Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

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When Four Is Greater than Fourteen (or Nine)

HaltandCatchFire

The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?

Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna

HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.

A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.

MICE

In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.

Louis and…

In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.

But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.

But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.

And so…

I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.

~S

We’re Still Here

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably been wondering where we’ve been. Real life has kept us rather busy, actually. First of all, S’s mother passed away in late August, after a month in the hospital, and obviously we were more concerned with that than with keeping up our blog. Some of you—the ones who follow S on twitter and many of our writing friends here in town—already knew this. Thank you for your very kind expressions of sympathy.

In addition, late August was when Fall semester started, so I’ve been back at work (finally). I’m teaching a new course this fall, which means a lot more class prep than I usually have to do. If you’ve never been a teacher, you may not appreciate just how much time it takes to prepare for a new class. Once you’ve taught the same course half a dozen times, you can sort-of do things on autopilot. But the first time around, you have to figure out exactly what you’re going to do every day. Most of my usual writing time is now dedicated to reading and taking notes and planning lectures.

But we’re still working on writing projects. S has written and posted some excellent fanfic, and she’s thinking, too, about her upcoming epistolary novel. And then there’s Magnificent Kingdom, which was our project for July Camp NaNo, and will probably be our project for the actual NaNoWriMo in November, as well. It’s going to be a long novel, so it’s hardly surprising that it takes a while.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to. Hopefully we’ll be able to return to our regular posting schedule here soon. Thanks for your patience.

J

Map Till You Nap

Keneburg Small

More fun than a barrel of monkeys.  Though I suppose most things are, really.

It’s been a very busy week. Seriously, you have no idea. But I’ve still had time to read, here and there. I’m working my way through Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which is very good. I’m about 80% of the way through, and I just discovered that one of my favorite characters isn’t dead after all. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise—I had a feeling he might still be alive. It wasn’t hard to guess, really. When someone gets stabbed, and his friends leave him, assuming he must be dead, that’s almost like when they say, “No body was ever found,” on a soap opera. But anyway, I’m enjoying the book.

I also listened to The Book of Three on audiobook. That’s the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, of course. I should probably have read all those books when I was a kid, but I never did. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew they existed, which is a shame. If you read through the reviews on the Goodreads page, you’ll see a number of people grousing about how it’s full of fantasy clichés, or about how it’s a “blatant” Tolkien rip-off. Which I think is a bit unfair. Clearly Alexander is just drawing from the same sort of mythological sources that Tolkien used.

Also, Tolkien, no matter how awesome he may be, never had a female character like Princess Eilonwy. I like her a great deal, and I am quite serious when I say that she pretty much singlehandedly lifts the story from being run-of-the-mill YA fantasy. One reviewer on Goodreads, several pages in, calls her “an irritating twit,” only with a different vowel, and I suppose it says something about the sort of characters I like that my first thought was, “So, what’s your point?”

But it’s not just reading that’s been keeping me busy. This is our last full week of Camp NaNoWriMo, and we’re still in the middle of planning our next big novel. We have the whole thing outlined, and each chapter has been broken down into 400-700 word chunks. That takes a good deal longer than you might expect. When I do this by myself, I wouldn’t try to fully outline more than five or six chapters in a single day. It really just makes your brain melt. And that’s because, as I like to tell people, the outline is really the first draft of the story. It’s just the one where you don’t have to worry at all about how you phrase things. You just think about the plot and the character arcs. And it’s easier to see where things are missing (“Hey, this guy is supposed to be a main character, but he’s disappeared for ten chapters now”).

Now that we’re done outlining, you might imagine that it’s time to get started writing. Or rather, you might imagine that if you’d never met us. No, it’s not time to write—it’s time to make maps!

Last night, we started making a map for Leornian, one of the main cities of our Myrciaverse, and the ancient capital of Myrcia. It’s a city our characters have visited many, many times in many, many books, and yet we’ve never gotten around to finishing a map of it. I mean, we started a map, eight or nine years ago, but looking at it now in the sketchbook, it seems that we got about a quarter of the way through and then stopped for some reason. Maybe we went to take a nap or something.

