Sunday, 21 December 2014

Handling beta feedback and edits

I was recently asked how I organise large quantities of feedback from beta readers. As some of you know, in my most recent round, I had over 20 readers. That's a lot of feedback, much of it conflicting. Many authors feel stuck when critiquers make opposing recommendations, or simply are overwhelmed by the prospect of sorting it all when they sign up for something like the Ubergroup's beta team and are slammed with hundreds of critiques and pages of debate.

This is all assuming you have gotten as many beta readers as possible. This is also assuming you have a firm idea of your own artistic goals and personal style and have no problems saying "no, thanks." I'm not saying "write by committee," I'm just saying that to understand any large group--such as a whole target reader demographic--more data means more accuracy. So, provided you are confident in throwing out obvious outliers and things you don't like emotionally and personally, it's more helpful to see if 19 out of 20 people agree, instead of having two critiquers who disagree and no other 18 to weigh in.

Assuming you want to take that route at all, here's my advice for how to sort the resulting feedback.

1.) Make everyone talk to each other.

The reason I built the Ubergroup the way I did is because I find it helpful to have everyone hang out and have a round-table discussion. It's modelled on rehearsals for any sort of performing art. Music, dance, theatre, circus, it's all the same idea. You do your thing in front of your troupe and then they all pitch ideas at you, debate and discuss.

I find that a lot of times, people who seem to being saying opposite things in their crits were actually just using different phrasings. When talking directly to each other, and one person says, "I have to disagree with your suggestion in your crit of chapter xyz, because I think..." the other person often says "Oh, yes, that would work, too. My suggestion was just another way to solve the same problem."

That takes all the stress out of going "But person A said this and person B said that!" Having person A and B hash it out directly eliminates conflicts that were simple misunderstanding. A and B are often attacking the same problem from different angles, and discussion may lead to consensus.

So, have everyone discuss together. I usually end up with something like 9 out of 10 people agreeing, and the 10th person admitting graciously they might just be the outlier. On the occasional thing where it's a split 5-5 vote, then I know I really have to look into the subject further. Knowing which topics are so divisive is also helpful.

(Also, who doesn't find it hugely flattering listening to people debate your "literary themes"?)

2.) Sort the everloving shit out of it.

I just finished sorting through the massive 20-page discussion thread from my last beta round, picking out all the salient suggestions and sorting them by general topic. I know know that sounds like a lot of work, but I find it even more work to jump around as I edit. If I change a scene based on one person's feedback, then I stumble across someone else's related suggestion on the same scene like 5 discussion pages later... guh. I hate having to re-edit a scene a dozen times because someone else made a really good point. It's far less work overall to paste all the suggestions on the same topic together, and think about it at once.

It's important to add that I do not leave any of the conceptual ideas in the crits only. As I'm reading the crits, I bring up all the suggested conceptual changes in the dedicated discussion thread, and everyone opines. If there are 10 crits per chapter over 30 chapters--300 crits--Lord help me if I'm supposed to poke through the whole unsorted pile for a vague idea somewhere. I'd much rather copy-paste each individual comment into groups organised by topic the first time I read it, and never have to go through the whole mess again.

It takes about a week, but eventually I condense all the ideas.

Here's the part I think people using the Ubergroup's beta method may find particularly helpful. I bold each general major conceptual issue so I can easily skim through in search of a topic, and then paste together everyone's ideas. For ease of reading, I don't copy parts where people are saying things like "Yes, I agree!" just the sentences containing actual suggestions.

In practice, it looks something like this:

Edmund/John conversation about death and John scolding him for holding onto the dead: "Does John secretly blame Edmund for their mother's death? Does Edmund resent John parental attitude all the more because he just lost his mother as well as his father?” (Laura R) "I think it would be pretty nifty if there's a scene somewhere in the first half where Edmund attempts to talk about their parents with John, just to kind of vent and grieve together and John's totally cold and "We must let go of the dead". " (Dahlia) "It could even be another moment where Edmund don't feel he can be good enough." (Raven) "I never connected the religious 'don't mention the names of the dead' with why their parents were never mentioned. So this talk would show there's a reason why they aren't discussing their dead parents, not just that they aren't thinking about it/don't care." (Catherine)

3.) Think about what I agree/disagree with.

With all the suggestions together, it's easy for me to consider all the opinions on one topic without fear of overlooking someone, look to see if there's any majorities, and decide whether or not I agree. That's important:this is not "writing by committee." I value all 5, 10, or 20 voices, but I'm the director and tiebreaker. So, I decide, and then implement the conceptual changes.

4.) Reread all the crits again.

After I've made all the conceptual changes, I do re-read all the crits again at the very end, looking for line edits. Skimming for highlighted typos, word choice issues, etc.

Hopefully that's helpful to some of you. It's one way of keeping track of an epic-scope project, at least.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Feudal Nobility

Once again, I had the honour of writing a guest article for Dan Kobodt's Fact in Fantasy, Science in Scifi series. I present to you:

A Quick And Dirty Guide To Feudal Nobility

Nothing drives me crazier than authors—or patrons at Renaissance Faires—addressing everyone and everything as “mi’loooooooord.” Firstly, no one outside of possibly a few British comedians in the 1970s has ever pronounced the word “my” that way. Secondly, not everyone is a lord; that notion defies the most basic grasp of economics. Thirdly, there are different kinds of lords, especially in different periods—the system was constantly evolving. Finally, there are specific ways to address each type depending on who you are.

Detailing every type of feudal lord that ever existed is a Herculean task already undertaken by numerous (very dry) textbooks, so today I’m going to break down the underlying reasoning behind the system. As fantasy authors, you do not need to cleave to any existing real world system, as long as yours is created with a reasonable, self-consistent logic. For this mini lesson, I’m going to focus primarily on the English system from the Norman Conquest to the War of the Roses.

Rule 1: Not Everyone Was A Lord

Let’s start with the fundaments of feudalism. As I said in my last lesson, the basic premise was that “those who could take something, did.” The Norman Conquest was exactly what it sounded like: William, Duke of Normandy, trumped up a claim to England, then sailed over from France and took it. That wasn’t the first time, either; William wasn’t French. “Norman,” or “North-man,” was the French word for the Vikings who sailed down from Scandinavia and took half of France, thus starting a long tradition of the English taking whatever the hell they wanted.

The economics functioned as follows: if you were spending all your time practising with your sword to get better at taking things, you weren’t able to grow your own food. You had to convince the farmers to give you a share of their crops, in the original form of income tax: tithe. How to accomplish that? Show up at their houses with all your sword-toting buddies and take it. By now, you’re hopefully starting to picture the king and all his peers a lot less like this: 

And a lot more like this:

Enter the concept of the landlord. Yes, this is from whence modern word originates. Technically, all the land belongs to the king. He permits the farmers to live there and work it for him in exchange for tithe. Since he can’t manage it all directly, he leases big chunks of it to his favourite armed thug buddies, known as “creating” them the Earl, Duke, etc, of a given area. They then receive tithe for their portion, and owe him military service in exchange for the hookup. A lord was functionally the local cartel boss. The Don, the Jefe, however you like it. By nature, there aren’t very many of them.

As of 1307, there was still only one type of lord below the king: an Earl, from Old Norse Jarl. And there were only eleven of them. England may not look very big on a map, but next time you visit, try walking from London to York with only the clothes on your back and as much food as you can carry. To the average person of the era, it was a serious undertaking to get beyond the borders of the Earldom in which you were born. They knew they had a Lord, theoretically, receiving all their taxes, and a king somewhere, but nothing about either of them.

Modern Americans: unless you live in the capitol and work in a relevant business… have you ever actually met the President? Or even the governor of your home state? Do you even know your governor’s name without googling it? There are literally five times as many American governors now as there were British earls in the 13th century, and you don’t walk around seriously expecting to bump into one on the street.

Rule 2: The System Keeps Changing

The fun part about things made up at the whim of a single guy is that the rules keep changing. During the reign of William I, there were exactly three types of nobility: King, Earl, and Baron. The first British duke was created in 1337, when Edward II made the Black Prince Duke of Cornwall. A duke was below the king but above an earl.

In 1385 Richard II created Robert de Vere (already the 9th Earl Oxford) the 1st Marquis of Dublin. “Marquis” is a reference to the “marches,” or borders, as he was defending a border territory. The next marquis, created 1397, refused to use the title because he felt a made-up honour carried no weight. It went unused until Henry VI revived it in 1442. No further titles came into use until the Renaissance. As of 1611, the British hierarchy went:

  • King
  • Duke
  • Marquis
  • Earl
  • Viscount
  • Baron
  • Baronet

To make things infinitely more complicated, the rest of Europe followed their own rules. For the most part the terms and hierarchy were comparable, and variations are pretty obvious in the term used: a Grand Duke, for instance, would be above a regular Duke. Making a word diminutive, such as Count/Viscount or Baron/Baronet implies the new position was just below the one from which it is derived. Count, btw, is the continental word for Earl, and Earl’s wives were still called Countess (probably because Earless sounds like something that happened to Van Gogh.)

