Casting and Consequences

Today is the last day of November, so I hope if you were doing NaNoWriMo (which you should have been), that you have 50,000 words, or are at least pretty close.

I finished my second NaNo novel, From Under the Shadow, this past Tuesday, and since then I’ve been revising it and my first novel, Last Outpost.  S and I read through Last Outpost on Friday and Saturday, and she seemed to like it.  So it has the unicorn stamp of approval, at least.  I suppose we’ll start reading the other one tonight, or perhaps this coming week.  I regret to say I have work that I have to actually do for my day job, so that may interfere with my revision time.

While I was writing From Under the Shadow, something rather interesting happened.  I’ve lately been in the habit, whenever I have the time, of “casting” my books before I write them as part of my prewriting process.  I’m hardly the first person to do this.

There’s a thread in the NaNo forums about this, as a matter of fact.

Some people object to this idea (and you can read their arguments in the comments at that first link), but I think that it gives me a real, tangible idea of what my character looks, acts, and sounds like.  Rather than just a vague ethereal sort of being, the character becomes a bit more like a real person.  This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how I describe the character to the reader–it’s best to keep the description to a minimum and let the reader get his or her own idea.  But limits are important for me, as a writer.  If I want a character to say or do something, rather than just going with my gut feeling at that moment, I can ask myself, “Can I picture Sean Connery (or whoever) saying this?”

Here’s an example of how this helps.  When I outlined my second novel, I had an idea of the antagonist in my mind–she wasn’t a particularly nice person.  She manipulates the main characters into breaking the law for terribly selfish reasons.  Toward the end of the story, the two follow characters basically turn on her and become snitches.  With my original idea of the character, this was fine–she was so unpleasant that I’m sure the reader would totally understand why she deserved what she got.  The trouble was that when I “cast” the book, I “cast” Candice Accola as this character.

This was mainly for physical reasons–Candice Accola just had the “look” that I pictured the character having.  Once I’d done that, though, it was inevitable that elements of Caroline Forbes would start sneaking into her.  Without really meaning to, I started making her a bit nicer and more sympathetic.

You can probably already see my problem here, but I didn’t spot it until I was almost 3/4 of the way through the book, and I was about to write the third act and the showdown.  Suddenly, my Caroline-esque antagonist wasn’t the horrible person I’d originally thought she would be, and consequently, my two follow character would completely lose the reader’s sympathy if they betrayed her.  So I had to revise the ending a bit and have the two follow characters try to convince her to switch sides with them and do the right thing.

You might be wondering why I couldn’t just have written the character the way I originally pictured her.  I suppose I could have, but looking back now, that first idea of her seems totally boring and one-dimensional.  She has a more interesting, well-rounded character now, and that would never have happened if I hadn’t decided to “cast” her.



50K at a Normal Pace

Having always been a hand writer and this being my fifth NaNoWriMo/Camp NaNo, I’m pretty good at estimating my word count without literally counting every word.  This is why even though I have lots left to type, I can say with satisfactory confidence I hit 50K and won NaNo yesterday.  (And I finished the story, more or less.  I’ll explain later.)  With J helping, bless his touch-typist heart, I’ll have everything typed and ready to validate soon, and if for some reason it turns out I’m a little short, I won’t have any problem finding words to add, because boy, oh boy, do I ever have a long list of additions to make to The Queen’s Tower.

Of course, the long list of additions is the offspring of writing without a detailed outline.  The original outline consisted of bullet points for each of the 21 chapters and was five and a half pages long.  Then a chapter got added (Chapter 5.5 to be exact—I hate having to renumber the outline), because I realized something crazy.  “Crazy?  I like the sound of that,” you’re thinking.  No, not fun crazy, more obvious-as-the-nose-on-your-face crazy.  If a lot of the tension arises from whether or not the Queen’s husband (that would be the King, for those keeping score at home) intends to let her out of her tower, perhaps there should be a scene between of the two of them.  See?  Crazy!

So, I started writing my novel, but pretty quickly noticed something even more insane, a problem I’ve never faced before.  If my average chapter length held up, I was going to be short.  Really short.  Ten thousand words short of winning NaNo short.  I’ve thought a lot about how this problem arose, and it’s primarily due to the lack of a proper outline (you know, the kind we’ve talked about where we put word lengths on each section of each chapter).  If you plan for each chapter to run between 2,500 and 3,000 words and you have 20 chapters, you’re on pace to write a 50K-60K novel.  Easy-peasy.

