Two Days In One

So I really did think I’d posted yesterday. But when I looked today, I found a little untitled draft reading thusly:

I have got to start writing my blog-post ideas down. I keep having them and thinking ‘oh, I’ll write about that tomorrow’…. and then when tomorrow comes, I got nothing. And I’m too sleepy to work up a good rant. So

Apparently something shiny flitted across my vision at that point and I forgot to finish.

Have you noticed that you can get ideas from other books or movies, but the idea often doesn’t resemble that book or movie at all?

On the international flight home, I was watching Prince Caspian and thinking about skewed gender representation in fantasy, you know, as you do, and I got hit by the Idea Fairy. As best I recall, it went something like this.

Ooh, pretty.

I don’t like the plot coupons though.

Looking for missing people.

Evil magic.

Plot coupons.

What if they weren’t plot coupons? What if the series of tasks was actually, you know, not cumulative but they were just doing all different things to try to achieve an end?

And then somehow I was imagining this city, right, which is being invaded, and our Plucky Heroes have to resurrect the city’s old magical defenses but nobody knows where they are any more or how they worked and it turns out the seven ancient protective spells are curses enacted by mages killed in battle, and their spirits are in buildings and books and statues and shit and they have to get woken up so they can curse the invaders again but it’s hard and takes sacrifices  and they don’t actually need to find all of them or anything it’s just ‘let’s find as many as we can before they get here’ and there’s a couple they can’t find but the ones they do find turn out to be enough except at least one of the heroes actually dies because that mage demands blood sacrifice so they die for the city or something.

I got all of this out of ‘let’s find the magic swords’ and ‘ooh, pretty scenery’. I mean, you guys remember the Rise of the Guardians thing, where watching RotG made me think about a story featuring a ghost who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, right? I swear, I wonder how my brain makes these connections sometimes.

I like it, though. I like the idea of a story where the Plucky Young Heroes have to Find The Things and they don’t have to find them all, and they don’t find them all, because it’s not a game it’s just a matter of finding all the weapons you can because there’s a war going and you just want to save your home. When a plot coupon is not a plot coupon. I like it.

What are your feelings on plot coupons?

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Words

I love words. Here are some words I particularly like.

Mellifluous.

Limned.

Catastrophic.

Sinuous.

Pulchritudinous.

You will notice that they’re all descriptive words. Here’s a quick writing exercise for you – write down the first five words you think of when you think ‘some words I like’.

Whatever kind of words they are – verb, adjective, criticism, descriptor, long words, double-meaning words, words starting with X – they’re likely to be the ones you use just a bit too often. I forget where I read this, but I have consistently found it to be true. I grew up reading Tolkien and other high-fantasy authors heavy on the….

on the…

GODDAMN IT WHY DO I ALWAYS FORGET THIS ONE WORD ARGH THAT WORD YOU KNOW THE ONE IT MEANS WHEN YOU TELL WAY TOO MUCH IN A BIG CHUNK EXPOSITION! EXPOSITION THAT WAS IT!

Ahem. That’s actual stream of consciousness right there.

Anyway. I actually like exposition. I love old-fashioned novels that spend the first three pages dumping backstory on you in a charmingly prim, sternly punctuated sort of way. I like reading long descriptions of the country our heroes are travelling through and what they eat on the way. I’ve heard many criticisms of Tolkien’s obsession with talking about food, but have never agreed with them – food’s important when you’re travelling. And hard to get. And heavy. It’s actually a thing, here!

Did you know that Enid Blyton deliberately included many descriptions of delicious food in her novels because she was writing for children and children like to eat? I vaguely remember reading that somewhere and it seems legit, but I couldn’t be bothered to look it up, so, you know, trufax. Except now I’m feeling guilty for not doing my research. Half a mo.

Google did not immediately turn anything up on Ms Blyton’s motives, but here’s a nice Scotch Egg recipe I found.

