Beyond the Mountain beta reading
Book #2 outline
"Write what you know."
That's the advice a lot of beginning writers hear. But if we just wrote what we knew, our characters would too often have our hobbies, live in our hometowns, and never do things we haven't experienced. Writing what you know limits fantasy, horror, science fiction, even historical fiction if we're not historians. It restricts most of us us from writing about doctors, lawyers, mental illnesses, horses, Peru, farmers, being rich, living in poverty... you get the idea.
(But at least it lets you write a choking-on-swamp-water scene based on the time you almost drowned on Dr Pepper at Qdoba because someone told a fart story.)
So my modification of this advice is:
"Write what you know. If you don't know it, learn it."
And to learn, we research. Sometimes we have to research very specific topics or questions that don't always get us answers. Sometimes we spend an hour looking up names for grey, because we've already used ash and hematite, and the characters have never seen steel or concrete to compare a color to. And sometimes, we make weird searches and hope no one sees in our browser history that we Googled "man shave face how often."
So in the name of getting details right in my fiction, here are some searches I've made while writing Beyond the Mountain, of varying levels of weirdness. Not all of them even made it into the later drafts of the book.
This month I've been participating in #ShareWords, a Twitter game (is that what they're called?) for writers. Each day has a prompt for something to quote from your writing, whether it's a finished work or a work in progress.
Some writers tweet an image of their quotes, with nice backgrounds, but I'm not getting into that at this point. Meredith+technology+visual appeal=spending way too much time. So I tweet whatever I can fit into 140 characters. Usually that means choosing passages just by their length, and sometimes it also means condensing them by rewording or removing phrases.
Today I'd like to share some of my favorite passages from Beyond the Mountain. I won't include all my MOST favorites, whether because of length or spoilers, but here are 10 quotes I can share.
Yania didn’t know she would be chased off her own palace roof that morning.
“Oh, it’s more embarrassment than pain, though I think he’s actually proud of being the first one shot down. Said something about the greatest champions always being the first target.”
Morning elbowed its way through the window onto Ket’s face. It was week’s end, their last day in the village. She pulled her sova over her eyes and ignored the smell of breakfast and smoke outside.
Far beyond the point where all colors hazed blue, the purple horizon rose into a shape Ket would know anywhere, its peak allegedly so cold and strange, water froze hard and colored the whole surface white.
She looked at her fist. Fist? Did she think she could bodily fight her way past two men and out of trouble? She relaxed her hands and shrugged in way that, she hoped, said, Just a commoner here, the non-fugitive kind.
Shek rotated his left arm toward her, and nodded toward the old scars on it. “Ma stuffed a shirt into my mouth to give me something to bite down on, but Da still had to sit on my waist and pin my neck down just to keep me on the ground.”
Of the neighborhoods along the north-south boundary, Ket didn’t know quite where one became the next, but with each sight the ship passed, she knew what would come next. The bend of fishing wharfs piled high with the catches the fishermen brought for their partners to sell, the storehouses with raised floors over beer cellars. The ship slipped through the water, counting the passing buildings, while the buildings lazed and counted the passing ships
“And if I were able to reclaim what was mine? I can’t undo what he’s already done.”
Shek ran to the house from wherever he’d been outside, and stopped in the doorway. When he saw Ket he gripped the frame like he’d had the wind knocked from him. They stood facing each other. After a moment he said, “What in the valley were you thinking?”
Ket thought a string of words she’d never say aloud, in case her mama could still hear the living.
My book Beyond the Mountain is in the beta reader stage now, and I'm exploring ideas for my next project. I'm simultaneously suffering from not enough ideas, and too many of them.
I have a basic setting in mind, with some characters, and two or three premise possibilities. I don't think I can combine them and still have a cohesive story, so I have to decide on just one premise. Yet, whichever I pick, I don't really have ideas where the plot can go from there. I'm afraid of picking the wrong one, and spending all that time planning/writing something that doesn't work out.
I know from experience that I work best without a plan--as in, I actually get words written if I just jump right in. When it's only an idea on a brainstorming list, I'm afraid to get too invested. But when I'm actually writing in the story, it's easier to just pick something and go with it. However, that doesn't mean the words are any good.
I'm afraid of "pantsing"--jumping in without a plan--because Beyond the Mountain was a mess to edit. But so far outlining--looking at a whole story at once--is overwhelming.
I want to get something written, but I don't want it to be rushed and crappy. I want to take my time, but I don't want to base a writing career on publishing one book every few years.
