swan_tower: (Default)

I’m starting to think there are two kinds of research — or rather, a spectrum with two ends. Quite possibly it’s a more multi-directional spectrum than that, but there are two ends that seem particularly applicable to my life.

The first kind is reading for facts. This is the type of research I did all the time for the Onyx Court books: I’m writing about a specific thing, and so I need to know stuff about it. What route did Elizabeth I’s coronation procession take? Where were the imprisoned members of Parliament held after Pride’s Purge? When did somebody calculate the moment of perihelion for Halley’s Comet in 1759? What actions were taken by Fenian terrorists in the later Victorian period? This extends to more general questions; a lot of my reading was to fill in broad topics along the lines of “what was life like in this period,” not because there was a specific detail I knew I needed, but because I needed a large mass of specific details to draw from in shaping my plot and laying out my scenes. And often one of those elements would suggest a new dimension to the story, so then I’m off down a new fact-reading rabbit hole; rinse and repeat until my deadline starts breathing down my neck and I have to quit adding to the pile.

The other kind of research is one I used to do all the time — but I didn’t really think of it as “research” back then. It was just, y’know, my life. I took an odd assortment of classes and read an odd assortment of books, and they all poured material into my head, and out of that came stories. This is reading for fodder, and I’m finally back to doing it, because I have several projects in the hopper that are all secondary-world, as opposed to urban fantasy (the Wilders series) or historical fantasy (Onyx Court) or what I think of as world-and-a-half (Memoirs of Lady Trent, halfway between historical and invented). It isn’t that I won’t wind up using specific details out of what I read; the difference is that in the end, I’m not actually writing about those things. Lately I’ve been reading a book on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, the Mahabharata, a book on the Sumerians, a bunch of Wikipedia articles on ancient Greek philosophy and society because I finished Jo Walton’s The Just City. Am I planning on writing anything set in Georgian England, Tokugawa Japan, ancient India, ancient Sumer, or ancient Greece? Not necessarily. But it’s all going into the mental compost heap, to intermix and break down and become fertile soil for ideas.

Some subconscious part of myself feels like I’m skiving off of work reading these things, because it’s been trained by nine books of historical or quasi-historical fiction to think the only real research is the kind done for facts. I need to do this, though, or else the worlds I invent will stay firmly in the box of “modified analogues,” places that can easily be mapped to single real-world origins. I need to throw a bunch of different things into my head at once, so that I come up with a society where there’s a deified emperor (a bit Roman, a bit Egyptian) and a caste system (a bit Indian) with a meritocratic way of changing your caste (a bit Chinese) and a clockpunky tech level (a bit Italian Renaissance) and so forth, without it being straightforwardly any of those things. If they wind up having an architecture a little bit like Tokugawa Japan or a schooling system like ancient Sumer, it will be because that happened to click into place, not because I had to use one of those societies for inspiration.

As I said at the beginning, these aren’t clearly divided types. “What was life like in this period” is closer to being a fodder-type question than “how rapidly did the plague take hold in 1665,” because it’s designed to help me come up with ideas for that specific period. And you’ll see the Mayan calendrical system with a minor fictional paint job showing up in Lightning in the Blood because years ago I read about it for fun and wound up incorporating it into a story more or less wholesale, complete with fiddly little details about Year-Bearers. But it helps me to remember that fodder-type reading is a form of research, and one that’s very necessary for my job.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (natural history)

There are certain kinds of transition scenes I detest writing. One of them is the “holy shit, the supernatural is real!” scene common to so much urban fantasy; it was a source of great pleasure to me that I could more or less skip that scene in Midnight Never Come, on the grounds that the reaction of a sixteenth-century gentleman would not so much be “there are faeries under London?” as “there are faeries under London?” (You’ll note that nearly every pov character for the remainder of the Onyx Court series already knew about the fae by the time they showed up in the story. This was not deliberate, in the sense of being a thing I consciously decided to do . . . but I wouldn’t call it an accident, either. The sole exception that leaps to mind is Jack Ellin, and I had more than enough going on in the story to divert him, and me, while that transition happened.) It’s boring to me because the audience already knows the supernatural is real (or at the very least has no reason to be surprised by this fact), and we’ve seen that conversation so many times, making it fresh is really difficult. Your main hope is to undermine it in some fashion, like the time on Buffy when they told Oz vampires and demons were real. “I know it’s a lot to take in –” “Actually, that explains a lot.”

I’m dealing with a similar kind of thing in the fifth Memoir right now. The scene isn’t about the supernatural being real; it’s a different kind of transition, one I don’t really have a name for. And of course I can’t get into specifics, but it’s one of those deals where something very complicated is going on, only the complication is of a type that doesn’t actually make for great narrative. After the initial drama of the moment is over, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to happen, and a lot of very tedious suspicion that can’t be laid to rest with the right words or a single decisive action. Inside the story, the whole thing is going to drag on for days — probably for weeks. Making the reader sit through all of that would be dire, starting with the fact that I would have to write all of that.

It’s at moments like these when I love the retrospective, consciously-framed first person viewpoint of this series. Because I can 100% get away with Isabella saying “what followed was very tedious and dragged on for weeks, because there was nothing I could do that would resolve it with a single decisive action. But X, Y, and Z got settled — not without a great deal of wrangling and suspicion, but settled all the same, and now let’s move on to the next interesting bit.” Any viewpoint can skip over things, but this one gives me greater latitude to summarize what I’m skipping, without making it seem like the elided material is simple to deal with in real life. Isabella can acknowledge all the complications without getting bogged down in them.