Anyway, we’re finishing it now. Or rather, we’re starting from scratch, using that good old standby of fantasy mapmakers: blatant theft. We’re taking a map of Florence, turning it around, and moving things around in GIMP to match the image of the city in our heads. As I’ve noted before, this is a much faster way of doing things, and in some ways, much better. Adapting real maps of real places helps to keep your maps grounded in reality. You have some assurance that the city you’re planning is possible, because you know for certain that a city like it exists.

Using a real map as a starting point also helps to keep things more or less to scale. We have a cathedral in our universe that’s over 900 feet long—far, far larger than any real cathedral—and that mainly happened because we forgot to check the scale when we drew it. Since then, we’ve rationalized and lampshaded so that a 900 foot cathedral makes sense (wizards built it, I imagine), but yeah, if we could do it over again, it would probably be smaller than that.

Of course, if you need to change the scale, you always can. But very carefully. This weekend I finished the map for a different one of our cities, which will be a major location for the book, as well. That’s the map at the top there. It’s based on Carcassonne, France, though I changed the scale a bit, making it quite a bit bigger than Carcassonne.

Once we’re done with the maps, I suppose it will finally be time to start writing. Assuming we don’t find something else to do. Some people might think this is all a waste of time, but it’s not. If we’d taken the time to finish that stupid Leornian map seven or eight years ago, we wouldn’t be doing it now. And if we take the time to finish it now, we’ll be thanking ourselves seven or eight years from now, when we need it again.

J

The Persuasion Project: Abrupt End

burn

From giphy.com

So, I got sidetracked with other writing projects and never continued with my Persuasion Live Read. Well, I just finished reading the novel for my book club at work, so here’s the live read for chapters 9-24. Not terribly live, especially since I was often reading at work, so let me just dump my feelings. Perhaps if I try a live read again in the future I’ll figure out a way to make it more regular and spontaneous.

That Passage I Love

I’ve mentioned before here on the blog a passage I particularly love in Chapter 9 where Captain Wentworth rescues Anne from her naughty nephew. I have tried to figure out just what it is I love so much about this passage, but my guesses have never felt completely accurate. It turns out I’m a very lucky woman, and I’ve made some wonderful friends on Twitter since I wrote that blog. One of these friends, Erin, is an English prof and all-around Austen smartypants, and she brought up an amazing point about the shift in the narrative voice in the passage. Here’s the passage as a reminder:

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Erin focused on the bolded: “she found herself in the state of being released.” Here Austen shifts from an account of what is happening to Anne to Anne’s own disoriented thoughts. It gets the reader so much closer to Anne, which Erin explained to me quite vividly: “think about how different ‘she found herself in the state of being released’ is from ‘suddenly the boy was lifted off her shoulders’ or ‘Wentworth appeared and took the boy off her back,’ etc. All describing the same action, but Austen’s really puts you in Anne’s body in a way the others don’t.”

The Rest of the Kellynch Stuff

Chapters 10-14 cover the rest of Anne’s time in the neighborhood she has lived in all her life. The most moving part to my mind is in Chapter 10 when all the young people take a long walk in the direction of Charles Hayter’s, the cousin Henrietta eventually marries. Anne overhears Captain Wentworth talking to Louisa Musgrove, the possible object of his affections, about the kind of woman he is looking for—one who thinks for herself and is strongly resolute. If your heart doesn’t break for Anne in that moment, I suspect your heart is, in fact, a potato.

Off to Bath

Overall, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the first half to the second. The cast in the Kellynch area is more engaging, as I think becomes clear at the relief felt when the Musgroves arrive in Bath in Chapter 22. Yes, I enjoyed the discomfort and tension and longing between Anne and Captain Wentworth at the concert. And Mrs. Smith’s revelations about Mr. Elliot, the heir of Kellynch, are as interesting here as the revelations about the cad often are in Austen. Yet, I would still exchange it all for more time with the slightly less socially polished but more interesting cast of the first half. Well, I wouldn’t exchange all of it.

The Letter

Is there anything left in the world to say about Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne? Seriously, if you don’t meep and sigh as you read it, you probably don’t even have a potato where your heart should be.

