Saturday, November 27, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 27: Behind!

Wordcount: 39167

I'm not only behind on this blog, I'm also behind on my novel! Not in too terrible a way, only 6,000 words or so. But look! Word Clouds!

Wordle: Pillars on the Deep

It's written in the first person, so the main character, Elsie, is not very prominent. Carwyn is the sidekick/love interest. Here's a version without him:

Wordle: Pillars II

I like that Elsie is about the same size as her two main enemies, Mr. Caspar and the Danwood family. I notice that the other major words are rather epistemic in nature. Hmm.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 3: doubts

Wordcount: 5493

Today's words were a little slower and harder to come by. I worry that I'm losing the thread of the this character's voice. As the novel is written in the first person, it's tricky to achieve all the needed exposition. I need to work out to whom this story is being told.

The love interest/spy has been introduced. Exciting!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 2

Wordcount: 3,452

Today was a very busy day! But I still met my wordcount obligation. I won't spend too much energy on this blog entry. I just have a few small bits of news to share.

One is that I spent the afternoon and early evening schmoozing with big-shot mathematicians and physicists. I'm not very good at this schmoozing--it's my husband's field, and I usually glaze over and lose track of the conversation pretty quickly unless some special effort is made to include me. On this particular occasion, I met the partner of a particular mathematician, who is an actual big-shot author, Marina Warner. We only spoke briefly before my husband told me she was Somebody and looked her up on Wikipedia using his phone. Anyway, she had heard I was working on writing and expressed a willingness to talk to me, but the shape of the evening didn't, in the end, permit it. This encounter caused me to reflect on how unwilling I am to discuss my writing, and how, despite the bravado I display on this blog, I actually feel very insecure about it. I found myself rehearsing in my head what I would say to her if she asked me a question.

Second, tonight we are staying in a strange huge guest-house with no heat. It is the house that my husband's workplace keeps for out-of-town visitors. We are sleeping in a vast bedroom, where I sat at the desk to write. Opening a cupboard in the desk, I found a copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, a charming book that I had completely forgotten about. It's a sweet little story about a rabbit who wants to be one of the five special rabbits that are chosen to be Easter Bunnies. But she gets sidetracked and has twenty-one babies instead. However, through her wise and kind and clever handling of her many children, she proves herself worthy to be an Easter Bunny after all. Grandfather Rabbit gives her a special mission, to bring a fancy hollow diorama egg to a sick child on top of a mountain. She tries her hardest, but fails. But then Grandfather Rabbit appears to give her a pair of magic shoes, in recognition of her special bravery, and she is able to complete the mission. Hugely adorable illustrations of little rabbits wearing clothes. No point here, really, just that I was tickled to find it. The writing style is very carefree and unpretentious. My more jaded grown-up self thinks perhaps Grandfather Rabbit is meant to symbolize God, or something, but I actually don't believe this was the author's intent.

Lastly! I met some nice people at a dinner party the other night, including a fellow who curates this odd little blog: Take a look, maybe you'll learn something

Monday, November 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 1

Wordcount: 2059

Well, it's the end of another November 1st, and so far, things are going swimmingly. I wrote a nice little chunk of words today, and I still feel good about where story is going.

In the absence of reader comments (le sigh!) I went for romance option number 4. I'm glad I brainstormed a few different scenarios instead of just going with the first thing that came into my head. That's a habit I'm trying to get into.

I did indeed come up with a workable outline. It's not deeply developed in terms of scene-by-scene planning, but it carries the story from beginning to end and covers the major points of conflict. I've also got a pretty good volume of supporting notes about the setting and backstory and so on, but I need to develop this further--particularly matters of setting. The magical aspect of the story is especially weak right now. I think the characters and the overall structure of the plot are the strong points.

This story was really easy to plot; I was amazed. I'm not sure if it's because I've gotten better at plotting, or if I've gotten better at coming up with plot-friendly concepts, or if I just got lucky with this particular idea.

I have been studying plot. In addition to James Scott Bell's book, which I reviewed earlier, I went through a book called Blockbuster Plots: Pure & Simple, by Martha Alderson. This is a slightly schlocky book, very focused on a particular method for charting scene-by-scene action and overall plot arc. The book is partly an advertisement for plotting templates that you can also purchase. I think the ideas on scenes would be more applicable to a first edit than in planning a first draft; indeed, the first step of her method is "make a list of all your scenes." Hmm. But one concept of hers that did stick with me is the idea of scenes that take place "above the line" and "below the line" (named for where you would draw these scenes on the ascending line of the overall plot). "Above the line" scenes are those where the antagonist is in power, and focus is on conflict. "Below the line" scenes are those where the protagonist is in power, resting, or reflecting. There may (and should) still be conflict in below-the-line scenes, but it's more about internal issues. I liked this idea, and I'm trying to consciously move above and below the line as I go along. This makes a nice rhythm, and ensures that the quiet, personal parts of the plot don't get left out (a problem I've struggled with before, especially in last year's NaNo).

