Author Archives: Michael De Groote

And so it begins

Everything was in place.

I had my outlines. I had my maps. I was about to begin the actual real writing of the actual first draft.

The document was open. At 3:48 p.m., yesterday, Oct. 7, 2014, I typed my chapter title and first sentence: Verity ran.

Then the phone rang.

Since I am looking for work, I can’t afford to not take phone calls these days. It was, indeed, an important phone call.

Then, I sat down again.

The phone rang before I could write another word.

This was a phone call to arrange an interview with Michael McLean with my daughter for her Deseret News “Connect 123” column, Ellie’s Bookshelf. Also important.

Then it was dinner. Doorbells rang. Etc.

It wasn’t until 7:28 p.m. that I was able write the second sentence. I hated everything I wrote. But I pushed through. Eventually, I seemed to get into the rhythm of the writing. Although I write for a living, this was very different. I can see right away where I need to develop the craft of writing fiction better.

But, as I said, it got better as I went along.

Because this is my first novel, I completely expect the first draft to be nauseatingly bad. I also expect it to get better as write more. My hope is, after revising, it will not be nauseatingly bad, but merely bad. Then, with advice and help, I hope to punch it up to passable, then good, then fantastic.

Well, that is my hope.

By the time I finished last night at a little before 9 p.m., I wrote a full first chapter with 2,494 words. That includes the seven words (chapter title and first two-word sentence) I wrote at 3:48 p.m. That isn’t so bad for a start.

Now, only 67,506 more words to go. At this rate, assuming I am able to put in four hours a day instead of just an hour and a half, I should be able to finish this up in, oh, about 10 working days. If I unplug my phone…

…and don’t eat, or shower, or work on my non-fiction book, or anything else, and if my wife doesn’t have any projects–like painting that stair railing, etc., etc., etc.

Mapping my world

The last thing I wanted to have in place before I began writing the novel, was some sort of map. This is a tool for me to keep in mind the various distances involved in the story.

I went through various world building ideas and figured out possible times, etc.

I used graph paper to calculate possible distances and sizes and then sketched out a rough map. Then I filled it in with more stuff — adding mountains, rivers, forests, and plains. I dropped in various cities and villages. I scanned it and made some copies. One copy I colored and added some huge lakes. Another, I put in political divisions. The names of the map are abbreviations or just placeholders because I haven’t come up with an awesome name yet. I still haven’t named the capital city, for example.

These maps are tools for my writing process. The information on them will be changed as I go along. It is interesting how the geography is changing the story. It affects how nations deal with each other. It determines different paths to take. It influences destinations. It also gives ideas. I purposely left the northernmost part of the map ambiguous. There is a peninsula that may or may not stick up. How far does it go? I don’t know. What is there? I don’t know. Are there other continents? Probably not.

My daughter declared that Verity’s world looks like Australia:

This is my working map to help me write my novel. It will, no doubt, go through many changes.

This is my working map to help me write my novel. It will, no doubt, go through many changes.

One last thing I did was superimpose a map of the U.S. onto Verity’s world. I placed my town over where the story begins. The protagonists, apparently, are traveling from Salt Lake City to Denver, more or less.

I’ve tried to imagine weather patterns and the interaction of mountains, winds, seas, plains, etc. I’m afraid I’m not that good at that yet. So any differences between real weather physics and my book are entirely due to, um, … magic! Whew, that solves everything. 🙂

Invasion of the 3×5 cards — creating a scene map

I took the story bible I created on August 20, 2014, and began going through all of the different notes, ideas, and sketches I wrote on 3×5 cards.

My first 3×5 note was about a year ago. Every time I took a note, I wrote the date on the card. So for this part of the project I had 12 piles of notes, one for each month to go through.

I took the story bible’s synopsis and pasted it into a new document. I then broke the synopsis up into 22 sections. These sections are NOT chapters. Some are scenes. Some are sequences of scenes. I used Microsoft Word’s Document Map feature to make it easier to jump around in the document.

I also, using the Document Map feature, added sections for each character, locations, religion, sayings, culture, politics, props and so forth.

Then I began going through the 3×5 cards, starting with the October 2013 pile.  Whenever there were any cool ideas, snippets of dialogue, etc., I wrote that information into the outline/synopsis or under one of the other sections such as character.

For example, one 3×5 card had a note about “mossglow,” a moss that dimly glows in different colors.  I added this information to the Props section: “Glowing moss, different colors. Not very bright, but useful. In some climates, people grow it on their roofs, giving villages a pleasant patchwork glow.”

Two different 3×5 cards mentioned ancient wedding vows. I wrote both versions down in the Religion section along with a funeral song, creation story, a festival description, etc.

I moved through each month. It took a few days to accomplish this.

What this gives me isn’t a perfect outline, but a general outline with snippets of specifics that could impact various scenes, or be totally ignored. It is just enough to begin writing.

Non-fiction interlude

So much work had to be done to finish up editing my non-fiction book, Visions of Freedom, that I made very little progress on my novel for the last few weeks. It took forever to reformat my endnotes and bibliography. The book includes 56 biographies — one for each signer of the Declaration of Independence. Whew!

