NaNoPreMo 2018, part 2: Characters

Last time I discussed building a setting. Now let’s look at characters.

I’ve written before about the Fiasco method for character creation, where you begin by developing the relationships between the characters before deciding any of their identifying properties. In a world of over-elaborate character sheets this might seem the wrong way round, but the point of working on relationships first is that this is a more direct way of uncovering conflict, and conflict means story.

Fiasco Method Summary

This is for developing central characters for your story. Supporting cast don’t need the full treatment, although considering those relationships with the primary cast would be useful.

  1. pick a number of characters. One of these is likely to be the protagonist while one is likely to be the antagonist, but these roles do not have to be defined yet. Identify them with neutral labels like letters, colours, or numbers. You’re going to want at least three, but more than five may become unmanageable.
    You may have well-defined ideas for character properties going in to this process. Note those if they are relevant to the story.
  2. write the labels out in a circle on a piece of paper. You have choices here: if you already know the protag will have relationships with every other primary character then maybe put the protag in the centre with the others in a circle around them. However, in a formless void I recommend a circle.
  3. consider the relationships between each pair of characters at the start of the story. What you’re looking for are relationships that would exist in your setting which explore aspects of the story you are interested in exploring. This may be a place to do some brainstorming to find appropriate terms.
    Tip: the relationships do not have to be symmetrical.
    Tip: there could be multiple relationships between two characters.
  4. assign appropriate identifying properties to the characters.

Example 1: Livia

The idea gathering for Livia started with three characters. These were labelled A, B and C. Then we brainstormed potential relationships and threw them up on the board. We ended up with an eternal triangle with some complexities around accidental incest.

For this process, none of the relationships we came up with were specific to the story, although the character properties were.

Example 2: Spores

Let’s start here with some actual character ideas, because this doesn’t always start from a blank piece of paper.

I’m going to keep this story within the village I posited last time. So, let’s have three characters: X, Y, Z. Imagine these are in a triangle, but I am going to represent these relationships in a table instead. I am going to take advantage of this tabular format to talk about the characters’ self-image.





self: there is a path for X in the village – become a farmer and till the land his family owns. He’s not interested in that, but he is well liked despite that uncertainty.
X is also going to transform pretty early in the story.
X is Y’s younger brother. He has always been admiring of Y, but is appalled by Y taking on a purity patrol roleX knows Z because everyone knows everyone in the village, but Z is a lot older and has never beene tolerant of children.


Y is X’s older sister, but has never been protective of him in the way some kids are. There is about five years between them. Y is proself: Y is proud to have joined the purity patrol.Z is Y’s leader in the purity patrol. She doesn’t trust him because of how he looks at her, but she is loyal to his leadership of the patrol.


X is just another kid taking up spacefinds Y very attractive. Will not make a move on her for any number of reasons (he’s married, she’s a subordinate, she’s too young), but he’s not very good at hiding his feelingsself: Z is secretly one of the transformed that it is his job to remove from the village. His power is subtle (heightened sense of emotional states) but he quickly realised that the best way to avoid detection was to be the detective.

So, that’s a nice web of conflicts. Let’s assign the characters some identifiers:

  • X — Xero (this is future, so going to use some weird names). Late teens, say 17, which means he thinks he’s safe from transformation (most of the transformed do so before the age of 15). He has just started working on the farm after his schooling.
    Xero’s transformation happens after a sporeswarm, and he starts to exhibit matter phasing when he drops a glass during dinner: it passed right through his hand.
  • Y — Yasmine (but some normal names). Early twenties. She has been working in the purity patrol for about a year, and we first meet her as she is ejecting a transformee, one of the kids she used to babysit. She is not callous, but she is remorseless.
  • Z — Seth. Has led the purity patrol for ten years, and served in it for fifteen years before that. He transformed late (even later than Xero) which helped him remain hidden. That was when he resolved to join the purity patrol.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about structure.

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Backsliding Risks

“Feed a cold, starve a fever.”

— proverbial advice

My biggest challenge with controlling my eating is when I have a cold.

