I met a lot of my closest online friends via books. I’ve also read a lot of wonderful books through my friends. Here’s hoping that Charles French’s generous initiative helps us all find new books, and new friends. 🙂
I met a lot of my closest online friends via books. I’ve also read a lot of wonderful books through my friends. Here’s hoping that Charles French’s generous initiative helps us all find new books, and new friends. 🙂
I wrote this piece for myself, back in November of 2010, almost exactly three years before I finally published Vokhtah. I was struggling and trying to work out why [Vokhtah began as a story for Nanowrimo 2004].
Although we all write in different ways, the struggle can often feel the same. I hope this helps someone get over the hump and keep writing.
Insights into writing
The first flash of inspiration is like seeing scenes from a movie that someone has cut and scattered like a moving jigsaw puzzle. Some of these pieces of the movie are quite lengthy and give hints as to character, motivation, culture etc. Others are small and cryptic and give little indication as to where, or even when, they fit into the overall flow of the movie. The only things these disjointed scenes have in common is that they are very vivid and give you the feeling that the story will be worth teasing out.
So you start writing. First you try and reproduce in words the visual and emotional events of each scene. Then, as you become more and more immersed in the unfolding story you attempt to connect up the dots. Sometimes these connections pop into your head very easily, in much the same way as bold, distinctive elements of a jigsaw puzzle make it obvious that they should be connected, but most of the time you fill in the gaps with more or less logical possibilities that will allow you to get from one vivid scene to the next.
Unfortunately these logical possibilities are almost always a ‘fudge’. Again, using the jigsaw puzzle analogy it’s like trying to work a puzzle without having a reference picture to tell you what should be there. So you end up connecting up all the blue or bluish bits in the hope that they are all part of the sky. As anyone who has ever struggled with a jigsaw puzzle will know ‘blue bits’ can also belong to pools and ponds and clothing and children’s toys. So these connecting bits are rarely right however they do serve a necessary purpose – they bring the picture into clearer focus and eventually highlight the missing parts of the story in negative.
So you keep on writing in flashes and eventually you end up with a plot, of sorts, and some characters and even, if you are lucky, some motivation and background but it is still very sketchy. Yes, the story hangs together, just barely, but when you re-read it the clunky bits become painfully obvious and the fudges shriek ‘contrived’ and the characters lack depth. As for the background and all those things that add texture and context to a story, they’re just not there. Your first draft is finished but you don’t like it very much. Those first, vivid scenes may be good but overall, the story sucks.
Enter the first edit. For me this usually begins after re-reading page one. I always have trouble with openings, perhaps because the vivid bit that got me started in the first place actually belongs in the middle somewhere instead of at the beginning. Dissatisfied with the opening I try and massage the prose but I am a storyteller rather than an artist who paints with words so this massaging really only accomplishes one thing: it forces me to acknowledge where the problems lie and what vital things are missing.
Now some people read wholly and solely for the story, skipping all the descriptive bits so they can get to the next ‘event’. I have to admit that I’m a bit like that myself however the best books I’ve ever read have been the ones so rich in texture and detail and personality that they force me to slow down. These books make me want to read every word so that I don’t miss any part of the amazing world that is unfolding. These books also make me want to know the characters, find out what makes each one ‘tick’. In these books each character, even the minor ones, has a distinctive, individual voice and feel. The physical appearance of characters in a book are important but nowhere near as important as they would be in a movie because in a book you get to identify them from the inside so how they talk and think, how they express emotions, quirks of body language and far more vital than any mere physical description. When I read I need to identify the characters and identify /with/ them.
Some writers can achieve this depth of characterisation without even appearing to try. Storytellers like me have to work at it and the only way I know how to do it is to see them within the context of their world.
Enter Edit no. 2. This is usually where I start to ask what it is about the character that makes them who and what they are. I start to type notes. Sometimes these notes relate directly to a particular character but often they are little insights into what sort of world organization my story has to have in order for my character to have developed the way they have.
More broad brush strokes – backstory, history, culture, tech, and let’s not forget politics. Out of all these small insights I start to get a much clearer picture of who my characters are and /why/ one developed this way and the other developed in a totally different way.
Again I start fitting the pieces together only to discover that much of this backstory should /not/ be written because the characters themselves take it all for granted and I don’t like stories with a disembodied narrator.
