So I'm working on a new series--after two years spent mainly on The Resonant Saga, with four novels and two novellas published plus a spinoff series started, I realized artistically it was time for a break. New magic, new world, new character. And while there's not too much I can say about it yet (if all goes well, it'll be available for sale January 2021!), I thought you might find the way it started interesting--a glimpse into the strange paths creativity can take.
It starts with a confession: the first novel I wrote, which shall never see the light of day (without some serious rewrites, at least) was fan fiction--Conan the Barbarian, to be precise, though I'd given him a different name and filed some of the serial numbers off. I finished it, gave it a quick revision, and swallowed the hard truth that this was the best I could do, but it still wasn't good enough. Then a few years later, as I was finishing up the still-unpublished Cursed and thinking about what to work on next, I came up with the idea of a prequel to that not-very-good Conan book, thinking if I could lure people in with a solid first book they might tolerate the not-very-good second book (because really, aren’t middle books always the worst?) before a rousing third.
It was called All The King’s Bastards, and it was never meant to be .
That is to say, in the middle of planning it I fell in love with one of the side characters, a one-eyed girl of noble blood with the power to read thoughts through water. And the more I wrote her backstory, the more I started to think it was better than the one I was currently working on.
So All The King’s Bastards went into the ‘trunk novel’ folder on my hard drive, and I jumped into something I was provisionally calling Water Temple Girl. And though I never wrote any actual words in the All The King’s Bastards book, a lot of its background became the basis for Daughter of Flood and Fury: the rich merchant city of fountains and temples, the violet-eyed nobility (though they became theocrats of a water-based religion, rather than kings), the story of a rebellion against a rightful ruler (only told from the other side of that rebellion)… even the islands the original book were set to happen on appear in the actual book’s map, though (as far as I know) there are no rebels living on them.
And thus did a minor character usurp an entire story (and trilogy) and force me to write hers instead (a sequence projected to be much longer than a trilogy!). Aletheia was just so much more engaging than my bland street-urchin guy, and the deeper I dove into the magic and the larger story of the world, the more I fell in love with it.
I haven’t ever regretted the decision. This is the only book I can say ‘wrote itself,’ the only ending where I’ve made myself cry, and the only release I can call ‘award-winning’ before it’s even published, as the first two chapters won me rounds of both the Colorado Gold and Zebulon Writer’s Contest awards. Can't wait to get it into your hands.
This post is adapted from an email originally sent to my newsletter subscribers. For more like it, and a free novella not available elsewhere, pop over here and subscribe!
 And though this prequel was a bad idea, I will admit to having another prequel in mind… but don’t worry. I’ve got too much on my plate to trying writing this too.
 Here’s the pitch: violet-eyed street urchin wakes up on strange prison island with other violet-eyed people, and learns of his royal blood from rebels ruling the island, who seek to depose the violet-eyed king and replace him with a figurehead of somewhat noble blood. They put all these royal bastards through a brutal training regime to choose who will be their figurehead, but as the bastards’s skills and power (because they’re magical, obviously) increase, a rebellion begins to brew on the island, fomented by love and backhanded politics…
How do you come up with your ideas?
This is the number one question I get asked--but it's a little broad, isn't it? Silly question-askers. Let's focus on the part people usually want to know about:
How did you come up with this weird/cool/ghostly/insert-adjective-here magic system?
The short answer: Brandon Sanderson and Buddhism.
The long answer? When you love a genre like I love fantasy, when you grew up reading every book you could get your hands on and spending your allowance to get more, you don't end up wanting to write run-of-the-mill stuff (even if I do love a little Conan the Barbarian). You want to write something unique--the best untold version of the genre you love.
Epic fantasy is that genre for me. If I break it down that means cool magic, interesting characters, high-stakes struggles and epic settings. And I wanted to make each of those in The Resonant Saga awesome in a way slightly different than anyone else had done.
When it comes to magic, we're all familiar with the Chosen One or Chosen Ones, the select group of people who can use/learn/acquire magic, and go on to fight each other for the fate of the world.
So I thought, what if everyone was the chosen one? What if there were no limits on who could use magic? Or what if magic was its own limit?
Thus the voices all people hear in the Resonant Saga: the key to their magic and at the same time the barrier holding them back from it. If you've read Pauper's Empire you know there's a lot more to it than that (and just wait till Apostate's Pilgrimage!), but that was the basic thought.
Still, I didn't invent that all out of thin air: I read Brandon Sanderson, master of inverting fantasy expectations and still fulfilling them. And I studied cultural anthropology, learning to follow the mindsets of people raised in very foreign traditions. It wasn't conscious, but I wouldn't be surprised if Buddhism was lurking somewhere in my subconscious when I came up with the magic, because of its belief (Theravada Buddhism, anyway) that everyone could become enlightened (read: magical) if they worked at it.
