Map Till You Nap

Keneburg Small

More fun than a barrel of monkeys.  Though I suppose most things are, really.

It’s been a very busy week. Seriously, you have no idea. But I’ve still had time to read, here and there. I’m working my way through Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which is very good. I’m about 80% of the way through, and I just discovered that one of my favorite characters isn’t dead after all. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise—I had a feeling he might still be alive. It wasn’t hard to guess, really. When someone gets stabbed, and his friends leave him, assuming he must be dead, that’s almost like when they say, “No body was ever found,” on a soap opera. But anyway, I’m enjoying the book.

I also listened to The Book of Three on audiobook. That’s the first book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, of course. I should probably have read all those books when I was a kid, but I never did. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew they existed, which is a shame. If you read through the reviews on the Goodreads page, you’ll see a number of people grousing about how it’s full of fantasy clichés, or about how it’s a “blatant” Tolkien rip-off. Which I think is a bit unfair. Clearly Alexander is just drawing from the same sort of mythological sources that Tolkien used.

Also, Tolkien, no matter how awesome he may be, never had a female character like Princess Eilonwy. I like her a great deal, and I am quite serious when I say that she pretty much singlehandedly lifts the story from being run-of-the-mill YA fantasy. One reviewer on Goodreads, several pages in, calls her “an irritating twit,” only with a different vowel, and I suppose it says something about the sort of characters I like that my first thought was, “So, what’s your point?”

But it’s not just reading that’s been keeping me busy. This is our last full week of Camp NaNoWriMo, and we’re still in the middle of planning our next big novel. We have the whole thing outlined, and each chapter has been broken down into 400-700 word chunks. That takes a good deal longer than you might expect. When I do this by myself, I wouldn’t try to fully outline more than five or six chapters in a single day. It really just makes your brain melt. And that’s because, as I like to tell people, the outline is really the first draft of the story. It’s just the one where you don’t have to worry at all about how you phrase things. You just think about the plot and the character arcs. And it’s easier to see where things are missing (“Hey, this guy is supposed to be a main character, but he’s disappeared for ten chapters now”).

Now that we’re done outlining, you might imagine that it’s time to get started writing. Or rather, you might imagine that if you’d never met us. No, it’s not time to write—it’s time to make maps!

Last night, we started making a map for Leornian, one of the main cities of our Myrciaverse, and the ancient capital of Myrcia. It’s a city our characters have visited many, many times in many, many books, and yet we’ve never gotten around to finishing a map of it. I mean, we started a map, eight or nine years ago, but looking at it now in the sketchbook, it seems that we got about a quarter of the way through and then stopped for some reason. Maybe we went to take a nap or something.

Anyway, we’re finishing it now. Or rather, we’re starting from scratch, using that good old standby of fantasy mapmakers: blatant theft. We’re taking a map of Florence, turning it around, and moving things around in GIMP to match the image of the city in our heads. As I’ve noted before, this is a much faster way of doing things, and in some ways, much better. Adapting real maps of real places helps to keep your maps grounded in reality. You have some assurance that the city you’re planning is possible, because you know for certain that a city like it exists.

Using a real map as a starting point also helps to keep things more or less to scale. We have a cathedral in our universe that’s over 900 feet long—far, far larger than any real cathedral—and that mainly happened because we forgot to check the scale when we drew it. Since then, we’ve rationalized and lampshaded so that a 900 foot cathedral makes sense (wizards built it, I imagine), but yeah, if we could do it over again, it would probably be smaller than that.

Of course, if you need to change the scale, you always can. But very carefully. This weekend I finished the map for a different one of our cities, which will be a major location for the book, as well. That’s the map at the top there. It’s based on Carcassonne, France, though I changed the scale a bit, making it quite a bit bigger than Carcassonne.

Once we’re done with the maps, I suppose it will finally be time to start writing. Assuming we don’t find something else to do. Some people might think this is all a waste of time, but it’s not. If we’d taken the time to finish that stupid Leornian map seven or eight years ago, we wouldn’t be doing it now. And if we take the time to finish it now, we’ll be thanking ourselves seven or eight years from now, when we need it again.

