My first novel, The Ministry of Thunder, is six months old this week, and I thought it was high time I did some new post to bore you to death about it.
This will be a week of celebrations.
In case you missed it, The Ministry of Thunder is a pulp/fantasy novel set in 1936 China, in which a stranded Italian mechanic tries to recycle himself as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer.
Cue to mysterious artifacts, beautiful women, evil masterminds, Taoist magic, Chinese ghosts, lost cities, and the Ministry of Thunder and Storms.
So, I normally say that everything is part of the learning process – what did I learn (if I did), writing The Ministry of Thunder?
First – the first draft is more like a guideline…
I wrote the first draft of The Ministry of Thunder in eight days – I had been told it could not be done (I lacked “the proper training”), so I did it, all 48.000 words of it.
The first draft is what I showed to the guys that would become my publisher, Acheron Books – and they bought it (the Acheron guys are crazy like that).
The second draft was done in English, translating the first and basically overhauling it in a massive way – scenes were cut, characters expanded (Helena in particular exploded on the page and was all over the place).
The final edit further expanded the book, that right now clocks at a little over 70.000 words.
What’s in there of the first draft?
The first third of the novel is still the same, more or less, then the plot starts deviating from the original – it’s still the same story, but it goes in a different, and better direction.
So, what I learned is – the first draft is indispensable, must be written and finished, possibly fast. It’s like a map1, the earliest sketch of an unexplored land. It helps you get the landmarks and orient yourself. It tells you where to go and look for further detail, and explore, and dig deeper. The final map will be something different.
Second – let the characters do their thing.
I discovered early on that I can’t write down complicated (or not so complicated) character sheets for my stories. It just does not work.
Possibly it is because I write stories (also) to see what the characters will be and do in certain situations – knowing too much beforehand spoils the fun and really bogs down my writing.
So I jot down a list of names, and little else.
Writing The Ministry of Thunder, the most dramatic development was the already mentioned Helena, that from a single-chapter throwaway character/plot device turned into a force of nature, almost stealing the first part of the book from the female lead, and graduating to full-blown protagonist in the short standalone prequel Cynical Little Angels2.
But all the characters grew and contributed to the story in ways I had not completely predicted – and that’s what makes the book fun, I think.
So, yes – the idea is to imagine a solid, well-rounded character, but to leave space for improvisation.
Third – deep research is better done on the run.
Because of my various interests (hey, this is Karavansara, right? You know what my interests are), I had a huge backlog of books and movies and notes and stuff about 1930s Shanghai, about Chinese Turkestan, Mongolia, the plateau of Leng and all that… so research was not that big a problem, on paper.
In practice I found out it is much better to play fast and loose on the first draft, and then go and research the bits that really matter during the second draft. It’s less time-consuming, more focused.
Thick books about everyday life in Shanghai (e.g.) are great between books, because reading such big portraits of a time and a place, you get ideas for stories. But when you are actually writing those stories, what matters is if there were trees along Bubbling Well Road, or what the Italian Consulate looked like. That can be solved – with a little of luck – in a few hours.
Fourth – big action requires big planning.
I had to learn to choreograph big action scenes involving dozens of characters, and I learned how to do it using a spreadsheet. It still feels a little wooden on first draft, and once again, leaving maneuvering space for improvisation is fundamental, but the system seems to work. Striking the proper balance between realism and pulpishness can be a problem – it is necessary to set down a set of rules, and stick to them.
It is also important to remember that, while you can visualize your action scenes in your mind’s eye as if this were a movie, it is not a movie, and the dynamics on the page are not the same as on screen.
Fifth – disasters happen but the readers are forgiving.
It is a well known fact that the first batch of ebooks of The Ministry of Thunder suffered from a mysterious (to me) software mishap, and had to be replaced.
When I learned of the problem, I thought there goes my writing career, lousy as it is, on day one.
But it was not so – the readers were fantastic, and they did not go on the killing spree I had anticipated.
This was probably the most important thing I learned writing The Ministry of Thunder – you have to keep every detail under control, disasters will happen anyway, but disasters can be solved and the readers will appreciate every effort.
Bonus track… Sixth – you can write fast and write good.
The Ministry of Thunder was the first story I completed using Scrivener3, and applying the guidelines provided by Rachel Aaron in her 2000 to 10000. For a number of reasons, I needed to write this book fast, and I did it.
And the results are not half bad, if I do say so myself.