blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Back in June, Anne Johnson hosted my guest blog post on writing gender equality in epic adventure fantasy.  Just a couple days ago, this 2011 story got a bump when it was featured on

And it got me thinking…

Let me say from the start that it’s fabulous to see archeologists pay better attention to little details like the sex of the folks they’re researching, particularly when they’re defining the culture based upon that research.  It’s awesome to see the combat-based contributions of women have made throughout history acknowledged.  And the more articles we have like Hurley’s We Have Always Fought, the better.

But as tempting as it is to wave that research around — “See?  We can have women in our stories!  History says so!” — it’s important to acknowledge the fact we don’t need to justify our stories.

Read more... )
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Once upon a time, I lived near deserts and I loved them. It was natural, then, that deserts became the living and breathing setting for Sand of Bone.

When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a piece of desert property outfitted with a one-room cabin outside Apple Valley, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Apple Valley was a little tiny place at the time – less than a tenth of the population it is now – and for a kid raised in the suburbs of Orange County, it was about as middle-of-nowhere as I could imagine.

Our family spent a few weekends every year up there. It being the late 70’s, my parents let me roam the desert at will for hours as long as I promised to never try to catch a snake or explore the abandoned mineshafts.

I never broke the first rule (though I did watch my cousin catch, and get bitten by, a red racer), and sort of skirted the second rule. I mean, really! I was nine years old, my head was filled with adventure stories, and the mineshaft was right there! Alas, by the time I was twelve, I’d seen some movie about a collapsing mineshaft. That movie did a better job of keeping me out of the mine than any threat my parents made.

The stars at night were incredible — glitter strewn on deep blue silk. And I could see at night! I could walk right out the front door and around the hilltop in a dark that wasn’t really dark after all.  I didn’t know then it had to do with rods and cones and how eyes adjust to light.  So I told myself stories about magic in the land that gave people “desert eyes” – a special ability to see the open desert by starlight as clearly as I could see it by day.

As a young adult, I made numerous trips to sites within the Mojave (including the time I tried camping there in August and ended up sleeping in the car wearing nothing but my hiking boots), and high deserts and low throughout the Southwestern United States. Whenever life felt too tight, I longed to head to the desert.

It’s hard to explain the magic of deserts to people who’ve experienced them only from a car window on the way from one more exciting place to another. It isn’t barren at all. It is instead completely comfortable with its unfilled spaces.  There is freedom in the great openness, a thinness to the air that pulls me forward, a longing to just be still and watch the wind pass its touch from dry grass to grit to jackrabbit ear.

In my mind, much of Sand of Bone’s SheyKhalan desert is akin to those deserts. Instead of deep and shifting sand dunes, most of SheyKhala’s landscape is made up of rocky plains, wind-scoured ridges, salt flats, and jagged canyons. But there are parts of SheyKhala, such as the region around the Daggers, that look more like this photo of the Libyan Desert:

Libyan Desert

The sand atop rock, the spires of dark stone, the painfully blue sky… That’s where the characters do a great deal of living and dying. And in the sequel, Breath of Stone, a very special group of characters exist in a place that looks almost exactly like that photo.

Will you picture the same desert for Sand of Bone as I do?  It doesn’t really matter if you do, really.  I’d rather you have in your mind the desert that you feel — the open place that will draw you in then leave you to fend for yourself, that will challenge you to expand your limits rather than have mercy for your mistakes, that will tell you being alone is perfectly fine while at the same time proving the importance of community.

Because that’s what wild and dangerous places do for us.

And now, back to polishing the manuscript…

I have a newsletter starting up!  You can even sign up for the newsletter if you'd like. :)

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Half of my first summer as a teenager was spent in a compact car, driving back and forth from Southern California to New Orleans with my mother and nine-year-old sister. I was torn between huge curiosity and excitement, and the nagging certainty spending so much time with my ultra-extroverted mother and sister would cause my head to explode. I remember we argued daily, but remember more clearly all the places we saw along the way.

It was the first trip I took after deciding I could, just maybe, write a novel someday. Every part of me was primed to store experiences and research with the intention of one day using it in a book. One excursion in particular made a huge impact: Carlsbad Caverns.

