On Crown of Thorns

Front Cover of Crown of Thorns, available now on Amazon.com

No fancy quote this time, sadly. Just pure stream-of-consciousness here.


So, with the release of my second book, linked here, I wanted to review and analyze a bit of my first one. How’d I do with my first foray into the publishing world? What’d I learn? How could I aim to improve? These and more were important considerations in writing and editing my second novel, and they will remain important considerations for the remainder of my career, or so I suspect.

First up: Publishing. It’s easier than I had anticipated to self-publish. Big points to Amazon for that. Far easier than hunting down an agent and a formal publisher. However, I reached an impasse with this whole “Expanded Distribution” game. I was presented with the opportunity to publish in 13 nations with a 70% royalty, or somewhere north of 100 nations with a 35% royalty. I went with the 70% option, because every penny was going to count and I didn’t expect many potential sales beyond the 13 nations at that royalty tier. However, I have been in contact with many disappointed prospective customers that were unable to purchase my book, and I was faced with the question of whether me making slightly more money per sale actually justified this heightened selectivity.

Another problem I reached was one of size. My first book is 5.5”x8”. This is non-standard enough to run into other issues with Expanded Distribution meaning if I actually wanted to market to those 100+ nations at 35% royalty, I’d need to invest in resizing my cover and page setup to mold my first novel into something that is a standardized trim size. I kept this in consideration for the second novel, sizing it for 5.25”x8” which is a standard trim size and is therefore eligible out of the gate for Expanded Distribution.

Second topic: Marketing. I barely did any. Amazon does offer a means to run an advertising campaign but I simply never got around to it (partially because of issues connecting my bank account with the campaign systems). Most of my sales came from word-of-mouth. This remains the case. At the time of writing this blog post, I am planning to run an advertising campaign and a sale for the first book in advance of the sequel’s release. We’ll see how that goes.

I established this blog a few months after the release of the first book, and I’ve only recently built a social media existence (it’s a stretch to call it a “presence”) on Twitter. Perhaps these will have some influence on the propagation of my second novel into the hands of prospective readers. I suspect word-of-mouth will do most of the heavy lifting again, though.

Third topic: The contents of the first book itself. Oh boy.

This may come as a bit of a shock and will likely do me no marketing favors, but I don’t actually like my first book. There’s a very high chance that I’m being overly critical of myself, but I feel as though my issues with it are fairly genuine/realistic. For starters, the book feels “automatic” in the sense of the flow of the story. My protagonist’s existence does put some plot elements into motion, but I feel her actions themselves rarely change things. This was, to some extent, part of the design—I wanted to subvert notions of a “chosen one” protagonist, as well as the idea of “royal blood” (which some side characters discount the validity of too)—but I feel as though I may have overdone it. This is all a great irony for someone whose last blog post was all about character agency.

One of the criticisms I got from my first book was that following along with the progression of time felt a little difficult. Which is not to say that my first book is particularly temporally convoluted (because it’s entirely linear) but, rather, the gap in time between chapters was not narratively communicated well. Each of my chapters is led by a date associated with that chapter’s opening, but some readers wanted the narrative itself to relate that date to the period of time in the previous chapter; after all, it had been several pages and/or a different reading session that the prior chapter’s date had been acknowledged. I tried to offer solutions to this in the second book, including phrases like “A few weeks after <some event>” or something else to that effect. We’ll see how it’s received.

Another criticism I got was under-describing details/people. I do and I don’t agree with this criticism. I think there’s always room to squeeze in more descriptive details if one tries; however, I somewhat detest an overabundance of information. The latter is antithetical to my writing style—any details I include are there because they’re important to the story or characters. I intend to leave a reader’s imagination to fill in the rest, that they may form a better familiarity and bond with the story. When considering the opposite, I can’t help but reminisce about childhood English classes having their students debate the significance of the color of the curtains in a given scene. Sometimes, red curtains are just red curtains. With hopes of sparing unfortunate students who may for some reason be reviewing my works one day, I sought to only include that for which there was something worth discussing. I’m very minimalist in this sense, I suppose, but some readers are not so welcoming of this style. This is not to say that my first novel is devoid of any scene-building information at all, but some readers wanted more concreteness to the world and its inhabitants than I offered. I tried sneaking in some more superficial details about my world and its characters in the second novel while still generally maintaining my minimalist approach to writing. We’ll see if it tracks.

I loathe the ending of Chapter 5/the beginning of Chapter 6 in my first novel. At the time of writing these chapters, I had felt like this transition was a good way to inform the reader that this story was narratively ‘written’ in retrospect by the narrator and served as a means to thrust the subject matter into the main plot thread. But it’s a truly jarring, out-of-place experience. Were I to republish my first book, I’d scrap this idea entirely/rewrite the transition into something of greater substance.

