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Think Before You Kill

(Originally posted at Stupefying Stories.

Some authors really enjoy killing characters, and some kinds of story practically require it. But any time you start offing people in a tale, you run the risk of yanking away one of the main supporting beams of the audience’s interest. Many of us engage with the mystery or threat through the conduit of one or more characters, and once those characters are dead, we find ourselves with little reason to care anymore.

So how do you get away with a high body count—and more, how do you make that effective? It’s easy enough to bump off nameless mooks, but also pretty meaningless. We can tell who’s cannon fodder, and we don’t bother getting attached to them. But when you’ve got an ensemble cast of developed characters, and you then start picking them off, it can be powerful storytelling…assuming you don’t lose your audience along the way.

Three principles may help.

The first is to make it clear to the audience what kind of story you’re telling. Sometimes genre alone will do this for you: if your novel or film is advertised as a war story or slasher horror, then we can guess going in that not everyone will survive to the end. There’s still a risk that our favorite characters will die too early, but at least we won’t be blindsided when it happens. When it comes out of nowhere, too often it feels like the author was going for pure shock value, which is rarely as effective as those authors seem to think.
When genre alone isn’t enough to wave the flag, it’s worth looking for other devices to signal what’s coming: a frame story, a reference to a prior massacre under similar conditions, an ominous prediction by one of the characters, or anything else that cues the audience’s expectations.

Second, think carefully about who you’re killing. There are some unpleasant patterns around who tends to die early, predictable enough that they’ve been mocked by countless parodies: the Black friend, the gay guy, the girl who’s had sex, and so forth. If you repeat those patterns, there’s a portion of your audience who will quit. They’ve seen it before, and they’re beyond tired of it.

But this principle isn’t just about the unfortunate habit writers have of tossing in a few diversity tokens and then whacking them. Lots of stories still have Generic McStoicson as their main lead, on the theory that he, as an “everyman,” is relatable to everybody. In practice, though, that guy is often thunderously boring. What life and flavor the story has comes from the characters around him. Once the curtain has dropped on the rest of them, the audience is left with nothing but the protagonist-shaped piece of cardboard, and they start wondering why this guy gets to survive while all the more interesting people die.

And finally, give careful thought to how the characters die. If you’re felling them in mass quantities, then obviously the story won’t have room for the kind of impact—the shock and grief and mourning—that can follow on a single death. The members of your ensemble may go out quite quickly, and sometimes they’ll go out senselessly, because not everyone gets an ending full of meaning and moral.

Still, you can and should bear in mind what the audience wants for those characters, and not thwart that desire without good reason. Both the page and the screen have far too many examples of intelligent, capable, ferocious women who turn helpless and pathetic the moment their demise is required to further the hero’s story. Don’t ignore someone’s strengths because it’s more convenient that way. And distribute the senseless deaths with a sparing hand; if we’re invested in a character, losing them for no better reason than “it ups the stakes” or “it shows that death can strike at any time” will be deeply unsatisfying. It calls to mind the reaction of the grandson in The Princess Bride: “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!”

In some ways, the most satisfying deaths can be the ones that go in the other direction. The character who’s been helpless and pathetic all along, but who finds a moment of unexpected strength right before the end? That speaks to us. So does the moment of bonding or support between two characters who have loathed each other all along. Those deaths are memorable because they add something to the narrative, instead of merely taking something away. They leave us feeling like we’ve gotten a return on our emotional investment.

Even with these principles in mind, though, a story that reaps its cast like grain at the harvest still won’t work for everybody. Not all readers or viewers are on board with a story that will slowly whittle the ensemble down to a lucky (or unlucky) few survivors. Some are on board…right up to the moment when their favorite exits stage left, and even if the exit is a good one, that wound proves too much for them. No matter how hard you try to make your whole cast well-developed and interesting—including your central character—you’ll never catch all readers in your net.

That’s all right. Not every story is for every reader. And there are no doubt good stories that violate all the principles above and still manage to work, at least for some portion of those along for the ride. But keeping an eye on these guidelines will increase the chance of keeping your audience to the end.

Recognizing Ideas

When writers talk about questions they get asked too often, “Where do you get your ideas?” is often high on the list.

Which is odd to me, because I’ve rarely been asked that.

“Where did you get the idea for this book?,” sure. Got that one a lot with A Natural History of Dragons and the Memoirs of Lady Trent in general. But as a broad inquiry into my work as a writer, no. Still, it seems that other people do get asked about it frequently, so lately I’ve been pondering it, that I might be prepared when the question comes my way.

And I think my first-order answer is that it isn’t about learning how to get ideas. It’s learning how to recognize when you have one.

Let me use as my example a flash piece among the first I ever published, “For the Fairest.” Because it’s flash, I can quote the whole thing here, so there won’t be any hidden moving parts:

For the fairest, the inscription read. It spread discord aplenty, as intended. The goddesses squabbled and shrieked, and if beauty were judged to be internal as well as external, none of them were terribly pretty in that moment. The gods knew better than to get directly involved. They passed that responsibility to a mortal, and washed their hands of the whole affair.

The three front-runners, meanwhile, offered the best bribes they could think up: wisdom, power, love. Any normal man would have given his left arm for any one of the three.

But the judge was not a normal man, and the squabbling goddesses — as well as the one who had thrown the apple in the first place — failed to take into account the truly phenomenal size of his ego.

For the fairest, the inscription read. The prince of Troy, handsome even in his rustic shepherd’s garb, buffed the apple’s golden surface, nodded in approval at his reflection, and smiled at the goddesses as he walked away.

Here’s how this one came about.

I was watching the movie Troy, where Orlando Bloom plays the role of Paris. Bloom, of course, also played Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films, and years ago Cassandra Claire wrote a parodic LotR fanfic called “The Very Secret Diaries” that bequeathed to us all the catchphrase “still the prettiest,” which is Legolas’ refrain as the Fellowship goes through their journey.

Still the prettiest. For the fairest. Mental image of Paris deciding to keep the apple rather than give it to any of the goddesses.

Story idea.

