Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Reflecting back from halfway done

So last month, just before my son was born, I put the last round of edits down on the first draft of World of Myth #9, The Fortress of Ruin. I've received it back from my alpha readers, and the only complaint they have, really, is that that they now have to wait for the next one. Although my editor has yet to touch it, I still feel happy that the hardest part is done.

I'm officially halfway.

When I first started this series, I didn't have any idea how many books I'd write, Perhaps it was two, maybe seven, but once I got to book #3, I realized quite suddenly that eighteen was the magic number. I can't tell you why, of course, because that would ruin the story, but it all made sense at that time. What this means is that at the conclusion of Book #9, I've now reached the halfway point, and in my line of thinking, that calls for a reflection. More specifically, I need a place to write down just why in the freaking hell it took me nine damned books to finally get it right.

It's no secret. Anyone who has read more than one of my books soon realizes that, contrary to most stories out there, my books improve as the story goes on. Without a doubt, the first book is the worst (which is the most devastating thing a writer can do, but what's done is done), but there is a wild ride ahead of anyone who pushes on from there. This is not by design, necessarily, but the reason is obvious. The story improves because I improved, and I'm going to use this post to explain just how, why, and where because I really want to and this my blog and you can't stop me!

If you haven't figured it out yet, this is going to be a long post.

When I started Book #1, Beyond the Plains, it was 2010 and I was a broke recent college graduate who worked two part-time jobs just to pay for my student loans. With no money and too much time, I went to the bookstore looking for a particular fantasy book, couldn't find it, and so decided to write that book myself.

I really only had one goal in mind when I set out to write what was then my 2nd book written ever. I wanted to paint the world in as much detail as I could. I'd spent weeks (years in a sense) researching all these myths and legends, and I wanted to put them all down with the same sense of wonder and astonishment I felt about them. With no plan or outline, I put my fingers to the keyboard and bled out onto the screen. I didn't invent the entire overarching plot until a third of the way through the book, and the characters I chose to lead the story were naive from the start, and thus lacking in today's world of hyper conflicted personalities. However, I got what I aimed for: a beautifully described and detailed world, vivid and alive to any imagination. Unfortunately, my story lacked in all the things I chose to neglect: Weak plot with a predictable story and some prose that leaned on the purple side. I would eventually return to re-write this story because, honestly, the first draft released could be painfully predictable.

But I forged on, determined to do better. Blind to my real problems, I selected a new aspect of my writing to improve upon: action. Taking all the world-building I'd used from Book #1, I set out to repeat the same wonder in Book #2, but add in a fast and action-packed story that never tired or dulled. True to form, I got what I aimed for. The Forest of Angor has some wickedly long combat scenes, sometimes chapters long, which are usually the first things to be complimented on. However, also true to form, the things I chose to neglect once again dulled the story. The plot was simply just too predictable for any mainstream audience. By this time, my books were hitting enough of an audience that I was finally aware of this problem, but I just wasn't sure how to fix it quite yet.

And then it was on to Book #3. I felt confident in my world-building and action themes, but now realized my . . . how do I say this . . . "political intrigue" needed some polishing. If there's anything I've come to realize, it's that just about any action and combat is exciting, but true authors can make even the most mundane of conversations interesting. So once again, I set to task, bringing my previously well-done things whilst working on something new. Book #3 was deliberately slower, with more talking and quiet moving, and more focused on character morality than the previous two. I believe I did well, because when presented to my readers, no one commented on the book's slower pace in comparison to #2. Basically, no news was good news, as what I set out to do, no one should have noticed unless I did it wrong. I also did a halfway decent job of not making the story so predictable, though I used a stop-gap sort of solution. I simply just removed nearly all foreshadowing, and therefor neglected the possibility of any kind of twist. It was a band aid solution, but it worked for now.

By the time I moved onto writing Book #4, I'd received only about 10 online reviews on Goodreads, and I did my first AMA on Reddit, which turned into a massive success. I had some 10k free downloads in a single day, which blew my F'in mind at the time. From this, I received LOADS of much-needed criticism, many of which pointed out in resounding detail the issues I was aware of in my own writing. Book's 1 & 2 were simply too predictable to be enjoyed by many, though nearly all loved the other aspects of my writing, such as the attention to detail, my voice, and the action. I knew I'd have to go back and re-write the first two books, because it was just embarrassingly bad at this point, and I was getting tired of hearing the same thing over and over.

But first, I wanted to take a stab at Book #4, and use that book as my training ground for yet another aspect of my writing I felt needed improvement: my tendency to think for the reader. You may notice in the first 3 books, I have a tendency to point things out, as if the reader can't be trusted to notice deeper aspects on their own. I had far too much "telling" basically, and I needed more "showing." I went for this in Book #4, intentionally avoiding saying things to the reader that screamed 'this is the bad guy, and you should think this about him.' I introduced more shades of grey morality, whilst still focusing on world-building, action, and political intrigue. I also got more involved in Emily as a character, putting her on her own and letting her shine as the true star she should have been from the start. Judging from my readers, I freaking did it, too. The response I got back from my (now) much broader audience was overwhelmingly positive. People loved the story, the characters, the writing, the setting, and I felt confident enough to go back and re-write book's 1 & 2.

