Dissecting What Went Wrong

In the continuing saga of what to do with Airworld, I believe I have figured out why I don’t particularly want to continue it.

In the continuing saga of what to do with Airworld, I believe I have figured out why I don’t particularly want to continue it.

Somewhere along the way, the story stopped being fun to write.

It seems pretty obvious in retrospect. If it was fun to write, obviously I’d still be writing it. But what happened? This exact thing was something that Rachel Aaron addressed in her NaNoWriMo question-and-answer thread again and again. She advised not to continue writing something that wasn’t fun. She also advised that you should figure out why it isn’t fun to write, because it probably indicates a problem that needs to be fixed.

So after some thought, I think I know exactly when it stopped being fun: It was November 16, at the precise moment when Falclef rescued Naobi from the trial in Leavon.

I recall thinking at the time that there was something “off” about that rescue. I now realize what the problem was. Up until that point, Naobi was driving the story. She made the decisions that moved the plot along, be they good, bad, or indifferent. But when Falclef came along, she was helplessly carried away into a whole new setting and a whole new situation, getting tangled up with a rebel Order faction fighting a bigger war.

In my attempts to outline the rest of the story, I came up with a plot that took Naobi and Cheton away from Koerl and Falclef and that whole faction of rebel Order folk. I was overjoyed to get them back on their own, and now I realize that it’s because the rebel Order war with Dark Horizon is a whole different story.

Whew. Glad I figured that out.

Now I just need to figure out how to fix it.

What Would a Professional Do

So yeah, I’m still stuck on Airworld. The main obstacle I think is my complete lack of confidence in the outline I have sketched out for the rest of the book. It sounds like it will be terrible. Nothing makes sense, nobody is anywhere for a reason, entire plotlines are pointless and stupid. And what’s worse, according to my 3-books-a-year schedule, I should be starting a new book in February. That’s less than a month away, if you’re somehow unable to look at a calendar.

Let’s look at this like a professional writer. Let’s imagine that I’m under contract to deliver the first draft of a book by February 1. What would I do?

Well, I’d finish the book, that’s what. Because if I didn’t, I would develop a reputation as one of those temperamental writers who is hard to work with, and that’s probably not good, particularly for a new author. Seems pretty simple and straightforward.

Does it matter if I deliver a book with a sucky ending? My internal editor screams, “Of course it matters! Your entire life and reputation is riding on this!!” That’s probably not exactly true. But still, as someone who is supposed to be a pro, it’s not ideal. My theoretical publisher is probably expecting something they can sell. But then it’s still a first draft, the worst version of any book. I certainly wouldn’t be the first author to write a lame ending. Perhaps a theoretical editor could provide some tips to make it better. It’s also remotely possible that it’s not as bad as I think. Unlikely, but possible.

Okay, well that was easy. A pro would write the ending, deliver it, and move on.

But now let’s look at it from the view of an aspiring author who’s never published anything. Which is very realistic because that’s what I am.

My business goal right now is enticing an agent to represent me. That means I need to send out query letters. That does NOT mean I need to send out full manuscripts. If an agent is intrigued by a query letter, they will probably want to see only the first few chapters as a sample, NOT the full manuscript. They might also want a summary of the entire book. But if an agent is intrigued they will eventually want the full manuscript, so I should have it finished and ready to deliver, even if it still needs work.

So I still need to write an ending. However, re-writing the first few chapters is far more important at this point. Which means I should hurry up and finish the ending, then spend a little time revising the beginning. Then write queries. Then move on to the next project.

Outlining The Rest of Airworld

I’ve not forgotten about Airworld. I’m outlining the remainder of the story. I find that I can only be a pantser up to a certain point (usually that point is about now, where the story needs to start moving toward a resolution), at which time I really have to sit down and figure out how to resolve things without using magical faery dust.

