We all love a memorable villain – they can elevate a story and challenge a hero to the utmost of their limits. Think about the unforgettable impact of characters such as Voldemort and Darth Vader; their deeds repel us, but we find them fascinating. The very best villains allow us to thrillingly explore those aspects of our personality we normally hide!
So, if you are writing fantasy fiction, how can you create a villain that will excite and grip your readers? I know from writing The Tree of Life trilogy and This Sacred Isle, it can be a fun and demanding challenge.
In this post I’ll look at three ways you can develop a worthy adversary for your hero.
Make your villain three-dimensional.
Never forget that your antagonist is a character, not just a convenient plot device. You must understand their motives and perspective. Everybody is the hero of their own story – however cruel and selfish our behaviour, we are all capable of holding an internal narrative that depicts our actions as noble and justified. If you make your villain evil for evil’s sake, they can come across as flat, one-note characters. Instead, strive to show what motivates their actions, what quirks of personality and experiences have driven their behaviour.
A fine example of this is from Tad Williams’s majestic series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The chief protagonist is the Storm King, who although in many ways represents the typical ‘Dark Lord’ actually transcends this trope. The Storm King does not act out of simple-minded evil, for his dark sorcery is a reaction to the suffering and near annihilation of his people (the Sithi) at the hands of the humans.
In my novel, This Sacred Isle, the main antagonist is Merlin – he is far removed from the wise, benevolent mentor of King Arthur. The slaughter of the Dark Ages and the suffering endured by his people has left him bitter and vengeful. Worn down by the cruelty of Man, he seeks to cleanse Britain of those he sees as usurpers. Yes, Merlin’s plan is merciless, but he believes, truly believes, he has no choice.
A well-written villain should explore the darker sides of our nature, sides we all possess; they should ask an implicit question of the reader: “If I had their power, how would I act?”
Make your villain a worthy foe
You must make sure your antagonist is as least as strong as your hero. They should possess the very real ability and intent to ruin the hero’s life, for it is through meeting this challenge that the hero will prove worthy. If your hero can easily overwhelm the villain, where is the tension? In the traditional story arc, the hero should through the course of the story develop the skills, allies and strength required to face and defeat the villain.
And villainy might not just be a simple test of physical strength or magical power. One of the ways an antagonist can threaten a hero is to try to exploit their weaknesses by tempting them to follow an evil path and betray their cause – the idea of a hero being corrupted is in some ways more chilling than any threat to their life. Think how close Luke Skywalker strayed towards the dark side. Consider how the One Ring all but consumed Frodo Baggins. The fact that such heroes were tempted by evil does not diminish their heroism – it humanises them, makes them relatable and actually elevates the bravery of their defiance. A villain should push the hero to the extreme, to the point where they question everything they have learned, everything they have believed. And it is at this moment, that true heroism is revealed.
Keep your hero and villain in contact
For the purposes of your story, your hero and villain need each other, are often defined by each other. If they are in close proximity during the tale, then it is obviously easier for them to interact. However, do not despair if your story dictates they should rarely meet. This is where you can make use of proxies. The best way to do this is to employ effective proxies, not just mindless henchmen or henchwomen – use characters who have been twisted by the antagonist. A strong example of this comes in the Lord of the Rings; Sauron never meets Frodo, but he exerts his power through, among others, the Ringwraiths and Saruman, who have all been corrupted by the Dark Lord and thus demonstrate his strength and evil intent. Such proxies test a hero’s strength, resolve and abilities, and help to develop a sense of escalating danger as the story moves to the climatic moments.
Who are your favourite villains? What makes them some memorable? Add a comment and join the conversation!
If you are interested in my fiction, you can download the first novel in the Tree of Life series, The Map of the Known World, for FREE from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.
In this second part of my three part blog series, I will be looking at what I learned about worldbuilding from writing my epic fantasy series - The Tree of Life.
In common with many epic fantasy trilogies, The Tree of Life is set within a secondary world. ‘Worldbuilding’ is often a key element of fantasy literature and a daunting challenge when about to embark upon a trilogy. Some authors create their secondary world in great detail (Tolkien obviously being the most famous example), inventing languages and histories, devising complex genealogies and drawing maps. There are stories where this is absolutely a valid approach, provided this background information does not swamp the actual book; it should only be added in small amounts to support the story.
And the other great danger is this: world-building is fun, great fun – you are playing god – but it should not be done at the expense of actually writing your book. It is easy to fall into this trap; when I began work on my trilogy I turned immediately to worldbuilding. This did not extend to the creation of new languages etc. though I certainly did compile maps to help orientate myself within the story, plotted the main cultures (with information on their worldview, customs, beliefs and technology) and I worked out an historical timeline listing major events and turning points. I enjoyed this process immensely and it is easy to absorb oneself within the joy of what Tolkien memorably called sub-creation. However, as I filled notebooks with ideas and notes, the realisation dawned that I had done little to actually progress the story – I was staying within the gilded cage of world-building, and although this work was necessary, I could not delay writing the book. I needed to get on with planning and writing my trilogy.
