The main problem I had created for myself with the first challenge is that while scavenger hunts can be fun to do, they are not fun to read. I’d also set myself up to have twenty tokens in play—thank goodness I came to my senses during revisions and whittled them down to ten.
I had a couple of options:
Tell, don’t show: I could summarize part (or all) of the token search and skip to the next interesting part of the plot. Something like: “The first five tokens were easy to find” or “One span of non-stop running all over the city later secured their team all ten tokens”.
Introduce conflict: Ideally in the form of some obstacle/s that Rahelu, Lhorne, and Dharyas have to overcome in order to get the tokens. This could be a plot-based or character-based. In my opinion, plot-based conflict is the easiest to come up with ideas for but harder to make interesting—you have to be very inventive or clever to keep things from feeling repetitive—whereas character-based conflict is harder to get right but also more compelling.
Use the tokens as background detail to convey progress towards the overall goal: But that’s how we end up with 2,000 words that go like “They went to location A and found token 1, then they went to location B and found token 2…” and nobody wants to read that. I would need something else to take place as the focus otherwise it would just be boring description of Rahelu and her teammates wandering around the city.
In the end, I tried to do all of the above.
Conflict is the propulsion behind any plot; without it, all you have is an ordered sequence of events. So my number one priority is always to make sure there is some sort of conflict running through every scene. What’s awesome is when you can combine multiple conflicts.
Since I had already set up the final four tokens in one location, I knew that was going to be a single sub-objective and the big confrontation to end the narrative arc dealing with the first challenge begun in Chapter 6. This was relatively easy to make into a multi-layered conflict: we know Nheras and her cousins are applicants and Rahelu just spent three chapters clawing her way back into the Petitioning process after her defeat at Nheras’s hands; a more equal confrontation is in order. Both plot- and character-based conflicts converge when Rahelu tries to steal four tokens from right under Nheras’s nose—and succeeds. This is what makes the end of this sequence especially satisfying.
As I did not have six, distinct ideas with escalating stakes/tension, I simplified by grouping the early tokens together. Chapter 8 opens after a time skip on Rahelu and her team finding the last of those early tokens, then goes straight into a character-based conflict. This is what it looked like in the original draft (when they had just found sixteen out of the twenty tokens without any difficulty):
From there, we cut straight to the confrontation with Nheras and her team over the last four tokens. It worked…fine. At least, that’s how I interpreted this feedback from my beta readers:
But ‘fine’”‘ was not what I was going for. I didn’t want to see anything but green on that chart; I wanted ‘awesome’. I wasn’t sure that I could get there, but if I aim for ‘awesome’ and fall short, theoretically I should land somewhere between ‘good’ and ‘great’, right?
So I went back over the chapter and had a look at what I could do better. The first thing that struck me was the opening. There were 391 words of description that covered how everybody was dressed and an unnecessarily detailed blow-by-blow narration of them retrieving the hidden token—boring!—before we got this:
Buried in the middle of that section is a time skip—one that my beta readers rightly pointed out was a missed opportunity. Everything happens too easily for Rahelu and her team. We have no idea what the other teams are doing. This whole Petitioning business, which we’ve spent seven chapters hyping up to be a Big Deal, seems to be a walk in the park as far as this challenge goes.
One Clever Trick and the protagonist gets everything handed to her on a plate? I don’t think so! That’s certainly not consistent with the tone and story expectations I set up back in Chapter 1.
The first part of my solution was to cut down the opening and rework the first character-based conflict. I made it more internal to Rahelu and moved a bit of worldbuilding about the city here to foreshadow something that happens later in Chapter 12. It also builds on some of the introspection that happened earlier in the previous two chapters.
The second part was to follow the rule of three: I replaced the time skip by introducing a medium-stakes conflict in-between Rahelu’s angsting about her decision to listen to Lhorne and Dharyas and the higher-stakes action sequence with Nheras at the end of the arc.
The question was, what should this conflict be?
The answer in hindsight was pretty obvious: Elaram.
Elaram gets a decent amount of page time in the book but, for one reason or another, she doesn’t pull as much focus as the other characters later on. She’s also a very different character to the other House-born we’ve met: she doesn’t have the same ‘Mean Girls’ energy as Nheras, but she also doesn’t give off the same ‘Nice People’ vibes to Rahelu as Lhorne and Dharyas.
She’s also a lot of fun to write. I had every intention of keeping the expanded scene brief but, well—
(Three thousand, two hundred and fifty words later…)
Elaram is a lot of fun to write.
(This is how I set out writing a 75,000-word novel and end up with a 126,000-word draft.)
I did worry about whether Lhorne and Dharyas turning up right at the end feels a bit left field. In the end, I decided that it was okay: I’d set up the expectation that they were to meet up at the fishpond, Rahelu was wondering why they were delayed, and it was reasonable to explain their absence by having them go off to steal another token from Ghardon, Elaram’s brother. How, exactly, that all went down is just as much of a mystery to me as it is to Rahelu. I have no idea. I probably won’t know unless I write it and I don’t know if I ever will.
The last revision I made to this chapter was in the final scene. Again, it a scene that already worked because everybody is here to see Nheras get beat—Dharyas clubbing her on the head was actually the closing line in the chapter originally—but something felt lacking. I only realized quite late in the process that I had missed a pay-off.
In Chapter 7, Lhorne goes on and on about how important the order of operations is and how bad it would be if they messed it up. Then I did this:
All that obsessing over the order of operations to wind up with “Done” and a clean escape?
Nope. Not in my book!
“Oops” coupled with “We need to run” is, obviously, far better.
I honestly didn’t put a lot of thought into deciding what the challenges were: I simply wanted something that was action-heavy, that would showcase the magic system, and that would require teamwork.
“Scavenger hunt” fit, so I went with it.
By now, we’ve seen most of the magic system at play in basic ways already:
How resonance exists as a natural phenomenon in response to emotions
How resonance can be stored in crystal for later retrieval
All of the resonance disciplines: Seeking, Evocation, Projection, Obfuscation (once, briefly in passing), Augury, and Fortunement
I’ve introduced all of these elements without explanation for two reasons.
First, I hate infodumps as a reader. After reading Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (where exposition does not, as a rule, exist for anything), I became hyper-sensitized to noticing exposition when it occurs—and most of the time, it makes me feel patronized, like I couldn’t be trusted to make sense of the fictional world from context.
