Writing Fall of the Argosi

FALL OF THE ARGOSI is the second book in the Argosi Series.

SPOILER WARNING!

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 – Starting Out Is Scary

I was interviewed for a Russian fantasy magazine recently, and one of the questions was about which part of a book do I find the easiest to write. I said the beginnings, because that’s always been true in the past. But now that I’ve been writing every day, always knowing I have to finish the books I start, that’s actually changed for me.

The problem with beginnings is that they define everything that follows. Start at the wrong point in the story, and chances are you’ll be rewriting every chapter to fix it later. Start with the wrong tone and the entire mood of the book changes. Fail to signal the genre, the voice, the style, or just about anything else, and you’ll end up heading down a road you may not like.

Other writers have a different view of this, I know. Lots of people refer to the “shitty first draft” and how none of it matters, but I’ve never been that way. I have to get the opening right, and I’ll keep going over it again and again until I do.

So, starting out the first chapter of Fall of the Argosi took me quite a while, because I had to decide what was backstory and what was part of the action of the story. In the end I think I’ve got something suitably engaging that will make readers want to turn the page.

Of course, it’s always easy when you open with zombies.

Day 002 – Allowing the Unexpected Within the Already Decided

I knew that the second chapter was going to have to be a fight scene, and the third would likely entail Ferius having to figure out how the little boy ended up in the desert in the first place. But what’s nice about the writing process for me lately is that even within those anticipated scenes, lots of new directions crop up. That’s what happened today, and I’m happy with how chapters 2 and 3 turned out.

Day 003 – Narrative Devices

Two chapters in a row here that have to handle dialogue without the usual conventions because one of the characters speaks a kind of sign language the other is learning. It’s kind of a weird thing to have to sort out in terms of what those translated sentences would look like. Hoping it all holds together . . .

Day 004 – Wheel Spinning

I really am awful at transitional scenes. The more I try to imbue them with meaning, the more it feels like needless self-reflection on the part of the characters. In this case, I’ve set myself up for even more transitional scenes. Have to see how this all works out tomorrow.

Day 005 – Sometimes the Wheels Turn in Interesting Ways

I figured these next two scenes would be dull because there wouldn’t be any big action, but taking a cue from Elmore Leonard (or maybe it was Alfred Hitchcock), I pulled the old “tell the reader there’s a bomb under the table” trick (which is odd to do when you’ve got a first person narrator). In this case, though, it worked out nicely and there’s lots of suspense in these two scenes.

Day 006 – When Easy Scenes Aren’t

Yesterday I’d been worried about two scenes that weren’t obviously “exciting” ones and therefore would be hard to make engaging, yet they turned out great. Today I had two scenes which are self-evidently exciting (trying to escape from zombies should always make for fun action to write) and yet I struggled to get somewhere interesting with them. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to do a rewrite on them pronto.

Day 007 – False Starts

So I had a false start today. These can be confusing because on general principle you want to trust your writerly instincts and assume they’re leading you somewhere interesting. In this case, however, they were taking me down a road that really didn’t move the sequence along. So, after messing with the chapter for an hour, I tossed it out and took a new route. That one, I think, worked a lot better, and now I’m ready to get to the end of this first act.

Day 008 – Ending Act 1

I always enjoy getting to the end of an act. It feels like something real’s been accomplished – something that means one part of the story is genuinely done. The trouble, of course, is that it’s also a time to reflect on whether you’ve really set up what comes next. It’s not enough to know what the “overall story” is about at this stage (e.g. “Hunting a murderer”). We need something that genuinely propels the story forward.

In my case, I haven’t entirely set up the next act. In other words, this act closes nicely, but opening the next one will be tricky. Time to get to work, I guess.

Day 009 – Beginning Act 2

So today is when I pay for yesterday’s mistakes (as is so often the case.) Because I haven’t set up an obvious direction for act 2, I need to get that done in this chapter, which is always harder than having set it up before and allowing the opening of the new act to take you somewhere directly and skip the stuff in between. So maybe I need to go back and fix the previous chapter first . . . Hmm . . . yeah, might need to do that.

