In my last post I shared the website I created, and promised an "Obscure Books" bookclub of sorts. I mentioned my journey through "Kristin Lavransdatter" by Sigrid Undset, and I still plan on covering that. Since that post, I've progressed from a mere 300 pages into the story to about 850, but the entire book is over 1,000 pages, so I'm not quite at the end yet. I generally take my time with these stories; I'm quite the slow reader. I stop to look up every word or term I don't know, I'm always going back and re-reading things if I don't completely grasp it the first time, and I like taking notes on my phone as I read.
As for progress on writing Enid, the whole manuscript at this point is about 215,000 words long, and the end is preciously near. It's not something I'm worried about wrapping up, because I knew exactly how I wanted the end of the story to play out before even writing the first word.
If you saw the title of this post, you probably deduced that I'm going to be talking about part of the book. While I spent a lot of time on my website, there's only one part of it that I'm particularly invested in, and that's the preview--because I rewrote the entire start of the book in service of it, and made the story much better in the process.
Before I continue on, this post will, of course, contain spoilers, so I'd encourage you to read the book preview for yourself before reading this post any further.
You can read the preview here. It's the first two chapters of the book, and it's almost 12k words in length; it's quite a lot of content for a sneak peek. A little while back, I put up a sneak peek of the book on this blog via a scene in the middle of the story, which I quite liked writing, but this preview blows that scene of the water entirely; and it's not even close. I'm almost frightened, because the first two chapters showcases the absolute best I'm capable of, and now the bar is set that much higher for the rest of the story. A fear of mine is that I won't be able to do the preview justice in that regard.
I wanted to pick apart the preview, my thought process behind these first two chapters, and deconstruct where all of this came from.
Originally, the first draft of the story didn't have an inciting incident of any kind. (I know, great writing, amirite?) This was because of the synopsis--or book blurb--that I wrote for the back of the book.
In the book blurb (and this isn't a spoiler, because it's on the cover), I specifically state that Enid's backstory involved her monastery burning to the ground. Thusly, I started the book with a short nightmare about the attack, and then had her wake up years later in the middle of her journey to Al-Haven.
It was okay. But not great. I did this because, at the time, I thought there was no point in playing out a tragic backstory when the reader already knows what's going to happen. But what I failed to realize was that dramatic irony was a thing, and most other books start with a healthy dose of it to build suspense and dread.
How many fantasy stories begin with the cookie-cutter setup of, "Our chosen one starts the story in his farming village before it's attacked by the Dark Lord"? A lot. Star Wars does this, but in space; the first film starts with the Princess trying to flee on a ship, and then cuts shortly later to Luke Skywalker on his farm.
This works because the audience isn't watching to see what happens to Luke and his farm, they can probably figure out that he's going to be displaced somehow and set off on an adventure for the stars. No, they watch to get to know his character and see what he does next. The inciting incident isn't some big "reveal."
With that in mind, this notion that I shouldn't have an inciting incident in the book because the reader already knows that the incident is going to happen was quite foolish of me. Originally, the story started after the inciting incident had already happened off-screen, and to try to introduce some world-building and build Enid's character, I had a few flashback scenes to the monastery before it burned down.
But once I realized what I had to do, my head was full of ideas. Right off the bat, the preview is quite original, but I won't pretend that every single idea was my own. I actually stole the idea for the very first scene from my current read, Kristin Lavransdatter. In that book, there's a scene where a boy is beaten with a rod for baptizing a pig in a flippant and disrespectful manner, and I repurposed it in my style, although no one gets beaten with a rod for it. In that book, however, it was mentioned off-handedly, and the real focus of that part of the book was an earthquake that causes one of the little children to get crushed by a log, and the pig-baptisim thing was just an afterthought.
There was also one line I stole about the wind blowing her prayers back into her face, but other than that, the preview was entirely original. (Or, at least, as original as one could be in an era with millions of books.)