I did, however, continue reading Dave Wolverton/David Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines. Boy oh boy does that make you think about what you are doing. Every part of the book has great questions and ways of looking at your book plan, plot, characters, and so forth. It is great for outlining, but, I imagine, also great for pantsers to use after the fact to revise better. Can’t recommend it enough.

My 11-year-old daughter* also interviewed Richard Paul Evans about his latest book, Michael Vey 4: Hunt for Jade Dragon and later got her photo taken with him before a book signing. He is a discovery writer, from what he told her. I’m more of an outliner — although I’ve pretty much had my fill with outlining.

Next step is to review my 3×5 card notes I’ve been taking for almost a year. Then I’m just going to write the thing. Yes, I think if I outlined more the first draft might be better. But I really need to get going on the actual writing. That way I’ll have something to work with and refine.

I’m really excited about the characters and want you to meet them and get to know them and the amazing world they live in. You will love them.

*Ellie writes monthly review columns for the Deseret News “Connect 123” section that also goes out to the elementary schools in Utah.

Thinking big: Creating a fantasy world

Although I haven’t written here for a bit, I have been busy creating a world for the novel.

It isn’t easy.

As I’ve been coming up with the story since last October, I have naturally learned more interesting things about the world in which it takes place. Some of the details about animals are pretty strange. Other details include a marsh that grows bamboo-like stalks that are perfect for using on a flying vehicle. But these are bits and pieces. I need to have a general understanding of continents and mountains, rivers and lakes, deserts and swamps. I don’t want to just slap things down nonsensically. There needs to be proper distances between rainforests and deserts, for instance. Temperatures (and so the types of crops and weather) are different near an ocean than in the interior. Mountains are different than plains.

All very complex. And I have trouble figuring out what to plant in my yard, let alone in a whole world.

I also wanted to pick a proper scale for the story. Back on August 25th, when I started this worldbuilding phase, I envisioned an area about the size of New Zealand (that was where they shot Lord of the Rings, after all). But New Zealand is just too small as a model of size for what I need to do. It isn’t even the right size for the Lord of the Rings either. 

Take a look at this “Time & distance travelled in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings” interactive graphic from LOTRProject.com. Frodo travels about 1,800 miles in 185 days. New Zealand is from Invercargill in the south to Spirit Bay in the north a 1,279 mile trip (including a ferry). But it is only about 352 miles at its widest from New Plymouth to Gisborne. I need for the story’s world to be a little wider.

So I outlined the journey in the novel and approximated how much time I wanted to take. For example, I thought about how long I want a particular leg of the journey to last. Then all I had to do was calculate the distance using the type of traveling they were doing.

For this, I used several sources on the Internet (some listed below) to come up with this table:

Real speeds:

Walk 3.1 mph = 19.35 minutes per mile
Walk fast 4.5 mph = 13.33 minutes per mile
Jog 5.5 mph = 11 minutes per mile
Long Run 6.5 mph = 9.2 minutes per mile
Fast Long Run 7.5 mph = 8 minutes per mile
Sprint 25 mph = 2.4 minutes per mile
Bike 16 mph = 3.75 minutes per mile
Horse* walk 4 mph = 15 minutes per mile
Horse trot 8 mph = 7.5 minutes per mile
Horse canter 14 mph = 4.3 minutes per mile
Horse gallop 25 mph = 2.4 minutes per mile (1 to 2 miles tops)
Hot air airship 15 to 20 mph = 4 to 3 minutes per mile

For now, I’m calculating Conner’s flying vehicle (I’m temporarily calling it a skiff) with this speed variation:
16 mph = 3.75 minutes per mile (cruising speed — can be sustained for long distances)
30 mph = 2 minutes per mile (fast travel)
40 mph = 1.5 minutes per mile (chasing)
50 mph = 1.2 minutes per mile (short bursts)
60 mph = 1 minutes per mile (short burst)

So taking the time I want things to take, I use the above speeds, add in breaks and other interruptions, and come out with a journey of about 532 miles. This does not include one part of the book where there is a side journey of 100 or so miles.

I’ve used Google Maps, particularly the Street View, to see what areas look like and the real distances involved. “How far away is that mountain from here?” for example.

On one of my 3×5 cards I listed some of the different things I want to know more about the world I’m creating:

Population
Kingdoms and matriarchies
Geography
Science and technology
Trends
Biases
Transportation
Production
Seasons
Explorers
Cultures
Taxes
Airships
Calendar
Time telling
Superstitions
Entertainment
Sports
Religion

I’ve since found a few great resources. This Squidoo page on “Fantasy Worldbuilding Resources” has an amazing amount of websites dedicated to this purpose. One of the most often referred to resources is Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

All of these resources, however, could lead to a bad case of world-building disease — where the writer spends so much time creating her fantasy world that she never actually sits down to write it. It can also give a perpetual feeling of not being ready because there are so many unknowns. But it is a good idea to get started before you are ready.

I’m almost ready to start writing before I am ready.

*Horses, like people, can vary greatly in speed, endurance, etc.

