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

Birthday Crunch

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If I could bake and decorate, J would totally get this cake on Saturday.

As those of you who read this blog regularly know, J and I like to write each other presents for events like birthdays. J, who can write faster than any person should be able to, always manages to churn out a novel for me, and I typically manage a short story for him. Well, I decided to try and up my game for his birthday this year, and I’m writing him two stories. I have rough drafts of both, but they need typed and revised, and if I have any hope of making that happen before the big day on Saturday, I’ve got no time to blog.

Hope you all forgive me!

~S

This Time It’s For Real. For Real.

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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!

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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

Learning All the Wrong Lessons

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My homework was never quite like this.

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

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

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

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yes, Finn.

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

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

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

J

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!

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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

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

The Long and the Short of It

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my silly edit from Versailles

Last weekend I finished the longest solo work of my writing life. (J and I discussed that I’ve easily written 200K+ words of the Quartet on my own, but that’s not really a solo project.) It’s a Musketeers fanfic of limited appeal I started it back in July. It will never be widely read, and it took a boatload of time and effort to write, but I’m really glad I did it. I think it’s quite good, which is something I almost never say about my own writing. I’m, frankly, crazy proud of it. I’m still in the process of posting it for the rest of the world to see, so it’s not out of my life yet, but the blood and tears have been shed, and it’s time to think about what’s next.

Returning to the pattern I had going about this time last year, I think I’m going to juggle multiple projects, at least until one insists upon itself and demands my full attention. Some of it’s going to be original fiction, some is going to be fanfic, and some of it will be Myrcia ‘verse. It’s going to be a mix of short and long pieces, with a healthy dose of outlining thrown in.

The Swift True Road/Mercenary stories

This is my Italian Renaissance mercenary novel I started back for NaNoWriMo.  I never felt truly comfortable with the setting, and my outline is a giant mess, and I was trying to squeeze way too much into one novel. Dropping it was one of the best choices I ever made. But I do want to get back to it, and this time I want to do it right. I asked J for advice, and he came up with something I wasn’t expecting.

Write short stories.

“Huh?” I thought as I tried to figure out how that was going to fix my novel, but then he explained. Since part of my problem was not feeling comfortable in the world, J suggested I write some short stories, almost like character prompts. I should focus on one character and a part of the setting I need to understand better, and just write that. Once I’ve written, for instance, Francesco’s first night in camp as a mercenary, I’ll know more about that character and how mercenary camps work. (It also helps focus my research, so I’m not “GAH! Must know entire Renaissance world!”) I want to write at least one story for each of my named characters, so I’m thinking that perhaps after a dozen or so of these, I’ll be ready to dive back into restructuring the novel. And I’ll have a nice little collection of short stories I might look into posting somewhere.

Two Shots of Bourbon/Versailles fanfic

I think I’m about to dive into a new fandom with my fanfic—Versailles. I mentioned the show briefly  after we finished watching Season 1 the first time, and since then my obsession with the show has just grown. I’m particularly interested in the brothers at the center of the show, Louis XIV and Philippe I, Duke of Orleans. But as I’ve started outlining my first fanfic and toying with ideas, I’m finding myself a little hesitant for a lot of reasons. My biggest concern is getting Louis’s voice right. Chatting with the lovely Storyskein this morning, I mentioned that maybe I should do a one-shot from Louis’s POV before diving into the longer fic I have planned. In other words…

Write short stories.

I already have a one-shot piece in mind to write from Louis’s POV, after which switching to Philippe’s POV for a story would probably not go amiss. (Just because I’m not as nervous about getting his voice correct right now doesn’t mean I won’t be later if I skip practicing it now.) Also, a couple of short pieces would be a nice way to introduce myself to a new fandom. Plus, having just finished my longest work, I could probably use the mental change of something shorter.

Oleg Omdahl 4

When I’ll get around to actually writing this, who knows. I certainly won’t be ready for April Camp NaNoWriMo, but perhaps July Camp or NaNo proper in November. In any case, it’s never too early to start extreme outlining. I actually outlined Oleg 3 (Fiat Justitia) a year and a half before I wrote it, so there’s no reason I can’t get to work on this at any time J might be up to diving into it with me. (I will admit I really adore outlining with J. It’s one of my great joys in life.) I already know a lot of what I want to do in this one, it will just be a matter of filling in blanks.

And that’s what’s on my plate. And it looks really quite tasty. I’ll be sure to report back on how the short story theory works out.

~S

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

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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