Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Loose Ends, Tight Beginnings – And Lets Not Even Talk About The Middle!

Hi Guys,

Been a while since I posted. Mostly because I've been busy with my new book – A Bitter Brew. For the past two weeks since it came back from the first pass by the editor I've been deep in the throws of pulling my hair out and swearing at Track Changes as I tried to accept / reject the untold thousands of edits she made! And I'm sure every other author out there knows exactly what I mean.

But finally – roughly two days ago – I finished it and sent it away for its second run through and I thought I should finally write something. And this time the topic was fairly obvious. Antediluvian writing!

Now I'm not talking here about writing about the pre-flood times. (Though it is an interesting idea.) Nor about the writing that was done before the flood. (Though I'm pleased to report that I have one of the largest collections of pre-flood books in existence with exactly zero books! One of which is entitled – “What's That Big Wall Of Water Coming My Wa …!) I'm actually reflecting on my own writing style – which may be a little archaic for want of a better term.

I always get a bit nostalgic when my latest books away for editing. Especially when my editor contacts me to tell me about the latest fashions which she thinks I should try – in this case a white coat that buckles up at the back! But in this case my nostalgia was brought on by reading some of the critiques done of another fledgeling writer's work.

Now I've said this before, and I'll undoubtedly say it again. Probably until I'm in my grave. There is no right way to write a book! There are no rules of writing! Not every book should be written with minimal description and character development and constant page turning seat of your pants action! And those who give critiques are giving you opinion – no more. The challenge for the writer is to decide whether they agree with those opinions or not.

For me, I like good long reads. I like a complicated world build, an involved plot, and deep character work. My editor does a great job of curbing the worst of my excesses – or else every book I wrote would be a thousand pages long! But always as I go through the changes she's made, I sit there with a single question on my mind – do I agree with each change? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't.

And for all of you out there going through the process of putting your work up for critique, this is the same thing you need to do. Don't simply accept what others say. And for the sake of your peace of mind, don't look at all the edits and think – shit I'm a crap writer! I guarantee the same people could make just as many edits on Tolstoy. And in any case this is not a business for the thin skinned.

So simply thank people for their time and effort, and then go through all the comments with with that one question on your mind. Do you agree? Or put another way – if you do what they say will it still be the story you want to tell being told the way you want to tell it?

Anyway, enough whining from me. I've got to get back to writing. And this time I've got caught up in a strange plot involving the missing Roman Ninth Legion, some Celts and a few fae, an alternate world, and a mist that keeps carrying people away. If I don't keep writing I won't know where the story is going! (People keep asking me where I get my ideas. And quite frankly I'd like to know too – because some of them baffle even me!)

So as always, be good or don't get caught.


Cheers, Greg.




Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mages, Covers and The Woes of Princes

