Evaluating Abuse of Power Based on the Principles of Good Writing

In this post, I set forth my thoughts on what constitutes good writing. An author should be his own worst critic and constantly examine his work for improvement. To that end, I’m evaluating my novelette, Abuse of Power, based on those principles to see where I need to concentrate my efforts for future learning.

Principle 1 – Do no harm

Clean, concise prose is my strong point. While there’s always room for improvement, trying to get better at writing technique will take a great deal of time and result in little benefit.

Likewise, I think I do a good job of making story choices that don’t provide distractions for the reader. The structure for Abuse is straightforward, and it flows well.

I give myself a solid 4.5 stars here.

Principle 2 – Create relatable characters

Before getting my editor’s comments, I thought I did a pretty good job with characterization overall. While I think Auggie and Alaina are pretty relatable in their overarching goals and struggles, I’m lacking in a couple of other areas:

• Variation of character voice. One of Tim’s big complaints was the lack of differentiation between the voices of Alaina, a baker’s daughter, and Auggie, the son of the duke. Oops. I did my best in the revision to use vocabulary to create more of a divide, but I don’t think this is one of my strong suits. I’ll continue to work on improving this aspect of my craft, but, truthfully, I don’t see it as a huge impact.
• Of more worry is the fact that Tim felt my characters were too one-dimensional. I’m struggling with this one. Since Abuse is a novelette, I tried hard to keep the plot concise and didn’t see a lot of opportunities to expand on the characters. In the revision, I added a little bit of detail, but I’m not sure I adequately addressed his concerns. I’ll be interested to see if he feels this problem extends to Power of the Mages where I spent much more time developing characters.

Because of the two fairly serious concerns, I give myself only 2 stars here. 😦

Principle 3 – Present a series of significant events

The structure and pace of Abuse is spot on. Tim had no major complaints, and I feel the story moves well. He noted a few places where I could ramp up the tension a bit, and I did so in my revision.

Again, there’s always room for improvement, but, in general, I know how to add tension and how to keep a story moving.

I give myself another solid 4.5 stars.

Principle 4 – Filter the events through the emotional lens of your character

This principle is the one that I discovered most recently in my writing career and the one I feel is the weakest element of my writing. While Tim was overall pleased with the emotional movement, I’m still not satisfied.

I know a lot of writers criticize Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but, in Midnight Sun, she does the best job I’ve ever read of filtering. Every sentence brings the reader closer to Edward’s emotions.

I’m not saying that I should try to emulate her style as I’m not sure it would be appropriate for epic fantasy, but I think I have a long way to go in truly learning and embracing the technique she implements. I’m making a further study of it a high priority on my to-do list. Perhaps I’ll pen a short story that explores her methods.

Because Tim thought I did well overall, I give myself 3.5 stars.

Principle 5 – Give the reader an emotional payoff

I like the ending of Abuse. Each time I read it, I smile.

On the other hand, it doesn’t provide the emotional payoff that I really want. Part of that is the limitation of fitting the story into a novelette and part is my weakness at emotional filtering.

3 stars.

Overall, Abuse of Power is a solid story at 3.5 stars, but I have a lot of work to do in getting better at my overall craft. I’d be interested to know what you think of my evaluation. The final version should be available for free download from the site sometime no later than early next week. If you get a chance, please read it and comment.

Why I Plan to Ignore My Marketing Advice

At the moment, I think that my marketing activities are proportional. I spend a bit of time here and there doing research, and I blog for about 3 hours a week. Were I to keep up that rate, I’d say it would be a good balance of producing new work to selling activities.

Instead, I plan to spend an entire month doing nothing but marketing — almost no writing at all.

