When murdered sinners fail to show up in Hell, it’s up to Salim Ghadafar, an atheist warrior forced to solve problems for the goddess of death, to track down the missing souls. In order to do so, Salim will need to descend into the anarchic city of Kaer Maga, following a trail that ranges from Hell’s iron cities to the gates of Heaven itself. Along the way, he’ll be aided by a host of otherworldly creatures, a streetwise teenager, and two warriors of the mysterious Iridian Fold. But when the missing souls are the scum of the earth, and the victims devils themselves, can anyone really be trusted?
1. SEQUELS ARE HARD
Writing my first novel, Death’s Heretic, was deceptively easy. As a full-time book editor, I’d seen inside the sausage factory enough to finally remove the paralyzing awe that had always surrounded novelists for me, and learned how an outline can hold the terror of the blank page at bay. And so, brimming with the hubris that comes from seeing professional authors in the literary underoos, I threw a bunch of my favorite ideas from the Pathfinder campaign setting together, then shook the jar to see what would happen.
To my delight, people liked it, and the kid inside me who’d waited twenty years for this moment rejoiced. I had written a book! It didn’t suck! Surely I knew what I was doing now, and the next one would be even easier, right?
Except that now I had an expectation for myself. What if my next book sucked? Would I fall prey to the dreaded sophomore slump? It had been years since I began writing Death’s Heretic—did I even remember how to start a novel? And was my formerly mysterious protagonist even interesting if you had already read the first book and knew his backstory?
In the end, despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I reminded myself that a book is neither good nor bad unless it’s done, and that the only solution was to write now and worry about the quality later. Thankfully, as often happens in such situations, when I went back and read it afterward, I was astonished at how much I enjoyed it.
Time and distance can make even your own books seem larger than life, but don’t let that psych you out. Books are like your children: No matter how polished they may seem now, don’t forget that they used to wet the bed regularly. And while other people may judge them against each other, your job is to love each of them for their own merits.
2. BLENDER YOUR GENDER
If you’ve been paying attention to the speculative fiction community, you’ve probably noticed that gender (and race, and sexuality, and…) is a hot-button issue. A common theme is that of representation: for instance, women make up more than half the population, so it only makes sense that they’d make up half the characters in your story, right? Thus, if you’re looking at your story and all the characters are male, you should strongly consider shaking things up.
“But why should art be subject to political correctness?” you might ask. Leaving aside for the moment all the myriad reasons why it’s good to care about people’s feelings, as well as the fact that you just put on a salami vest and walked into the lion cage of the Internet, I’m going to totally nullify that question by saying that even if you don’t care about the political or social justice angles, gender balance makes your art better.
After Death’s Heretic came out, I had a friend tell me that while she liked the book, she’d noticed that there were basically no women in it. I was flabbergasted—one of the two protagonists was female! But she pointed out that there were very few women in supporting roles—walk-ons with a few lines or wandering past in the background—and that the resulting all-male world really disrupted her suspension of disbelief. She couldn’t imagine herself in the world, because she wasn’t represented.
With The Redemption Engine, I went in with gender balance in mind—and promptly hit a snag. My main character was male, his two sidekicks were male (because I really wanted to write a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser dup as a married gay couple), and their scrappy local guide had already been established as male in other books. In short: total sausage-fest. So I made a list of other characters the book needed—the villains, the competing investigator, the recruited warriors—and tried to add women until it felt more balanced. I also tried to pay attention to the background, to make sure that there was representation among the walk-on characters as well.
Do you always need to have gender balance? No, of course not. I recently sold a military SF story where the soldiers were all gay men fighting alongside their lovers, and in that instance, it made sense for everyone to be male. But character demographics matter, and if your default is to make everyone male (or white, or straight, or…) you’re unnecessarily alienating part of your potential audience.
3. CUT YOUR TAGS
Dialogue tags are often one of the easiest places to cut words, as character actions or beats can convey the information just as well. Compare these two passages:
“Look at that!” James said, and pointed. “Chuck’s being eaten by squirrels!”
“Look at that!” James pointed. “Chuck’s being eaten by squirrels!”
See how the action renders the dialogue tag unnecessary? Sometimes rhythm alone is enough:
“Did you write me that blog post?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Wendig, sir!”
I notice this especially with audiobooks, where the voice acting really highlights unnecessary dialogue tags, so when writing my new book, I did my best to take out all but the most load-bearing tags.
4. ARCS AREN’T JUST FOR NOAH
In my first book, I had the luxury of writing an odd-couple romance, which gave me an easy, classic arc for my two protagonists: at the beginning, they can barely tolerate each other, but by the end, they’ve grown to love and respect each other. It’s something we see constantly, from Pride and Prejudice to Sherlock, and most of us can tell that story on autopilot. (And before you try to correct me about Sherlock, I’d argue that every buddy cop show is a romance, regardless of who they kiss.)
In The Redemption Engine, however, I didn’t have a love interest. Salim, my main character, is flying solo the whole time, and while he makes a lot of friends, I had trouble figuring out what he was feeling. About halfway through the manuscript, frustrated by his cardboard acting, I sat down and decided that I needed to give him a character arc. And not just him—his whole damn team.
In the end (spoilers!), Salim’s arc ended up being relatively subtle: He goes from serving the death goddess against his will to realizing that, while he may resent his servitude, he actually agrees with her cause. He’s finally able to admit that, at some level, he likes his job. Once I understood that, it made it far easier for me to get inside his head and make him a sympathetic character.
5. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE
This isn’t some axiom about creating danger and tension in your manuscript. This isn’t really even about writing at all, but it is the most important thing I learned while writing this book.
Someday, you are going to die.
So am I. And whether I write one book or a hundred, someday I’m going to close my eyes for the last time, and that will be that.
And I find that incredibly comforting.
See, I pay a lot of attention to other writers. You probably do, too. I see their announcements on Twitter, and I think, “Wow, they just put out another book?” And then my Productivity Demon pipes up and starts musing about how much more successful and satisfied I would be if I just spent more time writing. Knuckled down. Kept my nose to the grindstone. After all, don’t all those writing advice articles say that a real writer sacrifices for their art? That if you can stand to not write, even for a few days, then you’re not a real writer?
And that, my friends, is bullshit. Worse, it’s dangerous bullshit. Because when you’re an achievement junkie, as so many writers are—why else would we trudge through all the rejection and unpaid hours?—there’s no such thing as enough. Start following that rabbit hole, and pretty soon you’re feeling guilty for all the time you’re not writing. The rest of your life becomes an impediment. An obstacle.
And that’s no way to live. Fuck sacrifice. Write because you like writing, because the hard work brings a correspondingly deep satisfaction, and if you find that it’s interfering disproportionately with the rest of your life, stop. Go kiss your spouse. Play the guitar. Lie in a sunbeam with a dog and watch the wind in the trees. Because this is all we get, people. This right here. And whether you’re Stephen King or a newbie with a single sale, if you aren’t enjoying your life, no amount of publication is going to fix that.
Realizing that allowed me to finally relax and quit feeling like I’m constantly falling behind all my incredibly talented colleagues, and instead spend time on all the different people and activities that bring me joy. And you know what? I’m still writing. I may not be quite as fast as I used to be, but I enjoy it a hell of a lot more. And isn’t that why we all got into this in the first place?
Someday, you will die. Use your time wisely.
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James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor of Paizo Publishing, as well as a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He’s the author of the novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was ranked #3 on Barnes & Noble’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and was a finalist for both an Origins Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. In addition to numerous game books, James has written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Geek Love, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of speculative fiction luminaries with new interviews and advice from the authors themselves.