Tag Archives: fiction

Potatoes and Dragons

Yesterday a thread on Reddit’s fantasy writers board brought up a topic I’ve long meant to write something about, and framed it in a way that I think makes the problem quite clear. User Hoosier_Jedi asked whether the existence of dragons and other fantasy elements in a world could justify dismissing concerns about the presence of South American crops in a world otherwise heavily influenced by Europe, and though I have responded in that thread I want to expand and clarify my thoughts here, because while the question posed is about potatoes, tomatoes and dragons, it has wider implications about the attitude a writer takes to worldbuilding and immersion.

Let’s start with looking at potatoes and dragons specifically.

A selection of different varieties of potatoes
Potatoes. Source: Wikipedia.

On Earth, potatoes are a tuber crop originating in the Andes region of South America, where they were domesticated as a high-altitude staple capable of surviving on marginal land where other crops could not, which could be freeze-dried or powdered for long-term storage. They reached the rest of the world following the Spanish Conquest of South America under Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, and popularised in Europe as a result of their adaptability and high nutritional content.

Manuscript depicting a knight and a dragon fighting within the shape of a large letter R
A dragon and a knight in an initial letter R from from the frontispiece of a 12th-century manuscript of St. Gregory’s Moralia in Job, Dijon, Bibl. Municipale, MS 2. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dragons, on the other hand, aren’t real*. They’re a mythical monster found, amongst other places, in medieval stories and artworks, making for suitably threatening enemies for gallant heroes to defeat as they demonstrate their skill and bravery.

So, given that potatoes are real and dragons are not, why is it that readers have a hard time accepting potatoes in many fantasy worlds but are fine with dragons?

There are two facets to the answer, I think: the first is about believability and realism, and the second about the work the author puts in and what they leave to the reader.

Believability and realism are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Realism is about factual accuracy and faithful recreation of reality. It is vital to the reader’s acceptance of historical fiction and historically-faithful fantasy. Believability is a little more nebulous. It is about creating the appearance of a world or situation that *might* be possible, in another universe, and depends upon using elements of realism combined with internally-logical imagined elements.

In a setting heavily inspired by 13th century Italy or 9th century Britain, potatoes and dragons might be equally unrealistic elements in a story, but not equally unbelievable, if dragons are accepted as part of the fantasy side of the setting and haven’t enabled centuries-earlier discovery of the Americas.

And this is where the work comes in. Readers make assumptions about setting based on the worldbuilding elements the author specifically mentions. There often isn’t space to go into detailed descriptions of every part of a fantasy world. The approach most authors take is to seed their story with worldbuilding hints, brushing upon details when they can organically come up, expanding upon those things that are plot-relevant, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.

But if all of the seeds look like pre-Columbian Europe, the inclusion of a single element from outside that – whether potatoes, katanas or kangaroos – is going to be jarring. It doesn’t match with what the reader already knows of the world of the story or what they might have filled the gaps with. It becomes noticeable, and it interrupts immersion. The reader stops thinking about the story and starts wondering where these potatoes came from.

This doesn’t happen so often with dragons. Why? Because when an author includes something like dragons – or unicorns, magic, eldrich horrors from dark dimensions and so on – they consider their role in the story world. They mentally work through the implications and the impacts that these things would have on society, the way it might change lifestyles, architectural approaches, social hierarchies and so on.

Potatoes, on the other hand, might just be an oversight. And if they’re the only thing from Earth’s American continents in a fantasy world otherwise containing only European dressing, it looks to the reader like a mistake based on ignorance, not a conscious worldbuilding choice.

To make the inclusion of potatoes in a setting that is otherwise heavily European-styled, the author needs to put in more work. If they’re a shorthand for a staple tuber crop and not intended to literally be identical to Earth-potatoes, why pick potatoes instead of, for example, turnips? If they’re intended to demonstrate a more global trade network or a history of exploration that has since been forgotten, where are the other things that might have made the same journey?

To make potatoes feel more believable in a pseudo-European setting, simply seed in worldbuilding that shows there’s more to it than that. Throw in a fashionable courtier wearing the finest imported jaguar furs, or market stall traders shouting the prices of llama wool blankets,  or religious authorities condemning the cultivation of quinoa and calling the society of its origin heretics. That’ll give the sense of a wider world your society is in contact with, and make the inclusion of potatoes feel deliberate and natural.

