The writing process: attack from all sides!

I’ve been helping a friend with his writing process.

And though I’ve only published one book, that’s still enough to take it from “the blind leading the blind” to “in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.  My advice has some merit.

By coincidence, today we were both stuck at different stages of our drafts. So I gave him the advice that was as much for me as it was for him:

Getting stuck, losing motivation – these difficulties aren’t obstacles to the writing process, they are the writing process. And there’s no single secret or technique to getting past these obstacles, other than to keep attacking them from every possible angle, to keep pushing towards your goal.

The beauty of writing fantasy is that your own goal of publishing one, two or ten books can be viewed as a “hero’s journey” in its own right, parallel to whatever journey you’re exploring within the story. The challenges you face are largely emotional, motivational, and sometimes intellectual. You can’t see the way forward, you don’t know what should happen next, the story suddenly feels very dull, you realise you have to go back and rewrite major scenes, or even cut out scenes or sub-plots that you really enjoyed.

(Looking at it this way, I sometimes wonder if fantasy stories are a kind of code created by storytellers to describe their own frustrations and victories in creating stories, but that’s a little too meta.)

But like any hero’s journey, you have to take stock of where you’re really at. Maybe you’ve finished your first book and it feels like a triumph, or maybe you’re struggling to decide your setting and it feels like a major battle.

At times like these it’s good to stand back and consider the big picture: you might feel like Sam and Frodo on the verge of their ascent to Mount Doom, but maybe you’re actually Sam and Frodo wringing their hands over how soon they should leave for Crickhollow?

I’m using a similar thought to help keep me on track as I write the sequel to my first novel To Create a World. I figure that in order to make any kind of reasonable living from self/indie published ebooks I need between five and ten of them up for sale, preferably by yesterday. So in my mind, I’m not hesitantly agonising over the plot of my second novel, I’m desperately playing catch-up to my fourth or fifth book in the series.

I’m not the hero defeating his first big baddie, I’m the hero stalking his second, thinking about how far I have to go before i can face the final enemy.

At the same time, I have to admit that even this mindset is a little contrived or naive. Real veterans might scoff, or just shrug their shoulders and continue with the work. But that’s just the way the journey unfolds.

My aforementioned first novel is selling slowly. I’m not too worried, since I’m not investing in marketing at this stage. It’s more about doing what I can to have it available, and keep myself on track to finish the sequel(s).

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that the sequel feels much more consistent with the genre. To Create a World draws on some very big ideas that (as far as I can tell) don’t usually show up in fantasy quite so explicitly. I’m excited to see how the sequel turns out, but so far I’d have to say there’s a much higher ratio of fantasy content to mind-blowing philosophy than in the first book. Check it out on Amazon, or click on the pic for all other online stores.

The meaning of life in fiction

One of the problems with my new fantasy book is that it doesn’t fit all that neatly into the fantasy genre. I’ve tagged it “magical realism” where appropriate because although it follows the standard boy-stumbles-into-hidden-magical-world trope, it does so with what I hope is as much realism as magic.

For me, magical realism is like urban fantasy with an enhanced appreciation for symbolism and hidden meaning. It borders on or blends into a spiritual worldview.

It was gratifying to find that the spiritual ideas most significant to me at the time could work their way directly or indirectly into the story. Tom’s role in the creation of the magical world let me draw on questions of free-will and fate without getting too heavy or confronting. Likewise the question of “what am I supposed to be doing?” could unfold without messing too much with the narrative.

It was probably inevitable that anything I wrote would draw on the themes and ideas that are important to me. And at present, the most significant of these ideas is that the self that feels it’s in control is an illusion.

In the story this theme approaches near the resolution of the conflict. But Tom shies away from it, relying on magic to protect him from his enemy. But as the story itself tells us, that’s Tom doing what he was meant to do.

“I don’t think you quite understand what I’ve been telling you,” Cornelius replied carefully. “There is no ‘supposed to’. There just is. If your reaction to all this is one of confusion and complication, then you just have to accept it. Or not accept it, I suppose. This is how the maker made you, after all.”

“But how does that help me?” Tom demanded. “I feel like we’re going in circles! No matter what you say it just keeps coming back to me being afraid, and there’s no way out of it!”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying,” the gnome replied calmly.

I won’t be trying to force a moral into each story, or put clumsy platitudes in the mouth of every ‘wise’ character. The beauty of magical realism is that everything becomes a kind of sign or message, whether the author realises it or not.

Tom still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. Whether he as a character understands in the end is less important than the story as a whole embodying these truths. That’s what made writing this book most rewarding to me: the chance to see these ideas, principles, and motifs appearing and reappearing everywhere throughout the story. That’s the author’s privilege, I think. We get to discover the meaning hidden in the work in ways that surprise and astonish even its creator.

