Creative Discipline

Creative Discipline

If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.

– Anne Tyler

I am constantly confronted with this dilemma. I work full time, because, you know, bills don’t pay themselves. Usually, by the time I get home of an evening, the last thing I want to do is start writing. Even though I am a night owl, and evenings are usually my most productive times, after a full day in the office, I find it difficult to motivate myself. It is so much easier to curl up in front of the TV and binge watch Game of Thrones while the world passes by around me.

Unfortunately, that sort of thinking leads to a downward spiral that carries you further and further from that creative spark that can be elusive even at the best of times. Yes, I am talking from experience. No, I do not have a quick fix solution. I don’t think there is one.

This is where Anne Tyler’s words of wisdom come into play, and why I find them so encouraging. Because, from what she says, it seems I am not alone in this.

1495027653825Here’s the thing: Writing is a very lonely pursuit. Ultimately, it boils down to you, your pen (or laptop) and your own train of thought. Yes, you can bounce ideas off other people and ask them to look over what you have written. But no-one can make you sit down to write but you. And there is no-one, but NO-ONE, better at psyching you out than Yourself.

I remember when I first started writing my novel (the one I started about 10 years ago, and am still fighting out the first draft!) I would look over what I had written and read through my notes, and I hated every single word of it. I got to the point that I was so negative about it that I closed my notebooks and didn’t write anything for about five years! I would go back to it every so often, peak under the cover of the notebook to see if it was still there and then run away again. Each time, I looked at it, the worse I felt about my abilities as a writer. I didn’t like it, so why would anyone else?

Then one day, my mum persuaded me to let her read what I had so far and…

She loved it!

Now, sure, you may be thinking, “She’s your mum, of course she loved it,” but I can tell you my mum is a very discerning reader. If she hadn’t liked it, I would have known about it. At length. With notes.

Anyway, the fact that someone outside of my own head was getting excited about what I had written and where the story was going, was enough for me to pick it up again and keep going.

If I can pass on one piece of advice from this: Don’t let yourself get so far into your own head that you lose your story. If you can no longer see the merits of your own work, give it to someone else. Let them find it again for you.

When I was at University (studying Creative Writing with English Literature), I found I was fairly prolific in my writing. Most of what I was working on then was course oriented, and with that came deadlines and the knowledge that missing these deadlines meant no grade and no graduation.

Once I had my degree, these deadlines disappeared overnight and there was suddenly nothing to write towards. It became very easy for me to fall into the trap of “I don’t want to write, therefore I won’t,” (especially given my own dislike towards what I was writing).

sept-29-national-lotteryAt that time, as well, I was very much of the school of thought that writing was a beautiful, spontaneous act that was best undertaken when the Great Hand of Inspiration was shining brightly in the sky and pointing directly at you. I think I had seen one too many National Lottery adverts at that point and had conveniently forgotten the ever important slogan:

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But, don’t you just love days like that? When the words just flow and the story unfolds before you as easily as breathing? I wish every writing experience was like that.

But back in the real world, this is simply not the case. Writing is not some organic outpouring of creativity. Writing is a process. It starts with an idea and more often than not ends with tears, or blood. Or both. And just like any other creative form, it is as much about discipline as it is art.

And therein lies the problem.

I want you to try a little experiment. Find a creative person among your acquaintances. Ask them about their work. If you can coax out them more than one or two words on the subject, ask them what they think of discipline when it comes to their work. Then come back here and tell me what they said. Their responses are likely to form an interesting spectrum, but will more than likely fall somewhere in the following:

  1. “Discipline? What do you mean discipline?”
  2. “Of course I’m disciplined. It wouldn’t work otherwise!”
  3. They may burst into tears (prepare yourself).

Discipline is the hardest thing to learn when it comes to creativity. Creative people in general don’t want to be disciplined. They want to be spontaneous, and unpredictable, and somewhat mysterious. They want to believe that every artist/writer/musician/whoever they admire came into the world with their talent fully formed. They don’t want to think about, for example, the hours of practice Yo-Yo Ma has to put in every day to play Bach’s Cello Suites with the grace and ease he shows in public.

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When I graduated, I thought writing would come to me as easily as reading someone else’s work. What I didn’t see – what few people ever get to see – is the hours of planning that goes into writing a novel. Not to mention the weeks it takes to bash out a single draft, or the tedious months of editing and re-drafting that come after that.

This is the discipline I found myself having to develop after graduation. My University course taught me how to work towards deadlines set by Lecturers. It did not teach me how to set those deadlines for myself. And it certainly didn’t teach me to stick to them once they were made.

It is a lesson I am still learning.

What I have found in recent years is that setting smaller goals helps a lot. It is no use saying, “My New Year’s Resolution is to write a novel by August!” (yes, I’ve used that one before), if you’re then not going to set yourself a target of a chapter per week, for example.

Writers need discipline in three key areas:

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-management
  • Self-motivation

As I said before, other people can only get you so far. They can help with the above to get you started, but it is up to you to maintain your momentum long term. So how do you go about this?

Self-Esteem

Get out of your own head every once in a while! Let someone else remind you that your work is worth writing; and then (and I can’t stress this enough) consciously choose to believe it. Especially if it is someone you trust staying it, trust their judgement and run with it.

Self-Management

The importance of forward planning cannot be overstated here. Set time aside each day, each week (whatever works for you) that is solely for writing and nothing but writing. Bear in mind that this should include time for more planning or reading or research (anything that helps keep your ideas alive).

Self-Motivation

Keep going! Trust me, Life will throw EVERYTHING it has at you. In 2016, a week before I was due to immerse myself in NaNoWriMo, my kitchen ceiling nearly fell in thanks to a leak from the flat above mine. In the space of an evening, I was completely knocked off kilter and it took me months to get back on track (which is still ongoing).

The important thing, when Life gets in the way, is to find a way back no matter how long it takes.

I can guarantee that every single writer you currently look up to will have struggled with all three of these issues at one time or another (maybe even all at once).

If, like me, you have the writing bug and are serious about developing your skills, then an element of discipline needs to be included in your writing regime. It may be as simple as setting aside time to write, or setting yourself word count goals. It may be that you need a fresh pair of eyes to help give you a new perspective on your work. Whatever it is that helps you find your writing rhythm, do it!

And then keep doing it.

Even if you don’t feel like it.

 


This article was originally published as a Guest Post on Confessions of a Bookworm by Sarah Tanner.

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I Left My Social Life In 1997

01-1997

In March this year, the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunited for a round of photoshoots and interviews to mark the 20th Anniversary of the show first gracing our TV screens. If you haven’t seen any of the clips from this happy reunion (where have you been?!), head on over to YouTube to look them up. Apart from the slightly sickening fact that none of the cast appears to have aged AT ALL in the intervening years, there is something really lovely about seeing them all back together in one place, talking about their time on the show.

02-BTVSBuffy really was ground-breaking in a number of different areas. The term “ground-breaking” may be somewhat overused these days, but in Buffy’s case, it really does hold up. For instance, the way that the series was structured, interweaving standalone stories with an ongoing seasonal arch leading up to a confrontation with the “Big Bad” at each season’s finale, may seem like a no-brainer these days, was not always so. Buffy may not have been the first series to go for this structure, but it is certainly one of the most memorable and influential and, due to the show’s popularity, it is a structure that has been more widely adopted since. Incidentally, writer/producer Russell T Davies, who headed up the re-launch of Doctor Who in 2005, cites Buffy has being partly responsible for the new Doctor Who series using a similar format.

Possibly more particular to Buffy was its season 6 musical episode Once More With Feeling. It was a complete departure from anything that the show had ever done, and yet at the same time it managed to feel like a natural phenomenon. Of course the residents of Sunnydale will spontaneously burst into song (and subsequently into flames, some of them). They live on a Hellmouth after all. Since this episode aired in 2001, it seems that other shows have had the courage to do the same. Again, a few shows had attempted musical episodes before Once More With Feeling, but there has been a definite increase since with shows such as Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Fringe, and Sanctuary all seeing their characters stretch (but not strain) their vocal chords in recent years.

On top of the technical leaps and bounds made, Buffy was also incredibly powerful in terms of the themes it explored. At its centre was a group of teenagers navigating their way through High School (and beyond into adulthood) while also battling the Vampires, Demons, and whatever else the forces of evil decided to throw at them. It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to notice the metaphorical implications between the social and personal issues faced by teenagers and the supernatural elements that Buffy employed to explore them.

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As you may have gathered, I was (and still am) a massive fan! It is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. Xander/Nicholas Brendon was my first celebrity crush, followed sharply (no pun intended) by Spike/James Marsters. I know every song from Once More With Feeling. I have lost count of the number of times the show has made me cry.

