Happy Anniversary to Us

Not what Santiago Cabrera's sign actually said, but I'm sure he agrees with the sentiment.

Not what Santiago Cabrera’s sign actually said, but I’m sure he agrees with the sentiment.

This Tuesday is our anniversary. Not our wedding anniversary, of course, but rather the first birthday of this blog. Our first post went up on Monday, Sept. 29, 2014. We had just returned from the now-sadly-defunct ConText conference, and we had decided that after many years of resisting the call of social media, we needed to develop an online presence. And that was the start of our author Facebook page, and S’s Twitter obsession, and of course this blog. So far, we’re enjoying ourselves, but looking back, we find that we’ve actually learned some things this year. Or, in some cases, we’ve relearned the importance of things we already knew, but had perhaps forgotten. Starting next week, we’ll be talking about what we’re doing to prepare for NaNoWriMo, but for now, here are the three main things we’ve learned—or relearned—from our blogging adventure.

Appeal
Why on earth do people like certain characters, storylines, and ideas in their fiction? It’s a question we started asking as soon as we decided to start writing and had to choose which fantasy tropes we wanted to include in our novels, which we wanted to subvert, and which we wanted nothing to do with. But since we started blogging, and having to come up with something to say once a week, appeal has become an even more common topic of conversation, and not just when it comes to fantasy. Part of it surely has to do with becoming writers, but it’s also something that probably comes with age, that neither of us experience the knee-jerk reactions we once did to narrative that seems somehow lesser by our standards. Instead of asking, “Why would someone like that?” in a dismissive tone, we now ask in all earnestness, “Why would someone like that? And how can I steal whatever it is?”

For instance, our most read post is Mary Sue and the Boy Scout, S’s examination of the two lead characters on the CW TV show The 100. (Aside: It’s in large part our most read post thanks to the tireless love and retweeting of it by @skiku. Bless you and thank you!) The two of us have talked extensively about what the appeal is of what on the surface is just another post-apocalyptic story/teen drama on the CW, and yet it succeeds far beyond that to have a strong appeal to adults who are willing to give it a go. Having to write that blog made us spend a lot of time thinking about what makes good characters work, and if we hadn’t been blogging, would S have ever organized her ideas so completely? Probably not.

And then there’s S’s current obsession with smutty fanfic. If forced to select the blog that has had the greatest impact on her as a writer, she would probably choose #PelvicSorcery. Smutty fanfic is a genre that if you had told her when she wrote her first blog here that she would be reading and writing a year later, she would have thought you were crazy. Yet, there seems to be no genre that when well executed doesn’t have its appeal, and once you peel back those layers to see why someone would like a genre, fiction you previously would have never considered can become cherished reading.

Process
Process is a topic that, perhaps, we have always loved a little too much. How you build characters, plot, and setting is something we can talk about for hours, and regularly do, between ourselves, to friends, to people who won’t be our friends if they have to listen to us talk about the topic ever again. And yet we learn something valuable every time we talk about the subject, and every time we blog about it.

Example, when S wrote about how she had to pseudo-pants The Queen’s Tower last November for NaNo, she realized how important two simple questions are for her understanding of character. (Those questions being: What does he want? and Why does he want it?) J is the family mapmaker, although S is getting better at pitching in on the process. And with each map he designs, he has a chance to discover a place, because a map to him is not a representation of something that is, but a blueprint to what he is creating.

And then there are the outlines. Yeah, we’re pretty sure we haven’t learned anything new about outlining by blogging about our extreme version of it. But there are few topics we love quite so much as outlining. Beginning next week, we’re going to be doing a series on how we do it and why we think it’s important. And why it is one of the most creative aspects of process.

Discipline
The third thing we’ve learned from doing this blog is that sometimes you just have to make yourself write, even when you don’t particularly want to. Yes, there have been a few weeks when we forgot to put up a blog, but more often than not, we managed to put something together. If we’d only posted on our blog when we really, really felt like doing it, then there would have been whole months when we didn’t do anything. Now, granted, we’ve never exactly been slackers when it comes to getting writing done, but even so, it’s a valuable reminder that you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s not just that you might be waiting a while. It’s that writing actually spurs ideas for further writing. Once we actually start writing, we almost invariably find that we have more to say on a given topic than we thought we did. Take our series of blogs on the Best Fantasy Characters of All Time. We kept putting off those posts again and again, but each time when we actually sat down and started working on them, we found they were easier to write than we imagined. That applies to fiction writing, too. Sometimes when we are writing, there are parts of the story—major plot points or dramatic moments—that we’re almost dreading writing. How can the scene live up to our expectations for it? What if we screw up and the scene falls flat and our readers think, “Oh, that should have been so much better than it was”? And yet, once we force ourselves to write those scenes, almost invariably we look back and think, “That wasn’t nearly as difficult as we thought it would be.”

