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

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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

Hard-Earned Lessons

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Do your work. You’ll be happy later that you did.

J and I were chatting yesterday as we made the two-hour drive home from his parents’ about what we wish we had known when we started writing nearly 10 years ago. It was such a good list I thought I should share. It’s by no means definitive, and I’ve no doubt other writers would come up with other items, but if it helps anyone avoid the mistakes we made, then it was worth my time.

Structure
There is pretty much nothing easier than writing a giant blob of prose. Writing tens of thousands of words that are novel-shaped is decidedly harder. It’s more than just beginning, middle, and end. It’s advancing character and story, plotting setbacks, making sure the reader isn’t about to nod off or complaining that what you’re telling them is pointless. If I could go back 10 years and tell myself only one thing, it would be to study structure before putting pen to paper.

Chapters
Speaking of structure, how do you know when to end a chapter? How long should it be? What, exactly, ought to go in one? There’s no one answer for every novel, and we’ve intentionally played around with this in different novels, but we had some 7,000 word chapters with 3 POVs, and zero thematic elements tying them together when we started. We write in decidedly more logical chunks these days.

You won’t remember later
Write. It. Down. That brilliant idea that is so awesome you couldn’t possibly forget it? You will. That solution you found and put in Chapter 10 is great, but when you need it again in Chapter 50, you won’t remember if you didn’t put it in the story bible. Really, if we could go back and keep a more organized story bible from Day 1, it would help a ton. And it really would have helped a lot, even if we’d never moved past the original Quartet. Now that we have over two dozen novels in the Myrcia ‘verse, a good story bible is absolutely essential. And for those little ideas that pop up, they all get written down for use later.

Write in order
We thought it would be all awesome and creative to write the scenes that most inspired us as they inspired us. So when we started, we were literally writing scenes from what would become Book 2 before the characters in that scene had even met in Book 1. At the time, it seemed like a good way to get words down, and I suppose it was, but what it mostly did was make revision twice as long as we then rewrote all of those later scenes to take into account earlier material. Sometimes, I still move around a little, but I a) have a much better outline, and therefore, a better of idea of the story as a whole, and b) have made peace with the fact it will entail extra revision.

Sympathetic characters
We thought if we created a character we liked—a smart girl who is ambitious and happy, surrounded by people who also think she’s awesome—the reader would like her, too. Oops. Early betas found her insufferable and much preferred the girl with the crappy family and the worse husband, who was always looking for a way to make her shitty lot in life just a little better. I think we’ve made them both pretty interesting and sympathetic now, but yeah, we really didn’t understand at first that adversity gets a reader on the side of your character far more than showing how popular she is.

Calendar
When you have four POV characters spread over thousands of miles in an era when travel was remarkably difficult, keeping an accurate calendar is a must. We had some general ideas about when things should be happening, but when we plotted out exact dates when things had to happen and figured out how long it would take someone to get from Point A to Point B, we realized the timing was completely off. But, thank heavens for those poor traveling conditions so that freak snow storms could hold people up for a week, and magic allows a message to get to someone almost as fast as by telegram. As I’m about to start an epistolary novel, I’m already dreading my calendar—trying to figure out when someone wrote a letter and more importantly when someone read it, again in a world with much slower travel than today. But I know I will be happy that I did, and just like all of these other lessons, when I think about skipping over them, I do my best to make that my mantra—I will be happy that I did.

~S

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.

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

I’ll Do What I Want

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Cartman, as the kids say, is my spirit animal.

I mentioned back in March I would be spending April trying an experiment to write what I want and not what I “ought” to write (for whatever reason), and it is time to report back. In a word, it was awesome. I finished the fanfic I was working on and started plotting a Myrcia ‘verse epistolary novel. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, I have every intention of keeping it going, more or less.