Enter Edit-the-next. I know I want to bring out this textural detail but I want it to come out naturally, to unfold as part of the greater picture rather than as a series of dry lectures. So again I start to edit, this time adding scenes that will allow me to develop both the characters and the background in an intuitive way. Usually this means a massive restructuring of what I’ve written; bringing in new characters, fleshing them out a bit, allowing them to fill in some of the missing bits.
Around about now I realise with a sinking feeling that my simple little story is either going to be one impossibly massive book or…a series. I seem to be fated to write three books more or less at the same time.
Once I realise that I’m dealing with a series I’m hit with the realisation that many scenes I’ve jammed in willy nilly because they had to be told would be far better placed in book 2 or even book 3.
This is when the storytelling task becomes so daunting, so huge, so much damn work that my mind goes blank. The creative juices stop flowing and I find myself unable to continue.
I take a break. I don’t write anything for a day or two. Then life intrudes and the days become a week. Suddenly a whole month has gone past without me writing a single word, or even /thinking/ about writing. With a sinking feeling I recognize that a fallow period is upon me.
Fast forward six months to a year. I’ve been getting a restless feeling that my life is empty. I know what I’d like to do to fill it but…will the words come? Will I have any better luck this time than the last? Will I find the creativity to finally finish this damn story?
I put it off for weeks and then something will happen that jerks me out of my nice, comfortable, non-creative routine. I get up one morning and find that my subconscious has been doing things without me because, lo and behold, it’s been thinking about some plot problem and found a solution to it. Trembling with reluctant hope I open up the word processor and quickly type up a ‘note’. It could lead to other things but I firmly save and exit. Enough for one day.
This claytons type of writing continues for days until finally, at some point I realise that I now /want/ to commit to writing again and the cycle begins again.
I am no longer confident that this cycle will produce the result I so desperately want but I’m learning to approach writing as a workman rather than as an artist. I commit to putting in ‘x’ amount of effort a day. So long as I write, or research, or edit for an hour or two every day I allow myself to feel satisfied with myself.
This may be a strange way to write but it helps me ward off the desperation and hopelessness I feel when the creative juices are not flowing like Niagara after a flood. I still haven’t finished this damn story but I am chipping away at it. Maybe one day…..
I haven’t edited this so it’s a bit raw. Apologies in advance.
This will be a post about POV – point-of-view – in writing, so if this kind of thing bores you to tears, look away now. For everyone else, I have a question:
Do you enjoy First Person POV – i.e. the type of story that is all about what ‘I said’, ‘I saw’, ‘I did’, ‘I thought’, ‘I felt’?
The reason I ask is because I’ve never particularly enjoyed First Person POV, but I didn’t actively hate it until I began reading the second book in First Person POV in almost as many days.
The first story I read was actually pretty good. It had a lot of the elements I look for in a good sci-fi story. But it also had a heroine I simply could not ‘like’. She vacillated between ridiculously wimpy not-quite-adult and hardcore, kickarse hero. The motivation was there, but it was almost too much, along the lines of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.
I like characters that aren’t perfect. I like them to have quirks, weaknesses, flaws. I even like them to be ‘broken’ because then there’s the hope that they will heal and grow. What I don’t like is seeing them from the inside.
I won’t name the story or the protagonist because I’ve suddenly realised that these are criticisms I apply to almost all First Person POV fiction. There have been exceptions [C.J.Cherryh’s Foreigner series is one], but they are rare, imho.
This issue crystalized for me when I started reading the second ‘Me, Me, Me’ story. It was even worse. Just a few chapters in and I couldn’t read any more. Not only did it have editing issues, it had a main character whose motivation can only be described as schizophrenic. This particular character spent virtually the whole first chapter being paranoid, for no real reason. Then she did a complete about face and…
Enough. I doubt that the author concerned will ever read my blog, or this post, but I don’t want to say anything that might identify the story because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder, and none of us need other authors criticising us in public. That’s why I never leave reviews of books I’ve hated. Sadly, I hate this one.
Moving on. So what do I like?
I like Close Third Person POV – i.e. where we see the character from the outside, but also get some thoughts and feelings.
I also like reading more than one POV – i.e. where we get to see the story through the eyes of two or more characters. Importantly, we get to see the main character[s] through the eyes of other characters.