I had no idea, when I started writing this series, all the advantages that would come with framing the entire thing as a series of memoirs. It just seemed like a period- and subject-appropriate way to approach the whole thing. But my god . . . it’s probably the best craft decision I’ve made all series long.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

As some of you know or have guessed, I’m writing a book on spec this summer — a Sekrit Projekt. It’s going pretty well, though right now I’m kind of wondering if I can fit the remaining plot into my remaining projected wordcount.

Earlier today, I was freaking out a bit because I didn’t have remotely enough plot to fill out the wordcount, and the book was going to run short.

Now, if you’re a normal person, you probably assume this means I thought up some additional plot in between then and now. You would be wrong. Before I freaked out about insufficient plot, I was convinced I had too much plot. And before that, I knew I didn’t have enough, not by a long shot. Because I’m at That Stage of the process: the Traditional Mid-Book Yo-Yo.

It happens every time. This is the seventeenth novel I’ve written, and so I know quite well that because I am not the sort of person who outlines rigorously, I have to eyeball the amount of material necessary to get from where I am to the target length. (The only time I can think of when this didn’t happen to me was with In Ashes Lie. I knew a quarter of the way into that book that there was no way in hell it would fit into 110K: I emailed my editor, and she gave me permission to run over, so long as I warned her if it was headed north of 180K. So that one didn’t have a target; it was as long as it needed to be, which turned out to be 143K.) As I draw near, I have to keep checking in with my brain and gauging whether any adjustments are necessary. And I’m constantly changing my mind.

But at least I know that. Which means I can take the yo-yo in stride, trusting that I’ll be able to tell if I’m really going to miss my mark in either direction. And since this book is a spec project, it isn’t the end of the world if I do miss: the worst that happens is I have to look for ways to flesh the book out during revision, or I don’t manage to complete it before my self-imposed deadline. Either of which is fine, if annoying.

I think I’ll be in the target range, though. I usually manage.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

I have this novella I’m trying to title, and the search . . . isn’t going well.

In the course of hunting for a suitable title, I’ve been thinking about the structure of such things. And, of course, having thought about that, the next thing to do is look at my own ouevre and investigate what sorts of patterns I use more or less frequently.

(What? I may not be a biologist, but Isabella gets her scientific turn of mind from somewhere. Also, procrastination.)

The material below the cut is a breakdown of every title I’ve put on a piece of fiction — and in one case, a piece of nonfiction — since I produced my first piece of theoretically professional work, leaving out those where the title was not wholly up to me. (Mostly pieces that amount to work-for-hire.) I’ve included unpublished works and fanfiction in the mix, since that expands the data set by quite a bit, but not titles that ended up being discarded along the way.

Data below the cut )


Despite my general allergy to the “Noun of Noun” structure (which I consider to be the most overused thing in fantasy), it’s hanging in there in second place. Ah well: at least I do what I can to liven it up, either by complicating the structure, or by picking unusual components to plug into it. I’m also somewhat started to find that I’ve got that many simple “Noun” titles; I would not have guessed it was so common in my work. I’m not surprised to find “Adjective Noun” leading the pack, though. When I first learned to write short stories, there was a stretch of time where pretty much everything I wrote had a title in that format, until I kicked myself into thinking up other possibilities. On the flip side, I’ve made remarkably little use of the “Noun’s Noun” format, which most of the time is just “Noun of Noun” doing a do-si-do.

The two I find particularly noteworthy are the “Phrase/Quotation” catch-all category, and “X Prep X.” I hadn’t realized I used the latter so frequently, though I knew it was a structure I liked. As for the former, the Onyx Court novels and stories notwithstanding, a lot of the examples there are from fanfiction. That suggests I feel more freedom to play around with fanfic, as opposed to my professional work. Given that back in 2005, a part of me was concerned that “Nine Sketches, in Charcoal and Blood” was too overwrought to use, I suspect I could stand to loosen up more with my titles in general — though maybe not to the extent of the “Ridiculous” category. ;-)

(Actually, that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to do with this novella title. The problem is, my brain has latched onto “In Your Heart Shall Burn,” which would be perfect except for the fact that it’s the name of a main plot quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition.)

Does this get me any closer to having a title for the novella? Nope. But it’s interesting to look at anyway. I’d be curious to hear what patterns exist in other people’s work, and what titles — of your work or others’ — you find particularly striking.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (Default)

This is a fascinating series of videos.

The video blogger, Tony Zhou, digs into the art of the director and the cinematographer to talk about how they achieve their effects. For somebody like me, who is a dyed-in-the-wool narrative geek but doesn’t know the first thing about the craft of film, it’s like catnip: a chance to understand how one tells stories with images rather than words.

Mind you, I can’t quite follow everything he says. There are times where he’ll try to draw out a particular point, but its effect is subtle enough or he doesn’t unpack the idea enough or I don’t have enough basic grounding in film craft that I end up shrugging and thinking “okay, if you say so.” But many of them are just great, like “What Is Bayhem?”, wherein he dissects the work of Michael Bay. It isn’t about saying “oh, he’s such a genius” — he isn’t. Zhou’s thesis is that Bay imprinted on a couple of visual tricks and then BEATS THEM TO DEATH in every movie he makes. But it’s possible to identify what those tricks are, and to see he got them from or where other people try to copy him without understanding what he’s actually doing. It’s possible to put your finger on why you don’t like Michael Bay’s films (if indeed you do not like them) . . . because the man uses the same visual tricks without much regard for the material he’s using them on. It’s the equivalent of playing a piece of music all at one volume: there’s no dynamics, no contrast, just EVERYTHING IS EPIC ALL THE TIME. Even when the story itself is not actually being very epic at that moment.

