Escaping the rut, a rancorous work, and the world – with writing

It’s been a long time since I posted a personal update. I’ve had a tough year for various reasons, but thankfully my writing has continued unabated. And I am immensely proud to announce I will shortly have finished my second novel, having started it a little over nine months ago, during #NaNoWriMo.

What an invigorating annual challenge National Novel Writing Month is! I was stuck in something of a rut, creatively speaking, before I took part in 2016. I’d been working on Citadel, my after-life fantasy epic, for practically a decade, and it was increasingly clear it would never end.

The story had evolved so much since first embarking upon it – and more importantly I had learned so much in the process – that the themes I had hoped to tackle at the beginning had been masticated and regurgitated, popping out in the narrative in weird morsels that no longer represented my initial vision.

Etch-a-sketch-a-story

For better or worse, I’ve now shelved that project. It was an incredibly hard decision – 10 years of work, for heaven’s sake! – but I am certain it was the right choice. Maybe one day I will return to it, as there are certainly some scenes in that hot mess of which I am proud.

But setting it aside cleared the path for more focused work. Where Citadel had become my practice clay, upon which I tested new techniques of storytelling, it was nevertheless just that: practice. Now I’m using what I learned messing about with that hunk of mud, but on some new fancy material.

What have I learned, specifically? Well, it includes, but by no means is limited to:

  • Concept of agency (I hadn’t heard of this until long after I started writing)
  • Perspective focus
  • Importance of diversity
  • How to lace backstory into action and dialogue
  • How to skip journeys
  • How to build tension in action scenes
  • How to construct a character arc
  • Importance of arcs for all characters, not just the protagonist
  • How to ruthlessly murder your darlings
  • How to reach the end

My new novel, prospectively titled Peace & Quietus, has been my most ambitious project since starting to write – but not due to its potential length, or number of characters, or exhaustive worldbuilding. On the contrary, the story looks to be about two thirds the size of Citadel, has only a handful of characters, and is set in London, rather than a fantastical reimagining of Hell.

The reason it has been ambitious is because P&Q is a much more emotionally driven piece than I have previously attempted. It was borne of my own despair watching the western world kowtow to fascism, nationalism and isolationism, with the Brexit vote and the election of that racist neon beanbag in the US. It grew out of anxiety attacks on the London underground, out of visibly increasing homelessness in the world’s sixth largest economy, out of the frustrations of a much-derided generation left with the carcass of a free-market economy picked clean by their parents.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “If you can identify what your story is about, and are able to express it in a single sentence, everything in the story will inform that central proposition”

The story tackles body shame, social media anxiety, racism, the political shift to the right, the hopelessness among so-called Millennials, and the ever-present attraction of just giving up and abandoning the rat race. It’s escapism, in a word.

Yes, it has a science fiction element – the story concerns an apocalypse of sorts – and that’s because I wanted to describe a character who, when the end of civilisation came, would find solace in its blessed relief from modern life.

That’s another thing I learned: the importance of comprehending what your story is about, and being able to express it in a single sentence. If you know that, everything in the story will inform that central proposition.

Helpful hiatus

So, I hope to finish the first draft by the end of the week, and then? Well, then I’m going to set it aside for a while; I’ve a couple of short story ideas I’ve been stewing away in the back of my mind that need fleshing out, plus it would be good to start thinking about my next #NaNoWriMo project. Either way, edits for P&Q can wait.

How I will broadcast any achievements is anyone’s guess, though. In a fit of reactionary paranoia, I deleted my Facebook account, severing the ties I had made with hundreds of people around the world. What was I thinking? I could have sold stuff at them!

Yeah, but no, delete your account. It’s great.
(But don’t forget to subscribe to Right Place, Right Tim first!)

Cheers!

(cover image by Linh Nguyen)

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Re-writing Rogue One’s most irksome scene

I want to talk about Rogue One – and my problem with the final cut.

I preface this by admitting the film was a commercial success, grossing more than $1bn globally – success that was reflected in the audience meta-reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, securing 85% fresh from critics and an 87% audience score. That’s decent numbers.

Nevertheless, personally, the film left me feeling hollow, and it took a second viewing two years later to really grasp why. Specifically, it took one scene to pinpoint my frustration with the film.

Aside: I’m aware the internet is awash with feverish fans pissing and moaning about their beloved franchise being supposedly ruined by all manner of nefarious forces, from SJW writers to diversity-crazed executives – absurd criticisms that say a lot more about the critic than the creatives.

This is not one of those blogs.

I want to talk about the writing – the agency, character development and dialogue. That’s what this blog has always been about, after all.

The scene I want to examine comes smack-bang in the middle, following the X-Wing bombing run on the Imperial research facility on Eadu.