Not a very large or deep one, to be sure, but enough to support a piece of flash fiction. Writers often talk about stories starting with “what if” — what if Paris kept the apple for himself, what if this character could go back in time and change things so that person never died, what if vampires were so popular you had to apply to become one, what if the reflection of Venice in its canals was a whole other city. But I can’t boil all of my ideas down to that kind of thing — or rather, if I do, I feel like I’m misrepresenting the actual process by which I came up with them. Sometimes it’s a funny line that seems to imply a lot more story: “Dear Mom and Dad, the good news is, nobody’s dead anymore.” Sometimes it’s an existing story with a hole in it: if the knight is new-slain and nobody knows his body lies there except his hawk and his hound and his lady fair, how has his lady already taken another mate? Sometimes it’s a conflict, and I need a story to explore it: what do you do when you’re working for the bad guys, but the people opposing them aren’t good, either?

I think that many of us have these ideas on a regular basis — many more than realize it. So the first step isn’t necessarily figuring out how to make your brain work a certain way; the first step is becoming aware of your own thoughts and noticing when something that wanders through could be used as the basis for a story.

(Could be used. Won’t necessarily be, because some ideas are trivial and not really that interesting, others are shiny but not really your kind of thing, and once you get in the habit of this, you run a high risk of winding up with more ideas than you can use anyway.)

And here’s the thing: we respond to positive feedback. When you start noticing story ideas and paying attention to them, odds are good that your brain will go, “oh, you want this kind of thing? I can do that!” Whereupon it will start generating more ideas, free-associating everything that crosses its path and bouncing those elements off one another to see if something nifty falls out. Nine times out of ten something stupid will fall out, but hey, you can’t strike pay dirt every time. Professional photographers take dozens or hundreds or thousands of photos for every one they end up using.

True story. While I was writing A Star Shall Fall, I got hit by an idea before I even got out of bed one morning. Wake up, yawn, stretch, slowly become aware of surroundings, first coherent thought to form in my head is . . . “vivisection!!!” Which, yes, fit my plot quite well, but really was not how I wanted to start my day. But my sleeping brain had been chewing on the story and was eager to offer up the fruits of its labor.

(I don’t show the vivisection in the novel. It happens offstage.)

Because I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness meditation lately, I can’t help but see a parallel here, because what I’m advocating here is being mindful of your own thought processes. I don’t claim that no actual work goes into generating ideas, or that the stream of quality ones (or any ideas at all) is a constant quantity; we all go through fallow periods or have to actively prod ourselves into being creative sometimes. And since every person’s brain is different, you might have to take a different approach. But I’ve heard enough writers talk about how they think and work to be confident that “notice when you have an idea” is pretty solid advice. And once you start doing that, you might be able to identify conditions that encourage that type of thinking. Foster that for a little while, and your brain will become an idea-producing machine.

And then you’ll wake up one morning thinking “vivisection!” or something equally WTF. But that’s just a job hazard you learn to live with.

The Art of Cover Copy

Yoon Ha Lee recently posted about How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen, which is a topic that’s been on my mind lately. I can’t swear that I’m a genius at cover copy — what Cohen calls a synopsis; it’s the stuff written on the back or inside flap of the book, or in the “description” field online — but I actually enjoy writing it. And lately I’ve found myself even thinking of various works in progress from that angle, because figuring out what I would put into the cover copy helps me focus on what’s core to the story, what I want to use to hook the reader.

Basic principles: you want the reader to know who your protagonist is and what conflict they face, and you want to do so in a fashion that’s consistent with the overall mood, whether that’s lighthearted or lyrical or grim. After that, you walk a tightrope between being specific enough to convey flavor and being general enough that you don’t drown the reader in new information. The latter is especially tough in speculative fiction, where sometimes presenting the conflict is nigh-impossible without first explaining the world. (Ask me some time about trying to summarize the Varekai novellas. Or better yet, don’t.) Writing cover copy requires you to develop your eye for what details are load-bearing (the text will make no sense without it), what details are beneficial (not necessary, but they add a lot), and what details are extraneous.

For novels, I often adhere to a three-paragraph approach. The first paragraph introduces the situation; the second introduces the problem; the third leaves the reader with a sense of momentum and/or tension, a clear awareness that you have shown them the tip of the iceberg, but there is much more to come. Yes, it’s formulaic — but formulas come into existence because they’re good, reliable workhorses.

Since discussing this kind of thing goes better with examples, I’m going to dissect my own copy for Lies and Prophecy, because I can say exactly why I made the choices I did. (It’s also my earliest effort, so not the best, but in some ways that makes it even more instructive.)

(more…)

A Cultural Fantasy Manifesto

People who have engaged in certain kinds of discussions with me are probably quite tired of hearing me flag my comments with “that makes the anthropologist in me think X” or “since I’m an anthropologist . . . .” (I’m a little tired of it, myself.) But I’ve come to realize that it’s an important clue to how I think and what I think, not just in an academic or general context, but specifically with regards to my writing. Which has led me to identify what I’m trying to do with my fiction, at least a good percentage of the time. And since “anthropological fantasy” is an unwieldy term, let’s call it “cultural fantasy.”

What this means is that worldbuilding is not just important to me; it’s one of the most central parts of what I do. (With some stories, maybe the most central.) Character, for me, arises from and is shaped by the socio-cultural context of the individual; their beliefs and the actions they take aren’t independent of that context. People aren’t puppets of their cultures, of course, but neither are they free of them.

It also means that I’m promoting cultural relativism. Often people misunderstand this idea; they think it means that everything’s okay, that you can’t criticize a practice if it’s a part of somebody’s culture, so in the end you can’t criticize anything. Not true. Cultural relativism means trying to understand the reasons why people do things, how that practice fits into what they believe about the world — trying to see it from their point of view. It means releasing the assumption that there’s automatically something more natural or right about the way your own culture does things — which, yes, in the long run means you’re going to be more accepting of odd practices, because they don’t look so odd anymore. Something they do in one culture may be no weirder than what you do in your own — or equally weird. You end up seeing how your own cultural practices are constructed and artificial. But understanding the reasons behind human sacrifice or whatever does not require you to say it’s okay: a reason is not the same thing as an excuse.

Corollary to that: I’m not interested in constructing an ideal society, where there’s perfect gender equality, racial harmony, religious tolerance, and a benevolent government, to name a few things I happen to like. Utopias bore me. (In fiction, anyway. I’d quite like to live in one.) I’m interested in constructing messy, complicated societies that are full of flaws and then saying, ooh, this is interesting, let’s see what happens if I poke it here. And concurrently with this and the previous point, I’m interested in making up cultures that are different.

