The opening rarely survives contact with the completed draft but here it is

As the dirigible hurtled up the darkened pass, something glittering rose above the black lip of the mountains.

Stomach fluttering, Jascinda leaned forward against the gondola’s rail. The word dragon filled her mind.

Beside her, Captain Ulreo laughed. “Just moon rise, princess,” he said.

Jascinda flushed. Of course. She was just seeing the lights of the dwarvish cities blazing away on the nighttime surface of the moon.

The buzz of the ship’s engines reflected back from the valley sides setting her teeth on edge. How could the mercenary flier seem so calm when any moment the dragon would hear and know they were coming?

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LJ cross posting broken – now doing it via twitter

Ugh. Can’t seem to get the LJ cross posting done. However, my blog entries now automatically feed into twitter, which LJ grabs. Best I can do right now :(

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WIP: Assault on the Sky Tomb of the Earth Kin

What with Kurtzhau underfoot with Miskatonic Adonisitis or something like that, I’ve had to pause my novels and focus on something shorter, in this case a short story I’ve had on my to-do list for  a while.

As always I started off with some odd ideas — flying city, zombie dragon, zeppelins, air pirates, princess… stuff — and wrangled them around until I came up with something that screams at me to write it.

This was my first stab:

First stab

After two weeks of head banging in between looking after Kurtzhau, I got this:

Assault on the Sky Tomb of the Earth Kin

 

Tomorrow is a good day to draft :)

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Tonight it flowed!

Just Dave the Unspellable and myself for Study Group tonight.

In the last month, thanks to the Big German, we tweaked three of our Meisterhaus — the Master Strikes — so that they actually work without opening you up to get whacked.

Suddenly the blades interact in ways that take us to all the techniques we’ve drilled over the years but not really used and, in our heads at least, Dave and I are fighting like a pair of 15th century Germans (but with darker hair).

This is why I train.

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Why most books on how to write a novel aren’t very useful…

I have read… a lot of books on writing.

Perhaps the most useful general book on story.

I started back in pre-Internet days towards the end of university when Writers Digest books appeared on the shelves of the now-defunct book floor of our local Forbidden Planet.

A handful of these books helped me — I’ve dotted this post with their covers. Most — in hindsight — just served to confuse me. Looking at various writing threads, I can see I’m not the only one. For example, paraphrasing, somebody posted; “This book said not to write about a character’s childhood, but I’m writing about somebody whose traumatic childhood overshadows their present. Help!”

Without naming names, here are some of the things wrong with most of the books in this category.

No or wrong writing credentials

Author is not really a writer of novels.

This man does have credentials!

Yes, I’ve only been doing this a year and a bit, but I am a professional author working to contracts from real publishers.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of books written by “creative writing teachers”, editors and agents — who, yes, being the gatekeepers have insights but not being writers can only really talk about the what, not the how – short story writers, and people who once wrote a book.

Inspirational content

The book is intended to inspire or free up the wannabe writer’s imagination.

Useful book tackling the technicalities of the genre. (Can’t say I like OSC’s politics, though.)

Books like these make a good comfort read, actually, or at least are nice to leave lying around in the bathroom. However if you want to be a writer, it kind of follows that you are already overburdened with inspiration and that your imagination roves freely. Surely you are better seeking out more specific inspiration through art and non-fiction focussed around your genre?

Pep-talk content

The book is an extended pep-talk encouraging you to adhere to BIC (Bum In Chair), to burn through “resistance” and writer’s block, and use a variety of techniques to maintain discipline.

Though it’s useful to have the requirements of professionalism spelled out, a just do it attitude can merely lead to frustration and chasing your own tail as the years roll by. Just do what? You need some kind of leverage before it’s worth putting your all into the task.

Wordcount obsession

The book is all about upping your daily wordcount.

One of the most practical of all books on writing. However, Pulp-era and focussed on shorter stories.

OK it’s good to be able to churn out the words. However, what actually matters is your average wordcount over the life of the project.

If I write 20K words this week, delete 10K next week, write another 10K then spend two weeks editing the resulting mishmash, the average wordcount is (20-10+10)/4 = 5K a week.

Might it not be equally or more effective to write the right words in the first place, thus saving on tinkering time?

