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.

thomas_mcdonell

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

All Over But The Wrapping

community-christmas

And of course we still need to decorate our Troy.

A Merry, if premature, Christmas to everyone.  A Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice, as well.  And to our imaginary friends in the Myrciaverse, have a safe and happy Seefest.

S and I went out yesterday and finished up our Christmas shopping, and I have to say I’m impressed at how efficient we were.  We couldn’t leave the house until well after noon, since we had an ice storm Friday night, and we had to clear away the small glacier that had formed on our steep driveway.  But even so, we managed to get all our presents bought in record time, and we got home in time to have a pizza and watch a few episodes of Rectify off the DVR (it’s a really good show, by the way).

We’ve already gotten ourselves a few gifts.  S bought herself some lovely new fountain pens that she’s really enjoying writing with.  Last month, the awesome Municipal Liaison of our local NaNoWriMo group loaned her one of these cute little fountain pens during one of our write-ins, and S loved it so much that she had to go to JetPens and buy herself a bunch of them.  (As an aside, how cool is it that there’s a website where you can order obscure Japanese pens from the States?  For those of you who don’t know, I lived and taught in Japan for three years, and yes, they really do take writing implements and office supplies in general to a whole new level.)

My old slippers had given up the ghost (the insoles had departed), so I got some new ones which are warm and fuzzy, which is really all you want out of a pair of slippers, especially in the winter.

In other news, we’re still revising here, and S is still plugging away at her latest fanfic story (using those awesome new pens, of course).  We might not be able to post quite as regularly over the next few weeks, since we’ll be visiting family.  But don’t worry.  The long, frigid days of January and February are right around the corner, when we’ll be cooped up inside with nothing to do but write and revise!  Isn’t that exciting?  I think so.  (Seriously, though, this is the time of year when S and I always ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we decide to live somewhere warmer?”)

J

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

chicken-dinner

Or at least “chicken flavored.”

Actually it was a chicken lunch.  Or chicken flavored ramen, to be exact.  (Those Maruchan Bowl noodles are awesome!)  It’s cold outside, and we’re trying to stay warm and not get sick.  But it’s December now, and that means it’s time for Team Unicorn to brag about yet another double NaNoWriMo win for us.

I finished the two novels I planned to write: A Tincture of Silver and When Uppance Comes.  The first one (after some revisions) is 76,837 words long.  The second one is 75,623 words.  Right now, S and I are reading through A Tincture of Silver, though we’ve got other things we need to get done today, so I don’t know how far we’ll get.  As we’ve mentioned before, reading our books aloud together is an important part of our revision process.

Once I was finished with those two, I decided to get started on a third novel, which will be S’s Christmas present.  Yes, we write each other things as presents—it’s the ultimate in unicorniness.  I can’t tell the title of that one, because it’s a bit of a spoiler for S, and she wants to be surprised on Christmas morning when she looks under the metaphorical tree and sees it waiting for her.  It’ll actually be in the shared folder of our OneDrive account, but that’s sort-of like finding it in your stocking, yes?  As of this morning, that third novel is sitting at 46,380 words.  If I subtract the words I’ve written in the last four days, but I include all the prep work, like character profiles and character prompts, that I wrote for it, you come to my grand total for the month of November, which was 225,182 words.  That’s the most I’ve ever done in a NaNo month, I think.

As for S, she decided to set aside her historical romance and go back to writing an ongoing fanfic project that she has, and she became much happier when she did.  Perhaps at some point she’ll blog about that.  Sometimes it’s just not the right time for a particular project, and this November apparently wasn’t the right time for historical romance.  It happens.

She also wrote a short story for my Christmas present, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it.  But I have no idea what it is, except that she’s admitted it’s set in the Myrciaverse, which is nice.  Other than that, I’m completely in the dark, and I haven’t tried to peek or metaphorically rattle the box to see what’s inside.  I want a surprise on Christmas morning, too.

J

Unicorning: an Update

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Old-school Unicorning.

This is mid-November, so you can’t actually expect that we’re going to write anything lengthy or thoughtful for our blog, can you?  No, of course not.

I’ve finished my first novel, A Tincture of Silver, and I think it turned out pretty well.  It’s interesting how, no matter how much you prepare for a book, you still discover more when you actually go to write it.  For example, I thought I knew one of my characters pretty well, but at the end of Chapter 9, she had to write a farewell letter to someone she had tricked.  The tone of it started pretty pleasant, actually, but then, at the end, I had the idea to add a nasty little burn as a postscript.  And suddenly I found I understood her a lot better.  What sort of person is she?  Well, she’s the sort of person who would write something like that, just to rub it in.