Folks, the real world, taken in all its multifarious glory, is weirder and more wonderful than you could possibly imagine. And what that means is that there are (to butcher Kipling) nine and sixty ways of constructing governments, families, religions, genders, meals, music, fashion, houses, and anything else you care to name, and every single one of them is neat. I have plenty of love for Celtic, Norse, and medieval European culture, but you’ll rarely find them in my fiction, because I want to introduce readers to things they may not have seen before. It’s a fine line to walk; too many new and unfamiliar things at once, and you start losing readers. But I want to keep extending my writing out into new cultural territory, exploring all the different ways people can live, and what that means for who they are and how they act. Especially in fantasy, where metaphysical propositions can be accepted as literally true, with demonstrable consequences that might seem unrealistic in the real world.

So when I say “cultural fantasy,” this is what I mean: fantasy where the world is as interesting and developed as the characters are (and develops those characters in turn), where you’ll find ideas and practices that aren’t all northwestern European constructs. And since some of you Gentle Readers reading this may know my writing only through some older set of my novels, I have this to say to you: if you’re in the camp that thinks their setting isn’t that original, I’ve gotten better since then, and if you’re in the camp that things they were fabulously original, I’ve gotten better since then. I have a thousand and one worlds in my head, and I want to spend the rest of my life exploring them, and bringing readers with me.

Undermining the Unreliable Narrator

[Originally posted on my blog.]

 

In my recent discussion of The Name of the Wind, one of the things that has come up is the way in which Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and the text does or does not separate the character’s sexism out from the sexism of the story as a whole. This isn’t solely a problem that crops up with unreliable narrators — it can happen any time the protagonist holds objectionable views, or lives in a society with objectionable attitudes but you don’t want to make the protagonist a mouthpiece for modern opinions — but it’s especially key there. And since I brought it up in that discussion, I thought it might be worth making an additional post to talk about how one goes about differentiating between What the Protagonist Thinks (on the topic of gender, race, or any other problematic issue) and What the Author Thinks.

I don’t pretend to be a master of this particular craft. That kind of separation is tricky to pull off, and depends heavily on the reader to complete the process. The issue is one that’s been on my mind, though, because of the Lady Trent novels: Isabella is the product of a Victorianish society, and while my approach to the -isms there hasn’t been identical to that of real history, I’ve tried not to scrub them out entirely. Since the entire story is filtered through her perspective (which, while progressive for her time, is not always admirable by twenty-first century standards), I’ve had to put a lot of thought into ways I can divide her opinions from my own.

There are a variety of tactics. Because I think things go better with concrete data rather than vague generalities, I’m going to continue to use The Name of the Wind as an illustrative example.

1) Use the frame story.

Obviously this one only works when there is a frame story, as in the case of The Name of the Wind. If you have it, though, it’s a godsend, because that’s text where the author is addressing the real-world audience, rather than the narrator addressing the in-world audience. The split opens up space for contrast.

What do I mean by that? In the Kingkiller case, you could provide contrast by filling the frame story with the women Kvothe (as a sexist narrator) is excluding from the main text. It wouldn’t require a big stretch; he’s living in a village, i.e. an environment with a presumably normal distribution of gender, and there are half a dozen reasons why women might pass through the frame, without Kvothe being able to define their participation. This, I think, is part of what made The Name of the Wind register on me as so problematic, in ways an unreliable narrator couldn’t explain: the frame story actually excludes women more than Kvothe’s narration does (i.e. there are none in it at all). That tipped the scales pretty far in a bad direction. But if you want to signal that your narrator’s bias is meant to be separate from that of the author, this is a great place to do it.

(If the narrator is so biased that he completely drives off everybody from the disfavored group, that will be obvious in his other behavior — but it will become harder to show that the author does not agree. At that point, you’re probably better off choosing a different approach to your story than an unreliable narrator.)

2) Retrospection is your friend.

This is the best tool in my kit with the Memoirs of Lady Trent. Isabella is explicitly telling her story from a point years after the events she describes; this means she’s had some time to change as a person and think about her actions. I can, for example, show her younger self being dismissive of lower-class people, while her older self has more awareness of that shortcoming. She hasn’t become perfect, of course — but she doesn’t have to be, for this technique to work. In-text questioning of the narrator’s opinions encourages the reader to question those opinions outside of the text, too.

This does require, of course, that your narrator be consciously telling their tale from a point later in time. As such, it pretty much requires either first person or an omniscient third person narrator, and in the case of first person, it’s best if they’re explicitly telling their tale, rather than having the “camera” perch on their shoulder mid-story. You don’t need a frame story to make it viable, though. Even if we didn’t have actual scenes of Kvothe telling his tale to Chronicler — if it were just him speaking to the reader, saying “I’ve retired to live my life as a humble innkeeper, and here is my tale” — we could still get that retrospective effect. It shows up in phrases like “At the time I didn’t know X” or “Back then, I assumed” or “I used to think.” Anything that cues a change in the narrator’s perspective over time.

This is what I craved, and didn’t get, from Kvothe’s presentation of Denna. That entire section would have registered very differently had narrator!Kvothe said, “I have to describe her beauty because when I first met her, that was the only thing I could see.” Four pages of him attempting to replicate the overwhelming effect it had on his fifteen-year-old self would have had me rolling my eyes (because teenage boys, ye gods) — but I wouldn’t have been annoyed at the book. The separation between his youthful sexism and his more mature experience would have been apparent.

3) Your narrator does not control the entire world.

A biased narrator or viewpoint character will self-select their social environment according to their bias — but not everything is under their control. The places where circumstance brings them into contact with broader society offer more opportunity to show the discrepancy between narrator and author.

This sort of happens with Mola. Kvothe, being sexist, might gravitate toward a male doctor if he had the choice — but in this particular case, he doesn’t get to choose. Mola just gets assigned to him. She is information from beyond Kvothe’s selected frame, and in this case that information helps to counteract his bias. There are more opportunities in the story, though, that don’t get used: the Masters, for example, are exclusively male, when they didn’t have to be. Ditto the guys who run the Eolian; circumstance sends Kvothe there, separate from considerations of what gender he prefers to associate with. As such, they could show the world he ignores. He’s still telling the story, but the author can use the situation to present a different view to the reader, even if the narrator doesn’t consciously acknowledge it.

