Jul 22

On Writing a Fiction Series

Hope and the Clever ManI've just sent the first draft of Hope and the Clever Man, the second Gryphon Clerks book, to my lovely and talented beta readers. This is the culmination of a five-month-long writing process; a few of the chapters were recycled, having been cut from an earlier work, but most of them are new.

It's also the start of an editing process that I expect to last two or three months. First the beta read, so I can get other eyes on the text for the first time and find out what's missing, or not working as it should. Then an intensive edit from me, in multiple passes, strengthening and expanding. Finally, two passes through with my wonderful development editor, Kathleen Dale, who helped make Realmgolds a much better book than the one I initially gave her.

Hope is about a third longer than Realmgolds (80,000 words, at the moment, versus 62,000), following the usual law of series by which the later books get longer. It overlaps Realmgolds in time, which makes it tricky to avoid spoilers, but I think I've managed it. There are a couple of characters who appear in both books: the redoubtable Realmgold Victory strides in and orders people about several times, and the venerable Master-Magus is back too. There's a brief cameo from Leading Clerk Grace Carter, just for fun, and the Realmgold's clever man, mentioned a couple of times in Realmgolds, has, obviously, an important role. Otherwise, the characters are all new.

The idea is that either book acts as a point of entry for the series; you don't have to read one before the other. I want to carry on that approach in future, creating a series more like Terry Pratchett's Discworld than, say, The Wheel of Time. WoT lost me as a reader years ago when the books started to be spaced further apart, with the promised resolution nowhere in sight and a huge, complicated cast winding round each other before disappearing up their own backstories.

There will be recurring characters in the Gryphon Clerks, recurring groups of characters, even. I love my characters, so do my readers, and I enjoy leaving Easter eggs like a brief appearance in one book by a key character in another. You won't have to read from the first book in order to understand what's going on, though. (You also won't have to read to the last book to understand what's going on, which means that, while hopefully the fans will still stay eager for the next one, at least there'll be a story that finishes in less than 20 or 30 years.)

Not having to start with Book One is important, because, while most of the reviews I've got for Realmgolds are four stars, even my greatest fans acknowledge that it has its flaws. I'm aware of that too. The first book of a series is frequently the weakest, or one of the weakest, even in series that go on to be hugely successful.

Look at Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Personally, I like Storm Front, having been into Jim Butcher since before he was cool, but a lot of people don't, and even I freely acknowledge that the later books are much better. Fortunately, Butcher makes most of the early books, at least, reasonably self-contained, and does a good "who are these people and why are they angry" catch-up at the start of each new one, so you can read some of them out of order or even skip some without missing too much. At the same time, he keeps an overall arc going, which he's said is going to take about 20 books or more to complete. (I don't plan on doing that, partly because I'm not nearly the outliner he is.)

Pratchett himself didn't really hit his stride until Mort (in my opinion), maybe even Wyrd Sisters, and those are the fourth and sixth books in the Discworld series. I'm a huge fan of the Discworld, but my top favourites start about 10 years after the publication of the first book, around Men at Arms, which is book 15. Not to say that there aren't excellent books before that, but Men at Arms started a really strong run of writing which was deeper, more thoughtful, and consistently good, a run which lasted (again, my opinion) for another dozen years and 20 more books, finally broken, briefly, by Wintersmith. If everyone had to read 15 books before they started to be consistently good, I'm not sure the Discworld would have enjoyed the success it has. The multiple entry points ensure that they don't have to.

Another approach to series which avoids the one-story-in-12-books-released-over-30-years issue is to write self-contained stories in smaller numbers of books, with these mini-series then potentially having some kind of link to each other. Trilogies, of course, are popular, especially in fantasy. Lindsay Buroker has recently concluded her Emperor's Edge series, which is seven books, plus two other loosely connected novels set in a different part of the same world and some interstitial short stories. Because she writes fast, and they're short, the whole series has wrapped up in three or four years. She now has the option of writing other stories in that world, or even with those characters, while also having a completed series.

When you're writing fantasy or SF, worldbuilding takes a good deal of your time unless you're using a vanilla off-the-shelf setting (which is usually pretty dull), and there's definitely an advantage to being able to re-use it. Even Brandon Sanderson, who has the most insane ability to come up with new magic systems, writes more than one book in most of his settings. I created the foundations of the Gryphon Clerks setting over several years, and there is certainly plenty of space to tell stories in (we haven't even glimpsed what's over to the east yet).

Besides that, of course, it's becoming received wisdom that a series will hook more readers than a standalone novel, for much the same reason that it's easier to sell a novel than a novella, and easier to sell a novella than a short story. Readers, like writers, put a certain amount of investment into a setting and a group of characters, and if they like them, they want more of the same, only different.

Telling loosely connected stories lets me indulge my taste for novelty while also avoiding the work of building a new world each time, and hopefully will keep the readers hooked as well, while allowing them to skip a book or two if it isn't to their taste.

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Jul 08

News: Reviewing, Award Longlist, Book Progress, Cover Reveal

So here's what's happening.

1. Reviewing. I've decided to press pause on the reviews-by-request for a while. I currently have a huge backlog of books I want to read, including some by several of my favourite authors, and some by people who could turn out to be new favourite authors. At the same time, review requests have been flooding in. Even though I turn down a lot of them, it's becoming too much.

Also, I want to step down as a Kindle Book Review reviewer for a while, because...

2. Award Longlist. Realmgolds is on the longlist (they call it the "semifinalists", but it's a longlist) for the Kindle Book Review's Best Indie Book Award. Even though any perception of conflict of interest would only be a perception, perceptions are important.

Being on the longlist means that I paid my $20 to enter and at least two out of three screeners liked the first few chapters enough to let it through. The shortlist, which is decided in September, is based on the whole book, is much shorter (five books in each category), and means a lot more.

Hugh Howey's Wool won the sci-fi/fantasy category last year. I don't seriously expect to win, but it'd be nice to get to the shortlist for my category.

It feels like Realmgolds is vanishing into the rearview mirror already, though, because...

3. Book Progress. I've written close to 70,000 words of Hope and the Clever Man. There's still some more to go, between 10,000 and 20,000 words by my definitely unreliable estimate, but I think I have all the main plot threads teased out now. The hard work will be next: weaving all those threads together into a cohesive story with a beginning, a middle and (especially) a satisfying ending.

I'm seriously considering buying a piece of software called Aeon Timeline that will enable me to organize it visually in multiple arcs and by date, using my invented calendar. It's slightly overpriced, I think (it costs as much as Scrivener, which is a lot more useful), but it may be what I need. Part of the challenge, since the timeline overlaps with that of Realmgolds, is to keep the two of them consistent.