So, that’s a bit of what we learned. If nothing else this blog has been, and we suspect will continue to be, a fascinating record of our tastes and obsessions. And hopefully of our growth as writers.

~J and S

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Getting Schooled

Bueller...bueller?

Bueller…Bueller?

It’s mid-September, and that means it’s time to start thinking seriously about our NaNo novels.  Yes, some people just start writing on November 1 with no idea where the plot is going, but as we’ve mentioned before, we both believe in planning our stories ahead of time.  Outlining, after all, is half the fun.  I’ll probably be writing two novels this year, as I have done the last two years, and starting early like this will give me plenty of time to fully outline both stories and make profiles for all the characters.

In addition to outlining, though, there’s also reference work to be done.  And part of that for me this year will be coming up with a new school.  The heroine of my second story is going to be obliged by straitened family finances to become a teacher, so I’ve got to design the school that she will be teaching at.

Luckily, we already know something about the educational system of our fantasy world.  Three of the four main POV characters in the Quartet meet at an elite boarding school, early in the first book.  This was one of the very earliest ideas that we had when we were first outlining the Quartet.  So you could say that we’ve been thinking and writing about a school in our ‘verse for the better part of eight years now.  One of the first scenes S ever wrote for our story, in fact, takes place at that school.  For my first NaNo novel, I wrote Guardian Winter, which tells what happens at that school during the war, while our POV characters go off and have exciting adventures together.

But that’s the super-elite school, where brilliant people and princesses and wizards-in-training go.  What about the other schools?  Obviously, in a medieval or renaissance-based world, any school at all will be, to a certain extent, an elite institution, since there will be large numbers of people who don’t go to school at all, or are apprentices, or who are tutored at home.  But not every school is going to be quite like the school where the king sends his beloved daughter.

So now I’m trying to come up with another school, bearing in mind that everything there should be a bit less grand than at the school we’ve already seen.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of information on the web about education in the renaissance and about fancy boarding schools in general.  Over the years, for example, the Wiki pages on Eton and Winchester College have been a surprisingly fruitful source of ideas.

There’s the matter of curriculum, as well.  Not that I’m going to make my readers slog through long transcriptions of lectures, but it’s good to have a sense of what characters at this new school would be learning.  Especially since the main POV character is going to be a teacher.  What sort of qualifications would she have to have?  Presumably to get a teaching job, she would have to master the standard curriculum.  So what sort of things is she supposed to know?  Luckily, the content of a medieval or renaissance education is pretty well known.

In our ‘verse, people study literature and foreign languages, too,  not just classical texts.  We gave our characters a grounding in foreign languages because that makes it easier to explain why they can all talk to each other.  And we have them study contemporary literature, even though that’s a decidedly modern idea, because we’re both former English majors, and that way we can draw on our own educational experiences.

As with a lot of worldbuilding, there are two competing pressures that determine what kind of educational system you have in your ‘verse: the needs of the story, and the logical consequences that flow from the kind of society your characters live in.  If, for example, I need a teenage character to be able to speak Swedish, I can just say that she happens to have attended a school where they teach Swedish to everyone.  There’s really nothing that couldn’t, hypothetically, be part of a school curriculum if you really wanted it to be—gymnastics, magic, gardening.  You name it, someone somewhere could teach it.  But then you have to consider the implications of that curriculum.  What kind of a school has a mandatory Swedish-as-a-foreign-language program?  What does it say about the town where my heroine lives that it could support such a program?  What sort of place is this where teaching the kids Swedish in school would make sense?  (No offense, Sweden.)  School curricula aren’t always a perfect reflection of society, goodness knows.  But at least to a certain extent, what’s taught in school is basically what adults think kids need to know in order to be decent adults.  So you can learn a lot about a place by considering what they would want to teach their kids.

