You don’t know a person until you’ve written 90k words in their shoes

Rearranging my current work in progress in Scrivener (how you know things are getting serious: when there are enough words to require organisation) I came across my initial character sketches for my core characters.

It’s quite delightful to me how much some of them have changed in the writing. Oh, not changed, but matured. Developed. Settled. A little in the way a haircut settles down once you get it home from the hairdresser and treat it the way you do for a week or so. It loses that sharp-edged unreal glamour, but becomes something natural and comfortable. (Hopefully. There’s just no living with some haircuts.)

For instance, where the original reads Izmir is an unremarkable man, it would be more accurate that every other character who’s run into him in the course of the narrative has remarked on him, and the remarks have demonstrated a considerable reputation for acting out that shows an admirable dedication to the art. Bless his cotton socks (which he leaves on the bedroom floors of the disreputable).

In these sketches, one of my characters isn’t even the younger sister of another – they’re cousins – and I wonder how I ever hadn’t realised how tight and close those two needed to be. (She’s also beautiful – I devote a paragraph to talking about it in the sketch, and remark on how she disdains it. She disdains it so much it hasn’t even come up in any of her viewpoint chapters…)

And my policeman lived in a boarding house – obviously before I realised that if he was doofing a married woman they were going to need somewhere to prosecute said liaison. Actually, from this distance the extent to which he’s based on that appalling agent in Boardwalk Empire is making me side-eye myself a little bit. Really, self? I’m so glad we got over that one.

What delights me the most is that this is really only the halfway point in the development of their stories. They – and I – have so much further still to go.

27. August 2014 by Dee
Categories: .burnished, character, navel-gazing, nuts & bolts | Leave a comment

Happy Camper

Winner Camp NaNo July 2014 Ooh, would you look at that —>

To follow up on my last post, adding to the wordcount of my current project went rather well, actually. I didn’t actually wind up making the 30k I initially signed up for, but Camp is flexible, and enabled me to twiddle my wordcount up until a few days before the end (I finished on 28k). Which I was grateful for, because I was actually so happy with how the month went that it seemed ridiculous to not “win”.

Some big happy-making stuff for me from this month:

  • I wrote every day. Even if it was just opening up the file and moving some words around, or pulling faces and redoing my planning notes for the chapter, I was engaging with the project every day. (And face-pulling word-juggling days were actually really rare. Most days had genuine words added.) This is actually huge for me. I used to write every day while at university, but then again, I also stayed up until 2am every night. It’s good to know that constant productivity is not actually one of those university habits that is completely unsustainable in regular adult life.
  • Writing every day kept me constantly in touch with the project. Increasingly, as the month progressed, there was less and less “getting into the zone” time when addressing myself to the page. The ebb and flow of the project was always present in the recent strata of my mind, all the easier to bring back to the top on command. (Is it like mining, or like image layer editing? The answer lies somewhere between: yes.) Putting together the plot-point notes into easy chapter files a few ahead of where I was meant that I always had where-I’m-going in mind, and could flow more fluently. And this enabled…
  • I wrote all the time. In prep for the month, I made myself a schedule with two evening sessions, and a short lunchtime session (I even booked out a tiny meeting room and everything). But as the month went on, I also started grabbing time whenever I could. Waiting ten minutes while all my office work is out as queries to people? Flip open the laptop and write two paragraphs. Set up a meeting and now waiting for guests to arrive? Another two paragraphs. Having the project mentally on tap at all times made whittling away at it easy. (And bless Google Docs for making anywhere, anytime possible, even if it occasionally fell off the network and forgot to sync. Including on the second-last day of the month. The words were always there when I came back to that device next.)
  • The momentum exerts its own gravity. When I hit a problem and go away from the keyboard to sulk/brainsimmer, the habit draws me back and hammers solutions (make-do or otherwise) out of my brain. And even when ten minutes for two paragraphs didn’t manifest, my brain happily stacked sentences and ideas up in a corner, confident that they wouldn’t have atrophied by the time I finally did get to scribbling. (So very often, in the past, I have endlessly brain-crafted a scene, only to never get time to actually commit it, so eventually my brain goes, “well, fine, I’m not thinking about this any more if I can’t move forward” and I can hardly blame it.)