But my 21 chapters were averaging 1,500-2,000 words, give or take.  Why was I suddenly writing such short chapters?  Well, part of it is the story I’m telling—I think my chapters run about as long as the story requires, and hey, some books simply work better with shorter chapters.  I know it might strike some as strange coming from a fantasy author, but I despise bloat, so if I was saying what I needed to with fewer words than usual, bully for me.  If I’d been working from an outline with word counts, I probably would have planned, say, 600 words, to the Queen’s picking out clothes for the feast.  But when I actually wrote the scene, I gave it around 300 and moved on, because I felt as though it had been sufficiently covered.  However, if I’d been staring at an outline that suggested I write twice as much, I probably would have tried to eke out at least 100 more words.

I see pluses and minuses to both systems.  In our traditional outline, I would know not to skimp on something because we decided it was important, and now on revision, I’m going to have to go back and find those spots that deserve more loving detail than I gave them.  But by not having word counts, I never felt compelled to write more than I thought necessary, which is good for fighting bloat. In other words, six one way, half dozen another, as it were.

But the salient point is, at 21 shorter than usual chapters, I wasn’t going to win NaNo, and dammit, I wanted to win NaNo.  I didn’t think making my chapters longer was a good solution, and I could only think of a few things (like Chapter 5.5) to add, so what could I do to make the book longer that also made it better?

Solution: Flashback jazz hands  (Aside: Pardon this joke which only about 3 people in the world beside J and I will get.)

The Queen is in the tower and has been for 17 years.  Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see how she got there?  I sure thought so, which meant time to literally go back to the drawing board.  (In this case, a dry-erase board, because I don’t think writers can have too many dry-erase boards.)  I did a quick 3 Act outline of the flashback story and then plotted where chapters A-G (because, again, I wasn’t going to renumber the outline) should go.  It turns out adding the flashback chapters was the best idea I had on this novel for three, completely non-word count related, reasons.  One, plotting the flashbacks meant I had to think about that pesky backstory I hadn’t bothered fleshing out because I’d been in a hurry when prepping the novel.  As fate would have it, a lot of interesting things happened 17 years ago, all of which changed how the characters related to each other in the present.  Two, I like the flashback storyline so much it energized me to write this novel in a way that had been missing.  And three, drama.  Seriously, it’s a much more compelling book with the flashbacks.  In fact, on revision, I’m contemplating making it its own equally weighted parallel storyline instead of occasional departures from the main story.

Which leads me to where I’ll get the extra words if I need them, and the biggest drawback to writing sans detailed outline.  In order to get a better idea of how the flashbacks fit with the main timeline, I busted out a spreadsheet—one column for the present day and another for 17 years previous.  But as I stumbled through, still trying to make sense of what I needed to reveal when and what I hadn’t set up properly, I added a third column that I headed Retcon! The Musical.  There are nearly as many cells filled in there as in the other columns, so, as I said, I may have hit 50K and “finished” the draft, but the revision is going to be its own special joy.

Speaking of which, I should probably get back to typing!


You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Two nights ago, I stared at my outline and thought to myself, “That is going to be the most boring chapter ever written.”

I’ve been looking askance at my outline more than usual on this novel, The Queen’s Tower, because I didn’t have time before NaNoWriMo began to indulge in the Extreme Outlining we typically do.  Now, I know a lot of WriMos who think we’re crazy for the amount of outlining we do, and some of them who have seen my current outline find it, oh, about a million times more detailed than anything they have ever done.  “Just write,” is the advice I hear so often, but I can’t write without a plan.  (Really, I can’t.  I once tried my hand at a short story and discovered I couldn’t manage 2,200 words without at least bullet points.)

So, to return to two nights ago, I glared at my outline, and it stuck its tongue out at me, as it were.  I mentioned to J that next on my agenda was the most boring chapter ever, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to writing it.  He asked what I had in my outline, and I described it as a presentation of the suspects.  He then asked exactly how many characters and if the reader already knew them.  I assured him that even if the reader had not seen some of these people before, plenty had been written about all of them.  In other words, I wasn’t introducing seven new characters to the reader in one chapter, I was showing the POV character’s reaction to seven characters the reader was familiar with.

This is the point at which, bless him, J pointed me down the path of reduced boredom.  If what matters in the scene is the POV character’s reaction, then make that reaction as interesting as possible.  How does one do that, you might ask?  With the Diana Botsford Scene Gap.

At the end of September, J and I went to Context, and while there, we attended a workshop with Diana Botsford about plotting.  One of the many useful handouts she gave us was the Gap Chart.  It helps a writer plan what might happen to a character in a given scene and how what does occur moves the plot.  J and I frequently boil it down to just two questions: What does the character expect? and What actually happens?  As we learned at the workshop, the gap between expectation and reality is where the drama lives and where the plot can be propelled forward.

