And Away We Go!

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Where we are now, metaphorically.

National Novel Writing Month starts on Tuesday, which means that we’ll be spending every available moment working on our novels. We’ll try to post updates as we go along, as always, but don’t be surprised if the entries are a little shorter than usual.

I’m finishing up my usual NaNo prep, so I spent last weekend and the first half of this week writing character prompts. I’ve blogged about these before—you write about the character in some random situation that has nothing to do with your plot. It’s a way of focusing on the character alone, free from the restraints of your outline or the necessities of your story. You can just think, “What would Susan do in this situation?” rather than thinking, “Well, Susan has to decide to do this, because otherwise the plot won’t go where I want it to.” I’m constantly changing the list of prompts that I use. These are the ones I’ve used this time around. (I’ve given credit where I can; some of these I can’t find online anymore except in older posts of mine.)

  1. Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains.
    From here.

  2. Background and Family
    -Unearth your character’s roots. What is the character’s ancestry or cultural background? How does ancestry shape your character? Is the character at odds with family traditions?
    -Write a series of short paragraphical biographies of each of the character’s closest family members: spouse, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, close friends, etc.
    From here.

  3. Where Leaving Takes Us
    Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where a character in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.
    From here.

  4. Write a brief summary of a critical moment in the character’s life. This is a pivotal moment, something that shows why the character is the way he or she is today.

  5. Motivations and Goals
    -What motivates your character? Money? Love? Truth? Power? Justice?
    -What does your character want more than anything else in the world? What is he or she searching for?
    -What other characters or events are interfering with your character’s goals? What obstacles are in the way?
    From here.

  6. Flaws and Fears
    -What is your character’s single greatest fear? How did your character acquire his or her fears?
    -What are your character’s flaws and weaknesses?
    -How does the character’s fears and flaws prevent them from reaching their goals?
    From here.

  7. Appearance
    -What does your character look like? Make a list and include the following: hair, eyes, height, weight, build, etc.
    -Now choose one aspect of the character’s appearance, a detail (bitten nails, frizzy hair, a scar) and elaborate on it.
    From here.

  8. Personality
    -How does your character feel on the inside? What kind of person is your character and what does the character’s internal landscape look like?
    -We don’t always present ourselves to others in a way that accurately reflects how we feel inside. We might be shy or insecure but come across as stuck-up and aloof. How do others perceive your character?
    -Write a scene with dialogue that reveals your character’s external and internal personalities. Good settings for this dialogue would be an interview, appointment with a therapist, or a conversation with a romantic interest or close friend. Write the scene in third-person omniscient so you can get inside your character’s head as well as the other character’s head; this will allow you explore how your character feels and how he or she is perceived.
    From here.

  9. Job Search
    Write a brief job description for your character. What is his or her job? How did the character get it? How long has he or she held it? What does he or she like and dislike about it? What kind of language would a person with this job use? What kind of equipment? Where would the office be located? Who would be the boss? What would the job title be?

  10. Synopsis
    Come up with a short synopsis of the novel.

And here’s the synopsis that I wrote for A Tincture of Silver, the first of the two novels I’m doing this time around:

Seeking to escape their families, two young ladies dress as men and sign up to fight as mercenaries in a distant war over vast new silver mines. When they are captured, one makes it her business to escape; the other isn’t quite so sure she wants to. But with the war reaching its inevitable climax, she might have to be rescued whether she likes it or not. The world’s greatest spymaster sends his lover and best agent to investigate, even as their relationship falls apart. Our heroes learn that sometimes running away actually can solve your problems, and that in war, there’s no silver for second place.

So now that I’m done with character prompts, I’m just reading through my outline yet again. I’ve probably read it five or six times in the last week, once I finished my character prompts. And I’ve been doing a little work on my maps for my story. I’ve got a general view of the region, a narrow view of the valleys and towns where the story takes place, and then a map of the castle where much of the story takes place (I based it on Himeji Castle in Japan).

Good luck in your own noveling, and if you haven’t gotten signed up for NaNoWriMo yet, go do so posthaste!

J

Are You Ready to Rumble?

