End-of-Year Update (and Changes)

As we near the end of 2018, I figured it was time for me to take a look at my writing goals and see how well I’ve been doing, and if I need to make some adjustments.

This was an interesting exercise, and it comes with some realizations that I wasn’t terribly happy to see, but that are necessary for me to actually achieve my goals.

So I’m going to start with my actual goals, as that’s the most important part.

Writing Goals

  • First and foremost, writing for me is something that I’m driven to do, and which I enjoy immensely. As long as I continue to want to write, as long as it brings me happiness, then things are working well regardless of any other metric I may choose to measure.
  • My second goal is to complete my writing projects. It’s fine to just write, but if I never end up with a finished story or novel, then I’m just puttering. While this goal is subservient to my first goal above, it’s very closely related. I know that if I’m not finishing my writing projects, then something in my writing process is broken, and it means that I’m probably not enjoying some part of this.
  • My third goal is to put my finished writing projects in a form that others can read. Whether this is just throwing a short story up on my website, or producing a full novel in electronic and hard-copy form, I want to share what I do with others. Of course, having this as my third goal means that if I’m spending too much time on this step, then I’m not actually writing. So I need to find a happy balance here.
  • My fourth goal is to promote my stories and novels so that others might find them. This is not specifically about selling my stuff. I’m not in this for the money—though I would absolutely love to make enough to do this for a living if it was possible—but I do have a desire to have others read what I create. And I’d like to make some money at it as well.

And, surprisingly, that’s it. I had a few other goals that came up in my mind when I was doing this exercise, but it turned out that I could fit all of them into one of the four goals above. And when I made it down the list of possible goals to the point where they didn’t fit, I realized that I was reaching and those goals just weren’t that important to me after all.

So How Am I Doing?

The next step, of course, was to compare 2018 with my goals and see where I ended up this year.

For the goal of writing (and getting pleasure from it), it was actually a mixed bag. I’m certainly doing a lot of writing. I’ve written over eighty thousand words on this blog alone.

Eighty thousand words.

Almost a novel.

Almost another novel.

And for happiness? Well, this is where I have to be brutally honest with myself. As much as I love roleplaying games—and most of my blog posts have been about that exact topic—the truth is that I’d much rather write fiction than write posts on the blog.

Writing on the blog is something that I’m doing because, as an author, I’m supposed to have a platform. I’m supposed to provide value to readers, to give them a reason to come back to my blog over and over. And that is supposed to help me find eyeballs for my fiction.

But the thing is…it’s not working.

It’s not working on a couple of levels. First, it’s not really working in getting people interested in my fiction projects. The fact is, no matter how many visitors I get to my blog each week—and I’m actually pretty happy with that number, as it’s a lot higher than I expected I would be able to achieve—those people aren’t turning into readers of my fiction.

In truth, though I have had a dozen short stories posted for the past year that visitors can read for free, and even download them as epub and mobi files, that part of my site is the least-visited of all.

Anyway, bringing this back to my primary goal, the fact is that I’m not happy. I’m doing this writing because I committed to myself that I would make a blog post each week, not because it’s bringing me any pleasure.

And what’s much worse is that this blog is taking time away from me doing the writing that does bring me pleasure.

Which leads me to my second goal.

The Traitor and the Thief should have been out earlier this year. It’s not done yet. I stalled out on it for months. And as I look back with that 20/20 hindsight we all wish was foresight, I realize that it’s because I’ve been distracted with other writing. I’ve been working on building a platform to promote writing that I haven’t had time to complete.

And it’s not just the next novel. I have a roleplaying game product that I wanted to get out many months ago, but the blog has eaten all of that time, as well. But I’ll talk a bit more about Rooms with a View in a bit.

My third goal certainly hasn’t been met. Other than this blog, I haven’t managed to finish a single writing project this year, so I haven’t had anything to put in a publishable form. Except for Rooms with a View, and that’s not out yet either.

And my fourth goal is one that I thought I could say I’ve achieved. This blog is the result of that. Except when I really looked at it (as I noted above), this blog isn’t actually helping me promote my novels or stories. This blog is getting attention for the blog posts about roleplaying games, and that’s it. So I can’t exactly say that this goal has been met, either.

