Extrapolating Backwards

A present given to S by @sansenmag featuring Santiago Cabrera, Aramis on The Musketeers

A present given to S by @sansenmag featuring Santiago Cabrera, Aramis on The Musketeers

We promise we will get back to our regularly scheduled posting sooner or later. S has been having her summer vacation, though, and celebrating her birthday. So we’ve been doing important birthday activities like eating brownie cake and watching episodes of Da Vinci’s Demons and The Musketeers (both marvelous, cheesy-good-fun shows, if you haven’t seen them).

My present for S was a novel. This has become something of a tradition for us. It started some years ago, when I gave her the first section of My Private War as a surprise present. And then, once I was done with all six parts of MPW, I kept writing new stories for special occasions. Obviously, at this point it’s not really a surprise when I do it anymore, though S likes surprises, so I try to keep her in the dark about the story I’m writing as much as possible.

We’ve just finished reading her birthday story, Red Sand Girl, which is the origin story for one of my favorite recent characters, a sorceress named Pallavi. She’s turned up in a number of our books in the last few years: A Fatal Humor, Last Outpost, and The Last Bright Angel. And she’s mentioned in The Leopard’s Claw, as well. So I decided to write about how she discovered her magical powers, and how she became the awesome character we see in the later books.

This involved what you might call a process of backwards extrapolation. If I wanted her to have a character arc in the story, I had to start with Pallavi the way we’d seen her before, and make her as different as possible from that at the beginning of Red Sand Girl. She’s a highly accomplished sorceress in the later books, whereas when we first meet her in this new book, she’s only just starting to discover her powers, and she doesn’t really know what’s going on. That’s only the most obvious example, though. In books I’ve already written that take place later in her life, for example, she has a certain bawdy, no-nonsense quality to her; she will literally say anything to anyone. So in the new book, I had her start out timid and scared of offending people. In the later books, she is known for having a string of affairs, and she doesn’t take romance terribly seriously. Thus, in the new book, she starts out with a single, very serious boyfriend, whom she is convinced is the love of her life, and whom she desperately wants to marry. In the later books, she is very self-confident, and she will not take crap from anyone. So in this new book, she starts out as a bit of a doormat. In the course of the story, hopefully, the reader can see her start to find herself and become the Pallavi we know and love.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to. We’ll be back soon to continue our countdown of best fantasy characters.



Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Saga Continues

(Part 1 of the Countdown)

Forty percent of this list is comprised of women. It actually would have been quite easy for it to be half, especially seeing how seriously we considered Arya Stark, but we didn’t want the characters from Westros overrunning the list, so with some real regret, we had to leave her off. However, we do have two characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and one of our favorite women this week. The two men may actually be the two characters in fantasy we have spent the most time discussing; two of the fictional characters we have discussed most, full stop, in fact. Whatever nitpicks we may have with Martin’s series, his place as a modern master of character has never been in doubt since we first picked up A Game of Thrones. His skill at vivid character description as well as his knack at building sympathy for the questionably moral are worth every writers’ time to study, whatever genre they write. As for the woman in this week’s installment, she is the touchstone we use whenever discussing female characters in fantasy. She is our byword for what a woman in epic fantasy ought to be.

7. Jaime Lannister


Whenever we talk about character POV, we almost always end up talking about characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. You think you know one of his characters, and then, almost invariably, when you get a chapter from that character’s POV, everything changes. Jaime is really the poster boy for this. He’s in an incestuous relationship with his sister, he’s widely despised for breaking his oath and killing the old king, and he pushes a little boy out a window the first time we meet him. He seems completely irredeemable—almost too villainous to be believed. But then you see the world from his perspective, and, while you don’t exactly forgive him, you understand him. You even start to sympathize with him. Someday when we get around to finishing Magnificent Kingdom, we’re going to be thinking a lot about Jaime and this wide contrast between the way he is seen and the way he sees himself. One of the main characters of Magnificent Kingdom is going to be a wizard, Kuhlbert, who becomes known to later history as a terrible villain. But even many of his enemies at the time recognize he was honestly always trying to do the right thing.

6. Eowyn

I am no bro
Writing female characters can be fraught with political booby-traps. Does she have agency? Does your novel pass the Bechdel test? Is she a damsel in distress, a man with boobs, a male fantasy? Sometimes it feels as though the hardest thing to do is leave all the potential cultural baggage at the door and just write a great character who happens to be female. We can’t track it down, but we both remember reading years ago an article discussing how lucky Tolkien was to be writing The Lord of the Rings before the feminist movement of the 1960s, because it allowed Eowyn to simply be, without stress of tackling what being a shield maiden says about equal pay and whatnot. However one puts it, there is a naturalness to the character, making Eowyn entirely female, entirely strong, and utterly fascinating. She also expresses a desire not often attributed to women, and yet felt by many—the desire to be tested physically. It is a trait at the heart of traditional masculinity, but to deny that many women also feel the urge to show physical courage is to miss an important impulse in many women. In fact, when discussing the similarities of the seemingly very different female POV characters in the Quartet, we often quote Eowyn’s most telling line:
“What do you fear, lady?” he (Aragorn) asked.
“A cage,” she (Eowyn) said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
That’s an answer most people would associate with a man, and yet, it is imperative to remember that Eowyn is no man. And it is, in fact, the mission statement of both our female leads in the Quartet.

5. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish


Littlefinger is one of the most intriguing characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, and he’s certainly the most interesting character to have never had a POV chapter.  At one point in A Storm of Swords, he tells Sansa Stark, “Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next.  Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you.”  And that is exactly why he is such a fascinating character.  You’re never quite sure where he stands.  You never know what deeper game he might be playing, but you’re positive he must be playing one.  In fact, in spite of the fact that one of the things Martin does so well is to make you sympathize with a character by showing you that character’s POV, we actually hope we never get to see the world from Littlefinger’s perspective.  It would spoil the mystery.  If you saw the world through his eyes, you’d have to know what he was thinking and what he was planning.  And what fun would that be?  In our own writing, we have a rather Littlefinger-like character named Konrad.  His role at the beginning of the Quartet is pretty ambiguous—is he on our heroes’ side or not?  Later it becomes clearer that if he’s on anyone’s side, it’s his own.  He makes several cameo appearances in My Private War, and he’s scheduled to show up in one of the upcoming Oleg Omdahl mysteries.  But we’re probably never going to write from his point of view, simply because it’s so much more fun to keep the reader guessing about his motives.

Stay tuned for characters 4-2 next week!

J and S

Ten Best Fantasy Characters: The Beginning

For people who love reading and discussing fantasy, Best Fantasy Books is a wonderful website for learning more about the genre and finding recommendations, and their forum provides a great place to meet fellow readers and watch hours of your life slip away. Right now they are in the midst of a tournament to select the best fantasy character ever, and this little contest got us talking about our favorite characters. More specifically, it got us talking Tuesday evening as we arrived at an informal meet up with some folks from our writers group. One of the members of the group immediately said, “You need to blog about this.” Turns out, she is absolutely correct!

So here we are to start counting down our 10 favorite fantasy characters. Tonight, we bring you characters 10-8 and in the coming weeks, we’ll not just rank but discuss what we find so intriguing about these characters and what they have meant to our writing.

As we came up with our list, we considered a number of factors, such as complexity and admirableness.  But all the characters on this list have two things in common: they have spurred multiple discussions between the two of us, and they are characters we genuinely enjoy reading about.  In practically every discussion we ever have about what makes a hero heroic, we eventually end up talking about our number 9 and 3 choices.  Whenever we talk about writing realistic female protagonists, we always use the girls who appear at number 10, 8, and 6 as examples.  We practically couldn’t discuss how to make a villain sympathetic without making reference to the gentlemen who are numbers 7 and 2.

So here they are, counting down from number 10:

10. Vin


When we started writing fantasy, we both began reading more modern fantasy and getting tips from the wonderful podcast, Writing Excuses. Pretty soon it became clear that we had to pick up Brandon Sanderson, and we couldn’t be more glad that we did. We started our journey with Sanderson where many people do, the Mistborn Trilogy. What most people take away from this series, and Sanderson in general, is that it has a remarkably complex and fascinating magic system. Actually, systems, plural, all revolving around the effects metal has on some people’s bodies. Now, while we appreciate the magic in Mistborn, what we like even more is Vin. A street urchin attached to a second rate gang, Vin is parentless, friendless, beaten, and unloved. But in spite of this, she never loses her spirit, and when Kelsier arrives in her life, she’s ready to earn her change. You see, Vin, like Kelsier, is Mistborn, meaning that she can ingest metals to essentially become a kickass superhero. And she works her butt off, further earning everything she gets as a magical warrior. This kind of development, where a lead character is blessed with not just powers, but powers outstripping just about everyone else, can make it tough to sympathize with the character. But watching Vin get a lot in life that she deserves is a treat we are certainly trying to replicate with the hero of the Quartet, Bertie.

9. Neville Longbottom


The great thing about Neville is that he never truly gets discouraged, no matter how bad things get for him—and they get pretty bad. His parents have lost their minds and can’t even recognize him, he’s hopeless in class, and even his friends think he’s a bit of a dork. But he keeps plugging away, no matter what. And in the end, he’s the character who has the longest arc in the whole Harry Potter series. We get to watch him grow into a genuine badass. He starts as the kid who can’t find his pet toad. He ends as the guy who stands up to Voldemort even after they all think Harry is dead and they’ve lost. As authors, it’s very easy to concentrate on the protagonist to the detriment of the other characters. But even secondary characters, like Neville, can have compelling personal arcs. In the Quartet, one of our secondary characters, Tynble, develops in a very similar way to Neville. She starts out a bit hopeless, and the main characters don’t pay much attention at all to her. But in the end—not to give any spoilers—she becomes incredibly important.