Some of the websites I used to derive my distances and times for various forms of transportation were:

http://machaut.weebly.com/travel-in-the-middle-ages.html

http://www.cartographersguild.com/reference-material/19730-how-far-horse-travels-one-day.html

http://www.theoriginalseries.com/traveltimes.htm

 

Slow Days

I’m sorry to report that other pressing business has captured most of my attention for the last few days, limiting what I could do on the novel. I did, however, begin looking closer at world building. I also came up with a few other enhancements for certain scenes for the which I took notes on my handy 3×5 cards.

Story Bible

Today I worked on a few essential things I wanted to get in place before writing the book proper.

One is I started a Story Bible, using Microsoft Word and its Document Mapping feature. I have sections, so far, on various characters, a list of possible names to use, governments, theme ideas and a major location.

In one section, I wrote a 2,457 word outline/plot summary of Verity’s story. I wanted to get down all the main points and landmark scenes.

The areas I still feel weak on are the geography and the political forces and intrigue. I need to figure out a very general timeline for about 2,000 years of history. I need to decide more about the economy. I also need to track some religious trends.

These are just some broad things I want to do first before beginning the actual writing.

Tomorrow, when I get some time, I plan on going over my existing notes I have been taking on 3×5 cards and see how much I still want to use.

Influences and Rosebuds

As I’ve been creating my novel I’ve noticed the works that influenced it (and also the works that didn’t influence it that other people may think influenced it).

Orson Scott Card wrote in a review of Saving Mr. Banks about its many “rosebuds.” A rosebud is something in a character’s past that people say explains her somehow. The term comes from, of course, Citizen Kane.

[Saving Mr. Banks] was written by writers (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) who clearly believe that Citizen Kane‘s “Rosebud” is just the very cleverest thing ever created. They pack Saving Mr. Banks with little Rosebuds, so we’re constantly going, “Oh, look,that’s why she doesn’t like pears! Oh, look, that’s where the carousel comes from!”

The most appalling case of this is the arrival of the dreaded Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths, though we barely see her face). She arrives with the carpet bag, the bird-headed umbrella, a no-nonsense attitude, and a series of absurd “magical” gags she pulls out of the bag.

The movie seems to be saying that P.L. Travers didn’t invent anything! This is the standard baloney that English professors have embedded in the minds of their victims students — all inventions in fiction must be “explained away.” It seems to be an article of faith that “There’s always a Rosebud.” – Orson Scott Card, “Uncle Orson Reviews Everything” Dec. 26, 2013

I guess it is impossible to prevent people from looking for rosebuds in a person’s life that explain their creative work. It is also probably impossible to write something without people thinking you stole it from here or there if there are slight similarities.

So what are a few direct “influences” on my story that I fully admit?

The movies It Happened One Night and African Queen play a part. Both movies have a man and woman thrown together on a journey. Their personalities clash and bubble over in humor and, at least in these movies, love. I think, however, that these movies’ influence would be the least obvious of anything in my book.

Prewriting with Diana Wynne Jones

So how long does it take to write a novel? That may depend upon when you start timing the process. 

The late Diana Wynne Jones (who would have been 80 today) told about her process:

Often I have the makings of a book sitting in my head maturing for eight or more years, and when I am considering that collection of notions I am aware of exercising a great deal of conscious control, trying the parts of it round in different ways, attempting to crunch another whole set of notions in with it to see if that makes it work, and so on. But I do not feel in total control doing this. It is more as if I am moving the pieces of an idea around until they reach a configuration from which I, personally, can learn. Practically every book I have written has been an experiment of some kind from which I have learned. – Diana Wynne Jones, Reflections on the Magic of Writing

I’ve been doing this for months with Verity’s Oath. One of the first ideas I had, back in October 2013, was of a world where little baseball-sized spheres floated in storms. A small town in the mountains put up huge nets to catch the spheres.

I have had other ideas before, but there was something mysterious about this small group of mountain people trying to catch magical globes. What will they do with them? Where do they come from? Are they worth a lot of money?

Again and again I would mentally revisit this little mountain area and look at the nets set up on the tops of hills and mountains, winds blowing through them and the willowy poles that strung them up. I got to know a boy who goes out after a storm, the wind still spitting around the dark wet rocks, and find something in the net — a very large sphere. The boy can see it is tearing the net apart and will soon break free, so he tries to secure it and bloop! Off he goes into the sky with the sphere.

With every idea I had, I wrote it out on a 3×5 card and dated it. From those original ideas, the story grew and completely morphed into something else. No boy gets carried away in the wind, for example.

It is interesting on how going through scenes and settings and, like Diana Wynne Jones, experimenting with the ideas and rearranging them here and there will lead to new a better configurations.

By the way, if you are not familiar with the works of Diana Wynne Jones, you ought to be. Even Studio Ghibli made one of her books, Howl’s Moving Castle, into an animated feature. Today Google.uk made a Google Doodle honoring her.

[For some reason, the date stamp is saying August 17, 2014. It is really August 16, but that is OK if you realize time is not a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.]