Hi Guys,
Tornado Mage by WarNick on DeviantArt
Been a while since I last posted, but I've been busy writing so I guess I have an excuse?! In fact I've written a bit over 160K in the last month, which is something of a record even for me.
The new book, which is about 80% complete, is called "A Bitter Brew" and is another epic fantasy. But this one's a little bit different to my others. The hero is a mage, but like all those with magic in his world, he isn't called that. He's called "afflicted", and magic is considered a disease. The afflicted have become a lower class in his world, like the untouchables, and are relatively powerless. They're also easily spotted, since as part of their gaining magic, they become marked with one of seven magic metals. In Hendrick's case the metal is Mithril, and the markings run up his entire left arm.
In his world - Styrion - the afflicted aren't just shunned. They are discriminated against in law. They may not hold any office or station. They can't enter the capitol city or any Council Chamber in any other. If by chance they have a useful spell, they cannot charge for its use, and if someone in authority asks, they have to provide the magical service immediately and for free. In short they are the lowest of the low, without any hope of improving their lot in life.
The reason those with magic are so powerless is that the way they gain their magic is different to that in other books. They aren't born with a talent, and they don't learn it. Instead they pick up a fragment of magic metal, usually not knowing what it even is, and it promptly dissolves into their skin marking them for life. And then instead of acquiring (or absorbing) a whole type of magic, they only acquire a single spell. One spell per fragment. And to add to their woes, there's no telling what spell any fragment contains. It could be a useful one. It could even be a warspell. But the most likely outcome is that it will be something completely useless - the ability to grow body hair for example!
This means that most of the magical are left in their world with one or two spells which are of no earthly use to them, and marked as afflicted for all the world to see. Probably the worst of all possible situations for a spellcaster! And yet there is an even worse possibility for some. That they pick up their spells by having the fragment of magic metal touch a part of their body normally covered by clothes, so the markings are hidden. These poor souls are called witches and warlocks, and are considered to be hiding their affliction. Naturally the normal distrust people have for the afflicted is multiplied for witches and warlocks, and in fact they're often simply considered evil.
For Hendrick the situation is more complicated still. As well as being afflicted and trying to run a brewery in a small town, he is also a prince - seventeenth in line to the throne - and yet the law actually forbids him from ever assuming the throne or even setting foot in the royal city. So he's a prince in name only, and an outcast! (I so love putting my characters in difficult situations!)
Of course I couldn't leave it there - it was just too easy! So naturally I had to give him a sociopathic mother who discarded him in favour of his older, unafflicted brother, and who spends her days plotting against the other wives in the royal household. A father - the King - who sent a squad of mercenaries to kill him on the pretext of escorting him to his latest royal wedding. A brand new step-mother who isn't so much monstrous as actually a monster. And a war. Actually, several wars!
So that's where the book begins.
Anyway the book is nearly finished, and will probably head off for beta reading in the next few weeks. Meanwhile I'm at the stage of looking for book covers - which is where the image at the top comes from. I was hoping to use it, if I could get it a little modified by the artist, but thus far he has failed to respond to my message. Still it is I think a powerful image and so hopefully he'll get back to me at some point.
Meanwhile I'll leave you guys with a rather brilliant word I came across while doing my research for the book. It's a ye olde timey English word which I found and loved - Mumblecrust. And for those of you who, like me had never heard of it before, a Mumblecrust is in fact a toothless old beggar who because of his lack of teeth can't speak clearly - bit like a few politicians I can think of!
Cheers, Greg.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Getting The Little Things Right

Hi Guys,

This time I thought I'd turn my attention to one of the problems that faces all writers, but especially pantsters like myself. Getting the details right. So here I'm talking about the things that in film and tv become known as continuity errors, where for example the hero gets in an overturned yellow sports car with damage in its side and drives away in an unblemished one – Commando. It's also about the issue of major plot holes and nonsensical plots. In Powers for example one of the anti-heroes forces another to help him in a complex prison break to murder a common enemy, simply because there is a “drainer” in it that could rob him of his teleportation ability. Problem is, all he really needed was a pump action shotgun and a balaclava. Teleport in, shoot his enemy in the head, shoot the machine and jump away. Simplicity itself.

These mistakes occur in writing as well as film and television. Sometimes they can be amusing, and occasionally they can completely ruin a book. But whichever they are, they shouldn't be there.

So how do we stop them? Or rather – how do I stop them? You will all have your own ideas as writers.

There are actually two approaches to preventing them from happening. Each approach is based on the style of writer you are. For plotters – those who like to plan out their books in advance of writing them – their approach actually protects them. Not perfectly. But it's hard to write in a plot hole when the plot is already laid out in detail with all the key developments written down in front of them. For plotters the best approach is simply to up their plotting so that their plots, time lines, world builds and character bio's etc, are written down in meticulous detail. A simple fix.

But for those like me who simply like to wade into writing the book without doing anything like that – pantsters – the fix is not quite so simple. For us we generally look at these issues as problems that we get around by constantly rewriting and editing our books as we write, and by being utterly focused on our work. But this isn't always enough.

So speaking purely for myself, I use a second approach. I write out the plot, time line, world build, character bio's, beastiary etc in a second document at the same time as I write the story. And as I write the story I have this second file open beside it. Then as I write I constantly update the data file. So for example for The Wolves of War, I had the story file Wolves in which I was working, and the data file WolvesData both open on my screen at the same time, and I simply swapped between the two as I wrote.

Sounds like a simple fix? It is. And it will save you a thousand headaches, and a thousand questions from beta readers, critics and readers as they hopefully enjoy your work. But I want to extend this a little to show just how invaluable this approach is in your writing for a pantster like me.

