Just My Opinion: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is the first book in a “gigantic pile of doorstoppers” fantasy series. Which is kind of strange because Sanderson tends to be a more concise, efficient writer.

Then again, I want to try new things as a writer, so I shouldn’t complain when somebody else does.

First, let’s be clear: I enjoyed the book overall, enough to get started on the sequel right away.

But it’s way too long for its content. At first, I thought it was an editing problem, but it’s actually something more insidious: it’s an overload of characterization and worldbuilding.

Let’s tackle worldbuilding first: Sanderson sets his novel in a fantasy world that is significantly alien. The flora is weird. Animals are mostly crustaceans. Massive, regularly scheduled superstorms rip across the countryside. And so on and so forth. All of that needs to be described, but Sanderson deliberately avoids infodumps and so he constantly injects small bits of data in the text.

It reads well, but it adds up (to much more than the equivalent infodump would be.) And so far, the relevancy of a lot of the alienness isn’t really relevant. It’s extremely consistent (how would life survive the constant superstorms if it hadn’t evolved specifically for that?) but it does have a disproportionate effect on the length of the novel.

In itself, it’s not too bad. If it was the only issue, I’d be willing to dismiss the criticism. But combined by the overcharacterization… it really does push the novel beyond the wordcount the plot justifies.

Sanderson’s significant character count is relatively low for a novel of this page count. We’re looking at four main point-of-view characters, a few secondary-but-important characters, and maybe ten or so supporting characters. We get more than enough characterization for each of them… and then there’s the flashbacks.

We get the excruciatingly detailed backstory of one of the main characters (judging from book 2, each of the main characters will get their flashbacks throughout the series.) That’s chapter after chapter of background info on one character… which ends up justifying a basic character trait (and a few relationships.)

It’s all relevant information… that would have justified maybe a quarter of the words used to convey it.

The worldbuilding was a bit too much, but it’s within the bounds of discutability. The characterization is just excessive.

The book is still good, and worth reading (particularly if you have a hankering for fantasy.) But it’s also a good example of overwriting stuff. Thankfully, that’s not one of my weaknesses as a writer.



Agent Search Pre-Mortem: Three Mistakes

It’s a bit early to call Book the First dead (and besides, even if I don’t find an agent, I’ll self-publish it.) But I think I made some mistakes in my agent search, and I wanted to put them out there. Hopefully, this may help someone else.

So, if you’re pitching a book, avoid the following mistakes:

1-I failed to research what agents want:

That’s probably my biggest mistake: I think I wrote a great book, and one I think many people would enjoy… but it’s not one that many agents are looking for.

It’s New Adult (a category that agents shy away from), the main character is a young white male (in other words, exactly like the hero of fifty other manuscripts any given agent has looked at today), the book series which would make the best comparative is too big and popular to be a useable comp so I’m stuck using less appropriate comps… Those are all strikes against my manuscript.

Now… Some of those elements are why I managed to write my book. I wanted to tell a specific tale, and I did. But going forward, I need to be aware of agents’ preferences.

2-I rushed my query (and especially my synopsis):

I probably screwed myself out of at least one or two request for manuscripts by sending out a weak query and a frankly unacceptable synopsis early on. I really should have sat on my manuscript for a month or two while I perfected my pitch.

3-I didn’t manage my time properly when querying:

I should have been willing to wait before sending my queries… but I also should have been a lot more organized and efficient while sending them. I didn’t have a good workflow, which made it hard to push out custom-made queries, and I also tended to waste time hoping for responses (especially after sending my full or partial manuscript.) Bottom line: I should have been done with queries several months ago.

Writing Another Book: Authorial Intent

Since I have to do something besides waiting for answers to my queries, I might as well write a bit about Book the Second.

I’ve already stated that it’s not the sequel to Book the First, but I should probably state that I’m trying to write something significantly different. I’m switching genres (somewhat) by going for a classic secondary-world fantasy novel instead of First’s contemporary setting, but I also want to switch tone and voice. The point is to stretch my wings a bit and to exercise my skills more.

