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

Who Knew?

confused rabbit

Confused Easter Rabbit from Drawception.com

(Howdy folks! We took Easter Sunday off. We didn’t think you’d miss us too much.)

I didn’t see this coming. I mean, I really did not see this coming, but I’m about to start planning, and then hopefully writing, my first epistolary novel. I finished drafting the fanfic I was working on, and while I’m eager to start revising it, and with J’s help it’s almost completely typed, I should probably take a short break from it. That means I have time to start planning my next project. Which is an epistolary novel. Who could have seen this coming?

Well, I didn’t at any rate. But since I know you are all curious how I came to this conclusion, I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain. I don’t know that the decision-making process is terribly fascinating, but I think it will be interesting for me as a writer that I’ve chosen to do this.

Two different ideas merged to give rise to the epistolary novel idea. The first came from a chat I was having with a delightful friend on Tumblr. As is typical for the two of us, we were chatting about the TV show Versailles. She made an observation about how the story could have been different if two characters who spend the first season at odds had instead decided to team up. Now, this sort of talk usually leads to me saying #iwouldreadthatfanfic or writing that fanfic myself. However, in this case, I didn’t know if I wanted to literally explore these two characters working together, but the idea was brilliant. I told my friend I might steal the concept for an original novel, and she said great. I told J about it later, and we both agreed it could even fit nicely into the Myrcia ‘verse. Then I didn’t think about it again, because I had a fanfic to finish.

And then I finished the fanfic. Worse still, I started typing it. Every word I typed felt clunky and forced and stale. I told myself I was just in one of my periodic bad moods, that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, but something wouldn’t let me rest. So I thought more about the problem until I came to the conclusion that I’m kind of sick of my own writing. If I were a reader, I’d take a break from me and go read someone else for a while. It’s not that anything I’ve been writing is bad, it’s just overly familiar. When I mentioned this suspicion to J, I also mentioned that the two parts of my current fic I like best are the short sections written in omniscient POV instead of limited third person.

J said, “You should write an epistolary novel. The new idea you just told me about would be perfect.”

My skin cleared, angels sang, and the weight of the world lifted from my back. Almost a full week later, and I still think this is a positively brilliant idea to get me out of my rut. If not tonight, then in the very near future, I’m going to start doing character profiles and outlining. We’ve come up with a general time and place in the world we’ve created to set the story, and then it will just be a matter of writing it. Neither of us has written an epistolary novel before, so this will be fun (and hopefully not horribly frustrating) new territory. I know who my two central characters will be, and I think one of them will be either the writer or recipient of every letter to keep the focus where I want it. In the meantime, I’m thumbing through my ancient copy of Dangerous Liaisons and listening to the audiobook of Lady Susan.

~S

It was the best of times, etc…. 2015 Review

gun in your pocket

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis gets a smooch from Tom Burke as Athos in the BBC’s The Musketeers. My silly edit.

Tis the season of Top 10 Lists and the like, and while I don’t really quite have something like that to offer, I’ve been thinking I could do a little recap about where my mind was narratively speaking in 2015.

The Best: New (to me) TV

In 2015 I discovered four new TV shows that are destined to be shows I watch repeatedly for years to come and will be long-term touchstones when discussing fiction done right. It all began back at the beginning of the year when I discovered The 100. Set in a near post-apocalyptic future, the survivors of a nuclear war still living on a space station need to return to Earth and pray it’s habitable. Well, guess what? It sure is habitable, because there are folks who never left. It’s a thematically challenging, visually remarkable, and well-acted show. If CW, teens, and post-apocalypse usually turn you off, I understand, but if you’re ever going to make an exception, it should be this show.

Then at the end of May I found The Musketeers. Sigh! The BBC’s take on Dumas’s classic adventure tale is pretty much my favorite thing in the world right now. Which, of course, means 2016’s Season 3 is to be the show’s last. There’s simply nothing I don’t adore about this show: it looks great, I love the soundtrack, the stories are exciting, and I couldn’t love the cast more. Tom Burke’s Athos is destined to go down as one of my favorite TV characters ever.

Then once J could convince me to watch something other than The Musketeers endlessly, we found Halt and Catch Fire and Manhattan. For anyone who thinks I’ve sold my soul to the CW (which, frankly, has better programming than a lot of people give it credit for) and other lighter fare, here are two grown up period drams with complex characters and relationships. Watching the ever-changing dynamics between Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna on Halt as they navigate the tech industry of the 1980s has been a treat, the characters each growing, changing, receding as individuals and as part of groups. The relationships on Manhattan, a fictionalized account of the invention of the atomic bomb, are equally complex, and the intensely character-driven plot is constantly surprising. (I once referred to Manhattan as the “Imelda Marcos of TV–there’s always another shoe to drop.”)

The Worst: Movies

I am a notorious movie buff. But guess where I haven’t been all year? To be honest, what’s playing at the theater hasn’t interested me on the whole for the past two years. I’ll probably go see In the Heart of the Sea later this month, because I love a good nautical story, but that will be the first film I’ll have seen in the theater since, I think, American Sniper. I’ve caught up on some things on DVD, but I just can’t convince myself to go to the theater when there’s so much good TV to watch.

The Best: Fanfic

2015 will go down in history as the year I sold my soul to fanfic (not the CW). I started reading it, and as J predicted, I started writing it, and I freaking love it. I also love the crazy women at Twitter who first gave me fanfics. I think it started with SG (@wedsandsatnight) giving me what isn’t quite typical fanfic, rather one of R.A. Steffan’s wonderful The Queen’s Musketeers stories. And then somehow I fell in with Carrie (@Snowglory) and Canadian Garrison (@CdnGarrison) and the world of Archive of Our Own was opened to me, and well, let’s just say that wonderful writers like breathtaken, Teland, uena, and too many others to name, have made my reading life decidedly more interesting!

The Neglected: Traditional novels and nonfiction

To spend the amount of time I now spend reading fanfic, something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be television. Because the fanfic I want to read isn’t available on audiobook for the most part (although R.A. Steffan now has an audiobook!), I’ve continued listening to some traditional novels and nonfiction books, but as far as sitting down and reading a book I hold in my hands, even ones I hold on my tablet, well, that hasn’t happened much. Except for the books I read for my book club, which leads me to…

The Best: The House of Mirth

Hands down, Edith Wharton’s classic is the best book I’ve read this year. The language is beautiful without being pretentious (one of the hardest lines for an author to walk, in my opinion), Lily Bart is a phenomenal heroine, and I wept. That’s pretty much the trifecta for me to love a book. Over the years, I’d tried to read The Age of Innocence several times and never made it past the first chapter, so I’d written Wharton off as an author. But when a member of the book club enthusiastically requested we read House of Mirth, I couldn’t say no. I opened the book dreading it, and instead fell wildly in love.

The Best: My first fanfic

Again, for the sake of keeping JS Mawdsley separate from my fanfic pseudonym, I’d rather not provide a link to my work on AO3. However, when I think about my work as an author this past year, I think most fondly on my first fanfic story. I recently reread it to refresh my memory as I prepare to continue the series, and it’s not half bad. Add to that how much it made me enjoy writing again, and it really is the best of me as an author in 2015.

The Worst: The Queen’s Tower revision

I will finish revising this book, dammit. Just not in 2015. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you need to write fanfic instead.

So, narratively speaking, that was my year. Hope you had a good one!

~S

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