Second, and related to why I hate infodumps, is they tend to feel unnatural most of the time and therefore bog down pacing. There’s no reason why Rahelu would stop to think about how resonance works while she’s trying to submit her Petition: it’s a natural part of her world.
In this chapter though, I felt like a little exposition would be okay, since Rahelu, Lhorne, and Dharyas are explicitly discussing how the Houses expect them to solve the challenge. So we get a little explanation of Concordance, then a very long spiel on Obfuscation from Lhorne. Hopefully, it sits naturally in the narrative here.
Things I changed during revision
This was not one of the heavily-revised chapters, though there are still several things worth noting.
Revision #1: Simplifying the token scavenger hunt
I got a lot of feedback on my original draft that the rules around the challenges were pretty confusing. (Which was fair, considering that I was confused myself and making it up along as I went.)
One of the things I tried to do was simplify the token challenge. I changed the number of tokens from 20 to 10 once I realized that there was no reason to have so many. Which then generated this moment of panic from one of my alpha readers on their second pass through the manuscript:
“I just found this incredibly important note for you, so important that I wrote it on my phone at like 1am two nights ago and had no recollection of it”
(For whatever reason, I saw “tokrnd” and my mind went to Bitcoin and I was extremely confused.)
It took a while for us to work out that the concern was whether there would be a continuity issue now that the number of tokens no longer matched the number of Supplicants the Houses were taking.
Lesson learned: when making up arbitrary numbers, try not to overlap them!
Revision #2: Lhorne and Dharyas’s relationship
Originally, the scene went straight from Dharyas announcing herself, to Rahelu backing down, to Lhorne protesting.
Dharyas, as with Lhorne, was an unplanned character. Technically her first appearance is in Chapter 6 (she’s the waving hand). I put that in mainly because there’s always that one person in a group and had no intention of making that person part of the main cast.
One of the flaws in my first draft is while you have a good sense of how the different characters relate to Rahelu, you don’t really get a sense of how they relate to each other—which is an artifact of discovery writing them.
So in revisions, I went back to add a quick exchange between the two House-born. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to the plot, but it does give us a brief sense of what House-born life is like and—more importantly—it serves to establish Lhorne and Dharyas’s relationship.
A lot of this book was written by accident and this chapter is the perfect example of discovery writing in action. It has two scenes: an opening scene where Rahelu’s mother is helping her prepare for the challenges and a closing scene at the Guild when the challenges begin.
Rahelu and her mother
In the original draft, Chapter 5 didn’t exist, so this scene came straight right after Tsenjhe and Keshwar accept Rahelu’s Petition. It’s the exact same thing we saw in Chapter 1: Rahelu getting ready for the day, her father leaving early to the sea, and her mother berating her the whole time.
It’s a short, quiet character moment where not all that much happens. Strictly speaking, I probably could have cut it during revisions. I don’t know that you would notice its absence on a first read: we already have a strong sense of the dynamic between Rahelu and her parents from the previous chapters.
So why show it again?
Well, the narrative purpose of this scene is to serve as a contrast to the opening: while nothing has changed on one level, everything has changed on another. It’s the beginning of a shift in Rahelu’s relationship with her mother: their roles have been reversed but neither of them acknowledge it in the moment—in fact, they’re both doing their best to pretend otherwise. Without this moment, the final interaction between these two characters doesn’t quite land as well emotionally.
(It sounds like I was so deliberate in my intentions when you put it that way, but at the time of writing, I honestly didn’t give it much thought beyond “huh, we just got to the end of a pretty intense sequence so let’s take a breather, what would feel the most natural here?”)
The challenges begin
One of the upshots of writing a tournament arc is that the narrative structure is done for you. The tone and types of events vary depending on the story’s context—J.K. Rowling’s Goblet of Fire is a rousing inter-school sports competition; Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games is politically motivated oppression dressed up in the spectacle and dazzle of reality TV juxtaposed against the horror of death matches between children; Will Wight’s Uncrowned and Wintersteel is a showcase of military power by world factions through the vehicle of fantasy Olympics.
All I had to do was translate a real-world interview process into one that made sense in a high fantasy setting and I didn’t even have to change all that much: the challenges are basically full day group interviews.
Lhorne, though, was unexpected.
He wasn’t in the list of characters I had planned before I started writing. Not very surprising, considering that Keshwar hadn’t been in that list either. He simply grew out of that one line of description I wrote, about Rahelu having to peer around the head of the tall guy standing in front of her to look at what someone else was doing, and the realization that there was no way she could find a team on her own.
We’ve just spent several chapters inside Rahelu’s head, where she’s working alone to achieve her goals, building up a clear (but shallow) picture of what House-born are like in the process. To get more of the same wouldn’t be very interesting, so having Lhorne find all these little ways to dispel Rahelu’s preconceived notions was an easy way of doing that while keeping her off-balance.
There was one, significant change I made in revision. Originally, the chapter ended when she accepts that Keshwar had organized a team mate for her. In revision, I extended the scene further to do two things: first, to give you a better sense of Lhorne as a character, and second, to set up another tone promise for Rahelu’s arc.
Again, I don’t think you would miss this additional exchange on a first read. But I’m fairly certain that if I didn’t put it in, the ending would feel shakier.
One of the most unintuitive things I have discovered about myself as a writer is that I am, apparently, incapable of sticking to an outline.
I just can’t do it, despite my tendency to being structured and methodical in my approach to most things in life. I’ll make comprehensive lists of things that should happen in the plot and map out my turning points, then I’ll open up a blank document and my brain will go, “Awww, how adorable, but actually no, we’re writing about this instead.”
At the same time, it’s hard for me to start from absolutely nothing. I need some sort of framework, however loose, to be able to put down new prose. Otherwise, I end up sitting there, staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page, second-guessing every word that comes to mind.
So, what I’ve found works really well for me, is Brandon Sanderson’s approach:
I plan my worlds in great detail before I start writing, in most cases, and I plan my plots in moderate detail. I plot backward, I start with what I want to have happen for a plot cycle…and then I list a bunch of bullet points underneath.
