How Many is Too Many?

The other day I saw a brief Twitter thread by one of the editors I follow (she works at Tor). She tweeted about the number of POV characters in a manuscript, and how it becomes difficult for the author to manage them all as the number increases – this is assuming third person limited, though she mentioned third person omniscient as a different issue. As an aside, I’ve never been a fan of the third person omniscient head-hopping style. Kids, don’t write this kind of perspective. Just say no.

Said editor says she worries when the author writes more than 4 POV characters. The main risk, she explained, is that it’s tough to differentiate between them. The reader should be able to identify the POV in any given scene by the narrative voice. This is challenging, and I personally think that many great novels exist where this just isn’t the case. But this is something that I strive for, and has been one of my main focuses for improvement over the last 3 books I’ve worked on.

In may last finished MS, Daughters of Darkness, I went with 5 POV characters (eek!). This was the first time I wrote more than 3, and I was worried about this issue. When I started, I thought there was a significant chance I would have to cut one of those (her name is Talia Soren) – not cut her out of the book, I mean, just cut her perspective. But I think (I’m a little biased here guys) it worked out well, and the personal editor inside my head said I didn’t need to cut anyone. Still, 5 is a lot for a 112k word novel.

With current WIP, I originally decided on 5 again, but as I wrote through Act I, I started to wonder about one of those characters (her name is Maria Fonseca). And as it turns out, the day before I was supposed to write the first chapter from her POV, I saw these tweets. I revisited my thoughts about this character, and eventually decided it was best to use her strictly as a non-POV character. The MS is already getting longer than I wanted, and I didn’t feel like I had a clear narrative arc in store for her, so I think cutting her makes sense from many angles.

And it gets me down to the magic number of 4 POV’s! Yippee!

I think using more than 2 or 3 POV characters can add a lot to a novel in terms of range, but it is challenging to maintain the necessary differentiation. As I talked about in a post earlier, one of my preferred tricks is to focus on a different voice for each character by picking different tag words and phrases for each. For me, this mostly comes down to the different curses 🙂

Anyway, work on my current WIP continues at a steady but slow pace. I broke the 50k word barrier today, and right now I’m projecting a finished 1st draft of around 150k. Longer than I wanted, but I’m working toward making this story truly epic – this is meant to be the first book in a series (How many books planned for this series? I got no idea at this point. Lots, perhaps?). I’m hoping to finish the 1st draft before June, but we shall see…

Origin Story

So I just sent out a round of queries last Friday for my most recent novel, Daughters of Darkness (only 1 rejection so far!), and I’m gearing up for the next project, which I don’t have a title for yet. I still have a bunch of pre-writing to do, and I’m trying to cram it all in by the end of the month so I can start the first draft on Nov 1st – for NaNoWriMo, obviously.

But before I make my transition to the next project (or technically, back to the next project, since I interrupted my pre-writing to do some more edits on DoD before sending out more queries), I decided to write up a little story about how DoD came to be. I give you, the origin story…

Twas the year 2010. Or was it 2011? I can’t really remember, it was a few years ago and I’m getting old and things are a little fuzzy these days. Course, that might have something to do with all the whiskey I drink. Anyway…

I was living in Prospect Towers in Milwaukee. (Where I still live. But I left then came back). I’d written two very terrible books over the previous 2-3 years, and I was thinking about writing another. I tried messing around with a SF story about an incurable disease raging through the galaxy, and a small band of deserters from a war on a remote planet that carried the only treatment for the disease – and the best hope for developing a cure. But I kinda messed it up and I eventually set it aside.

Then I had a dream. I tend to dream in fantasies, like I’m playing the role of a fantasy hero in some kind of big role play (LARP, anyone?). Not always, but this time I did. I was the crown prince of a dead nation, visiting a different nation where no one really knew who I was or didn’t care. And that made me feel bad. I was supposed to be important, dammit!

I don’t really remember what happened in the dream, but afterward I thought it might be fun to write a story with a MC who would’ve become king if only his kingdom didn’t fall apart. I decided it would be torn apart by demons, and all the survivors would have to flee to a neighboring kingdom (or empire) as refugees. And then I wanted the MC to be a super awesome bad ass warrior, dedicating his life to the study of swordplay and martial arts (and maybe magic, too) in the hope that he would one day be able to revive his kingdom.

And then I decided to add an element to the story that I thought would be cool, something I hadn’t seen much of within epic fantasy – I wanted this kingdom/empire (the one the MC fled to, not his dead kingdom) to be a matriarchal society.

So then I figured the MC should have a lady counterpart, someone important that could be a thorn in his side and treat him like a silly peasant boy and make him feel all kinds of bad for losing his throne before he even had it.