In this case it’s harder than I might have expected, because Airworld became  rather complex, and there are many threads flying about loose right now. I suppose this is why writers always advise you to know your ending before you start. It’s good advice, but extremely difficult for me. Unless you count something like, “Then they figured everything out. The end.”

Anyway, for those interested in the writing process, I started by writing a synopsis of the story so far, where I wrote roughly a paragraph covering each chapter. This was quite instructional in itself, because it’s the first time I’ve looked at an overhead view of the story since I started. I’ve already identified plenty of places to make revisions just from that.

After that I tried to identify the questions that were raised in each chapter and wrote those questions after the paragraph. I imagined each paragraph to be one of those old-time movie serials, where at the end the narrator says something like, “Will our hero find a way to get out of the boxcar before it plunges off the cliff? Tune in next week to find out!” And it would be in that old-timey over-excited radio voice where they speak ten times too fast. Mine aren’t that dramatic though – more like, “Will Naobi find the Council of Life?” or “Will Garath’s plan work?”

Through trial and error I’ve discovered that questions phrased to give simple yes/no answers seem to provide better focus on the plot. For example, “Will Cheton make it back to the group?” As opposed to, “How will Cheton deal with being separated from the group?” Questions with more open-ended answers leave me with too much room to make up new sections of plot, as opposed to writing along a pre-determined course.

After that I will make another pass through those questions and figure out which ones have already been answered, and which ones still need answers. That will hopefully inform the direction of the rest of the story.

The Sovereign of Tel Draft Completed

I have finished what could loosely be defined as a “first draft” of The Sovereign of Tel. Now what??

Okay, here’s the sitch. I have finished what could loosely be defined as a “first draft” of The Sovereign of Tel. (Although, technically, it is the third draft of the March project. It’s hard to define these things. The first revision might not count since it was a totally different story and world.)

Now I face the same dilemma I had after I finished a draft of Kubak Outpost. I’ve imported everything into Scrivener for Windows, which, sadly, is the best thing out there for novel management on Windows, as far as I can tell. So now I can look at the draft from a very high level for the first time. (I used WriteMonkey during the actual writing.)

Wow, it needs work. I can clearly see that I wasn’t really into it through the entire first half of the draft. Almost all of it would need to be redone before I would feel comfortable with it. Also, the focus of the novel changed over time. Also, some sub-plots were started but I could never work them back in later. Also, it doesn’t really have a beginning.

So here’s my question. (If any of the Writing Excuses folk happen to see this, it would be an awesome topic for a podcast.) I’ve written this draft, but I know it needs work. Should I a) shelve it and go to my next project, and try not to repeat the same mistakes, or b) take some time to fix it up now while it’s still fresh in my mind?

Decision, decisions.

Subject-less Sentences

I noticed another little trick Suzanne Collins used to pull readers along at breakneck speed in The Hunger Games. I hadn’t noticed it in the first two books, but I saw it often in Mockingjay, the last book.

She often clips the subjects off of sentences, especially in scenes of intense action or confusion. For example, she might take a paragraph like this:

I walk into the room. I open the curtains. Then I put some clothes in the washing machine.

And turn it into this:

I walk into the room. Open the curtains. Put some clothes in the washing machine.

It reads ten times faster, but it also seems to devalue the action occurring in those clipped sentences, as if the narrator doesn’t consider it important. It all sort of blurs together, and the eye just skips over them. It almost feels like this:

I walk into the room. Yada yada yada.

I don’t really have an opinion on whether it’s good or bad, it’s just something I noticed. Another tool for the tool belt.

Stay tuned for what I hope will be a Hunger Games wrap-up post, because I’ve been writing way too much about it lately.

Monday Meta (4/9/2012)

Not much to say about yesterday’s writing. I worked on another "beginning" scene, from Ordicus Metherel’s POV the night he falls into a coma, which sort of sets the whole book into motion. I am still not happy with it, so the search for a way to start this book continues. (This one fails because there is too much information delivered. It’s really frickin’ hard to introduce a new world in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader.)

