Archive for August, 2017

Organization: The Philosophical

August 9, 2017

For those of you who only wander by periodically, I should mention that today’s Wander is Part Two.  Last week, “Organization: The Practical” is Part One.  You can read it here.

“Breaking the Wall” Stuff

This paradoxically rambling discussion started when a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question: “How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?”

She went on to talk about how she had “so many computer files, in addition to notebooks, all full of background information and research and actual bits of writing I want to use.  The files themselves are fairly well-organized, but they are unwieldy, and honestly I don’t always remember which folder I filed some specific piece of information in and I spend a couple valuable minutes clicking or flipping between documents or notebooks in an attempt to remind myself of a certain characteristic, or plot point, or relevant fact.” 

Last week I talked about notebooks, computer programs, and other physical things you can use to organize your materials.  Today I’m going to talk about the philosophical foundations that underlie how you decide what to organize.  This discussion is going to touch on both research and world-building, since for me the issues are inextricably intertwined.

So here’s the key question.  How much research do you need?  How much of your world needs to be in place before you start telling your story?

Start by reminding yourself why you started writing this story in the first place.  Write down  that thought that hit you one day and made you all excited about writing the book.  This is not a plot summary.  It’s “I wonder how the events in Lord of the Rings would look if you were one of the dwarves?”  (Dennis McKiernan’s ”Iron Tower” books.)   It’s “What happens after a child raised by wolves enters human society?”  It’s “What if mah-jong wasn’t just a game, but building a universe?”

Write this down in a very few sentences, then use it as a talisman to guide how much research and world-building you need.

My experience is that most novices err on the side of too much of both.  They painstakingly draw maps of entire continents or entire worlds when their story isn’t going to go beyond a single area of one small city.  Unless the story is about world politics, a handful of place names and the like will carry the story forward.  Even if the story is about world politics and culture clashes, you don’t need perfect maps.  Through Wolf’s Eyes is a good example of this.  There’s a lot of political intrigue in that novel, but the only map I had was scribbled on the back of an envelope.

I know several people who still have not completed their Great Novel because they keep getting caught up in research.  I’m not immune to the temptation to immerse myself in research.  When I was researching the “Breaking the Wall” books, I read seven books related to mah-jong.  I reach about Chinese writing styles, culture, clothing through the ages, and breeds of dogs.   In addition to my “big binder,” I ended up getting a multi-pocket file folder to stow various bits of additional information related to Chinese myth, legend, magic, symbolism, and the like.

For me, research is usually driven by two impulses.  One is the fear I’ll miss some essential element.  When I realize I’m simply trying to cover all aspects of a topic for no other reason than they are there to be learned about, then I force myself to stop.

The second impulse toward research is more subtly seductive.  It’s that wonderful feeling that hits when you discover something really, really cool.  This leads to the desire to keep researching not so much for information as in hope of getting that “oh, cool!” buzz again.  Beware!

If, like my friend, you’ve been researching your novel for years – a process which, for her, is complicated by the fact that she’s setting her tale in a real city and building the story around actual events (think of the works of Tim Powers) – the question “How much information do I need in order to tell my story?” can be a useful organizational guideline.

After you ask yourself that question, set up a new computer file (or files) or a fresh new ring-binder or both.  Then start transferring to these only the material you need for the story in process.  Not the series.  This one novel.  Focus on characters, crucial settings, and crucial world-building elements.

A reverse outline (if you already have a text) can be of great help with this process.  As you reverse outline each chapter, put the information about the characters, settings, etcetera into the appropriate file.  This will keep you from including material you don’t need.  An added bonus is that by the time you’re done, you’ll have a plot outline.  Given that the three key elements of a novel are plot, characters, and setting, you’ll have all three in a neatly organized fashion.  Tah-dah!

Don’t have a manuscript to outline?  Start writing!  As you discover points that you need to research, make a note of elements.  If the element is something that will stop you from moving the plot forward, then you have a research guideline.  Find that data, move it to your new file, and get back to writing.

If the element you’re missing is something minor (I once had a friend admit she blew an entire day she could have been writing researching the style of hat a character would be wearing), skip it and write!  If you love research, then use researching that hat or weapon style or the name of that grocery store chain as your reward.

Please note, a preliminary outline will not serve you as well as a reverse outline in organizing your research materials.  It’s too easy to start thinking everything and anything is going to be of use.  I strongly suggest you start writing and discover as you write what you actually need.

The rest of your accumulated research and world-building material doesn’t need to be thrown away.  Remember, too much is as useless as too little.  Information hoarding is like physical hoarding.  If you get to the point that you can’t find something, then you might as well not have it, right?

As I hope you agree, the question of organization has nothing to do with whether you use a computer program, a ring-binder, a bunch of file cards, or a Ouija board.  It has to do with organizing your thoughts, then finding the tools that will help you achieve a finished novel.

