What Did I Say?

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George is especially careful about what he says. (Pic from farfarawaysite.com)

As Camp NaNo comes to an end, J and I are revising the projects we worked on during the month. J wrote another Myrcia ‘verse novel that I am very much looking forward to reading, and I wrote some fanfic. I actually posted a completed short piece a few days ago, but I have a longer Turn fanfic that needs some work. Where I want to focus most in revision is on the voice of one of my POV characters. (Who happens to be George Washington, by the way.) J has been helping me get it typed up, so he’s gotten a taste of what I’m doing and what I’d like to achieve. When it comes to fixing Washington’s voice, these are the things we’ve come up with me to focus on.

Word choice

This is probably the most obvious part of character voice—what words does the character use. Some word choice decisions are easy to make, like when a character has specific technical knowledge, they speak in technical terms. As an example, J has been to law school, so he makes jokes about things like “prior consideration” and “meretricious consideration” that someone who has no legal training would never say. (These are the legal reasons, he tells me, that I am not allowed to pay him in kisses when he does me a favor.)

But there are also harder word choice issues. As I’m going through my first draft, there are words that don’t quite hit the ear as well as I would like them to. Last night, J found one for me. Originally, I wrote:

But he could not stand the way Benjamin looked at him.

J, bless his heart, immediately suggested I change “stand” to “endure,” which sounds a million times more like the Washington I’m trying to write. So, it will be a slog, but I really need to go through all of his POV chapters, and look for those words that just don’t sound quite like Washington, and replace as many as I can.

Level of Formality

How formal is the character? This is a character voice trait J and I have been talking a lot about since we first started writing. Does the character always get forms of address correct? Do they lean toward being too formal or too familiar? Are they painfully correct in their grammar? (For this last one, we often talk about the possibly apocryphal statement of Winston Churchill’s about never ending sentences with a preposition, meaning, would the character actually say, “up with which I will not put”?)

If there is one thing J and I agree on, it is that Washington is very formal. And he is formal in a studied way. We both agree that Turn does an excellent job of translating what we know of the real Washington to the character played so brilliantly by Ian Kahn. Washington lacked much formal education, and he regretted this and felt self-conscious about it all his life. He attempted to teach himself as much as he could, but people intentionally trying to be correct often come across as stilted, as opposed to someone who learned proper behavior at a young age when it could become a seamless part of their personality. And yet, I don’t want my Washington to ever cross that line into awkwardness or pomposity, so it’s a delicate balance I’m not quite hitting just yet. But that’s what revision is for after all.

Dialog vs Internal Monologue

J also pointed out that characters’ internal thoughts do not have to have the same level of formality as their speech. Washington will definitely always be formal in his dialog, but we both agree that he might be slightly less formal in his own mind. He might even think about whether or not what he just said was the correct level of formal. It’s a subtle difference, but I’m going to see if I can manage it.

And that’s what I’m up to as we pack up and get ready to leave Camp. What I’ll be doing in May is anyone’s guess. Besides posting this fic once it’s ready, I’ll probably return to the Regency erotica I had been working on before Turn happened to me. I’m actually quite pleased with what I’ve done on it, and look forward to getting back to it.

~S

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Relationships Matter

tak and rei

A scene from the new Netflix show Altered Carbon.

As always, Unicorn HQ is a hopping place with house hunting and packing. And when that and our day jobs aren’t intruding, I have been squeezing in some TV. Specifically, this weekend I binged the new Netflix series Altered Carbon. I enjoyed the first six episodes well enough, but it was the final four that really sold me on the show and made me keep watching, explaining in part why this blog is a day late. And, of course, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why, which eats up its own fair share of time.

When 1+1 is > 2

Earlier this week, I was chatting with someone on Tumblr about what we find most engaging in the media we consume and the fiction (fanfic and original) we write. At the end of the day, we agreed that what draws us in are the relationships. When I was younger, I remember thinking that what makes good stories, well, good, are the characters. But as I get older, what I find most compelling are the relationships, not the individual characters. Now, these can be great romances, like say, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, but it can be any two characters whose interactions make the story more interesting.