I also loved the video on “Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy”. It hammered home for me some of the reasons why I find Wright’s movies to be a lot of fun, while a lot of other cinematic comedy bores me stiff. I’ve said before that the issue is one of content, and that’s true: I don’t find humiliation funny, I’m annoyed rather than amused by people acting so stupidly I’m not sure how they can even walk and talk at the same time, gross-out humour is just NO, and I’m very hit-or-miss with physical comedy. I like wittiness, and wittiness tends to be in short supply these days, at least in American comedy films. But it turns out there’s more to it than that. Zhou points out that so many movies have limited themselves to only one channel of humour, which is people standing around talking: they don’t use lighting or well-timed sound effects or matching scene transitions or soundtrack synchronization or things entering and leaving the frame in unexpected ways. (It was interesting, watching Galavant after seeing that video; I found myself noting the places where it employed a broader array of tools.) Using all those channels means you can vary your approach, make your point in different ways depending on the context.

Other particularly good ones: “Jackie Chan: How to Do Action Comedy.” “David Fincher: And the Other Way Is Wrong.” “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film.” All of them are interesting to watch, but I found those five the most comprehensible and eye-opening. If you have any interest in that sort of thing, they’re well worth taking a look at.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)

You would think I’d notice when I’m doing something horrible to my characters — but sometimes the penny drops quite late.

The context for this post is the scene I wrote for Chains and Memory last night. There’s a detail I put into Lies and Prophecy that seemed like an interesting twist, an additional layer to an aspect of the world that the characters hadn’t realized was there. When I started planning out this book, I knew I was going to add another component to that detail; the adding happened a few days ago. And then last night, writing a follow-on scene, I finally realized what I’d done to Julian, by tossing in that little detail so many years ago.

I can’t get more specific than that without massively spoiling things, but I can give a different example of what I mean: Nicholas Merriman, an NPC in my game Memento, which is the campaign that ultimately gave rise to the Onyx Court series. Nicholas is nowhere in the novels, so there will be no spoilers for the Onyx Court if I tell you I may have been more cruel to him than any other member of the Merriman family save Francis. (Who did appear in the novels, so if I tell you his role in the game was pretty much the same except it ended a little bit worse, you’ll have some scale for comparison.)

Memento was a Changeling game about a group of faeries reincarnating in mortal hosts over a period of centuries, trying to create the Philosopher’s Stone. They were assisted in this process by a faerie-blooded human family, the Merrimans, who passed down the knowledge of their quest through the generations . . . but lost bits of it along the way, because seven hundred years is a long time to keep that kind of thing alive. Nicholas, living in the modern day, had only the fragments he’d gleaned from his Alzheimer-afflicted grandfather, and almost no connection to the faerie world whatsoever.

Under the mechanics for fae blood in that game, Nicholas was permitted one single “fae gift,” i.e. an ability inherited from his changeling ancestor. It could be a powerful ability, but he could only have one. I chose Parted Mists. In Changeling, the Mists are a metaphysical force that causes human beings to forget about magical things: to come up with “rational” explanations for them or dismiss them as mere fancy or just forget them entirely. Parted Mists allowed Nicholas to actually remember his interactions with the PC changelings, which was pretty necessary to make the plot go; ergo, my decision seemed like simple common sense.

So they meet Nicholas and realize they were doing something important and go through a process that causes them to remember their past lives, which takes up the bulk of the campaign, with them flashing back to previous centuries (and previous Merriman helpers) before finally snapping back to the present day and finishing what they started.

By which point I had realized that I had been horrifically, unthinkingly cruel to Nicholas.

Because he remembered.

Here’s the thing about Changeling: in that setting, there is a magical layer to the world that we can’t generally see. Changelings can see it; children can see it, but lose the ability as they grow up; adults can be temporarily enchanted to see it, but the Mists make them forget after the enchantment fades.

Nicholas did not forget.

After he met the PCs, Nicholas knew that he was living in grey, dreary Kansas. He knew Oz was right there, all around him: a fantastical world filled with color and magic and wonder. He knew the PCs lived in that world, and he’d been permitted to visit it a few times. But every time, the magic ended, and he was back in black-and-white Kansas — remembering precisely what he had lost.

I did not mean to be so cruel to him. But I was, and it took me months to realize I had been.

And that’s more or less what I’ve done to Julian. Not the same flavor of cruelty, but the same failure to notice until an embarrassingly long time later. The good news is, I have noticed, and that means I can make story out of it; that’s what I was doing last night. Not only that, but in writing up the problem, I realized it had a whole second layer to it, so that he’s asking Kim the question she hears, and also a second question she won’t hear until it’s almost too late.

If I’m lucky, readers will hit this part of the story and think “oh, wow, that’s a really awesome thing Marie Brennan set up there.” They won’t realize how much of it was an accident, that I only just caught at the last second. :-)

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (Default)

Of all the rewards I’m offering on the Chains and Memory Kickstarter, I think this one is the most special to me.

Changeling: The Dreaming has a concept it calls “dross”: objects invested with so much emotional significance that they actually contain energy of the sort changelings use to power their magic. They literally embody somebody’s dreams. Sometimes a piece of dross is famous or valuable — e.g. Babe Ruth’s bat — but they can just as easily be personal, like your beloved teddy bear from childhood.