If you like the idea of gnomes proclaiming free-will paradoxes, or finding the meaning of life in a children’s novel, you’ll find yourself inevitably drawn to my new book To Create a World:

Writing with the power of panic

I think I’ll need somewhere between five and ten good quality ebooks for sale before I stand a chance of really making a living from it.

Bearing in mind that my idea of “making a living” is pretty frugal. Last time I checked, my family of three was living quite comfortably on what the OECD considers the poverty-line for a single adult in Australia.

But as my son gets bigger I’m starting to feel the need for a bigger place to live. He won’t fit in that cardboard box forever.

So while it was exciting to publish my first ebook recently, it’s really only the start. I’ve arbitrarily set myself a June deadline for the first draft of the sequel to To Create a World. If I write 1,000 words a day that will give me about 75,000 words, but I’m expecting the sequel to be bigger than the original, so I’m counting on passing my word-count more days than not.

That’s a lot to write. I won’t get there without making a major effort, and this realisation has done something to my mind.

With my first book, I took my time. I wanted it to be right at each stage. The first draft felt right, right up until the moment my wife finished reading it and paused a long, long time before giving her opinion.  In the end To Create a World took seven drafts to complete. Some were minor fixes, others were major additions or rewrites.

So this time I’m not waiting to see if it feels right when I write. Instead, I’m using my panic over the looming deadline to keep me focused, and my knowledge that rewrites are inevitable to keep me relaxed.

It’s finally making sense why people say not to edit until you’ve finished. If I stop now, I’ll never get it done.

The literal deadline doesn’t matter too much. It’s just there to give me something to strive towards. If the story stretches the draft out to 100,000 or more I’ll keep going until it’s done. But I can’t afford to slow down or dawdle. Even when the sequel is finished, I won’t be.

While you’re waiting for me to finish, read my debut novel To Create a World. I’ve pitched it at middle-grade readers, but so far the majority of people who’ve read it (and enjoyed it) have been adults. I’m sure that’s something I’ll have to rethink in future.

To Create a World: another great review!

High praise from Daan in the Netherlands:

Zac Alstin has managed to take one of the greatest themes in humanity’s history, that of wrongful usurpation of power, and turned it into a highly readable and entertaining fantasy novel. It evokes a strong reminiscence of Narnia at first, but the depth of the main characters and the reflections the story arouses raise the book to a higher level, in my perception. If you like fantasy, and are not averse to big questions in life, read this novel.

A higher level than Narnia? Thanks Daan!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, click on the link below for details:

TCAW: Corporal punishment for Goblins

Judging by the feedback, everyone’s favourite character in my new fantasy novel To Create a World is Torvol the Goblin:

“All goblins are beaten when we’re young,” Torvol explained, “it makes us hungry.”

“Hungry?”

“For power, for position, for profit. Beating is a challenge, not a punishment. So a goblin child who is more fearful than the others will get extra beatings – but he’ll also know he’s getting extra beatings, that he’s being singled out.”

“I don’t get it.”

“If he knows he’s getting extra beatings, then there’s nothing left for him to be afraid of. The worst has already happened. He’s surviving harsher treatment than the others. It’s all part of goblin formation, Tom. The confident ones realise they’re getting away lightly, and that makes them doubt their strength a little. The insecure ones realise they’re enduring the worst of anyone, and that gives them confidence. It’s brilliant.”

“I bet you were never beaten then,” Tom said morosely.

“Oh, I had my fair share,” Torvol grinned. But then his smile twisted bitterly. “But there are far worse things for a goblin than being beaten.”

Tom was too deeply immersed in his worries to ask what that meant.

“So are you going to beat me?” he asked instead.

“No, Tom, I’m not going to beat you,” Torvol sighed. “In the end you’re not a goblin. Who knows what effect it would have on you?”

I enjoyed writing Torvol because he’s almost the complete opposite of Tom. He’s choleric to Tom’s melancholic, but that rare breed of choleric who’s wise enough to be magnanimous without losing the inherent sharpness of his temperament.

I think many readers enjoyed seeing the Goblin tear into Tom, pushing him not so gently into getting his act together. And I loved that Tom was finally forced to confront a perspective so different from his own, without the excuse of turning the Goblin into an enemy.

It was also fun to try out some of my temperament ideas – wondering what it would be like for a whole race of creatures to be more choleric as an entire people and culture. Choleric was the obvious choice for Goblins, not because all cholerics are devious, subterranean, greedy little monsters (I still have choleric friends…) but because (brace yourselves, melancholics) the choleric temperament would ennoble the otherwise borderline-evil Goblin race, giving them a worldview and a way of thinking that encompasses not only greed and cunning, but wisdom and greatness also.