Another dilemma is the length. I want to write a novella, both to sell, and to offer free to readers who subscribe to my mailing list (once I get that going). But I also want to get started on another novel. I'm afraid of starting on a novel, knowing how long the first one has taken--I want to get something finished and added to my backlist. But I'm afraid to write only a novella--what if it has novel potential, and I use up a great idea on something shorter?
I've decided more than once that I'm just going to sit down and write a few short stories. Maybe some will spark into something longer, and those that won't will at least be something I can give readers. I open my notebook or my laptop, and then close it again.
Maybe my well is dry. I've been done with BTM's major edits for a couple months now, but still, the process of doing it all again is just so daunting. I was lucky writing BTM, in that I already had the entire story in my head a long time before I decided to write it down. I want to do that again, know the whole story ahead of time--plus, now I have a better grasp on structure, pacing, and cohesiveness.
Ideally, I'd have several ideas brewing so that when I finish one book's draft/edit I can move on to another without a long unproductivity gap in between.
I feel frozen. I'm trying to get a newsletter started, but I don't have a lot of content or updates to offer subscribers. A lot of people say to start a mailing list before you're published, as early as possible, but until I'm published, why would anyone want to subscribe? They say to offer a freebie for subscribing, but I don't have one yet. I thought about offering visual content, like illustrations of my characters or landscapes, but I got out my drawing pencils and remembered I haven't done pencil drawing in 7 years.
I won't hire a cover artist until I'm just about ready to publish, so after it's formatted and the trim size and spine width are figured out. That will happen after an editor has been through it. That will happen after I find enough beta readers that I feel confident moving on. It's not a process you can rush. (Oh, and the editing-formatting-cover happen after I have the money to pay professionals. Eep!)
Right now, I just want to get one step closer to something.
Most fantasy has magic. Magic users, laws about magic use, magic schools, wands, curses, secret magic that only its users know exists. Maybe some sort of magical object, an unexplainable event, a slightly superhuman ability. At least some magical beings like elves or fairies. Or if not magical, at least fantastical, like dragons.
On Goodreads I have 140 books on my Fantasy shelf. Only 7 of them are also on my Nonmagical Fantasy shelf.
So. Can you have really fantasy without magic? Without even the fantastical beings?
Yes. But I might be biased. My book Beyond the Mountain is fantasy, but it has no magic, fantasy creatures, or supernatural occurrences. A made-up world without magic is still a made-up world.
Hey, Batman doesn't have superpowers, just a bunch of Bat devices, but he's still a superhero.
I recently read a few forums where people discussed whether fantasy without magic is possible (and if so, whether it's difficult to write). Most said yes, it's possible, if uncommon. But many thought it would be difficult to write. A few even said no, it's not possible--If there's no magic or fantastical beings, how is it fantasy? It's just alternate history. (Okay, an alternate history of what? Alternate history, to me, requires a real place with a real history to deviate from.)
I guess it comes down to your definition of fantasy. To me, a made-up world is enough.
I enjoy fantasy, magic or not. Admittedly, it's probably more boring if there's no magic at all. One of the things I love best about speculative fiction is the world building--the cultures, the geography, the architecture--and that can include the magic system.
But if there is magic, it has to have limitations, and those limitations have to be believable. I've read books where things happen...because magic. Maybe the viewpoint character isn't a magician, and so can't explain the mysterious ways of magic to the reader. Maybe it's a world where pretty much any ability imaginable is possible. In either case, the magic can easily become a convenient plot device, where the cans and can'ts of the universe or character abilities make little sense.
I don't hate magic. It can be very well written.
Anyhow, it's still super common in fantasy.
So is this why I wrote a fantasy story without magic?
I don't know. I don't think I made a conscious decision to rebel against the convention, though that sounds like something I'd do. I purposefully changed my setting away from Medieval-Europe-ish to something less common. For my next book, I'm considering fantasy that doesn't involve the typical wars, royal characters, or killing. And maybe someday I'll write one without romance, and one where the main character doesn't have dead/dysfunctional/absent parents.
But really, I had a story in my head, and magic simply never came up.
In all honesty, I think it would be harder to write a magical world that a non-magical one. The more magic figures into the plot, the harder you have to work to create a convincing system for it. And the harder you have to work not to let it overpower character development.
With as much as I've read magical books, the only ones that have sparked ideas for me are the very limited/subtle ones. (Think simple potions, quarry speech, or a single magical object.) That, I can work with. A whole system? I wouldn't even know where to start.
