Sequencing

More and more, I feel like what I wrestle with in plotting novels is not figuring out what should happen, but what order it should happen in.

This is almost certainly prominent in my mind right now because of the Rook and Rose books, which, with their multiple points of view and interweaving strands of plot, pose more complex sequencing challenges than a single-pov novel with a more linear narrative. The same is true to a lesser extent, of The Night Parade of 100 Demons, where the two protagonists are pursuing the same main objective, but with side plots lacing through and around it. Even in a straightforward book, though, sequencing can be a question, because I also wrestle with this on the level of an individual scene. When more than one thing needs to happen, which deserves the highlight provided by being positioned at a key spot? Which one leads more naturally into the other? Are things easier or harder for the characters if they go in a certain order? Does that create an echo or a contrast with the way things went elsewhere? Has there been too much of the (metaphorical) color yellow for a while, and we need some blue to break it up before we go back to that?

I’ll use the first Star Wars movie as an example. In the early part of that film, the sequence goes: Luke acquires droids; Luke follows R2-D2 and meets Obi-Wan Kenobi; Obi-Wan invites Luke to go with him and learn to use the Force; Luke declines; Luke goes home and discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed; Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan after all. You could, if you wished, change the sequencing such that the Stormtrooper attack comes earlier and Luke escapes with Threepio and Artoo. Then he goes to Obi-Wan for safety, learns all the stuff about Leia, and accepts Obi-Wan’s offer the first time it’s made, because by then he’s already lost everything at home.

And that would work! It would just work differently. The structure would be less mythic (because Lucas was following Campbell’s model in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where the Call to Adventure is often refused at first), and it would radically change the tone of Luke’s initial encounter with Obi-Wan, since then he’d be a fugitive grieving the loss of his family. It would also change your perception of Luke as a character: as the story is structured in reality, he dreams of getting off his podunk farm — but when the chance to do that is offered to him on a platter, he turns it down because he’s a good kid who doesn’t want to leave his aunt and uncle in the lurch. If you remove the aunt and uncle before the choice appears, you never see that side of him; indeed, it won’t feel like Luke is making much of a choice, because there’s already no reason for him to refuse (and plenty of reason for him to agree). But that doesn’t mean the other sequence doesn’t work; it all depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve. Not everything is aiming to be mythically structured, nor centered on a good kid with both dreams and a sense of responsibility.

So once you know what’s going to happen in a story, there might still be decisions to make. Some things have to go in a certain order; Luke has no reason to visit Obi-Wan before he acquires the droids, and if they ran into each other for some reason, it would be an empty scene, with much less for them to talk about. (Movies in particular can’t really afford empty scenes, but even novels shouldn’t have them: if the sole reason you’ve got for an encounter is “to establish that this character exists,” ask yourself if you can just wait until there’s something to do with him.) But I think that for all but the most driven thriller plots, there’s often wiggle room. If the blue bit of plot will provide your character with a safety net for the dangerous thing in the yellow bit, is it better to do the blue part first? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s more exciting if they don’t have the safety net, but if the character is someone who simply would not risk doing the yellow thing without a fallback plan in place, then delaying the blue might seem like bad characterization for the sake of drama. Whether you’re looking at the larger narrative arc or the flow of a single scene, it’s all going to depend on the material at hand.

Which is why my novel-writing process increasingly features index cards with bits of plot scribbled on them. Those are very convenient for shuffling around on the floor, test-driving different sequences to get a feel for what will play best.

The Advent of Scent, Week 6

I am almost through the gift of perfume samples from Yoon! . . . with more on the way, and also another friend sent some, and my sister and I ordered a few from BPAL which showed up with random additional samples tossed into the package, and uh basically I will probably be continuing to try perfumes through the end of February at least.

* Dandelion Dreams (Haus of Gloi)
Described as “sunny yellow dandelion flowers, dewy green grass and rich soil.” This one starts out extremely green — that’s really the only way I can describe it. In drying down it takes on an ever so faintly soapy tinge, and it also fades kind of fast overall, but I’m keeping it for now.