J

Yet Another Update from Camp

We’re in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo, yet again, so as you will have noticed, our posting has been a bit spotty. Last week, I was in Montana for a family reunion, which meant I had to start my project on the road. Not really a big deal, but it’s amazing how little time you end up having to write at an airport, even if you have a three or four hour layover.

As of right now, we’re still outlining Magnificent Kingdom. We’ve finished a preliminary outline, laying out what will happen in each chapter. And now we’re dividing up the work of filling in the details. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve already written the first chapter. Just so you can see what this is like, here’s how it works.

Here’s the original, quick description of what was supposed to happen in Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 (Edmund/Maud): The City
May 30, 560 (Saturday)
EPP 1: Hung over in bed with Ethel. Caedmon wakes him to go to castle—king is dead.
MPP1: Sitting at dead father’s side, holding his hand
MPP2: Modig takes her to see Edmund. She’s snide about Edmund. Modig says she should cut him some slack.

“EPP” here stands for “Edmund Plot Point,” and MPP for “Maud Plot Point,” referring to the plot point structure for Act I of a screenplay outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story (a book we’ve recommended many times before, even for people like us, who aren’t screenwriters).

Next, we filled in the details of what would happen, and it turned out like this:

Chapter 1 (Edmund/Maud): The City
May 30, 560 (Saturday) (H 72, L 56, T-storms later)
EPP 1: Hung over in bed with Ethel. Caedmon wakes him to go to castle—king is dead.
MPP1: Sitting at dead father’s side, holding his hand
MPP2: Modig takes her to see Edmund. She’s snide about Edmund. Modig says she should cut him some slack.
Part 1 (Edmund, 500 words): Ed is in bed, early morning, still chilly. Just starting to feel beginnings of a hangover. Scene starts as he feels a hand reach over and take his, and he’s a bit nonplussed—tries to remember whose it might be. Then he remembers it’s Ethel. She snuggles a bit closer, but his ears pick up people rushing quietly this way and that out in the corridors of the Bocburg. (He’s visiting for the weekend, as the king is sick.)
Part 2 (Edmund, 500): Door opens, and it’s Caedmon. Caedmon (not as gruff and grumpy as he’ll later be) is clearly embarrassed by Ethel’s presence. Neither Ed nor Ethel is even slightly embarrassed, though Ethel is modest. (Ethel also is discreet, and when Ed fetches her robe, she slips quietly out, after politely wishing Caedmon good morning.) Caedmon tells Ed that the king is dead. Ed was sort-of afraid that was what had happened. Ed thinks of everything he’s going to have to do—help plan funeral and gemot, inform the troops, find riders to help summon the nobles. Oh, and dammit all, he’s going to have to talk to Maud, too.
Part 3 (Maud, 500): Maud holding her father’s hand. She thinks about her father, feels alone in the world. Thinks about how her father never really got over the death of his wife and heir. Terrwyn comes over to put her arm around Maud, and Maud remembers that she’s not entirely alone in the world. Maud knows she should go do things, but she doesn’t want to leave. Partly because she doesn’t want to leave her father, but also partly because once she does, she knows she’ll have all sorts of responsibilities.
Part 4 (Maud, 500): Modig arrives, along with some nuns from the convent of the Blessed Illuminator (long supported by Maud’s family), who are here to begin laying out the body. Modig is very polite about it, and Maud lets him and Terrwyn lead her away, knowing the nuns have a job to do. Maud wants to go up to her room, be alone for a while, but then Modig says her cousin Edmund is waiting to give his condolences. Maud, annoyed, sees him for literally ten seconds—just long enough to take his hand, hear him say a few polite words, and leave. Afterward, Terrwyn gently chides Maud. Maud is like, “Why shouldn’t I treat him like crap?” Modig says she should cut him some slack.