My characters, I figure out who they are when the book starts, but I do not outline them in great detail…which means I have to have a flowing outline where, once I’ve started writing my way into the character I will then have to rebuild the outline periodically to match the person they’re becoming, which sometimes rips apart that outline quite a bit.
When I have the big, overarching pieces of my world and my characters’ motivations established, and a clear situation, it becomes much easier to write. Instead of sitting in front of my computer, wondering ‘how do I write a good book?’ (a question to which there is no right answer), I can ask myself a set of concrete questions:
What’s the situation?
How does my viewpoint character feel about that situation?
How do the other character/s in the scene feel about that situation?
Given their motivations, what would my viewpoint character do?
I find this method a lot easier than to work to because I can make myself empathize with them. But it does mean that when I write, I generally have to write scenes in sequential order, otherwise I have trouble with consistency in my characters.
It also means that I often end up outlining, then re-outlining as I go. I tend to over-outline too, which means I often severely underestimate how much plot and character development I can cover. (Exhibit A: this book, which was supposed to be 75,000 words long. Yeah.)
Chapter 5 is a weird chapter. It’s one of the few scenes in Petition that were written out of order during the first draft.
(There are other scenes that were written out of order by virtue of being scenes I inserted to address alpha and beta reader feedback, but those don’t really count in the same way.)
Originally, Chapters 3 and 4 were just one long chapter. The extent of my outline for it was this—the tracked changes show you what I adjusted after every writing session. This screenshot is from the point right after I had finished writing the first draft of the scene with Xyuth but before I got all the way through her Evocation up at Stormbane’s rest:
Hilariously, Keshwar isn’t in the outline at all at this stage. Pretty much everybody other than Rahelu, her parents, Onneja, and Tsenjhe didn’t really exist in the outline. They all just…kind of happened during the writing process.
Here’s the revised outline (again) after I started writing the scene inside the Guild courtyard. Note the ridiculous amount of question marks and how the details bear no resemblance to what I actually ended up writing:
And halfway through the scene, I figure out that I’ve made things way too complicated, so I start simplifying:
Scene 2.3 was still 2,695 words long by the time I was done with the significantly simplified version, and the chapter overall was at 7,226 words. I got to the end of the scene and felt like the next logical progression from a character and relationship perspective was a scene with Tsenjhe and her parents at home, which would have all of Rahelu’s worlds colliding.
Conceptually, it was a scene that should work.
At the same time, I did not actually want to write Keshwar and Tsenjhe paying a visit to Rahelu’s parents.
So I skipped it and went on to write the next chapter, which opens on the day of challenges.
Later, after I decided to restructure the book, I came back and wrote the scene with Keshwar and Tsenjhe escorting Rahelu home.
It’s a very introspection-heavy scene, which makes me worry. Introspection is hard to do well; writing too little of it means you often don’t get a sense of the POV character but writing too much can feel like pointless bloat.
Worse, it’s a scene where there is no obvious conflict and Rahelu has no overt purpose she’s pursuing. She’s pretty much just a passive observer, freaking out in her head the whole time.
So no surprises here: my alpha and beta readers were kind of confused as to why this scene was here at all. My gut feeling is that the change of pace is necessary. We’re at the end of a big, action-heavy opening arc; we need some sort of denouement to the resolution that yes, she’s in, her Petition has been accepted.
In the end, I left the scene in but tweaked a few lines right at the very end. I wanted to hint at a sense of a calm before the storm, that the stakes—high as Rahelu thought they already were—are being raised, and some hints at bigger things happening in the background that Rahelu isn’t aware of. (And won’t be in a position to be aware of for a long time.)
Does it work?
I think it does. The last line in the scene is a nice little callback to the tone promise in the prologue, and the additional details that Rahelu observes in her final interaction with Keshwar foreshadow something that happens at the midpoint of the book.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out; I think having this scene here makes for a much stronger transition than an abrupt cut from the end of Chapter 4 to the beginning of Chapter 6.
In contrast to the previous chapter, this next chapter was one of the easiest chapters to write. Very little changed from the original draft to the published version.
When I say very little changed, I don’t mean that in terms of actual count of words added, deleted, and moved around. I’m more referring to the significance of the revisions.
Since there were no significant revisions for this chapter, it is probably a good place to discuss how I do revisions generally, and what happens between typing “THE END” on the first draft to hitting “PUBLISH”. That’s because you can get a clearer picture of the extent of revisions that happen when there are no structural issues present.
(Structural issues, like those in Chapter 3, generally require extensive rewrites so I basically treat them as writing new prose.)
Typically, I divide revisions into two categories: major and minor revisions.
Anything that changes the overall shape of the story qualifies as a major revision. Adding, deleting, or moving scenes around are major revisions. Anything that impacts the overall tone, plot, and character promises of the story—like rewriting a scene from a different perspective, or from the same perspective but with a different emotional tone or arc—is also an example of a major revision. Big stuff that often, but not always, affects more than one scene or one chapter.
Minor revisions are similar in nature, but instead of working at the arc/chapter/scene level, I’m working with paragraphs, sentences, and individual words. That is, the scope of the revisions are contained within a single scene.
When I write new prose, I generally write every scene in a given storyline in sequence. I think (though I’m not 100% certain since I don’t feel qualified to attempt something as difficult as this) that if I were to utilize a narrative structure where there are flashback sequences, I would probably treat each timeline as a distinct storyline and write each of them in sequence. There’s an upfront time cost for me to get into the right headspace for the plot and the characters involved, so it’s easier for me to stick to one storyline at a time. Bouncing around different POVs in the same storyline doesn’t matter as much.
But when I’m writing any given scene, even though I try to write the scene from beginning to end, I do jump around within the scene. I’ll write bits of sentences that I like the sound/feel of, but it won’t quite fit in with the natural flow of the prose that has gone before, so I’ll stick all of these orphaned phrases at the bottom of the document while I do my best to forge on, until I find the right place in the flow to slot them in.
Whatever doesn’t make it into the scene gets moved into the prose graveyard. RIP. If you’re curious, I ended up with 17,179 words in the prose graveyard by the time I was finished with major revisions on Petition, and an entire deleted prologue that was 5,856 words long.
