General

Where World-Building Starts

Kate Elliott is writing an excellent series of World-Building Wednesdays, and today’s post, The Flowering of an Image, focuses on the germination of a world — what kernel it is that turns into a place in which stories can live.

Elliott says that her world-building most often begins with an image which then spurs the characters and the story. The two things then grow together, the world informing the characters and plot as much as the characters and plot define the world. That symbiosis is something I discover in my own writing as well. Something I decide about the world will trigger an event, and some need the characters have will make me flesh out a bit of the world.

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Tintagel Island, Cornwall (2006) – Which I visited on account of it being the place where King Arthur’s story started, according to legend

Sometimes, though, I can fall a bit into a world-building pit. It’s not so much in the need to outline or write out an encyclopedia — though in some cases I’d happily do so — but I end up exploring the world by letting characters wander through it. Interesting to me, but not something that really advances the narrative. Part of editing is finding ways to inject the details of the world into the action. I do keep lists, though, of important facts. For Aven it’s been a lot of geographical concerns — what do different provinces produce, what sort of people live on which of the Seven Hills, and so forth — and a lot about the magic. I also have some historical notes about where my AU diverges from the reality of Roman history.

For me, though, the story tends to begin not with an image, but with a statement — sometimes of narrative, but far more often, of dialogue or introspection. An image will often follow, but I tend to hear a character’s voice before I clearly see them or the world around them. The words they want to use, the cadence, the rhetoric, those are the things that start to spin a character for me.

So, I thought it might be fun to trawl through a few of my projects — both those still in-progress, those set aside and perhaps to be revived someday — and see if I could find and identify those starting phrases. Wonderfully, I managed to unearth a document of scraps that I started back in 2009. Some of those scraps turned into larger stories. Some have been finished, and some haven’t — and one of them is on is way to publication! But it provided me with some good examples of what seeds I start with:

  • “Oh, you are such a poor liar. You haven’t the talent for it, so you may as well not try. Come now.” She pouted, quite prettily. “I’m your sister. Who can you tell, if not me?”
  • “I could no more leave this city than leave you, Mari,” he said. “To do one would be to do the other, and to do either…” He shook his head. “Unthinkable.”
  • “How many times did you fling yourself into danger without a second goddamn thought?”
  • “He does love me,” she commented, more to herself than to Kara.
    “In his way,” Kara supplied.
    “Not even that,” Arhena said, twisting a few golden strands around her finger. “I think he really does. He’s just… not one to show it in the usual fashion.”
  • “That girl’s kept her heart locked up a good long while now. I think it might finally be ready for some fresh air.”
  • “And you, Highness, are the daughter of a desert witch masquerading as a princess. But I’ve never held that against you.”
  • It wasn’t, after all, a nice thing to hear about yourself, to know that you’d gone from a well-mannered, perfectly-coiffed debutante to being little better than a mad dog in want of a leash.
  • ‘That’s the trouble with putting down roots,’ she thought. Her fingers itched as she stepped over towards where the mare was tethered and unwound the reins from the fence. ‘They do make it harder to fly…’

I’m realizing, looking at all of those, how many of them are moments of great passion — so many of my stories, no matter the genre, do feature a romance between two strong, stubborn people — or how many of them are the lead heroine wrestling with herself in some way.

There are worse places, I think, to start a story.

General

Critical Hit: What Writers Can Learn from RPGs

IMG_2974Last year, I got back into dice gaming. I’d played a very little as a teenager — it was pretty hard to be a geek in the late 90s without getting roped into at least one table session — but most of my RPG experience was text-based, during the heyday of LiveJournal (yes, I’m that old) or in AOL chatrooms (yes, I’m also that old). I’m not allowed to play MMOs, because I know myself, and my life would quickly become The Guild. But a friend and coworker pitched the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game to me, and it sounded so super-exciting that I decided to give it a whirl. I’m so very glad I did. We’ve been playing for over a year now, through several plot arcs and all sorts of ridiculous escapades. It’s my Monday night escape. I often complain that I have three careers and no social life, but this? This is a real hobby, and it can be just pure joy and relaxation for me, a time to play and to enjoy hanging out with some awesome people.