For instance, what changes in episode 7 of Altered Carbon is the introduction of the hero’s sister. (Well, our hero, Kovacs, has flashbacks to his sister, Rei, throughout the first six episodes, but Episode 7 is when their backstory becomes the main story and Rei becomes a character on the show for the remainder of the season.) This sibling relationship got me far more invested in the universe, plot, and protagonist of the show than the whodunit driving the first six episodes. Their childhood, their complicated adult relationship, which I won’t spoil by saying any more about, is the kind of intense connection between characters that keeps me going straight into the next episode.

When 1-1 < 0

What Altered Carbon plans to do in Season 2 will be interesting to see. Given the universe, Kovacs and Rei could easily be or not be in the next season, played either by actors who have already played them or by other actors. (In the Altered Carbon universe, consciousness can be transferred from one body to another body or clone, so for all we know, I could show up playing Kovacs in Season 2.) But I hope the showrunner remembers how exciting the episodes with Kovacs and Rei are. (And frankly, both actors playing Kovacs have great chemistry with Dichen Lachman, so I hope the casting folks keep that in mind, too.)

It’s similar to the hope I also have for Versailles. I think I’ve mentioned before (and if I haven’t, that’s an oversight I’ll fix right now) that Versailles is best when focusing on Louis XIV and his brother, Philippe. I know shows like to mix things up from one season to the next to prevent staleness, but that often leads to getting rid of what works. For instance, Justified is a show that is strong to the end, because no matter what else is going on, that show never forgets that Raylan and Boyd and their antagonistic relationship is the heart of the show. Unlike, say Vikings, which as far as I’m concerned, ended with Season 3 when the relationship that made the show worthwhile, Ragnar and Athelstan, ended.

So, if you’re looking for a quick review of Altered Carbon, I like it. (Maybe some time if I’m bored and/or masochistic, I’ll discuss the whitewashing and violence against women complaints that have been leveled against the show. Or maybe J will; I’ll probably make him watch it at some point.) And why did I like it? All the futuristic, Blade Runner-esque visuals? Meh. Not really. (Although it does look great.) Nope, I like it for Kovacs and Rei, the orphaned brother and sister who I’m far more invested in than I am in knowing who killed some rich dude who can’t really die.

~S

The Fanny Price of Fantasy

The Magicians - Season 1

Quentin, I’m sorry, but the tests have come back, and the doctors say…you’re a douche.

The weather has been absolutely dismal for the past few days here at Unicorn HQ. I ended up having to cancel some classes. Luckily, S and I made it home just before the ice storm started, and we’ve managed to stay warm while watching the weather. We didn’t have anywhere to go on Saturday, which was lucky, since our city plowed our street and left a pile of snow two feet thick in front of our driveway. Today, we needed to go grocery shopping, and we were just about to suck it up and go shovel our way to the street, when our neighbor came out with his snow blower and did it for us. As a “thank you,” we got him cookies and beer while we were at the store.

Last night, while we were doing our best to stay warm, we started watching The Magicians, the Syfy series based on the books by Lev Grossman. It was a sort-of live watch, along with one of our longtime online friends—the same friend we watched the Shannara Chronicles with, incidentally. It’s always fun to get together, even if just in a virtual sense, and critique a show as you watch it.

I’ve never read the books that the show is based on, and I’d never seen the show before, obviously. All I knew about the series (either the books or the TV show) was that our online friends had complaints about Quentin, the hero. This is a family blog, so I won’t repeat some of what was said about him, but suffice it to say that he was considered a jerk. And not a loveable, endearing jerk, either, like Barney Stinson—the kind who’s actually a decent guy under it all. A complete and genuine jerk who makes you want to throw things at him. Or, more to the point, makes you not want to be around him.

Which is a problem when he’s the center of the show.

Last night, as we were watching, S dubbed Quentin “Fanny Price,” after the heroine of Jane Austen’s worst novel, Mansfield Park. If you’ve never read that book (and if you haven’t, don’t bother), Fanny is a tremendous wet blanket—pretty much the opposite of someone like Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet. She’s the least interesting person in the novel, while somehow also being at the center of it. As S and I like to say, she’s a black hole where a heroine should be.