Alpha and beta feedback and revisions
This is the most important stage of revisions for me. I don’t currently use a developmental editor for two reasons: first, because it wouldn’t be commercially viable at the moment; and secondly, because I’m fairly confident in my ability to spot structural issues in narratives, based on my writing experience.
Even so, I do not publish anything until it has gone through both alpha and beta readers. I rely on them heavily to gauge whether or not scenes are landing emotionally the way I intend them to, whether I have alignment between my promises and my pay-offs, the pacing of how my plot/characters progress, and whether things make sense from a continuity and world-building perspective.
My rule of thumb for whether or not I act on alpha/beta reader feedback goes something like this:
Only 1 reader pointed it out = I’ll action it if I agree with it
2-3 readers remark on the same thing (could be agreement or disagreement) = I need to investigate the issue and give it serious thought. 7 or 8 times out of 10 though, the feedback is either correct or points to a deeper issue and I’ll address it
More than 3 readers have an issue = this is a critical flaw I need to fix
Early readers were divided on the first scene. Some found Rahelu’s introspection slow; some enjoyed the change in pace and the description of the scenery; some had a problem with Rahelu’s run-in with her mother, citing their dislike of using miscommunication as a source of that conflict/tension.
Feedback on the second scene, however, was unanimous: the best chapter so far. Everybody liked the dynamic between Keshwar and Tsenjhe, and their interactions with Rahelu. Phew! No changes needed here.
The issue with pacing in the first scene was minor, and something that I knew could be addressed during line edits, which I’ll discuss below. The bigger issue to consider at this stage was whether or not I wanted to keep the nature of the conflict between Rahelu and her mother.
The Tiger/Asian Mom is a well-known and well-caricatured stereotype these days, to the point where it’s often just used for cheap humor. But that stereotype is rooted in truth, and that painful truth is, miscommunication and misunderstanding is a huge part of many immigrant parent/child relationships in my experience.
It is one of those things that sounds incredible silly to a third party observer when summarized, but when you live that experience, it is the kind of thing that tears you up from the inside and breaks you down, no matter how old you are.
For better or for worse, this kind of family dynamic is representative of the immigrant story I was trying to tell, so I felt it was important that Rahelu’s relationship with her mother reflected this consistently. Thus, I decided to leave the first scene as written.
When I write new prose, I do everything I can to focus on getting the plot and character arc down on the page right, and to avoid getting caught up on stuff that I know I’m going to fix later.
That means putting an ‘XXX’ placeholder in whenever any of the following things happen:
I can’t think of the right word or phrase I want to use in that specific part of the prose: this could be for the way it sounds, what it means, an how the word or phrase visually looks on the page, or even just that rhythmically an additional word or phrase that I can’t think of would be more pleasing to the ear, etc.
I haven’t named a character or location or an in-world term. There were a lot of ‘XXX’s at one point for all the swearing, when I was debating if I should use invented fantasy swears. Believe it or not, Keshwar was the reason that I decided to go with real world curse words—mainly because one of his lines in the next chapter just doesn’t sound right without them.
I need to quantify something (amount of time, timeline, distance, number of objects/people, money) and I haven’t decided exactly how many is feasible or reasonable in the scenario. Yes, I have a spreadsheet that calculates the loan amortization schedules for Rahelu’s family’s fishing sloop and her Guild debt, as well as list of every good or service that appears on the page and is paid for by a character, and a weekly budget listing income and expenses for Rahelu’s family.
I need a technical detail that I haven’t researched. If you’re curious, a lot of this had to do with fishing and the commercial sale of live seafood when refrigeration isn’t commonly available.
I need a sensory detail that isn’t plot critical. Honestly, a lot of this is clothes and food.
I need a specific resonance detail. Since colors and textures have significance here, I need to make sure I’m using them in a consistent way. This is my version of Sanderson’s revision pass to add spren into the Stormlight Archive books.
I’ve tried writing without placeholders before and it utterly destroys my efficiency. Here’s an accurate summary from Ursula Vernon:
All told, there were 1,443 ‘XXX’ placeholders that needed to be eliminated for Petition:
It took me a month to get rid of them all.
Here are all the different kinds of line level edits I do, to make the prose as polished as I can:
Continuity: these mainly related to the way the sequence with Xyuth in the Tattered Quill unfolded after structural revisions, as well as eliminating references to a recent interaction with Onneja. That was a scene that originally took place in between Rahelu and her mother arriving at the market and Rahelu lining up to hand in her Petition at the Guild. We’ll talk more about it when we get to Chapter 13.
Character details: Rahelu’s habitual resonance ward is something that comes up throughout the book that is thematically important to her and how the book ends. I’d made sure to mention it a few times throughout but I still did have some beta readers who were a little confused by it at the end, so I took the opportunity to reinforce it here.
Emotional distance: I have a natural tendency to write in a distant third personal limited perspective. I suspect it’s because I focus so much on pinning down specific, observable things when I draft scenes. When I’m across the viewpoint character’s frame of mind and in a flow state, it’s easier for me to write prose that’s more emotive/evocative, but this is rare. Generally, I have to work hard to reduce the distance in my perspectives.
Flow: this has to do with the narrative arc of the prose and the rhythm of how it reads:
I try to nest arcs within arcs within arcs, so that each word forms an arc in a sentence, sentences form an arc in a paragraph, paragraphs form an arc in a scene, and scenes form an arc in the chapter, and the chapters form an arc in the book.
Often, this involves me doing things like: moving sentences around until I’m happy with the order in which ideas are presented; sitting there changing my mind ten times about where I want to put line breaks; debating whether I want to have a long, half-page sentence with twenty clauses in it or whether it should be split up and if I split it up, how I want to punctuate it.
Sometimes, this involves me making a slight change at the end of the chapter by adding a hook. I have a natural tendency to end chapters right at the point of emotional impact. This generally works in later chapters because by then you’re invested enough in the characters and the story to keep reading to the end. Not so great in the early chapters because it doesn’t compel a page turn, thus allowing a clean exit point to stop reading.
Pacing: I tend to overwrite narration and description on my first drafts, since I need it to get into the viewpoint character’s head and to envision the space they are in. Most of the time when a scene drags, I can fix it by cutting back on the narration.
Word choice and phrasing: this is where I try to make a character’s voice more distinct. Examples include: deleting (excessive) filler words, replacing adverbs and adjectives with stronger verbs and more specific nouns, eliminating anachronistic or overused words or phrases, eliminating the repetitious use of words and phrases in close proximity, etc.