It’s important to realize that kings were not the only type of sovereign (ruler with no one above them) nor were they necessarily the king of a particularly large area. There were—and still are—some sovereign duchies, in which the Duke is the top of the line. Pre-conquest England was divided up into dozens of small kingdoms, such as Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex, which were eventually consolidated by the usual means of one of the kings beating up his neighbour and taking the land. (This is true throughout most of world history. The Illiad speaks of a “coalition of Greek Kings” of which Agamemnon was High King. Ramses the Great self-described as “King of Kings” as did many Persian “Shahenshah”s.)

Prince was not always a word for king’s son, either: in its broadest sense, “prince” is a generic term for a top-level ruler. One might refer to a collection of “foreign princes” as being a general mishmash of approximately ruling-class men who might have a reasonable claim to a sovereign rule of a country, including Dukes, Emirs, Shahs, and what have you. For an exhaustive list of examples to create your fantasy hierarchy from, see Wikepedia’s entry on royal and noble ranks.

Rule 3: Specific Forms of Address

A king or queen is addressed as “his/her/your Majesty,” a prince or princess as “his/her/your Highness,” and a Duke/Duchess as “his/her/your Grace.” Everything below that is “his/her/your Lordship/Ladyship.” “His/your Excellency” came much later, and was used for a chancellor or prime minister. You can invent more, but make sure they differ from ones that already exist. It’s also extremely common to refer to someone by the name of the land they own, which is NOT the same as their family name. Sir denotes knighthood.

It is a job qualification, and as such, goes with a man’s first name. Being a knight means you get to be called Sir, just as having your PhD means you get to be called Dr. Lord denotes ownership of property. It goes with the land, not a man’s name, because you are saying he owns the land, not his own name. Most Lords happen to also be knights, but that’s sort of like saying “Most of the largest properties in the world are owned by people who have graduate degrees.” It’s an interesting fact, but the degree does NOT bring the land with it. You can have “Sir so-and-so, who doesn’t own anything in particular,” just as completing your phD does not automatically give you a gargantuan estate.

Master is a last-resort polite form of address if someone is landless and not a knight, likely a younger son of petty gentry, or a tradesman. In general, use the most flattering/important title available, unless the character is purposely being familiar or rude. I’ll use examples from my own fictional world:

Teagan Chambrer, Knight Commander General, youngest (non-inheriting) son of the Thegn of Duck’s Crossing, could be addressed as:
  • Sir Teagan
  • General Teagan
  • Master Chambrer (but this would be insulting, as it ignores the fact that he is an officer)
But NOT:
  • Lord Anything (he’s not.)
  • Sir Chambrer (he, Teagan, personally, is the knight, not his entire family.)
William Huntley, 1st Earl Greenford, knight of the realm, could be addressed as:
  • Lord Greenford
  • Greenford (with no preamble)
  • Sir William (but a bit familiar/pretentious to use his personal name, as it implies that his person is more relevant to you than his status as an Earl. Might be used by friend or a woman flirting with him.)
  • Master Huntley (but again, insulting.)
But NOT:
  • Sir Huntley (he, William, personally, is the knight, not his entire family)
  • Sir Greenford (his property is not a knight.)
  • Lord Huntly (owner of his family?)
  • Lord William (owner of himself?)
Robert Caenid, 2nd Earl Nor’watch, knight of the realm, and Lord Treasurer, could be addressed as:
  • Lord Nor’watch
  • My Lord Treasurer
  • Sir Robert (again, personal)
  • Master Caenid (again, insulting)
  • Lord Robert (owner of himself?)
  • Master Robert (master of himself?)
  • Sir Treasurer (the office of treasurer is a knight?)
Stephen fitz Wheelwright (note, “fitz” means “son of” and wheelwright is a profession, such as baker, miller, smith, thatcher, fletcher, cooper, etc. This is a literal statement that his father is the town wheelwright, not a family name.) Captain of the guard, not a knight, could be addressed as:
  • Captain Stephen
  • the wheelwright’s boy (insulting now that he is an officer. Would have been his form of address formerly.)
But NOT:
  • Sir Stephen (he is not.)
  • Master Wheelwright (that’s his father.)
Use of a first name in isolation of any title or pet name is extremely personal. No one, regardless of comparable rank, addresses someone by a pet name uninvited, unless they are purposely being rude or overly familiar. It sets the tone of the situation – if my boss were to say, “Morning, Jerry!” I might reply, “Morning, Ben!” but if he were to open with “Good morning, Mr. Quinn,” I sure as hell better retreat behind, “Good morning, Mr. Stirling” unless I want to get in trouble.

Generally, all women married to a knight or better can be referred to as “my Lady,” although you would only attach a name if you would do so for her husband. A lady retains her title after being widowed as a courtesy, even if she remarries a man of lesser station. If there is a new woman who can claim the same title, the word “dowager” will be attached to specify. 

Eliza Caenid, widow of the former Earl Nor’watch, mother of Robert, the current Earl Nor’watch, could be addressed as:
  • My Lady Countess
  • the Dowager Countess Nor’watch
But NOT:
  • Lady Nor’watch (that’s her daughter-in-law.)


The biggest thing to remember when designing your own system is it’s all about the land. You only get as many lords as you get mob bosses; when too many try to exist in a given area, turf wars occur. Since the land is so important, the form of address almost always makes reference to it, and you certainly wouldn’t treat someone like he ran the place if he didn’t. (Just picture what would happen if the Godfather overheard you calling some other shmuck “boss” instead).

This is only the briefest of overviews, of course, but hopefully it gives you some keywords to plug into Google. If you really want to get into it, some very thorough (and mind you, antique) resources include: A Genealogical History of the Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire by Sir Bernard Burke, A Directory of British Peerges by Francis Leeson, and The genealogy of the existing British peerage, with sketches of the family histories of the nobility by Edmund Lodge.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Short History of Warfare

I had the pleasure of writing a guest post for Dan Koboldt's Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy series today. Enjoy :)

Fantasy authors often buck the idea that technology in their world should progress the same way real history did. Technological advances in warfare, however, are a lot like biological evolution: the result of trying and failing a whole lot of times before something actually works. Tiny fencing swords were not used against knights in plate armour because, plain and simple, they wouldn’t have worked. If you don’t believe me, take the most delicate fish knife in your kitchen and attempt to hack open a corrugated-steel loading-dock door.

Sure, a tiny fencing sword could have been made by the same level of forging technology as a heavy broadsword, and yes, some early ones did exist. They weren’t widely useful, however—outside of duelling with another unarmed layman—so they weren’t made in quantity for the battlefield. Why waste the time and money making a tool that doesn’t work? Nature and economics both refuse to support illogical solutions. Not until the proliferation of efficient firearms made heavy armour obsolete (By the same force of necessity: why weigh yourself down with something that won’t actually protect you anymore?) was it realistic to try to poke your opponent with something fast and light.

Over the next few months, I’ll be trying to help fantasy authors understand the underlying logic of why certain things came after others in actual history. Yes, fantasy by definition means you can do whatever you want, but if “whatever you want” happens to include the physics, chemistry, and biology of Earth–-if your fantasy world has 9.8 m/s/s gravity, a 24-hour diurnal cycle, four temperate seasons, liquid water, mercury that’s poisonous, gold that’s valuable, and a whole bunch of recognisable four-limbed megafauna like horses, cows, and sheep—you need to understand the basic relationship between the limitations of that world and what the bipedal primates running around on it can do with it.

Since a large portion of fantasy takes place in an analogue of the western world sometime in the last 2000 years, today we’ll begin with an overview of that, starting with:

Organisation and deep pockets

The very early Roman Republic—from about the 7th-4th century BCE—followed the example of a Greek phalanx: primarily infantry, long spears, interlocking shields. In the 3rd century BCE, they really started getting organised: mobile, disciplined, and constantly rotating to allow fresh troops into battle. Weapons and armour were quite light. The main advantage was manoeuvrability, good funding, and discipline that came with soldiering as a full-time profession. The Roman army built roads to get where they were going easily. They managed food and supplies carefully. From the 1st century BCE onwards, Roman armies even brought along doctors and staged field hospitals.

The keywords of Roman-era infantry combat: light, fast, organised, aggressive. They took what everyone already knew how to do and did it bigger, faster, harder.

Smarter politics and copying your neighbours

Rome had always assimilated conquered ‘barbarian’ peoples into its army, but as the empire over-expanded, over-spent, and grew corrupt, administrative and support structure declined. The fiction that the chaotic, unrelated tribal mercenaries were paid Roman allies continued into the 5th century, but in reality, the organisation that had made Rome was long gone.

