Thursday, 28 September 2017

Blog changes, status, Q&A part 1

First, a tiny status update and some news about the blogs.

I'm working on book 4, and I think progress is good. But I've also been too quiet on social media, so I'll return to blogging as often as I used to. I think part of the reason for my near silence is that I got a little burned out. And at a suggestion from a writer friend, Barbara Strickland, I've re-thought my idea of running two separate blogs. This one has until now focused just on what I've been learning about self-publishing. The other, All About Leeth, focused on the writing side and the books themselves. But the two do blur together a little, and I can see several advantages (for me and my select group of readers) in merging the two.

So, this blog post will be the 1st one using the new, merged scope.

Back in December 2016 I received my first email from a reader of The Leeth Dossier. AndyK had reviewed the first two books and asked for an advanced review copy of the 3rd. From there we moved on to a deeper discussion. Feeling that other readers might be interested too, and with AndyK's agreement, I thought I'd try to summarise it into a sort of question and answer format. We covered a lot of ground, so I'm breaking it up into several articles.

This 1st one covers: the Shadowrun connection; the series as a whole; and plots, pacing and story arcs.

The 2nd will cover Harmon and Leeth's relationship.

The 3rd will discuss the question: which character is most evil?

The 4th (and final?) will cover the topic of the darkness of the story.

If there's a demand for it, I'll finish with our discussion on the topic of how explicit the stories are, but only if there's demand for it. I think four articles will be more than enough, myself!

Spoiler alert!

Note that because we discussed the first two books, this will contain some spoilers if you haven't read them: in other words, this article is only intended for people who have already read Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons.

To provide some context, here is AndyK's review of book 1 (Wild Thing):

4.0 out of 5 stars - Shadowrun reimagined!
Describing the Leeth Dossier without mentioning the strong connection to the Shadowrun world would be hard. Pretty much all the premises of Shadowrun are here as well.
BUT that is not a bad thing. There is enough world-building here to stand on its own and it is always better do do a great copy than a bad invention.
That said I'd like to just list the pro and cons that caught my eye:
The good
+ It's a world that is vastly different from ours but feels very alive and "real"
+ Very good editing and hardly any spelling mistakes (which is pretty remarkable for self-publishing)
+ strong and very engaging characters. You WILL start to feel for the main heroine!
The bad
- The main heroine is abused, raped and mind-controlled. Tortured and abused. Alone and desperate. She goes down a slope of pain and suffering. And then the book ends. Everybody who knows the Shadowrun magic system realizes the "escape" won't last.
- There are story threads that just end. Like Berlusconi and his former partner meet to investigate the murder. And are never heard from again....
- Her "Uncle" turns into such a monster that you will start rooting for the "Alien Spirit" and hope he receives Leeth. Simply because he actually is less bad. Which results in the suspense being a bit off during reading.
- If you get emotionally attached to your protagonists then this is not for you. Plain and simple. There is too much suffering and pain and no light at the end of the tunnel.
So, yes, Shadowrun was always a somewhat dark and dystopian future. But this is FAR darker still. Also I like dark and dystopian stories this one is too much so. It will cause you actual emotional pain. Which of course speaks for the talent of the author.

Various threads of discussion started from there, so I'll pick the ones I feel may be of widest interest.

The Shadowrun connection

L: Leeth was created for a Shadowrun campaign. I'm writing the series to bring Leeth to (public) life, and to find out for myself how her story ends.

I won't be drawing any elements from the campaign until book 6, probably.  I'm acutely conscious that re-tellings of a role-playing game campaign are generally awful as novels, so I'll be taking just bits and pieces.

L: In the youtube video from my series launch, I spoke a little about the Shadowrun genesis for the story: how I basically tried to keep the general feel of that world (the key element in my view being the mix of near future with magic), and altered the magic system to make it different, by mixing in more of what people who believe in magic down the ages think is real. I also invented the whole world future history, keeping equivalents of some of the Shadowrun species.

A: I played an elven hermetic mage in SR 2nd edition for like 10 years. So the magic system in SR is second nature to me. And the descriptions of magic felt very familiar. "Mind Probe" and "Suggestion" I could instantly recognise. Also "The Deeps" I recognise as the Metaplanes for Initiates.

But again I see that as something positive since I adore the SR magic system and building on that was a great decision on your part.

The history you built around it is one of your great achievements. The Enemy of Mankind, The Dragon Emperor, World Storm and your Melt Virus explanation for Metas really makes this stand on its own outside SR. That was really well done.

