I admit, I haven’t done much reading this month. Or, rather, I haven’t done much reading of other people’s writing. I’ve mostly been reading my own. Specifically, that long, still-unnamed fantasy cop drama novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. In order to hit my self-imposed deadline of finishing initial edits/getting the book ready for beta-reads by the end of January, I’ve been doing little else.
Okay, that’s a lie. I’ve also been playing Skyrim. A lot of Skyrim.
See, I downloaded the “Legacy of the Dragonborn” mod, and for the past few weeks, have been dividing my free-time between working on edits, and working on filling out my fantasy museum. The mod basically turns you into a fantasy Indiana Jones, and you get to go around Skyrim finding relics and/or putting together your exhibits, and pretty much just making your museum a visually stunning place to walk through.
In some ways, it’s very peaceful. In others…I never quite realized the level of frustration I’d feel hunting for a relic knee-deep in Rieklings, and still being unable to find it because it clipped slightly through the chest it was sitting next to and if you didn’t already know exactly where it was, finding it was next to impossible. Or the annoyance of walking into the armory and seeing that one display that’s missing a few pieces…
I’d also forgotten how glitchy Skyrim can be. So many falling mammoths. So many companions that get stuck in the “dying” animation and just…keep falling over. In doorways. Stopping me from walking.
Still, if you’re playing Skyrim on PC and find yourself bored with the same-old, same-old quests and dungeons, and you like having a visual marker for your completionist tendencies, I highly recommend “Legacy of the Dragonborn.” If you’re playing Special Edition, the new and improved, completely overhauled version of “Legacy of the Dragonborn” just released. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks gorgeous.
As for edits, the book isn’t shrinking as much as I’d hoped. What I get, I suppose, for heavily outlining beforehand and editing big-picture stuff as I go. This draft will probably come in at the mid-180,000’s for word count, which leaves me with the puzzle of going with the length OR cutting the book in half and having two 90,000-word books instead.
The danger of the latter is that, firstly, book one won’t “finish,” it’ll end on the cliff-hanger moment-of-change. Secondly, as it is now, the book is a “fair play” mystery, with the murderer and the clues hidden under (a mountain) of red herrings, but hypothetically, a reader could work it out (and they might easily; I won’t know until I get beta-feedback). If the book is split into two, the focus is then less on the mystery and more on the characters and how they go about solving the mystery. There’s also the (smaller) concern that they might appear too short at 90k.
On the other hand, if it remains one book, it’s still 180,000 words. Which is long. Especially for a debut. Especially for a non-epic fantasy debut (it’s probably closer to a fantasy adventure novel than anything else).
Today, I want to talk fantasy. And epic armies. And economics.
Yes, they connect.
First off, I have no expert knowledge in this subject. I’m neither an economist nor do I have a military background of any sort. But I read a lot of fantasy, and I write a lot of fantasy, and recently, I’d been mulling on the topic of fantasy warfare when I’d realized an army in a book I was reading had no food. Which then spun off to other musings, and things (namely, my suspension of disbelief) started crumbling. While this…discussion…is more aimed at epic and grimdark fantasy, it can also be applied to military science fiction and more battle-oriented space opera (though I’ve noticed that military sci-fi tends to be more realistic about the, uh, monetary cost of war). Anyway. Onward!
If you, dear reader, intend to introduce some warfare on a grand scale into your fantasy world, I would like to remind you of a few things:
Armies are big.
Armies are expensive.
Armies eat a fuck-ton of food.
They also, as a whole, move very, very slowly. Mobilizing an entire army and having it move, say, twenty miles is an undertaking. Namely because of supply trains. Because your big-ass fantasy army (which shall be, from now on, referred to as the BAFA) is really made up of thousands of people, and if those people are marching and burning calories, they’re gonna need to eat to replace all that energy expended, especially if you want them to then fight when they get to wherever they’re going (I’m not even bringing up the issue of clean drinking water).
But it’s not just food. It’s supplies. It’s equipment. It’s (if you have cavalry) all the horses’ tack and their grooms. It’s all those damn tents. The bedrolls. The cookware for preparing all the aforementioned food (unless you’re going to make them all march on hardtack…expect lower moral). Oh, and all the army’s support staff (the blacksmiths, the quartermasters, the cooks, the grooms, the healers/medical personnel, the engineers for the siege equipment, the army administrators—all the logistical supply for the logistical supply). Armies are big. And bulky. And cumbersome. And, when everything is moving in concert with all its various parts, starts to feel insurmountable. When taken as a whole.*
It’s still made up of individuals.
Who also, if they’re doing this as a mode of employment, like to be paid. Where are you getting all the gold necessary to fund this? Honestly, this is usually why my suspension of disbelief starts to waver when the BAFAs come out. If the writer hasn’t built a believable economy, I start to question where the funds are coming from. By the way, you know what’s more expensive than armies? Countries. Good lord, those are giant money-sinks. But back to the armies.