And speaking of the new book...

4. Cover Reveal. If you're on Google+ you've already seen this, but it's so beautiful I want to show it to everyone as often as possible. Like the Realmgolds cover, it's by the talented Chris Howard.

Hope and the Clever Man

My art direction to Chris included the phrases "a man and a woman collaborating...on some kind of steampunk device". I also described the characters in some detail, and he's captured them wonderfully: the scruffy inventor and the beautiful magus.

Now, back to telling their story.

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Jun 25

How I Turn Down Review Requests

I review a lot of books. For a few months now, I've been one of the reviewers on the Kindle Book Review (KBR) team, and that gets me direct requests from indie authors who want a review. (If that's you, you should first read my review policy.) Edited to note: I'm not accepting new requests for a while.

I have very particular tastes in fiction, and as a former professional editor I'm also highly conscious of quality, so I end up turning down a very high proportion of the review requests that come to me. It's probably 80-90%. At the same time, I'm enthusiastic about the indie revolution and I want to encourage people as much as possible, so I try to be helpful even when I'm turning someone down.

KBR has what I consider a sensible policy: no book review under 3 stars is posted under their name. They're not in the business of running books down. My particular implementation of that policy is that if I don't think I'm going to like the book, and preferably love the book, I won't review it. Apart from the 3-star rule, why would I voluntarily spend my time reading something I dislike?

This post is about why I turn people's books down and, more importantly, how. I've written a number of these rejection emails now, and I thought other reviewers might be interested to see the kinds of things I say.

striatic / Foter.com / CC BY

There are a number of what in the project management world used to be called "QA gates" that a book needs to get through before I'll review it - or before I'll buy it, if it's one I've found for myself. The first is the pitch or blurb (I'll refer to it as the pitch from here on in, regardless of whether I mean what someone emails me or what's on the Amazon page of a book I'm buying for myself). Some people pitch me stuff I don't read, like nonfiction, or epic fantasy, or dark fantasy, or conspiracy-theory-based thrillers (a lot of those, for some reason). I turn these down quickly, with minimal comment, usually reminding them that my Kindle Book Review profile says that I don't review what they've just pitched me. Pro tip: read the instructions.

Some people pitch me stuff I do read, but they do it so poorly that I don't want to read their version of it. Either their pitch contains significant editing issues, or it's rambling, or it just sounds like they've taken a stencil from their favourite book and sprayed some paint through it, producing a bad imitation.

If it's a book I've found for myself, I pass at that point and move on. If it's being pitched to me by email, I sometimes give them some benefit of the doubt and at least take a look at the sample, either by downloading it to my Kindle or just looking at it on Amazon. After all, a weak blurb can, theoretically, have a good book lurking behind it.

In my experience so far, though, this theory isn't borne out in practice, and if the pitch is badly written the book is no better.

Here's a rejection I wrote yesterday. Although I mainly mention the preview here, it was based on a combination of the pitch and the preview.

Thanks for the request, [author]. I've had a quick look at the preview on Amazon and it doesn't really grab me. The punctuation is very rough, which I always find distracting. I can forgive that if it's an unusually compelling concept, or if there's a great hook in the first couple of pages, or if the characters are out of the ordinary, or if it's a story I've never seen done before, but as far as I could see yours doesn't have any of those factors going for it.

I make it a policy to only review books I think I can love, and I can't see myself loving this one, sorry. Hope you find other reviewers that it works better for.

Sometimes I have doubts about the pitch, because it sounds like it isn't something I like, but I give the sample a bit more of a look just in case. Here's another one I wrote yesterday:

Sorry, [author], but I'm not loving it. It's well-written, for which I commend you, but it's just not a book that I would pick up to read if you hadn't requested a review for it. The broken-down, alienated protagonist and the devastated world that's the setting are putting me off.

I know that's just your setup for why the story's issue is compelling, but I'm afraid I just can't muster up enough enthusiasm to persist. I emphasize that this is a matter of my personal taste, and a lot of people will love it for exactly the reasons that I don't.

Good luck in finding other reviewers, I'm sure they'll give it a good review for all its many strengths.

I always try to distinguish between "this book has issues" and "this is not the book for me".

(I do feel a bit guilty sometimes about the "hope you find another reviewer" line, because I've submitted my own book for review to all three of the other spec-fic reviewers on KBR, one in March, one in April and one in May, and as at nearly the end of June none of them have replied, even to say "no". Nevertheless, I keep saying it.)


Sorry, doesn't sound like one for me. Post-financial-collapse sounds close to post-apocalyptic to me, which as noted in my profile is something I don't read. The blurb gives the impression of an overly complex story told in a hyped-up manner, and there are hints of conspiracy theory as well, which I need to have noted on my profile as something else I don't read. I glanced at the first few pages, and they read like the blurb, though at least they look like they've been edited (rare enough in indie books to be worth remarking on).

Not for me, but certainly for someone. All the best with finding that right reviewer.

And another:

I took a look at your sample. While it's well enough written, it's not really my kind of book. I don't read military or action-centred books as much as I used to. I don't think I'd love it, so I'm probably not the reviewer you want. I hope you find someone who enjoys that subgenre more.

One of my pet peeves is when an indie author tells me in the blurb (which we all know is written by the author) how wonderful the book is and what my reaction to it is supposed to be. Here's my response to one that said that his book "attempts to punch the reader in the gut with laughter, smack them on the head with passion and kick them in the shins with character development" (he did at least say it was an attempt).

Well, I've had a first look. I'm afraid I remain unpunched, unsmacked and unkicked.

It's not actually bad, though I'd seriously advise you to move your intro to the end and fix the homonym error ("you're" for "your"). But it hasn't hooked me, and I can't see that changing. I don't have an American sense of humour, is probably the problem.

I'd suggest that another reviewer would probably be more likely to give you a good review.

Here's another blurb-boaster:

To be honest, your blurb puts me off a little. That's mainly because you're using evaluative words, like "mind-bending" and "unimaginable", which sound like hype (and like things I'd rather decide for myself than be told by the author). I also tend to assess a writer's style by their blurb, and that formal, adjective-heavy style doesn't appeal to me. It leads me to suspect that I may get a lot of telling rather than showing in the story.

I want to give you a fair chance, though, so I will download your sample from Amazon, and if I enjoy it enough that I want to read the rest I will let you know. If I don't, I will tell you why, as helpfully as I can.

I've had a lot of requests lately, so you're currently fifth in the queue. That means I may not get to your book for a while, particularly since I'm going overseas for a couple of weeks soon. I'll get back to you as soon as I can, though.