* Beating the Tatami Shunga
If you go looking for this one, be warned that the image on the bottle is EXTREMELY not safe for work. (My bottle leaves off the word “shunga,” but it’s named that way on their site, and if you know what shunga are — yeah. NSFW to the max.) Described as “strawberry pulp, ti leaf, and candied fruits,” and this is most definitely not one of those perfumes that advertises itself as fruity and then doesn’t deliver. It is HELLO STRAWBERRY, with an element coming through in late drydown that I am going to assume is the ti leaf, because whatever it is cuts the sweetness quite nicely. I like this one!

* Sed Non Satiata
Described as “myrrh, red patchouli, cognac, honey, and tuberose and geranium in a breathy, panting veil over the darkest body musk.” Surprisingly, I don’t think the floral elements ever really became noticeable in this one. It starts out resinous and kind of like caramel in the bottle, with the latter aspect becoming stronger on application; I presume that’s the honey note at work. Later the myrrh rises up, and it balances out into that, honey, and musk, quite pleasantly.

* Kathmandu
Described as “saffron, blessed sandalwood, Himalayan cedar and the miraculous lotus of the Buddha with chiuri bark and Nepalese spices.” This one is quite nice! It’s interestingly spicy and warm, but sort of . . . cleaner than usual, if that makes sense. I think at one point I said it was “more transparent, less opaque” than that combo usually feels to me. As it dries, the lotus starts to come through. Definitely keeping this for now!

* Alleviate the Frenzy
Described as “heady peach musk aglow with sugared amber.” In this bottle this is a super sugared peach, with the amber and musk starting to appear as it dries. The peach manages to last, though, which hasn’t been my experience of a lot of the fruit/musk combos (they usually turn into just flat musk), so I’m holding onto this for the moment.

* Paradise Is Full of Coconuts (Haus of Gloi)
Described as “Tahitian vanilla, all the coconuts you can carry, and a handful of tropical blossoms.” I have no idea what in here is coming across as pineapple (one of the flowers, I presume), but I started out smelling vaguely like a pina colada, heh. Over time that fades and instead the floral comes through, balancing pretty nicely with the coconut; if I could have a vacation in Hawaii right now, I could totally see myself wearing this.

* Flor de Muerto
Not sure what’s in this one apart from marigold. It’s got early wisps that smell a bit spicy and/or green, before eventually drying down to a sweet floral. Not bad, but not my cuppa.

* Narcosa (Haus of Gloi)
Described as “a thick haze of tonka and black vanilla, three jasmines, tuberose and ylang ylang.” In the bottle, heavy and sweet, with some floral notes floating over it. Wet, it takes on an oddly medicinal edge for a little while, before going straight to hippie smell — not sure whether that’s the tonka or the ylang ylang, as neither of those is something I’ve encountered enough to pick them out specifically.

THE MASK OF MIRRORS IS OUT! + where to find me in the next month

The time has come, the walrus said, to celebrate the fact that The Mask of Mirrors is out at last!

cover art for THE MASK OF MIRRORS by M.A. Carrick

Now I begin to enact the ritual dance of the Author With a New Book Out — which is to say, my schedule is chock-full of Things I am doing for promotion. Right now you can find our Big Idea piece up at John Scalzi’s blog and our My Favorite Bit piece up at Mary Robinette Kowal’s, not to mention the various other interviews and podcasts we’ve been lining up for the last two months. But that’s not all — we’ve also got several events coming up in the near future!

TONIGHT, at 7 p.m. Pacific, Alyc and I will be doing a joint event with Christopher Paolini at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Signed and personalized books are available!

On Thursday, January 21st, at 6 p.m. Pacific, we will be doing a joint event with Andrea Stewart (author of The Bone Shard Daughter) at Orbit Live. This event will also be made available on YouTube afterward, for those who aren’t able to attend.