But I think the overall concept for this story does lend itself to easy plotting. The original idea came from a short story I wrote about a lonely outlaw airship pilot taking in a little girl who was about to be sold into slavery. There are plenty of inherently dramatic aspects here: if he's an outlaw, then who are his enemies? Why is he a lonely outlaw? Where are the little girl's parents? Why is she being shipped to an uncertain fate in the hands of a smuggler? Also, airships! Slavery! Gasp! Wow! There is definitely drama in this world.

Friday, October 29, 2010


I'm working on the plot of my NaNoWriMo novel. Yes, unlike last year, I hope to have a working outline in place when I get started. I'm having a great time working on it; I have a very good feeling about this story. (Incidentally, did you notice that semicolon? I'm trying--with limited success--to be more conscious of my overuse of the em-dash in my prose. Please comment if you think I'm getting sloppy.) It's a very exciting story about a girl who goes up against a vast and ruthless commercial power in her quest to discover the key to her past. There are airships, and a little magic, and a magical airship. The bad guys are monopoly-hoarding slavery-condoning environment-destroying capitalist monsters. The good guys are brilliant humanist inventors. It's gonna be so rad.

So one of the things I need to figure out about the plot is the romantic aspect, and I thought I'd turn to you, dear readers, for your thoughts. The basic situation is that she is thrown together at the beginning of her quest with a seemingly helpful fellow who is, in reality, a spy for the enemy. But he repents, of course, and becomes a valuable companion and eventual love interest. The trick will be to have the reader and the protagonist convinced that he is, in fact, a good guy, despite his earlier betrayal, and to not end with the feeling that the protagonist (her name is Elsie) is compromising her integrity by forgiving him.

So here are some possible brief synopses of how the romantic plot could unfold. Do you like one better than another? Is one better than the rest when it comes to dramatic action? How about retaining the integrity of the characters? What do the different scenarios make you think about the characters?

1. He comes to like her bit by bit. Something happens where the chips are down, and on the verge of handing her over to the enemy, he changes his mind and saves her bacon instead. Then he confesses everything. She is hurt and angry, but over the course of their journey he has chances to prove himself, and it turns out that he had a desperate reason for kowtowing to the enemy. Eventually she comes to love and trust him in return.

2. She comes to like him, but then discovers his betrayal. Furious, she turns on him, and leaves him to fend for himself, despite his assuring her that he has a desperate reason for kowtowing to the enemy. Later he reappears in a dire moment and saves her bacon, in clear defiance of the enemy, thus proving himself, and she forgives him.

3. She comes to like him, but then discovers his betrayal. She confronts him, but they can't part ways due to circumstances. He explains that he had a desperate reason for kowtowing to the enemy. He gets more chances to prove himself, and eventually she relents.

4. She comes to like him, but then discovers his betrayal. She keeps the knowledge to herself, hoping to keep getting help out of him until the risk becomes too great. She is not really surprised that he wasn't trustworthy after all. But then he confesses it to her on his own, and she doesn't know what to do with all her mixed emotions. After finding out more about the desperate situation that forces him to kowtow to the enemy, perhaps through meeting his family or something, she forgives him and allows herself to feel the affection.

I think I'm leaning toward the last one, but I'm not sure it will fit in a 50,000 word novel--which is okay, really, since ideally the full novel would be about twice that long.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Surroundings

It's late October, and you know what that means: the next installment of NaNoWriMo is right around the corner! I plan to participate again this year, and I'm torn between two options. I could finally actually write through to the end of The Other Novel, which may in fact be the only way to find out what it's really about. Or I can do what I did last year, and dive into a barely-conceptualized new project; I have an idea about a girl with a mysterious heritage who flies airships. Both are inviting.

It's been a wild few months. Darling Man and I finished out the summer in Berkeley, then came back east and set about the hairy task of finding a place to live in New York. After last year's bleak stint on Long Island, we were determined to move back into the center of the action. DM still has to commute, though, so we focused our search on the charming hamlet of Brooklyn. One illegal sublet, countless realty scams, and two tornadoes later, we have a perfectly nice place to live in oh-so-trendy Park Slope. Call me a yuppie if you want, but it's magnificent to once again live within walking distance of a grocery store, a park, and a library. We tried very hard to rent an apartment with laundry in the building. We didn't quite get that, but we came close: the ground floor of our building is a coin-op laundromat!

