A father walks the road alone, his son at his side, as they seek the next meal, either given through kindness, or by the blood shed by his blade. Kozure Ōkami, or Lone Wolf and Cub, long ago entered in the public psyche from the Manga comic of that name in the 1970s. It tells the story of an assassin who suffers the fallout of shifts in power in the underworld, and is forced to a life on the road. Like many manga before and after, it is a story built upon vignettes, as they move from place to place, and the father and his son challenge all takers. Sound familiar? The Mandalorian on the Disney+ stream service makes no excuses that Mando and the Child are based on this story. The image of Mando walking down a road with the Child hovering next to him is reminiscent of Lone Wolf pushing the cart that holds his child, and the many hidden compartments containing his weapons of trade.

There are a couple other cultural references to Lone Wolf and Cub that are either less known, or have disappeared from current memory. The first is from my own favorite comic, Usagi Yojimbo. In the series the reoccurring character Lone Goat and Kid fulfill the same role. Miyamoto Usagi finds himself at odds with Lone Goat, since the assassin has only known betrayal, but when Usagi has to act as guardian to the Kid, the tables turn. 

The second, is the comic turned movie, Road to Perdition. This high octane cast, including Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law is a masterful adaptation that I felt captured the relationship of the father and son perfectly. It is a terrible tragedy of a story that will settle an ennui upon the shoulders of anyone who watches it. I cannot recommend all of the above enough.

I cannot deny my influences. At times they are readily intentional. When I wrote Thrice, having succeeded at already writing a story that I felt escaped my past, I challenged myself to a new story, where I would lean on my past, as well as my present. I had at the the time a four year old boy, and realized the wisdom, and vocabulary often made too much like a toddler in works of fiction. I wanted to capture the story of a man and the boy in his care, on the road, against all odds. And thus, I set about to tell my own story. It would borrow from Lone Wolf and Cub the theme of survival against an underworld bent on separating the two. Yet, Jovan has no connection to the Underworld himself. And unlike the usually very quiet child, I wanted to make sure that Leaf, the boy traveling with Jovan, had a personality, and was given the opportunity to grow. I would like to hope that I’ve done a story like this justice, if only as a means to work through my own road as a father to a bright little boy.

You can find debut novel, Thrice, here:

In recent years many an agent or book editor has shunned the “Secondary World Fantasy”  often associated with “yet another Fantasy set in Medieval Europe,” (All the while publishing scores of the stuff.) But their argument has some validity. They wanted some “newness.” We’ve seen in recent years a score of new sub-genres appear and shoulder some space for themselves alongside the Secondary World Fantasy, and we’re the better for it. R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War brought an already growing and flourishing East Asian influenced Fantasy to the forefront. Evan Winter’s Rage of Dragons was the answer to the question on everyone’s tongues after the popularity of the Movie Black Panther—When will we start to see more Afro-Centric sci-fi and fantasy? Please note, that Rage of Dragons was actually released before Black Panther, so he had already asked the question. And NK Jemisin had already been very active as an author. It was Black Panther entering popular culture that brought attention to the genre, and opened the door for it to flourish. 

When I set about to write Thrice, it was done so with a series of several challenges that I set for myself. I wanted a shorter book, rather than an epic. I wanted to capture the spirit of a popular plot theme (Lone Wolf and Cub), and I wanted to avoid an obvious Secondary World. So I looked to what I felt might also be on the rise, and fell within a vein I could do justice to, even if I myself was not of the culture. In this I found there was a another sub-genre of fantasy that had slowly been gaining traction—Slavic Fantasy.

We’ve rarely been without this sub-genre, but they were anomalies, from C.J. Cherryh Chernevog and Patricia A. McKillip’s In the Forest of Serre, but these have been anomalies. In the most recent years The Witcher has gained popularity from the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. From his books we’ve seen a very successful video game series, and now a mainstream television show on Netflix. Yet, even these books come not from recent years, but 1993 and on.

The more recent influx of popularity could more easily be attributed to the books of Naomi Novik, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. Set in a Slavic/Eastern European setting, as I began research work on Thrice, Uprooted was everyone’s must read book.

