia. You can read more about it here but the gist is that someone who immigrates from Russia as a kid wakes up in his mid-twenties back in Moscow living the life he would have supposedly led if he had never left. Some parts are set in Canada, but otherwise it’s a Russian-set novel through and through.
Secondly, my third long-form writing project, which recently surpassed 15K but is still in the experimental stage is an autobiographical (or possible semi-autobiographical, since I’m still toying with this) accounting of my relationship with my father set against my immigrant experience. Most of this takes place in Canada but since I immigrated after I’d turned thirteen Russia plays a prominent role here as well.
And finally are my short stories. My production of these has slowed down considerably and I think on average I’ve completed about two a year for the last few years. Still, two out of the last four that I’ve worked on are set exclusively in Russia, with a curious common theme between them. The one that I completed last year, “Grisha and Kolya”, follows two kids, one who has a developmental delay and the other who bullies him regardless, not for his disability, but his perceived class privilege. The other, "Snowdrops", is about an older woman living by herself just above the concrete overhang of a Soviet-era apartment block and her struggles with a juvenile delinquent who keeps throwing things out of their apartment to smash right outside her window.
Both of these stories are pure fiction, but draw heavily on my own experience in Russia, including elements of myself lurking in the background, as I use the stories to try to deal with some of of the mistakes from my childhood.
It’s a shift to be sure, and not entirely a mysterious one.
High school wasn’t exactly an encouraging environment for me to explore my Russianness, as I found mostly what my identity earned me was a heavy dose of bullying. This time in my life I was trying to figure just how “Canadian” I could be given my background, and learning how heavy the first part of the hyphenation of “Russian-Canadian” would be.
Over the years, like Canadian society has finally begun to do, I’ve started moving past the “hyphenated” identity, allowing both to exist independently in the amounts that are true to myself and not some externally-dictated vision of what I should be. I think for this reason I’ve felt more comfortable drawing on my Russian influence directly, since each foray no longer threatens to envelop me in an identity crisis in the same way. I’m excited as to where this new direction in my writing will lead me.
My favourite author, Kazuo Ishiguro, set his first two novels in Japan, even though he emigrated from that country at the age of five. Not to say that I’m anywhere close to expecting the same kind of success, but it’s a great source of inspiration, and who’s to say what will happen next.
Back in February I introduced you to my latest writing project – the fantasy story with LitRPG elements entitled “The Second Magus”. I’d gotten the idea for the novel when I saw which kind of genres succeeded on Royal Road after I had posted The Bloodlet Sun to that site I wanted to try my hand at my own story in that vein, while also finally bringing to life an idea that I’ve had brewing for a number of years. I initially estimated that I would like be ready to post this in the spring/summer.
With spring quickly slipping away from us (and if we’re going by the Russian way of counting the seasons, today is the first day of summer), I think I’m likely to miss that goal. The good news is, this has nothing to do with a general lack of progress on the story. In fact, having recently cleared 36K words, I’m further along in it by word count than I’d hoped at the beginning of the year.
The problem is that whereas I’ve seemed to have found time for writing, I’m still having trouble putting in as much editing as I’d hoped. The Second Magus is competing with The Bloodlet Sun, which is already on a schedule where I can’t afford to fall behind, andmy novel, which I’ve sworn and will continue to swear will be done soon. For this reason, the editing is lagging significantly behind the writing, and of those 35K words, none so far are publishing-ready.
This is further compounded by the fact that I want to have a pretty aggressive initial release schedule to increase my chances of getting into the “Trending” section of Royal Road. This means that I need to work up a significant buffer before I launch into it, and as a result have much more work ahead of me. Currently, my more realistic goal is that The Second Magus will launch on Roya Road in September, on the anniversary of the release of The Bloodlet Sun on this blog.
As for the story itself, I think it’s going well. I didn’t know how comfortable I would feel in the genre but I’ve found a niche I can live with – focusing on the character and the plot rather than unique and detailed worldbuilding that can be found in something like the Stormlight Archive. Elements of the world and parts of the plot sometimes sprout as I go, which is another advantage of waiting for a larger buffer to build up. Unlike traditional works which get written in their whole before going to publishing, with my serial web novels, I don’t have the benefit of being able to see the end result and then reworking from the beginning. At least with a buffer it allows me to set most of my pieces right before I gallop ahead and handcuff myself by things written in the earlier chapters.
I’ve also had a chance to try out the first few chapters on my kids and it received their stamp of approval. Wish I could take them further into the story but our story time has been sidetracked over the last month or so by my seven-year-old’s own creation: The Adventures of Bob and Appaly. I might go into that later just for fun – it is quite the ride on the rollercoaster of a kid’s imagination.
In the meantime, I will plug way at The Second Magus and work on fleshing out such minor details as the name of the Kingdom where everything takes place, and the main character’s last name (I know, I know, but fictional names have never been my strong suit so I’m being extra careful here, and with the first name being “Miro”, I think I’m just lucky it’s something that’s only four letters and two syllables long and doesn’t sound like some tertiary Star Wars planet afterthought).
