One Month Until NaNoWriMo

With NaNoWriMo coming up in a month, I’m not sure what to work on. There’s a distinct possibility that I might free-write 50k words.

With NaNoWriMo coming up in a month, I’m not sure what to work on. There’s a distinct possibility that I might free-write 50k words. That would probably be good for me. It will be an exercise in keeping-the-writing-fun and not-worrying-if-it-doesn’t-make-sense. First I need to come up with a character that I like, because I feel like that’s the main thing that keeps me writing.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting started on any other writing projects, so I’ve been spending most of my writing time revising last year’s Sovereign of Tel. I figure working on revisions has got to be better than doing nothing at all, right?

It’s actually been an interesting process. I’m really enjoying the story of one of the characters who was originally supposed to be a supporting character. As it turned out, the main character’s story isn’t all that interesting. So I’ve taken all the chapters from the supporting character’s POV and put them all together in a row and I’m working on trying to make it make sense.

Slightly Belated April Update

April’s update, where I come up with a thoroughly disgusting and grisly metaphor.

I was scheduled to finish the first draft of Tel on April 30. I think I did pretty well on that, in that I was indeed finished Monday night. Until I thought of a tiny thing I needed to add to resolve one plot line. Then on Tuesday morning I thought of one other tiny little thing I needed to add to explain what happened to one of the characters.

It made me think of that old logic puzzle (Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, I believe), which I will now adapt to the writing process: Suppose that each day a writer sits down to write, he finishes exactly half of what is left to write. How long does it take him to finish? The answer is forever! That’s pretty much what writing a novel is like. You never “finish” per se, because there is always an infinite number of things you can do to improve it. In order to move on, you have to make a conscious decision to abandon it. I imagine it’s something like having a baby, except that instead of nature performing the normal birthing process, you have to do it yourself by tearing the child from your flesh, leaving behind a massive, bloody cavity of organs, meat, and bone fragments.

Hrm. Yeah, that sounds about right.

So anyway, after I write those two tiny scenes, which I will probably do after I finish writing this post, I will be ready to abandon Tel. (Update written before posting: Those two tiny scenes are done!)

Then what? An excellent question. I am not scheduled to start my next project until June 1. I’ll have four full months to complete that one, so I expect I’m going to set an unprecedented word count goal of 150,000 for it. I used to think that my first novel submission needed to be 90k-100k, but even a 150k book is pretty short in the fantasy field. If I spend a few weeks planning, then the rest of the time writing, I should be able to meet that easily. Assuming there is enough story to fill 150,000 words, which is always a challenge.

In the intervening month of May I could do a number of things. 1) I could do nothing, which would obviously be the easiest thing, but not writing after months of writing would leave a hole in my life akin to the death of a loved one, which would leave me pretty depressed and likely to spend most of my off time playing uselessly unproductive MMOs, and then when June rolls around I won’t feel like writing and I’ll be out of practice to boot. So I’m not sure I like that path.

I could 2) continue working on the Tel draft because of the aforementioned infinite number of things I can do to improve it. However, that doesn’t seem like a productive thing to do either. It feels like this draft is at the point where it needs to be set aside to “simmer” so I can come back to it later. If I had alpha readers, this would be the point where I would send them some chapters to get some feedback.

Or I could 3) do some revisions on a previous draft. This is probably what I’m going to do. I’ll pull out Kubak Outpost, import it into Scrivener, and start revising it to fix all of the known problems in it. I was quite fond of that story but I know it has too many problems to submit it anywhere. If I spend a month correcting those problems (mainly rearranging the order of things, as I recall), I could possibly start sending out query letters for it in June, so I can start building my collection of rejection letters!

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.

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.

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.

Vence hires a mercenary

Another meta writing post. Yesterday I finally finished a scene between Vence, Ril, and Ali inside the castle. I know you don’t know who those people are, but I’ll get back to them. Chronologically, it is the most recent part of the story, but I kept stopping in the middle and going back to write other scenes, because frankly I’m not precisely sure how all these pieces are going to fit together so that Elenora can retake the castle. (This despite having written a nice outline for the whole story, which has been utterly useless after I passed the halfway point.) Anyway that was about 500 words, which I wrote in bits and pieces during the day.