It’s possible they may be unpaid, untrained conscripts. Expect some wholesale slaughter if they’re up against a superior force. Also, expect a lot of desertion. However, a few epic fantasies I’ve read lately have been going the route of religious fanaticism to keep their unpaid, untrained constricts standing in lines. …okay. You can have that once, maybe twice, but seriously, it’s starting to get lazy, imo. And they never seem to fall apart quite as frequently nor in the same way as they do in history…
So. Either you are paying your army or your conscripting them. There’s also a third option: pillage-as-pay (or raiding).
Now, if you’re going to go down the pillage-as-pay route, there’s one inherent flaw: if there’s no pillaging, there’s no pay. If the food, supplies, and money for your army is going to come from the people you’re invading, all the invadees have to do is set fire to their fields and starve you out. You’ll likely run out of supplies long before they run out of country to flee over. Aaaaaand then you have issues of low moral.
(Seriously. It’s like a giant game of Oregon Trail here.)
Let’s say you don’t want to invade. Instead, you’re on the defending side, fighting back the invasion with a standing army. That still costs. They still need housing. They still need to eat. Else you’re going to get the low moral problem.
Low moral, by the way, means people start to resent you. And people who resent you are difficult to convince to go fight and die on your behalf.**
Now, stepping sideways into a specific example, and something that’s been lately bugging me.
Fantasy writers, please stop misusing cavalry. I know, I know, it looks dramatic in the mind’s eye to line your cavalry up with all their shining armor and lances, and have them suicide-charge against the enemy’s cavalry. Cue flashing weapons, crunching armor, horse squeals, and sprays of blood.
Remember what I was saying about armies being expensive? Cavalry is really expensive. Not only do you have to train your soldier to ride and fight from horseback, you need to train the horse…and horses are not cheap. So you’ve got food, housing, animal care, training plus room and board, training, and arming/outfitting for the human (oh, and pay), and this is just one cavalry-person. Fantasy likes to have cavalry numbering in the hundreds upon hundreds, and every one of them costs.
Are you seriously going to throw your cavalry into certain death? Or are you going to keep them in reserve and, if desperate, dismount your cavalry and have them fight on foot? Save the horse for when you actually need a horse—say, for when you need forces to go from point A to point B quickly, or when you need speed for engaging/disengaging, such as having them to flank and harry the sides of a force.
And while we’re on the topic of cavalry, what about anti-cavalry? Where are the damn pikes? The spears? The pointy-things partially made for downing horses? And what about anti anti-cavalry? I don’t quite remember who said it, but I know it was at a GenCon panel a few years ago, but someone pointed out that those big heavy claymores? Those are for lopping the ends off of pikes so they don’t impale your cavalry. Now, I recognize this needs citation to be accurate, but if it is, where are the claymores?
Warfare seems, at least to my eyes, to be weapons and counter-weapons (and armor, and tactics). There should be depth to war strategy (honestly, this is why I usually avoid writing from the viewpoints of generals; it can be hard to grasp the stakes when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people being moved this way and that on a map).
* We’re talking whole armies here, not skirmishes/raiding parties. Smaller groups can get away with less support.
**While, yes, if we’re talking fantasy, there could be other ways to compel an army to fight, such as through magical means. However, this can lead to the army becoming just a homogenized lump of faceless humanity and little more than a prop to introduce conflict into the narrative.
If anyone knows who did the other three images, I’d love to be able to properly attribute them.
I…did it. I’m done. Holy bleepin’ hell, I just typed “END” and finished this goddamned book.
*continues to cackle*
No, the book isn’t really “done.” Not quite yet. I still need to go through and replace all my placeholders with actual words, stitch together any sections where I skipped ahead while I was writing and never went back to fill in the gaps, and I still need to fix that one scene that’s really more of a script than a scene (lots of conversation, very little actual description of…anything, really. White-room syndrome galore).
After that, I print the whole thing, stick it in a binder, and start cutting with the pencil lead of doom. There’s a LOT of bloat in this book, and it needs to become a lean, mean, fiction machine. After that, it’s betas, more revisions, possibly more betas, and then I start packaging it together for submission.
Final word count for this finished draft: 185,638.
And only three days past my self-imposed deadline of the 15th.
So at the beginning of the year, I gave myself the challenge of 40 short story submissions. This was a modification on a challenge that I’d heard of where one tries for 40 short story rejections in a year*, but I’d felt that that still relied too much on external factors that I can’t control. My success in my own personal challenge would still be dependent on someone else.
Some markets don’t send rejections letters (it’s rarer than it is with agents, but it happens). Some markets are notorious for slow turnarounds (I’ve got something out right now that’s at 133 days pending; someone else who’d submitted long before me just got a rejection notice at almost 300 days). And sometimes, sometimes, instead of a rejection, you get an acceptance.
