Monthly Archives: July 2014

Constantly re-evaluating my writing

This month has not gone as well as I’d hoped for the writing. In fact I’ve not written a word since my last blog post. But I have been thinking. Thinking about what motivates me, thinking about the stories I’m trying to write and the stories I worked on long ago.

Invisible Duke

With Invisible Duke, I’m a bit unsure on exactly where the crux of the story is, where it begins and where it should end. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t what’s stopping me writing; I’ve written before where I’ve had a go at an idea, not liked it, changed what the start and end and what the focus were, and tried again and ended up with something halfway decent. The story that ended up as Ailith’s Gift (available to read for free at Myths Inscribed) started out a very different story, told from the perspective of the dragon, after the events of Ailith’s Gift. I even had a character called George and this whole take on the old George and the Dragon myth, and themes of change and the baby from Ailith’s Gift growing up and everything. But for a short story, with a target of 3,000 words, it just didn’t work. There was too much to fit in, even if I broke it down to the most important plot points. By changing the focus and reducing the scope, though, I came out with something that did work, that wasn’t too rushed and which met the needs of what I was aiming for.

I think that’s something of what I need to do with Invisible Duke too. I’ve got the concept, I’ve got hints of the story, but I’ve not got the right angle on it. It’s already an amalgam of two ideas, that magical point at which ideas can become stories, but I think it needs a third idea to get there. I just need to work at it some more, but here’s the second problem: I’ve been putting off that work. A couple of weeks ago I heard of a call for submissions for stories that give a new twist on fairytales or subvert them in some way from The Book Smugglers. And it sounds perfect, exactly the sort of thing I should be submitting a story like Invisible Duke to, a story which looks at one of the fundamental assumptions of fairytales. The deadline for submissions is 31 July.

And I’m scared. I’ve not even finished the story, but having realised what an opportunity had landed on my lap when I heard about this, I failed to reach for it, and instead let it intimidate me. I’m not confident. I haven’t ever been, really, but right now my confidence level is at the lowest it’s been in a decade. And that has meant, on this occasion, that I’ve let myself be scared off from a prospect that could help me build up my confidence, help me improve my writing, and possibly even give me my first writing success in a long time.

I don’t what to do now with Invisible Duke. I think I’ve got two options:

1. Leave it til after the Book Smugglers deadline, take a fresh look at it, and try and work out where within the whole concept there’s an interesting story I can tell. Then take my time drawing the story out and getting it right – even if it takes a month.

2. Try to condense all the thinking and all the writing into the four evenings (today included) I have left til the deadline and get something I can submit, if only for the potential feedback I might get if not a real expectation it might be considered.

It’s a decision I’m going to have to make soon. Maybe I’ll have a go at looking at the story this evening and see where I am by bed time, and then decide.

In the meantime, there are other things I’ve been thinking about.

Penal Colony

I got stuck at the end of May with the Penal Colony story. Since then I’ve been dancing around the issue I had with it. A soft, slow middle when nothing much happened. I considered reworking the story as a series of short stories, each one with a different character from the last engaged in a complete arc, where the whole thing together told the overall story. That, I decided, was not the answer; it would dilute my core message.

I spent one evening looking in depth at my core theme of justice, and how Fiarra views it as something that is objective, but herself acts very subjectively when attempting to determine what actions are just. I looked at how other characters might disagree with her, how she treats different characters whose crimes are comparable in different ways based on her own personal feelings about them, how she advocates doing things “right” right up until it’s inconvenient for her.  I didn’t really come to a solid conclusion on that, on how I should present it and whether it would make the story feel empty or the ending unsatisfying.

Most recently, I’ve thought about how the story has gone so far in the 40,000 words I have written. And actually, it generally goes well for Fiarra. Okay, sure, she gets captured and beaten up and enslaved, but on the whole, by the point at which I stopped writing, she was in a better position than at the start of the story. A few things had gone right for her all in a row, and the things that had not gone right either served the plot or were so insignificant that 5,000 words later they’d leave no impact at all. In short, I’d made it too easy for her.

