I am a huge Brandon Sanderson fan. Not just as a reader, but as an author, too. His annotations and his unrivaled transparency taught me a lot about the craft of writing, and his YouTube lectures demystified the intimidating process of taking an idea for a story through to a published work.
There is nothing that I can do to thank Brandon Sanderson for his generosity, apart from one-click buying every single one of his books. (I don’t think that counts, because I’ve been doing that long before I published.)
What I can do, though, is pay it forward. This is the story of my journey to publishing my first novel. All the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff about my creative process: the highlights, the lowlights, and weird things. Anything that I think might be of interest to you, whether you’re approaching these annotations as a reader or as an author, including tracked changes through all the versions between rough draft and published text.
Consistent with Sanderson’s annotations, I’ve written these to be read as a companion text alongside the book. And if it’s your first time through, any spoilers for future chapters are clearly marked and hidden.
The story behind the story
Some authors begin by writing a story they’ve always wanted to tell. A story that’s occupied their brain space for years and years, that demands their attention until they have to sit down, put their hands to the keyboard or pen to paper until they’ve gotten the story out of their head and onto the page.
That wasn’t me.
I’ve always enjoyed stories and writing, but I never had a clue about what to write. Everything piece of fiction I ever wrote felt derivative—and it wasn’t even interesting-derivative.
I stopped writing fiction, started climbing the corporate career ladder, and wrote just about everything else. Critical essays. Speeches. Process manuals. Business reports. Proposals. Technical documentation. Textbooks. Case studies. Emails upon emails upon emails.
In my spare time, I devoured all of Brandon Sanderson’s annotations whilst binge-watching his BYU lectures on writing science fiction and fantasy.
I tried writing a Broadway musical with a friend; we got as far as the middle of the second act.
I got married.
We had a baby.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Like many other organizations, my employer was caught out. We had no systems, no processes, no contingency plans in place. I spent the better part of a year working myself to death to make sure business could run as usual. It burned me out in a spectacular manner—complete with meetings with HR and “I quit!” emails.
I was fortunate to be in a place where I could take some time to recover my mental health. Part of that involved doing something purely for myself. NaNoWriMo2020 was coming around, so I decided to try writing fiction again and serialize the project via an online writing community.
(That novel was not this novel. It was a fix fic of a fantasy series where I loved the premise, but detested the author’s execution—I wasn’t brave enough to jump straight in by writing original fiction.)
To my surprise, complete strangers on the internet told me that it did not suck, and that they would genuinely miss reading my chapters when the project wrapped up.
It was a good feeling. And far more rewarding than my corporate job had ever been. It led me to join a writing group to get some critiques on my fix fic.
I learned a lot from their feedback. I learned that:
- Whenever I have a new location, I go overboard with description that drags down pacing.
- I have a penchant for using long, paragraph-length sentences with as many clauses as I can stuff into them.
- I need to work harder on making sure conflict is present in every scene.
- Getting tone, character, and plot promises consistent from the beginning is a real struggle for me.
But the best thing I learned was to have a little more confidence in my writing:
Your villains are good…the petty evil and the unrepentant evil bring me great joy to read about.Ivy C. Kendall
I really want to see your original stuff. I’ve got a feeling it will be at least 10x better.Caitlin L. Strauss. Author of The Night City and its sequel, The Night People.
I’m just super excited to see [an] original IP with the amount of thought you’ve put into someones else’s work.J.P. Weaver, Royal Road author.
From concept to completed draft
For NaNoWriMo2021, I decided I would finally take the plunge. Will Wight’s success proved there was an insatiable demand for more stories like his cultivation/progression fantasy crossover series, Cradle, and very few things in the market hitting the mark.
I set out to write a 75,000 word progression fantasy novel.
(Spoilers: I failed.)
I spent two weeks or so doing a deep analysis of what made Cradle so successful, building my magic system, brainstorming characters, and attempting an outline.
The night before NaNoWriMo2021 began, I realized I had no idea how to write a progression fantasy. My brain just wasn’t drawn to writing that kind of story. I kept the worldbuilding, but threw out the outline, and on 1 November 2021, I opened up a blank document and started writing.
I was determined not to repeat my NaNoWriMo2020 mistakes: editing as I write, and getting lost in research rabbit holes. ‘XXX’ placeholders proliferated everywhere. If I didn’t have a name for a character or location, or couldn’t think of the right word to describe something, or even complete sentences, I simply shoved a placeholder into the document and moved on.
I tried very hard to not revise as I went: my manuscript was full of comments on all the bits of writing that I thought was terrible.
There were lots of comments. Thousands of them.
But the process worked. I crossed 25,000 words in the first week, and 50,000 on day 16. Sometime during the third week, I had the sinking realization I would need at least 100,000 words to finish the story properly—and that the only way I could get unstuck from plotting hell was to split the book into a trilogy.
On the morning of Christmas Eve in 2021, I finished the rough draft of Petition. It clocked in at 109,188 words long.
(Just a tad longer than the 75,000-word novel I had planned.)
I spent January 2022 doing a worldbuilding pass to slay every ‘XXX’ in the manuscript, followed by a continuity pass, and a few revisions for alpha reader revisions.
The book went out to beta readers in February 2022. (It was 122,485 words long.) I took a short break to work on my blurb and finalize the cover design instead, while obsessing over the possibility that they would hate my book the whole time.
They didn’t hate it.
But they confirmed what my alpha readers had been telling me—that the two halves of the book read like they were two, totally different stories—and highlighted a few other major issues. (Since this post is getting rather long, I’ll get into the details in later annotations.)
I started structural revisions for beta reader feedback in March 2022. I didn’t finish until the end of April 2022. Some of these were major changes, so I sent it off for another beta read while I did line edits in May 2022. Those took about two weeks.
Proofing took another two weeks.
And on 31 May 2022, exactly 212 days (or seven months) after I started writing Petition, I logged into KDP and pressed the ‘Publish’ button.
It is not a perfect book. But it is, in the words of Will Wight, the ‘best six-month book’ that I know how to write.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
Index of annotations
- Introduction (this post)
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
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