Birth of a Unicorn

It’s probably past time to share our origin story. Not the one couples usually tell about how they met (although we have a pretty good How We Met story), but the one about how we became a Unicorn, and by that I mean how we started writing novels together. It all began in the summer of 2007 about a month after we got married, and J’s parents, intrepid world travelers, had left for 6 months in South Africa and Australia while we’d be on our honeymoon.

An odd start to novel writing, but stick with me.

For some reason the USPS doesn’t believe that people leave home for more than a month at a time, and if for some bizarre reason they do, their mail should be forwarded to them. Now why the post office would want to forward my mother-in-law’s quilting magazines to Pretoria instead of holding onto them in Ohio is a mystery to me, but no one ever claimed the postal service made sense. Since J hadn’t changed his place of residence yet, he was allowed to pick up their mail once a month and then replace the hold on the mail. (Not that this didn’t lead to its own issues, but whatever. I’ve already spent far too much time on this weird topic.)

So, J and I had to make the first of our two-hour drives to his parents’ local post office. Not quite half way, I threw out one of my random conversation starters. (Something, thankfully, J is always up for. On one road trip before we were married, I asked about the English monarchy, which ended up with J telling me the complete history from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. It was awesome.) The topic on the drive to his parents’ was “What kind of stories do you like?” J answered “A quest!” with an unlikely hero, ala Star Wars to be specific. As so often happens when I randomly say the things that enter my mind, when J turned the question around on me, I had no answer. But we kept chatting about the nature of stories, the archetypes and genres we enjoyed. I agreed that quests are nice, but in my very limited exposure to SFF, whether it be books, movies, or TV, there seemed to not be a plethora of interesting women going on quests and proving themselves unlikely heroines.

I then asked the question that would change everything. “If you were going to write a story, what kind of story would you write?” Neither of us had ever written fiction. As I’ve mentioned before, we both majored in English in college, but we strictly took lit classes, and neither of us ever studied creative writing. But I suppose this is the sort of thing a lot of people think about, and considering the previous random topic, the answer wasn’t particularly difficult for J. “I suppose I’d write a quest with an unlikely hero.” I also just repackaged what I’d said before, J having sold me on the awesomeness of quests, and I said that would be nice, except I’d like it to be an unlikely heroine.

And then I said it, the words that would come to define our marriage and our lives from that day to this. “What if we wrote a novel together?” J didn’t hesitate in agreeing to this idea. He, of course, suggested we write a fantasy novel, which seemed like a jolly idea to me, even though at that point I’d literally only read Tolkien and Lewis. (J had just started turning me into a geek a few years before our marriage.) He said we ought to grab all of his Harry Potter books while we were at his parents’ house, because they would provide good points of reference. (We did grab them that day and then preceded to read the entire series out loud together. It was a ton of fun and provided great reference points, just as he said it would.)

Then for the rest of the drive we talked about the foundations of what would become Myrcia. There would be a princess who hadn’t been raised to rule, but circumstances would force her to. And unlike Tolkien where regular dudes sometimes end up with immortal chicks, I insisted our princess end up with some sort of magical guy. We also laid the foundations for the basic geography of the country of Myrcia and a few of the other characters who would show up, such as the princess’s governess.

And we haven’t stopped since then. We just keep writing and coming up with new stories in the Myrcia ‘verse. Because that’s what Unicorns do.

~S

Presents of Mind

Christmas is almost here, and hopefully you’ve done all your shopping.  I finished up mine yesterday by getting presents for S.  If you’re a writer shopping for yourself, though, or if you’ve got a writer on your list and you’re still looking, here are a few last-minute gift ideas.

Cheap headphones.  I was in Best Buy shopping yesterday, and during the many, many minutes I was standing in line, I saw some really cheap headphones, and I nearly bought them for myself.  I kind-of wish I had, in fact.  Like most people, I have a “nice” pair of headphones, but they’re a bit too big to carry with me all the time, so I often forget them at home.  And then I end up stuck somewhere, trying to write in public, with all sorts of noise and distractions going on around me.  That’s the sort of situation where I would want some small, cheap headphones–small enough that I could take them with me, and cheap enough that if I lose them, I won’t feel bad.  I could just keep them permanently in my laptop bag, and that way I would never be without them.