Writing the preview actually helped me solidify my voice and writing-style. Prior to it, I was struggling to maintain a consistent and good style, but now I've found my voice--by emulating what I like the most from other books that I admire.
Many writers think they're supposed to write what they enjoy writing, and if one is just writing for fun, that's perfectly reasonable. However, if you're trying to create good art or actually sell the book as a product to paying customers, then instead of merely writing what we like to write, we should write what we want to read.
I discovered about thirty chapters into my manuscript, sometime after Enid enters a functioning and healthy relationship, that I really like writing arguments and relationship problems, especially portraying the interesting ways they work through them. But it probably wouldn't make for a good book if it was nothing but a couple fighting over drama all the time, and it would be a major disservice to the story if I did that. In fact, I can recall lots of tropey YA books that are agitating to read precisely because they're saturated with too much relationship drama. (Bonus points if the character's are hiding vital information for no good reason, and everything could be resolved in five minutes if they'd just communicate.)
A writer might enjoy writing action scenes, but the book wouldn't be interesting to read if it was nothing but fight scenes. Another writer might enjouy writing raunchy sex scenes, but if the book isn't erotica / smut and is supposed to have an actual story with a plot and character development, it probably shouldn't just be a bunch of sex.
(Looking at you, AuthorTubers.)
Can you beleive these people give out writing advice?
After considering that I should write what I want to read, I realized that I had a very strange and specific reading-niche. I was on a roll reading medieval-historical-literary-fiction-hagiography. That's a super specific subgenre of another subgenre, so let's break that down.
Lately, I've been reading Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, and Kristin Lavransdatter and Catherine of Sienna by Sigrid Undset. What these three books have in common is:
1. They take place during the late medieval period, around the 1400s.
2. They're all historical fiction.
3. They're all literary fiction with an emphasis on beautiful (but not "purple") prose.
4. They're all a form of hagiography, which is the biography of a Saint. There's a lot of spirtual love imbued into these stories, and you can feel Twain's admiration for the Maid of Orleans and Sigrid's affection for Kristin and Saint Catherine when you read these stories.
They all have female leads as well, however I would also like to include The Divine Comedy and Don Quixote as influences, both of which have male leads but exceptionally beautiful writing; The Comedy for its poetry and commentary on the nature of good and evil, and Don Quixote for its humorous and vulnerable understanding of the human condition.
After considering that in the lore of my world, the Soulkeeper is portrayed by some to be a sort of messiah, and by others to be no more than a normal person, I found a way to shake up the "Chosen One" trope by having the character be considered a "chosen one" type figure by her religion but not by the rest of the world. Her status as a so-called "chosen one" is also undermined by the fact that another Soulkeeper before her died anti-climatically by falling out a window and breaking her neck.
One thing that made me happy was that even though I stole a few lines and ideas from other books, the beta readers actually cited my original lines as their favorite ones, which was incredibly satisfying; it meant I was doing a good job writing in the style I was trying to emulate.
The world-building was one of my favorite parts of this process. When I was writing the preview, my sleep schedule was all sorts of fucked, and I basically wrote the entire thing in a stupor over the course of three days (yes, I wrote 12,000 words in three days, which is 4,000 words a day, and somehow it ended up being my absolute best work. This world really is strange). I'd wake up feeling dazed and confused, haul my semi-conscious carcass to the coffee shop, and just let the words flow for several hours. But during that sleep-deprived trance, I wrote better and generated ideas more freely than I ever have before. To make matters even more strange, I didn't listen to my usual writing music. I have several writing playlists and multi-hour-long song montages that I enjoy listening to in order to get the creative juices flowing, but instead, I only listened to one song. One. On repeat, over, and over, and over again. And that song was this uncanny track from the Berserk OST, titled "Behelit." I set it on a loop, and probably heard it about 500 times over the course of that three days, descending deeper and deeper into a maddening trance over the course of writing the preview with reckless abandon.
