Fleshing Out Your Story

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So you’ve carved out a piece of time in your life to write, found a corner of your house to call your own. How do you get from that blinking cursor on the blank page to a story that makes sense?

There is a lot of discussion in writing circles about plotters and pantsers. That is: writers who plot their stories out before they write and those who write ‘by the seat of their pants’, discovering the story as they go. On the one hand, the plot is king, on the other hand it’s the narrative, as driven by the character that the writer has brought to life. Of course there is a whole spectrum here. Some writers plot ‘to the horizon’, writing to a certain point that may be only a few chapters ahead. Many pantser’s claim they cannot plot without losing all their inspiration.

Which way is the right way?

I once went to Robert McKee’s Story seminar when he was in town here in Brisbane, a lecture that closely follows McKee’s book of the same name (BTW: if you ever go see McKee, make sure you are not late. He roasts people who disturb his rhythm by coming in after he has started – and fines them money after threatening to walk out if they don’t pay up). I had just finished reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. If you had to pick two people with diametrically opposed approaches, it would be those two luminaries.

In King’s book, he places a lot on emphasis on getting to know the character. Establishing such an immersion that the narrative of the piece takes on a life of its own. If any of you have run into McKee before you would know he is an advocate of structure with a capital S.

When the opportunity arose, I stuck up my hand and asked McKee what was more important, Narrative or Plot. I mentioned that Stephen King, in his book On Writing, emphasised Narrative. McKee (who seemed to get positively annoyed at the mention of King), did not actually answer the question. All he said was ‘a plot is nothing more than a series of events’ then went on to another question. Gee, thanks Rob.

McKee’s response got me thinking, though. His simple statement of fact – that a plot was nothing more than a series of events – made me realise that regardless of the approach of the writer, all good stories have to end up in the same place – i.e. with a well worked out plot.

As a rule each species of writer will be prone to certain weaknesses. Those who plot excessively may be tempted to ‘fit’ their character’s action into predetermined boxes, with a loss of life and spontaneity in the story.

Good pantsers are masters of the hook, and will often have a story that draws in a reader off the mark – yet their stories often lose coherency as the book continues, and the worst examples have endings that leave book-sized impressions in the wall through lack of resolution, or just plain nonsense motivations and events.

But no matter what style of writer, the objective is a well-crafted story that has all the key elements that make a great book: a well-structured plot with integral conflict, good characterisation, a well presented setting and a satisfying ending.

Whichever way you do it, you need to flesh out your story.

If you are an organised thinker like me, you will probably do a ton of research up front and piece your story together until you have the whole thing in place before you start at page one. If you are a pantser, you will irresistibly want to tinker with bits and pieces of the story all over the place, and your plot will gradually coalesce out of a patchwork of scenes, many of which will need umpteen revisions. Either way, once you have that whole story in place, you will need to stand back and take a good look at it.

But more on plotting next week.

Getting Started

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I’ve talked about quite a few elements of writing over the last few years, but since I’m starting a new series of blog posts about writing, I thought I would start right at the beginning.

Getting started on writing.

Off the mark, writing a novel can seem a pretty intimidating thing. For a start it’s a lot of words – thousands upon thousands of words. Even a typing monkey would need a good chunk of the year to fill up a Word file with the odd million characters or so that would equate to say 100,000 words, which is the length of a typical paperback fantasy novel.

So how do you do it? How do you know what to say? How do you sustain that input over such a long period of time?

As the hackneyed old phrase goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. That’s true, but it does not tell the whole story. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but then continues with another, then another . . . until the journey is done. It’s sticking to the process, keeping the momentum in the forward direction.

To use a writing Australianism: it’s about ‘bums on seats’. Physically spending the time it takes in front of your computer (with Word open, not Facebook :)).

No matter how much progress you gain from each of your single steps, the key is sticking with it. Everyone has periods of their life where they are tight for time. That step might be 10 minutes snatched from a harried lunch hour. It might be half an hour hiding in the emergency exit stairwell with a notepad. Twenty minutes on the bus with an iPad. It might be a precious hour in the quiet of the house before the crazy day starts and the kids clamour for breakfast, or a midnight hour stolen from your sleep.

It doesn’t matter when. Although one thing I do know: the earlier in your day you can manage to write (or work on your story), the easier it tends to be. Days seem to get more hectic as they go, demands increase – and energy wanes. But that’s individual choice.

But what to write?

Well – why do you want to write? Think about it for a moment. Only you can answer this. And the answer gives you the solution.

Every single story has a way in.

There will be a creative spark that drives the process. It might be an idea for a character, or an undefined sense for a story that blossoms into a frenzied exploration of setting. Or it might be a single scene – a key clutch moment where the story starts, or perhaps a heroic triumph in the latter part of the story.

Whatever it is, expand it. See it. Write what you see.