 

Objective focussed

The book is entirely focused on what objectives the your novel should meet.

So, it tells you that you must have theme and conflict, and that the pacing should be right and the characterisation good. However, it doesn’t really tell you how to get there.

It’s as if I put  a sword in your hands and said, “A Zornhau should be fast and secure. Go fight!”

Blooper catalogue

The book concentrates on cataloging what bloopers to avoid.

Blooper lists are great fun. However, there are a zillion ways to get things wrong, and very few ways to get things write. Knowing the near infinite list of things not to do far less useful than learning the handful of things to actually do.

Really just a list of rules and tips

The book is full of rules and tips but is presented as a manual.

Granted tricks of the trade writing tips are useful, and I’m always glad to hear these from other writers. However, they become dangerous when presented as if they formed a coherent whole. A catalogue of punches and grapples is not the same as a martial art!

For example, that “don’t mention childhood” rule we saw above) doesn’t always apply. For this reason, most such books tend to include the spectacularly useless advice that it’s OK to break the rules when it works! 

Better, I think, to understand the way narrative works and thus the purpose of backstory in your particular novel.


Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and plotting, is much, much shorter than each of the useful books I’ve linked to. But would you rather spend your time reading about writing, or actually writing?

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It lives…

And of course as soon as I start outlining and drafting scenes, the characters and the city come to life and I am again buzzed by my own story.  I guess all those weeks of angst and self doubt were wasted… no wait a moment I skipped them, didn’t I :)

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And so it — drafting — begins

I have the opening to Barbarian in the City outlined:
BitC Scrvi2

The cast list has also grown:


OLD DOCK GANG

  • Madok – Leader.
  • DINDRAYN – Girl Thief. Blonde. RM calls her “little sister” and treats her as a Sword Triber.
  • Catigern Longfinger – Ultimate pickpocket
  • Aglovale the Key – Ultimate burglar
  • Brangaine – female cook

OLD DOCK AUTHORITY

  • Prefect LUKAN: Hereditory prefect. His family have seen better days.
  • Laudine: Lukan’s sister.

NEW DOCK GANG

All a bit older.

  • JAZERANT – Jaded leader
  • Howel - brother and trusted second in command.
  • Gwyn the Knife – knife thrower. Mortally wounded by Ravenmirth

PORT AUTHORITY

  • Edern, Prefect of New Dock: More concerned with turf than justice.

WORLD CITY

Position pretty much straits of Gibraltar. Locations:

  • Shiptomb Strand: Lee shore. The western quarter of the city borders the Worldgirdle Ocean. “Crumbling sea defences.” “Where crap gets washed up”
  • Old Docks: Behind the great northern mole. Silted up. Used only by fishermen with low-draught boats. Handy for lee shore. “Once great”
  • New Docks (100 years old): Kept clear by a diverted river. Policed by the Port Authority Proctors. “Commercial Hub” “The world passes through” “My turf, not yours”
  • Council of the Seven: They run both the city and the empire.
  • Council of the Wise: Oligarchy.

So — further to the earlier discussion of what I called agnast: The broad sweep of the entire novel feels good. However,  I don’t yet know the characters, am not yet in love with the city, so this outline feels dishearteningly flat. At this point I could reformat my harddrive and go on a 48-hour bender ending. However, I prefer to trust my technique and keep moving. Only in the writing will this start to come alive…

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That stupid De Niro quote on writers

The stupid De Niro quote about writers is doing the rounds of Facebook:

Bullshit

 

This kind of thing makes me cross.

Some of the greatest writers in my pond seem utterly angst free. For example, the serene Terry Pratchett and Stephen King (who describes himself laughing and giggling over his work), so angst does not seem to be a prerequisite to good writing.

King did have angst and was an alcoholic, but eventually realised this was nothing to do with his writing. What delayed his recovery was the trope that writers are supposed to be messed up.

This is one of the reasons why I get cross when people make out that being messed up is a prerequisite for being a good writer.

The corollary is also annoying, that if you aren’t miserable then you aren’t trying hard enough. Sorry I am trying hard, but I am also mentally robust — which is probably just good genetic fortune and lucky parenting, but doesn’t make me a bad writer.

