Huzzah for the New Year!

dinner

Starting supper means it’s beer o’clock.

Farewell 2017, and hello to 2018!  S and I have just started our traditional New Year’s pork roast and sauerkraut.  It has to be in the oven for at least 4 or 5 hours, so it’s important to start in the early afternoon.  This is our big New Year’s excitement here at Unicorn HQ.  Well, that and the champagne that we open after supper while we watch a movie.  It’s quite the party.

Looking back, we’ve made some serious progress on Magnificent Kingdom.  Those of you who are keeping track at home will recall that Magnificent Kingdom is the story of the founding of the main country in our fantasy universe.  S has been wanting to write it for years now, and we finally got around to planning and starting it this year.  We’ve written through the end of Act I (the first quarter of the story), and a few chapters into Act II.  Sometime in the new year, we’ll regroup, look at the outline, and start tackling the second act.

S had a tough year, obviously, but she did manage to write half of Act I of Magnificent Kingdom, and she wrote fanfic in four different fandoms, which is pretty cool.

I also did some writing on the side.  In April I wrote Black Eagle Rising, which is the story of how a civil war gets started in our universe.  I’ve written a number of other stories set during that century-long war, so I thought it was important to set up how everything began.  Then I wrote Unspeakably Wooed and (in November) When You Are King, both sequels to Black Eagle Rising.  In the future, I think I’m going to stick to writing these civil war stories chronologically, since it helps keep the characters straight and saves a lot of rewriting and retconning later on.  Already, some of the first stories that I wrote in this time period, like Lady’s Knight, are going to need some revision to make them match up with everything else.  It’s best to avoid that whenever possible.

Oh, and for S’s Christmas present, I wrote Twilight at Noon, the story of an exiled secret agent.  It takes place hundreds of years after the civil war stories, closer to the “main” timeline of the Myrciaverse.  S and I had been talking earlier this year about Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient, and we noticed that, although we write fantasy novels, we’d never really done a proper Milieu Story.  So Twilight at Noon is my attempt at writing one.  I also did a bit of an experiment with the structure—rather than just doing the traditional three acts, I built the novel around my main character, Martina, experiencing the stages of Culture Shock.  So that was a lot of fun.

Anyway, for the new year I’m already planning the next novel in the Myrciaverse civil war timeline.  It will probably be my Camp NaNo project for April, I suppose.  But first, of course, I need to plan my classes and get ready for the start of Spring Semester.  I’m going to be teaching some new classes, and as I’ve mentioned before, preparing for a new class is a lot more work than teaching one you’ve taught a dozen times before.

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