Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lessons from Writing My First Novels

My first novel, Harald, was published by Baen in 2006; my second, Salamander, has recently appeared on Amazon as a kindle file. I've commented in earlier posts on it as an experiment in self-publishing. Currently it has four reviews, all very positive. The most recent is also perceptive—the reviewer picks up on a somewhat subtle point in one scene that I was afraid readers would miss. Since my purpose in publishing novels is mostly to get readers, not to get income, that's encouraging. The book's Amazon rating has been reaching about 20,000 repeatedly, then sliding away, then going back. My very rough guess is that 20,000 represents a sales rate of about two copies a day. According to email from my agent, who is the one who actually put it up for me, sales have totaled about 25 copies so far, with the rate of sales drifting upwards.

Quite aside from the self-publishing issue or the broader issue of distributing intellectual property online, often for free, I found the process of writing my first two novels an interesting and educational one and thought some of my readers might be interested. There were at least two lessons:

1. World building often feels more like discovery than invention.

I had a minor technical problem in Harald, a character who needed to learn a language implausibly fast. I found a solution. He had grown up in an environment where the high status people (he is the Emperor's grandson) spoke the equivalent of Latin but the common people spoke the local language, so he was moderately familiar with, although probably not fluent in, the latter. He is now a hostage in a still independent part of the cultural area that the Empire conquered part of a few generations back, so the local language is similar to the one around him when he was growing up, so not too hard for him to learn.

At which point I suddenly realized that I had solved two problems in the plot that I did not know were there, and the whole story made more sense. The Emperor has been trying to conquer the remaining unconquered area for the past thirty years and  failing, due to the military genius of my protagonist and the political abilities of the king he is allied to. The Emperor is a sensible fellow: Why doesn't he give up on that project and go conquer something else? Answer: As long as Kaerlia remains independent and demonstrates its ability to defend itself, the territories conquered seventy years earlier are at risk; they might decide they could do it too.

Second question: The Emperor has two sons, both of whom apparently want to succeed him, and has been keeping both in play, to some extent playing them off against each other. He's old, competent, and responsible; why doesn't he simplify the situation and eliminate the risk of a civil war when he dies by naming an heir? It is especially a puzzle given that he clearly (and correctly) regards the younger son as the abler, and the younger son also has the loyalty of the Empire's best general.

Answer: The imperial aristocracy is polygynous—the two sons have different mothers. The elder's mother is from the imperial high aristocracy, so he has the support of the old families and a dominant position in the eastern (chief) capital. The younger son's mother is from the old royalty of the conquered area; that's why he grew up in the (new) western province where their language was the local language. So the son has the loyalty of the conquered aristocracy, which I assume has been pushed one level down but is still locally powerful. One way of discouraging revolt is to make it clear to the local elite that one of their people might be the next Emperor. The Emperor wants to hold the loyalty of both factions for as long as possible before committing himself to an heir, preferably the younger.

I have long argued that humans have pattern recognition software so good that it can find patterns that aren't there; one might take this as an example. I found it an interesting one. None of this was planned, but it all fell neatly into place

2. No plot survives contact with the characters.

In Harald, as first plotted and told as bedtime stories to my daughter, there was a minor character named Anne, the young king's mistress. The King's competent father has died, and he has a dangerously unrealistic view of how to do the job.  Harald, who is a very good story teller as well as a very talented military commander, uses her to feed his view of the situation to the circle of young adults around the king, in order to put pressure on him to change his policies.

By the time the final draft was written, Anne had morphed into my stealth heroine—the noblewoman the King was courting, who makes it clear to him that she think he is acting very badly and she isn't going to marry him as long as he continues to do so, who helps save the situation at one point by a risky and heroic act (riding out of the king's army to one commanded in part by her father, just before the battle starts, to prevent the latter from being tricked into fighting the former), marries the king after he has reversed his policy, gets captured by the Empire when the castle she is in falls, and escapes by a piece of elegant cleverness of the same order as what my protagonist has been using to beat the empire in his campaigns.