Notice that all four parts are supposed to be five hundred words. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Those were just rough guesses. I think each section turned out to be more like 800 or 900 words, actually. But whatever.

Finally, I wrote the chapter. It’s a bit too long to include here, and would obviously involve giving spoilers, so here are the first few paragraphs. Included is a bit, dubbed “Ode to a Hangover,” that S originally wrote years ago during her first crack at this book. I liked it, so I edited it down a bit and stole it. Which is totally cool with S, naturally.

Chapter 1 (The City)

The first question, thought Edmund, was “Where am I?” The bed curtains were not his. They were heavy and purple, but did little to keep out the chill in the room. He reached out, very slowly, and pulled one of the curtains back. A piercing shaft of light hit him, and he shrank back, groaning. Holy Earstien, how late had he slept?

There was a dull ache just behind his eyes and his guts slowly tumbled, over and over. His mouth tasted foul. Not quite like something had died in there, but certainly like something had suffered a long and painful convalescence. He was cold, and yet, when he put a hand to his forehead, he could feel a film of sweat there. He wiped it away, but it came dripping back almost immediately. His throat burned, and he felt dizzy, but after a moment or two, the feeling passed. He thought about getting out of bed and searching for a privy, but then decided it wasn’t going to be necessary.

On the whole, he’d had worse.

If he were at home, he would lie very still until a pretty housemaid came up with his breakfast. He would eat and drink with deliberation for at least half an hour, more if it had been a truly monumental evening. Once he felt capable of movement, he’d ring for water and the tub. After a good soak, he would dress in something comfortable and make his way to the fresh air. It was a process that took a good part of the day, but he felt as though he must deserve it if the night before had been good enough to get him into this state.

He rolled onto his back, and something stirred under the quilts to his right. Someone’s hand slipped into his, and he tried to remember whose it might be. A small hand, warm, soft. Long nails, too. He shifted, and he felt the sting of the scratches across his back and his shoulders. So this had to be Ethel. Of course it would be.

So that’s what we’ve been up to. If you haven’t started your project at Camp NaNo, go do so immediately. We’re barely a week and a half into the month; you’ve still got plenty of time!

J

IRL

img_0765.jpg

Just a tiny part of the outlining we’ve been doing this week. Bless ultra fine dry erase markers.

So, oops, we forgot to post last weekend. We’ve been busy with our parents, as well as the never-ending disaster that is our yard, not to mention Camp NaNoWriMo prep. But in between all of that, we have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about writing and narrative and the things we always have on our minds.

Outlining
In the book we’re working on together for Camp, we will be weaving together six POV characters, spread over thousands of miles, covering four years. We have profiles of varying depths of 70 characters, and character arc beat sheets of 23-50 beats for the six POV characters. Today’s project is to take those six beat sheets and start figuring out how they weave together and plotting actual chapters for Act 1 (the first 25% or so of the novel). Whether or not we get to doing our usual word count breakdown of each chapter before we start writing, we still haven’t decided.

Of course, this is Camp, which has some flexibility, so we may just count words/time spent on the outline toward out Camp goal. We’ll see how it goes, since today is the last day we have off together before Camp starts Saturday.

A Not Very Good Book
According to J, a book he just finished does pretty much everything wrong. The hero and heroine are billionaires who are good at absolutely everything, whom everyone loves. They save the day after saving the less fortunate in an amazing piece of Deus ex machina. (It’s revealed after having never been mentioned earlier that the hero was once in the Special Forces and can call in the black helicopters to fix everything.) Well, actually, that ending isn’t totally without set up—it’s on the cover. Because there’s nothing better than getting a spoiler for the climax on the book jacket. But as much as J didn’t care for the book, as always, we learn a lot from reading not particularly good books, having excellent examples of why several items that are popular on Don’t lists are things to avoid.

