Tag Archives: fantasy

Even more writing retrospection; or, Fear of Old Stories

There is a piece of music called Reverie by Ludovico Einaudi that I love, but haven’t listened to in over 6 years, until now. It’s a beautiful, calm, emotional piece, that at one time I listened to on repeat for hours. That time was when I was a student, my third undergraduate year and my Masters year, when I was working on a story called The General’s Secret. Friends from that time might recognise the title. I was obsessed with it. It consumed my thoughts, filled my dreams. I have on my computer 33 documents related to this story: notes, manuscripts, scenes, alternative endings, alternative beginnings, character sheets, outlines and restarts. And Reverie was the piece of music I listened to when writing all of them.

Reverie is on Einaudi’s 2009 album Nightbook.

At the time I was writing this story, I was convinced it was a great work, a magnum opus. The emotions I poured into it exhausted me. My obsession with the story led me to make notes about or even write scenes when I was meant to be paying attention to lectures or seminars. I spent time writing when I should have been studying. I pulled all-nighters to get essays done in the nick of time because I’d let the story take over my thoughts, fill my breaks from studying and push them beyond all reasonable boundaries.

In the end I came to the realisation that I had to drop the story, or I wouldn’t get a good grade for my masters degree – or wouldn’t get the degree at all. And when I dropped it, I had to drop Reverie too. The track that had been inexorably linked to the story could derail my determination to study hard.

I can see it in the “last modified” dates of my files. Ordered chronologically, there’s a fairly constant stream of documents from mid 2009 through to 26 May 2011, but then a gap of four months, ending the day after I handed in my MA dissertation. But after that I only created six more documents, none of them long, spread out over the last few months of 2011 and into early 2012: two new starts, three notes documents, one alternative ending.

I was scared of that story for the longest time. I dropped the protagonist and the world entirely from what I wrote about for a couple of years. I didn’t listen to Reverie, and after backing it up on my external hard drive, deleted it from my computer. It wasn’t until 2015 I felt able to return to the world, though the protagonist had changed a lot, and I picked a setting right at the start of her story, long before the events of The General’s Secret. I didn’t look back over my old notes, either for GS or for the other stories in the same world and with the same protagonist. I still didn’t listen to Reverie.

Partly I feared the obsession. If I’d let it get to me, that story could have ended my studies. As it was, it certainly contributed to lower grades than I might have had otherwise; work that I know I could have done better on. It harmed my relationships because I spent my time on that instead of with my fiance and my friends.

Part of it was the fear that I couldn’t write that well without the obsession. I cried when I was writing The General’s Secret. Writing betrayal scenes made me distrust everyone for days after; writing the final departure left me feeling as bereft as my protagonist was. The intensity of my writing experience convinced me that the quality of what I wrote must be incredible. Compared to what I had written before, it certainly felt like it was.

But here I am, six years after the last word I wrote on that project, listening to Reverie again for the first time since then, realising how much utter bullshit I had convinced myself of.

Because it wasn’t a magnum opus. It wasn’t incredible literature. It certainly wasn’t insurmountable quality that I could never even aspire to without also submitting to the obsessive and destructive mindset I had when I was writing it.

I’ve reread it. I finally overcame my fears and worries, and looked again at this story that, even when I was writing about my old stories last month, I couldn’t quite face. That’s how powerful that fear was: even when I was deliberately looking back at old stories to see how far I’d come, there remained a single exception that it has taken me three weeks to get over.

The General’s Secret is a juvenile story with stilted dialogue, contrived plot points, minimal characterisation and a very poor understanding of human emotion and motivations.

Thank goodness I didn’t give up my degree for it.

The reason that I can see that now is that my ability to judge the quality of writing has improved vastly in the last six years. That, I think, it due to a combination of factors: more experience of the world, more exposure to other stories both good and bad, and more practice writing.

