Stars Align

57,767 words, and not much time to produce them in. Sometimes it seems like it almost takes an astronomical alignment to write, where you have a) the time, b) the energy, and c) the inspiration, all at once. One of the writing blogs I read noted, when discussing the infamous muse, that the more often you write, the easier it is to write. Which is true, in my experience. Let a week go by, or worse two, and it can feel like you’re trying to push a mill wheel uphill to get back into it.

So even though last week was a clusterfuck of hopelessness in which nothing bad happened but way too much other stuff happened, I did manage to keep my hand–or my mind–in the game. I think if you keep it in the back of your mind, keep thinking it over and pondering phrases and ideas, then it makes it a little easier when you finally do get back to the story. It doesn’t always work, but that’s my small piece of wisdom for others who, like me, had to wait a little bit for the cosmic alignment before they can write again.

Grimdark and Noblebright

Ever since George R. R. Martin exploded into public consciousness, there have been legions of imitators, and a whole new sub-genre of fantasy dedicated to grim “realism.” Grimdark fantasy is noted for anti-hero protagonists, good guys losing, and usually lots and lots of violence on the side. Originally, it was a reaction to the sometimes saccharine and repetitive fantasy that came before, where the good guys always won–sometimes literally by virtue of their goodness–and where Tolkien, father of the fantasy genre, set the tone for rather bloodless combat, chivalrous romance, and clear-cut lines of good and evil.

George R. R. Martin cites actual historical events as inspirations for his work, such as the Black Dinner for the Red Wedding, and there’s no doubt that there’s historical precedent for any amount of mayhem. It’s also true that in the real world, the good guys don’t always win, and an unscrupulous enemy can take advantage of their honor to destroy them. It makes Martin’s books unpredictable in a way fantasy has never been. It gives him room to play with characters’ motivations and allow them to shift from good to evil and lots of shades of gray, and also indulge in not just wildly-over-the-top evil, of which there is plenty, but also more low-key sneakery and backstabbing.

There’s a lot to be said for that nuance and complexity, and I used to greatly enjoy picking apart the books with fellow fans to try to guess where it was going, and how it might turn out in the end. But in spite of our awareness that Martin was perfectly willing to kill the good guys, I don’t think I have ever seen a group of fans operate under the assumption that the Lannisters would win, at the end of the day. Almost all fan speculation I’ve seen from the first book until now has always ultimately pointed the same way: how do the Starks get their revenge?

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Phrase of the Week: Pushing Your Luck

I am delighted to report 54,459 words tonight, a finished myth, and the first draft of the next scene is complete.

I’m having to wrench myself away from an immediate rewrite, because when the writing is fun, it’s easy to overextend yourself and the spend the next week, or two, or six paying for it. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes when you come to a good stopping point, stop. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a rewrite go smoothly if I attempt it immediately after finishing the first draft, and sometimes it’s best to just be grateful you had a good writing session without pushing your luck.

But it was a great session, 3000 words, more or less, as well as some plotting time and updates to the map and my wiki. I got to write one of my Delightful Ideas, as well as writing another planned event that kind of rushed up on me. This is one of the challenges of the space between milestones, pacing these kind of smaller shifts and events so they’re not abrupt, so they’re not packed too close together around acres of traveling tedium. Sometimes it’s a little too obvious that even the author has realized their characters have been hiding in a forest for months, the pacing has slowed down to a crawl, and they had better have something exciting happen or the reader is going to put the book down.

Pacing is something that’s really hard to plan or even describe, at least for me. It’s like flow. I can tell when writing is flowing, or when it isn’t. It just has a sound to it. I don’t think I could describe what makes writing flow or not if my life depended on it. Pacing is nearly as hard to define. I’m sure there’s a dictionary definition somewhere, but in terms of applying it to an actual book, it’s much more difficult to say, x is what makes the pacing wrong. Or right.

So I’m hoping I got the pacing right today. It feels like I did. But I’m going to close the file and let it rest til tomorrow, because picking at it today would be pushing my luck.


Making the Myth

This has been an intense week, and writing-wise I probably made it a little harder than it had to be, but I think I’m getting something good out of it. The time has come for the almost inevitable mythical backstory of my world, which is very much a part of fantasy writing and poses a unique challenge. Writing a myth is hard.

