Hard-Earned Lessons

snape study hall

Do your work. You’ll be happy later that you did.

J and I were chatting yesterday as we made the two-hour drive home from his parents’ about what we wish we had known when we started writing nearly 10 years ago. It was such a good list I thought I should share. It’s by no means definitive, and I’ve no doubt other writers would come up with other items, but if it helps anyone avoid the mistakes we made, then it was worth my time.

Structure
There is pretty much nothing easier than writing a giant blob of prose. Writing tens of thousands of words that are novel-shaped is decidedly harder. It’s more than just beginning, middle, and end. It’s advancing character and story, plotting setbacks, making sure the reader isn’t about to nod off or complaining that what you’re telling them is pointless. If I could go back 10 years and tell myself only one thing, it would be to study structure before putting pen to paper.

Chapters
Speaking of structure, how do you know when to end a chapter? How long should it be? What, exactly, ought to go in one? There’s no one answer for every novel, and we’ve intentionally played around with this in different novels, but we had some 7,000 word chapters with 3 POVs, and zero thematic elements tying them together when we started. We write in decidedly more logical chunks these days.

You won’t remember later
Write. It. Down. That brilliant idea that is so awesome you couldn’t possibly forget it? You will. That solution you found and put in Chapter 10 is great, but when you need it again in Chapter 50, you won’t remember if you didn’t put it in the story bible. Really, if we could go back and keep a more organized story bible from Day 1, it would help a ton. And it really would have helped a lot, even if we’d never moved past the original Quartet. Now that we have over two dozen novels in the Myrcia ‘verse, a good story bible is absolutely essential. And for those little ideas that pop up, they all get written down for use later.

Write in order
We thought it would be all awesome and creative to write the scenes that most inspired us as they inspired us. So when we started, we were literally writing scenes from what would become Book 2 before the characters in that scene had even met in Book 1. At the time, it seemed like a good way to get words down, and I suppose it was, but what it mostly did was make revision twice as long as we then rewrote all of those later scenes to take into account earlier material. Sometimes, I still move around a little, but I a) have a much better outline, and therefore, a better of idea of the story as a whole, and b) have made peace with the fact it will entail extra revision.

Sympathetic characters
We thought if we created a character we liked—a smart girl who is ambitious and happy, surrounded by people who also think she’s awesome—the reader would like her, too. Oops. Early betas found her insufferable and much preferred the girl with the crappy family and the worse husband, who was always looking for a way to make her shitty lot in life just a little better. I think we’ve made them both pretty interesting and sympathetic now, but yeah, we really didn’t understand at first that adversity gets a reader on the side of your character far more than showing how popular she is.

Calendar
When you have four POV characters spread over thousands of miles in an era when travel was remarkably difficult, keeping an accurate calendar is a must. We had some general ideas about when things should be happening, but when we plotted out exact dates when things had to happen and figured out how long it would take someone to get from Point A to Point B, we realized the timing was completely off. But, thank heavens for those poor traveling conditions so that freak snow storms could hold people up for a week, and magic allows a message to get to someone almost as fast as by telegram. As I’m about to start an epistolary novel, I’m already dreading my calendar—trying to figure out when someone wrote a letter and more importantly when someone read it, again in a world with much slower travel than today. But I know I will be happy that I did, and just like all of these other lessons, when I think about skipping over them, I do my best to make that my mantra—I will be happy that I did.

~S

Learning All the Wrong Lessons

hot_for_teacher

My homework was never quite like this.

Not that we’re bloodthirsty or anything, but we sure like ourselves a good character death.  We’ve talked here before about when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even necessary, to kill characters.

Just in case you don’t feel like clicking on those links, our three rules for offing a character are as follows:

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

One of the examples we used to show the proper killing of a character was Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.  As S wrote:

It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

So Ned’s death was a great moment in the story, and a great moment in TV.  Unfortunately, as we were watching The 100 this past week, it occurred to us that other shows are learning exactly the wrong lesson from Game of Thrones.  Rather than learning that killing a character can drive the story and provide motivation for the characters, it appears as if the writers of The 100 learned that it’s really cool to just bump off characters randomly for shock value.

In what’s been called the show’s ongoing Hunger Games storyline, characters like Jasper and Roan keep getting killed, not because there’s any logic or justification for it, but seemingly just because the writers want us to think “ZOMG!  They totally killed that guy!”  And then applaud them for their bold storytelling.  The worst part is the violation of the third of our rules: there are zero repercussions for anyone left alive, and in fact the other characters barely remember those who died at all.  But then again, that’s always been a problem for that show.  See, for example, poor old…oh, what’s his name?  It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Oh yes, Finn.

thomas_mcdonell

Remember when he was the love of Clarke’s life?  No?  Well, that’s okay.  Neither does Clarke. 