L: Thank you!

The series

L: I think Books 1 and 2 will be the darkest in the series — at least for a good while: I myself don't entirely know what will happen.

A: That is good to hear. Having a main character that is totally at the mercy of a sadist the whole time is an emotionally taxing read :-}

And I do ask myself the same question Leeth asked "How can it be that none of the agents realized what goes on?" How can Eagle be clueless what Harmon does to her in his own base? How should an agent ever be effective if all she thinks about is escape?

L: Neither Leeth nor Harmon ever discuss it.  Harmon had the Dept disable the cameras in their rooms.  Mother is emotionally stunted; Father a little less so; Nelson... !; Preacher has more enmity than sympathy for her; James and Emma are in turn manipulated by the Dept.  Emma suspects something is going on. Dojo intuits that something is not right. I think it would be defensible for Eagle to be unaware; but I don't want to say too much about his position on that topic.

A: He doesn't care as long as he gets his operative?
But he isn't stupid. So I guess he should be able to put one and one together and realize that what happens there can't possibly lead to an operative who is actually useful.

L: He would certainly take a close interest.  A lot more of this begins to be revealed in vol 3.

A: And of course they did disable the cameras, right? o.O "Nelson! Get rid of that damn camera. And plant a few without that stupid autofocus!"
Also, what about the microphones?
I mean… top secret facility… questionable new recruits… wanted for murder… no way out anyway…

L: But Harmon is insightful enough to be aware of that possibility (and prone to casting Mind Probes), so if the Dept did learn what was going on, he would know they knew.  So, I feel Eagle would give them the privacy they demanded.

I also see Eagle as at least as insightful as Harmon, however.

A: Well... "murder", "accessory to...", "obstruction of...", the list of crimes Eagle can pin on them is endless. They are in no position to demand anything. Obviously Eagle likes to be in control. So why should he have the two newest wildcards completely without surveillance?
But of course I take your word for it. It's your story after all and Eagle has a right to make mistakes for the greater good! :))

A: Also Eagle directly confronts Mother at the end blaming her for driving Leeth away. Okay, she denied her request like everybody else. But the one who drove her away was Harmon so I'm a bit puzzled there.

L: Mother has never believed Leeth would be an asset, thinking her much more likely to expose them and cause other problems.  And has not been shy in hiding that from everyone.

A: Mostly because he demands that Mother "restore her faith in us". Which sounds like he wants Leeth to work for them of her own free will. Which makes sense since she obviously was head over heels for all the spy stuff when she came to them. So obviously (for him) something went wrong. But I can't see his reasoning there with Mother....

L: Cool: you're more insightful than Mother, then!  It seems there may be something more going on there, in that case?   Again, this aspect of the story is developed a bit more in vol 3.

A: Really curious where this leads. I do have the impression you wrote yourself into a bit of a corner but I'm curious how you will get out of it.

L: It's a constant question: pull back to make things easier for Leeth, or make things hard as possible for her and see what she comes up with to deal with it.  So far I haven't had to try the first approach.

Later books will start resolving the four longest arcs (two of which, as you thought, are the Dragon Lord and Godsson).
A: So much to look forward to and so long the wait.

L: Well, my plan is to keep working full time on being an author for the next 20 years.  Fingers crossed!  I'd like to get to the end of the longest story arc within 5-10 years. I want to find out how her story ends, for myself.

A: I'm VERY curious about that, too. How many books do you have planned?

L: I can't see myself getting to the end of Leeth's story in under ten. When I first "finished" the MS, I thought there would be about five. But that MS will end up turning into the 1st four books — so I'm very uncertain.  If I can manage to wrap up one major plot per book from now on, it should be about ten or twelve.  But I wouldn't be surprised if it was more.
Hopefully, the fact that Harry Dresden and Anita Blake and Joanne Walker have been popular means some readers enjoy what I think of as "long form" fiction.  It's also possible — after I wrap up all the major plots — that it might change into something more episodic and self contained (like the Modesty Blaise books, or Sherlock Holmes).
That said, there are a couple of other much shorter stories I want to write, in worlds related to ours, but not to Leeth's — probably only a book each.

I'm aiming for a dramatic, satisfying, and happy ending. Though I doubt it will be completely rosy.

A: Wow, you are picturing the ending already? Even though it's a dozen books away?

L: In broad terms, yes. The details however are completely unknown. Just the general shape I'm hoping for.