After the collapse of Rome, Byzantium continued to use fundamentally Roman structure, but were clever enough to improve upon it.  Rather than allowing citizens to avoid military service — which required hiring mercenaries of questionable quality and loyalty — they implemented universal conscription. The Byzantines were also quick to adapt clever innovations by their enemies—notably, the concept of heavy cavalry in the form of cataphracts of the Eurasian steppe.

The keywords of Byzantine-era combat: politically savvy, opportunistic, adaptable. They took Roman organisation and added the humility and pragmatism to incorporate whatever they saw that worked.

The Stirrup Controversy

There’s a theory that feudalism in Europe was a result of the introduction of the stirrup. Stirrups enabled “shock tactics”—ie, a fighter with a way to brace himself on his horse could hang on well enough to mow the enemy down. This tactic was so superior, Carolingian France in the 8th and 9th century structured itself around infeudination: rewarding its best mounted warriors with land. Those lords would then turn around and subinfeudinate –- think “sublease,” except the property is paid for with military service — lesser knights with smaller parcels of their land. (This is why, by the way, we still call the people we rent our apartments from “landlords” today.)

10th century Norman Stirrup

Although the causality is debated, it is undeniable that heavy cavalry and feudalism rose to prominence at the same time. Modern gangs are still structured similarly: a charismatic and physically dominant leader both charms and kills his way into power, personally appointing those he favours (who must have similar but not greater personal charisma and physical dominance) as his lieutenants, and so on down from there.

The keywords of medieval-era combat: heavy, aggressive, direct. Fundamentally, medieval society functioned on the premise that those who could take something, did.

Gunpowder and democracy

The earliest known gun appeared in Europe in the 14th century, and artillery became indispensable by the 15th. Fortification designs rapidly began advancing to keep pace, and the importance of nobility in warfare eroded as heavy cavalry lost its advantage. Longbows and pikes, used intelligently, could be very effective against armoured knights, but both required a lifetime of training that made it difficult to amass large forces. As technology improved, “hand cannons” became prominent among infantry. The flintlock musket of the 17th century could kill an armoured man at 100 yards and did not require great physical strength to use. They weren’t particularly accurate, but in enough quantity, they didn’t need to be. By the end of the 17th century, mobility was preferable over the nominal remaining protection of armour, and thus the armour disappeared.

It’s been said that “The musket made the infantryman and the infantryman made the democrat.” The fact that anyone could use a musket made the common man relevant in combat, swelled the size of armies, bred nationalism (drawing men from across the country together to serve in organised corps) and made it feasible for a peasant revolt to have military effects.

17th Century musketeer manual (England)

The keywords of gunpowder warfare: easy-to-use, widely available, equalising. The American 2nd amendment–written in the 18th century, within 100 years of muskets rising to prominence–is grounded in the idea that the muskets widely owned by common men are of adequate technological consequence to overthrow a monarchist government.

This is only a rough overview, of course, and does not even touch on naval warfare. Hopefully, though, it’s given you at least a few starting keywords to plug into google. If you’d really like to roll up your sleeves and dig in, some classic textbooks on the subject include The Cambridge History of Warfare by Geoffrey Parker, The World History of Warfare by Christion Archer, and A History of Warfare by John Keegan.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Personalised querying and rape culture

A question about my queries came up in the Ubergroup:

I've been wanting to get some input on querying agents and how you personalize your queries. I hear of people researching for hours before they even query, yet my sort of personalization requires only about 20 minutes.
I have to admit that the idea of personalizing my query makes me a bit queasy. It feels so much like sucking up. I mean, I'm all for doing my homework, etc, but I dunno - it feels icky.  Then I heard of your success is getting personalized rejections....

My philosophies for querying come from this:

I have very high success rates at Okcupid (not just "getting dates," but using it for social networking. I've gathered platonic groups with common interests without sounding like some creeper with ulterior motives.) It's something I learned to do in person working at Renaissance Faires.

Fundamentally, in that job, I'm 'that big loud crazy actor, approaching you suddenly and starting a conversation.' People, accustomed to screens and recorded media, are wigged out by live actors who can hear and see them, too. "How to approach people in a friendly way without triggering an automatic 'NO' and subsequent avoidance as if you have leprosy" is my most important theatrical skill.

I also spent years as a nightclub bartender. I've watched THOUSANDS of men try and fail to pick up women... and thousands of others succeed. There's a distinct pattern to what works and what doesn't. And I've protected many women from said creepers in nightclubs and on buses because I  know how to give off a "non-creeper" vibe.

Remember: agents are people... frequently young and attractive women who are jaded to being approached. My philosophy to approaching anyone is "Smile, be polite and non-creepy, and promptly explain what you want in such a way that does not come off as spam." "DEAR ANONYMNOUS AGENT READ MY MANUSCRIPT PLZ." is about as appealing as door-to-door salesmen, Jehovah's witnesses, and bums with sob stories asking for change.

Ladies (assuming heteronormativity here, because that's where defences are traditionally highest): if a guy walked up to you in a bar and was like "HAY BEBE CAN I BUY U A DRINK," without even looking at your face, after you watched him do it to every other woman in the room, would it work?

By contrast, if you saw the same guy around in the coffeeshop you usually write in, also working and minding his own business, and he generally came off as cute and non-assuming, and like the fourth or fifth time he was standing in line at the counter behind you he smiles and strikes up an intelligent conversation about the book you're holding... you'd be at least likely to answer his question in a friendly way instead of being like UM NO GET AWAY, right?

Yeah. That. That's why adding agents and other authors on twitter and blogs and being active but not annoying is like hanging out in the same coffeeshop to honestly do your own work and not be annoying or creepy. I tweet a combination of funny links and writing-related ones, talk about the ubergroup a lot, and absolutely NEVER spam "BUY MY BOOK PLZ PLZ PLZ" (like most new-author twitter accounts do.) I write blog posts on writing theory always take the time to answer people's questions about history or writing stuff to the best of my ability.

I want agents, publishers, other authors and potential new readers to have seen me around legitimately doing my own thing and find me to be a decent fellow, With querying, like the "how to write/talk to women" thing, I try to actually start a real conversation instead of being like "no shit, every dude on the planet wants to fuck you, so I'm TOTALLY ORGINAL HERE. I give exactly zero damns about your personality BUT PLZ LETS FUK PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ OMG PLZZZZZZZZ."

So yeah. I pretty much rewrite my query every single time. I look at my template as a "rehearsal." When I speak to someone in person I'll bring up the same topics I've practiced (if it's someone I wanted to take out, it would probably be the fact that I want to take her out. In the query it's that I'd like her to read my book) and I might mention the same selling points (funny stories that I know most people like/my pitch and comp titles) but I'm not literally just copy-pasting my template. Can you imagine walking up to a girl, unrolling some notes, and robotically reading aloud "HI UR PRETTY WILL U PLEAZE GO ON A DATE WITH  ME?"

No. Personal. From scratch. Every time.

You are clearly using twitter/online presence to create a rapport with agents/publishers before sending off your work - thereby setting up the: I'm sitting in the same coffee shop and recognize the book you're reading. But, in terms of personalization - what if the agent I am interested in doesn't have that personal twitter account (the agency company does) or those interviews from which I can glean information?
Granted, that's just the case for a couple of agencies I'm interested in. Thankfully the publisher I prefer does have an online presence. But in the above situation, how would you personalize?

It's a much longer shot. You're effectively walking up to a beautiful stranger on the street and praying like hell this turns out like it does in movies.

I've had one or two of those and I've sent the best cold-call I can come up with. It's the equivalent of walking up, standing a very careful and non-threatening several feet away and saying, "I apologise for interrupting, but I just had to say: you are stunning. Would you possibly be interested in a cup of coffee?" and on the very very likely chance she says no, smiling and saying "No worries. Have a lovely day," and backing the fuck off before I come off as threatening or stalkery.

I mean, hell could freeze over she could say yes, it happens. Best you can do is be confident but inoffensive and very prepared to handle rejection politely.

So basically I need to suck it up and use my twitter account.

Cold-calling DOES work if you're willing to do enough of it.

One of my good female friends (a cocktail waitress at aforementioned nightclub) is constantly letting asshole dudes get away with unbelievable shit. For example, a guy she wasn't interested in kept badgering her every day for six months until she finally said yes and started sleeping with him "to get him to leave her alone." She was uninterested and harried the whole time they half-assedly dated, but would let him badger her into going places and doing things after work and on her off days. It ended when he finally got a long enough prison sentence that she got badgered into dating someone else in the meanwhile. I can't believe she caves to these guys instead of, you know, filing a restraining order. I keep telling her that she is the part of the problem: men like them think they can get away with that shit because some women eventually give in, and the positive reinforcement makes them keep using the tactic.

