Dissecting ARIAH’s Opening Paragraph

Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.

This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:

There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:

  • The story is told in retrospect
  • Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
  • Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
  • Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader

Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:

I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?

Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.

Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.

In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.

I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.

*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

On Finishing THE INCOMING TIDE

TheIncomingTide_wordle

According to my meticulously kept daily writing records, I started planning out The Incoming Tide last October two days after finishing Extraction. The records show fairly steady work on it, interrupted now and again for a burst of short stories or focused edits on other projects further down the publishing pipeline. Still, I didn’t finish the first draft of The Incoming Tide until May 22nd. It clocked in at 70k words, which is on the slim side for a novel. It took me seven months to crank out 70k words. Maybe that’s not slow, but it certainly felt slow to me—Ariah is a hefty 128k words and I wrote it in a little under three months. Ariah is nearly twice as long and took half the time, so what gives?

The Incoming Tide was an altogether different beast. Ariah was a second draft. It was a substantively rewritten second draft, but still it was a second draft. I knew the characters. I knew the shape and color of the narrative. I knew, in short, what I was writing. So there’s that: first drafts feel different, and for me, they often take a little more time to get out. And, actually, referring once again to my copious records, The Incoming Tide is the only first draft of a novel I’ve written since I started trying to get my work out there. Everything else had been rewrites. Extraction, the volume preceding Tide in the Tale of Rebellion series, is on its fourth draft.

But it was more than that. Tide felt sometimes hard to write. I felt a weird pressure while living in that book. Drafting and redrafting and redrafting Extraction meant that I could never quite move past it. Tide was like a light at the end of that tunnel. Tide was the promised land. It’s strange, you know, getting finally to that blinding light. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust. It took me some time to find the rhythm of Tide, to find the style and voice of it.

Of course as soon as I finished Tide I started planning the follow-up book, The King and His Makers. Of course I did. But I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from it to queue up blog posts, to work on edits for Ariah, to ponder life. A little bit of space, I think, will take the edge off and make the first draft of King a little less scary.

A Short History of EXTRACTION

ExtractionInfographic

Somewhat appropriately, this post marks the one year anniversary of this blog! Thanks to all my lovely readers!

Extraction is the latest iteration (hopefully the final iteration) of the very first piece of fiction to which I ever contributed or thought of as my own. As you can see in the infographic above, this current incarnation of the story now known to me as Extraction took 11 years to produce. It is the product of four separate drafts—and when I say separate drafts I mean four different raze-it-all-to-the-ground-and-start-from-scratch rewrites, each of which took several months to complete. A grand total of 437,606 word were written over the course of said 11 years*.

Now, there are many, many reasons to write your very first book and promptly abandon it. Most writers never publish their first completed novel; some sound advice is to treat your first novel essentially as practice. Let it languish in the desk drawer and use the experience to become a better writer next time around. And, if you read the infographic above, you can see that actually what became Extraction began as a short story penned by my partner, Jon. It wasn’t even my book to begin with. So why the commitment to this particular work of fiction? Why the dogged need to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite it again? Especially when the evolution of the story makes it so that the book is practically unrecognizable from one draft to another.

One reason I’ve kept plugging away at this book in particular is because the heart of the story—that individual choices in a war are almost always morally ambiguous—is worth exploring. The problem was that it took eleven years of writing practice (and of that only the last five or so have been years where I’ve been Seriously Writing For Realsies) to get to a point where I could get the story where I wanted it. I think most of us who write start first as readers. And not just any kind of reader, but highly attentive and engaged readers. It took until the last year or so where I would say I’m as good at writing a narrative as I am at reading it. So, I wanted to write this story, but it took a lot of patience to keep working at it until I got my chops where the story needed them.

Another reason is that I’m, perhaps, unduly attached to it. It would feel…perverse to publish a bunch of fiction over the years and for the spark that ignited the bonfire never to see the light of day. I think Extraction will see the light of day, and when it does, its debut will come with a great sense of resolution on my part.

In more practical terms, there are logistical reasons why it makes sense to polish this book up until it’s fit for public consumption. I write most of my books in the same secondary fantasy universe, and Extraction explores a set of pivotal events in that fantasy universe. The events outlined in the book’s narrative have direct links to things that happen in a bunch of my other books—notably, Resistance, The Prince of Norsa, Sound and Song and Ariah. The events here are essentially the pebble dropped in the narratological pond and the other books I’ve written are the ripples radiating outward. It would leave a weird, gaping hole in the Aerdh books taken as a whole not to get this one out.