This scene forms the crux of the story – it’s supposed to be the point at which Jyn shifts from passivity to action. Indeed, in the scene after this she has transformed into a spokesperson for freedom, encouraging lifelong rebels to fight against the Empire. Meanwhile, for Cassian, this scene reveals his remorse, and prepares the groundwork for his subsequent redemption. It’s a low ebb in a film devoted to low ebbs.

So, in its entirety:

JYN: You lied to me.

CASSIAN: You’re in shock.

JYN: You went up there to kill my father.

CASSIAN: You don’t know what you’re talking about.

JYN: Deny it.

CASSIAN: You’re in shock, and looking for someplace to put it. I’ve seen it before.

JYN: I bet you have. They know! You lied about why we came here and you lied about why you went up alone.

CASSIAN: [sighs] I had every chance to pull the trigger. But did I? [looks to Bodhi] Did I?

JYN: You might as well have. My father was living proof and you put him at risk. Those were Alliance bombs that killed him.

CASSIAN: I had orders! Orders that I disobeyed. But you wouldn’t understand that.

JYN: Orders? When you know they’re wrong? You might as well be a stormtrooper.

CASSIAN: What do you know? We don’t all have the luxury of deciding when and where we wanna care about something. Suddenly the rebellion is real for you. Some of us live it. I’ve been in this fight since I was six years old. You’re not the only one who lost everything. Some of us just decided to do something about it.

JYN: You can’t talk your way around this.

CASSIAN: I don’t have to.

The biggest problem with this scene stems from Cassian’s actions on the ridge. Remember, Cassian is the first character we’ve seen to so perfectly personify “rebel scum”; he is a murdering thug, who kills in cold blood, abandons his allies and stoops to anything to further the Rebel cause.

So Cassian is sent to Eadu to assassinate Jyn’s father, Galen, but at the last disobeys his orders. However, it is never clear why. Perhaps he believes what Jyn has told him, that Galen can prove to the Rebel Alliance that there is a way to destroy the Death Star. But if he believed her, why continue with the mission, why take the pilot up to the ridge as his spotter if he doesn’t have every intention of carrying out the order. No, it looks more like a crisis of conscience.

But this in itself is vexxing – we witnessed Cassian’s ruthlessness in his first scene. Remember when he was getting info from an informant, and they are discovered by two Stormtroopers? He shoots the guards, thereby alerting the rest of the Imperial forces to their presence. His injured comrade begins to panic, worried he won’t be able to escape with a lame arm. Cassian – for no discernible reason – takes it upon himself to calm the informant with soothing words before shooting him in the back. Cassian apparently has no conscience – he believes implicitly in the cause, will do anything for it, kill anyone for it.

So which is it that draws his finger off the trigger? If it is reason, he should have disobeyed sooner, and enacted a plan that might save Galen. If it is compassion, well, here’s that scene again:

Cassian’s character arc is all about remorse – we learn he has been fighting the Empire since he was six years old, and has done terrible things for the sake of the rebellion. But we are led to believe he suddenly has a change of heart when aiming down the scope of a sniper rifle at the man who designed the most heinous weapon in the galaxy. He’ll sidle up close to an ally to shoot them at point-blank range, but he hesitates when his target is a mile away and for all intents and purposes a far more dangerous enemy?

It doesn’t sit right.

So, not a great foundation for a pivotal scene. Let’s break it down, line by line…

JYN: You lied to me.

Jyn is referring to when she realised Cassian had left the ship with his weapon in “sniper configuration”. Fair enough – though he didn’t pull the trigger. So, while she may think he went up to shoot Galen, he didn’t, and therein lies a mystery…

CASSIAN: You’re in shock.

Remember, Cassian does not yet know why Jyn is accusing him of lying. Perhaps this is his guilt replying, but one might argue he’d just act incredulous. He has nothing to gain from admitting his order, and it would be much more in character if he continued to lie. Either way, his complete inaction during the Eadu scene has apparently made him the aggressor.

JYN: You went up there to kill my father.

Again, Jyn had good reason to believe Cassian was there to assassinate Galen; and yet, he clearly did not carry out the order. The question I would be asking is, “Why didn’t you shoot?”

CASSIAN: You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Cassian is being dismissive and patronising, and it’s his only line in this scene that makes any sense.

JYN: Deny it.

So I guess Jyn is challenging Cassian to keep lying – but he has been lying constantly and without contrition since the beginning, so it’s hardly the most likely way to win this argument, or indeed draw out a confession.

CASSIAN: You’re in shock, and looking for someplace to put it. I’ve seen it before.

This line is just semantically wrong. She may be in shock – and saying so is a good way to undermine her accusations – but you can’t put shock anywhere. What does that even mean? Looking for someplace to put your shock?