Burn!

What stands out most about Persuasion compared to other Austen is just how vicious the narrator can be. Granted, Austen’s narrative voice can always be sly—look how she views Lady Catherine or Mrs. Elton. But the narrator of Persuasion has a brutal honesty even about characters who on balance the reader should ultimately like more than dislike. The finest example is surely where the discussion turns to Richard Musgrove, brother of Charles, Henrietta, and Louisa. When he was young, Richard joined the navy, and at one point sailed on a ship commanded by Captain Wentworth.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

If Austen was ever meaner, I missed it.

Final Thoughts

So, all in all, I love Persuasion. It’s an incredibly delicate work, written with a surprising edge, and featuring an incredibly sympathetic heroine and attractive hero. And yet, I never reach the end without thinking, “Gosh. It’s over already?” One wonders if Austen had plans to flesh out the characters and story more in places, or if this was essentially her intention. Whatever the case, while I love it, I can’t love it as I do Pride and Prejudice or Emma. Will I read it again someday? Most likely. Will I be happy to do so? Absolutely.

~S

Yet Another Update from Camp

We’re in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo, yet again, so as you will have noticed, our posting has been a bit spotty. Last week, I was in Montana for a family reunion, which meant I had to start my project on the road. Not really a big deal, but it’s amazing how little time you end up having to write at an airport, even if you have a three or four hour layover.

As of right now, we’re still outlining Magnificent Kingdom. We’ve finished a preliminary outline, laying out what will happen in each chapter. And now we’re dividing up the work of filling in the details. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve already written the first chapter. Just so you can see what this is like, here’s how it works.

Here’s the original, quick description of what was supposed to happen in Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 (Edmund/Maud): The City
May 30, 560 (Saturday)
EPP 1: Hung over in bed with Ethel. Caedmon wakes him to go to castle—king is dead.
MPP1: Sitting at dead father’s side, holding his hand
MPP2: Modig takes her to see Edmund. She’s snide about Edmund. Modig says she should cut him some slack.

“EPP” here stands for “Edmund Plot Point,” and MPP for “Maud Plot Point,” referring to the plot point structure for Act I of a screenplay outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story (a book we’ve recommended many times before, even for people like us, who aren’t screenwriters).

Next, we filled in the details of what would happen, and it turned out like this:

Chapter 1 (Edmund/Maud): The City
May 30, 560 (Saturday) (H 72, L 56, T-storms later)
EPP 1: Hung over in bed with Ethel. Caedmon wakes him to go to castle—king is dead.
MPP1: Sitting at dead father’s side, holding his hand
MPP2: Modig takes her to see Edmund. She’s snide about Edmund. Modig says she should cut him some slack.
Part 1 (Edmund, 500 words): Ed is in bed, early morning, still chilly. Just starting to feel beginnings of a hangover. Scene starts as he feels a hand reach over and take his, and he’s a bit nonplussed—tries to remember whose it might be. Then he remembers it’s Ethel. She snuggles a bit closer, but his ears pick up people rushing quietly this way and that out in the corridors of the Bocburg. (He’s visiting for the weekend, as the king is sick.)
Part 2 (Edmund, 500): Door opens, and it’s Caedmon. Caedmon (not as gruff and grumpy as he’ll later be) is clearly embarrassed by Ethel’s presence. Neither Ed nor Ethel is even slightly embarrassed, though Ethel is modest. (Ethel also is discreet, and when Ed fetches her robe, she slips quietly out, after politely wishing Caedmon good morning.) Caedmon tells Ed that the king is dead. Ed was sort-of afraid that was what had happened. Ed thinks of everything he’s going to have to do—help plan funeral and gemot, inform the troops, find riders to help summon the nobles. Oh, and dammit all, he’s going to have to talk to Maud, too.
Part 3 (Maud, 500): Maud holding her father’s hand. She thinks about her father, feels alone in the world. Thinks about how her father never really got over the death of his wife and heir. Terrwyn comes over to put her arm around Maud, and Maud remembers that she’s not entirely alone in the world. Maud knows she should go do things, but she doesn’t want to leave. Partly because she doesn’t want to leave her father, but also partly because once she does, she knows she’ll have all sorts of responsibilities.
Part 4 (Maud, 500): Modig arrives, along with some nuns from the convent of the Blessed Illuminator (long supported by Maud’s family), who are here to begin laying out the body. Modig is very polite about it, and Maud lets him and Terrwyn lead her away, knowing the nuns have a job to do. Maud wants to go up to her room, be alone for a while, but then Modig says her cousin Edmund is waiting to give his condolences. Maud, annoyed, sees him for literally ten seconds—just long enough to take his hand, hear him say a few polite words, and leave. Afterward, Terrwyn gently chides Maud. Maud is like, “Why shouldn’t I treat him like crap?” Modig says she should cut him some slack.