8. Tiffany Aching


A few years ago, we listened to the audio book of Wee Free Men together, and we loved it. Tiffany, as S has put it, is “plucky done right.” She is an active heroine; in spite of her youth, she takes responsibility for saving the world, or at least her little corner of it. You just can’t help rooting for her to win. She’s smart, but she’s smart in a totally believable way that will feel terribly familiar to anyone who was a precocious reader as a kid. She’s read the dictionary all the way through, for example, and knows all sorts of big words, but doesn’t know how to pronounce them. A smart, plucky, active heroine is easier to like than one who simply reacts to things around her. In A Glass of Sand and Stars, for example, one of the main characters, Ollie, is a girl who dresses as a boy to attend a medieval university. Then she risks it all and reveals her real identity in order to get what she wants. It’s far more interesting than if she just sits around, waiting to get caught.

So there you go.  Stay tuned for numbers 7, 6, and 5!

J and S

Saying Goodbye to Camp (for Now)

Camp-Winner-2015-Web-Banner(Sorry for the lack of a blog last week–we were busy finishing up Camp NaNoWriMo. Here’s a wrap up.)

It’s May, of course, and that means Camp NaNoWriMo is over.  Or at least the April session is over.  There’s another one coming up in July, which everyone should totally try to remember.

My book, The Last Bright Angel, is finished, and I’m officially credited with 141,921 words.  I’ve been revising the book, though, and it’s actually up to 148,907, for what that’s worth.

When I revise something like this, I usually read through it multiple times.  The first time, I’m just looking for major errors of logic and typos.  But I do keep a little list of notes—things that I want to remember to go back and look at the next time through.

The second time, I read through according to POV characters.  First I read all the Faustinus chapters in order, then all the Daryna chapters, and so on.  In a book like this, where there are eight POV characters, this can really help, because it’s easy to forget what a character is supposed to “sound” like if you’ve written chapters for three other characters in between.  When you read only that character’s chapters, it’s very easy to tell whether he or she seems like the same person throughout the whole book.

I made up a chart for the POV characters, so I could keep track of various little stylistic quirks that they each had—everything from whether they used second person in narration to what kind of profanity (if any) they preferred.  How long could their sentences be?  How long could their paragraphs be?  What kind of metaphors would they use?  And so on.  As I read through the second time, I checked each chapter against this style sheet, and made adjustments where necessary.

The third time I read through from start to finish again, checking each chapter against my outline (which, as I may have mentioned before, is a sort of hybrid of the classic Syd Field Three Act Structure, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, and Save the Cat).  I made sure that each chapter actually accomplished the things it was supposed to, like “Show direct conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist (or his minions).”

Now I’m reading through a fourth time, and again, I’m just checking for typos, logical consistency, and the overall flow of the plot.  Once I’m done with this, the only thing left to do will be to read it aloud with S—always the most important (and most highly anticipated) part of our revision process.


Seeing J’s revision process laid out like this makes me realize what entirely different novels we worked on this Camp. I have one POV character and the novel is a third the length. Yet, I think I’m further away from finishing mine. My novel, The Queen’s Tower, was originally drafted during last November’s NaNoWriMo, and I used Camp to make some pretty significant revisions. However, before heading off to Camp, I did not completely fix the problem I mentioned in a blog back in March—my lack of a full outline.

Yes, I managed to do some outlining before Camp, but it still wasn’t as thorough an outline as I typically do. This means that as I revised, I came up with nearly as many new issues to tackle as I solved. I made it all the way through the novel, but I ended with a list of changes to make as long as the one I had before I started. I know part of that is due to not spending more time on the outline, but I also think I needed to read through the novel again before I could understand all the issues facing me.

So, since I was actually keeping track of time spent revising and converting that to words for Camp (1 hour=500 words), I finished out the month creating a new outline, complete with two brand new chapters. The most significant changes going forward include adding some characters, a few who existed in passing in the first draft, and one who I created with the help of some folks from my writers group.

As I mentioned in that pre-Camp blog, the section of my novel that most worried me was the second half of Act 2. It was a lot of people talking with almost nothing happening. Thanks to J and two regulars from my writers group, I realized that what I needed to do was “kick down the door” as Brandon Sanderson put it in a Writing Excuses podcast, meaning I needed to do something drastic to shake things up and see what came from it. The obvious way to kick down the door at a feast is to poison someone, and seeing as how poisoning is integral to the climax of the novel, it struck me as a good way to set that up. There was a character I’d mentioned in passing who I thought would make a good victim, but if I wanted said character to be more than a redshirt, I needed to go back and make her a real character.

And in large part, that’s what my next pass is going to focus on—making characters matter throughout who matter at the end of the novel. There’s also an element of mystery to the story, and tweaks to that aspect can always be done. So, I’m about to set off on round three of The Queen’s Tower, at the end of which I’m hoping it will be ready to share with J who can give me feedback for a fourth draft. In a perfect world, I might even get that done before July’s Camp NaNo, at which I would love to return to revisions of my first Oleg Omdahl book. Fingers crossed.