Monday, September 29, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Bottom of the Tenth, Two Outs, Full Count

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
Technically, it's not my turn to blog this week, but I missed my turn two weeks ago and the Muse is exhausted anyway, so she told me I could take her slot. The Muse is exhausted, by the way, because she and Renee just pulled together three weeks of plotting work in about three days.

Because we got off track again. We didn't account for how much time Renee was going to lose to planning, executing, and recovering from yet another family event. (These fleurking kids of hers just keep insisting on having birthdays. . . ) Last time this happened, the Inner Editor helped me talk Renee into hiring the Project Manager. Now that it's happened again, we thought maybe we should actually consult him.

Now Gantt charts and timelines and 32-week rotations are all well and good when it comes to planning for the next big home invasion--because the holidays will be here before you know it and so will the grandparents--but they don't really do much for fixing the immediate problem. Once we got the new plan worked out, we were still due to start writing the next draft of Guardian in less than a week and all we had to show for our plotting was a couple of character sketches and a stack of random brainstorming notes.

Could Renee have just said "bring it" and blindly flung herself full speed at a blank document? Sure. But I'd like to think we've all learned to be a little more circumspect by this point. Renee doesn't have time to be that kind of a panster anymore. We've committed to getting things worked out ahead of time from now on. So we decided we'd just have to take that one week and cram as much effort into it as possible.

I did some of my finest cheering. The Inner Editor wisely made herself scarce. And the Muse gritted her teeth, cracked her knuckles, stretched her neck, rolled her shoulders, and shouted, "Keep the coffee coming all night. No rest for the wicked!"

She really went all in.

Here's a picture of Renee hard at work:*

It's rally cap time!
I think we're going to start using that one as her profile icon whenever she's up against a deadline from now on.

The result: we are plotted, baby! Act summaries, scene lists, character sketches, settings, the whole shebang.

Technically, there are some minor characters we haven't quite nailed down yet and some of the settings are nebulous at best, but the Project Manager ran his numbers and gave us the green light. We are going ahead.

Not the prettiest victory, maybe. We pretty much stole our winning run after a fielding error rather than knocking a grand slam out of the park or something. But at the end of the day we're putting this one in the W column and that's all that counts.

*If you're not a baseball person, it's a thing to wear your cap inside out (which turns it into a rally cap) when your team is behind and you're superstitiously hoping your fashion choices will spur them to victory. The tradition was supposedly started by the NY Mets, most notably in game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Though Renee and I aren't sure how accurate that is, since the only baseball fans she knows also happen to be Mets fans. Wikipedia seems to agree with them though, so that's. . . not actually saying much at all.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Renee's Reading: The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire

First up, a little housekeeping: You may or may not have noticed the change to title format up there. If you did, you've probably already guessed that I'm going to be doing these Friday posts differently from now on. I'm only going to be reviewing one book, and while it'll be something I've read recently, it won't necessarily be from last week.

I never intended to force myself into a pattern of reviewing every book I read every week. In fact, way back when I started doing this, I decided I was not going to do that, because I knew it wouldn't work. But, you know, compulsions are what they are and I ended up rolling right through that preemptive stop sign (surprise!) and somehow I ended up going there anyway.

And, as I told myself way back then, I've come to the point where I just can't keep that up anymore. I've realized that when I try to review every book I read in a week, the posts tend to get really, really, really long. They take too long to write, and I'm assuming they're probably obnoxious as hell to try to read. I don't have that kind of time and I doubt you do either.

So, one book review a week from here on out. And I thought I'd start off with the latest release by one of my absolute favorite authors. Because I'm the driver here and that means I get to control the radio station.

The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire
Toby thought she understood her own past; she thought she knew the score.

She was wrong.

It's time to learn the truth.

Well, that's not much of a blurb to go on, is it? Though with that gorgeous cover, who needs a blurb? Holy fleurking schmidt, just shut up and TAKE MY MONEY!

When I first saw the cover, I guess I wasn't looking too deeply and I just thought Toby's shirt and some of the flowers were red. Then I saw someone commenting about "all that blood" and looked again and thought Weeeeeeell, that certainly changes things. Oh dear. Things are not going to go well for Toby in this one, are they?