So. Back to the words. If you really like a certain kind of word – or any other writing quirk, like the abuse of the ellipsis – you probably use it a little too often for your potential reader’s tastes. In the same vein as ‘kill your darlings’, cut your favourite words unless they’re absolutely necessary. If you’re anything like me, your definition of ‘absolutely necessary’ will mean plenty of them survive the culling.

I hope you all have a great day. My daughter just came up to me and gently stuck a purple smiley face sticker on my forehead. I liked it. So here is a virtual smiley face sticker, from me to you. Stick it on yourself somewhere conveniently visible!

 

 

Packing to go home is always harder than packing to leave.

At home, you have all your stuff right there, you can leave things behind if they don’t fit into the suitcase, and you can wear other clothes so you can get your laundry done in advance. Packing to go *back*, suddenly you have more things to fit into the same amount of space, you can’t remember how you got it all into one suitcase in the first place and you have to pack the clothes, shoes and toothpaste you are currently wearing and using.

So yeah, I’m going to have a fun day.

It’s like editing.

No, really, I’m not reaching for this comparison at all.

See, your suitcase is your plan, right? You’ve got characters and plot and stuff in there, some odds and ends of character development shoved in the corners, and you’re all set for your writing ‘trip’.

Inevitably along the way you will find that you’ve forgotten a few essentials, like the toothpaste of Three Dimensional Protagonists and the dry socks of Plot-Hole Stuffing. So you’ll pick those up and add them on the way. Plus you’ll find some things on the trip that you want, like that darling little secondary character who’ll go beautifully with the NaNoWriMo sweater you couldn’t resist. Souvenirs are nice! 

Except that when you need to bring your story ‘home’, suddenly your plan-suitcase is just completely inadequate to the job. You have more characters and more plot and suddenly you realize all that waffling on in chapters five, eight and ten is hanging out the back of the suitcase looking saggy and sad.

Editing is like trying to fit all the detritus of a long trip back into the same suitcase you left with. Unlike real life mementos – and underwear – there is no financial pain or social awkwardness involved in abandoning what won’t fit. You need to go through and decide, again, what will serve the story best, what you need and what you really like but doesn’t serve the plot.

Of course a plan, unlike a suitcase, can be expanded to fit that darling little secondary character, if she still fits the plot. But anything that doesn’t fit should be either left behind or – if you can’t bear to – put in a second ‘cut files’ suitcase just in case you do need them someday.

Now I need to stop putting off packing. Ugh. Wish me luck.

Try Before You Write: Force and Clothing

So I posted a while back about, among other things, how hard it is to hold onto a small child who doesn’t want to be held. Know what else is hard? Getting them into pants when they don’t want to wear them.

Seriously. Forcibly dressing or undressing someone who’s fighting you is really tough to actually do. I’ve never tried it with an adult, but personal experience tells me that it takes luck, patience, and at least three participating limbs to dress a three year old who really doesn’t want pants on. Two coercing parties is good. Three would probably be better. There will be kicking, scratching, screaming, biting and twisting of Escher Girl magnitude. (hey, you know those impossible Escher Girl poses? Very little kids actually are that flexible. It’s kind of weird to watch sometimes.)

I read this romance novel years ago in which a character was held down and her clothing forcibly removed – not a rape sequence, don’t worry, more of a Stepsisters-Steal-Cinderella’s-Pretty-Dress scenario – and it popped into my head today while I was trying to wrestle pyjama pants onto my kid and I thought “…. dude, that was totally impossible. Either she was actively cooperating or both of those chicks were secretly the She-Hulk.” Tearing someone’s clothes off is likewise tough – unless the character tearing jeans off is an actual werewolf with razor sharp claws and all… no. Just no. Do you have any idea how hard it is to tear a close-woven fabric? Harder than you’d think.

