My new stove is coming this afternoon, so that means I have to totally clean my house (at least the downstairs) before then because I’m one of those people. I still say that what I need is a maid service that does nothing more than set appointments saying they’re coming, and that will make me clean the house in preparation for the appointment, so I no longer need the maid service.
I will admit that a monthly deep cleaning service is on my wish list when I make enough money to support it. I sometimes even remind myself of that as motivation when I have a “but I don’t wanna write” day. I figure that would force me to keep clutter in check, as it can’t get too bad in one month, and I’d tidy up before the maid came. The maid could take care of the stuff I seldom get around to doing or don’t think about doing, and then I’d enjoy it being clean so much that I might be motivated to keep it that way, like when I stay in a hotel. When I do a massive clean on my own, I enjoy it and can keep it that way for a while, but then I have a lazy day and slip, and it’s all downhill from there, so I need the combination of a good clean baseline and a regular reset. I suspect there will be a cleaning and organizing frenzy when this book is done (though I say that with every book because one symptom of being near the end of a draft is a sudden urge to clean and organize my house, which passes as soon as the book is done).
Anyway, most of what I need to do is make sure there’s a clear path to the kitchen, which will require some furniture adjusting. Then I will need to tidy, just because I want to. And I need to get all my pans out of the old stove’s storage drawer.
Meanwhile, I did manage to throw some monkey wrenches into my characters’ plans. Maybe not a complete reversal, but they’re having to improvise. This is actually making them look even more clever, which is fun, and I’m showing them working as a team. I have about 15,000 words to go to reach my rough target word count, and I don’t think this one will require massive rewrites, since I’ve been fixing things as I go. I’ll just need to do a good clean up and polish pass.
Now, off to fix my kitchen!
I’m starting to see why it’s so tempting for authors to create characters who are Too Stupid to Live: It’s so much easier to write that way. If it’s totally in character for your people to just blunder into things or rush rashly into things, then it’s easier to get them into trouble. If your characters are really clever and thinking several steps ahead, considering possible consequences, planning their actions, and generally having common sense, they’re less likely to be able to get into the kind of trouble that makes for an interesting plot. There’s not much fun in a story that has a character see what the bad guy is up to, research it, come up with a plan that has several backups, and then execute that plan perfectly to achieve victory.
That means that if the characters are smart, the writer has to work a lot harder to make things interesting. There have to be unexpected snags the characters couldn’t have anticipated — events they weren’t aware of, betrayal by other characters, mechanical failure, badly timed weather events. This is the rare place when you can get away with using coincidence. The general rule is that you can only use coincidence to make things worse for your characters, never to make things easier. So you can use the coincidence of weather hitting at the worst possible time, the rare guard who shows up early for his shift change, a traffic accident that blocks the road and impedes the getaway, etc. Even the smartest person can’t plan for absolutely everything.
I keep running into this in the Rebels books because my main characters are so smart and logical. Verity doesn’t rush into things rashly. She does her research and thinks things through, trying to account for all contingencies. That means my first attempts at her carrying out a plan tend to be boring because her plans work. I have to go back and break her plans in ways that don’t make her look dumb.
And I’ve run into that yet again, only this time it’s both her and Henry, so we have two smart people, one of whom has extensive experience in pulling off elaborate plans and then getting away. Anything they come up with should work — and that’s a real problem for me. I have to come up with things they didn’t account for to force them to improvise. I have to be even smarter than my characters. It helps there that I can know things they don’t. I can make someone betray them, derail a train, cause an accident. But I still seem to always have the “the plan works” draft that has to be scrapped for the “unexpected things make everything more difficult” draft. At least this time around, I figured out what was happening only three pages in, and I removed the situation that made things too easy. That back door mysteriously vanished, like it never existed. No trace remains in the story.
I would say that I should give myself a break and write a dumb character, but I think I’d find that annoying for other reasons.