I think it’s done. This draft needs polishing, it needs correcting, but I think this is the last wholesale re-draft. Extraction, it’s been a fun ride.

*This count is derived from the final word counts of each draft—it does not include the reams of text used for planning or excised texts and is such a frighteningly conservative figure.

Writing in seclusion

IMG1156

a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

PROOF Expansion Update

I did not mean to neglect this blog so long, but as you are about to see, I have been hella busy. the expansion of “Proof” into a novel is going really well! I am actually ahead of schedule already. Good job, me. Anyway, I thought I would write up a post that walks you through my process for this blitz writing project step by step, because if there’s one thing the aspiring author blogosphere needs it’s another writing process post!

Step 1: Make a plan of attack

Evernote is awesome because you can stick in to do check boxes, and there's nothing sweeter than checking off a box. I'M DONE, BRO you say to Evernote. And then Evernote buys you flowers.

Evernote is awesome because you can stick in to do check boxes, and there’s nothing sweeter than checking off a box. I’M DONE, BRO you say to Evernote. And then Evernote buys you flowers.

I have a hard deadline for this project–August 1st–so it made sense to me to map backward from the hard deadline to see what needed to be done by when. I know my writing process well enough now to know I would need time for worldbuilding/brainstorming, obviously writing time, and then a little cushion at the end for copyediting. Because, you guys, I am a shit typist, and I don’t catch the terrible typing as I’m writing. Since this is my first project I’m doing ~for realsies!~ like with a really good shot at seeing it published I am kind of nervous. Instead of getting stuck in the self-doubting seventh circle of hell, I’ve built in even more cushion time to get a couple of my very fastest beta readers to look through the manuscript before I send it off (though if they’re like WOW B THIS SUCKS MONKEY BALLS I’m not sure there is functionally enough time to really do anything about that; this is mostly a peace-of-mind thing).

I gave myself a week of worlbuilding/planning time at the start, then two weeks at the end for edits. The time in between is writing time, and I worked out how much I would need to write everyday all of those days in order to hit 60k words by the point at which I need to start editing.

Step 2: The outline to end all outlines
You see the highlighting? The highlighting means I'm taking this seriously.

You see the highlighting? The highlighting means I’m taking this seriously.

I mentioned before that I’m not much of a plotter, but for this project plotting makes sense logistically. I’m pretty sure that was exactly the right call to make, so I wrote up a very extensive outline of what is essentially the original short story but with many more complications and a handful of new characters thrown in for flavor.

The thing is, when I say I don’t plot or plan much for most of my work, I mean that pretty much wholesale. I don’t structure the plot ahead of time, and I certainly don’t pay much attention to the structure of the book itself (chapters, sections, etc). But I did this time. I figured give or take 6k words was about the right length for a chapter which in a 60k draft would mean give or take ten chapters, so I printed out the Massive Outline and broke up the action by chapter, and within chapters broke it into scenes.

Step 3: Structuring the draft in Scrivener

Oh, corkboard feature. What a fool I was to think I'd never use you.

Oh, corkboard feature. What a fool I was to think I’d never use you.

Each scene got its own notecard with the following: a chapter designation, a scene number, a quick and dirty summary of the action this scene pushes forward, and keywords describing the characters present, major plot points, and setting.

The fact that you can mouse over the card in the binder and it displays the summary is super useful while writing–essentially, it lets me write to the next scene so I can keep any foreshadowy bits in mind as I go along.

Step 4: Get your write on

This is the fun part.

This is the fun part.

I’ve set this hard goal of 2200 words per day every day until the book is done. Now, I work 40+ hours a week and parent a toddler and have, like, a life and shit, so 2200 was, I thought, a reach goal. But it’s working.

I write on the bus, basically exclusively on the bus. I have a 40 minute block in the morning where I’m getting out about 1200 words, and I have another 40 minute block on my way home in the afternoon where I usually match or surpass the amount written that morning. The fact that I know the story so well and have hammered out all the actual stuff that happens makes this a bit easier, but by a week in honestly I think the rhythm of writing in two focused blocks helps me get all those words out.

This is not to say there haven’t been surprises along the way. The chapter structure has shifted a little. Characters I definitely did not expect to show up came into the story. Characters I thought I knew quite well showed me a whole different side to them. Despite all that meticulous planning and the rigidity of my writing schedule, the actual writing part of this project still feels very organic, which I think is a good sign.

