Novel: The end. Also, the beginning.

There came a point in my novel writing last week when not only I knew that I was getting near the end of the book, but it clicked in my head how everything was going to wrap up. Once that happened, I was full steam ahead, surpassing my daily quota of 1,000 words for much more. I wanted to see it done. I wanted to cross that finish line with my arms held high in triumph. Maybe that’s what happens in a marathon when you see the end come in sight — you get that extra burst of speed and power.

Last Wednesday night, my wife shooed me out the door for some peace and quiet to do it justice. So I got dinner, drove to a quiet place near some trees, rolled down the windows, and just wrote. After two hours, I got to write those magical words — “The End” — and took the above picture to mark the occasion.

I won’t lie. I really thought I’d have more of a strong emotional reaction, but instead there was just… deep satisfaction. I wasn’t writing this to get it over and done with, I was writing it because I had a story to tell and it was FUN to write it. Every day over four months (only missing two days in the process), I came to that screen and wondered what would happen next. Sometimes I knew. Sometimes I thought I knew, but the characters went a different way. Sometimes it was silly or sad or clever or dumb. In a way, it was like I was slowly reading this book as I was also writing it.

Compared to my previous novellas, this novel feels more mature. Not in its subject matter, but in the style of its writing. It’s just more complete, more competent, and more something that I would actually like to read if someone else wrote it. I recently went back to re-read one of my NaNoWriMo novellas, and I couldn’t get past the first chapter, it was such a mess.

So what’s this book? What am I ready to share about it?

I wanted to stay quiet about the specifics while I wrote it because I didn’t want any feedback or comments. It was mine and it was fragile and in development. But now I think I can open up to share this much.

The novel is called The Wonderlust Journal, and it takes place in a fantasy world where the land has started to knit itself back together after a previous apocalypse of some sort. The title refers to a widespread quarterly newspaper that serves to connect the people of this world and their stories together. It’s now the most popular publication in the world, and the lead character is a low-level roving reporter who is secretly hunting down a big story in order to make a name for himself (among other things). He’s a bit of a dork but he’s clever and determined, and that makes for a good mix.

There’s very, very little fighting in it. No assassins. One dead dragon. A most unusual marriage. What ended up surprising me is how… normal this fantasy world ended up being. “Normal” in the sense that it wasn’t as high fantasy as I had originally intended, nor as gritty and grimdark as the genre is going these days. It’s got likable people, some weird twists, a rivalry, and a coming-of-age tale of sorts. No matter what, I tried to put at least one new and interesting development or insight into each chapter to keep the filler down.

Since announcing the end of this first draft, I’ve had some people on Twitter and Facebook ask me what I’m doing next. Originally I wrote this to see what it would be. I had no idea if it would just be for me or if I’d try to get it out there. Now that it’s done, I think it might be good enough to share with a wider audience.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, so my immediate plan was to take a week off from working on this, and then to start the second draft. I really need to go back through this whole book and smooth it out, improve the language and flow, add more dialogue, and most importantly, retcon some characters and other things so that they’d match what I ended up writing. I have about four main characters and I need to work on bringing out each of their personality traits and unique characteristics more.

My goal now is to revise one chapter a day for 35 days (since there are 35 chapters).

Then? I’m going to try to find beta readers. I don’t know what the process is there, but I need some eyes on this to give me feedback, find obvious flaws, and to let me know what they think without trying to butter me up. Once I get that feedback, I’ll go back for a third draft.

That will probably take me to the end of summer or beyond. It’s not a quick thing. If I get it really polished and decent and people tell me if it’s good enough to print, then I’ll start looking for an agent or into self-publishing options. This is all very new to me, obviously, and I want to do it right.

After that… another book. I have a sequel to The Wonderlust Journal in mind, but there’s also a different idea that I’d like to hack out one of these days, so I’m deliberating between those.

Anyway, thank you to everyone for encouragement for a project that you can neither see nor read right now. Worst comes to worst, I’ll just post this sucker somewhere if nobody wants to publish it, and anyone who’s interested can read it.

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Novel: But is it GOOD?

The day that I write this, I have crossed the 75,000 word mark on my fantasy novel. I’ve been writing it since early March, springing out of an idea that became the first couple of chapters that became part of my daily routine. Rain or shine, cruddy day or happy one, busy or laid back, I make it an ironclad goal to get in 1,000 new words.

Some days that means just fitting it in during my lunch break. Other days, I’m writing feverishly before I fall asleep or lugging my little Chromebook around while hauling the kids here and there. I’ve written two paragraphs while standing at the checkout counter waiting for a hairstylist to ring me out. I’ve endured a few questioning looks at my kid’s swim class when people saw “CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE” pop up on my screen.

