Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Moving the blog

Hello readers,

Sorry I haven't posted for some time. I've been a little busy and very tired. But I'm back from my holiday in Scotland now and ready to start posting again.

However, as you may have guessed from the topic, I'm moving the blog. If you want to keep reading my entries you'll have to go to my new wordpress.com blog to do so. Hope to see you there.

Thanks for reading,

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Writing Book Review - Successful Novel Plotting

There's one thing I find frustrating. Well actually I find many things frustrating, but "Successful Novel Plotting" by Jean Saunders only hits on one of them. What is this thing? Books that are jam packed with good advice, but which I find the tone too dry to absorb properly.

And that's exactly what I find with this book. It's annoying because in many ways it does everything right. It's well organised, exhaustive and the writer acknowledges that everyone writes differently and attempts to deal with that. Taken as a road map to organising your plot it can only help.

But to me it was also boring. The tone did not engage me at all, so I had to keep stopping. Even now I feel like I haven't properly got to grips with all the advice in it simply because I found it hard to focus on. There's nothing wrong with the way it's written per se, it just didn't suit me. Even with the problems I have with it I'm sure it's going to be very useful to me. I suspect many other people would find the tone and style fine - it's a matter of taste.
This is a book that I'd suggest find in a bricks and mortar store if you're considering it. That way you can look and see if you get on with the tone.

It's also a hard one to rank because of this. It's a good book that I don't like due to what i can see are taste issues. I'm giving it 3 stars because of this.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Quick Link Post and writing update

Okay, I confess, I'm at a bit of a loss what to blog about today. So I was nosing round the web looking for inspiration and I came upon this wonderful post about writing scenes over at Charge of the Write Brigade. It strikes me as a really useful piece, so I thought I'd link it here.

I've started doing some preliminary work on some scene ideas myself as part of my outline for the same story I've been doing the weird worldbuilding for. And I've been researching wind turbines of all things.

I'll try and do a proper post tomorrow, but having skipped yesterday I didn't want to miss another post.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Beginnings are delicate times

I just invented a new post tag "brainstorming ramble". A blog post in which I ramble about writing issues I have in order to clarify them to myself.

Especially when you're writing fantasy with a non-real world setting and you're torn between not indulging in back-story and infodumps, and not confusing your readers. Ifodumps bore readers and the leave, but confused readers leave as well. It's about balance I suppose.

The problem is sorting out what the reader absolutely has to know in order to not be confused into putting the book down. This is what I'm struggling with at the moment. And I don't really have the answers. The initial setting is a former eco-holiday park that's become a kind of post-apocalyptic refugee camp/frontier town because it's still got electricity and similar. Why society collapsed doesn't need explaining yet (especially since exactly what happened is a mystery to the people in the story as well), but I do need to make it clear that it's collapsed. I'm only outlining at the moment, but my mind is looking at the synopsis and going 'how the heck do I show that?'.

I suspect a leap of faith is in order. I'll just jump into the story and trust that it will be obvious from context if I do it right. It's not like the opening scene doesn't establish that weird shit is going on anyway.

Yeah, hopefully that'll work.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - Raising the Past

I read Raising the Past by Jeremy Robinson superfast when I got it in December 2006.

It's a really fast paced read and a great deal of fun. I've read criticisms elsewhere that the characters are shallow and underdeveloped but in a relatively short and fast paced science fiction thriller like this character development will always take a back seat. There could perhaps have been more three dimensionality in there, but it certainly did not ruin the book for me by any stretch. The plot took front seat and took me on a rollercoaster ride to rival the best any theme park has to offer.

And it does have it's deep side in its theme of good, evil and free will. What they are and what it means to have the freedom to choose between them.

It's a decent action story that with a bit more character development could have been worth 4.5 or 5 stars. As it is I give it 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 with the warning that it isn't for you if you only like novels with well developed characters.

Thursday, 30 July 2009


I once said I wouldn't blog about everyday life unless it impinged on my writing. Of course it does sometimes - like today.

Today I got up and went to work as usual, but just before lunchtime I had to give up and come home because I was ill. I won't go into details but I don't think it's Swine Flu or anything - probably something I ate.

As a result I've slept most of the day and not done any writing or related activities today. I don't even have the energy for a proper blog post.

Hopefully I'll feel better tomorrow and be able to return to my regularly scheduled blogging. Actually since it's fiction book review day tomorrow I can just grab one of my old reviews from Amazon if and paste it in if I'm not.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Writing Book Review - The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier - How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing by Bonnie Trenga is very useful. In fact it makes my list of writing books that every writer should own and use. Where Self-Editing for Fiction Writers deals with showing and telling and other editing problems, and the Writing the Breakout Novel deals with plot, tension and characterisation - this book deals with grammar and copy-editing. This is why I think it's a very useful addition to any writer's library.

It's slender, but packs a lot of punch for its size. The book consists of seven chapters and four appendices. Each of the chapters is dedicated to a common grammatical "crimes" found in writing from passive voice to wordy writing. The chapter starts with a passage written using the problemic form, and then explains why it's a problem and how to fix it. Finally as an exercise you are supposed to fix the passage at the start of the chapter. Really useful stuff.

The appendices are "the top ten writing misdemeanors" - ten other problems that weaken writing, an answer key for the exercises, a glossary and a "weak writing check sheet" that you can use as a quick reference when editing.

It's also well written. Grammar books are often dry and boring, but this one is light and often amusing. Especially the example passages which are so badly written it's hilarious.

Definately a book I highly recommend. Four Stars.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Weird Worldbuilding

Most of the advice about Worldbuilding out there seems to come down to geophysical and climatological advice about making you fantasy world physically plausible.

This is all very well until you want to do something non-standard. The world I'm working on at the moment is very non-standard, and the lack of suggestions and advice is making me feel like I'm flying blind.

Now some people would say that to be plausible a world has to follow mundane physical laws. But what if the world isn't a mundane physical world? Leaving aside completely implausible physical setups like Terry Pratchett's Discworld or the roleplaying game Exalted's Creation what about world's that are not physical in the mundane sense? The Matrix and similar fictional virtual worlds only obey's mundane laws (if the do) because they are programmed that way.

Well I would say that a non-standard world still needs consistent rules to underpin it even if they differ radically from the laws of physics. It's consistency not mundanity which makes even the implausible plausible in my opinion. So I'm currently coming up with the laws that rule this particular world I'm developing - which is great fun.

Monday, 27 July 2009

About Opening Scenes

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you'll hear today is "hook them on the first page". In fact it's often phrased as "hook them with the first line". This is why writers often spend so long labouring over their first lines, because they know you have to catch the reader early or they'll close the book and move on to the next one.

However it is important to note we writers sometimes worry about it far too much. A great first line is a good thing, but it's no good if you don't follow it up with a strong first scene. And a weak first line may well be forgiven by the browsing reader if the rest of the first scene delivers on the tension. I know we live in the sound bite generation, but even today most potential readers will skim at least a couple of pages before deciding (or at least that's been my observation in bookshops).

So I think that when thinking about your opening it's more important to think about the first scene and the reader hook holistically rather than just focusing on the first line. If you can pull of a brilliant opening the first line should take care of itself.

And of course concentrating on the scene should help with avoiding first lines that are supposed to be hooky but come off as contrived. I'm sure we've all seen some of those before now.

But all this is by the by. How do we make our opening scenes hook the reader?

Well I've come across several suggestion - all of which can work solely or in combination.

  1. Open with a bang. Many thrillers do this literally. They open with someone in mortal danger. The theory is it hooks you, because you want to know if the person lives or dies. However you have to make the reader care you have to get them to empathise very quickly. If they don't they won't be anxious and will shut the book. But if you do it too well then kill said character they may be disgusted and shut the book instead of reading on to find out who did it. It's even worse if the dust cover tells you the person dies. It makes it hard to get attached if I know the outcome (for me anyway - people's reactions vary).
  2. Open in a moment of change. The theory here is that change, even good change makes us anxious and so opening a story in a moment of transition will hook the reader. Of course again this depends on building empathy for the viewpoint character. If you don't why would they feel anxious about the change in the character's life?
  3. Open in a moment of unease. Maybe nothing changes per se, but the character still feels uneasy about something. This should also hook the reader for similar reasons to points 1 and 2.
  4. One of the most common pieces of first line advice is to give the reader a question to ask. Make the reader read on to find the answers. This is good, but as I said it only works if you follow through on it.
In fact most pieces of advice I've read about about opening scenes involves getting the reader to empathise with the character. Give the reader someone they can care about and something to care about and write it well, and they'll read on to find out what happens. Even with the question raising one the reader isn't going to stick around to find the answers if they don't care about the characters. It's characters that make us care. Which makes sense in the end, but like most things it's easier said than done. It's all about practice, practice and more practice like any art.