The other scene I worked on was sort of an introspective look at Mila the night after she went off on Hayden. Those are the kinds of scenes I generally prefer to write (getting inside characters’ heads), especially when I find my interest in a story fading. I still haven’t quite figured out what is motivating her actions, though. She has become a much bigger character than was even intended.

An Unintended Day Off

Yesterday was an epic fail of a writing day, the biggest failure in recent memory.

Yesterday was an epic fail of a writing day, the biggest failure in recent memory. I suppose I could lie and say I was too busy with Easter festivities, but the truth is that I didn’t do anything special and in fact had the same amount of time for writing that I always do on Sundays.

I managed to write a single sentence during the day. Actually, I wrote two versions of the same sentence. (Because someone asked, that sentence was: “Mila thought the man deserved a beating for displaying such insolence in front of the sovereign.”) Then, around 9:00 pm, I buckled down to put 2,000 words on the page before bed no matter what … and got through about 100 words before giving up for the night.

This is becoming a worrisome problem (the inability to write on weekends). Suppose I were a full-time writer. Every day would essentially be a weekend. Then I’d be totally screwed. I need to figure this out.

It’s also worrisome that I haven’t been much “into” this Tel book for the past few days. Supposedly that means I need to go back and find the “spark” that made this project interesting to me in the first place. Or I just need to quit getting distracted. Or something.

Burning Grain, New Characters, and Names

Vence rescued the prisoners. In the process he spawned a new character, and made me wonder if flour burns. Plus, where do I get these wacky names from?

Yesterday’s writing: Vence rescued the Metherel cousins from the castle prison. Of course, as planned, he was caught in the process. Then I started a new chapter from Mila’s POV, where Lord Garret receives the news that someone has poisoned his troops, burned up his food stores, and freed his prisoners. He goes to have a chat with Vence, now a prisoner.

There’s another “getting things right” issue I worry about here. Does flour burn? :) I have no idea. I’m just assuming that if you dump lamp oil on a bunch of sacks of flour and grain and then set them on fire, they would actually burn. I seem to recall stories of grain silos exploding, and I think they did something like that in Mythbusters. I’m also making the possibly bold assumption that a fire would actually burn for a while inside a closed stone room inside a castle.

A new character popped up in these scenes: Cedrec the steward. I don’t know if “steward” is the historically correct job title for him, but he’s the guy who handles all the mundane bits of running a castle and reports to the lord. (In GoT terms, he might be the “Hand of the King.”) Basically I needed someone to wake up Lord Garret and tell him something bad happened, and it didn’t seem like something a lowly guard or servant would do.

It’s kind of annoying when a new character appears like this, because now I have to start thinking things like: Where did he come from? What does he look like? What’s he sound like? What does he wear? Did he work for the Andalorans before, or did he come with the castle? Is he like that guy in the White House who’s there through all the different administrations to manage the staff? But if he is, wouldn’t that be kind of awkward to work for the guy who just violently overthrew the previous castle owner? And it just goes on and on. And I’ll have to go back and insert him into some previous scenes, too.

You might be wondering where I get these names. (You probably aren’t, but that’s what I’m going to write about anyway). For this book, I use this supposedly census-based Random Name Generator with the obscurity factor set to 99 until I find something I like. Many of the names I use unchanged, which tells me there are a lot of people in the world with fantasy-sounding names. Here’s one that just came up: Indira Dilgard. That could be a character in this book. And another: Margit. A good first name for a woman. And here’s two more: Coretta and Gayle. I try to use somewhat modern-sounding names and surnames for the Elahi in Tel. The Buhites, on the other hand, typically get one or two syllable, simple names (Ril, Ali, Swen, etc.). (Like one might give to a pet.)

Rescue In Progress

In this meta writing episode, Vence begins rescuing prisoners.