Notice that all four parts are supposed to be five hundred words. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Those were just rough guesses. I think each section turned out to be more like 800 or 900 words, actually. But whatever.

Finally, I wrote the chapter. It’s a bit too long to include here, and would obviously involve giving spoilers, so here are the first few paragraphs. Included is a bit, dubbed “Ode to a Hangover,” that S originally wrote years ago during her first crack at this book. I liked it, so I edited it down a bit and stole it. Which is totally cool with S, naturally.

Chapter 1 (The City)

The first question, thought Edmund, was “Where am I?” The bed curtains were not his. They were heavy and purple, but did little to keep out the chill in the room. He reached out, very slowly, and pulled one of the curtains back. A piercing shaft of light hit him, and he shrank back, groaning. Holy Earstien, how late had he slept?

There was a dull ache just behind his eyes and his guts slowly tumbled, over and over. His mouth tasted foul. Not quite like something had died in there, but certainly like something had suffered a long and painful convalescence. He was cold, and yet, when he put a hand to his forehead, he could feel a film of sweat there. He wiped it away, but it came dripping back almost immediately. His throat burned, and he felt dizzy, but after a moment or two, the feeling passed. He thought about getting out of bed and searching for a privy, but then decided it wasn’t going to be necessary.

On the whole, he’d had worse.

If he were at home, he would lie very still until a pretty housemaid came up with his breakfast. He would eat and drink with deliberation for at least half an hour, more if it had been a truly monumental evening. Once he felt capable of movement, he’d ring for water and the tub. After a good soak, he would dress in something comfortable and make his way to the fresh air. It was a process that took a good part of the day, but he felt as though he must deserve it if the night before had been good enough to get him into this state.

He rolled onto his back, and something stirred under the quilts to his right. Someone’s hand slipped into his, and he tried to remember whose it might be. A small hand, warm, soft. Long nails, too. He shifted, and he felt the sting of the scratches across his back and his shoulders. So this had to be Ethel. Of course it would be.

So that’s what we’ve been up to. If you haven’t started your project at Camp NaNo, go do so immediately. We’re barely a week and a half into the month; you’ve still got plenty of time!

J

IRL

img_0765.jpg

Just a tiny part of the outlining we’ve been doing this week. Bless ultra fine dry erase markers.

So, oops, we forgot to post last weekend. We’ve been busy with our parents, as well as the never-ending disaster that is our yard, not to mention Camp NaNoWriMo prep. But in between all of that, we have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about writing and narrative and the things we always have on our minds.

Outlining
In the book we’re working on together for Camp, we will be weaving together six POV characters, spread over thousands of miles, covering four years. We have profiles of varying depths of 70 characters, and character arc beat sheets of 23-50 beats for the six POV characters. Today’s project is to take those six beat sheets and start figuring out how they weave together and plotting actual chapters for Act 1 (the first 25% or so of the novel). Whether or not we get to doing our usual word count breakdown of each chapter before we start writing, we still haven’t decided.

Of course, this is Camp, which has some flexibility, so we may just count words/time spent on the outline toward out Camp goal. We’ll see how it goes, since today is the last day we have off together before Camp starts Saturday.