The rest of my writing time went into another scene fairly early in the story, which I’ve had on my todo list for a while. Remember I mentioned Elenora’s mercenaries last time? Very early in the story, Elenora went to her old friend Vence Rollo and asked him to hire a mercenary force for her (because Vence is a bit of a rogue-ish character who has the connections for that kind of things).

The scene was from Vence’s POV, where he found and hired a man named Benton to put together and lead Elenora’s mercenaries. Chronologically it’s Vence’s first POV scene, and the introduction to Captain Benton, who has a relatively major role later in the story. (He’s one of those unplanned characters that just pops up out of nowhere.)

So I was thinking about how I could possibly make this scene even remotely interesting, because let’s face it, two people talking in a tavern is just not exciting. Excitement comes from conflict, and the only conflict I could think of was some kind of past history between these two. And since Vence has sort of a womanizing reputation, it had to be a woman, whose name was Hilena (or maybe it was Helina, I can’t remember). I didn’t go into many details about what happened, because it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this story. I just put in enough for the reader to know it was an awkward situation, and that it left enough of a scar on Benton that he still remembers it.

During the scene I also discovered more about the mercenaries, who have been sort of nameless, faceless bodies up until now. Most of them come from a company who calls themselves the Fireswarm, and they are skilled veterans who would be no match for any of the city guards, who Benton called "just kids." (Knowing that little detail means I will  need to revise a later scene where the mercenaries get roflstomped.)

Overall I wrote around 1,900 words, and even finished before 9:00, so it was a pretty good writing day.

Meta Writing

So I thought I would start writing a bit about what I’m writing. Get it? Meta-writing! It occurred to me that somebody out there might actually be curious about the process of writing, or the process of becoming a writer, and since I happen to be in the position of "aspiring writer," perhaps somebody else could benefit from my experiences. I know I would want to read something like that from another aspiring writer.

Also, I don’t know any other writers (especially genre fiction writers), so I don’t have anyone to "talk shop" with. So you’ll just have to suffer, because you can’t stop me!

The Story So Far

In these posts I thought I would just sort of write down my thoughts about what I wrote the previous day. But I guess I need to catch you up on what’s going on in the book first. So let’s see if I can summarize 60,000 words of story in a couple of paragraphs.

So my current WIP (work-in-progress for you non-authors) is a low fantasy story (no magic) basically about the aftermath of the death of a powerful ruler in a medieval-ish city called Tel. There is very little difference between the city of Tel and any other city from around the 14th century. The setting and really even the time period has little bearing on the story, as it turned out. (There are some cultural differences with the people living there, though, which will come up later.)

The story revolves around two families of powerful nobles in Tel: The Metherels and their rivals the Andalorans. Until recently, Ordicus Metherel was the Sovereign of Tel (like a king/mayor). Then the leadership fell to his son Hayden Metherel. Hayden was incompetent, so the leadership then passed to his sister Elenora Metherel. But then Garret Andaloran executed a coup and declared himself sovereign by force. So right now Elenora, after narrowly escaping with her life, is fighting to regain control of the sovereignty from Garret, who is holed up in the castle.

That’s the super-high-level view of the story so far. A large number of personal stories are mixed into that backdrop as well, which I won’t get into yet because I wasn’t writing about them last night.

The New Scene

The day after Garret took the castle, Elenora went to Commander Fers Hockley, the commander of the Tel Guard (basically the city’s police force), and asked him to surround the castle and not let anyone in or out. (Elenora lost most of her small mercenary force and doesn’t have enough men left to do so.) Hockley is a rather fickle, greedy commander who is known to follow whoever pays him the most gold. Elenora had to promise great sums of coins from her personal fortune to get Hockley to intervene and lay siege to the castle.

A few days later, it will be discovered that Hockley isn’t enforcing the siege and has been bribed by Garret to let the Andalorans in and out at will.