Sunday, 26 July 2009

The problem with titles.

I've written the detailed synopsis of the first chapter of the project I've been outlining for the past few weeks. So I'm making good progress.

There's just one thing bothering me about it.

It doesn't have a title. I'm not very good at thinking up titles. Oh, occassionally, a project will come to me with a title already attached. And sometimes a title appears and inspires a project. But it's far more normal for my projects to either have really bad working titles or more of a generic label than title attached to them.

But I have to bite the bullet sometime, and I'd kind of like to have a title for this one by the time I put the detailed synopsis on the shelf to rest. So I'm asking for help.

How do you come up with your titles. I'm sure there's no magic trick to it, but I'm hoping that hearing how other people find their titles will help me find a way that works for me.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Quick Update

Not much to report today.

I've nearly finished the one line summaries of each scene, so tomorrow I'll be able to start work on the big long outline (yes I am using that redundancy deliberately). I'm looking forward to that bit.

And I've been in research mode. I've bought two awesome history books specifically about women in the medieval period and I've been devouring them. They've been very useful in sorting out some questions pertaining to the outline and characters (well one character).

I've also did some worldbuilding today for another idea I've got. It's a bit of a challenge, because I have to figure out how to make the weird way this particular world works seem believable when it really isn't. This particular world is made of magic (for want of better way to explain it) and while it seems physical it doesn't always act like the physical world. I do wonder if having the human characters be as confused as the readers by the impossibilities they encounterwhile there would help. I'll have to think about it.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - Double Life

You may remember a few weeks ago I did an interview with a 14 year old self-published author named Dawson Vosburg. At the time I'd only read an excerpt of his book and some good unsolicited reviews (also linked in that post), since then I've read the entire thing. This review has previously been posted on goodreads.com and Amazon UK.


Double Life by Dawson Vosburg also available on Amazon US and for the Kindle.

I wish I'd could have written this well when I was 14. The world will never see the stuff I wrote at 14 (or indeed at 20), but this is so much better than that.

This is a book written by a talented 14 year old. No, scratch that, it's a book written by a very talented 14 year old.

It's short, but it's aimed at the YA market so the shortness is tolerable. It has an excellent premise and a dynamic plot. Those are both 5 star parts of the plot.

It fails somewhat on the execution. There's an adage often repeated (but rarely properly explained) among writers to "Show don't Tell". In truth this means don't use narrative summary for important parts of the plot - write an immediate scene. At times Dawson summarises events when he should, perhaps, have written a scene. This is especially true towards the end - which feels rushed (and at times confusing) as a result.

Fortunately the overall strength of premise and plot make the flaws in execution tolerable - in my opinion anyway. Other people may be less tolerant but it has "look inside" active on Amazon US so you can see for yourself. Like all artists I'm sure he'll improve with practice and I look forward to the sequel.

My mouse hovered between 3 and 4 stars for quite a while rating this book on Amazon, because in the general order of things it's a three and half star book to me and prevaricated about whether to round up or down. On the balance I rounded up.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Thoughts on where I'm at

The snowflake outline progresses. I'm nearly done with the bit where you write a one or two sentence summary for each scene. This weekend I should be able to get started on the extremely detailed scene by scene summary outline this weekend. Hopefully I can get most of it done in one weekend and can then put it in a folder until September.

Then I want to work on another couple of outlines and do some worldbuilding in August. I also need to get to work on "The King's Head" soon. I'm going to be a busy little bee in August.

I'm a little disappointed I didn't get the editing on "The Sundered Light" done, because I'm not sure I'm going to get any done in August either. The more I look at it the I think a total rewrite may be in order rather than just an edit - but that may just be my lack of self-confidence talking.

And I'm having one of those periods when I'm deluged with ideas - most of which will never see the light of day, because once I examine them they're lame ducks. It's good to have ideas of course, but it's annoying sometimes when I'm trying to work on one thing and my brain is interrupting with other ideas.

Anyway I'll give a fuller report on my thoughts on July at the end of next week.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Writing Book Review - On Writing the Short Story

I bought "On Writing the Short Story" by Hallie Burnett because it was recommended in "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" as "the best book we've found on the subject". Right now that doesn't seem such a glowing endorsement. It just makes me wonders what the other books are like if they aren't as good. Because while it's a good book with some excellent information and advice it's very thin and around half of it is sample stories. This sounds rather lack my complaints about another book on short story writing "How to Write Short Stories For Magazines -- and get Published" but this book wins over the previous one for several reasons.

  1. The quality of the advice is much better, and it's generally better written.
  2. Only one of the sample stories is actually by the book's author
  3. One of the sample stories is the classic "Address Unknown" by Kressman Taylor which retails on its own for £5.99 on Amazon - it's worth buying for this powerful and tragic story on its own.
  4. The internal layout of the book looks like a book.
So it doesn't feel as anaemic as "How to Write Short Stories for Magazines" and I didn't pay anywhere near as much for it, but it still doesn't feel comprehensive. It's an excellent primer, and given you can pick it up for £1.51 on Amazon (well from other sellers selling through Amazon) it's worth the money, but I wanted something a bit meatier.

It's still head and shoulders above "How to Write Short Stories for Magazines" and so I grant it 3 stars.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Did ever mention that I wrote myself sane?

This post is going to diverge from the norm, because I thought I'd talk about how writing has impacted on my life. Which I suppose comes pretty close to rambling about my life - but it relates to writing, so I don't think I'm breaking my self imposed rules.

I've been writing since I was little girl, so it's always been something I've done. This is not about a timeline. It's about - as the title suggests - the way writing helped with a very black period in my life.

2001 was a very bad year for me. I lost my mother - aged 49 - in the January and my father - aged 54in the July - both of long term illnesses. I'd been caring for them since the early 1990s so my response was to promptly have a nervous breakdown.

It was a very black period that I don't remember much about. I remember 9/11 because it was shocking enough to pierce the haze, and I remember writing. I remember writing a lot. It was totally unpublishable crap and had nothing to do with my situation and illness, but it helped. I think that even though it apparently had nothing to do with anything it helped purge my emotions.

I honestly think that without the outlet of writing I wouldn't be coming up on five years in my current job. I might even still be on the long term sick. I mean, yes, Cognitive Behavorial Therapy helped a lot. Even the meds I was on for a while helped. But I think the writing got me to the point where I realised I had to go looking for the other help if that makes sense.

And I think it's writing that's helping keep me sane as well. When I get stressed I write frenetically and I don't feel as stressed when I'm done. Sometimes I think I could slip back into the pit even now without an outlet.

Now, as I say, I've always written. It's fun I love it. I'm not saying I write to stay sane. I've always written, and I'm sure I'd still be writing even if I hadn't had my breakdown.
I think that it's because I love it that it helps me stay sane.

On an unrelated note I'm going to buy a couple of useful looking history books when I get paid. Would people be interested in reviews of them as well as writing books and novels? If I do review them it'll be on Wednesday intersperced with the Writing Book ones, since I'll be reviewing their use as references for writers.

Monday, 20 July 2009

About Writing First Drafts

So you want to write a story. It can be a novel or a short story or anything in between. You've done your research, you've made an outline if you're using one, and your world is built if needed.

What do you do now?

You write it of course. We're writers (even those of us - like me - who aren't published yet), that's what we do.

Somehow we manage to make it more complicated than that but it really isn't.

There is however some advice which can help (well it helps me, I hope it'll help you).

  1. Get anything you need notewise together, grab your pen or keyboard, and do battle with the sea of whiteness. Believe the first line is the hardest - once screen or page has words on it it no longer seems so intimidating.
  2. And in this vein never end your days writing at the end of a page - make sure when you start again the next day the page you start on is already sullied by words. It'll make it easier.
  3. Don't edit yet. Editing and writing are psychologically different processes. First draft is a heart thing and editing is a head thing. Most people can't pull them off at the same time. Just keep writing - yes, it's a mess. You can sort it out later. (Note I said most - a few people can pull it off and find it impossible to seperate the two)
  4. Again in this vein. Don't reread - if your notes are good enough you shouldn't need to fact check, and you reread you'll notice how bad it is and either start tweaking what's already written and never move forward, or worse become despondant and stop writing.
  5. Know that it is the nature of first drafts to be lousy - almost anything is fixable with rewritting and editing.
  6. Set yourself a daily goal in wordcount, but don't beat yourself up if you miss it. Just make sure you write something every day.
  7. Have fun. You're creating art here and that should be fun.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Research Day

So I set out today to research medieval women and what rights they did and didn't have as part of the background of one of my characters. What I've found out is it's a complicated and confusing subject. What's worse upon asking on a forum I got told I was wrong about the stuff I thought I knew. Which is possible - but the person quoted no sources where I at least do have them (albeit mostly from the web). I've asked for sources but no response yet.