Or, to be more accurate, I’d made it too easy for me. I wanted to get to the cool speeches and the powerful emotional parts and everything I wrote that wasn’t that was designed to enable me to get to those parts.

I should know better.

The reason I keep going back to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender time and time again (current count: 7) is in no small part because of Zuko’s arc. I did a character study on him not long ago. There’s an end point that he reaches, that he is destined to reach, and there are points along the path where it seems that he might make it, but at those points, where has has the opportunity to befriend Aang and switch sides, he doesn’t, because he’s not done cooking yet. He’s not gained the experience he needs to be the kind of person who will decide that this is what he needs to do, that this is the person he should be, until he’s made the wrong decisions and lived the consequences.

I love that. I love watching it. I love seeing Zuko undergo that change, come to that gradual realisation. And yet I’m not putting that into my writing. I’m too eager to write the end of the journey – the emotional reunions, the important speeches, the redemptive actions – that I rush things along and forget to put enough of the journey in to make those turning points powerful.

With Penal Colony, therefore, I need to take a step back and work out where I’m making things too easy and make them harder. Where the turning point scenes are too early I need to move them later, to change them and deny those scenes the happy endings I crave so that the story can be told at the right pace, where victories are truly won and not handed over when I feel I can get away with it.

I need to start asking myself, with every scene I write, every paragraph even, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then write it.

The other problem with Penal Colony is that I still don’t have as good a grasp on my characters as I would want. I struggle to hear their voices, the way they speak or think or act. I don’t know much what they look like. I haven’t grasped their mannerisms or their attitudes. It’s all very superficial in the 40,000 words I did write – Prentor is friendly, Laik is cold and laconic. At least, they are for as long as that serves the story. In one scene Laik became very frank and clear because I wanted things spelled out for Fiarra, and that was wrong (not to mention way too early in the plot). It’s something I need to work on.

The Snowflake Method might be a good starting point for working out the characters. It’ll give me the space to think about their own arcs – another flaw in my approach so far for Penal Colony – and expand upon who each character is, what they want, and how they interact with other characters and with their environments.

The next step after that, I think, would be to try to write short stories about each character or tackle certain scenes in the novel from their point of view, as an exercise to understand them rather than as part of the narrative. It certainly helped me earlier in the process when I did this for Laik, though a lot has changed since then and even that short scene might need an update.

In my lowest moment, driving home after a long day and frustrating at work, I considered giving up on this story entirely. I believed it wasn’t working and was never going to work. But I do still believe I’ve got something here. I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to tell, over and over and over again in various guises, for years. In fact it’s only as a result of my recent contemplations that I’ve come to realise exactly how deep that truth goes. I know I’ve been writing stories with this master-slave dynamic and this shift of power for at least eight years. The theme of justice has definitely been strong too; I even had an immortal character named Justice in one of my worlds, and at least three stories with him in. So yes, this is the story I’m going to tell, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll try with something else but I’m not going to give up until I’ve given it a thorough try.

I’m finally coming to realise exactly how much work writing a book really is.

Looking forward

I guess the next steps involve stepping back. I’ve still got some re-evaluation to do, but now also I’ve got a lot of planning to do, a lot of legwork to put in so that when the time comes for me to start writing again I’ve got the confidence to start and to keep writing, and so that I’ve got something to write.

For Invisible Duke, I’ll see if I can make option 2 work, and try to work out where my story is then write like the wind to meet the deadline – of, if that doesn’t work out, take the time to get it right next month.

With Penal Colony, I’ve got to start from scratch: learn who the characters are and how they act; make sure I understand the world of the story; and consider how to get the most out of it and make my characters work for their victories so they meet their destinies when the time is right, not when I really want it to happen.

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Reading about Writing: Starting

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

I finished reading On Writing today. The above quote stuck out because it resonates with me. It’s the reason a short break from writing, intended to just be one or two days, always stretches and stretches and stretches. This time it’s been a little over a week since I worked on Invisible Duke. Last time it was the whole month of June that I didn’t write. It’s that bit when my Outlook calendar goes ding with a reminder that says “21:00: Writing”, and I click dismiss and think “urgh, I don’t feel like it tonight.”