I’m pretty proud of how my recent efforts to lose weight have been going, but the last couple of days have been the first bout of unwellness on this round of Weight Watchers. It brings back all the memories of comfort-eating, and of being hungry when I was cold. On top of that, I am hanging around the house on my own which means I am close to things that I could just scarf down.

So far I haven’t sabotaged my progress entirely, and on a rational level I know that if I had one heavy food day it would be fine, even without exercising, but I want to stay on track because I also know that one heavy food day could easily turn into a string of them. I’m down two stone now, and I would like to keep it that way.

One thing that really helps me is that the foods I have the most gluttonous relationship with aren’t easily available to me: there’s no Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in easy striking distance; chocolate digestives are several miles away at best and over-priced to boot; and we don’t have any good marmalade in the house for me to devour.

So, I am going to have my lunch with no bread in it, and then have fruit and fat-free yoghurt later for a snack, and I am going to be fine.

Then tomorrow I will feel better and I get back to the quotidian temptations of cheese and nuts in the snack dispensers at the day job.

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NaNoPreMo 2018, part 1: Setting

This series is about writing speculative fiction, so I’m going to think about setting first. Literary fiction is led by characters, and characters are enormously important in any storytelling, but the “speculative” part of spec fic tends to be around the setting.

Developing A Setting

It’s quite possible that you have an idea for a setting that you like. It could be as simple as “our world, but vampires are real” or as elaborate as Middle Earth*, but if you don’t have a firm idea then here is an exercise which might help.

First of all, make sure you time, a quiet space, and some mental energy. Doing this last thing at night after a skinful is not recommended. You want to be alert and rested.

Sit down with a piece of paper and the writing implement of your choice and then think about the kind of stories you want to tell and the kinds of things that make those stories unique. Do that for a few minutes.

Then write down words that describe the places those stories will happen.

This is a brainstorming exercise, and the trick with brainstorming is to not censor yourself. Write down whatever comes to mind and don’t criticise what you’ve written. It’s OK to read the words because they will probably spark more ideas to put on the page, but thinking negative thoughts about what you’ve written now won’t help you.

(think of this also as good practice for November. You’ll be writing freely without self-critical thoughts then, as well)

Once you’ve got some words down (however many you think is enough, but a dozen or two would be my target) then review them. Which ones pique your interest? Which ones inspire more ideas than the others? Which ones seem most awesome when combined?

Pull out the ones that speak to you most, and there’s your setting.

I would recommend spending a bit of time asking more questions about the elements you’ve picked. If you have vampires, are they Christian, Buddhist, or Shinto? Can they go out in daylight? How many of the Dracula myths apply? If you have starships, are they faster than light? How is that achieved? Can they be manually piloted? If you have a modern setting, is it the same as our world or different in significant ways?

And so on.

Example Brainstorm: Livia and the Corpuscles

Livia and the Corpuscles started as a brainstorming exercise on a whiteboard. The setting portion of this consisted of throwing a number of setting words up on the board:

  • The Future: in space? post-apocalyptic? dystopian?
  • The Present: Portland? Britain? the Amazon?
  • The Past: steampunk? Arthurian? Roman?
  • Somewhere Else: an alien world? alternate history? elves and goblins?

In this case, of course, I just picked Roman steampunk because it was too awesome to ignore.

Then I picked a few salient facts about the setting: it was a continuation of our Rome on another timeline; human slavery was abolished; the Republic had outposts on other continents.

Example Setting: Spores

Im not going to use Livia as a worked example, but I do want to have an example I can use in future pieces.

A few years ago I was preparing a roleplaying campaign called A New Dawn. When I was writing about that prep I invented a setting I never used for anything, a hot, post-human Earth where plants have awakened to predate upon large animal life:

humanity is in reduced circumstances: climate changes triggered by profligate fossil fuel combustion and misguided efforts to recover methane from deep water methyl hydrates have made temperatures climb; shifting water mass (melting ice and deeper seas) has changed the pressures on continental plates and triggered increased volcanic activity; the seas have risen and weather patterns have thrown agriculture into chaos. People live in sealed cities, or high in the mountains away from the plants.