Step 5: Progress monitoring is key

And we're back to my dear old friend Excel which you may have noticed I use for basically everything.

And we’re back to my dear old friend Excel which you may have noticed I use for basically everything.

I keep a spreadsheet where I track daily writing, log whether it’s writing or planning or blogging or what, and where I track my queries. I also keep a list of books I’ve read in here. Look, I just like lists, ok? That’s not a crime.

Usually I just have this log because I like data, but for this project it’s vital to track and monitor how closely I’m following that week-by-week project plan I’ve got over in Evernote. Doing this showed me that this weekend HOLY SHIT I was actually far enough ahead of schedule that I could take a break from writing. Which was good because I had Proper Adult Things to do this weekend like cook Father’s Day brunch for my partner and organize the hellhole which was once my closet and play with my kid and install a new saddle on my bike. Also somehow I drank an entire jug of orange juice in a single day. That was super important, and frankly, I feel rather accomplished.

This spreadsheet is actually kind of awesome because I have it where it auto-sums the number of words written within the year to date and also it sums the total number of words in a month and takes the average written daily for the month. WHAT I LIKE DATA.

Step 6: Make sure your ducks are in a row

compiling sounds so productive, doesn't it? "Oh, what did you do today?" "I compiled an entire book!" "Wow, look at you go!"

Compiling sounds so productive, doesn’t it? “Oh, what did you do today?” “I compiled an entire book!” “Wow, look at you go!”

I am writing the book according to the specs I’ve set the Scrivener editor to for my own particular preference (12 pt Palatino Linotype, 1.5 spacing in case you’re interested), but lo! The press for whom I’m writing the book has preferences of their own. The mysteries of the human mind. Anyway, they send me a pre-edit checklist and formatting document, and I spent an hour or so tinkering around in Scrivener’s compile settings to work out how best to get Scrivener to export exactly the kind of document they want. I periodically compile a chapter here or there to make sure everything fits their requirements, and then I can just write the damn book without having to scramble at the end to make the formatting work.

So, that’s where I am and what I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks! It’s clipping along at a great place, the nerves about this REALLY BEING A REAL THING are manageable, and I’ve been able to keep my head above water in the other domains of my life. Basically, I feel like this guy:

Well, I feel like this guy if he was, like, wearing clothes.

Well, I feel like this guy if he was, like, wearing clothes.
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shifting Gears

we pause our regularly scheduled shit for an exciting new project now on an exciting new deadline

we pause our regularly scheduled shit for an exciting new project now on an exciting new deadline
(image courtesy of wikimedia commons; click through for source)

I had a Back to the Drawing Board post all half-written, but it’s going to have to wait. Not that I haven’t made progress on The Long Road rewrites, because I have*, but because it can be put on hold and something else has to get done by August 1st.

I submitted “Proof” to an open call for an anthology, and it caught the interest of the editors! Alas, it doesn’t look like the anthology is happening, but they have expressed interest in me expanding “Proof” into a short novel! They want the daft by August 1st, and I have full confidence I’ll make that deadline.

*Actually, I made quite a bit of progress The Long Road. I started drafting the rewrite! I am about 5k words in. Yep, the second I finished with all that prewriting and worldbarfing and timelining I have to put the project on hold.

Rewriting THE LONG ROAD – Week 9

I get invested, ok?

I get invested, ok?

This is the ninth in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

To recap, my goal from last week was:

So. For next week, I’m planning to have character sheets written out for all the characters on the timeline and hopefully have then mapped out on the web.

What actually happened:
Well, not that much, actually. I took a break The Long Road to work on a short story, and I took a little break from writing to deal with a sick kid and get sick myself. So it’s only been the last couple of days that I could make much progress on this front. But, you know me: I have fancy graphics for you anyway!

I’ve got about half of the major characters’ bios mapped out. Actually the Aerdh Bible overall is coming along quite well. Check it out:

everything's more fun with statistics!! (I am being sincere.)

everything’s more fun with statistics!!
(I am being sincere.)

This gives you a sense of how much I’ve done already, which is a pretty substantial amount of pre-writing. The Aerdh Bible in total has now surpassed 10,000 words of worldbarfy goodness, and half of it is devoted to character outlines.

The length and level of detail of these character outlines has varied a lot so far. some are short because it’s actually a fairly minor character and there’s not much to say. Some are short because the character is straightforward. Some are way longer than I expected, and some are shorter than I thought they would be because the character meets an abrupt and untimely end. As someone who tends to understand plot in terms of character arcs, building out these character bios is a particularly useful way to nail down the overarching story.