Regroup and Reorganize

I’m not happy.

That’s the end result of 2018 when it comes to writing. If I was putting the effort and energy into my novels that I’ve been putting into this blog, then I would likely have finished the Undying Empire: Rebellion trilogy by now.

But I haven’t met my first goal. Or my second goal. Or my third goal. Or my fourth goal.

I’ve let myself become distracted by things that I do enjoy to a point. But they aren’t why I write.

So, the fact is, something has to change.

My focus has to change.

And that means this blog has to change.

I had made a commitment to write a blog post each week, and my desire was to post something that was interesting or useful to my visitors. But that commitment takes me away from the commitments to myself that are more important.

So I’m going to be refocusing my efforts. Those four goals above are what’s most important to me when it comes to my writing. And so when I write, those four goals, in order, are going to be on my mind and will drive the time I spend on writing and the related activities.

So What’s Next?

I’m not abandoning this blog. That’s not what this is about. It’s about spending my creative energy wisely. So I’m not going to go back to my first couple of years on here and only post every four-to-six months, if that.

It does mean, however, that posting every week is not achievable. It takes too much time away from the writing that I need to be doing. If I was a full-time writer, it would be different. But I can’t abandon my day job any time soon.

I will still write about roleplaying games, and other things that interest me. But those posts are going to be written when I’m motivated to write them. Not just because it’s Sunday and I’ve got a schedule to keep.

It means that there won’t be a post here every week. At least not until something else changes.

It means that I’m going to finish The Traitor and the Thief, and then I’m going to write the Revenant and the Reaper.

It also means that some elements of this blog are going to be restructured.

Other Projects

So what are all my writing projects again? Here’s a quick summary:

  • The Traitor and the Thief—This past month, as I realized I was spending too much time on the blog, I dove back into the manuscript. And I’m already feeling reinvigorated. Just the realization that I was going to relax on the blog has given me new energy, and I’m writing almost every day, whenever I get the chance. So things are…progressing. It’s too early to say anything more than that.
  • The Revenant and the Reaper—Obviously, my first goal is to complete the middle book in the trilogy. But I intend to dive right in to the final book immediately after. I want to build some momentum here, and then use it to keep things rolling to that there’s not another two-year gap between novels.
  • Origin—I still have the young teen novella that I wrote for my son. My idea is to get some pencil illustrations, one for each chapter, and I don’t know exactly when I’m going to do that. This fits solidly into my third writing goal, so it’ll happen when I feel I have the bandwidth to deal with it.
  • Rooms with a View—The writing on this one is complete. The layout is even complete. The delay in getting this out have been on the creation of the updated maps. I’ve done a couple of them, but doing good maps is a time-consuming effort, and it keeps getting pushed to the back burner. I’m considering some options, though the truth is I make so little on these kinds of products that paying for cartography is not really an option right now. So I don’t have a good answer.

Anything else falls under the “Miscellaneous” tab and is so far down the list that there’s no point in discussing it at this point. I’ve got a novel to complete, and another to write. That’s my focus now.

Do You Write?

I do hope this blog post is interesting to other writers who are having trouble meeting their goals. It’s hard to manage all the other elements that go along with writing and publishing and still have creative energy to finish your novel.

Me taking the time to write down my goals and seriously think about whether or not my efforts are actually aligning with them was something that I should have done a long time ago. But again, hindsight is 20/20.

So I encourage other writers to take a good look at what you’re doing. Is your energy being spent where it will do the most good, where it will bring you closer to achieving what you want to achieve?

If not, then make the necessary changes. It’s not fun, but it needs to be done.

Conclusion

So, this blog is going to undergo a change. For those who have just started following the blog due to the Dungeon-A-Week series, I don’t intend to completely abandon that effort. But I’ll need to change the name to Dungeon-When-I-Have-The-Creative-Energy-That-Doesn’t-Take-Away-From-My-Other-Writing-Projects Series.

Okay, maybe I’ll need to rethink that name.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.

If you’ve read my blog at all, thank you.

But now it’s time for me to get back to writing.

Love and Hate in Reviews

There’s been a bunch of conversations happening online recently focusing on book reviews, and the necessity of having good reviews for writers to reach any kind of critical mass in readership that allows a book (or book series) to take off.