JYN: I bet you have. – They know! You lied about why we came here and you lied about why you went up alone.

The “I’ve seen it before” –> “I bet you have” remark & response appear to be there only to make the dialogue switch from one to the other. Cassian doesn’t need to say “I’ve seen it before” – it adds no weight to his point. Jyn’s response is basically meaningless – sarcastically implying he’s seen lots of people in shock? Well, yeah, he’s a soldier. What’s your point? And then she instantly changes tact with “They know!”

Note also she says Cassian lied about why he “went up alone”. But he didn’t go up alone, did he? He went up with the pilot, so that Bodhi could identify Galen. (I’m amazed his commanding officer couldn’t rustle up a photo of Galen before sending Cassian out to kill someone he wouldn’t recognise, but that is by the bye.)

CASSIAN: [sighs] I had every chance to pull the trigger. But did I? [looks to Bodhi] Did I?

Cassian lets the cat out of the bag by admitting he was aiming at her father. Fine – people make mistakes. (Bear in mind she had no proof, and further denial would have cost him nothing, ah well.) But then he looks to the pilot for affirmation, reminding the audience that he didn’t in fact go up to the ridge alone after all.

Yes, once Bodhi identified Galen, he sent the pilot away. But that begs the quetion, why ask for his alibi, when Bodhi might easily reply that Cassian sent him away?

Everything in this scene is warped.

JYN: You might as well have. My father was living proof and you put him at risk. Those were Alliance bombs that killed him.

This is where the scene loses it completely. Cassian had no sway over the orders of the Rebel fleet. He refrained from sending the signal in hyperspace because they were deep in Imperial territory (let’s give a pass to the fact he was able to take a call from the Rebels). Then they crash, damaging their comms systems. It is this loss of contact that leads to the X-Wing squadron being launched.

So when Cassian refrained from pulling the trigger, did that put Galen in more or less danger? I mean it’s just ridiculous at this point, isn’t it?

CASSIAN: I had orders! Orders that I disobeyed. But you wouldn’t understand that.

OK, so he’s categorically no longer denying it. He had orders, which he disobeyed. Why would Jyn – a woman who hasn’t followed orders since her father told her to hide in a hole – not understand about disobeying orders?

Perhaps he’s belittling her for not being in a position to have any orders – for abandoning the rebellion? Either way, his point is completely muddled by the fact he loves orders, despite disobeying them. (But she wouldn’t understand that – and neither do we)

JYN: Orders? When you know they’re wrong? You might as well be a stormtrooper.

Jyn accuses Cassian of disobeying orders, and then accuses him of following orders like a Stormtrooper. THIS MAKES NO SENSE.

CASSIAN: What do you know? We don’t all have the luxury of deciding when and where we wanna care about something. Suddenly the rebellion is real for you. Some of us live it. I’ve been in this fight since I was six years old. You’re not the only one who lost everything. Some of us just decided to do something about it.

Aside from the extremely staccato and choppy thoughts in this muddled block of dialogue, we’ve entered the realm of arguing for argument’s sake. He emotionally slaps her across the face by belittling her emotional response to watching her father die in her arms, and all because she nonsensically likens his disregard of orders with the actions of a mindless Stormtrooper.

But we get a glimpse of backstory, for the first time – and that’s welcome. Unfortunately, it comes so late in the film. Suddenly we’re asked to feel something for this character who hitherto seemed nothing more than a guide, or worse, a heel to the protagonist.

I’m not against rich, complicated characters, but this is the very first sign of complexity in a character who has already made his pivotal choice – to disobey his orders. For this switch to work, don’t we need to know earlier that he’s struggling with his remorse? All we have is that brief look of regret after he murders the informant in cold blood.

JYN: You can’t talk your way around this.

Talk his way around what? He has already admitted he was given orders to murder Galen. He has already made it clear he disobeyed those orders (though not why he did). What does he have to talk his way out of? Remaining her friend? He hasn’t shown any affection towards Jyn previously, and is certainly not attempting to salvage their relationship in anything else he’s said.

Everything in this scene is wrong, because it tries to take a load of scenes that contain no character development, or relationship development, and cram a shit-tonne in before they both have their pivotal redemption scenes. It’s a bandage, to cover the gaping wound in the story – that a sudden change in character will make no sense.

But who’s gonna write it, kid? You?

This is the part where you say, “OK then, you write the scene that fixes it, you sodding know-it-all!”

Fair enough. I’ll take a swing at it, but it’s difficult without being able to edit the rest of the film.

Still, I present to you my Eadu-escape confrontation scene.

J: You lied to me.

C: About what?

J: You came here, to murder my father.

