We have Netflix to thank for a very important style of storytelling. It had already been around in some shows, such as Firefly, or some of the crime dramas, but Netflix is what has made it mainstream—the bingeable episodic story. As I mentioned, it was already around. Take the graphic Novel. A Graphic Novel might be a twice yearly release of a comic book, compiling six months worth of stories into one place, but aren’t we all thankful to be able to sit and read a perfect bound story in one sitting? Each episode/comic might be standalone, but you knew when you bought it, that there would be a cohesive arc across the entire Graphic Novel. 

Until Netflix, the vast majority of shows suffered under the burden of needing to capture the attention of their audience each and every week. Every episode of Star Trek needed to ensure if this was the ONLY episode you watched, you wouldn’t be lost and you’d know who each and every character was. Not any more. Take the Netflix Original series for the Marvel Knights such as Daredevil and Luke Cage. If you were young enough to pull it off, you could watch the entire season in one night. I was thankful each broke down into two separate arcs under the umbrella of a single story that would tie it all in together at the end. They took lessons from Graphic Novel storytelling, and told a full year of stories told in a single season. They could take their time with an episode in the middle with a ton of exposition, because they knew they had your attention, and you wouldn’t be at that episode without having watched the others. You were in the middle of your binge, and perhaps needed an escape from the excitement, (or relief from the adrenaline rush of the Hallway Scene in Daredevil Season 1, Ep. 2.)

Why do I bring all this up? Because of this, we now have “permission” to  use the same storytelling form. A novel can be episodic like the Netflix series, or the graphic novel. It was a form of storytelling I wanted to employ in Thrice. “If I was directing this book as a show, how would I break this down?” And so I kept that in mind when I outlined the book. Of course, rules and plans like this don’t always go according to the plan. But analyzing stories, and making plans are important, just as Sun Tzu said, (paraphrase) “Always make a plan, even though it will fall apart as soon as you get to the battlefield. But it’s the margin of the plan that prepares your mind for the battle.” Having a structural plan for my outline was important to me, and would provide the skeleton for the flesh of my outline to sit upon. And I’d like to think it’s the better for it, after these two and a half years of work I’ve put into it. 

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.

Often people talk of the regrets of their past. I think there are things you can validly regret such as poor decisions that lead to consequences later on. But many regrets are fairly pointless. I think these regrets are much more of an envy. “If only I had been richer,” “If only I had the courage back then to go after that job.” I say all this as I admit one of my own, “If only I had been a more well-rounded reader.” I shouldn’t be regretful of that, but I am. I look back at the limited books I read in my childhood, and worry that my writing is influenced by too few books. But the fact is, I can’t change that. And I am grateful for who I am today. Part of who I am is what influences me from my past. If I had not been who I was then the book reading binge I went on in my mid-twenties would not have occurred at the point in time that it did, and I wouldn’t have those particular influences to draw from. If I had not gone on that particular reading binge the winter of 2009, I would not have been situated to start the path of reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy in 2010, which provided me the “hope” I needed that Fantasy had not taken a turn for the worst. (It was an incorrect assumption I had made at the time. But one I had made, nonetheless.)

There are most certainly influences of my own reading life that have gone into the writing of Thrice. My two biggest influences from the 90s were the reading of David Eddings and Robin Hobb. From Eddings I learned about characters who can, while remaining fairly unchanged, be endearing, and from Hobb, characters who are real, and grow, and live, and die. As I looked back at my influences and examined “where I came from” at a writer, I also had to look critically as those influences. I was a pretty big fan of the Belgariad and its respective sequels and prequels, but I was never able to get into the other books by Eddings? Why? I felt he was repeating himself and reusing the same characters. To wit, there was a statement he made about his work, in which he avoided reading other books in the Fantasy Genre, in fear that they would influence his writing. I believe this is why he repeated his characters. He was running the same circle over and over again, and never allowing his own writing to develop. It was a lesson I learned about what not to to do in my own writing. (Perhaps someday I’ll write a post going into this in more detail, as I strongly disagree with Eddings on this philosophy.)

Don’t get me wrong. There are reasons not to read some authors for the fear of what it might do to your writing. I very much want to read books by Terry Prachett. But the one book I did start was while I was drafting a book, and the influence Prachett suddenly had on my work was jarring. My characters began speaking in witty repartee that wasn’t true to form. I had to scrap an entire day’s worth of work. There are other authors I intentionally read in order to gain their influence. When I am editing, I try to listen to PG Wodehouse. His elevated English vocabulary starts bleeding into mine, and my edits improve in quality. And because he’s writing in an entirely different genre, I don’t have to worry about it influencing my character’s and their interactions. (No worries here that Jovan will start looking at the stars and describing them as “God’s daisy chains.”)