It’s certainly true that having a bunch of good reviews for a book will encourage other readers to give it a chance. As long as the marketing blurb is also good. And the cover. And the actual writing in the sample chapter.

It seems to be true that many readers rely on reviews to determine if a book is worth buying and reading. There’s certainly an overlap between books with large numbers of positive reviews and those that sell well.

But, from a writer’s perspective, reviews are a funny thing.

I was thrilled when I got my first positive review. It was from someone I didn’t know (which meant it wasn’t just one of my friends being nice), and I was very happy that an individual out there in the world had gotten some pleasure from something I had created.

I got a few other reviews, and they were also generally positive. And since I hadn’t gotten enough actual reviews to make it impossible to follow, I would usually check out each new review as I became aware of it.

And then I got my first negative review. I read it, chuckled, showed it to my wife and said “I’ve got one!” It was a 1-star review and it pulled no punches on explaining that I had no ability to set a scene or tell a good story.

Apparently, getting a negative review is a big deal to many writers, especially to indie writers. Negative reviews are seen as an indication that there is something wrong with the book, something big and terrible that can’t be ignored. Something that needs to be fixed.

Now, negative reviews might occasionally help you…if you’ve got a bunch of reviews that tell you that readers liked your book but almost didn’t buy it because of your ugly, unprofessional-looking cover, then maybe you should consider your options. After all, even the big publishers change book covers on a regular basis to appeal to different regional markets or just to refresh interest in a book.

But that has nothing to do with being a writer.

The hardest part for any artist is to reach a point in which he or she determines that any particular piece of art is finished. I’ve spoken to many artists in many different mediums, and knowing when it’s time to stop fiddling with a piece of art (regardless of its form) and put it out there for public consumption is something with which we all struggle.

And then the dreaded 1-star review comes out and the artist thinks, “maybe if I had spent another few weeks tweaking Chapter 3, or deepening the motivation of my villain, then people might like it.”

But the reality is that no book is going to make everyone happy. Every book gets a 1-star review eventually, assuming that people read it.

Here are some actual 1-star reviews that I found on Amazon, to show you what I’m talking about.

“I can understand why it was not popular in its time. What I can’t understand is how it ever became popular. It is simply a turgid, unreadable slog.”

 

“I really couldn’t stand this book. Long and drawn out. Same points over and over. I love reading and honestly have to say was incredibly hard to force myself to pick it up.”

 

“It’s like a book to read to say you read it. Love his other stuff. This is crap.”

 

“The characters were so pedictable [sic].”

 

“What a waste of my time! I could have been infinitely more culturally enlightened by watching Sanford and Sons sitcom reruns, I’m sure of it.”

 

“The book just did not hold my interest. I do not have time for self-pitying, whining, or lack of motivation, even in fictional character.”

 

“You get the author’s message in the first chapter, and he spends the rest of the book beating you over the head with it.”

  • 1-star review of 1984

 

“When people gloat about finishing the whole thing, you know it’s bad.”

And if we’re considering material in the science fiction and fantasy genre specifically…

“The taste I walked away with is that the work, at its best point, is a half-baked religious-political-science concoction. It is undoubtably, the most arbitrary book I’ve ever read.”

This next one makes me laugh out loud…

“I feel like it was the base for fan fiction because there were so many holes to fill.”

  • 1-star review of Dune

 

“Very slow character and plot development and too many useless details. Gave up.”

 

“Very slow, dull, predictable, and wholly uninteresting.”

1-star review of A Wizard of Earthsea

Yes, I’m having some fun here. For every one of those 1-star reviews, there are hundreds—in some cases, thousands—of 4-star and 5-star reviews.

But that’s my point. No matter how beloved a book might be, whether it’s a new genre novel or a “literary classic,” there are people out there who are going to hate it.

As a writer, as an artist, there is only one thing to do. Finish the book, the painting, the drawing, the photo, the sculpture, or whatever it is you do, and put it out there. And then get working on your next piece.

Let readers worry about reviews. Artists need to focus on their art.

Reading and Writing: Books have soundtracks, too!

