She looked to the mask rather plaintively; now, more than ever, she needed her fierce face. She needed to imagine that her father was still there for her, ready to do things she couldn’t. In order to believe that, she needed to imagine his words as if the mask spoke them.
“How many sons never came home to their mothers because of Selene? And how many fathers never returned to their daughters? You know what Honorius told you. This woman doomed people to feel exactly how you felt, Alathea, yet did she not get to stay with her father to the end of his days?”
Alathea wept. It was good that she hadn’t yet dared to apply gold dust or makeup. She knew it would come to this. It all had to come out now, when the prisoner couldn’t witness the vulnerability for a second time.
“No parent, no child, no one in the world should ever have to feel that way. That world, that shining future, is what I always wished I could give you. Now I’ll never leave you alone, because you need me. Embody me once again. Remain clean of this evil; you’re too good for it. Wash the tears from your cheeks. Put on my face that never weeps.”
Alathea vigorously washed her face and glared at her reflection in the polished brass. She needed to be ready. A sinner needed to be punished.
“She thought you were her entertainment. Let’s show her how you play with dolls.”
The city of Port Selumer springs up from the one large accessible beach to be found amidst rocky terrain and old cliffs. To the side and up those cliffs is the home of Emperor Maximian and his daughter, Alathea. Further to the east of that, and best accessed by an easily defensible causeway, is the territory of the old palace and village of Eirinikos.
It’s a city of tiers that gets divided by class along the upward slope. People at the bottom can live off the fruits of the sea and anything that might be desired for trade further up the city. North of the city, pastures and vast fig orchards exist to serve upper class feasts.
North of farms and orchards, you find some wilderness, most notably a sumac-dominated forest in which lurks a northern clan adept at stealth. And north of that, clan territories: different peoples who are alternately swinging deals and temporary alliances with the Port Selumer based empire or openly fighting against it, or settling disputes with each other, or just living life in a manner that’s most meaningful to them.
South of the city and a cross the water lies a more familiar world, but this novel isn’t directly concerned with that.
A writer who can’t really draw for the life of him can picture what he wants in fragments but not render it the way he likes. An artist is capable of rendering such visuals but doesn’t have direct access to the writer’s mind. That’s the first challenge with me.
I start with drawing a mockup map. Here I try to remain cognizant of what exactly I don’t know how to do well with it so I can communicate the difference to the artist later. I also make frequent use of words to describe anything I want placed in a general location but don’t know how to draw. It’s a step up from a completely word-based set of instructions because at least I have tried to visually arrange where things should go relative to each other.
Scale is a greater challenge to me on a regional map than on a world map. A building only appears on a world map to show where a landmark is, but we don’t expect it to-scale.
When I had to mock up this regional map after only ever having done the world map, I was left with vast pockets of empty space because the city was too small, and conversely, too much attention was being paid to the world-map shape of coastline around it. I was automatically focusing on something irrelevant to the story, which means it doesn’t need to be on the map.
A professional map artist might have clued into that on his own, but they don’t know what I mean until I spell it out. Unfortunately, they are probably used to clients who have made them guess, only to say, “No no, that’s not what I had in mind,” without being particularly helpful to the artist. You will generally have a better time working with artists when you figure out how to avoid doing that, or at least how to be mindful of their challenge in not being able to read minds.
That said, I prefer to listen to the artist on matters of making geographic sense. In the world map, not every border could be a mountain range, and most divisions between land and sea for an entire continent weren’t going to be cliffs (if you will, is that an active fault line? Are some of the mountains on the range sandwiched against the sea/ocean going to be volcanic?). If you want something to be prohibitively inconvenient to navigate, consider other reasons why ships might pass an area by for a more convenient port, like swamps, dense mangrove growth, shallows, for example. If you want a village best accessible by causeway, perhaps there should be a reason visible on the map for people to go to all that architectural trouble.
At the end of the process, I feel that I considered exactly what I needed to have on a map for the purpose of the story. A touch of realism to the lay of the land is appreciated, but I’m also not attempting to map out a product of our planet’s specific environments, plate tectonics, and eons of geologic time. If you require a deeper level of detail than I do, or a harder realism, then you’re the one who decides that for your project.