Around this time last year, I tried a new way of working. I rotated weekly through multiple projects. If memory serves, I had three projects going, but only ever switched back and forth between two. I think I’m going to try something similar now. I’ll dedicate a week to the epistolary novel and a week to fanfic. (I have two fanfics harassing me to be written, and a couple others I’m seriously considering.) I figure an epistolary novel and shorter fanfic pieces are perfect for this sort of back and forth schedule since there will be discreet chunks. Of course, I’ll also need to sneak in some blogging here, and in July I’ll definitely be getting back to the Persuasion Live Read, because I’ll be discussing the book with my book club at work.

But I think that will all be manageable with my writing schedule, even when I move on to other projects. I have some original fiction short stories ideas that I’m excited about and just need to find the time and focus to write, for instance. When I finally decide to dive into Oleg Omdahl revisions and plotting out the fourth novel (which I think I might want to do for November NaNoWriMo), the constant switching between projects might be trickier, but I can deal with that when I get there.

In the meantime, I should try to think of some more substantial posts for all of you besides rambling about my process. Suggestions welcome.

~S

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

Who Knew?

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Confused Easter Rabbit from Drawception.com

(Howdy folks! We took Easter Sunday off. We didn’t think you’d miss us too much.)

I didn’t see this coming. I mean, I really did not see this coming, but I’m about to start planning, and then hopefully writing, my first epistolary novel. I finished drafting the fanfic I was working on, and while I’m eager to start revising it, and with J’s help it’s almost completely typed, I should probably take a short break from it. That means I have time to start planning my next project. Which is an epistolary novel. Who could have seen this coming?

Well, I didn’t at any rate. But since I know you are all curious how I came to this conclusion, I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain. I don’t know that the decision-making process is terribly fascinating, but I think it will be interesting for me as a writer that I’ve chosen to do this.

Two different ideas merged to give rise to the epistolary novel idea. The first came from a chat I was having with a delightful friend on Tumblr. As is typical for the two of us, we were chatting about the TV show Versailles. She made an observation about how the story could have been different if two characters who spend the first season at odds had instead decided to team up. Now, this sort of talk usually leads to me saying #iwouldreadthatfanfic or writing that fanfic myself. However, in this case, I didn’t know if I wanted to literally explore these two characters working together, but the idea was brilliant. I told my friend I might steal the concept for an original novel, and she said great. I told J about it later, and we both agreed it could even fit nicely into the Myrcia ‘verse. Then I didn’t think about it again, because I had a fanfic to finish.

And then I finished the fanfic. Worse still, I started typing it. Every word I typed felt clunky and forced and stale. I told myself I was just in one of my periodic bad moods, that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, but something wouldn’t let me rest. So I thought more about the problem until I came to the conclusion that I’m kind of sick of my own writing. If I were a reader, I’d take a break from me and go read someone else for a while. It’s not that anything I’ve been writing is bad, it’s just overly familiar. When I mentioned this suspicion to J, I also mentioned that the two parts of my current fic I like best are the short sections written in omniscient POV instead of limited third person.

J said, “You should write an epistolary novel. The new idea you just told me about would be perfect.”

My skin cleared, angels sang, and the weight of the world lifted from my back. Almost a full week later, and I still think this is a positively brilliant idea to get me out of my rut. If not tonight, then in the very near future, I’m going to start doing character profiles and outlining. We’ve come up with a general time and place in the world we’ve created to set the story, and then it will just be a matter of writing it. Neither of us has written an epistolary novel before, so this will be fun (and hopefully not horribly frustrating) new territory. I know who my two central characters will be, and I think one of them will be either the writer or recipient of every letter to keep the focus where I want it. In the meantime, I’m thumbing through my ancient copy of Dangerous Liaisons and listening to the audiobook of Lady Susan.

~S

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

Howdy!

john wayne

The ultimate cowboy says “How do you do.”

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo. This is day 2 of Camp, and the fanfic I’m working on is going okay so far. I was having some issues with POV and forgetting vital information that I even wrote down on a note card so I wouldn’t forget it, but with the help of some fellow Campers, I think I’m back on track. But as I promised in my last post, I’m only writing what I want to this month, so I’ve got to run now and see what kind of trouble (read: sexy good fun times) I can get my characters into. 😉

~S