C: [looks at the others, to get a sense of the room. A glance from Bodhi and he knows the game’s up] And? What of it? [he cannot face her] Your father was a traitor, and a danger to the rebellion.

J: Then why didn’t you kill him? [a tear rolls down her cheek, because she wants to grieve, but she needs to know]

C: It doesn’t matter why.

J: Tell me, damn you!

C: …

J: Tell me!

C: I wanted to! [he lurches towards her to whisper] I wanted to kill him… for everyone on Jedha. And it would have been righteous – Galen deserved to die.

J: You rebel scum…

C: Oh, there it is! You’ve been wanting to say it since you met me, haven’t you? Haven’t you! You look at me and all you see is a hollowed out soldier, who sold his soul for freedom. And maybe you’re right, but at least I fight for a cause. What do you fight for?

J: I fought for my father…

C: Sure, once we dragged you out from under the Empire’s boot and threw you into the fray.

J: You’re a monster.

C: D’yaahhh. [he walks away, making a show of examining some computer readout]

J: [pitying] You’ve nothing left, have you? Nothing but hate. You rebels are no better than the Empire.

C: [throws a helmet across the deck] You know nothing about me! I’ve given everything – EVERYTHING – to fight the Empire. I’ve known nothing else since I was a damn child! Since I was six years old! So you don’t get to lecture me, just because today the Empire finally took from you something you were unwilling to yield.

J: Oh, spare me the sanctimony! I know exactly the kind of man you are. You’re just another Saw Gerrera. A thug, a murderer. And precisely the reason I never wanted any part of this fight. But now I’ve no choice, have I? And since men like you have so spectacularly failed to save us from the Empire, it will take people like me – people like my father – who think before they fight, to clear up your mess.

C: I’d love to see you try.

J: You will.

This way, Jyn’s newfangled taste for rebellion is more believable, and her reasons for not joining the Alliance more understandable.

It doesn’t account for Cassian’s crisis of conscience, but I’m not sure that can be fixed from this scene alone. He needs another scene, in which he follows an order and weeps at the barbarity of his actions. That way the arc is complete: Status quo > Reflection > Change > Redemption.

I think with some jigging around, Rogue One could have been one of my favourites in the franchise. But I just didn’t care about the characters, and part of that was borne from confusion over who they were, what they wanted, and why they wanted to change.

What do you think? An improvement? Have I fixed anything, or made it worse? Let me know!

 

If you don’t see me in November, blame #NaNoWriMo

With November fast approaching, I felt the need to explain my impending month-long withdrawal from society. Friends will be dismayed when I decline their invitation to the pub. Colleagues will wonder where I go every lunch break with my laptop (incidentally, I go to the pub to write, but don’t tell my friends). And my wife will offer me coffee while she catches up on all the rom-com trash I’ve hitherto vetoed.

I will not have time for such dalliances. I will be too busy creating!

If you don’t mind setting aside the pretentiousness of that statement, I shall explain: November is National Novel Writing Month, or #NaNoWriMo for short.

This means I will be joining thousands of other bleary-eyed writers around the world in attempting to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Yes, you exceptional number crunchers, that does indeed equate to 1,667 per day. Also known colloquially as “a right proper slog”.

Back for seconds

I attempted (and completed – barely) the challenge for the first time last year, despite only discovering it on October 30th. That gave me two days to decide on an idea and plan some semblance of story from it.

The result was The Divine Alliance, an epic reimagining of The Iliad if Diomedes had recognised his ability to hurt the Gods. Thirty-odd chapters of Ancient Greek and Trojan kings rallying together to defeat their greater foe: the lords of Olympus.

If I’m honest, it has some problems, but there’s a body of work now, where once there was only the neurons in my brain keeping the idea in existence. It needs some rejigging, a little more agency for secondary characters, and an ending (I got to 50,000 words, I didn’t say I finished it), but I was pleased with it. There’s some great scenes, some neat concepts, and events that transpire as they do in the wider Greek tragedies, stoking themes of predestination and self-determination. I like it. And one day, I’ll go back to it and fix it up.

But not in November – no sir! In November I have something very different in mind.

End of the world as we know it

This year’s attempt will be a post-cataclysmic tale of survival. A woman finds herself trapped on the upper floors of a Piccadilly Circus building by a toxic mist that has come to rest over the streets of London. When escape becomes an impossible feat, she must turn to her copy of An Island To Oneself, a survivalist’s story of life on a desert island – only she’s on the rooftops, so scavenging for coconuts is out of the question.

The thrust of the story is the protagonist’s happy adoption of this new life, devoid of all the exhausting emotional trauma modern civilisation inflicts upon us. She builds a network of bridges between the rooftops, grows plants in a self-made greenhouse, collects rain water in office recycling bins, and sleeps in the empty luxury flats, devoid of utilities.