That miniscript? Is dross. Back in the fall of 1999, when I had finished the first draft of the novel eventually known as Lies and Prophecy, I knew I needed to edit it. Since I was going on a weekend trip to a football game with the Harvard Band, the bus ride seemed like a good time to read through the book and mark it up — but for that, it needed to be portable. And, well, I hadn’t told anybody other than my then-boyfriend (now husband) that I’d finished a novel, and I didn’t want anybody saying “wow, that’s a giant stack of paper you’ve got there; what did you do, write a novel?” So I invented the miniscript: eight-point font, half-inch margins, single-spaced, full justification, print on both sides of the page, and voila, you’ve got a book on forty pieces of paper.

Which is still, to this day, the way I do my first round of edits. (You can tell me that is a bloody stupid way to print out a manuscript for editing. I will agree with you. And then I will go on printing miniscripts, because that is How I Do Things.)

The miniscript of Lies and Prophecy is quite literally the first time the first draft of the first novel I ever completed existed in print. Its creation is pretty much the moment that Marie Brennan, Fantasy Author stopped being a thing I wanted to be when I grew up, and became what I actually was.

It’s also a record of just how much the book changed over the years — and how much it didn’t. The first draft was flabby as all get-out, and I’ve added all kinds of new layers since then (the Yan Path stuff), fiddled around with secondary characters (Grayson used to be white; Liesel’s friends went through about eight different names apiece), cut out bits of worldbuilding that didn’t really contribute anything to the story. But it’s still the tale of Kim and Julian and the attack on Samhain and it ends pretty much the same way. If somebody ever writes an academic work on Marie Brennan, Fantasy Author, this miniscript will be a goldmine for their attempts to trace my growth as a writer.

And if you want a copy of your very own, you can have one. :-)

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (Default)

Possibly the easiest way for me to encapsulate the character I talked about in a previous post is by linking you to this song.

It’s an amazing remix all on its own. I love the way it builds, wave-like: it keeps climbing and then receding, stepping back to a quieter level when you expect it to bust out in full Linkin Park screamo yelling. :-P But more than that, it fit beautifully with Ree at the pivotal moment of her story, the brink of her metamorphosis from the broken, lost thing she had been for eons back to her original self. “I’ve felt this way before” . . . she’d been shattered, and had tried to piece herself back together — thought she had succeeded — but then during the course of the game she was shattered again, falling back to square one, so far from her goal it was almost impossible for her to believe that she was actually closer to it than ever. “Against my will I stand beside my own reflection” . . . she sold half her soul to someone else, not realizing that was what she was doing, and she had to reclaim it. “Without a sense of confidence, I’m convinced that there’s just too much pressure to take” . . . the problem with her Seelie side was that it had too much confidence, without the fatalism of her Unseelie half to temper it, which is how she got broken again, and then the symbolism of the diamond and pressure over time pretty much guaranteed I had to use this song. This was Ree at her lowest point, one step away from victory, and the tension that builds throughout this evokes those days perfectly in my mind. There’s more to it than one song, but I can point to the song and say, this. This is why I can’t forget her story.

When I make soundtracks for characters, or for games I run, or for novels, many of the songs are filler. They go in because I want the whole story in music, and so I pick the best matches I can; in the really good soundtracks, even the filler is pretty solid. But this? This is why I go to the effort. For the one or two or five songs that are the story, the ones that become so linked with the narrative that they end up feeding back into it, and it can be eight years later and hearing them still brings the story to life in my head. This is Galen walking into the chamber below the Monument. This is Dead Rick getting his memories back. Here’s the entire second half of Doppelganger, according to my half-dozing brain when I was in the middle of writing the book; I can quite literally map segments of the novel to the various stages in the music, because my subconscious had decided this was the outline it was writing to. (Much like what happened here, though that was on a smaller scale.)

It’s no accident that I also love film scores. Pairing music with story — turning music into story — is one of my favorite things. Since I’m not a composer, I have to settle for the mix-tape approach. Sometimes it works out very, very well.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (Default)

In the comments to my last post, Mindstalk asked:

So what does editing consist of? Are you doing major adjustments to each picture, or eyeballing each one for need for any editing, or doing batch edits?

The answer is long enough that I figured it deserved a post of its own.

First of all: no batch editing, in the sense of selecting ten or a hundred pictures and saying “Lightroom, do the following to all of them.” It wouldn’t work: what each picture needs is individual, so I’d just end up changing whatever I had done. Instead, my workflow goes roughly like this.

Read the rest of this entry  )

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (Default)

So as I mentioned before, I think this book is going to run a little long.

How exactly do I know that?

Nobody ever talks about this in books of writing advice, at least not that I’ve ever seen. Nor have I heard it being discussed in creative writing classes (though if your teacher taught you this, I’d love to hear about it). We all know writers need a variety of skills, things like characterization and plotting and the ability to string together an interesting sentence . . . but nobody talks about how you learn to tell how much story you’ve got in your hand.

I thought of this because I was doing some calculations, trying to figure out how hard I would need to drive myself to get a draft done by the end of the month. It’s a little tricky, doing that math when you don’t actually know what goes on the other side of the equal sign. I knew I couldn’t fit the remaining plot into ten thousand words; fine, that means I’ll overrun my target length of 90K. By how much? Not sure. Well, okay: if I wrote two thousand words a day instead of one thousand, then I could write 26K by the end of the month. Ooof, no, way overkill — there’s no way this is 26K of plot remaining. Somewhere between 10 and 26. 15-ish, maybe? That sounds about right . . . .

How do I know this? I can’t even really tell you. I am not the sort of writer who says “this chapter will consist of four scenes, two of them one thousand words long and the other two five hundred.” The scenes are as long as they need to be to get the job done, and I find out how long that is by writing them. I keep forgetting to put in chapter breaks, because for four years I wrote Onyx Court novels that didn’t have any; now I go back and drop them in wherever there’s an appropriate point within a certain range of wordcount. But I can only forecast by approximation: can I get Isabella off Lahaui in a thousand words? Definitely not. Two thousand? Ehhhh, maybe . . . (Verdict as of tonight’s writing: nope, definitely not.) I won’t need five thousand, that’s for damn sure. Somewhere between 2 and 5.

