Part of Our World

The other day S and I were sitting around, looking at stuff online (as we do), and we couldn’t help but notice that other blogs have lots of pictures.  And we were jealous.  So S suggested we might want to start posting our own pictures of places we have been that have inspired our writing.  Here are four to start off with.

S and I went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague in July 2007 for our honeymoon, and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that we started writing fantasy novels after getting back from Europe.  At the very least, these locations provide a shared frame of reference when we’re discussing castles, palaces, and cathedrals.  S has been to a few places I haven’t (like Denmark and Luxembourg), and I have been some places she hasn’t (like the UK, Italy, and Russia).  But if I say, “I think this part of this church looks a bit like St. Vitus in Prague,” then we both know what it looks like, since we were both there together.

St. Vitus, Prague

St. Vitus, Prague

Our hotel in Budapest was right up in the Castle district, which was really convenient and gave lovely views over the city.  This was right around the corner, for example:

Fisherman's Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

How could you see that every morning and not want to write fantasy novels?

Buda Castle was particularly important in the development of Wealdan Castle, one of the main locations for the Quartet.  It’s where our heroine was born, and it’s where two of our other main characters spend a great deal of time in the first and second books hanging out together while romance blossoms.

The cool thing about Buda Castle is that there are bits of the old medieval fortifications around, but there’s also a giant 18th-19th century palace there, too.  So this was a really helpful model when we were thinking about Wealdan Castle, where our heroine’s ancestors have been living for nearly a thousand years.  Here’s the new(er) part:

Buda Castle, Budapest

Buda Castle, Budapest

And here’s a shot where you can see some reconstructed remnants of the medieval fortifications:

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Here’s a link to an aerial view (not taken by me, of course) that shows that same part of the castle.

In our minds, this became a sort of private park for the royal family, and an important location for our story is based on it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pictures.  No doubt we’ll put up more when we find the time to go through all the pictures we’ve taken over the years.



Why Are You Telling Me This?

There are actually a lot of good answers to the question: “Why are you telling me this.” I once heard the brilliant (and recently departed) Mike Nichols say “Because it’s funny,” is perfectly acceptable. However, there are just as many wrong answers. I think much of the bloat in fantasy (especially of the doorstop, epic variety) comes from authors reaching the conclusion that if something is cool enough, then of course they should be telling the reader. But that’s really not enough, is it?

An early critique we received from a friend was that she didn’t believe a lot of the things we were telling her early on would ever pay off. She was right an uncomfortable number of times, but it was exactly the sort of thing we needed to hear. Primarily by shedding passages that accomplished nothing worthwhile, we trimmed a 210,000-word manuscript down to 164,000 even while adding a significant character.

Think about some of the movies that had you squirming in your seat and checking your watch. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson.) For instance, the second I saw Radaghast in the first Hobbit movie, I couldn’t understand at all why Peter Jackson was telling me any of that. On the other hand, David Yates and his screenwriter made a big improvement when adapting Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He massively trimmed the opening, which is one of the most tedious sections in a series I do rather enjoy. The book takes 5 chapters and nearly 100 pages getting Harry to Grimmauld Place so he can get caught up via a massive infodump. And what follows that? Over 20 pages of cleaning. Cleaning! Once you have read the book, you can see JK Rowling was hiding something (that I won’t spoil just in case there’s someone who hasn’t read the books or seen the movies) under layers of red herrings. But more than 20 pages of red herrings is not the kind of answer I’m looking for when I ask: “Why are you telling me this?”

So, why am I telling you this now? Because when I sat down today to blog, every idea I came up with sounded boring even to me. All I could envision was the handful of folks who read this blog talking to their computers (or smartphones, tablets, whatever). And each of them said the same thing: “Why are you telling me this?” A writer’s first duty is to tell the reader something worthwhile. That something can be an interesting fact, a new interpretation of an old thought, or the meaning of life. Of course, “Because it’s entertaining,” is a fine something worthwhile, and thank goodness–entertaining is hard enough without having to change the way all of mankind sees the world.



S and I are coming toward the end of our latest revision of the Quartet.  As she mentioned last week, we’re hoping to make sure it’s ready to send out in case someone shows interest in seeing it.