Read more... )
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Sand of Bone heads off to its editor and final reader tonight, so I'm taking a little break in order to let me brain think about something else for a bit.

I am not a structured worldbuilder. Before writing, I do not sit down to answer a hundred questions about culture, religion, navigation, textiles, government, livestock, gender relations, history, trade, exploration, child-rearing, and economics. That's not my process. (For that, check out this post, wherein I discuss altering my worldbuilding to fit the plot rather than the other way around.)

That doesn't mean I don't care. I deeply care. I don't expect to get everything right, but I want it to be right enough to keep the reader with me.

There's a great deal of writerly talk about educating ourselves on history, government, economics, and culture. That's absolutely necessary. But what hangs me up more often than not is geology and botany. Certainly I could just make everything up, but constructing properly integrated flora and fauna and climate and geography from the ground up is beyond my ken. So I do what most of us do: attempt to match my world and plot needs to a Real World equivalent, and adapt within parameters broad enough to be flexible yet narrow enough to avoid (as much as possible) Flying Snowmen.

Read more... )
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

Now that Serpent Heart is up, my attention turns back to final revisions for Sand of Bone.

Celebrations—when, how, and why—are fantastic worldbuilding tools that can give depth to a culture, move the plot, and reveal character.  The longevity of the celebrations, and how the celebrations have evolved over the years, inform us of the culture's values.  Whether characters partake in, shun, or are indifferent to the festivals tells us how well characters are integrated into the larger culture.

In the desert and delta of SheyKhala, where the upcoming novel Sand of Bone takes place, festivals mark the turning of seasons primarily through focus on close kin, neighbors, and the greater community.

The year ends and begins with the Feast of Kin -- the midwinter festival of family. Though jokes are often made about the different ways one could serve one's family members at a feast, the festival is critical for maintaining good will among kinship groups as they head into that time of year when close quarters and limited food supplies can raise tensions. For the days leading up to the feast, family members do favors for one another, and the most secret favors are considered to be the ones performed with the deepest love and respect. The feast itself, though, is geared toward indulging the children in all possible ways. Grandparents say the focus on children ensures young adults consider carefully what their nighttime cold-weather activities might engender.

Promise Days happen in the spring, when the seasonal rains provide the low desert just enough moisture to coax short and spiky grass to cover the sands between brush that blooms but once a year. The notion of promise-keeping is incorporated into the river levels as well, since the season's rains promise to flood the delta once the water rushes down from the high desert. It's also the time of year consorts decide to make new vows, renew their existing ones, or part ways. It's one of two festivals that include the ceremony to brand women and men as full Blades in service to the ruling Velshaan. (The other branding takes place during Shades.)

In midsummer, everyone takes part in Givings, which the cold-hearted and tight-fisted call the Mis-givings. Able-bodied folk provide service and work for the neighbors, preferably those less fortunate. (As you can imagine, there can be a snark-fest in determining who among one's competing 'friends' is more or less fortunate.) In larger settlements, Givings is the day set aside for civic duties such as field maintenance, road and wall repair, and sewage care. Moreover, every person must pass their evening meal to someone less fortunate, and will not eat unless someone more fortunate takes pity on them. The two groups most likely to go without an evening meal are the middling poor and the ruling Velshaan bloodkin. In fact, the Velshaan absolutely refuse to eat on Givings Day because they have only the gods above them.  Why the gods don't provide the Velshaan with their own meals is a subject of speculation only among those who wish to live a life of hard labor in Salt Hold.

Lastly, the welcome cooling of autumn leads up to Shades -- three days and nights of honoring and remembering the dead, and (supposedly) spiritual visits from dead ancestors or notable figures. It's understood ghosts don't really show up every year to everybody, just like we understand Santa Claus doesn't really visit every child's home on Christmas Eve. Shades is instead a time to reflect on past losses. It's considered wise to think of what you'd say to loved ones if you were a mere ghost able to communicate but once a year, and wiser still to say those things while living. But, as with our Christmas traditions, parents take advantage of the festival to instill behaviors and beliefs in their children. Parents will sometimes leave small notes or symbolic gifts from "ghosts" for children to find, and the final night of Shades is marked by costumed folk going door-to-door masquerading as prominent figures from SheyKhala's history dispensing advice and warnings.