Building a consistent setting
Your fantastical setting can be as bold, imaginative and wild as you can possibly make it but it must possess an internal logic, it must be consistent. You are free to set whatever internal rules you like within your secondary world, but you must then adhere to them, otherwise your creation will seem random, fragmented. And the settings you create must impact on your characters (and on occasions, vice versa) – we are influenced by our environments and this must be reflected by your fictional cast in their attitudes and behaviour.
So, how to achieve this? Well, there are as many techniques as there writers, but for me, I always wanted my fictional world to echo our world, and decided early on that all the lands within the book should resonant with certain times and places in our history. As I think there are links and shared symbols between cultures in our world – however distant – I felt that drawing on real time periods and civilisations would give my setting stronger foundations, hinting at connections between the different realms and peoples. This helps create the sense that there is consistency in the world, that the various cultures have been shaped, for both good and ill, by contact with others.
For example, Helagan, where the hero of the trilogy, Elowen Aubyn, lives and much of the action of The Map of the Known World takes place, is heavily influenced by early 17th century England, with a comparable level of technology and social structure. Why did I choose this period? I wanted the story to take place in a world on the cusp of modernity, with the first shoots of industrialisation appearing and the power of magic, of the Eldar races, beginning to fade – this would underpin much of the conflict and tension within the story.
And one last point in achieving a consistent setting: I would leave areas of your invented world unvisited and unexplored. However big and sprawling your trilogy, is it really plausible that your narrative will venture into every corner of the world? Much better to leave whole regions to the imagination of the reader – make reference to those unexplored lands (for example, in The Map of the Known World I made mentioned to the Firelands, a mining, proto-industrial part of Helagan, but did not bring the characters there), but consider them as the sort of references we make every day of our lives to places we know about but are highly unlikely to visit. This somehow feels more real, suggesting that the world you have created exists beyond the limits of your specific story.
Know your world - research
If you want your world-building to be convincing, then you have to know your world, and in my case, to know my world meant I had to research.
To use again the example of Elowen’s homeland of Helagan, I researched early modern England in great detail and used this information to establish features such as clothes, food and weapons – I believe this gives the world a more authentic feel. Where possible, I visited locations analogous to those I was creating in the book, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Wastwater in Cumbria, and this allowed me to bring a greater sense of place to my descriptions of the settings. I continued this approach when I wrote my latest novel, This Sacred Isle, a book in which a sense of place was of fundamental importance.
I developed other cultures within the trilogy in a similar manner, using, for example, researching in detail elements of medieval Russian, Mongol, Japanese, Ancient Greek and Assyrian history. I read books on these and other subjects, and visited many museums and galleries to immerse myself in the art and artefacts of these people and time periods. Adding specific details gives more authenticity to the secondary world and strengthens the credibility of the cultures being described, as it hints at their history in artistic, religious and technological terms.
Of course, I was writing a fantasy novel, not an historical novel, so I allowed myself significant latitude to twist my invented cultures into different directions, but I always used my research as the sound bedrock on which to build. And as much as I enjoyed researching the books (I love visiting museums and reading interesting non-fiction!), I was careful not allow research to eat all of my available writing time. For all the research in the world means nothing if the story itself remains unwritten…
Make the setting personal
One last thing to remember: the world you create is your world. Of course, you should bring into that world a host of factual information drawn from your research, but for your creation to really resonant, it has to be meaningful to you. Think about the great secondary worlds created in fantasy literature - such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Stephen Donaldson's The Land and J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World; these worlds reflect the passions and concerns of their authors in profound ways.
For my Tree of Life trilogy, I wanted to explore issues relating to prejudice, abuse of power and the destruction of the natural world – these issues shaped my secondary world as well as the plot and the characters. Think about the themes and issues that inspire you, and allow these to drive how you design your world.
Takeaway tip: Worldbuilding is important but do not concentrate on this at the expense of getting your books written. And make sure your invented world is consistent and feels authentic – where possible research real world cultures etc. that echo your creation.
The first part of this blog series can be read here.
Look out for the third part of the series, coming soon.
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format). See links and a preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How are you building your secondary world? Add a comment and join the conversation.
It is easy for authors to feel isolated - all those long lonely hours spent at the keyboard are not conducive to an active social life! But contact with, and support from, other authors is important, so how can we achieve this? One of the best ways is to join an online community, where you can share ideas, writing experience and motivate each other to keep going when the writing gets tough.
The best online community I have come across is SFF Chronicles, which is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Community. Through the forum I have been able to connect with other authors and readers, and as well as finding support and encouragement, there are also a host of topics covering books, films, games, politics etc. If you are an indie author writing SF / Fantasy books, (or just a fan of the genre), I strongly recommend joining this community - from my own personal experience, when I published my most recent book, This Sacred Isle, the SFF Chronicles community were very supportive; a nice morale boost at a tricky time!
