Joseph Brassey: Five Things I Learned Writing Dragon Road

When portal-mage Harkon Bright and his apprentice are asked to help select a new captain for the immense skyship Iseult, they quickly find themselves embroiled in its Machiavellian officer’s court. Meanwhile, their new recruit, Elias, struggles to adapt to his unexpected gift of life while suffering dark dreams of an ancient terror.

As the skies darken and storm-clouds gather on the Dragon Road, the crew of the Elysium come face to face with deadly intrigues, plots from beyond death, and a terrible darkness that lurks in the heart of a thousand-year storm.

THE FIRST STEP ISN’T THE HARDEST. IT’S THE SECOND.

So you’ve finished your debut, and it’s launched. It has a slew of 5 star reviews on the Amazons and the Barnes and the Nobles. It’s racking up great responses, and you have your own pile of encouragement words that you can turn to the second you start to feel yourself flag on the next book you’re contracted for, right? This should totally be a breeze, because it’s the same characters and the same setting and you know them and what you’re doing and this is all fine, right?

RIGHT?

God, that third pot of the coffee you’ve been mainlining looks appealing. So what if the world is vibrating? It’s smooth sailing. IT’S ALL FINE.

(It is in no way fine my face is melting please help)

This is the thing about writing a series. The first time you write a book it’s this herculean effort of pole-vaulting, bare-knuckle bear-boxing, and naked oil wrestling with giant naked mole rats. Finishing it is an epic act of catharsis that feels like cresting the final ridge of the highest mountain. Oh wait, no, that’s a foothill and there’s a much bigger mountain. And it’s covered in ice. And skulls. And ice-skulls. Fuck. Picking up your legs and doing it all over again is exhausting.

THE SECOND ACTS MEANS EXPANDING THE SCOPE

SKYFARER had a very focused arc. It’s a combination quest/war story that follows two PoV’s chasing one goal as their stories weave closer and closer together until they both collide. Then the rest of the book is the explosive consequences of what they do when what they were looking for turns out not to be what they expected. The benefit of a story like this is that it forces brevity and focus. Ideally no book wastes words at all, but different story structures have different word-allowances. It’s like a triangle: the narrower the base, the less space there is to work in as you hurtle towards the apex.

DRAGON ROAD is a broader story. You get a lot more of Aimee and Elias as they work and fight together to seek truth and bring justice to the Eternal Sky, but you can also expect to get to know the rest of the cast better, too. More Hark, more Vant with his brilliance, Vlana’s devotion to her chosen family, Bjorn’s wisdom, Clutch’s wit and raw badass talent. Basically, my sequel meant that I had to spend more words on getting to know the core cast better. The plot structure of the book is also bigger, it covers more ground, and the build is slower. On the one hand this was SUPER COOL, but on the other hand I’d gotten used to working on a comparatively tiny word budget. All of a sudden I had a thousand extra crates of nails and nuts and bolts available to me and oh god what do I do with this shit.

EXPANDING THE SCOPE MEANS RAISING THE STAKES

Readers are lovely. They will stick with you through thick and thin, if you’ve made them feel something real. The magic of this job is reaching into people’s hearts and giving them something to give a shit about in a world that—lets face it—is pretty rough lately. But even your most devoted fans have limits to their patience. People are showing up for something specific, and if you jerk their chain around with pointless bullshit, they wont have the stamina to finish. So next to “Always make sure your subversion is cooler than the original implied trope,” my best piece of advice on this is to remember that more words builds a broader base. So don’t waste it. Crank up that fog machine, Fuqua. Summon the bigger racks of fireworks.

SKYFARER had the backdrop of a small, third-world country, and dealt primarily in personal stakes. A small crew, a single, dauntless mercenary leader and his tormented backstory. DRAGON ROAD deals with the lives of millions in the balance, and then more, as the story goes on and it becomes apparent the scale of atrocities that the Elysium crew must work and fight to prevent. It needed NEW characters and MORE THINGS. And DEEPER FEELINGS.

And that means…

HIGHER STAKES REQUIRE GREATER INVESTMENT

You know how much those readers cared about those characters? You have to make them care more. The more you present, the greater the pull to get them through it. Every bite of the apple must taste better. The fever must spike, and the colors grow more vivid. The second act is where the readers caring about the first book needs to pay dividends, so they’ll feel rewarded for placing their faith and hope into these people whose journey they’ve shared. Every fleshing out of a character or bright, vivid set piece needs to enhance, rather than distract. You learn to recognize these things as time goes on, and to detect the merit of something you add based on how much it enhances the experience. The question, through all of this bigger scale, meatier, gear-shiftier work is does this contribute to the payoff?

And that brings us to the most important thing you learn writing a Book 2:

GREATER INVESTMENT NECESSITATES BIGGER PAYOFF

A broader base takes a longer time to cross, and that means more time invested, so if you’re going to make people cover more ground and invest more time in the book, your payoff absolutely must be proportionately better. What does this mean? Well, basically if your stick is bigger, so must be the BOOM. Books are collections of sticks and booms, and the doctrine of explodicism teaches us that bigger, heavier sticks must deliver better booms, or the people who lugged them around will feel let down. This isn’t just about set pieces and blowing up the train and finally taking that Howitzer off the mantle-piece, it’s also about the feelings. Emotions are your stock and trade as an author, and goddammit people are showing up for these people you’ve made real enough that they feel as if they know them, and love them.

There’s a goddamn reason why people will read through six hundred pages for a promised kiss, a validation long sought after by a loved one, a mentors benediction, or the sweet release of a death well-deserved. The point is, as you draw people deeper and further, you need to always keep in mind the fact that you’re pulling them towards something exponentially more impactful than last time. Even as that triangle gets narrower towards the point, the point must be sharper, the edge keener. Reading a good book should be the act of getting intensely drunk on something, and my favorite writing is the stuff that creates a humming, dizzying buzz in the senses.

But the good news is, you can do it.

The thing about hard work is it builds on itself, so the most important takeaway from this is that I learned I can do it again. The thing about finishing the first book is that you’re assailed by the sense that you’ve spontaneously generated something you wont be able to make again, and you wont, because what you made then is a product of who you were then, and humans change… but the good news is that you’ve made yourself something BETTER in the course of making it, and what you make going forward will be better too.

So go fucking forward. Charge. Slay. Consume. Rise like a storytelling phoenix and set it all on fire. Because you can, because your trials have made you stronger, and because this is a Kung Fu movie and it’s time to summon the Glow.

And when you arrive at your final battle, and the beast seems like it can’t be overcome?

Tell em Joe sent you to kick its ass.

* * *

Joseph Brassey has lived on both sides of the continental US, and has worked as a craft-store employee, paper-boy, factory worker, hospital kitchen gopher, martial arts instructor, singer, and is currently an author and stay-at-home Dad (the last is his favorite job, by far). His novel Skyfarer–first in the Drifting Lands series–is published by Angry Robot Books. Joseph was enlisted as a robotic word-machine in 47North’s Mongoliad series, and still trains in – and teaches – Liechtenauer’s Kunst des Fechtens in his native Tacoma.

Joseph Brassey: Website | Twitter | Instagram

Dragon Road: Indiebound | Amazon