The Paleontology of Plotting

As I jubilantly expressed on twitter last night, I’ve found a plot!

Finding a plot is rarely, I think, like tripping over an unconsidered trifle or discovering a lost item during a ramble through the woods. It’s more like paleontology. You know there’s something under there — at least you’re pinning a lot of hope and faith and hard work on it — but there’s no guarantee that it’ll turn out to be worth finding, or that it’ll be unique, or that it’ll be something anyone else wants to look at.

paleontology_dynamic_lead_slideFirst you dig deep, just to make sure you’re in the right place. I’ve tried starting a few different projects since finishing my last round of Aven edits, and none of the others have gotten past this stage. Sometimes you just plain realize that you’re digging in the wrong spot. That can be frustrating, but I think it’s an important awareness to have. Better to let go of something that isn’t working early, shift your location, and try again, rather than spending valuable hours of your life just moving dirt around. When I back off of a project, it doesn’t go away entirely. I just put a pin in it, hoping — intending — to return later. Aven started life in 2007 as something completely different. I never wrote more than about 10k on it, though, before I realized it wasn’t coming together at all. In 2011, I started over from scratch — and that’s the project that’s carried me through several Nanos. I tried again, and that time I struck true.

So, once you know there is something there worth unearthing, you chip away until you can see the shape of the thing. Is it the thing you thought it was? Or a slightly different species of story? Is it contorted oddly in some place? Is it tangled up with something else? Do you have as much as you thought, or are there bits missing? For me, a lot of this happens in the process of writing itself. I am, in Nano terminology, a pantser, not a plotter. I discover so much while actively writing. It’s not the framework that suits everyone, but it’s wonderful to me — it helps make sure that when I sit down to work, I’m always excited for it.

Then, finally — and this might not happen until later editing phases — you get out the tiny brushes, and you clear off every last bit of debris. Get rid of everything unnecessary so that your final project really gleams, bright and brilliant. This might take a damn long time, and it requires a lot of close focus — but the reward isn’t just a cohesive and impressive whole. You might also learn something new about individual moments, just by spending so much time honing them. I often don’t even write an outline until this point, especially now that Scrivener makes it so simple to keep notes on what happens when — but once I’ve got the shape of a thing generally patterned out, then the outline can be useful to spot gaps or places where some scenes might need to be shifted around — to line up the vertebrae, if you’ll allow me to keep extending this metaphor. (I really love dinosaurs, so it comes easily).

Last night, I jammed a shovel into the earth, and I came up with the first sign that, yes, there is something worth uncovering here.

This is doubly exciting because it doesn’t happen to me a lot. I am, in defiance of Aristotle, a writer who puts Character first. All my stories start with character — as did this one. Perhaps it’s because I am, in some ways, too much a historian. I tend to see people, and the conflict I like best comes out of them crashing into each other. Which is great in my head, but doesn’t always involve the sort of fast pace or high-stakes-drama that the genres I write in require. Fantasy wants the strong beginning, middle, and end that history rarely has — since it, y’know, goes on indefinitely in either direction. It needs, if not an explicit quest, something quest-like, something that drives the characters beyond the bounds of their normal life. So as I was moodling around this new project, I started to feel a familiar pinch of concern: Yes, Morris, you’ve got some interesting personalities milling around an intriguing setting. Some of them like each other and some of them don’t. But what are they going to do?

But, this time, in finding character, I found a new system of magic. And in finding that system of magic, I found the Exciting Incident — the first shape of an object I can start chipping away at — a cataclysmic change, really, for my main characters, something that disrupts their paradigm and forces them to construct a new one, against the ticking clock of threats from without and within.

And that, I think, shall be the challenge that drives the book.

It also gave me a working title, which is super-helpful, since naming things gives them power. So at least for now, this WIP will be called The Seventh Star.

Mind you, I’ve got a what, but I don’t yet know a lot of the how. I have some characters that I don’t know how they fit into the plot (and they might not ever — Aven had its share of discarded characters who were great in my head but never made it to a page anyone else saw). I still have a lot of tinkering to do when it comes to working out the magical system. I need to do some research about a particular kind of warfare and city defense. I’m not quite sure what the end game’s going to look like. But that’s okay. I’ll find out.

So enough nattering to you all about it. I’m off to spend a weekend digging!

History in Fantasy

I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.

7263041032_31c992469e_zYou get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?

Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.

KangnidoMapReligion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?

I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.

So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

Samwriting

Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Why Do I Care? (On gender disparity and the Star Wars VII casting news)

The Star Wars VII casting news has caused a lot of disappointment and not a small bit of outrage on the internet today, largely related to its lack of diversity. And a lot of that is focused on the fact that of all the newly introduced cast members, exactly one is female. This stings. I’m not so much angry as just disheartened, because I was hoping for better. It’s hard to say I expected it. My awareness of the way this industry works is a little too acute for that. But I hoped.

Detention cellTo be fair, I suppose it’s possible that that one female (Daisy Ridley) will be the central figure, the Luke of this trilogy. I’m not overly optimistic about that, but it’s possible. Far more likely from the current buzz, however, is that that primary protagonist role is going to John Boyega. This post articulates a lot of what I’m feeling about the casting news itself. Does it mean this will automatically be a bad movie? No. But I think it means it’s not going to be as good a movie as it could’ve been.