I know that some of you find multiple POVs distracting, and I can understand that; you’re reading along happily and suddenly, bang, total change of POV, of scene, of story arc etc. Unless you enjoy that particular technique, multiple POVs can be hard work. Nevertheless, don’t you think we get a more truthful version of the main character when we see them through the eyes of others?
I know I’ve been surprised by how others see me, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not. When I’m honest with myself, however, the change of perspective usually makes me grow as a person.
I’m not saying that I lie, to myself or others, but I’ve learned that we all see ourselves through the prism of some sort of bias. Confident people generally see themselves as hero material. Less confident people may focus on their flaws to the exclusion of their good qualities. Outsiders, however, can often see things we are incapable of seeing in ourselves.
Just as I believe this ‘outsider’ view is healthy for real people, I also believe it can work for characters in fiction. I think it helps to balance out the internal distortions of ego, providing a more realistic, and often likable, character.
Coincidentally, this outsider view also allows the author to avoid the necessity of writing that awful mirror scene. You know the one:
‘Look at me. I’m looking at myself in the mirror/pond/reflective glass so I can describe what I look like to you, the reader’.
That technique is a tool, and like any tool, it has its time and place, but like all the other tools in the writer’s bag of tricks, it shouldn’t be abused. And it shouldn’t be…predictable.
Okay, that’s probably more on writing than I’m comfortable with, but I would like to know what everyone else thinks. I really am open to persuasion. 🙂
‘You’ve just been reading the wrong books…?’
I wrote about Jennifer Scoullar’s latest novel here, and so I thought you might be interested in the 5 star review I left for it on Amazon.com:
‘I’ve read a number of Jennifer Scoullar’s novels now, and I’ve enjoyed all of them, including Fortune’s Son, book 1 of The Tasmanian Tales but…The Lost Valley turned out to be something a whole lot more.
This is the most powerful story Scoullar has ever written, imho, and her characters almost jump off the page, they ring so true. Tom, the gentle twin who dreams of flying like a bird. Harry, the troubled twin who’s desperate to reclaim the family fortune lost by his father. And Emma, a working class girl who dreams of becoming a doctor in pre-World War II Australia.
Life, and the war, turn all their dreams upside down and inside out, especially when Kitty, a gorgeous Hollywood starlet walks into their lives. But weaving through the entire story is a thread of quiet joy – the secret of the Lost Valley.
I can’t say anymore for fear of spoiling it for everyone, but I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Scoullar’s attention to detail and obvious love of the Australian bush, make the storytelling sing, but it’s her characters you’ll grow to love. All of them, well except for maybe one. Her you’ll hate. 🙂
Disclaimer: I received an ARC copy of The Lost Valley but would happily buy it for myself it’s that good.’
If you’ve read The Lost Valley, please leave a review on Amazon. And please follow Jennifer while you’re at it. It makes such a huge difference to a writer, not just because it helps us sell our work, but because we don’t actually get feedback all that often. I don’t think there’s a writer alive who doesn’t get a thrill when someone says ‘I like this’. 🙂
Some of you may remember a review I wrote for Jennifer’s first novel – Brumby’s Run. Even though Romance isn’t really my genre, I loved Jen’s writing, her characters, and the way she brought country Australia alive on the page.
Jen is a traditionally published author [Penguin], but like us Indies, she has to help with marketing. To that end, she’s asking her readers for help to establish a ‘launch team’. That’s where I come in coz Jen’s a mate. This is a bit from her post:
‘A launch team consists of a select group of fans and supporters, who will help build some buzz around a new title. The main way they can help is by writing reviews, particularly on Amazon. Nothing boosts a book’s chances like having a solid number of online reviews shortly after its release. This can be achieved by letting people read your book early…….So in light of this, I’m enlisting interested people to join my marketing team by giving away a digital advanced readers’ copy of my upcoming release. The Lost Valley is Book 2 in my Tasmanian Tales trilogy, that began last year with the publication of Fortune’s Son.’
I can assure you that Jen’s writing is superb, and you will enjoy the ARC [advanced reader copy], especially if you have any interest in Australia. If you go to Jen’s website, you’ll see that she’s the real deal. She lives in the country and is mad about horses. 🙂
If you can give Jen a hand, please visit her site and take it from there.
My thanks to the Passive Guy for highlighting the following article in the Guardian.
The article talks about the symbiosis that exists between hard science, and the speculative, highly imaginative and sometimes unlikely stories we weave from it.