All of these are somewhat small details to the big thing that annoys me with the first book, though: it’s overloaded on what it has to do. Not only is it the first book I’ve ever written, but it is also the first book in its own series. So that means it needs to establish an ongoing plot in a growing world while simultaneously also beginning and ending a tale of its own, all within the confines of its 457 (paperback) pages. It is a tall order and I have always felt (or feared) that it may be too condensed. Furthermore, I have found the “origin story” as a plot thread to be a bit overdone. Maybe it’s fine as a new story as was the case with my novel, but there’s a reason new renditions of Spider Man or Batman are skipping the uncle’s/parents’ (respectively) demise over and over—it’s been done too much. Audiences know, they (we) get it.

Finally, there’s a worry of mine that is much less for the first book as it is for later novels in the series—magic. Or, rather, where I’ve chosen to lean on it. There is some Vancian-style magic system somewhere in my world, but it’s very much in the background. It…may seem rather close to the foreground in the first book, though. An ongoing plot thread is the difference between raw magic and the system of willpower my books introduce; the second novel leans far heavier into the latter system while leaving the former a bit in the dust. I worry, at times, that it may come across as my simply having forgotten about the former system entirely. This isn’t the case—alas, the plot demands a different focus!

All that aside, though, readers generally seemed to quite enjoy my first novel. Not only has my first novel consistently sat at a cozy 5-star rating on Amazon for the past year (and not for lack of incoming reviews, though more are always welcome!) I’ve repeatedly been told in person (or digitally) that readers really liked what I wrote and wanted more. So, today, I’m happy to give them more. I’m also overwhelmingly enthused to move on to writing the next volume, too! But more on the what and why of that in another post.

Previous Post

Latest Post

Next Post

On Magic

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  • Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

That is probably the most cliché quote I’ll contribute to the overuse of here in this blog.

There is a lot to discuss about magic, given its varied definitions. Merriam-Webster gives nine different definitions between uses of the word as a noun, adjective, and verb. Thankfully, some of these are archaic or otherwise not commonly used, such as the verb form ‘magicked.’ (I intuitively write this as ‘magic’d’ for reasons unknown.) Of these nine, I first want to focus on one of magic’s adjective forms, as given by Merriam-Webster:

Following the rabbit hole of definitions, enchantment can be cited as the quality or state of being enchanted, and likewise enchanted provides us with made to feel delightfully pleased or charmed. (In addition to two other definitions that loop back to ‘magic’) “That experience was magical,” says one enchanted individual. And it is this very usage that compels me to write this article.

You see, most people—painting in broad strokes here—like a certain degree of ‘magic’ in their lives. The first time you read a book, or see a movie, or play a game is going to possess a certain quality that subsequent read-throughs or viewings or play sessions will not (unless it’s a terrible book/movie/game). This ‘magic’ creates a nostalgia that in turn provokes us to return to things we so greatly enjoyed the first time. But the follow-up experiences are rarely so magical, are they? Nostalgic experiences can give us a comforting homeliness, but—from my experience with such experiences—that rarely makes up for the void left behind by the loss of the ‘new magic.’

So what, then, is an author—such as yours truly—or filmmaker or game developer to do to offer their customers longstanding magic? (One can ask why this is important or why such creators should even bother. After all, so long as they’ve made a sale, their job is done, right? But an author’s lasting legacy is also their ability to make subsequent sales, be they for one work or for many.)

Personally, I believe in liberal use of Chekhov’s gun, a foreshadowing technique named after Anton Chekhov, with several red-herrings sprinkled throughout a narrative. In the context of the above forms of media, this belief as much refers to foreshadowing within a single entry of media as much as it suggests alluding to eventual plot points in later works. A combination of these three techniques [intra-narrative foreshadowing (a term I made up just now), inter-narrative foreshadowing (likewise) and red-herrings] provide plenty of opportunities for lasting ‘magic’ to a dedicated audience:

  • Intra-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within the same media entity, provide an audience with an “aha!” moment when such clues come together to reveal something. For instance, a detective using evidence sprinkled throughout a story to deduce who committed a crime at the end of a book or movie. (From my perspective, most detective shows do this poorly, as often that evidence is obfuscated from a viewer’s eyes and thus they are unlikely to arrive at the same deduction for the same reasons. I posit that these shows instead bank on their viewers simply enjoying the characters doing the legwork for them.)
  • Inter-Narrative Foreshadowing, or foreshadowing of events that occur later within a different media entity related to the initial one, provide an audience with anticipation of future events. Cliffhangers and other such unsolved mysteries, for example, are inter-narrative foreshadowing. (One definition of cliffhanger seems to apply the notion to my above definition of intra-narrative foreshadowing. However, I can’t recall ever actually seeing this definition used in practice.) These give a dedicated audience a reason to come back for more. Moreover, when such an audience then goes back to earlier works, they can find once-overlooked details that hint at later events, granting them a renewed sense of ‘magic’ and wonder for other things they may have missed. Used well, this leads to…
  • Red-herrings, which I hopefully shouldn’t need to define, are an author/filmmaker/developer’s ‘out’ in distracting an audience. Not everything needs to result in something of any significance. Sometimes some details are just for show or greater immersion to help an audience better visualize or empathize with a scene or character. But coupled with actual hints or clues as described above, red-herrings can give a rabid reader or voracious viewer something extra to chew on over time, plunging them into a sea of unknown pathways and obscure dead-ends.