What now? Now I just want to keep going with this. Perhaps not aiming for another 30 or even 28k this month, because there were times in the month where the pressure was making me cranky, and I don’t like being cranky. But I’d like to continue all those happy points. The daily habit. Etc. So here are a few reminders to myself about how I helped myself do this:

  • I have a complete plotted plan. Admittedly it’s a little thin in places (see the moment last week where I went, “…and?!” at my past self) but it gives me structure.
  • This enables me to lay out my work for the next couple of days. I set up individual Docs (“TO-DO: Zagiri chapter 13″) and load them up with the plotpoints for this chapter, and the surrounding chapters (for reference), as well as throwing in any important influencing chapters (e.g. the part where the alchemist and his client have to go back and shake down the jinni for further details, I included the references to the first time they visited). This way I can’t put myself off when writing with “oh, I’ll have to look up xyz before I can write this bit la la la” because a) I never have to anyway, I always eventually check it and realise I never specified that so I can make up whatever; and b) this is first draft, just shut up, write what this scene needs and line up the details later.
  • When I finish one chapter, I immediately go into the next to-do chapter, look at all that reference material, and draft up a dotpoint structure of the chapter. (e.g. A musing history of the revolution; a meeting of revolutionaries who really aren’t very inspiring; Z making a Big Suggestion.) This will almost always change at least once, but it’s good to have a straw man to set on fire and dance around.
  • Any time I hit a Thing I Need To Check, I just throw it in [brackets] and check it later. (“Oh really,” [whatever her mother's name is] scolded.) Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of Progress, yo. Especially not piddly little details like names, hair colour, geography, significant triggering memories and injuries.
  • I did throw words in throughout the day, which meant that often when I got to my scheduled evening schedules, I’d made half or more of my daily requirement, allowing me to also have some downtime in the evening. Which was just such a bonus, and helped make me not-so-cranky. (That said, there were also evenings where, after dinner, I had to head back to the saltmine while Mr Dee got to watch television, and that’s just the way it is. Helped that he was watching Mad Men, which I have given up on because real life is depressingly congratulatory enough to white men already.)
  • No, seriously, yay Google Docs. I still love Scrivener, and it is the best collecting and distilling tool, but writing raw into the cloud is enabling me and I’m a fan.

01. August 2014 by Dee
Categories: .burnished, nuts & bolts | 1 comment

I’m off to camp! (and other NaNo experiences)

Camp NaNoWriMo, that is.

I first tried NaNoWriMo in 2002, which must have been nearly the first year it ran (or ran big, at least). Everyone in the blogosphere was doing it, and my honours thesis was due to be handed in 1st November, so I figured hells yes. Of course, then I needed a month’s extension, and the whole idea of writing a novel at the same time as finalising my thesis just did not work. (What a surprise.) What with one thing and another – mostly honesty with myself about my likelihood of completing, but also the “new project” thing – I never tried it again.

This year I am looking for any and all ways of kicking, coaxing and tricking myself into finishing my current project. As one of them, I thought hey, why not tempt my inner short-attention-spanned-creative-toddler with telling it it can write that shiny new project in November, as long as the current project is finished in first draft by then?

I checked the viability of this idea by visiting the NaNoWriMo website and having a look around, which was when I discovered that they also now did this thing called Camp NaNoWriMo. Any word count you like, any project (including one already underway), running in April and – oh look at that – July.

Kick, coax or trick, remember. So here I am, just about to start trying to add 30k words to my current project in the month of July.