Now, Quentin isn’t quite the same as Fanny. I doubt he’s the sort who would object to amateur theatricals in the home. But he suffers from the very same problem as her, in that he’s surrounded by more interesting people. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in either case. It’s fine to have a story from the POV of someone who observes the actions of more interesting people around him—think of The Great Gatsby, for example. But Gatsby isn’t trying to be a novel about Nick Carraway, whereas Mansfield Park is trying to be a novel about Fanny Price, and The Magicians is trying to be a show about Quentin Coldwater.

According to our online friend, Quentin is actually worse in the books than on the TV show, so it’s clearly not the fault of the actor or the writers. It’s a fundamental problem of the character. That’s certainly a bold choice. But it’s not necessarily one I would have made.

And yet, we’re still loving the show, and we’re looking forward to watching more of it in the near future. As S said last night, if it weren’t for our complaints about Quentin, the show would actually be too good to live-watch with friends—we’d have nothing to make snarky comments about.

J

Pwning the POV

all your base

Your base has been pwned. (Image from Know Your Meme)

When we first started writing, back when we were scrambling to figure out how novels and series and worldbuilding all worked, I put a little note to myself on the side of a basket I could see from my chair that said “Pwn the POV.” (Definition of “pwned” here. Bless you Urban Dictionary.) Heaven knows I didn’t feel like I was doing much of anything right at that point (and I wasn’t), but I felt what I most needed to address were my characters’ POVs. I may have been doing a lot wrong, but this instinct was absolutely right. So many of my early struggles as a writer could be fixed by understanding my characters’ voices better. And this is something I always push myself to remember, even now.

For instance, writing good setting description is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. At one point, to try and find some guidance on how to do this better, I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and began rereading the first chapter. (If my memory is correct, it was this experiment that led to the rule that I’m not allowed to read Joe Abercrombie when I’m writing, because I admire his writing so much it makes me want to give up.) Anyhow, the point is he describes his heroine’s ride to a palace with her brother, interspersing their amusing dialogue with her observations like: “The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink.” Monza, being a mercenary, also notes several times the palace’s defensive placement, including: “She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.” All of this description says as much about Monza as it does the setting. It’s also fantastic foreshadowing, and establishes the tone for the chapter and the book as a whole. All because Abercrombie absolutely owns the POV, how Monza thinks and what she sees.

But not every author manages as well. As I think more about my upcoming epistolary novel, I was interested in reading The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for my book club. The book consists of journals and letters, and I was hoping to pick up some tips on how to manage the structure. And I suppose I did learn some things not to do. Throughout this story of English women on the WWII home front, I rarely felt as though the POVs rang true. For instance, in a 17 year-old girl’s letter to her best friend, the writer refers to her best friend’s mother as “Mrs. Quail.” Why on earth would the writer simply not have said, “your mother”? And everyone writes their letters and journals as though they are aware this is a novel, which requires heavy doses of what is implied to be exact dialogue. If, perhaps, one character had an affectation that she was writing her journal novelistically, that might have been a clever choice, but most people don’t write correspondence as though it is a Charlotte Bronte novel. And not to badger this poor book too viciously, since it has been much read and well reviewed, but I also have to mention the lack of understanding the character’s mind frame when writing. What 13 year-old girl writes an eloquent, detailed description of her entire day, which ends with her father literally taking a horsewhip to her back? The POVs just aren’t credible to me.

