Planning from experience

Recently, on one of the fantasy fiction/writing discussion boards I participate in, there was a discussion of how much we all plan before we sit down to write. It’s a misleading question, really, because it draws an artificial boundary around what constitutes writing (isn’t all that planning also part of “writing”?), and perpetuates that distinction between planners and pantsers (whereas I suspect both sides do all the same thinking, it’s just when the thinking is done – before or during – that varies).

In any case, I found myself – as always – more interested in the why and how than the what. Specifically, I realised that what and how I plan now has been heavily influenced by the sorts of things I did in revising two previous novels. Which makes sense: that sort of structural work is something I’ve identified as necessary, and it’s super frustrating to have to do the heavy conceptual earthwork at a point where I’ve already spent weeks and thousands of words in directions that are now being bulldozed. Much more efficient to get that all nailed down first.

The results are undeniable. I had a rough plan for Notorious Sorcerer, and that still led to spending weeks meandering through false starts on some chapters, only to get to the end (eventually, after a year or so) and have to trash whole sections because I needed a different focus. I had a very strict, down-to-scene-level plan for my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, and I banged out the first draft in November. I’ve recently had a first glance at it, and while it needs a lot of polish, I’m not sure it needs much in the way of big-picture lift-and-shift.

Is this because of my planning? Maybe. Is my improved planning because I now have the experience of two other novels behind me? Undeniably. Continue reading Planning from experience

Depth and balance in editing

Yesterday, I went to a workshop (“Page-turning Power”) with Margie Lawson, through Writers Victoria. Margie was great fun, chatty and engaging with a whole bunch of fantastic concepts and ways of thinking about the work of writing. As she noted, her advice was an enormous platter of cookies; we could take the ones we liked and leave the ones that weren’t working for our tastes or writing intentions. Some cookies I found particularly to my taste were her endless joy in rhetorical devices and sentence rhythm, and her editing system for analysing scene content and creating balance.

Continue reading Depth and balance in editing

Ave Caesar! (We who are about to query salute you)

As the revised novel awaits the verdict of my unspoiled second readers, I’ve been prepping for querying agents to prevent myself a) chewing my own fingernails off, and b) breathing down the readers’ necks. It’s an interesting business, querying, because it’s so subjective: at the end of the day, the only question is whether a specific individual finds this email interesting enough right now to request more. There are so many elements that are completely out of the author’s control, from whether the agent is having a good morning or a bad, to whether the agent has a hitherto unrevealed great love or pet hate for a key concept of the book. Possibly because it’s so subjective, and authors are so nervous about it, we all strive wildly to find as many objective things we can nail down as possible.

Sometimes, I feel, this maybe gets out of hand.

Continue reading Ave Caesar! (We who are about to query salute you)

Limbering up the critical thinking

The splendid Susan Dennard has been hosting a critique partner match-up, which I’ve been calling “writer partner speed dating” when I describe it to my husband (who assures me he’s fully supportive of me dating on the internet…). While I love and would be lost in the wilderness without the Firm (my critique group) I have also been keen to find someone with whom I can have a less structured and more organic and sprawling partnership of creativity with. (And it also helps to have a variety of resources; for instance, in my next project I have a big twist at the end of act 1, and I’ve been brainstorming how to make that work technically and logistically with my husband, so he is now spoiled a million for that twist. I need other readers to let me know how my delivery works.) So I’ve leapt on in to the fray. (And if this sounds good, you should too.)

It’s been a great experience. I’ve touched base with half a dozen other writers who write various kinds of fantasy at various stages in their writing journey, and looked at their opening chapters. Novel opens are possibly one of the most intensive parts of writing – there’s so much you have to think about and get moving, and you can’t rely on the momentum you’ve created because you’re only just starting! So it’s an excellent piece of writing to really dig into. Even when I’m reading a whole story for someone, I’ll tend to leave most comments in the first 10%.

What I hadn’t expected was how much I was going to get from engaging critically with the openings of half a dozen novels in development. Oh, hey, it’s absolutely invigorating and inspiring to get comments and responses back from my prospective critique-partners as well, but I’m also getting a heap of push just from reading. Well, not just from reading: from reading, thinking why isn’t this working for me? and then what’s a fix for that? and then, finally, is this something I should be doing / doing better in my own work?

The answer is almost always: YES YES YES.

Because why wouldn’t you? Stronger sense of who the main character is and what he really, really wants? Yes, sign me up! Rich but tight delivery of world immersion through stripping back to a few strong, evocative details? Sounds ace! Piling more than one layer of awesome into every scene if it can be arranged? I can think of no reason not to! Thinking hard about what I really need to include right now? Can only make things better!

In short: don’t underestimate how much value you get for your writing from thinking critically about other people’s writing. (And maybe hop over to Sooz’s forums and find yourself a CP!)

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.


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.)