But at the same time I can still recognise what I was trying to achieve. The clunky dialogue and contrivances and unrealistic reactions don’t completely obscure the powerful emotions I was trying to evoke. The betrayals, the loss, the realisations, the fears. The problem was that I didn’t have the skill or experience at that time to convey them well. And maybe I still don’t now, but what I do have instead is just enough experience to recognise where the gaps in my knowledge are, and the wisdom to write stories that don’t rely on them.

I won’t be writing The General’s Secret again, I think. There might be something in there that’s salvageable. Themes, worldbuilding elements, names. But not much. I’ve moved past it. My stories have evolved. My writing has improved. But most importantly, my own experiences have introduced me to a whole range of new things to write about. Conflicts I couldn’t have imagined, fears I didn’t understand, and all the beautiful ways that people can be.

And once more, I can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s Reverie with all the implications of the title, instead of the obsession that I indulged in when I was meant to be studying.


Some more retrospection

At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.

But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.

Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.

When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.

In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.

I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.

It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.

A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.

Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.

The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.

A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.

Retrospection and Resolution

The new year is always a time for looking back at the year just gone and making plans for the year ahead.

I don’t feel that 2017 has been a good year for me. I lost my Granny, had a sick partner to take care of, I haven’t had any luck with the job hunt and I didn’t do nearly as much reading or blogging as I hoped. I didn’t achieve the goals I set out to do in January.

But it hasn’t been a complete write-off. I’ve gone a year learning Italian on Duolingo, and since November my writing has really picked up. This last week in particular, I’ve written loads and felt reinvigorated about my fiction.

A little under a year ago I set myself one reading and two writing goals:

  • To read 39 books. I read 17.
  • To rewrite “Horrible Monster”, the story I finished in 2016. I haven’t touched it.
  • To improve my writing by copying and studying twelve authors. I gave up after the first one.

So not exactly a great track record for 2017, but given all the stresses of job hunting, grief, hospital visits and all the rest, it could have been worse.

For 2018 I’m going to set some more realistic goals:

  1. To take time to read every day, even if only for 10 minutes. There are a lot of books on my reading list right now, including some released in 2017 that I ought to have reviewed, some I got for Christmas, and some classics I’ve been meaning to get around to for years.
  2. To finish my current story and bring it up to a standard read to submit. This is the story that I’ve been working on at full steam ahead since November, a pulp science fiction story set in the Second World War, under the working title Aliens in Pendleford. It’s been fun trying something a little different from what I usually go for, and it’s inspired by a combination of the BBC TV series Land Girls and H G Wells’ War of the Worlds – one of those books I’d been intending to read for years.
  3. To revisit Horrible Monster and write a strong second draft. It’s certainly a stronger story than anything I attempted in the first ten months of 2017, but in places it is bloated, and I didn’t quite understand my theme until I was half way through writing it. With a bit of refocusing, I think it could be quite good.
  4. To write more blog posts. With more reading, I should manage more reviews, and with the rate I’ve been writing the odd progress update should be manageable too. Watch this space.

Also in 2018 I’m hoping to get a better job, so that will keep me busy. I will continue practising and studying Italian, and perhaps take an exam in it if I feel ready by the time I need to book it, and I’ll be picking up German too. I was never very good at languages at school – except English, of course. But I think part of that was that I didn’t much like the teachers and had the arrogance of the English to believe I didn’t need another language. But now I’m finding it quite satisfying to see the progress I’m making, the ability to understand written Italian and some spoken, and even slowly compose short sentences without looking at a dictionary or phrase book.


Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.


“Write what you know” and what it means to me right now

“Write what you know” is a popular piece of advice given to writers, and over the course of the many years I have been writing, I’ve interpreted it in a few different ways.

As a novice, I thought it meant sticking to what you’re already knowledgable about.

After that, I thought it meant putting in the work to do the research and become knowledgable about the topics you want to write about.

In forum posts I made in the last couple of years I’ve argued that it’s about putting personal feelings and experiences into what you write – drawing upon your emotional responses to events to inform the way you write characters.