• April – Work on Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion
• Early May – Collect 3rd draft beta reader comments for Power of the Mages and send it to the editor
• June – Finalize Power of the Mages and create review copy (including, ugh, maps)
• July – Besides last minute touches, do marketing
• August – Release Power of the Mages, finish up rough draft of Daniel Darcy 1, and work on compiling blog posts into a nonfiction book

Obviously, this approach does not embrace the balance that I called for in previous posts. Here’s why I made that decision:

1. I fear losing motivation – The vast majority of self published authors sell a few copies to their friends and family, and that’s about it. If I don’t do better than that, I think I’ll get seriously discouraged.

2. The need to swing for the fences is a personal trait – While it’s not likely that a first novel by a self published author is going to be a runaway hit, the possibility exists. I need to give the book that chance of success.

3. It fits my long term plan – Between August 1 of this year and August 1 of 2014, I want to have 5 works on Amazon:

a. Power of the Mages (August 1, 2013)
b. 12 Simple Techniques for Improving Your Fiction Writing: Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes of New Authors (late 2013)
c. Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion (Spring 2014)
d. The Slender Man Massacre (Summer 2014)
e. Novelette/novella that comprises the 2nd part of my Dark Power series (Fall 2014)

4. The most effective marketing efforts take time to build –

a. Followers
b. Email list
c. Spreadsheet of bloggers

I don’t know if my first novel is going to sell one copy or a hundred or a thousand in its first year. From the numbers I’ve seen, if it hits 300, I should be happy. My efforts probably aren’t going to take it past that quantity, but I have to try.

Here’s the Wind-up…and the Pitch!

EDITED ON 1/16/13 to include a revised version of the pitch (you’re allowed to update your submission if your genre isn’t full) and a new lesson.

Last night, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest opened for submissions. At great personal sacrifice (Despite having been released almost a week ago, my copy of A Memory of Light lays mostly unread.), I have submitted my entry.

A quick aside – Let’s say you’re a major company trying to get authors to self publish through you. Let’s pick say, Createspace, as an example. Let’s further say that your parent company is a major bookseller, in fact the biggest player in the marketplace. Let’s call that company, just for grins, Amazon. I think having the parent company sponsor a contest that will draw in a load of wannabe authors and force them to create accounts with the self publishing company is a brilliant idea. What’s not so completely brilliant is to have a lot of author’s first experience with your company be a technical glitch that prevents anyone using IE from actually being able to make a submission. What a major screwup!

Back to the post: I have no great confidence that I have any shot of winning. Don’t get me wrong; I think Power of the Mages is a good story and well-written, definitely worthy of publication. Here are the problems with my contest submission:

• 80% of contestants will be knocked out based on the pitch alone. Selling my novel in less than 300 words is not my strong point.
• I’m not yet finished with even my 3rd draft of Power.

As far as the 2nd draft goes, here’s my evaluation:

• Chapters 1 through 6 are weak. The style needed to be tweaked, the writing tightened, scenes rethought, and, most of all, emotion added.
• Chapters 7 and 8 are horrendous and embarrassingly bloated.
• Chapters 9 through 14 need style tweaking, clarification, and more emotion but are, overall, readable.
• Chapters 15 through the end aren’t bad. Parts need major rewriting, but, overall, the last of the book is better written and contains more emotion. It still needs to be gone through, but I’m not embarrassed to have a wide audience look at it (with the understanding that it’s not finished).

When I made the decision to enter the contest, I wasn’t even finished with the 2nd draft. In a short time, I completed that task and made it through a whopping 10 chapters of the 3rd, including the time-consuming 7th and 8th ones. I fixed the worst part of my book, but there are numerous problems with the rest. Besides the revisions noted above, I’ve made subtle character and plot changes in the first third that are not yet reflected in the unrevised sections.

Like I wrote above, I just don’t think this is a recipe for success. I do think that the experience was a net positive for me though. It forced me to get much further on my editing and made me study how to summarize my story.