It is a show that, in my house, warrants a re-watch at least every other year (if not more) and I find myself at times, not only quoting the lines, but channelling the characters without consciously meaning to do so.

Happy Anniversary, Buffy!

May your influence continue to be felt for many years to come.

But for all the hype that has been around Buffy for the last couple of months, something else occurred to me.

There was another TV show that also started in 1997 and that had a similar (if not greater) impact on my teenage self. Any guesses what that show could be?

04-SG1

Stargate SG-1 hit TV screens in July 1997 (just four months after Buffy) and between the two of them, I was so completely hooked. There really was no hope for my social life (bear in mind this was before the days of “Geek Chic”, and the internet had not yet brought fandoms together in the manner you would find today).

I, for one, am hoping that there will be as much hype in July for Stargate’s 20th Anniversary as there has been for Buffy’s. But as far as I can tell, SG-1 is not as widely acclaimed as Buffy, in that it remained a cult favourite, rather than breaking into mainstream popularity in the way that Buffy did. If I am wrong on that count, please do let me know. In the meantime, here’s my own bit of hype for SG-1’s 20th year.

Stargate SG-1 premiered on 27th July 1997 with its pilot episode Children of the Gods. It re-introduced audiences to the 22-foot-high, ancient, metal ring that, through the creation of a sub-space wormhole, transports people instantaneously to other planets across the galaxy.

The pilot episode picked up where the 1994 movie left off, with Dr Daniel Jackson living with the people of Abydos, and Colonel Jack O’Neill (two L’s this time, and that is important) moving on with his life. Both are called back into action when Earth’s seemingly dormant Stargate springs into life and a US Air Force Officer is taken captive by a new enemy, Apophis.

O’Neill and Jackson are then teamed up with Captain Samantha Carter, a brilliant and beautiful Astrophysicist and Air Force pilot in her own right, and Teal’c, an alien (Jaffa) formerly in the service of Apophis who defects to Earth in the hopes of freeing his people from the tyrannical rule of the Goa’uld.

Together, they are Earth’s first line of defence against the Goa’uld threat as they journey through the Stargate, exploring new worlds and discovering new cultures each week.

I mean, really, what’s not to love right there?!

SG-1 ran for ten full seasons (214 episodes in total), launched two spin-off series, and concluded with two TV movies. The show still inspires a following of loyal and fervent fans, many of whom are actively campaigning for a re-boot in some shape or form.

As with many Sci-Fi shows, the possibilities open for exploration were practically limitless; and in the seventeen collective seasons (ten for SG-1, five for Atlantis, and two for Universe) the writers were able to etch out an entire mythology for the franchise that encompassed existing Earth mythology (namely Egyptian, Norse, and, in the later seasons, Arthurian legend) whilst also adding its own myths and species into the mix. At the centre of SG-1 (and the subsequent spin-offs) was a constant debate between the respective virtues of Scientific exploration and the Military needs of Earth to defend itself against an alien incursion.

In the first few episodes alone, this dual mission is addressed and taken on board as Stargate Command’s Standing Orders, Stargate’s equivalent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. In contrast to Star Trek, however, Stargate did not operate with the philosophical restraint of not interfering with the natural development of other cultures and societies. SG-1 and the other SG teams were more than happy to interfere when needed (or not), whether that was offering medical or technological advancements, or even military troops and weapons. Having said this, Daniel Jackson did serve as the show’s moral compass and frequently went toe-to-toe with O’Neill and other military characters if it looked like they were about to go too far.

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On top of all of that, Stargate, as a Sci-Fi series, managed to utilise just about every trick and trope in the book to explore the overriding theme; that is: “What does it mean to be human?” I have mentioned in a previous post that the Science Fiction genre encompasses a vast array of story types in its discussion of this theme. If you want to make comparison with my previous list, click here to read that particular post.

Of note, Stargate taps into:

  • Alien Invasion
  • Space
  • Genetic Mutation/Manipulation
  • The use of/reliance on Technology
  • Time Travel
  • Alternate Realities
  • Artificial Intelligence

Not to mention Inter-Galactic Politics!

There really was no stone left unturned. And yet, there is still room for more. While SG-1 was allowed to run its course (and then some), and end on its own terms, its spin-off series were not so fortunate. It seemed that Atlantis was gathering momentum when it was cancelled in 2009 after five seasons; and Universe was cut very short in 2011 after just two seasons. Universe may not be a favourite among fans (I for one have not yet seen its second season), but I am sure that if it had been allowed to develop, it could have provided quite a few surprises of its own.

I really could go on for days about Stargate. And no doubt there will be more posts on here about it, but for now, let me just say:

Happy 20th Anniversary, Stargate.

Come back to our screens soon!

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World Building: Extraordinary

32 World Building 3

Now, don’t tell me you’ve gone to all this trouble to make a world that is just the same as ours. Of course not! Right? Even if your fictional world is grounded in our reality, there will be something to set it apart (like a magical subculture – Neverwhere, Harry Potter, Skulduggery Pleasant)

As with my previous posts on the subject of world building, I am coming at this from the perspective of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer; so, having covered the physical and human elements of creating a fictional world, it’s time to turn our attention to something much more creative: the extraordinary element.

There is literally no limit to what this can be. This is where you get to ask the question “What if…” and then attempt to answer it yourself.

More than likely, this element of your world will be whatever has inspired your story in the first place. And it is likely going to be the device that you use to drive the plot forward (or at least be a contributing factor to that device).

HarryPotterSo, what is it in your world that makes it truly different from our own? Is it magic? Aliens? Great technological advancements (or regression)? Social or political change? Maybe a key event in history that has gone the other way?

Whatever plot gem has set your imagination buzzing, there are a couple of things you will need to keep in mind as you develop it into your world.

1: Make the Rules

If you’ve been building your world along the lines of my last couple of posts, you will have, by now, established a physical world and populated it. Whatever extraordinary element you envision, make sure it fits with the world you have created. For example, if your extraordinary element is to have a society run by vampires, they wouldn’t get very far in a world that is perpetually sunny (unless they happen to be brooding, shiny vampires; but let’s not open that can of worms just now).

RulesOf course, there is nothing to stop you from going back and tweaking your own world until everything works the way you want it to.

Just as our world has the Laws of Physics to keep it running smoothly, you may want to think about whether these laws still apply in your world. Stars may be something entirely different in your fantasy world. Or gravity may work in pockets and not elsewhere.

As long as it makes sense for your world and your story, you can establish any sort of rules you want, as long as they work towards the story you want to tell.

2: Stick to the Rules

This is the hard part. After all, rules are made to be broken, right?

WRONG!! In this instance, the rules are most definitely NOT there to be broken. If you make a rule for your world, you HAVE TO STICK TO IT! If you don’t, your readers will know. Instantly. And they will call you out on it.

And why is this? Because people like to be able to make sense of what they read. If you are throwing an entirely new world their way, they will very quickly latch on to any morsel of information you give them about it. If you then throw out the rule book for no good reason and change things around on every other page, your readers will get confused and frustrated and angry (probably in that order), and will eventually stop reading.

WHY

If you find you have written yourself into a corner and the only way out is to break one of the rules of your world, you pretty much have two options:

Option 1: Go back through your story so far and work out just how vital that particular rule is to the plot. Odds are it will be important, otherwise you wouldn’t have put it there in the first place. If you decide to change that rule to help your characters out of their current predicament, bear in mind you may have a lot of re-writing on your hands to fix other points in the plot where that rule has been followed already.

WriterPsychoOption 2: Kill someone. I mean in the story, of course, not in real life. That is generally frowned upon. But a character nobly sacrificing him/herself for the greater good is usually a sure-fire way to get out of most situations, while at the same time reminding your readers that no-one is safe (for more on this, have a look at my post on Gateway Deaths).

Of course, it may be simpler to just rethink that particular scene and see if there is a less drastic solution that can be found. As long as it follows the rules you have established.

3: Break the Rules – SPARINGLY!

Yes, I know! I have LITERALLY just said DON’T BREAK THE RULES ON PAIN OF CHARACTER-DEATH! I know, but hear me out, OK.

There are ways of breaking rules without actually breaking them. Think of it more like bending the rules.

To illustrate this, I am going to fall back on trusty old Stargate SG-1 (I’ve mentioned my love for this show, right? No? Well, now I have).

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The rules for opening a Stargate are quite simple:

1: It takes a combination of seven chevrons to establish a wormhole between worlds (six to confirm the location of the destination and one for the point of origin for a course to be plotted).