I do, however, feel compelled to note that cliffhangers are not very magical, at least not after the first encounter with them. By their very definition, they allude to something that must occur at a later date, and when that something eventually does occur, any magic once instilled is lost after a brief period of enjoyment for the elucidation. There is no mystery or guesswork about a cliffhanger—save for the effects the eventual event may have on the narrative/characters of a story; they are very much so “one time use” in regards to their ‘magic.’ After all, once you know how a trick is done…

And that brings me to the next point: the ‘magic’ of magic as a noun.

I firmly believe that Teller of Penn & Teller (not to be confused with Pain & Terror) gets this better than anyone. For those dodging the last thirty-four years of stage magic, Penn & Teller have been a duo of comedic magic performances operating primarily with illusions, sleight of hand, or other forms of deceit. There is a twist here: Penn does all the talking, and Teller…doesn’t. Teller’s insights as to why he refrains from speaking are as follows, from an interview with NPR. It seemed a disservice to not include everything he had to say on the matter, so do pardon the large copy/paste below:

The rest of the interview is absolutely worth a read/listen; click the image above for a direct link to it, but be forewarned: fans of Penn & Teller may lose a little magic in doing so…more on that below!

To see Penn & Teller perform (something I have regrettably managed only with recordings and reruns) is quite the spectacle indeed. How are their tricks done? Could it have involved X? Did they slide a card in when Y? The art of their performance sparks mystery and intrigue, and so, too, does the lack of Teller’s vocal presence. What does he sound like? For years, that was an unknown to me, and it was joyous.

And then, by pure happenstance, I stumbled upon and mistakenly viewed an interview with Teller in which he spoke. (Not the interview linked to above, not that it matters.) And so the magic therein was lost—I had my answer to the magic of Teller’s previously-nonexistent voice. And made-for-radio though Teller’s voice is, no sound was—or is—capable of replacing that silence.

And that’s the magic of it.

Stage magic invites guesses about solutions. But those that come to learn ‘how things work’ in magic performances often resent their own understanding. For when the magic is gone, what is left, save for an appreciation of once being fooled? Can that be enough?

It seems, in most cases, not. And so we arrive at the obvious: Magicians being unwilling to reveal the secrets of their trickery is a mercy in spite of our worst judgment. (It is also an economically-motivated decision—trade secrets, and all that.)

It is in this regard, then, that I want to speak of the final chunk of definitions for magic, that of actual supernatural ‘magic,’ as in the noun-form definitions 1.a, b) and 2.a, b) far above.

I have written of magic in my own fantasy works quite a bit. Within the first of my works, a fairly-knowledgeable being describes magic as “a confluence of mathematical engineering and willpower, bound by balance and limited by the instruments of the caster.” So often within the works of fantastical fiction does magic have some backbone of physics and fundamental techniques describing the what and how of its function.

But, in hindsight, I think this is folly and I have grown critical of such an approach. In Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, for instance, magic is very well-defined down to a fine level of physicality. ‘Spells’—as they are known—feature finely described verbal, somatic, or material components for casting them. The process of utilizing such magic is much less the harnessing of some wild, mysterious force and much more a science by another name. (Nerdy author’s note: D&D’s “Wild Magic” background for Sorcerers counters this point to a tee, though it is the only ‘primal’ caster in an ocean of better-established Wizards and Warlocks.) And I think, ultimately, there is something very wrong with that.

When we know the ‘how’ of how to cast a magic spell, is it really magic anymore?

Fun point of fact: When writing this post, I initially misquoted the Arthur C. Clarke quote as being

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

And I think, actually, that rings true, too. The more we try to ground magic in reality, the less magical it really is. And I’d argue that’s a shame.

Modern ‘magic’ in Dungeons & Dragons or otherwise is very heavily inspired by the works of Jack Vance, in particular his Dying Earth series. As a result of this, the ‘technical’ term for fantastical magical casting such as described above is ‘Vancian Magic.’ The Evil GM, a seemingly-now-defunct blog about D&D, in 2012 wrote a fairly descriptive breakdown of Vancian Magic and its problems—from a gameplay perspective and on its issues with agency—and from one blogger to another, I must encourage my readers give it a gander. Having read that post many moons ago as an impressionable teenager, I now find myself unable to subscribe to Vancian Magic in good faith. To speak bluntly, it feels like a cop-out.

Now, the opposite may look like a cop-out too; simply doing nothing or very little to tether magic in reality may seem to strike a chord of laziness, and I cannot fault one for thinking that. But that a reader, viewer, or player may not fully grasp the fundamentals of casting magics within a given fantastical universe should be—in my opinion—by design. We, as creators, can bear the burden of understanding how our magic works; we need not deprive our audience of that wonder.

For to wonder is magical indeed.

Previous Post
Latest Post
Next Post