This isn’t just about potatoes. It can apply to any element outside of the reader expectations you build with your setting. It’s about creating a world where readers can easily accept the little differences between the fantasy world and Earth, so that they can focus on reading about the characters, engaging in the action – and getting lost in a world that feels real.

Sure, dragons are less realistic than potatoes, but the humble potato can still be a bigger threat to the believability of your fantasy world than the mighty dragon, if you don’t take the time to think about what readers assume.

What are the most jarring fantasy anachronisms you’ve come across? And, conversely, what are the most inventive and impressive solutions you’ve seen in fantasy to avoid or explain them?

 

* No, komodo dragons don’t count.

It’s 2019 and I’ve got Goals with a capital G

Happy New Year, everyone! My regular followers might have noticed that my output in 2018, and for that matter in 2017, hasn’t exactly been high. Part of that, I think, was fatigue around blogging and part was having quite a lot else on to worry about in my personal life. But 2019 is going to be different. Honest. While a lot of 2018’s worries haven’t gone away, with a new year comes a fresh outlook.

This is a quick update about my goals for the year and what I’ve got planned. So let’s get right to it.

Reading

Last year was a dismal year for me as far as reading was concerned. I barely read anything and didn’t review what I did read. This year I’ll do better. I’ve set a goal on Goodreads to read 24 books in 2019 – that’s two per month. And I don’t think I’ll have any trouble finding 24 books to read, between my “to read” pile (utterly massive) and the books coming out this year that I’m excited about (loads of them). I plan on reviewing any fantasy novels I read right here, but I’ll keep track of everything else – which is likely to include historical fiction and loads of non-fiction – with quarterly updates on my progress towards my 24 book goal, much like I did back in 2016.

Writing

I’ve been hard at work in the last few months working out what I want from my current novel. I now have a working title – Feud and Fire – as well as a general outline, a lot of notes about themes, particular plotlines, character and the world, and at the end of December I started the latest draft. I am happy with where I am with this story. My goal for 2019 is to write it, edit it and get it to a refined final state. Whether I then consider submitting for publication or decide there’s more work to be done is something I’ll decide when I get to that point.

I am also planning on writing some short fiction in 2019. I spend so much time working on these big novels, that a short break after finishing the Feud and Fire draft would be an ideal time to practice a shorter format, especially since I have enjoyed reading short fiction in 2018 (just about the only type of story where I have read more than previous years, thanks to the Daily Science Fiction emails I receive) and it’s been a while since I’ve written any.

Later this week I’ll be taking a look at how things stand for my One Million Words Challenge. I started it back in 2015 but stopped keeping track of it after a while. I have, however, continued to date each new document I create and each day of handwritten fiction in my notebooks, so it should only take an hour or two to get a fairly good idea of my overall total, by simply adding up the wordcounts of the numerous documents I have created since I started and adding an estimate of the handwritten stuff based on multiplying an average page wordcount by the number of pages.

Blogging

Yep, this is something I’m planning on increasing this year. I can hardly do worse than last year, so I’ve got that going for me. But in fact I’ve got a few ideas planned out, and with all that reading I’ll be doing there are bound to be a few reviews at the very least.

So that’s the plan for this year.

What about you? Do you have reading and writing goals for 2019? What are they? How do you think you’ll do? Did you meet your 2018 goals?

Earned drama

Over the past couple of days I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading back over some of the stories I have written in the past. One of the things I noticed about what I was writing about 8-10 years ago was that I spent a lot of time dwelling on the big emotional moments and rushed through or outright skipped over the slow building of tensions and the subplots and the character building. The result was that it left the stories I was writing feeling flat, empty, melodramatic.

Coincidentally, today a thread popped up on my twitter feed about this very problem:

Click through and read the whole thread, it’s not very long, but it really hits the nail on the head when it comes to what my problem has been with these particular stories, and crucially, how to fix it:

This is very helpful advice and for me, it’s come at just the right time.