(I am presuming the narrator is not so unreliable that he would outright lie about facts. If you’re telling a story through a guy who will say Character X was male when she was actually female, or pretend Female Character X was not there at all . . . then you’re dealing with a degree of unreliability that is beyond my ability to compensate for.)

4) Other characters will not follow the script.

This is probably the biggest one, at least that I’m aware of. Fred Clark at Slacktivist talks about this some in his dissections of the Left Behind series: those books don’t have an unreliable narrator — just extremely sexist protagonists written by extremely sexist authors — but there are points at which he says he can see hints of the “real” characters peeking around the edges of the story as presented by the pov guys.

Here’s an exercise: try rewriting a scene, or at least reimagining it, from the viewpoint of a different character. What are they thinking during the conversation? What motive drives them? Do they actually admire the narrator, or are they humoring him and wishing he would shut up already?

With a biased narrator, it’s vital not to let the protagonist’s perspective dominate your own. Even if he evaluates every woman he meets as a potential sex object, they won’t all dress to attract his eye, respond favorably to his overtures, etc. Even if he thinks his non-white companion is his faithful servant, whose entire existence revolves around satisfying his master’s desires, odds are good the companion doesn’t actually see things that way — and there will be places where he goes off-script. Those people have opinions and agency, and they’ll continue to try to exercise both when and where they can, regardless of what the protagonist wants. This may surprise or confuse the narrator, or get brushed off with a justification . . . and all of those will be signs to the reader that the author sees things differently.

Hard Fantasy

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

I think it’s been about two years since the Internet spawned a new iteration of an old debate (like it tends to do), in this case the notion of “hard fantasy.” These thoughts coalesced in my head then, but what with one thing and another I was too busy to ever post them, so here I am: well and truly behind the bandwagon. And I’ve lost all my links from that old debate to boot. But it’s a notion I happen to like, so let me toss in my two cents’ worth, however late they may be.

The term has been around for a while without anybody ever achieving consensus on what it refers to, which may mean it’s missed its window of opportunity for ever being useful. I’m not necessarily expecting to convert anyone here. I do think, though, that there is a way to apply this label that produces something worthwhile.

I’ve seen one argument for hard fantasy being fantasy that bases itself on primary sources, but I find that approach problematical from a number of angles. To start with, being a folklorist means I’m hyper-aware of the morass represented by that word “primary.” Folklore is all about borrowing and adapting and recontextualizing, and it’s terribly easy to fall into some romanticized notion of “pure” folklore, and then to sneer at works that are too many degrees of separation removed from Sleeping Beauty/the Odyssey/Njáls saga/Kevin Bacon in the eye of the beholder.

But you don’t need to be a folklorist to spot another problem with that definition, which is that it makes a poor analogy to hard SF. Now, not everybody agrees on a definition for that either, but if I try to imagine what the equivalent for “primary sources” would be in hard SF, I find . . . what? Richard Feynman? More like the laws of physics — but equating fundamental principles of nature to creative cultural works seems askew to me. And if we’re going to talk about hard fantasy, I think it should bear analogous relationship to hard SF.

We get that in the closest thing we have to an official definition — in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy — where John Clute says it “might refer to fantasy stories equivalent to the form of hard sf known as the ’scientific problem’ story, where the hero must logically solve a problematic magical situation.” That seems awfully limited to me, though, especially since it analogizes only to one type of SF story. More broadly, it’s any story that treats magic like science — but frankly, real-world notions of magic don’t often map that well to science, and defining hard fantasy as fantasy that behaves like SF doesn’t sit right with me. So let’s keep going.

And then I had an epiphany, boiling it down to five words that work for both sides of the genre: hard fantasy and hard SF alike are concerned with how stuff works, and why.

In science fiction, that can mean physics, computing, biochemistry, etc. A hard SF story is one that takes the known facts of those sciences and extrapolates them, rigorously exploring the mechanisms by which they operate, and how they might be made to operate in new, expanded ways. The equivalent in fantasy, then, is the type of work I’ve often labeled “anthropologically rigorous” — concerned with history, religion, politics, systems of magic, etc. What happens if you set your world conditions like this? Just as in SF, a given novel may devote scads of attention to one topic while ignoring others; finely-tuned interstellar travel matched with nonsensical alien biology is paralleled by, say, Tolkien, who thought through his cosmology and linguistics like whoa but didn’t seem much concerned with where anybody outside of the Shire got their food. It’s hard linguistic fantasy, hard cosmological fantasy, but politics and economics fall by the wayside.

How stuff works, and why. George R. R. Martin treats his politics with all the attention and rigor you could hope for. Jacqueline Carey extrapolates an alternate Europe where Christianity never homogenized Western culture. To a hard SF writer, these may not look like much; human culture and behavior are inescapably fuzzy, and do not lend themselves to replicable laboratory experiments, much less testable thought-experiments. But a hundred years of social science research has produced some pretty good models for understanding how people live, and I think it’s possible to devote in-depth attention to those aspects just as one can with the natural sciences.

The result is hard fantasy. And I don’t know about you, but I am a sucker for authors who write it.

Pleaser Don’t Doed Thising

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

 

Ises thisist difficulting to readed? Does its makely youred teeth’t hurtist, seeinger Englished butcher’ll withs randomen endingt thating don’tst fitted the wordly they’re ons?

Then don’t do it when you’re using Latin.

Or any other language, for that matter — but Latin is where I see this most frequently done. The general populace recognizes the “look” of Latin and knows there are these endings that crop up a lot . . . so they grab some roots (or things they think are roots), slap on a few of those endings, and call it a day.

It happens with people who are trying to represent Actual Latin. It happens with people who are not trying to represent Actual Latin, but want to leverage the recognition factor of Latin because it looks cool and they can’t be bothered to get it right. Result: fantasy book after fantasy book (or TV show or whatever) in which my eyes start metaphorically bleeding, because it looks pretty much like the first paragraph of this post.

I don’t actually mind people borrowing phonology without trying to use the language itself. If you wanted to call your Scary Magical Book of the Dead the Cascis Tarnutis, I’d give you a thumbs-up. Cascis could be an actual word in Latin — the dative or ablative plural of the adjective for “old” or “primitive” — but “tarnutis” is clearly made-up, so in my head that phrase translates to “this is a book written in a language that serves a role in this setting much like Latin did in Europe.” But when you call it the Libris Mortis, I wonder why there are plural books in the title, and why they’re in the dative or the ablative, and shouldn’t it just be Liber Mortis? (And that’s far from the most egregious example out there. It’s just the first one I could remember when I set out to write this post.)