Of course another wonderful thing about moving to Brooklyn is that I'm now squarely in the middle of the writing and publishing universe. I've joined an excellent meetup group for Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers, which is already paying off in increased motivation. I'm also looking forward to going through NaNoWriMo with the New York crowd. In contrast to the Long Island region's lackluster attendance, NYC has already had a well-attended meetup, and is planning another one for October 25th. Stoked!!

Writing-wise, I do confess that there's been a bit of a lull on the big projects, but I haven't been entirely unproductive. I wrote a nice little story for the meetup group, which I'll soon be revising based on their comments. I've also started reevaluating The Nymean Corps, and you know what? It's really not that bad. What it primarily suffers from is the obvious problem, given how I wrote it: since I didn't know how the story would end, the plot events aren't lined up in any logical way. Some of the scenes are completely redundant, while others just need to be shuffled into the correct order and have new connecting material built around them. That won't be quick, but it is doable. I've cleaned up the first couple of chapters and submitted them to the writing group for critique at our next meetup. I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Wordcount: 10,581

So, I'm writing. I'm trying to hold myself to 1600 words per day like I did during NaNoWriMo. Writing with a completed outline is interestingly different from writing without one. I still have moments where I don't know what to write, or I'm not sure whether the decisions I make are the right ones, but at least I know that if I accomplish the basic points, I can reach the end of the story.

I'm starting to understand what writers mean about first drafts being crappy (this is every writer's favorite piece of advice to new writers). There are some parts where I know that what I'm writing is crappy, but I know that I have to write it anyway or I'll never develop the part of the overall vision that will tell me how to make it un-crappy. I have to make myself let go and promise to notice the crappiness when I go back for revisions.

I'm also pleasantly surprised to find there are still mysteries in the story, even though I've theoretically worked it all out. Not big mysteries, thank goodness--not the kind that stop me in my tracks. Just the kind that happen when some little detail or ancillary character whispers to me, I could be important later. This is a good feeling. I feel like if I'm careful to make the world rich enough, the answers I need when I hit big questions later on will already be waiting for me.

The thing I still feel pretty nervous about is the setting. A really cool setting can take a so-so story and make it completely enchanting. My setting doesn't feel really cool to me yet--it feels like a basic rehash of the standard generic medieval-flavored setting. A D&D campaign could happen here without even needing a special rulebook. I do have some ideas for how to make the setting cooler...but I'm also having trouble finding ways to reveal the coolness, which means there's a risk that the characters and story aren't actually being shaped by the setting the way they should be. So, gotta work on that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Bath Scene in Fantasy Novels

(There are SPOILERS below for Magic's Price, The Blue Sword, Sabriel and Luck in the Shadows)

As I stand on the verge of writing one myself, I'm giving some thought to the ubiquitous fantasy novel bath scene. The bathing scene is a perfectly standard part of novels that tell the story of a character settling into a new life. The bath seems to signal a moment of transition from an old life into a new one.

As a weak example, take the novels of Mercedes Lackey. There's probably at least one bath scene in every single one--some are transitional, others merely comforting. Talia is introduced to the baths on her first day at Haven, with their convenient copper boiler full of pre-heated water. Vanyel also gets a number of baths, most notably his introduction to the Tayledras hot springs when Savil first transports him to their domain, which signifies the beginning of his healing process. Apart from their function in the plot, the bath scenes illustrate the level of technology--and even luxury--present in the setting. They also make a convenient backdrop for scenes of personal reflection, and they evoke the comforts of home. They also, just occasionally, give the characters a chance to check each other out in the nude.

Another weak example is the bath scene at Crickhollow in The Fellowship of the Ring. Crickhollow is the hobbits' last stop before leaving the shire, and the bath is a last moment of carefree intimacy before they leave the lands they know for good.

But there is a widespread version of the bath scene that has three main elements in common. One, as in the above examples, the bath falls at a point of transition between an old and a new life for the bather. Two, there are servants who want to help the bather, but the bather rejects, or tries to reject, their attentions. Three, the bather's old clothes are whisked away, to be replaced with unexpectedly fine but distressingly unfamiliar new clothes.

For an example of this type, we can turn to Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, in which Harry gets not one, but two baths. First, after being kidnapped by the king, she clashes with the well-meaning male bath attendants in Corlaths' traveling camp. Her dressing gown is taken away, and Damarian clothing is provided. She feels vulnerable in the new clothes because they are so light and simple compared to her culture's Victorian-style garb. Later, when she has won the Laprun trials, she is bathed yet again at Corlath's palace. This time she is offered only female attendants, but still feels childish when they brush out her hair. She is again given new clothes for the state dinner, on which occasion she is made one of Corlath's riders--again, a change in status, from an honored abductee to a person of importance. The titular character in Beauty also gets a bath before having dinner with the Beast for the first time. Invisible servants attend her. She tries to resist them, but they are insistent. They present her with a series of overly revealing gowns before she accepts one that she finds suitable.