Writing discipline is hard. It worked in May, when I forced myself to be accountable by blogging my thoughts and progress every day. But it’s all to easy to lose the run and then let it slide and slide and slide, until a month has passed, or a week, since I was last a writer – after all, writers write, and if I haven’t written in a week, I think it’s fair to say I haven’t been a writer in a week.

So I guess I’d better suck it up and start.

Reading about Writing: Re-evaluation

Part 1: Re-evaluating my July Challenge

Things have got way busy and my schedule is shot to shit, so I’m doubling the time scales and including August too. It is now my Summer Writing Challenge.

Part 2: “Write what you know”

I was reading some more of On Writing on the train on the way to Liverpool this morning and I came across this section of what Stephen King has to say. This is something I’ve definitely come across before, and beyond recognising that this doesn’t mean I should be writing exclusively about Shropshire-based people struggling with first jobs, or archaeology students in Leicester, or annoying little brothers who leave their older sisters’ cars stinking of cigarette smoke after getting free lifts everywhere (it’s okay, he doesn’t read this blog), I’ve never really thought about this concept in much depth.

I mean, I write fantasy. Of course I’m not always writing what I know. I’ve never slain a dragon or cast a spell or led an army against a city. But I am a person with feelings and thoughts and I know other people with feelings and thoughts, and I did a degree in ancient history and archaeology so I do at least know a little about different types of societies and a different type of warfare and courtyard houses and lost-wax bronze casting and letter forms being seen as magical in an early literate society, and so quite a lot of what I write is stuff I know, or based on what I know, built up with imagination.

That’s about as much as I’d thought about it before today. And I guess Stephen King isn’t really saying anything I didn’t know on this count, but he does say it well. He points out that a plumber might not know much about flying to other planets on a space ship, and that’s where imagination might come in, but a plumber does know a lot about plumbing – and could therefore tell a good story about a plumber flying to other planets on a space ship. The point isn’t that you write what you know, but that you bring your knowledge to what you write. King phrases it as telling the truth in something made of lies, but I think I prefer to think of it that way.

I spent ten minutes or so on the train jotting down bullet points about what I know. Sure, the first few bullet points were things like “being a student” and miscellanea about ancient Greece and my job and Shropshire, and yes, I can bring those things to what I write. I did so for Ailith’s Gift – a story set in an early medieval version of Wroxeter, pretty much as it probably was at that time, in the shadow of a dragon (that bit was imagination) who lived on top of the Wrekin which has crags on the southern end of the summit which really do look like they might be home to a dragon.

But knowledge of early medieval Shropshire or how a phalanx marches or how an archaic Greek courtyard house functions aren’t really the kind of knowledge that’s most important. Because the next few bullet points are a lot more personal. They’re not things you can read a Wikipedia page about and get right. They’re complicated things involving feelings and experiences. One of my bullet points recognises a flaw in my father, a contradiction in his character, which really hurt when I first discovered it because, at the age of 21, I finally twigged that my Dad is a flawed person like everyone else and there are some things he can’t face and can’t deal with. And I can put that into a story. Another bullet point examines one of my own flaws, something that’s come into stark contrast this year when I compare what I’m doing and what decisions I have made to what my brother and my sister are doing and what decisions they’ve made. And that’s something I can put into a story. Into a character. One of my bullet points deals with a hardship I’ve been living through for the last four years and how I have always felt a step behind it, never really knowing how to deal with it, but somehow managing to cope or at least fix things when they go badly wrong. And that’s something else I can put into a story.

That’s really what it’s about when we say “write what you know” – or “bring your knowledge to what you write”. I can look at what I know about those I know best – myself, my family, my friends – and put parts of their struggles and contradictions and fears and approaches into characters.

With this in mind, I made another note in my notebook. Thinking back to the Penal Colony story I was working on in May, I came to realise that I stopped in part because I got bored on my protagonist, Fiarra. She’s not real enough. The personality I gave her was superficial, only skin deep. She was just another protagonist, with drive to change things and a barely debilitating level of anxiety that never got in the way long enough to derail what I was planning. It was, I now realise, exactly the kind of flaw that the kinds of people who make Mary Sue tests warn against, only I didn’t realise it because I didn’t make her blonde and liked by everyone and let her win in everything.