A Not Very Good Book
According to J, a book he just finished does pretty much everything wrong. The hero and heroine are billionaires who are good at absolutely everything, whom everyone loves. They save the day after saving the less fortunate in an amazing piece of Deus ex machina. (It’s revealed after having never been mentioned earlier that the hero was once in the Special Forces and can call in the black helicopters to fix everything.) Well, actually, that ending isn’t totally without set up—it’s on the cover. Because there’s nothing better than getting a spoiler for the climax on the book jacket. But as much as J didn’t care for the book, as always, we learn a lot from reading not particularly good books, having excellent examples of why several items that are popular on Don’t lists are things to avoid.

A Very Good Book
I just started my new classic lit book club at work, and this week we discussed Great Expectations. That was a real treat for me, since I’ve been reading stuff that’s not really up my alley for my other book club at work, that frankly, I also don’t find very good. (Of course, it was also nice for J, who was reading the above.) Dickens just knows how to weave together a story, no plot thread dropped, and yet avoid that horrible feeling of “Well, isn’t that convenient,” that plagues so many 19th Century novels. Also, who doesn’t love Herbert Pocket? Seriously, I don’t think I would trust someone who didn’t. We had a lively debate over the ending of the book, which I initially read as a bit vague, but others claimed is unambiguously happy. I think I left agreeing that it’s happy, but not unambiguous. Next month we’re discussing Persuasion, so expect the Live Read to kick back into gear!

And that pretty much covers the Mawdsley narrative life atm. We’ll try to update regularly during Camp, but even keeping up with Camp (and my two book clubs at work) is going to be an interesting challenge. Thanks RL.

~S

Birthday Crunch

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If I could bake and decorate, J would totally get this cake on Saturday.

As those of you who read this blog regularly know, J and I like to write each other presents for events like birthdays. J, who can write faster than any person should be able to, always manages to churn out a novel for me, and I typically manage a short story for him. Well, I decided to try and up my game for his birthday this year, and I’m writing him two stories. I have rough drafts of both, but they need typed and revised, and if I have any hope of making that happen before the big day on Saturday, I’ve got no time to blog.

Hope you all forgive me!

~S

This Time It’s For Real. For Real.

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Tonight’s project: reorganizing our home library, taking advantage of our new bookshelves!

We almost forgot you all today.  We had to drive to Cleveland to help J’s parents in the rain.  On the plus side for us, we scored some bookshelves and books.  On the downside, the weeds are getting longer.  From where we live, Cleveland is about two hours away, in part because we like taking the scenic route.  But we didn’t mind the drive, because we are (as previously mentioned) a Unicorn.

As you may remember, it was on a trip to help out J’s parents, right after returning from our awesome honeymoon, that we started planning our very first novel.  So we decided that our trip today would be the perfect opportunity to start planning our project for July Camp NaNoWriMo.  For the first time since the Quartet, we’re writing a book together, just in time for our ten-year anniversary.

The book is actually something S started ages ago.  But she got bogged down when she realized how sprawling and out of control it was (she blames Game of Thrones).  Then S saw Mary Robinette Kowal taking questions on Patrick Rothfuss’s blog, and S asked for advice on how to proceed.  Kowal’s response, surprisingly enough, was essentially that maybe it wasn’t the right project for S to be working on at that time.  She cited Brandon Sanderson putting aside Way of Kings for years until he was a better writer and able to do it justice.  Now that we understand a bit better how to write novels, we decided now might be the time to go back and tackle S’s abandoned project.

The novel is called Magnificent Kingdom, and it is the story of the war of independence that founded Myrcia, the central country of our universe.  S originally wanted to do it because the two main POV characters, Edmund and Kuhlbert, are fascinating people—two of her favorite historical figures from Myrciaverse history.  She wanted to write about how they met, and how they ultimately fall out.  She wanted to write about the moment when two characters she loved crossed paths.

There’s already a rough timeline and some character profiles.  But our goal today is to start applying what we’ve learned over the last ten years.  We’re going to fill out those profiles using the character beat-ups from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.  Then we’re going to start thinking about making S’s old timeline of events into an actual outline for a “novel-shaped novel.”

We already know that this is going to be a very long book—maybe the longest single novel we’ve ever written (not counting the four novels of the Quartet and the six novels of My Private War).  So obviously this is going to take longer than just one month.  But we’re pretty confident we can at least make a good start.  Once the month is over, we’ll both start working on other projects again (like S’s fanfic), but we’ll keep working on Magnificent Kingdom, as well.  As we like to say, it’s always more fun when we’re together.