Which is a lovely reason not to have a rejection, by the way.
Better, say I, to count submissions. I can control how many submissions I send out. It’s a quantifiable number that’s entirely dependent on my own agency.
Long story short, I accomplished my personal challenge! Woo! As I’m done early, I’m giving myself the stretch-goal of another 10 by December (grand total, 50 submissions in 2019). And, should I hit that, ten more.**
For 2020, I’ll aim for 40 again, with stretch goals.
I also made myself an achievement badge. For bragging. (And because I found an Xbox achievement generator.)
* Okay, so, there is another reasoning behind the original challenge that isn’t just getting in submissions. The idea is to look forward to rejections in order to replace the negative connotation of rejections in your mind so they sting less when you receive them. I’m one of the lucky few who can roll with rejection letters fairly well (yes, I admit, when I see the rejection letter phrasing in my email’s preview, I sometimes don’t open the letter till I’ve worked up the gumption/my emotional defenses, but for the most part, I’m not overly saddened by rejection notices). If rejection letters really hurt, I suggest maybe trying out the original challenge, for funsies. I needed more accountability for submissions when I started, thus, my modified challenge.
** I’m not counting queries or novel submissions in this. Just short stories, novelettes, flash fiction, and novellas.
UPDATE 9/28: And that last little bit of vaguery has been solved! I have, at most, three more chapters and the epilogue, and then this draft is done! There’s a twitter hashtag I’ve come across #FinishUrBookFall which, I think, I might actually accomplish. I’ll be a month past my self-imposed deadline, but hey. It’s better than the six months of my last book.
According to the book’s outline, I’m at the final…well, I wouldn’t call it a hurdle, per say. More like, the final point of vaguery. See, past me had left it as a problem for future me, entirely certain that interim me would figure it out, but interim me forgot to even think about it and was far more interested in the stuff that was happening right now. And when none of the versions of me were looking, the problem’s answers…grew, and now I have slightly too many options, but none of them feel quite right. I know what I need, I know the end result, but so far, every version either feels pointlessly complicated or far too simple, and both ways lack satisfaction. I need that elegant “OH” moment, and I haven’t quite worked it out.
So, instead, I’m editing a novella while things are left to marinate.
However, once that final point of vagueness is finally laid to rest, the rest of this book should move smoothly along to end, since I’ve had the end mapped out and outlined and pre-written for months and months and months.
Note to self: next book, do not write in the outline “and then the characters figure things out [make it epic]” and leave it at that. It’s almost as bad as “and then the characters escape from certain death [tbd later].
Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold: Reread! Because, for some reason, this time around, I’m reading the whole of the Vorkosigan Saga backward? The series is one of my comfort reads and, when I have no idea what to read next, I pick one up and start reading ’cause I know I’ll enjoy it. Every time through, I come away with new things to analyze. This time, it was plot structure.
The Writer’s Book of Doubt by Aidan Doyle: A bit of a cheat, I suppose, seeing that I haven’t finished it yet, so this semi-review will be truncated, but it’s so far been worth taking the extra time with. Most of the essays are based on blog posts, so tend to be short, but at the same time, since they’re based on concise blog posts, also have a lot of thoughts and information to unpack. And it’s a broad swathe of different topics relating to writing, self-doubt, and the parts (pleasant, unpleasant, and everything in between) of being a creative in a field that depends so much on audience interaction and how to make your way, ranging from hobbyist to professional. Though mostly geared toward writers, quite a bit of it, I think, is applicable to other art forms, so it might be worth a look for non-writers too. Highly recommended (and I haven’t even finished it yet!).
The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold: *squeeeee* More Penric and Des! I had no idea this released last month (I was a bit distracted) but it makes a wonderful surprise gift in the middle of August. As usual, the new installment of Penric and Desdemona is a joyful delight. Interestingly Pen swears a great deal in this one (true, he is having a very bad day) and he and Des get to go full-chaos-demon/sorcerer on a bunch of pirates–which is definitely the most chaos they’ve indulged in on-screen (I think), and it is glorious. On a writing-craft note, this is an excellent example of ramping-up complications. Every single time Pen has a plan, everything goes completely wrong and he ends up having to come up with another plan…which also goes wrong.
