WAY OF THE ARGOSI is the first book in the Duellist Series.
Story Journals are where I talk about the writing of the books I’m working on. They’re my daily thoughts after writing whatever chapters I was working on at the time, which means inevitably there will be spoilers in here – including, potentially, the climax of the book. So I urge you not to read this if you’re worried about spoilers.
Day 001 – A Terrible Way to Start
When I say this is a terrible way to start a book, I don’t mean the actual opening of the book is bad. In fact, there’s a lot to commend this chapter that shows us just how awful Ferius starts out and the kinds of horrors she’s faced that make her a little unstable. What I mean, though, is that this is a book I’ve been loath to write. I don’t write prequels, I try to avoid origin stories, and once a series is done (as Spellslinger is after six books), I’m not prone to looking back. However the Argosi duology is something I promised to write, so now I’m getting back to it.
Day 002 – Time Jumping is Hard
There’s a general prohibition on flashbacks out there. People (not writers, mind you, but people who like to tell writers what to write and what not to write) go on about how flashbacks pull the reader out of the story or they’re cliché or somehow unrealistic because in real life we don’t flash back to events. That last one betrays a profound misunderstanding about what makes fiction real to us versus our own lives. Regardless, these two chapters are not only dealing with multiple flashbacks, but they’re doing them in a scene set in the narrative present.
The narrative present is simply the “real” story as it’s unfolding regardless of whether the book is told in present or past tense or even whether it has a memoirist frame around it (e.g. “Back before I was known as Lord Montez, I was a little boy with a problem”). The narrative past are those things which happened before.
I spun this winding pair of chapters because I explicitly didn’t want to pull one of those faintly Dickensian things where you tell all of a character’s life before getting to the story you’re about to tell. This is a trend I’ve seen in modern fantasy, too. It’s not one I like to read personally, so I didn’t want to do it here. Yet I had to show that Ferius had come close to a life full of love and learning and all those things we might’ve hoped for her, only to have it taken away.
So I begin with her digging graves, and it’s only as she’s digging those graves that we get glimpses into the six months where she lived with the two knights. Tricky to get right, but I think it works now.
Day 003 – Believability Can Be Tricky
A twelve-year-old girl goes off into the night to hunt down an incredibly powerful mage. How’s that supposed to work? I didn’t want to write the “she’s born to be an assassin so she’s got superhuman skills” stuff because, well, it’s just not my thing. So I had to work through how a young girl with a broken sword in hand might go about tracking down a mage and killing him without any special abilities other than the ones that come from her own experiences. I think I’ve gotten the right balance with these two chapters.
Day 004 – End of the First Act
I’m pretty pleased with how this first act has shaped up. My first stab at this book, I skipped over a lot of events in the interest of not writing things I’d read plenty of times before in fantasy novels. However that jumped me straight into a kind of dark, depressed state for Ferius that just didn’t quite work. This new first act is still dark, but more dramatic and giving more agency to Ferius.
Now, of course, comes the tricky part, which is how I get this second act going – keeping ideas I liked about my last try at this novel without bogging down the story in internal minutiae.
Day 005 – A Tricky Turn
So one of the things I’m trying to avoid in this book is letting it get too incredibly maudlin at times. Some of that’s unavoidable when you’re dealing with a character who’s experienced what Ferius has, but I feel like in earlier attempts at this story I ended up too stuck in the muck. So this transitional chapter I wrote today, which shifts us between the first and second acts, is doing a bit of a dancing act between depressing and determined. Not sure if I got it right or not, so I’ll have to give it another look in the morning.
Day 006 – The Heist
This next sequence is one that makes me nervous because it involves the “orphan girl learns to steal to survive” which is something we’ve seen in so many fantasy novels. My hope is that the setup that brings us to it gives these scenes a different context and that the execution will be interesting enough to keep the story impetus moving forward.
Day 007 – Tonal Turns
One of the tricky parts of my writing style is that there’s always a mixture of darkness and humour in my stories. Typically, they start out with that more light-hearted, adventurous style that then shifts into much darker territory with a glimpse of humour late in the story and then a return to it at the end. However this book goes dark very early on, and so I’m now finding myself shifting into some more light-hearted scenes which could be going to far away tonally form what came before. It’s a complicated balancing act at times, but I’ll have to trust my instincts for now.
Day 008 – Fight Scene
Fight scenes are always strange beasts to approach. On the one hand they feel like work – all that choreography and trying to deal with tension and pacing. On the other, they tend to write themselves faster than lots of other scenes. maybe it’s because the tempo, cadence, beginning and end have such a natural flow to them.
This pair of chapters turned out quite well, I think, with a mix of humour, some of that clever-narrator-vibe that fits in most of my books, and some unexpected emotion at the end. All in all, a good day of writing.