The things I'm trying to check and find out are:

  1. If an English medieval noblewoman's husband died and she had an infant son would she hold the land until he came of age? My sources which include various websites and a friend who's studied medieval women at college said that she would certainly hold her dowry lands in her own right and might be appointed guardian of the male heir - but this varied with local custom in England. Person on forum said no a male relative would have administered all lands. Of course they also said Elizabeth I was on the throne in the 1700s (she lived 7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603 so that would be quite the achievement :-P).
  2. How likely was said Noblewoman to be literate? Here I concede it's less than I thought. I was confusing sources about the fourteenth and fifteenth Centuries with sources about the Twelfth. It's still not impossible - Marie de France, Heloise and a number of other famous medieval women were literate. But even male literacy hadn't taken off at this point to the degree I thought. I'm currently looking at a book about the rise of literacy in medieval England on Amazon and trying to decide whether to buy it. I'm definitely NOT buying the book I found on medieval women because it's £40 for a 256 page book and that's just silly. I may - however - visit the library and borrow it.
See this is why I don't really like researching - I always end up confused. I'm currently thinking of moving the character's life as a human up to the fourteenth century. It makes her literacy more likely (though I'm musing on how important that is), but would cause different backstory problems. It'll also make her younger in the present day (she's a vampire), but that hardly matters. I guess even more research is needed.

Anyone got any good resourses to link me to on the medieval period - especially women? I'd be grateful.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

After Two Months

Yesterday marked exactly two months since I started this blog, and I've managed to blog every day so far. For me that's quite an accomplishment.

I'm currently wondering if it wouldn't be possible to adapt the Snowflake Method to Worldbuilding. It's all about designing a story after all, and Worldbuilding is all about designing a setting. I suspect it should be possible to use the techniques to create the setting, history and culture of a world with a bit of tweaking. I shall think about this.

I shall also Google about it.

The only thing I can find about Worldbuilding and the Snowflake Method is this blog post where the author comments on the lack of Worldbuilding in the method, and Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Guy) pops up in comments to explain why (he's sees Worldbuilding as part of the research phase - which suits me fine as I'm fed up with Worldbuilding methods that expect me to already have a story defined).

Yes, I will definately have to think about this and see what transpires.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - The Alienist

The Alienist by Caleb Carr was bought for me for Christmas a couple of years back. The giver knew I like thrillers and crime shows on TV and also knew I was an avid reader. I guess they made a reasonable assumption based on that. Ironically this kind of crime thriller is something I rarely read. But if I'm given a book I will at least poke my nose between the covers to see what's there. I'm glad I did.

It's an interesting premise. It's 1896 in New York City and the Police Commissioner (Teddy Roosevelt no less) needs to catch a killer who is terrorising young male prostitutes (and by young I mean child) when most of his force just want to ignore these deaths as unimportant. He calls in his friend Doctor Lazlo Kreizler to help. Kreizler is an Alienist (that is a psychiatrist) at a time when Psychology is a science just finding it's feet and much disliked by the powers that be. He also assigns a couple of officers who have knowledge of new (and not legally accepted at this time) techniques like fingerprinting.

So basically it's a psychologist profiler and a forensics team trying to catch a serial killer. Uninspiring stuff except for the setting which adds a twist. Kreizler is making this up as he goes along - and you really feel that. And he and his team have to work in secrecy because people don't trust 'alienists' or the new forensics. That twist and the realisation of the setting is enough to elevate the story above your average crime thriller. The late 19th century was a time in transition. Science was marching on at an accelerating rate, women were starting to maneuver for suffrage and other rights and similar. The world was changing and people don't like change. And the setting is so beautifully evoked in this novel that you feel that same sense of uncertainity. And the characters are beautifully drawn as well, rich and vivid and at also perfect representative of the changes shaking the world.

But there's a problem - well several.

Caleb Cain is an historian - in the vivid authenticity of the setting it shows in a good way. There are times when it shows in a not so good way. That is to say he infodumps in a very obtrusive way. We get passages of unnecessary backstory and long explanations of the "new" techniques. Sometimes it reads more like a history book than a novel. At one point I was skimming and thinking 'enough of this, get me back to story'. This makes it a little hard to get into (fortunately it starts with an excellent hook that I bore with the turgid bit until it got going again).

He is also heavy handed with the foreshadowing which makes the twists unsurprising which is always unfortunate. Foreshadowing should make you slap your head because you missed it not spell it out.

So all in all The Alienist is good read - good enough that I want to read the sequel - but flawed in various important ways.

After due consideration I shall grant it 3.5 stars rounded down.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Music helps me write

My current outline is still a work in progress, and I haven't done any actual writing or editing yet this weekend. This means I don't have much to report on that front, so instead I thought I'd talk about something I use as a tangental aid when writing.


When I'm writing, outlining, editing or otherwise music helps me. I'm not one of these writers who has a specific playlist for their fiction, but I find that having music in general going on in the background seems to have an effect on my creativity. I'd even go so far as to say that I suffer from Writer's block less when I listen to music and playing music when I am blocked can help me blast through it.

I'm not sure why this should be - but I suspect that it's partly related to the fact that I like music. Music helps when I'm depressed as well and I've noted a definite correlation between depression and writer's block (in my case anyway - obviously I can't speak for other people). And of course music blocks out extraneous noise which might distract me when I'm trying to write, which is always useful.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Writing Book Review - The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M Birkham is a slim little book full of good advice. Each of the short chapters is named for a mistake and the author then goes onto to explain them and give examples of how to avoid making them. (My favourite title in the book is Chapter 23 - Don't Drop Alligators Through The Transom).

But this is the thing - all the advice in this book is good, and it's engagingly written. But it is very slim (116 pages including the index) and that makes it expensive at £9.99 (and even at £7.49 as at Amazon). What's more there are other writing books out there that give the same advice just as engagingly and in more detail that are better value for money.

It might be good as a quick reference, but I certainly wouldn't put it top of your list of writing books to buy should you have such a list.

This makes rating it a little difficult - the quality of the advice and the enging writing deserve a high rating but the lightweight nature of it drags it down. So after due consideration I'm giving it 3 stars.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Are you bored of me talking about my outline yet?

I have a headache, so this will be a short post where I ramble on about the Snowflake Method some more.

Step Six's four page outline has grown into a six page outline - however I think this is mostly because it's supposed to be four typed pages, and I'm writing longhand. It's almost done now - just the black moment and resolution to detail. Several more steps to go, and this is already the most detailed outline I've ever written.

The next step after that is even more detailed character work, and then what basically amounts to notecarding - a list of one sentance descriptions of scenes. I hope to cover both of those in the next few days.

Then comes step nine - which amounts to telling the story, because what you do is summarise each scene instead of writing it as a scene. That means there will probably be a couple of pages of outline per chapter. It's basically a draft 0.5 of the novel. Goodness knows how long that will take, but I hope to be done with it by the end of July. Mainly because I want to outline another idea in August. I suppose nothing is stopping me from co-outlining two projects at once, but it might confuse me - I confuse easily.

The final step is step 10 - write your novel. I'm currently thinking of trying to write this one in September as a dry run for NaNoWriMo to check I can actually write a novel from an outline like this. If I do I'll keep you informed here.

Monday, 13 July 2009

About Showing and Telling

Oh my goodness it's the mother of all writing topics this week.

It is the mantra that everybody quotes, but very few explain. This is quite amusing since telling is all about explaining what happened in the story instead of illustrating it. It's also understandable because it's bloody hard to explain.

What it actually means is that you should evoke what's happening without needing to explain.

Yeah that's about as much use as telling you to show, don't tell isn't it?

One of my favourite online articles (linked in the link section below) calls it Seduction, not Instruction - and yeah that works too.

But in the end "Show, don't Tell" is best illustrated by Showing rather than Telling.

It was Linda's birthday party. Her classmates were there with gifts and everyone seemed friendly - but her low self-esteem insisted they were really there for the chocolate cake.

Showing (warning - written off the top of my head)

"Happy Birthday, Linda!" Sarah said. A brightly wrapped parcel was pushed under her nose. "Open it! Open it!"

Linda began to peel back the sellotape until she heard a snort.

"For goodness sake stop fussing!" her mother said.

"But it's a waste to tear it."

"You're keeping everyone waiting."

Linda looked up from the parcel in time to see Sarah's eyes flick towards the table with the food on it. She swallowed back tears. Typical! Her classmates weren't here for her, just the chocolate cake.

The second example isn't high art by any stretch - in fact it's pretty damned bad (as I noted I wrote it off the top of my head and it therefore comes with a dire punctuation and first draft crap warning) but it shows better than the first example which is pure telling. As a basic rule any time you summarise an event instead of writing it as a scene you're telling not showing.

That's large scale telling.