2: Matter (i.e. people, objects, etc.) can only travel in one direction through an open wormhole. If you open a wormhole from Earth, you will be able to travel through it to the other side, but you will have to break the connection and dial back in from off-world to get back again.

3: A wormhole can only stay open with nothing coming through it for approximately 38 minutes.

All three of these rules are engrained in the show, pretty much from day one, but in the course of ten seasons, each one of these rules is broken (bent really) at key points:

1: If you are trying to connect with a planet in another galaxy altogether, a combination of eight chevrons is needed, instead of seven (like needing an extra few digits to dial an international phone number). Of course, a massive amount of energy is needed for this, so don’t try it if you’re building a Stargate in your basement!

2: Even though Matter can only travel one way through a wormhole, radio signals and other types of energy waves can travel in either direction. This is pretty much taken as a given every time the team communicates with the base via radio through an open Stargate.

3: Thanks to the above rule twist, [SPOILERS FOR SEASON SIX IF ANYONE HASN’T SEEN THE SHOW!] Anubis is able to keep a wormhole connected to Earth for days on end and nearly blows it up in the process.

Each time one of these rules is bent, the established universe of SG-1 expands a little further and an extra layer of complexity is added. Not to mention the stakes are raised as a result.

WonderlandIf you are able to find ways to bend your own rules without breaking them (and without stepping into the realms of absurdity), then do it. Just keep in mind that it has to be believable. If you spend pages and pages trying to convince yourself and justify the twist, odds are that your readers will be fairly sceptical (and no-one wants that).

Your world with all its extraordinary and unique elements should, when all is said and done, make sense. That’s not to say that you have to stick to things that make sense in our world. Let’s face it, even Wonderland makes a sort of sense (if you look hard enough).

As long as you are clear and consistent in your world, you will be able to get away with all kinds of madness.

That is, after all, the joy of world building!

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World Building: Human

World Building 2

Last week, I started looking at world building in fiction. This may seem like an arduous task, but if you are a Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer it is, to some extent, unavoidable. In last week’s post, I looked at the physical world, what will essentially be the foundation of your fictional creation, the places your characters will visit and travel through as part of your story. This week, we’re looking at the human world.

Who exactly do you envision will live in the world you have created? I am sure that by this stage you will have at least a handful of characters who will drive your plot, but they should not be the only people in your world. So, what is the general population like?

Now, I’m not expecting anyone to have detailed character profiles and backstories for thousands of nameless background characters, but there is quite a lot to be gained from giving the people(s) of your world a cultural grounding.

Here are a few jumping-off points for you to consider:

Climate/Landscape 

I touched on this last week when talking about building your physical world (don’t worry, I don’t have another forty different ways to describe rain), but it does bear re-iterating. Climate and landscape really can have an effect on a particular culture.

When my parents were preparing to move to Malawi in Africa a few years ago, they were introduced to the concept of ‘Hot Country Culture’ verses ‘Cold Country Culture’. As you may be able to guess, the UK is a Cold Country (not as cold as some, but still pretty chilly at certain times of the year). This cold climate is reflected in British culture.

Hot Cold

Typically, a Cold Country Culture identifies as being task oriented. We are very much driven by meeting deadlines. If we arrange to meet up with friends, a date and time will be set, and woe betide anyone who has the audacity to show up late! Of course, there are some people who are more laid back about this than others, but in general this is how we have been socially programmed.

A Hot Country Culture, on the other hand, like Malawi, is more relationally oriented. This means that dates and times don’t matter in quite the same way, and the emphasis is on a person’s relationship with others instead. In a Malawian meeting, for example, the first order of business is not to start the meeting on the stroke of whichever hour it has been arranged for, but to first greet each person gathered and find out how they are, how their families are, in much more detail than we would usually go into here in the UK.

At the church my parents attend just outside of Blantyre, they have a custom of everyone in the congregation shaking hands with everyone else at the end of the service. This leads to a great long processional line outside the church as everyone makes their way round and greets one another. At my church here in Newcastle, we may stay after the service for a cup of coffee and a chat, but at the back of our minds in the fact that lunchtime is approaching, and we need to be moving on to the next task in our day.

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These may be fairly simplified examples of this concept, and if you want to read up on studies that have been made of Hot and Cold County Cultures, have a look at the link below. Maybe you will find something there that resonates with you for your story.

History/Traditions 

Again, I am not expecting anyone to chronicle thousands of years’ worth of fictional history (unless you want to; you know, it could be fun), but having an understanding of a few key events and how they have shaped your fictional society is important. Certain events may have led to certain traditions or festivals that can be drawn upon within your narrative.

By way of example, in my current work-in-progress, The Green Stone In The Fire, there is a festival called the Feast of Candles. It is similar to Christmas and is celebrated in the middle of winter, at the darkest and coldest point in the year.

BlessingWhen the festival first developed, it was a celebration of peace and a time for the neighbouring kingdoms to join together for feasting and fun. However, thanks to Thane and certain events that I won’t go into here, the feast in latter years took on a more sombre tone, with people gathering together for mutual support and remembrance. This is when the Candles Eve Feast grew in prominence. Held the night before the main festivities began, the Candles Eve Feast was a time for families to say goodbye to their loved ones before they were taken as tribute to Thane. As part of the feast, the Blessing of the Candles developed – a ‘prayer’ that was either said or sung as the ceremonial candles were lit.

Now, the specifics of the Feast of Candles and the celebrations associated with it are not entirely relevant to the novel as a whole. They do not have any great bearing on the plot, other than to provide a backdrop for a few early events. But having worked out the details of this tradition, I better understand the people of Aurelia’s world (and Aurelia herself). It has also given me plenty of material to work into a prequel novella, and that is always a bonus!

Diversity 

We all know that variety is the spice of life, and more importantly that no culture on earth is entirely untouched by others. That, of course, means that the same should be true of any fictional culture you may dream up.

screen-shot-2014-03-28-at-6-50-05-pmAs you plan and flesh out the people of your world, bear in mind who their neighbours are. Do they get along with the surrounding tribes, kingdoms, or cities  countries? Have they ever gone to war with any of them? Has that left them irreparably changed?

How about ethnic diversity? Is this place a melting pot for several cultures, race of people groups to converge?

Quite simply, when it comes to diversity, the possibilities are limitless.

As I am talking mainly from a Sci-Fi/Fantasy perspective, there is also the added vestige of different magical beings or alien species that you may be thinking of adding in as well. Remember, each of them will have their own cultural background and identity that will need fleshing out as well!

If all of this seems a little overwhelming, keep in mind that there are plenty of sources that you can draw on.

Flags-Of-The-World-HD-Wallpaper-1024x508Every country on earth has its own culture and mythology that can be researched and used as a stepping off point for your own fictional worlds. Of course, this should be approached with a great deal of care and sensitivity, especially if the culture you are drawing on is not your own and is therefore unfamiliar to you. No matter how much research you do, it is always advisable to ask someone to read over your work, with an eye of cultural awareness to ensure that the references you have used are not misappropriated.

Having said this, I would not discourage anyone from exploring the cultural tapestry of our world for inspiration. After all, we have the most rich and diverse planet in the universe (that we know of, at least), and the more we understand it ourselves, the better. And the better our writing will be for it.

When establishing the culture(s) of your new world, keep in mind that at the end of the day, you want your world (and its people) to be believable and relatable in the eyes of your readers. Grounding your fictional culture in an existing one can go a long way to doing this; as can understanding how the landscape or history have shaped it.

As with any aspect of writing, you are really only limited by your imagination. Creating an entirely new culture for your world may just be the perfect opportunity to let your imagination.


For more information on Hot and Cold Climate Cultures:

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World Building: Physical

World Building 1

I am a Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer and as such, world building comes with the territory. Even if the project I am working on is based in the real world, inevitably, there will be at least one element to set it apart.

z TEM Banner TNIt could be something simple like a mirror that takes you into parallel realities (why yes, that is my premise for The Eternity Mirrors, a shameless plug I know), or it could be as elaborate as creating an entirely new realm, planet, or galaxy for my characters to inhabit.

Whatever setting you may envisage for your story, you will want to make sure it is relatable and tangible for your readers. To do this, there are three elements that I would suggest you consider:

  • The Physical World
  • The Human World
  • The Extraordinary World

I’m not suggesting that you will have to have exhaustive notes and research on all of these for every story you come up with (I certainly don’t). It may be that a lot of the decision-making about your world is done unconsciously. But the whole point behind this series, Turning Ideas Into Words, is to get you thinking about your own process and finding what works for you. The more you can bring to the surface things that you would usually do without thinking out loud, the better equipped you will be for times when writing feels like an uphill struggle in concrete boots.

This week, I’m going to be focusing on the physical world-building.

