What It Took To Write My Novelette “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay”

Cover art of The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay by Matthew Wayne SelznickMy latest creative work, “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay,” is now available as an e-book via Amazon, worldwide.

It comes out ten months after my previous release, the novel Light of the Outsider, and while I’m not sure if that’s some kind of record for me, it feels like an improved rate of creative productivity, that’s for sure.

All the same, the April 6th, 2021 release of “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” was four months later than my declared target of December 4th, 2020.

I won’t say I don’t have a little anxiety about that. At the same time, “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” is something I’m proud of; a creative work that feels like an artifact of my intention and my expression, and if that’s not the definition of hitting the target creatively, I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

What’s “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” about? What did it take to write it and get it to the world? How did the process contribute to my progress as a creator? What lessons have I learned?

About “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay”

“The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” is a tale of the Shaper’s World Cycle. It takes place about a year after the events in Light of the Outsider, and features three characters from that novel.

For those of you not keeping every little thing about me and my creative works front-of-mind: The Shaper’s World is, speaking simplistically, a fantasy setting like Westeros or Middle Earth… but… no. It’s not like those at all. There are no elves, no hobbits, no talking lions, no dire wolves (no wolves!), no dwarves or dragons. No portal to our world. It’s a planet around a star… somewhere… and, apart from a few fantastical elements, is readily in the “realistic fantasy” camp. Another name for this genre (if I gotta… man, I really hate genre labels) would be “grimdark” (hate that phrase) or “dark fantasy” (too limiting..! Arggghh!)

Digression: putting a genre label on an entire fantasy setting is like saying every story told set on planet Earth is “post industrial noir.” The Shaper’s World is… a world! So all manner of stories can… and are being… and will be told there.

Light of the Outsider, the debut novel and first work in the storyworld, is a caper / crime thriller with undercurrents of cosmic horror.

“The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” is a character-driven, emotionally charged interpersonal tale of love, obligation, and consequences. It’s much more “literary” in tone, and the fantasy elements are, while integral, not center stage.

It’s one of those stories of mine for which I feel I have to say, “Even if (fill-in-the-genre) isn’t your thing, this will resonate with you.” More about why in a bit.

What Did It Take To Write “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay?”

I started writing “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” on October 1st, 2020… barely. Given that I hoped to release the finished product just two months later… yeah. See “What Have I Learned…” below.

The story was on my mind before then, of course. A whole lot of writing involves staring into space, writing free-form journal / brainstorming entries, and allowing everything to just kind of… stew.

My lodestone was that this would be a gentle, almost quiet, story. No evil cultists or scheming agents; no taciturn assassins or cosmic threats. Not that there wouldn’t be conflict, and very, very high stakes.

If Light of the Outsider was a summer blockbuster, “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” is a heartfelt indie film.

I had another guiding light: Mike Resnick’s stunningly moving collection of interconnected stories, Kirinyaga.

Not that “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” has anything at all to do with the subject matter of Resnick’s multi-award winning work. I didn’t even want to necessarily emulate the tone of those stories.

Rather, I wanted to create something that clung to the memory the way Kirinyaga has clung to mine for decades.

I am not the writer Resnick was. Not yet. I am not claiming I succeeded. You’ll have to decide that.

Stated simply, Kirinyaga was the lamp that lit my pen, and “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” was written, gratefully, in its shadow.

Other Lights and Shadows

In “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay,” Dennick travels with Agane, his spouse (“heartfast” in parlance of the Magn people of the Shaper’s World) and their friend Kug on a mission to find the healer who can cure the Agane of a progressively debilitating disease. It’s got a lot to do with illness, and mortality, and the special, unique burdens carried both by people who are sick and the people who love them.

I didn’t set out to make this a parable of the Coronavirus / COVID-19 global pandemic. But a few days before I started writing, the global dead passed one million. Two days after I started writing, I lost a potential client to the disease.

Then, as now, it was impossible not the think of those who had been lost, their surviving loved ones, and the toll extracted on COVID-19 victims who had survived not unscathed.

Agane suffers from “the Wasting,” a fictional disease that is nothing like COVID-19. It more resembles a horrible combination of Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and fibromyalgia.

I came up with the general symptoms long before the pandemic. Rather, I was… inspired is hardly the appropriate word… by a long-ago co-worker who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and my own mother’s long struggle living with fibromyalgia. Basically, I thought of some of the most horrible ailments I’d personally seen people endure, and made them one awful thing.

