I tried some different techniques with this version of Mae. I’m still playing around with how I do the eyes. I think they’re an improvement over the previous version.
Most of the time, writers seem to talk about the books that have influenced their writing style. I’ve certainly been influenced by Tolkien (naturally), Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, James Alan Gardner, and plenty of other authors. I’ve taken inspiration from many other sources, including webcomics like Girl Genius (the main character of that comic, Agatha Heterodyne, was one of the primary sources of inspiration for my character Tock Zipporah (whose proper name is actually “Minerva Agatha Zipporah”)). But since I’ve been playing video games since I was about six years old, gaming has definitely been another influence that has changed the way I write.
There are a few different specific ways that video games affected my writing, so I’ll address each one individually.
The Influence of Gods and Monsters
I write urban fantasy, and my work is steeped heavily in mythology, magic, monsters, and other classics of the fantasy genre. I try to veer away from overused creatures (such as vampires, werewolves, elves, dwarves, and dragons) and create a combination of my own homemade creations along with my interpretations of less-used mythological creatures.
One basic example of that is golems. Golems are creatures made from inanimate matter, and can range from magically-animated stone statues to living clay to robots that are powered by mana instead of electricity. I don’t tend to see golems used all that often in most of the books I read (though I’m sure I could name a few examples, like the animated suits of armor in the Harry Potter books). They’re a common sight in both video games and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. My character Tock is a golem-maker, and video games are definitely a big influence in the way I design her golems. Instead of creating animated stone statues or living suits of armor, Tock tends to go for things like magitech creations, similar to those seen in Final Fantasy VI. In that game, you see things like robots that fire magic-powered lasers, living war machines created by magic, and magic-powered mechwarrior suits (called “MagiTek Armor” in the game). All of these things have been a huge influence in the way I view Tock’s ability and the things she creates, particularly in Contamination and Collapse.
Another influence from the Final Fantasy games in particular is the design of their summoned monsters. Many of them are based on various real-world myths and legends, and you can go into a lot of detail analyzing how closely the games stuck with the mythological inspirations versus how much creative license they took.
I don’t directly draw from many of the summoned monsters in Final Fantasy, but my all-time favorite has always been Shiva. So much so that Shiva is a very direct influence over my short story, Radiance. In some of the later books in the series (including Book 4 that I’m working on a first draft of right now), there are other places where you’ll see the influences of Final Fantasy summoned monsters emerge. I tend to take things in a vastly different direction with a lot of creative license, so the results don’t have much in common with the games, but I can’t deny where some of the inspiration came from.
Visual Effects of Magic
Magic can take many forms in novels. In Harry Potter, we see characters using wands and chanting magic words in faux-latin. In the Sword of Truth series, we see a lot of mystic glyphs and arcane inscriptions. In the Wheel of Time we see magic described as a weaving of energies, which for me usually brings to mind the image of glowing threads creating a tapestry of power before they are unleashed.
Many video games tend to have more visual elements. A lot of this has to do with practical issues of gameplay. For example, you can’t expect a character in a video game to stop mid-battle and sketch magic runes on the ground with white sand in order to create a spell effect. Instead, there tends to be flashes of light that are designed to add to the excitement of a game while also adding a personal touch of style. These visual styles can be so distinct that you could easily identify which game a spell came from just by the way it looks, which adds something to the overall style of the game.
The magic in my books tends to be very visual. There is a complex rules system that determines how magic works, and that is far more important to the plot than what a magical effect looks like. But at the same time, I feel that vivid descriptions can make a battle scene more exciting and add more personalization to it. In some books, like the Wheel of Time series, there are times when two magic-users are simply staring at each other while an invisible battle rages between their minds. That can get fairly boring, whereas the more interesting battles are those with plenty of fireballs and lightning bolts being thrown around.
I also feel, however, that there should be a certain uniqueness to the visual effects of magic. Many of the book series I’ve mentioned have unique enough magic systems that if you were to see a description taken from each one, you’d immediately know which series that description is from, just from the way magic is described. Again, this isn’t a plot-central issue (and the way magic is related to the plot is far more important than the visual effects). But creating unique visual elements can be a good way to develop a personal style that will be associated with your particular books.