So that’s what’s been on our mind this week.  In other news, S just finished posting her latest fanfic series, and the feedback from readers has been very good.  So huzzah for her!  And I’m about ten chapters into my latest Myrciaverse book, which might hypothetically be a birthday present for someone who might hypothetically be S.

Yes, we write stories for each other for our birthdays.  It’s the unicorniest thing ever.  So I’ve got to get back to that.  In the meantime, let’s all hope The 100 figures out how to make character deaths count.  I mean, I’m not holding my breath, but it could happen.

J

I’ll Do What I Want

cartman

Cartman, as the kids say, is my spirit animal.

I mentioned back in March I would be spending April trying an experiment to write what I want and not what I “ought” to write (for whatever reason), and it is time to report back. In a word, it was awesome. I finished the fanfic I was working on and started plotting a Myrcia ‘verse epistolary novel. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, I have every intention of keeping it going, more or less.

Around this time last year, I tried a new way of working. I rotated weekly through multiple projects. If memory serves, I had three projects going, but only ever switched back and forth between two. I think I’m going to try something similar now. I’ll dedicate a week to the epistolary novel and a week to fanfic. (I have two fanfics harassing me to be written, and a couple others I’m seriously considering.) I figure an epistolary novel and shorter fanfic pieces are perfect for this sort of back and forth schedule since there will be discreet chunks. Of course, I’ll also need to sneak in some blogging here, and in July I’ll definitely be getting back to the Persuasion Live Read, because I’ll be discussing the book with my book club at work.

But I think that will all be manageable with my writing schedule, even when I move on to other projects. I have some original fiction short stories ideas that I’m excited about and just need to find the time and focus to write, for instance. When I finally decide to dive into Oleg Omdahl revisions and plotting out the fourth novel (which I think I might want to do for November NaNoWriMo), the constant switching between projects might be trickier, but I can deal with that when I get there.

In the meantime, I should try to think of some more substantial posts for all of you besides rambling about my process. Suggestions welcome.

~S

Last Day of Camp

Potter Camping

Some camping trips are more fun than others.

This is the last day of April, and that means it’s the last day of Camp NaNoWriMo, too.  Team Unicorn achieved yet another double victory.  I’ve got 136,064 words, far exceeding my goal of 50,000.  S’s goal was 40,000, and she passed that last night.

I finished my novel, too.  It’s called Black Eagle Rising, which sounds like one of those cheap WWII paperback thrillers that they sell in the airport, but it’s actually about how a civil war in the Myrciaverse gets started.  I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.  One of my goals was to make the average length of my chapters shorter this time around, and I achieved that.  In some of my recent novels, the average chapter was running over 3,000 words, so I was trying to keep it down around 2,000-2,500 or so.  My hope is that it’s going to make the book feel like it “reads quicker.”  We’ll see how it is when S and I read through it, which hopefully we’ll be doing soon.

We’re already looking forward to our next projects, though.  S is planning an epistolary novel set in the Myrciaverse, which is going to be very exciting.  Maybe at some point she’ll write about how that’s going.  I’m planning S’s birthday present, a shorter novel called Unspeakably Wooed, which will be a sequel to Black Eagle Rising.  I can’t say more than that, because it’s supposed to be a surprise.

In other news, I got to put a new keyboard into my main laptop, Ellard.  The space bar in the old one broke, so I’ve been using a portable Bluetooth keyboard.  That worked out fine, actually, but I’m glad to have everything working again and not have to carry around a separate keyboard anymore.

If you were doing Camp NaNo, I hope you met your goal.  And if you didn’t, just remember that there will be another Camp NaNo in July.  And it’s never too early to start planning what you’re going to do for it.

J

Who Knew?

confused rabbit

Confused Easter Rabbit from Drawception.com

(Howdy folks! We took Easter Sunday off. We didn’t think you’d miss us too much.)

I didn’t see this coming. I mean, I really did not see this coming, but I’m about to start planning, and then hopefully writing, my first epistolary novel. I finished drafting the fanfic I was working on, and while I’m eager to start revising it, and with J’s help it’s almost completely typed, I should probably take a short break from it. That means I have time to start planning my next project. Which is an epistolary novel. Who could have seen this coming?

Well, I didn’t at any rate. But since I know you are all curious how I came to this conclusion, I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain. I don’t know that the decision-making process is terribly fascinating, but I think it will be interesting for me as a writer that I’ve chosen to do this.