And the follow-up:

I took a look at the sample last night, and I'm afraid I couldn't get into it, for pretty much the reason I expected. It's written in a very formal style, which seems like an attempt at a "high" style. It's very literate, but you don't quite pull it off. For example, the first character to speak is very slangy, which is clanging in the midst of all that formality, and then you use a phrase like "be him" when it should be "be he".

The other problem is that as far as I got (about 15% of the way through the sample) there was no actual action. It was all the character contemplating things, mostly in vague abstract terms, and running through the backstory in his head. I didn't see a problem he was trying to solve, and for me, at least, I need to see that very early on in the story if it's going to hold my attention. There was nothing to hold onto.

You've had a number of positive reviews, so clearly this book is working for people, but I'm afraid it didn't work for me. I hope that's helpful to you in some way, and I encourage you to look for another KBR reviewer.

I often let people know that I have hesitations from the outset:

I will download the sample, but I have to say my initial response is hesitant. That's mainly because I have difficulty suspending my disbelief of your premise (a stimulus that we've never encountered before that makes us helplessly abandon all rationality). I'll read the sample, though, and see how that goes, and if I want to continue to read I'll be in touch.

If you'd rather look for another KBR reviewer in the meantime who might be able to start sooner or might have a more enthusiastic response to the premise, please feel free. Let me know if you find someone, though, so we don't double up.

To which my later follow-up was:

I've read the sample, and I'm afraid it didn't grab me enough to overlook my problems with the premise. Sorry about that, and I hope you can find a reviewer who loves it.

Another example of the two-stage rejection. This one sounded different enough that I thought it might be worth making an exception to my usual reading taste:

I don't usually go for dark, and I never read zombie novels, but I'll take a look at the sample and if it's unusually good I'll write a review. I'll let you know either way.

The follow-up:

I've had a read, and I'm afraid it's not for me. Before I even got to the zombies, the staccato style, with very few commas, and a homonym error in the third sentence put me off.

I suggest you approach another KBR reviewer.

By the way, the responses I've had to these emails fall into two groups. Some people don't reply at all, which I think is a good choice. Others just thank me for the feedback, apparently genuinely, which is also a good choice. I've not, so far, had anyone get offended or confrontational.

Here's my response to someone who was writing in English, although it wasn't her first language:

I'm going to say no to reviewing these. I downloaded the samples, and although there were a few errors of English usage, I understand those, and they aren't the problem. The problem is the run-on sentences.

If you're not familiar with that term, a run-on sentence means that it runs on from one thought to another without much (or any) punctuation. What should be multiple sentences ends up as one, and the effect is that the reader has nowhere to take a mental breath and has to work harder on comprehension.

All of that means that I would probably find I had to force myself through the book, and that doesn't lead to a good review. I'd suggest that you approach one of the other KBR reviewers instead.

I hope this is not too disappointing for you. I know how hard it is to get reviews.

Last example. Here's someone I gave detailed advice to, stressing what he was doing well.

Well, I had a read of the opening chapters. I have some suggestions. I hope you take these in the spirit in which they're meant.

Firstly, the good. You can spell and punctuate, and the words you use mean what you use them to mean. That puts you way ahead of the average indie author right out of the gate. Your premise is interesting, and your character concepts seems sound.

The problem is that, in my opinion (and others may think differently), your writing needs a lot of tightening. Less would be far more. Your sentences are often very long, and they ramble. Not only that, but there's a lot of scene-setting detail that I suspect isn't important to the plot.

You open with a prologue, which some people are opposed to. There's another school of thought, though, that says that if you aren't going to get to the action and the conflict right away, having a prologue that sets up the action and the conflict is a good way to hook the reader.

The thing is, I think you should get to the action and the conflict right away, or at least as soon as possible. What hooks me into a book is that I see a character with a problem who's trying to solve it. We see that in the prologue, but in the first few chapters of the book we see a character who goes surfing, teaches a class, establishes his gamer cred, has a very long conversation with an old friend about how they're both broke and having relationship problems, and then we get a long chunk of backstory about how they became friends, and it starts to go into a blow-by-blow on the friend's academic history, and at that point I lost interest.

What I'd suggest is that you cut to the chase and drop in just as much backstory as you need, when you need it. I suspect, given your premise, that the exact details of how long it took to get the divorce and which court granted it and so forth aren't essential plot points. I further suspect that the important parts are that one character is a military historian who can use his knowledge to lead, and the other is an ex-cop, and they're old friends, and they don't have current relationships or jobs that they love and would find hard to leave. Now, I may be wrong. There may be other things in there that are important. But if so, I'd suggest mentioning them when they're important, and not in a long introduction.

You could do something like this: When the big reveal happens, and the protagonist has to decide whether to go off Earth and help in the battle, he thinks to himself: "What is there for me here anyway? By the time my adjunct professor salary pays off my student loans, there'll be a colony on Mars. My divorce is final as of a month ago. I don't even like my job." And then he says, "All right, I'm in."

I do think this book has a lot of promise, but at the moment, for me, the interesting bits are buried behind a pile of unimportant detail. The rule of thumb is that you can usually cut about 25% without losing anything essential, and I'd say that's a rule you'd do well to follow.

You don't have to take my advice, of course. I'm just some guy on the Internet. If you do decide to take my advice, though, I would like another chance to review the book, because I think it has potential.

Although this author replied and said he basically agreed, he also said he wasn't planning to follow the advice since he was moving on to the rest of the series now, and if I just "pushed through" the issues in the first 5 chapters...

Um, no. Your readers are not going to do that, any more than I will. I'm reviewing to help other readers, and because I personally enjoy reading. If it becomes a chore, or if your book just isn't my thing, I'll stop.

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Jun 08

Getting Inside Characters’ Heads

I'd like to report a partially failed experiment.

See, I get bored easily, and I have an overactive imagination. (It's amazing I did so well at school, really.) Accordingly, I try things that might or might not work, to see what happens. It often produces less reliable results than sticking to what everyone else does, but it's worth it to me for the times I manage to pull it off, and it's more interesting while I'm doing it.

My experiment was this: in my novel Realmgolds, I would convey emotion not so much by using the names of emotions, but by talking about the physical feelings associated with those emotions.

Here's an example. Determined (that's the name of my protagonist) is about to speak in public, something he has avoided in the past. I write:

By the time he stood at the podium on the library steps, his anger had cooled - and so had something lodged in his gut, because it felt as if he’d swallowed a snowball...

While the square was far from being packed with citizens, they were considerably more numerous than he’d anticipated, and for a moment he wanted to back down and hand his speech to Reliable. Then he thought of Victory’s serious dark eyes and her calm daring, swallowed hard and began.

