Two Books in Two Years: Exile and Witness

Photo of my computer with the current draft of Witness on the screen, a candle, and a lukewarm cup of coffee.

And so, two small behemoths of books are now complete. Or, well, rather, one is complete and the other is undergoing a proof-read. And in two years. I wrote two massive, doorstopper fantasy novels in two years. Prophecy’s Exile was drafted in 2021, and I’m currently wrapping up revisions and proofing at the tail-end here of 2022, and Witness was written and proofed entirely in 2022 (no beta-reads on it yet, but I do question what I’m going to do with it, so my approach on beta-reads and revisions is a bit skewed compared to my usual go-tos).

An absolutely adorable illustration of a garn a friend of mine made me.

SUMMARY: A bit of babble about the current state of Prophecy’s Exile and Witness, followed by some impromptu compare and contrast, and a bit of a digression on ace-representation in fiction, and an awful lot of footnotes.

Exile has been expanded a bit, and I’m currently doing a proof-read via turning it into an ebook and reading it on my phone’s e-reader.* I took it to Futurescapes for the 200-page workshop (which…had some good and some bad, and I recognize I was insanely lucky with my workshop lotto numbers) and got some amazing (and amazingly) applicable feedback, which led to some expansion of the beginning.

Gev now gets some fried noodles, tours the city of his birth and expounds semi-poetically (he’s not very poetic) on why he loves it so much and what being home means for him, and runs into a friend. They talk shop and politics and military assignments and deployment. A great deal of world-building which hit a reader all of a sudden in chapter, like, 10 has been seeded throughout the beginning. Some later things have also been tweaked so that Exile and Witness match up better, since Witness did a bit of retroactive patching of some very minor logic gaps in Exile, and it isn’t like Exile is published, so I can still tweak with little difficulty. I kinda find the idea of writing the whole trilogy out before it ever sees the light of day a bit attractive, though that approach has some logistical issues. However, it would guarantee that nothing contradicts anything and I don’t accidentally write myself into a corner because I said one thing was true in Exile, then later find that it constrains the story unduly, so I have to do narrative backflips to work around it.

Anyway. Exile is now about 170,000 words (compared to the 158k it was when I finished drafting—I feared it would grow, but not quite that much!). Woo! Nice big chonky epic fantasy. …book 2 is going to be a beast.**

My favorite "Gev is a Potato" illustration.

This week is proofing-time, and getting to know Gev again, since it’s been a bit since I wrote him extensively, and I’d like to dive back into Incarnate for next year.

As a fun data-point, this Sunday will mark the end of me submitting it in 4-6k chunks to my critique group, which took about a year and a half. It was an experience! It made the book stronger! But was also a hella frustrating approach, as scenes or chapters which, in story, take place over the course of, I don’t know, fifteen minutes could take up to a month of real-world submission time, since my crit group meets every two weeks. It is a decidedly odd and unnatural way to read a novel. That said, my crit group was able to dig into chapters and scenes and pull things out that might not have been noticed in a full read-through over the course of days or weeks. Will I continue to sub novel chunks to my group? Of course! But will this approach possibly need some tweaking? Er. Yes. Maybe. We’ll see.

Witness (which needs a better, more evocative, more intriguing title—and I can’t call it “Fuck Mandate,” the same way I couldn’t call Exile “Prophecy’s Bitch”) has been proofed and is now (mostly) free of typos and general oddities, though I’m sure there are artefacts left over from drafting. Complete at 204,000 words, it’s officially the longest single thing I’ve ever written, and unlike Exile, a standalone…although it is a spinoff prequel, so does assume you’ve read Exile and are familiar with the world, so it’s not exactly a standalone, but it is a complete full story. I’m not currently planning a book 2.