And it’s tricking me into better practices already. I’ve got an actual written-down daily schedule with two variants incorporating two sessions a day. I’ve got dates with myself for lunchtime mini-sessions every day (even if I only hit half of them, it’ll be something). And I’ve got my next three to-do chapters laid out in mini documents with their storypoints and reference material already included, so there’s no excuse. (Oh yes, I know myself and my tricks of old.)

So here we go…

30. June 2014 by Dee
Categories: nuts & bolts, status | Leave a comment

Nice intentions finish last (shut up and geek me)

I wanted to make my first post back after our five weeks in South America a link to our travel photographs and various whimsical remembrances. Since I’m still sorting, naming and uploading our 850 photographs, despite it being another five weeks since we got back, this post represents my succumbing to the inevitable suck on that one. Hopefully coming soon, though!

This post also represents a “Hey, I did a nerdy thing!” announcement. The Queen’s Birthday weekend just gone was my second Continuum ever, and my first time signing up to be on panels. I used my honours degree and professional experience for awesome (sort of) talking “Good Governments” in spec-fic, and I traded off fourteen years (fourteen years! I looked up when the first X-movie came out to try and date my fannish involvement and nearly swore out loud) of mashing metaphorical action figures together on the “Writing Fanfic” panel. Which, incidentally, meant I was on a panel with both guests of honour – not actually a balm for my first-timer nerves! But apparently I managed to fake urbane experience, so that’s another win for brazen front.

The whole weekend was, once again, a fantastic experience and an invigorating slap in the face of ideas, enthusiasm, and things to be aware of; I always come out energised and full of thinky-thoughts. Ambelin Kwaymullina‘s guest of honour speech was a pivotal element in this, raising for me some deep questions about how we even think about exploration and investigation. Some stories are just not ours to tell. (And is this one more note in a complex chord of “learning to take no for an answer”?)

I even, around all this chicanery, got 2500 words written. Weekends like that should happen more often!

Now, back to sorting through 400 photographs of glaciers and waterfalls…

11. June 2014 by Dee
Categories: faffing around, nerdery, read with your brain | Leave a comment

Curb your enthusiasm

I had a meeting the other day about work website content. We were joking that everyone in the (three person) meeting except for the actual web content coordinator had a blog. The other lady turned to me and asked, “What’s your blog about?”

Step one of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I said, “Oh, fantasy fiction, the stuff I read.” Because I don’t like to engage with complete strangers (effectively) about writing because it inevitably leads to questions about my creative work in progress (which is not ready to be shared by dint of being, y’know, in progress, especially with someone whose genuine interest in the details of the genre I have no idea about).

She perked up, and said, “Oh, like Game of Thrones? You’ve read those?”

Step two of fantasy nerd withdrawal: I stick to generic comments. Yes, I’ve read them. I find the television show a more refined and finessed version of the story. Did she enjoy the show?

It was at this point that I started analysing my own behaviour, and saw how I was consciously not engaging fully with the topic (i.e. to the extent that I would with another fantasy nerd) until she provided further indication that she was, in fact, another fantasy nerd, and not just someone who enjoys Game of Thrones on TV.

Let me be clear: it’s not that I didn’t consider her a Real Fan. It’s not that I doubted her ability to hold an interesting conversation on the themes and events and characters of George Martin’s work. It’s that I really, truly, desperately didn’t want to have that moment where I jumped in with both feet talking intricately about fantasy fiction tropes and details and my pet peeves, and see her eyes glaze over with the transparent desire that she’d never brought this up. I’ve had that moment before. I’ve felt like I’ve messed up. Like I’m being mentally catalogued as an overenthusiastic nerd who’s not very interesting to talk with – which is probably only the truth, but it still stings to be dismissed.

And I wondered how much of this is mixed up in the Real Fan business. (There’s also a lot of really poisonous crap mixed up in the Real Fan business. A lot of elitism and selfishness. I have no time for that side of things.) To what extent are real-fan challenges bound up in petulance that this was my space for safe conversations, for knowing I can be enthusiastic, for not worrying about being dismissed, but you have come in and I am uneasy about whether you will dismiss me, so I’m lashing out first.