It’s been a bizarre, breathtaking, and incredible experience so far. I never really thought, outside of NaNoWriMo, that I would actually write a book… but here I am. I have never, ever written a single piece of fiction this long. I’m on the edge of my seat, worried and wondering if I’ll be able to land the whole story in the next month as I aim for 100,000 words.

I haven’t shown anyone it yet. My wife has been remarkably patient considering how much curiosity she’s had over this novel, but perhaps she’s just glad I’m writing. After all, she’s been encouraging me to write books for years now. My daughter, the reader, is the most interested and keeps trying to sneak peeks at my screen. Not yet, I say. Wait until it’s done.

I’m having a great time doing it. I’m proud, in the good-kind-of-proud way, of what’s come out of me. Compared to my previous attempts at fiction, this one actually has more structure, flows better, and isn’t a mad-dash scramble to come up with crazy scenarios. Every day when I sit down to write, I honestly don’t know where the story is going to go. Oh, I have a general idea, but so very often the tale takes a turn away from me because it’s what needs to happen. It’s what the characters would do. I don’t fight it or force it, I just go with it and continue to ride the wave while guiding it in a loose way. I’ve been surprised countless times at what has happened — how a throwaway character became one of my main cast, how this fictional world has taken shape, how loose plot threads were resolved.

But while the experience of writing it is quite ducky, I’m gnawing off my fingernails because I can’t stop asking the question, “Is it good?” I think so? But I’m both too close to the material and too hard on myself. I hope it’s good. It’s not Tolkien or Martin or anywhere near the level of popular fiction writers today. There are many rough spots that need smoothing and reworking. I’m going to plan for at least two rounds of revisions before I even think about showing it to others.

I hope it’s good. I would love to entertain others as much as this has entertained me. But it might not be a book for everyone. There’s practically no fighting, for starters. I don’t think I’ve written a single fight scene in those 75,000 words. Not much in the way of romance or evil empires or children of prophecy, either. It’s a fantasy world, yes, but a much more grounded one than I had originally envisioned.

There’s no part of me secretly hoping that this will be a best-seller, but published? Maybe. Again, I have to see when it’s done. I have to do drafts and evaluate and have others read it to give me feedback. I already have ideas for a sequel, but that’s really getting ahead of myself.

I don’t want it to be good because the praise would boost my ego. I want it to be good because I want it to be good. I want someone to pick up this novel and be drawn into it, wanting to find out what happens next all the way through the final chapter. So I’m going to ride that bucking bronco of a story to the end, and hopefully then I’ll be able to look back and see a good thing standing behind me.

Novel: How long should a book be?

“Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good writer.”

In his book on writing, horror novelist Stephen King advised that any serious writer should spend four to six hours a day doing some mixture of both reading and writing to hone their craft and become good at what they do. As you may imagine, this can be incredibly difficult for people who don’t have the luxury of just sitting around doing both hobbies for a large chunk of the day. I, for one, have two jobs, four kids, a wife, and other interests and activities. So should I just not write? Am I doomed to mediocrity?

I understand the spirit of what King is saying — mainly that it’s important to train in reading and writing to become better, and you can’t do this in tiny measures — but I don’t fully embrace it, either. You do what you can do. I don’t often get as much time to read every day as I might like, but I get a little in here and there — with devotions, audio books, and the occasional 10-minute bursts of Kindle while I’m waiting to pick the kids up, etc. I write a lot, but most of it is for my work, and that’s a much different style than fiction writing. So to make this novel work, I’ve had to restructure my day and carve out some time here and there to get a few more paragraphs done, maybe a page, maybe two. But six hours? No, it’s just not happening.

When I started this novel a month or so ago, it wasn’t with any sort of lofty ambitions. I had a story idea that I wanted to get out. I wasn’t even thinking of size or scope. But by the time I was deep into the fourth chapter and the structure of the book was coming along, I started to be concerned about the larger picture. Namely, how long should this book be?

That actually matters a lot, because it will influence how fast I progress through the plot and give me a target goal to shoot for. I know that some people might say, “Just write it and see where it ends,” but that has some problems. What if it’s way, way too short to be an actual novel? I would like this book to arrive in the 300-450 page range, and so I did a little bit of research on word counts.