The contrast between the two books fascinates me, to be honest. Gev’s story is a traditional hero’s journey type plot***, whereas Asheru’s story is very much not. Asheru doesn’t physically travel much, and most of the story is constrained to a mile-square space (with some exception right at the end). Gev travels everywhere. Most of Exile is a glorified travelogue. Witness is quieter, but spans six years of events. Mostly small, day-to-day life events, but still, six years. Witness is also, frankly, a romance? Well, okay, it’s a love story, and a story about healing, recovery, and finding your way again after some hefty trauma. But about half of it is a romance between two characters, and it is, er, rather on-screen. Which was fun! And if I wasn’t quite so stressed, and quite so far into my “fuck it” philosophy, I probably would have froze a whole lot more than I did, ’cause it’s got quite a few sexy scenes, which is something I, personally, as an ace person, have a limited range of experience with—definitely writing outside my comfort zone there. But it turned out okay. Will I let my mother read it? …er, probably not. Is it fan-fic levels of smut? Very much no. But it isn’t, ah, fade-to-black either. And it was a delight to write two characters who not only enjoy each others’ company, but are clearly having a great time with each other, so it’s less steamy and more sweet—with an awful lot of conversation and talk of not just consent, but where they want their relationship to go and what they want to be. Which makes for a very un-sexy synopsis? “They bonk, and then talk about boundaries.” Oh, and the romance is definitely queer. If we’re going to use modern queer terminology, Asheru is allo-pan, and his lover is genderqueer/genderfluid, also allo, and has a clear preference for men (or, at least, one man in particular).

Cover of Ace by Angela Chen.

Which is sooo opposite Gev. Gev is more ace-coded in Exile, but by the end of Incarnate, it’s pretty explicitly stated—but he also probably falls heavily into the aro-spectrum, too, and while he forms friendships (some quite deep), I plan for them to be more platonic (if leaning more on the scale toward queer-platonic††). He’ll never have a romance arc and there will be no kissing—because that isn’t something on his radar. And I will fight you if there’s a suggestion of him being somehow deprived; there are more ways to experience love than just sexual, there are more forms of intimacy than just that one, and I fully intend to embrace that and make it abundantly clear. Because there aren’t a lot of books out there with ace and ace-coded protagonists (and all gradations of that spectrum under the broad umbrella of “ace”) that aren’t robots or ancient dragons or immortal wizards. While an ace-character can be a robot or dragon or wizard, it’s usually implied or depicted that their ace-ness is because of an unnatural or supernatural impetus, not because real people can, y’know, be ace/aro. There’s more representation out there with secondary characters, but rarely viewpoint characters in my experience. I admit, I’m biased because I intentionally don’t seek ace-characters out because of the number of times I’ve been burned (they’re ace because they were sexually abused! they’re ace until they meet their love interest and suddenly it’s revealed they were repressed the whole time! they’re ace, but only ace-coded because the book has them, idk, moored alone out in a tundra, so we never see them interact with another person, so they could be ace, they could be allo! they’re ace until the next season retroactively changes their sexuality and they are revealed as being allo the whole time! Am I salty about this? …yes).

Gev is also rather emotionally reserved and prone to unemotive understatement. His narrative can sometimes seem empty of his reaction and feeling…because it is. Because he has a history of emotional repression. And because he’s also just a phlegmatic sort of person in general. This will, hopefully, be made clearer in Incarnate, since Exile is entirely from Gev’s PoV, and Incarnate will introduce a second viewpoint character who isn’t emotionally repressed and can view him from the outside. And comment on his staid, erm, Gev-ness. Asheru, however, feels everything. He is very emotive, and because of certain narrative concerns, sometimes, it’s just his emotions the reader has access to, ’cause he can’t read the expressions on other people’s faces and has to rely on others’ tone, which doesn’t lend itself to nuance. He’s also an anxious ball of insecurities. Gev can be paranoid, and sometimes jumps to the most negative conclusion (out of a sense of self-preservation). Asheru is…a different flavor of paranoid. Gev struggles to maintain relationships outside of very specific location-centric structures. Asheru is absolutely surrounded with family and friends (to the point that there’s a whole arc about where the hell do we have sex without someone seeing us, why are the walls so thin, why do we not have DOORS, good gods).

Writing as self-therapy! Wee!