But however you find your way in, just stick with it! You are bringing something new into the world. You are creating something that has never been before.

Worried about writing something that will be like everyone else’s novels? Well, think of how many rock songs have G C and D chords. The variations are endless. With work and tenacity, you can bring a unique edge to anything. The odds are that if you stick with your initial conception, that spark that was the genesis of your work, you will find an expression all your own.

But what about characters? Storyline? Setting? Building a plot? Improving your expression? Your craft? Getting published? Marketing?

Don’t worry about that now. Just start. Just keep going. Keep your energy up. Seek out like-minded people or others that encourage you. Take in creative work that charges you up (writers are also readers – don’t forget that!).

One thing is for sure, your novel will never exist if you don’t start – and you don’t keep going.

Welcome to the journey. . .

 

 

 

 

 

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Worldbuilding – Unique Weapons

 

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In my fantasy world Yos, all metal is present as a magical crystal called a glowmetal. These glowmetals are a naturally occurring blend of light and metal that cannot be created or destroyed. So in the development of weapons, swords and metal armour were out. Instead I developed various classes of composite ceramic.

Lanedd – which can be used for blades. This holds a razor-sharp edge, yet avoids the brittleness of pure ceramics.

Mought – incredibly tough material that can be cast into shape as armour or used for the haft of various weapons.

The longest practical lanedd blade that can be cast using the techniques available to Glassmiths in Yos is the ‘calv’ or long-knife. This is where the world ‘calvanni’ or knife-fighter derives.

On Yos the dualist’s weapon of choice is the greatscythe. This is a staff-like weapon with twin concealed blades, one at either end. The blades shoot out and lock into place. It is operated by a mechanism central to the haft . It is also the weapon of the Suul nobility.

I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how the greatscythe worked. After all – with no forged metal – I could not very well have conventional coiled springs.

Here’s what I came up with:

The greatscythe has a central fighting grip and a release grip slightly wider than this which is operated by twisting two rings. These have a thread on the inside that operates a rod moving parallel with the axis of the greatscythe. This movement switches what is known in knife-talk as an Out-The-Front or OTF mechanism.

To make this work I needed two separate types of springs in the internal mechanism, both which had to be some sort of natural material. The first I solved with small bone ‘leaf’ springs for the catches that lock the blade into position. For the main spring that drives the blade back and forward I used a rubber strap-spring.

The greatscythe itself tapers to the ends. Two cover plates attach to a hollow cast core and cover the dual mechanisms – sealed in place with a special mought (ceramic) that melts at a much lower temperature than the mought of the haft. So if the mechanism needs to be fixed the sealing mought can be melted away to free the plate.

Anyone else out there had fun with unique weapons?

The official launch of the Jakirian Cycle is being held next Thursday 13th March at Avid Reader in West End in Brisbane. You can register by calling Avid on (07) 3846 3422 or book on the events section of their site. Here is the link.

PS: Don’t forget to enter the Scytheman Book Giveway! I am giving away 5 copies of Scytheman, second in the Jakirian Heroic Fantasy series. The Giveaway ends on 10th March.

 

Review: How to Publish like a Pro for a Fraction of the Cost by Donna Joy Usher

It’s rare that I do a review, but having just sweated over the Jakirian Cycle through its various stages, Donna Joy Usher’s book was right in my bailiwick.

Usher has written a great book here. She had done one hell of a lot of groundwork and saved anyone who picks up a copy a heck of a lot of painful and time-consuming investigation. It is an invaluable first stop for anyone looking to tip their toe into the ebook or print-on-demand publishing areas, and has plenty of suggestions where to go for more details on all the other related areas such as promotion and the use of social media.

Usher is completely frank about her focus, which is mainly ebooks. The book delivers on its premise – illustrating how to publish like a professional for a fraction of the cost. If keeping the cost down is your ultimate goal, then this book is ideal for you.

The initial sections on editing and cover design were brief, but provided useful summaries, with some good references and links. I could perhaps add Stephen King’s On Writing to the list of writing guides,  for sheer entertainment value alone.

Usher also covers the other ancillary services offered by some of the publishing sites, such as editing, marketing packages etc.

In terms of print, Usher provides a good guide to publishing through Createspace, although that is the only print-on-demand option covered in detail. Lightning Source is another equivalent option, with similar printing costs to Createspace. Once advantage with Lightning Source is that you can choose your retailer discount for each territory and choose a different price for each territory as well. Having said that, most of the file preparation will be common to all print-on-demand services that utilise PDF files.

One possible downfall is the book is all about what worked for Usher – it may have benefitted from a more independent viewpoint or pooled experience of authors who have tried different things. If you are looking for simple solutions, or perhaps for how to let someone else do the work for you, you will need to read between the lines and follow some of Usher’s offered leads and do some further investigation.