A good example of this in my series is the character Maelyssa Southeby, from the story Belladonna (which is currently in revisions). Like Radiance, Belladonna details a character’s journey as she develops a strange power that she doesn’t understand. Mae has a power that, technically, could have been created without visual elements. She could have used it with pure magical energies that couldn’t be seen by a normal person. Instead, however, I developed a design for her power that is more personalized and unique. I think it helps make the power more “hers” and not just “another superpower.” Part of the difference is purely aesthetic, but those aesthetic choices can be a good way to personalize something.
Some types of books have magic systems that have certain specific things they can do, and certain things they can’t do. In Harry Potter, for example, you’ll tend to see the same spells used over and over again. One thing you don’t really see is the characters finding a way to combine their powers.
Now, the idea of powers combined can, if done improperly, become cliche and trite. I tend to veer away from anything that requires characters to combine their powers in order to send a message about teamwork and how “together, we are stronger than we are alone.” That sort of thing gets a little too after-school-special for me.
However, there is another way that the idea of combo powers influences my writing. In many video games you can have characters combine two completely different abilities in order to do something that isn’t just stronger and more effectively, but which is actually impossible to do with a single character alone. I’m not just talking about increasing the power level to a greater scale (if you read the Wheel of Time books, you’ll see Aes Sedai “link” in circles for greater power, but they still just throw fireballs and lightning bolts; they merely throw BIGGER fireballs and lightning bolts).
When designing my magic system, I made sure to keep things very open-ended. There are no fixed “spells” that have to have a certain effect in a certain way. Many magical effects in my books are based on how creative the character can be in how they use their power. Because of this, characters can also find ways to use their powers in conjunction with each other to create unique effects. This leads to some interesting scenarios in the later books where the characters are able to puzzle out some unique solutions to the problems they face.
In video games, the power levels of your characters tend to go up steadily throughout the course of the game. Books aren’t always like this. In the Harry Potter series, Harry might become more skilled in his use of magic by the end of the books, but he’s not casting spells that are more powerful (for example, he still uses “Expelliarmus” in the final battle, but it’s not like he’s able to disarm a dozen wizards at once). The same applies to some non-magical books as well; Katniss Everdeen starts off The Hunger Games as an expert archer, and there’s no real sign that her archery improves over the course of the books.
I prefer to have my characters grow, not just in terms of their personalities and flaws, but in terms of their skills and magic as well. So at the beginning of Manifestation, no one even HAS magic. No one has a clue how it works. Chaos ensues. A big part of the short stories Belladonna and Radiance is the way the characters first manifest their powers and have to learn how they work. Characters then grow steadily stronger throughout the course of the books, learning new ways to use their abilities and increasing the scale they can operate on.
There’s probably some other more subtle influences video games have had on my writing, but this is a pretty good run down. Of course, there’s always the chance my books will one day be made INTO video games, in which case these influences would come full circle.
I’d like to talk about characters.
I’ve just finished reading The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to get into a full review of the entire novel (short version: great, imaginative story with stunning detail, but poor structure, plot holes, and problems with the prose), but one particular thing the book left me thinking about is the characters. I feel like the book had too many characters, and several of them came off as flat, undeveloped characters that didn’t serve a real role in the story.
How many characters does your story need? How much detail does each character need? How much do they need to be developed?
You could find thousands of different answers to those questions on various writing blogs. I’ve read a few before, and they all seem to approach the question from a different perspective. Some answer from the perspective of the role the character plays in the story: are they the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick, or something else? Others approach the questions from the point of view of character archetypes: the orphan hero, the mysterious traveler, the trickster, the wise sage, and so on.
I tend to approach this question from a slightly different point of view: are we being told this character’s story, or are they a minor player in someone else’s story?
Allow me to explain.
If you’re writing a novel from a single character’s point of view, then you’re writing their story. The Harry Potter novels are, when it comes down to it, Harry’s story. There are sporadic times when we see another character’s point of view, but it’s rare in those books to be taken away from Harry and see events going on elsewhere. He’s the central focus. In a situation like this, any other characters exist in roles relative to the main character.