And yet, I still can’t leave my working brain behind entirely. The game is so narrative that of course I end up thinking about storytelling.

Last December, Jim Hines took over Chuck Wendig’s blog to talk about turning your D&D campaign into a terrible novel (and it’s a good giggle of a post). I have no doubt that there are people who really do this, though, and who then proceed to query agents and editors, all starry-eyed innocence, failing to understand that what made a good game does not necessarily make a good novel. I also think, though, that while straight-up transcribing your sessions is a seriously bad idea, there are still lessons that a writer can take away from RPGs.

The trick is to think like the game-master, not like a player.

Keep ’em on their toes: This relates to the “but then” rule I’ve talked about before. And honestly, it’s something I can have trouble with, pacing-wise. Never let the characters get too comfortable, and never let them go too long without an exciting incident of some kind. Give characters the chance to develop through action, not through pontification. Throw unexpected obstacles into the mix. If they make a solid plan to achieve their goals, change the given circumstances so that they can’t follow through as expected. In our game, I don’t think our plans ever stay the same for more than a few minutes at a time. The same should be true for characters in novels.

CQCEd-4WoAAEUAeLet your characters surprise you: Our group is not the standard hack-and-slash coalition of fighters. We are… creative problem-solvers, is probably the best way to put it, and we’ll try just about anything before having to resort to violence. This occasionally leads to some truly bizarre sequences of events. As an example, early on in our campaign, one of the characters just straight-up decided to steal a plesiosaur-type creature and try to escape on it. This was not something our GM had anticipated. Another character once tried slowing down our opponents by setting off the foam-based fire suppression system on them (it worked). This was also not something our GM had anticipated. We once ended up at a dance party with abolitionist senators. The GM had definitely not anticipated having to tell us to “roll for dance moves”. The reason he’s a good GM is because he can let us do crazy things and then steer everything back on track — and that’s the job of a good writer, too.

Let them make bad choices. Bad choices are interesting. Bad choices lead to conflict, chaos, mayhem, struggles, strife. Recently, while in the middle of close-quarters combat, one of our party members decided to set off an explosive quarrel in the middle of the room. Not only did it spectacularly fail to do significant damage to our opponents, it damn near killed two of us. But it made things interesting — the party members still conscious suddenly had a much bigger problem on their hands, as they had to protect and extricate the wounded while still dealing with the attackers. The same thing goes for writing fiction — if a character charges in where she should, ignores the little voice in her head warning her away from danger, trusts someone he shouldn’t, then we get to see not only the conflict that creates but also how the characters deal with the subsequent fallout. Does she mistrust her judgment in the future? Does he have to make amends with someone? What does she learn? What ground does he have to make up? Bad choices can up the ante in exciting ways.

If grinding is boring for you, it’s boring for everyone: Your mileage may vary by genre on this one, as more military-focused books will spend more time in the blood, and so might different sorts of RPG groups. For me, though — and this comes from a background on the stage as much as anything else — a fight has to be a means to an end. It has to tell its own story and it has to advance something. A good GM balances the action sequences with plot development, because just churning through repetitive action after repetitive action can get real dull real fast. And the same goes with writing. You can only slam so many fight sequences together before the reader gets fatigue, and the reader also needs to care about the outcome of the fight. What’s resting on it? Who’s in danger and why do we want them to survive? What skill is the hero calling upon, and is she good enough with it to come out on top?

Have a diverse cast. I’m the only human character in our current group, which is pretty great. We’ve also got three female organics, one male organic, and one male-identifying droid. And our GM is great about making sure that the NPCs we encounter are evenly balanced — whether they’re Imperial officers, mechanics, senators, thugs, guards, food vendors, whatever — they’re a variety of species and genders. The universe is a wide and wonderful place, and storytellers owe it to themselves and their readers to showcase that.

