Writing Inspiration in Two Very Different Rivers

Part of the Dunn’s River Falls hike in Jamaica.

In May 1999, John and I hiked up a waterfall.

We were touring Jamaica with friends during a stop on a Caribbean cruise. The group of us hired a local guide to drive us around the island. We enjoyed a day of shopping, viewing the tropical scenery, and visiting the sights.

As part of the tour, we hiked the Dunn’s River Falls. Led by a tour guide, we waded through the waist-high water of the river and climbed up a series of gradual waterfalls. I’m not usually a water-loving person, so I must confess that I felt a little nervous before we started. As it turned out, the warm air, gentle current, and good company made the excursion both fun and memorable. Everyone in our group climbed safely to the top, with no unexpected tumbles into the river. The guide even helped to keep my camera dry and safe. A couple of people (including my beloved co-author) stood under the waterfall to get soaked, but that was deliberate, not a mishap.

Any waterfall hike can provide inspiration for an author. I’ve walked beside many beautiful falls over the years. But to climb up the middle of the waterfall itself was a whole new experience. When John and I discussed possible locations for an outdoor scene in the manuscript we are currently writing, the Jamaica hike came to mind immediately. It was interesting, different, and had a touch of fantasy in it.

There was just one problem — the scene in our novel takes place in the mountainous interior of the country, not on a tropical island. The Dunn’s River hike alone would not be sufficient to set the scene properly. But what could we do to remedy that situation? We added a second river.

Mist from the rushing water slicks the wooden walkways of the Flume in New Hampshire.

Far away from the tropical beaches of Jamaica, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, lies a spectacular feat of nature known as the Flume. The river rushes down a narrow gorge carved out of steep, rock walls.

Paths, wooden walkways, and bridges form the trail that crisscrosses the gorge, providing views of the amazing scenery. At no point on the Flume hike do you actually walk within the waterfall itself, but the paths take you close enough to feel the spray from the river.

Somewhere in the midst of those two very different rivers, a scene in a fantasy novel took shape. The imaginary body of water in the book does not directly copy either of the two real life places but was inspired by both. With luck, that fantasy river and waterfall will appear in our upcoming book release in March 2022.

However, I should warn all potential readers out there — that waterfall scene was written during the hectic scramble of November’s NaNoWriMo, so it remains uncertain how much of it will actually survive into the book’s second draft. We shall see!

In the meantime, happy holidays, everyone. Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 12/24/2021

A small, covered bridge shelters part of the pathway in the area around the Flume.

Deviating from a Book Outline

It’s always interesting to hear from other writers about the methods they use to draft their novels. Many authors outline carefully and extensively, while others simply start writing and see where the story goes. I’ve heard about some who don’t use a formal outline, but still develop some type of framework to establish where the story is headed.

I’m still not sure which side of the debate John and I fall into. When we wrote 60th Hour, we never drafted an outline, but we had a pretty good idea of where the story was going right from the start. For Prophecy’s Malignant Son, we used a hybrid structure — we did not outline the entire book at the beginning. Instead, we wrote an outline for three or four chapters ahead of the chapter we were currently writing. We were also world-building at the same time, because it was a brand new fantasy universe for us. Obviously, the second draft of the manuscript became very important to tie everything together. Our fellow Emerald Cove writers also gave us valuable feedback. In some cases, their critiques led to multiple revisions of key chapters of the book.

When January 1, 2021, happened to fall on a Friday (the day my weekly blog post is due), I took the plunge and developed some writer’s New Year’s resolutions. One of those resolutions was to draft a full outline for our next novel before we started writing.

We met that resolution. Even before we finished editing Prophecy’s Malignant Son, John and I had already started outlining the sequel. Working together, the two of us came up with a chapter-by-chapter outline, and began writing the new book.

As of yesterday, we had finished Chapter 8 of the new manuscript and started on Chapter 9.

But an interesting thing happened along the way, as we wrote those first chapters. We started going off script. At first, the deviation was minor — a chapter was too long, so I broke it into two chapters. The chapter numbers of the outline changed, but the rest remained basically the same.

