Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Apologies to my regular readers if you’ve faced any difficulties with the site or feed recently. I’m in the process of changing my web hosts, and even writing this in advance, I know by the time you read it I’ll have mucked something up as I try to learn how to do web things.

There’s a lesson in this for those of us using internet as a means to limited ends, rather than being web professionals. Do your research. When I changed domain a year ago I stuck with WordPress because it was the easy option. It turned out that it was also an option that didn’t do everything I want. Live and learn, that’s me.

Or live and don’t learn, as Calvin and Hobbes said.

This week’s Writing Excuses was about conveying world-building information without resorting to infodumps. Intrusive explanations are one of my pet writing hates, so it was good to hear these professional writers’ tips on how to get it right.

The exercise of course fits the subject:

Take a spec gee-whiz, and have something go wrong with it. Write a scene in which the main character must deal with the problem. Communicate each of the following:

  1. How it works
  2. What it looks like
  3. The main character’s relationship to it

I’m going to try out a piece of sci-fi tech. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s one I’m planning on using in a story soon, so it’ll make a good warmup.

Casey’s Face

A twinge ran through Casey’s cheek, putting her immediately on edge. There were only two things that could have caused it. Discounting nervous ticks, to which she had never been prone, there was only one.

Another twinge, and then another. A woman passing her on the pavement gave her a curious look but kept on walking.

Putting her hand to her face, Casey felt the fake flesh of the mask sagging beneath her fingers. Trying to remain calm, to avoid drawing attention and blowing her cover, she ducked into a café, hand still pressed to her face, and hurried to the bathroom at the back. Bolting the door behind her, she stared into the mirror above the sink.

The left side of her face was still fine, showing the features of the anonymous government clerk she had been imitating for the past month. But on the right side, vat-grown muscles were sliding away, revealing their wire frame and, worse yet, parts of her own face.

Hastily, she took the slim control box from her pocket, almost dislodging the wire concealed along her neck. She hit the reset button and the left side of her face reverted to the mask’s blank-faced factory default. But the right remaining a lumpy, fallen mess.

So How Was That?

I didn’t feel like this exercise pushed me much. Because of what I write, and because I hate infodumps, I tend to write this sort of thing a lot. Of course that doesn’t mean I do it well, so let me know, how was that short scene? And if you’ve had a go at this exercise, how did you get on?

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

Write it big enough and your plot template can also provide a handy hat.

I’m a big believer in templates and structures. For me, they enhance my creativity by giving me a structure to bounce off and a reminder of all the things it’s good to consider. When I put up my character template a few weeks back some people found it useful, so here’s another one, this time for writing plots.

I’ve taken elements of this template from all over the place, but most importantly from Dan Wells’s seven point story structure. When I’m writing a short story I often just use this template, alongside a character template if I’m developing a new character. For longer works I use this sort of format for each plot strand, and then combine them using another template.

Like I said, I love templates.

So here’s my list of things to consider when planning a plot. If you find it useful, or can think of other things you’d add, or even have your own template to share, please let me know in the comments.

My Plot Template v1

Title

Concept

Theme

Why is this series of events happening and important?

What is the main char arc here? – yes, this might also be on the character template, but it’s important to tie it to the plot – who’s going to change, and how, as part of this.

What’s the conflict, including its type – person vs person; person vs themselves; or person vs environment.

What suspense keeps the audience engaged?

What emotional exploration goes deeper?

What are the pauses for reflection? (I skip this when writing flash fiction)

MICE – is it a Milieu, Idea, Character or Event plot? This is a really useful thing to understand, and the linked Writing Excuses episode explains it
– Beginning, as fitting its MICE nature
– End, as fitting its MICE nature

Foreshadowing

The Seven Key Plot Points

Hook
– Questions raised
– Need created in readers

Turn 1

Pinch 1

Midpoint

Pinch 2
– Unexpected but logical direction
– Time pressure for solution

Turn 2

Resolution
– Answers to questions
– Emotional impact

I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.

When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.

There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.

But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.

Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.

Footloose vs Dune

In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.

It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.

Try, Try Again

Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.

In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.

In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.

In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.

Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.

Learn from the Worms

Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.

Almost.

Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

In talking about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree I mentioned the use of arts within the book. It’s an area I find fascinating. The role of art in society and its power to stir emotions are often overlooked in fantasy fiction. What makes it so useful?

For me, there are two obvious points.

Firstly, showing a society’s culture adds depth. It shows that there is more to people’s lives than the struggles they currently face, the wars and intrigues that are the backbone of so many plots.

Secondly, it helps us connect to the characters. We all know what it feels like to be stirred by art that touches something within us. For me, that can be listening to Jeff Buckley’s Lover You Should Have Come Over, watching Lost in Translation or reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You’ll have your own examples, because while the feeling is universal, it’s triggers are seldom the same.

So who else makes good use of culture in their writing?

  • Tolkien uses songs and poems to explore the past.
  • Iain M Banks has games in The Player of Games.
  • John Scalzi’s Redshirts, while taking a different angle, at least shows TV as a prominent part of life.

Who else is there? Which writers do this, and especially do it well?

And what are the cultural experiences that really stir you?

Share your thoughts in the comments. I’ve mentioned a couple of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear about yours.

bookdesign348No Writing Excuses exercise from me this week, as I’m spending the time preparing to teach some writing instead. In an act that is either terrifying hubris or putting my money where mouth is, I’ve volunteered to give a talk and run a writing workshop at Nerd East, a convention in north-east England on 30 May. This is a return to my old turf of Durham, so my talk will be on what my experiences there taught me as a writer. The workshop is on using seven point story structure to develop a plot, because this struck me as the most practical thing I could do.

If you live near Durham, or are just looking for a fun convention to attend, then I recommend checking out Nerd East. It’ll be a lot of fun.

* * *

On a different topic, the first two volumes of my Epiphany Club series of steampunk adventure stories are now up on Amazon, Smashwords and other ebook stores. The first volume, Guns and Guano, is free, so why not go give it a read?