In Salamander, the original plot involved a conflict between a good/bad mage (well intentioned but naive), a bad/bad mage (manipulating the good/bad one), and a good mage—very powerful, generally believed to be long dead. It ended with a confrontation between the good mage and the good/bad mage, won by the former.

By the time the book was written, the good mage had become a secondary character, his daughter had shown up as a student at the college where the other two mages teach, and she and the good/bad mage had become the protagonists. The good/bad mage sees the error of his ways fairly early on (the bad/bad mage having died due to an unexpected glitch in the magical procedure being developed by the good/bad mage) and joins forces with father and daughter. The remaining conflicts are between the three of them and other people who want to use the good/bad mage's invention for their own purposes, good and bad. 

I had also discovered two different romances developing, one between two intellectuals (good/bad mage and daughter) and one between two highly intelligent practical people (daughter's best friend and heir to the kingdom who is courting her and trying to get control over the mage's invention for well meaning but not necessarily correct reasons). A very different plot, but one I was happy with.

And the book had developed a secondary political theme: In what sense ends justify means. The Prince is basically a good guy willing  to do bad things, including killing innocent people, for sufficiently important purposes. And prepared to say so.

"If you could get a message to her, asking her to come here and assuring her of safety, would she believe you?"

"Perhaps. Would it be true?"

Another long silence, again ended by the Prince. "No. She sounds an admirable person, and one who might in time prove useful to the Kingdom; I would prefer to do her no harm. But I have obligations to my brother and to the kingdom he rules. If it turns out that the only way of keeping our enemies from learning magery that could be our ruin is to kill a charming young lady, or two, or three, I will do it. "

Mari smiled. "And you say so even though I have no truthteller to tell me if you lie. I am not sure your Highness is fit for politics."

"I do not think you need a truthteller, lady. And under the circumstances, lying to you might be unwise."

(the "circumstances" are that he is a widower, Mari's father is a very high ranking noble, and both suspect that her father plans to marry her to him—a prospect not unattractive to either of them. She's both beautiful and smart. And the best friend of Ellen, the daughter, who is the person they are talking about.)

Do  readers find this sort of thing interesting? It's not very close to what I usually post on—but then, part of the idea of this blog is as a place where I can talk about whatever I feel like.


Unknown said...

Any chance of us ever getting Harald on Kindle? I regret not buying it on hardcover--vainly hoping for the audio book version--but if I could get it in any electronic format, I'd snap it up right away

TJIC said...

> World building often feels more like discovery than invention. ...I have long argued that humans have pattern recognition software so good that it can find patterns that aren't there; one might take this as an example.

I've heard authors say many times that they are "discovering" their characters, "letting" them speak, etc., and it struck me as so much hokem.

...Except, right now, I'm about 85% done with the first draft of my first novel (perhaps of interest to readers here - think vaguely along the lines of Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with a lot of economics thrown in...).

Anyway, I've certainly been experiencing that "it's discovering a world, not inventing it" phenomena...but I still didn't like the hokem handwaving explanation.

...but your "humans are great at pattern recognition" explanation seems quite plausible.

[ the first draft of the novel, by the way, is at ]

David Friedman said...

Harald is available from the Baen free library, which I think offers a Kindle version. I've emailed Baen to ask them if they object to my selling on Amazon what they are giving away, haven't gotten an answer yet.

The book's web page has links to the free library, to podcasts of the whole book read by me, and to the beautiful map that an artist drew me.

TJIC said...

Btw, I read Harald but wasn't bowled over...but the reviews of Salamander at Amazon are great.

I'll definitely pick this up.


David Friedman said...


I was pretty happy with Harald, but I think Salamander probably works better. The one serious mistake in the first novel was my failure to distinguish voices. I like Harald's speaking style, which was a deliberate choice, although some readers found it opaque, but I shouldn't have given so much of it to other and unrelated characters.

Live and learn.

TJIC said...