And that means making a few design decisions:

  1. This Isn’t About Me: I’m writing this book in the third person. I’m not quite sure which variation I’ll use yet, but I’m guessing I’ll err on the omniscient side;
  2. No, It’s Really Not About Me, I Mean It: A lot of the superficial traits of Book the First’s characters were either mine, or inspired by people I knew. I don’t get to use that trick this time. These guys are going to stand on their own.
  3. Let’s Have a Party (Maybe): I’m not quite sure on how far I’ll go with this yet, but I intend to have multiple viewpoint characters. I’m almost certain I won’t go as far as G. R. R. Martin, but writing something more like The Wheel of Time appeals to me. Well, the stylings, at least. I like my ideas and worldbuilding for this novel/potential series, but I don’t think it’ll be my cast-of-thousands, takes-a-whole-shelf fantasy series.

Obviously, I reserve the right to change those rules at any time, but I don’t intend to.

Next time, I’ll talk about the general look-and-feel of the fantasy world I’m envisionning.

Worldbuilding on the Cheap

As I mentionned earlier, I want to work on yet another synopsis/outline before starting on my next novel. But while both my novel and my other outlines take place in worlds close enough to the real one, that last outline is for a straight fantasy novel.

That means that before I can even get started on the outline, I need to do some worldbuilding. An idea won’t go far without context, after all.

That said, while I generally enjoy reading those complex prologues and essays on magic system… it’s probably overkill to write one just for an outline. Besides, I’m a big believer in the idea that reference materials should be easy to parse. So I kept to the essentials and produced enough content in an evening to allow me to get started on that outline.

Specifically, my document looks like this:

  1. Basic Tone: here, I described, in a couple of paragraphs, how I want the book to feel. Is it grim and gritty? Is there a central philosophical issue I want to tackle? Would the movie/series inspired by the book be dark and depressing, would it be a comedy, would it be an action fest? What would the sets look like? Ultimately, it’s my elevator pitch for the book as well as my mission statement.
  2. Cosmology: it’s a fantasy book/series. Obviously, I need some sort of weird pantheon of divinities and beings of power. For some series, this would be very important (David Eddings’s Belgariad springs to mind: the conflict between the Gods drives the plot forward.) In my case, however, it’s not the case. My deities are important in the vague metaplot I have in mind, but they’re not going to be the main drivers of the story, at least at first. Consequently, I can get away with a really generic description.
  3. Magic System: that, however, is really relevant to the story I want to write. I don’t need to go into the actual mechanics at this point (beyond the very general) but I do need to know what’s possible and what isn’t. Moreover, the magic system defines what my characters will be able to do: am I working with Aes Sedai throwing fireballs, or with Magisters who know lots about herbs?
  4. History/Backstory: I also need to know the basic political/social makeup of the world, and that means figuring out how things got that way. At this stage, I make a conscious decision not to use dates or timelines, but vague references instead. I don’t want to overcommit to an idea at this point, and besides I don’t need that level of detail yet.
  5. Geography: a.k.a. the World Map. I love world maps in fantasy novel. I like them gorgeous, detailed, and filled with hints and promises of things to come. But I have no artistic talent, and so I settle for a very basic drawing in Paint. Right now I only need to know where the countries are located.

And that’s it. Two pages of text and ten minutes of Paint-ing. Now I have more than enough to get started on an outline for a novel. I’ll probably work on a series outline too, but I suspect I’ll need to do more worldbuilding then. I’ll let you know when I get there.

The Evolution of a Writer

Let’s take a quick break from whining about editing and look at writing instead. Specifically, I want to suggest a fun little exercise – one that I find both very informative and a great source of motivation when I don’t feel so gung-ho about my chances to make it as an author.

Take one of your favorite authors. Ideally, you want one who has written lots of books in a similar style.

Then read and compare his latest (and/or best-written book, if one qualifies) with the first book he or she wrote. Try and spot the differences in style, the weaker sections, and so on.

It’s surprising how amateurish some very-well received books look under that lense.