I have to do this all book long. I want to write a 90K book; that means I need to be able to judge how much stuffing goes into the sausage. I sort of weigh it in my hand as I go, looking at the casing, trying to decide whether I should pack more in or not. Eventually I start to feel like okay, we’re at the point now where it’s time to pull things together and wrap them up, rather than adding in new stuff. Within a certain margin of error, I’m right. (When Ashes ran 30K long, I saw that coming a mile off. I hadn’t even finished writing Part One when I e-mailed my editor to say, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.)

Nobody taught me how to do this. I don’t know if it can be taught, because the answers can vary so much from writer to writer. What one person knocks off in five hundred words, another might spend two thousand on. Even if you’re the sort who outlines ahead of time instead of making it up as you go along, you need a sense for how many words it will take you to say something. And I’m not sure how you acquire that sense, other than by writing a lot and seeing how many words you end up with.

All of which is just sort of me rambling, because wordcount has been on my brain lately. But it’s one of those things I never really see discussed — a skill nobody tells you you’ll have to acquire.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

swan_tower: (*writing)
My father is the kind of guy who makes charts and graphs of everything that doesn't run away fast enough. I am not that bad . . . but I, er, may have inherited some of the tendency.

Longtime readers of this journal know that I have lamented repeatedly over the years my failure to write more short stories. I've done four this year, and have ambitions for more, which on the one hand feels like a lot and on the other feels like very little at all: even if I make it up to six, that's not very many, right? Obviously not that many compared to my friends who are Short Story Writers in the more active sense, but also not very many compared to my own efforts in ye olden days.

But I was curious. So I sat down and I graphed how many stories I've had published in each year, and how many I've written. And then I did some math.

My average short story production, since the year I figured out how to write short stories, has been slightly more than 5.

Okay, that number is skewed. I've been less productive lately, after all, and that first year I only wrote one. On the other hand, I might as well say it's skewed in the other direction: there were three years (2001, 2002, and 2004) where I wrote way more. Ten stories, nine stories, sixteen stories.

All stories are not created equal. Of those sixteen, six were flash. Two others barely cleared a thousand words. A couple of the actual short stories weren't good enough to be published; one wasn't even good enough to submit anywhere. Compare with 2011, where I only wrote three pieces of short fiction, but one was a novelette, one was a novella, and all three of them have been published.

I am not a sixteen-story-a-year writer. 2004 is the true outlier. Unit uantity may have declined since then, but quality has increased. I'd still like to get my rate up, of course; it would be nice if my average were six stories a year. But six would not be me slacking off. Six would be a good, solid rate of production.


Which is as good a time as any to say that I'm trying to finish either "A River Flowing Nowhere" or "Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe," or (the dark-horse candidate) "The Unquiet Grave." So what does my brain hand me? Ideas for the untitled ghost-princes story, of course, and also the weird Snow White retelling.

Brains. I tell ya.
swan_tower: (Default)
I don't know what it was -- my early education in piano; natural sense of pitch; heck, maybe even the ballet training -- but something apparently wired my brain to closely associate music with stories. And over the last ten years or so, I've taken that tendency and made it foundational to how I work.

I've been thinking about this because I finally, after a variety of false starts, have figured out the "sound" for the Dragon Age game [profile] kniedzw and I are running. I realized that Ramin Djawadi's music for Game of Thrones fit really well, so I went looking for more of his work, and simultaneously started browsing through the scores for other shows in the genre John Perich dubbed Blood, Tits, and Scowling. Trevor Morris' work on The Tudors and The Borgias falls into precisely the tone I'm looking for. So I'm slowly acquiring music and building out playlists for various moods -- creepy scenes, grand scenes, battle scenes, etc. And as I do so, the game coheres in my head.

This is why I was asking for Polynesian music earlier (and by all means, bring on more recommendations!). It isn't that I can't write a book without building playlists for it . . . at least, I don't think so? I used to do it all the time. I'd have one or two "theme songs," and that was all I needed. But now, figuring out the sound of a story is part of my process. And it isn't just cat-vacuuming, I promise! In order to pick music, I need to know the feel I'm going for -- so picking music helps me decide on a feel. When I make an actual soundtrack, with track titles and everything, I make decisions about what the important parts of the story are, and what their shape is or should be. It's a musical outline.

Approaching it this way gets me thinking about the story from a new angle, with a different part of my brain. Music can route around all the fiddly little details and get to the heart of it, the mood and response I'm trying to evoke. Sometimes it even creates the story.

So if you'll pardon me, I need to go check out the soundtrack to Rome.
swan_tower: (*writing)
Several of my fanfic-writing friends have been doing a meme wherein they post the first lines of their last twenty-one fics. Because I don't feel like doing anything more mentally taxing right now than faffing around on the computer listening to music, and also because that's a lie and Anthropologist Brain is having thinky thoughts but doesn't mind listening to music while faffing around collating stuff, I'm going to do this twice: once with fanfic, and then once with my original short stories. I want to see how they compare.

Fanfic first! )

Next, the original stories. )

And now, thoughts on how they compare.