I’ve come up with a brief history of the town and the school already, and I’ll probably be making a map soon.  My goal is to make sure that I have a sense of what the school is like, so that when I put my POV characters there, I can describe it without too much trouble.  My hope is that it feels like a real place, with sufficient character of its own that the reader won’t just dismiss it as “Hogwarts-lite.”

J

You Can Quote Me on That

air quote

Punctuation is vital at Evil Medical School.

“I don’t understand how to punctuate dialogue,” Bob confessed.

“Let me explain it to you,” Sue offered.

“But where do we begin? I do everything wrong!”

Sue wanted to smack Bob. He was such a whiner, but then she remembered that punctuating dialogue was something she had to look up once upon a time as well, so she patted his hand and set to teaching. “Let us begin with the noble comma,” she said. “See how I just put a comma at the end of what I was saying inside the quotation marks, because I wasn’t done with the sentence?”

“What?” Bob asked, scratching his head.

“I was speaking, but when I finished speaking, the sentence wasn’t finished, because I added ‘she said’ after the close quote.”

“Oh. Is that why you put a comma before the close quote?”

“Precisely!” Sue answered, thrilled Bob seemed to be picking this up quickly.

“But what about question marks?” asked Bob.

“You mean like what you just did there?”

“I don’t know,” Bob responded, confused.  “Is that what I just did?”

“When what you’re saying is a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation.”

“But what if it’s not the end of the sentence, and you’re going to add, ‘she said’ afterward?  Didn’t you say I needed a comma before the quotation marks if you aren’t done with the sentence, like when you add an attribution?” asked Bob.

“If your statement is complete, and is a question or an exclamation, you need the punctuation to show that as part of the quotation. No comma is necessary!” exclaimed Sue.

“Is that everything?” Bob queried.

“That’s never everything when it comes to punctuation,” said Sue, “but those are the things that come up most often.”

“Wait. Why didn’t you capitalize ‘but,’ and why a comma before it?”

“Because it’s all part of the same sentence and the parts need connected by commas, but you don’t capitalize after a comma. Putting a quotation mark there doesn’t change that.”

“So does that also go for putting the attribution at the start of the sentence instead of the end?”

Sue smiled, and said, “Exactly! A comma before the open quote following the attribution. Well done, Bob.”

“Since I’m doing so well, do you want to tell me the other rules?”

“Well, here are a couple rules you won’t see much, but it can’t hurt to mention. If you have a colon or semicolon, those punctuation marks always go outside the quotation marks.”

“Why?”

“Because my high school English teacher told me so. Some of the rules are pretty arbitrary, and even differ between American and British usage.”

“Whatever you do, don’t try to tell me the British way now, too. I don’t need that confusion,” Bob pleaded.

“Fair enough,” Sue smiled, agreeing it could all start to blend. “One rule that does make sense is that every now and then, you do put question marks and exclamation points outside the quotes.”

“Why would I do that?”

“If the quote is not the exclamation or the question, but the entire sentence is, put the punctuation outside the quotation mark to show that it applies to the entire sentence.”

“That…makes a startling amount of sense considering it’s a grammar rule. Sort of like if I’m quoting you, and I say that you said, ‘My high school English teacher told me so’?”

“Exactly right.” Sue giggled. (Which was a complete thought in this case, not an attribution, so she used periods instead of commas inside the close quote and before the open quote.) “Sometimes it works out. Is that enough for today?”

Bob sighed. “I guess so. Thanks for explaining.”

“My pleasure!” Sue said, as she skipped away.

~S

Space Invaders

"If you'd been a girl, we were going to name you Hedwing Tonks."

“If you’d been a girl, we were going to name you Hedwig Tonks.”

I’ve finished my reference work on religions, and I’m now starting to think about what I might want to do for NaNoWriMo in November. It’s never too early to start outlining, after all! I’m also continuing with my read-through of the Harry Potter books. I’ve had to slow down a bit, since school is back in session, but I just started the 7th book last night.