Day 009 – Condensing Story
As I wrote these two chapters today, summarizing an entire year of Ferius’ life, it occurred to me that I could’ve written a whole book just about Ferius being a thief in the gang of the Black Galleon, getting to know her trade and such. Maybe some readers would even enjoy it. However, I’d really just be writing something we’ve seen plenty of times before. More and more I’m discovering that Way of the Argosi isn’t so much a book about Ferius’ early life as all the lives she tried to live and had to give up. Not sure what that’ll mean for the back half of the book, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out.
Day 010 – Picaresque Novel Writing
There’s sometimes a picaresque quality to my writing, which is a way of saying ‘episodic’. The main character goes through various discreet stages, almost like a series of separate novelettes, and then everything ties together at the end (which is what makes it a novel and not a series of episodes.) This style isn’t really in fashion, though, so I’m more mindful of keeping that sense of narrative drive moving forward across all those discreet sequences. This novel is feeling like it wants to live in six parts, each one a phase of Ferius’ early life: orphan, knight, thief, gambler . . . and I’ll figure out the others when I get there.
Day 011 – End of the Second Act
This story keeps taking turns towards the dark and melancholic. It feels credible, given everything that’s happened, but I’m always fighting against it somewhat. That said, I think this act ends exactly has it needs to, and sets up the third act, in which we finally meet an Argosi, perfectly.
Day 012 – Turnarounds
I have most of the third act already written, so I assumed this would be an easy day. I forgot, however, that all those earlier changes created the need for a turnaround chapter to transition between those acts, and this one was harder than expected. On the other hand, it created an opportunity for some fresh ideas in terms of how Ferius deals with her predicament.
Day 013 – Rewriting Always Makes It Longer
Started with a long chapter that only got longer as I rewrote it. Not sure why, but I never seem to make things shorter during a rewrite, which I suppose is a good argument for making my first passes as short as possible.
Day 014 – Another Long Scene
Typically I aim for scenes that are around 1500 words in length. That seems to keep the pace moving while still allowing for strong beats. However both this scene and the last one were in the 4000 word range. Oddly, that never seems to be a problem. Some scenes just want to be longer and can be so without slowing down the feeling of moment in the story. Just wish I knew how to tell one from the other.
Day 015 – Attenuating Violence
I’ve noticed in fiction lately that it seems as if acts of violence are fine, but the potentiality of violence gets people much more upset. In other words, having someone pull out a sword and cut someone’s head off is less threatening to a modern reader than someone discussing how they might pull out that same sword. So in a rewrite of a scene I found myself realizing I was attenuating a character’s worry over potential violence that might be done to them – altering both the nature of that prospective violence and the obliqueness to which its referred. Such an odd thing to think about while writing.
Day 016 – Where Does An Act End
I was doing a rewrite of a scene and suddenly found myself thinking that with a few changes I’d suddenly ended an act. Now there’s no real concrete definition of acts in literature (not that any number of crap books on the craft of writing don’t attempt to define it), but we all have our own sense of what makes an act. For me it’s when the character’s fundamental approach to the story changes, which is what happened as I rewrote this scene. But like theme, one only really becomes aware of the act structure once the story is written, so I’ll see in the coming days whether this really was an act break.
Day 017 – Rewriting to Intensify
I was rewriting a scene, mostly assuming I just needed to deal with a few changes with setting and such that had crept in through some other revisions. What surprised me, though, was how the chapter rewrite became much more about intensifying the dramatic meaning of the scenes. That’s really what rewriting is about, I think: intensifying what’s important in the story.
Day 018 – Small Changes Get Big Fast
It’s interesting how those small changes you make in a story seem to keep snowballing, getting more and more pervasive until they affect every single line of the scenes that follow. With this act I kept thinking I wouldn’t have to do much rewriting but I keep spotting these places where it needs to change and that makes it as difficult – maybe more so – then writing new scenes.
Day 019 – End of Act 4
My act structure is a bit strange in this book right now, but I’m not worrying about it too much. I’m not entirely sure where the story’s going to go after this act. It could almost have just gone into a sort of denouement or epilogue, but then the book would end up at 60K words or so, which would feel awfully short.
Have to see what tomorrow brings.
Day 020 – Beginning of Act 5
Today felt a bit like I was writing an epilogue, which is weird because I’ve got a whole act to follow, but I’ll just roll with it and see where it goes.
Day 020 – Into the Dark
There’s no better way to write yourself into a corner than when you hit the end of a chapter and realize that could easily be the end of the book. That’s what happened with the thirty-third chapter in this book. I hit an endpoint after the climax of an act, and it read like the happy ending of a finished book.