A wireless keyboard.   The one at the link is the one I got for myself before NaNoWriMo this year.  It’s pretty nice, and I can use it to write while I exercise.  Someday I might post pictures showing how I do that.  Anyway, I imagine a lot of people already have bluetooth keyboards for their tablets, but you can always use a spare.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t remember the hand writers out there, like S.  Everyone can always use a good pen.  And I don’t mean fancy gold-plated things that get admired for two minutes Christmas morning and then get shoved in a drawer and forgotten because they’re too nice to use.  I mean real, practical, usable pens.  The kind that can be bought in bulk.  Here’s S’s favorite.

Books on writing make a good present for a writer.  S and I have previously mentioned My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, by Jeffrey Schechter.  It offers a really valuable way to look at the structure of stories.  It’s the last minute for Christmas shoppers, though, so here are links to the Nook and Kindle versions of the ebook.

And speaking of things that can be downloaded right at the very last minute, there’s Scrivener.  If you don’t know what it is, it’s writing software that claims to make it easier to develop and organize your novel.  We’ve never actually used it, but NaNo winners get a discount, and sooner or later I’m sure we’ll give in and buy it.

If you can’t get any of those things, or if the person you’re shopping for already has them, you could always just stop somewhere and pick up one or more of the following: chocolate, coffee, or wine.  Because those are always welcome gifts at any time of year.

J

Meltdown, or How I Spent My Weekend

Some folks may have noticed that we missed posting a blog last night, even though Sunday evening is the one time we always try to have something.  Well, I was having a writer meltdown, and blogging fell through the cracks.  J is more than brilliant writer, he is also a fantastic husband, so he helped me work my way through it and come up with a plan of action going forward.  Here in brief (with hopefully less angst) is what happened and what I’m planning to do about it.

“I’m just not a very good writer.”

This comment is what started the ball rolling.  I always feel this way to a certain degree, but beginning Saturday evening, I felt it a lot, until I finally blurted out these words Sunday evening.  J, naturally, said this was poppycock (or some such), but he is not exactly unbiased, so in spite of his best efforts, I remained unconvinced.  I finally challenged him to find a single paragraph I’ve written that belongs in a published novel.  He pulled up the first three paragraphs of a chapter I wrote years ago, and if I’m being honest, they’re pretty good.  They also go far beyond being simply “inspired by” but “completely ripped off from” Dostoevsky.  So, I felt less miserable, but still not confident.

I then popped open the novel I wrote this year for NaNoWriMo, randomly reading paragraphs aloud from the chapters I’ve done some basic revision on.  Shockingly, I didn’t hate every word.  I still saw huge problems, some of which I began conjuring fixes for, but others befuddled me.  J made some excellent suggestions for the latter, and I closed up the book not hating it as much as I thought I would.

However.

I asked myself, “Is any of it publishable, and if it’s not, will I ever become a good enough writer to make it so?”  Possibly.  With this specific question in mind, I started thinking of some of the traditionally published novels I’ve read, and there are some I might be able to equal in quality if I work hard enough.  The only problem is, these are novels I don’t particularly admire, written by authors who I’ve read precisely once.  So now the question becomes do I want to put in the effort to write novels that if written by someone else I would not admire?  But is it folly (and in my case from time-to-time, crippling folly) to say that if I can never write as well as Brandon Sanderson or Joe Abercrombie I don’t want to write at all?  (At one point J said, “If the end result of you reading Joe Abercrombie is that you don’t want to write anymore, stop reading Joe Abercrombie.  I’m serious.”)  Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this question, but for the time being, I’m going to keep writing, although I’m going to do so with a new strategy.

“I love NaNo, but it’s given me so many bad habits.”