Have a balanced cast. Our group features an abnormally agile big-game-hunting droid, an impulsive and mildly neurotic bodyguard, a debt-laden trader with a nearly palpable sense of self-preservation, a mechanic whose primary motivation is friendship, and an exiled politician who lives by wits and charm (yours truly). It’s a seriously weird group to have thrown together — but that’s awesome. Our skill sets complement each others’ really well. Not all books have to worry about ensemble casts, but for those that do, making sure the characters . Some of that can be done through archetypes — making sure you have enough different folk to serve different needs — but it’s about balancing personalities, too. Not every character can be the gruff and world-weary type, and not every character can be the effervescent optimist. It’s way more interesting to read about those types bouncing off of each other. The NPCs we encounter, engineered by the GM, reflect that as well. Some of our allies get along much better with some party members than others; some of our enemies are rubbed the wrong way more by some than others. We also encounter situations that play to our varying abilities — you can’t fight your way out of every situation, and you can’t talk or charm your way out of every situation, either. Keeping that balance keeps the story interesting for us players — and doing the same thing in a book will help appeal to a variety of readers.

CPduoBGUYAAJtTAMake XP matter. We’ve been playing our game for a long time. We have an absurd number of experience points, and we’ve all used them a little differently — some have piled them into improving our dice pools for certain skills, some have acquired additional talent trees and special abilities, and some have kept a balance between those two choices. But the better we get, the more the GM has to keep in mind regarding the challenges we encounter. It can’t be too easy for us. He has to work harder to give us situations we can’t squirrel out of too quickly — because the point isn’t to “win” by besting the NPCs, it’s to invest ourselves in a good story! In fiction, the stakes have to get higher as the story goes on. A character should have the opportunity to grow, learn new things, get better — but then the villains and challenges have to get harder, to match. If the hero gets better at a skill, then there has to be a twist the next time he encounters a challenge calling upon it. You can’t face impossible odds at the beginning, and the final conflict can’t be a foregone conclusion.

Enjoy it. Like I said at the top, I commit time each week to the game because it’s fun, and I know our GM dedicates a lot more time to planning and scheming for us for the same reason. Building worlds, scripting situations, carving out the time, that’s all a lot of work, but we’re all in it because we like doing it. Writing’s hard work, and that’s the damn truth. But it should also be something you love, even when it’s tough. If you’re not having fun with the words, with the characters, with the situations, then what will there be for the reader to fall in love with?

So! How about y’all? Any other roleplayer-writers out there with thoughts on how the two types of narrative can speak to each other?

General

Paleontology of Plotting, Part 2

A confession: I am not very good at drafts.

writerevisewriteagainI never have been — not when it came to essays for school and not when it comes to fiction. It’s partly because I don’t write sequentially. I tend to write the start, the end, and a couple of major points in the middle, then play connect-the-dots. That lends itself to a lot of adjustment-on-the-go. Part of why I like Nano months so much is that it cuts down on that — but, at the same time, just going for the word count can also mean generating scenes that don’t end up fitting into the overall narrative.

And believe me, I know the drawbacks to working this way. It’s easy to get caught in a loop, and there certainly does come a point where you have to decide the thing is complete so you can step back, read it all the way through, and evaluate more holistically. But for my personal process, a certain amount of re-writing as I go is how I excavate — how I tell myself the story.

This is where I’m at on one of my projects right now. Probably 75% of the way through a first draft, I’ve realized there are some elements that aren’t useful. Common wisdom would say to leave them be for now, until I’ve finished the full draft, but so far that hasn’t been working for me. (Plus, not ditching the bits that aren’t working prevents me from having an accurate conception of my overall word count). I’m at connect-the-dots point anyway, where I’m finding the little things that need to chain the major scenes together, so for the way my brain works, it’s just as easy to trim and adjust while I’m in the middle of that process. Trying to work around the things I know I want to get rid of or change would mean a lot of wasted energy.

To continue my paleontology metaphor, in this case it’s a bit like there were a bunch of other bones tangled up with the frame I’ve been trying to unearth. Some characters have proved extraneous and need to be cut or else merged into others. Some scenes were total false starts. I’m not trying to fix all the nitty-gritty details right now — I’m not trying to do a full revision in the middle of still writing by any means — but clearing away the debris will help me to better shape the components that actually need to be there as I push through to getting a complete manuscript done.

General

The blood going to it: On Depressed Creativity

I use to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different. I’m sorry, we don’t know each other but there aren’t that many people I can talk to about it. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look.

That’s a quote from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, and it’s something that’s long resonated with me.