It’s bad enough when it’s Latin: a language which enjoyed such cultural dominance for such a long time that it isn’t really hurt by people’s bad usage. And, I should note, a dead language. But although I dearly love the RPG Legend of the Five Rings, ye gods and little fishies, the “Japanese” in that game. The Rokugani language is clearly intended to be a stand-in for the real Japanese language, but place names like “Shiro sano Ken Hayai” translate to “I have a Japanese dictionary and no idea how the language works.” Those words do indeed mean Castle of the Swift Sword — mostly; that “sano” thing was someone’s random replacement for the particle “no,” I have no idea why — but that is not how you would put together that phrase. At all. (IANA expert, but I believe those words would combine to be something more like Hayato-jou. Because compounds in Japanese are not remotely like they are in English.) As with my Latin example, if the castle were called Taru sano Min Okai, I’d be fine with it: because then the writers would clearly be nodding toward the look of Japanese (i.e. its phonology), but not attempting to make it Actual Japanese. Even if there are homonyms floating around in the made-up phrase — a nearly unavoidable occurrence, with a language like Japanese — they would be less distracting to me than vocabulary that’s mostly right paired with grammar that is hysterically wrong.

Mileage varies, of course, and there may well be people out there who disagree with me on the right way to handle this. (Also people who know Latin and/or Japanese better than I do, and will tell me I got something wrong above.) The “phonology but not vocabulary” approach may also be highly distracting to them, or they may just dislike the entire concept of a fictional stand-in for a real language. But I think we can agree that half-assing your treatment of a real language is pretty much never going to be a good choice: unless it comes paired with a worldbuilding scenario that makes me believe the people in the story have taken the starting language and butchered it (which is actually how I read most of the magic phrases in Harry Potter), then it looks like the writer doesn’t care enough to get it right. Either do your homework, or do something else. I’m tired of my eyeballs metaphorically bleeding.

How to Write a Long Fantasy Series

This essay was originally posted on LiveJournal as the conclusion to my re-read and analysis of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Although it references the Wheel of Time, it does so without significant spoilers, and the argument as a whole is not specific to the series. My purpose here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series — here defining “long” as “more than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.” (So something like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books wouldn’t count, since they’re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so I’m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.

I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Tor’s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.

With all of that intro material out of the way, let’s get to it.

***

On the basis of my re-read, and comparing to other series that attempt similar tasks, I have come to believe there is a single, fundamental principle, underlying all the other points I’ll make throughout this post, which governs the author’s ability to keep the narrative from spinning wildly out of control, to the detriment of their story.

It’s simple:

PICK A STRUCTURE, AND STICK TO IT.

Most of us, when we set out to write a novel, have at least a vague sense of how long it’s going to be. We can be off in that estimate — In Ashes Lie ran about thirty thousand words longer than I originally intended — but generally speaking, you know that you’re aiming for 60K or 100K or 200K, and you use that to guide a thousand decisions you make along the way. Should you introduce new subplots, or is it time to start tying things up? Does your protagonist’s next action need some complications along the way, or would it be better to just handle it offscreen and move on to more important things? Can you bring in a new character for this strand, or should you find a way to take care of things with the characters you already have? These are questions of pacing, and we’ll come back to that a bunch of times along the way. But you can’t gauge your pace when you don’t know how long the race will be: at best, you’ll end up going through the whole thing with a steady, slogging, workhorse pace that (to switch metaphors) loses all sense of dynamics.

Pick a structure, and stick to it.

By “a structure” I mostly mean “a set number of books,” though I allow that there might be other ways to conceive of it. J.K. Rowling knew the Harry Potter series would be seven books, and each book would span one academic year at Hogwarts (plus or minus a little time before or after). The actual size of those books varied wildly, and you can certainly make the argument that she would have benefited from tighter editing as the word-count ballooned. But does anybody think that situation would have been improved by her saying, “There’s an awful lot of stuff to deal with in book five; I think I should split it in two”? I doubt it. (The decision to split the final film was likely drive as much by financial aspirations as artistic, if not more so. And oy vey is that the case with the two Breaking Dawn movies. But by then the material was set; the end was in sight.)

I haven’t read Steven Erickson’s Malazan books, but I’m told he set out to write a ten-book series, and that’s what he delivered. And you know what? Based on what I’ve heard from readers, some of them thought it was great, some of them thought it was flawed, but none of them thought it was the trainwreck of apocalyptically bad pacing the Wheel of Time turned into. Whether or not you liked where the story was going, it was indubitably going somewhere, and at a reasonable clip.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by contrast, was supposed to be a trilogy. Then a quartet. Then a sextet. Then A Dance With Dragons got too long, so Martin split it and now the series is a septet. In a recent interview, he said it might run to eight books instead. Step by step, I can see him walking into the same swamp Jordan got lost in.

Tom Simon discusses this in his essai Zeno’s Mountains, wherein he cites David Eddings saying that a man who’s never walked a mile has no real sense of how far a mile is. Most of us learn how much Stuff goes into a novel by writing one; we learn how much Stuff goes into a trilogy by doing the same. How many of us ever write more than one seven- or nine- or ten-book series, though? Jordan never got a chance to learn from his first attempt and do better the second time. Martin likely won’t, either.

Simon says, “I do not know of any general solution to this problem; perhaps no general solution is possible.” I say there is a solution, and its name is Discipline.

As answers go, it isn’t perfect; keeping your series confined within its intended boundaries may result in a less satisfying arc for various plots than you would get if you let them stretch out to their fullest. But letting them stretch may very well be detrimental to other aspects of the story. Keep one eye always on the larger picture, and know what must be accomplished by the end of the current book for you to remain on schedule.

Doing so may require some ruthless editing. And it’s entirely possible that such editing won’t be in your best commercial interests: it costs time and effort, laid against the odds that allowing the story to sprawl will translate into more money for you and your publisher alike. From the standpoint of craft, though, rather than the bottom line:

Pick a structure, and stick to it.

Continuing onward from there, I have learned several other salutary lessons, most (if not all) of them standing on that structural foundation.

1. Control your points of view.

A friend of mine, in discussion regarding an epic fantasy series she’d like to write, proposed that this should be the number-one item on my list. I put it at number two because I believe structure is one of the major yardsticks by which the decision to add a new pov character should be measured.