Day 010 – Stress in Writing

As a writer, I never think of myself as having trouble coming up with ideas. I come up with ideas all the time. Show me any newspaper story and chances are I’ll think, “That gives me an idea for a novel.” I have this same reaction watching any television show or movie where an actor does one thing and my brain shudders and says, “It could’ve gone a different way. What if . . .”

But that’s the illusion I think a lot of us live under: that those ideas are the same type of ideas as the ones that answer, “what needs to happen next in this book?” when in fact the two have almost nothing in common. Trying to decide on the next chapter can be gruelling. First, it’s not uncommon for me to have noideas where to go next. Second, when I do have those ideas, I’m not sure if they’re the best ones or just the ones that came easiest to me. For reference, an “idea that comes easily to a writer” is also a decent definition for the word “cliché”.

Anyway, none of that matters. In the end, there’s only the book and the characters and you have to let the story move forward. During my tougher writing years (of which there have been a remarkably high number given the short length of my career thus far) I’d get lost for days or weeks without pushing forward. This year, by writing everyday and writing one draft of a novel each month, I’ve been able to compress those days or weeks into a few hours.

But man, those hours really suck.

Day 011 – The Red Nuns

I wasn’t sure how to approach this enigmatic order of nuns in the mountains. The risk, of course, is creating the same sorts of characters we’ve seen dozens of times before. One virtue of discovering character through dialogue, however, is that it’s often easier with the things people say to go against the grain than it is with their actions. So just starting out with the gatehouse keeper’s mixture of being all smiles while saying horribly rude things to Ferius took me down a path that defined the order of red nuns in a way I’m quite happy with.

Day 012 – The Mothers Superior

By yesterday I’d had a few ideas about how to approach the leaders of the convent, and today those shaped up nicely. I wanted to make them feel genuine without having them be positive characters relative to Ferius. Now they’re kind of strange, manipulative in an interesting way, and utterly determined to protect their convent. So all that’s worked out. Tomorrow, however, I have to write Ferius recounting what happened between her and Enna, which might be a challenge to get right.

Day 013 – Ferius’ Shame

Originally I’d planned these chapters to take place in the first Ferius book, but the timing didn’t quite fit. Having them here works better, I think, but I might need a second pass to get the emotional impact as strong as it needs to be. I’ll also need to see how these revelations inform what comes next.

But that’s tomorrow’s problem. For now, I’ve got lots of compelling scenes and I’m on track with the progression of the story, and that’s what’s most important.

Day 014 – The Red Nuns

Wow, but it’s hard writing a scene with nine characters all talking, with seven of them being characters with only vague names and descriptions that we’re not likely to see again . . .

Day 015 – I Knew It: Rewriting Time

There was plenty of good stuff in my last chapter with the Red Nuns, but I botched the nine characters on the page thing and beyond that, had them in the same location too long (this is a failing I often have: dragging out loads of dialogue and revelation inside the same static location). So I had to do a rewrite, split the chapter in two and going to a new location to allow for a bit more lore and increase in tension. That itself is a bit of a lesson for me: you can increase the tension in dialogue and exposition simply by moving the action to a more relevant location.

Anyway, after all that, the section now ended up 1300 words longer, but somehow the overall effect feels tighter and better paced. Sometimes not differentiating characters enough can tire the reader and make things seem long or slow when they’re not.

Day 016 – Building Up Suspicion & Making New Problems

Never end on a static note. That’s a lesson I need to learn one of these days. In this case, I end on a wonderfully tense note of suspicion between two characters, yet there’s no obvious place the story has to go next. In other words, I’ve created a static ending to the act. That never works out well.