In Sabriel, by Garth Nix, Sabriel flees her life as a student in the New Kingdom to go after her missing father in the Old Kingdom. When she arrives at his house, she is forcefully bathed by attendants in the form of "sendings", beings that are made of magic and have no other corporeal form. She protests that she is quite old enough to bathe herself. After the bath, she is dressed in the uniform of the Abhorsen--her father's office, which she must now take up on her own.

Another example of this type occurs in Lynn Flewelling's Luck in the Shadows. Alec has grown up a wandering hunter. The other principle character, Seregil, rescues him from torture in a dungeon, then takes him away to the big city, offering to take him on as an apprentice in the ways of spying and thieving. Their first stop in the capital is the Oreska House, home of wizards, one of whom is Seregil's mentor and employer. Alec, who would just as soon stay dirty, is ordered to bathe. Servants attend him, but he resists on grounds of modesty, as well as discomfort with the whole idea of being served by other people. Afterward, he receives fresh new clothes suitable for a young nobleman.

Scenes of this sort serve a few utilitarian purposes in addition to marking a lifestyle transition. For one, the appearance of the new clothing gives the author a chance to describe what people wear in a way that flows naturally into the narrative. These scenes also give the author a chance to build sympathy for the protagonist. Few modern readers can be expected to welcome the idea of being bathed by servants, so the character's resistance helps establish them as a person close to the reader's world, set apart from the foreign-seeming norms of the fantasy environment. It also helps show the character's humility and heroic temperament as, rather than welcoming the servility of others, they are determined to look after themselves. The lack of bath attendants in the Mercedes Lackey scenes could be seen as indicative of the egalitarian and independent culture of the Heralds and the Tayledras. There are some exceptions to this pattern (the bath scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has none of these elements), but overall the bath scene appears to be a useful tool for moving a character into a life.

What are your favorite bath scenes? Do they fit this pattern, or not?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Victory and a Book Review

I've finished a workable version of the outline.

Full outline first draft

Everything from the previous version is now on the right side of the mindmap, all folded up. The stuff on the left is the outline: a prologue and three acts, divided into about 35 "chapters" (though we'll see if these end up being the final chapter divisions), and a paragraph about each chapter.

All of this has come together in just about three days, which surprised me. I had a major breakthrough, which was precipitated by a simple piece of good fortune: I read the right book. This book is Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. I have another book by Bell, The Art of War for Writers. I like the style of that book, but felt that it was lacking in concrete technical advice. Plot and Structure definitely fills that gap. Within hours of opening it, I could feel everything starting to click into place. What's more, I felt energized--reading this book showed me that I had almost all the right elements in place, if I could only get them arranged. Then the book provided concrete, actionable advice about how achieve this, and I could hardly wait to sit down and work! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone working on a novel.

Perhaps the most useful section of the book is the part that covers common "plot patterns" such as a revenge, love, the quest, adventure, and so on. I knew my story had some of these elements, but this section had great tips about how these kinds of plots actually move. Also, it solved a problem I was struggling with: one of my characters just didn't want to be part of the action. I knew I needed all my characters to have strong desires in order to drive the plot--could this reclusiveness count as a desire, and if so, how could it provide enough energy to drive any action? As it turns out, there is a classic plot known as "one apart". I've certainly read this type of story, but could never quite "get" what was going on. Now I get it: the loner wants to do his own thing. In act two, circumstances conspire to draw him into action against his will. At the end, he must choose whether to act. Then he either re-engages with society, or retreats forever. Aha! I don't know why this wasn't obvious. I knew the question of whether to "engage" would be a driving conflict, but seeing it laid out in print let me know that I really could use this structure--it gave me permission. And there is more than enough action in his friends' parts of the story tempt my poor little introverted mystic into getting involved.

Another good piece of advice in Bell's book is to create a "stakes outline". Ask yourself, what bad things can happen to my lead character? Make a list of these, and then order them from bad to worst. Now you can look to this list as you work on generating rising conflict in Act 2: as the story goes on, the mishaps get closer and closer to the character's worst nightmares. I found this surprisingly fun to do. Imagining how my characters would react to the worst case scenario taught me what they're really made of, what they care about, and where they have hidden reserves of strength. It also gave me great ideas about where conflict could come from.

The last thing this book prompted me to do was to abandon my multi-threaded outline (that scheme for filling out subplots that I detailed in my last post). I'm still glad I did that to the level of laying out the subplots, but breaking it down to "scenes" was too much. Putting everything together into a single act-by-act chronological outline let me see that many points I had thought would need a whole scene could actually be covered in brief, as short beats in the main action scenes. It all seemed to fall magically together. My next step is to write!