So, I am very pleased that author Brian G. Turner, the founder of SFF Chronicles, has kindly agreed to an interview discussing the community and his own writing.
What motivated you to start SFF Chronicles?
It was originally a support forum for my writing. However, by 2003 I realised that I wasn't going to be published any time soon, so decided to broaden the forums remit - and also host it separately.
There's been a huge amount of work behind the scenes over the years. Trying to make a success of a forum is not for the faint-hearted. I've seen plenty die-off because the owners couldn't retain an interest, allow for the time needed for maintenance, or handle technical problems.
How can communities such as SFF Chronicles help indie authors?
The most surprising way is the professional contacts that can be made - for examples, editors, artists, and beta-readers.
There's also the ability to get critical feedback on your writing - I've had so many useful and insightful comments over the years. By that I'm not talking about plot, character, and spelling / grammar, but more serious technical points of POV use, emotional development arcs, and structure, for example.
Then there's the ability to connect with readers once finally published. Frankly, without the forums, I would struggle to reach readers when the marketplace is so flooded with new books.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of running SFF Chronicles?
Probably the social aspect in meeting people with similar interests. Writing is a solitary and often lonely job. I don't mind that, but the chrons forums helps provide a social outlet I would not easily have.
I also don't know many people in real life who read regularly - let alone in the genres I'm interested in. So it's great to be able to connect with other people in the forums to talk books, whether it's favourites, ones that I'm reading, or others that I've read.
I also enjoy seeing links to interesting stories, features, or articles. I have a big interest in history, and so do some of our members. It means I find information I wouldn't easily come across.
You’ve recently published Gathering, the first book in your Chronicles of Empire series – what can readers expect from the novel?
The basic premise is that it's an epic fantasy - but it has far more of an historical feel than most. There's also a major science-fiction element to the plot, which is revealed in the opening chapter.
After that, the story develops with what appears to be a fairly familiar and traditional band of adventurers.
However, not long after that, I start work on challenging the tropes, stereotypes, and expectations that a reader might normally expect of such a book.
By the end of the story, the reader should be left feeling that they've read an original and entertaining story, that defies easy comparison with other novels.
You've developed a whole fantasy world for Gathering – what kind of research did you carry out?
I came up with the idea for the series in the 1990's, but I wanted a sense of historical detail to make it feel more authentic. So I began researching as much as I could about ancient and mediaeval history. I haven't stopped.
So anyone who picks up Gathering can easily find all sorts of references to Ancient Rome, Byzantium, and Mediaeval Northern Europe. However, the details are in the living history rather than political history.
So when the reader enters the city of Corianth with the characters - the setting for most of the book - they will be experiencing something analogous to what a Mediterranean city might have felt like in Mediaeval times.
When will the next book in the Chronicles of Empire series be published?
I'm aiming for a Dec 2018 publishing date. However, it's very difficult to write a true multi-character story.
Most novels feature a single protagonist, perhaps with a love interest and best friend and a couple of supporting points of view. The result is that the main character goes from point A to point B, then C, etc. It's a simple and linear progression.
With multiple characters, while one is going from A to B, another is going from A to C, another from B to D, etc., and all the time their stories are intersecting and impacting each other. It makes it much more challenging to write. I can totally appreciate why George R R Martin takes so long with his epic series - then again, he has a lot more characters!
Thank you, Brian.
To find out more about Chronicles of Empire, go to: http://www.chroniclesofempire.com/
And there is a Chronicles of Empire discussion page at: https://www.sffchronicles.com/forum/brian-g-turner/
Many indie authors now predominantly publish their work in e-book format and there is a sound logic to this: it keeps costs down and provides an easier way to reach a wider readership. E-books are wonderful for readers and authors, but as a lover of paperbacks too, I really wanted physical copies of my books to complement the electronic versions.
Initially, I did consider a small / medium print run with a local book printing company – I am sure they would have done a good job, but frankly the costs were too high. Therefore, I decided to take the online, Print on Demand (POD) option. A number of companies offer this service, foremost among them CreateSpace, Lulu.com and IngramSpark (and many others).
After much research and consideration, I decided to use CreateSpace. The Amazon-owned company have become a major player in indie-publishing but is the service they offer authors a good investment? In this post I am going to describe what it is like for an indie author to use CreateSpace.
Before I used CreateSpace I had previously published paperback books through Lulu.com. On the whole, my experience with Lulu.com was positive: the print quality was high, the distribution outlets worked well and the publishing process was relatively straightforward.
So, why did I switch?
A couple of factors attracted me to CreateSpace and they were both areas I perceived as weaknesses with Lulu.com’s service.