So the new scene I needed was a brief explanation of how that came about. In other words, Garret’s reaction to the castle being surrounded, which was to bribe Hockley.

The Andaloran perspective of events is told from the point-of-view of Mila Collato, who was once the fiance of Hayden Metherel, but left him to marry Garret Andaloran. (She is a rather ambitious, cold-hearted person.) As the scene begins, she walks into the audience hall (coincidentally) just as a guard captain arrives to tell Garret that the castle is being surrounded. Garret, knowing that Hockley is easily persuadable, calls for him and bribes him to ensure Garret can still send men in and out of the castle for supplies, thus effectively breaking the siege before it even starts. Then he bribes Hockley again to turn the Tel Guard against Elenora if she ever decides to attack.

A secondary component of the scene was some conversation between Garret and his council about making plans for war with Morland*, which is a side plot. The scene came out to 1,700 words of dialog mainly from Garret and Hockley.

Commentary

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I’ll admit that last night I was not in the mood to write, and this scene did not fill me with enthusiasm for writing. It was pure exposition, with no real conflict. It took me about two hours to get down those 1,700 words. Maybe two and a half hours. Which, for me, is somewhere slightly below average. It was one of those times that I kept counting up the words hoping I’d made it to my goal so I could quit already.

There is a rule of thumb in writing that scenes that are dull to write will also be dull to read, so that was in my mind the whole time. But I do think this scene will serve a greater purpose of building tension because the reader might worry more about Elenora’s chances of regaining the sovereignty, knowing that her siege isn’t going to work. (Elenora is the good guy in this scenario, by the way, if it wasn’t clear above.)

* Garret believes that neighboring country Morland will soon invade Balir. He believes it so strongly that he usurped the Metherels in order to get the country on a war footing. (Elenora, however, believes that putting Balir on a war footing may cause Morland to attack.)

March Writing Update

At the end of this weekend, I should be around 50,000 words into The Sovereign of Tel. I hope to be finished with a decent first draft by the end of April. I am not completely happy with it right now, but I’m soldiering on anyway in the hope that I can patch it up in a rewrite.

My coolest achievement for the month is this nifty spreadsheet to keep track of my word totals. It does nifty gradients and everything. I set a 7,500 word goal for Monday through Friday, and originally I set a 5,000 word goal for the weekend, thinking I would obviously have more time to write. Well, perhaps counter-intuitively, it turns out, after a week of a day job and writing, I don’t seem to have the energy to write a lot on the weekend. So now I’ve shifted it back down to the regular 3,000 words. (I can’t remember where I read it, so I can’t give credit, but somewhere I read that setting a weekly word count goal might work better than a daily word count goal. So far it’s working for me.)

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I have also planned out my writing schedule for the rest of the year, and hopefully every subsequent year. I will write a novel from January-April, take May off, then write a novel from June through September, then take October off, then do NaNoWriMo in November, and take December off. The idea is to write as many novel drafts as I can.

With this Tel book, I tried to outline everything in the book from beginning to end, so I wouldn’t get to the end and find myself struggling to figure out how to tie everything together like I usually do. Well, it didn’t work. My outline wasn’t detailed enough, and I still don’t know how to tie everything together. So lesson learned: Either a) Spend more time outlining the ending, or b) Just plan on “discovering” the ending no matter what.

I did a more detailed outline because I wanted to find out if I work better as an “outliner” than as a “discovery writer.” Outline writers plan everything out beforehand and work from that. Discovery writers basically make it up as they go, and fix continuity problems in a rewrite. Thus far I’ve been more of a discovery writer, but I wanted to try outlining.

As it turned out, I still deviated from the outline. So I guess even with an outline, I still want to “discover” things. On the other hand, an outline is very useful for giving me at least a framework of what’s going on, and at least a fuzzy idea of where things are going. When you’re staring at a blank page, it’s really helpful to bring up the outline and re-remember what’s supposed to be happening.

So I guess I’m sort of a half-outline, half-discovery writer. It seems like I outline to the point in the story where things need to start getting resolved, and then I start discovering. It’s kind of a frustrating way to work, actually.