As I come to the end of the series, I am reminded of something we heard Patrick Rothfuss say on one of the panels at Gen Con a month ago. The panel was about writing satisfying endings, and Rothfuss mentioned what he considered Rowling’s great mistake in the final book: the epilogue. And it wasn’t something specific about what happens in the epilogue, or the things we learn there. It wasn’t finding out that, yes, sadly, Hermione marries Ron. Or the sappy names that Harry gives his sons. No, it was the mere fact that the epilogue existed. It’s the fact that we, the readers, are never going to get to imagine our own version of the future for Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Instead, there is a fixed, canonical future for them, written out and planned. A future, moreover, that Rowling still continues to fill in for us.

A friend of ours from grad school calls this the readers’ “imaginative space”: the parts of the story, and the parts before and after the story, that readers get to fill in for themselves. Rather than letting us picture our own continuation of the story, you could say that Rowling invaded our imaginative space. Yes, it’s her world, and she invented it. But at a certain point, a creator has to let it go.

Everyone always says that it’s always best to leave the reader or the viewer wanting more, and the trick to that is knowing when to stop. It’s so very tempting to just keep going. I mean, as a writer, I’ve got these characters, and I’ve grown to like them. And if I’m lucky, the reader has grown to like them. So why quit? Why not keep hanging out with these people we like?

The first novel I ever wrote for NaNoWriMo was Guardian Winter, and of the friends and beta readers who have read it, two of them asked me when I was going to write a sequel. I took it as a compliment, of course, but I’ve never bothered to spend much time trying to come up with another story for Fred and Arden, the POV characters of Guardian Winter, because I feel like their story came to a nice, satisfying conclusion. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could try to come up with a sequel, though. I mean, why not?

Well, the first reason not to do a sequel, of course, is that, much like hanging out with your real friends, your fictional friends may eventually start to wear on you. In a fifty to sixty thousand word novel, they’re charming. Would they be quite so charming in larger doses? Perhaps not. Just like that part with your friends, where you suddenly notice everyone checking his or her watch, and you realize the party should have ended an hour ago.

The second reason, though, is that by ending the story at its natural conclusion, you’re giving the reader the opportunity to imagine what happens next. It’s like turning over the keys of your world to the reader and saying, “Here. I’m done with it. Why don’t you take it for a spin?” This (I think) is what our friend meant by a reader having his or her own “imaginative space.” What Rowling is doing, in contrast, is like handing over the keys and then taking them back, again and again, and saying, “Oh, whoops. I just have this one more thing I need to do.” As this article points out, Rowling needs to be careful that she doesn’t slide down the slippery Sarlacc Pit after George Lucas, who took away so much “imaginative space” that fans started rebelling.

Creators aren’t just invading imaginative space at the end of the story, either. The other night, S and I were talking about the growing fondness for carefully-leaked “spoilers” between seasons of TV shows. Here are a few articles, for example, explaining what certain casting choices and filming locations reveal about the plot of the next season of Game of Thrones (it should go without saying, but those links contain spoilers. Or at least alleged spoilers).

Now, I can understand the temptation for shows to play along with this sort of thing. It builds “buzz” for the show. Or something like that. And apparently these kinds of articles are popular, because they keep getting posted. But when S and I talked about it, we decided that it was more fun when our TV shows didn’t provide us with constant semi-official hints as to what might be coming next. It was more fun when we had “imaginative space” to picture what might happen next season. Now it feels a bit pointless; we already know which characters are going to be there, and we have a pretty good idea what they might be doing.

This is disappointing as a fan, but for someone who is trying to write fanfic in the ‘verse of a TV show, as S currently is, this is maddening. She has certain “events” that need to happen in the course of her story, but she is obliged to try to squeeze those ideas into a vaguely-hinted-at framework of plot points and locations that people are talking about on Twitter and Tumblr.

Imaginative space is, after all, the fertile field from which fanfiction springs. The whole point of fanfiction is to fill in those gaps that the creator left behind. So writing becomes quite challenging when the creator refuses to leave any gaps. At some point, S might write on this blog about how she handles that challenge.

In my own writing, I suppose the thing I can learn from this is that not every story needs a sequel, and not every novel needs an epilogue. I like where Fred and Arden ended Guardian Winter, and if I never come up with another good story to tell about them, I would be happy to just leave them there. There’s also the case of our wizard characters, who live 2,000 years. Some of them have popped up in three or four of my novels now, spread out over centuries. In order not to crowd out the reader’s imaginative space, I think it’s important that we remember not to spell out canonically every single thing that has happened to our wizards between the books. Especially where wizards are concerned, a bit of mystery is good.

J