As I mentioned above, the POV character had thought about most of these suspects before the Chapter of Greatest Boredom, but she had not actually met all of them.  If there was ever a time for a scene to not live up to your character’s expectations, this seemed to be it.  So J and I went through each and every suspect, figuring out what the POV character expected and how reality subverted that expectation.  Yesterday, I wrote the chapter, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not boring at all, even if I am the one saying it.

You often hear talk about subverting audience expectations, but that discussion usually revolves around freshening up an old trope or turning a stereotype on its head.  But subverting the expectations of your characters, I’ve found, can be its own subtle tool.  And it’s one I’m going to keep close at hand.


Mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map

I’ve finished my first revision of my first NaNo novel, Last Outpost, and now I’m starting the prewriting for the second one, From Under the Shadow.  And you know what that means: it’s time to make some maps.

One of the very first things that S and I did when we first started planning the Quartet was to sit down and draw a map of the main kingdom in our fantasy world.  I hand-drew it in pencil, and then later we scanned it in and cleaned it up a bit on the computer.  To be honest, the borders and at least some of the geography are loosely based on a certain real-world country that shall remain nameless–a technique that has a proud history, apparently.

This sounds like cheating, and I suppose it is, but it helps beginning fantasy writers avoid serious geographical errors, like having rivers split or flow uphill.  Just as with many other aspects of fantasy writing, if you copy real world geography, you know that if anyone complains that it’s unrealistic, you already have an example to prove that it’s plausible.

Most of our earliest computer map work was done in MS Paint–a truly grueling process.  Then a friend online introduced us to GIMP.

It’s not exactly user-friendly, but it can do all sorts of things (once you figure out what menu or sub-menu to find them under), and there are lots of tutorials online.

If you’re very ambitious, or you just need some help with your basic geographical concepts, you really should check out the Cartographers’ Guild.  There are lots of really talented and creative people posting their work there, and just poking around the forums is a great way to pick up tips on how to make better maps.

I should also mention that I really like the Donjon Fantasy Demographics Calculator.  It can help you with things like how many cities and towns a country could realistically have, and how many people would live in those places.  This is only indirectly related to making a map, of course, but it’s something to think about when you’re deciding where to put all the cities and how to connect them with roads, rivers, and canals.

Once you’ve got the basic outlines of your world, of course, you face the daunting task of naming all those blasted places.  If you do NaNoWriMo (as everyone should), I recommend the Appellation Station threads in the forums there.

There are lots of great place name generators there (and some for people’s names, too).  Some of the ones I’ve actually used in the past are the “Mithril and Mages Natural Terrain Feature Name Generator,” “Muddle’s Wilderness Place Name Generator,” and the “Pseudo-Elizabethan Place Name Generator.”  That last one tends to come up with eccentric or humorous names, more often than not (some of which are unprintable).  But hey, sometimes you need a funny place name.

Alternatively, you can try to assemble your own place names based on the naming conventions of some real-world culture.  For example, here’s a list of generic forms–prefixes and suffixes and such–in UK and Irish place names.

Google Translate is also helpful here, of course.  You can just pick a word, like “green” or “forest,” translate it into the target language that matches your fictional culture, and then add an appropriate suffix.

In any case, however you choose to do it, a map is really important in writing.  It’ll save you from having a group of your characters march a hundred and twenty miles in less than three days–something I very nearly did by accident.  And also, of course, it’s a lot of fun.


Deference to Reference

S has already posted about some of our favorite reference sites, but I thought it might be fun to talk a little about the reference materials that we have made for our own fantasy world.  It might explain a little about our process of outlining and writing, as well as how worldbuilding becomes a cumulative process.

For most of this novel, I wrote with two MS Word files open, side by side (this is pretty easy now that I’ve got my new laptop, Ellard, with a 1080p screen).  One file would be my detailed outline, telling me what I had to write, while the other one would be the novel itself.  I like to be able to look back and forth to see where I’m going and to make sure I’m not leaving out something important.

I made a map of the principal location of the book and made that my desktop.  In Windows, all I have to do is flick my touchpad down and to the right, and I’ll be looking at my map.  I can check distances or refresh my memory on how to spell place names, and then go right back to writing.

At the same time, I had open Firefox with (at the very least) Behind the Name and Google Translate.  I’ve certainly been known to just use asterisks in place of words, spells, or names when I’m in the middle of a thought and wanted to get it all down before I lost it.  My first drafts are littered with a lot of people with names like “General ***” who are from places like “the city of ****.”  But most of the time, I like to be able to fill in those blanks as quickly as possible.  It’s not much of a distraction from my writing to bring up the Behind the Name tab and look for an appropriate name from the appropriate culture.

