Category Archives: Writing discussion

How to Hunt and Care for Wild Ideas

Many new writers complain that they can’t find Ideas, or that no Ideas are coming to them. But of course an Idea won’t just walk up and ask to be petted, it’s not a dog – it’s a wild animal. If you want an Idea, you have to hunt it.

Tools to Hunt Ideas

Every hunter needs their tools and weapons, and to prepare before they depart on their hunt. This is no different for the Idea hunter. Your most important weapon is a Note-maker. Traditionally, this was a notebook and pen (or sometimes pencil), though unprepared hunters who spot a wild Idea have been known to use receipts, napkins and envelopes. The modern, high-tech Idea hunters use phones and tablets with memo or word processing apps. Other Idea hunters prefer the dictaphone or voice recording app.

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My first week on the Start Writing Fiction course

I’ve recently started a free online course with FutureLearn called Start Writing Fiction, run by the Open University. The course focuses on characters; after all, a story is nothing without them. I certainly think it’s important to have characters who feel like real people and who are distinct and interesting. Since I don’t know everything and am some way away from having some published novels out there, I thought I’d give this course a go and see what I could learn.

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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.

On Sherlock, writing, and cheap tricks

Having just watched the third and final episode of Sherlock season three on BBC 1, I have some rather strong feelings on a certain event in the episode as regards to writing. If you have not seen the episode yet and want to, look away now, because this post will contain spoilers.

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Yes, it is a good idea

New writers often post in forums to ask if this idea they have is a good one. They post a summary of it and request that strangers offer harsh critique of the idea and opinions of whether they should continue writing the story. Regardless of whether I like the idea or not, the answer is always “yes.” Why? Because if that’s what the writer wants to write, who am I to tell them no?

The problem is that these new writers misunderstand what makes a story successful. The idea is not sacred. An experienced writer has dozens of them a day. Ideas aren’t stories. Ideas are just one of the building blocks of stories. It is a writer’s job to transform those ideas, to develop them into characters and plots and to deliver them to the reader in a compelling narrative. That is what makes a story: the hard work that comes after the idea.

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How important is a novel character’s appearance?

It occurs to me that in yesterday’s blog post about the protagonist for my upcoming NaNo novel, I didn’t provide a physical description of Fiarra. In fact, in a lot of what I write I don’t describe or mention physical aspects of characters much, beyond gender (essential for pronouns), characters’ ages (though these are often relative to one another than absolute) and occasionally general information like height and build.

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Why you shouldn’t bother writing a prologue

The prologue debate is one that sticks its head above the parapet in writing circles every now and again, and since I’ve come across that debate again recently, I thought I’d take the time to sketch out my thoughts on them.

If you’re a new writer, just don’t bother with a prologue.

Don’t get me wrong, prologues done well can work, but the vast majority I’ve read don’t. And even when they work by themselves, within the context of the rest of the novel they often mess something or other up. Some people don’t even read prologues – assuming that they’re either irrelevant, info dumping, or just plain badly written.

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You Need an Editor (a guest post from Brian W Foster)

Today I have invited Brian W Foster to write a guest post on editing – something he has rather more experience of than I do. So here it is:

My three year old tends to scribble with crayons a lot. My wife and I, as parents are wont to do, exclaim over these works of art and place them prominently on the refrigerator.

I imagine, if you have or have had little ones of your own, you understand this well. Nothing wrong with it. Consider, however, what you would think of me if I decided that these tremendous works of art should be sold on Amazon.

Continue reading You Need an Editor (a guest post from Brian W Foster)