ETA: Just noticed that I quit my job one year ago today.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting Specific

Here's what I'm currently doing to create the outline for The Other Novel (this novel is really starting to need a title, isn't it?).

I've listed all of the stories within the overarching story: there's a romance, a mystery, two competing succession plots, and some other stuff. For each of these, I've then outlined the general story arc for that plot: how it begins, develops, and resolves. Up to this point I have completed my first attempt. I'm now in the midst of the penultimate step: specifying the actual scenes that are needed for each of these story-chunks to take place. This is the right-most branch of the outline, and when I say specific, I mean specific. Each item contains complete instructions for writing the scene: where it takes place, who is in it, what happens and how.

I am still using Freemind to lay out the outline visually. Here's a picture. (I know the text itself isn't visible; this is just to give you an idea of how it's organized.)

Novel Outline Large

The uppermost first-level node on the right is the sub-plots node. The bluish nodes in the far upper right are the actual scenes that I have worked out in detail, and the outline will be finished when all of the branches of the sub-plots node terminate in at lease one scene (or as many as needed). In addition to this outline, this diagram includes various pieces of brainstorming, notes about the setting, and color-coded notes about the purpose of different scenes, extra details, unanswered questions, etc.

Each level of this process has required a different way of thinking about the story. As I listed out the sub-plots, I found that I had to think hard about the over-arching themes of the story. As I then filled in the story for each sub-plot, I noticed areas where there was not going to be sufficient suspense or interest, meaning that other sub-plots had to be added or further elaborated to fill in the gaps. Now that I'm working on the individual scenes, I have to get into the guts of things. I'm working out details of the setting, supporting characters, and the nitty-gritty specifics of how the characters carry out their schemes.

The very last step will be to put the scenes in order, making explicit the interleaving of all the subplots.

Is this how pros do it? Probably not. Obviously, I'm still figuring out what method of plotting a novel works for me. If this method seems overly technical or hyper-analytical...well, maybe I find that comforting. I don't think I could do this at all without breaking it down into smaller and smaller questions.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I am outlining. Oh boy, I am outlining so hard. I've done a lot, but there's a lot more to do.

I must keep myself going with the thought of my reward, which will be Fast Writing.

Outlining. I am doing it.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Oh my. February was a long time ago. The intervening months have included a lot of distractions and a huge dip in my motivation. I keep plotting and re-plotting and finding new things to be dissatisfied with. I keep shuffling nodes around in Freemind, which is a balm to my guilty conscience, but doesn't result in any real work getting done.

For a while I even toyed with the idea of skipping the coming-of-age part of my story and moving straight into the more interesting sequel. I find myself constantly comparing my work to other books, and I get really hung up on trying to avoid stepping into what I see as other people's territory. A coming of age story involving magic? Watch out for Harry Potter cliches! A story where religious authority is the enemy of intellectual freedom? Don't rehash The Golden Compass! An urban setting peopled by decadent nobles? Watch out, you might write Sword's Point! And like a shadow over all hangs The Name of the Wind.

So I'm working through all that.

In personal news, this summer brings a change of setting. DM and I have abandoned Long Island for the moment, and are subletting an apartment in Berkeley until early August. It's so wonderful to be around our friends again, and to be able to eat the food we like! I've been taking pictures of the food, in fact. Here are some examples.

Pizza at the Cheeseboard!

2010-05-18 14.59.49

Delicious fresh vegetables!

2010-05-19 09.45.28

Mexican food at Cancun!!

2010-05-20 11.55.16

Cupcakes at Love at First Bite!

2010-05-20 16.23.28

Samosas at Vik's!

Samosa at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley

Mysterious candied fruit Vik's!

Sweets at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley

OK GO! at Maker Faire! (Ok, I know, this isn't food. But still!)

OK GO! singer in a tank

And this doesn't even include Gregoire, or when my mom took us to lunch at Chez Panisse. Oh dang. I love this place.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Still Writing, Lessons Learned

Since officially halting work on Nymean Corps (at least for the time being), I've been working pretty steadily on the Other Novel. The other novel doesn't have a name yet--the working title is just the names of the two main characters. Since I felt that the problem with Nymean Corps was that I didn't plot it carefully enough, I've been very meticulously plotting out the other novel.

I've been thinking about this story for several years, and it's now been through several major convulsions. It began as a perfectly innocent Mary Sue fanfic, never shared with anyone. Despite its fanfictional nature, all the characters and the plot were my own, and I was actually pretty pleased with where it went. I decided to erase the bits that weren't mine and try to make something real out of it. As you might expect, this took some doing--setting determines story to a larger degree than you might think, at least in the fantasy genre. Nonetheless, I kept working at it--deities were erased, whole cultures obliterated. Side characters appeared with new cultural trappings. Systems of government, religion, and magic rose and fell. Those side characters developed relationships among themselves, places in the social order. Without her original goddess-given mission and totally rad powers, Mary Sue dwindled into a mere artifact of her former self, almost disappearing entirely. The one-time supporting cast was now running the show.

