Annotations: Petition (Chapter 16)

Epic fantasy has been my genre of choice ever since I stumbled across it at my local library. I can’t even remember which book or series it was exactly—perhaps The Belgariad by Eddings or Magician by Raymond E. Feist or it could’ve been Dragonlance by Weis and Hickman or maybe Pern by Anne McCaffrey. (Really, it could have been anything from the ‘80s and ‘90s.)

My parents could only take me to the library once a week and we could only borrow a maximum of ten books on one library card; that meant I had to pick books long enough to last me until the next library trip. That boiled down to “is this book thick enough that I need two hands to hold it comfortably?”

But since I devoured all the books so quickly, regardless of their size, I ended up with a very distorted sense of length as a reader.

That is how I ended up with an original outline that had called for ~25,000 words to cover the events of Petition to reach the end of Act I of the overall narrative. So in the very first attempt at writing Petition, I originally skipped straight from the events in Chapter 12 to Chapter 26.

(Yep. That’s a huge jump of some ~57,000 words or so. That version of the story is about ~38,600 words long.)

…Yeah. That didn’t work out. Clearly, I am incapable of writing an epic fantasy book that is only 75,000 words long. I was stuck; at the rate I’d been going, it would take me another ~80,000 words to write the next two acts I’d planned and I wasn’t confident I could pull off writing a book that long.

But ~38,600 words is waaaaaaaay too short to be a novel. (It’s a novelette? Novella? I never know where the line is drawn for those.)

That said, I was confident that the end of what would become Chapter 27 was the most emotionally powerful moment in the story yet. So I decided to cheat: I would add a subplot to the job hunt tournament to (hopefully) bulk up the word count by another ~33,000 words to end back up at my target of ~75,000 words.

I don’t exactly recall how I decided the subplot would be a murder mystery or that the murderers would be a bunch of cultists running around conducting ritual sacrifices. (It was probably because I was following Brandon Sanderson’s advice to build what you have before inventing new things; at that point, I had vaguely outlined what was involved in Act II of the overall narrative so the world building for the cult and the Endless Gate already existed.) Murder mysteries, though, require a lot more planning than tournaments so I took a week off writing new words to plot one in detail first.

Strictly speaking from a plot perspective, Chapter 16 marks a transition point to the second half of the book: the introduction of the murder mystery subplot signals a convergence between the main plot and the events foreshadowed in the Prologue and Interlude. Arguably I could have put the Interlude between Chapters 15 and 16 instead of having it before Chapter 15. However, since I was sticking to a linear timeline, the interlude chronologically happens before Chapter 15. I also like the switch up in tone where Chapter 15 sets up Rahelu’s expectation of the new status quo which is immediately upset by her seeing the assignment.

While my natural tendency is to write long scenes, it made sense to have a series of short arcs here, to tie up loose ends from the first half of the book and set the stage for the remainder of the novel with some “assemble the team!” scenes to introduce the main cast for this part of the story. Following the reality TV/tournament format, we’ve got the first elimination and a reset of the Petitioners’ board. Maketh’s speech serves two purposes: escalates the stakes of Petitioning again, and advance the House intrigue plot in the background.

Other noteworthy things:

  • Nheras Ilyn: the opening chapters of Petition set up the expectation that Nheras is going to be the primary antagonist for the book and we get plenty of that in the early tournament rounds. But with the way I set up the final round of Petitioning, that doesn’t really work unless I put Rahelu and Nheras in the same team and since the Petitioners are allowed to choose their own teams, that was never going to happen. I tried to mitigate that with a brief exchange as a reminder that the rivalry is still there but has faded into the background given the raised stakes.
  • The assignment board: Is this a deliberate nod to the adventurers’ quest board in ye olde standard sword & sorcery fantasy stories? Yes, yes it is. Did I intend to put that in from the very beginning? No, no I did not. How, then, did it end up in the book? I realized that fantasy iPads and computer screens would…actually work in my magic system and it would make sense for the society I’d created to use it. Also I’m a huge geek. And it was the easiest way of getting Rahelu’s arc to intersect with Azosh-ek’s while paying off on the promise of Onneja’s Augury in Chapter 13.
  • Elaram’s legal disclaimer: Probably my favorite character moment in this chapter though Elaram facing off against Cseryl and justifying giving Lhorne a mild concussion comes a close second. This chapter actually had the very first Elaram scenes I wrote since her introduction in Chapter 8 was something I added later (as part of beta read revisions) and her entire character grew out of that one line in Chapter 9. (“Don’t take it so personally! We’re just following the rules!”)
  • The trainee: we’ve seen Rahelu come pretty far in the book but I was conscious that because I was writing such a fast-paced book, I wanted another moment of character contrast. But I didn’t want to slow down the action just when we needed to be gearing up for more so I couldn’t put in another long reflective passage. (Not that Rahelu normally stops to do a whole lot of reflection anyway, because who’s got the time for that?) Hopefully having her notice just how different things were did the trick.
  • The shopping trip: Another thing that I didn’t deliberately set out to include, though once the thought occurred, it seemed like a good idea. I should note here that I originally thought Elaram would be the instigator but when it came down to the writing, it felt more natural coming from Ghardon.

Finally, one of my biggest worries about this book (other than, “is anyone actually going to read this and think it’s not terrible?”) was that readers might be put off by the rotating cast of characters. Even though Petition is basically a single POV book since Azosh-ek’s POVs are so few and far between Rahelu chapters, there’s no consistent cast of side characters. Every chapter or two introduces one or two new characters:

  • Chapter 1 introduces Rahelu’s family; and
  • Chapter 2 introduces some potential antagonists: Hzin and Bzel, Nheras and her cousins.
  • Then we’ve got Xyuth in Chapter 3;
  • Tsenjhe and Keshwar in Chapter 4;
  • Lhorne in Chapter 6;
  • Dharyas in Chapter 7;
  • Elaram in Chapter 8;
  • Cseryl in Chapter 10;
  • Nhirom, Anathwan and Mere in Chapter 12;
  • Onneja in Chapter 13;
  • Maketh in Chapter 14; and
  • Ghardon in Chapter 16. (Ghardon, by the way, is the last of the notable characters to be introduced out of 27 total chapters, not counting the prologue/interlude/epilogue).

This is really an artifact of discovery writing. None of these characters—other than Rahelu, Onneja, and possibly Nheras—existed in my outline. They came into existence whenever I got to writing the end of one scene and started thinking about the kinds of conflict and who Rahelu might encounter next. Inevitably, it means having to go back through and scatter mentions of these characters in previous chapters during revisions, otherwise we end up with “pop-up” characters—characters who don’t feel like fully fleshed out individuals who exist in the world separate to the demands of the protagonist and the plot that pop up to fulfil a plot or character development in one chapter and then disappear, never to be seen of or hear from ever again.

Some days, when I look back over what I’ve written, I’m still not entirely convinced. Right now, I’m deep in the middle of doing alpha revisions on the third act of Supplicant, the sequel to Petition, and still grasping at understanding the motives of some of these characters. And there are certain ones whose motives still elude me entirely, even after trying to write scene after scene and chapter after chapter from their POV. But I hope that with more time and more words written, I’ll get better at creating characters who come across as real people.

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