The next change was far more substantial. At some point when writing Chapter 6 or 7, an idea occurred to me, which would revise events to add a new (and I think more interesting) plot twist. It won’t change the book’s ending, but it will greatly alter the middle section of the book to add more drama. It also solves a timing issue that had worried me (split plotlines will now come together later in the book). We are still several chapters away from writing the new scene, but we need to revise the upcoming chapters to build up to it. A few of the ongoing character interactions that were originally spread across the entire book will now take place much earlier.

So, having made those changes, are we still writing from an outline? Should we revise the outline to reflect the changes or simply run with them?

Interestingly, I’ve found myself doing exactly what we did with our prior book — outlining three or four chapters ahead. So maybe that really is my outlining “comfort zone.” I guess we’ll see as the book progresses.

For all you authors out there who are reading his blog post: what do you prefer? Do you outline? If not, how much of your story’s end do you know when you first sit down to write. Feel free to leave a comment to the post. I would love to hear from you!

-Susan 10/15/2021

Meanwhile at Emerald Cove…

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the Emerald Cove writers’ critique group, so this seems like a good time.

The big news is that we may actually be able to start meeting again. Meeting for real. In person. Around a table. At our favorite Denny’s. Yay!!! All of our authors will be fully vaccinated and beyond the two week, post-vaccination waiting period by mid-June. I can’t speak for the others, but I am very excited about the prospect of seeing everyone in person again. In my experience, writing critiques are far more effective when delivered face-to-face instead of on a little screen. Technology has been a real sanity-saver during the pandemic, but it can never take the place of personal interaction.

The shared-world anthology is nearing completion. Most of the stories are already finished and the final one is almost there. Sue’s cover art is progressing nicely. If there is a San Diego Comicon this fall, we are still hoping to release the book at that time.

Danny is working on a new novel. He is up to chapter 12. From what I have read so far, I believe it will be one of his best books.

As for John and me, our second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now finished and has been given to the critique group for another review. I hope to start the publication process on Amazon by the end of this month. After learning from our formatting mistakes with 60th Hour, I plan to order Galley Proofs for review prior to publication. I have an outstanding reviewer/editor lined up to do the final proofread.

That’s all for today. I’ll keep you posted when we have an actual publication date for Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 5/14/2021

Second Draft Anyone?

There comes a point in an author’s career when one must face the prospect of…shudder…rewriting.

I tend to approach writing the second draft of a novel with all the enthusiasm of eating leftovers. It’s a lot easier to make dinner by throwing leftovers in the microwave than it is to cook a meal from scratch, but leftovers are seldom as tasty or fun to eat. In the same way, writing the second draft of a novel is easier than the first, because I already know the story, but it seems a lot more like drudgery than writing the initial draft.

For an author like me, who tends to start with a story premise instead of a complete outline, rewriting is critical. The second draft is where the book really comes together. In the first draft, it’s easy to think the problems will “all come out in the wash.” In the second draft, it’s laundry time.

With my current manuscript, I have started the rewriting process by going chapter by chapter and reviewing all the critiques I’ve received from my fellow Emerald Cove authors. If the suggested changes are simple grammatical issues or spelling corrections, I make them as I go. For the more detailed plot or scene suggestions, the rewrite can take more time and might require me to kick around ideas with John before I change anything.

At times, it can be tempting to ignore the critiques, particularly when they involve major changes to a scene or chapter. However, in my experience, the final product becomes much stronger when I make revisions in response to those criticisms, even if it means rewriting a chapter multiple times.

Once I finish with the chapter-by-chapter rewrite, I plan to reread the entire story from start to finish and see how it all fits together. If it needs further revisions, I’ll start work on the third draft. When the entire story is satisfactory, it will be ready for the final editing for grammar, spelling, and formatting issues.

I’m hoping to finish the second draft of the current manuscript in the next two weeks. If all goes well, the release date should be some time in June.

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 5/6/2021

Second Draft Writing Critiques?