These days I think it’s a combination of all three. Which is predominant depends on the needs of the scene in question.

Recently I’ve been working on “Fiarra Beginnings”, the latest version of my volcanic island survival fantasy story. It has undergone a lot of changes and seen a fair few restarts over the years, but this time I’ve been taking a different approach by taking it chapter by chapter: I start with notes about what I want from the chapter, look into the characters involved in the chapter and what their motivations are, find out what I need to know about to write convincingly on the topics covered in the chapter, develop a chapter outline, and then write the chapter. Then I move on to the next.

This approach has highlighted to me these different definitions of “write what you know”.

I had decided fairly early in the process that Fiarra’s background needed to be in a profession that becomes useless after the eruption of the volcano and evacuation of everyone who can get on board the ships in the harbour at the time. The setting in terms of technology is roughly equivalent to the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, so I made her a glass-maker. In the aftermath of the eruption, there’s no call for glass when people are simply struggling to survive, and in any case it would be thought to be a pointless extravagance when there’s always the risk of another eruption that would rain down more rocks to smash windows, or shake the earth to knock bottles off shelves. So to get that right, I needed to do a lot of research into early glass-making, including raw materials and processes. I have to know what I’m writing about after all.

For the secondary protagonist, Macky, I had a similar requirement: his background needed to be in the service of the Governor, but not in direct contact. I needed him to feel betrayed by the Governor specifically as part of his motivation. Initially I felt a gardener position would be fine, but I wanted a bit more prestige and a bit more of a sense of dedication and hard work, so I made him a beekeeper. I have been researching the history of beekeeping this summer, in particular in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, and my Dad keeps bees, so I have plenty of knowledge on this already, from the kinds of hives that might have been used, to the ways to prevent and treat stings. In this I am writing on a topic that I know about in depth already.

And as for drawing upon personal experience, that’s always an easy one once you have enough of it. I have drawn upon my personal experiences in work, after experiencing loss, after major life changes, in personal relationships with the people around me, and more.

Still, there’s always more to learn, more to know – and more to write about.


Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister is Mark Lawrence’s seventh published novel and the seventh I have reviewed, so regular readers may already have some inkling of what to expect from this review. Released in April 2017, Red Sister is the first book in the Book of the Ancestor series. It follows Nona, a young girl from a tiny village, taken in my the sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent – which is no ordinary Earth-style convent, but one which trains girls as fighters and magic users, according to their abilities. Alongside Nona, we are plunged into a world of strange powers and nuanced intrigues.

Red Sister’s striking UK cover

Where his previous two trilogies were set in the world of the Broken Empire, in Red Sister Lawrence has created a new world, and one which is magnificent in its originality and allure. It is a difficult, grim world, where the fight for survival is immediate and constant, and the threat looms quite literally on the horizon. But it is also a beautiful world, painted with icy landscapes, glowing magic and strange architecture. Each new element of it is revealed organically, as Nona becomes aware of it, so that there is never the feeling of exposition but rather a sense of revelation that pulled me forward to learn more with just as much power as did the plot and characters.

Red Sister’s gorgeous US cover

Nona is a fantastic protagonist for this story, perfectly crafted to meet the needs of the story and of the reader. She is self-possessed if inexperienced, confident and private. The path of her growth and development feels natural and intensely sympathetic. Her relationships with the other characters are nuanced, changing over time as she becomes more knowledgable and more confident in her role at the Convent, in a way that demonstrates her increasing maturity as time passes.

It’s hard not to think of the plot overall from a writer’s perspective, so in blunt terms I will mention that it has a solid structure, with a series of well-placed story beats that lead logically through the events, giving a satisfying ending that has a strong sense of where it came from. But that doesn’t do it justice: it is a crafted, woven, elegant plot, with action in all the right places (and that action of the “badass” variety), subtleties and hints beaded into the fabric. All of these little elements – the magic, the setting, the different characters’ roles within the convent, Nona’s skills and approaches – all come together to build something unstoppable and remarkable.