Note that I don't say at any point that he was nervous. I say how he felt physically, I mention what he wanted to do (back down and pass his speech over to someone else to give), I describe his physical response, but I don't give a name to his emotion. I also don't report his inner dialogue. I leave the reader to do a lot of the work.

There are other scenes in the book where I say more about the emotions Determined is feeling, and still others where I say less. I picked a scene as my illustration that's kind of in the middle: the emotions are there if you look for them, but you have to look, imagine, project, hypothesize.

The reason I say this is a partially failed experiment is that two reviewers have now said that they couldn't get inside the character's head, that the whole book felt emotionally distant and didn't engage them.

I say "partially failed" because it's only two people (others haven't mentioned this), and "failed" because those were two people who wanted to read my book but didn't enjoy it as much as they'd hoped.

Now, I know as an author that I shouldn't pay too much attention to reviews, unless there's a chorus in unison telling me the same things all the time. I also know Neil Gaiman's dictum, that when people say that there's something wrong with your work they're usually right, but when they tell you what it is they're usually wrong. And it is only two people. Nevertheless, I want to improve my writing, and one of the reasons people read is to engage emotionally with the struggles of the characters. If I'm not giving them that, I want to work harder at it.

There are some other causes, of course, that could be contributing to this effect. Firstly, I'm a New Zealander of British descent, and used to being understated in my emotions. My wife is from California, and it's striking how much her level of expressed emotion differs from mine. I apply what I call the "Reeves discount" (Reeves being her family name) to bring it into what I consider a "normal" range, to translate it, to scale it so that I can tell how upset she is in terms of the level of emotional expression I grew up with. It's a large scaling factor.

Meditator, Fritz Madel, Sakya Lamdre, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal
Wonderlane / People Photos / CC BY-NC

I'm also a meditator, practicing techniques that make you emotionally very even. People I work with, people from my own ethnic background, have remarked on how I "don't get upset easily". In the book, Determined practices similar techniques.

Also, I'm not all that experienced at writing in third person, though I've read plenty of it and that's not much of an excuse. (City of Masks was in first person, and Gu in second person. Yes, that was another experiment.) Even when I do read third-person narratives, though, I quickly grow tired of the ones that patter on with the character's internal dialogue for pages, so that when something happens or someone else speaks you have to page back to remind yourself what happened or what was said last so that you can pick up the thread. I may have overcorrected for that.

It's probably a combination of factors. My experiment, my own ethnic and personal background, my fiction preferences, the fact that sometimes not everything in my head makes it onto the page, some kind of missed connection with those particular reviewers so that they didn't notice the emotional cues that were there, or dismissed them, who knows what else. The important thing is that for Hope and the Clever Man, I'll be asking myself as I revise each scene, "How does she feel about this? And how does the reader know?"

I'll try not to overcorrect the other way and make it into a constant description of Hope's feelings, though.

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May 02

Details, Description and Pacing in Fiction (or How to Striptease, Not Bore People with Helicopters)

I've been thinking a bit about pacing in fiction lately.

Partly, that's because of things I've been reading. I'm currently finishing a long book that has a short book inside it, struggling to get out. I swear, 500 words to describe a man abseiling down a cliff, when two paragraphs, at most, would have been plenty.

And then there was the book submitted to me for review recently. I declined it, after reading the first few chapters. Not only were the sentences long and rambling, but the chapters were long and rambling. It purported to be a book about a group of gamers who discover that the game they're doing so well in is training them to fight in an interstellar war (kind of a Last Starfighter idea). So far, so good. But instead of cutting to the chase, we get the protagonist going for a surf before going off to work, and then a long scene where he and his best friend complain to each other about their employment, financial and romantic situations over the phone, and then we start into the backstory of how they met as kids, and at the point where the author began the blow-by-blow account of the friend's academic history and how it disappointed his father, I put the book down and didn't pick it up again.

I emailed the author and suggested that he should cut heavily, and his response was that he had known about the problem for some time but was anxious to move on to the next book, so he encouraged me to "push through" the slow first five chapters, because they do set up important stuff...

Sorry, my friend, but that's not how this thing works.

Your first couple of chapters are what will be in your sample on Amazon. They are your third opportunity to hook people, after your cover and your blurb. Like many other people, I filter books at each of those stages.

Amateurish cover? Author doesn't care enough. Next.

Grammatical errors in the blurb, or it's a confusing mess? I assume the book will be the same. Next.

Sample chapters don't hook me so that I will lay my money down to read the rest? I will not lay my money down to read the rest.

Now, I'm on record complaining about books that are all sizzle and no sausage, too, so I'll point out that I'm looking for a balance. I don't, personally, love books that are just like action movies, that begin page 1 with someone being shot at and progress by means of chases and explosions to a huge chase and an enormous explosion, without stopping for character development along the way. At the same time, I don't love books that are all about getting ready to do something, or trying to decide to do something, or the minute details of doing something that might have been interesting if it hadn't been described so exhaustively.

Take the book I'm reading now, for example. It's Declare, by Tim Powers. In other words, it's a book that was up for four or five major awards that I'll never be nominated for, written by a better writer than I'll ever be, so I can criticize it by name and not worry about hurting someone else's career.

The characters in Declare can't just get into a helicopter and fly somewhere. They get into a specific model of helicopter, and we have to hear not only what kind of engine it has, but what the rotor blades are made of. He's obviously done a ton of research to get so many details right, but the thing is that as far as I'm concerned, I don't care if the details are right. I don't need the details. Guy gets into a helicopter, that's all I'm looking for. Tell me the rotors are made of wood if they explode and splinters go everywhere. They don't explode? Splinters don't go everywhere? I don't care what they're made of, then.

Upgrade (?)
psiaki / Foter.com / CC BY

I'm not a highly detail-oriented person, as you may have guessed (despite my obsessive spotting of proofreading errors). People who go into excessive detail irritate me. I once worked with a man who would never give me a straight answer to any question, but would instead go into a lot of background detail which I was, presumably, somehow supposed to extract an answer from. "Yes," I'd say, "but [original question]?" And then he'd do it again. Drove me absolutely nuts.

Partly, then, this is a personality thing. I would suggest, though, that for maximum audience appeal, we writers need to write enough detail that the detail-oriented don't leave unsatisfied, and not so much that the people like me get bored and skip. How do we do that? (And I say "we," because I know I tend to the extreme of not enough detail.)

My novel Realmgolds is about political maneuverings. It has a very high proportion of speeches and conversations to gunshots (though there are certainly gunshots). Several reviews, though, have mentioned its "fast pace". How do I achieve that effect (which, incidentally, I didn't know I'd achieved until people told me)? Simple.