“She despised her father’s world. Why couldn’t sorcery be true? Would that world not be better?”
Alathea was raised to rule, but the benevolent and deranged forces that hope to prepare her for the throne may create a monster. She’s torn between her father’s reign of empty order through terror and violence, and a magical path that could be completely illusory. She can’t live one exclusive of the other, so she lives both.
Her father is bent on protecting his daughter from the same fanatics who killed her mother, but far too often his desire for revenge takes him away from her. His yearning to raise a strong and steadfast heir compromises what little time they do spend together.
Her tutor intends to help her be better than her father, more sensible and knowledgeable, in control of her own story and the narrative of the empire just as her mother had been. But he isn’t raising her alone and can’t predict how his teachings will be used.
Her nurse subtly coaxes her toward a path of faith and enlightenment according to the nurse’s secret masters, believing that Alathea can be saved and in turn save the empire. But the Seers have grim plans that they would never reveal to their minion.
This tragic story touches on loss, the insatiable hunger for control, the way people live stories and narratives, the innocence and danger of dreams, the follies of love, the deep hatred and rage dwelling within people, and the dangers of using conquest to strive for peace.
Embattled by all the forces hoping to shape her to their whim, Alathea takes a piece of everything they give her and becomes something never before seen in the land. Goddess. Empress. Monster.
Villains and Mental Health Depictions
To my knowledge, no protagonist or antagonist I have written is a bad person because of a specific mental health issue per se. Every developed character I have is struggling with something deep and personal; for example, as I understand it, Derek has in common with his author that he’s autistic and that he gets to be under pressure from some of his peers and society for staying true to his demisexual nature, and also a deep dissatisfaction with his life at many points. He’s also not the main focus of this post, just an opening thought.
With my villains, their villainy tends to stem from imperialism, monoculturalism, a need for stifling control over everything, a refusal to collaborate with or listen to others about what their goals are and only letting people have input in order to use them for a personal goal, exaggerated vendettas, and a privileged detachment from countless human lives affected deeply by antagonistic actions every day. Lords Merton and Belheff are less-developed characters who have very specific agendas and treat human lives flippantly in order to pursue grandiose goals, and we can see how little they care about people of the land even if they claim everything they do is to strengthen and secure the future of that land. Merton and Belheff aren’t the focus either because they are pawns, and they’re getting about as much focus here as they do presence/relevance in the trilogy.
This is about Alathea, because I decided she’s important enough to have an entire new book written about her. This is also more within the trilogy context because that’s where she’s acting as primary antagonist. The new book doesn’t even go to the same places that the trilogy does because it’s focusing on a formative stretch or cycle of her life, though it sure doesn’t hide the aforementioned laundry list of villain traits either.
This is about her trademark mask. Everything she does that makes her an antagonist, she does whether the mask is on or off. It is never about being pleasant or charming when the mask is off, then a cruel dictator when it is on; she’s capable of being intimidating and mean without it.
The mask is specifically there because of an inner revulsion at having to perform violent acts against any other human being, even one who poses a threat to her, and a traumatic incident involving her father who believed she would need to have to kill someone some day for the sake of power and wanting a controlled learning experience of this for her. She’s convinced of what she needs to do according to his instruction, but feels utter revulsion that someone else couldn’t just do it for her, so her father’s mask is like something she can have with her that enables her to do what needs to be done.
After his death she likes to imagine it is him, and is a way in which he can be with her whenever she needs him, instead of constantly going away to fight battles that in her view he could always have gotten someone else to do, ultimately depriving her of his valued presence. She even likes to imagine having a conversation with him via the mask as a way of processing ideas which she may not like but she imagines he might have made her consider anyway.
None of which touches on why she is seen as a villain. It’s not wearing a mask that suddenly makes her an ultra-controlling imperialist warmonger, etc.