The bios are somewhat standardized. In each, I’m trying to nail down the following:

  • the lifespan of the character, which I need to know in order to know if it makes sense that they would be around at X event of appear in Y book
  • Names the character goes by. I have a few characters (the pirates are especially bad about this) who change names like other people change socks, so tracking that it useful.
  • notable skills and abilities. Since this is a heavily elvish book the bios i’ve been working on currently mostly have to do with magic (both what they can do and what sort of training, if any, they’ve gotten for it), but also things like musical talent, medical training, etc., go here.
  • physical description. self-explanatory but MAN am I bad about changing eye color and height across drafts and books.
  • personal history. tracking the character from early childhood to death, which helps me formulate the whys and hows of a given character – personal history plays pretty deeply into motivations and elements of marginalization and privilege.
  • important relationships with other chracters. I think, actually, that when I say I think of plot in terms of characters what I really mean is I think of plot in terms of characters’ relationships. All my writing is super-grounded in relationships, and I tend to understand one character based in their relation to another, so marking out who the important people are in a person’s life is central to my understanding of that person.

Writing up these character sheets has become a strangely emotional experience for me. I think it’s natural and common for a writer to get attached to characters. I think you need a certain amount of investment in your characters to write them well.  The thing with these character outlines, though, is that I am explicitly nailing down the good and bad things that happen, the death and the losses and abuse suffered and survived along with marriages and children and peaceful endings. At one point yesterday, it got to me:

MAH FEELS

MAH FEELS

That’s me g chatting with my partner, who very patiently let me bemoan the state of a fictional character’s life. I presume there will be more of the above to come as I finish writing all these other characters up.

By this time next week I should have a bunch more character outlines in the can. And maybe this weekend – barring a terrible toddler flu resurgence – I will get a chance to draw some maps.

Rewriting THE LONG ROAD – Week 8

excel, and powerpoint, and scrivener, oh my!

excel, and powerpoint, and scrivener, oh my!

This is the eighth in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

To recap, my goal from last week was:

By this time next week, I’ll shoot to have this character-level timeline worked out as well as I can through the end of the story (which is incidentally the end of the war COUGHspoilerCOUGH). This should provide me a much clearer sense of who is going to be important in the book and who will have to wander off into their own stories to be written later.

What actually happened:
I finished the character-level timeline! And it is a beauty, let me tell you. Check it out:

don't be shy; take a gander at this baby

don’t be shy; take a gander at this baby

I plotted out who is doing what where and with who all the way through to the end of the book. This was actually an extremely useful exercise since it made me think through some hard choices about how someone would end up where they are at the end of the book(s).

The color coding works really well to visually distinguish (a) which characters are together at a given point, and (b) the scope of a given plot arc. One thing this sort of thing does for me writing-wise is it helps me clarify my instincts. For instance, there’s a character named Kellidion who I’ve had this nagging instinct to put in this story. He popped up years ago as a character mentioned in passing in a totally different book, and then I wrote a set of shorts about him, and he’s popped up here and there. His story overlapped in a glancing way with this one, and on a hunch I gave him a row on the above timeline. And it’s going to pay off. It makes sense in about a million ways for him to be involved and now I’ve worked out why.

Ok, so by now you may have noticed I get carried away. All of my seemingly simple information structuring techniques turn into these peculiar baroque creations, and this is now exception. I went through it again when I finished it, and the act of going through sparked ideas, so I used Excel’s comment feature to note these down. And so really the timeline looks like this:

a veritable avalanche of plot!

a veritable avalanche of plot!

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!

Finishing the timeline means I have a better sense of character arcs, which means that I can do a whole lot of very fun work building out character trajectories and backstories.

seriously this is hella fun

seriously this is hella fun

This is getting done in the Aerdh Bible so that these character notes can be used in future projects and updated according to those projects as needed. Information centralization! It’s a thing I believe in!

I’ve also started this nifty thing:

look at all those lines and bubbles

look at all those lines and bubbles

This is the relationship web I mentioned in my last post in this series. I find it useful to have a visual representation for this which works to jar my memory of what I’ve built out at a glance. Turns out powerpoint is really good at this.

All in all, this has been a productive little week.

So. For next week, I’m planning to have character sheets written out for all the characters on the timeline and hopefully have then mapped out on the web.