 

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Tapestry of the Battle of Pavia by Bernard van Orley

NaNoWriMo is just a little over a week away, and I’m still furiously trying to get ready. I’ve filled out the basic character sheet J and I have been refining over the years for my most important characters, and I have a basic outline. Now I’m trying to add more detail on the outline, because I well know every minute I spend now will save me very many minutes in November. The one bit of preparation I’m nowhere close to having complete, though, is my research. And I think now is the moment I go ahead and explain here just what it is I’m doing this year.

I’m writing historical erotica, the primary pairing being two men. They are mercenaries in Renaissance Italy, and while they both have relationships with women (and in one case with another man) during the novel, they are what the kids call “endgame.”  Thing is, I’ve never written a historical novel or erotica (fanfic isn’t quite the same), so I’ve been spending the last couple of months finding out all I can about both. Here are my finds.

Erotica

So, when I told folks I was planning a Male/Male Erotica for NaNo, several people excitedly told me that was a brilliant idea. M/M stories are one of the fastest growing segments of the Romance industry, and when it comes to adult fiction, Romance is the industry. Now, back in the day when J and I decided to start writing fantasy novels, I had read almost no fantasy, so that became Job 1 for me. Therefore, I went in search of published smut. (Smut, by the way, is always a term of affection when I’m talking about fiction.)

As I have been toying with the idea of writing erotica for a while, I first tried several months ago to listen to some racy romance novels, picking from what I could get from the library in digital audiobook. I started a couple modern romances, and didn’t make it more than a half hour into any of them. I clearly wasn’t doing well on my own, so I did what any librarian would do—I found recommendations on tumblr.

I started with Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War, an excellent heterosexual romance with some naughty bits, but I really wanted to see what was being written for M/M pairings. The next novel I read was Bound with Honor, a book recommended by a fanfic author I hugely admire. This book features lots of groupings of the two male and two female leads, but it left me still wanting something both historical, as these two books are, but strictly M/M.

And, if I can sound like a dirty old lady, smuttier. In a panic, I started listening to a book that was definitely smuttier, every bit as dirty as the best fanfic I’ve read, but it was M/M/F, modern, and horribly written. So my search continues for the perfect M/M historical erotica. I have several in my to be read pile, and I’ve started one called False Colors, which so far is well written, historical, and M/M, but I haven’t hit the smut yet. Fingers crossed.

Renaissance

I’ve had much better luck doing my historical research. Michael Mallett’s book Mercenaries and Their Masters is a godsend. I also listened to all of Will Durant’s The Renaissance from his The Story of Civilization series. In addition to these, I have a whole basket full of books on the era, which have proven invaluable. I wish I had time to read them all cover to cover, instead of just dipping into them. Also, Ohio libraries are amazing, and the only way my research has been possible. May they remain ever thus.

Outline

So now I outline and hope that what I put on it spurs me to ask the right historical questions before November starts. If not, I suppose historical detail is something I can add on revision. But I really want the time and place to help drive the story, so hopefully I’ll know what I’m doing well enough come November 1.

~S

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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Emerson never did any prep work for his NaNo novels. 
True story.

Here at Unicorn HQ, we’re deep into the process of NaNoWriMo prep. A few nights ago, S and I worked on her outline, and to make it easier to see, we used our giant living room TV as an external monitor from her tiny new Lenovo laptop. It was awesome.

(Because I know you were all wondering, the new laptop’s name is Signy. She’s named after a character in S’s Oleg Omdahl mysteries.)

As usual, I’m doing two novels in November, and as I make my outlines, I’ve been switching back and forth between them, making sure to keep them both fresh in my mind. The tricky thing for me is that both are sequels to my previous books.

The one I’ll be writing first is A Tincture of Silver. It’s more or less a direct sequel to Called to Account, which puts it in a sequence of novels that now runs from S’s Queen’s Tower to my Lady’s Knight and covers more than a century of Myrcian history.

My second novel (if all goes well) is going to be When Uppance Comes, which will be a sequel to both A Meager Education and Joint Command. The first of those, as you’ll see if you go to our page listing our novels, is a school story, while the second is a spy novel. This new book is going to show what happens when those two worlds collide.

There are plusses and minuses to writing sequels. On the upside, I saved a lot of time in making my character sheets, since many of the characters carry over from previous books. So I just had to copy and paste the information I’d already written about them for the previous novels, and then add a few sentences to tell what they’ve been up to in the years since.