You see this in movies all the time as well. Any superhero movie tends to focus primarily on the hero. We see a great deal of Batman or Superman’s life, and very little of what is going on with anyone else. If we do see events taking place away from the character, it’s only based on how those events relate to the main character. For example, if we see what Lois Lane is up to on her own, it’s usually only to show the danger she’s about to get into so Superman can come and save her. That still makes it Superman’s story about how he rescued Lois Lane, not Lois Lane’s story about how she was rescued by Superman.
You can also have a central group point of view that functions the same way, if the characters remain together all the time. A movie like Saving Private Ryan is a good example. The entire movie follows six soldiers on a journey together. We’re never separated from those characters, and they’re on the same journey with the same goal the entire time. Other characters who appear serve a role in relation to them. The group encounters people who need to be rescued, but the focus remains on the soldiers doing the rescuing. They encounter other groups of soldiers, but only for as long as it takes to question them about where Private Ryan is. When the main group moves on, we never see these minor characters again.
So in the above examples, we have a single central point of view (whether it’s the point of view of a single person or of a unified group). Other characters exist only in relation to the main character(s). We never see more of those minor characters’ lives, so they don’t need much development. This is a good thing, because in a short book or movie, there’s only room for so much development.
But what if you have multiple POVs?
A lot of people say that for books around 50,000 words or so, you should stick with a single point of view (or maybe alternating between two points of view, such as between the two main characters in a romance novel as their relationship develops). This is because 50,000 words is only really enough time to get deeply into one or maybe two people’s lives. It’s better to focus your attention on them as much as possible so that they get the greatest amount of development. If you split such a novel up between 10 characters’ lives, we’d barely get the chance to know each of them.
Now, longer works are very different. Robert Jordon’s The Wheel of Time series, for example, has 15 books (14 + a prequel) totaling well over 4,400,000 words. There are no less than a dozen “primary” main characters who each have their own ongoing story throughout the series, and then hundreds of other supporting characters that end up tied to one of the main characters. In essence, by the later parts of the series, each main character develops a “team” of their own. Matrim Cauthon has the Band of the Red Hand, and multiple well-developed characters seen with him regularly throughout their many adventures. Perrin Aybara has the combined Two Rivers, Mayener, and Aiel forces he commands from book 6 onward, and his own team of supporting characters. Egwene Al’vere ends up leading the Aes Sedai with her own team of supporting characters.
So by thinking about a story like this, there ends up being several “tiers” of characters. When working on my own novels, I’ve developed four tiers that each character can be divided into. These go from the main characters, to their major supporting characters, to minor supporting members of their teams, to miscellaneous (often unnamed) characters.
An example of this setup would go like this:
Tier 1: Gabriella Palladino (Main Protagonist)
–Tier 2: Gabby’s major supporting characters: Her family (Mother, Father, older brothers Frankie and Anthony, older sister Adrianna, nephew Dante), plus her best friend Callia Gainsborough.
—-Tier 3: Gabby’s minor supporting characters: Classmates at her high school (Jacob, Rick, Charlie, Erica), her brother’s friend Matt.
——–Tier 4: Miscellaneous unnamed students, teachers, police officers, etc.
Based on that kind of breakdown, it would make sense that Gabby would get the most character development. She’s the one who is the central focus of her scenes, and we see supporting characters (such as her family) only as they relate to her point of view. We do not, for example, follow her dad to work and find out what his life is like away from his family. We do, however, follow Gabby to school and see parts of her life away from her family.
And that’s just one “team.” There’s also another team for Tock Zipporah, who has her own central story to follow. She also has major supporting characters, minor characters, and miscellaneous characters who are all a part of her ongoing story.
Here is also where the short stories I’m writing become fun. I mentioned recently that I’m working on a short story, Belladonna, which follows the story of Mae Southeby. Mae is a Tier 2 character in the main set of novels, which means she gets a lot of screen time and action, but we aren’t really reading her story; we’re reading Gabby and Tock’s story. Tier 2 characters can get tons of development, but they’re not the central focus. Writing a separate short story about that character gives them a chance to be Tier 1 in their own story. That’s also what I did with Radiance; Maria Vasquez becomes a Tier 2 character in Gabby’s team in the later books, but in Radiance, she’s Tier 1.