There’s never any excuse for lashing out. There’s never a reason to be nasty and unpleasant. But having watched myself dancing around my passion for fear of being judged for it, I can sympathise a little with the relief of having a safe space to be enthusiastic.

12. February 2014 by Dee
Categories: navel-gazing | 2 comments

The conflict of language

There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.

There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.

1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.

English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)

But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.

That’s what language means.

2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.

A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.

That’s what language means.

And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.

28. January 2014 by Dee
Categories: dissection kit, genre literati, nuts & bolts | 2 comments

Fave reads of 2013

(The fact that I can reasonably make this post at all is 100% down to GoodReads. Just saying.) From what I read in 2013 – some of which may have been published earlier! I am slow and behind! – some highly-recommended favourites in no particular order:

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. One of these days I’ll stop raving about this series, but today is not that day. Three Parts Dead is full of fantasy delights (necromantic rituals, gargoyles, hive-minded security forces, legalistic duels of power and will) delivered with modern savvy and urban panache. It is vivid and different, and intelligent while still being delightful and delighted. It’s the sort of canny fun I wish there was more of.

White Cat by Holly Black. In a world where magic is performed by touch and everyone wears gloves, our narrator’s struggling with his family history of con-artistry, crime lords and violence. Yeah, sure, it’s YA urban fantasy, but it is every inch serrated razorblades and knotted twists and I loved it to vicious black-hearted bits.

Shadow in Summer & A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham. It’s sort of cheating to have two books in here, but I read them back to back in an omnibus printing, so they’re quite melded in my mind. Betrayal was absolutely magnificent, just an ineluctable emotional wrench of a novel, a fantastic feat of character conflict and self-sabotage, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the power without the amazing worldbuilding triumph of Shadow. And it’s a world I find myself thinking about again and again, constantly turning over the amazing poetry-driven magic system (such a meditation upon the term “capture”) and the fantastic Cold-War-detente analogy it drives.

Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky. The most amazing world-fantasy-noir feat I’ve ever encountered, with a sympathetic but believably hard narrator getting dragged snarling through his past (including a truly magnificent fantasy analogy for the First World War). The regret was delicious, and the conclusions unsettling and splendid.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I avoided this for a long time because my “meh” list includes teenage fantasy and dragons, but I’m so glad I finally gave it a try (and persevered past the prologue) because it was a really good book, with a worthy heroine and some great ruminations on entrenched prejudice. And genuinely interesting talking dragons. There. I said it.

And a significantly honourable mention for Maggie Stiefvater, who scored highly (and viscerally) on my reading list this year with both The Raven Boys and The Scorpio Races.

10. January 2014 by Dee
Categories: genre literati, read with your brain | Leave a comment

Big Ideas and growing up

Elizabeth asks the best questions.

I managed a twitter response, though sometimes I feel so constrained by the 140 character limit that I can practically feel the “I will burst free!” song and dance number welling up in my throat. But honestly, this deserves more verbiage and certainly more thought.

The longer answer is more along the lines of: when I say “YA is not my thing” I’m sort of being lazy. What I really mean to encapsulate with that pithy dismissal is: there are many things that I regularly see cropping up in books that are identified as YA that dissatisfy me as storytelling habits or mechanisms. Because I do keep seeing them over and over, in books that are often lauded as excellent examples of the genre, I tend to assume that they are “the way it’s done” for YA. But there are YA-identified books that I love! (More on this later.) So clearly, those things that often dissatisfy me aren’t compulsory. (Possibly, one of the reasons I’m reading quite a bit of YA at the moment is to build up my sample size and help me whittle down the specifics of the things that dissatisfy me, so I can more accurately identify and avoid them.)

