The Messenger’s Favour: Chapter 1 Reflections.

This is the companion series to the Brandson Sanderson lectures, all about the story I’m writing.

Given this is a skill-learning exercise, I decided to focus on some the mechanics of the challenge before I started writing. Hopefully, this will help me keep the project tight and give me a framework to evaluate new ideas through.

The piece must be new:

I love making new worlds and meeting new characters, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The word-count goal is 35k:

This is important. It means that while the central conflict must be meaningful, I’ll be honest and say I don’t fancy tackling an empire-changing story in so few words.  I decided to focus on personal conflict. After some consideration, I picked Love and Safety as my themes. These two give me a lot of room to explore, and often cause conflict between each other.

What I am trying to learn:

By nature, I am a discovery writer. Brandon Sanderson is a planner, and then some. Which means part of this project is learning how to plan. The external conflict needs to be something I can plan, and layer into the chapters around internal conflicts of Love and Safety. At the most overarching, the external world needs to make the characters decide between Love and Safety. This will utilise the small, personal conflicts, and give them bigger consequences. To set it up so planning is the easy option, my antagonists have planned something. My characters are unwilling parts of said plan. The details I’m happy to work through later, this just somewhere to start.

And thus Kessa appeared with her caravan, and those criteria made it easy.

She needed to want Safety and Love. Since there has to be internal conflict with external consequences, she is secretly a mage and she has to keep that from everyone to stay Safe. Which means that while she has a Love, she can’t pursue it.

Since this is med-fantasy, and she’s a little older than most heroines, she is always risking her Love marrying someone else. That’s a good amount of internal conflict, which will bleed over into the character interactions.

She travels trade routes her father set up, on her own save for her shape-shifting familiar Asher. Cute character discovered so I can have dialogue without Kessa talking to herself, check! He’s a secret from everyone too, but a really handy one for me as a writer.

I was wondering what the Plot was going to be, when out of a thunderstorm appeared her brother, Felix, who just needed her to do him a small favour. So small it’s really of no consequence. Just let him come with her to Westfort, where she was stopping for Festival to sell her goods.

I’m not going to look too hard a walking plot-hook right now, but I can feel the antagonists’ hands in that. Which I will definitely keep in mind as I plan and write.

The other part of this challenge is producing work that is solid enough to present to the Writer’s Group. Since I am aiming to learn about my story-crafting weaknesses, I am utilising my loyal beta-reader to get the piece up to scratch. That way, there aren’t smaller, easier fixes for the Writer Group to worry about, just story-craft.  Hopefully, this will mean that while I might not like the feedback initially, when I’ve had time to consider it in context it will be invaluable.

Let’s see where the messenger’s favour leads us.

A lovely little parrot who may or may not be the inspiration for Asher.

A lovely little parrot who may or may not be the inspiration for Asher.

Week 1: The Lessons Begin

There is something reassuring about the administration and housekeeping that comes with the first lecture of a class. It reminds me of all the classes I sat in, week one, and hoped to learn all sorts of things I had never dreamed of knowing. Though, I will admit I have an idea what I hope to learn. Story craft. Lots, and lots of story craft.

I am doing this lecture series with a couple of friends, and as we’re not able to dedicate our lives to this project in the way we would like to if we were studying, we’re posting chapters every two weeks instead of each week. It seems much more appropriate to the demands on my time and energy, so I’m comfortable with that.

Today’s lecture, apart from housekeeping, was about what sort of writer Sanderson is. To say he’s a planner is like saying Warwick Schiller is a horse trainer. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite encapsulate the level of detail or thought that goes into the process. But the level of the planning will come out in later lectures, this is just getting your toes in the water, so to speak.

Sanderson talks about the differences in the natural skills of the two main types of writers; Outliners/Architects and Discovery/Gardeners.

Outliners/Architects:

These are the planners. They build worlds and stories, craft the outlines and structure of the story, and then writes it. The big problems these writers face are characters who are wooden, because they’re doing what they need to for the story so can seem a little stiff, and never wanting to revise. This is, theoretically, because so much was worked out in the pre-writing stage that once the book is done, they’ve already written and rewritten it in their heads a lot. And they probably have other projects they’re planning which seems much more exciting than revising and editing.