It was probably about four years ago that I began this process, and only a few months ago that I started working on it consistently, with a break for Nymean Corps in November and December. NaNoWriMo taught me a huge amount about the kind of problems I'd need to address as I planned out my novel, and since then I've been working on those problems and reading up on ways to solve them. At this point, I feel that my plotting odyssey is almost done. Here are a few useful advices, gathered from here and there, that are keeping me going right now:

  • The Three Act Structure: Act one, introduce characters and set up conflicts. The first major plot point propels us into act two, which is constructed as a series of crises with rising emotional stakes, culminating in The Climax. Following the climax is, of course, the denoument, where everything shakes down and things get arranged for the sequel. This structure, particularly the escalating climaxes of the second act, has proven very useful in getting me unstuck in the plotting department. I can lay out what bits of story are needed for each crisis to occur, and then assemble these bits into scenes.
  • Scenes: It is helpful to think of the story in terms of discrete scenes. I make sure I have a scene for each of the plot-bits required to build each crisis. Many scenes can advance toward two or more crises.
  • The Black Moment: This is the moment preceding The Climax, when things are at their very worst. Some of the most helpful advice I read was to make the Black Moment the first step in crafting the plot. If you know just how bad things are supposed to be, you can then construct the series of minor crises needed to get to that point. In my story's Black Moment, the princess is believed to be dead, the bad guy is about to become king, and the good guy is in prison, in danger of being killed before he can resolve the awful misunderstanding with his best friend!
  • Themes. Themes are useful things. I thought originally that a theme would arise naturally from my story, but I now realize that, as a writer, I need a theme to act as my compass. What makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad? What tells me the right way to have the characters solve a problem? What makes the final resolution satisfying? It's the theme!
  • Being dramatic. For some reason, this is hard for me. It always has been. In Dungeons and Dragons, I used to always come up with characters that had no particular drama to them. Wouldn't want to compose the dreaded Mary Sue, after all. You know, he's just a regular soldier who happens to be at the tavern that day. Very frustrating for DMs. Somehow I've always felt that it would stretch the bounds of credibility for me to give my characters exciting and dramatic back-stories. I mean, how many people in real life get to be the secret lost heirs of something awesome? Not many! These days I'm getting it through my thick skull that a hero in an escapist fantasy had damn well better be special--the specialer the better.
  • Motivation and Conflict. This is part of being dramatic. I tend to like stories where characters have conflict thrust upon them. In The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, Harry Crew doesn't want to be kidnapped by an exotic king for mysterious purposes, but that's what happens to her. My mistake, all along, was to think this meant that she didn't want anything in particular at all. But she does have a motivation, a desire: she wants to fit into the mold of her society, to do and be something useful and satisfying. She is thwarted in this by the social position (a "charity case", her brother's responsibility) imposed on her by her father's death. The emotional kernel of the book is her desire to find her niche, to understand who she is, to be accepted by her society. The end of the book is satisfying because she gets what she has so desired, only in a form she doesn't expect. At this point, I've written and re-written the opening scenes of my story enough times to realize that momentum will quickly fail without a hefty dose of desire, starting right at the beginning.
  • Outlining Software: Right now I'm using Freemind. I've also tried Storymill, pen and paper, and the much praised index card method. So far Freemind is the best. Right now I'm working on an arrangement where I have two parallel outlines: the plot outline and the scene outline. The plot outline lists the three acts, and what happens in each. Most importantly, it lists the crises that occur in Act II, and those plot bits that build up to each crisis. The scene outline lists, of course, scenes, and notes which of the plot bits fits into each scene. The scene outline is the actual step-by-step recipe for writing the book, listing chunks of text in the order in which they need to appear.
  • Synopsis First. Internet advice-givers are divided on this point, but I'm ready to advocate writing the synopsis before the novel, rather than the other way around. Of course, if one plans to use the synopsis to sell the novel, one will have to revise it after the writing is through. But I found that writing a fairly detailed, several-page synopsis was immensely helpful in revealing the strengths and weaknesses of my story. This exercise is like telling the novel in bed-time story format: it includes all the major plot points, and all the motivation and exposition that is necessary to make the story go. It takes you through all the emotional ups and downs of the novel in a much smaller number of words.
At this point, I've followed all my steps and written a first draft of the synopsis. This was enough to reveal some deficiencies (especially in the motivation department), which I'm now in the process of correcting. By tomorrow I expect to embark on a second draft of the synopsis. I think (fingers crossed) that should be enough to let me resume writing at NaNoWriMo-like speeds, this time with a much firmer foundation.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Musical Soapbox Part I: Realism

