Mulligans, Market Research, and Masterpieces

A_Wizards_Forge_cover_Text_FINALSecond chances don’t come often. When we’re kids, sometimes generous coaches, teachers, and friends will allow a do-over, but an extra at-bat or stroke at minigolf is the best we can expect.

A decade ago, before the era of indie authors, if a book came out and didn’t do well in the marketplace, the author moved on to new projects. It’s what creative people do: we keep creating, and we keep creating new things.

Yet…not all of us. In 2012-2013, I released a pair of indie fantasy novels called Blade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot. They garnered positive reviews, but didn’t sell many copies. They also languished on a lot of to-be-read lists, and a lot of people never finished the first book, or didn’t pick up and read the second one. I knew in my bones the story was really good, so I was disappointed in the reception. Where did I go wrong, I wondered?

While I was marketing these books, I stumbled across a group of stellar writers and joined their critique group. I paid attention to their feedback, and my skills increased manifold. I also paid attention to the reviews for the two books. Most were positive, but the lukewarm and negative reviews highlighted some weaknesses. Finally, Colleen Aune, whose fiction I love (The Ill-Kept Oath, a Regency-era historical fantasy, will be released this September), offered to read Blade and provide a deep critical review. Her advice, along with the lessons learned from other excellent writers and the virtual focus group feedback from Amazon and Goodreads book reviews, led me to decide to rewrite the series.

The bottom line is, my first two novels weren’t ready for prime time. Before releasing them, I wish I’d had the critical feedback I received after they were on the market. My husband (a songwriter), a filmmaker friend, and others advised me to apply the lessons learned to new projects, but as I said, I knew this story was really good. I also knew I could tell it better.

So, using my virtual market research (the reviews) and my amped up skills as a writer, I took a mulligan. In the past year I’ve powered through a massive rewrite. I also found a publishing partner—Wise Ink Creative Publishing—to help me produce a beautiful, professional-quality book. The cover design by Steven Meyer-Rassow is phenomenal, and a substantive edit by Amanda Rutter has brought the narrative quality to a first-class level. A Wizard’s Forge, Book One of The Woern Saga, will be released September 2016.

In the meantime, I’d like to share two key lessons I learned about pacing and point of view (POV) characters.

1. Pacing.

Blade of Amber was a hefty 175,000 words, which made the printed book almost 400 pages (in a large trim size with small type). Common wisdom recommends novels be about 100,000 words, which typically puts the book size under 250 pages (depending on trim size and layout density, which dramatically affect page count). Being a fan of long epic fantasies, I scoffed at the idea that a big word count would deter readers, and I still don’t believe that buyers—especially ebook buyers, who have no sense of a book’s doorstop-ability—pay attention to book length when making a purchase. If the story holds their attention, they’ll read it.

But there’s the rub. The story must hold readers’ attention, and Blade failed to hold too many readers. Several friends and family members tried it and stopped reading before the halfway point. By swallowing my pride and asking those who gave up, I discovered why, and then I got to work. I crafted some guidelines for myself, and by following them, I cut the word count down to 120K without losing any story. In fact, A Wizard’s Forge contains many new scenes showing events occurring off-stage in the original version, and it’s still almost 50% shorter than Blade of Amber.

  • Rule 1.1. Something relevant should happen in every scene. Put another way, every scene should advance the plot. There doesn’t have to be a battle or hair-raising escape in every chapter, but each event should connect to other events in the book. World building, character development, scene setting—these are all important, but they must be done in the context of plot. For example, Blade contains a banquet scene where the characters are told an interesting story about their world. However, the story has nothing to do with the plot, and nothing else happens at the banquet that affects the plot either. That scene had to go—getting rid of it also helped me address a few major plausibility issues, so there was a dual benefit.
    • Rule 1.1.1. Dialogue should advance the plot. Characters sitting around and shooting the shit might be fun to write, but readers won’t necessarily find it fun to read. Banter should convey crucial information, not colorful but irrelevant anecdotes. Real life discussions about dirty underpants are boring; don’t make readers read them, unless underpants directly relate to the plot.
    • Rule 1.1.2. No important event should occur offstage. If something happens to a POV character that has bearing on the narrative, that event should be in the book. In Blade and in Wizard’s Forge, the queen gives Victoria, the protagonist, a bronze dagger forged from a belt Vic had been forced to wear while held captive by the queen’s enemy. The dagger symbolizes Vic’s quest for vengeance and freedom—the driver of the plot—and this talisman features strongly in the book’s climax. Yet in Blade, there’s only a passing reference to an offstage event in which Vic gives the queen the belt—the symbol of her captivity—in thanks for granting her asylum. In A Wizard’s Forge, I wrote that offstage event into the book. Now we see Vic give the queen the belt, and when the queen returns the same item—recast as a dagger Vic can use to exact vengeance—the exchange has much greater impact.
  • Rule 1.2. Avoid redundancy and superfluous information. When I embarked on the rewrite and cast a very critical eye over my prose, I lost count of how many times I found two or more sentences repeating the same information. Simply confining each thought to a single sentence saved me tens of thousands of words. Secondly, I gave an overwhelming amount of information about things that weren’t relevant to the plot (see Rule 1), and cutting extraneous detail also saved hugely on my word count. Here’s an excerpt from the same scene in the first chapter of both books. The new version is 44% shorter but conveys the same information:

