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Yoon Ha Lee: Five Things I Learned Writing Ninefox Gambit

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.

Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics.  Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics.  Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake.  If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own.  As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

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Be able to summarize the idea in one sentence.

Once upon a time, during my *previous* attempt to write a novel, someone at a convention asked me what it was about. I hemmed and hawed and tried to figure out how to explain the three braided plot strands and the battles and the steam cannon and the *things* and eventually emerged with a sad, unhelpful, “It’s complicated.”

What I have learned since then is that “It’s complicated” is a symptom that something is whackadoodle with the structure. _Ninefox Gambit_ takes place in a complicated *world*, but I always had a crystal-clear idea of what the story was about: the battle of wits between a disgraced captain and her undead advisor, a brilliant tactician and mass murderer who might be out to kill her next. That character dynamic is the backbone of the entire novel.

Writing is about math.

No, really! I’m not just saying that because I majored in math. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from integral calculus is that even infinitesimals may yet sum up to something big. The non-calculus writing-relevant version of this is that if you write every day, even a little bit, that all adds up. And the flip side is that if you write zero words, your wordcount doesn’t advance.

Now, sometimes you have to take days off because your kid is sick, or you’re working out that worldbuilding bit in the middle of chapter 7. That’s fine too! But if there is a *habit* of zero-word days, that novel isn’t going to write itself. (Trust me, if I knew a magic way of making novels write themselves, I wouldn’t just be doing it, I would be working as a consultant to writers and getting rich doing *that*.)

Don’t be afraid to revise.

This novel went through six drafts. A whole lot of things in the rough draft didn’t make it to the final one, including the ill-advised scene with the slaughter of geese. (Fear not, goose-lovers; geese are still mentioned. SPACE GOOSE!)

Once in a while I run into someone who’s familiar with my short fiction and who thinks things come out perfectly on the first try. One, that’s very flattering (God knows, the short fiction isn’t perfect either), and two, that’s only because they haven’t seen my rough drafts. Most of my rough drafts are laugh-out-loud terrible.

I’ve heard that some writers prefer drafting and some prefer revisions. I belong firmly to the revisions side. Generating words is painful! But I find it easier to revise words that exist than to bring into being words that didn’t use to exist. No matter how awful a rough draft is, I can always make it better, especially with the help of betas.

Pay attention to the beta readers, but don’t lose sight of the magic.

This novel benefited tremendously from a number of beta readers. One of them in particular, Daedala, helped me grapple with structure. I’m mostly used to short stories so figuring out how to scale up and handle the emotional beats and so on was an interesting challenge.

On the other hand, sometimes the beta readers have suggestions that might make the book a better book, but a *different* better book than the one you wanted to write. In this case, one beta reader suggested deleting Jedao’s massacre from his backstory. The novel that would have resulted would possibly have been a good book. But it also would have killed the point of writing it in the first place. I had a whole scheme that the massacre fit into, and I was willing to fix things around it, but not to remove one of the keystones of the plot that made it exciting to write in the first place.

Ergonomics, ergonomics, ergonomics.

I wrote large portions of _Ninefox Gambit_ with a fountain pen (either a Webster Four-Star or a Waterman 52V–if you pay attention you may see my acknowledgment to the Waterman in the story!). This was one of the better decisions I made, although it was a complete coincidence. As it turns out, writing properly with a fountain pen is easy on the wrists, and even writing not-quite-properly is helpful. And bonus, because I used about ten zillion different colors of ink, the rough draft looks like My Little Pony vomit!

Eventually, though, I had to type the whole shebang into Scrivener. I do use an ergonomic keyboard (a Kinesis Advantage, which I love but has a learning curve), but in the white-hot heat of *please let this novel be done* in the last two days, I think I typed something like 8,000 words/day both days.

I ended up in the doctor’s office a week later with pain in my wrists because I had given myself arthritis from typing too much, too fast. Don’t let this be you! And it could have been so much worse. These days, I try to do typing with the Kinesis, but I’m using a standing desk and I also make a point of quitting or taking breaks if my wrists start to twinge, or just taking breaks frequently, period. Write, yes, but write healthily!

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 A Korean-American sf/f writer who majored in math, Yoon finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas. Yoon’s fiction has appeared in publications such as F&, and Clarkesworld Magazine, as well as several year’s best anthologies.

Yoon Ha Lee: Website | Twitter

Ninefox Gambit: Amazon | Rebellion Store