Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
Time to share a success story! Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tiny milestone, but when you’re a writer that barely has one foot off the ground floor, I think it’s important to focus on the little things. As I’ve mentioned recently, I started posting my science fiction (space opera or science fantasy, labels are so passé) web novel The Bloodlet Sun, on Royal Road on the same release schedule as I do here. And now over the weekend, The Bloodlet Sun reached ten followers there. To put that in context, the best fictions on RR have followers in the low thousands. For further context though, how many fictions have no followers at all?
For those of you unfamiliar with Royal Road, following a fiction is essentially just saving it as a bookmark, which, again, doesn’t seem like much, but it’s crucial to look on the bright side of things. Don’t see it as “just” a click on the “Follow” button. See it as someone who read your work, and found something in there that was worth spending more time on. That’s how I choose to see it, which makes that round little number that much more exciting. Also exciting then are the two people who chose to click the “Favourite” button, therefore showing that in their mind my work is at least somewhat elevated above the others things they read.
I feel like, when it comes to little rays of sunshine in your writing, you have to sweat the small stuff. You deal with so much criticism, constructive or otherwise, and so many rejections for a craft that is deeply personal. It’s like taking your heart out from your body, where it has the protection of your sternum and ribcage, and putting out for the world to handle. A world that frequently ignores the “Caution: Fragile” label. So when it comes to the negative stuff, sometimes it’s in your face, hard to ignore and easy to internalize.
Which is why successes, no matter how small, are a precious thing that require all your attention. They’re good for your motivation and even more importantly, they’re good for your mental health. Plus, if you choose to put them all together into a single mental reel, then you’ll be better able to see your worth as a writer above all that noise.
Not only that, but successes snowball. Sure, I have ten followers now, and sure, that might be the only ten followers I ever have. But that’s for the universe to decide, not for me to dwell on. Those ten followers could be the first ten followers out of that coveted thousand, or two thousand. That’s how I will choose to see them. If someone else chooses to think it’s not a big deal and thinks that I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill then guess what, every mountain starts with a molehill and I’ve still got a bucket and a shovel.
When I started releasing The Bloodlet Sun in earnest last September, I had no idea what I was doing. I still generally have no idea, but I have learned some lessons on the way. I always argue that no time spent writing is a waste of time, because even your worst work will teach you something that you will use in your best work. Not to say that The Bloodlet Sun is in that “worst” category, just that any mistake is a lesson in disguise. And the lesson of the day is chapter lengths.
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.