Now, I’m off to write…  Later I’m going to be doing a lot of both research and organizing of world-building materials, but I’ll have the story to guide me along the way.

FF: Intense Week

August 4, 2017

It’s been insane this week.  This weekend I’m definitely making time to read.

Our Monstress With Monstress

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Several short books on desert environments, insects, and plants.  Next year I want to try growing tepary beans in our hot, dry yard.  They sound like a perfect fit.

In Progress:

Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana TakedaVolume Two of the graphic novel.  I had to go back and re-read the end of Volume One to remember the context.  Lovely art and, so far, a compelling story.  I’m going slowly with it because it’s too bloody for before bed!

The Goose Girl by Shannon HaleAudiobook.  I always thought this was a dark tale, and Ms. Hale’s version isn’t making it any prettier!


Jim and I watched a couple of documentaries.  One was the final volume of the Beatle’s Anthology series (disks seven and eight), which deal with the band’s final years and dissolution.  The other is the two disk Martin Scorsese the Living in the Material World biography of George Harrison.

TT: Twisting Together Language and Story

August 3, 2017

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your brain snakes – or at least the ones connected with language and culture. Speaking as a confirmed ophidiophobe, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by their bright colours and friendly natures, though I did find them to be most unpleasantly wriggly and hard to pin down. Fortunately, they were not at all venomous.

Doing the Conlang Conga

But you dropped a big hint that other brain snakes were lying in wait. Would you care to describe them to me so that I can avoid any ambushes that they might be planning to set?

JANE: You’re an ophidiophobe?  Interesting.  This actually ties into our discussion of language.  I’m more familiar with that particular phobia under the term “ophiophobia.”  Another interesting linguistic twist!

ALAN: Wikipedia informs me that both words are used to describe the condition, but it has nothing to say about why both words exist. Curious…

JANE: Yep…  And such curiosities are at the heart of languages and why conlanging is a lot more difficult than is often imagined.  Here’s another difficulty.   As I mentioned a few weeks ago, lately many of the more popular conlangs have been designed for visual media.  Klingon is a good example.

ALAN: And don’t forget Vulcan, also from the Star Trek universe, Dothraki as used in Game of Thrones, Na’vi in Avatar, and Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in Harry Potter. Do you speak to your brain snakes in Parseltongue?

JANE: No, but maybe I should try.

One great advantage visual media has over print media is that the conlang can be presented via subtitles.  So Klingons can speak actual Klingon, not English with a funny accent.

Writers of print media can’t use that gimmick.  They can use footnotes but even Terry Pratchett – who is my favorite user of footnotes – knows that readers will only tolerate a certain amount of this before they get frustrated.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m an untypical reader, but I love footnotes.  I always consider a Jack Vance novel to be incomplete if it doesn’t have footnotes in it. And as a bonus, Vance’s footnotes are sardonic, pointed and often even funnier than Pterry’s. And let’s not forget Susanna Clarke whose Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has entire short stories buried in the footnotes. You can’t get more footnotey than that!

JANE: Abuse of footnotes may be a reason why I could never get into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell… but that would be too much of a tangent for here.

When an author of print media is at work, even magical or high tech translating devices only go so far.

ALAN: You mean like Douglas Adams’ babel fish? I thought that one solved the problem beautifully!

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, but that is basically what I mean.  Can you remind me how babel fish work?

ALAN: I can do no better than quote Douglas Adams’ own words:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

I think that describes it perfectly.

JANE: That is indeed a clear and concise description. However, as a translation device, it’s rather facile.  “Understanding anything said to you” only goes so far.  What happens if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference for something – for example, a Neanderthal hearing someone refer to an automobile?  What happens then?

How did Douglas Adams deal with this?  Did Arthur Dent receive full descriptions or did he just hear a nonsense word?

ALAN: I’m not sure that Adams ever thought of that aspect. Facile it may be, but his babel fish just worked.

JANE: So, Arthur Dent never encounters a concept he doesn’t immediately understand?

Curious.  It’s been a long while since I read those books. If Arthur Dent does understand everything he hears, then this isn’t translation.  It’s telepathy combined with an immediate and copious information dump.

ALAN: That’s a good way of thinking of it. It’s a long time since I read the books as well, and without a massive re-read I’m hard put to address the question directly. My google-fu hasn’t worked any too well either. But it seems that Adams had different literary uses for his translation device – he gives us a delightfully casuistical argument which demonstrates that the existence of the babel fish proves the non-existence of God.

However Adams does remark that the perfect communication between species and races provided by the babel fish has been the cause of more and bloodier wars than anything else in creation. That side effect, it seems to me, is at least a partial answer to your question.

JANE: It absolutely is…  So often war is blamed on misunderstanding, but without the white lies of diplomacy where would we be?

Nonetheless – again, maybe it’s me being plagued by brain snakes – I worry about communications issues that I’m not sure a translation device could handle.