This is also how spinoffs work. The Sarah Jane Adventures gives the character Sarah Jane Smith, from Doctor Who, the chance to move from a supporting character to a main character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the same thing with characters from The Avengers. In each of those series, there will be a new set of major, minor, and miscellaneous supporting characters. Plus, if a character from the original series guest stars on them, they technically become Tier 2 since they’re only a guest on the spinoff.
So based on all this, the question isn’t really “How many characters do you need?” It’s a question of “How many Tier 1 MAIN characters do you need?” In a shorter book (50,000 words), there should only be one or two Tier 1 main characters. Each of them can have as many supporting characters as they need, so long as those characters remain tied to the main character. In a longer work (100k-150k), you can easily have three, four, or five Tier 1 main characters, each of which can have their own groups (family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, comrades in a military squad, etc). Just remember who the MAIN characters are, the ones who get the most central focus, and think of the other characters in terms of how they support the main characters’ stories.
So I mentioned the other day that I was shifting gears a bit. Manifestation is currently in the hands of four people who are reading it and preparing to offer me critiques. Meanwhile, I’m refocusing some of my efforts on another project, Belladonna.
Belladonna follows the origins of Maelyssa Southeby, or “Mae” for short. She’s a teenager living in San Lorien during the events of Manifestation. Like Maria Vasquez, the main character of Radiance, Mae undergoes an arcane change that unlocks a mysterious power like no one has ever seen. Throughout the course of the novels, Manifestation, Contamination, and Collapse, Mae becomes a major player in the events that unfold. Belladonna, however, shows how it all got started.
I originally wrote Belladonna back in September, when the Kickstarter for Radiance was still going on. I then left it to sit for awhile. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests that after the first draft of a piece of writing is complete, you should stick it in a drawer somewhere and not look at it for like six weeks or more. That way, when you come back to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes. So that’s what I did with Belladonna, and I’ve just now started revising it.
I ended up getting some new ideas today, and as a result I added quite a bit of new material to the story. Belladonna has now been increased from 4500 words to over 10,000. That’s quite a bit longer than Radiance, which is about 3000 words. It’s possible Belladonna will be trimmed down a bit during revisions, but it’ll still be a nice long story, and a lot of action takes place in those pages.
I probably won’t be finished with revisions of Belladonna any time soon. I just finished Draft Two, but most of my stories get four, five or six drafts before they’re finished. I’ll probably work on Draft Three later this week. Then, by the time I finish that and get started on school next week, I’ll end up needing to get back to Manifestation. Then what will most likely happen is when Manifestation goes to my editor on March 6th, I’ll dive back in for a fourth revision of Belladonna. Then there’s a good chance the short story will be released (as an ebook) around the same time as Manifestation comes out. Maybe a bit sooner, since a 10,000 word short story takes far less time and effort to polish up than a 120,000 word novel.
I’ll keep you updated on the progress. It’ll be some time yet before the story is released, but when it is, I hope you love it.
So as of this morning, I’ve sent Manifestation out to four people for critiques. I made the decision late last night after going over the document a few more times. I ran through my entire stack of notes until they ran out. Some of the notes were about scenes that I’d already cut. Others were old notes about issues I’d already worked out without needing to consult the notes to remind myself. The rest of the issues in the notes I addressed, until I didn’t have a single note left to consult.
That left me sitting there, staring at the document, going, “Now what?”
I decided my lack of certainty about what to do next meant it was time for critiques. After all, I’ve already rearranged the chapters, done line edits, cut scenes, added more scenes in, rearranged some more chapters, split some scenes in half, cut stuff out of the middle, slid the pieces back together to fill in the gaps, and made sure that every chapter flows as best as possible from one into the next. I’ve done as thorough of a job as I can making sure the writing is solid, the grammar is clean, and the story is sound.
Which means I needed a fresh set of eyes on it to point out whatever I’ve missed. People call this “Author Blindness” or things to that effect. After working on this novel for almost a year and a half (off and on), I’m at the point that I can’t view it objectively. And NO ONE has read it yet. I have given a couple of chapters here and there to a few people, but no one has ever yet read the whole novel from beginning to end (not counting the first draft scenes that used to be on the blog).