The original intent of the mask is also to intimidate, which her father used it for, which a key ancestor of theirs used a mask of his own for, so she can use that functionality as well. You wear it to battle so that no matter how you feel inside, no one should have to see you concerned or afraid. Just an intimidating entity to which one must surrender or die.
But she doesn’t have to wear the mask to send armies off to wars of aggression, nor order people tortured and/or killed, nor desire revenge against Chandra Kenderley, nor do any other terrible thing, except if she might have to take a life with her own two hands or do something very in-person and direct that doesn’t sit well with her.
Absolutely nothing about Alathea’s character arrived as a result of any study of clinical psychiatry, psychology, or any understanding of that nature, but everything I do certainly reflects long-standing tropes in fiction that I have read and any leaps of imagination resulting from that and everything is certainly up for discussion.
I felt the need to write this due to a broader discussion of mental health, its depictions in media, and especially cases where antagonists/villains are portrayed as having their villainy/antagonism directly caused by an unfair/inaccurate depiction of a mental health situation. I thought I should spell out my approach just for the record.
January 2020 Progress Report
It seems like it’s been half a year or longer. What have I been up to?
Working on things other than books, mostly, but you can stay tuned for something new on the horizon. I will release news and material leading up to the debut of something new.
In the meantime, I work to fund my creative ventures. The following is my typical “lunchroom look” at my job. I took it close to the end of 2019, hence its caption.
Newly revised and reformatted editions of The Gift-Knight’s Quest have rolled out for Kindle and Kobo, and print-on-demand via the Amazon platform. The new editions include spelling corrections and subtle improvements to the text that do not alter the story and should not compromise the sequels.
That begged the question of what happens to 70 remaining first editions sitting in boxes behind my bedroom door. I don’t want to sell these at vendor events when there should always be the newest edition available; new editions happen because I like putting my best foot forward. The Kickstarter editions can still do some good, so I set up an ecommerce solution and gave them a quest.
The big news around here is a fun art commission by Jenn St.-Onge (Bingo Love, Nancy Drew, Jem and the Holograms: The Misfits, and much more) which revisits the cover of The Crown Princess’ Voyage (by Rona Dijkhuis). The book is a nice touch since Chandra Kenderley is a character who reads books, values books, and lives books whenever she isn’t suddenly burdened with the ultimate responsibilities of an empire.
And one more announcement
For a few years now, the paperback edition of The Gift-Knight’s Quest has been different than the ebook, and the Kickstarter first edition of the paperback was never print-on-demand. As of April 2019, I had two people inform me that they could only get the paperback from Amazon via resellers and used copies, most likely because most of the unsold first editions left in the world are sitting in boxes behind my bedroom door.
I decided, partly on spur of the moment, partly because I had been considering it for a long time but never making a plan, to clean all this stuff up. My friend Candice helped a lot by formatting, just as she has formatted the currently available sequel ebooks and paperbacks; thank you! Now the ebook edition on Amazon and Kobo is a newly revised and reformatted edition.
In April of 2019, I sold an average of one ebook per day, or 30 ebooks in 30 days. I’m here to analyze these results and show you what I did. It wasn’t anything genius, but it was something.
My gateway to this was through A. G. Letterman’s Twitter account. From there, I understood that the hashtag of the month was #IndieApril. I would sit there for between eight to twelve hours per day, sometimes longer, refreshing the search bar for the latest tweets marked with that hashtag, analyzing them with my human eyes (no scripts here, I’m not that resourceful) and sharing my book link with or without a summary depending on what was requested from the potential buyer.
If I had a workday, I used every lunch break, washroom break, fresh air break (intervals where I can go closer to the door and remove my respirator to breathe easily), leg of public transit commute, wait at a bus stop, and spare moments before and after a cereal breakfast to search for the next “buy thread”.
I felt I needed to be quick on the draw, so I did utilize my clipboard whether on a smartphone or laptop. While my Samsung device easily saves multiple things to a clipboard so I could choose which to try this time, I used a .txt document on my laptop to source a nearly identical list of blurbs.
Every blurb began as something I wrote off the top of my head, but I needed to do this when I was dog-tired from work or otherwise distracted. I also needed to keep it fresh by employing differently phrased blurbs, even if they said similar things, so I might sound 2% less like a robot.