J and S

Almost Birthday Time!

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This is your last Unbirthday until Wednesday.  Make it count!

I was supposed to post a blog yesterday, but we did yardwork, instead.  We have a small volunteer tree at the end of our driveway that had nearly engulfed our mailbox, and I’m sure our mail carrier will appreciate the fact that we finally trimmed it back a bit.  After that, I felt like I’d accomplished enough for one day, and I retired to my recliner in triumph.

Actually, I wasn’t just being lazy.  Tomorrow is a certain someone’s birthday, so I’m finishing my last read-through of her birthday novel, Unspeakably Wooed.  It’s a sequel of sorts to my April Camp NaNoWriMo novel, Black Eagle Rising, and it fits in with the Myrciaverse civil war timeline that features books like The Last Bright Angel and Called to Account.  It was a fun story to write, and I’m hoping S enjoys it when we start reading it on Tuesday.

A couple days ago, as I was listening to my new book with the Adobe Acrobat read-aloud feature, it occurred to me that I should write down what I’ve been doing to revise.  It used to be pretty haphazard, but over the last year or so, I’ve been developing a standard process, and since S and I are such dedicated outliners, it felt like I should make a revision outline that I can follow in the future, so I don’t accidentally leave something important out.  So here’s what I’ve been doing to revise Unspeakably Wooed.  Some of these things I’ve been doing for a while, and some of them I’ve started doing recently, based on what I’ve been reading on some of my favorite writers’ blogs.

Revision Outline

1. First read-through
-Fix inconsistencies, major typos.
-Take notes of potential major issues to fix later, but don’t fix them yet.

2. Second read-through
-Read by character.
-Last, first, second-to-last, second chapter, and so on, working toward the middle.
-Look for consistency, particularly of character voice.
-Fix minor issues; take notes of major problems.

3. Address the first round of notes
-Look at notes from first and second read-throughs, fix character issues and problems with plot.

4. Third read-through
-Using read-aloud feature in PDF, following along in the Word doc.
-Continue to smooth awkward phrasing.  Make notes of possible structural issues.

5. Ctrl + F
-Look for following words: “Only, Just, That, Immediately, Suddenly, Abruptly.”  Cut as many of these as you can.
-Check for sighs, eye-rolls, and any other physical movements that turn up too often.
-Ctrl + F for any other words and phrases that seem (based on first three read-throughs) to show up too many times.  Rephrase where necessary.

6. Structural issues 1
-Look for infodumps and backstory in the opening chapters.  If they’re necessary at all, make sure they show up no earlier than the end of Act I (ideally wait until Act II).
-Find logical places to reveal this information later in the story; move it there.
-Make sure each POV character has at least one chapter in which he/she shows up and is introduced with action, but without backstory.

7. Structural issues 2
-Look at character sheets for POV characters.  Look at their “Central Questions” (Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Goals).  Has each character achieved his/her goals?  Whether they have or haven’t, has this been mentioned in the text or reflected upon by the character?
-What was the “point” of the story (the “Thematic Question”)?  Has this question been resolved?  Where?  Clarify for the reader if necessary.

8. General tightening (Fourth read-through)
-Read through and tighten.  Try to remove at least 1% of the words (i.e. 600 words of a 60,000 word novel).

9. Reading out loud 1 (Fifth read-through)
-Ideally by yourself, reading out loud to an empty room.  If necessary, can listen to new PDFs using the read-aloud feature.

10. Reading out loud 2 (Sixth read-through)
-With a partner.  Fix minor mistakes as you go.  Keep notes for any remaining major problems.

If you’re wondering, I’m on step number nine right now.

What really stood out to me when I wrote this all down was that I read my books a minimum of five times before I even let S see them.  But even so, I’m sure I’ll find all sorts of typos and clunky phrases when we read it together tomorrow.  And that’s why we do that.

But first, it’s time to start the pre-partying for S’s birthday!  And also, we’re going to buy mulch today.  It’ll be a hoot.

J