A lot of the better ideas that ended up in those opening chapters just came from me trying to fix mistakes that I made during research. I'm very obsessed with realism, so everything in the story down to the types of plants and animals in the setting had to line up for me. On the first draft of the preview, there was a line about a hawk shrieking at night after catching its prey. It was a cool line, and there were some other great descriptions with it, but after looking up basic information about hawks and when they hunt, I found out that hawks don't fly or hunt at night, because they don't have night-vision. Unlike owls, hawks only hunt during the day.
I was sad to learn that, because my first thought was, "Damn, now I have to cut out that line about the hawk," but I didn't want to cut that line out. So instead, I changed it to saying that the hawk was shrieking because it was lost in the dark and couldn't find its nest. Then I came up with the idea of having there be a Mellifuge folktale about hawks getting lost at night. Then I spotted the connection to the tale of the hawk and Enid's situation in the woods, so I had the scene become more surreal near the end as Enid realized she was lost like the hawk from the folktale. I created this whole big allegory almost by accident, just because I was trying to add realism to a single line about a hawk shrieking.
The scene where Enid runs off into the forest was largely inspired by the song In the Woods Somewhere by Hozier. It's an amazing song, and the song was based off of the first Canto of Dante's Inferno in the Divine Comedy, when Dante encounters the beasts that represent the dangers of the moral world prior to being rescued by his guide, Virgil. It was also used in the Dark Souls III trailer, which is how I found it, and seeing a connection to The Divine Comedy and Dark Souls of all things was incredibly interesting to me.
I absolutely adore this song. The lyrics are hauntingly-beautiful and extremely deep once you look more into them.
While reading Kristin Lavransdatter, for the first 400+ pages or so, I thought it was actually about a real person. It was only when I looked it up hundreds of pages into the story that I discovered the characters were all fictional, except for the King and Bishops mentioned, and the setting of Norway.
I was utterly mind-blown by that discovery, and how convinced I was that the book was based on real people. That's when I learned that "Fantasy" doesn't have to feel like fantasy. I have a hard time enjoying a lot of fantasy books, because most of them lack the credibility that historical fiction has given me. The characters too often feel like plot tools rather than people, and this goes double for the world of most high fantasy books.
In fantasy, there's what is called "high fantasy" and "low fantasy." Low fantasy is when a book takes place on Earth, but has a lot of fantasy elements encroaching upon it. Most "paranormal" ficiton is actually a type of low fantasy, by that definition, if it involves the existence of magic on Earth. Some call this "intrusion fantasy," because it's about the supernatural and magical intruding on what is otherwise a regular Earth.
Weaveworld by Clive Barker is an excellent example of fantastic intrusion fantasy, I adore this book. It's similar to Stephen King's works, so I wouldn't reccomend it for the faint of heart.
High fantasy, of course, is the opposite; the author is constructing an entirely new fantasy world from scratch. Most of these worlds aren't too unlike Earth, but they usually deviate greatly in their histories and how magic came about, and they have their own laws of physics, like Mistborn. Lord of the Rings is excellent high fantasy, as is a lot of Sanderson's works which make the laws of these new worlds feel convincing.
The Dark Tower series--the greatest fantasy series I've ever read--is a combination of high fantasy and low fantasy, since there are multiple other fantasy worlds in the story, as well as some of this magic intruding back home on Earth, where Eddy and Sussana and Jake all come from. It does a great job exploring the concept of multi-dimensional travel in a strange blend of sci-fi and fantasy.
But there is a middle ground: middle fantasy. Essentially, what is technically high-fantasy (a completely new world) but one that feels extremely realistic and Earth-like, like good low-fantasy. I chose to do this via history; rather than info-dump the reader with lore, I wove the history of the setting into the scenes gradually, in a way that is very accurate to the late medieval period. The prose doesn't hurt too much in service of that; while most of the books I've been reading lately are about medieval life, they weren't written during the medieval ages. (Except for the Divine Comedy written in the 15th century, and Don Quixote [would this technically be early Renaissance?] which was written in the 16th century.) The other books that inspired me were all written during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
As such, my writing style has come to be similar to 19th and early 20th century writers like Twain and Undset (if it's not too pompous to even compare myself to those literary giants).