We will be doing an AMA at r/Fantasy on Tuesday, January 26th — so if you have questions you’d like to ask, get ’em ready!

I will also be teaching a workshop on how to do public readings of your work, through the auspices of the Dream Foundry.

On Wednesday, February 3rd, at 7 p.m. Pacific, I will be reading at The Story Hour.

And finally (for now, anyway), I will be participating in virtual Boskone, from February 12th-14th! Precise programming schedule TBA.

Go forth and tell everyone the book is out! I know the world is very full of other stuff going on right now, much of it bad and more important for the general state of the world than the publication of a fantasy novel . . . but also, live goes on at the same time, and so does work. Pandemics and white supremacists be damned — I want to enjoy this moment!

Public Readings from A to Z – Part 9 – Digital Performance

Welcome to part nine of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

When I first started working on this series, I envisioned it as advice for people doing readings at conventions or bookstores, or otherwise at a live event. But with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen an abrupt surge in online events — and those, along with podcasting or recording for an audiobook, are slightly different.

Mind you, most of it is the same. Everything I said about practice and pacing and intonation still applies, the tricks for differentiating voices, and so forth. If you’re reading at an online event, you may still have a time limit, though you may not have to worry about “clearing the room” for the next reader. If you’re recording for a podcast or an audiobook, the odds are much higher that you’ll be reading the complete text, so you don’t have to worry about excerpting or providing some orienting details before you begin.

Best practices for recording are a whole massive topic on their own, and you can find much better advice than mine elsewhere online, but I can offer this much as a brief introduction: invest in a good microphone, and make sure the place you record is as quiet as it can possibly be. Even small sounds that don’t normally register on you, like the hum of a fan or the creak when you shift in your chair, stand a very good chance of being picked up by the audio. (You’d be surprised by the number of podcasters that actually record in their closets.) Also, if you make a mistake in your reading, you should handle it differently than in live performance. Clap your hands or make some other loud noise that will register as a sharp spike in the sound levels, pause, and then start again from the beginning of the sentence you screwed up. That spike will make the errors easy to find when the audio gets edited, and restarting at the beginning of the sentence will make it easier to snip out the offending text without a noticeable seam. Finally, if you’re recording a long text (especially a novel), recognize that vocal fatigue is a very real thing. It’s better to work in short bursts and take breaks in between, rather than trying to marathon the whole thing.

Best practices for online events are something we’ve had to invent rather suddenly, but a few basics are emerging. In addition to your personal appearance, you also have to consider the environment your audience will see. I feel that digital backgrounds are of questionable value; if you really don’t want people to see your surroundings, then by all means use one, but they produce weird clipping and can even eat parts of your image if you move away from the camera. (Plus the image itself can be distracting, depending on what you choose.) Authors are fond of staging themselves in front of their bookcases, but a relatively neutral backdrop is just as good — maybe even better, because your audience won’t be trying to read the titles while you’re talking! Definitely don’t sacrifice good lighting for the sake of an interesting locale. You don’t want to be backlit by a lamp or a window, because that will cast your face into shadow, and if the overall light is too dim, the image quality will usually be bad. If you want to get fancy, you can invest in a ring light to cast more even illumination on your face.

For the equipment itself, please, please do not use a tablet or phone if you can possibly avoid it, unless you have some kind of tripod or stand to brace it on. If you hold it in your hands, your every movement will shift the image . . . which is distracting at best, seasickness-inducing at worst. You’re better off using a laptop cam or peripheral webcam — the latter especially if your laptop is like mine and for some reason put the camera right above the keyboard and off to one side. Since I don’t want everybody looking up my nose while I talk, I’m using a webcam. And I’ve chosen to use a headset because it delivers better sound quality, with less background noise bleeding through, than the built-in microphone on my computer.