The problem with writing sequels, of course, is trying to make sure the characters are consistent. You want the reader to have the sense that the character Lisette whom they meet in When Uppance Comes is the same Lisette they came to know and loathe in A Meager Education. And this can take a lot of planning and preparation. Oh sure, we could take our friend Ralph Waldo’s advice and “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” But that is bound to end up frustrating both the author and the reader. So we’re stuck having to keep very careful track of what the characters did and said and thought.

The first thing I’ve been doing is simply reminding myself what I wrote before. I could simply reread my books the old fashioned way. But lately I’ve been converting my novels, a couple chapters at a time, into PDF files, and then using the “Read Out Loud” feature of Adobe Acrobat and a pair of Bluetooth headphones to listen to my old novels like audiobooks while I pace around the house. (There’s also a “read aloud” feature in MS Word, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.)

As I walk around, I keep a notepad and a pen with me, so I can keep notes on the characters as I go. I keep track of the character’s habits, tics, and speech patterns. Then I look at the outline I have planned for my new book, and where necessary, I make notes to be sure to include those things in the new book.

For example, in A Meager Education, one of Lisette’s very few positive character traits is her dedication to exercise. (Although, to be fair, she really only keeps herself in shape because of her titanic vanity; if you haven’t guessed, she’s not a very nice person.) As I was listening to that book, I kept noticing all the times she talks about going riding or swimming. And then I realized that I’d completely forgotten to have her do anything like that in my outline for When Uppance Comes. So I quickly made a note of that. And then, when I had more time later, I went through the outline, chapter by chapter, until I found a few places I could have her think about swimming or riding or whatever.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I trust S will have something to say about her own NaNo prep sooner or later. And if you haven’t gone to the NaNoWriMo site and signed up yet, go do it now!

J

The Persuasion Project: Chapters 2 and 3

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CE Brock illustration for Persuasion from mollands.net.

Today is a big day for us. This afternoon we will be meeting up with our local NaNoWriMo group to have the first planning session of the year, discussing write-ins and other events for the month of November. It will be great to see everyone again, although, now that I think of it, this past year we had more participation in the two Camp NaNo sessions than we often do, so it hasn’t necessarily been a year since we’ve seen most of these lovely folks.

J is busy outlining and planning for November, and so am I, but I have to say it’s going slower than I would like. This year I’m tackling historical fiction for the first time, and the research may be the death of me. Last night I lost about an hour looking for the answer to a question that I eventually realized wasn’t even important. And I have a strong suspicion it won’t be the last time that happens. At any rate, it’s really made me appreciate the writers of historical fiction, and that’s something.

But before we head off to meet our friends, I wanted to take a quick look at two more chapters of Persuasion. In Chapter 2 it is decided with Lady Russell’s help that the Elliot family must “retrench,” a fancy term for becoming responsible grownups when it comes to money. In Chapter 3 it looks like they have a plan—move to Bath, which is cheaper, while letting their home, Kellynch Hall, most likely to a naval officer. We leave the chapter with a fair assurance Admiral Croft will soon be living in Kellynch, and that through his wife, he has some sort of powerful connection to Anne. (Oh what could it be?!)

Here are the quick jottings I made while reading.

Chapter 2
Lady Russell is Emma Woodhouse 20 years later, if not for the chastening experience of meddling with Harriet Smith and the guiding hand of Mr. Knightley. Such a well-meaning snob.

I feel for Anne, and I like her very much, but does she not know her father and sister? Of course they would never agree to complete austerity measures as their retrenchment plan. And they would definitely never stay in their neighborhood in a smaller house. It’s only Chapter 2 and even I know that about Sir Walter and Elizabeth. So, what does this say about Anne? What does it say about Austen as a storyteller?

Lady Russell likes Bath and the idea of the Elliot family moving there. (Which happens to be in direct opposition to Anne’s wishes.) This is surely our first sign that while we were initially disposed to Lady Russell, she is not without fault. Perhaps this is the point of making Anne a little clueless about what her father and sister are willing to do. This way we are not offended when Lady Russell disregards Anne’s wishes on moving to Bath, since we know Anne has been wrong before about the retrenchment.

Chapter 3
Sir Walter’s vanity is hilarious. He doesn’t want to let his house to a sailor because he will have a tan? It’s this sort of thinking that got you into this mess in the first place.

Why does Anne know the naval lists? Who’s who and where they are stationed? Hmm.