I could point to any number of cautionary examples from the Wheel of Time (goddamed Vilnar Barada comes to mind, or Alteima), but I think it’s best to look at the moment where I first noticed Jordan going wrong. That would be the pov scene for Jaichim Carridin in The Shadow Rising, the fourth book of the series — the one where the branching nature of the story is at its strongest, right before passing from being a feature into being a nigh-fatal bug.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Wheel of Time, Carridin is a minor villain character who gets four pov scenes in the entire series. In this particular scene, we discover that he’s scheming with Liandrin (another minor villain; she gets four pov appearances, too) on behalf of one of the factions he serves, and with the King of Tarabon on behalf of a different faction. Which sounds good, except that the key word in that sentence is “discover” rather than “scheme” — relatively little action takes place. Most of Carridin’s 3,194 words are spent on him thinking about stuff: the current political situation in the city, the current political situation outside the city, the way his evil overlords have been slaughtering his family one member at a time to motivate him, etc.

Some of the information that appears in this scene also reaches us via different channels in the story. Other parts aren’t terribly relevant, because they don’t come to anything in the long run. Jordan could easily have cut this scene, and we would have lost very little of substance; the few salient details could have been brought in elsewhere, by other means.

But let’s pretend for a moment that the information here is actually vital. Does that justify spending time in the head of this minor villain?

No. Because here’s the thing: switching to Carridin is lazy. It’s the easiest way to tell us what the bad guys are doing — and I do mean “tell,” given that most of the scene is Carridin thinking rather than acting. Had Jordan restricted himself to a smaller set of pov characters, he would have been forced to arrange things so that his protagonists found out what Carridin was doing. In other words, they would have had to protag more. And that would have been a better story.

Every time you go to add a new point of view character, ask yourself whether it’s necessary, and then ask yourself again. Do we need to get this information directly, or see these events happen first-hand? Can you arrange for your existing protagonists to be there, or to find out about it by other means? Are you sure?

Given what I said above about sticking to your structure, there may indeed be times where it’s more word-efficient to jump to a new pov, rather than constructing a path by which your existing viewpoints can pick up the necessary threads. But be careful, because taking the lazy way out appears to be a slippery slope for authors. This page lists no less than sixty characters who get only a single pov scene each during the entirety of the Wheel of Time. Nineteen more get two apiece. Eleven get three, seven get four, and then the numbers start ticking upward faster, until our six primary characters have between fifty-seven and two hundred — just to give you an idea of scale.

If I am counting correctly, this series has ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-NINE POINT OF VIEW CHARACTERS.

That is absurd.

Martin is starting to have a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. He has thirty-one viewpoint characters so far, according to this page. Fifteen of those — nearly half! — have been introduced or received pov in the last two books, and most of them have only one or two chapters apiece per book, well below the usual average for this series. One character in A Feast for Crows died at the end of his sole chapter, whereupon pov transferred to one of the people he’d been traveling with. Why not give that person viewpoint to begin with? Why not spend the pages developing that character, instead of the one who won’t be with us for long?

John Scalzi once pointed out the inexorable consequence of multiple points of view on pacing, which authors of long epics would do well to bear in mind. If you have a 120K book and one pov character, that’s a hundred and twenty thousand words forwarding that character’s story. If you split it evenly between two characters, they get 60K apiece. Four characters, and now each of them has only 30K in which to move forward. Pretty soon, it feels like not very much is happening with any one of them.

Of course, you can mitigate this to some extent by having those characters interact, so that A’s story is progressing even while we’re in B’s head. But that brings us to our next point . . . .

2. Control your subplots.

Once you have multiple pov characters, it’s easy to let them wander off from one another and start doing different things. This isn’t inherently bad; if you want to write a long epic fantasy series, you’re going to need a high degree of complexity. But if you lose sight of your structure, you’re liable to also lose sight of how many subplots is too many, and which ones are taking too long to resolve.

There are two ways to fall off this particular cliff. One is that you know X is going on in Y part of the world, but you’re afraid it won’t seem reasonable if you spring it on your reader at the point where X begins to affect the rest of the plot. (Or you just think it’s too shiny not to show, or whatever.) So you decide you need to show X happening — and probably add a point of view to facilitate that. The other path starts with the point of view: having given a character pov rights, you feel consciously or subconsciously obligated to justify that decision. On a small scale, this leads to pointless crap like Vilnar Barada thinking about the girl he wants to marry; on a large scale, it leads to things like the Shaido Plot From Hell, which I am convinced was Jordan creating makework so that Perrin would have something to do, and also justifying Faile as an ongoing pov character.

It may annoy readers (especially when you do it badly), but I’ve come around to the philosophy that you shouldn’t be afraid to give one or more of your characters a sabbatical from the story. The example of Jordan doing this right is Perrin’s absence from The Fires of Heaven: Perrin had just won a great victory and settled into some necessary but unexciting work of consolidation, so it was a dandy time to step away and focus on other characters. The story would not have been improved by inventing a subplot to fill that gap. The example of Jordan doing it wrong is Mat’s absence from The Path of Daggers: Mat had just been trapped under a collapsing wall during the invasion of a city. It turns out nothing interesting had been going on with him during his book-long absence . . . but given where the story had left off with him, readers expected a great deal more, and didn’t get it. If you’re going to step away, choose the point at which something has wrapped up, not begun.

Making up subplots to keep a character busy is a cascading problem. The proliferating points of view created and/or abetted new plot complexity, which meant the central ropes of the narrative got stretched out farther than they were meant to go. You can’t shelve your main character for three books, though, so Rand — ostensibly the driving force of the whole shebang — didn’t have a lot to do for a while other than run around micro-managing the politics of several nations, creating a lot of material that didn’t really add all that much to the story. It did add words, though, which meant Jordan had to find something for Perrin to do while Rand was occupied, so Faile got kidnapped by the Shaido, and then next thing you know, you’ve created a monstrosity of a plotline that 80% of your readers will hate with the fire of a thousand suns, and oh by the way now you need to keep all those secondary characters busy, too, the ones who started this problem in the first place. It’s the principle of the Lowest Common Multiple, played out in narrative form: if one character is cycling at 13 rpm and another is at 20, you have to keep rolling until you hit 260 to get them both wrapping up at the same time. And that way lies the ever-expanding tale.