Write what you know, they say.

Wish I didn’t.

Another experience exerting undeniable influence on “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” was being the sole caretaker for my mother as complications and cumulative damage from her diabetes, her fibromyalgia, and her chronic anxiety and depression brought her increasingly frequent and severe health crises in the last four years of her life until her death in late August, 2019.

A year and a half later, I miss her, of course, but also, I am still adjusting to the fundamental fact that I am no longer responsible for her well-being; her safety; her very life. I’m very aware that there are deeply ingrained issues at the ready for me to work out.

So, while I didn’t set out to write a story about the collateral effects of the pandemic, I was fully aware that “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” would be, like it or not, compulsory therapy for me, one way or another.

Every Day: Feel the Burn, or Avoid the Workout by Rearranging the Gym?

I started out envisioning “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” to be a novella — that is, depending on which yardstick you use, between 17,500 and 40,000 words. I knew the story didn’t require the complexity (and so, word count) of a full-length novel, but I also wanted to let it breathe and stretch when appropriate.

It ended up being around 16,400 words, which puts it in the “novelette” class. Now that the thing is up on Amazon, their algorithm puts it at 65 pages, short enough for the various “short reads” categories.

You might think it would take correspondingly less time to write than a larger work. I sure did. That’s why I allocated just two months for the thing, from start to publication.

Why’d it turn into six?

While I can point to the holiday season, house guests, my day job, and other assorted cans of time gas leaking everywhere, there were plenty of days I could have been adding words to the manuscript and was instead working on adjacent activities, like sussing out details of the Shaper’s World itself.

Granted, I needed to know lots of specific things about the continent of Kaebrith, especially the region in which “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” takes place, distances from there to there, travel times, and the like. This logistical stuff matters in the story, and because the story is one piece in a larger mosaic of fiction set in the Shaper’s World, it matters for internal consistency not just in this work, but across multiple works.

But… yeah. Some days, I only had enough mental energy to muck around creating maps and working out the locations of things, and not enough emotional energy.

Looking at the reporting in yWriter, it seems between when I started on October 1, 2020 and when I finished the first draft on February 27, 2021, I actually only added words to the manuscript on 33 out of 150 days. Less than a quarter of the duration.

Seriously, why?

Because it was painful.

Because it was challenging.

Because it was exhausting.

I’m With Frank Norris, Mostly

As the late novelist once wrote in a letter, “Don’t like to write, but like having written.”

Writing fiction, at least for me, means juggling assorted structural and situational elements while also hopscotching between the heads of imaginary people I have to, for the duration, functionally become, all while attempting to ignore external distractions and stressors.

With this story and its close-to-home subject matter, I was dredging up some largely unexamined and, until then, unasked for stuff, too, pretty much every time I’d put my hands on the keyboard.

Some days, I just couldn’t do it. It was easier to find related and, sure, necessary, but secondary, tasks to tackle… apparently around 75% of the time..!

Ol’ Frank Norris, and many like-minded scribes since (and undoubtedly before), knew about the drudgery and the toll, and I agree with him, to a point.

There were moments in the writing — specific scenes that I can’t share without spoiling the novelette for you — that were cathartic. Moments that created, for me, the feelings I hope to inspire in you when you read the thing. Healing moments… although it’s going to be a while before the scabs flake away.

Now, not every writing project is an emotional marathon. Light of the Outsider certainly was, for reasons very different from those to do with “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay.” My literary shorts-and-essays collection Four Stories had some no-pain-no-gain stretches. On the other hand, my most recent Sovereign Era (another of my storyworlds, this one focused loosely on “super powers”) short story, “The News from Bewilder Pond,” left me feeling like I’d had a really invigorating walk — an accomplishment, but more of an exhibition than a title bout, to mix sporty metaphors.

I might grouse through the process, and do everything I can to avoid it… but I know enough to recognize that when it’s rough going, it’s worth it, and that value will be passed on to you, dear reader.

At least, I hope so! Find out!

What Have I Learned Creating and Releasing “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay?”

In the ten months from first words to release day, I did gather some new skills and proficiency across the 117 days I should have been writing, and I came to some realizations that merit further investigation and experimentation.