So, here's the update. I wrote a new (and very good) prologue for the Nymean Corps story, and I outlined about half of the book on index cards. But when I went to take a shot at the existing scenes that I wanted re-write, I realized something: I am really bored of these characters. I don't care about them right now, and I don't think anyone else will either. It would be nice to power through and do a second draft...but it would also be nice to work on something I enjoy for a little while. My mind has drifted back to the characters I was playing with in the Other Novel--the one I was thinking about before NaNo--and I've found that I really do care about them and am excited to tell their story. So I've been writing away on that for the last several days and am really enjoying myself. Will I ever go back to the Nymean Corps? Maybe. But it's also possible that my NaNo project is destined to go down in history simply as my first big lesson in how not to write a novel. If that happens, I won't cry--at least I didn't spend much more than a month on it.

For the feature of today's entry, I am going to review the new Magnetic Fields album, Realism. I hope I never gave the impression that this blog was going to be consistent in its theme. I know you don't really come here for music reviews even so, but, since it's my blog, I can do what I want.

The album, overall, is...short! 33.3 minutes. There are 13 tracks, but most are under three minutes in length. To be fair, this is about par for the course: Charm of the Highway Strip is only 33.2 minutes, and Holiday is only 36.3. Still, I always get excited about a new Stephin Merritt album, and the fact that the album is only the length of an episode of The Simpsons (counting commercials) is a little bit of a let-down. But, if this is what it takes to get the music to me, I can take it.

Enough bitching, let's talk about the music. So, I admit that I am pretty much undispleasable when it comes to Stephin Merritt. Even in his strangest, most strident, Experimental-Music-Love kind of moods, I like to think that I get what he's doing. When I'm by myself, I never skip a song on 69 Love Songs. I even like his theatrical side projects--in fact, some tracks from Orphan of Zhao can literally make me cry. Having said all that, let me say this: Realism is fantastic, and I think even a less indiscriminate fangirl than I would agree. The songs return to some of the classic sound and feel that have been largely missing on the last couple of Magnetic Fields albums.

The album is, like all of them, a concept album. Merritt's stated concept for this album is 70's orchestral and/or psychedelic folk. It is also intended as a sister record to 2008's Distortion. Where Distortion was supposed to be a loud record, Realism is meant to be a quiet record (although in fact it is a good deal more layered and catchy than the 2004 offering, i). Where Distortion's cover art featured a universal-symbol-style silhouette of a male on a jarring hot pink background, Realism shows a skirted figure on recycled brown paper. But Stephin Merritt is a tricky fellow, and there are many clues that we should not take "realism" at face value. The CD booklet is actually white gloss paper printed with an image of crinkled brown stock. We ask ourselves, how is a bathroom-symbol of a woman any less distorted than one of a man? Is music that is distorted in its production really more unreal than a digital reproduction of "acoustic" music? Conundra abound! The album is also presented, according to Merritt, in a "variety show" format, I suppose meaning that, although it's a concept album, we should not expect a consistent tone across the songs. As on 69 Love Songs, the variety of different sounds and feelings keeps the album from fading into the background, so that each individual track has a little punch of its own.


The individual songs are, to my ear, a mix of old and new sounds. Some tunes hearken back to early Magnetic Fields albums, some sound a bit like 69 Love Songs, and some actually sound more like recent side projects than anything Merritt has done with the band. The instrumentation is indeed on the acoustic side, but it is put together with that knack of Merritt's that makes it sound unlike anything else. Or maybe it's just the assortment: sitar, ukulele, harp, flugelhorn, autoharp, flute, leaves (yes leaves), something that sounds like a hammer dulcimer, and I don't know what else. If there is a musical element that is especially folky on this album, I'd say it's the extensive use of vocal harmony and unison singing. This has cropped up here and there in the past, but here it's used on several tracks and sounds more like two or three people singing together than like a lead with backup vocals. The subject matter of the songs is nothing new, nor are they more (or less) autobiographical than previous efforts. As usual, some of them are heartwrenching, others are silly, and all are at least a little bit sardonic.