There's also small scale telling. This is things like using adverbs and adjectives instead of evoking what's happening. Now adjectives aren't always bad - if it's absolutely necessary that the reader knows the coat is brown (maybe the colour is a clue that will help solve the mystery once someone says it was blue and thus reveals they weren't there or something) then just say it's brown. But most often they are just not needed. Adverbs on the other hand are probably best avoided. Lot's of novels use them but saying something in a way that avoids them is usually stonger.

Take the following:

As Linda fell she desperately reached for the nearest branch and almost reached it.

and compare it to:

Linda 's arms flailed around her as she fell - her fingertips brushed the bark of a branch and she strained towards it, but her fist closed on nothing.

Again not high art at all(I should have written up some examples a few days ago but I've been busy outlining), but I think the second is a bit more evokative. The first bit needs more work to capture the desperation. I wanted to use blindly or wildly but those are adverbs too.

I can see myself editing this with a very red face in a few weeks, when it's rested long enough for me to edit those passages, and make them better.

Anyway Links that probably explain this better than me:

  1. Seduction, not Instruction Part 1
  2. Seduction, not Instruction Part 2
  3. Show, don't Tell (apparently it's the first rule of writing).
  4. Show, don't Tell, the story
  5. Learning as we go - article one (you'll have to scroll through the introduction to get to the article but it's worth it)

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Why do you write?

Sir, nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
- Samuel Johnson
Instead of marveling with Johnson, how anything but profit should incite men to literary labor, I am rather surprised that mere emolument should induce them to labor so well.
- Thomas Green

I don't think many writers would agree with Johnson that money is the primary reason for writing. Indeed in this day and age it's a pretty darned stupid reason to write. Most writers - even published ones - never manage to make a living at it. Certainly more of us would agree with Green - it's love not money that fires our writing. Good writing needs passion behind it. It comes from the heart. Money might engender passion - but not for what you're writing.

I write because I enjoy it. Sure I'd love to be one of the rare ones who makes a living at it, but i'm not going to give up writing even if I'm never a success, because while I'd love to make a living writing, that's primarily because I'd like to make a living doing something I love. And I love writing.

However, in times of recession like this there is a sudden upsurge of submissions to agents and publishers. Why? Well partly it's because people who've always wanted to write find themselves redundant and use the unwanted free time while hunting for a new job to have a go, but also there are people who try because they see it as an easy way to get rich quick, and in recession they get desperate.

If you are one of these people please get a grip. Writing is fun, but it is not easy (nothing worthwhile is), and it will not get you rich quick (unless you're damned good, very lucky or both). Writing is art and they don't talk about starving artists for no reason. Those multi-millionaire authors are very much the exception. If you want to write find your passion first, and then write about.

Anyway, now that little rant is out of the way. Why do you write? What stokes your ideas and passions? Please comment.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

More outlining today

Well the outline continues to gather material and the antagonist has definately developed a personality - which is good. I'm not so sure about one of the secondary characters. He seems a bit flat on paper, and I'm hoping I can give him better motives over the weekend. "Being helpful" doesn't really cut it - and he actually does have reasons to be invested in the situation, especially once he finds out certain things. I just need to make that clear.

I think this is another point in favour of the Snowflake Method. It helps you spot anaemic characters before they make it into your manuscript and either drop them or give them a tranfusion.

I hope to start on Step Six tomorrow now. Step Six involves writing a four page outline of the novel based on the one page one written in Step Four. It sounds like a fun step.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - The Moon of Gomrath

Early post today as I'm going to be busy this evening. And yes, this review will be cross posted to amazon.co.uk and goodreads.

The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner is the second of "The Alderley Tales". The first of which I reviewed previously.

"Moon" was first published in 1963 and is still in print today. That alone would be testament to its strength - before print on demand came along books generally went out of print pretty quickly due to the cost of print runs.

However "Moon" is not quite as strong a book as it's predecessor - but given the strength of "Weirdstone" that would be a struggle. Taken on it's own merits, however, it is a very strong book.

Colin and Susan - the protagonists from "Weirdstone" - are drawn back into the otherworld and the ancient struggle between good and evil when they accidentally rouse the Old Magic, and thus the Wild Hunt, from its slumber. As enemies and allies from the previous book return and new ones appear only the children's courage will enable them to survive the ordeal - and if they don't it's likely the world won't either.

There is a depth to Garner's characters that is breathtaking. While the Wizard Cadellin is undeniably good and the Morrigan evil every other character exists somewhere inbetween. Some of the 'good' characters really get my back up - and this is quite intentional.

For example his his elves are prats. They aren't evil, they're creatures of light who fight on the side of good. But they are also arrogant, uncaring and lack empthy for humans. When you learn that they have been forced to flee to the edges of Britain because smoke pollution makes them ill you get the point but you can't help feeling it's not that much loss.

I'm conscious in this review that I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but the ending is a bittersweet thing like the best dark chocolate. There is death and life, sorrow and joy all wrapped up in one package and it works. It works very well.

Where it's weaker than "Weirdstone" is that it all feels more contrived. Some of the dangers and solutions that face Colin and Susan - especially early on - are the result of unfortunately combining events. For example the Elves ask for something Susan has at the same time as something else happens, and Susan ends up in danger from event two only because she's given the thing in question to the Elves. In "Weirdstone" the coincidences felt like the hand of fate guiding things - in "Moon" it's less so - though by the end you wonder, because it does all wrap up well. It's cetainly not a deal breaker.

On Amazon I gave "Weirdstone" Five Stars. I give "Moon" Four and a Half - listed as four even though I don't usually round down, because I want to make sure it's clear I feel it's slightly weaker.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Making the antagonist's case

I'm still on Step Five of the Snowflake outlines. I'm currently writing the antagonist's outline and should be ready to start Step Six by sometime tomorrow. Since I have another long weekend off work this weekend I can hopefully get a good chunk of it done this weekend.

But writing a one page outline of the storyline from the antagonist's perspective is an interesting exercise. It forces you to think about why they are opposing the protagonist. People don't - in general - do things for no reason. Outlining for the antagonist can make any holes in their motives become obvious to you. This antagonist has a far more interesting motive for his actions than in my original idea now. In fact from a certain perspective he's not even wrong - it's what he does as a result of his conclusions that's the problem. It's proving fun as well.

I think that if you are worrying about the possibility that your antagonist might be two-dimensional doing an outline from their perspective which makes their case would be an excellent exercise.

If you do try it don't forget to comment and tell me.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Writing Book Review - Writing for Pleasure and Profit

Cross posting to Amazon.co.uk and Goodreads.com again


I'm fond of this book. Now fond isn't a word I often use about writing books, but "Writing for Pleasure and Profit" by Michael Legat is one I will. The reason being that many years ago when I was in my early twenties my mother bought it for me for Christmas. Even if it wasn't a good book it would hold sentimental value for me for that reason.

But it is a good book. For years this book went everywhere I might have occassion to write with me. It covers everything from planning to writing to grammar on the one hand and everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels and screenplays on the other. It's a good general primer, and one of those books that should probably be on every writer's bookshelf. The fact it was first published in 1986 but is still in print in 2009 is testament to its strength, however it also dates it a bit at times. For example in the section on preparing a typescript he talks about using a fresh typewriter ribbon, not a problem that comes up much in the 21st Century. Still that's a minor matter and the rest of his advice is as sage today as it was in the 1980s.

Four Stars

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

I'm On Snowflake Step Five

The Snowflake Outline is still proceeding apace. I'm in the midst of step five - writing individual page long story outlines for each character. With any luck I'll be done by Friday and be able to use the weekend for step six - he says it should take a week but I suspect it'll take a bit less than that for me. With luck I should be ready for the step nine (the longest step) before payday. I really think this is going to work this time.

The Editing is not going so well. After due consideration I think the problem is one of approach, so I'm going to come at it from a slightly different angle. I'm not going to completely edit one chapter before moving on to the next. Instead I'm going to go through the whole manuscript editing for just one problem. Correct it in Word and then print out and correct for the next problem. Yes it'll use a lot of paper and ink but I think it'll make me feel less dizzy (the sheer amount of different coloured highlighting in chapter one made me woozy when I looked at it). I don't know if this will work - editing, like everything else in writing - is about finding the method that works for you. I haven't yet.

Monday, 6 July 2009

About Dialogue

Dialogue - the bit where your characters talk to each other. It's important. It's also kind of hard to do right.

The thing is that dialogue in fiction has to read and sound like real conversation without being like real conversation.

Real conversations are confusing things full of interruptions and elisions that would make a written conversation unreadable. So - as I've said before - you are trying to catch the essence of speech without its confusion.

In practice what this means is there are two common mistakes authors make with dialogue.

1. They make it too formal. The character's say things no one would - which removes transparency of writing. Not a good thing.


2. They try and making it authentic and fill it with pauses, interruptions, repetitions, missing bits, slang and dialect to the point it is unreadable.