I haven’t blogged here in the past couple of months, and I wish I could say that’s because I’ve been devoting all my typing to productive writing. Some days, that’s been true. Many days, it hasn’t been. Many days, it’s been a definite struggle to put myself in front of the laptop and get even a few hundred words down.

Part of it has been my everyday life being quite busy, both at the day job and socially. There are, after all, only so many hours. But part of it has been depressed creativity. It’s hard to find the love, to find the juice, to find the blood when you feel stagnated. Being on sub is a rough place to exist as a writer, especially one hoping to make a solid debut. (There aren’t as many posts covering the submission process as there are for querying, but there are some fairly good ones out there — and this one absolutely nails what it feels like). Writing takes a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of energy. When you feel like the wheels are just spinning in mud and kicking up gravel, it’s hard to keep going — hard to feel like the words you’re carving out are anything worthwhile.

But. You have to.

More accurately, have to.

I wrote over 3000 words yesterday, and 3000 today, and all actually on the correct project, not scattered all over the place in drips and drabbles of assorted nonsense. These have definitely the best writing days I’ve had since mid-May.

It reminds me that I can. It reminds me of my ability and of my passion for the words. It reminds me that I have stories inside me that want to be told.

And it reminds me that I need to suck it up, cupcake. This isn’t a game for whiners or quitters.

General

Yet Another Nano – On planning and spontaneity

Camp-Winner-2015-Web-Banner

Aware that my focus had drifted a bit in March, I set myself a personal goal of 30k for the month of April.

And I was pretty sure this was a daft thing to do.

April is traditionally my busiest month of the year. In fact, now that I’ve got the TimeHop app, I can verify that I spend every April over-booked and under-slept. This year the usual fluster of activity was further complicated by the fact that I spent fully one-third of the month travelling internationally, first to Vancouver and then to London. Both are a bit of a haul from Virginia. When I was home, there wasn’t a day in the month I wasn’t at one job or the other, including most of my evenings being taken up by rehearsals. Making time in the rest of the hours to eat, exercise, and occasionally sleep… It didn’t leave a lot of time for writing.

But a thousand words a day really isn’t that much. A thousand words a day is manageable. A thousand words a day I really ought to be able to do, even in a busy month, if I want to be the kind of writer I think of myself as. And it was nice to remind myself that, yes, I can do that. I have the discipline. As you can see from the chart below, I mostly stayed on par. Those stalled days are when I was in London, and admittedly, I could’ve found time to write then — but it would’ve meant not walking through Hyde Park or visiting museums in the hours I wasn’t at the conference, and I just wasn’t willing to make those sacrifices. I don’t get to London often enough to pass up those opportunities. (I actually did write a bit on the plane both ways, but it was in a different file and didn’t get toted up till towards the end).

CampNano15Stats

What surprised me was which project ended up getting the bulk of the attention. I’ve got two that I’m working on right now, and since Camp Nano’s rules are less strict than November Nano’s (and since I’m a bit of a Nano rebel in these regards anyway), I had pre-determined that I’d let myself work on both towards those 30k. That in of itself was a big help. While there’s a lot to be said for having a solid focus, as I did when I was editing Aven, there’s also a lot of value in flexibility. It meant I could come fresh to either project, and if I started feeling sluggish on one, I could pop over to the other.

I’d been charging ahead on secondworld fantasy The Seventh Star in February, but in April, I spent much more time on Goldheart, a space opera. The Seventh Star has a more solid structure, nice markers for its plotline’s progression, a very neat and ordered plan behind it. Goldheart is, well, sort of a hot mess. But that was where I wanted to play! The fact that it was so scattered and unstructured actually worked in my favor while Nanoing. I’d thought, going in, that having the strong skeleton I already had for The Seventh Star was going to help, but when I was working with such little time and had to seize impulsive moments to write, it ended up being easier to dive into Goldheart at random. I didn’t have to worry about where or how a scene fit — I could just write it, unencumbered by the constraints my own brain tends to impose when I’m working on something with a more distinct outline.

And lo and behold, on the very last day of April, I realized… I actually had a structure in there. I’m going to have to do a lot of trimming and rearranging, but I realized that I can actually hang the protagonist’s arc on something resembling a typical Hero’s Journey. It all clicked. And now I’ve got even more to go on as I move forward with the project.