Sometimes, I just remarked in agreement with the book buyer’s criteria, or a slight disagreement but hoping this was all right with them if they had expressed a stronger preference for things other than fantasy yet considered it acceptable.
For laptop purposes, I pulled from the URLs in the top/first blurb. For Samsung clipboard purposes, each blurb had the same URL appended to the end.
The Gift-Knight’s Quest “[Recommended] for fantasy fans who like their stories complex and well-detailed.” – Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Gift-Knights-Quest-Gift-Knight-Trilogy-Book-ebook/dp/B07585WD8X/ Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/the-gift-knight-s-quest-1 Website (inc. Goodreads, professional review) http://squareonecomics.com/dylanmadeley/sample-page/the-gift-knights-quest-main/
A weary Crown Princess must save an empire from tearing itself apart–but first, she must save herself from the same knight sent to protect her. The Gift-Knight’s Quest
History and two sides of a feud come together in a difficult present, where two enemies must thwart worse evils.
Two descendants of a feud briefly match wits, but there’s far more at stake than family revenge.
Two descendants of an age-old feud have to be allies in order to defeat a more dangerous evil. But does the conspiracy really end with what they can see? The Gift-Knight’s Quest
This is a fantasy story that does have its dash of darkness here and there, be warned; but it isn’t a dark fantasy.
A young woman never expecting to inherit an empire tries to keep her world from unravelling, and a misguided avenger shows up at the least convenient time (but when is a good time, right?)
This is the fantasy story of a guy with no role in life who’s searching, a woman overburdened by a role she never expected to have and the weird stuff that goes down when the two finally get to meet. “The Gift-Knight’s Quest”
They range from serious to lighthearted. I wasn’t that worried about spoilers for a book that’s almost five years old.
Haven’t You Written Three Books By Now?
True enough! I began Indie April by providing a neat Kindle link that would show you the entire trilogy, and that lasted for those days of very few sales at the first week of the month. Then I understood a simple truth: most people have never heard of me at all, so why am I pushing the exciting sequels to something they haven’t even heard of?
I retooled my descriptions and links. For me, Indie April would be about getting people to buy (and hopefully read, and for better or worse review) The Gift-Knight’s Quest. It appears to have worked. The vast majority of ebooks sold were Gift-Knights. There was one Masked Queen that moved, to my surprise.
In addition, a few paperbacks sold online, one of which was a Crown Princess; the other ones, being Gift-Knights and in one case a used copy, aren’t managed in my KDP, but that’s a long story coming to a close that I’ll blog about some other time.
Every book in the series got some form of love, but it made the most sense to sell Gift-Knights to strangers. Should it interest them enough, it would be easy for them to find the sequels.
Lifting Others Up As You Climb
Twitter is a community of conversations. If you get anywhere, you get there by the sheer force of others lifting you up. It’s good to find ways to demonstrate that you wish your fellow indie authors well; you lift them up. It’s a way to help people understand who you really are, within reason and your means.
One basic way to do this was the retweeting/sharing of threads I was hitting up. This not only helped my network of people get a turn to offer their book, but it helped buyers find a platform and access to book buying possibilities. The biggest obstacle indie authors face, off the top of my head, is being in a vast ocean of other authors where most of us have equal access to shout at the same volume. It can all get unintelligible unless we organize the signal and the noise somehow.
Here was an event where someone–many someones–actually wanted me to send a book link, a blurb, something; I feel self-conscious advertising my work, even trying to sell at an in-person market, but this felt liberating. It might have been a strain on any of my usual followers who were geared to get notifications every time I tweeted, and I accept that I may have been muted by some.
I didn’t view other indie authors as my competition. I wanted us all to win, somehow. It doesn’t seem like a zero sum game to me when there are so many threads and so many different buyer criteria, and it’s not like every thread ended with one book being purchased.