I lived in Kenya with my parents and younger brothers in the mid-2000s. It was the first time I'd been out of the country since I was 3, and besides one vague memory of a trip to Washington, DC I couldn't remember ever being outside the Carolinas or Georgia.
Kenya is on the equator, so the temperature and day/night length are pretty constant all year. Nairobi is elevated, so it's cool. I remember some sweatshirt days, but I can't remember if it ever got hot except during the week we spent at the coast.
In the city, most people walk or use public transportation--buses and 14-passenger vans called matatus. Matatus usually have a yellow band painted around them, along with their 80KPH speed limit. Cars drive on the left side of the road, but weave into your lane as they avoid all the potholes. Kids walk to school in collared white shirts, blue sweaters, navy skirts or shorts, and grey knees socks with stripes around the top (uniform colors vary, but these are the ones I remember).
I went to an American school that had buses, flat-front ones painted green and white, with a manually operated folding door, seat belts, and about 25 seats. Houses and compounds have gates and walls topped with barbed wire or broken glass. Bricks are larger and greyer than in the US. Roofs are reddish clay tiles. The natural world is green, like North Carolina, but a greener sort of green. There are palm trees and banana plants, and a single banana leaf is as big as a person.
Many windows are louvered glass slats 6" wide that overlap but don't seal closed, with security bars. My house didn't have (or need) heat or air conditioning, and above each window was a vent in the wall (with a screen to keep out mosquitoes). The living room had parquet flooring, and the kitchen had linoleum tiles like you'd see in a classroom or a 50s diner, only they were red. No one in my family liked those red tiles. For some reason, the bathroom light switches were on the outside of the bathrooms.
Sodas are available anywhere. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange. Some places also have Fanta Blackcurrant, but any restaurant or grocery store will have the first four options.
I don't know that there was ever a household we visited that didn't have sodas to offer us. They're cheap, and if you buy it in a glass bottle, some kiosks let you return the bottle for a small discount on your new purchase. Plastic bottles are 500mL, but glass bottles are available in 300mL or 500mL.
It seemed everyone had a mobile phone, and it was pretty cheap to buy minutes. There was a Celtel billboard near our house that showed two Masai men on bikes. At least one of them wore the traditional Masai red shuka, and both men were using their cell phones.
Part of what I love about fantasy is that anything can happen. A high school kid probably isn't going be ambushed by bad guys or lead a heist or attend an academy to learn a system of magic. But he might if he lives in some fantasy or futuristic world.
But another huge appeal to me is place. After living in Kenya I'm very interested in cultural anthropology, and after researching settings for my book I have a growing love for all kinds of climates, architecture, terrains, and everyday living. Even when they're only made up.
What I love about faraway places (or long ago places, or invented ones) are the everyday details.
I recently finished, printed, read, and made notes on my third draft of Beyond the Mountain. It's both exciting, and scary. Exciting, because it was the finish of a (very large) step in the process, and a change in routine is always a bit refreshing. Scary, because now I have to do it all again, another draft--each draft seems like it should go faster, yet I still work slowly, and each draft puts more pressure on me to get it right already.
This time around is a little different from the ones before. Now someone other than me has read the book. It wasn't an ideal situation, since I gave her chapters a few at a time as I finished editing them, which happened much slower than I'd anticipated. But at least I know a few little details that might confuse readers, and I know that my story isn't hugely flawed or stupid.
By now I've figured out my characters, world, and events well enough that there won't be so much of that to agonize over during edits anymore. But I do need to tweak the pacing, and right now I have no idea what edits that will entail. I'm trying to back up the beginning of the story and add a scene before the events I already have in the book, but I work so slowly, staring at the screen and wondering why words don't come. It's been this way at least for the past 2 drafts, and I keep hoping it will get easier. Some days I remind myself that writing is slow and hard, and the process is different for every author. And some days feel foolish for ever believing I could turn this into a career.
I write because I have to. Now that I've started I can't just drop it and let this story (or the others in my head) float around forever unfinished. Crafting characters and cohesive plots is rewarding. But it definitely isn't easy.
First, writing is hard. And slow. I've been writing my current novel two years now. I'm nearing the end (I hope) but I know I have a least one more round of editing and beta readers, before I begin the process of publication.