I did something new for me yesterday: I bought a stove while sitting on my sofa. My old stove worked, in the sense that it got hot and cooked food, but it had been perhaps a wee bit overzealous about that. The oven was heating up nearly 50 degrees hotter than the dial indicated, and the “burner on” indicator light for the stove would come on randomly, first if you shut the oven door or otherwise bumped the stove fairly hard, later if you set something on the stove. Yesterday, after I cooked breakfast, the light wouldn’t go off when I turned off the burner, and it stayed on even when the burner was cold. Worse, it was making a weird whining sound that unnerved me so much that I flipped the breaker (unplugging would have required pulling it all the way out). Since the stove is original to the house and more than 30 years old, I figured that it wouldn’t be worth it to try to get it repaired, and it looks old and worn enough that it would have been a factor in selling the house, so I figured I might as well get a new one. I was grumbling about spending the time to go shopping while I researched stoves on the Home Depot site, when it occurred to me that all that happens when I go to the store is that the store associate goes online and orders it (usually after I’ve spent about half an hour trying to find someone to help me). There’s no real difference in ordering it myself online. I had it narrowed down to two stoves that were basically the current version of what I have now and had decided to go with the slightly more expensive one that had the better customer reviews (93 percent said they’d recommend it, vs. 85 percent of the other one), and the more expensive one was above the threshold for free delivery, which made it ultimately less expensive. But when I clicked to put it in my cart, the price came up at $100 less than was marked. It was an online only unadvertised special. I ended up getting the more expensive one with the cord kit for installation, delivery, haul-away, and tax for less than the base price of the “cheaper” version. And it was a deal I couldn’t have had if I’d gone to the store.
It’s going to be delivered Friday. I can survive that long without the stove because I have an electric teakettle for boiling water, I’m having dinner at church tonight anyway, and I made a vat of nacho soup on Monday, so I have leftovers to nuke. Between the electric kettle, the toaster oven, and the microwave, I’m good to go, though I will confess to getting a few baking urges, just because I know I can’t bake. I imagine I’ll be making either muffins or scones for Saturday breakfast, just to play with my new toy.
Now I will have replaced all my kitchen appliances, and they’ll all be white instead of the ugly bisque color that came with the house.
It is possible that I have some kind of plain, white issue going on. My walls are plain white (except for one wall of wallpaper in the dining room). My sheets are plain white, as are my towels. My dishes are plain white. And now my appliances are, as well.
I’ll have to be efficient the rest of the week to fit in the writing plus the tidying I’ll need to do to be able to clear a path for the delivery. Some furniture may have to be shifted, and I’ll have to rearrange some things in the kitchen to make it easier for them to work. Plus, I’m the kind of person who cleans like I’m having a party whenever anyone, even a repairman, is coming over, and my house currently looks like I’ve been frantically writing a book.
I might actually meet my deadline. I think I can finish the first draft this week, and that then gives me about a week for polishing. I’m heading into the big final confrontation stuff, so it tends to go more quickly, unless I have to stop and think.
I haven’t done a book report in ages. I guess I went through a bit of a “blah” reading phase. But I recently read one I want to talk about, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst. It’s the kind of fantasy novel I’ve been looking for. I’m not sure I’d call it “light” because some pretty dark stuff happens, but it has a sense of optimism to it and the protagonists are honorable, relatable people, so it’s not too depressing. The worldbuilding is astonishing. The society and the physical structure of the world are unlike anything I’ve seen before. This is definitely not your standard-issue quasi-medieval fantasy world.
For one thing, the people live in trees! There are whole villages formed among the branches of giant trees. However, the forest isn’t entirely safe because there’s a delicate balance between the people and the spirits of the world. The spirits want to kill people, but people have managed to keep them in check and get their service at times. The story is about what happens when that balance goes off and how it may take a new approach to achieve a different kind of balance. Saying much more about the story would give away too much.
Between this and Uprooted, it makes you look at the woods in a totally different way.
I’ve also been doing some non-fiction reading. It took me ages to get through it since I was fitting it in around fiction reading and writing, but I read The Fellowship, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, which is about the group of writers around Oxford that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The book gets into the history and lives of Lewis, Tolkien, and the other main members of the Inklings, weaving their individual stories together in the ways their lives intersected and delving into their individual faiths and the influence of life and faith on their writing. It was fascinating stuff, if a bit dense at times.
In a way, it made me wish for a group of friends like that, people to get together with and talk about writing and myth and faith. But then the thought of reading my work in progress out loud to people is rather terrifying, and getting together a couple of times a week would be overkill to me. I wouldn’t have time to get any writing done.
Reading about their influences and their philosophies on fantasy was interesting because it echoes a lot of the way I look at it, as a way of exploring ideas and creating places where amazing things can happen.
I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone who wasn’t really, really interested in the topic, though.
After spending a couple of days playing musician, I’m back to writer mode, and I don’t get a holiday today because I have a deadline.
It was a good weekend, though a bit tiring. I’m not used to having to get up early and get across town — into the real city — first thing in the morning and then sit in meetings all day to then drive home in evening rush hour, being around people that whole time. They’re nice people and fun people and I’m doing stuff I love, but it’s still crowded and noisy and active. In the sessions on dealing with preschoolers, there’s a lot of physical activity because we have to do the stuff we’re going to have to teach. Then there are sightreading sessions where it’s kind of challenging reading music I’ve never seen before and I feel self conscious about not being a truly trained professional musician when I’m surrounded by professionals. One interesting thing I got out of the weekend was a good voice lesson. On Saturday, I had a slot where I’d gone to the session that interested me on Friday (they do the same schedule both days, so you can do multiple things) and there wasn’t anything else that really applied, and someone I sat with at lunch suggested I go to the session on youth choir just because the instructor was so good. It was on developing musicianship, and that’s a weakness of mine, as I never really learned music theory. He was talking about how to teach music theory for choir members, but I was picking up how I could go about learning music theory. I enjoyed hearing him speak so much, and I had reached information overload about preschool stuff, so I stayed for his last session, on developing the individual voice. His premise was that it’s not a great idea to tell a whole choir they should be doing something, technique-wise. The ones who are doing it wrong don’t think they’re doing it wrong, so most of them won’t correct it, and it tends to be the ones who are doing it right who are worried about doing it right and will try to correct it (and probably overcorrect), which means they’ll end up doing it wrong. The result of telling the whole choir to make a correction is generally the whole choir ending up being wrong. He said directors should listen and pay attention to what each person is doing and make individual corrections. There were only four people in this session, since it was the end of the workshop, so he demonstrated on us, having us all sing something, and then giving individual corrections. I turned out to have been the overcorrector in the group. It was obvious that I’d taken a very common group instruction, since it addresses a problem that’s very likely, and overdone it to the point I was wrong. Now I have to work on fixing that bad habit, and I know to ignore it when the choir director tells everyone to do a particular thing.
Then last night we had some nasty storms. I was watching PBS when the neighborhood tornado sirens went off, my weather radio went off, and PBS dropped audio to play a weather warning, so I switched over to a local station showing the radar. When I saw that the storm track included my specific neighborhood, I put on my “real” shoes and started preparing my safe space, putting a towel in the bathtub to lie on and getting the old featherbed ready to pull over me. I lucked out because just before the questionable part of the storm got to my area, the squall line caught up to it and the tornado risk dropped. We had gusty winds and a lot of rain, but no tornado. It was just rather unnerving having those sirens going for about half an hour. We got enough rain to test the repairs on my house, and I can’t detect any dampness, so now I get to fight with the HOA about getting the interior repaired and doing some mold remediation.
But first, I have a book to finish, and it’s going to be a close call to meet the deadline, so work, work, work.
Among writers and other people involved in the books biz, there’s often discussion about various plot structures and their merits or whether they should even be used at all. Some claim they hate the hero’s journey or the three-act structure, or Save the Cat, or whatever the current trend is. But the thing is, I suspect most of them come down to more or less the same thing, expressed in different ways, and if you’re doing it right, you’re probably going to fall into these structures, even if you didn’t plan it that way.
For instance, the last few days I’ve been writing the big midpoint part of the book — not the climax, but the big stuff that happens in the middle to lead up to the climax. If you’re thinking in terms of the hero’s journey, that would be the Ordeal section. I did plan that because I’ve found that the best way to avoid a sagging middle is to write a big action sequence in the middle of the book. It’s kind of the midterm exam for the characters — they’re being tested on what they’ve learned so far and realize that they aren’t quite ready for the final confrontation, so they have to regroup before we get to the big climax of the story.
Yesterday’s writing picked up from that and went into the aftermath, a quieter scene of waiting, characters who hadn’t spent much time together getting to have a conversation, and even a bit of romance. And then I realized that without having planned it that way, I was writing the Reward scene (aka Seizing the Sword). It’s the regrouping after the Ordeal, a time of letting the characters and the readers catch their breath, often a time of bonding or a love scene. It’s the emotional aftermath of what they’ve just gone through. I didn’t chart it out to happen that way. It was just what seemed logical to write next, and that’s why the pattern is the pattern. It’s what makes sense in storytelling to maintain the sense of tension and emotion.
Today’s writing should get to another big emotional moment, as it involves a big discovery about something I’ve been teasing for a while, and I don’t have anything I really need to do today, other than write (and maybe a walk to the post office), so I hope to get a lot done, since I’m out all day tomorrow and Saturday at Choristers Guild. There’s a specific session on dealing with “live wires” in young children, and I need all the help I can get with my choir. My gang of unruly boys seems to absolutely love being there — they race to be first and would happily come into the room as soon as I arrive to set up if I let them — but it seems to be more about getting to play together than about actually doing choir stuff. My reward for going to learn how to direct my kids is getting to participate in a few of the adult sessions to learn to be a better singer. The sightreading sessions, where everyone else in the room is a professional, mostly with music degrees, are daunting and challenging, but still a lot of fun, and I get to sing first soprano for a change.
It’s a new year, and time to get back to the writing posts. If you have a question or topic you’d like me to address, let me know. I’m also thinking about compiling these posts into an e-book. Would there be any interest in that? I’d have to figure out what a reasonable price would be. There would be a lot of content, but all that content is also available for free if you’re willing to dig through the blog archives.
Anyway, I’m going to address point of view because I recently tried to read a book and could never get into it because of a huge point of view error in the opening paragraph. So, time for a refresher!
There are four main points of view that you can use in writing fiction (and probably subgroups, but I’m going to try to keep it simple here).
The most common point of view used in fiction is probably third-person — the “he did” and “she said” kind of books. The narrator is outside the story. There are two main varieties of third-person POV.
Third-person omniscient has a narrator who knows everything, including what is in each person’s head and events that the characters don’t know about. To some extent, the narrator has his/her own voice as the storyteller, even though the narrator isn’t a participant. The narrator can dip into various characters’ heads to give their thoughts or can clue readers in on things the characters don’t know (the “little did he know, his life was about to change” sort of thing). You see this kind of narration in fairy tales and fables. It was also popular in a lot of Victorian fiction. Charles Dickens often used this POV. I think Jane Austen fits in here, too, as her books are very much in Jane’s voice, with a fair amount of editorial commentary on the characters and situations. It’s less popular today, but sometimes pops up in more satirical works, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
The more common version of third-person narration is limited third, where you’re in only one character’s head at a time. It’s still “he did” and “she said,” but through the eyes of a particular character. The perspective may change from scene to scene, so you get multiple viewpoints in a book, but while you’re in a character’s head, you only see, hear, think, and experience what that person would be aware of. To see that character from the outside, you have to get into someone else’s head.
Another point of view used in fiction is first-person. That would be the “I” books — The narrator is a participant in the story and is telling his/her own story. You see this a lot in mysteries. I write my Enchanted, Inc. and Rebel Mechanics series in first-person. Because the narrator is a character, you’re limited to what the narrator character sees, hears, and thinks. You can’t dip into anyone else’s head. You can’t show events if the narrator isn’t present.
Finally, there’s second person — “you” books. This is fairly rare and tends to be used either in more literary stories or in choose-your-own-adventure books. It turns the reader into the protagonist: “You wake up in the morning and don’t know what’s happening.” Aside from pronouns, this functions a lot like first person because readers don’t get access to anything the protagonist doesn’t know or experience.
That’s a broad overview. In the coming weeks, I’ll dig deeper into the more common viewpoints and address the strengths, weaknesses, and pitfalls.
I spent four hours (by the stopwatch, so that doesn’t count e-mail checking or tea breaks) writing yesterday, only to end up with about the same word count as I started with. There was a lot of deleting of old stuff, but now I’m rid of everything I probably won’t be using and everything going forward will be new and (I hope) on the right track. I woke up this morning thinking of what will happen next, and it’s a very exciting, fun scene, so that will be this afternoon’s work.
Meanwhile in reading, I gave up on that 80s fantasy novel and returned it to the library today. I made it about 100 pages in, and I guess it wasn’t entirely bad, but there are other things I’d rather be reading, so why waste my time on something I’m having to force myself to read? I think I might have liked it if I’d read it in my teens, but I’ve ready so many books exactly like that, and I’m at a point in my life when reading about the coming of age of a teenage boy is less than thrilling. I still enjoy books about teen girls, but if a guy is the primary viewpoint character, I want an adult. I’m sure there are exceptions, but the book would have to be exceptional, not just the standard-issue “clumsy, small for his age stableboy turns out to have special magical powers” story.
While at the library, I picked up a couple of the books recommended here in comments. I knew when I was more excited about reading them than I was about the book I was reading, and there were about 700 pages to go in the book I was reading, it was time to throw in the towel. Another bad sign was that I was putting that book down so I could listen to the adaptation of Northanger Abbey on the BBC radio web site.
While I was listening to Stardust, I discovered that they have a whole section devoted to “15-minute dramas,” which are generally serialized productions of books, or else single-episode short stories. They’re just the right length for a bedtime story, something to lie there and listen to with the lights out. It seems to be good for shutting down the mental hamster wheel so I go to sleep more quickly. So this week it’s been Northanger Abbey. I’ll have to see what to listen to after that.
We’re having a fairly normal Texas winter. I spent Friday afternoon working in my office while watching snow fall. I will possibly end up working at least a little bit this afternoon sitting on my patio. I’ll probably be patio officing most of the week. Then Saturday is another possible winter weather event, which I hope doesn’t go for worst-case scenario, as I have the Choristers Guild winter workshop this weekend, so I have to actually drive on Friday and Saturday, and I’m the scripture reader in church on Sunday. The up-and-down temperatures can get annoying, but in a way I don’t mind. I can deal with a few days of cold when I know I’ll have a few warm days to look forward to. It just would be nice if we could occasionally find a happy medium. This year we’re either below freezing and well below normal or in the 70s and way above normal. I wouldn’t mind a few days with highs in the 50s and lows in the upper 30s. But at least we’ve had more hard freezes this year than we got last year, which should mean fewer bugs next summer.
Now that Epiphany is over, my house has now been de-Christmased (though I do need to make a couple of trips to the garage now that it’s warm enough). I always dread that because I feel like the house will look naked afterward, but it’s funny how quickly it just feels normal again. Though I do miss having Christmas tree lights in my bedroom. That made for a nice way to bridge between the full light of the lamp and having all the lights off. Maybe I should look for a ficus tree or some kind of artistic ornamental branch I could hang lights on.
I’m going to have to really dig in and write this week. I was hoping to get a draft done before the workshop this weekend, but that seems unlikely. I’m about halfway through, but most of what I wrote Friday will have to be undone, as I realized that it was the big midpoint of the book and all that was happening was people were making speeches. I spent Saturday and Sunday brainstorming and making lists of things that could happen and replotting the book while trying to put myself in my characters’ heads and figuring out what they would do in this situation, and now I think I have a solution. I’ve even started seeing the movie of it in my head.
Meanwhile, I checked out the new series Emerald City, the latest Wizard of Oz telling, last weekend, and it’s rather interesting. They’re taking the basic story elements and updating them, putting the action into a fairly gritty Game of Thrones-type world. Dorothy’s an adult nurse who was left as a baby with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. She’s in a police car when the tornado hits, which gives her some useful supplies and a German shepherd police dog (that’s our Toto). They seem to have done some decent worldbuilding, as there’s some kind of mythology/backstory going on with the Wizard and witches. Our “Scarecrow” is a man found semi-crucified, wounded, and with amnesia (“if I only had a brain …”).
I think that last part may be what sucks me in because I love that “who would you be if you didn’t know who you were?” trope. Clearly, this guy has been through something. He just doesn’t know what it was or why, and since Dorothy knows nothing of him, she has to take him at face value. He doesn’t even know what he looks like until he looks in a mirror, so he will be entirely defined by the actions he takes and the choices he makes.
I need to add this trope to my literary bucket list. I did something similar with Kiss and Spell when everyone had fake identities but still found their true selves, but this is different. I actually have an idea brewing where this might fit. But first I have a few other things that need to be written.
I hit a particular reading mood right before Christmas in which what I desperately wanted to read was fun fantasy — something escapist, about people I liked having adventures in a world I’d want to visit. I wanted something like Stardust, with adventure, magic, and romance. I posed the question to a fantasy group on Facebook and got a lot of recommendations for things I’ve already read. But there were also some recommendations for old classics that I hadn’t read, books from the early days of fantasy as a commercial publishing genre. Fantasy stories have been around forever, but it was the US paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the late 60s/early 70s (I think the late 60s one was unauthorized, but it was still a big hit) that kickstarted the idea of books like that as a genre that was kind of a subset of science fiction, and they started actually labeling books as “fantasy” and had publishing imprints dedicated to that.
As happens with a lot of newly popular genres, publishers became desperate to find more books like that, which meant the quality varied widely. The Sword of Shannara was one of those early books, and it was essentially a retelling of The Lord of the Rings. There were a lot more a lot like that. I missed many of them, even though I was a teen fantasy reader hungry for more books like that in the early 80s, mostly because of my access to books at the time. I was living in a small town without a library or bookstore. The school library was pretty much useless. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton in the mall in a city more than ten miles away, and I didn’t have independent transportation to get there or much money to spend on books. We mostly got our book fix from the large used bookstore in that nearby city, and later we were able to get a membership in the library in a nearby small town. But that meant that my selection was limited to what was in the library (and when it came to paperbacks, that usually meant what people had donated) or what was in the used bookstore, and that meant it was the books people were willing to get rid of. As a result, I missed a lot of the classics from that era.
So, I thought I’d give some of those that were being recommended a shot. I figure that someone working as a fantasy novelist ought to have read some of the standards. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to go back and read those now. They come across as awfully cliched. These were the books that created the cliches, so they weren’t cliches at the time, but if you’ve ready pretty widely in the genre and then go back to the earlier books, the tropes really jump out at you.
For instance, how many of these books start with a weather report? It’s like the way to set the mood and establish the world is to have the main character noting the weather — snow is falling, it hasn’t rained in ages, there’s a storm coming. Then we frequently have our hero do something really dumb that ends up launching him into the story — he misses a turn and goes to the wrong place, forgets what he was sent to do, takes a break to take a nap and oversleeps, trusts the wrong person, trips over something and causes a disaster, etc. This is because we have to establish our hero as an unlikely hero, an everyman underdog in the mold of Frodo and Bilbo, and apparently that means he’s a bit bumbling. He’ll probably be helped out of the fix he got himself into by the appearance of a white-bearded, wise old wizard. Once he’s thanked the wizard for his rescue, the two of them will have some kind of conversation in which they discuss the history and current political situation of their world. The wizard will either sense some kind of power or potential in our hero or will know something about the hero’s background that the hero doesn’t realize about himself (all those orphans with mysterious origins). The wizard will either recruit the hero for some kind of quest or take him on as an apprentice. The hero will try to learn magic and fail (more bumbling), and it’s almost inevitable that he’ll later learn that this is because he’s truly special and has a different kind of magic that doesn’t work by the usual rules. Once he figures out how his power works, he’ll be the most powerful wizard ever.
I won’t name the book that inspired this rant because it applies to more than half the fantasy novels published between about 1973 and 1993. I’m really making an effort to get through the one I’m reading now, since the author is now considered a grandmaster of the field and I’ve never read anything by him, but I don’t know how long I can take it. It’s not his fault that other people went on to do the formula better than he did or that other people ripped him off (then again, I’ve read several books in this mold that were published before this one, so it was already a bit tropey).
However, I will blame the author for making a bad point of view break in the opening paragraph. I think I need to do a writing post on handling deep POV.
I need to find more current fantasy that’s not so grim and dark. What else is out there for someone who wants to read something like Stardust?