One of the things I find interesting (not to mention slightly frustrating) about revision is that no matter how many times you do it, there are still things to fix.  And even when you think you’ve run out of things to fix, there are always things to tinker with.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting.  It’s amazing how two former English majors with advanced degrees can still make basic errors, like forgetting to put a comma in the right place or misspelling simple words.  And that’s not even counting the spelling problems that arise with the words we’ve made up for our ‘verse.  It’s always a little embarrassing to misspell a word, but it’s especially mortifying when you invented the word in question.

Consistency with in-verse terms.  Should “foreign” words be in italics?  What about when the POV character using the word is a native speaker of that “foreign language”?  Should magic spells be in italics?  Should all the words in a magic spell be capitalized, or just on the first word in the spell?

Continuity errors.  If you have one character shut the door on his way out of the room, the next person who comes into the room will have to open the door first.  If three people sit down to supper, there need to still be three people at the table at the end of the meal.  If a character takes his sword off at the beginning of the scene, he has to put it back on if you want him to have it with him later. When you have to write a scene over the course of several days’ worth of lunch breaks, however, it’s easy to lose track of that sort of thing.  This is yet another reason why reading the book together out loud is so important.  It’s much easier to catch those sorts of mistakes when you have two people following carefully along with the text.

Character voice.  Even on this latest read-through, we have run across lines that just don’t sound like a particular character.  And of course the narration has to match the POV character, too.  If Susan always thinks of her brother Robert as “Bobby,” then when we’re in her head, he needs to be Bobby, even if he is known as “Bob” to everyone else.

On the whole, though, I think we’re getting close to a finished, publishable story.  Maybe when we’re done, we can dig out our original first draft and read through that, too, just so we can see how much progress we’ve made.


How Does This Thing Work?

This week J and I took a pretty big step forward in our life as authors.  For years, we said we were writing novels purely for the joy of it, and we had no intention of trying to publish, and for years, we absolutely meant it.  But you can only have friends, some of whom are pretty smart, discerning readers, suggest you should try to publish before you start wondering if maybe this fun way to kill time on weekends and evenings might be more.  So while I was on vacation and J’s semester hadn’t begun yet, we decided to get serious about figuring out how this publishing thing works.

  • Which Book?
    This was the simplest part of the process.  Yes, we’ve written 21 books in our ‘verse, and even though we’ve made each novel (or series) independent of the others, we still feel as though the best introduction to the Myrcia ‘verse is the original Quartet.  Book 1 of that series is This Present Life, so that was the book we chose to try and sell.
  • Agent, Publisher, or DIY
    A decision J and I came to long ago was that if we ever took the leap into publishing, we would begin by trying the traditional publishing route.  If that failed, well, we still had self-publishing, but we at least wanted to give the traditional route a go first.  The next decision was whether to approach a publisher or an agent.  It doesn’t take too much time with Writers Market or just about anything associated with the publishing industry to see that even though the list of agents willing to consider unsolicited fantasy submissions is small, the list of publishers willing to accept them or anything unagented is nigh on nonexistent.  So, agent.  Armed with a subscription to Writers Market, internet research, and peeks at Publishers Market, we made a list of about a dozen agents, four of whom we particularly like.  We spent some time familiarizing ourselves with the books and authors these agents represent and followed the agents’ blogs and Twitter accounts where applicable, and started to get to know them a little better.  Now that we knew who we wanted to query, it became a matter of getting said query ready.
  • The Query Letter
    When we went to Context this past September, Jonathan Maberry kindly offered to share his query letter with anyone from the con who sent him an email requesting it.  He was as good as his word, and very kind all-around, offering additional advice.  But now was the moment when we had to take his query letter, which we’d obviously read several times, and actually apply what he had done to our own query.  I did the first draft and then J jumped in for revisions, and I think we came up with something pretty solid.  At least we hope so.
  • The Synopsis
    Then we had to wrangle our 164,000 word epic fantasy into a two page synopsis.  Simple, right?  Actually, it was easier than I expected.  We’re trying to sell our first book, which we began seven years ago, and we’ve put through I don’t even know how many revisions.  (Really, I’ve lost count of revisions on this thing.)  The point is, it wasn’t some soul-crushing exercise to boil down our baby to around 600 words because it’s just too awesome to be contained in that small a space.  Instead, we know the book so well that selecting the plot points and character traits necessary to give someone an idea of what the book is about in 600 words came pretty easily.
  • The Revision
    Did I mention I’ve lost count of revisions?  On the drive home from Context, J and I discussed This Present Life and our ‘verse in general, and we came up with some revisions we wanted to make.  We hadn’t done so yet, so we divvied those suckers up (I got to make a color-coded spreadsheet!) and knocked them out in a few days thanks to us both being off work for the week.
  • Proof/Copyedit
    And now we’re in the process of making sure that should an agent ask for sample chapters or even a full manuscript, This Present Life is ready to go.  Assuming nothing pops up to stop us, we just might send our first query by the end of the month.  Wow.  A long way from “We’re just doing this for fun and don’t want to published,” isn’t it?