Who are your influences? Which ones do you happy accept as part of your past? Which pieces of writing do you find you need to “outgrow?” I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

The best piece of professional advise I every received was this:

An amateur waits for inspiration. A professional gets up every day and goes to work. 

I think about it often, and what it implies. An amateur might be a genius. A flash of inspiration might mean he makes something amazing. If you compare and contrast to the uninspired doodles this amateur does waiting for inspiration to the amazing works they do under muse’s goading, you are probably looking at doodles with a scale of 2 (out of 10), and when they are suddenly inspired, their works are a 6. Pretty impressive jump, right? 

But look at the Professional. That graphic artist who “sold out” and makes logos for Coca Cola. They’re paid good money. And every day they go to work to grind out their art. Practicing their craft. Honing it. Strengthening it. Slowly but surely increasing their baseline level of quality to a 4, or even a 5. Again, this is impressive. Their baseline is a 5. And they get paid for it! Then, inspiration strikes. And that professional suddenly jumps by the same value that the Amateur did. The Professional looks down and has created a work of art bordering on a 9 or 10. That professional’s body of work has been leading to this point. They ride that wave. They maintain that inspiration for longer. They don’t wear out the way the amateur did. And all because they got up every morning and went to work. 

As artists (which as writers, that’s what we are,) we will always struggle to find time to work. Even professional authors have this trouble. But what is the secret? Showing up. You will not find time to write. You have to make the time. You might say “but I just can’t. I have too much going on.” That’s fine. That is your priority right now. But if you want writing to be a priority, then you need to make the time. You need to choose to go down into your Workshop, and write. There is only one person that can make that happen. You. 

Take your time working through the building your workshop. And then go down and work in it. I’ll leave you now with my own “trite” bit of advice, from the philosopher Shia LaBouf. “Just Do IT!”

Are you a morning person? Or a night owl? Does your job work your creative mind? Or is it mindless? I held a retail job for four years that did not engage my mind the way that writing did. Because of this, I found I needed creative outlet in the evening, and could write until the wee-hours of the night. When the second child came, the sleep I was losing holding babies doubled, and I found I could no longer stay up very late. But, the need for creative outlet was still very strong, and I found myself going to bed early, and waking early. Many sleep cycle shifted entirely. I got up the hour before the rest of the family and wrote for one hour. It wasn’t enough. But this was a good thing. It got my juices flowing, and by the time a break rolled around at work, I found that I HAD to spend the hour lunch break writing. And lo and behold, a second hour of work. I was writing about 500 words an hour at the time, so two hours of work often meant I wasn’t finishing a chapter in that time. Often I would write a chapter every two days. However, you do the math, that meant I only had about 2000 words. Where did the least 1500 words come from? The need to finish what I started. After dinner and after the kids went to sleep, an extra hour of work found it’s way in every few days, and I was off to the races. Let’s speed forward to now. 

The job I currently have is mentally exhausting. Add to this the kids are older and demand attention I’m happy to give them. Plus, we’re all locked at home with Covid-Restrictions. And here I am, sitting on the couch at 5am, writing. My sleep schedule shifted once again. I absolutely cannot write after dinner. My brain is fried from work, home, and the loneliness of 2020 (so that means few evenings I can get away to hang out with friends and do some gaming.) Thus, my outlet is jumping out of bed and writing for two hours before the rest of my house wakes up.

We all have different schedules. We might have a long commute in a car, or a bus. We might have no commute but suffer insomnia (Brandon Sanderson has worked his extreme insomnia into an asset. He writes from 10pm until 6am every day, sleeps the morning away, and then spends the afternoon with his family. If you ever wondered why he was so prolific, imagine the uninterrupted writing time he has in the wee hours.)

You know your schedule. And only you can designate what works best for you. That might be a random writing time. Or it might be designated. It might be that you need to start practicing dictating your first drafts, since we have better technology today than we did a couple years ago.

In the end, you need to find out that best time to write that works for you, and note it down. Your writing is living in your mind rent free if you don’t find the time to put pen to paper. So, it might be time to start looking for that time.