Two different ideas merged to give rise to the epistolary novel idea. The first came from a chat I was having with a delightful friend on Tumblr. As is typical for the two of us, we were chatting about the TV show Versailles. She made an observation about how the story could have been different if two characters who spend the first season at odds had instead decided to team up. Now, this sort of talk usually leads to me saying #iwouldreadthatfanfic or writing that fanfic myself. However, in this case, I didn’t know if I wanted to literally explore these two characters working together, but the idea was brilliant. I told my friend I might steal the concept for an original novel, and she said great. I told J about it later, and we both agreed it could even fit nicely into the Myrcia ‘verse. Then I didn’t think about it again, because I had a fanfic to finish.

And then I finished the fanfic. Worse still, I started typing it. Every word I typed felt clunky and forced and stale. I told myself I was just in one of my periodic bad moods, that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, but something wouldn’t let me rest. So I thought more about the problem until I came to the conclusion that I’m kind of sick of my own writing. If I were a reader, I’d take a break from me and go read someone else for a while. It’s not that anything I’ve been writing is bad, it’s just overly familiar. When I mentioned this suspicion to J, I also mentioned that the two parts of my current fic I like best are the short sections written in omniscient POV instead of limited third person.

J said, “You should write an epistolary novel. The new idea you just told me about would be perfect.”

My skin cleared, angels sang, and the weight of the world lifted from my back. Almost a full week later, and I still think this is a positively brilliant idea to get me out of my rut. If not tonight, then in the very near future, I’m going to start doing character profiles and outlining. We’ve come up with a general time and place in the world we’ve created to set the story, and then it will just be a matter of writing it. Neither of us has written an epistolary novel before, so this will be fun (and hopefully not horribly frustrating) new territory. I know who my two central characters will be, and I think one of them will be either the writer or recipient of every letter to keep the focus where I want it. In the meantime, I’m thumbing through my ancient copy of Dangerous Liaisons and listening to the audiobook of Lady Susan.

~S

Happy Unicorn Day!

The_Lion_and_the_Unicorn_2

Starting the traditional Unicorn Day conga line.

Apparently today is National Unicorn Day!  As we have mentioned before, one of our writer friends dubbed me and S “a unicorn” because we are married, and yet can still collaborate on our writing successfully.  (Apparently this is quite rare among married couples.)  In celebration of our own holiday, we will be celebrating by working on our projects for Camp NaNoWriMo, rather than, for example, writing lengthy blog posts.

Camp NaNo is going well.  I hit my goal of 50,000 words yesterday, and I’m past the midpoint in my outline.  S is working on a Versailles fanfic currently, though she’s been switching back and forth between various projects.  Between them all, she’s past 15,000 words.

So enjoy all the sparkly magic of Unicorn Day, and we’ll be back soon with more substantive updates on our writing.

J

Howdy!

john wayne

The ultimate cowboy says “How do you do.”

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo. This is day 2 of Camp, and the fanfic I’m working on is going okay so far. I was having some issues with POV and forgetting vital information that I even wrote down on a note card so I wouldn’t forget it, but with the help of some fellow Campers, I think I’m back on track. But as I promised in my last post, I’m only writing what I want to this month, so I’ve got to run now and see what kind of trouble (read: sexy good fun times) I can get my characters into. 😉

~S

Castles in the Air

Moving Castle

Like this, only not.

Spring is here at Chez Unicorn, which means the trees are budding and the lilies are sprouting.  This is probably the last weekend we’ll have without the threat of yardwork until July, when it’ll be hot enough to stunt everything.  We’re celebrating by having pork roast and sauerkraut.  And we’ll probably do some writing later.

Earlier, we were out hunting for new glassware.  We’ve been pretty hard on our glasses lately, and we need new ones.  The problem is that everything we found was too small, too ugly, or came in massively large quantities, like 8 or 16.  I mean, we break glasses pretty often, but not that often.  Seriously, Walmart, just let me buy these tall ones in a set of four, for crying out loud.

This is also the last weekend in March, and that means that next time you hear from us, Camp NaNoWriMo will have started.  I’ve got my outline ready, and I’ve done my character profiles and prompts.  For the past few days, I’ve been making a floor plan of the castle where the majority of the action takes place.

Old Wealdan Castle

Behold the fruits of far, far too many hours’ labor.

Some people (well, actually most people) would probably say that this level of preparation is unnecessary.  But personally I’ve found it really helpful.  It’s easy, particularly for fantasy authors, to have a pleasantly vague idea of your setting in your head.  But when you have to sit down and start drawing it, you’re suddenly forced to make decisions.  And you see where certain ideas you had are actually impossible.