The best way to get round this is to read it aloud - if it sounds stilted it's probably got problem 1. If it's impossible for a single person too read it aloud it's probably got problem 2. Try to write dialogue that is both comprehensible and sounds natural when read aloud.

Once you know what's wrong with it you can start to fix it. It's one of those things you just have to keep plugging away at until you get it right. I still get it wrong sometimes (probably a lot of the time).

And now the useful links on the subject:
  1. Does Dialogue Require Good Grammar in Fiction Writing?
  2. Writing Natural Dialogue
  3. Top 8 Tips for Writing Dialogue
  4. Writing Compelling Dialogue in Fiction
  5. Writing Effective Dialogue

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Outline going well

So far this attempt at the Snowflake Outlining Method is going well. I've already completed step three and would have started on step four except for the bit where I fell asleep this afternoon. I don't know if it's that this idea was better composted in my brain, or it was just the right time to try it again - but I don't understand why I've never managed to get this far an outline using this method before.

One of the character's needs his motivation tweaking though. It seems a little weak when I see it on paper.

The editing isn't going so well. It looks like I may have to go for a total rewrite which will take two or three months. I really hope it's true that the Snowflaking Method leads to stronger first drafts. All this editing is exhausting - I'd like to be able to do less of it.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Trying to Snowflake again and a shout out

Back in May I posted about Outlining in which I linked to the Snowflake Method and mentioned that I liked the idea but had never managed to pull it off. I also said that I was going to try it again in September.

Well I'm trying it now instead, and more than once. I've got a couple of ideas that won't get out of my head, so I've decided to outline them while I'm editing "The Sundered Light".

And that's going to take longer than I hoped. So much pointless interior monologue and too many beats. It's a bit overwhelming actually. I think I might re-outline it as well to see if I can't find any plotholes while I'm at it.

Anyway I've printed out the stuff about "Snowflaking" and I'm going to try to discipline myself to go through the steps in order. That's the problem with me and long-winded outlining methods. I lack patience.

Anyway I'll obviously post about how it's going.

I also need to give a shoutout to Zoe Whitten for her very useful critique of "Moonlight and Memories". I now have some idea what I need to do with it. Thanks, Zoe.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Fiction Book Review - Keeping It Real

NB - I will be posting this review on amazon.co.uk and goodreads.com as well


"Keeping It Real" by Justina Robson is a fun read. It's one of those Science Fantasy novels that blurs the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy even more than it already is. That the female main character is a cyborg and the male main character is an elf kind of sums that up.

Premise - in 2015 a Supercollidor in Texas explodes and rips a hole between dimensions. Six years later humanity is having to deal with magic, elves, demons, faeries and elementals. And Special Agent Lila Black, a young woman who's half-robot after nearly being killed by an elf (and who thus has 'issues' with elves) has just been assigned as bodyguard to Zal - an elven rockstar.

Yes, it's fun, but it's certainly not high art. It has no pretensions of being high art.

This is, however, a book in serious need of an editor. I've read in many writing books that the major publishing houses are neglating editing and publishing stuff that they think will sell without editing. And bloody hell, I think they're right. This could have done with both editing (the plot flags in places - but not too many) and copy-editing (hello, traditionally published book with more gramatical errors than some self-published books I've read). Clearly Gollancz are neglecting editing.

It's sad, because this is a good book that could have been very good with some tight editing. It's still a good read anyway as long as you can tolerate the slight sloppiness of the execution, and as long as you take it for what it is (extremely silly fun) and don't expect more than that.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The infodump problem

Chapter three is going to be a problem. I've known this for a while, but I'm still not sure what to do about it. As you may have guessed the problem is that the chapter contains an infodump, or at least it contains something I would consider an infodump. I'm not actually sure it fits the definition though, since it's not actually there to explain anything to the reader - or at least it's not needed for that (it inevitably does).

It's there to explain things to the protagonist. After the events of the first two chapters she's grabbed the one person who looks like they might know what's going on and is demanding answers. I'm not sure how to avoid having the character give them to her. They have no reason not to answer and the protagonist isn't going to act until she's told something.

Now it has to be said that most of this - hum - faux-infodump is later shown to be inaccurate, but it's still an expository dialogue that's likely to create a wall for the reader.

I suppose I need to come up with a different way to move the character forward, but I'm not sure what yet.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Writing Book Review - How to Write Short Stories for Magazines -- and get Published!

(Crossposted on Amazon.co.uk and goodreads.com - where I have awarded it 2 stars).

When I first started reading "How to Write Short Stories For Magazines -- and get Published" by Sophie King after I bought it I wondered if I'd made a mistake. It deals primarily with the type of short fiction you find in Women's Magazines like "Woman's Weekly" and "Best", and this is not a genre of fiction I generally read.

However on the principle that a short story is a short story I persevered. I thought I might still get some value from it, and I did.

The stuff about characterisation and plotting was especially useful. The viewpoint chapter is good, but didn't tell me anything I didn't know.

The dialogue chapter, however, is a curate's egg - some of it is good but some of it is horrible. This woman actually suggests using alternatives to said and gives some suggestions that are bad. And the chapter on First or Third Person contains a major editing gaff. Throughout the book there are examples of stories she's had published as examples (and I suspect to boost page count). In this chapter she states that she's using one story at the end and then uses another completely.

The rest of the book is full of reasonable advice, but somehow the whole book feels a bit anaemic. It's the first book I've read on writing short stories, but it seems lacking. The internal layout is odd compared to most books and it and the stories seem to be aimed at boosting the page count. I'm absolutely sure there must be better books about the art of short story writing than this one. It might be worth getting out of the library, but I wouldn't recommend buying it.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Tomorrow is the Start of July

Yes, I know you knew that. :-)

I haven't got highlighters yet - one problem with working until 6pm is the stationery shops are shut when I finish. However I'm off Thursday, and I won't need them until then, so it's moot. I just my red pens tomorrow - and I have them already.

Why do I need highlighters for editing? Well, so I can go through and highlight each type of problem a different colour. That will make it easier to go through and edit.

As I said I imagine that each chapter will take me two or three days to edit in the round. The longer ones may even take four - but hopefully not too many.

I've been re-reading "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" in preperation, and I suspect that this short novel may well end up even shorter. Ah, well, if it ends up being a long novella it ends up being a long novella.

Monday, 29 June 2009

About Antagonists

I was going to do "Show and Tell" as my resourse topic today, but I'm feeling a bit off-colour, and my attempts to write some examples failed totally. I'll try again when I have more time.

So instead I thought I'd talk about a sister topic to Characterisation.


In general - unless you're pitting your protagonist against nature in some way - your antagonist is a character. In fact they are the second most important character in your story because without someone to get in the way there wouldn't be a story. Therefore they come with the same need for development as any important character.

When developing your antagonist you need to consider the following things:

  1. Motive. Why does your antagonist get in the way? No one thinks they are evil. Your antagonist needs a reason that makes some sort of sense. It can be twisted but it should be comprehensible. BTW if your antagonist's motive is immortality - think very carefully about it. Why does he do things no right minded person would do for this goal? In short why does he want to be immortal? It's not even impossible for the antagonist to be right - though this can lead to a total downer ending if handled badly (unless you want a downer ending which is perfectly valid).
  2. What are their good points and how can you show them off? Unremitting evil is boring - and in humans at least unrealistic. If your antagonist is Satan, Great Cthulhu or similar then okay its fair that there are't any, but if you do have a supernatural big bad consider keeping him or her in the background, and having them make their presence known through their human servitors.
  3. What is their inner conflict? Just like your protagonist your antagonist needs inner conflict.
I'll probably be back to edit this post when I'm feeling brighter. I know there were more points I wanted to make - but right now I can't think of them.

  1. A Winning Antagonist
  2. Antagonist in Fiction
  3. Writing Believable Antagonists
  4. Writing Antagonists With Depth
  5. Sleeping With the Enemy

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Preparing for July and beyond (aka Editing Plans)

I've been preparing for the edit of "The Sundered Light" in July today. While I won't be starting the actual editing until July 1st there's plenty I can do to be ready.

So far I have:
  1. Printed out the first 104 pages of the Manuscript ready for Wednesday. This is a short novel at 61k and that's nearly half of it.
  2. Located my red pens and a couple of folders to use.
  3. Tried and failed to locate my highlighters. I'll have to buy some - which likely means on Thursday with the hours I work.
  4. Realised an entire scene was missing from Chapter 18 and added it from the notebook. I won't get to chapter 18 until late July/early August, so it'll have time to rest anyway.
What I intend to do in July and early August is spend two or three days on each chapter. The first day I will check that everything is coherent and change anything that needs changing to fit. Then the next day I will go through the chapter using the checklists from "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" to spot and correct problems. I expect this to take a day or so depending on the length of the chapter and the number of problems I find.