If you stick to your structure, you at least have a metric by which to gauge whether a subplot is worth the time it will take to cover it. Of course, most of us can’t really eyeball an idea and say “why yes, that’s fifteen thousand words’ worth of subplot” — would that we could! But this gets back to the “ruthless editing” I mentioned before. If it starts stretching out too far, find a way to accomplish the necessary elements more efficiently. If you can’t do that, cut the subplot. Yes, it may be shiny, but is it worth throwing off the balance of everything else in the story?

3. Centralize.

This is closely-enough related to the previous point that I almost folded it in there, but I think it deserves to be pulled out and looked at on its own.

A long series is going to have a certain amount of sprawl, which is both necessary and desirable. But keep an eye on how long it’s been since your major characters interacted with one another. In the Wheel of Time, the fourth book was the first one where the main protagonists didn’t all come together for the finale; not coincidentally, it’s also the last one where the story’s sprawl felt truly effective. Something like eight or nine books passed without Rand and Perrin seeing one another, or Perrin and Mat. There was a point in the story where Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Elayne were all in different places doing different things, and had been for some time; that’s five major plots rolling without reference to one another, in addition to the countless minor plots. We may also consider that Martin’s story and pacing have begun to fall apart as he lets his characters separate further and further: when’s the last time you had any two of Arya, Jon, Bran, Sansa, Catelyn, and Tyrion in the same place at the same time? (Not to mention Daenerys, off on the other side of the planet this entire time, or the host of other pov characters Martin has begun to introduce.)

Remember Scalzi’s point above: the more you fragment the perspective, the less forward movement each one gets per book. Remember my corollary: you can mitigate that by having the viewpoints overlap. Apart from the simple mathematics of pacing, this helps deal with the subplot issue, because you can keep important characters in the narrative by having A work with B on whatever it is B’s doing. (Or oppose it, or interfere with it, or whatever.) And it will assist in maintaining your structure, because if Aragorn’s got to be at the Black Gates when Frodo arrives at Mount Doom, then you’ve got to get that Pelennor thing done on schedule, which means not letting the Paths of the Dead episode overstay its welcome.

(Note that I am NOT holding up Tolkien as a model for how to construct the kind of narrative I’m talking about here. His approach was to ignore half his story for half a book, which isn’t a tactic that will serve any modern author very well. But Lord of the Rings is familiar enough to serve as a useful example.)

So yes. By all means let your characters wander off and do their own thing . . . but not for too long. Bring them back together periodically, and look for ways to get multiple stones to work together on killing that bird.

4. The further you go, the less you have to show your math.

This is less tied into the structural base than the rest of my points; it’s more a simple matter of word bloat.

Early on in your story, it’s useful to show how your characters pull off their small accomplishments. It demonstrates their competence to us, if it’s something they’re supposed to be good at, or conversely shows them developing new skills, if they’ve been thrust into situations outside their usual depth. Or it establishes the realism of the world, or gives the reader information about a topic they may not know very well. All of that is perfectly fine.

But when you’re ten books into your series, you really don’t need to show the camp logistics of the army your hero has been in command of for the last four books. You don’t need to walk through every step of how the heroine, having attained her throne, arranges a meeting with some fellow sovereigns. You’ve already established that these are tasks well within their skill-set. We will not bat an eyelash if you go straight to the meeting, or have the army keep trucking along in good order. If you introduce some element that makes those tasks hard again, then by all means show how the new challenge is overcome — but even then, you’re allowed to only focus on the challenging part, and let the routine stuff go.

Because in theory, the further you go into your series, the more exciting the story should be. Tensions mount! We’re building toward the climax! Now is not the time to stop and do the simple math all over again. Think of it like a geometry proof: once you’ve proved the basic theorems, you’re allowed to just cite them and move on, rather than having to go through every step every time.

One of the corollaries to this is more debatable. Re-reading the Wheel of Time, I was struck by how many times the story explains Min’s visions; it felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. Arguably, however, that sort of repetition is necessary, because some readers may not have read the previous book in a long time, and may have forgotten who Min is and what she can do. (Or they may have picked up the third book without having read the first two, though I tend to be of the opinion that people who do that deserve what they get. I note that many series, including both the Wheel of Time and Harry Potter, eventually give up on holding people’s hands — it just takes a while.) This is more a matter of exposition than showing the narrative math, and I’ll allow that some amount of reinventing the wheel may be required. But keep an eye on it anyway, and try to keep it to a minimum.

There are many other things I could say about the flaws in the Wheel of Time, or in other long series. But these are the main points, the ones I think are universally applicable, rather than specific to a particular narrative — along with, of course, the basic lessons of good writing, like not using twenty words where five will do. A story’s quality depends heavily on its shape, on the timing of various twists and revelations, the pacing of its arcs and the rate at which the characters grow; and good shape rarely happens by accident, especially on a large scale. Ergo, I firmly believe that you need some fixed points by which to navigate during your journey. Know how many books you’re going to write, hammer in a couple of pegs to say that certain events will happen at certain points, and then hold to your course. If you stray from the path, you may never find your way out of the woods.

Rumor has it, of course, that Jordan was asked to stretch the series out, because it was making so much money. I have no idea if that’s true. But as I said at the start, my concern here is not the commercial success of a series; I’m addressing the story itself.

I’m speaking, mind you, as someone who has yet to write a series longer than four books (and those structured almost entirely as stand-alones). This is all based on my observations of other people’s efforts, not my own experience. But as I said to Tom Simon in the comments to “Zeno’s Mountains,” there’s not enough time in life to screw it up yourself for a dozen books, and then to do better afterward. If you want to write a long series and not have it collapse in the middle like a badly-made souffle, you have to learn from other people’s mistakes.

*

The above wound up generating some interesting discussion in a variety of places: comments on the original post, Twitter, etc. I wanted to come back to it long enough to highlight a few lengthier responses that I think make very good points.

The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener’s Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about “theme” because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)

The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede’s two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that’s a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don’t set out to write seven books because that’s precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.

Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it’s called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno’s Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker’s series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that’s what we said we’d do. It’s only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip — because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it’s ten instead of nine than when it’s four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you’re selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they’re eager for you to make it ten instead.

But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no “please just one more ep” or “sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long.”

Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one’s discipline to falter. And I say — with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue — that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.