Movie soundtracks are pretty popular. In fact, many soundtracks are worth listening to even when you’re not watching the movie. And there are quite a few films that wouldn’t be nearly as good without the score underlying the drama.

But books don’t have soundtracks. Everyone watches a movie at the same speed, but different people read at very different speeds. It’s a completely separate experience from watching a film. And then there is the logistics of trying to match a soundtrack to events in a book.

Despite all that, many writers I’ve spoken to listen to music while they write. And it’s not uncommon for there to be a specific selection of tracks that tend to be repeated more often than others while an author is working on a particular book. I’m certainly no exception to this.

Music often helps to set a mood, to put someone into a mindset in which the writing just seems to flow onto the screen. And if you know the music to which the author was listening while writing a novel, hearing a few tracks might help you get an even more immersive experience while reading.

I’ve been curious about what various writers have listened to while writing novels I particularly enjoyed. But this information is pretty hard to track down.

So this week, I’m going to list the music that was a major influence on my mood/mindset while writing my novels. Note that I never made a conscious choice beforehand on these bands. Rather, I just found myself selecting them over and over without really thinking about it. It wasn’t until each book was nearly finished that I realized how much a particular band had been played throughout that book’s writing process.

The Tower of Dust

This was my first published novel, and I really wanted to get into the feel of Ythis. Let’s face it, the city is a pretty dark place, full of people with questionable morals and dubious intent. Demons follow the commands of dark and twisted sorcerers, and the Church is full of madmen who sacrifice innocent lives to their alien gods.

While I’ve really enjoyed Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career, I have to admit that early Black Sabbath really didn’t do much for me. My taste in heavy metal ran in different directions. But when Ozzy left and was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, Sabbath put out two fantastic albums. The first was Heaven and Hell and the second was Mob Rules. Unfortunately, a falling out among band members saw Dio leaving after Mob Rules, and so that was it for this era of Black Sabbath.

But while writing The Tower of Dust, those two albums played almost continuously on my iPod. There’s a certain darkness, a certain thickness to the music that really helped me envision the city of Ythis, and the eponymous Tower of Dust itself.

The Severed Oath

My second novel was a different experience than the first, and I wanted a different feel. That last thing I wanted to do was simply repeat my first book, and so I found myself naturally changing the type of music I wanted to hear while writing it.

For this book, I found myself selecting Wolfmother as the band of choice. Now, Wolfmother has a very different sound from Black Sabbath. That thickness that I used to describe the Sabbath albums is now replaced with a thinner, more raw feel to the music.

At the time I was writing The Severed Oath, I only had Wolfmother’s first two albums, the self-titled Wolfmother and Cosmic Egg. Many tracks on Cosmic Egg, in particular, captured the essence of what I was trying to create with The Severed Oath.

The Witch’s Path

This novel was significantly harder to write than either of the first two. I’ll be honest here and say that it was a less pleasant experience than my other books, and there were times I really struggled to put what was in my head down onto the page. It’s a different style of story, and I wasn’t entirely ready to write it when I started.

Befitting a different style, my music choices changed to a different style of band. Ultimately, the band Queensrÿche ended up providing my soundtrack for this book.

(Note that above link takes you to the official Queensrÿche website, but my personal opinion is that it’s not really Queensrÿche without singer Geoff Tate. His voice is an essential part of the music the band created.)

I find it interesting that this became the music that I most wanted to hear while writing The Witch’s Path, because reading up on the band itself, I discovered they had a lot of struggles as well, including line-up changes and a lawsuit over the use of the name of the band. Without knowing it, my selection reflected the struggle I had bringing this book to life.

For The Witch’s Path, I mostly listened to the early Queensrÿche albums, including the first self-titled mini-album, The Warning, Rage for Order, and a couple of tracks from Empire. As much as I love Operation: Mindcrime, I didn’t listen to it during the writing process as I felt that album already has its own story and so I couldn’t pretend that this music was written just for my book.

The Soldier and the Slave

After completing The Witch’s Path, I wanted to return to a more familiar feeling with The Soldier and the Slave. I had a need to listen to something pretty heavy, with a hard beat and pretty fast songs.

Thus, Disturbed was my band of choice.