Ah yes, the plants.

With the increased temperatures, plants have run rampant. Long-suppressed genes for ambulatory motion and other predatory behaviours have expressed, and the herbivorous biosphere is generally in the business of eliminating large animal life. Humans are still high on the food chain, but the top spots are taken by plants.

From this seething, super-evolving biomass emerges superhumans, people who through weird genetic accidents exhibit abnormal abilities: some are expressing long-suspected genes in human DNA, some are mixes of humans with animal or plant.

That setting was intended to provide a large scale playground for half a dozen player characters to romp around in. There needed to be scope for big fights but also intrigue.

For this example, I want to use this setting in a slightly smaller way, make it more personal.

Let’s start with a mountain village in this setting. It used to be bigger than it is: the population is not growing, and people are being lost to the plants and the transformation induced by sporeswarms.

This village does not accept the transformed. Those who change are shamed into leaving, or exiled.

This tells us several things:

  1. there must be some pretty strong social structures in place to force the changed to leave. Maybe there is a charismatic leader, or a strong religious tradition. The former makes the village more isolated, the latter makes it more part of a wider social structure where those exiled will not find sanctuary easily.
  2. there must be a barrier to keep the changed out, so maybe the village is set on a mountain-top with a drawbridge over a deep ravine, or has a substantial wall.
  3. the abilities the changed possess are not generally strong enough to get past this barrier.

I have more ideas here, as I’m sure you do too, but I will save more of those for the plot section.

This is Spores.

Next time I’ll look at constructing characters, because a setting on its own isn’t a story.

[*] which is cheating a little as an example because of course Tolkien developed Middle Earth before he had any stories in mind, but it’s a very elaborate world.

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NaNoPreMo 2018

October is a month effulgent with promise, for National Novel Writing Month is only a few short weeks away and it is time to think about what to write. October is National Novel Prep Month.

I have a short series of posts to inspire your own preparations for the rigours of November. There are many approaches to prepping for the literary frenzy, but this series is going to follow a plan tuned for speculative fiction:

  1. setting – spec fic is usually grounded in the setting where the story happens.
  2. characters – every story needs characters that people want to read about.
  3. structure – call it plot, call it narrative arc: stories that engage need some kind of structure.
  4. outline – this is a more contentious topic because some writers object to the very idea of outlining their work, and that is their right. I need an outline, though.

You may gather from these topics that I am not really a pantser when it comes to NaNoWriMo: this is the kind of planning I find I need to make the writing function.

By all means follow along as I apply these steps to my own book.

A Note on Content

In this series I’m going to be developing a story which I am not currently planning to write because I already have a story for November this year, but having a concrete example is more helpful I think than talking abstractly about Character A and Character B gallivanting about in Setting Y.

Welcome, therefore, to the world of Spores.

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Weigh Time

I’m probably not going to do an update on this every month, but things are still changing fast enough that it is worth it for now.

  1. my weight has dropped almost two stone — I’m still averaging about two pounds a week1, and my usual routines have reestablished themselves. I feel lighter in myself.
  2. I’m able to wear clothes I haven’t fitted into for years — I mentioned shirts last time, but now it’s trousers and jeans in smaller sizes which I can not only squeeze into but actually spend a comfortable day in.
    One side note here is that the smaller jeans in particular don’t have big enough pockets to hold my phone. The last time I wore these was before I got a smart phone, and my current device is huge in comparison to the flip phone I had before. So I have had to get a phone holster to go on my belt so I can sit down while wearing my jeans.
    Bonus: I can use this holster with anything.
  3. running continues to be easier — I am routinely seeing sub-nine minute pace over some pretty challenging routes, and even had a sub-7:30 mile coming down hill2. Today’s run is emblematic: I did a standard route and thought I had gone quite slowly because I kicked out too fast and then had to slow down a bit in the last mile, but when I checked my records it was the fastest I had run that route.
    More significant is that I can run more; I have been able to increase my runs to five a week from four without additional discomfort. In fact, my joints feel much less painful in general.
    Also, I just like how loose-limbed I am feeling when I run now. It’s relaxing to go out rather than dreary.