Here are some more things I've learned about the writing process:
Some things I've learned about myself specifically:
Yesterday I sent my last chapters of Beyond the Mountain to my first beta reader. (Ideally, I would've sent the whole book at once, or at least sent the sections closer together, but I mis-guessed how long it would take me to finish this draft.)
After a few beta readers have read and commented, I'll have at least one more draft and another round of beta reading. But for now I'm setting the story aside and keeping an eye out for the next. Whatever story I write, I'm going to take at least 3 months mentally outlining it and researching before I write down anything more than my brainstorming. I'm going to go into this one with a plan.
Writers often say they don't have trouble finding ideas, they have trouble deciding which of their ideas to choose and which to ignore for now. But personally I've been having trouble coming up with a plot idea. My best ideas usually come while I'm reading a novel--the premise/situation already exists, but I don't know (yet) how that book will end. My mind brews possibilities, and voila, an idea I can develop into a plot. By the time I have a beginning, middle, and end, it barely resembles the original anymore.
For several months, though, I've been brainstorming for ideas for my next project after Beyond the Mountain is done, without results.
About two days ago, this saying came to mind, and has stuck in there. (Unfortunately, I already can't remember how it came about.) I thought a novel theme could be, "Is it stronger to perservere, or to break out? (Conversely, is it weaker to go along, or quit?)" In other words, when your life is hard, but changing it would also be hard (or make it harder for someone else), what do you choose? Is it stronger to deny yourself for the sake of others/expectations, or to stand up for yourself?
Also, today I read a novel that gave me a new plot idea. So I'm a little excited about that.
Yes and no.
A coworker introduced me to Audible last year. We're housekeepers who clean lodging units between guests, so we can listen to music or books while we work. I looked up some of the books I was interested in, which ranged from 9 to 12 hours. I thought it was a great idea. How convenient to keep work more interesting, finish books in 2-3 days, and not feel guilty spending all those hours reading in bed.
I've listened to some great ones. The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson is a fantastic series - swashbuckling, hilarious, and piratical, yet still child-appropriate. And the narrator, Katherine Kellgren only improves it.
I've also listened to others ranging from pretty good to decent. Sometimes the narrators are straightforward and a bit bland, but the stories usually keep me interested. So, to start on something positive, here's what I do like about audiobooks:
Plenty of people like audiobooks. If you're interested, give it a try. It could help you get to all the books you haven't had time for. It could help you enjoy reading again. Or for the first time. As a writer, I hope my future books have audio versions.
But 7 months after joining Audible, I still can't get into it. I can enjoy listening to a book, but it can take me weeks to get through one when it's digital rather than live. At first I thought I just needed to get used to a new format, but for fiction it still feels like a chore. Here are my reasons and speculations why:
I like the idea of audiobooks. I like their convenience. But sadly I don't enjoy them as much as I'd like.
This is the first post for this website.
I'm a writer with one (not yet published) fantasy novel.
Around 2009 I read Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl. Despite being the typical princess-in-medieval-based-fantasy-setting, and despite being a rewrite of an old fairy tale, it felt original and real to me. The settings, the traditions, even an endless pine forest and a goose pasture came alive.
I thought, I want to do that.
The rest of the series, and her Princess Academy series, are like this too. She writes in beautiful language, not stuffy or flowery, but imaginative and evocative and succinct all at once. The "magic" system--while definitely fantastical--is subtle, and actually kind of plausible, like it's just another aspect of the natural world. (And a definite plus, the romance is clean.)
I currently have one book. No magic, but of course I hope it's a magical read. It's written and mostly edited, with the working title Beyond the Mountain. I began writing it about two years ago, around the winter of 2014-15, and it's still in editing and beta-reading now. That's a long time, but I've learned a lot about the writing process and about my personal process, so next time I'll have an idea what I'm doing!
I had the story in my head for a long time, exploring possible directions the plot could take and performing scenes repeatedly in my head for my own entertainment at night instead of going to sleep, until finally I decided I may as well write it down. I used no written outline, and took my time to write well (or so I believed), thinking the editing would therefore be pretty easy.
Turns out, I way overestimated word and scenes requirements. And the writing was bad. Not to mention my world-building evolved quite a bit. The result was: a lot of story to fix, a lot of scenes to cut, and a lot of wordiness to weed.
I doubt prewriting and outlining would have helped me a lot back then. I didn't have a firm enough grasp of story structure. But now, two years later, I have a far better grasp of that, and of all that happens during the writing process, and of all the things I should know about the story from the beginning.
I hope to start a new project soon, but for now it's Beyond the Mountain.