There's a movement in fantasy right now to get away from European fantasy, which I like because I think we have a lot more stories to tell, about a lot more kinds of people and places than have been told so far. But to really tell new stories we need more kinds of ideas too, and the Chosen People Magic smacks to me too much of a lot of our own world's more unfortunate history, as written by the victors.
Can we still love fantasy that tells stories that don't come from our own cultural background? You tell me. I think the genre was made for it.
That's right, a new book in the Resonant Saga world! This one exploring a new character--a bounty hunter stricken with grief and obsessed with justice--as well as an earlier chapter in a beloved main character from the series. Here's the blurb:
What happens when an assassin falls in love with his target?
Ealon is a grieving lover whose quest for justice turned into an endless hunt. Now the only thing that keeps him from the pain of his past is bringing justice to those who escape the law.
His next target? A runaway imperial daughter trying to make a new life hiding aboard the empire's riverboats, wanted for the mysterious death of her brother.
There's just one problem--this target has the face of his dead lover.
Sound interesting? Then go grab it--advance readers have loved it so far, and at 99c what do you have to lose? Other than a couple hours engrossed in a good story...
It's old wisdom among writers that if your story's boring, there's not enough at stake. Think about Tai in the beginning of Beggar's Rebellion: the only meaning he has in life is helping out Fisher and the other kids, and they get taken away. It drives him to use magic he shouldn't and attack against overwhelming odds because they mean so much to him--they are his reason to live. If he didn't care much about the kids, we wouldn't either. Stakes make for an interesting story.
They also make for hard times when your life is the interesting/high stakes story.
When I started writing books the stakes were pretty low: I wanted to scratch an itch. I kept coming back to this question, in the middle of an intense graduate degree: what if I was working this hard doing something I truly loved? What if I was writing?
The question stuck with me, until I had to follow it off the cliff that was quitting grad school without a PhD. I knew I needed to either drop everything and write, or live with that unfulfilled itch.
That choice was easy, even if life wasn't always, but that was all that was at stake for awhile: making the time to live my dream.
Then the problem became money--my first stories weren't what you'd call page-turners or Hugo-winners. In fact, I don't think I made a single penny the first three years I wrote, and when I did start to, it was just a few dollars here and there. Not enough to live on even if you're sleeping on a bedroll in your friend's laundry room.
So the stakes got higher: I wasn't done writing, but I did need to eke out a living somehow, and writing wasn't doing it. Enter the fruit business, a strange and glorious enterprise that somehow paid the bills and left me time to write.
And for a while, the stakes were low again: I had time, I had money, I had a computer and a million stories in my head. Writing still wasn't making any money, but I was scratching that itch, and loving it.
Don't get me wrong, the stakes were high on other fronts: I met a girl I really liked just as I was starting to think I'd be a bachelor for life, and things moved quickly from love to living together to weddings and children. But the writing life was quiescent.
Until said children entered the picture. Well, only one so far, but we have another one on the way. Suddenly that strange and glorious solution to living my dream, the four intense months of fruit selling per year, started to feel less glorious. Or more interesting, to speak in writer's terms.
That is, it's gotten hard: long-distance with your lover sucks, but you get used to it. You understand it. Long-distance with your one-and-a-half-year-old? It's awful, because I know he doesn't understand it. Daddy's just gone, and who knows if he's coming back?
And I'm putting my son through this because of my itch. An itch that, when scratched right, could easily pay the bills and keep me home with him all year. Maybe in time that baby number two, a little girl we're told, doesn't have to go through it too.
Those are some stakes.
So life has felt... interesting the last few months, working away from home and not finding time to write and missing my family. The stakes have raised: I have another itch now, and I want to scratch both of them: being a successful writer and a good father.
Which is to say, I haven't gotten you the next book yet, but I'm committed to doing it. More than ever now, because like Tai sees he has to win the rebellion to truly save his kids, I get that I have to do better at this writing thing if I'm going to save my kids the confusion of an absent father.
What does that mean? That means I'm going to find a way to write all year, even during fruit season. And I'm going to get you three books a year, or more, while still making them the best they can be.
Because high-stakes lives make interesting stories, but I'll take happy over interesting any day. I can always write the interesting lives, and leave the hard times to my characters.
Sorry, Ella and Tai. This journey's just getting started.
[This post originally sent as an email to my newsletter group. For more like it, and a free Resonant Saga novella only available to subscribers, click here]
That's right. Blood, sweat, and eight tear-stained drafts of Beggar's Rebellion later, the book has been picked as a finalist in Mark Lawrence's Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest, likely the biggest and most prestigious contest for indie fantasy authors around.
Emphasis on biggest. To be a finalist means I'm one of just ten authors chosen from a pool of 300. Getting this far means that the good folks at Fantasy Book Critic chose my book as the top of the thirty entries they got to read, and I wasn't at all sure that was going to happen despite having confidence in my book. So this feels great.