I named the MC Ataris, and the woman, who was the empress’s daughter, Isis.

Back then, no one ever heard of a terrorist organization in the middle east with a name that matched the Egyptian goddess, so these names were totally fine at the time.

I put together a chapter by chapter outline, which I’d never done. I wrote the prologue.

I didn’t write the book.

Then I moved to LA.

Then I wrote a completely different book (adult high fantasy). Then made a really terrible attempt at a YA book.

Then I moved back to Milwaukee. I wrote an adult contemporary fantasy.

And then I wanted to return to the idea I had several years before. But… I realized if I was going to write a book with a matriarchal society, it was awfully dumb to make the MC a dude. In fact (I then thought), most of the characters should be women.

So I decided that Isis would be the MC. (Eventually her name became Isys, then Iris) She’s a sassy, sassy lady forced into a fight for her freedom (and her head!) as monsters and assassins converge on the capital of the empire.

Ataris is still in the story, but he’s only the 3rd or 4th most important character.

The other POV characters are Violet (a pirate), Talia (an imperial guard captain), and Elena (the empress). (side note: Iris is not the empress’s daughter as originally planned; they are political frenemies).

I just finished the fourth draft last week. I hope someday I can sell it to one of the big publishers, but the odds seem to be against such things. For now, though, it’s time to move on and work on the next thing.

The Next One

While I’m currently working on querying agents for Daughters of Darkness, I’ve also been spending some time pre-writing for my next project. I don’t have a working title for it yet, so for now I’m referring to it as either 12 Pyramids or Alaeric’s book (for the main character).

I did very little formal pre-writing for my earliest books, but with Daughters of Darkness, I took a far more in-depth approach. I even did a scene-by-scene outline for the first time ever.

I’m doing the same thing with this project, though I think the order of my approach is a bit different than last time around. In the first few weeks of working on 12 Pyramids, I did a fairly extensive brainstorm on the major characters, as well as a lot of the worldbuilding. It’s only the last few days I’ve started thinking about the plot.

So far, I’m finding it a bit of a struggle to come up with the major plot points. I already know the primary desires of each of the major characters, but fitting everything together is proving a challenge. I think it’s super critical that the plot contains rising tension – I gotta have interesting ways to raise the stakes throughout the book – but I also can’t start with stakes that are too low. This leaves a bit of a balancing act, one that I’m a little worried I won’t get right.

But fortunately I have almost 2 months before I plan to start writing the first draft. Gives me plenty of time for brainstorming while drunk (and some while I’m sober, too, I suppose).

Round 2

So my first round of querying for Daughters of Darkness was a bust. I cried for a little while, then drank a big bottle of whiskey, and now I guess it’s time to move on to…

Round 2. Fight!

Given that I apparently don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this whole querying thing, I figured I’d seek out some help. I picked a service for critiquing queries, and got some comments on my first effort.

Unfortunately that only left me more confused.

Well, that’s not totally accurate. But some of the advice I received directly contradicts much of what I’ve heard regarding query letters. So I figure I just need to ignore the comments that don’t seem right to me and use the rest (the critiquer actually made that point in the intro).

One of the biggest criticisms was that I didn’t provide enough context. I thought I was ignoring the unnecessary details to get to the meat of the story, but apparently I just made the damn query too vague.

So, I transformed my original opening paragraph from

As she stands outside the door to her wedding chapel, High Lady Iris LaRose watches helplessly as her groom is torn to pieces by magical blades. Horrified, she stares in disbelief at the murderer. Her mother.

to

High Lady Iris LaRose always knew she would become one of the most influential women of the Dianic Empire – until her sister brought shame upon the entire family through a treasonous act. Now, with the LaRose name tainted, Iris finds herself pushed by her mother into a marriage she doesn’t want. But as she stands outside the wedding chapel, she watches in shock as her groom is torn to pieces by magical blades. Horrified, she stares in disbelief at the murderer. Her mother.

Hopefully this gives a bit more color regarding the MC and her rather unpleasant situation. (And yes, if you read my previous post, I changed her name to something less risky)

I made a number of other edits, trying to be a lot more specific than I was originally. I think the new query is in much better shape, though I worry just a wee bit that it’s too long now. The pitch section went from 198 words to 268, which I think might be pushing it.

Anyway, I can only hope I’ve fixed the worst of the problems with my original submission. I considered trying to revise the opening pages as well, but I decided to wait. If I don’t get any requests this time I’ll have to look at making changes there.

My Quibble with Queries

 

In which I question the agent query process – or rather, my approach to it.