The first was cost – in comparison, I found it cheaper to publish paperbacks through CreateSpace. Like all indie authors and publishers I have to keep a close eye on the bottom line, so CreateSpace’s cheaper production costs were a benefit. Admittedly Lulu.com regularly holds offers and special events, which reduce unit costs, but this can be tricky to tie in with publishing schedules. CreateSpace’s shipping costs are a little on the high side (I’m based in the UK) but the overall unit cost is still cheaper than other providers. I wanted to price my latest book (This Sacred Isle) at £7.99, which I felt was in line with similar books in the fantasy genre. The CreateSpace production costs made this possible, while still allowing a small royalty on each copy sold - had I used another POD provider, I estimate I would have had to price my book at £8.99 or higher.
The other attraction of CreateSpace over Lulu.com was the ability to print a paperback in my preferred trim size of 5.06 x 7.81 inches (standard, in the UK at least). My earlier books were printed in a 6 x 9 inches and while I know some authors / readers like that format, for me it feels too large for paperbacks and is seldom used by traditional publishers. There was a drawback to using the 5.06 x 7.81 trim size, namely that (with cream paper) it does not qualify for CreateSpace’s expanded distribution. This was disappointing and a little frustrating but I viewed it as a trade-off I was willing to accept. I wanted a paperback that looked and felt right, and I was willing to compromise on distribution to achieve that – of course, others may disagree with my decision!
So, I decided to switch to CreateSpace, both for my latest book and for shiny new editions of my Tree of Life fantasy series!
And I must say I have found CreateSpace publishing relatively pain-free! To create the interior file, you download a Word template for your chosen trim size, and it proved an easy enough task to transfer my story into this format. There are more than ten printing options (trim sizes) for black and white paperbacks (and a similar number for full-colour books) so you should be able to find a size to suit your needs and preferences.
For your book’s cover, you can make use of CreateSpace’s free online tool – this looks rather limited but I guess if you’re looking for a simple cover this would be suffice; I doubt it will give you a fully professional appearance though. The other, and I think best, option is to upload your own cover. The submission requirements for doing so are clear, and you can download the CreateSpace template (a format that will match your books’ trim size and number of pages) for you or your cover designer to work from.
Once your book’s interior file and cover are ready to go, you simply upload both files to CreateSpace. The files will then be ‘reviewed’ and you should hear back within 24 hours as to whether or not they meet the technical requirements for printing. If you have taken some care and followed the instructions up to this point, you shouldn’t have any problems. After CreateSpace reviews your book files, you will sometimes get the following message:
“The cover contains transparency which is flattened during our processing and may result in a slight change in appearance.”
Although this looks a little alarming, in my experience, even when I have received this message the proof has printed without any issues at all. So if you do get this message, I wouldn’t worry too much.
Once CreateSpace confirms your book meets their technical requirements, you’ll have a print-ready document you can view via an online previewer, which operates like a virtual book. This is a good way to preview your book and spot problems, though you are (correctly) recommended to purchase a printed proof copy for a full edit.
Adding key data about your book (title, description, edition number etc.) is simple, as are the processes for pricing and distribution. There is a royalty calculator as well as an online tool to work out how much it will cost you (including shipping) to buy physical copies of your book (for your own distribution). You are handheld through these stages (and you can save and return to them at will), so regardless of your technical competency with computers, you shouldn’t find it too taxing. In addition, there is an active CreateSpace Community, which is an invaluable source of advice and inspiration.
Professional services and distribution
CreateSpace advertises a number of paid professional services such as editing, formatting and cover design – I cannot comment on these as I sourced such services independently. CreateSpace also offers a Kindle e-book conversion service ($79, with a charge of $139 for a ‘complex’ conversion). Again, I did not use this service, opting instead to create my Kindle e-books separately through KDP, which was simple to achieve.
There are two distribution options – standard and expanded – and both are free to join, although as I referred to earlier, only certain books qualify for ‘expanded’. Both standard and expanded are decent options, as even standard makes your book available across the various Amazon platforms as well as the CreateSpace e-store.
The final product…
So, what is the finished article like? I was very satisfied with the print quality of my books. I believe they stand comparison with industry standard paperbacks. The interior paper feels of a good standard, and the cover colours are clear and vibrant. I did have an issue with one of my proofs – some of the lines in the interior pages were slanted. I queried this with CreateSpace support; they investigated the problem and found it was a printing fault and sent me another proof (which was fine) at no further charge – from a customer perspective, I can’t say fairer than that.
The books appeared on Amazon within a few days of completing the publishing process, although the ‘Look inside’ feature took a little longer. If you have a definite ‘release date’ for your book, you might want to publish at least three or four days in advance to avoid the embarrassment of your book not being available for the eager readers who want to buy it!
I have found CreateSpace a good solution for my publishing needs. The costs are reasonable, the process is user-friendly and transparent, and their customer support proved responsive and helpful. It is shame I cannot access extended distribution for my chosen trim size – I hope this is something CreateSpace will offer in the future!