I am not surprised in the slightest to discover that in fanfic, I am vastly more likely to pull the trick of not introducing the character(s) right away, but just referring to them with pronouns. Where I do the same thing in original fiction, odds are good that I'm retelling some existing story or bit of history. In other words, that's a stunt that works best when you have a certainty or at least decent chance of your reader knowing the character already. They don't need to know that person is the one referred to; sometimes you can get a good effect from briefly hiding the character's identity. (Or permanently. In some of these stories, like "Footprints," I never give a name at all: you can tell it's Cinderella gone wrong.) But the technique only works when there's a shared familiarity there. I have no reason at all to withhold Noirin's name (to pick one example); it means nothing to the reader, and so treating it as a revelation is not only pointless but counterproductive.

I am also not surprised in the slightest to discover that while I may begin my short stories with description or other forms of scene-setting, I almost never do the same with fanfic. They begin with characters, not context. This is because a) context is often unnecessary -- the fanfic reader already knows what the world is like, and b) character may be what the fanfic reader has shown up to the story for in the first place. To continue using "Remembering Light" as my example: I can't give you Noirin's conflict right away, because you don't know who she is (and therefore have no reason to care), and her conflict also depends on me first establishing the environment of Driftwood. But I don't have to tell the reader that Aviendha is a warrior recently forced to put aside her weapons; they already know that, and I can jump right into her dealing with an intruder.

What's interesting to me is that I don't feel like I had to learn to approach the stories differently, when I first waded into Yuletide a couple of years ago. Looking at those first fics (which haven't made it into this list), the only one that starts at all like an original story is also the one that starts from the perspective of an original character. It seems to have been natural for me to follow the structure of a fanfic, where you don't have to establish context to the same degree. Is that because it's somewhat like jumping to an interesting scene in a novel? Or something else? I don't know. The next question, of course, is whether fanfic has changed the way I start my short stories . . . but really, if I'm going to blame anything for a difference there, it's going to be all the time I've spent writing in a vaguely eighteenth- or nineteenth-century voice. (Man, is that hard to get rid of.)

This is good stuff for me to think about, though, because I'm going to be teaching a three-week writing course this summer (more on that later), and my students, who will be twelve and thirteen years old, may very well have written fanfic. So I'll want to watch out for the habits of that genre, where they may shortchange some of the work an independent short story has to do.
swan_tower: (*writing)
[personal profile] mrissa has posted her Minicon schedule, with a panel on which comes first: the story or the setting. To quote the description,
Which Came First

The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?

Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting -- hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?

(For simplicity's sake, I'm going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It's probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I've written.)

Cut for length; I have more novels than you guys know about. )

Final tally: seven for setting, seven-ish for story, two for character, and three that don't classify easily (two that were both setting and story as a package, and one that was a thematic argument). It's noteworthy that four of the seven counted as story-first are later books in a series. In one sense you would think sequels would be setting first, since the milieu is already fixed; but I'd argue they're more likely to be story first, since the books I counted that way are born not from their world, but from me having another plot I wanted to explore. For contrast, I can offer up one I forgot to include in the list, namely the second of Isabella's memoirs: that one came about via "okay, now I want her to go to a West African kind of place," with the plot built around it. It's a distinctly different trajectory for me than when the setting is just lying there, and I think up a plot.

Unsurprisingly, the prime failure mode for my projects appears to be when there's a big lag time between those two components -- one shows up without the other close behind. The end-of-the-world thing has a plot, but only vague sketches of a setting; ditto the epic fantasy one. The dream piece and the pirate one have cool settings, but I'm not quite sure where the story is going. All of those have been sitting around for years, going nowhere. Of the other unfinished projects -- the lady knights and the Japanese one -- both of those are just waiting for their moment, i.e. me to get a contract. I could write either in a heartbeat.

As for the novels that got written, but not well, I don't think there's a clear pattern, except that their disparate elements never came together like they should. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with their starting points.

<looks at the last two questions in the panel description> Nah, not gonna touch those. The answer to the first is "yes," and the latter presupposes one agrees that setting and story are "opposing forces." Ah, panel blurbs -- you say the silliest things, even for good topics.
swan_tower: (greenie)
After yet more whinging and moaning and telling myself I earned a break with yesterday's work, I made myself put my butt in the chair and start typing . . . and two thousand words later, I have hit the mighty 80K mark, which is the point at which this starts to feel like a Real Book to me.

Of course, this isn't the Onyx Court: I'm aiming for 90K total, rather than the nearly 160K that With Fate Conspire ended up clocking. So that particular boundary lies quite close to the Finished Book line right now. I still have various things that need fixing -- in fact, I've been revising as I go for a while, settling the characters who kept changing their names, putting guns on mantelpieces after I realized I needed to fire them somewhere in the 70K stretch, etc -- but I'm going to arrive at the end of this month with a passably decent draft, I think.

And that, my friends, is victory.

Edited to add -- bonus (spoiler-redacted) quote, to celebrate my achievement, and the fact that two finished copies of A Natural History of Dragons showed up today:
This is how I marched out of [place] toward [place] with what, at first glance, might understandably be mistaken for a small invading army.

Fortunately, the confusion was resolved before anyone fired upon us.
swan_tower: (greenie)
For a night when I really didn't want to start working and whinged and moaned about it and tried to convince myself I could get away with a night off (I really, really can't), those 3500 words sure fell out of my head awfully easy.

Especially given that my aim was only to write 2000 words tonight.

I could take the night off tomorrow, if I wanted. But I need to remember this part is fun, and also that getting the book done sooner rather than later is a good thing.
swan_tower: (*writing)
My senior spring of college, I was taking three courses, one of which was my thesis tutorial. After I'd turned that beast in, I was down to two courses, one of which I was taking pass/fail. In other words: I wasn't very busy. So -- because that semester was also my last chance to write material for this award -- I decided to see how much I could write in the final two months of college.