Worldbuilding Level-Up

I mentioned doing a bunch of worldbuilding over the last ten months. Thanks to excellent and generous resources, especially on YouTube, and especially-especially Edgar Grunewald‘s Artifexian channel, I was able to refresh my knowledge of things like atmospheric and oceanic currents, Köppen climate zones, and the like, and to engage in some just-in-time learning on cartographic techniques.

The Regions Included in The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay

Part of the map of Kaebrith made for my personal reference, featuring the Gulf of Kwaanantag and the regions mentioned in “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay.” This image represents an area about 600 miles across.

I codified the general shape, topography, major rivers, and major biomes for Kaebrith, the continent on Gundi-Fai (the Shaper’s World) where Light of the Outsider, “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay,” and the next five-plus novels and other works take place, and I made great progress on a master map I can repurpose and supplement going forward.

In the process, I acquired working knowledge and basic skills working with Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer, two vector art applications, and that will carry over into the day job, adding to my worth as a creative services provider.

My next Shaper’s World novel, Shadow of the Outsider, will bring readers to previously unseen corners of Kaebrith, so I’ll continue to dedicate time to fleshing out the foundational details of the setting over the coming months. The long-term plan is to publish a Shaper’s World gazetteer that will serve not just as a companion to the fiction, it will be a resource for tabletop role playing gamers who might want to use the storyworld for their own personal games. So this will all be time spent with an eventual return.

I just have to make sure I’m not falling into the worldbuilding-as-procrastination trap. For Shadow of the Outsider, I’d like to see myself flipping that “writing time:not writing time” ratio.

3D Landscape Rendering

Book covers are important. While it’s true that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, it’s a fact of marketing that if the book cover doesn’t satisfy certain criteria, your potential reader will never get past the cover to judge the content of the book on its own merits.

Thing is, original cover art, especially original digital or tangible painted art, is relatively expensive. Worth it! But expensive.

Until I’m making much, much more from my creative endeavors and it makes financial sense, I’ve made the decision to only pay for original art for the covers of my novels.

For shorter works (short stories, novelettes, novellas, and non-fiction works under 50,000 words), for now, I’m creating and designing my own covers.

Note that if you don’t have expertise with graphic design software and experience with book marketing, I do not recommend this! Indeed, even though I do have professional expertise and experience creating market-appropriate book covers, I’m going to turn that over to others as soon as it makes economic sense to do so.

Until then…

I have a general strategy for works released in the Shaper’s World Cycle:

  • Novels will feature original cover art from artists like Tim Shepherd, whose work graces the cover of Light of the Outsider. The subject matter will be dynamic, including characters and a loose, market-appropriate interpretation of a scene from the book.
  • Shorter works will feature landscape art I create myself, representing a market-appropriate interpretation of a location and the theme / tone of the work.
  • The typography on all Shaper’s World Cycle books, major and minor, will have a similar look and feel to maintain brand consistency.

Since Kwaanantag Bay is right there in the title of the novelette, the subject matter is a no-brainer. For the tone and feel of the cover, I wanted to emulate the painted covers from the pulp fantasy paperbacks I remember from the 1970s… evocative images that often didn’t feature any characters or action, but sure gave your imagination plenty to do.

I looked around for public domain and open-license photographs of real world locations, and a few came close… but always included people, metal fences, buildings, and other real-world elements I knew I wouldn’t be able to easily remove without stumbling into that uncanny valley of “Oh, that’s been photoshopped” disconnect.

I tried… VERY briefly… to digitally paint what I saw in my mind’s eye myself.

Nope. I do not have those skills.

What I do have is a height map of Kaebrith, which includes, down to a very high resolution, the region of Kwaanantag Bay.

A height map is a top-down graphic representation of relative altitude in gradient shades from dark to light. The darker the pixel, the lower it is compared to the lightest pixel. True black equals the lowest point; true white, the highest.

What’s neat is this: You can take a height map and import it into any number of terrain generation software programs and have it re-interpreted in three virtual dimensions.

I chose World Creator 2 for this task. Yes, I spent money on a professional license — about half what I might have spent on an actual artist — but since I’m going to be using this tool for future covers and other purposes, it’s a sensible investment.

After a learning curve I’m, frankly, still navigating, I was able to create a reasonable interpretation of Kwaanantag Bay as it might look from the points of view of the protagonists of the novelette. By using digital tools in World Creator that emulate real-world lighting, fog, and other environmental elements, plus some “post production” in a graphics editor, I managed to come very, very close to the image in my head: a realistic, but “painterly,” landscape.