Next steps are to redraw the world map and track paths on it as well as changes to the landscape as a result of the war.

Rewriting THE LONG ROAD – Week 7

prepare yourself for some bitchin spreadsheets

prepare yourself for some bitchin spreadsheets

This is the seventh in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

To recap, my goal from last week was:

By next week, I should (FINALLY BECAUSE I WON’T BE DISTRACTED) have all the major events of the war built out in the Aerdh Bible. I will probably have an utterly absurd file structure brewing in there. The next big step is to create a visual timeline of the war itself with the arcs of all involved groups represented, so hopefully I’ll be organized enough to start that (BECAUSE I WILL BE MAKING PROGRESS ON THIS OVERARCHING GOAL FOR REALSIES).

What actually happened:
Timelines! Timelines is what happened. I’m still chugging away at the Aerdh Bible, but the Aerdh Bible is fleshed out enough now that it has become a bit of a black hole. What I mean to say is that I have the capacity to drill down further and further and further into the worldbuilding way past the point at which it becomes a time suck. I can chase that rabbit down that particular hole into oblivion. Check out the difference between the Scrivener folder structure in the Aerdh Bible two weeks ago vs. this morning.

My name is B and I have a problem with elaboration.

My name is B and I have a problem with elaboration.

The Aerdh Bible will still be useful going forward, especially as a place to put scraps of notes and information for the back end of the worldbuilding that doesn’t quite make it into the actual book. But, I think it’s best if I step way from it a little now lest I lose my self in the tiny nitty gritty details no one really cares about but me.

Since I have the course of the war built out pretty well, I went ahead and set up a timeline. Timelining is really valuable for me and the stuff I write for a couple of reasons:

  • the assorted sentient species in Aerdh have different capacities to perceive and use magic, a side effect of which is varying life spans. So, what is a generation worth of years for one group (elves) could be more like two generations worth of time for another group (humans). Similarly, since folks have different expected lifespans, it’ useful to timeline the plot so I can get a better sense of how old Person A is in relation to Person B at a given point.
  • As a writer I think in terms of character arcs. I don’t really think in terms of plot at all. The upside of this is that I have a pretty nuanced feel for my characters, and the events that transpire in the text are usually well-grounded in the character’s motivations, desires, etc. the downside is sometimes I just forget what happens and what the relationship between events actually is. This is especially bad when i’m dealing with Big World Events as opposed to interpersonal life events since said Big World Events most often happen to the characters and not necessarily because of the characters.
  • Given that I write a whole lot in Aerdh, and given that characters from one piece have a habit of meandering into another piece, timelining is important to make sure that it’s actually feasible for said character to be in said piece. Internal consistency within the universe and between books is important to me.

So! Timelines!

I poked around on the web for a good free or very cheap program in which to build said timelines, but ultimately my poking around was for naught  There are good programs out there, but alas, none are for the secondary world fantasy writer as they all are built to use real-world calendar dates. Which, since my worlds are secondary and don’t use our calendar systems, makes them unusable for my projects. I turned to my trusty old friend, Excel.*

I created a workbook with separate tabs for separate kinds of timelines. One is for an overarching eagle’s eye view of the course of the entire story (which will likely be broken into two or three books).

check it check it

seriously though you should click through and look at this puppy up close

This will make keeping track of who is doing what when very easy (way easier, say, then thumbing through pages of handwritten notes or sifting through the overly intricate Scrivener structure mentioned above). Yeah, it took five weeks of foundational worldbuilding to get to a point where I could make this relatively simple timeline.

WHICH MEANS

YOU GUYS, WHICH MEANS

That now I can begin plotting out the actual story! And my first little baby step in that direction is this timeline:

it's a veritable rainbow of fake information!!

it’s a veritable rainbow of fake information!!

This is the second tab in the timeline workbook. What I’ve got going on here is a timeline layered with each notable or influential character in the book I have identified so far (also organized by what their affiliations are). I’m building it so I can see who is with who, who’s participating in what events, approximately how long something takes. And I’m formatting the left-hand column with the characters’ names to differentiate who is a leader vs. who is not and using color codes to denote who is probably going to end up as a POV character.