Especially in a publishing world where there aren't many objective standards--terrible books top the charts, excellent books tank in sales, and lots of us in the middle wonder if we just haven't gotten our break yet... or if we aren't ready for it even if it did happen.
Well TBH I'm still not sure I'm ready. But this certainly feels like a break of some kind--the top ten finalists from previous years of the SPFBO have lead me to some great reads, and no matter what happens here I know finaling this year will steer more people toward Beggar's Rebellion. Which, prizes and publications and profits aside, has always been the point of this: not just to write, but to be read.
And knowing that's happening? I feel like I've already won.
What is magic? I mean, what is it?
I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, as newer books get deeper into the magic of the Resonant Saga, and I spend my few idle fruit-season moments reading classic fantasy (the Wheel of Time ). I mean yeah, magic is people throwing fireballs or disappearing or whatever, but what is it? Where does it come from in these worlds that otherwise have gravity and thermodynamics and our other laws of physics?
The answers in my favorite novels growing up never felt good enough-- "they forged these cool rings using magic," or "some people are born magical," or even "the world itself is magic." I would still be left wondering why. Why was everything else basically the same, but some people could fly?
So when this itch to write fantasy grew from an idle tickle on a two-month-long bike ride to a raging mosquito bite in grad school, I realized part of that itch was knowing I could finally answer that question, in my own books at least.
Um, I can hear you saying, I still don't know where magic comes from in your books. From winter plants?
Yes... but no. Plants that grow in winter have lots of uai, the magic calorie needed to fuel resonances. That's where their magic comes from.
Mkay... but what's uai then?
Uai is the winter-food version of the starches and sugars we digest in regular sun-foods. Think of it like magical calories, powering resonances instead of muscles.
Yeah, but where does that come from?
Uai is what winter plants make out of the star's light. If you've read book three, you'll know that in the south (where Ayugen is) in wintertime, there's not much sunlight and a whole lot of starlight (imagine winter in Antactica, but in a binary star system where the dimmer star shines instead of darkness). Winter plants don't grow much in Worldsmouth (along the equator), so it's no surprise that people there don't have much cultural understanding or experience with resonances--they've got nothing to eat to get uai. The Achuri and other southern peoples, on the other hand, basically live on the stuff half the year . Which is too bad for them, because it tastes bad and it means their internal voices are a lot stronger than in the north.
OK, so winter plants make magic calories out of the dimmer star's light. so... the star is magic?
[clears throat] And here we get into spoiler territory. Yes, the star is magic... sort of...
And I have to leave it at that! But suffice it to say that the dimmer star, a binary twin in the Resonant Saga world, is their ultimate source of magic. Just like other stars offer other powers in my two unpublished series, The Cursed and The Deluge Chronicles. And there are reasons those stars are magical...
But enough of this spoilerific stuff! I get a lot of questions on how exactly the magic works in my books, so hopefully this made it a little clearer: it's stars. Magic Stars.
Sounds like a cereal my parents wouldn't let me eat.
[This post originally sent as an email to my newsletter group. For more like it, and a free Resonant Saga novella only available to subscribers, click here]
 And no, not in preparation for the Amazon series. Excited as I am for that, you don't read a series as long as WoT in preparation for anything. You read it as a kind of life achievement. And because one of your favorite authors finished it, in my case.
 Even if it tastes awful--again, see book three.
We were stoked to see Mateusz's wonderful cover make the top shelf in Mark Lawrence's Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (aka the biggest contest for indie fantasy authors)--it's a top notch illustration. But to have the actual book chosen as a semi-finalist?
We're over the moon.
And, being highly competitive sorts, also crossing fingers that we make it to the finalist stage--the SPFBO is where I've found some of my favorite indie fantasy in recent years, and this reading list of the finalists from previous years is well worth a look if you need a new read.
So it's an honor! And our reviewer at Fantasy Book Critic had very nice things to say about the book, which we'll unabashedly just agree with him are true.
More updates to come! And no matter what happens with Beggar's Rebellion, you should follow this year's contest because the winners are sure to be good reads.
Or I should say, my cover artist Mateusz Michalski is--Beggar's Rebellion has yet to be judged! But I'm happy to see us listed specially in Mark Lawrence's prestigious (among us indies, anyway) Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. Mateusz does a ton of awesome work, so I'm glad he's getting some recognition. And he's still got space for new contracts if you need a cool illustration for your book/DnD campaign/etc! Slip him or me an email and we'll get you set up.
Once all the finalists are in, you can (hint hint) vote for your favorite cover. I'll share the link! Till then, take a gander at some of Mateusz's other amazing work.
Which ones? you ask.
How dirty?? you cry.
You'll have to check out my interview over at MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape to find out. But I will say this: there is dirt and juice aplenty. That interview is like somebody squeezed a bunch of oranges in a potato field. In a really interesting way.