The Physical World

This is going to be the blank canvas upon which everything else will take shape. If you plan on creating a world that bares little resemblance to our own, it is useful to start off with things that will ground everything else (no pun intended).

In the same breath, though, you can probably skip this bit if your story takes place in the real world. After all, you only have to look out of the window or Google a few exotic locations to get a handle on how our own world ‘works’.

But for an entirely fantastical world, you may want to take a few minutes to think things through.

Climate

bdt8-square-1536You may not think that the weather is the most riveting of subjects. But let’s not forget the importance of Pathetic Fallacy in literature. For those who have successfully repressed their GCSE coursework on Wuthering Heights, Pathetic Fallacy is the device wherein human emotions are attributed to nature or inanimate objects. It is usually applied in a specific scene to emphasise what the characters are feeling/experiencing. Think of the storm that rages the night that Cathy and Heathcliff row, and Heathcliff then takes off for a few years.

But more than just clouding things over when your characters are sad, the climate of your world may have an effect on your characters’ cultural identity as well.

Take me as an example. I am British. As such, I can tell you over forty different ways to describe rain. And that’s just off the top of my head, there are many others I haven’t thought of.

Don’t believe me? Check out the list at the end of this post…

Rain drops falling from a black umbrellaWhy do we Brits talk about rain so much? Because in Britain it rains. A LOT. And the English language has never been content to have just one word to cover a single phenomenon. There is one for every kind of rain you could possibly encounter.

My point is that if I lived in a dry climate (the Sahara desert, for instance), I may not have such a varied vocabulary or appreciation for rain (but I may be able to talk to you about forty different types of sand instead).

Geography

So, this was never my favourite subject at school, but having said that, your world’s landscape can have as much of an impact on your characters as the weather.

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One of the story ideas I have on the back burner at the moment is set across five planets (yes, that’s essentially five worlds to build for one project – why do I do this to myself?!) One of these five planets, Dana, is uninhabitable on the surface thanks to lots of toxic gases in the atmosphere. As a result, all of the living quarters and cities are dug into tunnels and in great big cavernous spaces below the planet’s surface. There is no natural sunlight on the planet, which means that there are no time zones on Dana (only DST – Dana Standard Time). The days are governed entirely by artificial light and are not dependent on where/when the sun rises and sets on the surface. As you may imagine, there are not a lot of tanned people on Dana (unless they happen to be rich enough to live on one of Dana’s lush moons and they simply commute to the planet each day for work).

By making just a few decisions about the planet’s climate and geography, the society on Dana is already significantly altered from one that is based on an Earth-like planet.

Once you have the groundwork of your world in place, there are a couple of other aspects you may want to consider as well:

  • Time Period/Setting: Just briefly, if you do stay Earth-bound, setting your story in the past or future will have a significant bearing on many other aspects: technology, speech patterns, clothing, education levels, religious/mythological heritage. A lot of these aspects will be looked at next time when I explore the human world that you may be building to inhabit the physical world, but do keep them in mind as you build your physical world.

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  • Maps: If you really want to go to town on this, why not draw up a map of your world. I’m sure you can think of a hundred different fantasy novels that include a map in the book’s cover. If your story includes an epic quest across a wide and varied landscape, a map can help readers to orient themselves as the characters move through the world.

As I mentioned above, you may not need to sit down and make copious notes about the world your story is based in, but odds are at some point, they will bleed into what you are writing.

If you are a Planner like me, working out the physical lay of your made-up land can help you to think about who would live in such a place. More on that next time.


Words/Phrases to describe and talk about Rain

Rain; Precipitation; Drizzle; Mizzle; Mist; Sea Fret; Haar; Monsoon; Deluge; Downpour; Bucketing down; Torrent; Shower; Sprinkle; Cloudburst; Flurry; Drencher; Squall; Tempest; Hurley burley; Scotch mist; Liquid sunshine; The Heavens opened; Raining cats and dogs; Raining sideways; Good weather for ducks; Dreich; Plothering; Spitting; Stotting; Stair rods; Hammering down; Tipping down; Lashing; Pelting; Pattering; Driving; Hoying it down; Spluttering; Coming down in sheets; Beating down; Drumming down; Peeing down; Pissing down.

You’re welcome, world!

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Review: The Savior’s Champion

TSC Review

Take the heroism and setting of classics such as Gladiator, Ben Hur, or Spartacus. Mix in the savagery, violence, and strong language of Game of Thrones (taken to the next level in terms of language). Top it off with a hint of magic and a healthy dose of romance.

And hey-presto! You have The Savior’s Champion, the second novel by Jenna Moreci (first in this series) that has been hyped to the hilt on YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, and Goodreads for the last few months.

Usually, I am sceptical when it comes to hype. I very much like to make up my own mind when it comes to what I read or watch. But the more I heard about the book’s plot and characters, the more interested I became.

For one thing, what’s not to love about a book featuring twenty young, fit, handsome men fighting to the death in a gladiatorial arena? If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, then there is the romantic element as well. And what better than a forbidden romance between a competitor fighting to stay alive and a palace healer who deplores the needless waste of life offered up in the tournament?

The Savior’s Champion takes place in Thessen, a Greco-Roman-esque realm that has been blessed with bountiful harvests and years of peace.

Literally blessed! By the Savior, a woman who possesses the magic of the gods, or some such, and whose reign ensures Thessen’s continued prosperity. The Savior’s power has been passed from mother to daughter for centuries, and the people of Thessen revere each successive Savior as they would a god.

As each Savior comes of age, Thessen’s priority is to find her a husband to ensure the powerful royal line is continued. To do this, the current Sovereign (the Savior’s father) traditionally holds a tournament, open for any man to enter, in which twenty are selected to compete for the Savior’s hand in marriage.

TobiasIn all of this, we meet Tobias – an artist, turned labourer who works tirelessly to provide for his mother and paraplegic  sister following the death of their father, who died in the same accident that crippled his sister.

Tobias has no desire whatsoever to enter the Sovereign’s Tournament. He does not want to marry the Savior (why would he? He’s never met her), and certainly doesn’t want to risk life and limb to do so. But when he is faced with the heart-breaking reality of his sister’s condition and the fact that the families of the competitors are gifted a substantial amount of gold from the onset of the tournament, Tobias’ choice is all but made for him and he enters.

And that just takes you to the end of Chapter Two! What follows is a tumultuous adventure that will, at times, leave you breathless, have you crying with laughter, squealing in horror, and cringing as various wounds are inflicted and described in vivid, juicy detail.

So let’s get into some specifics here.

The Drawback

This is more of a warning than an actual criticism of the book. There is a lot of strong language and violence, together with a fair peppering of graphically described sexual situations. If you are in any way squeamish or sensitive to that sort of thing, you may want to skip this one. I have heard other reviewers describe parts as “vulgar,” but I actually disagree with that. Where I would not usually gravitate towards books that are particularly graphic, its use in The Savior’s Champion serves to highlight the brutality inherent in Thessen itself and in the Sovereign’s Tournament.

And now on to the positives…

The Writing

First of all, The Savior’s Champion is very well written and diligently edited. Jenna’s style of writing is concise, fluent, and puts her ideas across in a tangible and visual manner. It does not take long before reading her work becomes effortless and the story takes over in your mind.

Where a lot of self-published authors may rush through the editing process in a bid to present their work to the public sooner, Jenna does not skimp at all when it comes to crafting her work into a polished and professional product. If you follow her YouTube channel, you’ll be aware that she puts so much care and attention into her editing process that it is possibly even more thorough than that which you would usually expect from a traditional publishing house (I may be wrong about this, but the effort Jenna puts in is stellar and it pays off in the standard of writing that she has achieved).

The Characters

EnzoThey are wonderful! I can pretty much guarantee that you will take Tobias to heart. He is not perfect by any means (he can be rather short-sighted at times, and doesn’t know when to shut up for his own good), but he is so driven by the desire to help others around him (including his fellow competitors) that you cannot help but root for him every step of the way.

The other competitors are also well fleshed-out and fully realised characters. They each have their own distinct voices and back stories that set them apart from one another. No doubt you will have your own favourites among them. For me, it is a toss-up between Enzo and Flynn (f*****g Flynn!)

LeilaAnd then there’s Leila – Tobias’ love interest. For Leila, Jenna has struck a very satisfying balance between strength and vulnerability. There is no question that Leila can hold her own in just about any situation she is presented with (and is in many ways better prepared than Tobias in that respect), but it clear that her toughness has developed as a necessity and she would much rather live in a world where she doesn’t have to be on her guard all the time.