Extensive line edits tend to involve me addressing comments that past me left on the manuscript while I was writing the first draft. (Those mostly consist of things like: “this line sucks”, “UGH this is SUPER LAME”, “maybe this? or that? IDK”, and “fix this later”.) Sometimes, my alpha and beta readers will have left line level comments as well—this doesn’t happen often, because it’s not their focus, but they will mark things up if it sticks out to them. If so, this is when I look at those comments.
The rest of the line edits I tend to do in conjunction with copyedits—see below.
Once line edits are done, I export my manuscript from Google Docs and put it into Vellum for typesetting and book formatting. By this stage, any further changes that need to be made generally involves punctuation and are not extensive.
(There is an argument to be made that I should keep my manuscript in Google Docs until the very last moment. But doing that means a big time crunch when it comes to getting cover art finalized and the book uploaded for publication, which is why I stop working in Google Docs after line edits.)
Next, I do a complete read through of the manuscript and scope my line edits. This involves logging every single thing that bugs me at the sentence level in a spreadsheet, including anything that I’m unsure of:
This is the hardest part of the revision process for me. I can’t afford a copyeditor yet, so I am reliant on tools like Hemingway and Grammarly. I don’t always take all of the suggestions, but I do investigate all of the issues that are flagged.
A lot of the changes at this stage have to do with hyphens, commas, and US English. I made a conscious decision to write in US English even though I am Australian, simply because the majority of my readers are based in the US, and those who aren’t are used to reading in all forms of English.
Still, I had to draw the line on some things. Example: I don’t care if “leaped” is common than “leapt” in American English; I prefer the sound of “leapt” and it’s not wrong, so I’m keeping it.
This is the most tedious and agonizing stage. It involves me sitting with the printer files and reading the entire book backwards.
As in, I start on the last word of the last page and read the whole thing backwards, word by word. It does my head in like nothing else.
But it absolutely works, because I pick up errors that have been there since the first draft and have gone unnoticed the whole time because everybody was autocorrecting it as they read it.
(Apparently two other effective tricks are to read it aloud and change the font to Comic Sans. I may try that for Book 2, since there was still an error that slipped through despite my best efforts. And if you spot something that might be an error, you can report it here.)
Once proofreading is done, I upload the print-ready PDF files and the EPUB files. It can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days for me to get a proof file.
Checking the proof file is usually a quick process of doing a page flip to make sure nothing is weirdly formatted or cut-off.
If I see any errors, I correct them in Vellum, re-upload then recheck the proofs.
Once I’m happy with the proofs, I approve the files for publication.
If there was one chapter that summed up my experience of writing Petition, it was this chapter, which has the dubious honor of being the most revised chapter in the entire book.
For the most part, I write very clean first drafts. That doesn’t mean they don’t require editing—they do!—but I generally have a good feel for whether or not something is ‘working’ after I write it. Thankfully, this is most of my scenes, most of the time, but every now and then, I will be stuck with a scene that I know sucks and that I have no idea how to fix.
Such was the case with Xyuth and the Tattered Quill.
The extent of my planning for the entire chapter was “Rahelu tries to salvage her Petition by sticking the torn pieces together” and since we’re in fantasy-land, the logical place for her to go was to a scrivener.
It is perfectly readable and narratively, it hits the same beats: Rahelu tries to convince Xyuth to help her; he refuses; she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer; he acquiesces; she leaves with writing supplies and a weird rock.
Yet it doesn’t quite work. It’s an odd, not entirely convincing interaction where the characters’ respective motivations aren’t clear—with two pages of egregious Magical Macguffin discussion in the mix to boot, which my beta readers absolutely hated.
I sympathized—I hated it too.
So why did I write two pages about a stupid magic rock in the first place?
Real answer: I got stuck while discovery writing the scene. Rahelu had no money and needed writing supplies; Xyuth is unsettled by her (for reasons that aren’t clear from the scene) but unwilling to help her. I needed something, anything, to break the stalemate so I just started having Xyuth throw out random things that he might plausibly have in his shop to get rid of Rahelu, and a mysterious rock turned out to be the most convenient thing that worked.
What does it do?
Well, that would be telling, because at the time that I wrote it into the story, I had absolutely no idea. I parked it to one side and kept writing the rest of the book.
(Of course, I’ve now worked out what it does…and you should find out in Book 2.)
It wasn’t until after I’d finished the whole draft—and was able to look back at the entire shape of the book—that I got a few inklings of possible directions for revisions.
The biggest structural issue with my first draft was that the two halves of the book felt like two different stories, hence the new prologue. By the time we’re at the Tattered Quill, we’re almost 8,000 words into the story—long enough that the details of the prologue have begun to fade. I needed something else to shake the narrative out of what otherwise feels like the ordinary (even if it’s a once-a-year, big deal kind of ordinary for Rahelu).
Having Xyuth engaged in dodgy dealings in his backroom with a strange mage solved a few of these problems, at the cost of clarity:
I’m pretty certain that most first-time readers will be super confused about what is going on with the Augury, though hopefully by this point in the book, I’ve delivered enough pay-offs that they’ll trust me to deliver on this one too and decide to keep reading.
I’m also reasonably certain that there aren’t enough context clues for a reader to figure out who the unknown mage is on a first read-through. I hope, though, that anybody doing a re-read will be able to guess at their identity.
The final, interesting thing I can share is that I didn’t intend Augury to play such a big part in this book.
One of the things I’ve learned from reading Brandon Sanderson is that it’s nice to keep the early books focused on exploring the core bits of the magic system and utilizing the basics in creative ways, so you can save some bigger reveals for later books. (This is done particularly well in the Mistborn books.)
I do worry that I might have introduced too much Augury, too early. It is important for future books so showing how it works in principle here is probably necessary.
I’ll just have to come up with some really cool stuff in later books! (No pressure…)
I always went into writing with the belief that I am an outliner. I’m the kind of person who lives their life according to a cascading collection of one-, three-, five-, and ten-year plans, where each group of short-term goals feeds into a carefully considered set of long-term goals.
But in actual fact, I’m not. I’ll sit there, plan an outline, then throw it out when it’s time to put my fingers to the keyboard.