J and I have also been talking about how understanding your characters can make or break plot-heavy television. Now, it might seem as though characters are not the natural focal point of fast-paced, plot-driven TV, but we think a tight handle on character is what made The Vampire Diaries more successful than other shows that attempt to fly through plot at that extreme CW pace J has discussed before. So often I find myself watching plot-heavy shows and wishing the story would slow down and allow the characters to breathe. (The 100 and Versailles are two that come to mind.) And yet, I never find myself wishing The Vampire Diaries would go slower, even though that show manages to squeeze more plot into one season than many do in three. J is actually the one who put his finger on what separates TVD from so many other shows—the main characters are always making the plot happen and doing it in ways clearly recognizable for their character. Damon is always trying to fix some problem, most likely caused by his essential Damon-ness, and doing so in a very Damon-like way. It is never a case of sacrificing character development for plot, because all of that crazy plot is driven by the characters behaving in character. Which also means that not every story can be told at that extreme speed, because not all stories have characters who behave that way. Anyhow, something to think about.

~S

You’ve Got Personality

Elrond INTJ

Hey!  I resemble that remark.

It’s that time of year again! Our town is having Trick or Treating today, and it’s cold and rainy. So rather than sitting out in the garage with a bucket of candy, like we used to, we’re going to do the same thing we did last year and just leave a bag of candy on a lawn chair at the end of our drive with a sign saying, “Please Take One.” That’s probably good enough, don’t you think?

But I’m not just talking about Halloween. National Novel Writing Month starts on Wednesday, and S and I are ready to start writing. As we’ve mentioned before, we’re working together on a joint project this year. But I’ve also thought about maybe doing a side project as well. Hypothetically speaking, it might possibly be a novel for S’s Christmas present. (Don’t tell her!)

Anyway, I was sitting around a few days ago, thinking about characters for this new novel I might possibly be writing, and I was trying to think of personality traits for them. S mentioned before that we’ve started doing Myers-Briggs tests for our characters, and we’ve found that really helpful. We don’t necessarily take the tests as gospel—we still reserve the right to say, “Oh, I don’t think that quite sounds like her”—but it gives us a list of personality traits that often seem to clump together in real people.

For example, one of the POV characters in Magnificent Kingdom, the story S and I are working on together, is an ENTP. On various sites online, the traits of an ENTP are listed as: “Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outgoing. Resourceful, creative, and enjoys debating issues and values. Good at solving new problems. Able to analyze concepts and turn them into strategies. Astute with regards to others, disinterested in conventional ways of doing things.” (I assume the site meant “uninterested,” but whatever.) “Bored by routine.”

Having a list like this is always helpful, because if you sit down and try to think of personality traits for a character, it’s hard to see a larger pattern: “She’s clever,” you might say, or “she’s resourceful.” Okay, sure. But what else is she? Doing these tests helps you come up with a fuller, more rounded personality for the character.

The trouble, as I discovered when I was doing these tests for my main character a couple days ago, is that a lot of these online sites are a little too nice about the characteristics that they list. They’re clearly intended for people to use in typing themselves, and the sites are obviously trying to phrase everything in the most complimentary way possible. When you read the traits of all the different types, they all sound like marvelous people, and suddenly it occurred to me, “What about the negative traits?” So I did a quick Google search and found a site that specifically listed both the strengths and the weaknesses of each personality type. For ENTP, they are: “Poor follow-up skills,” “argumentative,” and “easily bored.” The last two are basically repeats from the list of positive traits (“Bored by routine,” and “enjoys debating issues and values.”), but once you see them phrased as negatives, you start to think, “Oh, I bet she thinks of herself as ‘enjoying debates,’ but other people might see her as being ‘argumentative.’”

“Poor follow-up skills” is entirely new, though if you think about it, it’s kind-of implied by “Good at solving new problems.” (Only new problems? As opposed to finishing her work on old ones, you mean?) When I read that to S last night, we both agreed that this fit the character, and that it was a new and interesting facet to her personality that we hadn’t considered before. She’s a good person, and she tries to look after another one of the POV characters. But she doesn’t follow up with him very well, which has disastrous consequences for everyone. She’s constantly being distracted by exciting new things, and she forgets to keep her eye on the ball, as it were. She never finishes an old task; she’s always running off to start new ones.

And speaking of finishing tasks, I need to wrap this up so S and I can go shopping. We’re thinking of buying a new coffee pot today. The old one is in pretty bad shape, and I had to drink tea for breakfast today. Not that there’s anything wrong with tea, but it’s not the same as coffee. And NaNo is the wrong time of year to be without coffee!