Yeah. Anyway. What I think of guys like him notwithstanding, extreme persistence with cold calls does eventually work. That's why you see all that stuff on the internet about "just suck it up and get used to rejection, a yes will come through eventually!" To me that reads kind of like creepy rape culture, but it is true. Rape culture does work.

You don't have to suck it up and use twitter if that strikes you as so false you're going to look false doing it--just like chicks can see if you're kind of stalkerishly ALWAYS SHOWING UP AT THE SAME COFFEE SHOP AS THEM HA WHAT A COINCIDENCE. Or fake-trying-to-be-friends when it's really obvious you want to sleep with them.

I'm just saying, be social in a genuine way for your own sake. I always think men who are several years or more out of college and can't get dates just need hobbies. I don't mean "fake show up to the club meeting with a sleazy grin on your face and try to get a number" I mean ACTUALLY get involved in stuff for it's own sake and gradually, naturally meet people. Because I think people are way more open to conversations with people they've seen around who have been genuine and non-creepy the whole time.

The guy who badgered my friend would never have gotten away with the coffeeshop tactic. He doesn't read. If he hung out in coffeeshops fake holding a book and staring at women the insincerity would be obvious. So he uses what is available, that is, cold calling. If you hate it enough you'd sound annoying an insincere on twitter, don't trouble yourself. It's worse to have a lurking ulterior motive in the room. Just cold call.

Me? I'm typing this from a coffeeshop.

Friday, 22 August 2014

underlying Shakespeare

Ever watch a production of Shakespeare and go "...what?"

A lot of performers just recite it like it's pretty words instead of looking for the underlying meaning of what the hell the characters are saying. An actor friend not actively performing at renaissance faires and I decided to do a scene for the 10:30 Shakespeare Slam at Bristol this weekend, so using a techniques from Shakespeare On Toast (how to read the theatrical notes and subtext in Shakespeare like it's a manual for actors, which it actually is, not "literature,") and practised in a live workshop with the author, actor and linguist Ben Crystal, we took apart Act 2, Scene 2, of Macbeth last night. Then, rather than getting all hung up on the grandiloquent lines, we ran the whole scene (full speed, moving around in real space with daggers and stage blood) ad-libbed from main general plot point to main general plot point, so the focus would remain on underlying character and emotion.

This is what we came up with.

Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2
As rehearsed for underlying meaning and flow, in modern colloquial vernacular:

Lady M: Whoo! Allright. I got my liquid courage on. HOLYSHITWHTWAS - Okay. That was an owl, doofus. Macbeth is doin' his thing, everyone is blackout drunk, I even roofied them.... Okay, if I'm honest, I'm kind of terrified they're going to wake up before he does it. Murder ITSELF is not the problem -unsuccessful murder where you get caught is a problem. Oh, wtf ever, it's all set up, hell, I could have done it.

Macbeth: *sneaks up behind, all adrenaline, whisperers in her ear.* I've killed them.

Lady M: *jumps out of her fucking skin*

Macbeth: Did you hear anything?

Lady M: Just... normal night noises. YOU'RE talking.

Macb: When?

Lady: Now.

Macb: As I came in?

Lady: Yes.

Macb: *startles* Wait, who's in the other room?

Lady: Donalbaine.

Macb: Shit. *suddenly realises he is covered in blood and he's gotten it all over her* Oh, this does NOT look good.

Lady: Don't freak yourself out.

Macb: *totally freaked out anyway* No, seriously, you don't understand. One of them laughed and the other said "Murder!" and they woke each other up while I was standing RIGHT OUTSIDE. ... Though they did go back to sleep.

Lady: Well, they're in the same room.

Macb: That's not it - one of them was like "God protect us," and the guy was like "Amen" - as if they had SEEN ME lurking out there like a crazy murderous fuck. And the freakiest part - *i* couldn't say "Amen" with him.

Lady: .... you are thinking abotu this way too hard.

Macb: But WHY couldn't I say "Amen"? If anyone needed a fucking blessing right then it was my sorry ass, but the "Amen" wouldn't come out.

Lady: We need to not go down this road right now or we are BOTH going to freak the fuck out.

Macb: I swear to fucking god I heard a voice curse me, like: You are never gonna sleep again. Sleep is for innocent people. Haha. Sleep. Ell oh fucking ell. You remember sleep? Yeah. Sleep was awesome. When you're tired you get un tired, when you're drunk you get sober, when you're sick you get well... hahahaha I liked eating sleep more than eating food -

Lady: ... what... the fuck... are you talking about.

Macb: THEY CURSED ME. They were like: you know what you're really killing? Your ability to sleep. Your family's ability to sleep. Your COUNTRY'S ability to sleep. I... am never going to sleep again.

Lady: Shhh, shh shh shh, baby, shhh. WHO said this? You are just freaking YOURSELF out with all of this bs. Listen. *singsong* We're gonna get some water, we're gonna was this shit off, these daggers - why are you even holding those daggers, baby? They need to go back in the room, okay? We need to frame the guards. Now listen baby, you need to GO BACK IN THE ROOM, put the daggers down...

Macb: HOLY FUCK NO I am not going back in there. I don't even wanna THINK about what I did, you are NOT making me go back in there.

Lady: *backing up slowly* .... okaaaaay crazy man. Give me the daggers now... yes, thank you, that's it.... it's only children that fear this storybook shit. So now I am going to go back in there and I am going to frame them and you are gonna STAY RIGHT HERE, kay?

*exits slowly*

Macb: *jumps* WTF was that? Jesus what the hell is wrong with me that everything freaks my shit out? *Looks at bloody hands again* Holy shit, is this me? I am gonna go blind if I keep looking at this. Jesus fuck, is there enough water in the world to wash this blood off me? I'll probably just turn all of it red.

Lady: *enters, dripping* Now I'm as bloody as you are. Hilarious, given that I'm innocent - (knock) What the - Hokay. I hear a knock at the side door. Let's go back to our room, a little water will solve all of this, it will be fine. You're a little worked up right now. (knock) *drags at his arm* Okay srsly we need to at least get into pjs and ACT like we've been sleeping - if someone sees us fully dressed like this it is superfucking obvious. Come on, baby, get it together, it will be fine.

Macb: don't understand what an awful thing I've done. You wouldn't want to love me if you really understood what I've done. (knock) *at no one* Wake him up from the dead with your fucking knocking.... god, I wish you could.

I'll go into some of the exact techniques we used to reach this point later, but for now, here's the original for comparison if you are curious.

(10) That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;
(11) What hath quench’d them hath given me fire. Hark! Peace!
(11) It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
(11) Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it:
(11) The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms
(12) Do mock their charge with snores. I have drugg’d their possets,
(11) That death and nature do contend about them,
(6) Whether they live or die.
(10) Alack, I am afraid they have awak’d,
(10) And ’tis not done; th’ attempt, and not the deed,
(11) Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready,
(11) He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
(9) My father as he slept, I had done’t.
Enter Macbeth.
(11) I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
(10) I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.
(4) Did not you speak?
(1) When?
(1) Now.
(1) As I descended?
(8) Hark! Who lies i’ th’ second chamber?
(5) This is a sorry sight.
Looking on his hands.
(10) A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.
(11) There’s one did laugh in ’s sleep, and one cried, “Murder!”
(12) That they did wake each other. I stood and heard them;
(10) But they did say their prayers, and address’d them
(4) Again to sleep.
(7) There are two lodg’d together.
(11) One cried, “God bless us!” and “Amen!” the other,
(10) As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
(10) List’ning their fear, I could not say “Amen,”
(7) When they did say “God bless us!” (pause 3)
(awkward pause 2)(8) Consider it not so deeply.
(10) But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
(10) I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
(4) Stuck in my throat.
(6) These deeds must not be thought
(10) After these ways; so, it will make us mad.
(10) Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
(11) Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
(10) Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
(10) The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
(10) Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
(7) Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
(4) What do you mean?
(10)Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house;
(11) “Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
(10) Shall sleep no more—Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
(10)Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
(10)You do unbend your noble strength, to think
(11)So brain-sickly of things. Go get some water,
(10)And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
(10)Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
(10)They must lie there. Go carry them, and smear
(6)The sleepy grooms with blood.
(4)I’ll go no more.
(10)I am afraid to think what I have done;
(7)Look on’t again I dare not.
(5)Infirm of purpose!
(11) Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
(11)Are but as pictures; ’tis the eye of childhood
(11)That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
(10)I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
(6) For it must seem their guilt.
Knock within.
(5) Whence is that knocking?
(11) How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
(10)What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
(10)Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
(11)Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
(11) The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
(6) Making the green one red.
Enter Lady Macbeth.
(10)My hands are of your colour; but I shame
(6)To wear a heart so white. Knock.(5)I hear a knocking
(12)At the south entry. Retire we to our chamber.
(10)A little water clears us of this deed;
(10)How easy is it then! Your constancy
(7)Hath left you unattended.Knock.(4)Hark, more knocking.
(11)Get on your night-gown, lest occasion call us
(10)And show us to be watchers. Be not lost
(6)So poorly in your thoughts.
(10)To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.
(11) Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Synopsise early, synopsise often

The dreaded synopsis. Many people put off writing it for as long as possible because they don't know how. The internet is full of the standard rules: one to two pages, double spaced TNR twelve with a 1" margin, capitalise the first appearance of a character's name, tell the ending, state all the plot twists, tell it plainly and not trumped up, mention no more than five characters. But there is a very difficult piece of advice to incorporate with the rest: make it INTERESTING. Make it not a dry recitation of "and this happens, then this happens." How? Didn't you just tell me to plainly tell, not show, all the facts and plot twists without sensationalist language?

