Tag Archives: Writing

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

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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.

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