The romance between Tobias and Leila is a timely oasis (for the reader and for the pair of them) amid the trials of the tournament. It is a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship, built on respect and understanding, and a desire to support one another no matter what. They are very much equals and it is clear why they are attracted to each other.

The Storyline

With such varied and well written characters, it is not surprising that the storyline is equally compelling. You will want to keep reading this book well past your bedtime! And once you have finished it, you’ll want the next instalment in your hands as soon as possible. Fortunately, Jenna is busily working away on the sequel, The Savior’s Sister. This will reportedly cover roughly the same time period as The Savior’s Champion, but from Leila’s perspective. Usually, I am not a fan of this kind of perspective switch. I much prefer to keep moving forward with the story. But seeing what Leila herself went through in The Savior’s Champion, I am keen to find out more of what was going on “behind the scenes,” and also looking forward to getting to know some of the palace staff a little better.

Court

The Verdict

If you haven’t guessed by now, I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I am very much looking forward to reading the sequel/companion novel, The Savior’s Sister, when it is published.

It is an entirely entertaining and enthralling read from start to finish. In terms of who I would recommend this book to, I think it has a very wide appeal in terms of fantasy, adventure, and romance.

If you don’t mind a bit of blood and swearing, you should definitely check it out.


Where to buy The Savior’s Champion

Follow Jenna Moreci

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Gateway Deaths

29 Gateway Deaths

Let’s talk about death for a moment. Or more specifically fictional character deaths.

I do not consider myself to be a blood thirsty writer. I do not decide the fate of my characters by the roll of dice, or the toss of a coin (very few writer’s do, despite what you may think of us). If one of my characters is going to die, there will be a very good reason for it, even if that means breaking the reader’s heart.

But it does stand to reason that, somewhere along the way, there will be a character whose death opens the door to others. Anyone hooked on Game of Thrones at the moment will know exactly what I am talking about.

It may be the character you least expect to meet their end, but when they bite the dust, you are left with a strange mix of emotions (namely shock, denial, anger… basically all of the stages of grief at once), not least of which is an overriding sense of fear and dread that now no-one else in the book/series/film is safe. Essentially, if this character can be killed off in this way, anyone could be next.

These characters are what I call Gateway Deaths.

Here’s a few you may be familiar with:

Ned Stark – Game of Thrones

game-of-throne-season-7-spoiler-was-ned-stark-really-killed-988994-1520956230Let’s start with an obvious one. Poor old Ned, in the TV series at least, seemed to be doomed from the start purely thanks to the casting choice of having Sean Bean fill the role (the man who has spent the last twenty years or so dying on screen). In terms of Game of Thrones, Ned is by no means the first character in George R. R. Martin’s series to die, but his is by far the most shocking of the first season/book. As the Patriarch of House Stark and the Lord of Winterfell (not to mention recently appointed as Hand of the King), he seems to be such a vital and pivotal character that up until the point at which the axe is swung (literally) it seems unconscionable that he could die. His role in the series is so important up to that point that surely killing him will leave a void of chaos. This is, of course, exactly the point. Ned’s death is the start of a devastating domino effect that ultimately leads to the deaths of pretty much his entire family, then Joffrey’s death, and it informs and changes the course the entire series.

At the end of season seven (some six years on from his demise), we are still feeling the effects of his death. His Gateway Death was very much a flood gate that is still pouring into Westeros.

Cedric Diggory – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

10356392-8231-4a53-abf9-d4a2d465077bCedric’s was an important death, even if his character didn’t seem all that important at the time. He is only introduced into the Harry Potter series very briefly in book three (as captain of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team), and in terms of the films, he is only in Goblet of Fire. Up until Cedric, there had been no deaths among the Hogwarts students, and no deaths in general on the side of the heroes (excluding, of course, Lily and James Potter, and those who fought Voldemort prior to the first book’s first chapter).

Rowling deliberately heralded Voldemort’s return to the physical world in the middle book of her series and marked his return with a death. That blow was softened, slightly, by the fact that we had not had a chance to get to know Cedric in the same way as some of the other characters in the series up to that point. But his death opened the door to at least one beloved character dying in each subsequent book – Sirius Black in book 5, Dumbledore in book 6, and a whole lot more in the last installment. Cedric’s death helped to prepare Rowling’s young audience for what was to come, and I think we can all thank her for that much.

Rue – The Hunger Games

Rue_points_out_the_nestLet’s be honest. The Hunger Games is a brutal series, pitting children against each other in a fight to the death right from the get-go. Like Ned in Game of Thrones, Rue is not the first person to die in The Hunger Games. She is, however, the first character whose death we truly care about. For starters, she is one of the youngest tributes in any of the books and her death, among other things, brings a swift end to any notion of innocence that the reader may have been clinging to. There is no place for innocence in the Games, and Rue’s death makes that abundantly clear. Her death is a harsh and painful reminder of the world that Katniss exists in and fuels her determination to win the Games and subsequently to rebel against the Capitol.

There are plenty more characters that I could have touched upon here, and many more still that I’m sure all of you could list (please feel free to leave a comment with those). But I wanted to talk about a particular character that got me started on this rather morbid train of thought in the first place. Or more accurately, my reaction to this particular character’s death.

The Crimson Crown by Sarah Jayne Tanner

Question-markNow, unfortunately for you, this particular character is part of a project that has not been published (and as yet unfinished in fact). It is the latest creation by my best friend and fellow writer/blogger, Sarah Jayne Tanner. As well as being the first person to read this work and provide a critique of it so far, I have found myself growing extremely attached to several of the characters involved. I am not going to tell you which character dies, or when (I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you), but what I will say is that as far as Gateway Deaths go, this one hit me HARD!

One brief source of comfort I have found in all of this is the knowledge that Sarah seems to be as cut up about this character’s death as I am. She openly admitted to me that she almost went back and rewrote the scene so that he survived, but fortunately for the story overall, she had the presence of mind not to do this. This character’s death is important. It has opened the door to jeopardise the lives of every other character in the story. The death will be keenly felt by the other characters and it serves as a reminder of how dangerous their world is. It is Ned Stark, Cedric Diggory and Rue all rolled into one.

On a more general note, Sarah is not alone when it comes to writers feeling the loss of their own characters. J. K. Rowling reportedly cried over the death of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I am sure she is not the first writer to do so.

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My point in all of this is that however a character death may impact you as the reader, it will more than likely be felt tenfold by the writer. After all, they’re the ones who created them in the first place.

So why do we writers put ourselves through this kind of emotional trauma in the first place? Surely we are the ones in control of story and can therefore direct it away from killing off our own favourite characters if we so wish?

Well, no. I’m afraid it is not as simple as that. At the end of the day, the most important thing to any writer is the overall story. If a particular character’s death enhances that story, then I’m afraid that sacrifice has to be made. It may serve to highlight the main character’s own shortcomings, or it may spur them on to greater things (look at what happens to Katniss after Rue’s death in The Hunger Games); or it may be that someone’s death throws everyone else into chaos that has to be resolved in order for the remaining characters to progress (like Ned’s death in Game of Thrones).

tumblr_static_captain-jack-sparrow-captain-jack-sparrow-21245949-300-166Or it could simply be that this character was introduced purely to die at an opportune moment.

Whatever the circumstances are surrounding a character’s death, understand that if it made it into the final draft, it must be there for a damned good reason.

Even if that reason is just to make way for other characters to share in their fate.


If you want to see what Sarah has to say for herself in relation to Character Deaths, check out her blog post Death in Fiction.

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Finding Jaecks

28 Character

Here’s a true story for you to think about. It concerns a man called Elias Jaecks and the moment that I realised I didn’t know him at all. This revelation struck me after I had worked through the first 70,000 words of my novel and had come to write the first line of Jaecks’ dialogue.

And all of a sudden… nothing happened. I had nothing for him to say.

Elias Jaecks is a character who has been in my head for many years now, but I hadn’t, until recently, developed him past the initial concept of him being the reason my main character (or one of them at least) is out for revenge. As I worked on the first 70,000 words of my novel, fleshing out my protagonists with exciting storylines and believable relationships (I hope), poor* Jaecks has remained an indistinct shadow of a man with nothing to define him as a person.

*I use ‘poor’ here quite loosely. He is not a pleasant character and doesn’t deserve much in the way of pity.

This was not a particularly comforting realisation.

The problem was that I had never stopped to think about who he actually was.

1a579146820c598dd85d5f539afc289e--grand-canyon-arizona-grand-canyon-national-parkHe was completely vilified (for good reasons) by Runcorn, the main character. Runcorn spends most of his time tracking Jaecks across an arid desert valley, and doesn’t interact with him directly at all. With the lack of interaction, there were enough snippets of information about him floating around to justify the pursuit. The fact that Jaecks was not developed went by unnoticed.