I plan to use CreateSpace again for future books and would not hesitate to recommend them to indie authors. Of course, others may have different needs, but I think CreateSpace would cover most criteria for paperback indie publishing and at a cost that shouldn’t break your budget! Happy creating…
Have you used CreateSpace? How did it work for you? Post a comment and join the conversation.
Well, it's that time again - time to start a new story! Writing a book is often described in terms of scaling a mountain; at this stage the peak looks very high indeed and far, far away.
I’ve spent three years planning, researching, writing and editing This Sacred Isle. I dived deep into the Dark Age, and loved learning about the history, mythology and cosmology of the Anglo Saxons. It was fascinating (and such fun to write about warriors, dragons and Dark Age gods!) and I feel the novel stretched and improved my writing ability and allowed me to develop new techniques. Every book is a chance to learn new things – it is part of the experience, a good part.
As far as modesty permits, I’m very happy with This Sacred Isle – it’s the book I set out to write - but now it's time to move on. I cannot wait to start a new story, and this one is tentatively called: Second Sun. It is a SF novel set in an alternate Earth, where the destiny of humanity has been altered by alien visitation. It is a world like our own in many ways, but being a generation after colonisation by an extra-terrestrial race, also very, very different. The main character is something of an outsider, and he has grave misgivings about the alien 'benefactors' controlling the planet and the 'paradise' they have created. He leads a quiet, almost solitary life, but then his routine is shattered when he is approached by forces who secretly oppose alien rule...
Why write a SF story? The genre has long interested me as a reader, and some of my favourite books are SF (for example, Dune, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Day of the Triffids). Although I have written predominantly fantasy books, writing a SF novel has always been an ambition of mine and it's exciting to finally embark on this project.
I also believe SF, like fantasy, provides the author with a canvas on which to explore a range of issues and themes, and can hold a mirror to the real world. Within Second Sun, I want to write about inequality, about indifference to the suffering of others, and the effects of colonisation. And above all I want to write a compelling, exciting tale with relatable characters, a tale which will stay with the reader long after they have read the final page...
So, what stage am I at with Second Sun at the moment? I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘ideas gathering’ - my notes are filling up with thoughts, plans, inspirations and snatches of dialogue. I am researching a number of key subjects and developing characters. I also need to decide what format to use. I currently think that a novella is more appropriate than a full novel, but of course the tale can grow in the telling...
As with all stories, it's going to be tough at times. So many decisions: narrative, characters, tone, imagery - headspinning, but I love the process!
So when will Second Sun be published? Late 2017 is the aim but as Douglas Adams famously said,
"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
The hard work has started though, and I'll keep you posted...
We are used to thinking of novel writing as a solitary discipline: the half-starved author in the garrett, suffering for their art, cloistered from the outside world.
But I would challenge this cliche. Yes, when it comes to writing a novel, the author is of course the primary agent, but dig a little deeper and you'll find a network of direct and indirect helpers. This is certainly true in my experience. Although my books come from my mind, my life, they would not - could not - truly exist without the help of many others.
So what forms does this help take? Well, to write my books I've benefitted from a wide spectrum of support and reassurance!
Family is my primary support. My wife puts up with my writing obsession and has proofread innumerable drafts (eliminating many typos!) when I'm pretty sure she'd much rather end a busy day in front of the TV. She also helps to organise me on the business / administrative side, which is a good thing...
Although a little too young to read my books, my daughter's energy and endless good humour keeps me going. And the rest of my family, my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, have always unconditionally supported my writing efforts.
I must be honest - I often find talking about my writing embarrassing, and the fault (if there is one) lies with me and not with anyone else. Perhaps (probably) it stems from a lack of confidence, but I can't help but feel as though I am bragging, or being laughably ambitious, or being a total fraud by even beginning to think of myself as an author. Despite these hang-ups, friends all help me, often more than they know. For despite my frequent discomfort when asked how my latest book is coming along, it is the same time encouraging, and pleasing that people are showing an interest.
And do not forget the digital world! I've lost count of the times a perfect stranger on a forum has helped me with advice on technical issues. These acts of kindness and generosity have saved me many hours. Certainly within the SF / Fantasy genre there are many thriving online communities (SFF Chronicles and SFF World being two good examples) - there you will find support, advice, inspiration and many other interesting discussions. Being part of a community can be huge encouragement for any author as it helps to remove that feeling of isolation.
There are also many inspiring and helpful indie-publishing websites, which give out free advice and inspiration; two of the most helpful are: JF Penn's The Creative Penn and Jane Friedman's website. These sites have helped me greatly during my publishing journey, and if you're interested in writing, please try these sites - I promise you it will prove time well spent.
Some professional input is necessary to produce a book; for example, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post about editing, an editor / proofreader is a must. A professional edit gives a book a more polished patina and gives the author more confidence in their work. You cannot edit a book alone - beta readers, editors, you need 'em!