Editors will often tell you “a book needs to be however long the story wants to be”, but in truth, publishers often have much stricter length requirements. For example, technically the contract for this book quotes the length at 85,000+ words. If I ended the story here, it would only be about 65,000 words. Now, they might be willing to go ahead anyway, but would readers – who even in YA now expect much longer books – be happy with it?
For the moment, I’m forging ahead as if there’s more story to tell. Now I just need to find that story.
Day 021 – Are They All Epilogues Now?
This scene should’ve been us launching into the main part of this new act, yet somehow it, too, felt like an epilogue. Maybe that’s what happens when you’ve finished the story earlier than you thought. Only one way to find out . . . keep writing.
Day 022 – A Rewrite Day
I rewrote yesterday’s chapter, splitting it into two chapters, which I think helped move it away from the epilogue feel.
Day 023 – Outlining to the End
I’ve been avoiding big outlines lately, but at this stage I needed to project forward to how the book might end, and I think I’ve got a strong enough chapter outline to get me there. In the next seven days I’ll need to write nine chapters, which is eminently do-able. Really excited to get this novel wrapped up!
Day 024 – Turning the Corner
There comes a point in the writing of a novel when I can’t yet see the end coming up but I know the hardest part is past – when victory (which is to say, a completed novel of which I’ll be proud) feels assured. It comes at different points in the process with each book, but today was that day for Way of the Argosi.
There’s a difference between work and struggle in writing. A lot of the time we struggle. Writing feels like a fight between the writer and . . . well, probably the writer. You’d think that would be the exciting part and the more journeyman “work” part – where you’re putting out effort but that effort is within your capabilities – would become drudgery. But it really doesn’t. I like that feeling of just doing work as a writer. In those moments I know what I’m doing, that I can do it at a professional standard, and that it will lead to something meaningful.
Six more days to go and this novel will be wrapped. My fourth of the year. Maybe – just maybe – I’m starting to get the hang of this job.
Day 025 – Rewriting for Pacing
Every writer has their tics – those little tell-tale words, phrases, and plot devices that come out again and again in their stories. Tics are fine. They’re part of a writer’s style. But some tendencies are just trouble. For instance, when writing without an outline (which is how I typically write), I’ll often go long, stretching one scene out to three, starting each one with some philosophical musing by the character, and taking forever to get to the climax of the actual scene. Rewriting those scenes is by far the hardest for me, because I don’t like to toss everything away. Often that slow, plodding pace lets me find really interesting moments and I want to keep those if they fit with the story. So I have to go digging through the text, finding what matters, chucking out what doesn’t, and then trying to rebuild from there while always keeping an eye on the pacing. Tricky work.
Day 026 – The Final Act Begins
So these next few days are where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I’ve mapped out what the climax looks like, but now I’ll be writing those chapters and seeing how well they work. If they don’t, I’ll have to come up with something new on the fly – tricky to do when you’ve got four days left.
Day 027 – Polemics
I had to pull myself back from some excessive moralizing in one of the chapters I wrote today. Don’t get me wrong: I’m perfectly fine writing in an almost polemical fashion. My characters often have pretty strong points of view about ethics, and since those often play into the themes of my books, it’s inevitable that some of that will come out. The trick is both to find balance as well as new angles from which to explore those subjects, so as to avoid everything becoming variously lengthy repetitions of “Use the force, Luke.”
All that aside, I’m pretty happy with these two chapters. Three days to go until the end of the book!
Day 028 – The Climax
Coming up on the big climax scene, which is going to be a bit strange for me because there’s no huge fight scene or sneaky bit of thievery or even magic. Instead, it’s about Ferius just talking about herself, which is to say: giving a speech. The problem is, we’ve had loads of mini-speeches from Durral so far in this story, along with snippets of speeches from Ferius’ memories of Gervais and Rosarite. Still, I think this is ultimately an emotional book about Ferius becoming an Argosi, so maybe this’ll be a scene where I’m largely “telling rather than showing” her transformation, but that might be what works here.
Not long to go before my favourite part of writing a book: the epilogue!
Day 029 – Climax Completed
I ran into some trouble as I set about writing the final chapters of this book. My intended climax felt like it was going to be, well, anti-climactic. This wasn’t due to the lack of explosions and fights, but simply that I’d used some of those dramatic beats before. I needed something more active for Ferius to be doing here.
Fortunately, after chatting with a colleague, I came up with a solution that I think is much more satisfying. It has the feeling of a genuine “big climactic turn” but without compromising on the thematic integrity of the story.
Tomorrow I write the epilogue chapter, followed by the two every novelist can’t wait to write: The End.
Day 030 – The End
Wrote the epilogue and was surprised by how everything fit together – almost as if I knew what I was doing!
Tomorrow: a new book begins!