You’ve Got Personality

Elrond INTJ

Hey!  I resemble that remark.

It’s that time of year again! Our town is having Trick or Treating today, and it’s cold and rainy. So rather than sitting out in the garage with a bucket of candy, like we used to, we’re going to do the same thing we did last year and just leave a bag of candy on a lawn chair at the end of our drive with a sign saying, “Please Take One.” That’s probably good enough, don’t you think?

But I’m not just talking about Halloween. National Novel Writing Month starts on Wednesday, and S and I are ready to start writing. As we’ve mentioned before, we’re working together on a joint project this year. But I’ve also thought about maybe doing a side project as well. Hypothetically speaking, it might possibly be a novel for S’s Christmas present. (Don’t tell her!)

Anyway, I was sitting around a few days ago, thinking about characters for this new novel I might possibly be writing, and I was trying to think of personality traits for them. S mentioned before that we’ve started doing Myers-Briggs tests for our characters, and we’ve found that really helpful. We don’t necessarily take the tests as gospel—we still reserve the right to say, “Oh, I don’t think that quite sounds like her”—but it gives us a list of personality traits that often seem to clump together in real people.

For example, one of the POV characters in Magnificent Kingdom, the story S and I are working on together, is an ENTP. On various sites online, the traits of an ENTP are listed as: “Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outgoing. Resourceful, creative, and enjoys debating issues and values. Good at solving new problems. Able to analyze concepts and turn them into strategies. Astute with regards to others, disinterested in conventional ways of doing things.” (I assume the site meant “uninterested,” but whatever.) “Bored by routine.”

Having a list like this is always helpful, because if you sit down and try to think of personality traits for a character, it’s hard to see a larger pattern: “She’s clever,” you might say, or “she’s resourceful.” Okay, sure. But what else is she? Doing these tests helps you come up with a fuller, more rounded personality for the character.

The trouble, as I discovered when I was doing these tests for my main character a couple days ago, is that a lot of these online sites are a little too nice about the characteristics that they list. They’re clearly intended for people to use in typing themselves, and the sites are obviously trying to phrase everything in the most complimentary way possible. When you read the traits of all the different types, they all sound like marvelous people, and suddenly it occurred to me, “What about the negative traits?” So I did a quick Google search and found a site that specifically listed both the strengths and the weaknesses of each personality type. For ENTP, they are: “Poor follow-up skills,” “argumentative,” and “easily bored.” The last two are basically repeats from the list of positive traits (“Bored by routine,” and “enjoys debating issues and values.”), but once you see them phrased as negatives, you start to think, “Oh, I bet she thinks of herself as ‘enjoying debates,’ but other people might see her as being ‘argumentative.’”

“Poor follow-up skills” is entirely new, though if you think about it, it’s kind-of implied by “Good at solving new problems.” (Only new problems? As opposed to finishing her work on old ones, you mean?) When I read that to S last night, we both agreed that this fit the character, and that it was a new and interesting facet to her personality that we hadn’t considered before. She’s a good person, and she tries to look after another one of the POV characters. But she doesn’t follow up with him very well, which has disastrous consequences for everyone. She’s constantly being distracted by exciting new things, and she forgets to keep her eye on the ball, as it were. She never finishes an old task; she’s always running off to start new ones.

And speaking of finishing tasks, I need to wrap this up so S and I can go shopping. We’re thinking of buying a new coffee pot today. The old one is in pretty bad shape, and I had to drink tea for breakfast today. Not that there’s anything wrong with tea, but it’s not the same as coffee. And NaNo is the wrong time of year to be without coffee!

See you again next week, though it’s only fair to warn you that our updates will probably be a bit shorter in November, since we have novels to write!

J

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A Second Opinion

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A slide from a presentation created by http://wordsandchocolate.tumblr.com/.

Life continues to be hectic at Unicorn HQ with house selling and hunting and legal paperwork you just don’t even want to know about. But even with all the madness, J and I are doing our best to get ready for NaNoWrMo, which somehow is only a week and a half away. Luckily the outline is done, but in our world the prep only starts there. We also have several maps and floor plans of important locations, and earlier this week we finished dividing who will be writing which chapters. (At 83 chapters, it was never going to come out even. J, for the record, is writing the extra chapter.)

We, of course, also have detailed character sheets. Depending on how vital a character is to the story, the profile could be as simple as a Myers-Brigg type with a quick bit about physical appearance and where the character is from. But for our six POV characters, we spend a bit more time. We’ve discussed the form we created for characters before, but since we’re always tweaking it, here’s the latest version.

Age:
Born (year and place):
Family:
Likes/Dislikes:
Physical Appearance:
Talent(s):
Other Characteristics:
Other Facts:
Voice:
What does he want:
Why he wants it:
Willing to do to get it:
Fatal flaw:

For a minor character, we may only list one or two Likes/Dislikes and a single vital Other Fact, whereas for a POV character we’ll have a dozen Likes/Dislikes and list their entire education, important travels, and other events of their life. Also for the POV characters, we do the character beat up found in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

Thematic question:
Antagonist’s answer:
Hero’s 4 Questions
Who is the hero?
What is he trying to accomplish?
Who is stopping him?
What happens if he fails?
Antagonist’s 4 Questions
(Same questions as Hero)
Central questions:
Physical Goal:
Emotional Goal:
Spiritual Goal:
Relationship Character:
Antagonist:
Protector:
Deflector:
Believer:
Doubter:
Thinker:
Feeler:

Because life is so crazy at the moment and we don’t know if we’ll have time to reread the entire outline together before NaNo, we thought we should at least read through the character sheets for our six POV characters. But we also added one more list to think about that I recently ran across on Tumblr. It covers the 5 P’s of creating characters.

Physical
Psychological
Personal
Personality
Practices

Each of these headings has several aspects to think about when creating a character. J and I like this checklist a lot, and it was a fresh way to look at our characters one last time before we start writing them. Of course, once we start writing them, the thinking will just move to the next phase, but at least we feel ready for that to happen.

~S

Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

We’re Still Here

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably been wondering where we’ve been. Real life has kept us rather busy, actually. First of all, S’s mother passed away in late August, after a month in the hospital, and obviously we were more concerned with that than with keeping up our blog. Some of you—the ones who follow S on twitter and many of our writing friends here in town—already knew this. Thank you for your very kind expressions of sympathy.

In addition, late August was when Fall semester started, so I’ve been back at work (finally). I’m teaching a new course this fall, which means a lot more class prep than I usually have to do. If you’ve never been a teacher, you may not appreciate just how much time it takes to prepare for a new class. Once you’ve taught the same course half a dozen times, you can sort-of do things on autopilot. But the first time around, you have to figure out exactly what you’re going to do every day. Most of my usual writing time is now dedicated to reading and taking notes and planning lectures.

But we’re still working on writing projects. S has written and posted some excellent fanfic, and she’s thinking, too, about her upcoming epistolary novel. And then there’s Magnificent Kingdom, which was our project for July Camp NaNo, and will probably be our project for the actual NaNoWriMo in November, as well. It’s going to be a long novel, so it’s hardly surprising that it takes a while.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to. Hopefully we’ll be able to return to our regular posting schedule here soon. Thanks for your patience.

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

Birthday Crunch

geek bday cake

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

hot_for_teacher

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