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

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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

This Time It’s For Real. For Real.

IMG_0732

Tonight’s project: reorganizing our home library, taking advantage of our new bookshelves!

We almost forgot you all today.  We had to drive to Cleveland to help J’s parents in the rain.  On the plus side for us, we scored some bookshelves and books.  On the downside, the weeds are getting longer.  From where we live, Cleveland is about two hours away, in part because we like taking the scenic route.  But we didn’t mind the drive, because we are (as previously mentioned) a Unicorn.

As you may remember, it was on a trip to help out J’s parents, right after returning from our awesome honeymoon, that we started planning our very first novel.  So we decided that our trip today would be the perfect opportunity to start planning our project for July Camp NaNoWriMo.  For the first time since the Quartet, we’re writing a book together, just in time for our ten-year anniversary.

The book is actually something S started ages ago.  But she got bogged down when she realized how sprawling and out of control it was (she blames Game of Thrones).  Then S saw Mary Robinette Kowal taking questions on Patrick Rothfuss’s blog, and S asked for advice on how to proceed.  Kowal’s response, surprisingly enough, was essentially that maybe it wasn’t the right project for S to be working on at that time.  She cited Brandon Sanderson putting aside Way of Kings for years until he was a better writer and able to do it justice.  Now that we understand a bit better how to write novels, we decided now might be the time to go back and tackle S’s abandoned project.

The novel is called Magnificent Kingdom, and it is the story of the war of independence that founded Myrcia, the central country of our universe.  S originally wanted to do it because the two main POV characters, Edmund and Kuhlbert, are fascinating people—two of her favorite historical figures from Myrciaverse history.  She wanted to write about how they met, and how they ultimately fall out.  She wanted to write about the moment when two characters she loved crossed paths.

There’s already a rough timeline and some character profiles.  But our goal today is to start applying what we’ve learned over the last ten years.  We’re going to fill out those profiles using the character beat-ups from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.  Then we’re going to start thinking about making S’s old timeline of events into an actual outline for a “novel-shaped novel.”

We already know that this is going to be a very long book—maybe the longest single novel we’ve ever written (not counting the four novels of the Quartet and the six novels of My Private War).  So obviously this is going to take longer than just one month.  But we’re pretty confident we can at least make a good start.  Once the month is over, we’ll both start working on other projects again (like S’s fanfic), but we’ll keep working on Magnificent Kingdom, as well.  As we like to say, it’s always more fun when we’re together.

J and S

Almost Birthday Time!

unbirthday-party-1

This is your last Unbirthday until Wednesday.  Make it count!

I was supposed to post a blog yesterday, but we did yardwork, instead.  We have a small volunteer tree at the end of our driveway that had nearly engulfed our mailbox, and I’m sure our mail carrier will appreciate the fact that we finally trimmed it back a bit.  After that, I felt like I’d accomplished enough for one day, and I retired to my recliner in triumph.

Actually, I wasn’t just being lazy.  Tomorrow is a certain someone’s birthday, so I’m finishing my last read-through of her birthday novel, Unspeakably Wooed.  It’s a sequel of sorts to my April Camp NaNoWriMo novel, Black Eagle Rising, and it fits in with the Myrciaverse civil war timeline that features books like The Last Bright Angel and Called to Account.  It was a fun story to write, and I’m hoping S enjoys it when we start reading it on Tuesday.

A couple days ago, as I was listening to my new book with the Adobe Acrobat read-aloud feature, it occurred to me that I should write down what I’ve been doing to revise.  It used to be pretty haphazard, but over the last year or so, I’ve been developing a standard process, and since S and I are such dedicated outliners, it felt like I should make a revision outline that I can follow in the future, so I don’t accidentally leave something important out.  So here’s what I’ve been doing to revise Unspeakably Wooed.  Some of these things I’ve been doing for a while, and some of them I’ve started doing recently, based on what I’ve been reading on some of my favorite writers’ blogs.

Revision Outline

1. First read-through
-Fix inconsistencies, major typos.
-Take notes of potential major issues to fix later, but don’t fix them yet.

2. Second read-through
-Read by character.
-Last, first, second-to-last, second chapter, and so on, working toward the middle.
-Look for consistency, particularly of character voice.
-Fix minor issues; take notes of major problems.

3. Address the first round of notes
-Look at notes from first and second read-throughs, fix character issues and problems with plot.

4. Third read-through
-Using read-aloud feature in PDF, following along in the Word doc.
-Continue to smooth awkward phrasing.  Make notes of possible structural issues.

