I'm told that you always learn something when you write a book. I suppose this is even truer for a new author on his first-time book.
I started writing Northworld: Book 1 of the Silvergates back in January (at least that's what my backup tells me). It wasn't my first tentative book, I already had three .docx with... stuff in them. One was even close to a book, and I may revisit it later. But when I started, Northworld was a very different idea than the one you just read.
It was, to put it bluntly, a compilation of the most common tropes you'd see in litrpg, except for the Silvergate/Northworld mechanic. You had one main character only, Vantegaard, who'd enter this because his parents had died, and he'd discover this awesome unique skill by luck, which opened all those Leylines. He'd then grind and harvest skills, making him potentially the biggest and most overpowered Earth Mage of Northworld. Of course, that attired jealousy and the enmity of established mages, notably one Armangest. So he got around to get phat lewt, pursued by Armangest's Russian minion Karseerteal. In the end, he'd get recruited by a cabal of the most OP Gaters who revealed why they wanted him - it turns out they had found out a different Silvergate, "blue" Silvergates that opened pathways to another, different world, deeper into some kind of onion layer of RPG worlds. With bigger and meaner monsters. The "blues" are rarer than the normal ones, and they only give one to the most promising Gaters, to help them push in that. And it's a secret cabal, of course. Maybe Michael Chatfield would forgive me for stealing his Ten Realms.
The second book would be Earthsea: Book 2 of the Silvergates. To keep with the literature homage. I might be able to pass with Northworld, but that one probably wouldn't. Like, ever.
Then I wrote the outline of chapter 21, I put the holograms in there... and the story completely changed.
There are bits and pieces of the original story that you can recognize, but a lot of it is gone. I think the new story is much better, of course, but I've also learned why new authors tend to say they'd rewrite their first book. It's usually not good, because you are still learning how to write novels. In my case, I'd even say the second version isn't yet that good, but that's me.
It happens. You live and learn and move to the next book, which will – hopefully – be much better. At one point, you may end up rewriting your first book, if it’s salvageable. I think it is. It's certainly closer to a passable book than the original.
Once I had the Five, the Pyramid, and all that, I found my real story arc. One with a beginning and a definitive end. I even had the division into four major arcs, of which the present book is the first. I won’t spoil the rest, of course. But the 4 arcs gave me basic themes which I could use to make the books.
I spoke about a theme, and the basic theme of the first book is about unexamined assumptions, motivated reasoning, and the various blinds we all have. It's a hard theme to explore well, and that's where quite a lot of the weak points of the book come from.
The first unexamined assumption is, of course, the fact that Northworld is intended for us. While its origins are mysterious, the Interface is very human-oriented. It uses SI units everywhere, it refers to human cultural tropes (Fist and Furious, really?). So it makes sense that we all expect the world to be ours. That it’s a construct, a theater intended for human consumption by… some god? An internet AI that plays with transcendent technology? Who knows. Ask any Historicianus. He'll tell you all how he can demonstrate why it's that way. Or even tell you about the proof of aliens he's found.
Until someone finds out five holograms of five First Gaters, that is. And that they’re really aliens, not some flavor backstory.
Another example of unexamined assumptions are the ones from one Henry Esteban. He’s a good, but junior, FBI agent. When he’s assigned a mission, he’s of course in the service of right. The designated targets are the bad guys. And it’s a reasonable assumption. Because usually, the targets of FBI operations aren’t nice people.
It takes some time, but he figures out that politically motivated witch hunts aren’t really what he’s standing for. But you need the right pressure to get him to examine what he believes in. A boss that dismisses his own experience (“it’s all fake”) and two people he’s been through hell with, and who counts as his friends.
There’s the largest assumption of all, Armangest smelling hanky-panky when told of an unsubstantiated story that apparently cost his friend’s life. He needs someone to be responsible, and once the culprit is found… well, everything you say and do will be held against you. This is a natural reaction, and why every legal system has multiple checks, investigative procedures, to avoid the bias. And even then, sometimes, it doesn’t work. But you almost always need outside pressure to break into the shell of conspiracy thinking and make you see the contradictions and realize you were chasing a red herring.
I toyed initially with changing Vantegaard’s real name to Richard Kimble, but that would have given away the plot of book 1.