One of the stories I wrote back in about 2009 is one I shared with a friend and fellow writer at the time. He was very diplomatic and supportive, but it was clear he didn’t think much of it. And the problem I had was exactly what Mara Fitzgerald has described: I knew the messy world, but I didn’t put it on the page. The story didn’t engage my friend in 2009, and it hurt to see it because I was emotionally invested in it. But reading back with the distance of time and nine years more experience as a writer, I can see it as he did.

I hadn’t earned the emotion with the story I’d written.

I wrote my article about Zuko’s character arc in Avatar: The Last Airbender nearly 5 years ago. It remains the most popular article on this blog. And I think it’s because Zuko’s arc is such a strong one, and it’s written so well, that people remember it and engage with it. It’s not just because of the popular trope of an enemy becoming a friend, though that may be part of it. It’s about earned emotion. Zuko’s eventual turn away from his upbringing to help Aang works because it is done at the right pace. It isn’t rushed. There’s even a moment where Zuko can join the good guys and doesn’t, because he’s not reached the right place emotionally for it to be the clear choice for him.

I am – I’ll be honest – procrastinating right now by writing this blog post. I’m almost ready to start the next draft of my WIP. I’ve been working on it for months. Making notes, writing scenes as I work though the ideas and themes of it. And yes, I’ve been writing the big emotional scenes without filling in the gaps of the framework, slap my wrist. Knowing I’m not the only one that does that makes me feel better about it. Understanding why I do it, and how to combat it, means I feel far better about facing the blank first page.

I think the way to think about it as a tower. The big emotional moments are the banners flying from the top and over the door, but unless I build the tower itself beam by beam and stone by stone, the banners are just going to drag on the ground. It I want them to flutter majestically in the wind, I’ve got some work to put in.

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.

Some reflections on NaNoWriMo

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for about 12 years now. I first attempted it ten years ago, in 2007 when I first went to university, so a city that had an active NaNoWriMo group. Since completing my studies, though, I haven’t done much with NaNo: I’ve signed up several times, updated my profile, filled in the novel info, and so on, but after winning in 2008 and 2009, I have not been successful since.

If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is an annual writing challenge that takes place in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. The website provides pep talks, community forums and a tracking system, as well as rewards for successful challengers.

Over the last decade I have learned a great deal about writing. I’ve read a lot of books, including several about writing; I have written several novels and numerous short stories; I have agonised over scenes and despaired of ever writing something I could be happy with. NaNoWriMo was an important part of that journey, but it is no longer a good fit for me. At least, not at this stage; I won’t rule out the possibility of it becoming useful to me again.

Part of NaNoWriMo is building discipline: to succeed at such a challenge, a writer must write an average of 1,667 words per day for a whole month. That’s not a trivial amount of words; if I know what I’m writing, I’m not interrupted and I don’t get stuck, that quantity of words would probably take me about an hour and a half. If you miss a day, an even higher daily time commitment would be needed to meet the 50,000-word goal, so writing every day is pretty important.

Developing discipline is an important tool for a writer, but it’s not one I need NaNoWriMo for anymore. Since July 2015, I’ve been writing every day without fail: I’ve got that discipline, even it doesn’t involve as much of a time commitment as NaNoWriMo would require.

NaNoWriMo is a fantastic motivating tool. There are a lot of people who want to write a novel some day but never manage it, or who spend a lot of time planning and never start. Having a major global event which has a start and end date and a clearly-defined goal, in which tens of thousands of people communicate with one another, and regional groups arrange in-person meetings, is incredibly powerful.

But those are not problems I currently have: I’m not a “some day” writer, I’m an “every day” writer. I’m not stuck in the rabbit hole of planning. I’m four chapters deep in my current WIP (work in progress) so I don’t need help starting. I don’t need community forums to motivate me to write, and I can’t easily access regional in-person meetings from the rural backend of the west midlands.

As for deadlines and word targets, I don’t think that suits the way I write at the moment. I don’t want to rush. When I rush for word targets, I write a lot of useless fluff, which only creates more work in the editing stage. I can see the value in it, certainly: a way to prevent self-editing in the writing stage and let the story flow, a challenge to spur you forward. But the pace that suits me is a lot slower than NaNoWriMo aims for. Perhaps in time I will increase my productivity to a rate that makes NaNoWriMo more viable, but that is not the case right now, especially since my current process involves planning and writing one chapter at a time rather than planning everything in advance and then writing the whole story in one go.