A Very Good Book
I just started my new classic lit book club at work, and this week we discussed Great Expectations. That was a real treat for me, since I’ve been reading stuff that’s not really up my alley for my other book club at work, that frankly, I also don’t find very good. (Of course, it was also nice for J, who was reading the above.) Dickens just knows how to weave together a story, no plot thread dropped, and yet avoid that horrible feeling of “Well, isn’t that convenient,” that plagues so many 19th Century novels. Also, who doesn’t love Herbert Pocket? Seriously, I don’t think I would trust someone who didn’t. We had a lively debate over the ending of the book, which I initially read as a bit vague, but others claimed is unambiguously happy. I think I left agreeing that it’s happy, but not unambiguous. Next month we’re discussing Persuasion, so expect the Live Read to kick back into gear!

And that pretty much covers the Mawdsley narrative life atm. We’ll try to update regularly during Camp, but even keeping up with Camp (and my two book clubs at work) is going to be an interesting challenge. Thanks RL.

~S

Last Day of Camp

Potter Camping

Some camping trips are more fun than others.

This is the last day of April, and that means it’s the last day of Camp NaNoWriMo, too.  Team Unicorn achieved yet another double victory.  I’ve got 136,064 words, far exceeding my goal of 50,000.  S’s goal was 40,000, and she passed that last night.

I finished my novel, too.  It’s called Black Eagle Rising, which sounds like one of those cheap WWII paperback thrillers that they sell in the airport, but it’s actually about how a civil war in the Myrciaverse gets started.  I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out.  One of my goals was to make the average length of my chapters shorter this time around, and I achieved that.  In some of my recent novels, the average chapter was running over 3,000 words, so I was trying to keep it down around 2,000-2,500 or so.  My hope is that it’s going to make the book feel like it “reads quicker.”  We’ll see how it is when S and I read through it, which hopefully we’ll be doing soon.

We’re already looking forward to our next projects, though.  S is planning an epistolary novel set in the Myrciaverse, which is going to be very exciting.  Maybe at some point she’ll write about how that’s going.  I’m planning S’s birthday present, a shorter novel called Unspeakably Wooed, which will be a sequel to Black Eagle Rising.  I can’t say more than that, because it’s supposed to be a surprise.

In other news, I got to put a new keyboard into my main laptop, Ellard.  The space bar in the old one broke, so I’ve been using a portable Bluetooth keyboard.  That worked out fine, actually, but I’m glad to have everything working again and not have to carry around a separate keyboard anymore.

If you were doing Camp NaNo, I hope you met your goal.  And if you didn’t, just remember that there will be another Camp NaNo in July.  And it’s never too early to start planning what you’re going to do for it.

J

Happy Unicorn Day!

The_Lion_and_the_Unicorn_2

Starting the traditional Unicorn Day conga line.

Apparently today is National Unicorn Day!  As we have mentioned before, one of our writer friends dubbed me and S “a unicorn” because we are married, and yet can still collaborate on our writing successfully.  (Apparently this is quite rare among married couples.)  In celebration of our own holiday, we will be celebrating by working on our projects for Camp NaNoWriMo, rather than, for example, writing lengthy blog posts.

Camp NaNo is going well.  I hit my goal of 50,000 words yesterday, and I’m past the midpoint in my outline.  S is working on a Versailles fanfic currently, though she’s been switching back and forth between various projects.  Between them all, she’s past 15,000 words.

So enjoy all the sparkly magic of Unicorn Day, and we’ll be back soon with more substantive updates on our writing.

J

Howdy!

john wayne

The ultimate cowboy says “How do you do.”

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo. This is day 2 of Camp, and the fanfic I’m working on is going okay so far. I was having some issues with POV and forgetting vital information that I even wrote down on a note card so I wouldn’t forget it, but with the help of some fellow Campers, I think I’m back on track. But as I promised in my last post, I’m only writing what I want to this month, so I’ve got to run now and see what kind of trouble (read: sexy good fun times) I can get my characters into. 😉

~S

Castles in the Air

Moving Castle

Like this, only not.