In addition to the large festivals, smaller celebrations are more often either observed within families or smaller groups, or confined to certain occupations and such. There are feasts on the Dark Moon, when the nightsighted folk see the undimmed beauty of the stars. (It's a favorite among young people looking for excuses to spend the night away from family.) More ritualistic celebrations occur around the first pressing of olives for oil, the training of horses, the welcoming of new Blades into the ranks, and thanksgivings for salt and iron.

In more recent years, remembrances for the Woes have been added to the festival calendar. Officially, they are held to acknowledge the losses and destruction caused when the Velshaan warred among themselves. But they are really intended to both remind the people of what power the Velshaan can (or, more accurately, could once) wield, and remind the Velshaan bloodkin of what fate they could meet if they stand against the wishes of their family.

How much of this will make it into the final version of Sand of Bone? Only bits and pieces mentioned mostly in passing. Half the story takes place in settings removed from the usual cultural constructs. The sequel, Breath of Stone, more tightly entwines the cycle of celebration and remembrance, and the third (yet unnamed) novel downright depends upon them to trigger... well, to trigger happenings. (Shh, can't tell!)

But I know the festivals are there -- why some people choose to ignore them, why others anticipate them, and why still others will seek ways to use them. It's another valuable tool in this writer's Swiss Army Knife.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Today, I completed the deep revisions for Sand of Bone.

Pause for extended fanfare of trumpets...

I'll have to wait for beta-reader feedback to know how close the novel is to the proofread-for-publication stage, but I'm quite pleased with how it turned out.

Currently, the novel comes in around 128K words. Somehow -- despite the fact I completely altered and expanded the worldbuilding, and let myself play much more with dialog -- I cut nearly 30K from the previous draft. Thirty thousand words! I don't know where they went. I feel as if I'm actually telling more story than before those words disappeared.

I had all sorts of things I wanted to say about revisions, and writing, and writing as a form of reading, but I'm honestly just too danged tired. So off to bed with me, so the brain shall function tomorrow.

And I'll play that fanfare again. I earned it.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Many years ago, I was able to attend the Writers of the Future writing workshop in Los Angeles, taught by K.D. Wentworth and Tim Powers. K.D. gave me a piece of short story writing advice: Mutilate the cows on the first page. For me, who had a bad habit of burying the SF element too many words into the story, it was an excellent piece of advice.

But it was Tim whom I got to know quite well during that week, and I had the chance to spend much of a later convention hanging out with him and his wife. Over coffee, I expressed my huge admiration for the event-puzzles Tim wrote as secret histories, and asked his advice on writing about the weird and wild in present-day settings. The conversation was fascinating, far-reaching, and made my brain hurt with the effort to keep up. His process of discovering and connecting historical events with fantastical motivations and influences stuck with me as I plotted out Crossroads of America.

Now, Crossroads is not a complex secret history, though it does draw from real historical reports, regional folklore, and local events. But the biggest missing piece has always been why the major character--Jack--ends up in a position of such influence, why she is the one who must act, and why her actions might have the power to solve the, um... problems.

Today, while hunting Google for the names of a couple locations in the California wilderness, I came upon this:

"Scientists are puzzled by a mysterious Los Padres National Forest hot spot where 400-degree ground ignited a wildfire. The hot spot was discovered by fire crews putting out a three-acre fire last summer in the forest's Dick Smith Wilderness."

And all of a sudden, Jack has a complex backstory that makes her the inevitable choice for the role she must play, and it's all based on an actual event!

Now back to adding words to my NaNo count.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

I don’t talk about process as much as I think about process, mostly because I’m fairly certain everyone would respond with, “Well, duh, Blair.  We all know that.  Where have you been?”  But now and again, I find writing about process helps me better understand it.  And once it’s written, it seems silly to leave it sitting about with nothing to do.

So.  Here it be.

I’m working on a pivotal chapter near the end of the arc’s Act I.  It’s a point of decision that’s been set up by previous events, the turning point on which the rest of the novel depends, where secrets are revealed, lines drawn, and action chosen.