See you again next week, though it’s only fair to warn you that our updates will probably be a bit shorter in November, since we have novels to write!

J

A Second Opinion

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A slide from a presentation created by http://wordsandchocolate.tumblr.com/.

Life continues to be hectic at Unicorn HQ with house selling and hunting and legal paperwork you just don’t even want to know about. But even with all the madness, J and I are doing our best to get ready for NaNoWrMo, which somehow is only a week and a half away. Luckily the outline is done, but in our world the prep only starts there. We also have several maps and floor plans of important locations, and earlier this week we finished dividing who will be writing which chapters. (At 83 chapters, it was never going to come out even. J, for the record, is writing the extra chapter.)

We, of course, also have detailed character sheets. Depending on how vital a character is to the story, the profile could be as simple as a Myers-Brigg type with a quick bit about physical appearance and where the character is from. But for our six POV characters, we spend a bit more time. We’ve discussed the form we created for characters before, but since we’re always tweaking it, here’s the latest version.

Age:
Born (year and place):
Family:
Likes/Dislikes:
Physical Appearance:
Talent(s):
Other Characteristics:
Other Facts:
Voice:
What does he want:
Why he wants it:
Willing to do to get it:
Fatal flaw:

For a minor character, we may only list one or two Likes/Dislikes and a single vital Other Fact, whereas for a POV character we’ll have a dozen Likes/Dislikes and list their entire education, important travels, and other events of their life. Also for the POV characters, we do the character beat up found in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

Thematic question:
Antagonist’s answer:
Hero’s 4 Questions
Who is the hero?
What is he trying to accomplish?
Who is stopping him?
What happens if he fails?
Antagonist’s 4 Questions
(Same questions as Hero)
Central questions:
Physical Goal:
Emotional Goal:
Spiritual Goal:
Relationship Character:
Antagonist:
Protector:
Deflector:
Believer:
Doubter:
Thinker:
Feeler:

Because life is so crazy at the moment and we don’t know if we’ll have time to reread the entire outline together before NaNo, we thought we should at least read through the character sheets for our six POV characters. But we also added one more list to think about that I recently ran across on Tumblr. It covers the 5 P’s of creating characters.

Physical
Psychological
Personal
Personality
Practices

Each of these headings has several aspects to think about when creating a character. J and I like this checklist a lot, and it was a fresh way to look at our characters one last time before we start writing them. Of course, once we start writing them, the thinking will just move to the next phase, but at least we feel ready for that to happen.

~S

Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

When Four Is Greater than Fourteen (or Nine)

HaltandCatchFire

The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?

Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna

HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.

A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.

MICE

In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.

Louis and…

In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.

But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.

But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.

And so…

I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.

~S

Hard-Earned Lessons

snape study hall

Do your work. You’ll be happy later that you did.

J and I were chatting yesterday as we made the two-hour drive home from his parents’ about what we wish we had known when we started writing nearly 10 years ago. It was such a good list I thought I should share. It’s by no means definitive, and I’ve no doubt other writers would come up with other items, but if it helps anyone avoid the mistakes we made, then it was worth my time.

Structure
There is pretty much nothing easier than writing a giant blob of prose. Writing tens of thousands of words that are novel-shaped is decidedly harder. It’s more than just beginning, middle, and end. It’s advancing character and story, plotting setbacks, making sure the reader isn’t about to nod off or complaining that what you’re telling them is pointless. If I could go back 10 years and tell myself only one thing, it would be to study structure before putting pen to paper.

Chapters
Speaking of structure, how do you know when to end a chapter? How long should it be? What, exactly, ought to go in one? There’s no one answer for every novel, and we’ve intentionally played around with this in different novels, but we had some 7,000 word chapters with 3 POVs, and zero thematic elements tying them together when we started. We write in decidedly more logical chunks these days.