Though not a short book, there is nothing superfluous, nothing that does not have a place in the story; but also no holes for confusion to dwell in, just enough information for the reader to have a full understanding without hand-holding. There is space for the reader’s imagination, but not for ambiguity; a perfect pitch.

I have made no secret, in my previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books, that I am definitely a fan. It is, I assure you, well-earned praise, and none more so than for Red Sister. It is a whole and complete book, aware of its position at the beginning of the trilogy but also very much with a full story of its own to tell, and that told brilliantly. I try to avoid giving books a rating of ten, as I feel this should be reserved only for the very best fiction the world has to offer, but in this case I have no reservations: Red Sister gets 10/10.

My previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books:


Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.

The gorgeous cover of Senlin Ascends is by artist Ian Leino.

Senlin Ascends is Bancroft’s first novel, published in 2013.

One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.

And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.

Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.

I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.


Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017: I restarted my story

On Monday I decided I wasn’t happy with what I’d written so far this month and scrapped it to start again (though I’m still counting my earlier wordcount towards the month’s total).

The main problem with the story as I’d written it was that my protagonist, Fiarra, wasn’t making the decisions. Things were happening, and she was reacting to them. Not just reacting, but reacting in a passive manner – watching and waiting, not deciding to take action. It made the story boring. It made her boring. And it created a contradiction in her character, because my goal at this stage of the story is to have her at odds with others in the group, and she was just getting on with her work while being disdainful about gossip and small talk.

If I’m honest, it was obvious that the story wasn’t working several days before I decided to restart. I attempted to make it work by giving her more decisions, but I’d already put her on a path of passivity and it was hard to get her off that.

So I went back to the start and thought about how things might have reached the stage they need to be at the start of the story to get where I want to go. One of the important aspects of Fiarra in the Pact – a coalition of about a hundred people who have secured territory in the abandoned town of Royal Newport in the aftermath of the eruptions and evacuation – was that she felt that she didn’t fit in. But if that’s the case, why is she there at all? Why has she joined this group? The original version had her living in a former inn, along with several other members of the Pact, and a friendship with Pact leader Embry that dated to after the Pact had been formed.

I scrapped this background, and decided that the Pact had begun in Fiarra’s street, right outside her own house, and that she had met Embry during the crisis. With Fiarra living in her own home, there’s a stronger contrast between the familiarity of the house and the street she grew up in, and the strangers that have arrived there to join the Pact, who have now moved into the homes of Fiarra’s deceased neighbours.

Her role in the origin of the Pact also enables me to give her an independent, even anti-authoritarian streak – not taking part in communal tasks or adhering to curfews – that Embry allows her a certain amount of leeway on. And that in turn means that when she hears rumours about someone she used to know, she can act upon them instead of sitting alone thinking about the nature of loss in the context of a volcano having killed almost everyone she knew only a few months earlier.

I wonder if this is evidence I didn’t do enough planning in the first place. I certainly didn’t plan for Fiarra to be passive in the first two chapters, but that’s how it turned out. I think perhaps the process of writing it enabled me to identify what the problem was and how best to fix it; if I had done more planning work back in March perhaps I would have noticed that Fiarra was too passive, but I don’t think I would have come up with the same solution, and I may have ended up with other problems instead.

As I continue to attempt to refine and improve my process for writing, this is something that I will have to consider.


Plotting for Camp NaNoWriMo

This week has been all about plotting. Last year when I was working on Horrible Monster, I was rather hands-off with plotting: I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, and a few key scenes, but the rest was left to be worked out as I was writing.

The problem with that was that I slowed down hugely when I didn’t know where things were going, and on several occasions struck out pages and pages – days’ worth of writing – when I decided I didn’t like what I’d written. And now I’m left with a first draft that needs a mountain of work doing to it before it’s even close to completion.

For the Volcano Island project I’m working on this April for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided I need to do a lot more planning.