The answer ended up being "a novel and six short stories in seven weeks flat," which is a total I don't expect to equal again. But I spent most of November as a spinster hermit ([livejournal.com profile] kniedzw being in Poland for three weeks after I left), so I figured, as long as there was nobody around to look at me funny for working at all kinds of random hours and not having a social life, I might as well see how much I could write in the month of November.

As it turns out, I managed 59,144 words. (Which annoys me a little, since I thought I had hit 60K that final night. But apparently I did some math wrong in there.)

It isn't NaNoWriMo. I will almost certainly never do NaNoWriMo; I don't need the event to make myself write a novel (duh), and I know the pace would result in me writing a bad novel if I tried. Only 30,492 words of that is book, i.e. my standard working pace. The rest, the other 28,652, is a combination of other things: substantial blog posts (like the nearly 4K I wrote for my first ToM entry), promo stuff for A Natural History of Dragons, Yuletide material, progress on the short story that's trying to kill me, the beginnings of a new Driftwood story, etc.

Even changing up my focus like that, 59K was a lot to churn out in thirty days flat. I'm not a slow writer, but I'm also not one of those people who can do 4K days for an extended period of time. It was, however, good to work on gear-shifting between projects -- that's something I'm not great at, and could benefit from improving. My short story production has fallen off substantially these last couple of years, because it's hard for me to get my head out of whatever the current novel space is and find some kind of flow on a totally different setting and characters. There are more reasons for that than just gear-shifting, of course; it also has a lot to do with the increased investment my short story ideas are requiring, research and other things. But still and all: gear-shifting is a good thing to work on.

So that was my November. I still have two thirds of this book to go, so it's going to stay busy around here for a while. But all in all, a nicely productive month.
swan_tower: (Lies and Prophecy)
. . . I finished writing my first novel.

It seems an appropriate date to put up an Open Book Thread for Lies and Prophecy, the much-revised descendant of the book I completed that day.

The floor here is open for questions, comments, etc on the novel and related topics (including "Welcome to Welton"). Needless to say, this will involve spoilers, so you have been warned.

Now if you'll follow me behind the cut, I'll talk a bit about how the novel came to be.

When I was but a wee n00b . . . . )

Anything you want to know or respond to? The comment thread is yours!
swan_tower: (Maleficent)
[livejournal.com profile] alecaustin recently had a thought-provoking post on his LJ, riffing off some recent discussions about the people and issues that are "invisible" in fiction to talk about information density and how you can't fit everything into a story. In particular, there are certain kinds of topics that fit very badly indeed. He has a few examples of his own, but since I want to dig into this issue more deeply, I'm going to use one I know fairly well, which is the English Civil War.

One of the books I read when doing research for In Ashes Lie was called Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642. As the title suggests, its argument is that the wars of the mid-seventeenth century had their roots in the sixteenth -- which is exactly the kind of thing that's hard to convey in fiction, when the cause in question isn't a simple case of "this person was assassinated five generations ago, and we still bear a grudge for that." In particular, I'm going to tease out one economic strand for the purposes of our discussion here. If you're not interested in reading about that sort of thing (if you aren't, I can't blame you), then scroll on down; I'll get back to my point in a moment.

(Fair Warning: my point is long. And digresses along the way.)


Causes of the English Revolution, The Nutshell Version. )


The U.S. Civil War, or Shelby Foote 2.0 )


The Easy Reader approach )


The U.S.S. Make Shit Up )


Oddly, prophecy never seems to work like this. )


There are nine and sixty ways of addressing these problems, of course. More than that, really; there's at least one way for each story, and what works in one case may not work in another. You can tell a tightly-focused tale positioned at the exactly confluence of character and plot that will allow you to cover one issue in depth. You can tell a sprawling epic that throws everything and the kitchen sink into the book. You can invent reasons for the impersonal to become personal. You can back off to an omniscient narrator who will explain things to the reader more efficiently than a character ever could. You can be one of those amazing writers who manages to convey in a single sentence what most people would take a paragraph or more to do.

The right answer is the one you can make work for the story at hand.

Which is totally unhelpful to say. But it's nigh-impossible to get specific without specifics to apply it to. I know what I did for my books, and why, and what I would do differently now. I can dissect other authors' books and talk about what I would have done if they were mine. I just can't offer a generalized prescription that will apply to That Book Over There, The One I Haven't Read.

But I can toss my thoughts up on the Internet for others to read, and invite comments. I know [livejournal.com profile] alecaustin isn't the only one who has been chewing on this; I'd like to hear other people's thoughts.
swan_tower: (With Fate Conspire)

Jim Hines ([livejournal.com profile] jimhines) and I have been friends for a while, and so when he and I both wrapped up four-book series this summer, I suggested to him that we might have a conversation about the challenges of writing -- and most particularly ending -- a story that stretches across multiple books. We'll be sharing the results of that conversation with you today and tomorrow, the first half here, the second half over on Jim's site.

Who are we? Well, Jim is the author of seven fantasy novels and more than 40 published short stories. He's written about underdog goblin runts, ass-kicking fairy tale princesses, and is currently writing about a modern-day librarian who pulls ray guns out of SF books. He's also a moderately popular blogger, and caretaker of various fuzzy beasts. As for me -- if you're not already aware -- I'm the author of six fantasy novels and more than 30 published short stories, which puts me just a little behind him. I've written about people split in half (mystically, not with an axe) and faeries hiding out underneath London, and I'm currently writing about a nineteenth-century gentlewoman who travels around the world to study dragons and get into trouble, not necessarily in that order. I am a mildly popular blogger, and alas, have no fuzzy beasts to take care of -- unless you count my husband.