Spring is here at Chez Unicorn, which means the trees are budding and the lilies are sprouting.  This is probably the last weekend we’ll have without the threat of yardwork until July, when it’ll be hot enough to stunt everything.  We’re celebrating by having pork roast and sauerkraut.  And we’ll probably do some writing later.

Earlier, we were out hunting for new glassware.  We’ve been pretty hard on our glasses lately, and we need new ones.  The problem is that everything we found was too small, too ugly, or came in massively large quantities, like 8 or 16.  I mean, we break glasses pretty often, but not that often.  Seriously, Walmart, just let me buy these tall ones in a set of four, for crying out loud.

This is also the last weekend in March, and that means that next time you hear from us, Camp NaNoWriMo will have started.  I’ve got my outline ready, and I’ve done my character profiles and prompts.  For the past few days, I’ve been making a floor plan of the castle where the majority of the action takes place.

Old Wealdan Castle

Behold the fruits of far, far too many hours’ labor.

Some people (well, actually most people) would probably say that this level of preparation is unnecessary.  But personally I’ve found it really helpful.  It’s easy, particularly for fantasy authors, to have a pleasantly vague idea of your setting in your head.  But when you have to sit down and start drawing it, you’re suddenly forced to make decisions.  And you see where certain ideas you had are actually impossible.

Part of the plot of my story, for instance, requires that there be servants’ corridors and secret stairways in this castle.  The moment I started making these floorplans, though, I realized the vague picture I had in my mind of these passageways was completely impossible.  There simply was no room for them.  So I had to spend time thinking about the problem and come up with a practical solution: interstitial servants’ floors with hidden staircases that go up and give access into the public areas through hidden doors.  Now, instead of just secret passages, I’ve got whole secret floors of dark, creepy rooms to play with.  It’s very exciting, actually.

This is all in keeping with one of the longest-running themes of this blog: why planning is better than pantsing.  S and I have found that the more you plan, the easier the actual writing becomes, and the less you have to dread revisions.  Obviously, not every setting requires a detailed map or floorplan, in the same way that not every character requires a lengthy character profile.  But whether it’s setting or character or plot, it’s all too easy to fool yourself and say, “Oh, I know what I’m doing here,” only to discover later that you didn’t really know at all.

So if it’s important to your plot to know, for instance, that Susan’s bedroom is over the garage, with a view over the garden in the back, and the stairway is halfway down the hall and leads to the kitchen, which is next to the den, then it might be worth doing a quick little sketch, just to make sure that’s possible.  You don’t even have to be able to draw well to do a floorplan—just make lines on a page.  It helps ensure your castles are grounded in reality and not, you know, floating on air.

J

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

young frank.

S is turning into a mad scientist, ala Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

This post is going to be short by design. You see, I have this theory that I often get in my own way, writing-wise. In November I started writing like crazy when I switched to a project I longed to be writing, and I’ve been very productive since working on the stories I want to tell. In fact, I’m making a formal vow to myself that for the next month and a half (through the end of Camp NaNoWriMo), I’m going to only write what I want to write.

After all, if I’m doing this writing thing because it’s fun, I should make certain I’m having fun, right? Yes, I want to be a good blogger and post something here regularly, and I think I can put in at least a half hour every two weeks so that I’m still providing content. But I sometimes (cough today cough) waste the better part of a day psyching myself up to write this blog or some story I’m “supposed” to be working on, but not writing anything at all, even though there’s something I want to be writing.

So, I’m going to spend as much time as I can writing where my heart is. It’s what I’ve been mostly doing since late November, but I’m going to do it with purpose through April 30th and see what happens. See if I’m more productive and happy. Who knows, maybe I’ll find I need some have-to/ought-to projects to keep me going, but until I try this experiment, I’ll never know.

Will report back in May!

~S

I’ll Fix It in Post

film-reel

“Fix it in post.” The most dreaded words on set?