(“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)

It isn’t easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet’s structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.

My First Novel: One Year Later

The street date for Doppelganger was just over a year ago — technically on April Fool’s Day, but it doesn’t seem to have been a joke. So it seems a good time to get retrospective about My First Novel.

I have to say I’m happy. There are certain benchmarks for success with a novel, particularly a debut, and I’ve passed a few of them. Doppelganger hasn’t won any awards, nor did it end up on any “best of” lists I’m aware of, but it earned out its advance before the end of the first accounting period in June, and it went back for a second printing in the fall. I don’t have exact sales figures, but it seems to be maintaining small but steady sales, which is exactly what one wants in a continuing career — moreso, really, than awards and “best of” lists, though the egoboo of those kinds of things is not to be underestimated.

In terms of reviews, it’s been fairly well-received. Few “official” reviews in trade publications of any kind, but mass-market fiction rarely gets noticed in those places anyway, so when I speak of reviews, I mostly mean Google Alerts and Technorati finding mentions on people’s blogs. Which are as valid as official reviews, when you get down to it; they reach smaller audiences, but a random person on Livejournal may have just as critical taste (or more critical) than someone writing for Locus. In truth? It still warms my heart when I come across a sentence or two on somebody’s Myspace page praising the book, and I still feel that brief tension before I read the sentence or two, wondering if this person is going to like it.

Fan mail. Wow. It really didn’t occur to me that I would get so much. Literally dozens of strangers contacting me to say they liked the book, and while that’s a drop in the bucket if you’re Neil Gaiman, for me, it’s astounding. And people have even mailed their books for me to sign. Some of them are homebound for one reason or another, and they thank me for giving them a diversion for a few hours. That, folks, is one of the reasons we do this.

But all that’s about how I feel about how other people feel about my book. How do I feel about it?

Mixed. I’m thoroughly proud of some things in it: certain moments in the story, certain decisions to tell the story this way rather than that way. But there are also places where I recognize that I invented the setting when I was seventeen, wrote most of the book when I was nineteen. I know I’ve gotten better since then, that my plots have gotten more complex, my ideas have more meat on their bones, my worlds have more that’s unusual to distinguish them from the million worlds already out there in fantasy. I don’t feel like I would go back and write Doppelganger differently now — it is what it is, and I can’t imagine it any other way — but I’m eager to move on to new things, to prove that I can do better.

Which is, of course, exactly how this business works. So I shall end this reminiscing, and get back to the task of My Next Novel.

My First Novel: The Production Process

Production technically starts, I believe, with the copy-edited manuscript (aka CEM), which I discussed in the previous section. The author can rewrite things if necessary, but mostly the CEM is for smaller details, like grammar, typos, and house style. I’m proud to say that my grammar is mostly good (semi-colon overuse and that/which aside), and I have very, very few typos. The other issue, house style, has to do with making sure your writing fits the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever guide your publisher uses. On this basis, the copy-editor may hyphenate or unhyphenate words, or make similar changes. (For example, the style guide would determine whether that ought to be copy-editor, copy editor, or copyeditor, all three of which you’ll sometimes see people using.)

But in truth, that’s when production starts for the writer. There are all kinds of other things going on where you can’t see them, with many people working very hard to get your novel on the shelves. Those months where it seems like nothing’s happening are far busier than you think.

The next time you see your manuscript after the CEM goes back will be when you get page proofs. (Mine, to continue the timeline, came in mid-October; I had to take them with me to the American Folklore Society meeting to get them done in time.) You might be surprised to realize how many decisions get made in the course of producing those. Page proofs are the typeset pages of your novel; they’re your first glimpse of what it’s really going to look like. That means that someone has to choose the font your novel will be printed in. Also how large or small the margins will be, and how closely or widely spaced the lines will be. Will the page numbers go in the upper corner or the lower? What header, if any, will they put at the top of the recto and verso? What will demarcate one scene from another — a blank space, or some marker? Should the first part of each scene be italicized or small-capped or given a fancy capital? How about the chapters? Once they pour your text into the template they’ve created, then they have to fiddle with it and make sure there aren’t any weird widows or orphans or last pages of chapters with just two words on them.

These, for comparison, are services you generally don’t get from vanity/subsidy presses. I won’t spend long on this, as it could be a separate essay, but I should mention. They earn money off their writers (instead of off their reading audiences), and the less money they spend on paying people to do production work, the more profit they make. This is why vanity-published books often look crappy. Not only have they often not gotten copy-editing, but the typesetting is slipshod and unaesthetic.

So that’s the inside of the book. What about the outside? I was fortunate to have an editor who asked for my input on the cover, which I honestly didn’t expect, after hearing horror stories of authors who got no say whatsoever. We talked initially about artists and style, agreeing easily on the sort of photo-realistic approach I ended up. Then there were discussions of the composition of the image. My ideas here didn’t fare as well (I sort of wanted both Miryo and Mirage), since there are entire philosophies of cover design I’m ignorant of; I got to provide input, but that certainly didn’t mean I controlled the process. My editor chose an artist, who did an initial mockup in April, then revised it to editorial requirements in July. (I’m not allowed to post the original image, but to give you an idea of what changed, she used to be wearing a cloak, and the “camera” was further back, showing her from head to toe.)

As with the interior text, the image was only the base. Someone chose the font for the title and my name. There were changes here, too; the initial concept my editor described to me had “Doppelganger” being printed on some kind of stone-slab background. I suspect that went away when my novel got moved from Warner Aspect (the sf/f imprint) to Warner Books (the main line), and they decided to give it less of a stereotypical fantasy look. The stuff printed on the back is called cover copy; I got to give that a once-over, and I think I suggested a minor change or two to the wording, but the actual text is (I think) my editor’s work. The knotwork is my doing, though; I remember (at the stupidly-last minute) that I wanted the witches’ symbol included, and cobbled together an image that they could use on the cover and interior.

It was kind of fascinating, becoming aware of all the facets of the process I’d mostly ignored before. And I’m sure I’m forgetting or overlooking others; for example, somebody decided what weight of paper to print the novel on. The process takes a long time because, by the time you reach this stage, your book has entered a pipeline that also involves a lot of other books; printing a given novel doesn’t take months, but you have to wait your turn. I admit there are times when I sigh over the almost year and a half between sale and shelves, but such, of course, is life in publishing.

 

Last: One Year Later