My choices now are have a chapter building up this suspicion and then have the external world come crashing on the characters, or alter my last scene to do it there. Not sure what’s the right choice yet, but will have to try something right away.

Day 017 – Am I Stretching My Chapters Out?

I’ve noticed lately my chapters seem to be getting longer. Part of me wonders whether this comes from a subconscious desire to get all my words for the day (roughly 2500 a day for this book) all in one chapter rather than two or three. It’s a dangerous thing because the last thing I want to do is stretch out scenes just to fill pages. I’ll have to be mindful as I go through the rest of the book.

Day 018 – Digging Through the Mountainside

I often characterize the process of writing a novel as going on a journey through a long, dark forest. If you’ve never done it before, it’s especially harrowing because you have no idea where you are in the forest. So you’ve written a hundred pages. Are you a halfway through that forest? Will another hundred pages see you to the other side? Or will you end up even more lost with no end in sight?

The analogy holds up until you’ve been through that forest enough times that you no longer consider visiting it as being much of an adventure. In other words, there are some novels you just know how to write, but to avoid repeating yourself, you stop walking through that same forest and instead look for a new one. The problem is, there is no other forest. If you write something new, you have to start digging through the mountains on either side of that forest. That’s what one’s tenth or twentieth (I think I’m on my twenty-first novel now) becomes: digging through rock to get to the novel you’re trying to write.

Sometimes the digging is easy, the progress steady. Other times, you just hit one hard section of rock after another. You have to keep trying to dig, back away for a second, and try to dig that same patch again.

That’s where I am in the story. Today I wrote a scene that I’m almost positive will need to be rewritten tomorrow. Chances of being right: 100%

Day 019 – Yep. More Rewriting

Took forever to get these scenes in order. I finally got there, though, turning the one chapter into two and building up the suspense a little better. Of course, tomorrow I’ll be back to burrowing into the rock trying to make more progress.

Day 020 – The Impossible Escape

So in my previous two chapters I basically set up a scenario where Ferius can’t envision any means of escaping the horde of plague-infected nuns. There’s just no way out. Rosie claims if Ferius will trust her completely, then she can save her and Binta. Today I have to write that scene. The only problem is I have no idea how it’s going to work.

Time to dive in . . .

Day 021 – Completing the Red Nun Sequence

Surprisingly, most of what I wrote yesterday kind of worked, and led me into the solution for the first major confrontation with the Traveller. What’s holding this book together right now is less the adventure stuff – which is what I thought I had sorted out before I began – and more the twists and reveals. There’s an unexpectedness to a lot of the way the chapters end, which is interesting for me because they’re coming up naturally without me consciously intending to go in that direction.

Day 022 – Hmm . . . a Love Scene?

There’s nothing quite so risky as a love scene in a YA novel written by someone who pretty much studiously avoids writing love scenes. And yet, it just felt like this was the necessary character development at this moment in the story. Fortunately, it turned out surprisingly well, and is tame enough that I’m hoping it gets past the Russian censors.

Day 023 – Short Transition

Just wrote a short transitional scene here, partly because I’m not quite sure where I’m going next. Tomorrow might be tough . . .

Day 024 – Rosie’s Story

It’s strange to launch into a character’s story when you have no idea what that is. However I kind of like the general shape of her backstory here. Unfortunately, I have a suspicion I’ll need to more elegantly restructure it tomorrow.

Day 025 – Restructuring

Sure enough, I needed to restructure Rosie’s story. Not sure how well it’s turned out with what I’ve done. Will have to see how I feel in the morning about this.

Day 026 – Building to Rosie’s Hidden Plan

Not sure if I’ve got this stuff right, but I’m moving towards the idea that Rosie’s basically been gradually preparing Ferius for something terrible and that’s why she’s been telling her about her own life. Have to see if that’s actually making sense tomorrow.

Day 027 – Yet Another Rewrite!