Now, my usual writing process is to just blurt out an idea and see where it takes me, something the writing community calls a “pantser” – ie, one who writes by the seat of their pants. So, spending more than a week on planning is an interesting experiment for me. We shall see if it reaps rewards.

In the meantime, please don’t take offence if I’m a little unresponsive for the next four weeks.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Good luck to everyone else participating! May your creative juices flow like the saliva of a dog in a butcher’s shop.


Featured photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash

X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages

I have been reading some utter dross recently. And it puts me in something of a quandary. I love reading, I like writing reviews, and I value my integrity, so I will never say I like a book if I deep down think it is uncompromisingly awful.

But I’m also an author, and since the market is peculiar in this day and age – where self-published work sits side by side on the digital bookshelf with products of the traditional industry – it favours the budding author to form a community with the competition, to foster each other’s talent with encouragement, advice and praise. In other words, for writers new to the game, I feel uncomfortable pissing all over their babies.

Torn, as I am, between on the one hand offering the unabridged truth, and on the other, not being a total dick, I struck upon the idea for this blog post. X Reasons Why Your Self-Published Novel Failed In The First Three Pages. (Tim, don’t forget to come back and replace that X with the number you come up with, like a proper journalist.)

So, listed below are examples of howlers I have found, here rewritten or reconceptualised in order to obfuscate their origins.

So, without further ado, I shall begin with perhaps the most obvious:

1.) Typos

Some typos are acceptable, perhaps inevitable. Even in traditionally published bestsellers, which get read more times in production than the average self-published novel does after release, can contain the odd erroneous spelling or punctuation blunder. An accidental double space between words? It will not sully my reading enjoyment. Forgot to close off your speech with quotation marks? It’s fine, I get what is going on; don’t worry your little head about it.

But not all typos are created equal. I just read a book, and subsequently deleted it, because it contained the word “expresso”.

You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “You can fuck with punctuation, but do not fuck with coffee”

2.) Four Weddings And A Fucking Opener

Starting your book with a swear word is not as clever as you thought it was when you first watched Hugh Grant stutter profanity for the first 10 minutes of Four Weddings. Edgy, wasn’t it? Cool and new, right?

THAT WAS IN NINETEEN-NINETY-FOUR.

Don’t forget, although “Fuck” was the first word of dialogue in Four Weddings, the scene had been set with a dreary–eyed Grant awaking from his slumber to reach out and look at his alarm clock. The meaning of “Fuck” in this instance was clear from the outset: the protagonist is late for something important. We have visual clues: bed, clock, dreary-eyed toff.

Starting your chapter with “Fuck” and then spending four paragraphs explaining the expletive is not a great hook. Nor are we invested enough (or at all!) in the scene or the characters to be shocked by such a word. By stripping away everything but the expletive, you’re as sanitising as a redtop tabloid filling every naughty word with asterisks.

Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “Set your scene first. Swear to b****ry later”

3.) “Inappropriate dialogue verbs,” he careened

This is a style thing, but it so often accompanies amateurish writing it’s like painting a sign on your book that says, “I don’t know what I’m doing – help me.” The point is, we don’t smile, grin, smirk, sneer or grimace our words, do we? You might speak – with a smile. Or you might speak – and then smile. Or, if you absolutely must, you might speak – smilingly. (Ugh)

Don’t make your reader do imagination loop-the-loops trying to figure how your character’s face has contorted so elaborately that they can grin a sentence through their teeth: “EEeer DHuRsst Iiiiek Teer Sserre, yeee urrr reerrryyy beerrTiffflul.”

4.) Action beat minutiae

Compare and contrast:

Meredith plucked an elegantly thin cigarette from her packet and lit it. She let the smoke drift from her lips like ribbons in a breeze, her eyes catching mine in a gaze from which I could never escape. It might have been beautiful, if it wasn’t so inherently vulgar.

With:

Meredith fished out her packet of Vogue Menthol thin cigarettes from her black-leather jacket’s inside-left pocket, pulled out a single smoke and placed it between her ample lips on one side of her mouth. She removed a lighter from the other jacket pocket and, after sparking three times to no avail, coaxed a flame to the tip and inhaled. She held the cigarette six inches from the table and it hovered there, intimidating, until she moved it back to her lips for another drag. Her other hand moved from the table to her coffee cup, the small handle of which she pinched between forefinger and thumb, little pinky sticking out, as she took a loud, unabashed sip. I realised I had been fixated on every mundane detail of her actions, and decided to go and have a lie down.

I literally just read something in which the author tells us how far – in inches – the character’s hand is from the table. I’ve got better things to do than waste time on the position of each person’s every limb, thanks. Just tell me what’s happening, and keep it pertinent.

