Tuesday 9 September 2014

Kameron Hurley Guest post

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God's WarInfidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed MagazineYear's Best SFEscapePodThe Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.

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Kameron has dropped in to talk about Murder Boards - over to Kameron

My Murder Board, Let Me Show You It: Plotting an Epic Fantasy
So, it’s true: I’m plotting the sequel to my epic fantasy novel The Mirror Empire using a murder board.

The Mirror Empire: Worldbreaker Saga 1 by…

If you watch a lot of crime shows you’ll be familiar with the concept of “the murder board” – the white board or bulletin board where the detectives put up photos of the victims and suspects in a case, work out timelines for events, post photos of crime scenes or other key locations, and then draw lines between people and places and people and other people to indicate connections.

This kind of visual plotting device can be very handy for writers working with complex plots, too, especially in epic fantasy. On the timeline of events, which characters are where? Who’s going to be doing what by the midpoint of the book? Where are each of the main characters when this event takes place? How are these characters related to one another?

Plotting out The Mirror Empire’s sequel was less far less involved than any kind of detective-show murder board; I surely didn’t bother pasting and taping images and news clippings and the like all over my office and linking them together with string like a crime-show killer, either. I relied on my white board to figure out how many character POV’s I really had… and exactly what their arcs looked like for them personally and how those personal arcs intersected with some of the overarching plot points of the book.

My overarching plots points had to do with key battles and heavenly events – the magic system in The Mirror Empire’s world relies on magic users drawing on the power of particular satellites or heavenly bodies in the sky. When one satellite is up, those who can draw on the individual power of that body gain their powers. As it wanes in the sky, so do their powers. And as new bodies come up in the sky, folks with the ability to draw on that satellite come into their power. So you have this constant power shift happening through the whole series.

Now, the interesting part of this heavenly phenomenon is that, because this is a fantasy book, I wanted the orbits (or, more accurately, appearances) of these heavenly bodies to happen on erratic schedules. One could say, “Well, Sina only returns to the sky… oh, about every 10 to 12 years.” That means that there’s no exact, reliable date for when particular stars will become ascendant. That gave these societies less time to prepare for power shifts. Sometimes they simply happened – one star would be up, and you think it has two years left of ascendance, and then another one comes up and that one goes down the next day. It’s not an exact science. We’re dealing with some unknowable stuff here.

So I plotted out the book using three major events around which all the other character arcs needed to move. I wrote these all at the top of the board: The first was a key battle, which should happen about the 200 page mark. The second, a heavenly event, which should happen about the midpoint of the book. The third was the big endgame move, which would make up the climax of the final third of the novel. Then I went and wrote down all twelve (yes, twelve!) POV characters, some of which will only have three chapters or two chapters, and put those running down the far left corner of the board. After that, I started filling in what was happening with each of those characters during these major plot points of the book (and indicating who dies when – I’m not GRRM, but I do engage in tactical character death on occasion). These events should have to do with their character arcs while still moving the broader plot arc forward.

It’s no secret that plotting is the skill I must work hardest on. Worldbuilding and, to some extent, character, come much more easily to me. I didn’t have to work as hard, or, at least, it didn’t feel like as much work because I enjoyed it so much. Plot is a different matter.

With a book as complicated as the second in an epic fantasy series, with a dozen (!) point of view characters and a lot of epic, worldcrushing events that need to happen in just 160,000 words, I found that sitting down and just mapping out exactly what needed to happen to whom helped me clarify my intentions, and made the entirety of the book itself seem far more manageable and less overwhelming. 

Now I’m engaged in the process of going through what I’ve written of the book so far and indicating which scenes are missing between each major event for each character. Outlining those missing scenes will help me write them faster once I’m done with the promotion period for The Mirror Empire. When you need a draft of a book on a book a year schedule, and have day job work, freelancing work, and book promotion on your plate, you have to find out a lot of hacks to help you write faster.

One of the things I’ve learned about the writing game is that everyone has a different process. What works for some writers – ruthless outlines and endless preparation – doesn’t work so much for me because I like to have a more organic writing experience. If I figure something out in the text, I want to be able to explore that more. But being on deadline means I need to figure out was to dink around less and write faster.

So this compromise – a rough outline that gives me the major plot points of the book, and tells me about where every character arc should be in relation to those events as the story progresses, is great for me. That still leaves me a lot of wiggle room for cool worldbuilding details I come up with or interesting plot twists that don’t affect the timeline of the overall plot arc.

Stories are living, breathing things to me; they are an act of brute creation. Figuring out how that act of creation works best for you as a writer is a powerful skill, and a huge part of the leveling up process. 


Many thanks to Kameron for this interesting post!

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