But also, as I said in my twitter response, a big element of why I keep trying YA despite dissatisfaction is ideas. There seem to be a whole lot of outrageous, amazing, wild-eyed, fascinating ideas in YA novels, something that I feel is not quite so common in spec fic for growed-ups. I’m basing this on reflections on my browsing in stores – I pick up a book, I read the blurb, sometimes the first page or two, and either a lightbulb of interest goes off (ding! and it goes on the to-read list) or it goes back on the shelf. YA books get a lot of dings because there’s often a Big Idea in either character or setting that’s sitting right there in the blurb. Adult fantasy blurbs are often a bit of a same-old trudge. Here are two (often male) characters who will be set at odds. Here’s an old (male) warrior, struggling with Kids Today. Here’s a King, and here are his Troubles. Here’s a Thief. Here’s an Epic Fate and Forces of Darkness.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of fun with characters at odds in epic fates, and I love old warriors struggling with what the years have wrought. I enjoy the depths and complexities of the worlds – but to be honest, it can be tricky to tell from the blurb and the first few pages whether this is going to be a novel with Ideas, or just a same-old Tolkien-euro-clone with concepts lifted straight from Tough Guide to Fantasyland (not naming any names). Often the Ideas are buried beneath Life, and it can be rewarding to see them unearthed through the narrative. But y’know what? Sometimes it’s fun when the Ideas are life, and are the narrative. There’s a lot of excitement to “OH MY GOSH, CONCEPT!” and I’m having trouble thinking of an adult novel that made me do that – Three Parts Dead, of course, but others? Um. Hmm.

(I admit, I’m hoping to hear about some oh-my-gosh-concept reads…)

23. December 2013 by Dee
Categories: genre literati, read with your brain | Leave a comment

The Peter Pan of fiction

Unlike fantasy fiction, which is a fish.

18. December 2013 by Dee
Categories: genre literati | Leave a comment

Systematically

If there’s one thing my writing group (“The Firm”) would tell you… well, actually, it would probably be that I have a terrible predilection for over-paragraphing and also for long, convoluted, phrase-ful sentences, much like this one, that cram in every idea I have and create a lot of confusion as to the precise point.

Another thing they’d tell you is that I really like world systems. Ruling arrangements and heirarchies are some of my favourites, of course, because of my political-fantasy inclinations. And titles; I love a good extrapolated and nested construction of titles. I’m particularly fond of non-standard-fantasy arrangements and titles. And religious titles are such a treasure trove of amazing options that I get genuinely disappointed every time someone’s just a “High Priest”. They couldn’t be an arch-something? And I admit, I’m the sort of person who finds “sword” boring when it could be sabre, longsword, khopesh, falchion, gladius, flamberge, rapier…

Much of this comes from a desire for the richness of detail that comes with specifity over generic. A rocking story is a rocking story, whatever it’s wearing, but I must admit I enjoy things so much more when the story-scenery is full of interesting things.

My above-all personal bugbear is naming systems. Nothing irritates me more than reading a fantasy where three characters supposedly from exactly the same cultural and socio-economic background are called K’lista, Enid and Dmitri. (Most often this manifests as a hero or heroine whose name shares no construction with anyone else of his/her country.) By all means, mix French and Japanese naming patterns, styles and sounds! Just have a reason for who gets what. (It doesn’t have to be explained. In fact, please don’t explain it. But when I go looking for it, it should be obvious that – e.g. – all girls below a certain class have French names. Bonus points if there are hints in the history/society of the world as to why this is the case.)

There are other, ostensibly “more important” systems in any speculative fiction, of course – the special physics of fantastical systems, for instance, or if you’re KJ Parker, economic forces. But I love seeing all the little details that make a human world be systematic. It thrills me to link them up into complex webs, whether reading or writing. (I know. I’m odd.)

12. December 2013 by Dee
Categories: dissection kit, nuts & bolts | Leave a comment

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