That is until about 70,000 words in, when Runcorn and Jaecks finally come face-to-face. Then it became extremely noticeable, and I mentally kicked myself for not being better prepared in advance.

Knowing who your characters are and how they think is crucial to the telling of any story. What I find helps most is to create a character profile for them. I know that some writers will fill entire notebooks with every minute detail of every character they invent. Others will use tools like Pinterest and have boards dedicated to images and quotes that they associate with a particular character.

My way is simply to sit down and write about them.

I start off by covering the backstory. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I will go right back as far as childhood, but I will try to fill out as many details as I can in relation to where they have come from and what has made them the person they are by the time the book begins.

For Jaecks, this meant placing him in the local Militia in his late teens/early twenties where he met a man who would mentor him into gang leadership and foster in him a craving for violence that had previously been unchanneled.

After establishing a backstory, I’ll go on to look at the character in relation to the other characters in the book. Where did they meet? What was the nature of their relationship? How has that changed over time?

UMAREX-COWBOY-WOOD

Jaecks is mainly associated with Runcorn in the book, and so I focused on how they had met. I already knew the main reason for the animosity between them, but looking further into their pasts drew out some underlying conflicts which added to their dynamic and influenced what would happen during their confrontation in the story.

Finally, I make notes on the characters’ physical attributes. By this, I don’t just mean their height, weight, hair colour and eye colour; but also, their scars or other physical defects, how they walk, whether they have a strong accent or a speech impediment.

In Jaecks’ case, he had spent most of his adult life getting into fights and holding his own in the company of brutal men; and in many ways, he had surpassed them. This sort of lifestyle leaves a mark physically, in the form of scars and a harshness in his facial features. He is also a man who enjoys violence, and so when he is faced with the prospect of fighting, his eyes brighten, and his smile becomes wide and manic.

hqdefaultThese are just a few of the notes I have made about him, but by taking the time to get to know Jaecks, I am now in a position to put words into his mouth. He now has experiences in his life that have informed his personality. I have come to a point where I can predict what he is going to say and how he is going to react to certain situations.

But here’s the real paradox about the whole notion of character profiles: most of what I have put into note form about Jaecks won’t actually make it on to the page, but without those notes, the page would remain blank altogether.

Backstories are useful tools for writers to use for their own benefit, to create believable and compelling characters that readers want to get to know. That doesn’t mean that every detail will be there for the reader to learn. A lot of it will end up being subtext, the things the characters don’t say, but inform what they do.

And why is this, you may wonder? Because endless pages of exposition are tedious. They ultimately clutter the story and make it harder for readers to keep interested in the story as a whole.

As much as you may want to share every detail of your characters with your readers (you’ve taken all that time to dream them up, after all), trust that the essential details will be enough to drive the story forward. Everything else will lie beneath the surface to inform and influence the action as you go.

Now, when I go back to the confrontation between Jaecks and Runcorn, there won’t be a blank page staring at me (for long). It will be Jaecks with his manic grin, staring down Runcorn and doing whatever he can to get under his skin.

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If you’d like to learn more about what I am currently working on, take a look at my Hallowe’en post from last year, where I went into a little more detail about the characters and plot.

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Narrative Voices – Part 2

27 Narrative Voices 2

Last week, I started looking at the different kinds of Narrative Voices you can choose from as a writer. As the choices and combinations are quite varied, I decided it would be best to split the discussion into two parts. If you would like to catch up on what was said about Person and Tense, click here.

This week, we’re looking into what can be done with knowledge and character in your narrative voices.

Knowledge

What does your narrator know? This is where things get really interesting.

As I mentioned last week, when writing in the third person, you need to work out if the narrative voice is going to be limited or omniscient, or even somewhere in between.

An Omniscient third person will allow you to move freely between your characters and gives you as many view points as you can think of within your one story. This is particularly useful for those big sprawling epics. The ability to place yourself in the mind of any character at any given time is quite liberating and opens up an almost unlimited pool of thoughts and angles through which you can present your story.

This kind of omniscient third person can also be used to give the reader information that the characters don’t yet have. Either one character spills a secret when someone else is out of the room, or the writer simply chooses to let the reader in on what’s happening while the characters are still in the dark.

31458203A Limited third person, on the other hand, can be used on a smaller scale. If your story is centred around the actions of a single character, this can be quite effective. It maintains the element of detachment that comes with any third-person voice, but also stays relatively close to the one character you are following. Marissa Meyer uses this a lot in her writing, particularly in Heartless, as she follows Catherine on her journey to becoming the Queen of Hearts.

But what about finding some middle ground here? A Semi-Omniscient narrator. This would be when a story is told from several different viewpoints, but rather than allowing the narrative to jump from person to person within a particular scene, the writer sticks to a single character’s viewpoint for the duration of the scene and only switches to someone else when there is a natural break in the action. This is what George R R Martin does with A Song of Ice and Fire. He even goes so far as to signpost exactly which character is steering each chapter. Given the scope of the series and number of characters there are to keep track of, this is probably a mercy!

Character

When it comes to your first-person narratives, the choice isn’t so much between limited and omniscient as it is between Unreliable and Reliable.

Bad MonkeysUnreliable Narrators

The credibility of your narrative voice can have a huge impact on how a reader engages with the story. Last week I mentioned the book Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff. Using it as an example again, throughout the book, the reader is tasked with trying to work out if Jane is telling the truth, lying, or is in fact insane. By calling into question the narrative character’s reliability, the reader’s approach to each situation in the book is altered. Nothing can be taken at face value and so the reader enters into a dialogue with the book in trying to figure her out.

Unreliable narrators don’t have to be the main driving force of a story, either. They are particularly handy for filling in back story or setting up expectations about other characters that are then discovered later on. One of the most famous cases of unreliable narrators in literature is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The task of narrating the tragic story of Cathy and Heathcliff falls mainly to Lockwood and Nelly Dean. Each of these characters approach the story with their own prejudices towards the main characters (think of how Nelly Dean dotes on Cathy and disparages Heathcliff), and a certain lack of insight into their own personalities (Lockwood seems particularly bumbling at the beginning of the book as he tries to justify his intrusion into Wuthering Heights to himself more than to Heathcliff).

Having your readers question the narrator’s reliability before the main action of the story is even considered is a very useful tool for keeping them interested. By encouraging readers to decide this sort of detail for themselves, you allow them to come to their own conclusions in relation to every other aspect of the story. This will leave an impression on them that will keep them talking about your work for quite some time.

Reliable Narrators

Of course, this doesn’t negate the need for reliable narrators as well. There is such a thing as overdoing things when it comes to creating untrustworthy characters. One way to balance this out is to set them against another character whose integrity is not called into question.

If you opt to have a reliable character narrating your story, there are still a few things you can take into consideration in terms of what it is the reader will trust about them. Is it their knowledge of the story’s events? This could mean that your narrative character experienced the events themselves and is recounting them (or is currently living through them if you are writing in first person).

Or is there something in the character’s personality that is inherently trustworthy?

08 I Am PilgrimOne of the most interesting books I have read recently, in terms of narrative voice, is I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, which combined first person, past tense with a reliable and omniscient character (omniscient in that the narrative character was retelling the story after the events and therefore was privy to more details about the antagonist than if he was telling the story as it happened). The narrative character of I Am Pilgrim is a former spy who is brought back into the world of espionage due to a series of events that I won’t go into here. You find yourself very early on trusting his narration for several reasons:

Firstly, his knowledge of the events is all first-hand, as he is recounting his own experiences.

Secondly, when he does venture into details that he has learned from other people (mainly centring around the book’s antagonist), he always cites his sources and explains how he came across them – explaining how he tracked down particular documents, or retelling interviews he carried out with key witnesses.

Thirdly, he is not afraid to point out his own shortcomings. He does not try to paint himself as the perfect hero throughout his story. He talks openly about mistakes he made in his early career and mistakes he made in relation to the specific case that the book covers.

make-a-plan1Ultimately, the reliability of your narrator is something that will be decided in the planning stages and it is likely to be a deciding factor in your final decision as to what kind of narrative voice your story has.

As I said up-front last week, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing your narrative voice. There are undoubtedly more aspects that you could think of that I haven’t touched on here. If you’re unsure of what will work, the best way to decide is to experiment.

I still remember vividly the seminar at university where we were challenged to experiment with using second person in our work. The results were very interesting, and it is a lesson that has stuck with me ever since.

All of the elements I have discussed, though, can be assembled in pretty much any combination you want. Each combination will yield a different tone in your writing.