I hope that by doing this I will - by mid-August - have a much stronger manuscript. It can then rest again until October when I plan to use the exercises from the "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook" to strengthen it some more. Then it can rest while I do NaNoWriMo in November before I go over it with the Self-Editing checklists again to check the stuff I added during October.

In early 2010 I'll be looking for critical readers. Volunteers welcome - even at this early stage.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Nearly the end of June...

I don't think I'm going to finish "Opening" this month. I'm beginning to think the whole thing is a dubious concept for a story. It's more like an extended exercise in worldbuilding. Good for me since it fleshes out one of my universes, but not really publication fodder. It's kind of like Star Wars Episode One - it's only interesting if you know what happens next. That's why it was getting busy - I knew something was wrong and was trying to make it more interesting (and failing spectacularly). I'll probably finish it at some point, but I'm not going to rush it. And, hey, extended back story and worldbuilding may not be for readers but it's useful, so it's not a waste of effort.

Outlining is going better. I'm going to try using a method in the writing book I'm currently reading, and which I'll be reviewing this Wednesday. If it goes well I should have the outline for "Healing the Sunbird" done by Wednesday.

So, while at this point in June it doesn't look like I'll finish everything I'd hoped to by the end of the month, it has been productive enough.

Now my plans for July are much simpler. I intend to edit my fantasy novel "The Sundered Light". It won't be ready after this round of edits, but it should be much better. I'll probably do some more Outlining of ideas as well.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Fiction Book Review - Constant Reader

It probably says something about me that my book to review this week is another independently published work. That's what two weeks out of five or six?

Once again this review of Constant Reader by Jennifer Reeve originally appeared on Amazon.co.uk under the name of Shutsumon (that's me).


Quick soundbite review: A wonderful story for any writer who has ever thought that their muse was getting away from them.

Indepth Review: "Constant Reader" by Jennifer Reeve is a very slim book weighing in at just 104 pages. But then I knew that before I bought it, so I'm not complaining. It's a novella at about 30,000 words. That's one of the joys of POD. The ability to create and produce non-standard length work. I do have some strong issues with the layout of the book but I'll come to them later.

First the story. "Constant Reader" is an even faster read than it is slim - and I mean that as a compliment. It's a clever, fun tale that keeps you turning the pages until you're done. The book is written from the perspective of the main character - Claudia Danvers - and she has a compelling voice. I could hear her in my head while reading.

And it has an interesting premise - especially if you're a writer. So many times when reading authors' blogs its like 'and the muse did this' or 'and the muse won't let me write it that way' or some other version of the muse being obstreperous. I even know authors who post whole sections of 'conversations' with their muses. I think Jennifer Reeves must be aware of this phenomenon as well because the big idea at the core of "Constant Reader" is what if a writer woke up one day and realised that the muse isn't just the creative facet of their own mind but a demonic entity that they'd accidentally sold their soul to.

It's a good question. My muse and I were both cracking up throughout because this book is funny. Jennifer claims it as a tribute to Stephen King, but I think it's just as much a tribute to the pain, the joy and the absolute weirdness of the writing process.

So that's the good and the good is the story and plot well written and crafted. The cover's not bad either.

The bad is the internal layout. And it is - to be blunt - terrible. It's not the worst I've seen in a Lulu book, true. The paragraphs are justified and the page numbers suppressed until the start of the story.

But the rest of it screams self-published. The left and right margins are too narrow, the line spacing is too wide and the paragraphs aren't indented but separated by a blank line instead. That is to say that it doesn't look like the inside of a book at all. It looks like a short pod book where the author was padding for page count - except that she would have made wider margins if that were the case. The correct choices of font, spacing and margin width would have retained (or even boosted) the page count without looking padded.

It's a sad fact that some people are going to think that the amateur layout means amateur writing and this is still a very good story. I'd suggest that the author fix this but they've paid for an isbn now and it'd cost then a fortune to revise it. (One of the banes of POD is revision costs).

If I can sum up - please don't let the shortness or the poor layout discourage you from buying this book. It's a fun read.


The book has "look inside" active on Amazon so you can see before you leap, and a video trailer featuring the entire prologue is available on Youtube for your perusal before deciding if this book is for you.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

When Inspiration Strikes

So I'm sitting at work today staring at the screen and trying to work out what to do with a particularly nasty account when I look down at my post-it notes, and find I've written something without realising it. I was thinking about meters not post-apocalyptic ideas, but there is was. I stared at it for a moment then put it away and went back to the account. Can't write in work time. It was only a handful of words and will need some serious developing and world-building, but it seems potentially interesting. It's too early to say for sure of course.

It's so sketchy at the moment that I'm not going to go into details at the moment (except that - as I said post-apocalyptic), but it fascinates me how sometimes inspiration strikes without me even realising. How did the idea bypass my conscious mind to get to the paper without me realising? It's odd.

Does inspiration ever strike you in the same way, or is it always conscious?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Writing Book Review - Writing the Breakout Novel & Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

Yes, I'm reviewing two books together this week even though I'm running out of writing books.

Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion volume Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maas go together as well as they were intended to.

Maas is a big name literary agent, and he's studied books that "breakout" - that is novels that sell significantly better than other books in their genre - and believes he has come up with traits they all share.

I think he's probably on to something. I thought that even before I purchased the books, because agents want to sell books to publishers - so they need to know what sells. Having read them I still think so.

These are not your normal writing books. There's little here about how to write an outline or shooting adjectives. This is about things like making sure the characters are multidimensional and that there are things the reader will invest in at stake (among other things). And these are lessons that apply not just to thrillers, but to every genre - though they will manifest in other ways.

Of the two I find the workbook the more useful, because the introduction to each exercises covers what the exercise is designed to achieve anyway, while the book is less explicit on how to use the wealth of examples in it. Together you get more detail and examples - but if you can only buy one I'd say go for the Workbook.

Now it should be said that not all breakout fiction is a bestseller - if you write something in a weird niche genre it's not going to break any records if you follow his advice to the letter, except possibly for sales in said weird niche genre. Maas admits this.

I also think these two books gel perfectly with "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" since they deal with different (though sometimes convergent) ways of improving your manuscript. "Self-Editing" teaches you to write stellar prose if you fully internalise its lessons. The Breakout books teach you to amp up your plot - whatever it maybe - and characters for best effect. There are plenty of authors whose work features in the examples in the Breakout books, who could do with learning the lessons from Self-Editing. Equally there are authors out there who write beautiful, expressive prose which lacks tension and could do with reading these two. A writer who fully internalised the points from both sources and use them correctly in their story would - I think - create something extra-special.

Please tell me if you find this useful and feel free to suggest any good writing books for me to buy, read and eventually review.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Shape of the Problem

I think I can see what the problem I have with "Opening". There's too much going on in it. I think I've actually said that before, but I'm begining to see why. I either need to simplify the story, or turn it into a novella. I shouldn't have subplots in a short story - but somehow they've sneaked in. I'm sure they weren't there in the outline.

And there's way too many characters as well, but I've already decided on at least one that needs cutting.

I'm still in the midst of the last scene of Opening - it's taking for ever. Once I'm done with it I'll put it on the shelf and re-outline it in August once I've decided what to do with it. To hit my target I need to get it done by the middle of next week, and get two more outlines done. I fully intend to do this.

Monday, 22 June 2009

About Writing Fight Scenes

Back in May I made a post about how I dreaded writing fight scenes. Since then I've spent some time reading up on the subject to see if I can begin to get a handle on it.

I think I'm finally getting somewhere.

Firstly from the amount of stuff out there it seems this is a common problem writers have. Maybe it's just that misery loves company, but it always feels good to know that other people have the same problem you do.

Secondly I've picked up some good tips which explained why I found the process of writing fight scenes so frustrating. These can be distilled down to the following three tips.

1. Write don't Choreograph. I tended to try and describe the fight I could see so clearly in my head and I ended up telling not showing. They ended up reading like stage direction. Something I'd never do if I had a dance scene in a story. Sometimes the problems are really obvious when someone points it out.

2. Make sure you're inside the Point ofView character's head. An omniscient PoV will create too much distance from the fight. The reader needs to be right there with the character. A fight is an emotional thing even if you're just watching it. You should always watch your PoV carefully in a scene - but in a fight scene it's extra important. There's so much going on that multiple PoV's would confuse the reader. It's generally not a good idea to confuse the reader.

3. Emotion! Obviously this connects directly to point 2, but I felt it deserved it's own point. In many ways capturing the emotiveness of the fight is more important than the action. And the action? Imagine how the PoV character would perceive what's happening, how they'd react to it. You're in their PoV, so that's what you write.

I think this is why The fight scene in "Moonlight and Memories" actually worked for me. It was written very intensely in one character's point of view and concentrated on the emotion rather than the action per se. It still needs some editing, but it's heading in the right direction, I think. It also gives me some idea how to sort out some other fight scenes.