An Ubergrouper came to me lost on this subject, and here is my answer:

The most useful advice I've ever recieved was to write out your main character(s) emotional arc.  This comports very well with Egri's advice about how all plots start with character. That's what makes it feel like showing even though technically, it is telling. (Using the definitions in the Scribophile Academy's "Show vs. Tell" article.) You'll often see advice around the internet of "don't make it a dry recitation of 'and then this happens, and then this, and then this,'" and I'm sure you're wondering how the heck you do that while still technically telling.

Make it about someone's emotional journey. A short example: "John goes to see Anne. Anne refuses him. John leaves." was version one. "Desperate, John flees to Anne. Anne refuses him. John is devastated" was version two.  Same length. More emotional arc.

Now, I'll show you both earlier versions of my synopsis and the most current one to highlight the difference in full form. Ready for a REALLY BAD first attempt? This is the epitome of "and then this happened... and then this happened...  bla bla bla." It's also way too long. I COMPLETELY expect you to skim this. Don't injure yourself trying to really read it.

As a conquering horde approaches from the south, JOHNNY DARCY, prince of Umbrae, inherits the crown while locked in a dungeon. His second cousin AERON AE’LLEWYN, just as suddenly King of Rhae’llor, acknowledges his sovereignty, ending forty years of civil war over the Umbraen secession. With their fathers and brothers dead and their kingdoms in flames, the teenage monarchs forge an uneasy alliance against the ALEXANDER the Conqueror. Johnny must fill the role of the Hero that will save his people, or die trying.
A parhelion is taken as an omen of Johnny’s chosen status, terrifying the conqueror’s troops and forcing him to withdraw south. Johnny is hailed as a hero, though he knows Alexander will be back. Johnny discovers his friend WILL HUNTLY has protected his younger siblings EMALINE DARCY and EDMUND DARCY, and rewards Will with an earldom.
He cements the Rhae’llorean alliance by marrying Aeron’s sister, BRIGAED AE’LLEWYN. Johnny doesn’t force her when he discovers she is too young and scared to consummate, and she falls in love with her perfectly chivalrous hero.
Violence erupts along racial lines when Arcian tradesman COLIN SNOW loses his family to cholera, and druids forcefully remove their bodies. The Umbraen druids believe in cremation, but the Arcian natives bury their dead.  Grandmaster Healer THYMAEN WHITE argues that they can stop the spread of the disease by purging the bodies, and the emotionally wrecked Colin joins the Druidic Order, vowing to discover the cure.
The morning after the wedding, letters arrive for the Northern kings: Alexander has been attacked, and is begging for help. Aeron talks Johnny into going, because having their forces in the South will be a good opportunity to remove the Bastard once and for all.
On the road south, Edmund is embarrassingly lecherous towards CAITLIN D’ARMINE, heiress to the state of Armine. After an ugly conflict between the Darcy brothers, Arcian knight TEAGAN CHAMBERS suggests Edmund just needs to prove to Johnny he can be useful.
 In Yvenn, Johnny is seduced by the much older Duchess ANNE D’AQUES. Comically, the only woman who seems to fancy Edmund is Anne’s nine-year-old daughter, MARGARET. Teagan reveals that love is not so courtly for poor Arcians: he has been married, briefly, but his late wife committed suicide from despair about extreme poverty.
Now a druid in Umbrae City, Colin puts forth a theory that cholera is spread by drinking water contaminated by overflowing cesspits.
In Yber, Johnny and Aeron forge an alliance with ISMAEL DE YBER and INEZ DE YVENN, against their common enemy of the Bastard. The alliance lasts six hours, before Edmund is caught sneaking into Ismael’s harem. Ismael demands his head – but one cannot simply behead a foreign prince. Ironically, Inez speaks up in defence, unaware that Johnny has been trysting with his own wife, Anne. Johnny agrees to flog Edmund publicly, satisfying Ismael’s pride, but the Southern Alliance is ruined, and Johnny and Aeron must go back to the drawing board.
Passing through Yvenn on the way home, Johnny discovers Anne has borne him a bastard son, HAL. Johnny begs her to leave Inez and marry him instead. She refuses, reminding him of the political allegiances that would destroy. She extracts a vow that he will not throw practicality away for a stupid dream of love, and that he will be the good king that history might yet remember him to be.
Johnny returns home to a cholera outbreak decimating his population, and Colin’s theory is finally validated. Noting that cities in the South have clean drinking water due to sewer systems, Johnny commissions one in Umbrae. He also asks Emaline to finally make her choice of husbands between PAXTER D’ANDRE and REYNOLT D’ASTUR, neighbouring rulers who would make good allies against Alexander.
Johnny brings the now-fifteen-year-old Brigaed home to live as his queen. He is disappointed by her naivety, but keeping his word to Anne, he tries to respect and love her, encouraging her to be her own woman and an influential political entity.
The morning after, Johnny gets news that GUY D’ALSAE has rebelled, on the grounds of Alsaecean racial independence. Guy is joined by several neighbouring earls who resent being taxed for the construction of sewers. Johnny puts down the rebellion and claims Alsae for the crown, but in the name of Good spares the town and Guy’s underage son, HENRI D’ALSAE.
Emaline confesses that she cannot make either political match, because she is pregnant with Will’s child. Frustrated but wanting her to be happy where he wasn’t allowed to be, Johnny gives the love match his blessing.
Brigaed schemes to save the alliances by seating D’Andre and D’Astur next to the eligible daughters of his vassals at Emaline’s wedding. MATLIDA, heiress to the Earldom of Vosges, formerly betrothed to and still in love with the disgraced Henri D’Alsae, is very rude to Reynolt D’Astur. ELEANOR, heiress to the Earldom of Highcombe, still jealously wishes she had married Johnny, and feeds Paxter D’Andre vicious lies. The wedding ends in political disaster, with both neighbouring rulers storming out.
Johnny blames Brigaed for the mess. After a spectacular fight, he leaves to pick up the pieces, telling her not to ruin anything else. He makes no traction in Andre or Astur, and ends up in Aques, spilling his heart out to Anne. While Johnny is away, Edmund rudely refuses a match between himself and Caitlin D’Armine, wrongly accusing her of having slept with Johnny. Anne uses Aquesi military power to escort Johnny safely home through now-hostile Armini territory, and at home he puts Edmund in charge of the foundering sewer project instead of the kingdom.
When he tries to start afresh with Brigaed, he is crushed to discover that through reckless riding she caused herself to miscarry. His emotional withdrawal crushes her confidence.
In love with an Earl’s daughter he cannot afford to court, Teagan redoubles his displays of hard work and loyalty, in hopes Johnny will reward him. A mere Arcian can do well if he gives his all to the crown. He is promoted to Knight Commander General, but rejected by his family for being a traitorous bootlicker to the Umbraen institution.
That summer, Henri D’Alsae comes of age and elopes with Matilda, killing her father and using the power of Vosges to reclaim Alsae. Lacking adequate troops, Edmund hatches a sly plan to set D’Alsae’s camp on fire in the night. Johnny rejects the idea when his other Earls object loudly, but Edmund sneaks off before the battle and does it anyway. Despite winning, the Earls are angry about Edmund’s lack of chivalry. Johnny takes Edmund aside ostensibly to scold, but instead thanks him, and they make a pact in which Johnny will play the Hero while Edmund gets things done.
Edmund goes full steam ahead with the sewer project, raising taxes. When merchants begin to camp outside the walls, he contracts Asturian brigands to raid their tents, driving them back into the city under Good King Johnny’s protection... and taxation.
After disappointing Johnny again with her general inability to be like Anne, Brigaed stifles her opinions. Johnny hopes a child will save their relationship, which she takes to mean her only value is as brood mare. She secretly begins self-harming, tearing at her own skin and hair. Johnny refuses to grant Teagan land in principle, feeling love and marriage are a farce and Teagan should be glad not to be involved in the whole messy business. In the south, Anne and Hal are very ill with consumption, which she sees as punishment for her relationship with Johnny.
Desperate for attention, Brigaed tells Johnny her inability to conceive is probably his fault. During the resulting fight and angry sex, she goads him into hitting her. Afterwards he locks himself in his suite, retching and weeping.
Visiting, Aeron discovers the marks on his sister and threatens to unmake Johnny’s kingship the same way he made it. Aeron leaves in a fury, and Johnny, lost, alone, and hating himself, flees to Aques.
Perceiving he is not yet consumptive, Anne refuses him entrance, hoping his famed good works of ending rebellions and curing cholera will be enough to offset the crime of loving her. Unaware that Hal has died two days prior, Johnny begs leave to visit his son and is again refused. Anne whispers her goodbyes as she watches his column ride away.
Paxter D’Andre, now married to Eleanor, uses her bridal territory as a base to annex parts of Umbrae. Her father the Earl disowns her, and Johnny successfully reclaims the lost territory and captures D’Andre.  While ostensibly begging for clemency, Eleanor hatching a scheme to secure his D’Andre’s sister DAPHNE D’ANDRE as a hostage by putting her in danger so Johnny can “rescue” her.
 Johnny is devastated by the un-heroicness of the whole thing – like parhelions winning battles for him, everything he is acclaimed for is an illusion, and all of his legitimate attempts to be good have blown up in his face. He realizes that romantic notions of good and evil and happily ever after is a farce, and gives up on the idea of being good. He sleeps with Eleanor while her husband D’Andre hails him as a hero, savouring the irony.
Brigaed loses another pregnancy. Johnny remarks about the uselessness of a wife who cannot bear a child. Receiving further bad news in a letter, he sequesters himself in his council chambers. An over-eager courtier interprets his remark as a wish and sends an assassin after Brigaed. Edmund intercepts the assassin and kills him, but is stabbed. Teagan forces his way into the council chamber with the emergency news, and Johnny asks what could possibly be important when Anne of Aques is dead.
The following spring, Henri D’Alsae surfaces and rebels again. Johnny goes to put it down, ignoring Edmund’s pleas to take the threat seriously. Before the battle, Johnny relents and names the still-faithful Teagan Earl of Alsae. Edmund’s misgivings prove correct, and Henri D’Alsae is aided by D’Armine and D’Astur. The battle is disastrous and both Johnny and Teagan are killed. 
A wilfully delusional Brigaed, finally pregnant again and praying this one will make Johnny love her, runs out into the bailey as the army returns. She searches for Johnny... but there is only Edmund. 