Part of the plot of my story, for instance, requires that there be servants’ corridors and secret stairways in this castle.  The moment I started making these floorplans, though, I realized the vague picture I had in my mind of these passageways was completely impossible.  There simply was no room for them.  So I had to spend time thinking about the problem and come up with a practical solution: interstitial servants’ floors with hidden staircases that go up and give access into the public areas through hidden doors.  Now, instead of just secret passages, I’ve got whole secret floors of dark, creepy rooms to play with.  It’s very exciting, actually.

This is all in keeping with one of the longest-running themes of this blog: why planning is better than pantsing.  S and I have found that the more you plan, the easier the actual writing becomes, and the less you have to dread revisions.  Obviously, not every setting requires a detailed map or floorplan, in the same way that not every character requires a lengthy character profile.  But whether it’s setting or character or plot, it’s all too easy to fool yourself and say, “Oh, I know what I’m doing here,” only to discover later that you didn’t really know at all.

So if it’s important to your plot to know, for instance, that Susan’s bedroom is over the garage, with a view over the garden in the back, and the stairway is halfway down the hall and leads to the kitchen, which is next to the den, then it might be worth doing a quick little sketch, just to make sure that’s possible.  You don’t even have to be able to draw well to do a floorplan—just make lines on a page.  It helps ensure your castles are grounded in reality and not, you know, floating on air.

J

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

young frank.

S is turning into a mad scientist, ala Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

This post is going to be short by design. You see, I have this theory that I often get in my own way, writing-wise. In November I started writing like crazy when I switched to a project I longed to be writing, and I’ve been very productive since working on the stories I want to tell. In fact, I’m making a formal vow to myself that for the next month and a half (through the end of Camp NaNoWriMo), I’m going to only write what I want to write.

After all, if I’m doing this writing thing because it’s fun, I should make certain I’m having fun, right? Yes, I want to be a good blogger and post something here regularly, and I think I can put in at least a half hour every two weeks so that I’m still providing content. But I sometimes (cough today cough) waste the better part of a day psyching myself up to write this blog or some story I’m “supposed” to be working on, but not writing anything at all, even though there’s something I want to be writing.

So, I’m going to spend as much time as I can writing where my heart is. It’s what I’ve been mostly doing since late November, but I’m going to do it with purpose through April 30th and see what happens. See if I’m more productive and happy. Who knows, maybe I’ll find I need some have-to/ought-to projects to keep me going, but until I try this experiment, I’ll never know.

Will report back in May!

~S

The Unsinkable S.S. Klaroline

RMS ?Titanic?, 1911.

Pictured: not the S.S. Klaroline

As we’ve mentioned many times before, we enjoy a number of the cheesy fun shows on the CW.  Some of these we never really warmed to, some of them we stopped watching when they got tiresome (I’m looking at you, Flash and Arrow).  But we’ve kept up with Vampire Diaries and The Originals.  Many is the time we’ve been sitting around in the evening, bored and looking for something to do, when S will say to me, “Well, we’ve got vampire shows on the DVR.  Wanna watch them while I fold laundry?”

And I mean no offense when I say that’s pretty much the level of engagement we have had with those two shows recently, particularly Vampire Diaries.  They’re something mildly interesting to have on in the background.  They’re basically our equivalent of old-fashioned daytime soap operas, if you want to think of them that way—something to have on the TV while you dust the living room or peel potatoes for supper.

Even so, Vampire Diaries has been a part of our lives for years now, and we’re sorry to see it go.  I can’t say I thought the finale episode was earth-shatteringly awesome.  It certainly wasn’t like the finale of Justified (as S wrote, the ending of that show was absolutely perfect).  But it fulfilled the basic function of a series finale—wrap up all the storylines in a satisfying way so the viewers think they’ve gotten what they came for.  And don’t do anything to destroy the good will the show has built up, or pull some “clever” slight of hand that makes the viewers feel like they’ve wasted their time.  Some shows find that surprisingly hard to achieve actually.  Think of the last episodes of How I Met Your Mother or Roseanne, for instance.

Our favorite thing about the finale, of course, was that little nod to Klaroline shippers.  I won’t say that S responded to this by letting out an ultrasonic squee of delight and doing a little dance on the couch, but I won’t deny it, either.  We actually saw the episode up at my parents’ house, where we were visiting, and all the way home in the car, every twenty minutes or so, whatever we happened to be talking about, S would turn to me and say, “Oh, and by the way, J?  Klaroline is endgame!”  As S has mentioned before, Klaroline (Klaus Mikaelson and Caroline Forbes) is one of her favorite TV ships.  And as she noted yesterday, it’s the only one on this list she made more than a year and a half ago that has so far ended happily (or at least ended in such a way that we can imagine it ends happily).

So all in all, we’re pretty pleased with how Vampire Diaries turned out.  Now we just need another show to watch while S folds the clothes.

J