Links to helpful articles bout fight scenes.

1. Does Your Fight Scene Pack a Punch? Awesome article. I think this is the article I learned the most from. Especially the "write don't choreograph" one.
2. How to Write Fight Scenes into Your Manuscript. Full of useful tips that ought to be obvious, but probably aren't - like "fight scenes must make physical sense".
3. Best Ways to Write a Fight Scene. Another good set of advice. Especially the bit about avoiding monotony - another problem with choreographing fights. They tend to be boring.
4. Creative Writing - How to Write Fight Scenes. Another good one, that again mentions the monotony problem and talks about how to balance the needs of action and description in the fast and furious reality of a fight.
5. Five Ways to Write Sizzling Fight Scenes (Superhero and Fantasy) - Given my pechant for writing speculative fiction this one is especially useful to me, because obviously extremely improbable things can happen in fight scenes, and that can raise a whole different set problems.

If you found this post helpful, or have any feedback please comment. Thanks.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Checking in again

Tomorrow is payday and I think a coffee shop outing maybe in order.

I'm really struggling to write in the house at the moment - I have no idea why, because it isn't writer's block. I have Lots of ideas and I start to write them down. Then I get dizzy and start dozing off, even though I've had plenty of sleep. Writing is making me dizzy? What's up with that?

This had better not happen in NaNoWriMo later this year.

Speaking of which I've decided that I'm going with an idea that I nearly went with last year this year. Unless of course I decide to go with something else at the last minute sometime around the 28th October.

I'm still looking for suggestions for good short story writing books. I'm looking at one that's recommended in the back of "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" on the grounds that I really like that book, so book they recommend should be useful. However it seems to be out of print. Fortunately some sellers on Amazon have it. If anyone has any in-print suggestions for books on the craft of short story writing I'd be glad to receive them (please post a comment and include an Am UK link). In fact any writing books you'd like to recommend full stop would be welcome. I'm running out of books for my Wednesday writing book review spot.

Links to websites on short story writing that you've found useful also requested.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Falling Behind again

I've already fallen a bit behind with my plans. *sigh*

I have written more on "Opening" and started the outline on "Healing the Sunbird" but I'm not finished. I'll have a go at catching up tomorrow. If this means I can't move onto the third outline this weekend so be it, as long as it's done by the end of June.

It's not even Writer's Block anymore. I just got distracted. I'll do some before bed.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Fiction Book Review - Wit'ch Fire

Wit'ch Fire by James Clemens falls into a very unusual category for me. Books I don't especially like that I manage to finish. Since I only review books I finish this is one of the rare times you'll see a broadly negative review from me.

It took me two attempts. When I first bought it I tried to read it and gave up about a third of the way through. A few months later I uncovered it while tidying up and gave it another shot. This time I finished it, but I still wasn't entirely impressed.

This is Fantasy by the numbers in the worst possible way. Dark Lords, near human races, innocent protagonist with strange powers they didn't ask for and don't want, wise councillors, evil monsters - how many times have I read this story under other titles and names? Enough that I'd like to see something different for once.

The characters are interesting enough and there is good dose of plot tension in spite of the clicheness of the story - Clemens even pulled off a couple of surprises but the ending and most of the "twists" were predictable. And for some reason beyond the cliches and the predictability it grated on me. This I suspect is a personal foible, so if you don't mind formulaic fantasy this might float your boat.

I won't be buying the rest of series though. Two stars.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Plans for the long weekend.

The long weekend - with it's almost unlimited writing and outlining time lies ahead of me. If I can just defeat the demon of procrastination I intend to get a lot done over the next four days.

Tonight I'm going to do the first part of the outline for "Healing the Sunbird". Since all I have is a basic idea and a pile of world building for this one it's going to be interesting to see if I can make a coherent outline over the weekend.

Tomorrow I'm going to take on the fight scene in "Opening". The middle may have gone a bit to pot, but if I can get the start and ending right I think the middle will fall into place during the rewrite in August. I'll also do the second part of the outlining for "Healing the Sunbird". Will try to put together a list of question for my Cryptozoologist contact.

Saturday - More work on "Opening" - I want to try and get the first draft with all it's lumps, bumps and false starts done by Saturday evening. Hopefully send questions to contact.

Sunday - More work on "Opening" and on the "Healing the Sunbird" outline if they aren't finished. Possibly start work on the "There Might be Dragons" outline if the answers to my questions are back. If not start work on reoutlining "Firebird's Song".

Monday - Absolutely must finish "Opening" if I haven't already. Also get whichever outline I started on Sunday finished.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Writing Book Review - Teach Yourself Writing a Novel

This is my review of the second of the two Teach Yourself books I own on the subject of writing. "Teach Yourself Writing a Novel" by Nigel Watts. You can find my review of the other one "Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster" here.

And I have to say that this is the weaker of the two. It covers much of the same ground as "How to Write a Blockbuster", and the advice is theoretically just as strong. Indeed it's much the same (not a surprise - I've noted before that the advice always tends to be pretty much be the same for good reason). Sadly "Writing a Novel" lacks some of the spark of "How to Write a Blockbuster". Indeed at times it's very dry and hard going. And the section on Agents and Publishing is much shorter. It's much less interesting in general.

I can see no reason for owning both books - unless like me you happened the buy "Writing a Novel" first. This is one writing book I don't recommend - not because it's bad but because it's boring.


In other news it's exactly one month since I started posting in this blog and so far I've posted every day. :-D

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Taking my own advice

Yesterday I blogged about Writer's Block and tricks I use to overcome it. Today I was still feeling low and blocked up with regards to writing so I took my own advice and headed out to the park with my notes to work on the outline of "The King's Head". An hour later I headed home with a completed outline in tow. It's a little sketchy in the middle but my outlines often are. I know roughly what's got to happen between the beginning and the end and that's what matters.

One down two to go in the outline stakes.

Next up "Healing the Sunbird". Target - as well as finishing writing "Opening" do this one this weekend.

And amazingly I've actually found a cryptozoologist to ask questions of for the reseach for "There Might be Dragons". I found them on Twitter of all places. Now I just need to sort my questions out. This is the story least likely to be successfully outlined by the end of June as I have so much information gathering to do.

Now I just need to do some writing on "Opening" and today will go down as a success.

Monday, 15 June 2009

About Overcoming Writer's Block

We've all had it - that moment when you sit down to write and the words just won't seem to come out onto the paper. There can be a number of reasons for this. Sometimes you've got a plot hole that needs fixing before you can progress. Sometimes You're tired - it's hard to be creative when you're exhausted. Sometimes you're just stressing too much about it. There are other causes too - and the best solution is to work out why you have block and deal with that.

My personal solutions to writer's block:

1. If the problem is with the plot I'll work out what I need to do to fix it and make notes but not rewrite it at this point. Then I'll carry on as if I'd already made the changes. This can make the first draft a bit confusing to anyone who isn't you - but this is why I don't show people my first drafts (well that and the fact they're awful)

2. If I'm tired I do the obvious and get some sleep. I get some of my best inspiration from dreams anyway and lack of sleep isn't healthy.

3. If I'm stressing I do something distracting - in my case that usually involves reading, listening to music, or some combination of the two.

4. Write something else. If I really can't work on the project I had in mind I'll write something else instead. Sometimes leaving a project for a few days. This can be good with plot problems because it can take a few days to be ready to analyse the problem

5. Take a bath - always good for stress.

6. Go somewhere else to write. I've mentioned this one before - it really works for me. Get out of the house go to a coffee shop, the park or anywhere you like where you can sit and write. A change of scene can really help.

And here are some other people's tips. There will probably be some duplication here as other people have found the same tricks.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Writing Update

Things have slowed down to a crawl at the moment. Partly because my computer is acting up (it's rather old) and partly because I seem to have developed writers block - it happens to us all sometimes. I may have to do a post about dealing with it tomorrow.

I also may have to do some purge writing before it clears. Some of my old stories that need sorting out, re-outlining and re-writing won't leave me alone at the moment. Which is annoying when I want to work on the newer stuff. I'm sticking to my initial plan for June at the moment - I have a long weekend off work next weekend so I'll put in a concerted writing effort then. By a purge I mean write a scene in my head that's not to do with any of the stories I'm currently working on, because it won't leave me alone until I do. I'll probably do some of that before bed tonight.

Tuesday is my normal day off and I intend to spend it outlining. I need to get moving on the outlines if I'm to have them done by the end of June. The one for "The King's Head" is half done but I haven't even started the others yet. Then next weekend I'll really put in a push to finish "Opening". If I manage that I will work on re-outlining "Firebird's Song". If not I'll keep plugging away at it and do "Firebird's Song" in July. July is also edit "The Sundered Light" month.