Torvol gave me an opportunity to play with the strengths of the choleric temperament – ambition and a quick wit – to offset Tom’s weaknesses, without him becoming choleric in the process. Who wouldn’t want a Torvol to advise them from time to time? Someone wiser and more astute than you, with an unrelenting yet open-minded conception of profit. You’ll be pleased to know I have big plans for him in future books.

If you enjoyed this excerpt about Torvol the Goblin, you might like my new fantasy novel To Create a WorldCheck it out!

My first-ever ebook review!

Dtcwee has written an awesome review of my new ebook on amazon.com.au:

“Then what about me?” Tom demanded. “What am I meant to do?”
“You’re doing it.” The old gnome said simply. “Even if that means being confused and complaining a lot and being ill at ease…”

Schoolboy Tom Gunn ventures into the forest to find a cure for his sister’s illness, and a way for his family to move back to the countryside, away from alienating suburbs. Lost within, he agrees to join forces with a sorcerer to create a a magical world. However, nothing is as it appears, including the act of creation itself.

From beginning to end, I felt primarily grateful to the author for keeping the paragraphs short, the action relentless, the scope focussed, and the headcount low, even if it meant disjointed themes and leaving loose ends.

A rambling chronicle this novel is not. The pace is rhythmic, the language clear, and the few important points are not glossed over or lost in belabouring. You will not have to flip back or search for a name or event.

Yet, this discipline makes room for complexities seldom explored in heroic fantasy such as anxiety, the paralysis of will, and even the function of the genre. By avoiding errors of indulgence, a modest tale is delivered well, rather than becoming – as often happens – a grand epic that exceeds the prose carrying it.

This ebook was a charming and cheap way to spend several hours thanks to the author recognising – in a self-referential nod – that creating a world is less important than telling a story.

Intrigued? Check out To Create a World

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Are fantasy stories worth telling?

My latest piece on MercatorNet is all about…surprise, surprise…my new novel To Create a World. Specifically, it’s about the profound spiritual theme at the heart of so much fantasy and other fiction, everything from Disney’s Aladdin and The Lion King to Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings:

What motivated me to write in the end was the discovery of a theme, an idea, that couldn’t be adequately expressed or transmitted directly in non-fiction form. It’s an ancient theme with profound spiritual significance that has been propagated and retold in various stories, often without our realising it.

It’s not my personal theme or my own idea, but it’s something that needs to be told and retold, and is therefore reflected in the many stories of our culture.

The theme is simple: the King’s advisor has usurped the throne, throwing the kingdom into chaos. The young hero must defeat the usurper and restore order, thereby finding his own place in the world.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/are-fantasy-stories-worth-telling

If you like the article, you might like my new novel that inspired so many of these thoughts about creativity, fantasy, and the meaning of life. Check it out by clicking on the cover below, or go straight to Amazon, iBooks or other online stores.

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Overcoming Low Elf-esteem

I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.

One of the biggest was elves.

The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.

Tolkien.

How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.

If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.

Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.

And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:

First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.

Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.

For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.

Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.

If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.

What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.

In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.

But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.

One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.

The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.

Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.

Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.

Just in case that’s what you were doing…

Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!

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To Create a World – and an ebook!

So I’ve finally published my first ebook!

It’s been, in all honesty, one of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

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To Create a World is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a boy named Tom who enters a hidden magical world in search of a magician who can heal his sick sister. When he arrives, he finds that the hidden world is all but empty and the magician is long gone. It’s up to Tom to rebuild the world, and fill it with all the magic and adventure a hidden world ought to have.

…and it turns out that writing fiction is awesome. Or, to be precise, finishing writing fiction is awesome. It’s so incredibly satisfying to have reached this point after about fifteen months of working on the manuscript, on top of two or so years of trying to figure out how to write fiction in the first place.

Along the way I’ve been astounded and full of barely-contained glee at all the things that have come together in my life, in my mind, and in my writing as this book took shape.

It’s as though everything has become a metaphor for everything else. Even my experiments with making things like cheese and bacon and beer have flowed back into this creative process, until writing and publishing an ebook became a natural extension of the DIY ethos.

In other words, I’m stoked.

But as with all my other creations, the keyword is experimental. There’s still so much to learn about writing, publishing, and marketing. Expectations are realistic. I have another four books to write in the medium-term along with blog posts and articles to support and publicise this one.

I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my insights and observations along the way!

A big thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and especially to the people who supported me directly and indirectly in writing To Create a World.

The links will take you to my ebook page which lists all the available digital stores. You can purchase it from Amazon if you use a kindle, or the kindle-for-pc app, and it’s available on the iTunes iBook store if you have an iPad or iPhone. Other digital stores can be found on this page.