Discovery/Gardeners:

These are the pansters, as NaNoWriMo would call them. They write as they feel it, with vibrant characters, and are often heard to be surprised by something the characters did. The issues for these writers often lies in going back to the beginning and re-writing before getting to the end at all, so they end up writing the same part of the story over and over and over again. If they do get to the ends, the is a higher chance of the ending being unsatisfying, especially in contrast to the way they’ve done the characters.

Is there any other kind of writer? Sure is! There is one that Sanderson refers to as the ‘Points on a Map’ writer. This writer plans points in the story. They have an idea where it starts, probably how it ends, and key scenes to get there. But how the characters get there is a discovery. I like to think of it like a road-trip using Google-maps. You know where you start from, and where you’re going, but how you’re going to get there is a bit of an adventure.

I am, without a doubt at all, a Discovery/Gardener. Which is somewhat awkward, because I could recognise the flaws quite clearly in my own work. It’s one of the reasons I did NaNoWriMo with the sole objective of getting something finished. And I am thankful to Phil the Goblin for bumbling along on his accidental transition into being a little bit of a hero. And to Hurg, the Orc, who went with him and was very helpful. It was that NaNoWriMo win that made it possible to do the writing I needed to in order to get the first vomit copy of my Proper Novel done. I am going to have a lot to learn to even get to be a Road-Trip Writer, but I’m prepared to work and see what I can do.

The other key thing Sanderson said, apart from that he’d prefer if we worked on a brand new piece, is that stories start with a problem to solve.

As I sat there, trying to think of what could be my  35k sized problem, I felt stuck. So I worked through some ‘things I like/things I don’t’ exercises, and got the basics of my story.

Set in what is probably erroneously called ‘medieval-fantasy’ world, Kessa is a travelling merchant, of sorts. She travels the routes her father established, and keeps up the family traditional side business of message delivery. Which is why, when her brother Felix appears in the middle of a storm in the dead of night, Kessa knows there is something more going on than he’s telling her. Especially when he asks her to let him accompany her to Westfort, while holding up a small circular letter tube on a leather necklace.

I’m going to go write that chapter, and see what else I discover in the process.

The bribing of Plot Bunnies begins!

The bribing of Plot Bunnies begins!

Book Review: ‘Fairytales for Wilde Girls’ by Allyse Near

I picked this book up a year ago, and I must confess to looking at the girl on the cover, with her black bunny rabbit, and I wanted to read it but I just didn’t put it in my bag. Which, honestly, is a failing on me as a reader. I get distracted before I pick up a book. Usually by other books.

So this week, I put it in my bag and I decided to read it. Properly too, not just in the bustle to and from work on the train, but with attention. I’m very glad I did.

Near paints such vivid, emotive pictures with her writing that it’s an experience to read them. Her characters are believable, despite any potential problems with a main character who see ghosts and fairies. A young adult book set in a modern times, it tells the story of Isola Wilde, the girl who sees magical creatures. On one of her many walks in the woods near her house, she stumbles across a dead girl in a birdcage, and that sets Isola in the path of a ghost who is definitely not like her faithful protectors, her brother-princes. Isola must uncover the truth of the girl’s demise, but will she succeed when the fierce love of her brother-princes is tested, and her real life friends struggle to understand what’s happening to her?

Near tells her story with a style that is much like her main character, different to what you expect at the outset. I will confess that I took a few short chapters to acclimatise, but I am so glad I did. The stylistic choices are wonderful, purposeful, and create a feel and flow to the story that winds the narrative together. There is no shortage of beautiful, and dark, imagery in the book, and the use of it provides depth and meaning to the events rather than distracting from them. I don’t want to talk too much about the formatting, but it’s a fantastic example of how knowing what you’re looking to achieve means you can bend the rules to get your point across. Near has a flair for language, and the use of formatting in her book adds to it in a way I struggle to explain. Every word she uses matters, and fits exactly where it should.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you think and feel, this is a good book to read. I may be relatively easy to get to cry, but Near handled the story with such delicacy and truthfulness I couldn’t do anything but weep. It was a wonderful, deep, cathartic kind of weeping which is exactly the kind I like in a book.