5.) Clunky dialogue

Two characters are walking to a crime scene, a drugs bust gone wrong. One is briefing the other on the situation, and offers his opinion on the state of the narcotics problem in the town, namely the Afro-Caribbean population. The other replies with a pre-prepared thesis on the correlation between socio-economic depravity and drug use, and the accompanying theory that race is less linked to drug abuse than it is with poverty, though they oft go hand in hand, and in fact, if statistics included incidents in which white folk were cautioned for drug use but released without charge, plotted against the ethnic proportion of whites to people of colour, the results would reveal a shocking discordance with the ethnic makeup of those currently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

All this over doughnuts on the short walk round to the victim’s apartment.

Take it easy with your message, guys. Go for a little subtlety. Assume the best of your readers – they will get what you’re trying to say, I promise.

6.) Irrelevant description

If your character looks out of a window and describes the trees blowing in the wind just so you can fill a paragraph with words, cut it. We don’t need to know how the billowing branches waved at the sky, its leaves rustling like an overzealous percussionist. We don’t need to know about the squirrel, gleefully bounding from branch to branch in search of nuts, or the woodpecker, noisily carving out a home from the bark.

That is, of course, unless those details are related to your story or its theme. If the forest is about to be cut down by an evil property developer and the protagonist has spent their entire life protecting woodpeckers from extinction, and your character’s life is going to be thrown into turmoil, sure, set that mother-fucking scene.

I recently read a story in which the character describes the wake of a boat, because there was one, and because the author needed something to pass the time between the character setting off on a journey and later arriving.

Cut it out.

7.) Too many characters

Slow it down – seriously. There’s no need to introduce your entire cast, by name, in the first three pages. Introduce one. Develop them through their interactions with another. Sprinkle one or two for setting, perhaps. But don’t give all of them things to do and say and names for the reader to remember, because (a) people won’t remember them and they’ll get confused, and (2) people won’t know who to care about!

It sounds reductive to say it, but it’s true. A reader needs something to grasp onto within the first few paragraphs, and a good, solid protagonist (whether they be anti-hero or otherwise) is the author’s greatest asset. Make a person interesting and your readership will follow them wherever they go. Even if they just need a shit.

8.) Shit characters

One trend I’ve noticed an awful lot is the desperate attempt to create a “strong female character” that brazenly flouts clichés by being not only jaw-droppingly hot, but able to fight her way out of a pugilist arena filled with snarling WARTHACKS.

HINT: “strong female character” doesn’t mean she can bench a rhino and goes to bars to pick up guys – literally!

“Strong female characters” just means fleshed out, real people, with fucking agency, who don’t bow to the men of the piece simply by virtue of their gender. Jesus Christ, try talking to a woman. There’s a few of them about, if you look hard enough. They have opinions, some of them, and likes and dislikes and they’re all different and when they turn up at a crime scene to collect forensic evidence they don’t always swoon over the detectives or get disparaged by sexist comments from the constabulary.

Similarly, people are bored with the humourless, burly action hero with the jaw and the eyebrows and the biceps and a dislike of guns because when he has one, bad things happen. Too hard, too indestructible, too boring.

twitter-logo-finalTweet: “People are bored with the humourless, burly action hero”

My favourite action hero is John McClane, simply because he’s a bloke fucking up his marriage, who when trouble strikes keeps getting shot and beaten up, but all he really wants to do is hide until the cops can sort it out. Despite all the travails and body trauma, he keeps going, and uses his wits to reach Holly and get them both out alive. His stubborn masculinity fucked over his marriage, remember. The crux of the story is when McClane realises how much he loves Holly and how much of a jerk he’s been.

Write a human.

(Or an alien, if that’s your bag.)

————-

That’s all I’ve got from the last batch of self-published books I’ve read, but let me know your instant turn-offs in the comments!

And if you want to, I’ve set up a Facebook author page that I have yet to tell people about. The odd Like will be greatly appreciated!

The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – Rod Duncan – [Book Review]

Bought on a whim in an International Book Day promotion for 50p from Angry Robot, Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter was a very pleasant surprise indeed. The steampunk mystery is set in a parallel-universe England around the turn of the century. Britain is divided between an aristocratic Kingdom that extends from the Midlands to the English Channel, and the sober Republic to the north.

Told through the eyes of cross-dressing private investigator Elizabeth Barnabus and her “brother”, the story weaves a rich and absorbing world through glorious Victorian language and sensibilities, while drip-feeding us the setting’s history as and when we need it. This is the correct way to give the reader the information they require – on a need-to-know basis, allowing us to enjoy the characters, the action and the peril without unnecessary distraction.