And maybe putting a little more of me into her won’t exactly make her a fantastic character, but I think it will make her a bit more believable, or at least make her a bit better to practice with while I learn to write better characters. So that’s what I’m going to do: put something of my flaws into her, give her something that’s holding her back when she could be out there being the hero, and see where that takes the story instead.

Part 3: “Everyone is a protagonist in their own story”

This was what I read on the train home from Liverpool this evening. And as with “write what you know”, this isn’t a new concept to me. But again, King manages to phrase it in such a way that the full force of the meaning of that phrase is realised. And here’s where another re-evaluation of the Penal Colony story is in order, because I wasn’t treating any character but Fiarra as a protagonist in their own stories. They only did things when I needed something from them to move things forward for Fiarra. I was treating them like sets in a play, to be wheeled on at the appropriate scene in order to give Fiarra’s stuff context. Sure, I gave some of them motivations and backstories and even modes of speech and likes and dispositions. All paintwork on the plyboard. Pretty paintwork, sure, but still just set dressing.

Before I start writing the Penal Colony story again, then, I need to step back and work through my secondary characters. The Governor must have a plan for what she’s doing. Several plans, branching plans, back-up plans, short-term and medium plans. She’s the sort of person who has a pretty good grasp on what she wants and which steps she needs to take to get it. And as the antagonist of the story, even if she’s very much in the background for the first half of it, she needs to be a protagonist from the other side of it. Then there’s Deego, who has a story of his own running parallel and intertwining with Fiarra’s. But there’s also Laik and Prentor and Siril and Teyt and Corun, who don’t have subplots just about them, who sit there waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when Fiarra’s story demands it. And I need to do better with them too, or maybe even, for some of them, cut them out.

It’s clear to me now that I’ve got such a long way to go, not only with this story but also with writing in general. I’ve made steps today, but there’s a lot more thinking to do for Penal Colony, a lot more writing to do, and a lot more learning.

I guess it is true: the more you know, the more you realise how little you know.

Reading about Writing: Ideas

I decided I’d ease into the writing challenge by starting with some reading, and so I dutifully pulled up Stephen King’s On Writing on my Kindle and started reading at a little after 7pm this evening. Eventually I came across this quote:

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”

This isn’t a new concept to me, but this evening – having briefly considered the Invisible Duke prompt on my drive home from work earlier – it clicked, specifically this bit:

“two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun”

It didn’t take long to root out a second idea to match with “invisible duke”. There was one I wrote down not long after I saw Maleficent. You see, in fairytales, how everyone looks reflects their morality. The princes and princesses wear white and have golden hair, while the bad guys are all in black, sometimes with scars or warts or horns or goatees to really remind you that they’re Not Very Nice. But what if that wasn’t narrative framing, but a reality-adjusting spell that changed your appearance to match your morality? In such a world, who would be invisible?

That’s what I’m working on building upon at the moment. I’ve got the basics – two characters and how they relate to one another, the core conflict and so on – and tomorrow I’ll work on fleshing this idea out some, work out the characters a bit better. Their histories, beliefs and outlooks. The events that will keep my story moving. Enough that I’ll be ready to start writing by Thursday.

So I’m off to a good start on the prompt, thanks to Stephen King and some good timing.

But let’s get back to what he has to say about ideas: they don’t come fully formed from somewhere, there’s not a specific place you can go to find them, you’ve got to think and make connections and follow where those connections lead, and if they lead nowhere you make another connection and follow, until something just works.

It seems this isn’t an unpopular idea. Basic googling showed me this video, about where good ideas come from in a more general sense, not specific to writing:

And I think it makes sense. Connections are where the exciting things happen. New concepts meeting old. So I think from now on I’ll certainly consider this when struggling for ideas for a new story, or where to take an existing story next – or even what to study.

I keep a semi-active document on my PC, and have a few notes in various notebooks, so I’ll refer to these next time I get stuck on a story, at any stage of the writing of it, and see if any of my old ideas for characters, plots, scenarios or even lines of dialogue might give my story the fresh connection it needs to get moving.