I hadn’t thought that the narrative device for this sequence – interspersing Rosie telling her story with scenes of the characters trailing after the Traveller – would’ve been problematic, but somehow the sequence felt too static. So yet again I had to rewrite some of this to both split up expositional scenes and have a bit of action.

Technically this brought me to the end of Act 3, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s correct or if things will be restructured later.

Day 028 – Beginning of Act 4

Well, if I wasn’t sure whether the previous chapters truly ended Act 3, this definitely feels like the beginning of Act 4, with Ferius forced to take on a role and a path she doesn’t want.

I have three days left in this draft, which is enough to probably get through the climax but adding the epilogue is going to be tricky. Basically I need to get to the big tragedy next along with the reunion, then tomorrow the climax, and finally the epilogue.

Day 029 – All Is Lost

(Not in the book . . . well, yes in the book, but I don’t mean the book is lost, but that’s the section I need to write today.)

Today’s going to have to be a big writing day so that I can get to both the big awful moment (which I don’t quite know what that’s going to be yet) and the moment of rebirth (which I do, but I’m not entirely sure how to handle it.)

Okay . . . to work!

Day 30 – Rebirth

Rebirth is always an interesting part of a book for me – the point where the main character has to rise up from the dust, transformed and ready to face the final battle. In many ways it’s the most emotional part of a novel for me.

With this particular rebirth, I always knew it was going to involve Enna appearing on the scene, telling Ferius what she needs to hear.

And now . . . the climax.

Day 031 – The End

I love hitting the end of a book. This one was pretty tough, and I left myself with an awful lot to write in one day. I wrote over 6500 words, and still I think that climax could be expanded somewhat. But that’ll be for after my editor reads the manuscript and weighs in.

After this will come the editor’s notes followed by a revised draft which then gets approved and moves into copyedits, proofs, cover art, interior art, and at last a book in my hands!

Of course, now I have to come up with a plan for a new book starting tomorrow . . .

Recent Comments

  • Norm
    April 29, 2021 - 11:14 am · Reply

    Ok i admit i only skimmed over your notes for fear of learning something i really don’t want to find out until I’m reading the book. But once the book is out and read then i shall return. Ive read and loved all your books, well apart from the last book in the Greatcoats series, for some odd reason i seem to find it hard to read last books , perhaps its knowing that once read ill never see those characters again.. thats always hard to come to terms with. The Spellslinger series is fantastic and right at the top of my fantasy book favourites list. I’ve listened to all your books and Joe does a fantastic job, so much so that i have to admit to being more than a little disappointed when I found out he wasn’t to narrate ‘Way of the Argosi”. (Any particular reason for that?) But thankfully Kristin was more than up to the job. Her performance was masterful. As well as the audio versions I have all the Hardcover copies of the Spellslinger series , apart that is for Charmcaster , that one is proving incredibly hard to find. If you have a spare copy kicking around the place and simply gathering dust, i would gladly take it off your hands, and pay for it of course.. (Those covers are amazing) Finally have you any idea how many books will make up this story of the wonderful Argosi?
    Sebastien thanks for all the many hours of fun and thrills you’ve given me.
    Norm

    • decastell
      April 29, 2021 - 11:20 am · Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Norm!
      My publisher and I took the process of picking a narrator for Ferius extremely seriously because she’s so important to all of us. Kristin became the obvious choice early on and when I got to hear her performance I was so incredibly happy at all the layers she brought to the story.
      Regarding the Charmcaster hardback, if you can believe it, I get a minimum of two e-mails every single week from people trying to find a copy. Alas, my publishers printed too few when the book came out, they all got scooped up, and then the publishers went straight to paperback rather than another run. So now we have this bizarre situation where copies are being sold by collectors for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Eesh. One day I’ll convince them to do a short hardback reprint run.
      As for how many books in the Argosi series, my sense is that it’ll end up being three for sure but possibly four. Part of me is kind of desperate to see what happens when the adult Ferius goes to Tristia and meets all those Greatcoats . . .

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