Tag Archives: Writing

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)

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

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.

15 lessons learned from my 1st #NaNoWriMo

I decided to have a crack at the National Novel Writing Month challenge this November. I’ve written 13,400 words in seven days. And like every other writer with a blog, I felt compelled to regale my experience in a jovial list format. So, buckle up, list fans. It’s time to get jovial.

1.) Holy fucking jeebus, trying to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days is A LOT BLOODY HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS. I’m serious, break it down: 1,667 words each day… every day… for 30 days. Even on my most productive days writing Citadel, I was hitting 1,500 in a day, once every couple of months. Now I have to pull that out of my arse EVERY SINGLE DAY, with no respite, lest I need to play catch-up.

2.) For all that is good and holy, plan your bastard project with more than 24 hours’ notice. I committed to NaNoWriMo on the 31st October, and whipped up the most cursory plot to a book that’s been hibernating in my mind for some time. At least twice I’ve come up against a wall of incongruity, which might well have been avoided had I given the bloody thing more than two thoughts.

Continue reading 15 lessons learned from my 1st #NaNoWriMo

How The Walking Dead finally lost me

This analysis contains spoilers!

When a friend first introduced me to The Walking Dead, I was hooked from the first episode – nay, the first five minutes. Its abrupt 28 Days Later-style beginning leant mystery to the zombie apocalypse ordeal, as gun-slinging cop Rick sought to fill in the gaps of how the world turned to shit, and find his family.

There’s a tremendous amount of agency and conflict in the early seasons, fuelled by human drama and complicated relationships. The awkward love triangle between Rick, his grieving wife Lori and his best friend and romantic usurper, Shane – the head-scratching hick – carried the show for the first two years.

That glorious first season gave our intrepid survivors something to do, besides staying alive; namely, seek out possibilities of a cure, or find a military base to hole up in. But when those elements were dropped with the destruction of the research bunker, events began to lose their pace and urgency.

Continue reading How The Walking Dead finally lost me

#Meanwhile… Choosing Which Criticism To Ignore

One of the crucial phases a writer goes through is garnering criticism from peers and beta readers, but when you’re putting your work out there, some degree of cynicism is essential.

Indeed, it is crucial for a writer to identify what advice to take and what advice to take with thanks as you slowly back away, holding their notes to your chest, before bidding them farewell, closing the door, and shoving the toxic lot in the bin. And setting it on fire.

Seriously though, it’s a skill. Every writer needs to master it, else you’ll either disregard everything and never improve, or end up writing by committee – and NOBODY wants that.

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LE Henderson has an excellent post on her blog Passionate Reason about the Seven Types of Writing Criticism to Ignore.

Enjoy.

Twitter culls – the naked truth

Last year, having read illustrious articles like “How To Expand Your Online Reach”, and “Develop Your Author Platform Or Suffer Anonymity!”, or even “12 Routes to Achieving Online Omnipotence”, I made the foolhardy choice to follow every bloody writer on Twitter I could find, in the hope they’d follow me back.

Surely, with ONE BILLION FOLLOWERS, I’d be drowning in engagements and impressions and all those magical metrics of modern life!

It worked, to an extent. I’d post a blog, pin a link to my Twitter profile, then follow 50 writers I could find using hashtags or bio searches. Maybe two thirds of those would follow me back.

A week later, I’d do the same thing, but then unfollow anyone who hadn’t had the GOOD BLOODY GRACE to follow me back – the ungrateful gets.

Continue reading Twitter culls – the naked truth

#Meanwhile… Strong Female Characters

For those of you who don’t know, audiences have been crying out for “strong female characters” for years now, and we’ve been treated to ever stronger and more kick-ass women on screen since. But is beating men to a pulp and cutting off their cocks really what critics were calling for?

Not exactly, according to the blog Jo Writes Stuff.

In her excellent and ongoing series, Jo takes fictional female characters and puts them through the grinder: her self-devised, 10-question assessment.

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
  2. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
  3. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
  4. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
  5. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
  6. Does she develop over the course of the story?
  7. Does she have a weakness?
  8. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
  9. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
  10. How does she relate to other female characters?

I came across her blog when Scarlet Johannson’s portrayal of Black Widow had won so many plaudits for being one such Strong Female Character she was to star in her own Avengers movie; but to me, she’d seemed utterly at odds with the idea of feminist depth, bemoaning her scars and referring to herself as a monster for her inability to bear child.

Lo, Jo had given Black Widow the 10-question treatment, and this is what she found.

Here’s a list of all the others. Her examination of Trinity is particularly good.

Seven words I learned reading the sport section

To obtain a strong vocabulary, we need but two things: the desire to read and the desire to learn.

However, all too often I gloss over words I don’t know, confident with the thrust of the sentence to assume meaning from inference. If you take the time just to quickly look them up – and how easy that is in this day and age – you can fill your mind from the word-well.

Continue reading Seven words I learned reading the sport section