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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gap Filling

Many writers, even non-outliners, purposefully move forward with the story, leaving all expansion, clarification, and enhancement of plot points for another draft or revision cycle. Sometimes I'll do that, too, but mostly my peculiar muse requires me to stop and add in those little "discovery bits" that crop up along the way. Yes, this slows me down, but as I have said many times, for me the very act of putting words on paper spurs new ideas. And this is not limited to forward writing, but encompasses these small rewrites, as well. As the insights that spur them often occur when I've just completed a scene and I'm assessing Where To Go Next, this is another way of kick-starting myself into the next scene.

Here are a couple of today's examples.

As I was glancing over my worldbuilding notes on magic, wondering if I made any mention of ghosts, [Did I mention we were going ghost hunting?] I reviewed my glossary of magical terms. When I was sketching out Sabria's magic, I made a distinction between a spell and a ritual. Spells are individual enchantments, worked according to a formula with certain particles (objects). Spells have a focus--the thing or person to be acted upon, a sphere of influence, a nexus or center of potency, and they are often attached to some receptacle - a carrier, so to speak. Ritual, on the other hand, is a combination of spells, often with multiple practitioners, bound together by an enclosure and designed for some great work: caelomancy or weather ritual, terromancy or earth ritual such as planting or harvest magic, or vitomancy - a healing ritual.

I had forgotten this (spell/ritual) distinction, and decided that the magical occurrence I wrote last week [yeah, that agonizing harbor scene] would certainly qualify as ritual and not a single enchantment. I had tried to complicate the magic so it could not be easily dissected by my investigators, but by recasting it as a ritual, its complications were inherent and needed less explanation. By rewriting two small paragraphs, I was able to simplify my aftermath, plus reveal more about the world. To make the scene work, I had to rechoreograph, which caused me to rework the emotional context of one character and eventually will allow me to throw suspicion on a character I want to be falsely accused of Bad Stuff. I don't have to devise yet another scene to do those things. Yes, yes, yes.

The second small rewrite occurred as I considered motivations and the old who-knew-what list. Early in the story I introduced a magical artifact, a spyglass which caused a fairly spooky reaction in those who looked through it. I'm not sure where this fits into my villains' plot - I just liked it. It was a prime mover in getting this secret investigation plot moving. In essence I am investigating this spyglass right alongside my fearless trio. Because I know so little, this is a plot device that insists that new material be written in as I go. What would a sorcerer do with this glass that shows him very ugly things?

He looks through it. He examines it carefully and discovers that it is not expertly made. And then he takes it apart. Inside he discovers a lensmaker's mark. And Portier intends to find out who made it. This, of course, forces me to think about who made it, and I realize that it was not the people I thought. It forces me to ask a question - "why aren't the villains tearing the place apart looking for this thing?" - a question which my investigative team had never asked. Ooops! And the thing is, once I went back and inserted the question, it had to instill doubt - which is a twisty plotter's reliable right hand. And once knowing who had truly made this thing gave me motives. Every scene is stronger if the participant's motivations are clear.

Now, back to ghost hunting...and now I know what we're going to find!

Making a stronger case - unraveling the spyglass mystery
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Friday, April 18, 2008

Critical Mass

Astonishing how a week can change things. Has it already been a week? How time does fly when one is immersed in the Work. After almost a week of floundering, researching, consulting, analyzing, and cracking skull on keyboard, I got moving on the harbor scene. It flowed. I love it when I've gathered enough information, motivation, world building details, and plot elements that I can immerse myself in the scene without stopping to look things up. The worst thing I have to worry about is communicating how the tall, carved posts with the bird capitals form a great rectangle on the pleasure barge and that silk draperies and canopies are hung from them. I would like to make the posts curve outward so that when they fix new ropes between them to hang the celebration banners brought on board, the banners will obscure some of the silk draperies, but still leave space between. But I need to describe all this in a matter of a few words so we don't interrupt the action. Well, ok, I won't worry about the outward curve (though it would look really cool.)