Our most recent books are, respectively, The Snow Queen's Shadow and With Fate Conspire.

Without further ado . . . .


Marie: There are a million books out there that will tell you how to write a novel, but I've never seen one that tells you how to write a series. Nobody tells you how to do that; it's something you figure out the hard way, after you've got a contract -- no pressure! And it's hard enough figuring out what to do in the middle, but sticking the landing . . . that's the real killer.

With Fate Conspire was really my first experience with ending a series. You had the goblin trilogy, so at least you'd done this once before; but me, all I had under my belt was the doppelganger duology. Those weren't even conceived of as a series, not originally; I wrote the first book to be a stand-alone, ending on something major happening, and then built the second around how people reacted to that event. It was a before-and-after model, which is relatively simple -- kind of like one long book. The Onyx Court series, on the other hand, was very different. Each plot stands more or less alone, but there's a certain amount of thematic and character arc across the four, which I felt needed to pay off in a satisfying fashion -- but without making the book something that would only make sense to people who had read the whole series.

How about you? What was it like writing Goblin War, versus Snow Queen's Shadow?

Jim: Don't you love writing a sequel to a book you never planned to write a sequel for? Goblin Quest was similar, very much written to be a complete, standalone book. I like to joke that of course I planned it all out and knew exactly what I was doing for all three books, but that would be total dung.

Writing the second goblin book was difficult. Ending the series was even harder. Even if each book could stand completely on its own, I was still ending a series. Expectations were higher. I wanted something big, something that brought a sense of closure.

I think closure was my biggest concern. I love that people e-mail me and try to convince me to do another goblin book, but generally it's because they love the characters, not because they feel like they've been left hanging. There needs to be a payoff, like you said. And before I could figure out how to write that payoff, I needed to figure out what the underlying themes and questions of the series were.

Unfortunately, I generally don't figure out my themes until after the fact ... if ever. With the princess books, I was halfway through book four when it clicked that I'd spent the whole series deconstructing and challenging "Happily ever after." So in addition to wrapping up some plot threads (will T get together with S or won't she?), I needed something that brought closure to the various ever-after storylines. For the goblins, it was more about survival -- so I needed to address how Jig and his fellow goblins were going to survive in the long run.

Your turn! What themes did you find yourself struggling to resolve in book four? And I'm curious, was there a point where it just felt too big? Writing one book is overwhelming enough, but when you're talking about four books worth of story and characters and setting and details...

Marie: Closure is exactly the kicker, isn't it? I got the same thing in response to the doppelganger books, people wanting me to write a third one. I won't be surprised at all if I get the same thing after With Fate Conspire. (In fact, I hope so. Otherwise it might mean I've ticked my readers off so thoroughly they've given up on me . . . .)

In my case, it's complicated by the fact that I may actually continue the Onyx Court series someday. Each book takes place in a different century, the sixteenth through the nineteenth; it would be cool to add the twentieth and twenty-first to that sequence. But right now that's just a possibility, and not one that will be happening any time soon. So I had to approach Fate with the mentality of, this is it. This is the end. How do I make it satisfying?

It helped a bit that when I decided to write sequels to the first book, I knew right away what some of the series' over-arching structure would be. There's actually three layers to it, which sounds very fancy when I think about it. Midnight Never Come (#1) and A Star Shall Fall (#3) share the characteristic of being more interpersonal, while In Ashes Lie (#2) and With Fate Conspire (#4) are driven by larger-scale conflicts: ABAB. It's also AABB, in that the first two books take place pre-Enlightenment (an important sea-change in society) and have Lune as one of the major protagonists, whereas the later books are more "modern" in feel and focus on other characters. And finally, it's ABBA: Ashes and Star form a pair around the Great Fire of London, whereas Midnight and Fate are about the creation and dissolution of the Onyx Hall. I also knew, as soon as I sketched out the progression of the series, that its focus would gradually slide down from the royal court of Midnight Never Come to the lower classes of With Fate Conspire.

But all of that didn't help me very much when it came time to plot out what was actually going to happen in the fourth book. Before I started writing, I sat down and did something I should have done from the start, namely, made a list of all the characters and locations and so on that had appeared in the story so far. Then I had to decide which ones were going to return in book four. My reflex, as you might be able to sympathize with, was to include ALL of them. There are two problems with that: first, it leaves no room for new stuff to be added, and second . . . this is supposed to be a book about the final days of the Onyx Hall. Lots of people are dead or fled, bits of the palace have disintegrated out of existence, etc. If everybody's still there, it isn't very convincing, is it?

Honestly, though, I think the biggest squid to wrestle came from history itself, rather than my own narrative canon. You want to talk "too big"? Try Victorian London on for size! They called it "the monster city" for a good reason. And I wanted to include a variety of stuff, not just the usual upper-class tea parties: Fenian bombings and the construction of the Underground and photography and dockworkers and evolution and all the rest of it. For everything I managed to work into the story, though, there's four more that just didn't fit, no matter how cool they were.

Did you feel the same impulse to go back to people and places we've seen before? Or did you have a lot of new things you wanted to incorporate? And whichever route you went, how did you try to ensure that you don't (as you said) leave people hanging? Wanting to see more of the characters you love is one thing, but quitting while there are still unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts is another.

Jim: See, that's exactly why I don't write books set in Victorian England...


Speaking of "unresolved," we'll break there, and you can pick up part two on Jim's site tomorrow. (I'll advertise the link once it's up.) Feel free to post questions either here or there!


swan_tower: (Default)

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