Though I by no means consider myself an expert or even competent, here’s what I learned about pitches:

• They are not just your back of the book blurb. At first, I was reluctant to include anything that might be considered a spoiler, which left my pitch sounding incomplete. The purpose is to tell publishers what the book is about, not to try to get a reader to buy it. The publisher needs to know more information about your story than the average reader.
• Focus on the character. No one cares about your backstory and your setting; they care about characters. I knew this going in, but it was really reinforced in the comments that I got. In my first few versions (there were many), I had a paragraph that addressed the overall conflict between the mages and the nobles but didn’t mention the protagonist. I got a much better response when I made that conflict personal to the main character.
• Apparently, it’s also a bad, bad idea to include questions in your pitch. A beta reader who has knowledge of such things informs me that many editor blogs advise strenuously against it. Note that this applies to pitches solely, not to blurbs.

Below is the final version that I submitted. If you want to make me feel better, please comment below on how much it makes you want to become a publisher just so you can produce this book.

Xan, a journeyman apothecary, struggles with the realization that he’s falling in love with Ashley. She’s everything he ever wanted and beautiful to match. If only she existed outside his dreams.

Catchers comb the land accusing people of magic use. Xan loathes the practice in the abstract, instead believing birthright alone should not determine which man is put to death, which is allowed to flourish, which rules, and which toils in obscurity. He’s just never had the motivation, or ability, to do anything about it. Things change when a catcher targets him.

Xan must embrace the reality that he is a mage and that Ashley is both real and in desperate need of his help. What began as a quest to save her and keep her father’s duchy from being overrun by the forces of a rival duke becomes a life or death struggle. To live, Xan must usher in a new age of magic tolerance, but, first, he must resist the temptation to become exactly what the world fears — a mage willing to perform the type of mass destruction last seen in the Wizard’s War. If the nobles don’t betray Xan and his friends first, that is.

Power of the Mages is a character-driven epic fantasy that explores power — both its nature and its abuses. The evil done by nobles to maintain their dominion is eclipsed only by the ruthlessness of their would-be usurpers. Through it all, Xan must transition from medieval lab geek to hero and become a man worthy of leadership.

Excerpt from Power of the Mages

In honor of the completion of my 2nd Draft of Power of the Mages, I’m posting an excerpt of one of my favorite scenes.  Since the sample is from Chapter 28 and most of the readers of this blog have no more than a passing acquantance with the plot of the book, I’ll set it up first:

Xan is an journeyman apothecary, the medieval equivalent of a lab geek.  All he’s ever wanted is to find a girl who likes him.  In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” he found himself engaged to Ashley, the daughter of the duke and a girl who is out of his league in every way.  Now that he has everything he thinks he wants, he finds out the price.  The duke asked him to sign an oath of allegiance that Xan knows to be a horrendous mistake.

Excerpt from Chapter 28 of Power of the Mages:

Feeling deserted by his friends, Xan cast his gaze at the ground.  “My lord, I can’t.”

“You must, son.  There is no other option.”

Xan met the ruler’s eyes, his tone defiant.  “And still I can’t.”

Ashley stepped forward, her posture resolute and her face harsh.  “You would refuse my father in this?  You would refuse me?”

“Ashley?  Please trust me?”  Xan winced at the pleading in his voice.

“Sign it.  Now,” she said.

“Can we at least talk about it?”

Her father nodded in response to her questioning look.  Without a glance behind to see if Xan followed, she entered the nearest alcove.  He lumbered after her and inched the curtain shut.  Turning to face her, he steeled himself for the onslaught.

Instead, she smiled.  “It’s good you have a backbone but don’t embarrass me in front of my father.”

“I’m not…  I mean, I didn’t…”

She fiddled with the engagement ring, holding it in front of the light from an oil lamp burning in the corner.  “Did I tell you how much I love it?”

He shrugged off her baffling change in demeanor.  “Ashley, I’m not doing this because of some kind of power struggle between you and me.  I won’t sign that statement.”