A: So no Caribbean island where she enjoys her life with all the other Shadowy People who made it? :}

L: I honestly don't know: even that might be possible.  A lot of my pleasure in writing the series is seeing what evolves as the characters act true to themselves, and face the obstacles coming (some as yet undreamed of).

A: It makes the stories feel natural and it's evolving realistically. But I really hope you don't corner yourself in the process :} Or lose important threads.

L: I feel pretty confident I won't corner myself.  And I'm a pedantic and careful person, so I'll be tracking all the threads carefully.  It is possible I might slip up, but given I'm using an external editor (Dave Taylor) and I feel strongly about producing high quality work, I would consider any such errors to be a failure.  Which I hate!

A: Do you outline?

L: Mostly not.  When I wrote the 1st draft, I had outlined the Dept, the Institute, and Harmon for the SR campaign when I generated the character.  But when it came to writing, I had no outline at all: I just started with the scene between Harmon and the Mother Superior, and wrote.

And somewhat bizarrely, half of each of the 1st four books looks like they will have come (with little change) from that 1st draft.

A: That is really a unique approach. I always hear of authors using a somewhat top down bottom up method.

L: For the rewrites for books 1-3, I did need to outline the new plot threads (more so for books 2 and 3 than 1) - that helped me add the completely new stuff without the result looking like Frankenstein's monster (I hope)!

A: I haven't felt any of the plot threads being out of place so far. Just that the focus and intensities might be a bit off in my opinion. But I know I am pretty biased in that matter.

L: That encourages me.  I felt for many years that plotting was my weakest point.  But I feel I'm getting a handle on that, as well as beginning to grasp pacing and focus and intensity.

L: I've converted the existing "half a book" (which will become the 4th one) from troff/mm to RTF to LibreOffice. I'm re-reading and editing it, to load back into my subconscious to see what needs to be added to turn it from a story into a plot.  There might not be much extra needed, as the stuff I've woven into the 1st three seem to have aligned perfectly.

A: You seem to have a pretty unique workflow…
L: (grimace) I hope to settle down into a more normal model for the later books!

L: For the idea I'd had, of Leeth dealing with mean girls in a drama school: Marcie was invented simply as a target for the mean girls. Her name started as a pun on Mousie (for the insult value), but she blossomed into a really important character.

And I love seeing that happen.

A: And it was a good idea to let Leeth out of that swamp of abuse at that point.
But also it was a bit cut short. You know it just had to have a first boyfriend kind of thing. I waited for that the whole time. But then that probably would have kicked the story and characters out of whack.

L: Heh. Yeah, I think Leeth's first romance(s) will hugely derail whatever agenda other people are running for her.  I think it will come in due course. I have a few ideas in mind.

Plots, pacing, and story arcs

A: There are story threads that just end. Like Berlusconi and his former partner meet to investigate the murder. And never heard from again....

L: That plot thread largely resolves in book 3.

A: I expected as much. But.... I am a big fan of self contained books. You know.. the story resolves at the end, and the big questions get mostly answered. A sense of closure. That's why I am not really behind the arc in Harsh Lessons. Things only go downhill and at the end she still is under total mental domination. So there is no sense of closure. But I understand it directly continues in book 3 and you split the story up there.
The first book had a better and more satisfying arc in that regard.

L: Fair comment.  But I like to have several plot arcs running simultaneously, of varying lengths.  At least one arc that started in book 1 won't resolve until the end of the series!  I suppose I'm still learning how to flag to the reader which plots will wrap up in the current book, and which ones they'll need to be more patient for.

A: What I would definitely find important is to quantize the sense of urgency for the different arcs correctly. You don't fix the fridge while your house is on fire.

L: I split book 2 mainly because of length: the mass of the story as it was made the pacing too slow. So I had the choice of deleting half the book, or breaking it in two and adding something to each part to make them satisfying in their own rights.

A: Okay, makes sense. But had its downsides.

If I had to guess I'd say the Dragon and Godsson will be around to stay?

L: Yes. And there are more hints in vol 3 (small developments) of a couple of the other long running plots, too.

My original plan, before I had to split book two in half (aargh!), was that the Disten plot would be the main arc.

A: Yep. Introduced in the first book and then clearly came to the foreground in the second.
The only little problem I had there is simply a matter of priorities. That's what I wanted to express with my burning house and fridge analogy. Nobody cares about the fridge while the house is burning. And who is interested in a hunt for a strange spirit while the life of the hero is made a living hell by a maniac with delusions of omnipotence?