For me, there are a few requirements for a good invented myth. It has to be unique, it has to be detailed, and it has to be told in a memorable way. When I think of all the books on my shelves, there are very few whose myths I remember and enjoy on their own merits. Most of the time they’re necessary elements that led to the present conundrum. Off the top of my head, of all the mythic origins I’ve read, I can only remember two: Tolkien and Jacqueline Carey’s story of Elua, the origin-god of her d’Angeline people. I’ve read a lot of other fantasy series, but I really have to rack my brain before I start to come up with any others.

What I think was unusual about Tolkien and Carey’s myths was the amount of effort they put into them. Tolkien’s histories, songs, and lore are epic. He is father of modern fantasy, he set the standard for world-building. He has thousands of years of detailed history of all his races. He has stories and songs of their heroes and religious figures. Most crucially, in my opinion, he spent six years writing a translation of Beowulf. Everyone knows Tolkien’s skill as a linguist–at least, everyone with even a glancing familiarity with Lord of the Rings–but I think an exhaustive study of a myth like Beowulf would give real insight into what makes an enduring myth.

Carey also goes much deeper with her myth. She repeats aspects of the origin story throughout her trilogies, all of which are rich with symbolism, but she even wrote and released a book that was basically a short bible of the origin story, written in appropriately mythic language. It’s clear that the myth wasn’t just a utilitarian bit of backstory; she gave a great deal of time and effort to developing it to support different aspects of her story telling and provide a structure for her world-building. She made it vivid and lyrical, with several very memorable images and often-repeated quotes, i.e. love as thou wilt. It wasn’t a story she wrote, inserted into the novel, and then abandoned. It underpinned it and floated to the surface in different iterations repeatedly.

I will add that to my list of requirements. Unique, detailed, memorably told, and embedded in the world.

What I did that made this harder on myself–but might benefit in the long run, we’ll see–is actually looked up myths to see how the language looked. I found a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” and looked at local myths for one of the cultures I’m referencing, and also some of the traditional poetry of another reference culture. I actually avoided Beowulf because the Eagles have nothing of that language in their make-up and I don’t want to contaminate them; my Wolves are decidedly more Beowulf-y and I mean to save him for them. I wrote to myself about what the important points of the myth are; there are key points that I need to carry down to my current-day story, not just to support the explanations of this is why my world is as it is, but also to highlight certain cultural values that will underpin my own civilizations.

What I found for the oldest myths and stories, like the Bible, for example, is simple language that was meant to be spoke aloud. I do read my dialogue aloud frequently, just to see how it feels, but I think it’ll be crucial in writing this myth. Homer often has single-phrase descriptions of his characters, like “wise-eyed Athena” or something similar, which I think has a definite mythic quality. Picking the descriptors for my mythical characters (and not too many of them) will hopefully let me make them unique and memorable in as few words as possible.

But I think this is a section I’m going to keep rewriting and cutting down for a long time, long after I’ve moved on in the story. It’s way too long as it is right now.

Delightful Ideas, My Darlings

First things first: 49,839 words, and the first draft of section two of episode three is done.

Second, this writing session is why I don’t rigidly outline. I have milestones, I have a road map (I also have an actual map), but I have always found that for me, rigid outlines tend to stifle my creativity and the possibility of some new surprise surfacing that I didn’t plan on. Those surprises are why I sometimes feel like I can’t really take credit for my own writing. I don’t know where they come from.

It was the germination of a seed that has been wandering around on the edge of my mind for a while now, but in this scene it came together and gave me both the raison d’être for this scene and a wonderful thread to unroll over possibly the rest of this book, at least. It will be delightful for me to write because it just tickles me; the idea makes me smile, for reasons I’d have trouble explaining. And unfortunately I can’t tell you what the idea is because it would be a spoiler.

It’s also one of those things where it’s absolutely not necessary to the plot, so it takes a bit of judgment on the writer’s part. Just because I think it’s a delightful idea doesn’t mean my readers are going to want to splash around in it with me for pages on end. And that’s the heart of the writer’s maxim to kill your darlings. If my beta readers say, why do you have multiple scenes referencing x when it doesn’t move the plot along, then the delightful idea that I so enjoyed writing, and that makes me smile every time I read it, is going to have to be sacrificed.

For some reason the image that comes to mind is an infant on an altar, and a battleaxe. It makes me very sad.

So to avoid that adorable, cooing little infant getting the axe, the only solution is to make it as adorable as possible and only include it when it’s necessary, so the only time the reader notices the idea is to admire it for its cleverness and adorableness. Which is true of much of writing in general, but when it comes to your darlings, one prefers to make them simultaneously as attractive and unobtrusive as possible.