Leveling Up

I’ve been hooked on RPG’s since I bought Dragon Warrior for the NES in the 1980’s. I loved the concept of the games—heros start out as skill-less commoners with bamboo sticks, and by gaining experience, slaying foul beasts and completing quests they become more powerful. Around the same time that I had become fascinated with RPG’s, I had started diving for abalone with my dad. On a certain dive, I remember thinking, “Wow…this is getting easier. It’s kind of like I’m…leveling up!”

Fast forward almost 30 years, and here I am, sipping coffee in a cabin in Flagstaff, waiting for everyone to wake up so I can make breakfast, having just felt the same sensation as leveling up that I’d felt amidst those cold Pacific waves. Only this time, it was with my writing.

I’ve put a lot of time and energy into developing the world for The War of Ages Saga, and into writing the first book. Years of my life poured into this tale. Once I finished the first draft, I remember feeling a profound sense of accomplishment. I knew I had a lot more work ahead of me, more than I’d already put into it, but I had completed a lifelong goal and that felt good.

Then came the editing and revising. I must have read Age of Darkness a hundred times, and argued endlessly with my mentor (Lisa Ambrose) over a scene. Writing a book had quickly degraded from fun to work.

“This scene doesn’t work,” Lisa would tell me.

“This is going to take a lot of work,” is what I would hear.

Looking back at it now, I can see how lofty a goal The War of Ages Saga actually is, especially for an aspiring writer.

The second time I felt accomplished was when I had finally gotten my manuscript to publishable. Lisa, who had over 15 years of editing experience, and who had already published many books herself, had line-edited my entire manuscript. Almost 150,000 words. For free! Well, I helped her with three of her books that she’d published, and I got her coffee whenever we met, but I’d say I got the better end of that deal.

The first time I’d wanted to abandon The War of Ages was when I realized my publishable material was not.

By the time I had begun querying, I’d felt that my writing had significantly leveled up. I had gotten my associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, had been listening to podcasts, and reading blogs/books on writing, and I’d been mentored by a seasoned writing veteran. I may not have been publishable material at the time, but I understood the elements to make a good story.

Maybe that was why I was so hesitant to re-read Age of Darkness.

By the 50th rejection from agents, I knew I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole. I knew what the problem was, but I didn’t want to face the dark truth—my manuscript needed a lot more work because it had been written by a level 1 writer.

That was the moment that I realized I had probably bitten off more than I could chew. As knowledgeable (or naive) as I was about writing, I was still aspiring to become published. Taking on an epic fantasy book series, with multiple characters and plots, political maneuverings, etc. had been a bit like telling someone you want to take up mountain climbing, and then start with Mt. Everest.

In taking on such a monumental task, it had overwhelmed my writing senses. Instead of gaining experience and leveling up through short stories, novellas, and stand-alone novels, I decided to plunge into the war zone. Just like any greenhorn shoved into the thick of battle, there was nothing else I could focus on; Age of Darkness demanded all of my attention, and my writing suffered because of it.

Some first-time authors have accomplished such a feat, but such a thing is a true rarity, and should never be considered as anything more than a serendipitous possibility. If you become the next Stephanie Meyers or JK Rowling, then great! Until that moment happens, plan on coming up through the ranks, so to speak, and write, write write!

Write many different stories, with different flavors. Expand your skills by writing genres you aren’t accustomed to. Write a scene with no action, maybe a person walking through a field of tall grass. Write a love scene, a battle, political maneuvering, hiking through a forest, in a desert, casting spells, going on a date… Writing short stories outside of your genre helps you learn the flavor of those genres. It will only prove to make you a better storyteller. That is how you level up as a writer, and that’s exactly what I did.

Age of Darkness sat in the recesses of my computer, behind blogging, short stories, and a new idea for a stand-alone novel:

“Twenty years have passed since Iruviaa’s daughter killed her. The world seemed to have died with her.”

A peculiar thing happened when I started writing to improve my craft and venturing into other genres—the prospect of returning to Age of Darkness became increasingly more enticing. I knew I would have to rewrite much of the manuscript, but it no longer seemed as daunting.

I’d gained experience.

I’d leveled up.

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