As is usual with these scenes of mine, it needs a great deal of work.

My pivotal chapters tend to get chatty.  Very chatty.  The characters discuss options and ideas and reasons in detail, debating the sticking points and questioning their predictions.  It took me awhile to realize the characters spent so much time talking things through because I, the writer, was still trying to figure out motives and consequences.  It took me awhile longer to properly edit out (most of) the extraneous conversations because I do love me my dialog.

I’ve also realized my pivotal chapter problems–which I try to solve with dialog–stem from a weak foundation, and that weakness is a byproduct of pantser style coupled with my penchant for writing to That Scene at all costs.  (That Scene being the seed the novel originally grew from.)  Now, in Sand of Bone, I have a better grasp of the story, and new worldbuilding pieces are properly in place.  The pivotal scene no longer needs all the words it currently holds.  What was once required to make the characters’ decisions understandable and acceptable can be set aside, with proper preparation.

Every few paragraphs or so, I find myself flipping back to previous chapters for a spot of editing.  Usually it’s a single line or a quick dialog exchange, defining a small piece of the world or establishing a minor character before I put either one to use in the pivotal chapter.  The purpose of those little tweaks and tightenings is to remove the need to explain reasons and motives during the pivotal scene.  In other words, if I know I’m going to need the rifles to set Act II in motion, I’d best make sure everyone knows where the mantles are and why the rifles are hanging there before we’re praising God and passing out ammunition.

A decision-process is an exchange of information—explanation, consideration, comparison, justification.  It’s tempting to include that in pivotal scenes because the decision is so important, right?  After all, I want the reader to accept the decision.  Not like it or agree with it, but see it as a realistic choice based on available information and character goals.  And no writer wants the reader to toss the book across the room because the character makes consistently inexplicable choices.

But you know what’s worse?  The reader who quietly sets the book aside and forgets about it because the pivotal scene was so filled with stray facts and character asides and tidbits of backstory that it bored them completely.

My revelation is this: the pivotal scene isn’t about the decision.  That’s the job of everything that comes before.  The pivotal scene is the emotion of having decided, the fear of the consequences ahead, the terror of being wrong, the desperation to have others agree.  When we make a big decision in real life, we certainly agonize over it.  But the moment of sharing and acting upon that decision is just as terrifying.  Sometimes, it’s more terrifying.  It’s what happens in those moments, hours, or days that makes or breaks the decision.

That’s the pivotal scene.

So my reminder to myself today is this: new information should rarely—and I do mean rarely—be given to the reader during a pivotal scene.  Characters in the scene can get some new information, but then the exchange is about the impact of the fact not its explanation.

This is not to be confused with climactic revelations of the I-am-your-father type.  But even then, if the temptation arises to explain–right after the revelation–just how that connection could possibly be so, some quite critical pieces of backstory and foreshadowing have been neglected.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
I’ve hit the obsessive stage of revisions. It’s my favorite stage of the process–more enjoyable, even, than that first flush of New Story. The stage of focused revisions is one of both control and discovery, when all the pieces at last fit together properly and flow with the right balance of surprise and inevitability.

Those worldbuilding changes thrill me. Everything that didn’t quite fit now snicks into place. Plot holes are filled. Motivations are clear. Stakes are raised. It works.

Knowing I’ve set myself up to rewrite the last third of the novel is a bit of a drag, but not too much. I’m excited about it for the same reasons as I’ve stated above. It all makes sense. It works.

I’ve been here before. I’ve learned how to switch the nothing-else-matters focus on and off to take care of life’s responsibilities, and I (mostly) keep the snarls of vexation on the inside when interrupted by mundane things like showing up for the classes I’m supposed to teach, grocery shopping, and answering the phone.

But I’d certainly be much happier if I could, right this minute, hide in a remote cabin until I finished. Until I finish the last lines while Fanfare for the Common Man plays in the background.

Yes, I do hear that when hit “Save” at the end of revisions. I hear it because I start singing it. Badly, but with great enthusiasm.