Furthermore, I have a self-doubt ridden friends — it’s called impostor syndrome, apparently — in a variety of industries ranging from swordsmithing to programming. It’s pretty clear that certain kinds of people just angst as soon as they are in a high performance situation, regardless of what that situation is. This may be statistically normal, but it’s not necessary and I wish they could come to some accommodation with whatever makes them so. Quotes like the De Niro one are unhelpful because they normalise being miserable.

Worse, some industries exploit this. A friend says:

Programmer impostor syndrome is widespread and is actively stoked by industry as love for one’s vocation as a part of professional identity can be leveraged to get people to work longer for less moneyyou aren’t really part of this community if you need more than pizza to motivate you to sit here coding for another six hours.

So not only do such quotes (and the tropes they carry) harm people including writers and artists. They also actively help the vampiric forces of industry.

Finally, there’s a gender issue.

Though men do not have the monopoly on subcultures which embrace mental ill-health — read my female friend’s quote in my previous article — it seems most of these writerly “O teh agnast” quotes are about or from male writers.

The truth is that writing is hard work , but in a seamstressing kind of way. It’s just not very macho (though I did once break my keyboard typing so hard).

Quotes like this are grasping at an old-fashioned masculinity, and in their pathetic desperation – “Oh look at me I’m so manly I cwy on my keyboard and develop substance abuse habits!” I mean, come on! You want old-fashioned manly virtues, read some of the recent Memorial Day postings… men comforting dying friends in fox holes while the bullets snap overhead — are ultimately apologetic. They imply that men who don’t do macho professions are somehow unmanly.

Me, I’m part writer, part househusband. When I’m not sitting quietly typing, I’m cleaning, cooking, shopping or nurturing. I quite like playing with old fashioned masculine virtues, but I have swords for that (and plenty of female friends who also fence, by the way). Manhood is what I make it.

Meanwhile, since this agnast (AGravating AngST) is mainly a male thing, it’s also kind of implying that female writers are less serious, less excellent than their male counterparts.

Which, all in all, is why such quotes continue to make me cross.


If writing makes you angsty, how about using my book Storyteller Tools to fill the gaps in your skills before deciding to wallow in artistic misery? 

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Barbarian in the City

While I’m waiting for the next contract — and in between catching up on admin — I’ve started writing Barbarian in the City, the example novel I outlined in Storyteller Tales.

Here’s what the outline looks like in Scrivener:

BITC Scriv1

If you’ve read Storyteller Tools, you’ll probably notice that the yarn started drifting the moment I began work on it. For a start, the Jaded Leader of the New Dock gang has a new name, Jaserant. I’ve also added a girl thief, Dindrayn, to use as a POV character at the beginning, and to add complexity

To support all this I’ve added a cast list:

OLD DOCK GANG

Madok – Leader.

DINDRAYN – Girl Thief. Blonde. RM calls her “little sister” and treats her as a Sword Triber.

Catigern Longfinger – Ultimate pickpocket

Aglovale the Key – Ultimate burglar

Brangaine – female cook

NEW DOCK GANG

All a bit older.

JAZERANT – Jaded leader

Gwyn the Knife – knife thrower.

Having fun! Watch this space.

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FAQ: Won’t using your tools drown out my “voice”?

Voice is one of the things aspiring writers angst over.

However, the genre reader mostly doesn’t care about your voice as long as it’s competent and reflects the point-of-view character; they want to be immersed in the story and carried forward by the plot.

That said, my outlining tools won’t drown out your voice. Rather they will make you aware of it.

These really are tools. They let you look at your story from different angles, respond viscerally and work with what you see using your storyteller instinct.

True, if your “voice” is boring and conflict free then  it will become unbearable to you and you will evolve  a new one. Otherwise, the tools should help you realise the full potential of your voice, whatever it is, and whatever your preferred genre.

Here, for example, is a Conflict Diagram setting out the workings of Pride and Prejudice:

PandP1

Click for a larger view. (What?!? No tanks and ninjas?)


I’m very glad to answer questions via email or in the comments. However, if you have no idea what I am talking about, perhaps you want to try my book on outlining (UK)(CA)(USA)!

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