A few times over the last decade or so, I’ve attempted the Snowflake method. It’s a process of planning where you start with a very condensed summary of the story and the protagonist, and expand upon these summaries with every step, going from a sentence to a paragraph to a page by adding detail and nuance. In general, I’ve found it a bit rigid and stale when I’ve followed it exactly, but I think the general principle is sound.

With the Volcano Island project, I think I’ve got three stories there. Maybe more, but I can’t think that far in advance at the moment. I wrote very brief summaries of the three stories, and I have expanded upon the first by breaking the overall plot down into chapters and outlining those, as well as the protagonist’s personal journey, in about a paragraph each.

I have now started writing longer chapter summaries, one page each in my A5 notebook (so roughly 100-130 words per chapter), and I think this will be as far as I go for plot. For character, though, I might go to three or four A5 pages, at least for Fiarra, the protagonist, and Macky, the second most important character, plus a page each for another five or six characters.

Striking a balance with planning is important to me. I’ve done too little in the past; but when I do too much I soon tire of the project. I’m hoping this level of planning will be just right to give me the structure I need without sapping my passion for the project.


Attempting Camp NaNoWriMo

In April I will be attempting Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up, added my novel details and set my cabin preferences. My target is 30,000 words and the story I’ll be working on is a fresh attempt at the Penal Colony story I was working on way back in 2013.

There’s still a lot to do before April 1st, though. In the past I’ve tried to “pants” various NaNoWriMo challenges – to write with minimal preparation, flying by the seat of my pants (or trousers, since I’m British). It doesn’t work for me; I get so far and don’t know where to go next, and end up dithering around with long conversations between characters, or meaningless sequences of events that I later delete once I’ve made a decision about the direction I want to go. That was the downfall of Kell’s Adventures and Kell & Atoni: no direction and no plan.

But I’ve also not found much success with an outlining-heavy approach. I get bored of going over the minutiae of characters or the world, or I feel I’ve covered the plot in so much detail in the plan that I don’t need or want to write it anymore because there’s nothing more I can add. It becomes a chore. There’s no exploration, no discovery, no fun to it. And what’s the point if it’s not fun to write, at least some of the time?

With Horrible Monster, I took a middle ground. It was, perhaps, rather too much on the pantsing side of the scale – there were passages thousands of words long, covering multiple scenes, which I removed, and started again from a point I’d written a week or longer earlier. As for the ending, I hadn’t made a decision about that until literally a week before I finished the novel.

So with this story I’ll be doing more planning than I did for Horrible Monster, including working out the ending and writing chapter summaries. In order to distinguish this version from the 2013 version in my file system, I’ll be using a new working title – Volcano Island. A huge amount has changed, including most of the key characters (though I’ve kept the protagonist and a couple of other characters) and the plot. I see the original Penal Colony plot as being potentially the foundation for a sequel, if I get that far, but it’s not the story I want to tell right now, and the story I do want to tell needs to happen earlier in the chronology.

On my to-do list for the rest of this month, I have:

  • Draw maps showing the islands before and after the major eruptions – while the story takes place after most of the eruptions, I want an idea of where there used to be land, towns, ports and other features as my characters will encounter buried buildings and so on. I’m also considering having an eruption during the story, so I’d like to map out how that changes the islands too.
  • Create characters lists to draw upon when needing to use less developed/important characters – I’ve decided on the names and a few characteristics of my main cast, but there will be other characters involved too. I’ll need to sort them into groups, create short descriptions of them and have them ready to put into action when I need them so I don’t have to make this stuff up when I’m writing, and potentially lose flow.
  • Create a more detailed chapter-by-chapter summary. I’ve already got a very brief chapter outline, with about 2 lines of text per chapter describing the main events. I want to expand this into about 150-200 words per chapter, plus a list of the immediate goals and motives of the characters in the chapter to help me with interactions.

There’s plenty to be getting on with, but not so much it can’t be done by the end of March.