At the end of the day, the final decision lies with you in terms of how you tell your story.

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Narrative Voices – Part 1

26 Narrative Voices 1

Choosing a Narrative Voice for your story can be harder than you might think. Sure, you may naturally gravitate towards writing in the third person, but if a story sounds better coming directly from the mouth of its main character, then that’s how it needs to be written. Sometimes, the choice is obvious, but there will be times when you have to experiment, test the waters a little before landing on the one that will tell your story in the best and most powerful way possible.

There are of course a few things you can fall back on to help with the selection process.

First of all, work out what it is you want to convey with your story. If it is centred purely around the actions and experiences of one particular character, telling it from his/her perspective is likely to work very well. In contrast, a sprawling epic with several key characters and interweaving plotlines is better suited to be told from a third-person perspective.

Of course, it’s not just as simple as choosing one or the other and running with it. I’m sure if you google ‘Narrative Voices’ right now, you’ll come up with hundreds of articles and resources listing countless different types of voice that you could play around with. And no two lists will be the same (I know, I’ve looked).

When you get into the details, you can quickly find yourself being deafened by the jumble of voices out there.

So, let’s simplify things a little. There are lots of different factors to consider when choosing your narrative voice, but for now, let’s focus on just three things:

  • Person
  • Tense
  • Knowledge/Character

If you nail down these three factors, the rest should find its place in its own time. As you may imagine, there is a lot to be said about all three of these, so I’m not going to try and cover everything in one post. This week I’ll focus on Person and Tense, leaving Knowledge/Character to next week.

So, let’s get into specifics.

Person

There are three types of Persons you can choose from:

  • 1st Person – I, me, mine
  • 2nd Peron – you, your, yours
  • 3rd Person – him/her, he/she, them, etc

First Person

51p-96Y+0aL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_First-person narration gives you a story told from the perspective of one character. It offers the reader a single avenue into the narrative and can even make the readers feel as if they are themselves the main character (or at least very close to them – close enough to know their inner thoughts). This sort of close bond between the main character and the reader can help to magnify the tension and suspense in any story. Being allied with a single character means that the reader (usually) doesn’t see anything that is outside of that character’s knowledge. If other characters are deceiving or manipulating them, the reader will only find this out at the same time as them.

51Y0CPVcRyLThis, of course, doesn’t necessarily apply if more than one character’s perspective is used to tell a story (as is the case for The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth). Writing from more than one character’s perspective can help to widen the world of your story, but it can also be quite disorienting to the reader if they settle themselves into one character’s voice, only to be taken out of it in the next chapter, particularly if those characters’ voices are similar in tone and syntax.

I’m not saying that having more than one character narrate a story from a first-person stand point doesn’t work, but it is quite tricky to pull off.

Second Person

One of the main things to remember when it comes to any narrative voice is sustainability. If you lock yourself into a particular voice at the start of story, make sure you are confident that it will see you through right to the end. If it doesn’t, readers will notice.

This is exactly why second person is rarely used for fiction, unless you are writing a gaming book where the readers choose their own adventure. What is interesting about it, however, is that it puts the readers directly into the action, as the story is written as if it is happening to them. This may sound like a lot of fun to play with (and it is), but try keeping it going past the first chapter. It’s a lot harder than you might think.

One thing I will say about second person is that it works quite well for stories within stories. If, for example, you have a character who wakes up from a coma and can’t remember how he/she got there, another character could quite credibly recount to them the events that led up to their comatose state, using second person to fill them in.

Third Person

neverwhere-book-coverLastly, there is always third person to fall back on. This is the voice type that I tend to use the most. I find it offers the most flexibility, as it means you don’t have to tie yourself to one particular character. Instead, the narrative becomes a lens through which the reader views the whole story. It allows you to add in scenes that don’t include your main character at all, making it easier to showcase your antagonist every once in a while, or get inside the minds of secondary characters who have their own take on the story’s events.

The main thing to decide with a third-person narrative is the scope of the narration: will it be limited, or will it be omniscient? This is something I will be coming back to next week.

Tense

The English Language has at least a dozen different tenses to choose from. Thankfully for us, they boil down to three essentials: Past, Present and Future. As with second-person narratives, the future tense is not particularly common in fiction (unless your story happens to include an element of prophecy). Writers are more likely to write about events that have happened, or are happening, rather than ones that are yet to come.

As such, the main choice you will have to make here is between Past and Present.

Present Tense

Telling a story in the present tense offers a sense of immediacy. Events are unfolding as the story is being told, which means that the reader knows as much as the characters do about what is to come as it hasn’t happened yet. This works particularly well when coupled with a first-person perspective as the narrative character tells the story as they go.

It is less common with third-person narratives, as the nature of the third-person voice naturally tends towards recounting past events.

Past Tense

The past tense, on the other hand, has a more retrospective feel to it. The reader gets the sense that the story has already happened and is being told after the event. This means that more hints of what is to come can be dropped into the narrative. Foreshadowing future events can be very useful for keeping a reader’s attention, but it can also come across as trite if phrases such as “little did they know…” or “if I had known then what I know now…” are over used.

Past tense can be used with either first- or third-person narratives but are probably most commonly paired with third person.

Mixing it up

If you really wanted to get creative with the narrative structure, there are ways to include both past and present into your story (and even both first and third person as well).

Bad MonkeysBad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, starts with the main character, Jane, in a police interrogation room, using a third-person, present-tense voice. As Jane goes through the events that led to her being in the interrogation room, the narrative switches to first person, past tense. Throughout the book, Ruff periodically takes us back to the interrogation room, switching back to the third person, present tense narrative to gauge the reactions of those in the room with her.

Most important of all when choosing a narrative voice is to keep things fresh. Don’t settle on a particular type just because you are most comfortable using it. Changing your narrative voice to suit the story itself can have a huge impact on how it is appreciated by your readers.

And all this is before we’ve even had a look at the importance of knowledge and character within the narrative voice. But that’s for next week. For now, I will leave you to your own experiments with voice. Feel free to share some of your results in the comments below.

 

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Fandemonium

Fandemonium

Brooklyn 99Just a few days ago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine set a new record for the shortest cancellation of a TV series EVER. After airing five years with Fox, the studio announced on Friday 11th May that the comedy cop show had run its course. Within minutes, the internet exploded with irate fans (including Yours Truly) voicing their displeasure at the cancellation.

And they were heard. Fast. By the end of the day, NBC stepped in and made the announcement that they would be picking up the show for its sixth season; continuing its legacy of diversity and inclusion wrapped in fast-paced comedy banter. This may not be the first fan campaign to save a show, but it’s certainly the shortest.

Fans of the Nine-Nine, we salute you!

Salute

Fan campaigns may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon, but they have been going a lot longer than you might think. Let’s be honest, in a Roman Gladiatorial Arena, crowd appreciation could literally save a man’s life. If that’s not fan power, I don’t know what it!

But with the prominence of Social Media these days, fan campaigns seem to be gaining more attention and inspiring other fan groups to follow suit. And we all know that dedicated fans can come up with some truly creative and inspired methods for getting their opinions noticed.

Here are a few honourable mentions:

Firefly/Serenity

FireflyFirefly is frequently listed as a show that was cancelled too soon. After just 14 episodes, Fox pulled the plug. Given that it had played with the show’s running order and scheduling, this maybe wasn’t as big a shock as it could have been. Nevertheless, the fans were devastated, especially when the DVD release meant they could view the show in the correct order. Thus, the Browncoats were born. Letters were written to the studio, and to Joss Whedon to show their support. They even paid for whole-page ads in magazines. In the end, the show was not renewed, but the fans’ support inspired Whedon to go on his own campaign to find a studio willing to fund and produce a movie to enable him and the fans to say a proper goodbye to the franchise. And so, Serenity flew one last time.

Chuck

chuck-aboutimage-1920x1080-ko.jpgProduct placement is rife in just about any film or TV series you can think of, but no product has ever been more welcome on screen as Subway was in Chuck. After just two seasons, Chuck looked like it was for the cutting room floor when fans (together with the show’s star, Zachary Levi) took it upon themselves to partner with Subway to save the show. Hundreds of fans flocked to Subway stores in the hopes that the bosses would sign a sponsorship deal with the show. And it worked! Chuck went on for three more seasons thanks to the investment from Subway, and their sandwiches featured prominently on screen as a result.

subway

Star Trek (Original Series)

TOS_headFans have always been passionate about ensuring that the Star Trek franchise lives long and prospers, never more so than when the original series was under the axe in 1968 after just two years on the air. The fans launched a letter-writing campaign that set the benchmark for future campaigns. They even picketed the NBC offices and studios to get their point across. When Star Trek was renewed for a third season, the Executives cited the fans as the reason for giving it the green light. Well done, nerdmigos!