What you get as a result of this is a "fantasy" world that feels exceptionally real, with a portrayal of medieval life that's very accurate despite not taking place in our world, with the prose of a book written in the 1800s and lots of world-building, with a blend of both the new and familiar.
A small example of this is how language is used in the preview; for example, in medieval monasteries, a "cloister" was a type of dormitory with rows of rooms. It also referred to, in architecture, a cloistered walkway, i.e., a walkway that's covered on one side, and exposed on the other via a colonnade. In my world, the rooms themselves are called "cloisters," since it sounds better than "room," and the word cloister means "secluded" or "private." Little things like this make the monastery feel authentic to real life, but also slightly new. Their religion is similar to Catholicism or Judeo-Christian philosophy, but there's some differences. The refectories for meals are also used as meeting spaces; in many real monasteries during the medieval period, you'd have entire monasteries just for men or women, but in mine they merely stay in separate dormitories. (And, predictably, this results in a nun getting pregnant, which is the sort of thing that was feared at real monasteries, hence the segregation.)
Several medieval books I've read, including the Arthurian Legends written by Rosemary Sutcliff (it's a trilogy of books, starting with The Sword and the Circle) include mention of fairies. The belief in fairies was widespread aross the folklores of many European countries for centuries, including England, France, Spain, and Norway.
In Mark Twain's Joan of Arc, the kids believe in fairies, and the adults want to destroy their fairy tree, and Joan is put in a position to argue that fairies are among God's protected children. In other stories and medieval folklore, fairies are sometimes considered evil, or mischievious.
In the preview, I tried to create that "different but familiar" feeling by turning the superstition of fairies into a Santa situation. Enid believes she has to give gifts to the fairies to stay in their good graces, and Brother Olav collects them and leaves gifts of his own in her cloister so that she thinks the fairies are leaving presents for her.
I mentioned earlier that, originally, in the first draft of the story all of this monastery stuff was sprinkled in via flashbacks after the inciting incident had already happened off-screen. But the only thing that ended up staying in the preview was one little scene were Enid is standing on the edge of the mountain cliff staring at the mist below. The rest were all cut and rewritten entirely, and entire names were changed. Brother Olav was originally named "Pinpin," but then I realized there was a character with a similar name in Lord of the Rings, and also Berserk, so that was a no-go. Sister Margaret was originally "Donna," and neither Dustin nor Sienna were in the first draft at all.
One thing that concerns me is the dramatic irony of the preview. "Dramatic irony" is when the audience is privy to information that the character's in the story aren't; when they know something the protagonist doesn't. When I sent the first two chapters to beta readers for feedback, I had neglected to send them the book blurb first. As a result of this, they didn't know that the monastery was going to burn down, and that completely changed their perception of the preview.
One commented that the transition from peaceful monastery life to bloody massacre felt like it might have been too abrupt, but I wonder how their experience would have differed if they knew beforehand that the monastery was going to be attacked.
This might not be my best blog post. It's not really structured in any discernable way, and it's mostly just word-vomit with me immodestly tooting my own horn (toot toot!), but even if no one reads this, it was worth the creative therapy.
It's my hope that someone online who enjoyed the preivew comes across this informal essay and gets a glimpse into a hardcore creative process.
In addition to the concept art at the top of this post, I've also got this digital painting of Theo, a character you haven't met yet:
And a Ghibli-style Enid:
There's going to be three more characters that will get concept art, and I'm working with a very talented artist on a map of the world. But I won't be posting the map here or on the website, because I want it to be a surprise for certain people when they open the book for the first time after it's published. (But I'll probably post it on Reddit to draw attention to the book.)
An essay on Kristin Lavransdatter is coming soon.
And as always,
may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,
and I'll see you in the next post.