(You’d think I’d’ve realized this earlier; if I compare every ten-year plan I ever made to how my life unfolded, very little of those plans survived their encounters with reality.)
In my penultimate year of high school, I’d taken an elective in drama. I don’t remember much of the curriculum, other than what my teacher taught us about the rules of good improvisation: when your improvisation partner makes an ‘offer’, accepting and building upon that offer generally results in a better storytelling outcome.
That mindset was invaluable to me as I was drafting this book. Most of Petition was discovery-written, with many of the characters and plot lines springing into being during the writing process, prompted by my use of the “try/fail” cycle.
Here are my original notes for this chapter:
Where’s the discussion of scene 1.2, you ask? We’ll talk about that when we get to the annotations for Chapter 13! But this is what the opening of the market scene looked like in the very first draft:
There was no competitive parental sniping between Rahelu’s mother and Hzin. Bzel didn’t exist. I hadn’t figured out any of the worldbuilding logistics around commercial selling of fresh seafood when refrigeration technology (or magic) isn’t commonly available—I hadn’t even named my fantasy fish. All of those things were added in during later revisions.
Even so, the opening chapters were some of the fastest chapters to write. My writing progress tracker says I was writing new prose at a rate of 926–1,154 words per hour. If only I could write that fast all the time!
Much of that draft remains in the published version. But one of artifacts of discovery writing is that I did not know what kind of story I was writing. I did not yet know the details of the main conflicts or who the main characters, other than Rahelu, were going to be—let alone what their motivations were.
The little moment with Bzel and Rahelu’s almost-Evocation was written after I wrote the original prologue, which I subsequently cut and replaced with a new prologue. That ruined the reversal of perspectives you get in the ending, so I kept this moment here to try and maintain some of that symmetry.
Lhorne and Cseryl cameo
This was my attempt to make the ending of the book less weird, structurally speaking. (I’ll discuss the structural weirdness in more detail when we get to the annotations for Chapters 24 and onwards.) I’m not entirely sure it works, but it does lay some groundwork for later chapters with not a whole lot of word count so I left it in.
Deepening Nheras’s character
Like the vast majority of the cast, Nheras wasn’t a planned character—she popped up when I needed to give Rahelu an obvious antagonist early on. But once she became part of the narrative, I didn’t want to make her a disposable antagonist.
In the first draft, Nheras reads like a typical bully/‘Mean Girls’ trope character. That’s deliberate—we’re in Rahelu’s POV after all—but it’s also a problem. There are moments where she borders on being an outright caricature. (Is there anything that screams ‘cartoon villain’ more that a character siccing their cronies onto the protagonist with some sort of variation on “get ’em, boys”?)
I hate reading one-note characters. They make it difficult for me to suspend my sense of disbelief in the first place and they rob scenes of emotional impact. Why should I care if the funny sidekick dies or if the antagonist is overcome if they’ve been nothing more than cardboard cut-outs?
(You can’t necessarily do this with every character. I didn’t have the page count to give Bhemol and Kiran more depth: Rahelu views them as Nheras’s thugs and that’s all you need to know about them. Narratively speaking, they’re there to underscore the main conflict in the scene, which is the Nheras/Rahelu rivalry. I could have added more moments to show that there’s more to Bhemol and Kiran than being bullies, but that’s not the story I was trying to tell.)
Powerful emotional moments have to be earned. For me, the most memorable scenes—the ones that evoke strong, raw emotional responses when I’m reading—are always rooted in conflicts between multi-dimensional characters.
Easy to point out where an author has gone wrong, but hard to do right. I tried to do a couple of things with the expanded Nheras moments in this chapter:
Create the sense of five years of history between Nheras and Rahelu.
Let the reader come to the conclusion that there’s another side to the story—one where Nheras and Rahelu’s roles are reversed.
Hint at Nheras’s motives and her relative standing amongst the other House-born.
I tried very hard to stay away from doing this via clumsy exposition. Not only because I hate it, but because we’re in Rahelu’s POV. She views all House-born as a monolithic entity and has neither the inclination nor the opportunity to learn anything more. Anything I wanted to convey, I needed to convey via implication and subtext.
Did it work? It’s a little heavier-handed than I would like, but I think so. At the very least, the published version is far better than the draft.
Tone and story promises
I had two big problems with my draft.
First (and most significant) was the two halves of my book read like totally different stories. It begins with essentially a tournament arc—Rahelu and her Petition—then halfway through, it takes a left turn into a murder mystery. (More on this in the annotation on the prologue and the annotation on Chapter 3.)
Second problem was the incompleteness of tone promises and consistency of tone throughout the opening chapters. I did not want somebody picking up this book, thinking it was YA fantasy, and then subsequently being horrified by the swearing, violence, and sexual content.
Expanding the exchange between the Ilyn applicants and Rahelu served a few purposes.
1. Spreading the dialogue between Nheras, Bhemol, and Kiran conveyed a better sense of their dynamic and established some distinctions in their respective characters.
2. In the beta read draft, Kiran already had an expanded role, though the scene was less sexually explicit:
I think Kiran’s implication here is clear but some of my beta readers were still caught off guard by the last scene in Chapter 11, which sets up two other scenes in Chapter 22. (The end of Chapter 11 is roughly 46,000 words into the book, which is far too late to be setting up tone and story promises. Those all need to be in place by the end of Chapter 2, which is about where the sample chapters on Amazon end.)
The other issue is, while we get Rahelu’s reaction, we don’t understand how she feels about the situation or the power dynamics in the world. The two additional paragraphs in the published version help bridge that gap.
3. Finally, there was an opportunity here to draw a clearer parallel between Tsenjhe and Rahelu, which is important for setting up some of Rahelu’s later choices.
In addition to splitting off the whole sequence from Market Square to Rahelu’s Petition being destroyed into its own chapter, I also changed the ending based on alpha reader feedback.
Originally, this sequence ended with Rahelu being devastated by the destruction of her Petition and Nheras stalking off. It’s a real downer of an ending and the version that I, and a few of my beta readers, personally prefer.