I’ll also need to put n some extra effort into the synopsis, as my previous version of The Bloodlet Sun one has recently been torn to shreds by some very helpful users on Royal Road. Taking those lessons to heart, I should have something prepared in the next month, and it will probably be the next thing I’ll be sharing with you in terms of an update on this project.
Sometimes it’s easy to get swindled by our protagonists. They are the chosen heroes of our story – it is their challenges, their accomplishments, their growth that gets spotlighted, and for this reason, they’re prone to getting a fat head. The plot revolves around them, therefore they’re the most important being in this universe and every other character is merely a tool whose entire existence revolves around the protagonist.
Don’t believe their lies.
Your protagonist may strut around like a peacock, drowning out every supporting character with the massive egos, but as the writer, you need to be smarter than that. If a supporting cast does nothing but offer themselves up to the protagonists’ story, then they’re no longer characters but props – toys to be played with by a spoiled child. If everyone around the protagonist sacrifices their agency to the protagonist’s needs, then they no longer feel real, and the world around the protagonist collapses.
I’ve recently encountered this issue in my second novel. The most important non-protagonist character in my book was spending some time with the main character and I started to find that everything she did or said was specifically geared for the MC’s story. Everything she said boiled down to prompts for the protagonist to reveal his feelings and motivations. Everything she did seemed to have followed what the protagonist was doing. It was a perfect recipe for not only having a weak character, but also for establishing an unhealthy gender dynamic between the characters. When I found myself writing another dialogue where the opening line was the other character asking the MC a question about his life, I knew that I was on the wrong path.
I hadn’t exactly uncovered a new problem – strong realistic support characters are a hallmark of good writing – it’s just that I recognized the flaw in my current WIP. But knowing that something is a problem is a far cry from fixing it. So here’s my proposed solution to resolving this particular shortcoming – imagine your supporting characters as protagonists of their own work.
We are all the heroes of our own story. Realizing this and reminding ourselves of it regularly is how we practice empathy, and so too it should go for fictional characters. Everything in your book revolves around your protagonist, they are the sun of your story. But planets that orbit the sun are centres of their own systems – they have their own moons revolving around them. What you need to do is flesh those moons out, and don’t forget about them when writing interactions between your characters.
So the approach I took is taking a moment to imagine if I was writing a book about the protagonist’s friend instead – what is her current main conflict, what are her goals, how are those goals being met or not, how do the actions and words of the protagonist impact her story?
It’s not like I haven’t thought of a backstory for her before, so she didn’t exist in a vacuum. A backstory, though, places too much emphasis on the “back” – focusing on what led her to the events of the book, but then losing sight of their continued existence as the story progresses. For this reason, I want to think of it more as a concurrent-story – the life the supporting cast is leading while occasionally intertwining with the main plot. It’s almost like a subplot that never makes it into the main work.
Having gone through this exercise, I found that the dialogue now flowed more naturally and smoothly. The opening of the conversation was no longer protagonist-driven, but rather led by the thoughts and feelings of the supporting character. I maintained the depth I’d developed for her without subsuming it to the main character’s story. Next time I’ll make sure to keep my eye on this for the entirety of writing process.
So the next time you’re writing, might I recommend keeping track of these “supporting character as protagonist” stories in parallel to your main plot, and you’ll find yourself a much stronger cast of characters.
Ah the month of April – when university students finish off their spring semesters and leave campus for exciting summer opportunities (though something I’ve sadly not experienced directly this year because I’m still working off-campus). It also happens to be when many journals finish clearing their backlog and send tiny little daggers into the hearts of writers everywhere. The circle of life.
Mind you, I don’t begrudge this process in any way. Many literary journals are attached to colleges and universities and it makes sense that this would be a time for a heavy flow of rejections. Doesn’t make being on the receiving end of that process any easier.
This year, I didn’t have too many things in the pipeline. The one part of my writing that suffered the worst during the pandemic was my motivation to send my work off to publications, so there wasn’t a whole lot of candidates floating out there and awaiting their inevitable rejection.
Still, my lackadaisical year did nothing to spare my feelings, and I still a received a nice spring bouquet of “no thanks”.
It’s one thing to receive rejections in general – I’m no stranger to it and fully accept that being able to handle rejection is a crucial trait for a writer seeking publication. That amount of resilience is greatly tested though when the rejections keep pouring in. That’s okay, I didn’t need this self-esteem anyway. Worse yet, they’ve all been generic rejections. No, “please don’t call here every again” ones, either though, so that’s something. I’m not actually sure if they exist but I like to pretend they do because it makes me feel better about the neutral ones I do receive. Especially since it’s been a while since I got my last positive rejection, but let’s not dwell on that particular fact too much.
So I’ll just take my lumps as they come, update my spreadsheet with my newest rejections and move on. Summer tends to be a slower time for open submission windows, but September (again, those school semesters) is when the rubber will really hit the road, and this time I’ll be ready; to send more stuff out, to update more cells in my spreadsheet, and to set myself up for another flurry of the proverbial cuts, hoping they never do reach that thousand.
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.