A book is a method of communication, and as such, it only really comes to life when somebody reads it - I know from experience that readers will find aspects and interpretations of the story that will surprise the author! And I often think how books I have read have inspired me - without them, I would not have picked up a pen, I would never have written a novel. I'll never meet those authors, but through their books they created a dialogue and allowed me to see different perspectives of the world.
So, as you can see, it might be my name on the cover, but the book only exists because of the generous support and inspiration of many others.
Who helps you to write or create art? Join the conversation - post a comment.
In the final post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be discussing my thoughts about the finished novel. And to mark the end of this series, and for a limited time only, the ebook version of This Sacred Isle is available at half price! Click here to purchase.
Coming to the end of a book is, for me, a time of mixed emotions - satisfaction, even a little pride at having completed the task, alongside regrets about some aspects of the novel.
Writing a novel is a long process, with twists and turns, reflecting in many ways the progress of a plot. And I am always fascinated how different the final version differs from the concept I formed in my 'mind's eye' at the very beginning. Images, symbols, beats - abandoned, lost from the finished book. During this process there are bound to be setbacks and regrets - in this post I highlight one of each (trust me, there were more...), the effect they had, and what I learned from them. Oh, and to end on a positive note, I'll talk about what I feel worked best within the novel.
Although clearly the story is a work of fiction, I have tried to use real world settings for many of the key locations. Initially I placed the king’s stronghold of the Cyneholf beside the River Deben (called the King’s River in the book). On the west bank of the Deben is an area called Kingston (‘King’s town’ in Old English), which seemed a reasonable location for King Tytila’s stronghold. And frankly, from a storytelling perspective, it was easier, as I didn’t have to contrive a way of getting the characters across the river!
However, in 2014, Archaeologists announced findings that supported the idea that the royal settlement of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia was located at Rendlesham, a village several miles to the north-east of River Deben. This was a fascinating and exciting moment in our understanding of the period, but it was rather inconvenient in terms of my story…
At this point, my options were to ignore this discovery or to rewrite part of the story to relocate the Cyneholf close to the historical origins of the East Anglian kings. After some consideration, I realised I had to change the story – I could not ignore this development. Although this did entail some significant rework (and took more precious time, slowing my progress) it actually opened a new aspect to the story. I added a cameo from a character called the Boatman, a Charon-like figure who takes Morcar and his companions across the King’s River and into the area we now call Sutton Hoo, the burial lands of the Anglo-Saxon kings, a literal ‘land of the dead.’
So now, rather than actually being a setback, I feel the addition of a scene crossing river becomes a symbolic moment in Morcar’s journey, one where his world truly begins to expand, and the danger he faces increases. He moves from the quiet, contained world he has always known into the bustling heart of a kingdom, with all the machinations of a Royal court. And there his adventure truly begins...
So, I would say expect setbacks when writing your story - they are inevitable. But don't despair; they might knock you off course for a short time, but there's always a chance you'll discover a better path!
I feel This Sacred Isle has strong female characters. Slug (as she's introduced...) is courageous, intelligent and confident. With the greatest respect, I did not want her to stray into Xena - Warrior Princess territory. She's not a superhero and she's not just a tough fighter - just someone who has endured much in her brief life and refuses to submit meekly to slavery and tyranny. And for all her suffering, she does not allow her (understandable) antipathy towards Anglo-Saxons to poison her sense of justice.
Queen Eawyn is the power behind the throne of the East Angles but not in a malevolent way. She's no Lady Macbeth. I wanted to express the sense of frustration of this intelligent, shrewd woman who is constrained by the structures of her society. Eawyn is effectively forced to serve a king who, although fierce and skilled in battle, lacks her intellect, foresight and humanity. Open defiance to her husband would be dangerous - could you imagine King Tytila's reaction if he felt scolded, hen-pecked by his wife? Eawyn must seek to guide her husband's actions and decisions, to cool his warlike temperament, while all the time making him think he is in full control. A delicate balancing act!
Thinking about these characters brings me to my main regret. I wish I had had more scenes of them together - I should have done this, but again, like many ideas, many plans, this somehow got lost in the mix. It concerns me that I failed to concentrate enough on female characters. Yes, the Anglo-Saxon world was patriarchal but could I have expanded the role of women in the tale? Did I fail the Bechdel test? Hmm, possibly. Although this is a test and not a law, it serves a clear and important purpose: it prompts all writers to think about gender bias in their work. I know I need to learn from this; I know I need to do better.
Looking back over the novel I can always find elements that didn't quite achieve what I was hoping for, elements that if I did it all again, I would change. I am sure every writer who has ever lived has felt the same. Writing This Sacred Isle has taught me a lot about the craft and I feel I have more weapons in my literary armoury than before I started. I hope to take and develop these skills in my next novel, and all future novels beyond! I want to keep learning, keep developing...