2af411c7a268bc6de7d7b9c43ffc7b10

Veronica Mars

When CW cancelled Veronica Mars in 2007, the studio was inundated by fans sending in over 10,000 Mars bars. This isn’t the first time that fans have sent show-centric items to studios in the hopes of renewing their favourite shows (it was bottles of Tabasco Sauce for Roswell and boxes of tissues for Stargate SG-1). Ultimately, in this instance, the studio was not moved by the gesture. So, fans got together with the goal of raising $2 million to help fund a film. They ended up raising $5.7 million and the Veronica Mars movie came out in 2014 with its original cast intact.

veronicamarsveronicamar.jpg

Of course, for every successful campaign, there are at least five that end in tragedy. Series such as Pushing Daisies, The 4400, and Angel will never see another episode, much to the disappointment of their dedicated fans. But that doesn’t mean that fans should just give up and keep their silence.

With more and more fans connecting through Social Media and showing their solidarity, studios are being forced to take notice. As Melissa Fumero tweeted this week following NBC’s announcement regarding Brooklyn Nine-Nine,

“You [the fans] got loud and you were heard and you saved the show!”

It’s a happy ending that more of our favourite shows deserve and I do hope that more studios follow suit in taking the views of their fans into consideration.

Thank you NBC for saving the Nine-Nine!

Cheers

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Great Opening Lines

Opening Lines

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a strong story, must be in want of an enticing opening line.

This is so universally acknowledged, in fact, that it barely needs repeating anymore. But I’m going to anyway.

The first line of your novel/short story/novella/whatever you are working on is what will make your readers keep reading. If they’re not interested right from the start, then they will stop reading fairly quickly.

If that’s not enough to jolt you to attention, then here’s a statistic from the world of traditional publishing: a publisher will usually decide whether or not your manuscript is worth their time within reading the first three pages. Given that you will have submitted your work to them double line spaced, that means you have roughly 800 words not only to grab their attention but hold it as well.

The more you invest into that first sentence, the better. And the best way to do this is to look at some examples of opening line that have really grabbed you.

So, here are some of my favourites to get the ball rolling.

1: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

01 Pride and PrejudiceIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Given that I started this post by paraphrasing this opening line, it would have been rude not to include it in the list. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Jane Austen, I’m sure you will be familiar with this line. In the world of opening lines, this one is nothing short of iconic. So much so that it is often parodied (and not just by me).

Who could forget its use in Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.”

So, what is it about Austen’s opening line that is so effective? First of all, it makes a bold assumption. There are not many things that we would count as ‘universally acknowledged’ but Austen tells us that this is one of them. She then invites the reader to agree with it immediately. “Why, yes of course; a young man in possession of a good fortune must indeed be in want of a wife. What else could he possibly need in his life?”

It also introduces one of the book’s major themes, that of marriage and the social pressures that once came with it (and perhaps even still do).

In making such a bold sweeping statement at the beginning, the reader then assumes that Austen will prove her point with the story that is about to be told. And so, they read on.

2: Lorelei’s Secret – Carolyn Pankhurst

02 Lorelei's Secret“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.”

From the well known to the lesser known, Carolyn Pankhurst’s 2003 novel makes no less of an impact with its opening line. Here, the entire premise that the book hangs on is stated clearly and concisely in 41 words. The book itself follows Paul Iverson as he investigates his wife’s death and tries to work out what the one witness to the event, their dog Lorelei, actually saw. By stating the premise in the opening sentence, the reader is very quickly brought up to speed on the events leading up to the start of the book and it is that much easier to follow through the rest of the narrative.

3: Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

03 1984It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Up until the last word of this sentence, there is nothing particularly eye-catching about it. But how many clocks do you know of that strike thirteen? In the context of what Nineteen Eighty-Four is about, this subtle change at the start of the book is quite in keeping with the idea of revisionist history. By taking something so mundane, and changing it ever so slightly, we are instantly alerted to the fact that this is not the world we are used to, and if we want to learn more about how this society is different from ours, we have to keep reading.

4: I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

04 I Capture The Castle“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

This may be one of my favourite opening lines to a novel ever. The image it conjures up of someone sat scrunched in a kitchen sink with a pen and paper makes me smile no end. It is presented as normal that the most important thing in the world to do if you are forced to sit in a sink is to write about it. Immediately. And of course, it is; I couldn’t agree more.

In a similar way to Orwell’s clock striking thirteen, Dodie Smith manages to throw the reader off balance by twisting the expectation as to where a person ought to be sitting. The difference here is that the break from the norm, rather than simply piquing our curiosity, also makes us laugh at its absurdity.

Humour is a brilliant tool when it comes to breaking the ice in any situation. Writing is no exception.

5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C. S. Lewis

05 Dawn TreaderThere was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Again, there is an element of humour in C. S Lewis’ opening to his third instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia (third in terms of publication, not necessarily reading order). But what I have picked this book for is it is an example of a character being introduced quickly into the story. This is particularly effective in this case given that it is part way through a series where several characters are already well established, and we are now meeting someone else for the first time – someone who will be very important to the story.

We are compelled to read on to find out more about this new character, and to find out if he does in fact deserves his name, as Lewis suggests he does.

6: Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landry

06 Skulduggery PleasantGordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself.”

In literature, death is a fairly common trigger for events in a story changing suddenly; or, as in this case, starting them in their entirety. It may be that the person who dies has left the main character an inheritance that sets their life on a new an unexpected path. Or they may have been a crucial figure whose death begins a cascade of events that the main character becomes caught up in.

In this instance, Gordon Edgley’s death is a little of both for his niece, Stephanie, the character that a lot of the Skulduggery Pleasant series revolves around (together with Skulduggery himself, of course).

A death right at the start of a book leads the reader to be intrigued as to how this death will colour the rest of the story.

7: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King

07 The GunslingerThe man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Now, I freely admit, much to by best friend’s annoyance, I have not read the Gunslinger in its entirety, and I have not read any of the other books in The Dark Tower series. But this line stands out to me because of how simple and effective it is.

Whatever you think of Stephen King’s work in terms of subject matter, there is no denying that he is a master of his craft. In the opening line to The Gunslinger, he plunges the reader right into the middle of the action. There is no drawn out “Once upon a time…” here. We immediately have two opposing characters and a whole heap of questions: Who are these men? Why is the man in black running? Why is the gunslinger following? Why are they in a desert? And so on.

Pulling the reader straight into the action of your story is a sure-fire way to keep them reading. This also works well if you open your story with dialogue.

8: I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

08 I Am PilgrimThere are places I’ll remember all my life – Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of 8-Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a group of ruins known as the Theatre of Death.”

You don’t necessarily know it from the start, but all of the places listed are very important to the story you are about to read. In listing them like this, Hayes creates a sense of mystery surrounding the narrative character. The four places are so very different – Russia, Detroit, New England, and the ruins known as the Theatre of Death (I won’t spoil where they actually are) – it makes you wonder how they are all connected to one man. Given that the story that unfolds is a detective/spy thriller, the sense of mystery that is created right out of the gate is quite fitting and sets the tone for everything that is to come.

These are just a handful of techniques and tropes that you can employ for your own opening lines. I’m sure that if you were to peruse your own bookcase and list the opening lines that stand out to you, there will be other things that you notice about them as well.

If you are going to undertake this exercise (which I encourage that you do as it is quite enlightening), here are a few questions to keep in mind as you search:

  • How is the mood set with the opening sentence?
  • What does it tell me about the story I am about to read?
  • What specific word or phrase makes me want to keep reading?

If you start to see trends emerging, try applying them to your own work. It may end up proving to be the making of your story.


 

Bibliography

1: Jane Austen (1813), Pride and Prejudice – originally published by Thomas Egerton (1813), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2012)

2: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (2009), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Quirk Books, Philadelphia, PA

3: Carolyn Pankhurst (2003), Lorelei’s Secret – Hodder and Stoughton, A division of Hodder Headline, London

4: George Orwell (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four – originally published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd (1949), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2000)

5: Dodie Smith (1949) I Capture the Castle – originally published by William Heinemann (1949), re-printed by Vintage Digital, London (2011)

6: C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – originally published by Geoffrey Bles (1955), re-printed by Harper Collins, London (2008)

7: Derek Landry (2007) Skulduggery Pleasant – Harper Collins, London

8: Stephen King (1982) The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Donald M. Grant Publisher Inc, Hampton Falls, NH

9: Terry Hayes (2012), I Am Pilgrim – Bantam Press, An imprint of Transworld Publishers, London

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