Heart of Fire by Bec McMaster: I’m on a romance-roll, it appears. Also, people with the name “McMaster”? Anyway, romance! And dragons! A combination I haven’t had much experience reading, but now I wonder…why have I not? This was a recommendation from a friend (whose reading tastes and my own often align) and I was not steered wrong! Honestly, a delight to read, Freyja and Rurik’s dialogue/banter is a blast, but most of all, they seem to be having so much fun. There’s an element here of play. Their banter is, often, funny to read, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves, and when the joke is at the other’s expense, it’s consensually at the other’s expense. I like my romances sweet or funny, and this one is both sweet and funny. Also, dragons. It’s interesting though that while the characters get their HEA, the end leaves much unresolved; the pair seem set up for another adventure together, and it’s heavily hinted that even though they have their HEA, they’re going to meet with conflict for their choice later…but the series is constructed as a romance series, meaning the next book will focus on a different couple. But I have downloaded the next so…
Firefly: The Unification War, Part One by Greg Pak, Dan McDaid, Marcelo Costa: Oh, hey, comic! I usually read comics/graphic novels in mass binges when the series is complete (or near completion), but in this case, it was sitting on the New Books shelf at my library and caught my eye. Amusing and entertaining, though I think, if I read any of these in future, I’ll watch the show just before so I can have the character/actor voices in my head. I think it’ll add another dimension.
It was good! Though next time, I think I’ll find a hotel rather than a truck-stop motel. The motel was good for a motel, but, erm, seemed designed for one-night stop-overs rather than four consecutive nights. Next time, hotel. With breakfast. Breakfast would be lovely.
ANYWAY! Volunteered at the Writer’s Symposium, which was exhausting but in a good way. Kept me busy and I was still able to go to pretty much all the panels and presentations that I’d wanted (and ended up going to a couple unexpected ones, and missing a few that I realized weren’t quite what I thought they were when I registered). Oh! And got all the books I’d brought for signing signed by some of my favorite authors, which was awesome.
This very clever revision/editing trick I’m going to use from now on for multi-viewpoint novels. Break the novel down into the individual character arcs and read those sections chronologically. It had been suggested as a way to maintain character voice, but I know the current book has a problem with redundancy and repeating character goals when I’m shifting to a viewpoint that I’ve been out of for awhile. This might help me weed through that.
I have been doing my query letters wrong. Kind of. See, I’ve been so damn focused on the concern of making my last book look marketable. Finding comps. Making it less threatening. But then, during a panel that, oddly, had little to do with querying, both an author and an agent pointed out that the thing agents and editors want is the opposite. Yeah, making sure your book isn’t totally out there is good, but more important is highlighting why it’s different. Thus, I’m doing another query revision before I send out my next batch, though this is going to take some work. Switching my focus from similarity to difference has, so far, been difficult, but I’m trying to be a little looser/free-er with my comps and let more of me, the writer, into my exceedingly business-like query. Seriously, looking at it, I realize I sound so, so terrified with my extreme professionalism—no, I’m not going to be unprofessional now, but it’s okay, I realize, to pitch the book the same way I pitch the book in person, i.e. with a bit of humor.
That said, more and more, I’m thinking I might need to re-title “In Blood.” As is, it works, but at the same time, it’s not really… *makes hand gestures* …y’know. It doesn’t stand out.
What to do when that horrible question comes up, when you tell people you’re a writer, and they say, “Oh? Anything I might’ve heard of?” The ANSWER: pull a copy of your book out of you bag and leave them to read the back cover copy while you keep doing whatever it was you were doing before they interrupted. That is genius.
Authors can be accused of a sort of distributor favoritism. If they post on their site a link to purchase their book but from only one distributor, though their book is available from multiple, the other distributors can call foul. The advice had been to just remove everything and leave if up to your publisher to put links to distributors on their page, but I figure I’m pretty small potatoes at this point—and everything I have published so far are short stories—so I’ve instead updated my publications list to include links to anywhere and everywhere you could possibly purchase my work. The distributors (when there are multiple) are now listed alphabetically, not in any order of preference. In future, though, I plan to follow the advice of no links whatsoever, but that’s not for awhile yet.
Confirmation of a level-up moment. I’d gone to one of the read & critique workshops, where you read three minutes of your work and a panel of authors/editors/agents give feedback. While I was listening to everyone read, editor-brain was critting and doing its thing (’cause it seems I can’t frickin’ turn it off when in a critique circle), and then the panel gave their feedback and probably about two out of three times, they critiqued the same thing I would’ve critiqued. They also caught a whole lot else I didn’t, but it was good to realize that I leveled up.
One (super important) reason why that whole book length and word count thing is so popular as a reason why your book is rejected. It’s actually not that much of a concern—if someone loves your long book, so long as it’s not 600,000 words, it’s workable—BUT it’s quantifiable. If someone is looking for a way to say “no” because it’s not their taste, they can cite the word count as a reason and it can’t be argued with. And suddenly I’m like, OH. So…it’s not a personal failing? I haven’t failed as a writer?
Some valuable reminders about how to write a fight scene.
Those bookmarks were far more popular than I thought they’d be. Instead of a handful, next time, I need to bring, like, 100, maybe more. They were all gone overnight. We’ll see if there’s an uptick in website traffic…