It’s been very positive.

The immediate goal is to regain my lifetime membership status with Weight Watchers3, a goal with which I have a slightly contentious relationship.

The last time I was following a Weight Watchers programme, I followed the plan but I wasn’t eating enough. The zero point foods were very restricted and contained no protein, and I ended up dropping weight past my goal to the point where I couldn’t stop losing. I increased my food intake with maintenance points and I was still shedding, so the meeting leader and I finagled the goal weight a little bit so I could stabilise at a lower weight that was closer to where I had landed while still satisfying the rules as they were then. Then I got my lifetime membership.

But the lower weight was not sustainable, as I had feared, and the purported lifestyle changes didn’t stick because I had been depriving myself in order to stay on programme4. I basically went back to my old eating habits within a month.

So, as I approach my goal weight, I find myself reviewing my records from 2006 and thinking that I need to talk to the leaders at my meeting to see what they think is the best way to negotiate this process. Do I aim for the original goal weight, which is less than ten pounds away now, or for the lower weight I have written on my lifetime membership card (which would probably be sustainable, given the newer programme).

It’s an interesting problem, but it’s a good problem to have.

[1] a kilogramme

[2] which obviously doesn’t count as a PB, but does have the benefit of teaching my body what that feels like so I can push for that pace on the flat.

[3] soon to be rebranded as “WW”, mostly to de-emphasise the weight loss portion of the programme, but I have thoughts on that I will share another time.

[4] the point of Weight Watchers is to encourage lifestyle changes and to not feel deprived in the process, but the older programme didn’t support that at all.

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October Things, 2018

September was a month for finishing things.

I am gearing up for November now, which meant clearing the decks to make space for that next writing project. Let’s see how that feeling of completion translated into things being done.

Three Things for September

  1. revise Song – incorporate outstanding punch list comments into third pass list, and fix another third of the third pass comments: did the comment incorporation, and fixed some of those. More significantly, I have a prioritised list of the outstanding work and a time frame to down tools on this draft.
  2. short stories
    • complete next short story: done. Expect to see this in January.
    • submit an existing story: not done. I’m putting this goal into abeyance for now.
  3. investigate self-pub options – I had a look at the BookBaby website and checked in on a couple of editing services. Not as rigorous as I had intended, but call it half done.
  4. setup audio recording area – did some office cleanup, but this did not translate into the recording area setup I intended. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about this goal at all since writing it.

So that’s one fully done and two halves for a total of 2/4.

Most disturbing is that two of the goals were basically forgotten, because I didn’t have them written down anywhere except in the September things post. So, need to make sure that my goals tracking file has the October goals in it so I am looking at the same things day to day as I say I am going to do here.

Also not mentioned is progress on my health goals, which has been substantial. I’ll write a separate blog post about that.

Three Things for 2018

Three quarters of the year gone. Are three quarters of my goals complete?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song – while the draft isn’t all that much more complete, my planning to complete the draft is significantly better structured. I will be finishing this draft by the end of October.
  2. submit my work – a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    Third Boundary Shock Quarterly story submitted.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook – no new work.

So no, three quarters of the goals are not done. Continuing progress, though.

Three Things for October

NaNoWriMo looms. Let’s get some things done.

  1. revise Song – work through prioritised list of comments, get the draft out for feedback at the end of the month.
  2. NaNoWriMo – two things:
    • prep for writing in November
    • post a series of NaNoPreMo blog posts
  3. setup audio recording area – I still need to sort out my office anyway. Build a recording booth in the process.

Best get wiggling.

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I use Macs for most of my computation needs these days. I started using them because I needed a Unix laptop (after having a Linux laptop for a few years) and my experience has been that the hardware has been pretty bombproof*: my kids are still using the Mac I bought ten years ago, and my wife’s machine isn’t much newer. Managing Macs is less onerous than my experience has ever been with Windows, and less panicky than my experiences with Linux**.

They last.

But they do sometimes need software upgrading.