Alas, it’s the weakest part of the book. The chase is important – it gives our heroes a chance to examine their own assumptions, pushes them to question things, and finally gather help and cement their reputation beyond their lowbie status. But it’s really hard to sell because the reader knows. He’s outside of the world, can see it all, and doesn’t have the blinders that others suffer from. He can see the Cartographers being stupidly obtuse because they are. They might have good reasons, but we can recognize them as weak ones. A better author could bring that about far better than I did. I thought myself better than I am.
There are, of course, more expectations that are overturned. This time, I’m talking about reader expectations rather than character ones. The first one is the usual trope about overpowered skills. LitRPG is littered with stories of characters stumbling onto The Skill™ that makes them overpowered. So, I had lots of fun turning the original overpowered skill into a skill that could be a major boon for negotiations, just not in the ways you would expect originally.
And it also changes completely how Gaters go around making builds. Spoiler alert: location-based skill awarding is a general mechanic. Works on spawn (Fanduk, Doriath… so far), works on the lottery. There are weapon places, magic places. Every skill has either a specific place or a specific set of 3 locations. Once the rabbit is out of the hat, people will start coming out with their stories about why, sometimes, you get a skill right There.
And the Cartographers will make lots of money selling location guides for your build, of course.
Then, there’s the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is a powerful and common structure for novels. There are thousands of variations, but it’s a classic way of making a story. The Hero comes out from his mundane world, unaware of anything, but is somehow called to adventure. He’s propelled into a different place, where he has to learn from a wise mentor the new rules that apply to him. He may reject the call, but in the end, he follows the path that opens up for him. He faces tests and tribulations, respites and trials until he finds where he has to go. There, he finds a final and most terrible test, where he triumphs – whether alone or with the help of his friends and allies, – and obtain the prize, which he brings back. Then, he may return home, his story finished for now or finds himself so changed that he can no longer really stay home (and the story can continue).
When you have three main characters in your story, your natural assumption is that the Hero will be the one you meet first, with his permanent companions. But in this story, who is called that didn’t seek to enter Northworld? Who has a nerd explaining the rules? Who has the opportunity to refuse, but keeps going on? Who finds where to go for the mystical place where the proof awaits? And who finds out he can’t go back anymore because he is changed?
Eh. That’s right. The real Hero of Silvergates book 1 is Henry Esteban. That was mean of me. But if I had to add a guy coming from "the wrong side", you get redemption, so why not make him a hero as well.
The other two are going to be the main Heroes of their own books, of course. Then, I suppose I will have to spread the various pieces all over the trio for the last book. We'll see when that comes around.
I just checked, and I realize that I started posting book 1 on July, 20th. A bit over two months ago only. At that date, I had the entire first arc written, and about a third of the scenes of arc 2, plus a smattering of notes about what had to happen in-between. This makes me hopeful that I can probably manage to push out two books a year if I don't waste a couple of months on a first version where 90% of the text gets deleted at one point.
What’s in store for you, reader?
More, of course. There are a few more assumptions that are going to be broken in the course of the next book. But the first part of the story, Acceptance, is now done. While Earth remains completely oblivious to the Five Gaters, the major forces of Northworld now know the truth. They’re not going to wait until some government decides to take over. That’s not what Gaters are about.
The second book isn’t written yet. Neither are the next two. But I already have the intro (which is easy), a few scenes including one where I’m hoping to spring a nice surprise on you, a theme and a suitably explosive epilogue.
Yes, spoiler alert: the epilogue of book 2 is a real cliffhanger, not a wrap-up.
But that’s for 2020. I'm going to make it a lot more polished than I had originally when I started publishing book 1 on Royal Road. That, at least, I've learned.
Vincent Archer wrote his first story around age 11. On a mechanical typewriter, with carbon paper for a mimeograph to distribute in class. His teacher knew enough to make vague encouraging noises rather than really tell him what she thought. He wrote more stories afterward, but Time has thankfully managed to erase every trace of them.
Now that his career has settled in a mix of routine and insanity and that he's figured out that herding cats would probably be easier, he's finally started to write stories again on a media rather than inside his brain. Some of those are even potentially good enough to show to other people.
Silvergates is his first attempt to finish one rather than admit defeat against the usual writer's block.