As I sit here to write this review though, I think I understand why the blurb is so. . . vague. I can't come up with any way to sum up or hint at the events in this book without spoiling major things. Toby spends a lot of time getting whammied in this book and I would hate to ruin that for anyone.

That said, don't go into it expecting to read the whole thing with your jaw hanging open. There are some big moments, but I've mentioned before that McGuire has a great way of leaving bread crumbs for the reader who is paying attention. So not all of the big reveals felt like total shockers to me, though none of them were obvious to me either. I figured things out just far enough ahead of Toby to make myself feel clever without thinking she was missing the point. Very nicely done.

Plus, all my favorite things from these books were there. The magic. The humor. The action. The atmosphere. The Luidaeg. (I love the Luidaeg. I would wish for a whole series of books just about the Luidaeg, but I fear the intensity of such a thing would kill us all.)

And speaking of the Luidaeg, I think this might go down as one of my favorite exchanges ever:
Her lips quirked in a weirdly mischievous smile. "I mean, damn. Some people shouldn't be allowed to wear leather pants. He's one of them. He's a clear and present danger when he puts those things on. Or takes them off."

"And now you're creeping me out." I said. "It's a long drive to Pleasant Hill. Maybe you could save the creepy for the halfway point?"
Oh, and have I mentioned before how much I love Tybalt? Of course I do. He's wonderful. (His words, not mine. Though I don't disagree.) He such a perfect man. Possessive and protective and completely bad ass, without being a domineering alpha-hole in even the slightest way. He's sexy and charming and intelligent and I am utterly smitten.

*sighs* *daydreams about Tybalt* *loses track of time*

. . .

. . .

. . .

*smacks self* *surreptitiously wipes drool off the keyboard*

Where was I again? Oh, yes, The Winter Long and all its awesomeness. This is a great story with compelling characters, a rich magical world, and adventure that kept me flipping pages just as fast as my Kindle app would allow. It's a fantastic novel in a fantastic series, and I would happily give it ALL THE STARS and then some if I did the star-rating thing.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it? If not, why the heck not?!? Go read it. Go read them all, and everything else Seanan McGuire has ever written, up to and including any grocery lists she may have inadvertently discarded.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Worst Thing

I got an email last week from NaNoWriMo, reminding me that November is nearly upon us. I hope not to be officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year. My goal is to finish the zero draft of Guardian by the end of November and I'm aiming to be a good 60k into it by the time that month starts so I can take it easy around Thanksgiving. Of course, if I end up behind schedule. . .

Anyway, I got to thinking about NaNoWriMos past and, since I just finished up the final plotting stages of Guardian, I happened upon a relevant anecdote in my memory banks that I thought I'd share with you.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was at an evening write-in event. We were all clacking away furiously on our keyboards and over-caffeinating and advising one another to kill off troublesome characters--with fire!--and generally enjoying the NaNoWriMo atmosphere.

But the person sitting next to me, a fledgling Wrimo just entering her second week of chaos, was not doing any of those things. Her fingers gradually slowed to a halt. Her eyes narrowed as she read and reread the words on her screen. Eventually, she dropped her head and heaved a huge, sorrowful sigh.

It was a sigh that whisper-shouted of things like plot muddling and character flailing and utter demoralization for a newbie Wrimo. Having been around the block a few times by that point, I recognized the signs and, being generally nosy and interfering, sought to help.
Me: What's wrong?
Her: I. . .  I have no idea what happens next. Everything was fine and now there's just. . .  nothing. My characters don't want to do anything!
Me: What's the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen?
Her: *explains worst possible thing*
Me: Do that.
That was years ago, but I still stand firmly by this advice. I am by no means the first one to offer up this little pearl of wisdom. Heck, I wasn't even the only one to offer it up to someone at that particular write-in. When in doubt, make things worse. Torturing characters is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of a writer's key job responsibilities.

I was reminded of this while I was finishing up the character sheets for this next run of Guardian. My character sheets are fairly simple, just a page of notes that I fill in with as much or as little detail as I feel like, adapted from the existing template in Scrivener.

The very last things I think about when I'm working up a character are "what is the worst thing that could happen?" and "what is the best thing?" And, because they're fresh in my mind, those bits have a tendency to worm their way straight from the character sketch into the plotting notes.

(Yes, including the best things. Have you ever noticed how people are really bad at figuring out what's best for them? Typically when I give my characters the good, it's just a quicker route to the bad than they would otherwise have encountered.)