Hopefully my CP’s will have some excellent suggestions for me to work out, so I can dive back into this project with full gusto. I’ve still got a March 6th deadline to get Manifestation to the editor I hired. That’s just about two months, minus whatever time it takes for my CP’s to finish reading and critiquing the story.
Meanwhile, I need something else to shift my efforts towards. I always have projects I need to work on, but there’s always a “central” project that I’m devoting most of my attention to. Part of my efforts will be classes at Rowan when the spring semester starts on Jan 12st. I’m also working on a literature review for my Graduate Assistant job. Then there’s the Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m participating in. But none of those are a core project for my personal writing career.
So what I’m going to do next is start revising a short story. If you haven’t heard yet, I’m self-publishing a series of short stories to go along with the Arcana Revived series. The first story in the series, Radiance, follows the origins of the character Maria Vasquez, who starts playing a major role in the third book in the series, Collapse. Originally, Maria’s entrance was supposed to be in the second book, Contamination, but that book ran longer in some parts than expected and certain events were pushed back to book three.
In addition to Radiance, I’ve written several other short stories set around the events in the series. Most of these are all in first draft form, but I plan to revise them all and get them ready for publication. The short stories are naturally pushed back behind the novels in terms of importance, so I’ve been focusing more on Manifestation first. However, since I’m on a short break from Manifestation, I decided it’s time to start some revisions of these stories.
The one I’ve decided to work on first is titled Belladonna. This story follows the origins of another major character in the series, Maelyssa Southeby. Mae is first introduced in Manifestation, then steps up into a major role in both Contamination and Collapse. Belladonna not only gives a closer glimpse at Mae’s individual life as a character, but it also serves to show the reader what else is happening in the world beyond what we see of Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, the two main characters of the series.
So today, I’m going to work on those revisions. Belladonna is currently about 4500 words, making it one of the longer short stories I’ve written (and longer than most individual chapters of Manifestation). I’m going to take it through at least a second or third draft before it, too, goes out for critiques. Then it’ll be polished up for publication, and will soon join Radiance as part of the Arcana Revived short story collection.
You can also view this update on Kickstarter.
I’d like to give out a huge, warm, enthusiastic THANK YOU to everyone who has offered their support! Saturday night, in a rapid flurry of back-to-pack pledges, you wonderful people pushed me over the first goal line!
I cried. Literally, I cried. Not for the $230 you’ve donated. I cried for the fact that 22 people believe in my writing enough to offer their support (plus the other wonderful people who have helped out sending tweets and spreading the word about this project). Whether you donated yourself or you helped spread the word to get support from others, you’re awesome people who are making a huge difference in my new career.
Meanwhile, I’ve been hard at work taking steps to ensure all the support leads to a successful end. I’ve been working nightly to polish and revise the poems in the collection, “The Poetry of Gabriella Palladino.” All of the poems in the collection were written over the course of the last two and a half years or so, and most have been revised several times before, but I’m working to refine them to the highest level of perfection I can. Just like “Radiance” went through a full five revisions before it was ready for publication.
I’ve also begun work on another short story for the “Arcana Revived” series. The new story is titled “Belladonna,” and it follows the origins of a villain, Mae, who appears in both the first novel, “Manifestation” and the sequel, “Contamination.” This new short story shares the secrets of how Mae learned to use her own power when it first manifested, similar to how the character Maria learned to use her power in “Radiance” (though the results in “Belladonna” are very different and much darker). It will probably be some time before “Belladonna” is published, since it’s just one of a collection of multiple short stories to be released in the future.
Hopefully I’ll be able to share all of these stories, one after another, each with an amazing cover designed by a talented artist. If this Kickstarter continues to get more support, I can afford to buy more pieces of art for the future covers. The next goal is to raise at least $400 to have enough for a second cover (or if the artist’s production and labor costs run high, the additional funds raised will help ensure those costs are covered). I hope to continue to gain more support, and I hope you won’t mind if I continue to get emotional and sentimental over how wonderful you all are. Thank you.