So… a few weeks from now, when I’m whining about how everything sucks and never works and is nothing but an embarrassment that ought to be burned and shows only how stupid I am, when feedback from beta readers proves beta readers are necessary because I have zero objectivity, when I’m grumping about proofreading and cover design and all that crap, do me a favor: remind me I love this book.

And tell me to play Fanfare for the Common Man. I promise to snarl only on the inside.

Also posted at Blair MacGregor Books
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
... with feeling. Or different feelings. Or deeper knowledge, or better strategy, or greater confidence. Or hubris blind to incompetence. We shall see.

I am inflicting more revisions on Sand of Bone. Once upon a time, repeated revision rounds felt akin to shaving away words and layers in an attempt to make my novel-peg fit into a proper slot. But the freedom of how I've chosen to present my stories, along with the reading and consideration of reviews given to Sword and Chant, have given me both a positive push and clearer understanding of my goals. It's made these last two rounds of revisions exciting and enlivening.

There are a couple big changes, both involving worldbuilding.* One is the transformation of Exile into Salt. The same behavior will get you sent to that gods-hated place, but the change of name and purpose fixes plot holes, and allows for all sorts of little one-lines from characters such as the unofficial and sarcastic "motto" of Salt cures.

It also allowed me to burn far too many hours checking out salt flats, and that was much fun. Quirky and random research topics are one of the reasons I love the work I do.

Also changed is the mortality of the ruling Velshaan. They've always been descendants of the creation gods, and they've always aged, been vulnerable to harm, and decidedly mortal. But now they can die only when one of their own bloodkin kills them.

Think through the consequences of that one, and you can see why I'm excited by the change. Yes, your own kin will be the cause of your death, but what about times when withholding that death would be worse than causing it? What rituals would be created to be a psychological buffer? How would it feel to grow up knowing no one but your family can kill you, and that you must one day kill a parent or grandparent? What happens when the bloodkin have a really, really big feud?

As you can imagine, those two changes alone create massive ripple effects. The revisions are line-by-line, word-by-word, with an eye to ensuring every choice, plot point, and character attitude is compatible with the changes.

But the bottom line is I'm so much happier with what the final novel is becoming. I'm newly excited rather than frustrated. I'm loving it all over again.

As an added bonus, the changes fit well with a tidbit of advice picked up from Brad Beaulieu's GenCon seminar this weekend: Plant fear of the solution in the character.

(And if you haven't read Brad's work before, I highly recommend it. Epic fantasy, flying ships, Russian flavor, truly awesome and complicated characters.)

Today, I made it through the first four chapters of changes. As long as life doesn't deal me yet another sledgehammer to the gut, I just might get these revisions done by the end of September. It's only, y'know, nine months behind schedule.

*For reasons why I'll blithely alter my worldbuilding, see On Worldbuilding, Changes, and Plot.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
A couple months ago, I put out a tweet something like, "If you can't fix it in plot, alter the worldbuilding." Y'see, I'd just shifted inserted a huge change in Sand of Bone's world in order to give a character the reason and ability to perform an act that the remaining 60% of the novel depended upon. The change made me happy because, even though it had a huge impact, it required so little in actual text changes.

Not long after I put up that tweet, someone else wrote under the same hashtag something like, "Worldbuilding is the story's foundation and shouldn't be changed lightly." (That's a paraphrase based admittedly on memory, but contains the general idea.)

And I was reminded why worldbuilding checklists and such never worked for me.

Here's Where I Try To Explain )

Until I've decided to publish a story, worldbuilding is just as fluid as word choice. Everything--from religious tenants and historical perspective to the cut of a cloak and what gets eaten for a midnight snack--is open to change. If a character's choice in Chapter 25 seems unreasonable, but changing it would require extensive plot and character alterations, I'd rather drop a paragraph in Chapter 3 about a culture's familial obligations and a line in Chapter 7 about a their god's expectations that will make the character's choice seem not only reasonable but unavoidable.

And if a worldbuilding change I want to make conflicts with a work already published? I'll find a way to explain the contradiction. (I can, for example, explain clearly why it's acceptable for an Amish man to drive a tractor in my fields, but must use horses in his own.)

I want to hit That Scene. I want to tell the story. My worldbuilding exists to serve those ends.


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