Characters only grow when they're challenged to do so. Making them face the worst thing that could ever possibly happen them is oftentimes just the thing to spur a floundering story into action. And I'm hoping that working out those things in advance can keep a story from floundering in the first place.

Well look at that, a piece of commonly offered writing advice that I actually agree with. You had to know it would be the bitter, mean one. ;-)

How do you feel about torturing characters? Is it enhanced characterization? Or cruel and unusual punishment?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Project Management Updates: Nothing to See Here

Reports from the Project Manager
As a project manager, my main job is to ensure we focus on the delivery of the selected project by the desired deadline. I don't care who had surgery, I don't care who had a birthday party, yada, yada, yada. Okay, so I am not a heartless, soulless bastard, but I do play one on the internet some times.

The reality is that we have had a lot going on in Renee world. Surgery, her daughter's birthday party, holidays, a vacation, the start of the school year, a cold for everyone in the house, etc, etc, etc. With all the comings and goings and such, we don't have a whole lot of measureable progress to show for ourselves over the last two and a half months. Yes, I know we finished that short story, but I already gave credit for that. This life is all about "What have you done for me lately?" and the answer there is "not much".

All that to say this: we're still plotting the rewrite of Guardian and will probably finish up in the next week or so. The interruptions of real life caused a really great conversation Renee and I had about realistic timeline planning and allocation of resources. We just built out a plan where she can truthfully devote 32 weeks per year to writing and the other 20 weeks are going to get taken up by all that other stuff she has going on.

As the project manager, this is a really good thing. As I build timelines and estimates, I need to know the availability of my resources. For this set of projects, Renee is the main resource and she is only available 32 weeks of the year. Now that we know this, we can create an achievable project plan and stick to it. So dear reader, I have nothing to show you this round, but I think we are putting this train back on the tracks and the next few posts will be exciting indeed!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: The Old Toys Are New Again

Writings of the Muse
There's a thing you can do with toys when children are young. If you box up a bunch of the ones that fall out of favor and hide them for a few months, you can bring them out later, when the current crop get boring, and suddenly all those old toys are new again. Renee used to do this quite regularly and was always amazed by how a toy her three-year-old hadn't been interested in playing with for months when it was just mixed into the toy box with all the other toys suddenly became the coolest toy on the planet after spending a few months in the closet.

As you all know, we recently took a break from Guardian while Renee recovered from surgery and wrote the zero draft of "Fishwife". (That went very well, by the way. We managed to complete an actual short story that stayed short. I don't think Renee has ever done that before.) In essence, we packed Guardian and all its associated toys up in a box and stuck them in the closet for a few months while we played with other things.

When we were considering replotting Guardian there was some debate about how to treat the existing text. Did we keep the work we'd already done and treat this as a major revision? Or did we set it all aside and start fresh? Many of the scenes we'd already written were quite good, but there was so much that just wasn't going to fit the story any longer. No one wanted to lose all our hard work, but would attempting to reshape it end up taking too much time?

What it ultimately came down to was really looking at what we wanted the story to be. At the end of the day, Renee was writing all those lovely words from the wrong place. The timeline was wonky, the focus was off, and in many cases the wrong characters were doing the talking. Even the background information--the character sheets and setting sketches and such--needed to be updated. To keep the existing draft and adapt it to the new plan would have taken a ton of time and energy.

So we gathered up all those broken scenes and filed them away for reference. Some bits and pieces may work in the new storyline with a little tweaking here and there, but most of them will have to go. We started with a brand new template and built a new set of character sheets and setting sketches. We've got a bunch of notes and we're putting together a new synopsis and scene list to work from.

I was worried that this approach wouldn't work, that it would seem like duplicated effort and the déjà vu would quickly turn to boredom. As a Muse, it's my job to find new ideas and make sure Renee has a steady stream of inspiration to keep her going. I stir up the plot soup and see what interesting flavor combinations I can put together. I don't typically serve the same meal twice, as it were.

But instead enough has changed that the effort doesn't feel duplicated at all. We've got a familiarity with these characters and places that makes working with them easy, while the situation they're in seems fresh and interesting. It's like starting all over again, unpacking that box of toys from the closet and finding they've become new and exciting once more.