Bonus: it’s the actual topography of a portion of Kwaanantag Bay!

Bonus bonus! I have new skills that I can use to help my clients as a creative services provider working with authors and other creators.

Marketing Lessons

As with Light of the Outsider, I offered my mailing list community of friends and fans the opportunity to purchase a Pre-Order Bundle shortly after the first draft of “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” was complete.

For $10.00, they reserved the e-book and the audiobook, and received an invitation to participate in a “koffee klatch” group video chat to talk about the novelette once they had some time to read it. I also included high-resolution wallpaper of the full cover art image (only a fraction is shown on the e-book cover) for their computers, tablets, phones, etc.

Unlike my direct pre-order effort with Light of the Outsider, which you can read about, this offer was only adopted by a small percentage of my mailing list community. When it came time to actually download the e-book, only half of those who purchased actually did so within the first two weeks. And the “koffee klatch?” No one RSVP’ed to indicate their interest, so I cancelled it.

I’m a little surprised!

However!

I shouldn’t be!

Here’s the thing: it’s always better to find out what your community of friends and fans actually wants and to, if you can, give them that… over thinking they’ll want whatever you think would be fun to offer.

I’m grateful folks put down their money even though they apparently didn’t really care about the perks their pre-order provided! It tells me what really drove them was a desire to support me as a creator.

That’s wonderful. It really is — indeed, it kind of keeps me going — but I’d rather deliver above and beyond for them.

So next time, I’ll find out what they’d most love to receive for their early-adopter direct pre-order commitment.

My Community Is Changing… Or Is It Me?

I have a small mailing list. Heck, by some standards, it’s minuscule!

It’s loyal, though. Many of those folks have been around for fifteen years.

It’s engaged, too. 44% of the emails I send, they open. Click-through (how often people who open emails click on links I want them to click) is 4%. Both of those are considered well above average.

That said…

I know most of those people came to me out of their love for my first novel, Brave Men Run, and its pioneering podcast edition. That book, and it’s superior but less popular sequel, Pilgrimage, is in a different storyworld and a different (here’s that dirty word again) genre than my Shaper’s World works.

I’ve seen, over the years, that folks who liked Brave Men Run‘s mash-up of teen coming-of-age with superpowers just aren’t that into anything else I’ve done. Even if they buy (thank you!) and read (I assume?) the stuff, they’re not writing reviews (one of the kindest things you can do for an author after you’ve read their work), spreading the word, and so on.

Also, the list is essentially stagnant, acquiring just one or two new community members each month.

It’s time to reassess what I’m doing over there, and get much more proactive about growing the community.

Why?

There’s no more valuable or profitable marketing asset for a writer than their mailing list. I’ve been letting mine ride, and that means I’ve been missing opportunities.

It’s very possible most of my existing friends and fans aren’t all that interested in The Big Plan to write and release six novels, plus minor and supplemental works, in the Shaper’s World storyworld between 2020 and 2026. It may be that most of the folks in my community are waiting until my focus returns to the Sovereign Era storyworld to bring out their fully activated enthusiasm and support.

If that’s the case… that’s okay!

To find out for sure, though, I need to ask.

So in the coming weeks, I’ll put together a community survey and take the pulse of my mailing list. This will help me make sure I’m delivering the right information and offers to the right people. I know they’ll appreciate that, and I’ll appreciate the opportunity to be more effective.

One thing I already know: I must find, and attract, new people: readers into the kind of stuff I’m going to be writing for the next several years.

“But Matt,” you might be thinking, “if you really want to give your community what they seem to want, why not write and release the next four or five Sovereign Era novels?”

Yeah, that’s a valid question. The honest answer is: right now? I have more love for the Shaper’s World.

I love the giant story I’m telling across those six-plus books.

I love the characters: those I’ve introduced to the world, and those I know, but you, gentle reader, so far do not.

Most of all… I love the world! I think about Kaebrith’s savannas and jungles and forests and deserts and sprawling highlands and imposing mountains… the animals, the people… and it feels like home. I want to spend time there. I want to tell as many stories there as I can, while I can… and when I am  no able or alive to do it myself, I want to have left enough material behind that others can continue to explore and discover everything there is to experience there.

I believe in it. I’m inspired by it.

It’s up to me to find other people who share that excitement. So that’s what I will do.