So I'm sorted out until the end of July hopefully.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Interview - Dawson Vosburg

This is turning into Indie Publishing Weekend for me. Yesterday I reviewed Stacey Cochran’s novel Claws and today I’m talking to Dawson Vosburg – the 14 year old author of Young Adult Suspense Novel “Double Life”. (also at Amazon UK and on the Kindle).

It must be said that haven’t actually read this yet, but I have read the sample that’s up on Amazon – and it’s caught my interest, so he’s doing something right. He’s also received some great reviews – some of which were unsolicited. Here are links to just a few:

Anyway without further ado here’s the interview.


Becky: Hello, Dawson, and thank you for finding time in your busy schedule to give me this interview.

Dawson: You're welcome, Becky.

Becky: Shall we start with the obvious - tell us a bit about yourself and your new novel.

Dawson: I hail from Anderson, Indiana (an abandoned GM town) and I've been writing since I was twelve. Double Life is a young-adult sci-fi adventure about a thirteen-year-old boy who finds a portal into his imaginary world of secret government agents, and finds out he's not the only one who has done so.

Becky: Interesting concept.

Dawson: Thank you. It's available in print or on Kindle on Amazon. (See above or at the bottom for the links)

Becky: Was the inspiration for this novel your own fantasy life or something else? If so where did you find your muse as it were?

Dawson: When I was five, I used to roll around on my bike in the neighbouring dentist office's parking lot. There I would imagine that I was on the BLUE Agency as Agent 12, and I was shooting at evil RED Agents. As I grew older, the story sort of went with it until I think it was 2002 that I came up with "Agent 12 and His Gang" as an idea for a movie. I came up with other agents' characters, and when I was writing the book I drew from those original ideas. (The characters David and Bob were my original imaginary friends, but their names were Bob and Joe. With the name for the main character being Josiah, I had to change it to David, which happens to be the name of one of my older brothers.)

Becky: On both your blogs (Dawson Vosburg, Author and The POD Journal) you talk about "No Plot, No Problem" and how it helped you. From this I guess you are more of a 'discovery' writer than I am. I like to give my readers an insight into many ways of writing as I believe there is no one true way of writing - just what works for you. Tell us more about how you write.

Dawson: First I'd like to say that there is no one way of writing a novel...it's just the one that has worked for me (and as far as I know the one that works the best for most people) is the one outlined in No Plot? No Problem!

The way I generally write is in three stages: First draft, I write down the main plot of the story and don't have any of the subplots there. I just have the main thread of the story.

Second draft, the one I'm currently on for the sequel to Double Life, is the one where I add in the subplots and extra characters and smaller plot twists to my original plot. I find it much easier to add these in afterward because I have a foundation on which to lay these things and I know what exactly goes on in the story.

Third draft, I focus on the prose, the writing, the word choice. I already have my story down, so this time I take the printout of my book and read through it several times at least and carefully scrutinize the writing each time. After repeating again and again 'til the pages are well-worn, I add my changes into the document and send it to an editor.

Becky: Again good answer. I outline before I write (except oddly enough for nano) but that's because I have never managed to finish without an outline. Like you say we're all different.

Dawson: The book that I did outline actually turned out quite horribly for me, so yes, this once again proves everyone is very different in writing.

Becky: Well my outlines are hardly rock solid - I'm something of a hybrid writer if that makes sense. But we're here to talk about you not me - I do that enough on here. Can you tell us about your experience with Amazon Kindle so far? It's been very successful for our mutual acquaintance Stacey Cochran. How's it been for you so far?

Dawson: It's been great--I've sold 69 copies as of 6 o'clock June 12. And that's just this month. I've sold 95 since May 30th. Stacey Cochran, whom I did a talk with on Blog Talk Radio last night about this very subject (you can hear the talk here) far outstrips me. He's already sold about 1,000 this month. But Kindle has been incredibly easy to use altogether.

Becky: Given that the ebook format seems quite successful for you and that the Kindle is currently North America only have you considered releasing your book in other ebook formats such as mobipocket or for the Sony ebook reader (currently being pushed by Waterstones - the biggest bricks and mortar store in the UK)?

Dawson: I haven't put much thought into having it on the Sony eBook reader, though I can't deny it crossed my mind. I don't really know what I'm going to do about that...right now my efforts are focused on the Kindle and this blog tour.

Becky: That's understandable - you don't want to spread yourself too thin. But at the same time you don't want to forget you may have potential non-US readers who's like an ebook version as much as your US readers. (I’d buy a MobiPocket version in a flash). Anyway, next question - you mentioned a second draft of a sequel - any teasers?

Dawson: Ooh! I have a few... There are more exciting events surrounding the death in the first book. There is also a mysterious third party and a possible rogue agent. That's all I'll say.

Becky: Mysterious third parties are always good in my book. Thank you again for joining us, Dawson. Good luck with you blog tour and sales from here on in.

Dawson: Thank you for having me, Becky. Have a great day.


And remember people you can pick up a copy of Dawson’s novel at AmazonUS, AmazonUK and for the Kindle) - the Kindle version is only 80 cents so Kindle owners have nothing to lose.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Fiction Book Review - Claws

Before I review Claws by Stacey Cochran I feel that in the name of complete disclosure I should state that I got this book for free. And how I got the book for free is a tale.

A few years back I came across Stacey's first novel Amber Page and the Legend of the Coral Stone and was initially leery of buying it because the title was a tad Harry Potterish. But there was a sample chapter available, so I took a look and then bought it. It was enjoyable contemporary fantasy yarn, so I reviewed on the Lulu site where I'd purchased it. It was a broadly but not entirely positive review. A little later I got a nice email from Stacey thanking me for the balanced review and asking if I'd post it on Amazon, which I duly did since it was hardly a chore.

A while later he brought out the sequel The Colorado Sequence and I bought it. Rather amazingly I found myself mentioned in the credits in that novel. It was even better and I wrote an even more positive review - that I was only able to post on Amazon UK, because by that time Amazon was only allowing you to review things if you'd made a purchase and I've never bought from Amazon US.

So fast forward to now. He's bringing out his third novel Claws, and I want to buy it. Like his previous two novels it's self-published and this time he's chosen to go with CreateSpace for reasons I quite understand to do with making an affordable product. Unfortunately books published through CreateSpace are only available on Amazon US, and the Kindle (there's a Kindle Edition for 80 cents) is not released in the UK yet for technical reasons that have no place in this discussion. So I couldn't buy one. Having exchanged occasional emails with Stacey since my review of Coral Stone I commented on this to him and he sent me a signed copy!

So having established that I'm quite the fan of Stacey's you probably won't be too shocked that this is a broadly positive review. :-D


Claws is actually not a book I would have expressed an interest in if I hadn't already been a fan of Stacey Cochran's work. I'm a very fussy reader in my way - not so much about grammar and spelling (unless it's egregious) but I generally only read Speculative Fiction. Claws is a thriller, but it's not really SpecFic. However when - as here - a writer I like ventures into a genre I don't normally read I'll usually give it a go.

This is probably why - even though I can tell it's superior to his previous novels in writing skill and plotting I find that I don't like it quite as much as I did the other two.

That said I do like it. It's a tense and gripping thriller and I'd love to see a movie of it (I don't generally read thrillers but I love to watch them).

The novel is not amazingly deep (it's a thriller who expects depth?) but it still raises some interesting issues about wildlife conservation versus public safety without being preachy. The setup is quite simple - a mountain lion is stalking and killing people on a resort in Arizona - possibly because the place has been built too close to the wild. The Protagonist wants to relocate it while the resort owner (a thoroughly nasty piece of work) wants to kill it.

Stacey calls this book a mountain lion version of Jaws. I can see why, but I don't entirely think this does it justice. This isn't just Jaws with a big cat - there's more to it than that. Ironically though this book does suffer from a flaw I also found in in Benchley's "masterwork" when I tried to read it. (And there's one up for you Stacey - I finished Claws I gave up in the middle of Jaws). Both novels seem at times to lose a little focus by getting too caught up in the personal problems of the protagonists. Personal conflict usually enriches a novel - but not if it detracts from the thrill in thriller. But in Claws this isn't a deal breaker for me (it was in Jaws). I still found this a decent story.

And I couldn't help recognising a character who appeared in the very last scene as having also appeared in the last scene of Coral Stone. I'm not sure if this is a hint of a Stephen Kingesque metaverse or the guy is simply based on someone Stacey encountered in Hawaii. Maybe it's an Easter Egg? I don't know, but it amused me.

My thoughts - if you like thrillers with all that entails then Claws is certainly a worthy read in my opinion. And if you own a Kindle then at 80 cents you're hardly going to cry over wasted cash if you hate it. If I was rating this on Amazon I'd probably give it 4 stars on the grounds I can't give it 3.5 and I hate to round down).