Crossing the Finish Line

2011_Winner_Certificate_filled_out

Above is the certificate I won for finishing NaNoWriMo.  I crossed the line a day early with 50,0042 words.  Considering how many thousands of words I was behind a week in, I’m justifiably pleased with having finished early.  

Below is another picture I can also proudly display.

Winner_180_180_white

I spent almost all of this NaNoWriMo writing down the backstory of perhaps my most dynamic character, Artemis Arrowsmith.  This material will appear in flashback scenes in the second and third books. 

Last year I wrote much of the second book for NaNoWriMo.  All told, between what I wrote last year and this year, I have over 300 pages of material for the first-draft of that novel.  I plan to spend the next year turning that into a completed work.  I’ll keep you informed of my progress.

That’s all for now.  Have fun everyone.

Brant on NaNoWriMo Day 8

Before I get into my post today, I want to give a shout out to Kathryn.  Most of the posts out of the this blog have come from her lately.   Kathryn’s informative posts about what music inspires her and where she has been focusing her writing on a day-to-day basis have provided me insights of my own, as well as links to some beautiful music.  Great work Kathryn.

My Current NaNoWriMo  Status

  • Suggested Daily Word Count: 1,667  (Works out to 50,000 words in 30 days.)
  • Words Written Today: 1,800
  • Suggested Cumulative Word Count by Day 8:  13,336
  • My Actual Cumulative Word Count: 17,807
  • Average Words per Day: 2,226
  • At This Rate I Will Finish On: Nov 23
  • Days Remaining in November: 22
  • Total Words Remaining for NaNoWriMo: 32,193
  • Words per Day to Finish on Time 1,464
  • Current Page Count of (Mostly) New Material: 64 

The short hand of these statistics is that I am well ahead of schedule.   I have a comfortable buffer that I can build on to make certain I actually do 50,000 words in 30 days.

A Song That Inspires Me

Song of the Seahorse by Miriam Stockley is a song which I listen to often.  Its sweeping melody and melancholy lyrics makes me think of many different things, but with regards to my story I feel it captures something essential about my character, Artemis Arrowsmith. 

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Song of the Seahorse, by Miriam Stockley

The lyrics dwell on the death of a lover and the how the person feels because of their loss.   This is central to Artemis’ character and the subplots that revolve around her.    The music also captures a sense of beauty and even wonder, other elements central to her character.

A Lesson Learned From NaNoWriMo: JUST KEEP TYPING!

Seriously, don’t dwell on anything.  Just keep typing.

“What am I wanting to accomplish in this chapter/with this character?”  Don’t worry about it, just keep typing.

“Wait…isn’t this character supposed to be dead already?”  Don’t worry about it, just keep typing.

“What color did I say her eyes were a few pages back?”  Don’t worry about it, just keep typing.

“Wasn’t this character a different sex in and earlier chapter?”  Don’t worry about it, just keep typing.

The Result Is An Interesting Mishmash.

On scenes I have reasonably well mapped out in my mind, I blend descriptions and actions and dialogue together in reasonable proportions.   Not great, but workable text.

Then there are areas where I know I want or need a conversation on a subject, but I don’t have the details well thought out. 

This writing tends to be various people talking in an undefined area with characters appearing out of nowhere.  Where are they? Who knows?  What led up to the scenes?  Who knows?  All I know for certain is that there are elements in those scenes that I definitely want to keep somewhere in the overall story.

A Funny Thing Happened While Trying to Write A Story

Along the way, I was forced to deal with the motivations for the character of Demiurge in a more concrete way.  Given that the title of the second book is …Demiurge, Unbound,…, this was unavoidable.

But his origins are located behind a shroud of the distant past, which meant I needed to think about that past in the way he would.  I.e. Discovering the voice of Demiurge required thinking about my story’s mythology as he remembered it.

This led to a multipage “tell” that turned into a surprisingly clean summary of events explaining how the world ended up in its present state.  

Details became clear to me that I had glossed over in my mind, and with those details I realized I needed additional information about the world’s geography that I had never considered before.

The downside:  The new geographic details affect what I have already written in the first book.  On the bright side, what I need to add, while major, can be done by placing a few key sentences in a handful of  areas.  One particularly vivid description in chapter seven in the first book could be the foundation for significant reveals in the second book.

Rather than add those elements to the first book, I noted what I needed as part of my NaNoWriMo efforts.  i.e. I just wrote it in a a major, ugly, info dump.

And while I was doing that, I had a second major insight to the working of my world. 

How magic works and what its limitations are is a subject I have wrestled with often.  Now many of those details are clear to me, and I see how it has affected the path of Artemis and Damon both. 

These insights led me to know how the second book will end, and what scenes will comprise much of the third book of the series, …And Damon Roth,…

In particular, I now know why Damon first became interested in Artemis, and what he had to go through to find her.  Once again, I decided to jot down these thoughts as part of my NaNoWriMo efforts.

After these insights, I was able to return to a more linear narrative focused on scenes I had long thought of but had written little about.  Once again, I am writing less mythology and info dumps and more of a blend descriptions and actions and dialogue together in reasonable proportions

Insights Learned During NaNoWriMo.

The pace of writing has forced me to abandon quality for quantity.  To pour words onto the page as fast as they appear in my head.  Misspellings abound.  I use the same word in sentence after sentence, creating a repetitive feel that is, frankly, boring to read.  Grammar, the bane of my existence, is sacrificed for rambling sentences that often make little sense even to me.

Fast and furious writing forces you to make decisions that ripple through your overall work.  Earlier text that you think has settled and needs nothing more must be modified.  Plot strands for the future become clearer and more defined.  