The cutest bark of a laugh escaped her lips.  “I know what drives men.  I’ve known since I came of age, and they stood in line for a chance at my hand.”  Her finger drifted to the soft velvet of her scarlet dress, idly tracing the corseted curve of her waist.  “Aren’t I what you want?  Sign and you’ll have me.  All of me.”

A wave of heat washed over Xan.  “Of course that’s what I want.”  What he’d implied registered.  “I mean, not what you said.”  He felt the flush rising on his face.  “I mean, not that I don’t want…”

She turned her head to the side and raised a hand to her mouth.

“You’re laughing at me!”

She moved to him, nearly touching his body with hers, and stroked under his eye where the sword had cut.  “Only because you’re so cute.”

“You don’t fight fair,” he said.

“I fight to win.”

“I don’t want to fight at all.”

She smiled.  “Then sign the agreement.”

He threw up his hands in frustration.  “I can’t.  You don’t understand.”

Instantly, her countenance changed.  Her lips tightened.  “You think you understand governance better than me?  What I do, I do for the good of Bermau, for Vierna, and for the people.”

“For the people?”  He tried and failed to keep the incredulousness from his voice.  “Don’t you mean for the sake of power?”

“My father being in power is what’s best for the people.”

“It isn’t if we sign those agreements.”

Her nostrils flared, and she placed her hands on her hips.

He shook his head sadly.  “Won’t you even listen to my reasoning?  Do you care at all?”

“Do you care about mine?”

“I understand more than you seem to think,” he said.  “With a cadre of tame mages under your father’s control, his rivals will have no choice but to develop their own magic users.  By the time any have a force strong enough to counter his, the reason for fighting will have vanished as everyone will be breaking the edict.

“It only works, though, if he truly has control.  Otherwise, it’s too much of a risk.  He sees no other options.”

“If you agree, why are you arguing with me?” she said.  “Sign the damn paper!”

“Even to save your father’s duchy, the price is too high.”

She glared at him.

“Don’t you see?  This is the first step to another Wizard’s War, more cities destroyed, more devastation.”  He tried to take her hand, but she pulled away.

“This is how it starts,” he said.  “We can only use our magic at the nobles’ command.  Then come the other limitations.  We can only travel with special permission.  Our spouses are chosen for us, or maybe we’re forbidden from marrying at all.  Our children are taken away at birth.  Every aspect of our lives is dictated by our overlords.  We become nothing more than slaves, weapons to be pointed at the enemy, stripped of anything that makes us human.”

“Father isn’t like that.”

“Maybe he isn’t.  Maybe he’ll be a benevolent ruler, uphold everything he said.”  Xan’s tone pled for understanding.  “What about the other dukes?  Will they be so kind?  Can’t you see what kind of precedent we set here today?”

“What I see is our only choice.”  She exhaled sharply and ran her finger over Xan’s cheek.  “You’re intelligent, and there’s a fire within you that I admire.  I told you I’d make a good wife for you, but I gave you a condition.  Do you remember it?”

His voice came out strained, barely a whisper.  “Be loyal to you and your father.”

“That condition stands.  Do this one thing, and I’m yours.”

“Please Ashley, trust me.  Give me time to figure out another way.”

The sympathy reflected on her face didn’t dent the hardness in her stare.  “Your decision?”

He felt moisture well in his right eye, and he turned from her.  “I can’t sign it.  I want to do it.  For you.  But I can’t.”

“Face me,” she said.

He wiped his eye and turned toward her, his back to the curtain.  Her left hand covered her right, and it took him a moment to determine what she was doing.

“No!  Ashley, please!”

Her hands parted, the left one holding the engagement ring.  She took his clenched fist and pressed it inside.  He opened his palm and stared at the gold band with the sparkling diamond.  The curtain opened behind him, and her footsteps trailed away.  He gathered himself and followed. 

Ashley caught her father’s eye and shook her head.  The duke signaled a page at the back of the room who disappeared out the door.  Seconds later, twenty soldiers rushed in.

The duke pointed at Xan.  “Guards, arrest him.”