I’m proud of how much outcry there’s been, from both men and women, about this. I’m glad my geek sisters are standing up and shouting together, and I’m glad so many of our geek brothers have our backs. I’m glad to be hearing stories of little girls who, like I did, want to play with lightsabers and get into blaster shoot-outs in defence of the galaxy, and of little boys who are learning that, yeah, female-led stories can be just as fun as the male-focused stories they’re used to.

But of course, this is the internet, with all its attendant troubles. So in addition to those displays of solidarity, there’s also been a lot of bro-culture nonsense slung all over the place. At worst, it’s… well, exactly what you’d expect. But even the more benign responses are insulting and aggravating — the men asking, “But why do you care?”

So, just in case anyone’s honestly asking that question, not just using it as a roundabout way to get we silly women to shut up, here’s why I care:

  • Because I have loved this series since I was 11. Despite its problems, I have continued to love it. I have an emotional investment.
  • Because this series was a lot of what shaped me as a writer. As I’ve discussed before, this was the impetus for choosing this career path, and I honed my skills in the Star Wars universe. It means a lot to me professionally as well as personally.
  • Because this series was a lot of how I identified — and was identified by others — as a geek. My formative years were tied up in it, and as a girl, that experience was different than it was for my male friends. I was even more of a freak than they were. I was fighting the “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense a generation before that was the name anyone put to it. I had to work harder to prove my devotion, had to earn my stripes, and I damn well did so. I proved a long time ago that I get to care about this.
  • Because representation matters. Girls have as much a right as boys to see themselves represented in the stories they love, and they deserve better than a single default character to choose from. Girls should get to decide if they want to be the princess, or the cocky smuggler, or the clever scientist, or the intrepid explorer, or the grave and noble leader, or the wise mentor, and they shouldn’t have to strip themselves of their femininity to do it. (It’s also well worth noting that an interest in science fiction can easily beget an interest in science — and we need more girls to grow up into women who work in that field).
  • Because it’s important to our world that boys learn to see girls as more than just one thing, too.
  • Because girls can have heroes’ journeys. I seriously saw someone on one site trying to argue that the main character had to be male because “that’s just the archetype.” As though women don’t struggle with issues of identity, conflicting priorities and responsibilities, and determining their destinies. As though girls can’t go on adventures, wrestle with the question of death, overthrow darkness, and come out on the other side bruised and battered but stronger and wiser, too. As though men have a monopoly on good stories.
  • Because Star Wars, thanks to its sheer size and force, does a lot to set the standard for the genre and as such, I feel, has a responsibility to the genre. The original trilogy did so much to innovate technologically. Now is the time to be innovative when it comes to storytelling.
  • Because Star Wars has never been great about gender representation in the past, yet I keep naively hoping for better. The original trilogy had The Chick. In fact, The Chick who would pretty much come to define The Chick in the genre. And don’t get me wrong, I love Leia and still sort of want to be her when I grow up. But she was what we got. Other women were relegated to a spare few lines in a single film of the trilogy (Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma) or were alien slave dancers (sorry, Oola). And things didn’t get a whole lot better in the prequels. We get Padme and we sort of get Shmi. Shmi gets blatantly (and brutally) fridged in order to provide Anakin a reason to go to the Dark Side, and Padme never lives up to her promise (despite Natalie Portman’s efforts to triumph over the script). Other than them, there are some background Jedi and counselors, sure, but no other figures even approaching what you’d call central. They do a lot better character-wise in the EU (Mara Jade! Bria Tharen! Jaina Solo! and so forth, including expanding some of those background figures from the prequels), but, as I noted a while back, the content creators? Still overwhelmingly male. So we still tend to see female figures through the male lens.
  • Because this is a missed opportunityStar Wars is one of the most popular franchises of all time, and now it’s backed by freaking Disney. They’re safe. They’re going to make piles of money on this no matter what. They could tell any story they wanted to. Not branching out beyond the familiar is an error in judgment.
  • Because I’m a woman trying to write in the SF/F genre. I know. Shocking. Yet we do exist! Lots of us! So to anyone saying, “Well if you want to see X represented, just write it yourself”– Trust me. We’re trying. It just ain’t that easy. SF/F is still a boys’ club overall. Much of the female-oriented success, at least by broader media standards, in the genre has been in YA — which is, not coincidentally, also dismissed by many of the Powers That Be as inferior to the adult, “serious” side of things.  Trying to tell a female-oriented story and actually have it heard, published, put out into the world — that’s hard. You’re at a disadvantage before you even begin. So many great stories by women get shunted to the side because they “don’t really fit the genre”. It’s well beyond time to change what those narrow boundaries of “in the genre” mean. Star Wars could be helping that, and instead they’re reinforcing the status quo.
  • And finally, if all that weren’t quite enough, I care because I am a human being with emotions, and those emotions have validity. Dismissing the outcry against this casting news as a tempest in a teapot is patriarchal gaslighting nonsense, and believe me, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read The Paradise Snare in an attempt to make myself feel better.