What I found was general recommendations that gave me a better idea of general length:

  • 60,000 words or less is a very short novel or novella — not what I’m going for
  • 80,000-100,000 words is a nice, average length of a novel
  • 100,000-130,000 words is more expected for fantasy novels, as they typically have greater world building and more epic tales

My general concern is that I’m going to fall on the shorter side of the spectrum. What I’m discovering about my writing style is that I like things to happen. I’ll give some descriptions, sure, but I like to keep the plot moving and inject interesting explanations over spending the better part of a page setting the scene. I also keep my dialogue light, which I’m deliberately trying to address although it slows down my writing when my characters enter into a conversation.

So my goal is this: I’m shooting for 100,000 words for a first draft with a daily goal of at least 1,000 words. It’s pretty reasonable, and in fact most days I easily reach 2,000. I think NaNoWriMo had us pumping out 1,667 words a day to get to the 50,000 mark by a month’s end, so this feels about normal for that. With over 30,000 words already done, I should be crossing the finish line for a first draft sometime in June.

I’m not getting obsessed with word count, mind you. It’s just one way to measure progress, and I enjoy tracking it on a spreadsheet every day to see how it grows. Plus, it’s another good little motivational technique to encourage me. Another one of my “daily quests,” if you will.

To answer a question that I’ve been asked: Yes, I’ll make this novel available to the public if (a) it gets finished and (b) I put in a couple of rounds of serious edits and formatting. Even if it never sees the light of day in an official printing, I’ll still shell out some money to have a few copies made up for my wife and kids. So far, it’s a fun read and a fun ride, and I think you might enjoy it.

Novel: Was writing always this hard?

So I’m writing a book.

I don’t usually discuss my personal life much on this blog because it’s not a therapy outlet and you don’t get paid to listen to me whine about my petty problems, but this past year has been a rather difficult and uncertain period especially when it comes to my work and future career. It has been stressing me out, and as much as I lean on God, some days it gets to me. I’ve grown weary of not knowing what to do and what the future holds, so while I’m having to be patient, I’ve decided to channel some of this frustrated energy into a productive project.

Hence, book.

I also don’t usually talk about writing fiction here, I guess because I used to think it was bad luck or something. Probably the truth is that I would be embarrassed to tell you that I was writing what would most definitely end up being a poor, half-finished book and then awkwardly avoid all future inquiries as to the progress of said poor, half-finished book.

But right now it’s one of the few things in my life that genuinely excites me, and I want to share that. Perhaps jotting these thoughts down will help to prompt me to write more and persevere to the end.

I always have a few ideas for novels bouncing around in my furry head — who doesn’t, really? — but as of late one particular idea kept nagging me and poking me, saying, “C’mon, write me already!” I won’t go into specifics, but the general catalyst for this story comes from the fact that about 90% of all fantasy fiction that I read tends to be about the same types of characters: coming-of-age wizards, assassins who are really, really good at killing, battle-scarred veterans with a heart of gold, and anyone who discovers that they’re secretly a werewolf/vampire/c’thulu and feels conflicted about that. Some of it is good, and occasionally a writer will impress me by giving me an unusual protagonist, but I see a lot of common threads of “hero killbot” running through these.

The thought I had was of a protagonist who lived in a fantasy world but wasn’t involved in killing whatsoever. He wasn’t a warrior, he didn’t have super-incredible magical powers, he just had one of the many other jobs that happened to exist in such a landscape. It’s an interesting job, at least to me, it’s just not one that will pit him against a dragon.

A few weeks ago, I decided that enough with just thinking about it, I would sit down and hash out a world building document. I knew enough about my previous writing ventures that I would lose myself in the weeds if I didn’t have a sense of how the world and characters were constructed prior to getting into the narrative. And over the span of a few hours, a rather lengthy document emerged. It kind of just exploded out of my head and I was pretty surprised to see it sitting there. It wasn’t completely unique — what is? — but it felt fresh and different.

Then I started to write. Probably one of my favorite parts of fiction writing is when the narrative and characters take me to unexpected places. I have some general ideas of what’s going on, but these chapters are starting to take a life of their own. That keeps me writing because I want to know what’s next.

So far, I’m four chapters in. I’m trying to rearrange my schedule a little to accommodate regular writing, but I’m still working on that. I need to do this every day, I think, so as not to stall out and so that I can keep momentum going. It’s good fun thus far, all first-person narrative with a strange guy that goes back and forth in a timeline, but it’s not going to be any instant best seller. I have a lot of difficulty with inserting natural-sounding dialogue — I tend to shy away from dialogue, period — and I keep wanting to move the story along to the point where I neglect proper descriptions. So I’m trying to force myself to work those in and not rush.