Beyond those files and websites, though, are all the older stories and reference works that we’ve come up with over the course of seven years.

For example, at one point a few days ago, in addition to the novel and my outline, I had open six other files on my laptop:

First was the grand “Story Timeline,” which is the history of the Myrciaverse, color coded for all the major countries.  We started this when we first were writing the Quartet, and it’s been getting filled in ever since.

The second and third files were the informational files about the two countries who are at war in my story.  Again, we started these files years ago, so most of this information has already been written down; I all need to do is go look it up.  There are sections on religion, the arts, education, government, law, the military, the role of women, and sexual morality (among other things).  So if I want a character from a polytheistic country to invoke the name of one of his gods, I just need to open up the file and pick one from the list.

The fourth file was a more detailed exploration of one of those two countries, which I made when writing Mistress of Archers.  There’s a lot in there about the military customs of that country, including how their officer class is trained.  Since one of the POV characters in Last Outpost is an officer from that same country (albeit two and a half centuries earlier), this was obviously very helpful in figuring out her backstory.

The fifth file was “Astronomy of the Myrciaverse,” which is something I came up with when writing A Glass of Sand and Stars, in which several of the main characters were students of medieval astrology/astronomy.  I sat down before I started writing that book and worked out a really quick astrological system for our ‘verse, because I didn’t want to have to make it all up on the fly and get bogged down.  Now, if I have a character look up at the night sky and see a constellation, or if I want someone to talk about what sign someone was born under, I can open up that file, pick whichever seems appropriate, and keep writing.

The sixth file was “Last Outpost Characters,” which had the character profiles for all the main characters in the book.  I’ve described in a previous post what these are like—they’re just basic information and backstory, so that if I want one character to say, “I remember when we first met, *** years ago,” I can actually look that sort of thing up.  And if I have (as I do) one character who is 5’ 9”, and another who is 5’ 3”, then I need to remember that if we see that second character from the point of view of the first, she will perceive the second person as being short.  As I mentioned in that previous post, I’ve made mistakes concerning characters’ heights before, and wouldn’t you know it, I almost did it again this time!   Luckily, I’ve got the character profiles to keep me straight.

We have a folder in our OneDrive account where we keep all these reference sheets, and as you can see, they continue to be useful long after we’ve finished writing whatever novel originally occasioned their creation.  Even the character files for a novel can be useful for later novels.  Especially as the wizards in our world live for 2000 years.  One of the main characters in Last Outpost was also a main character in A Fatal Humor, so when I did the character profiles for Last Outpost, I was more less able to copy and paste what I’d already done for her.  In this way, every novel builds a little bit on every novel that came before, and each time around, worldbuilding gets just slightly easier, partly because we’ve had so much practice at it by now, and partly because we’ve done so much work already.


Hitting 50 K

So I just made it to 50,000 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, Last Outpost.  I’m on chapter 16 of 20, and I’ll probably spend a few more hours working on it tonight.  Once I’m done with it, either tomorrow or the day after that, I will start revising it.  And then I’ll start doing the character prompts for my second NaNo novel, From Under the Shadow.  Yes, I’m doing two this year.  Last year I did two because I suddenly had the idea for the second one after finishing the first one in a week.  This year I just decided to assume that I’d be done early, and to plan accordingly.

S is moving right along at over 13,000 words, so Team Unicorn is doing very well this year.  I will be helping her by typing up her book when I’m not working on my second one.

I suppose I should mention that I’m doing most of my writing on my new laptop, named Ellard, which is an HP Elitebook 850 G1.  It’s got a solid state drive, so it’s very fast.  The keyboard is great, though it’s very similar to the one in my last HP, so that’s hardly a surprise.

Oh, and for the record, my 50,000th word was “grisly.”


What do you want? It’s November.

J and I are busy doing NaNo, as you can see from the handy word count widgets. J is a crazy machine and I feel like a total slacker, but in reality, we are both moving along quite nicely.  (Well, I restarted my novel, The Queen’s Tower, 5 times, but that restart and the fact that I’m writing that novel and not book 3 in my Oleg Omdahl series are stories for another day.)

Anyhow, neither of us is feeling especially bloggy tonight.  But we didn’t want to miss our usual Sunday evening, so I stopped in to at least provide a link to a good blog.  It’s a longish, but very worthwhile read from Scott Westerfeld about POV.  (POV being my nemesis this weekend. See: started novel 5 times comment above.)

So, enjoy the link and NaNo if you’re participating.  See you next Sunday, at least briefly, if not before!