Did your eyes to glaze over trying to read that? Way too many characters. Way too little emotion. Way too dull.  Now for version 2! Should be a little less headache-inducing.

When nineteen-year-old JOHN DARCY survives a conquest and inherits a shattered kingdom, his people are desperate for a hero. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but the heroic ballads he was weaned on say honour and chivalry conquer all. He rallies his scattered troops and allies himself with neighbouring Rhae’llor by marrying thirteen-year-old princess BRIGAED. She’s too scared to consummate, and he’s too chivalrous to force her. She falls madly for him. 
By contrast, his younger brother EDMUND is a nasty little shit, and John must constantly police Edmund’s lechery. Then John himself is seduced by the much older duchess ANNE D’AQUES, and humiliated by the irony when he is obliged to punish Edmund for being caught in adultery. John tries desperately to make his situation honourable, begging Anne to marry him. Unconsummated, his existing marriage is not binding. He offers to name their bastard son, HENRY, his heir. She reminds him while a little fun is harmless, marrying her would start a war with Brigaed’s family. She pleads for him to go home focus on being a good king. 
John tries to live up to Anne’s standard of ‘good.’ He brings Brigaed, now fifteen, home to be his queen. Determined to do right by her, he gives her the freedom and political sway he imagines Anne would have wanted. When plague decimates his population, he chooses ethics over expense, commissioning sewers. Not comprehending the necessity and resentful of the raised taxes, his vassals rebel. He puts down the rebellion, but when he chivalrously spares those who surrender, they turn around and rebel again. Edmund settles it by burning the rebels to death in their sleep. It’s brutal, un-chivalrous butchery... but it ends the war, saving countless lives. Suddenly, good and evil become much harder for John to identify. 
John publicly reprimands his brother, but privately, they make a pact to work together. They push forth with the sewers, raising taxes again. When merchants begin to camp outside the walls, John has Edmund stage a “brigand” raid so he can “save” them, shepherding them back into the city’s protection - and taxation. Killing his own citizens in a parody of heroism makes John’s skin crawl... but the sewers end the outbreak of plague, and isn’t that what really matters? 
Brigaed’s clumsy attempts at politics backfire, turning John’s neighbours against him. She also proves unable to carry a child to term. In the absence of an heir, ambitious earls begin eyeing his throne. Frustrated and longing for Anne and Henry, John shunts Brigaed aside. She needles him about his bastards, and when he denies having any, blames their lack of children on his apparent lack of virility. She suggests she should sleep with Edmund, who is better at getting things done. Emasculated and furious, John hits her. Sick with disgust at his actions and no longer sure what he stands for, he flees to Aques. 
Anne is near death with consumption, which she sees as punishment for their relationship. She refuses him entrance. John begs to see Henry, and discovers he has died two days earlier. John leaves, deciding that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are a farce, and gives up on the idea of being a hero. He goes into a tailspin of reckless wars and bedding other men’s wives, trying to see how much he can get away with while still being called the Good King. He remarks on Brigaed’s worthlessness, which a courtier interprets as a command, attempting to kill her. Edmund intercepts the assassin and is stabbed in the process. When a messenger reaches John, he asks what could possibly be important, when Anne D’Aques is dead. 
Jaded and empty, John engages in an unwinnable battle, and is overwhelmed. He dies laughing at the joke on himself.

Now here's the best part of this process - writing the synopsis forced me to fix my actual plot.
First of all, in the long drifty first version, where I shoe-horned in all the subplots, I even fixed one of those. I realised I couldn't summarise Teagan's arc well... because I hadn't written it well. His scenes did not support a clear arc. In forcing myself to find a way to explain it in a few sentences, I realised I had to re-order his scenes so they better supported clear character development. That's a major advantage of synopsis writing well before you actually pitch - it makes you fix your actual book.

Secondly, between the first and second versions, I implemented all the advice about what an agent actually wants to see without clawing their eyes out. Made it concise, pared down, about just the main character. Made it about how he reacts to and feels about things. Made it about how he grows and changes. (Genre fiction might have different rules, but I arguably write "literary" in that it's character-driven and meant to make statements about the human condition, rather than a rollicking adventure plot, even though it's technically historical fantasy.) I'm sure you can see how that altered the versions.

I shared this and got some great feedback from another Ubergrouper:

Anne seems to drift in and out, but she seems to act as a strong motivator for John. She seems to be a loving guiding hand, and then she seems to be suddenly regretting her relationship with John. Is it your intention to make her the impossible dream he tries to reach for? Why would she suddenly feel she was being punished?

 Good freaking question! So, using the same method I had of telling the story from John's emotional perspective, I wrote one from Anne's, to define her character arc:

Anne is an Eleanor of Aquitaine analogue. She is 30 and married with three children when she meets John. She is the Duchess of Aques in her own right and the Emirah of Valenthia by marriage.  She is an icon of female empowerment in a patriarchal feudal society. She and her husband have an understanding that, exactly as a man in her era and political position would do, she may take lovers on the side so long as she does not flaunt it or disrupt the primary domestic and political arrangement. That is the context in which she beings sleeping with John. It is a reverse power play - he is eleven years younger than her and it amuses her keep him like a pet, as a duke or king might keep a mistress. 
Unfortunately, finding his nigh-Quixotic idealism endearing, she falls for him as a person. It destroys her when he can't even be an indifferent douchebag about Henry, their bastard son, like spoiled little princes are supposed to be. No, he just has to go and offer to set the world on fire to preserve her honour and protect the interests of their son. She is no longer respecting her agreement with her husband - this is not casual or in good fun any more. Heavily conflicted, she rejects John, telling him to go home to Brigaed and be good. 
When things begin to fall apart for him and with Brigaed in particular, he runs to her. Anne's in far deeper than she ever wanted to be - he's treating her like some kind of erotic idol upon which to displace his unhappiness at home. She knows she needs to cut and run, but she can't bear to see how lost he is. Against her better judgement but in line with her heart, she gives him solace (he spends the winter at her court, teaching their son to walk) and bails him out of the political mess Brigaed has gotten him into. She sends him home in the spring at the earliest excuse. 
When both she and Henry contract consumption (because of an extended visit to the consumptive household of a neighbouring Duke for the purpose of mitigating John's political troubles) in the typical mindset of the era, she sees it as punishment for her sins, a confirmation that Henry was born of a love that should never have been. To protect her other children from the disease, she retreats from her husband's estates to her own, and there Henry dies. 
When things fall apart beyond repair with Brigaed, John flees to Anne again, unaware of how close to death she is. She refuses him entrance, tries to convince herself he is being selfish, just looking to sleep with her for a distraction, but as he begs through the door to see her it comes out that because of his failure to be good to Brigaed, he desperately wants to redeem himself by being good to someone. He has heard Henry was ailing, and brought him a toy boat, hoping it would cheer him. John himself loved toy boats at that age...
She tells him Henry has died two days before, and bids him goodbye.
Several weeks later, she dies, and John gives up on everything.
Robin also picked on Brigaed:

Brigaed seems to be a piece of work, going from innocent, and in love, to bitter and twisted, from constantly being ignored and shunted aside. You could really work with that, as she seems quite instrumental in John's disenchantment, and loss of idealism. Almost the physical embodiment of his struggles.