About this time, it was 2013, and I also realized I needed an editor. Actually, more specifically, it was about this time I realized I could actually afford an editor. I had a good job with a steady income, and among all the criticism I received from my AMA, this one was most apparent, that there were just too many little errors to be ignored. I found an editor I enjoyed working with, and whilst she went to work editing book #4, I went to work polishing books 1 & 2, removing the ridiculously heavy foreshadowing I'd done that ruined any opportunity for a surprise. Although those books are still predictable to this day, at least they aren't annoyingly so, and people can enjoy them without heavy foreshadowing beating them in the face. I then moved onto Book #5.

At this point, I realized there was one seriously big problem with my writing. I had roughly zero twists. I decided it was about time I wrote a damned good book, and so poured everything I'd learned into Book #5 whilst also adding in new concepts. I brought my world-building, action, political intrigue, and lack-of-purple-prose, then added in one or two twists and also a small love-story for good measure. I got it edited before I released it this time, and then sent it out to the world.

The response was awesome.

People loved it! And they let me know, too! I was told over and over how they just couldn't put it down, how they didn't see that coming, and how everything they loved before continued to come out in my stories. I felt like I finally did it! I felt like I'd finally wrote a book worthy of a wide audience.

Too bad it was 5 books into a series, though.

However, I wasn't put down much. I loved what fans I had, and I felt good enough about my work (and had enough money) to finally get a cover artist. I paired with a gentlemanly fellow who had the style I was looking for and made great covers for each my books. Up until this point, I'd just had my wife drawing some images by hand, which just weren't cutting it for the audience I wanted to grow.

And then I moved onto Book #6 and took on a new challenge once again: a good ending. Up until this point, I'd never had to worry about that. I always knew the story was moving on, so there was no need to wrap up loose ends. However, for Book #6, I wanted to do something kind of tricky. I wanted to write a story that could both end and leave open the possibilities for others. Although I wanted to write 18 books, I wasn't sure if I was ever going to, because I didn't know if my books would get popular enough for it. Perhaps my talents were better suited to starting a new series rather than continue this old one?

I finished Book #6 and accomplished my task. I brought all my learned skills from before and added another, working on my ending so that it was both open-ended and conclusive in its own way. I received feedback that was equal parts "Ended well, but there has to be more right?" which is what I wanted. I then threw my possibly-last cast of the die. I was strongly considering ending my journey with The World of Myth at Book #6, but wanted to give it one more go to see if people wanted to see more. In 2016, I did another giveaway on Reddit, this time with the complete Emily's Saga, and the response was awesome.

Thousands of downloads, many private messages asking for more, requests to be put on a mailing list, and over 200 ratings on Goodreads plus a good chunk of editing-reimbursement from so many generous people. I felt relieved.

I took a step back and realized I just couldn't stop here. I loved writing this story too much. It was fun, I loved doing it, and this was enough of a response to push on. Although I didn't receive the funds I needed to edit the next books, I decided it was worth it to me.

I pushed onto book #7, and true to form, decided to work on yet another aspect of my writing. I wanted to brush up on my political intrigue, so to speak. I realized that books 1 through 6 heavily relied on lots of action to push the story along and be interesting, and I needed to be able to write non-combat books if I wanted to be a better writer. So I wrote a story with very little action, determined to make it interesting none-the-less. According to my alpha readers, I did okay in this regard, but my action scenes were sorely missed. I took the tip and went back to doing what I did best.

On Book #8, I decided to do something different. I realized that I'd been writing at too slow a pace (roughly 1 book a year), and I really needed to ramp up my speed. I set out to write 2k words per day no matter what. I got about 1/3 of the way through book #8, looked it over and realized I'd done the impossible: I missed my mark.

That first draft of book #8 was terrible. It was boring, unimaginative, no voice, little world-building, lack of character, just bad. At my breakneck pace, I'd lost so much of what made my stories unique, that it was a pain to read. I spent months trying to fix my mistake, but in the end, just deleted the entire thing and started from scratch. So much time wasted, and it took me a whole year to finish the story. But I did, and lesson learned.

So then I went to write book #9, and I still had the same goal. How in the world was I going to write this story fast and yet keep it good? I decided that, for the first time in my career, I needed an outline.

You see, up until this point, I operated with no written outline. Everything that ever was or would be was just in my head, floating around, connected in the web-like confines of my never-idle brain. I simply wrote as the characters would act, and it had worked thus far, but I realized this style had inherent flaws. For one, twists were harder to pull off. For two, I was limited by 'inspiration.' I needed time in between writing sessions to continue producing quality stuff, and that just wasn't going to work at any speed beyond 3k words per week (a terribly slow speed).

So I spent 1 month writing an outline, and then stuck to it. I wrote and edited Book #9 in five months, halving my previous times, and released it to my readers.

According to them, I've finally done it. I kept my previous quality earned from Book #5, and now brought it up to speed to compete on a grander schedule. I feel accomplished as a writer in this moment. I feel glad that I continued this story. I feel like I've finally developed a winning strategy for writing quality stuff at a professional speed.

So here I am, halfway in, 9 books written, and it's about damn time.

Just 9 more to go, and I'm ready to use everything I've learned. Wish me luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment