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Re-outlining, Day 3

Onto the tricky stuff now – the middle of the book is always the hardest part for me, as demonstrated by the huge number of pink cards in this section. There’s a lot of good material in there, but some is in the wrong place and other parts need extensive rewriting to fit them back into the plot. Fingers crossed that the final third of the book won’t be quite as bad…

Chapters outlined: 6 (19/32)

Re-outlining, Day 2

Moving into the second fifth of the book, I’m finding more scenes that need work, but fewer than I feared. And where I do see problems, I’m already coming up with fairly easy fixes that won’t require too much rewriting, which is a relief!

Chapters outlined: 7 (13/32)

Action? Figures!

One of my favourite bits of writing fantasy is the action scenes. I rarely bother to plan them in advance – one sword-fighting scene in The Alchemist of Souls was described as “Big fight!” in my outline – as I find they’re more fun, and more fluid, if I just make things up as I go along. However occasionally I want to write something that involves more than a single pair of combatants, and it’s at that point I have to plan the logistics a bit more carefully. Writers have various techniques for doing this, but one I’m trying out during the writing of The Merchant of Dreams is to use Playmobil figures. They’re a handy size, come with lots of different weapons – and of course they’re fun to collect!

Note: After taking photos* of the various stages of the fight scene, I realised they were potentially massive spoilers for the ending of the book, so for the purpose of this blog I mocked up a generic fight scene as an illustration, using the same figures for my protagonists and some random pirates. I might post the real photos after the book comes out…

From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!
From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!

The setting for this scene is a square in Venice, hence the cardboard “palazzo” in the background and the terracotta “well” in the centre. In the above photo we see a nice street-level view of all the separate combats, and having chosen the figures carefully (and swapped hair, hats, etc around as needed) it’s easy to tell who’s who. However it can be hard to get an accurate idea of distance from this angle, so you might want to take a top-down photo as well:

Birds-eye view of the same scene
Birds-eye view of the same scene

Now we can see exactly who is fighting whom, lines of fire, that kind of thing, so this kind of shot is great for logistical planning.

Finally, you can use close-up shots to get an “over-the-shoulder” perspective from a single character’s viewpoint:

Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight
Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight

Not only is this rather cute, it can give you ideas for the next move in the combat. That pirate in the red bandana is looking like a good candidate for a head shot!

That’s really all there is to it – I moved the characters through the combat, taking photos at each stage, then when I came to write the scene, I used the photos as reference material. I didn’t always stick exactly to the original plan, and I dare say it may change again in the next draft, but it gets the creative juices flowing :)

Do you have any favourite outside-the-box techniques to share for handling the trickier aspects of writing?

Technical note: I used a Panasonic Lumix FX-55 with no flash (it tends to create too much over-exposure) and manipulated the light levels in The GIMP.

Re-outlining, Day 1

This week, I’m doing the “mostly mechanical” stage in my revision process: mapping my 386-page manuscript onto index cards. It’s kinda scary, because now I get to face just how broken some of the chapters are – but on the plus side, some of them are pretty solid, so I’m not panicking yet!

I call it “mostly mechanical” because I’m just skim-reading each scene before I jot down the details on a card: title, pages, word count, PoV, etc. The only non-mechanical part is assessing how much work is going to be involved in editing it, because I’m using coloured index cards to denote that. Green for OK, yellow for Needs Work, and pink for Danger, Will Robinson! :)

My other goal for the week is to get up early so that I can do this stuff and still have evenings free to blog, read, catch up on chores and chill out. It’s not easy getting out of bed when it’s cold and dark, but it’s the only way I’m going to get this revision pass done in time…

Chapters outlined: 6/32

Revision prep

Yesterday I said I was going to take a few days’ break before tackling the next draft of The Merchant of Dreams. Well, yes and no. I’m probably not going to start the heavy work of actually going through the manuscript until next weekend, but with only nine weeks to go before my deadline I want to be sure I can hit the ground running – and that takes preparation.

For one thing, a check of the downstairs office revealed we were almost out of printer paper and didn’t appear to have any spare toner cartridges – not a good thing if you’re planning to print out a 400-page manuscript! It therefore seemed sensible, before heading out to Staples, to assemble all the other stationery I’ll need, just to make sure I actually have it. And before doing that, it made sense to tidy and clean my desk…A novel revision really isn’t something you can start on a whim, not if you want it to go smoothly.

The other thing I’ve been doing is re-reading some of Holly Lisle’s courses on novel revision. I obviously don’t want to put this draft through all the exercises in How to Revise Your Novel; Holly stresses that you only need to do the course once before you boil it down into a process that works for you, and even if I wanted to go the whole hog, I don’t have the nine months that it took me last time! On the other hand I’m not so strapped for time that I need the pared-down, high-octane approach of her 7-Day Crash Revision process either. I need something in-between, something that is efficient enough to give me the time I will need to do any necessary rewrites, and which won’t kill me in the process (particularly as I still have to work the day-job) :)

Since this is only my second novel  ever and therefore my second full-scale revision, I’m still learning what works best for me. I want to document the process, though, so that next time it’s easier. Or at least more efficient. After all, I have another book to write when this one’s done…

NaNoWriMo Day 26

This will be my last post for NaNoWriMo 2011. Today I wrote the last part of the big action finale of this book, so I feel I’ve achieved my goal of completing this draft, even if I haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo in the conventional sense of reaching 50k.

There are still some denouement scenes that I could write, but it seems silly to do so until I know for certain exactly which loose ends need tying up and how – and I won’t know that until I’ve completed the structural phase of my revision pass.

My plan now is to take a break from the book for a few days before jumping into revisions – I have a bunch of little things that have been niggling away at me, and I’d like to get as many of those out of the way as possible, so I can focus on this one project properly.

Funnily enough, it’s almost exactly a year since I got the confirmation from Angry Robot that they were happy with my proposed changes to the first book and should send them the revised manuscript when I was done. I think the rewrites for book two are going to be a good deal more intensive, because this manuscript is in a much less polished state, but at least now I know it can be done!

Day 26 wordcount: 1,221

Final total: 32,318

NaNoWriMo Day 25

Not as productive today as I would have liked, but I’ve reached the final big fight scene and I need to “block” it (in movie parlance) before I can write it. And just for fun, I’m going to do it with Playmobil figures!

I did contemplate skipping ahead, but I think I need to capture the emotional highs and lows of the preceding scenes through writing them if I’m to do justice to the denouement.

Day 25 wordcount: 841

Running total: 31,097

NaNoWriMo Days 23 & 24

My break from the story has paid off and I’m back writing again, in short concentrated bursts. It’s fascinating to see the vague ideas I planned way back in March take shape as real scenes, bringing together some of the moments I envisaged as well as others that I didn’t. I’ve found the perfect location, too: a Venetian house that is reputed to be cursed/haunted. I didn’t visit it whilst I was in Venice, but since it’s not open to the public I would have had to make do with photos from the internet anyway.

The big fight is also turning out to be more gruesome than I anticipated – considering I’m quite squeamish, it’s alarming how keen my Muse is to include some eww! moments. Mind you, my subconscious is pretty adept at coming up with gory nightmares, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised…

Day 24 wordcount: 1,883

Running total: 30,256

NaNoWriMo Days 21 & 22

Once again I haven’t been writing. I’m still trying to find my way through the climax of this book and I’ve been too tired and unfocused to plan what’s going to happen next. I realise this is zero excuse – I should be just sitting down and writing – but after reading Rachel Aaron’s blog post about increasing one’s output, I’m feeling acutely aware of the fact that I don’t know what needs to happen next in this story.

I feel a little guilty about the word count side of things, because I know I’m falling behind, but I keep telling myself that the most important thing is to get the story right. I’m not doing a standard “ignore your inner editor and write any old crap” NaNoWriMo here, I’m writing a real novel for publication. Maybe I have performance anxiety, maybe I’m just finding my own pace – but stressing about it won’t help.

I think I’m going to take a step back to an earlier point in the story and fill in a few narrative gaps, just to keep the juices flowing, and save these problematic final scenes until I have some time off work to really focus on them…

Sunstones and skraylings: a bit of alternate history

A lot of the fun of writing fantasy is in the world-building, which consists largely of taking a bunch of ideas that you find cool, and fitting them together into something new and interesting. When creating a secondary world, you’re free to take absolutely anything you like and try to make it work, but in historical fantasy, you’re somewhat more constrained by facts. Note that I say “somewhat more” – there’s still leeway to make connections that would have you laughed out of your undergraduate history class, but as long as you can make a convincing case to your readers, you’re good to go.

Danes about to invade England (c12th; Pierpoint Morgan Library)
Danes about to invade England (c12th; Pierpoint Morgan Library)

The “connection” I made in the world of Night’s Masque is that there is somewhat more continuity between the Viking voyages across the Atlantic and the later voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. Whereas in our world the earlier voyages seem to have been largely forgotten, in Night’s Masque at least some of this history has been preserved, albeit in garbled form.

My original impetus was that I needed a name for my New World non-humans, and I liked the anglicised version of the Viking skræling (their word for Native Americans) that I’d come across in Michael Moorcock’s recent Elric novels. It suggested something otherworldly and slightly sinister – just the thing for my fanged and tattooed traders!

I decided that the Vikings of Night’s Masque had brought back stories of these enigmatic people, and that the name had been preserved in folklore for five centuries, until John Cabot’s voyages to Newfoundland revealed them to be real. However this was the only historical link I foresaw between the 11th and 16th centuries – until earlier this month.

Icelandic spar crystal (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Icelandic spar crystal (source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Viking legend in our world, their ships used magical “sunstones” to navigate, but until recently this was dismissed as just another fanciful storytelling element. However, careful research into the polarising properties of a piece of calcite crystal found in a shipwreck have shown that it could indeed have been used for navigation.

So far so cool – I love anything to do with ancient technology, particularly when it turns out to be far more advanced than we like to give our ancestors credit for. But what really gave me a Twilight Zone moment was the identity of the ship on which the sunstone was found. Not a Viking longboat, but a 16th century warship that sank near the Channel Islands.

The Elizabethans were using sunstones, just like the Vikings.

My immediate reaction was: whoa, cool! And then, damn, why didn’t I think of that first? The trouble with realistic world-building is that you don’t want to push the coincidences too far, or you risk breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…

The mundane explanation is no doubt that sunstones continued to be used in Northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. But I like to think that, in my alternate history at least, the Vikings took their sunstones over to the New World, and the skraylings adopted this new technology for their own navigation and  traded the stones with Elizabethan sailors. Let’s face it; it’s a much more interesting explanation!

Further reading