All of our machines complain if we want to install recent applications that the OS version is too old. The concern with an upgrade is that we may not be able to run the tools we like on newer versions of OS X***.

So today’s project is to upgrade my machine to a more recent version of the OS and then install the applications my wife wants to make sure they still work.

… or to provide a firm signal that it’s time to find another tool to use.

33 minutes remaining, it says. Time to find some more displacement activity.

[*] apart from a lemon of an iBook which had its entire guts replaced three times before getting a replacement. Which, to be fair, Apple did not cavil about.

[**] I love Linux because I am technical, but I am also too lazy to maintain a system to the standards I want to uphold.

[***] this is a weird echo of concerns I hear constantly at my day job also, which is a reminder that people use tools rather than the other way around.

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Song Completion: Prioritising What’s Left

I am still working on the third draft of Song, and I realised that I was floundering a bit in finishing off the remaining tasks.

My experience as a software developer means I tend to approach writing with a software mindset, and the same applies to process. When you’re not sure what to work on next in software, you look at all known issues and you prioritise them.

For the remaining Song problems, I did the following*:

  1. assigned a reference number to each open issue.
  2. copied the issue numbers and descriptions to another file.
  3. classified the issues. The classes I used were “broken”, “hidden”, “silly”, and “rewrite”. These classes would undoubtedly be different for a different project.
  4. ordered the issues by priority. The classes help with this because anything “broken” is likely to be higher priority than the merely “silly”, but there priorities within a class and I did find some broken things which were less urgent than would be expected.
  5. copied the ordered issues into a new section of the third pass tracking file called “::PRIORITY::” so I can find them again later.

The point of this is to give me a list of things to work on over the next few weeks with the highest impact, because I am going to put this down soon. Novels, they say, are abandoned rather than finished and there will always be things to be improved if I keep looking for them. I need to set an end point, a finishing time. This needs to be done with by the end of October.

Having a prioritised list of things to do means I will get the best value I can out of the time remaining.

How do you plan your completion of a project? How do you finish things?

[*] I edit my tracking files in vim, which makes automating parts of this process quite easy. I started documenting the vim commands I used, but this isn’t a vim tutorial.

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NaNoWriMo 2018 Decisioning

Just a quick update on my decision-making about what to write for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

In the end, I found more than half a dozen ideas I could plausibly work on, including another attempt at the Kissiltur books and a new story about space-faring dragonflies. All of these sound great (even the Kissiltur one, although it’s not really a NaNo project) but I can only pick one.

And the one I have picked is the second book of Song, currently called Some Cinnamon Harmonies*. I will be thinking about that story as I continue work on third pass edits on the first book, then start prep in earnest in October.

I’m excited. The second story line in the original book was a lot of fun to write, and I am looking forward to reworking it into a full length novel.

[*] of course, as soon as I made this decision I started coming up with plot ideas for a second Livia book along with several others, but ’twas ever thus. They are captured and boxed for now.

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Literary Frenzy Awaits

It’s early September which means it must be time to start thinking about NaNoWriMo, right?

I will be doing a series of posts on NaNo prep in October, following my own prep of whatever story I decide to work on. I have two probable ideas:

  1. the second Song book. The zeroth draft of Song turned out to be two books smooshed together. What I am nearing completion on now is the first book expanded out to make an entire story, but I want to have the second book written at some point too.
  2. rewrite Livia. As I mentioned in the wake of the Willamette Writers Conference, I am planning on reissuing Livia as a better book then continuing that series into the other parts of the world that Rome interacts with.

Unlike when I first wrote Livia, the answer to this question is not “both” because I would rather write one 80-100k book than two 50-60k books. At this point I am leaning pretty hard towards Song II (Cinnamon Harmonies, perhaps?) but I should make a formal selection.

My process for choosing which story to do (assuming I have several ideas and need to make a choice) is to write up a short treatment on each, then read them back the next day to see which one engages me more. This has been very helpful in the past when I’ve had several competing ideas, and the one I thought I was going to do beforehand turned out to be the least engaging story!

Do you have plans for NaNoWriMo this year? How will you choose what to write?

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