For the past few days, I’ve been doing character prompts for my second novel, When Uppance Comes.  It’ll be more of a comedy than the first one, I’m hoping.  It’s a sequel of sorts to both A Meager Education and Joint Command.  Here’s the summary of it I just wrote for my novel page on the NaNoWriMo website:

Selfish, conniving, and beautiful, Lisette comes to the royal court, determined to take her rightful place in society.  She schemes to win a place accompanying the queen on a vital diplomatic mission, but she’ll have to win the trust of the army officer vetting the candidates, who unfortunately is her old school roommate, and who knows Lisette all too well.  Meanwhile, an enemy spy infiltrates the court, thanks to the wandering eye of Lisette’s wayward husband.  They can’t all get what they want, but they might get exactly what they deserve.

S is doing very well, too.  She came into this weekend thinking she was about 6,000 words behind, but she’s going to finish ahead.  That’s pretty impressive, I think.  So huzzah for S!

J

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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Emerson never did any prep work for his NaNo novels. 
True story.

Here at Unicorn HQ, we’re deep into the process of NaNoWriMo prep. A few nights ago, S and I worked on her outline, and to make it easier to see, we used our giant living room TV as an external monitor from her tiny new Lenovo laptop. It was awesome.

(Because I know you were all wondering, the new laptop’s name is Signy. She’s named after a character in S’s Oleg Omdahl mysteries.)

As usual, I’m doing two novels in November, and as I make my outlines, I’ve been switching back and forth between them, making sure to keep them both fresh in my mind. The tricky thing for me is that both are sequels to my previous books.

The one I’ll be writing first is A Tincture of Silver. It’s more or less a direct sequel to Called to Account, which puts it in a sequence of novels that now runs from S’s Queen’s Tower to my Lady’s Knight and covers more than a century of Myrcian history.

My second novel (if all goes well) is going to be When Uppance Comes, which will be a sequel to both A Meager Education and Joint Command. The first of those, as you’ll see if you go to our page listing our novels, is a school story, while the second is a spy novel. This new book is going to show what happens when those two worlds collide.

There are plusses and minuses to writing sequels. On the upside, I saved a lot of time in making my character sheets, since many of the characters carry over from previous books. So I just had to copy and paste the information I’d already written about them for the previous novels, and then add a few sentences to tell what they’ve been up to in the years since.

The problem with writing sequels, of course, is trying to make sure the characters are consistent. You want the reader to have the sense that the character Lisette whom they meet in When Uppance Comes is the same Lisette they came to know and loathe in A Meager Education. And this can take a lot of planning and preparation. Oh sure, we could take our friend Ralph Waldo’s advice and “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” But that is bound to end up frustrating both the author and the reader. So we’re stuck having to keep very careful track of what the characters did and said and thought.

The first thing I’ve been doing is simply reminding myself what I wrote before. I could simply reread my books the old fashioned way. But lately I’ve been converting my novels, a couple chapters at a time, into PDF files, and then using the “Read Out Loud” feature of Adobe Acrobat and a pair of Bluetooth headphones to listen to my old novels like audiobooks while I pace around the house. (There’s also a “read aloud” feature in MS Word, but it doesn’t work nearly as well.)

As I walk around, I keep a notepad and a pen with me, so I can keep notes on the characters as I go. I keep track of the character’s habits, tics, and speech patterns. Then I look at the outline I have planned for my new book, and where necessary, I make notes to be sure to include those things in the new book.

For example, in A Meager Education, one of Lisette’s very few positive character traits is her dedication to exercise. (Although, to be fair, she really only keeps herself in shape because of her titanic vanity; if you haven’t guessed, she’s not a very nice person.) As I was listening to that book, I kept noticing all the times she talks about going riding or swimming. And then I realized that I’d completely forgotten to have her do anything like that in my outline for When Uppance Comes. So I quickly made a note of that. And then, when I had more time later, I went through the outline, chapter by chapter, until I found a few places I could have her think about swimming or riding or whatever.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I trust S will have something to say about her own NaNo prep sooner or later. And if you haven’t gone to the NaNoWriMo site and signed up yet, go do it now!

J