Still Unmoved

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Mr. Bennet is unimpressed.

We’re still working on finding a new Unicorn HQ. For a while it looked as if we might have found a house, but negotiations broke down over some problems that were found during inspection, so now we’re looking again. We’ve found another house that we like, but we’re not letting ourselves get too attached until the inspector has had time to look it over and see if there’s some ghastly problem that will cost thousands of dollars to repair. S and I will be talking about where we’re going to put the TV, or how we’re going to arrange the library, but then we will pause and say (often in unicornic unison), “pending inspection.” It’s sort of like knocking on wood.

“It’ll be so nice to have a flat driveway…pending inspection.”
“That shed out back is really cute…pending inspection.”
“I’ll finally have room for my own dedicated writing space…pending inspection.”

That last one—a writing space for S—has been one of her main requirements for our new house. I don’t know how she feels about £500 a year, but she definitely wants a room of her own. She promises to let me in, of course, so it’s not as if she’s just trying to avoid me. But she has found that she writes better and more consistently if she has a space set aside just for writing. It has to be a separate space, removed from the comfy chairs and TV where we spend most of our time. No doubt once we move (pending inspection) and get her new writing room set up, she will blog about it, possibly with pictures.

In the meantime, though, she’s starting a new writing project, and she actually wrote part of the first chapter yesterday while waiting for me to finish teaching classes. I’ll leave it to her to say more about that particular project, though, if she wants to.
As for me, I’m doing prep work for my April Camp NaNo novel. And I’ve been doing some reading, as well. I finished The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. You may recall that S and I have been group-watching the TV show with an online friend. The book was pretty good, though as our friend promised, Quentin is even worse in the book than on the show. He’s just so whiny and self-absorbed.

I’ve also been working my way through Call Me By Your Name. S and I saw the movie last weekend. S had already read the book, but I hadn’t. She and some of her online friends have all been squeeing over how awesome the book is—even more awesome than the movie, apparently. On her recommendation, I decided to give it a try. It’s very good, and the squee is justified. I haven’t quite finished it, because I have to do things like plan classes and grade papers. But hopefully this week I’ll get around to it. And then maybe I’ll start the second book in the Magicians trilogy, if I can just steel myself to endure more Quentin.

J

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The Fanny Price of Fantasy

The Magicians - Season 1

Quentin, I’m sorry, but the tests have come back, and the doctors say…you’re a douche.

The weather has been absolutely dismal for the past few days here at Unicorn HQ. I ended up having to cancel some classes. Luckily, S and I made it home just before the ice storm started, and we’ve managed to stay warm while watching the weather. We didn’t have anywhere to go on Saturday, which was lucky, since our city plowed our street and left a pile of snow two feet thick in front of our driveway. Today, we needed to go grocery shopping, and we were just about to suck it up and go shovel our way to the street, when our neighbor came out with his snow blower and did it for us. As a “thank you,” we got him cookies and beer while we were at the store.

Last night, while we were doing our best to stay warm, we started watching The Magicians, the Syfy series based on the books by Lev Grossman. It was a sort-of live watch, along with one of our longtime online friends—the same friend we watched the Shannara Chronicles with, incidentally. It’s always fun to get together, even if just in a virtual sense, and critique a show as you watch it.

I’ve never read the books that the show is based on, and I’d never seen the show before, obviously. All I knew about the series (either the books or the TV show) was that our online friends had complaints about Quentin, the hero. This is a family blog, so I won’t repeat some of what was said about him, but suffice it to say that he was considered a jerk. And not a loveable, endearing jerk, either, like Barney Stinson—the kind who’s actually a decent guy under it all. A complete and genuine jerk who makes you want to throw things at him. Or, more to the point, makes you not want to be around him.

Which is a problem when he’s the center of the show.

Last night, as we were watching, S dubbed Quentin “Fanny Price,” after the heroine of Jane Austen’s worst novel, Mansfield Park. If you’ve never read that book (and if you haven’t, don’t bother), Fanny is a tremendous wet blanket—pretty much the opposite of someone like Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet. She’s the least interesting person in the novel, while somehow also being at the center of it. As S and I like to say, she’s a black hole where a heroine should be.

Now, Quentin isn’t quite the same as Fanny. I doubt he’s the sort who would object to amateur theatricals in the home. But he suffers from the very same problem as her, in that he’s surrounded by more interesting people. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in either case. It’s fine to have a story from the POV of someone who observes the actions of more interesting people around him—think of The Great Gatsby, for example. But Gatsby isn’t trying to be a novel about Nick Carraway, whereas Mansfield Park is trying to be a novel about Fanny Price, and The Magicians is trying to be a show about Quentin Coldwater.

According to our online friend, Quentin is actually worse in the books than on the TV show, so it’s clearly not the fault of the actor or the writers. It’s a fundamental problem of the character. That’s certainly a bold choice. But it’s not necessarily one I would have made.

And yet, we’re still loving the show, and we’re looking forward to watching more of it in the near future. As S said last night, if it weren’t for our complaints about Quentin, the show would actually be too good to live-watch with friends—we’d have nothing to make snarky comments about.

J

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

A Moving Story

New Howse

So once again we’ve forgotten to blog for a few weeks. In the meantime, NaNoWriMo came to an end, and once again, Team Unicorn emerged triumphant. S in particular has reason to brag, having made a dramatic, come-from-behind finish. At one point she was more than 10,000 words down, but she rallied and actually got to 50,000 words several days ahead of time.

As for me, I wrote a number of chapters in the book S and I are currently writing together. And then, because I didn’t want to get way, way ahead of her, I wrote two novels on the side. One I had planned before November, and might hypothetically be S’s Christmas present. The other one I came up with and planned in the middle of the month. It’s a sequel to some stories I’ve already written, so I didn’t have nearly as much prep work. Because I already knew most of the characters and locations I was writing about, it only took me four or five days to get it outlined.

Our big news, however, is that we will probably be moving in the near future. We love our current house, but it is 25-30 minutes away from where we work. That’s bad enough in good weather, but when it starts snowing, you can’t help but start to dread that long drive through the countryside. So we’ve found a house that’s much closer to where we work. It’s got some nice places for writing, and ample room for our library. Really, that’s all you can ask for.

Of course, between the moving and the holidays and everything else we’ve got going on this next month, our updates might be a bit spotty over the next month or so. We’ll try to check in from time to time, though. At the very least, when and if we do manage to get moved into our new house, S will have to report on her new writing room. (It was one of her conditions for the new house that she have her own, dedicated space for writing. She says the £500 is optional, but a room of her own is a must.)

J

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

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