I did purchase myself a cheap Chromebook, because I want a writing device that’s a little more portable and that won’t tie me to my desk. I can see writing a bit before bed instead of watching TV, as long as I can do it on the couch.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this weird little section of my life. I might periodically write down some updates on how it’s going, or I might awkwardly avoid your glances for a while. As long as I’m enjoying it and improving my writing abilities, I consider it time well spent. Plus, my kids found out that I’m doing this (my wife knows not) and they’ve been pestering me to read it.

6 best fiction books I read this year

Feeling like I should be getting to my end-of-2017 lists, and since I haven’t talked much about what fiction books I’ve read this year (because it’s been a pretty light year for me and reading, alas), here are the six standouts that I both enjoyed and would heartily recommend to anyone.

1. Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien De Castell

The epic conclusion to this Three Muskateers reenvisioning (is that a word?) was spot-on perfect. It brought us to a nail-biting conclusion as the ragged Greatcoats faced off against a mirror foe, with plenty of surprises, fist-pumping lines, memorable characters, and amazing moments abounding. With this book, the Greatcoats series has become one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, and the second I finished it I wanted to start reading it all over again.

2. and 3. Senlin Ascends / Arm of the Sphynx by Josiah Bancroft

Right now for $10 you can get two of the most incredibly imaginative and surprising works that I’ve encountered in quite some time. A blend of fantasy, steampunk, and sci-fi, The Books of Babel take us into the titular city where a seemingly milquetoast schoolteacher plumbs hidden depths of personality while ascending the tower to find his wife (who vanished for some reason on the first day of their honeymoon). I kept thinking that these books were going to be about one thing and then they would suddenly juke hard and be something completely different.

4. Blackwing by Ed McDonald

I deeply respect fantasy authors that use their God-given imaginations and come up with something much different than the standard tropes. McDonald drafts up a “weird fiction” world that’s straddling the apocalypse with Deep Kings fighting against Unnamed, all with squishy humans in the middle. There’s a grizzled mercenary who is compelled to seek out and protect his old fianceé, but the actual plot turns out to be much more than expected. It’s gritty and grim, but not gruesome and grimdark, if that makes sense, and I had a blast going through this tale. Packs six books’ worth of plot into one, and well worth it.

5. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

Another thing I respect? A sense of humor and a willingness to tweak mythology. Despite a somewhat-childish name, Kings of the Wyld brings us into a world where fame-seeking bands of adventurers have grown soft in gladiator pits, but one of the most famous bands of yesteryear has reassembled for a last-ditch rescue mission against a horde of monsters. Loads of great characters, classic fantasy monsters, an ogre with two heads and the most heartbreaking tale ever, and a geeky charm that pervades the whole ordeal. It never took itself too seriously but simply focused on the pleasure of a pulp fiction tale, and that made for a great read.

6. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

There were a few titles vying for the sixth spot here, but I like having a straight-up scifi tale on this list and the tale went down very smoothly. It’s all about a wormhole-creating starship that gets a contract to head out to a planet populated by very alien xenophobics. I wasn’t completely sold on the plot; there isn’t a strong narrative or conclusion so much as a series of somewhat connected accounts as the ship makes the journey. But I did find the look at humanity in a sea of alien cultures very gripping, especially with the well-thought-out races that populate the ship. I haven’t jumped on board with the sequel yet, since it doesn’t seem to involve the original cast, but I suppose I’d be amiable with it sooner or later.

Getting on top of my summer reading

One of my goals this summer is to enjoy one of my lifelong favorite pastimes more, which is simply reading. I’ve taken to toting around my Kindle more (I read more on the actual Kindle Paperwhite than I do my phone) and have greatly enjoyed a string of terrific books recently, including Tyrant’s Throne and Red Sister. I’m trying to spend my last hour before sleep doing more reading than TV watching, as it’s the quietest time of the day.

But lately I’ve also realized that I’ve become haphazard in my accumulation of books and approach to reading. Thanks to Bookbub, I’ve been adding free and discounted novels several times a week (seriously, check it out, it’s great) and been tossing them into my “To Read” Kindle collection. Then there are books that I started but never finished. And an ever-growing wish list of titles on Amazon. And a bookshelf at work full of church books that I’ve bought or been gifted over the years that I’ve never touched.

And so I decided that something needed to get done. I had to organize.

Church books was the easier one: I’ve pulled out about a good dozen titles that I would really benefit from (such as Parenting by Tripp, Doctrines of Grace by Boice, and Desiring God by Piper), stacked them in a reading order, and started to go through them a chapter a day as part of my devotions. I’ve also created a document to take notes, since it helps me with overall comprehension (something I learned in seminary).