~ Andrew

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

What are your goals? Have you set any benchmarks you want to reach?

“Of course I have. I want to write a book.”

Ok. That’s your goal? You can do better than that. When do you want that first draft done by? When do you want to have that short story ready for submission to a short-story publication? How long do you expect this piece of work will be? 

Goals are daunting. I get it. But if you’re serious about the craft of writing, you’re going to have to set some goals. Even a hobby wood-worker is going to set some goals. “I want to build a rocking horse for my grandson.” “I’m going to build a cabinet.” Those are good goals. They aren’t general “I’m going to do woodwork.” They have the beginning of a plan, and can start the process. That same wood-worker may inform his wife “I’ll be working in the woodworking shop every Saturday from 9am-noon. He does this, and begins to produce. Maybe it’s drafting, or cleaning and sharpening saws and hammers, but he is dedicating that time to his goal.

Some authors set themselves a word count goal. I do that. Although I tend to look at a week at a time. If I am “on a roll” I might set a high goal of 5-10k words for the week. This sounds daunting, but when you take into consideration that once I start writing I can put out 1000-1500 an hour? 5000 is reachable in a couple morning of work. Even if I’m struggling I can probably hit that low weekly goal. But it took me four years of writing to get to that word count goal as a normal standard. I did it by starting small. 

When I started out, I started by setting a goal of 500 words a day. When I was on a roll, I upped that goal to 1000 a day. Here’s the thing: Anyone can write 500 words a day. Chances are you text that many words a day to friends and family (not to include emails you send at work.) But the secret is this: if you write 500 words, chances are you will not have finished your “thought.” You’ll probably keep going. If those 500 words a day are a struggle to get out at times, that’s alright. Because you still hit your goal, and also probably got through a particularly hard-to-write passage. I have a character I write who always turns out well in the end, but she is not based on any part of my own personality. She’s difficult to write. Often, I have trouble even getting through five hundred words in her story, when I can, in the same time, write 2000 words in someone else’s Point-of-View. But every time I go back and edit and work on her passages, it works well, and my readers say the same. The short goal of 500 words lets you look back and say “At least I got my 500 words in. At least I wrote.”

If you wrote 500 words a day, five days a week for a year, you’d have a 130,000 word body of work. That 100K word novel you’re working on? You can do it. 

What goals have you set for yourself? Do word count goals seem daunting? What other goals can you set yourself that are equivalent?

~ Andrew

February 22nd, 2021

It’s a piece of writing advise that often rankles me. An author is asked “What is the best advice you can give a new writer?” And they give the trite answer: Find what works best for you. 

Why does it bother me? Because it doesn’t help a writer. It tosses them into the pool, when they were asking how to learn to doggy-paddle. I’d like to take the next several posts to delve into what this question is asking, and the intention behind the trite answer given far too often, and then we’ll look at ways of actually putting that “advice” into practice. 

To start, the question, while trite, is the answer. As a writer you DO need to find out what works best for you. But what does that even mean?

To get there, I’d like to break down three main aspects that go into being a writer.

Method – Your method is your means to putting words down on the page. It is the make up of tools you have at your disposal, through which your writing is conveyed. In a future series we’ll be looking at Writer Types/Spectrums, which delve into this. They are the tool bench by which you’ll craft your piece.

Voice – Your voice is the style by which you are noticed. There are a handful of artists that I know at a glance. Adrian Smith has a very evocative artistic style/voice. I can look at his early work now and see how his style has always been there, even as it has developed into a much more mature version of what it once was back in 1997 to today. Other “voices” and styles are emulated. You might say a writer is “very Hemingway” or has the lackadaisical voice of PG Wodehouse. A voice is your own flourishing touch to your work. The longer you’ve written for, the more defined it becomes.

Practice – Your Practice is your Workshop. What is the best time of day for you to write? Are you regimented? Or do you find flurries of energy to write for a week, in sprints and pushes, only to burn out and wait for the next burst? If your Method is your self of tools and your Voice your flourish, then the Practice is your Workshop. It is how and where you go to do your writing. I believe that is where the advice of “find what works best for you” falls. If you can develop your practice—your ability to sit down and write—the Method and Voice will finally have a place to grow. If you don’t write, then you’re just a theoretical writer. Finding that space, and setting it aside is what will allow you to grow. 

Let’s take a look at Best Practices for yourself, and see where the road leads us. 

~Andrew