Thoughtful structure is super-important when writing novels. But sometimes, in order to find it, you have to give yourself the freedom to play, first.

General

Why King Henry Has No Friends: An Academic Paper

I spent much of the past week either in London or in transit to and fro from the Halved Heart academic conference at Shakespeare’s Globe, an event celebrating the culmination of their season focusing on friendship in early modern drama. This was hugely exciting for me, partly because I got to spend some time in one of my favorite cities in the world, but largely because this conference seemed custom-tailored for my research background. I wrote my Master’s thesis on Shakespeare’s development of the tradition of male friendship in his comedy plays, so this was right up my alley. I ended up taking a paragraph from an earlier chapter, discussing representations of friendship in Shakespeare that failed to meet the classical requirements of “perfect” friendship, and expanding that into a full paper. Specifically, I looked at how the plays of the Great Tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV, and Henry V) demonstrate the lesson that because a king has no equals, a king can have no friends.

Academic writing is such a different beast from fiction writing — and that’s actually why, during grad school and my first couple of years with this company, I quite lost sight of creative writing. Academic writing was taking up so much brainspace that there wasn’t room for much of anything else. It’s just such a different skill set, and I had to make the deliberate choice to carve out the time and space I needed for writing fiction again.

Some things remain in common, however: You want to come across as thoughtful, clever, witty, well-reasoned. You want to demonstrate solid research and facility with language. You want, above all, to captivate an audience.

So, despite that this is from my day job and nothing to do with most of what I discuss on this blog, I still thought it might be nice to share the paper with y’all. This is where my head is when I’m not giving magic to AU ancient Romans, wrestling with the social and political dynamics of a triad star system, or pushing the ruling of a besieged city to her breaking point.

Banish All the World: The Necessary Isolation of Monarchy (or, Why King Henry Has No Friends)

General

“What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn.”

I told one of my best friends earlier today, I feel like we’ve lost an Elder. He agreed.

It doesn’t much matter what “we” I’m talking about there. We, writers. We, readers. We, lovers of fantasy. We, admirers of satire. We, thinking observers of this mad world we inhabit. We, humans, who feel and dream and want.

Sir TerrySir Terry Pratchett wasn’t just a superb novelist and an incisive satirist — He was a writer-philosopher who shaped an incredible part of my worldview. His passing was not unexpected, given his long struggle, but it’s still heartbreaking. And, as Neil Gaiman noted in the last thing he wrote about his friend, back last fall, it’s also enraging. It makes you want to scream against the essential unfairness of the universe.

But, of course, he had a lot to say about precisely that.

Pratchett’s books can speak to nearly everyone — everyone willing to open up a bit and listen, I think, and they tend to eviscerate precisely the sort of people who won’t — and, like all great works, I think you get something slightly different out of them depending on who you come to them as. Personally, I come to them as an educated woman (hence a lot of affinity for Susan: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”) and as a pagan (it should come as absolutely no surprise that the Witches of Lancre are my favorite sub-series). A pagan, moreover, who’s cobbled her faith together out of the scraps of a dozen others, her own inclinations, and the works of modern philosophers like Terry Pratchett.

The thing is, when you tell people that you’ve constructed part of your faith out of fantasy novels, they do tend to react like you’re a bit daft. I think this is foolish for two reasons. The first is that “fantasy novel” is often just a matter of where you’re standing, and (setting aside entirely the once-prominent faiths that we now dismiss as mythology, which we categorize as a subset of, yes, fantasy) a large chunk of the world now bases its beliefs on a book that contains, among other things, prophecies, angels, demi-gods, chimaeras, magic staves, necromancy, and a dragon. So. Y’know. Judge not.

The other is that it’s just silly to dismiss brilliant thought simply because of the cover it’s wrapped in or the shelf it sits on. The mirror that Pratchett held up to our nature might have been thieved from a funhouse, but that just gave him more license to show us ourselves writ large: our triumphs and our failures, our absurdities and our poignancy. I challenge anyone to read Hogfather without finding themselves deeply considering what it is to be human, what fundamental element of our imaginative capacity separates us from other beasts. I challenge anyone to read Witches Abroad without thinking about self-determination and the importance, and the dangers, of writing your own story. And by all means, try to get through Small Gods without questioning everything you’ve been taught about religion in general.

