Friday 15 August 2014

A Progressive Learning Experience

This is a blog post with two purposes, and one that I have been thinking about writing for a couple of months now. It's partly for the fans of the new universe I've apparently unleashed, to tell them what to expect next, and partly for other independent writers who are either headed towards their first release, or thinking about how to get on with their next book.

On Progress

Half a year has swept by now since my two-month update on the progress of Steal from the Devil. I am still amazed at how popular the book has been, coming as it has from a new and untested author. From comments shared on social media and in reviews, I have to give no small amount of credit for that popularity to the fantastic artwork produced for the series by Adam Burn. His dynamic, moody, and above all epic pieces have perfectly captured the atmosphere and tone of the Armada Wars universe. I'm sure that his work has given potential readers the confidence to invest a few coins in an unknown writer, and I am pretty confident that they are getting (and will get) what they expected.

But soberingly enough, it was inevitable that Steal from the Devil would drop off the dreaded "ninety day precipice"; the moment comes for every new title when it is older than 90 days, and therefore no longer appears on Amazon's new releases list. Unless a book is already a best-seller by that point — and most of them aren't — that invariably means a plunge into obscurity and a sharp fall in sales.

I have heard it said that most new novels struggle to ever reach a hundred sales, and most of those sales are to friends and family. It's gratifying then that in just half a year SFTD not only reached that goalpost but exceeded it more than tenfold.

At the moment SFTD is languishing with a monthly average of about one sale a day, but I'm fine with that. For me, that book was about dipping my toe in the water. For readers, it was an introduction to a much bigger universe laced with hints of what the possibilities might be. I'm glad to see that so many people have interpreted the signs and hints correctly, and I am very excited about delivering more from that universe. I'm sure now I have seen the reaction to SFTD on social media that the series will gain traction.

Learning Experiences

I consider myself lucky that Steal from the Devil has had only one negative review, and that one was from a reader who states he or she read nowhere near the whole book.

That being said, the positive reviews have yielded a certain amount of helpful criticism. I already commented previously that I rewrote the openings of some scenes in response to a reviewer who struggled a few times to work out who the point-of-view character was. But beyond that, I have taken away some lessons and applied them to the forthcoming sequel, List of the Dead.

The flashbacks, for example. They were an important element of SFTD, but were associated with the 'present' of the main story in quite a subtle way, and it was difficult sometimes to decide where to put them. In List of the Dead it will be Rendir Throam who is the flashback character, and I have gone in a slightly different direction by (a) making his flashbacks into entire chapters, and (b) using other points of view within the flashbacks. As with Caden's flashbacks in Devil, they will be in chronological order, and Throam's first name will be used to refer to him in the prose*. But the relevance to the main story will be more clear.

* I don't know if anyone noticed that Caden was called Elm in all the flashbacks, but that is how it worked. If the prose is consistently using a main character's first name, it's a flashback. If another character consistently calls someone by their first name... well, I'll let you figure that one out.

One thing people really seemed to like is that the characters are flawed people, with real foibles, living in a world which despite its future setting is still riddled with social and political obstacles. This is, I feel, absolutely integral to the authenticity of the universe, and it is something I will not only preserve as the story moves on, but strive to improve upon.

The only problem I have really wrangled with has been the character development. I've had contradictory feedback on this; some people feel the characters were developed well, others felt they were flat and didn't change much. I suppose different people have different ideas of what 'character development' actually means: you might take the view it's how well the characters are brought to life and how convincing they are, on the other hand you might feel it's how they respond to the events of the story that matters.

I sort of fall mostly in that latter camp. With only Caden going through a transformation in Devil, and a surreal one at that, I can see why the other characters would appear static. But I would say — and this is a big hint for future developments — that Devil is only the first of five books in the same story. Obviously Eilentes and Throam (and any of the other characters who will become as important as they are, cough hint cough) are all going to develop as well. Just not all at once, and certainly not right at the beginning of the story. Because that would be weird.

A couple of people said Devil was a bit disjointed, and let's face it: it is. It was just the nature of the story, and as it was a d├ębut novel perhaps I didn't spend as much time as I should have done ironing down the seams. It's not out of the question that I might do a rewrite, not altering the story but re-jigging the narrative into a smoother and less perplexing read. Although I have to admit, I do like the fact that the fractured nature of the experiences being relayed does contribute towards the bewildering and slightly unnerving 'feel' of the universe. What do you think?

To The Future!

So what can be expected with the next four instalments of this story? And what about beyond that?

If you haven't been making use of the official Armada Wars universe catalogue to learn about the Armadaverse, you probably should. It's obviously a work in progress, with some spoilers posted but other sections notably missing so as not to spoil the fun in future releases. By poking about on there you will be able to discover tiny nuggets of information which give tantalising clues about large-scale plot developments.

Something that I made sure to do in Devil was to include lots of references to specific historical events and social conventions. The Perseus Conflict is the obvious example, as knowledge of this historical conflict directs many of the protagonists' actions. Then of course there were references to incidents at Ottomas, Tochi, and Brankfall. These events are so important to Imperial culture that reciprocal sayings have arisen around them: "Ottomas Endures," Ider Firenz tells Mostrum Appatine. "To the Last Breath," is his reply.

What does it all mean?

Both the Trinity Crisis and the Perseus Conflict will likely be the subjects of their own trilogies, after this current story arc is completed. But as far as Devil goes I wanted the references to do two things. One was to work internally; to give the characters the ability to talk and behave in a complex and history-laden culture. Because that's how people actually work; they liken and compare experiences to other events which are part of the group consciousness. The other reason was that I wanted the references to work externally; that is, to create the impression for the reader that there is not only the obvious, face-value story in the pages of the book, but also a vast, grand mythos which could spring forward at any moment with savage relevance.

In short, when you get to Chapter 13 of Book 9, rather than just thinking "oh, another battle" I want you to react along the lines of "Oh my worlds, this is the mother-funking Liberation of Ressingale! I'M GONNA WEE!"

In Conclusion...

I hope that there is some food for thought here for other aspiring indie writers. I've made it known since day one that my door is open for feedback and questions (whether that's through Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or on here), and I mean it. I'd be glad to share experiences and advice with others, and I'm always open to suggestions and requests. Plus I still have a few first edition paperbacks of Devil hanging around for people who really contribute :)

Anyway... lots to do on List of the Dead. Don't you know there's a war on? Got to get Battle Ready!

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