Next

Before I move “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” over to the “done” column, I have to record, produce, and release the audiobook. It’ll go to the direct pre-order customers first, and then I’ll submit it to the various audiobook marketplaces. They all have different processing times, so it’ll be weeks (in some cases, months) before the audiobook is widely available… but once it’s submitted… the novelette is done.

Shadow of the Outsider

Concurrently, and in-progress right now, is work on the next novel of the Shaper’s World Cycle: The Outsider Trilogy volume two, Shadow of the Outsider.

Originally slotted for public release on July 14, 2021, pushing the release date for “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” from December of last year to April of 2021 means Shadow of the Outsider is now scheduled for October or November, 2021.

Shadow of the Outsider is a bigger story than its predecessor, Light of the Outsider. It’s got to work as a meaningful extension of the tale begun in Light of the Outsider, as an entertaining bridge to the novel that follows, War of the Outsider, and as a satisfying work of fiction in its own right.

As I write these words in early April, 2021, I’m in the middle of all of the “pre-production” work: mapping out the overall story (including two overlapping primary plotlines), creating detailed character background documents, and crafting a detailed scene-by-scene outline.

That’s my process; when it’s time to create the first manuscript draft, I know exactly what I should be writing each time I come to the keyboard.

Throughout, there will be, again, necessary worldbuilding work to be done to serve the story. But not at the expense of finishing the thing!

Come hell or high water, I will begin writing that first draft on May 1st, and it will be completed before July 14, 2021.

Well before I complete the draft, I’ll commission the cover art and get the direct pre-order going. The goal is to have the e-book in the hands of my direct pre-order customers on or before October 11, 2021.

That’s a tough pace. I know it. It’s important that I get more and more efficient creating these novels. Light of the Outsider was written in 125 days spread, often thinly, across 19(!) months.  Can I do Shadow of the Outsider in 75 days?

I’m going to do my best. What truly matters is that I continue to work, and build, and keep my eye on the long game.

Reflecting

I used to be a baby rock star. The bands I was in were middling-to-big fish in very small ponds. The opening act for the opening act of the band you came to see, with a few exceptions.

Didn’t matter. There’s something remarkable, something precious and pure, about creating live music with two or three of your creative brothers and sisters. The exchange of energy between band and audience in the 45 minutes you’re on stage is a singular experience.

Fueling those forty five minutes are hours and weeks where it’s just you and the band in a hot, sweaty practice space, looking inward, honing your craft and growing together into a cohesive engine. It’s a lot of work, over a long time, between those firecracker minutes in front of an audience.

When it’s over and done; when everyone’s packed up and gone home and you’re sitting on the edge of your bed, exhausted but unable to sleep for the residual vibration in your veins and buzzing in your ears… coming down from that high can be jarring indeed. Post-Concert Depression is a thing.

I can’t speak for all creative acts, or for all creators, but for me, at least, something similar happens after I’ve released a new book.

The momentum, the blind confidence, required to get a book completed and to market… after launch, it can feel like coming to a sudden, jarring stop.

There’s no more running on faith. The book is in the world, to stand or fail or, worst of all, do nothing at all, and promotion and advertising be damned, what happens next is all in the hands of the reader.

If there are readers.

As I bring this article toward its 5,000 word finish line, having revisited and relived the road to this point, I can’t deny feeling a bit maudlin and fatalistic. It’s valid; post-publishing depression is a thing, too, right? It’s also just kind of how I’m put together.

I made another thing.

Even though I know what comes next; even though I’ve been making things and releasing them into the world for over two decades, I still hear the voice from somewhere in my chest: “Now what?”

Yeah, I know as well as you do, having just read this far. I know what comes next. Hell, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying.

I’m going to do it anyway. One day after another, one word after another, in patches of time I sometimes have to fight (myself as much as anything or anyone) to claim.

Because this is The Big Plan!

This is what matters to me, more than anything.

Legacy. Expression. Creation. Life and death.

Truth: one reason I’ve taken to writing these lengthy de-briefings after I publish something is to honor the accomplishment. To draw a line between when it wasn’t done and when it was. To mark who I was, and who I am, and to clean the plate and clear the air.

It’s a stick of burning sage.

I’m running a long game. The Big Plan: years of steady, cumulative work aimed at bringing a world to life in a time-and-space-shifted collaboration between our imaginations, mine and yours, if you’re into it.

I made another thing.

I love it. You will, too.

Next!

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