I have been both sides of the coin – I have paid for partnership publishing and published through print-on-demand. Having experienced both, I would personally recommend using print-on-demand options such as Createspace. Partnership publishing was successful for me –  the process was managed to a degree and I accessed some of the machinery of distribution and book production – however the cost was higher than publishing the novel myself via print-on-demand. I got a little advice, but really the promotion and sales were back to me. I was lured, basically, by the promise that my work might be picked up by that publisher, but that never was going to happen. It was the way they preyed on the hopes of aspiring writers to motivate them to sign up – it was a business.

I think it is much better for writers to take the whole project into their own hands and publish either electronically, print-on-demand or both. That might seem a daunting prospect, but Usher’s book provides an invaluable guide into that new world of possibilities.

Donna Joy Usher’s book is available here on Amazon.

Research Vs Writing

I have always been an avid admirer of writers who manage to keep multiple balls in the air at once. They manage new work on one manuscript with research on the next project running at the same time, perhaps with editing of the last manuscript (or two) on the sidelines.

I’ve never been able to do that. I am a great finisher, but getting started on anything is always the hard part for me. I need to build up a substantial head of steam to break the ice on any new project.

That’s the reason why when I am in the very beginnings of a new project, the story research is just about as much as I can manage to squeeze into my brain. This is really just fuel for the formation of the storyline (which I create in a fair amount of detail) and the broader canvass of the world and characters. Every new research direction (very much driven by intuition) is compared against some intangible sense for what the story will be. Then it is either expanded on or discarded. Once in a while I ‘break through’ and major piece of the story puzzle falls into place, inspired by that leap-frogging from research fragment to fragment.

So – is this research writing? It is part of my process. It is crucial to the formation of the story – which I need to have ‘front-loaded’ into my brain before the words begin to flow – yet it is not actual ‘words on a page’.

I guess I’m trying to make myself feel better for this huge chunk of time when I don’t actually write anything other than story notes – while the compelling voices in the wilderness continue cry ‘you must write, write, write!’

So what do you think about the research-writing spectrum? Does research qualify as writing? Or am I just a slack writer who can’t multi-task?

PS: Thanks to everyone who entered The Calvanni giveaway. The winners have been selected by Goodreads and the books will be on their way in the next couple of weeks. We had two winners from the USA, one from Canada, one from the UK and another for India. Congrats!

What’s in a Name?

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Plotting a new novel recently I have come across a familiar phenomenon. I’m working away on the plot, then move on to fleshing out a particular character, or describing that particular character’s backstory or role in the plot.

Slam. Dead stop.

I need the name.

If I cannot get a name that works for me for that character I am completely stumped. It is part stubbornness, part determination, part – well I don’t know what. But I have an instinct for what name is right. It’s like the core of the character starts as a seed of emotion, and I know that thing intimately. I know that I need to find the right name to unlock it, as though that unique combination of letters and sounds is itself a key.

Once I have the name, everything starts flowing. I can describe the character, I can move on with the plot. Suddenly I know what happened when they were seven, how they feel about their mother and what colour their hair is.

So what is it about names? Do other people find it the same when they are fleshing out a new book?

The idea of changing character names after the book has been written makes me shiver like a ghost just walked on my grave.

In fact, come to think about it. I can’t even start plotting a book until I get the title of the book.

So what is it? What’s in a name?

Books and Films Where the Protagonist Dies

Following on from an interesting discussion I was having a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about stories where the key protagonist dies at the end of the book. Always a controversial way to end a storyline, it can be downright book-at-the-wall territory.

I guess it comes down to what you are looking to get out of the books and films you read. If you are looking for the classic hero’s journey, losing that character – that proxy vehicle of your hopes and dreams – can be downright distressing. Then again, if you are motivated by unconventional plots and enjoy a surprise ending then it might be a pleasant experience of difference – ‘Well wasn’t that clever?’

I’ve been wracking my brains to think of books where this happens, but a number of films immediately came to mind, such as American Beauty and Sin City (where the cop – Harrigan? – kills himself at the end to save Nancy). As it happens, I did read Mark Lawrence’s ‘Emperor of Thorns’, last in his three books series. If you have not read this and want to – LOOK AWAY NOW! In the third book the narrator Jorg (and this is all first person) kills himself so that he can find and save his dead older brother in the worlds beyond (and save the world). The final sections are written by a ‘data-ghost’ of Jorg created by the ‘machines of the builders’.

In terms of plot construction and narration, it’s a tricky balance, trying to withhold enough information so the end is not telegraphed. I guess this is in the territory of the ‘unreliable narrator’.

Although I don’t really enjoy these types of endings, as long as the central character stays true to their initially sketched nature and goals, I’m willing to accept them.

So where do you come down in the debate? Can anyone out there think of a book where the narrator dies?