Blade of Amber (252 words)

As Vic blushed, Martha smiled and patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, dear. Pretty’s a common thing.”

Vic blinked. “My father always says that.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Wise man.”

After she dressed, Vic learned that the villagers weren’t out just to take advantage of the daylight. The tide would ebb that night well beyond the usual low, stranding shellfish galore. Martha explained this as they walked down past the boat moorings. All the boats tilted on their sides now in the sand, the masts’ shadows slanting across the beach to kiss the base of the cliff.

“You see, we all run out to the waterline and the men scoop up all the crabs and mussels they can while the women run behind and catch the men’s catch in their skirts. See?” She formed a scoop. “We’ll have to find a partner for you, though. Do they have fish scoops in Ourtown?”

Vic shook her head. “Sounds fun, though.”

Martha giggled and joined her husband. They jabbered at each other a bit, then Martha waved Vic over. “Justin will find you a partner. Just follow him.”

Smiling at Vic, Justin grumbled under his breath as he led her through the gathering crowd.

“I had no idea so many people lived in this village,” Vic said.

“Oh, they’ve come from all over for the fish scoop.” As if to confirm his words, a child Vic remembered from Melbourne darted past.

“You there,” Justin tapped a black-haired man on the shoulder. “Samson, you got a partner?”

 

A Wizard’s Forge (163 words)

Vic blushed, and the woman smiled. “Don’t worry, dear. Pretty’s a common thing.”

“My father always says that.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Wise man. Now hurry and dress—you’ve arrived just in time for the Solstice Scoop!”

At the shoreline, boats tilted on their sides in the sand, shadows slanting across the beach to kiss the base of the cliff.

“While the tide’s out,” the innkeeper explained, holding her apron in the shape of a basket, “we all run out to the waterline and the men scoop up crabs and mussels while the women run behind and catch them in their skirts. Do they have Scoops in Ourtown?”

Vic shook her head.

The innkeepers whispered at each other, then the woman turned to Vic. “Go with Justin and he’ll find you a partner.”

Smiling wanly, the husband grumbled under his breath as he led her through the gathering crowd. “You there.” He tapped a black-haired man on the shoulder. “Samson, you got a partner?”

2. POVs.

The POV characters make or break a novel. They tell the story, and if their experience isn’t compelling, the book will fail. My market research told me people loved Vic. She’s not actually a likeable character—she’s an arrogant, unforgiving hardass—but I put effort into going deep into her thoughts and emotions so readers would empathize with her struggles, and I know I succeeded based on reader feedback. But my other POV characters had some problems. Once again, I had to follow some rules in the rewrite.

  • Rule 2.1. Every POV character should have a narrative arc. Throwing in a new or solo POV late in the book is lazy storytelling, and I’m guilty: Blade of Amber contained several solo POV scenes or chapters from supporting characters in the second and third acts. I deleted all of these scenes from A Wizard’s Forge and wove the plot-crucial information back into the book within the context of my main characters’ (MCs’) chapters. Now all the MCs experience change over the course of the book and also learn vital information along with the reader. The resulting narrative is far more compelling.
  • Rule 2.2. POV characters must emote to be sympathetic. Prince Ashel, Vic’s romantic interest, is handsome, brave, talented, and kind. I gave him every characteristic I like in a man, and in my mind, falling in love with him was as natural as breathing. Yet my virtual focus group did not love him. Few reviewers mentioned him, and those who did said he was weak and not worthy of Vic. No author wants to hear that reaction to her romantic lead! I realized that the Ashel who lived in my head was a completely different person from the one appearing in my prose. Far from being weak, Ashel is the strongest, most resilient person in the series. He undergoes tremendous suffering and retains his honor, his commitment to his family, and his love for Vic. Yet, I’d failed to show this. Doing so meant overhauling nearly every one of his scenes as well as adding several new ones. I had to get deep into his head, expose his thoughts, his insecurities, and the complexity of his emotions so that readers would want Vic to fall for him.

Here again are two comparison scenes that show some changes made, in this case switching Vic and Ashel’s “first date” into his rather than her POV, which allowed me to explore his attraction for her in a deeper way. Meanwhile, by switching the scene out of Vic’s POV, I avoided rehashing thoughts and feelings already covered in detail elsewhere (see Rule 1.2).