How's that for a title? Wish I could take credit for it, but it comes to you from the brilliant mind of fellow fantasy author Kyle A. Massa, along with today's post on writing. Before that, just wanted to give you a quick update that I've updated the ever-changing Works in Progress chart at the top: Beggar's Rebellion is done! And available on Amazon for the next few days at just .99c! Book Two, Pauper's Empire, is sitting on the docket awaiting a revision before it's (hoped for) March 20th release, and Book Three, Apostate's Pilgrimage, is steaming right along at one third of a first draft! Think that one will get out in time for an April release? We'll see.
Now on to the main event:
Neil Gaiman is a baller.
Okay, that’s not a technical term. But he really is a baller. He writes novels, short stories, graphic novels, movie scripts, essays, and more. There’s tons I could discuss about his career. But today, let’s examine his use of personification.
What is personification, you ask? The New Oxford American Dictionary offers several definitions, including:
Gaiman employs this technique in almost all his works. He takes emotions, concepts, and abstract forces and condenses them into individual entities. This is one of the sharpest arrows in the quiver of fantasy authors, and Neil knows how to use it.
Let’s analyze a few examples, then explore ways to apply it to our own work.
When you picture death as a character, what do you see? Probably a skeletal dude with a black robe and a scythe.
Gaiman's version of Death is completely different. In his classic Sandman comics, Death is a young woman with a Goth wardrobe, big 80s hair, and a rather upbeat demeanor. In issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, Death offers encouragement and guidance to her little brother, the titular God of Sleep. Fans and critics have loved the character ever since. In fact, Empire Magazine ranked her the 15th best comic book character ever.
Why personify death this way? It’s about more than being different (though that is important). Sandman’s version of death shows us an alternate perspective on the concept itself. Death is frightening, yes, but it can also be merciful. Death isn’t out to get us—it’s just doing its job. And, as the character does in the comics, death can sometimes teach us important lessons about life.
Take note, writers. Personification can change our understanding of forces that might otherwise confound or disturb us.
Having an apocalypse? Don’t forget the Four Horsemen! Neil Gaiman wrote about them in his 1990 novel Good Omens, which he co-authored with the late Terry Pratchett. For those who haven’t heard the Metallica song, The Four Horsemen are Death, Famine, Pestilence (replaced by Pollution in Good Omens), and War. Let’s talk about that last one.
In Gaiman and Pratchett’s novel, war is a character, and her name is Scarlett. Here’s one of the first descriptions we get of her: “Her hair was true auburn, neither ginger nor brown, but a deep and burnished copper-color, and it fell to her waist in tresses men would kill for, and indeed often had.”
The color red conjures images of blood, which is a common ingredient of war. This color choice also reminds us of the idiom “to see red,” which refers to anger, which often incites violence, which is another of war’s essentials. Also, Gaiman and Pratchett take the common hyperbole of a trait worth killing for a make it literal.
So. What can writers learn about personification from Scarlett? Well, unlike Death, there’s nothing especially contradictory about Gaiman and Pratchett’s depiction of War. That’s because personification need not always be subversive; sometimes, writers can successfully turn a concept into a character by finding the overlap between both. War the concept is a fight on an epic scale. So War the character starts fights with her mere presence.
The Technical Boy
Question: If early 2000s technology was a character, what would it look like? Answer: The Technical Boy from American Gods.
The Technical Boy is a chubby kid who digs meaningless buzzwords and Diet Coke. His mannerisms remind one of a teenager who got too famous too fast. Here’s a description: “He wore a long black coat, made of some silky material, and he appeared barely out of his teens: a spattering of acne glistened on one cheek.”
This sort of character could (and probably should) lose relevance as years pass. Gaiman wrote American Gods in 2001, so there are no references to Twitter, live streaming, or phones that function like computers. Yet the character (and the novel itself) remains surprisingly relevant despite all the technological innovations we’ve had in the intervening 18 years.
Why? It’s because of the concept the character represents. New technology is just as arrogant, fleeting, and self-important as it ever was. For writers, the takeaway is this: personification works best when it’s timeless. If Gaiman had leaned too far into then-modern technology when writing this character, it would’ve been obsolete too soon. Rather, he focuses on the traits that will always remain true.
Personification is a unique and effective literary technique. Neil Gaiman is one of the best to ever use it, and therefore a baller. I used personification myself in my novel Gerald Barkley Rocks, I hope to similar effect. Did I succeed? I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out…
Anyway, I hope these tips have helped. Thank you to Levi for sharing this post, and thank you to you for reading it. Now get out there and write!
You've reached the electronic home of author Levi Jacobs. Cleverly hidden in this site are stories I've written, news about things I've published, excerpts from my novels, and dark secrets about my other life as an itinerant fruit salesman. Enjoy!
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