I used to think the agent querying process was a royal pain in the arse. I suppose I still do, but I’ve come around to thinking that I, like many other fledgling writers, stress out about writing queries too much. I’ve recently found myself worrying about whether I should have a bio, if I should talk about my non-writing-related education in the bio, if I should put the word count in the first paragraph or the last, if I should have comp titles, what should my comp titles be, is it okay to comp a best seller, am I supposed to italicize the comp titles OMG I’M FREAKING OUT.

So, deep breather. I should probably just chill out hope I can get some of the agents I query to start reading page 1. But my query still needs to accomplish its goal. This will be the third MS I’ve queried on, and hopefully I’ve improved in this area. There are lots and lots of resources on the web regarding query writing, but I’d say the most helpful bit of advice I’ve seen comes from agent Andrea Somberg:

The most important line from her post is:

“But what I really loved about the query was that her plot description created so many questions in my mind.”

And I’ve learned over the years that this sentiment is just as critical in the story itself, especially the opening pages. Plant questions in the readers mind, questions she desperately needs find answers for, and she’ll keep reading.

With that goal in mind, here’s the opening paragraph from the plot/blurb section of my query (note that this is still in draft form, and I may need to revise it further):

As she stands outside the doors to her wedding chapel, High Lady Isys LaRose watches helplessly as her groom is torn to pieces by magical blades. Horrified, she stares in disbelief at the murderer. Her mother.

The primary question I hope I’m planting in the readers mind is: why in the fucking hell did Isys’s mother murder her fiance?

Anyone who reads this, then moves onto the first page of my MS, will quickly discover that Isys’s mother was the one who pushed her into this marriage in the first place. Hopefully, that bit of knowledge will create even more intrigue for said reader.

And if I’ve done my job right, the following paragraphs in the query, and the first pages of the novel, will continue to build more questions.

So those are my main thoughts on queries. As a side note, yes, I’m very much aware that there’s a group of really bad, terrible people who are generally referred to by a name which sounds the same as my MC. I figure that if I’m lucky enough to sell this MS, I may have to changer her name. But Isys is a real name for a woman, and that’s how I think of her (I conceived of the character and the name years ago). And besides, if I changer her name, doesn’t that mean that the terrorists have won?

Number Two

The second draft of Daughters of Darkness is complete! Now for more work!

Not right now, I suppose. Summer is coming (actually it’s here now), it’s a holiday weekend, and it’s time for me to honor our veterans the only way I know how: by drinking nonstop until my liver gives out, or I have to go to work again, whichever comes first.

But the next step in my editing process is going to be something I’ve never tried before. I plan to read through each POV character’s chapters contiguously, looking for consistency of voice and other character traits. I’m going to try to ignore most other issues I see, except for grammatical errors and things like that, focusing on the details of each character.

I’m not really sure how long I expect draft #3 to take me, but I’m optimistic it will be much quicker than draft #2. I started the initial read-through in late March, and just finished the last fixes today. Two months is too long for this pass, as I’m hoping to start querying in late June. That’s been my goal since near the beginning, though I’m not super confident I’ll be able to do make that (soft) deadline anymore. Even after the next draft is done, I still need to do at least one more pass to deal with anything I let go this time around, and to give it some polish.

But it’s the weekend, and I’m getting thirsty, so I’ll deal with all that come Tuesday. Bottoms up…

Even Tough Dudes Cry

During battle scenes, I mean.

Ok, no, there doesn’t need to be crying. But fight scenes need emotion of some type. For me to enjoy a fight/battle scene, I need to connect with the characters.

During my current editing phase of my book, I recently went through a fight scene where my warrior dude takes on a number of lesser talented guys and wins. I had imagined this scene long ago, and in my head it was totally awesome. But as I read it, it was…not so much.

First problem, it was very much lacking in clarity. I think I fixed that problem, but it’s still not great. It turns out to be too easy for the guy (he’s pretty good at this), and it’s nothing but a sequence of swordplay, kicks, broken bones, acrobats, stuff like that. I know, I know, sounds pretty awesome, right? But it gets boring quickly.

Seriously, I think it’s important that we see real character emotions during these kinds of scenes. Dear reader needs to feel something, some danger, some risk. Some connection. Otherwise why does she care?

Without character emotion, it’s just a long sequence of words on a page. I like action as much as anyone else, but I’ve read some battle scenes by authors that I think are really great, and I’ve found myself zoning out. Painting a picture of awesomeness is cool, but I still need some connection.

This doesn’t need to slow the pace or hamper the action in any way. It just needs to make the scene more immersive, more impactful.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I clearly have a lot more work ahead of me on this book. And I think I need some more cold medicine, or possibly whiskey. (Probably both)