But when I stepped back to take a look at the overall structure of the book, I noticed my tendency to end chapters on emotional gut punches—perhaps because I conceive of them as self-contained arcs. Many of my early drafts lacked an explicit hook into the next chapter which was a recurring piece of feedback from my alpha readers. (The most common reaction was ‘what now?’ but not in a way that compelled them to go on to the next chapter.) This kind of chapter ending (mostly) works for the second half of the book as, by then, you’ve become invested in the characters.
But when we’re only at Chapter 2 and still in the sample chapters, it’s a big risk to take. I don’t have the marketing budget or the marketing department of a traditional publishing house behind me. Every reader I can convince to visit the product page for my book and click through to the sample is precious to me. If you’ve gotten to the end of Chapter 2, which has set up all of the story and tone promises, chances are you enjoyed my writing enough to read through to the end.
It might not be the creative choice I prefer, but adding the more obvious hook in here was probably the safer, more commercial decision.
Maybe someday, when I’ve built enough trust with readers, I can take some more risks creatively. But for now, I’m focusing on doing whatever I can to prevent the dreaded ‘DNF’.
This is the second-most-revised chapter in the entire book. There’s so much pressure to have a great, hooky first sentence. That pressure extends to the first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter…
(To be honest, the pressure’s there for the whole first book, and then every book that follows. Writing is hard.)
But there’s something about that first sentence that creates additional pressure. The blank page holds an endless promise: you could write the next The Lord of the Rings, the next A Song of Ice and Fire, the next Malazan Book of the Fallen, the next Stormlight Archive, the next Cradle—something that will be even better and more beloved than the works that have been immortalized in the literary canon.
And then you write your first word, and with that word, you’ve eliminated a billion possibilities. By the time you’ve written your first sentence, you realize that you’re a no-talent delusional hack who will never be able to craft anything a tenth as good as the latest trashy read you picked up from the bargain bin at a remainder store and you question your sanity for daring to have the audacity to think you might be worthy of trying.
Openings are hard to write. And they’re hard to get right. This is what my first draft looked like:
It follows roughly the same beats as the published version:
Rahelu agonizes over her Petition, trying to put the best spin on her answers without outright lying.
Her father reminds her to eat before he leaves for the sea.
She spills ink on her Petition.
Her mother scolds her for wasting food, for lacking manners, for being slow.
It ends the same way: her mother tells her to wash and hurry so they can arrive before Hzin.
I didn’t have much of my worldbuilding done before I started, so even though it was a short (for me) scene of 1,035 words, there were a lot of XXX placeholders. I started a list:
As an opening, it’s awful and boring:
There is no sense of who Rahelu is as a character.
There’s conflict between Rahelu and her mother but nothing happens!
There’s simultaneously too much exposition and not enough exposition.
Some magic is happening but it’s not very exciting.
The stakes are unclear and therefore uncompelling.
I made an effort to give Rahelu’s narration more individuality. (By then, I’d finished the first draft so that was easier do to.) I shoehorned in more exposition about the Houses, Rahelu’s interactions with the other trainees, her family’s immigrant journey, her prospects.
All that was fine. But what really saved the opening was the new sequence with House Isonn’s debt collectors. Without it, no matter how much Rahelu worries about money, the stakes feel abstract. But when money problems manifest directly on their doorstep with the threat of physical violence, the stakes become real and visceral.
That’s where the book starts to gain momentum. And it takes far too long to happen: not only did my beta readers have to slog through an almost 6,000-word-long prologue, they had to make it through more than 3,000 words of Rahelu reviewing her fantasy job application before House Isonn arrives on the scene.
Normal readers would have DNF’d somewhere around the first paragraph, I’m pretty sure. I needed to get them to the action as quickly as possible, to keep them hooked. For a while, I seriously considered moving all of Rahelu’s agonizing over her Petition to Chapter 2, so we could begin with the debt collection sequence. I even considered moving the whole scene to the Lowdocks proper.
I didn’t feel like that solution worked though. Something gets lost and the emotional impact is weakened, when you see that sequence play out without having seen Rahelu’s home environment, the contrast between the immigrant dream and the immigrant reality. It’s a little heavy-handed in the execution—I wish I had the skill as a writer to be more subtle about it—but showing that disjunction was important to me.
The final word count for this chapter stands at around 2,700 words long. It is one of the shortest chapters in the book, apart from the prologue, interlude and epilogue.
Normally, I prefer much longer chapters. Around 5,000–6,000 words is where my chapters typically sit in a first draft, with the longest ones topping out at 10,000–12,000 words. Part of this is because I’m naturally verbose; the other reason is that I conceive of chapters as short stories with a self-contained arc. For me, the difference between a scene and a chapter is that while every scene should advance plot and character and develop the world, a scene does not necessarily contain an arc.
You’ll have noticed that Chapter 1, as published, does not have an arc. This was because Chapter 1 did not originally end here. It ended at the same end point of the published Chapter 2. The last scene of the published Chapter 13 was the middle of the arc, and it originally took place in the middle of the events that now comprise Chapter 2.
It was confusing for my alpha and beta readers and set up the wrong kinds of story and character promises. I moved the middle scene closer to the midpoint of the book, which we’ll discuss when we get to the Chapter 13 annotations.
That helped, but it still left me with pacing issues. Alpha and beta readers all agreed that the book takes a while to get going. I debated my chapter breaks for weeks, but ultimately caved and broke the story into shorter chapters to help with pacing.
I think it was the right thing to do.
I’m still not sure how I feel about short chapters. Hopefully, as I improve as a writer, I’ll develop more economy with my prose and get better at constructing multi-layered scenes, so I can pack more story into the same word count.
(I realized yesterday that The Traitor Baru Cormorant is only about 140,000 words long. It blew my mind. I’ve got a long way to go as a writer.)
Prologues have a bad rap. There are readers out there who have been so badly burned by bad prologues that they will not read any more books with prologues.
(I’m not one of them. As a rule, I like my epic fantasy with prologues.)
But this was my debut novel. I was going to have enough trouble finding willing readers; I needed to do everything I could to signal to those I could find that they wouldn’t run into any of the usual fantasy author hazards with my book: poor pacing; POVs bloat; and of course, bad use of prologues.
So, no prologues. No matter how much I liked them personally.
Unfortunately, I had two problems:
The first half of the book lacked sufficiently large stakes for epic fantasy. There is House intrigue happening, but Rahelu isn’t privy to it, so it isn’t apparent from her POVs—which form 99% of the book. Doh.