Much to my delight, my fears of an unresolved storyline left open to reel the reader in to an entire series were unfounded. The story is complete in itself, with the merest hint of a wider narrative to come sprinkled into the glossary appendix, with talk of falling empires and the involvement of our humble heroine. Again, this is how it should be: entice readers back with a good story, not unanswered cliff-hangers.

Having said that, I have bought the second book in the series – which is unusual for me. With so many stories out there in the market, I try to keep my choices eclectic, and seldom return to a world, even if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it (Hyperion being an exception – both books are essential reading). So to have drawn me back for another episode in high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of the steampunk genre.

——

[For larks – here’s a couple of pictures of me in a costume I made for Bestival 2010 of a steampunk time-traveller I made up, named Dr Heimlich Spoading. The backpack was designed to carry two bags of space wine (those silver bags inside boxes of wine), and had a latch for the tap to poke out. I don’t think I’ve ever been as drunk as the night I wore that little number – and it unfortunately did not survive the muddy night.

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35

Photo on 2010-09-07 at 17.35 #2

Handy links!

You can buy Rod Duncan’s first book in the Gas-Lit Empire series here: The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.

Rod is also quite active on Twitter, and seems a nice chap; so here’s his Twitter handle: Rod Duncan

The end is nigh, and other novel-writing revelations

A few weeks ago, the latest draft of Citadel tipped over the 100,000 words mark. It’s drawing closer to an end, when I can finally put this project to bed. I’ve spent the best part of 10 years on this story – though most of that time was spent learning how to tell it, rather than writing it, if that makes any sense.

That’s the nature of writing, I think. You can smash something out, but unless you study the craft and hone your talent, it is guaranteed to be a waffling mess. I look back at my early drafts, and they are practically instruments of torture – I cringe so hard reading them I give myself cramp. A lot of that was down to ignorance – ignorance of deep POV, narrative arcs, scene structure, character agency and the other mechanics of the trade.

But I’ve also learned to find the theme of a piece – the answer to the question: What am I writing about? If the answer is, “Radical battles and death and gore and political intrigue and titties!” you’re not quite there yet.

If your answer is actually another question, you’re getting closer.

But the biggest reason I’m excited to finish the story is that I want to do something else for a change. I want to write something new, something different and exciting. Something that I haven’t been mulling over for a decade. I can’t wait!

Why don’t I just sack off this project and do precisely that? Well, there are a few reasons: firstly, stubbornness is a factor. I said I’d do it, and I will, and not even me can persuade me otherwise!

Secondly, I don’t want the last decade to feel like a waste of time. I know it’s been a learning process – and that in itself is valuable – but to go so long without something complete and whole at the end of it would be pretty demoralising.

But thirdly, I’m not entirely without hope that Citadel is, in fact, a good story. I’ve no doubt I can do better, knowing what I know now, but there are scenes and characters in Citadel that I come across in the draft and think, “What the…? Who wrote this? It’s good.” There are moments that make my skin tingle, dialogue that’s witty and insightful (sometimes I don’t know if it’s me or the characters that came up with it), and tragic events that shake the very fabric of the world I’ve created.

So, I have to finish. And maybe an editor will say, “You need to cut out this entire sub-plot,” or “Do we need to see the antagonist in this light, or can we just leave him evil?” or “Have you considered doing away with description?”.

But that’s OK. It’ll be done. Finito. Complete.

A long, winding road leading to two words:

The End.

I can’t wait.

The Stars Are Legion – Kameron Hurley – [Book Review]

Kameron Hurley’s biopunk sci-fi adventure The Star Are Legion is as unique as it is bizarre. Hurtling through the cosmos in an organic starship, space-faring women wage war with the other world-ships in the cluster, en route to some long-forgotten destination, while birthing ship components and murdering mutants.

The story revolves around two main characters, one with amnesia, who spends the book trying to discover who she is and what she has done; and her handler, who tries to enact some gradually revealed master plan.

It’s a tricky prospect in first person present tense. Although the mind-wiped Zan discovers the world with the same curiosity as us, the cunning Jayd must keep her goals from the reader, which can get a little frustrating at times. It was a brave move to adopt her perspective, and is admittedly well-handled, but the risk is always of making the reader want to shake the narrator by the neck to spill the beans. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW, DAMNIT – WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?

It’s hard to know who to trust with all these unreliable narrators, but gleaning the evidence with Zan is a compelling way to reveal the backstory. The twist did not smash me in the face, though, which I had hoped; but I’m not sure how else it could have been delivered. Elements of the mystery sprinkled throughout perhaps gave too much away, or maybe it was the choice of using both POVs that softened the punch.