The albums Believe and Ten Thousand Fists were easily the most heavily played on my iPod while I was writing. The particular sound of David Draiman’s vocals just seemed perfect for the feel of the novel, and there were times I literally pictured scenes in the book as movie shots with Disturbed’s music as the soundtrack.

Other than the pairing of The Tower of Dust and Black Sabbath, this was probably the closest marriage of what I was trying to write and the music I was hearing of all my novels.

The Traitor and the Thief

Finally, we get to the novel in progress. This new book continues the story begun in The Soldier and the Slave, and so I still feel the need to listen to something fairly heavy. But I’ve moved on from Disturbed to a band that I’ve been a huge fan of since the early 1980’s when I heard The Number of the Beast for the first time.

Yes, the soundtrack for this novel is provided by Iron Maiden.

Right now, I’ve been listening to a mix of old and new. Piece of Mind is one of my favourite Iron Maiden albums, along with Live After Death (in my opinion, one of the greatest live albums of all time). But I’ve also been playing The Book of Souls heavily—it’s a great album—and I even enjoy The X Factor (mostly for its really dark tone, and despite the lack of Bruce Dickenson).

Conclusion

So there you have it. I’m obvious a big heavy metal fan, but I also listen to all kinds of other music. My iPod had a wide selection of music styles on it. But the reality is, when I’m sitting down to write a novel, my music choice tends to go back to heavy metal automatically. It just seems so appropriate for the stories I’m trying to create.

Of course these are just my selections. I know many people who listen to music in the background when they’re reading books, and those music selections are probably very different from what the writers were listening to when the books were being written.

Do you listen to music while reading—or writing—a novel? If so, what kind of music works best for you? Is there any particular pairing of writer and band that you feel matches really well?

Let us know in the comments.

Writing Update – October

The Soldier and the Slave

The launch of The Soldier and the Slave last week went off as planned, and all the people who pre-ordered the book received it on Sunday.

On Monday, Black Gate published a review of The Soldier and the Slave by Donald Crankshaw. Donald also reviewed The Severed Oath back in April 2015, if you haven’t already seen that one.

Print sale:

Unfortunately, an error caused the print version to be listed at full price. This has now been corrected. Originally, I was planning on running the sale October 9-23, but since it didn’t start on time, I will now run it until October 30th. So if you want to get a print copy of the book, this is your chance to order one at the discounted price.

The print sale will run until October 30, 2016.

The Traitor and the Thief

I don’t have much to say this month about The Traitor and the Thief. Writing continues and is going well, and I’m still on track for my December 31st deadline.

A common refrain is that the middle book in a trilogy tends to be the slowest, as elements are used to set up the major conflicts that will be resolved in the third book. I’m trying to avoid this by making each of the books in the trilogy contain a “complete” story in and of itself. So, while each book contributes to the overall Undying Empire: Rebellion story, each could also stand alone.

This should help avoid the middle-drag syndrome.

The Revenant and the Reaper

I don’t really have anything to say here this month.

Short Stories

Hallowe’en takes place at the end of this month, and so I’ll be publishing a scary story to go along with the general spooky feelings. This one isn’t for the kids—it’s pretty creepy. I wrote it for anyone who’s ever been creeped out by a mirror, and I call it Reflection. Look for it next Sunday.

Someone asked me if I plan to name all my short stories with one-word titles. I started doing this without thinking about it, but I noticed what I was doing a little while ago, and I think it works well (so far). As long as I keep feeling that the one-word titles work, I’ll keep using them.

Tales of the Undying Empire

The omnibus edition is nearly complete. I’ll be getting the proofs some time this week, which gives me a bit of time to make any tweaks before my planned launch on November 1st.

The cover is now complete, so I’m happy to reveal it here:

tales-of-the-undying-empire-cover

I think this is going to be a great-looking book, and I look forward to holding it in my hands.

 

 

Reading & Writing: Epic Beginnings

Epic fantasy has been an extremely popular subset of the fantasy genre for many years now, and shows no signs of stopping. Trilogies have been replaced by huge series spanning (for example) 7 books, 9 books, 10 books, and 14 books.