As with the past two albums, the quality of the songwriting has been criticized for not being up to the standard of 69 Love Songs. I always find this surprising, since the quality on that album is actually quite uneven. I think that in any assortment of 69 songs by Stephin Merritt, there will be a few standouts and a few duds. 69 Love Songs does contain some of the very best love songs ever written, but so do other albums. On recent albums, "Too Drunk to Dream", "I Don't Believe You", "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend", "I'll Dream Alone" and "Drive On Driver" are all among Merritt's best tunes. Realism also has its share of great tracks. The opening track, "You Must be Out of Your Mind", is a perfect embodiment of the Magnetic Fields' style, with rollicking, multi-layered instrumentation, sadistically witty yet oddly heartfelt lyrics, and a hauntingly melodic chorus. Another high point is the fourth track, "I Don't Know What to Say," which, with it's sitar, autoharp, and mallet percussion, sounds like nothing so much as a tribute to '70s crooner Donovan. "Always Already Gone" is another fine track; Shirley Simms' ethereal, deadpan vocals bring Merritt's signature sense of detachment to the sad lyrics and gentle melody. "Better Things" is a cryptic track, which Merritt called in concert a "sarcastic paen to sincerity". I find it oddly captivating. And the closing track, "From a Sinking Boat" is an atmospheric and genuinely sad tune that would have fit well on Merritt's brilliant tribute to Lemony Snickett, the Gothic Archies' Tragic Treasury.

There are a few duds on this album: "Interlude", "The Dolls' Tea Party", "Everything is One Big Christmas Tree", and especially "Painted Flower" are pointlessly twee, verging on irritating. And yet, I still catch myself singing along with them. These tunes lean more in the direction of Merritt's work for the stage, especially considering the extensive use of the toy piano in the instrumentation. A young Angela Lansbury could have sung these songs without batting an eye.

The rest of the tracks fall in the middle. They are catchy enough, but seem light and hastily made. In this category, I'd place "We Are Having a Hootenanny", "Walk a Lonely Road", "Seduced and Abandoned", and the climactic "Dada Polka". "Seduced" is another stagey tune, saved from total blandness by Merritt's always enjoyable take on baroque instrumentation. "Hootenanny" and "Dada Polka" are both tributes to late-60's psychedelic-surf flicks, with manic beats and cultishly inviting lyrics. "Walk A Lonely Road" is a rather uninteresting story about a little boy vampire who meets a little girl vampire, and again, the male/female duet feels like something from the stage...sort of a Gothic version of "Islands in the Stream".

So, is it a perfect album? No, not by a long shot. It's not revolutionary territory for the Magnetic Fields, but it does take them in some new directions while assuring us that they still know how to do what they do best. To me, it feels like Merritt is in the middle of an experimental stage: moving away from the band's classic sound, but not yet quite sure what the sound of the new period will be.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


First, I have an update on Peppermint Pie. I was at Magnolia Bakery in NYC the other day, and they serve something they call "Peppermint Icebox Cake". Here's a recipe for a non-peppermint version: Obviously, this is simply my own Peppermint Pie without marshmallows or nuts, and in a sort of stacked trifle form instead of a rectangular pan. Also, this place pretty much rocks. I actually went there for the cupcakes, but when I saw them, I thought they didn't look as good as the banana cake with chocolate buttercream. Also, their banana pudding is simply overwhelming.

Then there's the novel.

In the last few days I've finally started re-reading and editing it. Good lord, it's terrible! I thought I would start the editing process by reading it once through and noting the parts that I thought were particularly strong--you know, as a morale booster. It turns out there are not many such parts. I was most dismayed to find that the parts I remembered most fondly are in fact among the dullest sections. I really need to tighten up my scene-by-scene writing. Apparently something is supposed to "happen" in every scene. Who writes these crazy rules anyway?

On the bright side, I now have a much clearer idea of the story's background, the important themes, and what's going on with the individual characters. I know the psychological process that they have to go through to get them from the beginning of the story to the end. I know (sort of) what they have at stake.

I've also decided to add another POV character: Midama, the Sacagawea figure (am I spelling that differently every time?). It turns out (wait for it!) that she's really a princess, and she needs our two Captains to break the curse that holds her betrothed, the rightful king, prisoner, so that the kingdom can thrive once more. I know that's not very original, but the whole point is that the Captains stumble into a fairytale, and fairytales, by their nature, are not very original. Anyway, I think it will be useful to have her point of view in play, so that the reader can know what's going on even when the captains don't. (Also more points of view means more words, and with the amount that I'll be cutting out, that's definitely a good thing).

Another thing that's coming to light in this reading is all the research that I need to do. What would be expected of an army officer on an expedition like this? What would the division of labor be like? What kind of Enlightenment-esque ideas might be floating around in Farrowell's brain? What would their boat be like? What kind of supplies would they have? What positions would the crew members hold, and what would their skills be? What would the expedition do if they needed to repair their boat? How often would they hunt and camp? And, the mother of all questions that plague the quest-writer: how many miles can they go in a day?

But perhaps the biggest question facing me is: where do I start? Should I write a detailed outline? Should I jump into some new prose and see where it takes me? Should I do the research? Should I write down a bunch of random factoids on index cards? Should I cross out everything I don't like in the first draft? Man, I just don't know.