Seams are a weak point, of course. Seams can be popped with relative ease, although again, jeans and such heavy garments are a no unless they’re very old and worn. But if you’re trying to get a pretty party dress off an unwilling participant, neither you, the unwilling participant or the dress are going to be in party shape by the end of it. I don’t even want to think what it’s like trying to get armour off someone who’s resisting – presumably this is why Town Guards and Stormtroopers are always knocked unconscious first.

But undressing someone unconscious is no bed of roses either. If you want to use a clothes-stealing scene of any description, factor in at least half an hour for this. If you don’t believe me, ask a friend or relative to lie limp while you try to lever their clothes off. Someone bigger than you are is probably best. Unless you’ve had a lot of practice – I will assume the best and guess that you’re a nurse or something – it’s going to be really hard and take a while to do.

So if you’re writing a romance of the bodice-rippy variety, or any kind of stealing-a-uniform-off-a-warm-body scenario, or Star Wars fan-fiction or whatever, keep in mind that getting clothes off another human who’s not actually cooperating is a lot tougher than you’d think if you’ve never tried it. (Also, corsets don’t rip. Not the proper boned variety. They’re many layers of fabric thick, heavily reinforced and incredibly sturdy and unless your hero is secretly Superman, he’s going to have to resort to cutting laces or something. Just an FYI)

There’s something about a Victorian murder.

I’m not sure exactly what it is – the contrast, maybe, between the prim manners requisite to polite society and the basic impoliteness of murder. Murdering someone really is about as inconsiderate as one can be. And there is a scope available to the clever criminal then that there isn’t now, when evidence is examined so much more minutely and DNA and fingerprints can tell against you.

I’ve always wanted to write murder mysteries – I enjoy reading them and trying to detect the clues to the murderer, which I almost never manage to do. But mystery by necessity requires a great deal of planning, which has never been, as Colon says, my meteor. I keep meaning to try it, but the magnitude of the task is daunting. And anything I can come up with always seems so obvious. Trying to give away only subtle clues is really difficult, at least for me – it always seems so obvious to me, since I know what’s going on behind it.

I like both novels and the recountings of real murders set around the Victorian era. Mind you, I like murders in any time and place – man, that sounds dodgy – but the Victorian ones, being on the very cusp of the changes to police methods and usage of evidence, are particularly interesting. Does anyone else have a favourite time period or place for murder?

 

Clothing

So I’m running around doing a ton of laundry for our trip – for those who don’t know, little kids can get through a shit-ton of clothes, what with getting wet or pouring their dinner into their pants and such. The only way to get most of the kid’s clothes clean for packing is to do laundry at the last possible minute and pray to the household gods that she doesn’t have a vomiting fit or a Chocolate Incident in the intervening day. (I also have to wash a number of my clothes because in case you hadn’t noticed, I procrastinate like whoa.)

And I love my washing machine. I love it like I love coffee, and only a little less than I love chocolate.

I tell you, you don’t appreciate modern conveniences until you’ve lived without them. And I did live without them – we didn’t get a washing machine until I was in high school, by which time I’d been washing my own clothes for some time. Which is why I’m still a bit lax on the subject of ‘all clean things every day’, because jeans are good for at least a couple of wears and if I’m just hanging around the house who cares if this is yesterday’s t-shirt? I remember so vividly what it was like to wash all my clothes by hand that I have a lingering aversion to making more laundry than absolutely necessary. (Queensland also spent ten years in an increasingly severe drought, so my desire not to waste water is totally responsible, honest)

Jeans are the worst. They’re heavy, they’re awkward, and they abrade your hands after a while. Sheets are a pain in the butt, but at least if you do them fairly regularly it’s just a matter of vigorously sloshing them around then rinsing them out and trying not to mind the deluge of water that runs over you when you try to lift them out of the tub. A nail-brush is useful for scrubbing at spots, and soaking overnight cures many an ill. Always wash out blood in cold water, never hot, and red and blue are the colours most likely to run.