> I was pretty happy with Harald

Well, my opinion of it was unfair for two reasons:

1) I was comparing it not to the average run-of-the-mill SF/Fantasy, but to my absolute favorites

2) As the author of two of the books that were formative in my anarchocapitalist world had some pretty insanely large shoes to fill! ;-)

Jonathan said...

This kind of background discussion is interesting for me, both because I've read the novels in question, and because I always wanted to write a novel but never have done.

TJIC: I find that Harald grows on me with rereading. You might try it again sometime.

But yes, if you expect too much you're asking for disappointment. Writing fiction is very different from writing non-fiction. I'm a professional writer myself; I just can't do fiction.

Jonathan said...

"The one serious mistake in the first novel was my failure to distinguish voices."

If I wrote a novel and then perceived a mistake in it, I might be tempted to rewrite and correct the mistake, even after publication. But this seems to happen rarely, perhaps because publishers and/or authors think such corrections are unrewarding compared with writing new books.

If the main objection comes from publishers, perhaps the rise of e-books will give rise to version numbers on novels in future.

"I still have version 3.4. Although I suppose it's flawed in theory, I like it better than the later versions."

Unknown said...

Thank you for the pointers, Prof. Friedman!

David Friedman said...

Fiction vs non-fiction:

A good deal of what made me willing to try writing novels was extensive experience with verbal storytelling, almost entirely within the SCA (historical recreation). Every year I spend about a week's worth of evenings, from dark to midnight (summer), sitting by a campfire hosting a bardic circle. That's one reason why I ended up recording podcasts of the novel and webbing them, thus converting it back to verbal storytelling. Someone familiar with my SCA storytelling told me that, reading the novel, he could hear my voice.

The idea of rewriting a novel is tempting. In the case of Harald, I not only could fix the voices, I could fill in a good deal of background material that is at best implicit at present—for instance more information about the mother of the current king, who is to some degree at fault for his mistaken views of how to do his job. As it is, the thoughtful reader is left with the puzzle of why such a competent monarch did such a bad job of training his successor.

On the other hand, a lot of that could also be done in a sequel—I started one before switching my efforts to Salamander—which might be a more valuable use of the time and effort.

And for any Harald enthusiasts among my readers, a puzzle: Who is Elaina's father? She makes it pretty explicit that it isn't Harald. We are never told who it is, but I have a guess.

Another example of world building that feels more like discovery.

Jonathan said...

Yes, the temptation to correct a book varies. If the correction can be done quickly and easily, so much the better.

But rewriting a substantial amount of the dialogue would be a real chore; it might improve the book and increase reader satisfaction slightly; but it probably wouldn't increase the number of readers.

It's the sort of thing I might do, hypothetically, because I get attacks of perfectionism, but I can't honestly recommend it as sensible behaviour.

I'm afraid I'd need to read the book again to make any guess at Elaina's father. I have a bad memory. For many purposes I use the computer as a crutch to support my deficient wetware, but I didn't think to create a file of background info on characters in Harald.

It might not be a bad idea, because I remember having some difficulty in keeping track of who all the characters were.

William H. Stoddard said...

Quite a while back, I talked with Vernor Vinge about his then latest novel, A Deepness in the Sky, and he had exactly your "discovery" slant on it: with some things I asked him about the setting he said that he hadn't found that out yet. I had the sense that his world felt to him like an externally existing place with features that he could find by inquiring. Of course, when you think about it, a lot of mathematicians have exactly that sense about mathematics, too. That may be part of what inspired Plato's metaphysics.

David Friedman said...

Re Vinge:

He is in part responsible for my writing Salamander. I told him about my idea for it and my ideas for the sequel to Harald that I had also been thinking about, and he persuaded me that Salamander was the more interesting project.

Jonathan said...

Vernor Vinge is one of my favourite authors. I suppose it makes sense that you're in touch with him: I think he was influenced by The machinery of freedom in the 1980s, at least; even though he used your ideas only as background and was more interested in his own.