I write short chapters.

Very few of my chapters are in excess of 3000 words. Some are much shorter. Yet something important always happens in each chapter.

If you're worried that your story is dragging, or might drag because it's about people talking instead of shooting, shorten your chapters, while making sure that something significant happens in each one. This will give your readers a sense of forward momentum, because finishing a chapter is like walking through a door into another room.

I was working on a YA novel a while ago (which I abandoned, in the event), and I deliberately kept it pacey by aiming for chapters of roughly 1000 words. It was great discipline.

Also, write short sentences. I used to use a lot of semicolons in my writing. My rule of thumb now is that if a sentence is long enough to need a semicolon, it's long enough to use two sentences. "Say one thing per sentence" is another good rule of thumb.

So how do I keep that from becoming choppy and losing any depth? Here are a couple of strategies (which I'm still working on).

Firstly, when a new person, or a new significant thing, or a new significant idea comes into shot, linger the camera on it a bit so that the audience can tell they should pay attention to it. Spend a sentence or two giving a couple of key pieces of description of the person, thing or idea. Roger Zelazny, one of the most evocative writers who ever lived, had a simple method for this (I remember reading or hearing somewhere, though I've sadly forgotten where). He would give a character a couple of "tags" when they were first introduced, the two or three things you would instantly notice, and refer back to them when the character returned, so even his minor characters are easy to remember.

It's just two or three things, though. And it works the same for setting details, significant objects or key concepts. Some things, of course, can't be conveyed in two or three tags, but if you can do it that way, my vote is that you do. We don't need a character's entire backstory the moment they appear. Striptease your readers with significant details, preferably as and when they become significant, though you can foreshadow a bit if it's not at the expense of getting on with telling the story.

Picking just two or three things is a creative limitation. It encourages you to pick the most telling details, the things that make this character or setting item unusual or interesting or memorable or different from what you could see walking down the main street of your town. It also keeps the momentum going.

The other thing to remember is this: if you're watching a movie, and the camera lingers on, let's say, a knife on a kitchen bench, you can be confident that someone is going to pick up that knife later and at the very least wave it around, if not stick it in someone. As a general thing, the camera doesn't linger for no particular reason. Same with description. If I get a description of something in a book, I'll expect it to be relevant to the plot, characterization or setting, ideally more than one of those, and if it turns out not to be relevant (and if detail after detail turns out not to be relevant), I'll become vexed very quickly. I only have so much working memory to devote to your book. Don't fill it up with things I won't need later.

You can still have quieter moments of character reflection, still have the occasional brief passage of evocative description. But in a world where your reader can download any of 30 million other books in the next 30 seconds, boring them with your book is a really bad move.

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Apr 26

Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

Almost everyone who talks about Realmgolds (my first Gryphon Clerks novel, currently free on Amazon until Friday) or any of the short stories set in the same world mentions the setting. I did put a lot of work into creating it, over a long period of time, before I started writing the stories. There's a great deal that I know that you don't know yet, and in some cases never will know, at least not from reading the stories. (There are also some things I don't know yet either, but we won't talk about those.)

One thing people have asked about is the magic system. The people in Realmgolds are mostly in the political and administrative spheres, and therefore don't know or care how the magic works. They only want to know what effects they can achieve with it. The next book, Hope and the Clever Man, on the other hand, has as its title characters two people who very much care how it works, so there will be a little more said about it. I'll do my best to refrain from infodumping, though.

My editor, in particular, was unconvinced that I'd thought it all the way through at first. I had to write her a document to show her that I really had. In case this is the kind of thing that interests you, here is that document.

Magic in the Gryphon Clerks

There are a number of different forms of magic in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. What that number is depends on who you ask.

There are also several ranks of mage. Mages-minor can perform simple magic, make very basic magical devices, and operate more complex ones. A mage-minor is permitted to wear a bangle of a material that indicates the kind of magic he or she specializes in. A full mage, who can make complex magical devices and perform advanced magic, may wear a bracelet, again of different materials depending on the type of magic, and a master-magus wears a wider armlet or cuff.

Elvish Magic

The elves were the imperial power who brought humans to the world (as slaves) and, some evidence suggests, modified them so that they too were able to perform magic. The elves recognise three kinds of magic (three being their sacred number): mindmagic, lifemagic and a third category derisively called “the magic of dead things”, which takes in the whole of dwarvish magic.

Elvish magic tends to involve a lot of words, chanting, elegant gestures and ritual threes. Circles and triangles, organic-looking interweaving shapes, and geometric figures may also feature.


The magic of the mind maps fairly well to the domain of psychology. It involves matters such as motivation, influence and perception.

The most common mindmagic, familiar to everyone, is the magic of oaths, vows and geasa, behavioural bindings which are very difficult, though not impossible, to break. They create a powerful mental pressure to keep them, comparable to an obsession, compulsion or addiction if you are trying to break them, or a very powerful positive motivation if you’re not. Marriage oaths are the most common - marriage is referred to as “oathbinding” and one’s spouse as one’s “oathmate” - but oaths are also taken between master and servant, liege and vassal, close friends, even members of military units. There is often a physical focus or token for the oath, typically a finger-ring, though the military use arm-rings on the upper arm. For oaths of alliance and allegiance the ring is worn on the right hand, for love and friendship on the left (the heart side).

A well-made oath, with the assistance of a competent mindmage, added to familiarity and genuine emotion, gives the participants in the oath an enhanced sense of each other. They can’t read each other’s thoughts, but providing they’re reasonably nearby they’re aware of each other’s strong emotions and physical location, even if they’re not able to see or hear each other.

Similar to an oath is a geis. The difference between the two is that an oath is between two people, mutually agreed on and binds both of them, while a geis is imposed by someone in authority on another person, and binds only the recipient. The person who receives the geis must acknowledge the authority of the one who imposes it, and must be able to perform the action of the geis, and consent to it, even if reluctantly. Geasa may include aversions or actions which are forbidden as well as actions which are required.

A vow is like a self-imposed geas. It is often, but not necessarily, witnessed by another person.

An oath is often recorded on a beautifully drawn and calligraphed piece of paper, with geometric figures corresponding to the magic of the oath and recording it. These papers are typically produced in triplicate, and the two parties to the oath and the witness each keep one. The parties and the witness sign them, mark them with their personal seals or the seals of their rank or position (if they have any - typically this is something only a Gold or a wealthy Silver will have, unless they are a Gryphon Clerk), and thumbprint them. The act of doing so, along with the oath itself, produces a record on the paper that can be read by anyone who has any skill in mindmagic to verify that the oath is a true oath. Among illiterate Coppers, oaths are usually verbal unless they go to a scribe and pay to have an oath recorded.