Worldbuilding: A Slacker’s Guide

This year for Christmas, I made up a new culture, a new religion, and a new city.

As we often do, S and I wrote stories for each other as gifts.  S actually started first, and at first she kept it a secret.  Eventually she had to break down and tell me, since she didn’t think she would have enough time to write if she only wrote when I wasn’t around.

Now, I had been mulling over writing a novel for her, too, and when she told me that she was already working on hers, I suddenly realized, “Oh, crap.  I’d better get started.”  I had a few ideas that I had been pondering for a while, but none of them were things I really wanted to rush.

So I needed something completely new.  I started with an exercise out of My Story Can Beat Up Your Story to build a story around an interesting protagonist.  First, name an occupation.  Then think of an ironic quality–something that you wouldn’t normally expect a person in that occupation to have: a sailor who is afraid of the water, for example, or a lawyer who is compulsively honest.

Several of our novels so far (including the massive million-word “memoir”) concern agents from an elite force of deadly assassins and spies.  These agents are all good-looking, smart, and above all, supremely good at their jobs.  But then I thought, what if one of them wasn’t?  Somebody has to be on the far left side of any bell curve, after all.  There has to be at least one agent who couldn’t quite hack it.  So I decided to make the story about her.

Where would such a spy be stationed?  Well, probably not anywhere important.  And that meant I wasn’t going to be writing about any of the locations we’ve ever used before.  It had to be somewhere a little boring and out of the way.  But it still had to feel like a real place.

My job was a bit easier because S and I have spent literally weeks of our lives making elaborate maps and fact sheets about different countries in our shared ‘verse.  Yes, this is a little like saying that the key to running a marathon is just getting through those first 26 miles.  I was able to slack off this time because I had already done an awful lot of work.

So how do you build a new imaginary country quickly?  You steal.

First, you steal from yourself.  I decided that since this country I was writing about was relatively small and was surrounded by larger, more powerful countries, it was the sort of place that had absorbed bits of its language, culture, and religion from them.  This alone saved me a tremendous amount of time, since I could just say, “This is just like this other thing I’ve already done.”  I decided, for example, that they had a syncretic religion, with the god of one monotheistic neighbor married to the goddess from another monotheistic neighbor.

Another way I stole from myself was by including a character from a previous novel.  At the end of Act II of this new book, my poor incompetent protagonist has really dug herself into a hole, and someone from the main office, as it were, of her spy organization had to show up and help her out of it.  Why come up with someone completely new?  This was the perfect opportunity for a cameo by an established character.  It really worked out well, and I think my readership (i.e. S) got a big kick out of seeing someone familiar show up in a new story.

In addition to stealing from yourself, there’s an entire real world to steal from, as well.  I have a bunch of pictures from the souks of Dubai that I took when visiting there a few years ago, and those strongly influenced one of the main settings of my book.  S and I had decided long ago that the language of this particular country was going to be based on Finnish (I think we picked that more or less at random).  So as I was writing, I kept a bunch of browser tabs open in Firefox with sites on Finnish culture and cuisine.  If I needed to say what someone was eating at lunch, for example, it would take just seconds to scroll down the page on Finnish food until I saw something interesting, which I could then put in the story.

I needed a map, too, so I would be able to keep track of where my characters were, how long it would take them to get from one setting to another, and what they might see along the way.  Normally I would draw a map from scratch in GIMP.  But knowing S was already hard at work at her novel, I didn’t want to waste any time.  So I just got a satellite image of a port city that was in roughly the right climate for my setting, flipped it horizontally, and added the names of locations in my story.  Thus, I had a working map of my city in about half an hour, rather than a day or two.

In the future, I will probably still take days and days to develop setting and character before writing, but in this instance, a quicker method worked pretty well, and it’s nice to know that it’s an option if I ever need to do it again.