I have a few more things I’d like to do before delving into the outlining proper (not necessarily in this order):

  • redraw maps of Aerdh and mark out the movements of factions, groups, and specific characters
  • draw a relationship web to figure out who knows who and how well and for how long
    • this will be an interative process also involving sketching out character backgrounds to clarify relationships, roles, etc.
    • it might also involve sketching the characters themselves in a literal draw them sort of way
  • sketch out (JUST SKETCH OUT, KEEP YOUR FOCUS, SANDERS) how characters involved in the war who are not prominent characters fit into the overarching structure of this Big World Event. It’s a Big World Event, man, there’s a whole lot of stories in it and not all of them are going to fit into one book.

By this time next week, I’ll shoot to have this character-level timeline worked out as well as I can through the end of the story (which is incidentally the end of the war COUGHspoilerCOUGH). This should provide me a much clearer sense of who is going to be important in the book and who will have to wander off into their own stories to be written later.

PS – I did make a valiant effort to just say no to side projects but this still happened anyway:

I just can't help myself.

I just can’t help myself. I REGRET NOTHING.

Expect more of this sort of thing to happen as I do more hardcore work on character stuff in the upcoming weeks.

*I am an Excel wizard, though the above use of it is really very basic. I spend roughly eight hours a day as a K-12 education data analyst working in increasingly and perhaps overly complicated Excel spreadsheets.

Rewriting THE LONG ROAD – Week 3

longroadrewriteheaderweek3

a gift that keeps giving!

This is the second in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

To recap, my goal from last week was:

 Let’s see…by this time next week I will have worldbarfed the war itself. Right now I have a solid sense of the conditions and context of it but still a very nebulous sense of what actually happened.

What has actually happened:
I have, in fact, worldbarfed most of the war! Not all of it – I don’t yet have a full sense of the endgame – but I have managed to figure out a large chunk of the Ominous Middle Section which I have for years avoided building out. Progress has been made!

I have over 30 handwritten pages of slightly organized fodder for this next draft. I’ve managed to get past the hard part of ecologically and dialectically centering the war in pre-existing conditions. That was the heavy lifting needed to make the crux of this book make sense to me, and now that I’ve got that nailed down I’ve been mapping out the specifics of the course of that war. And by mapping out I mean throwing ideas on the page as soon as I get them.

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and a million digressive text boxes were born on that page

This is not the most efficient way to do this. It is not the easiest jumble of information to use down the line, as I found yesterday when I paged through my growing notebook for a tidbit of information I was sure I wrote down somewhere – here? no before that…or after? I don’t know. somewhere – but couldn’t find. And then I just kept on wroldbarfing anyway.

It is liberating. It is necessary to just throw it all out there without sorting it out. And I have figured out why this is working for me so well: it’s organic. It feels very much like I am watching these histories unfold rather than trying to engineer something, which is exactly how it should feel. When I write a good indication that the writing is going well is when I feel like a passenger, or a spectator. Like the story is happening of its own accord and I am simply recording it. Getting to that feeling already is a good sign.

Now, I’m in the thick of working out the war itself. Now, by inclination and habit I tend to write smaller stories, ones that just happen, not earth-shattering events. That’s one reason why I felt the need to redo this foundational worldbuilding in the first place – the scope of this story has always been offputting to me. Counterintuitive. But, goddamn it, it is my story! And it has such potential! And now I’m finally getting to a point where it does actually feel like it’s my story and has potential I can bring out.

So I’m in the thick of the war, now, as I said. And I thought (erroneously – notice how often that happens) that I would just plot it out. That it would be clear-cut and dry. Instead, my planning process for the war itself has been like this:

on the real, though, my brain is full of brightly colored lines. It’s like Tron in there.

This is a map of how a computer decides what move to make in a chess game it is playing against itself (click through for source link). And this is basically what I’ve been doing. It’s actually very exciting – I worldbarf a bit about one side is up to, their options, the divergences of opinion within their ranks and then BAM switch to the other side that totally does something surprising! And then side 1 has to react to that. Well how would I react to that? LIKE THIS, SIDE 2, THAT’S HOW I WOULD REACT. Oh yeah? Yeah, Side 1? Well what if Side 2 DID THIS, huh??

Back and forth trying to outsmart myself. Now that I’ve spent all that time working out the limits and edges of this world’s sandbox, framing the paradigm in which this war takes place, and structuring who has access to what resources why and when, this back and forth is actually quite seamless and easy to do. All that foundational work was really building the rules of the game, and now I get to play it.

Next week’s goal. I will hopefully be done playing this game of chess against myself. I’ll have a sense of how the war transpires and why it transpires that way, and I will be able to start figuring out who the cast of characters will be in the book.