The seals (gold for a Gold, silver for a Silver) are themselves bespelled for this purpose.

Another form of mindmagic is parallel to charisma. All natural leaders and influencers possess an aptitude for it, and if trained can enhance it and so increase their authority. The elves did not reveal everything they knew about this form of mindmagic to their human subjects, and it is not as well understood, or as effective, as oaths and geasa.

The elves also possessed the knowledge of “glamour”, which is a form of mindmagic which influences the perceptions of those around the mage, in the mage’s favour. This art is considered lost.

The final category of mindmagic crosses over with lifemagic, and is the use of trance states to perceive the world differently or to control one’s body processes. This knowledge is mostly preserved among shamans of the peasants’ Earthist religion, though the upper classes have kept the knowledge of sleep induction and a form of learning trance.

University-trained practitioners of mindmagic wear bracelets (etc.) of black wood, often elaborately carved in the case of the more advanced mages. Shamans wear only a single piece of cloth and are marked with a magical picture of their beast totem and (for full shamans) their plant totem, received during an ordeal of meditation.


Lifemagic maps to the domains of medicine and biology. Again, the old imperial elves were advanced practitioners, bioengineers who could create new species and combine human and animal traits into peoples like the beastheads and the centaurs, or combine different animals into creatures like the flying horses and the gryphons. Little of their ancient knowledge survives in the hands of humans, only enough for medical use.

There are blurred boundaries between lifemagic and mindmagic, and between healers and mindhealers. A good healer will possess living insight, the ability to perceive the patient’s body processes, and the unseen touch, the ability to influence those processes (blood flow; cell division, growth and function; digestion; immune response; neurochemistry, to a degree, and glandular activity; and detoxification). Healers are also able to adjust their patients’ pain perception and initiate the Healer’s Sleep, a form of unconsciousness during which healing is accelerated.

Some of the elves’ creations, like the medicine cattle which give pharmaceutical milk, have been preserved and even improved (by selective breeding), while others, like the process for turning the sap of a certain tree into a useful polymer called hardlac, have been lost.

University-trained practitioners of lifemagic have bracelets of bone or ivory. Healers also wear a distinctive round hat.

Dwarvish Magic

Dwarves scorn mindmagic and lifemagic and don’t include them in their schema, which is based around their sacred number: four. They recognize magic relating to matter, energy, space and time, although the last two are largely theoretical.

Dwarven magic, though it often uses spoken words to trigger it, is mostly achieved through sigils created from the square Dwarvish alphabet. Any dwarven magical device will be engraved with sigils, a great many of them in the case of more complex magic, often worked into a larger diagram.

Matter Magic

The magic of matter is in shaping, refining, combining and transforming. The dwarves have an advanced materials science, though at this historical period they preserve ancient traditions rather than researching new techniques. Their materials are light and strong and exhibit other useful physical properties (insulation and conduction of light, sound, heat and other forms of energy, for example). They craft intricate devices and engines from these materials.

A university-trained human practitioner of matter magic wears a metal bracelet (silver or pewter) set with a yellow stone, such as a citrine or, for the wealthy, a yellow diamond or sapphire. Matter magic is not an especially common subject for human study, but there are practitioners.

Energy Magic

Energy, in dwarvish definition, includes anything nonmaterial which acts at a distance. Most energy magic is concerned with light and heat, but there is also the magic of sound, and forms of distant force which push and pull. Most energy magic except the very simplest movements of light and heat requires the use of crystals of various kinds.

The commonest form of energy magic involves moving energy to or from another, parallel space or dimension. Even largely untrained humans can summon a weak light and enough heat to start a fire, but advanced practitioners can create devices which draw in enough energy to heat water for steam (as a working fluid for vehicles and to power factories) or to smelt metals. Other applications include cooling (by moving heat away to a cooler space) and, of course, magical lights which are reliable, bright and cool.

The dwarf banks operate a network of paired tablets which, when one of the pair is written upon, reproduce the message on the other. This enables funds transfers across distances where it would be slow, tedious or dangerous to carry money. They guard this technology closely, and only meticulous dwarf craftsmanship allows the tablets to be sufficiently similar to work in this way. Recently, however, Realmgold Victory’s clever man Dignified Printer has used his background as a printer’s apprentice to create complex magical devices which are nearly identical and can be linked in sympathy across great distances to transmit either sound and vision, or sound alone.

An application of energy magic to sound is the privacy rug, which prevents words spoken within its bounds from being heard outside it.

A university-trained human practitioner of energy magic has a red stone (garnet or ruby, usually) set in his or her metal bracelet.

Space Magic

The main real-world applications of space magic are to change the direction of gravity or reduce its effects, to enlarge spaces so that they are bigger on the inside than their outer dimensions allow for, and to create portals which shorten the distance between two points. All of these applications require specific conditions, including, for portals and enlarged spaces, a large mass of stable granite (it’s something to do with the quartz). To maintain a portal or enlarged space consumes a lot of a resource known as “magical flux”, which is theorized to be the difference in magical potential between two adjacent dimensions. Magical flux varies geographically. This means that other magic may not work well, or may be harder to do, in the vicinity of a portal or enlarged space. Setting up such a structure is also a tricky engineering task.

The flying boats and ships of Victory’s military use the antigravity form of space magic, mediated by large flight crystals. These crystals are expensive and difficult to make. In fact, “expensive and difficult” is a phrase closely associated with space magic.

The few space mages among the human population have blue stones set in their bracelets (usually sapphires, since they are well paid).

Time Magic

Time magic is, if anything, more expensive and difficult than space magic, and is little used. Extremely valuable items that might deteriorate over time are sometimes put in stasis boxes, in which time passes more slowly. It’s theoretically possible to speed time up, as well, but considering how difficult it is to do so, there are no practical applications.

There are no human time mages.


I hope you've enjoyed that little look under the hood. I'm a big fan of wizard fantasy myself (Amazon recognise a subgenre of fantasy called "magic and wizards" now, so I'm clearly not the only one), and I'm having fun writing Hope and the Clever Man.

If you haven't picked up Realmgolds yet, it's free until midnight Friday, US Pacific time. The more downloads, the merrier!

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Mar 27

How to Raise the Stakes (and Prevent Your Protagonist from Becoming a Tourist)

I mentioned a couple of posts back that one of the best pieces of advice my editor, Kathleen Dale, gave me was to give my protagonist a problem that he's trying to resolve right from Chapter 1.