I was both buyer and seller. I purchased about 30 Kindle ebooks of varying prices. My royalties went most of the way to covering the difference, but the loss I took was minimal given that I didn’t have to purchase a single ad. Some premium ebooks still lurk in my Wish List for another time. I still look at it as a win despite what the ledger would tell you, because I didn’t just drop money down the bottomless pit of ad spend. I have books to read. If they’re great, I can read them as many times as I want.
Sometimes, I had no hope in a thread because the buyer strictly wanted romance, erotic fiction, sci-fi, LGBTQ and/or POC main characters, and other reasonable criteria that The Gift-Knight’s Quest doesn’t fit. That’s when I simply liked the thread to boost its signal and shared to my expanding Twitter base in case the others had a book that fit the criteria.
(Indie April expanded my Twitter following to 1000+, or about 400+ more than I remember having to start with. The list of people I follow also expanded, though not at nearly the pace. I can only keep up with so many.)
Threads got messy. Helping is about listening, and I tried never to post a blurb/link to a thread where my work was strictly ruled out. I sympathize with a desperate feeling; so easy to say I sought to practice restraint when I was having such a great time, I don’t feel like I’m better than anyone who kept trying just in case. I’m sure I missed the point a few times.
Peaks and Valleys
Amazon Bestseller Rank is an interesting beast I know little about, but I feel like the ranking algorithm approves of streaks. Once the first lackluster week was over and I had a better approach, I was able to start selling on more consecutive days, sometimes 2 or 3 books per day. This led to the highest rank The Gift-Knight’s Quest has probably ever had in the time since I took the ebook reins from Matador Books: 57,777.
From there, I was happy to slow up a bit, not only giving other people a chance by sharing threads with them as I had done all along, but eventually just being satisfied with what was accomplished; by April 23, I tried not to post in any book buy threads again. As far as I know, the remaining sales for the month were delayed/legacy sales from threads where the buyer took time to decide. I may have caved a small number of times right near the end, but nothing like the fever pitch search-bar-refreshing and thread-pushing of those middle weeks.
It was fun. I’m adjusting to my previous activity levels and interactions. There is an Indie May, but it’s more about reviewing the books we bought during Indie April. I’m only on the 4th or 5th book of my purchase list, so I may have to get a move on. Some of us rightly ask why we shouldn’t find ways to promote indies all year.
I’m having a Trunk Sale at the Bazaar of the Bizarre. Copies which have been in my suitcase for too long and dinged because of it (yet still feature all the words inside, intact) are going at a steep discount. There will also be new copies, including the newest edition of The Masked Queen’s Lament. There are no old/suitcase copies of that third book, just new ones.
Check back for any further news between now and April 21.
Today I would like to have a brief chat with you about quantifying revisions. It’s great to say we went through a manuscript from top to bottom and thoroughly scoured it. Generally, we work hard and that’s all anyone needs to know.
But what if we want some numeric measurement of what we did, even if it’s just out of personal curiosity?
Tools like Scrivener might already give you the difference in greater detail, but I’m not experienced with it. I’m relatively lo-fi in comparison, just using Microsoft Word for most of my needs; however, Word has some helpful tools to quantify differences when you keep your drafts in separate documents.
Let’s use The Masked Queen’s Lament as an example, because I zeroed in on one necessary change when I went back and fixed it, but I did much more than that. How much more? Well, according to Word:
The image shows many more tools for comparing the differences line by line, but I only wanted one figure to summarize it for you. According to Word, that one number is 853 revisions.
There are also online tools to run a “diff”, or a comparison between two text documents. One such tool is diffchecker.com.
It gives a marginally different result in a slightly expanded way:
In this case, a different algorithm spotted 419 removals (deletions) and 457 additions. The sum of those is slightly larger than what Word gave us, but it’s in the same ballpark.
Numbers, of course, give us quantity. Quality is something else. These measurement tools aren’t going to replace a human who can tell you how one single change fixed a phrase that had been nonsense due to a word omission or a typo. They don’t describe how things are better. Their sole job is to spot the difference.
Have you ever tracked your manuscript revisions in a quantifiable manner? Have you found it practically useful in a particular context, or were you, like me, just curious? Feel free to leave a comment.