To return to Wolves for a bit which is obviously freshest in my memory, I'm going to look at just a couple of places this approach helped me immensely. I'll start with travelling.

Wolves is a traditional epic fantasy, and like many in the genre it involves the characters travelling large distances periodically. As the writer of course, I want for that travel to be realistic. To fit with the distances involved, the terrain crossed, and the means of travel. And I want to synch everything up with the plot so I don't have unreasonable time gaps where people are either not doing anything for excessive and inexplicable lengths of time while other characters are advancing the story, or else, rushing impossibly fast to do things so it all fits together in a logical story arc.

So to do this I include in my data file, two vital sections – the map and the time line.

The map is actually not a map for two very simple reasons. The first is that I can't actually draw a straight line even with a ruler. And the second is that my data file like all my writing is done in an older version of Word which doesn't handle graphics well. So instead my map is actually a series of locations, towns, cities, realms, and their distances / compass directions from another key location. And that actually works better for me than a map would since the distance and the means of travel give me the time taken to get from point A to B. And that in turn gives me a couple of notes to add to my time line as I write. The day the journey began and the day it ends.

In practise this becomes a straight forward approach. First I have the start point of the journey set out and a distance. So say my hero Briagh sets out for the fae realm on foot and carrying a large pack on Day Twenty One. His journey is a hundred and twenty leagues – three hundred and sixty miles. And the terrain is snow covered and flat. I simply estimate how far he can travel in a day under these conditions, and make an estimated time of twenty four days which means he arrives on Day Forty Five.

Now here's where the time line becomes so valuable. Because while Briagh is busy travelling my other main hero {anti-hero?} Elan is busy with her own story arc – arguing with the Court, escaping the city and giving chase for the second time. The time line allows me to place her story, chapter by chapter, at the exact right points in the story so that she can then arrive in the fae realm and start hunting down Briagh at the right time for him to have done what he needed to.

Another section included in my data file is the characters. Now here I don't just include the basic details like name, gender, race etc. I also include a minor biography for the important characters. Who is this man? What are his values? What does he care about? It doesn't have to be much. But it does have to be there. Because in any situation who a person is will determine how he will respond. So in Wolves, Briagh was a thief and a morph. A man whose entire life was based around running and hiding. Not trusting others with his secrets. Fearing exposure. So thrown into a new environment where his secret is known – how is he going to react? The bio is there as my guide to answering those questions, and it like the time line and the plot is being constantly added to as I write the story. {This of course is especially vital when as a pantster I tend to wander between writing different books at the same time and often don't write anything on the same book for days or months.}

Normally I include a beastiary in my data file – for a couple of reasons. The first is that I want a consistent set of creatures in my work that relate to my world. Is my world based on ancient Greek / Roman / Babylonian mythology? If so then I want it to include creatures from those mythologies like hell hounds, cerberi, minotaurs and not those of other mythologies. Similarly I need to nail down the characteristics and abilities of those beasts so that I don't have them doing things that they can't or wouldn't do. For example if a manticore is an ambush predator operating from its den in the forest depths, I don't want it to suddenly be out chasing down its prey across the savanna.

Other sections I usually include are the gods and religions of the world – you never know when you need a good curse or a priest to tell your characters about right and wrong. Likewise I add a language section – terms I use through the book. So in Wolves I took a number of terms from middle English and scattered them throughout the work, simply to keep the steam punk feel of the book alive. {This can be fascinating and fun research by the way, and you can learn a lot. For example in writing the book I discovered the term 'rakefire' which is essentially an over-stayer in an inn who refuses to pay for his lodgings and needs to be booted out in favour of paying guests.}

And last but by no means least I add a comments section. This I cannot stress the importance of strongly enough for pantsters and probably plotters to. This is simply a section where as I'm writing the book I have a random thought eg 'explain the magic of scrying somewhere in book'. This matters because obviously I as the writer know what scrying is and how it works in the book, so as I reread and edit it makes perfect sense to me. But if that isn't in the book somewhere, my readers may be left scratching their heads wondering what's happening.

So to those of you who like to write in the manner I do – by the seat of your pants – this is the approach I use, and I would commend it to you.

Here's hoping you have a great new year ahead.

Cheers, Greg.