Anyone who has spent any time on this blog or has met us knows we are big proponents of National Novel Writing Month.  The first year proved some important things to me, particularly that I can write more quickly than I realized, especially when I make myself write every day.  But it also taught me I can write a first draft fast.  The issue here is that I now don’t always take the time to write, well, right.  For instance, 8 days before November and the start of NaNo, I came up with an idea for a new novel I wanted to write.  I scrapped the novel I had prepared and dove in to the new project.  The lack of prep had its problems, but I ended up with something not entirely awful even if it does need more revision than usual.  But before I could finish even the first round of revisions, I came up with another idea for a novel I wanted to write, and I wanted to write it in time to give it to J for Christmas.

A novel in 25 days?  I could totally pull that off, because I’d done it before.

So I leaped into the new novel with brief character sheets and a complete, detailed outline.  The first two chapters went pretty well, but it was clear that there was no way I’d be done by Christmas.  Basically, I can write a 50K word novel in a month, but writing two in back-to-back months was a bit much.  I came to terms with this, and figured the opening of a novel would make a better present than nothing, so I continued writing.

Then came the meltdown.

I don’t know if my climb up onto the ledge was triggered by something specific in the novel I’m working on, the disappointment that I wasn’t going to get it done by Christmas, or just the exhaustion of doing so much writing in such a short timeframe while working 40 hours a week.  Not that it matters terribly.  The important thing is J talked me off the ledge and we came up with a plan, the nutshelled version of which is Slow Down.

Rather than rushing ahead with J’s Christmas present, I’m going to do serious prep work, including the character exercises J likes.  I’m going to get to really know my characters and their story before I continue, which will hopefully lead to an appreciable improvement in my writing.  The end result being not just a better novel, but if I’m truly lucky, no more meltdowns.

S

A Second Look

S and I are just starting our revisions of the three novels we wrote for NaNoWriMo.  “Revision,” of course, literally means taking another look, hence the name of this blog entry.  The thing about NaNo novels, though, is that many times you write them so fast that when you go back to read them, it’s almost like seeing the story for the first time.  “Vising,” if you will.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet about how best to revise a novel.  Here are a few different suggestions.

I particularly like numbers 22 and 23 at that second link–getting rid of the “pretty peacocks,” i.e. the pat phrases and words that have become crutches in your writing.  I know what some of these are in my own novels, and I’ve started using Ctrl + F to find them and get rid of them when I finish.

The most important–and the most fun–part of revision for us is reading the book aloud.  This is something I advise my students to do with their college essays, and I usually get a lot of strange looks when I suggest it.  Then they all try it, and by the end of the semester, a lot of them will do it voluntarily without any prompting from me.  Some of them will tell me they now read all their papers aloud at home, because it’s so helpful.  And it really is.  There’s no better way to find clunky or repetitive phrasing than reading aloud.  It even helps in finding typos and grammatical errors, because when you read aloud, you are more likely to see what is actually on the page (or screen) in front of you, rather than just letting your eyes slide over it.

We started with Last Outpost, because that’s the one I wrote first.  Traditionally I read the odd chapters and S reads the even ones.  I think this goes back to when I was writing the big, million word faux memoir, and we tried to make sure that nobody got stuck doing too much of the reading.  Since then, we’ve just carried on doing it that way.

The other reason I wanted to read Last Outpost first was that the ending is (spoiler alert) a bit of a downer.  From Under the Shadow (another spoiler alert) ends much more happily, so we ended our read-through of my novels on a high note, with blossoming romance, rather than with futility and defeat, feeling like the world is a sad and hopeless place.

The best thing about reading through a novel you’ve just written is, of course, the sense of accomplishment that you get from seeing something that you’ve finished.  The worst thing is finding all the parts that don’t quite work–a conversation that goes on too long, a joke that isn’t as funny as it seemed in your head, or a really important moment that needs more loving detail.  It can be a little overwhelming, but at least we’ve got some vacation coming up when we can work on it.

J