Photo of spices: peppercorns, curry powders, chili flakes, cinnamon sticks, rosemary, saffron, star anise, and a dried herb.

Also, in Witness, I got to wax poetically about food. Gev eats food, he likes food, he enjoys food, but he doesn’t know the why of food. Asheru is a chef. Asheru talks not just about food, but about technique and process and color and texture and taste, and moans over homemade chili oil and sticks his nose in spices and describes that, and I finally, FINALLY got to write a character who likes to cook. I like to cook, though just as a hobbyist. I also love to bake, though specifically sweets, pastries, and cakes (as much as I adore bread, every loaf I attempt comes out dense. Like, a slab of bread is an entire meal sort of dense. I’m a terrible bread-baker). Gev talks about food as he eats it. Asheru experiences food. Is my goal to make readers hungry? …maybe. Also, I want more fantasy about food! I want more feasts! I want more variety and not just “it’s stew!”

In contrast, Gev mostly waxes on about setting description, culture, and language (all the linguistic geekery! Except, with a character who’s poly-lingual, not a linguist, so has no idea the why behind why he’s having so many issues with grammar). Lots of culture and culture-contrast and lots and lots of language. Because I also want more conlangs in fantasy. I miss the days of glossaries at the backs of books, and not the glossaries of nowadays which seem designed more for quick recaps if you put the book down and come back three months later and forgot what that word means. I mean glossaries, which are their own meaty extension of the world-building, very much in the vein of Tolkien-look-alikes.

Yet, for all the differences, they both definitely have a similar texture, and not just because they are set in the same universe and written by the same person. Idk, they just bookend each other well, at least, in my head.

And good lord, this blog-post inflated. It was just supposed to be a little update on what I’m working on and instead transformed into, er. This. Anyway, so that’s what I’m working on. Once I’m done proofing Exile, it’s on to drafting Incarnate, because I’m still obsessed with this world and I want to explore it more.

Anyhoo, wrapping this up before I get ambushed by another digression.


* Highly recommend this approach—it changes the format, the font, and the, ah, setting of the manuscript, and typos and missing words leap off the page in a way I find doesn’t happen so much with a word processor. I draft in my tired old workhorse of a word processor (Word 2007, and no, I will not upgrade, Windows will pry that program from my cold, dead, driver-less fingers, thank you; I can’t stand the later Word’s weird animated cursor and typing lag) then convert the file to an ugly, but functional, ebook with Calibre (a free ebook/epub conversion program). And then I read. Mostly like a reader, but also like a writer, but not necessarily like the writer of the work, if that makes sense. It allows distance to really catch all those accidental repetitions, echoes, weird/unclear phrasing, and so on.

** Exile is one PoV character, Incarnate is planned to have two, and has just as much traveling about, doing things as Exile, if not more.

*** Though if we’re going to get technical about it, it’s more a heroine’s journey for many reasons, which is why I strongly suspect the story can be a bit polarizing since Gev doesn’t, ah, act like a traditional masculine hero, but if you gender-flipped him, I have a sneaking suspicion that if he was she, people wouldn’t get so frustrated with his seeming passivity quite the same way…

Which doesn’t come up in the book, ’cause it’s a fantasy book and queer-normative and I’m leaning into the theory of no modern labels because they wouldn’t necessarily view it that way because they don’t have our world’s history of prejudice and oppression. Which is just my approach, and for this book universe.

†† If you’re new to this terminology of ace/aro/queer-platonic and so on, I do recommend checking out the book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. It’s a useful primer for those new, and useful also for those like me who aren’t/weren’t part of a community and discovered their own ace-ness by trial and error and don’t know that there are words to describe this stuff. Or that other people experience the world the way I do. That I’m not weird or freakish or just a prude (hah, hah—no. I might not experience sexual attraction unless I actively choose to and work at it, but that doesn’t mean I’m sex-repulsed—btw, there are gradations within the spectrum, which Ace does discuss).

Image credits: Photo by Marion Botella on Unsplash