Often when J and I are writing, we will borrow from the world of film the idea that we can fix what’s wrong in “post.” Of course, this is just our silly way of referring to revision, but I thought about the idea, and the trope, more seriously when I was working on my ill-fated NaNo novel. Granted, unlike a film, a novelist can always go back and “reshoot” (rewrite) a scene to get what she needs, but I think there’s something to be said for having the raw materials you need before you get to the revision process.

Now, I’ve never made an exact study of the numbers and percentages, but let’s say in a novel that has been properly outlined and researched ahead of time and is drafted thoughtfully, it will have 10-20% changed significantly in revision. When I start a novel knowing that eventuality is coming, that is something I can live with at this point, because I’ve written enough to appreciate that writing is rewriting. But then on a novel like The Queen’s Tower, my NaNo book from two years ago, I went in with a tenuous outline and characters I didn’t know especially well. I finished the first draft of that knowing I would be changing around 20-30% of what had been written, plus adding about 30% entirely new content. That’s pretty daunting, and probably why I still haven’t finished the novel.

And that brings us to this year’s NaNo novel, The Swift True Road. Not only did I not start with the level of detail to my outline I prefer, but I didn’t do as much character work as I would have liked, and being my first historical novel, I quickly realized I hadn’t done even close to enough research. Because it was NaNo, I kept plowing along, but around 35,000 words in, I realized I would be completely reworking at least 50% of what I had already written. Knowing I would be chucking half of what I was laboring so hard to write became discouraging to the point that I didn’t have the heart to continue writing the novel. It also seemed to be a supreme waste of time.

As J pointed out last week, I decided to set The Swift True Road aside, and I went to work on other projects to see me through the month of November, and make certain I still wrote 50,000 words for the month. At some point, I absolutely intend to return to The Swift True Road. I still think it’s a great idea for a book, a romance between two mercenaries in Renaissance Italy, but I’m not going to pick it back up again until I’m sure I can successfully draft a novel that will leave me with the pieces I need to polish a good story in post.

~S

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

chicken-dinner

Or at least “chicken flavored.”

Actually it was a chicken lunch.  Or chicken flavored ramen, to be exact.  (Those Maruchan Bowl noodles are awesome!)  It’s cold outside, and we’re trying to stay warm and not get sick.  But it’s December now, and that means it’s time for Team Unicorn to brag about yet another double NaNoWriMo win for us.

I finished the two novels I planned to write: A Tincture of Silver and When Uppance Comes.  The first one (after some revisions) is 76,837 words long.  The second one is 75,623 words.  Right now, S and I are reading through A Tincture of Silver, though we’ve got other things we need to get done today, so I don’t know how far we’ll get.  As we’ve mentioned before, reading our books aloud together is an important part of our revision process.

Once I was finished with those two, I decided to get started on a third novel, which will be S’s Christmas present.  Yes, we write each other things as presents—it’s the ultimate in unicorniness.  I can’t tell the title of that one, because it’s a bit of a spoiler for S, and she wants to be surprised on Christmas morning when she looks under the metaphorical tree and sees it waiting for her.  It’ll actually be in the shared folder of our OneDrive account, but that’s sort-of like finding it in your stocking, yes?  As of this morning, that third novel is sitting at 46,380 words.  If I subtract the words I’ve written in the last four days, but I include all the prep work, like character profiles and character prompts, that I wrote for it, you come to my grand total for the month of November, which was 225,182 words.  That’s the most I’ve ever done in a NaNo month, I think.

As for S, she decided to set aside her historical romance and go back to writing an ongoing fanfic project that she has, and she became much happier when she did.  Perhaps at some point she’ll blog about that.  Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a particular project, and this November apparently wasn’t the right time for historical romance.  It happens.

She also wrote a short story for my Christmas present, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.  But I have no idea what it is, except that she’s admitted it’s set in the Myrciaverse, which is nice.  Other than that, I’m completely in the dark, and I haven’t tried to peek or metaphorically rattle the box to see what’s inside.  I want a surprise on Christmas morning, too.

J