“You mean Mr. Wentworth, I suppose?” said Anne. meep

This chapter has been a nice, subtle build in the mystery of who is Anne Elliot. Especially the way the chapter is left, Anne agitated: “A few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.” Who is he? What does he mean to her? (Of course, having read the novel before, I know it’s Captain Wentworth, love of her life. Sigh!)

~S

The Magic is Gone

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Wishing they were on a better show.

October is upon us, and that means it’s time to start planning our novels for NaNoWriMo!  Last night, S and I started plotting things out on dry-erase boards.  And we got the long roll of butcher paper down from the office upstairs, so we’re ready to start plotting out S’s novel and taping it up on the walls.  This morning, while I slept in, S has been hard at work, naming her characters.

In the weeks to come, we’ll probably post more about what we’re doing to get ready, but in the meantime, I wanted to say a little something about a show we watched recently, Magic City.  It was on Starz a few years ago, and it ran for only two seasons.  And while there were things we enjoyed about the show, it was pretty obvious to us after a few episodes why it got canceled.

First, there are few surprises in the show, and nearly all the surprises are bad ones.  Everything you think is going to happen, ends up happening sooner or later.  You think, “Oh, I bet that guy is going to get shot,” and sure enough, he does.  Every ponderous move of the plot is telegraphed so thoroughly, you see it coming a mile away.  And as I say, on the rare occasion when the show manages to surprise you, it does so in a way that fatally undercuts the character.  For example, when Ben Diamond, the violent, over-the-top, mustache-twirling villain, finally catches his wife in bed in bed with the older son of the hero—a moment the viewer has been anticipating with bated breath for several episodes—the outcome is almost cartoonishly silly.  It turns out Diamond likes watching his wife have sex with other people.  It’s a moment from a sex farce that the show tries ludicrously to play straight, while demanding that the viewer continue taking Diamond seriously as a threat.

Many of the show’s sins stem from inconsistent characterization, in fact.  Ben Diamond is the worst offender, of course.  The writers seem to have been aiming to create an “unpredictable psycho,” but what they achieved was a character whose reactions are so out of proportion to the actions of others, and (as above) occasionally so silly, that he becomes tedious.  It’s the same problem I have with many depictions of the Joker in various Batman series and movies.  Hollywood seems to have this odd notion that chaotic villains are somehow more terrible and terrifying than villains who are thoroughly rational in pursuing their evil aims.  It seems to me that a few moments’ thought should show why that isn’t so, either in real life or in fiction.  Irrational villains get high and trash a liquor store; rational villains build concentration camps.

Then again, its probably fair to note that I’m not really fond of mob movies or TV shows.  Other than the first two Godfather movies, I really can’t think of any mob-related story that I ever enjoyed.

Other characters in the show have consistency problems, though.  Ike, the hero, is generally likeable and decent, but about halfway through the second season, he seems to get a personality transplant and start acting like a jackass to characters we like.  Again, this is a surprise, and it’s not a good one.  Several times, as we were watching the last few episodes, S turned to me and said, “Who is this guy, and what happened to Ike?”

But anyway, we’ve finished the show now, and at the very least, there was a lot of pretty 50s and 60s set decoration, and a lot of very pretty people wearing very little, and it was all filmed very prettily.  The show certainly looked good; I’ll give it that.  And it was nice to see Jessica Marais again, playing the aforementioned wife of the villain.  We remembered her from Legend of the Seeker, one of our favorite cheesy-good-fun shows.  In fact, all the way through Magic City, we referred to her as “Mord-Sith Denna,” rather than by the actual name of her character, which I’ve already forgotten.  (Wikipedia tells me it was “Lily.”)

As an amateur writer, it’s sometimes just as instructive to look at bad writing as it is to look at good writing.  So I guess what we can take away from Magic City is the necessity of consistent characterization, and the need for characters to act rationally according to their motivations.  If there are surprises about one of the characters, they should come because we’re showing the reader a previously-unseen, but perfectly logical facet of that character.  The reader’s reaction should not be, “Whoa, that guy’s nuts!”  But rather, “Ah, of course.  I hadn’t thought he was that sort of person, but looking back, it makes sense.”

And speaking of characters, I need to start doing some work on mine.  I can’t let S get ahead of me in the planning and outlining!

J