Imagine this scenario: You invite a small group of friends over for dinner. You prepare an elaborate meal for them, and you all have a great time eating, laughing, and talking together. Your friends are also cooks, so they give you tips and suggestions for how the food might be improved. The next day, you invite them over for dinner again…

…and you serve them the leftovers from the previous meal. Sure, you may have added a few extra spices based on their suggestions or an additional side dish or two, but basically your friends will be eating the same meal they just finished the day before.

You probably wouldn’t do that. If you did, your friends probably wouldn’t be very excited about it.

So what about the second draft of your manuscript? Is it fair to give the second draft right back to the same writers’ group that just finished reading and critiquing the first draft? If they were getting paid to edit your work, that might be different, but suppose they are just friends and volunteers?

This is not a hypothetical question for me at the moment. John and I finally finished writing the first draft of our latest manuscript. Now the rewriting will begin. As every author knows, rewriting is often as important as writing. I expect to complete at least one more draft, perhaps two or three, before the manuscript is ready for its final review.

Do I ask my fellow writers at Emerald Cove to review the second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son? I’ve never had a problem asking them to review multiple drafts of the short stories for the group anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!), but that seems a little different. First of all, reviewing a second draft of a short story takes a lot less time and work. Second, my fellow authors have a personal interest in making sure that all the anthology stories are well written, because those stories will appear alongside their own writing.

The second draft of a novel of 100,000+ words, however, is a far different matter. The latest manuscript was written so quickly that a couple of the Emerald Cove reviewers are still completing their critiques of the first draft. It will seem like a “revolving door” if I hand them a second draft so soon after they complete the first review.

After giving the matter some thought, I am considering a couple of strategies for the second review:

  1. Ask my fellow Emerald Cove authors to reread only the chapters which contain major changes. I already have an excellent editor lined up to review the final version and catch all the typos, so I am more concerned with making sure the revisions from the first draft are successful;
  2. Find readers outside of Emerald Cove to review the second draft. This may prove a little more difficult, but it would be nice to have input on the story from people who have never read it before.
  3. Beg and plead with my dear friends to take a second look at the entire book. Well, all right, I probably won’t have to grovel too much. They are friends, after all. Hmmm…I wonder if bribery will work? Maybe, once the pandemic is finished, I can invite them over for an elaborate meal…and NOT serve them leftovers.

No matter what I decide in terms of the second review, it is great to be done with the first draft! I feel like I have just reached the top of the mountain peak, and can now enjoy the scenery on the way back down the trail.

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 3/19/2021

A Few Thoughts About the Word “Wizard”

Merlin, Gandalf, Harry Potter…wizards are staple characters in fantasy novels. Wizards are also common in fantasy-based rpgs, in video games, in anime, in movies, and pretty much everywhere you look these days.

As a fantasy author, I’ve always worried about using the word “wizard” in a novel for fear of crossing the line between archetype and cliché. In the shadow of great fantasy writers like Tolkien and Rowling, can a couple of fairly new indy authors use the word “wizard” in their book and not sound derivative?

Of course, Tolkien did not invent the term. The word “wizard” goes way back. According to the 1993 Edition of Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary, the word is derived from the Middle English wysard from the word wis or wys meaning wise. (Yes, John and I still possess a huge, hard-cover dictionary that mostly collects dust on the shelf because of all the easy-to-use, online sources. It’s still fun to pull it out occasionally.)

In the early drafts of our book 60th Hour, the character Seyarin was called the “Court Magician” specifically to avoid the use of the word wizard. However, “magician” tends to conjure (no pun intended) images of stage magic and illusion. That did not really fit with the “calendar magic” used in the book. When John and I were finalizing the novel last year, I spent a long time trying to find an alternate word and finally came up with Vaymancer. For a while, I had considered “daymancer” because it described how the magic functioned, but when I did a Google search on the term, someone was already using it. Because the magic in 60th Hour was based on the Vayal, the sacred calendar, I substituted “vay” for “day” and the new term seemed to fit.

In the novel John and I are currently writing, we face a similar problem. In the manuscript, the magical practitioners are called wizards, but I’m not sure whether to keep using that word or find another name to describe them. They don’t have any of the trappings typically associated with wizards — no spell books, magic wands, or pointy hats.