So which part of This Sacred Isle am I most proud? My intention with the story was always to blend hard historical veracity with the mythical elements of the pagan Anglo Saxon belief system, and I think I achieved this. Through extensive (and sometimes exhausting!) research, I was able to gather the key information to build a credible picture of this period of history. And when mixed with mythical elements such as Thyrs, Barghests and dragons, I believe it creates a compelling setting for the tale.
But I think the part of This Sacred Isle of which I am most proud is the creation of the character of Morcar. I wanted more than just a boy who learns to become a warrior and a man, the usual a 'king-in-waiting' archetype. I wanted Morcar to feel alienated by his society, to resent and even resist what is expected of him. For me, showing Morcar's psychological turmoil, his fears, his insecurities, was crucial both to his development as a character and to the plot itself. I am pleased to see Morcar appear as a fully fledged character with, I hope, real depth - and I hope he is someone readers can identify with too.
This is the last of my 'Writing This Sacred Isle' series of posts and I hope you have found them interesting and informative. However, I will of course continue to blog regularly about a range of writing and publishing subjects. And I will post regular updates as my next novel begins to take shape...
How do you deal with the inevitable setbacks that come with writing a book? What have you learned? Post a comment - join the conversation!
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at editing the first full draft of the novel.
I find editing fascinating and painful in equal measure!
Once I read back over my first draft of This Sacred Isle, any small sense of pride and accomplishment I felt on its completion withered away. One dimensional characters; choppy, incoherent plot; stilted dialogue. And it's at this point that an author needs to really go to work and start revising and moving onto the next draft, and then the next...
How many drafts? Frankly, I have lost count. Certainly more than fifteen, more than twenty very likely. Is this a lot of work? Yes, but I could never be comfortable with dashing off a draft, giving it a quick edit and then sending it out into the world. Some authors can do that and do it well – good luck to them, but I cannot work that way. For me, editing is writing, the shaping and moulding of a story, finding new narrative avenues to explore and developing characters. I need to reflect on a story over a reasonable period of time – and this reflection does seem to yield fresh insights.
Of course, there is a danger if this turns into a mission for perfection, and this is an ailment of which I suffer. I want the book to be the very best it can be and hate the idea of poorly written passages, underdeveloped characters and weak narrative. I think this is a healthy, professional approach to writing but it runs the risk of being forever absorbed in detail, of fearing to let the story be seen. It is easy to find reasons to keep tinkering, checking, but the true issue is one of fear – I am worried that people will tear apart my rudely stamped novel. There is no easy remedy to this, no magical formula, no moment when your book is ‘finished’, so don’t expect one. But at some point, you have to let go, you have cut the umbilical cord and let your imagination’s offspring thrive.
One key element of editing is that of collaboration - beyond a certain stage you cannot edit a book alone. You need fresh pairs of eyes. I am fortunate to have several people who have kindly read drafts of This Sacred Isle and their feedback has helped me to shape and improve the book (and pick out those pesky typos). As I approached what I felt to be a later draft, I sent the book to a professional editor. Clearly an editor's time is not free (though my editor's charges were very reasonable) but this is a necessary step and - if you are an independent author - one for which you should budget. A professional editor can pick out the grammatical errors you didn't even know were errors! Having a professional edit of This Sacred Isle gave me confidence that the final published book would be in the best possible shape for the reader.
Before I finish, I should mention a couple of apps I used for earlier drafts of the book. Both the Hemingway app and Pro Writing Aid app provided helpful analysis of my writing. The feedback provided should obviously be treated with a degree of caution and I would not advise anyone to rely on these apps exclusively, but it is worth giving them a try.
And if you'd like to pick up some more editing tips, check out my interview with editor Helen Baggott from an earlier blog post.
What are your tips for editing - what works for you?
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at writing the first full draft of the novel.
“The first draft of anything is s**t.”
Yes, you’ve probably seen the Hemingway quote before – rather blunt, perhaps, but he is bang on the money. Do not expect perfection – or anything close – on your first draft, do not even seek perfection. Your task is to get down as much of your story as you can; there is plenty of time for revising later.
Using my treatment as reference, I worked through the first draft of This Sacred Isle without stopping to polish or edit anything other than obvious spelling mistakes or typos. As motivation, I set myself a monthly word count target of 15,000 words (which roughly equates to 500 words a day). This was a stretching objective but one I was confident I could achieve, which indeed I managed to, producing the first draft of ‘This Sacred Isle’ (90,000 words) in six months.
What is my writing schedule? Well, it varies but I always remember the maxim ‘never a day without a line’ – this goes to the heart of one of the most important challenges when writing a first draft: you must sustain the momentum. Like many writers, I also work full-time, so seldom enjoy the luxury of a whole day concentrating on writing. However, I do try to take advantage of any small window of opportunity for writing and this was certainly true when I was working on This Sacred Isle. For example, in my lunch-break I would spend twenty minutes in the local library jotting down ideas or doing small pieces of research. If I was then able to write in the evening, I felt I already had a head-start, and if I couldn’t, then I had at least made some progress.