If you haven’t read the book, put it on the list regardless of your view on young adult fiction. This is a book that will sit with me, and I am glad to have read it so it can.

My own black, living in my room bunny.

My own black, living in my room bunny.

Camp NaNoWriMo Week 4: So, that definitely didn’t go as planned…

Week 4: So, that definitely happened.

There is no doubt in my mind that I will not reach my goal. Which is really to say that I underestimated the editing process entirely. I am actually very okay with that. In fact, I consider this one of the most successful Camp’s I’ve done. Sounds a bit paradoxical, but hear me out.

I set out to try and be further in the process of getting the next draft of my Novel, and I thought that would be a sensible word count goal. What I didn’t understand, probably due to a lack of research, is that editing your own work is incredibly different from helping someone else with their book/story. By the end of Camp, I will have a better understanding of not only the story but of what my editing process is going to look like. Lots, and lots of glitter pens, and probably more sticky notes than I have right now.

As a discovery writer, the variance between one draft and another is going to be rather impressive. My character surprise me all the way through the vomit copy, so it makes sense that when I have known them a bit longer I will need to adjust what they did before we knew each other. I like the idea of revising, of giving my characters the best representation I can, of tiding events so they all make sense, but I do get the feeling it’s going to be a lot of work and need new skills.

And this leads to the thing I am grateful for learning. The skill I need right now is planning. I need to be able to organise the story, so I can set up the small things, make the right promises to my theoretical audience. Because I like telling stories, ones that people will like.

Then I came across this Zen Pencils

Might go hug this horse, she's all fluffy in her winter woolies.

Might go hug this horse, she’s all fluffy in her winter woolies.

, and I realised why I was having so much trouble with the ‘better, not different’. I wasn’t focused on the story itself, on the gift, but on the people I wanted to give it to. I wanted to make it a story ‘worthy’ of being read. But I’m not a mind reader, so the only way I will know if the story is good is to finish it and let someone read it. What matter is the story.

What matters to the story is time and thoughtful crafting to ensure the events, characters, and scenes all make sense. My responsibility is to do what I can to get that to happen, to be true to the story and the characters and make sure that even if people don’t like it, they are disliking it because of their criteria and not mine.

Which means finding all the things that were ‘Too Hard’ in the Camp NaNoWriMo I wrote the vomit copy, and making sure I put them in this time.

Seems like I better go find some more useful tools for planning than glitter pens and a thesaurus.

Camp NaNoWriMo Week 3: Ah, so I’m not brave…

Camp NaNoWriMo Week 3: Ah, so that happened…

I managed to plan a little bit, but it wasn’t actually as helpful as I would like. In fact, I got so confused about what was going to make it better, and what was going to make it different, that I stared a lot at my glitter pens and tried to think of things I could do with them. Which meant I spent a lot of time trying to get lists to work without much success.

I also discovered that something Jim Butcher said really rings true. This is simple stuff to do, but it’s not easy. Sure, doing character traits and tags sounds like a great idea. It even sounds like it will make a whole lot of difference to the way the draft comes out, and make writing a lot easier. In fact, I think the concept itself is beautifully simple, streamlined, and an absolutely wonderful tool for a writer looking to make the process practical at an increased level. But it’s not easy. It sounds like it should be, but it’s not.

Think of it like this. Someone asks you to describe someone you’ve known for years in a few simple words. In fact, they want you to give them the words that are not only good for description, but that might give you an idea of who the person is. We’re looking for words with just the right tone, so that someone who has never met them will know what to expect with only a couple of sentences. And so they can’t mistake them for anyone else in your circle of acquaintances and friends. Simple, but not easy. Even when Jim Butcher explains it.

The other problem I faced was that I needed someone to tell me what they thought of it. And that meant getting the courage to show the reworked first and second chapter I’d found to someone to read. I am not a brave person. I much prefer to be thorough, cautious. But I was so lost, completely and utterly without a map because I couldn’t work out how to draw one, I needed to try and find 20 seconds of courage.