Blade of Amber (Vic’s POV)

Her shoulders began to shake, her hands covering her face on their own. This man loved music, gambling, fun. She was his sister’s friend, and he had never offered her more than cordial, lighthearted courtesy. They had never crossed the boundary marking the intimacy of truth. Embarrassed, she didn’t want to cry in front of him, but as she tried to swallow the tears, they spilled out. Helpless to explain them, she released her story with them. It came out jumbled—her sickness at Winterquarters, her discovery that Geram was a Listener assigned to spy on her, how she teased him at the Relman camp, Henrik giving her the crystal dagger as a medal, that Lornk survived. Moving his chair closer, Ashel patted her shoulder, asked her leading questions calmly, until she finally told him that she had stabbed the Relmlord. “Why didn’t I kill him?” she asked at last, looking up at him. “I’ve killed hundreds of people, and every time, I imagined they were him. Why couldn’t I actually kill him when I had the chance?”

“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “I wish—”

“And I was so, so hysterical. Geram was right, I should have been rejoicing when I thought he was dead. I hate him, Ashel. No one could ever understand how much.”

“Mother.” His hand, hovering for a moment by her hair, came to rest on her fist. “Mother hates him that much. You should go see her.”

“Ugh,” sniffing, she wiped her eyes. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

He drew back a little, his chair squeaking on the polished floor. “Even I’ll admit she gives good advice, sometimes. She told you to go into the army, right? I thought that was a big mistake, but now you’re famous. Laelin even wrote a song about you—‘Exploits of the Blade.’”

 

A Wizard’s Forge (Ashel’s POV)

Her shoulders began to shake, her hands covering shimmering eyes. She struggled to master herself, but tears spilled past her fingers. “Every day since we found Silla, tasting his blood was all I thought about. I imagined myself dancing on his corpse. And instead I folded up and wanted to die.”

Ashel’s heart stuttered. The conversation had veered into a place far beyond his ken—Guild politics and Heralds’ gossip were the worst problems he ever faced. His mind raced through excuses to go back downstairs. But you asked, he chided himself. Swallowing the exit lines, he sat still as a jumbled narrative spilled out: an illness at Winterquarters, an unexpected camaraderie with someone assigned to spy on her, an undeserved medal for bravery. Her story, confused and agonized, netted his sympathy and pulled him into an intimacy of truth. As he crossed the threshold, his breath came easier and his heart beat freely again. He moved his chair closer, patted her hand, asked questions in the same level tone he used with apprentices frustrated over a complex piece of music, leading her to pull the threads together.

Finally she revealed the heart of the tale: she had stabbed but failed to kill the Relmlord. “Why couldn’t I?” she asked, meeting his gaze with bright green eyes. “I’ve killed hundreds of people, and every time, I imagined they were him. Why couldn’t I actually kill him when I had the chance?”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I wish—”

“And I was so, so hysterical. Geram was right, I should have been rejoicing when I thought he was dead. I hate him, Ashel. No one could ever understand how much.”

“Mother.” He reached toward a loop of bright hair, but put his hand over her fist instead. “Mother hates him that much. You should go see her.”

“Ugh.” She wiped her eyes. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

He drew back, his chair squeaking on the polished floor. “Even I’ll admit she gives good advice sometimes. She told you to go into the army. I thought that was a mistake, but now you’re famous. Laelin even wrote a song about you: ‘Exploits of the Blade.’”

 

Leafpainting

Lizzie Harper. Botanical Illustration – Tips on painting sketchbook-style studies of leaves – May 4, 2013

Did I create a masterpiece when I rewrote my flawed first novel? My good girl upbringing simply won’t let me make that claim, but I’m proud of A Wizard’s Forge in a way I never was of Blade of Amber. I knew Blade’s story was good, but I also knew the telling of it was flawed. In a post last year on the Guild of Dreams, I likened my decision to rewrite to J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Every artist is always striving to paint that one perfect leaf. I know I’ve come a lot closer to it now.

 

Update: A Wizard’s Forge will be released September 19, 2016. You can preorder a digital copy on Amazon.

 

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3 thoughts on “Mulligans, Market Research, and Masterpieces

  1. Relevant reading for me. I think my book, “Fealty to the King” has a good story, but I have readers who are giving up on it. I did cut the length from 150K to 115K before publishing (with Wise Ink). I would like to have a mulligan, at least 4000 more words could go, but probably not happening.

  2. There’s also the idea of moving forward and applying these lessons to your next project, as MOST of my writer friends encouraged me to do. Sometimes the stories inside us have to be told, though, so I totally get your predicament.

  3. Pingback: Somebody Is Reading My Book! | AM Justice

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