The murder mystery doesn’t kick in until more than halfway through the book, so it feels like a left turn out of nowhere.
I tried really hard to solve this without adding a non-Rahelu POV. But every solution I considered (Rahelu running into the murder/s or murderer, somehow; Rahelu hearing rumors about the murder/s; etc) felt horribly hamfisted and contrived.
In the end, I gave up and went with the obvious solution: I added a different POV and made it a prologue.
It’s a tried-and-true technique for fantasy authors because it works. Opening with Azosh-ek’s POV as a prologue lets me establish some story promises that I couldn’t set up with a Rahelu POV in Chapter 1:
Violence and gore level (I’m not writing grimdark, but there are going to be some gruesome scenes)
Move the emphasis on the murder mystery away from the whodunit aspect towards the why
That there will be multiple POVs. Not necessarily a whole heap of them, but it will not be a strictly single POV book.
I’m a huge fan of how Brandon Sanderson uses interludes in his works—they’re a nice little diversion between arcs in his books and offer a glimpse into other parts of his world that the main narrative doesn’t have the opportunity to visit yet.
It’s my hope that the Azosh-ek POVs (the prologue, the interlude, and the epilogue) offer you some variety from the Rahelu POVs, without diluting the focus of the story.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.
(Full disclosure: the Azosh-ek prologue was not the original prologue, though, which was a young Rahelu POV, set five years before the events of Chapter 1. If you’re interested in reading that, you can get access by signing up for my mailing list.)
Fantasy maps occupy a weird space for me as a reader. I don’t tend to do more than look at them briefly before I start reading, and I rarely go back to study them in detail afterwards, yet if an epic fantasy novel doesn’t have any maps, it somehow detracts from the reading experience for me.
It’s as if the presence of a map sends some sort of message about the author’s care factor in worldbuilding.
Totally unfair, since there are plenty of fantasy authors out there who have put in a great deal of effort into their worldbuilding but don’t have maps. Will Wight, famously, has a map for his own reference purposes and steadfastly refuses to put out any maps after his experience with doing one for The Traveler’s Gate trilogy.
I debated long and hard about whether I would put in a map. As a self-published author, I personally finance every dollar that goes into the publication of my books. Commissioning a map from a real cartographer was far out of my budget.
But I felt like I needed one, to make the right kind of tone promises for the series. My alpha readers had given me the feedback that my book didn’t feel like it had enough literary stakes for epic fantasy. Part of that came down to my choice of POV: since it was my debut novel, I didn’t want to fall into the common fantasy author trap of just throwing in random POVs for the sake of it. And in some ways, throwing in another POV felt like a cheat—like I couldn’t be bothered thinking up a better way to tell the story with the existing POVs I had.
As a result, Petition is a tight POV book. There are only two POVs—Rahelu’s and Azosh-ek’s (and his POV didn’t even exist in the first draft). Neither of those characters are in position to know much about the bigger picture politicking happening in the background…but that’s where the “epic” part of the story is.
Also, during the drafting process, my discover writing brain decided to make a map plot-critical. (More about that later.) That pretty much made my decision for me.
Since I couldn’t afford to hire a professional, I had no choice but to draw the maps myself.
Of the two maps that I have, the continent map was the easier one to draw.
While Brandon Sanderson is my role model in many respects, I can’t really bring myself to detail my worlds to the level of detail that he does before writing. To be fair, this is important when you’re constructing a world like Roshar, where the natural phenomena cause the ecology and therefore everything else to be wildly different.
That wasn’t the case for me. By and large, my magic system doesn’t really have a big interaction effect with the environment. And since I’m not the best at geography, I used Azgaar’s Fantasy Map generator as a starting point. My process was not very sophisticated: it involved mashing F5 until I got something that I liked the look of.
From there, I traced over the coastline, the rivers, the lakes and made a note of the various biomes on the map. Once that was done, I followed some YouTube tutorials from the WASD and Caeora channels on how to add the rest of the details. My glaciers are not very convincing—they just kind of look like plateaus—but it was the best that I could do.
This was the more difficult map to draw. Unlike the continent map, where it didn’t really matter where I drew the details, I had to get the city map details right, because they were plot-critical:
In theory, you should be able to figure out the plot twist from looking at the map. In theory. I’m not really sure how successful I was at foreshadowing it—you’ll have to let me know.
Here, too, I used a procedurally generated map to get started. This also involved mashing F5 on watabou’s fantasy city map generator until I got something I was happy with. (By the way, the Azgaar world map generator is integrated with watabou’s city map generator by default, which I think is pretty neat. But it doesn’t always come up with a suitable city layout, so I ended up generating a separate map in watabou instead.)
Tracing over this map took longer. I had to deviate from the base map a lot to work in key landmarks that couldn’t be procedurally generated but which existed in the narrative.
Maps and the writing process
Like I said, as a reader, I normally don’t pay too much attention to maps.
But as a writer, I need ’em. Can’t write without them. I get lost trying to figure out where something is in relation to something else. Sometimes, even trying to keep in mind how a room is laid out, where all the objects are located and how every character in the room is positioned relative to everybody else feels overwhelming.
The published maps were the very last thing I created, when I was taking a break between line edits and proofreading. For the most part, the base procedurally generated maps were sufficient for me to keep continuity straight…and of the two maps that I had, it was the city map that I referred to constantly. (And I will post that version, once we get to the chapter with the plot twist!)
Since I can’t afford to hire a full-time continuity editor like Brandon Sanderson, I needed to keep things as straight as possible during the drafting process so having those reference maps handy was vital. Sorting out timeline continuity issues was bad enough without having to add geographical continuity issues into the mix.
Most of the detailed descriptions of the city and various directions didn’t make it past the line edit stage. While I needed understand the exact route Rahelu took through the streets so I could make sure that it made sense, you didn’t need that detail since, as one beta reader pointed out, it slowed down the action.
I wish there was some way to shortcut this part of my process. Sadly, I don’t think there is, since I find it difficult to write something when I can’t visualize it. Turns out I’m the opposite kind of writer to how I am as a reader—when I read, I don’t spend much time visualizing the characters or the world. At least, not consciously.