Tolkien did it in under 500,000 words in The Lord of the Rings, but others have decided to tell much longer epics. George R.R. Martin has published just under 1.5 million words in his A Song of Ice and Fire series so far. Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company sits around 2 million words. Steven Erikson told the Malazan Book of the Fallen story in almost 3.5 million words. And Robert Jordan (along with Brandon Sanderson) reached an impressive, and staggering, almost 4.5 million words in the truly epic Wheel of Time.

But ultimately, what all these series have in common is a beginning (and a middle, and an end of course, but I’m focusing on beginnings in this post). It’s “common knowledge” that book buyers will often read the first few paragraphs of a book and make a decision right then whether or not to make a purchase.

In an epic series that spans more than half-dozen (or dozen) large books, that can be quite a commitment based on a few paragraphs. Of course, no one will keep reading a long series if the rest of the first book doesn’t live up to those first few paragraphs, but they are the first hurdle that must be overcome to make a sale.

Below, I’m going to take a short look at each beginning and make a couple of points.

Song of Ice and Fire

From the Prologue in A Game of Thrones

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”

“Do they frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.

“We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”

This is the text on the first page of the mass market edition of A Game of Thrones. What I find interesting is the focus on the word “dead.” It appears eight times in the first 186 words. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers when I say that death is pretty common in the lands of this series. Life is cheap, no character is sacrosanct, and death can come for anyone, at any time, without warning.

The second noticeable thing is that this series starts with dialogue, rather than description. You’ll see how it differs in the other series below. As much as there is a great of action in the series, in many cases words end up being far more powerful and more important than any battle to the overall story. This is a story of characters—everything that happens in this series is driven by character needs, desires, and actions.

The Black Company

From Chapter 1: Legate of The Black Company

There were prodigies and protents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.

Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts of livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.

Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets, proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.

But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.

Unlike the passage from A Game of Thrones above, this opening just drips with flavour. There is no explanation as to what the Necropolitan Hill is, or Paper Tower, or the forvalaka (though we know it was confined in a tomb by magic). But we know that priests sacrifice victims to their gods, and astrologers and soothsayers try to predict the future. And the references to the military elements (the Bastion, the Urban Cohort) indicate a familiarity with that subject that reveals something about the narrator.

But the most important element of this passage is the foreshadowing. We know something big is about to happen, and the first two sentences tell us that the main character and his companions were unprepared for whatever it was. Disaster is looming, and there are just enough hints about the setting in there to awaken our curiosity and desire to know more.

Malazan Book of the Fallen

From the Prologue to Gardens of the Moon

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. The Vane’s silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock’s Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory’s heights.

Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock’s Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist’s holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.

The opening passage here really focuses on a sense of history, of the vast roll of years that precedes the beginning of the story. The “stains of rust,” the “century old” pike, the “ragged walls of Mock’s Hold,” and the fact that the city was “once capital of the Empire” all combine to show the reader that this place has been here a rather long time.

Of course, the weight of ancient history is a major theme in the series, and events from eons before have a direct impact on the current situation in the books.

This section also introduces one of the main characters of the series, someone who becomes quite important to events later on. While he is only a boy in this scene, it shortly becomes obvious that he is observant, intelligent, and driven.

The following paragraphs after these three add a heavy dose of military elements, and the unease which seems to permeate the population of the empire. This is a civilization on edge, and it won’t take much to push it over the tipping point into chaos.

The Wheel of Time

From the Prologue to The Eye of the World

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals, which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things. Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved.

“Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief.

“Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?” His eyes caught his own reflection in a mirror hanging askew from bubbled marble. His clothes had been regal once, in gray and scarlet and gold; now the finely-woven cloth, brought by merchants from across the World Sea , was torn and dirty, thick with the same dust that covered his hair and skin. For a moment he fingered the symbol on his cloak, a circle half white and half black, the colors separated by a sinuous line. It meant something, that symbol. But the embroidered circle could not hold his attention long. He gazed at his own image with as much wonder. A tall man just into his middle years, handsome once, but now with hair already more white than brown and a face lined by strain and worry, dark eyes that had seen too much. Lews Therin began to chuckle, then threw back his head; his laughter echoed down the lifeless halls.