It is possible that the word “wizard” has become so common in modern literature that it is almost generic, like the word “detective” in a crime novel. Maybe it’s ok to use it now for any magical practitioner in a fantasy novel, even if the character does not resemble the wizards of “traditional” fantasy.

Frankly, I’m not sure. In the meantime, I am trying to think of another word that might work for the new novel. The first draft of the manuscript is still on track to be finished this month. If we are going to change the word, we need to come up with something fairly soon, preferably before starting on the second draft.

-Susan 3/5/2021

Book Titles by Committee

With normality finally on the horizon and a small possibility that there might actually be a live Comicon in San Diego this coming summer, the authors of Emerald Cove are once again turning attention to our shared universe anthology. As I mentioned in a much earlier blog post, the stories are set in San Diego County with a fantasy twist. Each of the Emerald Cove authors has contributed at least one short story, involving different protagonists, to the anthology. Because it is a shared universe, some of the secondary characters will appear in multiple stories. (The role-playing gamer in me tends to think of those secondary characters as NPC’s.)

We originally intended to finish the book in time to unveil it at Comicon last year, but that didn’t happen because…well… 2020. When the pandemic made a live convention (with a dealers’ room and art show) impossible, it dampened all our spirits and the shared universe anthology languished.

In light of the new hope brought by the vaccines, our intrepid band of eclectic authors is bouncing back into action. The first drafts of the stories are done and are in the rewrite phase. The cover art is progressing.

Now comes the really hard part of the project. We have to choose a title for the anthology. It is difficult enough for a solo author to invent a catchy title for a book, a title that will interest the reader but still stay true to the book’s theme and/or plot. That task becomes even more difficult when that same title must also please four other authors.

So far, we’ve been sending emails back and forth with suggestions for the title. Many suggestions. Very many suggestions. Some of them are even serious proposals (though the joke ones can be amusing). Eventually, after many more emails, we’ll settle on one that we can all live with. That’s what we did with our last two “themed” anthologies. (Kidnapped! and Stolen!)

This time around, we have established a couple of important ground rules:

  1. Don’t choose a title that was already used by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Kidnapped!) He’s really hard competition when you want people to find your book by searching for the title on Amazon.
  2. Don’t use a single word that is so common there are dozens of pages of book titles on Amazon with the same word or variations on that word. (Stolen!)
  3. Don’t assume that adding an exclamation mark to the end of the title will make it stand out from the others. (Search engines apparently ignore punctuation.)

Once we agree on a title and it gets closer to the publication date, I’ll let you know more about the anthology (and maybe even give a sneak peek for some of Sue Dawe’s amazing artwork for the book).

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 2/26/2021

Which Swycaffer Book Should You Read First?

The most prolific writer of the Emerald Cove authors is also one of my oldest friends. Jefferson Swycaffer and I first met while I was visiting his sister back in the late 1970’s. The next day after our first meeting (or a couple of days later), we happened to run into each other again while walking across the San Diego State campus. All right…we did not literally run into each other, but when you consider how many thousands of students attended SDSU at that time, it was still a pretty amazing feat. We’ve been friends ever since. We’ve been reading and critiquing each other’s writing for years, we’ve used each other as the basis for characters in our respective novels, played rpgs together, and even dated for a few months way back in the 1980’s.

Jefferson has always been one of my favorite authors. I love the way he uses words. He can paint a scene in a paragraph that many writers could not match in a whole page. His stories are fun and imaginative. It was no surprise that his first books were professionally published when he was in his 20’s, and he is still writing and self-publishing books today.

Through the wonders of Amazon, all of Jefferson’s early books are now available on Kindle. But with so many of his books to choose from, where do you start? Of course, you could always begin with his recent books, but if you are interested in the earlier novels, here are my suggestions.

His very first book was a light-hearted collection of short stories called At the Sign of the Brass Breast. The stories focus around a couple of lovable ne’er-do-wells who stumble their way into adventure in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy (where magic is common). And yes, they are the same characters featured in Jefferson’s short story The Quality of Larceny in Emerald Cove’s Stolen! anthology.