A Slavic Fantasy fit the bill. It could have deep emotions, brutal people, and strange creatures not seen in most fantasy settings. It was what I was looking for. And so, that was added to my list of goals—fold Slavic and Eastern European themes into the book. It’s interesting this hasn’t been done more often. Afterall, look at a map of Europe. What we westerners consider Europe (England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Scandinavian Peninsulas,) these account for barely a third of what is actually Europe. As more writers start to realize this, I expect we’ll see more novels set in these rich Eastern European cultures, taking not a sharp left from the Secondary World Fantasies of the past four decades, but instead, a step to the left and into the mysterious world of Eastern Europe, we’ll all be the better for it.

When I wrote those five short stories I mentioned in my last post, I inadvertently discovered something about myself. I tend to switch beats every thousand words. Admittedly, a story beat is vague terminology. (And I think it is entirely different for every writer.) Those with history in the theater will say a beat is a “scene change” and a scene change is not designated by the script, but by when a new character enters, or exits—it occurs when the environment shifts. Other designations might be “when an answer to a question occurs.” I base my own “Beats” on “Something that can be written out in a Bullet.” And that bullet has to be something defining. Take the following beats of chapter one of my upcoming novel, Thrice.

  • Jovan beats man senseless
  • Jovan escorted to holding cell to await judgement.
  • Jovan confronts Medicae who didn’t save his sisters life.

The above chapter is 3000 words long. And each of those beats take up about 1000 words of the chapter. It has three beats.

I mentioned those short stories. They were each seven thousand words long. And each had seven beats, or turns. When I discover this, I was then able to better outline the novel I was ramping myself up for. I also discovered that my chapter lengths in long form (in this case epic fantasy) tended to run between 3500-5000 a chapter. (5000 word chapters were rare, and often edited down. But they too had 1000 word beats.)

Because of this, I was then able to look back and map out the total beats of that first draft I had written. I looked at which beats counted as “conflict” such as a fight, argument, or some other form of tension. In doing so, I also noticed where my story was lagging. Adding in a beat of tension to a few chapters where I felt more was needed, was easier to do.

I discovered I could go a step further. When I set about to challenge myself with the writing of Thrice, I made the conscious decision to write it as a much faster paced book than the Epic I had completed. I wanted a book that sat on the shortest edges of fantasy (70k words) that was paced more like a commercial beach read, like Dresden Files, or a suspense novel. This meant I had to challenge myself to write shorter chapters. I was going to write chapters that averaged 2500 words. And what did I find? By choosing to write shorter, I tended to be more concise. When I got long winded in a chapter, it might push up against 3500 words. And each beat still sat about 1000 words total. This meant I was able to create two long beats, and one short “drop” at the end of each chapter that kept the pacing of the book falling forward. 

Now, why are these beats so important? For one, if you can chart your own beats, you can better outline your work. It helps you plan out how things will go down, and helps you look at the story from a birds eye view and better break down where your story is lacking. The second reason is as a means of keeping your readers interested. With my 2500 worked chapters ,with a short “drop” at the end, chances are, I’m going to hold the attention of a reader. After two beats, they might say “I could put a bookmark in the book now and comeback later.” But then they leaf a couple pages to discover they’re only five minutes from finishing the chapter? They’re probably going to go that far, at least. I’d love for them to keep reading, but even if they stop, it’s much easier to pick a book back up and start at the top of a chapter. And if they forgot their bookmark, they can find the chapter by memory. 

So, what kind of beats do you write in? And how long are they? Look at the first few chapters of your latest draft, and chart out the beats. Write those beats out in bullet form on a sheet of paper. Then get out some color pencils. Highlight those what have tension, or even full conflict with various colors. Does your chapter one or two not have any? If your readers who have given you feedback, have felt the first three chapters didn’t hold their interest like they should, where do you feel could be the best spot to drop a beat in to pick it up? This week, save a draft of your novel, and try to put a beat or two into the work that perhaps wasn’t there before, and then read those chapters, and see if that helped. Let me know in the comments how that went, and how you like to measure your beats. 

~ Andrew