Good ideas also end up on the page as details I hadn’t considered until now become facts of the world.  The story evolves and becomes substantially better.

I must admit to a temptation that this style of writing has inspired in me.  Namely to write my whole seven volume story in one gigantic effort as fast as possible. 

Yes, the final product would be craptacular, but it would also be a complete first draft.  After that I could focus on the long slow editing process where turgid text is replace by compelling prose. 

I’m not certain this would be a better approach that my normal style of write-edit-edit-edit-edit-edit-edit-edit-edit-write some more.  But my experiments with NaNoWriMo makes me wonder if writing the whole story at once wouldn’t yield rewards I can’t fathom at this time.

Music To Write By

I like to listen to music when I write, sometimes at decibels that can cause hearing loss.  I have even created playlists that I associate with certain characters; that expresses, for me, something about their nature, or inspires some scene involving them. 

I find that, after a while, the song itself becomes an odd mixture of background noise and inspiration.   I end up not listening to the words or individual notes, but my imagination still becomes hyperactive. 

An All-Round Favorite

A short list of my favorite pieces would have to include  All The Strange Strange Creatures , the trailer music from the new Doctor Who series.   This is a terrific piece of music that just never gets old.   It practically screams, “write an epic while listening to me”.  I can listen to it and write almost anything.

Other songs are more tied to particular scenes, often ones that I have long planned. 

The Ecstasy Of Music

Such is the case with another favorite of mine, The Ecstasy Of Gold by Ennio Morricone from the movie The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  Not the version on the “official” soundtrack; that version just lays there and puts itself to sleep.  No, to hear the version worth listening to you must rip it from the actual movie itself.  (Or, click on the link I’ve provided above.  It takes about 40 seconds before the song starts.  It’s worth the wait.)

To me, The Ecstasy of Gold is synonymous with a scene where Tara Rihtwis is pursued closely by a pack of Gogs, led by Widukind, who in turn are being tracked by Artemis Arrowsmith.  

When the music plays I can see this scene as if it were being played in a movie theater.  I can describe it in perfect detail, probably better than I will ever be able to write it.

Moody Music

I find almost anything by The Moody Blues great to write by, but Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time), from their album To Our Children’s Children’s Children, holds a special place for me.   Listening to it inspired a scene that struck me as so powerful, a plot twist so unexpected, I altered my story to include it. 

The opening moments of the song made me think, completely unbidden, of someone hearing something that alarms them. For no good reason I decided it was Tara who was alarmed.  

Then the drummer hitting cymbals in the background made me think she was hearing the muffled sounds a sword fight, perhaps on the other side of a door. 

Then the music swells into a strong guitar rhythm, and in my mind’s eye she opened the door to see a room on fire.  In the center of the room are two people locked in mortal combat.  One, her beloved father, Morel Rihtwis; the other her closest friend and oft times protector, Artemis Arrowsmith. 

I had never thought about having those two characters fight until I listened to Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time).  Afterwards, I realized that their diametrically opposite worldviews made their conflict inevitable, and the result of that conflict equally inevitable.  I came to see their final clash as the pivot point from which to start bringing various plot threads to satisfying finales.

Other Music

The list goes on, and on.  So many pieces of music that have shaped my thoughts, and in so doing shaped my story.  The point is not which music inspired what moment, but that music itself forms such unexpected connections within each of us.

What music do you listen to as you write?  What scenes are synonymous with certain songs for you?  What songs have inspired elements of your own stories? 

Reverse Engineering An Outline

I have long had a good idea about the plot of my story, Gods Among Men, and a high-level outline for the first half of the story.  Lately, as I have been working on my new website and planning to forge ahead with writing new material, I have come to realize that it would be useful to have a brief chapter-by-chapter outline of the whole story. 

This goes back to my natural inclination as a plotter, as opposed to a pantzer (someone who write “by the seat of their pants”).  My plot is convoluted enough to easily get lost in, so I need a road map to guide me. 

Having made that decision I was now faced with the prospect of actually writing the outline.

The Insights of A Child

As a child I loved to solve mazes, to trace a line from beginning to end through a convoluted collection of passages.  And as a child I discovered something that shaped my thoughts to this day: Most mazes are easier to solve if you start at the end and work backwards.

All mazes have a plethora of choices at their beginning, false paths and dead-ends design to confuse and confound those trying to solve them. 

But almost all mazes have only one route open to the end, a predefined choice essential to completing the puzzle.  And while the path back may be littered with choices, it is often easy to spot which ones dead end and which lead back to the beginning.

And so in life I have often found that if you want an end result, it is easier to plot your way back from that end result than to decipher how to move forward from where you are.

And This Relates To Outlining How Exactly?

As I tried to wrap my mind around the effort of creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, I came to think about the insights into my story I had some months ago.   Those insights focused upon my realization of what the ending must include, and what was required to get there. 

And that I discovered is the key to the outline I shall create. 

Starting at the beginning and going forward to the end is hard and treacherous.  It is easy to get lost in the details, to pursue sub-plots and minor character arcs that go nowhere. 

Starting at the end, however, and working backwards is much easier.

The finale is about Damon and Artemis, the end of their character arcs and the conclusion of the plot.  A known point I must reach. 

So what must happen immediately before to set up that scene?  I can answer that question, and in doing so write down the outline for the preceding chapter.

That preceding chapter will also include the ending of plot threads and arcs for lesser characters.  Those endings must be setup by chapters that come earlier in the story.  Now I know what to write down for those even earlier chapters. 

And so on and so forth, until I reach the parts of the story I have already written.  Back-tracing through my maze of a plot to my known beginning.

It may seem an odd technique, but it is one I have used often to solve difficult problems.  And when faced with a thorny plot is a useful way to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details–private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations–that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.