Pratchett was Shakespearean in many ways, but, as someone pointed out earlier today, one of them was you can express cosmic truths, you can fillet open the heart of humanity and lay bare its secrets, and still be hilariously funny at the same time.

Discworld1

He said so much and so well about belief, about imagination, about the magic we make in our own heads, about the power of words. Of course those words seeped into my own philosophy, my own ideas on faith and what makes life as a human worth living.

On Twitter this morning, Connor remarked that nearly everyone he knows has not just a favorite Pratchett book, but a favorite Pratchett character — more than a favorite, a near-avatar, someone who resonated with them in a special way, someone they saw themselves in, glories and flaws together. I told him that if I grow into one-tenth of someone who’s midway between Esme and Gytha, I’ll have done well.

But if I grow into a writer with one-tenth the incisiveness, one-tenth the felicity of expression, one-tenth the soul of Terry Pratchett — if I can somehow touch the tiniest fraction of the people he’s reached and will continue to reach through his brilliant words — well, that would be more than I feel fair to ask for in this lifetime.

Thank you, Sir. May you find the peace of your choosing on the other side of those black sands.

General

Why You Should Bid on #MS4MS

MSawarenessSo, my literary agency is doing something super-cool for its anniversary: #MS4MS, where agents are auctioning off manuscript critiques to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

My agent, Connor Goldsmith, is one of those offering his services in the auction, and y’all, you could not do better than bidding for a critique from him. Connor has been a wonderful editorial agent for me — he has a great eye not only for seeing what’s good about a story, but for seeing what it needs to make it great. He’s particularly great when it comes to pacing and stakes. He knows his genres well, knows what they demand, and knows what’s selling and what’s out of favor in them right now. Connor’s also the author of the Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel, a superb resource on structure and pacing. I demur from speculating how many items were at least partly inspired by the process we went through revising Aven (because I definitely recognize some of my own bone-headedness in there) but I’m definitely referring back to it as I work on The Seventh Star to make sure I’m hitting the right notes. Plus, he’s an all-around great guy. ;D

This is a disease I have a personal stake in. My grandmother has suffered from it for a good long while now. Growing up, it wasn’t really ever explained to the kiddos, but we could definitely see that something was negatively affecting her life. I think, more than anything, it affected her ability to participate — by the time I was a teenager, her mobility was becoming more limited. I really started to realize how big the impact was when she was no longer joining the family tailgating at college football games, but had to stay in the house up the hill. She’s wheelchair-bound now, and has been for a while, but for all of that, she’s made it into her 80s and is still fighting.

For my grandmother’s sake, I wish they’d made progress against this disease decades ago; for the sake of everyone living with it, I hope they’ll make progress as fast as possible. And you can help with that — and get a manuscript critique for yourself! Total win-win.

So.

MS Critiques for MS. Get to it!

Bits of Fun

Suck It Up, Cupcake: An Inspirational Playlist

I don’t know about y’all, but I find music incredibly helpful. I make playlists for projects I work on, characters I’m working with, moods I’m in or think I might be in at some point in the not too distant future — really, for anything. I probably have over a hundred built across various platforms.

The past few weeks, I’ve been in need of a particular sort of motivation. Writing’s a tough business sometimes. But if you want to be a writer, lying down and letting the challenges ride roughshod over you just isn’t an option. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. Keep writing. Keep trying.

So here you go. A playlist partially born of my own cussedness, partially inspired by “Fuck Your Pre-Rejection, PenMonkey” and other blog posts of a similar nature, designed to help you screw your courage to the sticking place, grit your teeth, dig in your heels, and get the job done. Whatever that job is for you right now — writing your first draft, getting through your edits, sloughing your way through the query trenches, or anything else — if you don’t do it, it ain’t getting done. So suck it up, cupcake. Are you a writer or not?

Also an inspirational gif party because why not?

Elsafuckitall

Barneychallenge

TinaFeyfreeingfailure

Enjolrastothebarricade IronManhatersgonnahatePercycomeatmebro Tianaalmostthere

MarthaIamgood

General

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!