Not only do we identify with someone who's trying to solve a problem, they're a lot more interesting to read about. I've read a few books lately in which the would-be protagonists are actually more like tourists. They get on the airship (literally, in at least one case) and watch out the window as what plot there is goes by. Other people do things, and the viewpoint character acts as a kind of mobile lens that observes without much participation. Sometimes, they seem to be there mainly to tour the author's wonderful setting and exclaim over it.

This is boring. Protagonists should protagonise.

Therefore, set your protagonist up with something they want that they're going to have to work for.

Raising the Stakes

The next obvious question is "why does the protagonist care?" If the protagonist isn't invested, the reader won't be invested. They need to have some skin in the game.

This is where raising the stakes comes in.

You could not do better, at this point, than to head over to Writing Excuses and listen to their podcast episode on Raising the Stakes, because they do a great job. One of the things they emphasize is that it's not necessary to use what I call the Alderaan Gambit in order to raise the stakes. Blowing things up, or threatening to blow things up, is not necessary. It's not even sufficient. What you're setting out to do is to give a compelling reason why the character is emotionally invested in a particular outcome (and then you put obstacles between the character and the outcome, and suddenly you have a story).

Here's what I did, following Kathleen's advice and the advice of the Writing Excuses crew. Kathleen noted that I didn't need to make the Chapter 1 problem the main problem of the book, but as it happened that worked better than anything else I thought of, so my character's problem is that the Human Purity movement is gaining in power and popularity in the realm he's supposed to be ruling.

So why is that a problem? Well, he's supposed to be in charge, but he's feeling like he's not in charge, so...

No. Stronger.

He's educated in history, and he opposes their racist philosophy because he knows it's built on a foundation of lies and distortion, and...

No. It needs to be much stronger than that. Make it personal.

Now, I knew that Determined, the protagonist, and Admirable, the antagonist, were around the same age and had both gone to the College of Ancient Turfrae. Could they have met there? Could there be history between them?

And then I thought about my own university experience of becoming involved with a (much less sinister) group which had a particular ideology, and how they trained me to see everything through that ideology, and to identify with their "in" group against the "out" group, and this is what I wrote. Determined is talking to his ally Victory.


“All right,” he said. “The Countygold of Upper Hills and I were at the College of Ancient Turfrae at the same time. Actually he was there first, he’s a couple of years older. By the time I started, he was already establishing himself as an important leader in the Human Purity movement, which had begun a few years before with a small group of professors and students. Simply a theoretical thing at first. Silverstones — as he was then, he hadn’t inherited the County yet — took it and made it a movement.”

He flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “There was a girl I wanted to get to know, and I heard her say to a friend of hers that she was going to one of his meetings, so I went along, hoping, you know… And I didn’t see her, but I listened to him speak. He was good. Brilliant, really. Inspirational. In those days he was more subtle, his arguments were more sophisticated, tuned, I suppose, to his audience. I started going regularly, and he took notice of me, cultivated me. In retrospect it was obviously because I was related to the Realmgold, but at the time he made it seem like it was for me, myself, that he respected me and valued me. He was good at that. He did it with everyone who he thought he could use, more or less, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I… I became a follower. A passionate one. I was looking for meaning in history, some overarching story, and Silverstones and his group provided it. And I was looking for a group to belong to, as well, one that made me feel like what I did and said and thought was important.

“At that time a lot of the history faculty were starting to come over to a Human Purity line. But there was one professor, an older man, near retirement. He was my favourite teacher, because he made everything so interesting and vivid. He would take us walking around Ancient Turfrae and describe things that had happened in the places where we stood, and you could almost imagine they were happening in front of you. I still remember his lecture in front of the Column of Willing practically word for word.

“Anyway, he had always stayed quiet on Human Purity, for or against. His great work was a translation of an old Elvish book. He’d spent twenty years on it. And one day I arrived in his office for a tutorial, and he was excited. He’d been working on his translation, and he’d found, he said, evidence that when the elves had brought us, humans, to this world, they’d changed us somehow so that we could do magic.”

“Interesting,” said Victory. “They would certainly have been capable of something like that, from all I’ve read.”

“Yes, they would. Both technically and morally. But of course the first thing I seized on was what that would mean for Human Purity. It would mean not only that we weren’t pure, but that nonhumans had shaped us, made us what we are.”

“I suppose I can see that. You argued?”

“I was an insufferable little snot, if you call that arguing. Ended up storming out and going straight to Silverstones.”

“What did he say?”

“Thanked me for drawing it to his attention.”

Determined shifted uncomfortably in his chair and ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed them together. “The next day, there was a fire in the professor’s rooms.”

“His translation?”

“Yes, and the Elvish original. But he came in unexpectedly, and somehow he hit his head, and… Well, between that and the smoke… He was an old man.”


Now there is a character who is not going to sit in the airship and watch things happen. (If you enjoyed it, it's from Realmgolds, and you can get it from Amazon through that link.)

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Mar 20

Realmgolds is Published

Realmgolds, the first Gryphon Clerks novel, is now available in the Kindle Store.

Linda Dean, who reviewed it before publication, had this to say:

Realmgolds is one of those books that is an unexpected pleasure... The first chapter leaves you with a puzzled, intrigued sense of interest. These characters draw you in with their personable natures...

This first book of the Gryphon Clerks is a delightful peek into a new world by Mike Reeves-McMillan. I'll be waiting for the next book. Don't miss this!

I'm going to be approaching a lot more people for reviews in the next few weeks, and I hope their verdicts will be similar.

I've already done an interview for a book website (not out yet, so I can't link to it) that's made me think, once again, about the advantages of indie publishing, and how fortunate we are to be living in these times. One of the questions was about how long it took me from start to finish to publish the book. It was sixteen months, including a couple of months working with my editor, Kathleen Dale.

The total cost of publishing Realmgolds was in the region of $1000 (New Zealand dollars; less in USD). That covered getting a professional editor to work with me on development, and having the cover created (to my specifications). Now, I was fortunate to work with the cover illustrator before he became popular - he's put his prices up now, and even so they're very cheap for how good he is - but even so, that's a reasonable figure to have in mind. A thousand dollars. I paid more than that for a sea kayak and some associated gear. If you're just scraping by, finding a thousand dollars is a big ask, but if you're in a well-paid job it's not an enormous amount of money for something you care about.

So working with two other people, on a budget that's barely four figures, in a timeframe of less than a year and a half, I've published a novel.

Bear in mind that if you're going the traditional publishing path, it can easily take that long (or longer) to find an agent. And then that long (or longer) to find a publisher. And then that long (or longer) for the publisher to actually publish the book. And with all their staff, and all that delay, at least one traditional publisher (coughHarperCollinscough) still manages to produce poorly-edited books with crappy covers. For which their authors receive a small proportion of the cover price, not the 70-odd percent that I'll be getting. And they don't get to influence the cover design.