Only wrote 800 words yesterday, which still put me 500 words over my 5-day goal. Most of those words went into the continuation of Vence’s subversive mission to bring down the castle. After poisoning the well, his next goal is to rescue Hayden and three Metherel cousins from the prison. (Except when he gets to the prison, only the three cousins are there. Mila took Hayden upstairs the day before.) The two guards at the prison are easily dispatched, so now he’s ready to open the cell doors. Not much to say about it, really, except I thought the guards were a little too easily dispatched (but really, they deserved it, since they were not paying attention). I might go back and make it a little harder in a revision.

Poison and Pain

Writing about castle wells, medieval poisons, and pain without cliches.

In the continuing adventures of authoring The Sovereign of Tel:

First I wrote about Vence, who had infiltrated the castle, starting his plan to weaken it from the inside. First he had Ali (the cook) add some poison to the food supplies going to the castle soldiers, then, after dark, he dumped a bunch of poison into the castle’s well.

When I’m writing about medieval life, I worry a lot about "getting things right." So when I put an indoor well into this castle, I wasn’t sure if actual castles had indoor wells, even though, to me, it seems like a pretty logical thing to do. If you’re building a castle to withstand sieges for months on end, you would need to have some supply of water inside the castle walls, right? So why not build it inside the keep so it would be super convenient? I couldn’t think of any reason this couldn’t be done with 14th century technology. I found a few references to castle wells in my primary research sources (Google), so I feel pretty good about that bit.

What I’m not confident about is the poison that Vence is using. I made up something for the text with a note to come back and review it later. He gave Ali one "bottle" to put in the food, and he dumped about a gallon of "stuff" into the well. Is that enough to make everyone sick? Is it too much? Is it even possible to make people sick without killing them? Would anyone in the 14th century know how to do that? I have no idea. Somehow I don’t think I’m going to find a lot of references to "how medieval poisons worked" on Google, either. (Boy, was I wrong.)

After that scene, I worked on a revision/continuation of a scene fragment that occurs at about the same time. Hayden Metherel (Elenora’s brother) is held prisoner in the castle. Mila Collato, in her continuing efforts to degrade, humiliate, and generally cause pain to Hayden, has him chained to a wall. Mila gets too close to him and he lashes out and tries to choke her to death. Mila has a bit of a meltdown (somewhat understandably under the circumstances) and ends up whipping him senseless.

Hayden and Mila are tough characters to write. They are both messed up in different ways. This scene was Hayden’s POV, but we get to see just how close to the brink of sanity Mila treads. It’s definitely one of the most emotionally turbulent scenes in the book so far. (It’s not clear to me why Mila is so close to the brink of sanity, or why she has such a grudge against Hayden, but I feel like that will come out soon.)

The biggest challenge writing this scene was avoiding clichés. I try to notice when I’m using a cliché phrase in my writing, and come up with alternate phrasing. For example, in describing the pain of being flogged, the cliché phrase would be something like: "Pain exploded in his back" or "the world erupted in pain" or something like that. I sooo wanted to write that, but I forced myself to think of something else. What I came up with was, "When the lashes of the whip landed on his back, pain overloaded all of his nerves." Not terribly dramatic, but at least it’s different.

The other cliché thing I tried to avoid was where the character thinks to himself, "I won’t scream," and then they do scream. (Usually in a paragraph by itself.) That’s been done way too much. So Hayden did in fact tell himself not to scream, but I left it sort of ambiguous as to whether he did or not. He thinks he didn’t scream, but things were pretty fuzzy. "Time became something he couldn’t perceive."

You can probably tell by now that I skip around a lot when I’m writing. It was a revolutionary moment for me as a creative writer when it sunk into my head that you don’t have to write everything in the exact order it happens. I highly recommend it.

I started my writing evening early, and I pushed myself until I passed 70,000 words total, so I ended up with 2,500 for the day, finishing about 9:15. So it was pretty good writing day. I only have to write a handful of words Friday to make my 8,000 word weekday goal.