If you prefer more serious science-fiction, his second and third books Become the Hunted and Not in Our Stars are classic, spacefaring/adventure stories set in the Concordat of Archive, a universe based on the Traveller role-playing game. As I recall, Not in our Stars was published first, but Become the Hunted was actually the initial book written and establishes the chronology for all the later Concordat books. You can start with either book, but I recommend Become the Hunted first. As Glinda said in the Wizard of Oz, “It’s always best to start at the beginning….”

Anyway, I hope all of you are doing well. Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 2/12/2021

An Indy Author’s Resolutions

Happy 2021! A brand new year. The Year of Hope.

New Year’s resolutions are not usually my thing. I tend to prefer a Yoda attitude toward them: “Resolve not! Write or write not. There is no resolve.”

However, in the spirit of this bright new year, and because my Friday blog happens to fall on New Year’s Day this week, I decided to break with tradition and develop my list of New Year’s resolutions. Further, I am taking the (probably foolish) step of announcing them in a public forum so that all my wonderful readers can hold me accountable.

Ok. Deep breath. Here goes:

1. I resolve to write at least 500 words of fiction per day until I finish the current fantasy novel that John and I are writing: Prophecy’s Malignant Son.

2. I resolve to learn more about advertising and marketing our fiction books.

3. I resolve to develop a marketing strategy before the next book is released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers.

4. I resolve to come up with a more complete outline for the next novel that John and I write and to start writing that new novel before the end of June.

5. I resolve to keep writing and publishing this blog every Friday for the rest 2021.

There you have it, folks! My wish list for 2021. I hope you all have a wonderful new year!

-Susan 1/1/2021

A Few Written Words About Audio Books

Before I retired, my job often required me to drive long distances. Those of you familiar with Southern California freeways know that, during rush hour, it can literally take hours to drive a few miles. During those days of sitting in endless, slow-moving traffic, I discovered the joy of audiobooks. I also learned a curious thing — the experience of listening to a novel is slightly different from reading the same book on paper or in digital format. For today’s blog, I thought it might be interesting to mention a couple of those differences.

When you listen to a book, you hear every word. Before I started listening to audiobooks, I did not realize that I would occasionally “fast-forward” through text when reading a novel. If I got to a boring descriptive passage or a particularly gory scene that I did not care to read, I would quickly skim through the paragraph, hitting the highlights, but not reading word-for-word. If it turned out that I missed something important during my paragraph skim, I could quickly go back and pick it up later.

You can’t do a “paragraph skim” when listening to an audiobook. (And certainly not while driving!) One audiobook, for example, contained a detailed torture scene. I had no desire whatsoever to listen to that passage, but if I hit the fast-forward button on my car stereo, I had no way of knowing whether I was just avoiding that scene or missing paragraphs afterwards. So I had to listen to every word that author wrote. Every. Single. Word. (By the way, this is not intended as a criticism of that author — at this point, I don’t even remember which author it was. I listened to a lot of audiobooks.)

You get a sense of how authors use language. When I was listening to books, I found that I was more aware of the author’s use of language and words. It is much faster for me to read words than to hear those same words spoken. Listening to a book slowed down the pace somewhat and let me hear the word choices and the phrasing of the sentences.

All those long, science-fiction/fantasy names. As an avid reader of written books, I would often “see” words before I heard them, so I had no idea how to pronounce all those unusual science-fiction or fantasy names. Often I would “sound-out” the names based on grammatical principles and words that I knew. For example, the word “half” has a silent “l” in it. So, when I first ran across the name “Gandalf,” I assumed it had the same silent “l” and pronounced it accordingly. Those types of mistakes on my part usually ended up with me being embarrassed in a conversation with more knowledgeable friends.

Amusingly, I had exactly the opposite experience with a series of audiobooks. I knew how the names were pronounced (or, at least, how the voice actor pronounced them), but I had never seen them written. After I had listened to an entire series of novels by one author, I remember reading something on the internet about that author and thinking, “Oh, so that’s how you spell the main character’s name.”

One final thought. Of course, it goes without saying that, that if you listen to audiobooks in your car, you should never let it distract you from driving. You can always listen to the book later!

-Susan 12/18/20