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 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 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 and 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 and 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 and - 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.