L:  Harmon's treatment seems to have lead to a magical Unfolding, however. So it does seem to be effective, if you can ignore the morals, ethics, and humanity!

A: Which begs the question: why did you split that book up? Forgive me for saying that but looking at book two… that seems to have been not the best choice. So many things seem to be left hanging. Most of all the Harmon-Leeth-Department dynamic. Her running away showed she can't continue like that and also no resolution of this arc.

Overarching story lines are a good idea in serials but usually that means you have arc(s) developing in the background and the most pressing main arc finds some resolution. Book two brings some pressing stuff into the foreground but doesn't resolve much.

L: I'm reluctant to allow the plot to steer the characters — constructing the plot to allow Leeth to resolve her biggest personal issues — and I also see the Leeth-Harmon dynamic as a key element in the series as a whole. That's a larger arc, in my view, along the "character development dimension".

A: As I am experiencing it, it is the very heart of the book. No question. What I mean is they are at a point in their relationship where something has to give. It's not simmering, it's boiling. And water does not boil forever. Either it cools or it's… gone.

Also "She does whatever he says because he can set her to Zombie mode" will get quite… stagnant I guess.

L: Don't underestimate her determination to achieve what she sets her mind to.

For the plot side of things, Harmon and Leeth's relationship is an important input — obviously, since it's shaped Leeth's development.  But there are a lot of other important inputs, too: like the return of magic, Godsson, the Dragon, and other things.

A: I saw those more as a frame for the story. The center stage is Leeth and Harmon and how he makes her life a living hell. Especially in the second book everything else is on the sideline. At least that's how I experienced it.

The first book had this Godsson dynamic which was rather strong. The alien spirit didn't deliver that in book two. And with the direct mind control and torture (and humiliation) the Harmon-Leeth dynamic became nearly unbearably intense.

L: Fair comment!  What Godsson created is a key element in book 3.

For the ethical threads (and character development), their relationship is also extremely important.

For me, I intended the surface stuff in Book 2 — learning to become an assassin/secret agent and learning how to be a bit more like a normal person, and the school abduction — to be the main plot arc. The character development stuff adds depth. Their relationship, and Leeth's own morals, are still developing.

A: I can see that. And it works to some extent. It's just the problem [analogy] with the house and the fridge again.

Also I think it would have been a good idea to expand on the school plot a bit. Provide some more much needed relief on one hand and some "normal" on the other. Add some fun. It felt somewhat cut short. But that might be just me.

L: I don't yet have a good feel for how much is right to add; and I do think different people like different amounts of it. As for relief, I think Leeth stopped being a victim in its purest form once she realised she was being manipulated. Another big step for her was his betrayal when he implanted his magical controls...

A: Weeeeelll... She made a desperate gamble and completed her selfless goal (saving her friend). But she still has all of Harmon's compulsions and controls active. And actually no real way to get away.
If I would play Leeth in a campaign I could only see like 3 faint possibilities to get rid of the spell construct (provided you do hold onto the SR canon in that regard):
1) Find a mage or shaman who is willing to make a brute force attack on the spell construct. With all the negative side effects that might cause. I could only see Berlusconi as that option. But all in all… unlikely
2) Get to Godsson. He is obviously a powerful hermetic initiate. So he probably can simply dispel it. But I guess her visit to the Deeps (metaplanar projection) was by chance so it is doubtful she can reach him again that way so soon. And getting to him physically… well that would make an interesting arc in and of itself I guess. But also unlikely because too difficult.
3) Find and hire a (good) wet-worker. It's SR-ish after all. Problems get fixed by putting bullets into them >;] She wanted to kill him but couldn't because of the compulsion. So why not find someone who can. Probably the most promising way.

L: It will be interesting to see what people think of Vol 3. And there could be other approaches too.  Who knows what Leeth could come up with, if pushed? (smile)

A: I am really curious how that resolves. The preview chapter you posted doesn't leave much hope for her to be honest…. It shows she got caught, is back in the Department and works the mission as planned. As if nothing much happened.…

L: Fair point; it does look that way (smile). For a while, it was looking like that preview would have to change, or even be cut.  But in the end, I found a surprisingly plausible and satisfying path that let her pursue her dream career — at least for a while.

I think that's amply long enough for now. Next time, the topic is Harmon and Leeth's twisted relationship.

1 comment:

Barb said...

Wow, that's quite a post. I am glad to see it all happen in one blog. It gives your followers a chance to know your books and characters better as well as keeping up with the news. Can't wait to see what develops in Book 4.