As I write I do find myself changing some details as I go. Halfway through the scene I move the oarsmen from "belowdecks," when I realize from looking at every pleasure barge picture I can find, that yes, some barges have decks, but these are really shallow draught vessels and you can't necessarily fit men and oars underneath. All the pictures show them on the "main level." But this doesn't mean they are on the deck. They can be in an open hull part of the barge. OK. That works. I put them in the stern, because that seems like the "back of the bus" and the guests would be in the bow, but pictures show that lots of rowing barges put the rowers in the bow - facing backward for rowing, of course, with the bargemaster facing forward. I like the look of the picture I found. So I adjust the words and put them in the bow and the main "gallery" is in the stern. Move everyone around. It works. And then comes the disaster...

...in the story, not the writing (I hope!)...and then comes the magic
that was the reason for all this research and setup. And the magic doesn't come from the place Portier thought it would. And people die. And Portier's expectations, illusions, and hopes are crushed. Action only has meaning in the reactions of the characters.

Did you know that there are Naval Field Medical Manuals online, that tell about phosphorus burns and treatment? [I am smiling here.] Which leads into the "aftermath" chapter. Because when everything goes wrong/blows up/turns south, our heroes have to regroup. Which is another whole chapter!!

Portier is wounded - not something a librarian is accustomed to. It's only small, but leads to interesting revelations about our sorcerer. The character interaction is the most fun - I really have to be careful about too much talking heads in this story. With a mystery, there are clues and interconnections to be analyzed, especially when everything you think you've figured out is proved wrong. I'm going to have to figure out some different way to do this...

And so it goes. I know several things that have to happen next. A visit to Collegia Magica Seravain is one of the big ones. But I think...we may have to go ghost hunting first. Now where did that come from??????

Stay tuned...

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sometimes It Takes a Village

It really chaps me when I hear an aspiring writer say,

I write fantasy because you can make your world be whatever you want. If you write science fiction, you have to learn all that science; if you write a historical or contemporary or mystery, you have to do so much research. Fantasy is so much easier.

Bite your tongue! It's no wonder so many readers (and other writers!) don't take fantasy seriously! So why does this strike me so hard at this point?

This has been a tough week. I am writing the culminating scene of my first arc, where the spooky music [I hope!!] we've been hearing bursts into action and leads us onward. I was delighted when I got the idea to merge this bit of excitement with the idea of a world on the brink of great discoveries--the launch of the Destinne, a ship of exploration. But after enjoying writing several little incidents and encounters that lead us to think Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, I had to actually write the big scene. And instantly, I got into trouble.

First, I woke up Monday morning with the realization that I was going to launch a ship of exploration, but the city where I've been working is in the middle of Sabria! Duh. Well, it does sit on a river. [World-building reminder: cities grow up in places where there are resources. Castles are built where there is something worth defending or someone you need to keep in or keep out.] I did not want to move Merona to the seaside, so I needed to learn something about river ports and ocean-going ships. Most rivers can't support that large a vessel. So count a day for hunting the internet for examples of inland ports - London is a great example. Hmmm...tidal influences on rivers...how far inland?

And then, of course, I needed to know what kind of ship this was. Fortunately a friend had given me a book called The History of Ships. This is a pretty dense little book that tells me a lot more about ships than I really want to know. My characters aren't going to sail on one...or are they? Where will we be as the Destinne sets sail...?

Anyway, I settle on a Portugese caravel as the model of the Destinne. Caravels were the ships most often used in voyages of exploration, as it happens. The Nina and the Pinta were caravels, as were Vasco da Gama's and Bartholomew Diaz's ships--the names take shape out of fourth grade history... But if Portier is going to be an eyewitness to this ship's launch as well as the Events surrounding it, then I need to know what he sees. It is time to call in help.

I am fortunate to know a small group of fellow writers, some published, some un-, who enjoy sharing information and expertise. One of these lovely people happens to have just done a lot of ship research for her own book. And another happens to be an expert on sailing, as well as a history major and Anglophile and avid reader of novels set in the Age of Sail. What is "warping" a ship? What is different about dealing with a river as opposed to a seaport? [Thank you, thank you, Susan and Di.]

And I learn that Elizabethan era river ports are not necessarily what we think of as harbors today, so I go online and find resources that tell me a lot about the history of the port of London. [Oh my gosh, there is so much! You can see maps of the port listing whose wharves were whose or you can read letters from American businessmen in the 1700s who come to London to buy stuff to ship home... Astonishing the resources that are out there!] OK, merchants' wharves exist. And when I need to place my characters somewhere not on the ship of exploration itself, but to watch it go, I start reading about pleasure barges that have been used on the Thames since before Elizabeth's day. Which also tells me something about what kind of river Sabria's River Ley must be - not rough and tumble, but wide and deep and placid.