You won’t remember later
Write. It. Down. That brilliant idea that is so awesome you couldn’t possibly forget it? You will. That solution you found and put in Chapter 10 is great, but when you need it again in Chapter 50, you won’t remember if you didn’t put it in the story bible. Really, if we could go back and keep a more organized story bible from Day 1, it would help a ton. And it really would have helped a lot, even if we’d never moved past the original Quartet. Now that we have over two dozen novels in the Myrcia ‘verse, a good story bible is absolutely essential. And for those little ideas that pop up, they all get written down for use later.

Write in order
We thought it would be all awesome and creative to write the scenes that most inspired us as they inspired us. So when we started, we were literally writing scenes from what would become Book 2 before the characters in that scene had even met in Book 1. At the time, it seemed like a good way to get words down, and I suppose it was, but what it mostly did was make revision twice as long as we then rewrote all of those later scenes to take into account earlier material. Sometimes, I still move around a little, but I a) have a much better outline, and therefore, a better of idea of the story as a whole, and b) have made peace with the fact it will entail extra revision.

Sympathetic characters
We thought if we created a character we liked—a smart girl who is ambitious and happy, surrounded by people who also think she’s awesome—the reader would like her, too. Oops. Early betas found her insufferable and much preferred the girl with the crappy family and the worse husband, who was always looking for a way to make her shitty lot in life just a little better. I think we’ve made them both pretty interesting and sympathetic now, but yeah, we really didn’t understand at first that adversity gets a reader on the side of your character far more than showing how popular she is.

Calendar
When you have four POV characters spread over thousands of miles in an era when travel was remarkably difficult, keeping an accurate calendar is a must. We had some general ideas about when things should be happening, but when we plotted out exact dates when things had to happen and figured out how long it would take someone to get from Point A to Point B, we realized the timing was completely off. But, thank heavens for those poor traveling conditions so that freak snow storms could hold people up for a week, and magic allows a message to get to someone almost as fast as by telegram. As I’m about to start an epistolary novel, I’m already dreading my calendar—trying to figure out when someone wrote a letter and more importantly when someone read it, again in a world with much slower travel than today. But I know I will be happy that I did, and just like all of these other lessons, when I think about skipping over them, I do my best to make that my mantra—I will be happy that I did.

~S

Learning All the Wrong Lessons

hot_for_teacher

My homework was never quite like this.

Not that we’re bloodthirsty or anything, but we sure like ourselves a good character death.  We’ve talked here before about when it’s appropriate, and sometimes even necessary, to kill characters.

Just in case you don’t feel like clicking on those links, our three rules for offing a character are as follows:

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

One of the examples we used to show the proper killing of a character was Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.  As S wrote:

It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

So Ned’s death was a great moment in the story, and a great moment in TV.  Unfortunately, as we were watching The 100 this past week, it occurred to us that other shows are learning exactly the wrong lesson from Game of Thrones.  Rather than learning that killing a character can drive the story and provide motivation for the characters, it appears as if the writers of The 100 learned that it’s really cool to just bump off characters randomly for shock value.

In what’s been called the show’s ongoing Hunger Games storyline, characters like Jasper and Roan keep getting killed, not because there’s any logic or justification for it, but seemingly just because the writers want us to think “ZOMG!  They totally killed that guy!”  And then applaud them for their bold storytelling.  The worst part is the violation of the third of our rules: there are zero repercussions for anyone left alive, and in fact the other characters barely remember those who died at all.  But then again, that’s always been a problem for that show.  See, for example, poor old…oh, what’s his name?  It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Oh yes, Finn.

thomas_mcdonell

Remember when he was the love of Clarke’s life?  No?  Well, that’s okay.  Neither does Clarke. 

So that’s what’s been on our mind this week.  In other news, S just finished posting her latest fanfic series, and the feedback from readers has been very good.  So huzzah for her!  And I’m about ten chapters into my latest Myrciaverse book, which might hypothetically be a birthday present for someone who might hypothetically be S.

Yes, we write stories for each other for our birthdays.  It’s the unicorniest thing ever.  So I’ve got to get back to that.  In the meantime, let’s all hope The 100 figures out how to make character deaths count.  I mean, I’m not holding my breath, but it could happen.

J