I blogged in May: “On What Authority?” was I offering advice on the craft of writing? Since that blog I got the unexpected news that I am one of eight finalists in PNWA’s 2016 Contest in the science fiction/fantasy/paranormal category. This is a competitive contest for which PNWA overall (in all genres) received over a thousand entries. I mentioned before that I am a published author–in the realm of music and hiking. But my unpublished novel Siana’s War is by far the work in which I’ve invested the most time, and consequently the project that would be the source of many of my vignettes and pieces of advice about writing. I know that becoming a finalist by no means makes me some kind of instant authority on fiction writing. But it is a really nice validation that what I’ve been up to for more than a decade has produced something worthwhile. It was also a pleasant and somewhat stunning surprise.
My novel began with a character and a feeling. Before I fleshed out the plot, I decided to try to avoid several of the cliches–or more charitably I could say the more common elements–of the genre. No chosen one with inherent powers. No endlessly separated lovers. No pseudo-medieval setting. No dragons, elves or fairies. Try to avoid using the word “magic.” More than one Big Bad. (I know excellent, excellent books that employ some or all of those ingredients, so I’m not slighting them. I just wanted to see if I do something different.) On these foundations I built a story with a large cast of interesting villains, an intriguing milieu, and a fresh and real protagonist with interesting relationships and motivations. I felt pretty sure I’d nailed the originality aspect. I believed I wrote good and authentic dialogue. I felt I’d woven into my character’s journey a compelling tapestry of anger, grace and tragedy. What I wasn’t sure about was the “packaging.” How effective was my plotting? How good was the writing itself? So many of my favorite authors seem so effortlessly (and flawlessly) elegant page after page. I was glad to have confidence in some areas of my creation, but it was hard to be objective.
The first step was to give my book to friends and family. Not everyone to whom I gave it read it. But some read not only the first book, but also the first drafts of the next two. One of my guitar students was reading right up to where I still writing the conclusion of book three, just a few pages ahead. I teased her that was like driving down a road as it was paved in front of her. I would contend no one reads a 1,800 page book series just because they know you or they like you. One of my childhood friends, a lifelong fantasy buff, read the whole thing and thought it was solid, though he also had some really insightful criticisms. These folks (you know who you are–thank you for reading!) were the first circle of wider objectivity. If at least someone read the whole thing, and liked it, there was hope. But there was also the nagging fear that maybe, despite my argument above, they had muscled through some ineffective chapters because they knew me personally.
When I submitted to the PNWA contest, I had no expectations. I did spend three years editing and polishing the first book, longer than it took to write it in the first place! The 28 pages submitted to PNWA were at the tail end of that three-year grooming process. It feels great to not only be a finalist, but also receive as part of that process critiques that praise many aspects of my submission (as well as giving some great feedback and tips). I know that the writers who evaluated my work had no vested interest in me, so they are my first (perhaps) completely objective audience. Siana’s War had to speak for itself. In a sense, they may be the most objective audience of all. Though knowledgeable about publishing, they weren’t evaluating my work for publication. (You can argue publication is an evaluation of what will sell, not necessarily what is the most well-written or the most original or the most carefully crafted.) So whatever happens from here, I feel validated that I wasn’t crazy for believing in this story all these years.