If fantasy is so easy and needs no research, then how the heck am I going to put my reader vividly at Portier's side as he sees events unfold? And how am I going to devise a magical event to awe and surprise both spectators and readers, while feeling right? For as soon as I get a few nautical details on the page (not too much, even after several days of research, I want only just enough to make it real) I have to figure out the Event itself.

Two days of speculating, theorizing, woodling, rearranging, investigating motives, trolling through a book called Ancient Inventions [Did you know that hand grenades were used during the Crusades or that Aristotle wrote about divers using underwater breathing apparatus?] and the like lead me to the conclusion that I need science first, maybe science that looks like magic. That means I call in my primary scientific consultant, the Spouse. [He is worth an entire series of posts of his own, but let us say that this is a person of wide-ranging interests in all things mechanical, electrical, automotive, anatomical, and scientific - especially the odd.]

I present my problem. I need this under these constraints. I sort of thought maybe something like... An hour's discussion came up with a great way to cause the highly visible attack that I want.

Now it is Saturday and after tweaking the "gathering of all the people scene" yet again, I am ready to warp the Destinne, and unfurl the jib to bring her around, while Portier stands right under the artifact that will threaten to annihilate King Phillipe yet again. And then my broody sorcerer will... No, I'm not telling.

Thanks, everyone. I want my fantasy to feel real and I can't do it without you.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Slitting Open Your Chest

No, this post is not a how-to for the darker aspects of fantasy fiction. This has to do with one of the writer's hardest tasks. Two weeks ago I handed out the prologue and first two chapters of Unholy Alliance to my critique group. And yesterday was D-day - the meeting where I would hear their first critique. Putting your work--your vision--your beloved characters and passionate prose--in front of others for the first time is a tough, but necessary part of the writing life.

Perhaps some writers' brains are capable of distinguishing the prose/characters/story the they intended to put down from the prose/characters/story they actually put down. Mine is not. I can write,

"He took chance on love"

and read it over fifty times never missing the "a" because my brain believes I wrote it. In the same way, I can write an action scene that plays perfectly in my head, but a reader will say, "Where the heck did those fifty cavalry men come from?" or "Weren't his eyes still closed when he shot that arrow?"

I need fresh eyes to look at my work and tell me what's confusing. What's missing. What they believe they have learned about the characters, the mystery, the world. I make the judgment as to whether they've learned what I want or experienced what I intend. Critique is a list of symptoms. The writer must diagnose the disease. It is not even the task of the critiquer to offer solutions, though sometimes I'll ask what might have worked better.

I am fortunate to have six excellent writers who read my work (and I read theirs as well, because you can learn just as much about writing from critiquing as from being critiqued.) I was a bit nervous about handing out these first chapters. When I handed out the first chapter of Flesh and Spirit, which I thought was much more polished than these, they hammered me for a number of problems - nicely, of course. So what was the verdict?
Overall, a great reception. Whew! Best: they enjoyed Portier's voice as narrator, and the developing relationship between my three investigators. They liked the magic, and the background of the conflict between science and magic, though there were clearly some places where I had left ambiguity. Does "blood-borne magic" imply that you have to prick your finger every time you work magic? No, no! It means "genetic" - inherited! And using actual blood in spellmaking is actually an important nastiness, because it can (and does) lead to all sorts of terrible crimes.

The biggest negative? Yes, I knew the short prologue, which is an introduction to our narrator and how he got involved in the mystery, would garner some negative reactions. It violates a couple of accepted standards for "openings." Will I change it? Not yet. I still think it might work. I'm anxious to hear from a member who was not there yesterday, to see if any comment jars me out of thinking I want to leave it as is.

Some authors disdain critique groups, saying that they don't believe in "writing by committee," and yet they will swear by their "first readers" who might be a wife or a good friend. Yet a first reader who does nothing but tell you how great a writer you are is just as useless as having a critique group that believes you should rewrite your story to please any or all of its members or accept 100% of their suggested line edits. A good first reader will give meaningful, useful critique. And a good critique group is just a set of good first readers. I value mine enormously.
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