ALAN: Why don’t you tell me about it next time…  I may not be able to tame the snakes for you, but maybe talking about it will make you feel better.

Organization: The Practical

August 2, 2017

Last week a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question:

Wolf Section

“How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?

“I think this is a practical question as well as a philosophical one, maybe, and I’m interested in the answer to both implied questions.  How do you keep track of things?  Books like the Wolf series must generate a huge amount of background material and etc. that you need to access to keep consistency over time, at the very least, so I’m wondering: what works for you?”

There’s quite a lot here, so I’m going to start with a basic, practical reply, then move to the philosophical

First, let me clear away an element that I suspect many of you are waiting for me to mention.  There are novel writing computer programs out there – the one I’ve heard mentioned the most often is called Scrivener – that apparently contain all sorts of tools that promise to make organizing a novel and associated materials simple and easy.

I’ve never used any of those programs, so I can’t say from experience whether they would help me or not.  I’ll save whether or not I’d be tempted to use such a program personally for the “philosophical” side of this discussion.  However, I encourage those of you with direct knowledge of programs such as Scrivener to talk about them in the Comments.  As I see it, the more information the better!

Now, turning to my personal experience…Back in the days when I was starting “the Wolf series” (aka the “Firekeeper Saga”), programs like Scrivener did not exist.  In fact, word processing programs contained far fewer bells and whistles than they do today.  Spellcheck was the one everyone was excited about, but even that was slow and the internal dictionaries were small and easily confused.

Searching the document was possible but, especially if the document was large, such searches were slow and cumbersome.  Many novelists I knew broke their documents into multiple files, some chapter by chapter, to make searches useful.  I tended to go with roughly hundred-page blocks, shaped around complete chapters.

These days, breaking up the manuscript isn’t necessary.  However, having a novel’s text all in one file doesn’t remove the need for some sort of organization for related materials – the outlines, notes, character descriptions etcetera that my friend mentioned above.

When I started writing novels, I scribbled down my notes in whatever sort of blank book I had available.  However, I rapidly realized that a notebook with any sort of binding restricted me because it was impossible to shift materials around.  Also, there was no place to put visual materials, such as photographs and maps.

Therefore, when I signed the contract for the Firekeeper novels and knew I would be writing a series (as opposed to Changer, which started as a stand-alone and only later acquired a sequel), I decided that I would need a tool to help me keep my materials in order.  Jim and I went to an arts and crafts store, and there I purchased a very large, very heavy scrapbooking binder.

The one I selected met my two main requirements.  First, the ring binding meant that I could shift materials around as needed.  Second, the oversized cover meant that I could include visual materials that were larger than the size of a standard sheet of paper.  A bonus was that the notebook itself was very solidly made, complete with metal thingies on the cover to keep it from coming apart.

I then bought dividers and set them up for different sections.  Sometimes those sections (such as Characters) duplicated a computer file.  That didn’t matter, nor did it matter that these print materials could become outdated.  Sometimes I skim more efficiently when I am not looking at a computer screen.   Using the ring binder also meant that I could include my scribbled notes.  While these were often superseded when I started writing, those scribbled bits often reminded me of trains of thought that I might want to return to someday.

Areas such as “Wolves” included not only research notes on wolves, but also photos taken from a wide variety of sources: calendars, cards, flyers, and such could all be accommodated.  I glued smaller pictures onto a sheet of paper to minimize the number of tiny scraps floating around.

“Timeline” included not only my reverse outlines – see here if you want to know what I mean by “reverse outline” – but lists with things like names for months in various regions, and a timeline with various significant dates in the history preceding the events chronicled by the novels.

“Reviews” has nothing to do with reviews of the books, but my reviews of various research materials I had read, whether I owned them or had borrowed them and, if so, from where, in case I wanted them again.  This saved me more than once from re-reading a book I already had read or hunting for a book I had borrowed.

“History” included printouts of documents I had written as background for the series, including a treatise on inheritance law (crucial to Through Wolf’s Eyes) and related materials.  I also included proposals for novels in the series, so I could refer to them as I wrote and reassure myself I hadn’t lost my sense of purpose.

“Maps” included maps, both visual and verbal.  “Words” included interesting words or turns of phrase, especially idiomatic expressions or the like that caught my fancy and might be used to stimulate a frazzled brain.  “Places” ended up subsumed into “Maps.”  If and when I write another Firekeeper novel, I’ll probably get rid of this section and use it for something else.

“Miscellaneous” proved to be a valuable section, containing everything from a “relationship chart” my genealogist aunt sent me, to details about odd types of currency (including bricks of tea) or the typical staff to be found in a wealthy person’s household.

Why bother with all of this, especially in hard copy, when computer files are easier to update and can be electronically searched?  I’ll leave that for the “Philosophical” section next week.