During a first draft you must expect to get bogged down, especially in the middle of your story. If beginnings and endings are tough, middles are for me like a lower circle of hell. Fatigue is setting in - the booster fuel of excitement at the start of the project has expired. Now you have to keep going, digging into reserves to get to the end. So, what do you do if you find yourself at this stage? My advice? Keep going. Expect this time. You don't have to enjoy it (you won't), you can even grumble about it (you will) but don't stop. Don't falter, not now. Keep going. For if you do, slowly, inexorably, the end will come into sight. And that is an energising moment. With the finishing line in view, you will find a fresh rush of creativity.
Writing a novel really is a job of a thousand small steps, so don’t try to do it one leap. Be honest with yourself and set targets you can reasonably manage. Keep chipping away, keep moving forward, and you’ll finish your first draft sooner than you think. And then, you need to start thinking about rewriting...
What are your experiences of writing a first draft? Which is the hardest part for you?
So you’ve finished your book – you’ve read through the manuscript line by line, word by word. You’ve found and corrected every typo, your grammar is flawless…until the very first reader picks up the book and finds an error!
Even the most diligent, most grammar savvy author cannot spot every mistake in his or her own manuscript. And this is why employing the services of a professional editor / proofreader is a must for your book.
Helen Baggott is an accredited proofreader and copy-editor, and a partner member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors). Helen offers a range of professional services including editing, proofreading and self-publishing advice. Helen has worked on all four of my novels, and I strongly endorse her services – Helen’s professionalism and attention to detail certainly improved my books.
Helen kindly agreed to an interview about the role of an editor / proofreader, and about the benefits this can bring to authors.
What attracted you to working as a professional editor/proofreader, and how did you start?
As the self-publishing market blossomed I recognised the need for affordable proofreading. Too many writers were publishing their books without having the content edited and proofread. I had already completed a course to complement my work on a local magazine and as a writer of articles for other magazines.
Do you have a specific method you use for each book or does it change from manuscript to manuscript?
By the time a manuscript is finished an author can almost recite the content, that’s how familiar it becomes. Even the way the paragraphs break on a page will be imprinted and the brain and eye will conspire to deceive. It’s unlikely friends and family will criticise or find fault with the work – employing an impartial professional is essential.
Every manuscript is different – every writer is different. By the end of the first chapter I have appreciated the style and have a good sense of the author’s voice. That voice is critical – any suggested changes must retain it. Also, I will make a note of any quirky styles – just to ensure that the author’s voice is consistent. It’s surprising how often an author will change a character’s personality. If I don’t hear the character saying those words or acting that way, I flag it up and explain my query.
What is the difference between editing and proofreading?
Editing will ultimately ensure a manuscript is structured and rounded, that it has no plot bumps or inconsistencies. It should ensure that the reader isn’t suddenly caught unawares by an unconvincing scene. Inexperienced authors will sometimes force something on to a character to suit a scene or a plot twist. That short-changes a reader’s experience. Characters have to be fully-formed and whilst you shouldn’t reveal everything on the first page, you do need to create a credible cast. We all, in real life, occasionally act out of character. But there’s a reason, an external influence. The skill of the author will create exactly that, and the editor will ensure it all has the mark of credibility, even in incredible scenarios.
Proofreading will correct typos – spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. However, if I’m asked to proofread a manuscript and it’s clear it hasn’t been edited, I will include the relevant information in my report.
Editing and proofreading will involve a certain amount of fact-checking. Whilst I don’t have access to an author’s research, I do check as many details as possible. It’s always better to query something than assume it’s correct – especially with non-fiction.
What are the most common mistakes you see in manuscripts?
Very often there will be inconsistencies – both with the style and the content. But I actually find mistakes in the front matter – where the author has added their own details. It’s the same with websites; the ‘About Us’ pages are usually peppered with errors. We know our own story so we barely read the text. That information is standard – it’s possibly been copied from blog, to website, to Twitter profile, to Amazon, etc. If the original version has an error it’s carried through to all platforms.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Some of my clients are established and have a number of traditionally published books to their names. Others are new to writing and as thrilling as it all is – and should be – they do need help. It’s extremely satisfying to work on a project for several months and help an author fulfil their potential and be able to publish a polished book.
If you could give just one piece of advice to independent authors when it comes to editing/proofreading, what would it be?
I always think it’s a terrible shame that some authors do not allow time in their self-publishing schedule for editing and proofreading. Setting a date for their book’s launch seems more important than having an error-free product. In five years’ time, postponing the launch by a month would be irrelevant. Bad reviews on Amazon (because of errors) will be there forever. Successful authors are those who take their time. They’re not procrastinating, tweaking the same sentence a hundred times, they’re sitting back and allowing the book to settle. My top tip would be: create a timetable that allows you to self-publish the best book you possibly can. Don’t compromise just because you have a date ringed on the calendar.
You can find Helen at http://www.helenbaggott.co.uk/