PS: On 9th and 10th November I’ll be at Brisbane Supanova with a whole bunch of copies of Calvanni, Scytheman and Sorcerer, hot off the press. Come and say hello.

You can also find them at on-line retailers like Amazon.

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Back of the Envelope

Hi, everyone. You guys had quite a bit of fun tracking down the lost methane. We should do an open floor more often.

Quite a few years ago I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. I’m a chemical engineer, and my work for these guys was all in the environmental area. Most of the engineers who worked there were of the geotechnical kind. At one point a graduate geotechnical engineer started at the firm. To say this young guy was brash would be an understatement. The first thing he did was walk into the offices of both the Principals, experienced and very serious men who walked around with an invisible neon sign saying “GOD” above them, and give them both a small white envelope. He then asked them to write everything they knew on the back!

Condensing all the things you’ve learnt over a career can seem well-nigh impossible, but it’s an interesting exercise to thing about the most valuable insights.

As writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best thing I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing will not work for another. Some people do some things instinctively and everyone has unique ways of working – and blind spots.

For me, the first insight was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft ever was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that integral that to the story that if you took it away, you would have a different story – or would not be able to tell the story. The character also has to be unique to that story, formed by that setting, primed for that conflict.

So what would you put on the back of your envelope?

Endings

There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What do you consider a good ending?

Dealing with the Cast of Thousands

I’m pleased to announce that my fantasy series, the Jakirian Cycle, is finished! All the last edits are done and it should be hitting both the real and electronic shelves around October.

It’s exciting to have completed the trilogy, and it will be great to end the wait for those who started the series with The Calvanni, either in its 2006 Australian print incarnation or its later 2009 electronic version.

One of the things I grappled with Jakirian Cycle (typical of fantasy series) was the considerably wide scope of the story. Without giving too much of the plot away, at the start of The Calvanni the Eathal – the cavern dwelling cousin-species to humans – are launching a major offensive on the remnants of a once vast human Empire. But this is very much in the background.

In the first book the central characters are struggling to survive amid civil strife and assassination attempts (Ellen), while dealing with the emergence of their own unique magical powers (Cedrin).

In the second book, the first major engagements are taking place between the Eathal and the last few human Legions, but the focus is still on the characters and their personal journeys and the mystery of the Scion (the lost heir to the fallen Empire).

In Sorcerer – third book of the trilogy – the clash of human and Eathal occurs on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of human and Eathal troops are fighting across two major fronts. From the PoV of the central characters, they are being drawn more and more into the centre of power in Yos. Both Cedrin and Ellen find themselves right at the core of the reestablished Bulvuran Empire. Amidst all this are the various Warlords who divided up the fallen Empire. The most powerful of whom is facing the Eathal in southern Yos while being heavily outnumbered and under strength in the magical department. To do justice to this, I needed to make that Warlord a PoV character, and needed to portray these major engagements.

Various subplots that have been in the background since the first book all come to the fore in Sorcerer. All of this led to the introduction of a lot of new characters. Each is important to the story in some way, but most are not central or point-of-view characters. Trying to control this crowd, and do them justice was certainly a challenge!

Numerous times I’ve had to scramble back through the book and insert a few key paragraphs. ‘Oh, Damn! Such-and-such was still with Cedrin in that scene.’  or ‘Oh, crap. Where were they when that combat was happening?’ I need to keep them in the picture, but without diluting the thread of the main character too much. There were so many of these minor characters it really proved a teeth-grinding experience. Oh for a simple story! I am my own worst enemy with this. Yet with book three  I also tried to lay the foundation for the ultimate conclusion of what might extend to a possible six books series. Don’t worry – Sorcerer ends with a great climax and the first three books stand as a trilogy.

If you love battle scenes, Sorcerer will definitely be your sort of thing. In that regard it is my homage to David Gemmell:) Using the unique magic of Yos, including the glowmetals, on that scale was a real buzz.

Back to dealing with multiple characters: I always try to maintain the focus of the story through a small number of key point-of-view characters. There may be many other characters introduced to support the story, or to give the setting the feel of the political landscape, but I try to have these experienced through the viewpoint of the key characters. I think it can even aid the tension in the story to have the motivations of these characters unclear – and that’s hard to pull off if they are the narrator. It’s also surprising how much you can convey objectively, without having to make them a PoV character.

It is a tricky balance though. It’s hard to do them all justice, to convey their motivations and to give the reader a sense that these minor characters are moving through the story not just being present as a background cut-out. More than once I shook my head writing Sorcerer and said ‘What the Hell have I got myself into?’

Still, I think it’s worth it to see the various sub-plots come into effect. It gives the whole thing a depth and complexity.

Have you ever been frustrated by the Cast of Thousands? How do you deal with it? Kill them off? Limit their appearances? Tear up your draft?