The price we pay for this wonderful new world, of course, is that a lot of crap gets published. Any yahoo can slap the unedited first draft of their NaNoWriMo "novel" up on Amazon without spending a cent: free word processor, free stock photos, free photomanipulation software, no upfront costs to publish. When there's no filter, you get all kinds of crud coming through the pipe.

We have met the filter, though, and they are us.

As well as being a writer, I'm also a reviewer. I review indie books. So do lots of other people, and I'll be approaching many of them and asking them to review mine. These are genuine reviewers, as I am, who don't accept any inducement apart from, possibly, a free book in exchange for their reviews. (I buy most of mine, in fact.)

Yes, there are "review farms" that will give you a five-star review for a price. Yes, you can "sock puppet" reviews under a fake name and say how wonderful a work of genius your own book is, and what crap your competitors' books are. In the end, though, people who do that get found out, one way or another. They get found out by, among others, honest reviewers who call it like they see it.

If you're a regular reviewer and would like to review Realmgolds, leave a comment. That'll give me your email address, and I'll send you a free copy (and no other inducement), and you can say whatever you think about it. I don't hold back from saying publicly, under my own name, what I think about other people's books. I expect no less from people who review mine.

(That link again: Realmgolds in the Kindle store.)

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Mar 02

The Unspoiled Protagonist

This is a follow-up to my post on the Spoiled Protagonist, which seems to be resonating with a few people. Since I wrote that post, I've read another book with a seriously spoiled protagonist. How spoiled? Would you believe, the villain has his minion rescue her from certain death, reunite her with the only weapons that can stop his evil plan, and help her get to where he is - and all he seems to get out of it is a brief villain-gloat?

Characters like that are what I call "plot puppets". They do things, not for reasons that make rational sense within the world of the story, but in order to advance the author's preordained plot. Plot-puppetry is a particular risk if you're writing to a formula, like the Monomyth or Hero's Journey.

How not to spoil your protagonists

It doesn't have to be that way, though. I recently read and very much enjoyed Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon (the link is to my review on Goodreads).  His plot is as old as the hills: kill the monster. We've been reading that plot since Marduk and Tiamat. But what he does to make it interesting and fresh is that he gives each of his characters something they desperately want but can't have, and something they must do even though they don't want to. These elements are almost completely apart from the main plot, but they upstage it because he does it so well.

There's the secret to avoiding plot puppets: Give each character a clear agenda. If everyone, definitely including your villain, is acting out of obvious, understandable motives that are consistent with who they are, your protagonist won't get the chance to be spoiled, either. The grim, duty-bound, important people she meets in the course of her adventures won't neglect their responsibilities in order to help her, for example.

Some of the best advice Kathleen Dale, my editor for Realmgolds, has given me is to give my main character a clear goal right from the outset. I'll write another post soon about how I raised the stakes for that character and made his goal more personal, but as soon as I did so, the book picked up momentum. A pressing goal that's emotionally important to a character is one of the best gifts a writer can give them to help make them a strong protagonist.

It's not all about you

Here's the other part of not spoiling your protagonist, and I owe it to Robertson Davies.

Robertson Davies was a Canadian academic and novelist. He wrote literary fiction with a weird twist, sometimes, though not always, supernatural. But to me, the most interesting thing about his writing is the way he wrote his trilogies.

As specfic readers, we're used to trilogies that tell one long story. Davies' ones don't, or at least, it's not that simple. What he tends to do is take minor characters from his first book and put them at the centre of the next book, relegating the main characters from the first book to relative or complete obscurity. Or he tells the second book from the perspective of someone who doesn't even appear in the first.

The extreme example is his incomplete "Toronto Trilogy", his last work, of which only two books were written. In the second book, The Cunning Man, the narrator obsesses over the son of his mistress, speculating (despite her denials) that he is also his son. The young man is tremendously important to him, and yet when you read the first book, Murther and Walking Spirits, which is narrated by that same young man, he never mentions The Cunning Man's narrator even once. The older man apparently has no significance in his life at all.

What reading Robertson Davies taught me is that everyone is at the centre of their own story. When I'm walking down the street, I often look around at the people I pass and think about that fact. Each one of them has their own story, as important to them as mine is to me, and I don't know, and will never know, what that story is.

While I work on the last edits of Realmgolds, I've started the next book, currently called Hope and the Clever Man. It's set during the same time as Realmgolds, not far away, and some of the events in each book very much impact the other, but the main character isn't even mentioned in Realmgolds. And yet her story is very important to her and the people around her, and without her the events of Realmgolds would have gone very differently.

She lives in a Robertson Davies world. Despite her considerable talents, I hope that will help keep her from becoming a spoiled protagonist.

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Feb 18

The Spoiled Protagonist

I've read a couple of books lately which have what I've started to think of as "spoiled protagonists".

"Spoiled" in the sense that everyone treats them like a princess (or a prince - one is male), even though they're very ordinary people. When they come on the scene, people with serious responsibilities will neglect them in order to help with whatever the spoiled protagonist is doing. Villains go out of their way to give them grief, but it's all right, because everyone else is their humble servant. Their relatively small successes are treated as world-saving  triumphs and the cause for endless gratitude. They break the rules, or even the law, and are blithely forgiven by the toughest authorities when they explain their reasons.

If they want to go stupidly and unnecessarily into a dangerous situation (and they do), they only need to whine a little and stamp their feet for people who should know better to let them do so. Nameless spearcarriers or even minor characters will then be sacrificed to protect them, without a cross word being spoken to the precious spoiled protagonist.

It didn't take me long to work out a theory of why this is happening. The authors have been reading too many Chosen One stories. The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One by stealth.

See, a Chosen One is typically of humble origins, but everyone in the world wants to either oppose them or help them. They're destined to save the world, but first they have to grow up, and that involves making stupid decisions that have a cost mainly to other people. Because they're the focus of the Prophecy, it's literally all about them.

The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One without the justification of the prophecy. They're a person who actually is ordinary, injudicious and inexperienced who's stumbling around, doing a poor job of dealing with a situation that they weren't prepared for. The unrealistic part is that everyone is downing tools and either helping or hindering them as if they were the most important person in the world.

To the author, of course, the main character is the most important person in the world. The world exists because of the character. But the other people in the world shouldn't act as if they know that.

Stop spoiling your protagonists, authors. If they're whiny, headstrong and inept, drop the consequences on them, not on hapless, uncomplaining minions around them. Better still, don't make them whiny, headstrong and inept in the first place.

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