I'm sure you can see where this is going. Synopsis format is making it very easy to verify character development and consistent pacing in my storytelling. Does the point get proven by the end? Are the proof-points evenly distributed? Does everyone have a real character based reason for acting as they do? Is it written in true Egri fashion (which I believe is also the definition of good character-driven literary fiction) wherin the plot is the inevitable, hurtling-along-unstoppably result of who these people fundamentally are? Does it only happen because there's absolutely no other way it could have gone?

So here's Brigaed's:

Brigaed is a Disney Princess archetype - pretty, headstrong, and naive. She comes from a Viking-style culture that practices selective female infanticide as a means of population control to keep within the bounds of resource scarcity. As a result, women permitted to survive to reproductive age in her culture are excessively sheltered and revered, a kind of sacred fertility doll. Polyandry in the form of multiple brothers sharing a wife is also commonly practised.
Her head is full of big dreams and romantic myths from the old epics, as well as a culturally-instilled sense of entitlement. John actually shares her upbringing on these romantic myths, as his kingdom is a colonial derivative of hers - Vikings who spilled out into the rest of the world because of the lack of women and arable land back home, settled in Normandy and intermarried with the French. They have repeated clashes over the fact that they technically speak the same language and worship the same gods, but the day-to-day manner of living and thinking of their respective cultures have grown wildly apart, causing a terrible mismatch in expectations about each other's behaviour. 
Trying to do good by her, John gives her unlimited power, because it's what Anne would have wanted. Accustomed to being granted things, Brigaed assumes this is her right, but in reality women of her culture are kept far separate from practical politics, and she has no idea what she's doing. In a misguided attempt to help him, she makes several political matches, effectively giving nearly a third of his kingdom away to his enemies. 

Unable to see the scope of the damage she's caused and unaccustomed to being able to do any wrong, she is offended that he presumes to be upset with her. When he leaves the city in frustration, she tries to follow him, and he forbids her. Rebellious, she attempts to jump a fence and escape, falling from her horse and causing herself to miscarry their unborn child.
Upon finding out about the foolishness-induced miscarriage, he is not angry, but heartbroken. His disappointment and loss of trust confirms her own insecurities, and she mentally collapses in upon herself. Though he makes a few more diminishing attempts to have a relationship with her, she has no realistic chance of ever catching up to the pedestal upon which Anne stands. She can see that he is forcing himself to go through the motions to hide the emptiness within the form. 
Knowing his heart is elsewhere and desperate for any attention at all, she needles him about their lack of children, blaming his lack of virility and suggesting she sleep with Edmund instead. She deliberately goads him into angry sex, those being the only two reactions she knows how to elicit with any intensity. The scene gets uglier than either of them intended, causing mutual trauma. 
She retreats into a public parody of happiness, too terrified of what might happen if she engages him with sincerity. She prays that one of these pregnancies will last, as she feels childbearing has become her only value to him, and therefore, their only chance at happiness. When someone tries to murder her for being "useless" after a second miscarriage, Edmund is the only one who notices or cares, and is in fact injured while protecting her. 
Brigaed is tiptoeing on eggshells, lying to herself that John loves her and that her third pregnancy will be the one that works out, when he is killed in the unwinnable battle. The army returns, and she runs out into the bailey, searching for John... but there is only Edmund.
 Finally and most importantly, I did Edmund. His goes on a bit further chronologically, as there was a planned second book about him after John's death:

Edmund is an insecure little boy growing up in his brother John’s shadow. He’s never cool enough to hang with the big boys, he’s told to hide his “evil” left-handedness, and he’s a complete failure with women. The first girl he tries to charm not only fails to notice him, she turns out to be Brigaed, the bride John was on his way to meet. 
When John shacks up with the iconic Duchess Anne despite all the noise he makes about honour, Edmund is humiliated to discover the only female who appears to fancy him is Anne’s eight year old daughter, Margaret. He decides to one up his brother by sneaking into the neighbouring Emir’s harem, seeking a married woman of equal political standing to Anne. He is caught, and the Emir demands his head. 
To regain custody, John is forced to flog Edmund for his attempted adultery – a crime that, ironically, only John has ever actually committed. Calling his brother out, however, will only hurt them more politically, so Edmund takes the punishment in silence. Afterwards, face down in the healer’s tent, for the first time in his life Edmund find himself being praised for his valour and solidarity. 
He steps into a new role – one of allegiance with his brother. The more useful he can make himself, the more John approves of him. When a rebellion flares up that John hasn’t the troops to put down, Edmund solves the problem by setting the enemy camp on fire, slaughtering the rebels in their sleep. John’s vassals are outraged by the barbaric lack of chivalry, so Edmund lets John maintain his ‘Good King’ image by pretending to reprimand him. Secretly, they make a pact to work together. 
When raised taxes drive merchants outside the city walls, Edmund hires brigands and stages a raid from which John can save them. When John leaves to pick up the pieces after Brigaed’s mistakes shatter the kingdom, he names Edmund his regent. Edmund sees in Brigaed shadows of his former self – young, naive, bumbling, cursed with never being good enough to merit John’s approval. 
Brigaed sarcastically propositions Edmund as a way to make John jealous. When John ignores her after she loses their second child, secluding himself in his council chambers, Edmund is worried about her, but is afraid to give any impression of interest. Indecisively lurking in the shadows of her suite, he is there to kill the assassin meant for her, getting stabbed in the shoulder in the process. 
Edmund discovers he is the only one who cares about anything anymore, now that Anne is dead. When the rebellion flares up again, Edmund begs John to be practical about bringing reinforcements to put it down. John scorns the idea and the resulting disaster kills him and half of the army. 
Edmund finds himself king – a lonely, heirless, and despised king, after years of playing bad cop to John, at the head of a shattered kingdom. Trapped by political enemies, he tries a reckless bluff. Shockingly, it works. Abruptly, he comprehends the joke on all kings, the one about “graves and worms and epitaphs” (1) at which John died laughing. Politics and history are an illusion, a game, a farce written by the victors – nothing is simply, starkly Good or Evil, and history only remembers what the historians are commissioned to tell. 
With the ghost of John laughing in his ears, Edmund attacks the game, eager to do things the way he told John they should have been done. He marries Margaret, now sixteen, and utilises the allegiance with her father to brutally crush the rebellion. He executes every captive including the underage heir, whom John would have pardoned. Bugger public image – this one’s not going to come back to bite him in the ass. 
He gluts himself on the superficial trappings of power. Margaret, terrified of her famous butcher  husband, lavishes feasts, hunts, additional women, and every hedonistic fantasy she can create upon him, in hopes that keeping him drunk and satisfied will prevent him from killing her.
Disguised, he sneaks into the city for a bit of sport and is caught up in a riot spawned of the same long-simmering religious tensions behind the many rebellions. He realises he caused it to boil over from lack of attention. Edmund is humiliated by his own irresponsibility. Not worrying about what people think of him doesn’t mean he shouldn’t do what he believes to be right. He lifts the ban on the oppressed folk religion, indifferent to the fury of the established church.
 His previous actions continue to come back to him. One of his Earls, genuinely believing him to be evil, attempts to murder him to save the country from his despotism. The Earl’s confederate in the scheme, however, is a practitioner of the folk religion, and backs on out on his agreement to stab Edmund in the back. Edmund wins the fight, killing the Earl. There are many witnesses, and public opinion of is further muddied. 
Rather than keep her as a concubine, he sets Brigaed up as the abbess of a convent, surrounded by those who care about her, where her body and spirit may finally heal. He tries, stutteringly, to do the thing he fears most – to be honest to Margaret, to trust her and love her, to allow her to have power over him and to think of someone else before himself. He sends away his concubines in favour of being faithful to her. He doesn’t tell her, because it’s not about bragging. It’s about doing what he believes is right no matter who can see. 
Margaret’s elder sister, current Duchess D’Aques, dies, and everyone makes a grab for the duchy. According to Anne’s wishes that Aques stay in the female line, it should go to Margaret. Edmund masses his forces on the Aquesi border, reaches an agreement with Margaret’s father, and returns home, triumphant, just in time to discover her in bed with another man. 
He is shattered. He finds himself where John once was, sequestered in his council chambers and alone in the world. Margaret comes to him on her knees, sobbing – she wasn’t aware that he had suddenly changed the rules. Still too injured and habitually impacted to communicate, the only thing manages to say out loud is that he wonders is who the children’s real father is.
He awakens the next afternoon with a murderous hangover to discover Margaret has taken the children and fled for Aques... in the middle of a succession war, refusing any military escort, because all available troops are Edmund’s and she believes she is no longer queen. Terrified for her safety, Edmund forms a column and chases after her, catching up with her several hours south of the city. His toddler son demands to know if the man in the armour on the horse is Da. Margaret declines to answer, as Edmund did not believe her last night. He removes his helm, answering yes, it is Da, and the overjoyed toddler charges into the middle of all the agitated war horses. 
Edmund leaps down and snatches him to protect him from being trampled. A shaken Margaret is left without a doubt that Edmund really considers the boy his son. She asks if he has come to collect her, his property, and he says no, he has come to ask her, his wife, if she will please come home. 
This is completely against the mindset of his era and culture, who believe kings ‘are not born to sue, but to command,’ and many disparage him as weak and lovesick. Edmund doesn’t care, and whether or not anyone will remember it in the histories, he and Margaret proceed to live quietly, ingloriously, and happily ever after.