When I did that exercise the first time, it was with Jim Butcher’s Cold Days and his first Dresden short story, The Restoration of Faith. Now, that’s cheating a bit, because Restoration was only published several years later as part of an omnibus (and, as Butcher himself explains in his foreword to that particular story, it really was a first-try effort that “wasn’t ready for the commercial market.”)

But even if you compare, say, Storm Front (the first published Dresden Files book) to the later novels of the series, the evolution of Jim Butcher’s skills as a writer is obvious.

The point of the exercise is to realize that:

  1. Yes, practice does make you better. You’ll see it when going from the shitty first draft to the readable second draft, and you’ll see improvement from your first published novel to your last.
  2. Even the best authors started out as “merely okay” authors. Sure, they had good stories, and a certain level of writing skills, but they were probably not as good as you recall through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

On Screens, Hardcopy and E-readers

I love my Kindle. As an avid reader, having access to an entire library with me when I’m on the bus, on a plane or on vacation is a godsend.

But lately, I’ve fallen in love with how it gives me a new perspective when re-reading my manuscript.

Obviously, most of my revision work has been done directly on my laptop screen. It’s where I work, there’re those handy red squiggly lines to let me know about typos, there’s a thesaurus (and Google) right in the next window over…

But at some point, you have to review your manuscript in hardcopy, if only because your eyes get too used to the text on screen. Reading your text on paper will let you spot other mistakes and, if you’re anything like me, will let you get a better sense of the timing of your novel.

Recently, I converted my manuscript to a PDF and threw it on my Kindle, figuring Yet Another Reading of the Book couldn’t hurt. I expected to find a few more mistakes and possible improvements. But let me tell you, seeing my work in the same type, size and format as everything else I’ve read in the last few years has been eye-opening.

On the plus side: the Book is really quite good. I’ve read commercially successful works in the same genre that weren’t as well written.

On the minus side: over a hundred additionnal small corrections to make already, and I’m nowhere near done with that re-reading. Well, good thing I wasn’t planning on querying this weekend.

But seriously: if you’re writing your own manuscript, get a Kindle (or another e-Reader.) It’s absolutely worth it just for the new perspective it will give you on your work.

Revising, Reviewing and Rewriting

Since I’m currently finalizing my manuscript, I figure now is the right time to discuss all the steps I went through to get there.

First, I wrote my first draft, skipping all those nitpicky details like “planning” or “writing an outline.” Surprisingly enough, that wasn’t as bad an idea as it seems. It probably cost me some efficiency, but on the other hand getting that first draft done was probably more important than getting it right. I needed to know that I could bring the project at least that far before running out of motivation.

Once I had that first draft done, however, it was time to make it good. So I grabbed my red pen, printed out the whole manuscript, and got to work. That first revision covered everything, from fixing plot holes to improving my characterization (and, of course, correcting all those inevitable typos and grammar issues.) In the process, I added about 20,000 words to the manuscript, bringing it up to a publishable size.

I also realized how much my writing had improved in the relatively small interval between starting my prologue and completing my epilogue. So I actually ended up my first revision with even greater motivation than ever before.

While I was revising, I was also sending my completed chapters to a pair of first readers. Inevitably, they caught mistakes I missed, but their input was also valuable for additional plot doctoring and characterization editing.

Which brings me up to now. As I wait for the final comments from the second of my first readers, I’ve started Yet Another Revision. This time, I put my book onto my Kindle, just to look at it from another perspective. And… it was a good idea. I still see small stuff I want to fix, some minor issues and weaker sections. It’s a bit frustrating to see how imperfect the book is… but on the other hand, I can see how quickly I’m improving my writing skills.

And on the plus side, I think that once I’m done with that final revision, the book will absolutely be of publishable quality. So it’s not as demotivating as “third revision” might imply.

Moral of the story: don’t underestimate the need for revising your work, but also don’t underestimate the benefits of doing so. I’ve gotten so much better at writing just by reviewing my work that even if Book 1 fails to ever see the light of day, I know that my next project will get closer to that goal.