Mindful self-indulgence

Nothing puts the writing game in perspective like reading the GoodReads progress updates for a book I love. A book I think is plotted with ruthless, ineluctable pacing (“Gee, this is slow and boring”) or a book I think is instantly arresting and seats you immediately in the world (“I have no idea what is happening”) or a book I think has a magnificent cast of fantastically enthralling characters (“I don’t like anyone in this book and I don’t care”).

No matter what you do, someone’s always going to dislike it. However universal your tropes, they’re not going to work for someone. However much you sweat over the phrasing of a sentence, it’s going to confuse someone. And whatever you call your character, someone’s going to think it’s stupid, or it reminds them of an ex they hate.

Vladimir Nabokov said: “I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.”

All you can really do is write the most amazing book for you, and hope that there are enough other people out there who like the things you do to make it worthwhile. Because if you try to write something that will appeal to “everyone”, you’re going to fail anyway.

I like to remind myself of that when my fits of self-indulgent delight tip over into, “Oh god, no one else is ever going to like this.”

Maybe they will.

The deft touch of worldbuilding

Here's a thing about writing fantasy (or speculative fiction of any kind, really): it relies upon a contract between you and the reader that you will build a world different from the one they know, and if they follow you there, you will tell them a really interesting story.

The differences can be anywhere from slight and subtle to comprehensive and entire, and the reader doesn't really know until you tell her. In a way, therefore, the opening chapters of speculative fiction don't just have to do all the stuff that a 'normal' book does – establish characters and the hook of the story – but also rough out the parameters of the universe, give some idea of the general changes made. (After all, if you're muddling along happily in a world where apparently the only difference is that the Church of England never happened, and then all of a sudden in chapter 45 – wham – goblins, you're going to be ticked off, because that changes the assumptions you've been making for all the preceding pages. Or at least, I would be, if that were sprung on me.)

There are a couple of interesting repercussions of this. 1) Spec fic readers let you get away with stuff )

2) Spec fic readers DON'T let you get away with stuff )

You have to be careful. The contract cuts both ways, and before you know it you end up with giant bunnies. ;)

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It's a kind of magic

A few things bleeding together in my head have congealed into this post, and if that analogy hasn't completely squicked you away from reading any further, I will now tell you what they are:

  1. an old friend accurately skewered Brandon Sanderson for using his novel as an explanation of a gaming system of magic;
  2. NK Jemisin stamped her foot on the idea that magic has to make sense; and both of these bumped up against;
  3. Holly Lisle's advice, long held dear to my heart, on world-building your special physics.

I'm going to start rambling on the topic of magic, systemic or otherwise, and see if I can pull together a coherent post here – stay tuned! )

This would be a good place to conclude with my “rules” for developing magic in your story. But I'm a big believer in The Rule – you know the one, the one that says “There are no rules”. If you can make it work, then run with it. (Run. Run like you stole something.)

But you have to make it work.

To assist with that, I would suggest:

  • you have to understand what sort of position magic occupies in your universe and your story, because otherwise what's it doing there? Also you will contradict yourself and that will be bad;
  • if you have a magic user as a character, there had better be good reasons why they don't just fix everything with magic, otherwise there goes your believable tension; and
  • think outside the box. Make something new, unless you can say something new about something old, or… y'know what? THERE ARE NO RULES.

Though I would also like to add that one thing that is often hilariously overlooked in “magic systems” is refinement, advancement and all those other by-products of the application of scientific codification to anything. Basically: if humanity's been doing magic this way for a thousand years, why aren't they better at it than they used to be?

In other news, I will be posting some work-in-progress soon, for thoughts and comments and general entertainment, of the House of Truth and Lies variety, so if you're not encircled on my Dreamwidth and you'd like to see the WIP, let's sort something out.

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A character named Sue

Seanan McGuire has made an excellent post about the misuse of the term Mary Sue. It really is an excellent post, thoughtful and insightful and calling out some issues that people really need to pay more attention to because they're those issues that just slide by insidiously, sucking all the while. Heaps of things about unconscious use of derogatory terms for female characters we just don't like, whereas we'd probably use more analytical/critical language to describe male characters we don't like. (The difference, really, between saying, “she's a bitch” and “he's unpleasant and condescending and I don't like him because of it”. We might mean the same thing, but the different language choice unconsciously reinforces certain gender dichotomies.)

So that stuff? That stuff I totally agree with and could not endorse more. But there's other stuff in there that I didn't agree with, so I'm going to ruminate a little on why no, actually, I believe Mary Sue is a bad thing )

Just as a PS: of course readers are more critical of female characters. Most media with a strong female protag is probably aimed at a female readership (women read more than men anyway), and women have always been – and possibly always will be – more critical of other women. I'm not saying it's not a problem and something women should be aware of and work to remedy, I'm just saying that it's there and we haven't fixed it yet.

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