This opening is focused on two things. First, there is destruction wrought by some kind of magical power. And it’s not indiscriminate—innocent people have been killed while inanimate objects have been left alone. This is targeted destruction, designed to slay the living only.

Second, the passage highlights the madness of the character Lews Therin Telamon. He seems unaware of the dead bodies around him. He’s lost, looking for his wife amidst the death around him, but caught by his own reflection. He laughs without purpose, obviously unhinged.

Of course, madness is a key element in the series, as the main character, Rand al’Thor must try to hold onto his own sanity as he learns to harness the magical power that is his destiny.

What do these passages do?

In all of these cases, the first few paragraphs give the reader a real sense of at least one of the core themes of the series. These aren’t standalone scenes—they reflect what the reader will experience if he or she continues to read. In some cases, the individuals introduced in the first few paragraphs do not survive the Prologue or first chapter, but they still set the tone for the books to come.

This is something for writers who want to produce epic stories to understand—an early scene must show the reader something important that reflects the themes of the book. Sometimes a writer will try for clever, hoping to hook the reader with an opening passage that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story. But when the tone shifts, when the story starts going, the reader may end up feeling unsatisfied, as if the opening was a bait & switch.

In a seminar I attended at GenCon a few years ago, the writer Michael Stackpole said “The beginning must ultimately reflect how the book is going to end.” That means, as a writer, you need to finish the book before you can go back and make sure the beginning is right for the story you actually wrote.

I think these passages I’ve highlighted above show why these series have become so popular. Readers know what they are getting from the opening pages, and the writers deliver.

What other series have great openings that really hook you as a reader? What openings felt completely disjointed from the rest of the book? Share your opinions in the comments below.

 

RPGs and novels – where gaming and writing intersect

The last few months saw the release of newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of the entire tabletop roleplaying game industry. As someone who has played roleplaying games (RPGs) pretty steadily for the last 33 years, this is kind of a big deal. Or, at least, it was supposed to be (more on that in another post).

Fantasy gaming has been a big part of my life. I met my best friend because of D&D, my wife plays, my son plays, and I’ve introduced a good number of people to the hobby over the last three decades. When it wasn’t D&D, it was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or Runequest, or Vampire, or Call of Cthulhu, or Ars Magica, or Star Wars, or Marvel Super Heroes, or…

One question that I get asked a fair bit by those who know I’m a roleplayer is whether any of the characters or setting of the Tales of the Undying Empire series is based on anything that has happened in any of my games.

The answer, regretfully, is no.

I saw regretfully, because it seems like all those games would provide a rich vein that I could mine for ideas, personalities, settings, etc. It should be so easy to take elements of my past campaigns and weave them into my novels.

But the truth is that the setting of the Undying Empire was created specifically for the purpose of the novels. As was each character who appears in the novels that I’ve written so far. My gaming and my writing are separate parts of my creative mind, and that’s likely how they will stay.

Because of the flip side of the question is whether I will use the setting of the Undying Empire in any future games I might run. And the answer to that is also no.

Writing, for me, is a joyful experience. I love writing with a passion. And part of the writing experience is exploring the world as I create each new story. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve created no detailed maps of Ythis. I have a single rough sketch, on which I’ve noted key locations from the books which I have already written. But the city, the world, is still a mostly-blank canvas.

If there is one thing I will do everything in my power to avoid, it’s to detail the world and then try to fit my stories into it. That the antithesis of how I want to create the world of the Undying Empire. I know the broad strokes, and I have the details where I need them.

For the purpose of a game world, there’s not enough there yet. And there won’t be enough for a long time. I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s going on in Ythis, and that’s just one city in the Undying Empire. And the Empire only covers a good portion of one continent.

So for me, there is gaming, and there is writing. They use many of the same mental muscles, but they are used in very different ways. Roleplaying is a social hobby, a chance to collaborate and interact. But writing? That’s a different animal entirely, and I need it to be different.

Novels based on roleplaying games are fairly common. What do you think of them, or the idea in general? If you’re a gamer, do you read novel tie-ins? Does it enhance your gaming experience, or your reading experience? And if you’re a writer who also games, how does one affect the other for you?

Leave a comment and let me know. There’s no one right answer for everybody, and I’m interested in hearing your opinion.