That is perhaps a long way of saying “I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year”. It’s been a useful tool for me in the past, and I don’t want anyone to think my decision not to use it this year means I don’t think it’s useful: it is. It just doesn’t fit with my process this year.

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.

I’ve been horribly negligent of my blog this month

But it’s all about to change, honest. I’ve got a few reviews coming up in July, for starters. A couple of authors have been waiting a while for me to get to reviewing them, for which I apologise, but I will be posting reviews in the next few weeks.

Today’s post is a general update about what I’m doing at the moment.

I have a problem. I can waste hours at a time in a WHSmith or Waterstones branch, or even in a supermarket or on Amazon, admiring notebooks, caressing their covers and assessing their features. About ten months ago this is how I occupied my time when I reached my fiance’s workplace early to pick him up: I went to the stationary section of his store and talked myself into buying a notebook. It wasn’t expensive – about £3. Simple and smart: a black cover made of a smooth matt substance, with a black elastic strip to hold it closed and, poking out the bottom, a black bookmark ribbon. Inside the pages were pale cream, medium lined with slightly thicker lines at the very top and bottom of the page, as if framing it.

I bought it, and then I didn’t use it.

The problem with particularly nice notebooks is that I am scared to write in them. What if I mess it up? What if I stop writing after a few pages and don’t use it again? I must save it for something special!

A week ago I finally started. A discussion on Reddit asked writers whether they often write by hand. I have in the past – three quarters of the notebook my former colleagues gave me as a leaving present contains the notes and first draft for a story I really should finish typing up. That gift, in turn, was inspired by a project I’d been working on shortly before that which ended up taking two and a half notebooks. But for the last year and a half I have almost exclusively written on my computer, resorting to notebooks (cheap wire-bound notebooks of the kind in which I am quite happy to intersperse story notes with shopping lists, interview notes and crochet project calculations) only when I was babysitting in the evenings, and thus cut off from my PC.

The discussion was well-timed for me. I was unhappy with the story I’d been writing – with, specifically, the third restart of it. I’d barely written 200 words a day on that project for the whole previous week. I needed something new, and I needed to change more than the story. I needed to change my process too. I needed to step away from the computer and refocus.

Back in January I started writing something in response to a prompt suggesting a stone age level of technology. But at the time I was temping full time and working my part time job too, and I didn’t have the time or mental energy to get far with it. I picked it up again earlier this month, which I think was the perfect time: the news here in the UK since the General Election has been busy, to say the least, and a few of the things that have happened already had parallels in my story. With the political situation around the election and Grenfell fire fresh in my mind, I opened my new ten-month-old notebook and started working through what I wanted in the story. I wrote pages of notes.

One morning I got up early, made some coffee in my thermos flask and went for a walk down to the river. I found a bench with a nice view and sat drinking coffee, writing, and petting every passing dog.

After a week of writing notes, I began writing the story. It’s slow going – I handwrite at about a third the speed that I type at, and for all my notes it’s still difficult to actually write the story while I’m still getting into it. I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, but the story might well be half finished before July starts, and then it’s a matter of finishing it, typing it up and editing it.

So that’s where I am at the moment: excited about a story, and freed from my PC so I can go and write down by the river (weather permitting – it’s forecast to rain heavily tomorrow, more’s the pity) or in my favourite cafe.

A recent disappointment with a job application has given me fresh resolve, so while I have the time I’m going to dedicate more time to writing, blogging, reading, researching, plotting, proofreading and learning – not to mention walks down to the river while the weather is nice. I’ve created a new schedule, a rather busy schedule, that I will begin tomorrow, which dedicates about six hours per day (except when I’m working) to working on all those things I just listed. Not including walks to the river: there’s another hour and a half set aside for those.

So today I am infused with a fresh energy, a fresh determination, and a new plan. This post is a promise that you’ll see at least some of it right here on my blog.

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.