However, the visceral descriptions of the world-ships, the ubiquitous imagery of birth and pregnancy, and the ignorant civilisations that inhabit their rotting worlds all make for a powerful read. It’s bleak – hideously so, at times – all oozing membranes and cancerous cityscapes, pointless conflict and maniacal despots, who dismember dissidents and drive their civilisations into oblivion.

It wasn’t until I read an interview with the author that I grasped the concept – the ships are colony vessels, whose inhabitants have evolved while in space on their way to some destination, but the mission has long since been forgotten in the annals of time. It’s a bit like the movie Pandorum, but without non-evolved humans to tie the story to a contemporary foundation (and it’s rather more sophisticated than simple devolution to mindless savagery).

Not that this matters terribly. Characters with clear agency don’t require exhaustive back-stories to be engaging, after all. As long as we know what they want, and perceive their obstacles, we can get behind them, cheer their victories and mourn their losses.

It’s also a very quick read, as first person present tense tends to be. Though I admittedly felt the second act was a little too long in comparison to the end and the beginning, the range of settings, ideas and characters kept me interested. And I’d definitely read more from Hurley. Entertaining, evocative, visceral sc-fi fantasy that recalls 1960s-style bizarre space romps. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Handy links!

Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is available on Kindle here

The author is good on the Twitter too, and worth following for insights into publishing and all things sci-fi. She can be found here: Kameron Hurley

Finally, Hurley often posts candid blogs about her publishing income (among a raft of other things) over at kameronhurley.com

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury – [Book Review]

I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury. The man was an expert storyteller, but also a visual and rhythmic genius to boot. His colourful imagery blooms with bright vocabulary and flowing sentences that drift upon a stream of ideas unbound by the norms of grammar and syntax. His prose is poetry, in a word. I even chose a passage from Something Wicked This Way Comes to be read at my wedding, despite the fact it’s a horror.

Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain. Shared and once again shared experience. Billions of prickling textures. Cut one sense away, cut part of life away. Cut two senses; life halves itself on the instant. We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.

That’s a father trying to imagine how to describe love to two pre-teen boys, so that they can understand it. It’s lovely.

However, I’d not heard of The Martian Chronicles until it came up in conversation on Twitter with my pal Jon. It was excuse enough to impulsively order it, and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed.

Continue reading The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury – [Book Review]

Published! My first short story now available, in The Infernal Clock

I am very excited (and nervous) to announce the first publication of one my short stories. My brain is a little all over the place, truth be told. I am as much daunted by the prospect as I am over the moon.

Here, let me pour out my mind soup, so you can see what’s going on:

I HAVE FINALLY ACHIEVED STARDOM – THE MUSE HAS SWEPT ME UP AND DELIVERED ME UNTO THE ANNALS OF HISTORY AS THE WORLD’S GREATEST WRITER – ummmm, steady on, what if my story’s shit? What if – actually – the first thing I’ve published is a steaming turd? – NO, IT IS A GREAT ACHIEVEMENT – oh shit oh shit oh shit – GO FORTH AND BE MERRY, FOR THIS MONUMENTOUS OCCASION NO DOUBT HERALDS FURTHER SUCCESS – every single literate English-speaking human has read it and they know my picture and they think I’m a total muppet and they’re laughing at my stupid face behind my back – IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO LAUGH AT SOMEONE’S FACE BEHIND THEIR BACK – oh God! What if my story is riddled with incongruous metaphors? IT IS A GOOD STORY, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, GIVE IT A REST – I will not give it a rest, it’s called humility and doubt, you overbearing prat, maybe I should just not tell anyone – NO, WRITE A BLOG POST AND SHARE IT ON FACEBOOK – but then people might read it – THAT WAS THE POINT, WASN’T IT? – I don’t know! – GROW UP – Oh shit oh shit oh shit…

Oops, let me just close the old noggin there.

I’m erring towards Mr Shouty Brain, though – after all, I did write to be read, so I really ought to tell people when I have written something, right? So I’ll post this, and then go and hide in the pub for three hours.

So! On with the self promotion…

Continue reading Published! My first short story now available, in The Infernal Clock

Railsea – China Miéville – [Book Review]

No author has graced the pages of this blog as frequently as China Miéville. I’m a fan – there, I said it. He writes with chameleonic flair across the genre spectrum, with an imagination the rest of us can only envy. His worlds are vividly bizarre, rich but peculiar, inhabited by characters that more often than not have depth and agency to spare.

Though I have not been universally enamoured with his work (Kraken was awash with ideas but the protagonist was weak), I thoroughly enjoyed Perdido Street Station and still recommend The City & The City whenever anyone mentions noir, sci-fi, thrillers or deeply poignant analogy in fiction.

So, what of Miéville’s 2012 post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure Railsea? Here’s my verdict: it’s bloody brilliant.

Continue reading Railsea – China Miéville – [Book Review]

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