1 –
“Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let's choose executors, and talk of wills:
And yet not so — for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all, are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death;
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd;
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd — for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king,
Keeps Death his court: and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state, and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit —
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable — and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and — farewell king!”
- Shakespeare, Richard II

...guess what I found out, after five years of worldbuilding and one year of seriously writing drafts of what I was attempting to make as a dramatic arc centred around John?


So, this forced me to REWRITE THE ENTIRE BOOK YET AGAIN. I combined what was originally going to be Book 1: Good (John's story) with Book 2: Evil (Edmund's story) and overhauled the living crap out of it. Here is the FINAL final synopsis - combining both books and detailing how I have been obliged to rewrite completely based on synopsis-writing discovery.

EDMUND D’ARCY is an insecure little boy growing up in his brother, King JOHN’s shadow. He’s never cool enough to hang with the big boys, and he’s told to hide his ‘evil’ left-handedness. When John begins an affair with the iconic Duchess ANNE D’AQUES, Edmund is humiliated to discover the only female who fancies him is Anne’s eight year old daughter, MARGARET. He tries to one up his brother by sneaking into the neighbouring Emir’s harem, but is caught. To maintain appearances, John flogs Edmund for adultery, a crime of which only John is guilty. Edmund keeps his secret and endures the brutal punishment without complaint, winning John’s praise for the first time in his life. 
Humiliated by the irony, John tries to make his situation honourable, begging Anne to marry him. He even offers to name their bastard son his heir. Anne, unwilling to start wars with their existing spouses, reminds him his child-bride, BRIGAED, is now old enough to be a wife. She pleads for him to be a good king. John tries, giving Brigaed the freedom he imagines Anne would want. Brigaed’s clumsy attempt at politics backfires and destroy an alliance, making him resent her for not being Anne. 
He puts down a religious rebellion, but when he spares those who surrender, they revolt again.  Edmund solves the problem by setting the enemy camp on fire.  It’s against all chivalry, but it ends the war. Concerned with appearing benevolent, John pardons the survivors. Secretly, Edmund begins to do all his dirty work, allowing John to pose as a hero. 
Unwanted and bitter, Brigaed suggests her inability to conceive is John’s shortcoming and propositions Edmund, who gets things done. John hits her. Disgusted at his actions and no longer sure what he stands for, John flees to Aques, only to find his son dead and Anne close behind from consumption, which she sees as punishment for their relationship. Devastated, John leaves, giving up on the idea of being a hero. When the rebellion flares up yet again, a jaded and empty John rushes into battle, and dies laughing at the joke on his life has become. 
Edmund finds himself a despised king at the head of a shattered kingdom. He comprehends the joke on all kings: nothing is simply Good or Evil, and history only remembers what the historians are commissioned to tell. Edmund decides to learn from his brother’s mistakes and lifts the ban on the oppressed folk religion, indifferent to the fury of the established church. He marries Margaret, now sixteen, and brutally crushes the recurring rebellion, finally executing the heir whom John would have pardoned. Bugger public image; this one’s not going to come back. 
He even tries to do the thing he fears most—to trust Margaret and share the crown’s power. But she is terrified of his reputation and flees. To show her he is not the bloodthirsty tyrant stories claim, he declines to retrieve her by force, instead begging her to return as his love. Though history will remember him as snivelling, weak, and evil, Edmund doesn't care, and he and Margaret proceed to live quietly and happily ever after.
Synopsis writing. It's scary. It's hard. It CHANGES EVERYTHING.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Making the jump from short story to novel

Many ubergroupers I know and love are afraid they will never finish their novel. Earlier today, @Eliseliu confessed:

I definitely write more than half an hour a day! - but not on the novel. Huge writer's block right now in terms of plot. I've always been a 'pantser' and so the practice of writing into the unknown of an entire book (as opposed to a short story) confounds me.

I think this is a feeling many writers share, and so I wanted to repeat here what I found myself telling her:

FWIW - I pantsed, in the biggest sense of the word, the universe of my novel for 4 years. I'm a long-form improv actor, so I developed the shit out of every character and aspect of the world as if it were environmental theatre, and THEN I picked a plot I wanted to focus on out of it last summer.

The problem I see here is a misplaced expectation that everything you write when pantsing will go into the final product, and discouragement when that's not the case.
With clothing, cloth is woven in a big square before you cut out the shapes that make the final piece, and there are scraps left over. With cooking, you make the sauce in a pan before some of it goes on the plate. (Baking is easier to visualise - you make a big sheet cake and then cut out the circles you stack for the cake, or you roll out the dough and the cut out shapes with a cookie cutter.) There are also scraps. With construction, someone fells the tree and rips the lumber down to manageable pieces before you cut off the bits you need to go into the house.

There are ALWAYS scraps and THAT IS OKAY.

I think people who feel like you do, Elise, can't bear to see that scrap bit of wood/cookiedough/fabric get thrown away,  because dammit, you MADE that. You made ALL the dough / wove all the fabric, etc. But you don't get haute couture by lumping ALL THE FABRIC ON THE BOLT together on the model and throwing a tantrum when someone says "that looks like a cross between a toga and a potato sack, you might have to use less there." If you re-use the bits of dough by kneading them together again, you'll overwork the gluten and it will be hard as a rock. And lets not even get into how much a house won't stand or a boat won't float if you refuse to cut the lumber to size.

Pants your happy little ass off with your novel idea, going into it with the recognition that you are just creating a stock of raw materials. Then plot - as in, draw a blue print/calculate a recipie/design a pattern for your house/cookies/dress.  Then use what you need, which may not be all the wood in the truck / flour in the bin / buttons in the box.

You can always save the rest for another project. 

I've never believed "pantsing vs plotting" to be a binary thing.  Both have their uses, and they work particularly well together.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

When is it done?

Image Text: The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90. "Because I think I'm making progress," he replied.

People like to speculate about when one will be "done" with an art project.

Most of these people will happily agree that art is life, so when are you 'done' living? Breathing? Growing? Aging? Changing? You can be 'far along enough' in a performing art to start being in shows, you can be 'as ready as you'll ever be' for an audition, in sports you can be 'good enough' to start competing. That doesn't mean you're "done." No one asks if a musician's first concert or an athlete's first game is the final product, as good as they'll ever get, if they're "done," now. So why ask that of writers?

You're not even done when you published. Two of my favourite authors edited their books no less than thirty years  after they were first published. Sharon Kay Penman's breakout novel, "The Sunne in Splendour," was a NYT bestseller in 1983. Realising she had written a character in a velvet dress before velvet was invented (after reading a new study on medieval textiles) she edited the book for it's new print run in 2013.

My other favourite author, the inimitable Robert Heinlein, had the uncut version of "Stranger In A Strange Land" released thirty years after the original was not only a bestseller, but changed society. It's one of the most banned books in the world, it's on the Library of Congress' "Books That Shaped America," it made waterbeds ineligible for patent because it had described them so thoroughly first, it entered the word "grok" into our vocabulary, it founded a goddamn actual real world religion, the Church of All Worlds, and generally shook everything up so much it was cited in "We Didn't Start The Fire."

But it could stand to be improved thirty years later, so it was. Because it wasn't finished, even though Heinlein was dead.

So back to the grindstone, artists and writers. It's not done just because it's on it's third draft or been critiqued thoroughly. It's not done because you got an agent. It's not done when you publish. It's not done thirty years after you publish and become a NYT bestseller. It's not even done when you're dead.

Can you improve it? Then do so.