Online, basically everything about your interactions with your audience changes — and I’ll admit I find the experience vastly less satisfying. When possible, I’ve taken to requesting that anybody who’s comfortable with being on video activate their camera, so that I’m not reading to a grid of faceless names. But even then, that whole notion of “eye contact” gets mashed down to me looking at the camera, and I often see fewer reactions to the good bits of the story. Nor can I hear them: while you can (and if possible, should) arrange a quiet environment on your end, you’ve got no such control over your listeners’ surroundings. Because of this, it’s generally a good idea to mute everyone, so that you don’t have to contend with unexpected barking dogs or sirens passing outside. So an online reading basically has all the stress of an in-person performance, with all the isolation of recording for a podcast — the worst of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned. It’s possible that people who consider normal performance intimidating find this version easier, because they can pretend the audience isn’t there; in a way, I hope so. For me, though, a few messages popping up in a chat window when I’m done are no substitute for actual applause.

I do also want to note one wrinkle that has less to do with the performance itself and more to do with outside considerations: if your reading is recorded rather than only being live-streamed, that may constitute use of your audio or dramatic rights. Novel excerpts may be safer in that regard (because they’re only part of the whole), but I recommend not reading a short story that hasn’t already been podcasted, unless you’re comfortable with only selling those rights as a reprint later on.

 

Whether you’re reading over Zoom, recording for later use, or delivering your story to an in-person audience, I hope this advice was useful to you! And may you enjoy many future readings.

Public Readings from A to Z – Part 8 – Live Performance

Welcome to part eight of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

Your performance is more than just the words that come out of your mouth. It’s everything about how you present yourself to the audience, and thinking about that ahead of time can make the performance as a whole come off better.

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Public Readings from A to Z – Part 7 – Character Voices

Welcome to part seven of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

We’re on the seventh installment of this series, and I’m only just now getting to character voices.

There’s a reason for that. Many people leap to the conclusion that since they can’t do a bunch of different accents and pitches, they’ll never be good at reading. But the truth is that character voices are really just the icing on the cake. All the stuff I’ve discussed in previous installments — picking your text, practicing it, attending to questions of pacing and intonation — are the cake itself. And you can have really tasty cake even if there’s no icing on it at all.

But if I want to give advice for readings, I should address this. So let’s dig into it.

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Public Readings from A to Z – Part 6 – Intonation

Welcome to part six of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

Intonation is probably the hardest part of reading out loud to get good at, if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

By “intonation,” I basically mean “the opposite of a monotone.” If you’ve been to author readings, you’ve probably seen one or more instances of the latter: a writer who just drones out their text all on one note, maybe with the occasional lift or fall randomly thrown in, as if they know they’re supposed to liven it up but have no real idea how to do so.

Or — as with pacing — they err in the other direction, and WIND up SOUNDing like they’re READing to a CHILD, overly and unnaturally expressive.

The good news is, pacing and intonation go hand in hand, so working on one will (I suspect) help improve the other. Remember how I said those micro-pauses help group your words into coherent units of meaning? The same is true of your intonation, as an arc of rising and falling pitch signals “these words go together.”

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Public Readings from A to Z – Part 5 – Pacing

Welcome to part five of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

Now let’s talk about pacing.

If there’s one piece of advice that gets handed around for how to do a reading, it’s usually “don’t read too fast.”

This is good advice. If you read too quickly, you don’t allow time for the audience to react; in an extreme case, they won’t even be able to follow what you’re saying. And since nerves often make people rush, this is a particular hazard to watch out for.

But “don’t read too fast” is kind of vague and insufficient. How fast is too fast? How can you tell? Should you read at the same speed all the way through?

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Public Readings from A to Z – Part 4 – Practice

Welcome to part four of my continuing series on how to do public readings of your work! You can find the video accompaniment to this post on Youtube.

 

Now we’re ready to talk performance. And the first step of performance is . . .

 

Practice.

Don’t just print out your reading or load it up on your electronic device of choice and go. Not if you have the opportunity to rehearse it first.

I really can’t stress this enough. Practicing beforehand by reading your piece out loud is the #1 thing I recommend to people who want to improve their readings. Also the #2 and #3 things. Because it brings so many benefits, nothing else even comes close.

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