Yesterday, I got serious about my Kindle and Amazon collection, although that was a much larger task. I created a document that was divided into five sections:

  • Wish list books to buy (high, medium, and low priority)
  • Books I already own and need to read
  • Books I started but did not finish yet

This took me a long time, since I had to first comb through my entire Kindle collection dating all of the way back to 2011, looking up book ratings, bookmarking favorite authors (and seeing if I missed any books from them), and ranking them all on my to-read list. Then came my wish list, which really was an enormous, unwieldy monster. I probably deleted about 2/3rds of it, books that might have had passing interest but I know I’ll never have time to read, and then ranked the rest. Since I have some 70 books owned on my to read list, I’m not in a tearing hurry to buy more, but there are a few toward the top of my wish list that I’d like to get sooner rather than later.

Many of these books are part of long series, which is both a blessing and a curse. Just looking over the list, I think that if I did little else but read for the next year, I probably couldn’t get through it all. It’s an unclimbable mountain, getting higher every week with new releases, but at least I’m getting organized about it. Plus, if I have books on my wish list, I can easily sort to see if any of them are on sale. Unless it’s a “must have right now” novel, I don’t like spending more than about $3 on a book. Just my frugal nature, I guess.

One thing I did realize is that I’ve been starving for good space opera/scifi in my reading. I’ve been overdoing it on fantasy lately (I have a smattering of imaginative horror in the list too, but I don’t read as much of that as I once did) and could use some starships and aliens. So in organizing my lists, I bumped up some of those types of books in my queue.

With a lot of these books that I got for free, I’m not going to feel bad about giving each about one or two chapters to really hook me in before tossing them back on the pile. Life is too short to force myself to read books that aren’t that engrossing to me (or ones that are poorly written, which you bump into a lot, unfortunately).

It was very encouraging to go through all of these books for a different reason, which is that by reading the descriptions and reader reviews, I got excited about eventually diving into titles that I had totally forgotten about. There are some really interesting books out there that don’t easily fit in genre descriptions, and those I anticipate the most.

Back into books!

I haven’t done a books post (aka “What is Syp reading?”) for a while, mostly because my reading had become stagnant over the past half-year. I blame tablets, really. When I settle down for my last hour of the day in bed, my tablet offers too many tempting diversions: TV shows, email, twitter, and games. That all cut into my main reading time, and thus, my progress through novels slowed to a crawl while my “To Read” list grew and grew thanks to new releases and all of the sales and freebies through Bookbub.

I also didn’t feel like I was missing out on reading because I have been doing more audiobooks, mostly in short gaps of time (driving, cooking, doing menial tasks). But the problem there is that the cost of audiobooks means that I only grab my favorite (and well-read) series instead of new titles. So I’ve been going through the Kingkiller Chronicles, the Dark Tower series, and now all of the Harry Potter novels. Good stuff, but not new territory for me by far.

Gradually, I’ve come to realizing that I truly do miss straight-up reading and have made an effort to work it back into my routine. The key for this, I’ve found, is to pull out my Kindle at bedtime instead of a tablet. Only one thing you can do on a Kindle, after all, and it’s so much easier on the eyes for me to do reading with it compared to my phone or a tablet screen. I’ve even been reading more while exercise biking, although that’s still a little tough because reading is not as distracting from the labor of exercise as playing a game.

I’m happy to report that I’m picking up speed and starting to plow through books, now that my To Read list is at an intimidating 100 (and that’s not even including any sequels if I happen to like a particular book in a series). I stalled out on Patrick Weeks’ Rogues of the Republic series — the first book was great but the second was weirdly a chore, and I found myself very unmotivated to pick through the third.

Instead, I turned to the Invisible Library, an interesting fantasy tale of a woman who hops alternate Earths to track down rare copies of books for a central Library. Even though it was a little simple, I liked it well enough (but not quite enough to order the second book of that series).

Now I’m onto an impulse 99-cent purchase, Senlin Ascends and finding it totally engrossing. It’s about this somewhat standoffish teacher who visits the giant Tower of Babel on his honeymoon, only to lose his wife right away and force him to go on a quest to find her. It’s a bizarre vertical city full of “ringdoms,” and just 70 pages into it, I’ve already bought the sequel because it’s that good.

I’ve taken to toting my Kindle around again, too. Little bits of time, like waiting in the car for my kids to get out of school, can be better served by some reading rather than restless twitter reloading. I just kick myself that I had a whole week of vacation and did precious little reading during most of it.