5. Ctrl + F
-Look for following words: “Only, Just, That, Immediately, Suddenly, Abruptly.”  Cut as many of these as you can.
-Check for sighs, eye-rolls, and any other physical movements that turn up too often.
-Ctrl + F for any other words and phrases that seem (based on first three read-throughs) to show up too many times.  Rephrase where necessary.

6. Structural issues 1
-Look for infodumps and backstory in the opening chapters.  If they’re necessary at all, make sure they show up no earlier than the end of Act I (ideally wait until Act II).
-Find logical places to reveal this information later in the story; move it there.
-Make sure each POV character has at least one chapter in which he/she shows up and is introduced with action, but without backstory.

7. Structural issues 2
-Look at character sheets for POV characters.  Look at their “Central Questions” (Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Goals).  Has each character achieved his/her goals?  Whether they have or haven’t, has this been mentioned in the text or reflected upon by the character?
-What was the “point” of the story (the “Thematic Question”)?  Has this question been resolved?  Where?  Clarify for the reader if necessary.

8. General tightening (Fourth read-through)
-Read through and tighten.  Try to remove at least 1% of the words (i.e. 600 words of a 60,000 word novel).

9. Reading out loud 1 (Fifth read-through)
-Ideally by yourself, reading out loud to an empty room.  If necessary, can listen to new PDFs using the read-aloud feature.

10. Reading out loud 2 (Sixth read-through)
-With a partner.  Fix minor mistakes as you go.  Keep notes for any remaining major problems.

If you’re wondering, I’m on step number nine right now.

What really stood out to me when I wrote this all down was that I read my books a minimum of five times before I even let S see them.  But even so, I’m sure I’ll find all sorts of typos and clunky phrases when we read it together tomorrow.  And that’s why we do that.

But first, it’s time to start the pre-partying for S’s birthday!  And also, we’re going to buy mulch today.  It’ll be a hoot.

J

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

It’s Not a Retcon Until You Hit “Publish”

reoutlining-fanfic

Don’t zoom in unless you want spoilers!

Here at Unicorn HQ, we have a three-day weekend, which means plenty of time for writing projects.  At the moment, of course, we’re just sitting around drinking coffee, but we’ll get back to work later on.  Maybe after we go grocery shopping.  But rest assured, we’ll be hard at work sometime soon.

Last night, we worked on the outline for S’s latest fanfic saga.  Maybe at some point she’ll post some more about it, but for now all you need to know is that it’s a sort of romance story with a love triangle.  As originally conceived, it was all about the romance, though with just enough plot to explain how, at various points of the story, two of the three members of the triangle get into rather serious trouble.  (I can’t say how they get in trouble, because that would be a spoiler.)

So a few weeks ago, S started posting chapters of this fanfic at her favorite fanfic-publishing site.  And an odd thing happened.  It turned out that her readers were actually quite interested in the plot.  They liked her original characters and said they were looking forward to seeing what happened later.

You can see her problem now, can’t you?  The plot was never intended to be important.  It was just window dressing—an excuse to get the members of the love triangle in position (as it were) for their romance to blossom.  Now S suddenly realized that she really needed to flesh out the plot.  And that meant going back and outlining again.

We got out the butcher paper, rolled it out on the floor, and she wrote out a quick summary of each chapter.  Then we went through, figured out where the plotting and political intrigue could be expanded, and wrote it in with a pencil.  After that, we did some quick character profiles for some of her original characters.  In the story as originally written, these people barely showed up.  But if they’re going to become a bit more important, S needs to know what they look like, where they’re from, and what their motivations are.

This kind of re-outlining is always a bit tricky.  When you write a scene, it hopefully has a certain flow or rhythm to it.  So it’s not always easy to find places to add new information.  Let’s say you have a scene where Susan and Bob are talking about their friend Frank.  And in your new outline, you’ve decided (for some reason) that it’s really important to find some way to mention that Susan and Frank went to college together.  Maybe that could be entirely straightforward—rather than telling a story about something stupid Frank did at last year’s office Christmas party, you can just change that so it’s a story about something Frank did at a frat party in college.  Bingo—you’ve got that information into the scene for the reader to see, and almost nothing had to change.

Sometimes, though, you’re left pulling your hair and banging your head against the keyboard, thinking, “There’s no where to put it!  There’s no reason why Susan’s college years would ever come up in this conversation!”  Now you’re faced with either rewriting the conversation from scratch, or writing a new scene.  Which means more outlining, of course.

But that’s what you have to do, and that’s what we’re up to this weekend.  Also, I’m still working my way through the reference guide that I’m writing about the main city in the Myrciaverse.  Last night I invented a number of markets and shopping districts.  It’s good fun.  Just the thing for a cold winter afternoon.

J

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

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 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