If you are writing any kind of medieval or renaissance-ish setting, here are some things to remember about laundry:

1. Water, and cloth soaked in it – especially thick wools – weighs a hell of a lot. Washing clothes, or anything else, is some seriously hard graft if you’re doing it by hand, even if you can go down to a river and don’t need to haul your water. There’s a reason that ‘muscled like a washerwoman’ used to be a saying – if you want a Deceptively Physically Strong Peasant Lady, make her a washer-woman! Not only has she got muscles like a blacksmith, but washerwomen used to use big sticks for stirring up the laundry tubs and the like, so she comes armed.

2. Truly fast dyes aren’t always guaranteed even now – they certainly weren’t then. Washing a coloured garment in water is a risky proposition, and soap is worse. Tread carefully, and do some research on what dyes were available in which geographic areas. A fancy garment – especially an outer one – may be sponged or steamed rather than being washed, and leather is never laundered – I know there’s a different cleaning process, but I’m not sure what it is.

3. Don’t assume soap! Handmaking soap is likewise a painstaking process. Other solutions like lye (containing urine!) and even vinegar are more common in some times and places. Soap made from animal fat and ash doesn’t smell especially good either, so if your people are a bit well-off they might add herbs – orris root was popular – to the water for scent. Dried lavender, roses or other herbs or flowers might be stored with clean sheets and clothes, too.

4. Anyone doing laundry is going to get pretty damn wet. Trust me, the splashes add up. Long exposure to lye and harsh water will do a number on their hands, too – your washer-woman will have red, rough hands and arms for a certainty, and she’ll be used to getting around soaking wet.

5. In short, laundry is hard work and people didn’t change their clothes or even their underwear every day because doing laundry was hard and painful and time-consuming. Depending on your time-period, clothes might get washed every month or every few months, especially in winter – in colder climates, drying laundry is a pain in the ass in winter, because it has to be done inside by a fire and it takes hours and hours. Ditto for long hair, incidentally, so if your heroine has hair flowing to her knees – or even her hips – she’s not going to wash it much in winter unless she’s rich enough to have a fire in her room, as it will take days and days to dry and be chilly and unpleasant the whole time.

 

 

 

Google Your Words

Real actual writing advice today!

You know how when you’re writing fantasy/science fiction/imaginary whateveritis, and you make up words? Names, little language phrases, stuff like that?

Google them.

Always, always, always Google them I am not even slightly kidding.

For example… remember the Powerpuff Girls? The clearly-made-up city of Townsville? I was born in Townsville. It’s on my birth certificate and everything. Townsville, Queensland. It’s named after the guy who financed the settlement, Robert Towns. I am not making this up, I swear. (Incidentally, it’s a hole. Don’t go there.)

The beautiful and you-should-absolutely-watch-it Studio Ghibli movie Laputa: Castle In The Sky was shortened to Castle In The Sky for US release. La puta, get it? Yeah, not so good, and never mind that it’s a perfectly innocuous name taken from Gulliver’s Travels. Make sure you’re not swearing in a language you don’t know!

Incidentally, even within the same language, dialect differences can make an innocuous statement into a filthy joke. For example, in Australia, ‘root’ is a synonym for ‘fuck’. In Canada, there is a store chain called ‘Roots’ (There’s also a ‘Roots Kids’. You can imagine our reaction). I don’t know if it’s still there, but the Outback Steakhouse used to have a dessert called the Chocolate Thunder From Down Under. I ask you, who names a dessert ‘synonym for poop’? People who don’t speak that dialect, that’s who. The dessert was not half bad, though. (Yes, of course I ordered it, how could I resist?)

Of course you should always be careful when throwing in words from languages you don’t know, we all know that. But be very, very careful about your made-up words, too. They may not be as made-up as you think, and while ‘Koorva’ may sound like a nice fantasy name, Google tells me that it’s ‘whore’ in Ukrainian.

Don’t assume that this is something editorial will pick up, or that you’ll remember to check some other time during rewrites! Getting the words right is your job, so play it safe. Google your words, guys. Every one.