I gave the chapters to my trusted pre-beta reader. At the end of the week. It takes me a bit to build the courage to get this done.

Here’s hoping I can get something done next week. The 25k is looking unreachable, but I might be able to get to half, maybe, if I get a plan done. Until then, it’s back to the glitter pens and distracting myself with fluffy animals.

Look! Cute!

Dusty, being a cute outside bunny!

Dusty, being a cute outside bunny!

Camp NaNoWriMo Week 2: Because I forgot to post…

Week 2: Because I forgot to post…

I wrote! Not a lot, and I don’t know if I will end up keeping it, but I wrote just over a thousand words!

Given that I have set the goal as 25k, I can see how that may not seem to be much, nor worth more than an excuse to grit my teeth and try harder but it’s the first thousand words. It’s done. It’s gone. I don’t have to worry about it until I get back to it in the later rafts. Yay! And if that isn’t good news, I have no idea what is.

Oh, wait, yes I do! Cosplay pics! There may be a reason I have been so slack at writing, an it has everything to do with the fat I was getting ready for an epic group cosplay. This is what happens when you’re friends with a fabulous fashion designer who happens to cosplay and you are really like one of the characters in the show. So, I was Nora from RWBY, and I had a blast!

What it did show me was that I had a few things I needed to get my head around before I could really get into the story. I had no idea what I was doing with the edit, and that was the real problem. I was making it different, not better. I had nothing to compare it to, so how could I know what bits needed work?

Then I came across this Zen Pencils comic and it all made sense.

I have never been gladder to go to a convention than I was when I was flipping through my signed copy of the book and that came up.

So this week I am working out what I need to do so I can get to it next week and kick all the word goals. I know I can push myself with words for vomit copies, and I think I an get some good chapters happening if I just know where it’s going.

This week is about mapping. And I’m going to use the scenesequel from Jim Butcher to do it. Because let’s be honest, Brandon Sanderson’s technique is still a bit too far from what my brain does for it to make sense. I keep picturing him as a mad scientist, kind of like Dr Horrible. But that could be more to do with hearing it a lot lately.

Instead of cute pictures, you get stuck with these! Nora was so much fun!

This is me, as Nora. So much fun!

This is me, as Nora. So much fun!

And this is pretty much how the day went. So  much fun!

And this is pretty much how the day went. So much fun!

Nora's weapon is a hammer, but we didn't have time to make one. So I had a lovely stand in. I have the best friends.

Nora’s weapon is a hammer, but we didn’t have time to make one. So I had a lovely stand in. I have the best friends.

Camp NaNoWriMo: The Aftermath

Let me start this by saying this truth; I didn’t meet my word count goal. Didn’t even get close.

But what I did learn was as valuable as the word goal I missed. Since I was working on getting the start on my next draft of a NaNoWriMo project from 2012 done, I thought it was a great idea. What I discovered was that editing is a much different thing, and the focus therefore isn’t as easy to make word count. Unless you count the pages, and pages, and pages, of notes and planning that are required to figure out what is and isn’t working between one draft and the potential and the next.

Editing is about making it better, not different.

My editing teacher told us that was the editor’s creed, and I have been doing my best to stick to it as much as I can. Considering the changes that have happened between the vomit copy drafts of my story, I think I’ve been making things much different instead of deciding on a set of criteria for ‘better’.

And that leads me to what I’ve learned from this Camp. Be okay with adjusting your goals if you realise what you thought the project needed, and what it actually requires, are different things. Sometimes entirely. Editing and writing are two different, interwoven skills. Trying to learn them both at the same time is possible, but it is also difficult. Especially if you set it up so there is a bias towards one skill set.

So between now and next Camp, I am going to focus on getting the editing skill-set a little more established, and working out the details of how the Brandon Sanderson planning approach can be applied retroactively. I will probably be planning something from the beginning too, to give me more practice, but that’s a whole other post.

Hope everyone else had a good Camp!

Duchess had been doing a dead-bunny flop, but got up after Dusty groomed her.

Duchess had been doing a dead-bunny flop, but got up after Dusty groomed her.