I count myself as one of the ‘we’ even though most of my formal education was in the humanities – philosophy and languages to be precise. But before I began my arts course, my favourite subject at school was biology. Sadly I was not so fond of math, and no one told me you needed both to take biology past year one level at uni. so… -sigh-
Just because I could no longer study biology did not mean I stopped being interested in it. I continued to read layman’s articles in the area for years [thank you New Scientist!]. And that interest manifested itself in every weird and wonderful creature in Vokhtah, including the Vokh themselves.
Did you know that there is a species of worm that is essentially an hermaphrodite? When these worms mate, they literally duel with their penises to determine which becomes the sperm donor, and which the donee [?].
I swear, I did not make that up! It was one of the many, many things I researched before I created the Vokh. In fact research is the core link between scientists and writers because a world, no matter how imaginative, has to follow rules, plausible rules, otherwise it becomes fantasy not science fiction.
For example, although there are some elements of Vokhtah that are more ‘fantasy’ than anything else, [the power to heal, for example] I did spend months researching what my creatures would see when day changed to night, and one sun followed the other across the sky. I knew very little about binary star systems, and even the scientists could not tell me precisely how two suns would affect things like weather, and the day/night cycle, so the Vokh calendar is very speculative indeed. But I did try.
Other, ‘softer’ areas of knowledge informed my writing as well. Hungarian is my so-called mother tongue, and I studied French and Japanese at uni, along with a smattering of Mandarin and Spanish, so it was almost inevitable that I would get carried away with the Vokh language.
At first, I only wanted a few alien sounding names so I drew on Hungarian for the name ‘Vokh’. The word was based on ‘Vuk’, the name of a popular child’s toy in Hungary. That’s what the cute picture up the top is all about. You were wondering, weren’t you? -smirk-
Once started, however, I could not seem to stop and ended up with a Vokh to English dictionary-slash-encyclopedia.
Yet more research went into cross-over technologies such as blacksmithing and hunting. [Some of you may remember my post about the Poacher’s Knot in which I talked about hunting methods and very simple snares.]
But I digress, badly. My point in all this is that you don’t have to be a scientist to write science fiction, [although many, like Isaac Asimov were]. I believe the only necessary qualification for a science fiction writer is the need to know how things, and people tick.
-cough- Or in my case, how sociopathic, flying hermaphrodites tick. -cough-
Happy Australia Day!
P.S.!!!! I just found my 13th review of Vokhtah on Amazon. -dance-
David Gaughran’s blog – Let’s Get Digital – is probably best known for his posts on self-publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I admit, David is one of my favourite go-to people when it comes to most things technical or financial.
However David also reads and writes fiction, and the other day he wrote a post about ‘good books’, asking if we could recommend any. In that post he named two books he had read and greatly admired. ‘Because We Are – a novel of Haiti’ was one of them.
I have just finished reading ‘Because We Are’ by Ted Oswald, and I have to say David was right – this is an exceptional novel. It’s not perfect, but it worked in all the ways a good story should : it created memorable, well-rounded characters, transported me to a place I have never seen, and made me care about both.
The story is set in modern day Haiti, and follows the lives of two children living in the slums of Haiti just before the big earthquake that took the lives of so many. Libète is a girl of ten. Her best friend Jak, a boy stunted by chronic malnutrition, is also ten. They are out, playing in the marshes when they stumble across the bodies of a young woman and her baby.
The young woman has been ritually mutilated, raising the spectre of Voudou, but this is not some lurid, sensationalist story about the practices we in the West call voodoo. This is a story about murder for gain. It is a story about poverty and politics, degradation and courage. It is a story about real people living their lives as best they can in a world where smart phones and abject poverty exist side by side. But most of all it is an uplifting story about honour and honesty as told through the eyes of children. In many ways, their growth parallels the growth of a nation.
On a more mechanical level, the writing is lyrical, and evocative without being at all self-indulgent. The dialogue is excellent, peppered with just enough Kreyol [Haitian version of French] to feel authentic without making the reader work too hard, and the characters are vivid. Even the minor characters seem to leap off the page, and there is nothing two dimensional about them. These are all the great things about the story. Sadly there are also a couple of mechanical issues I found quite confusing, and both relate to the way the author handled flashbacks.
I have no inherent problem with flashbacks, so long as it’s clear what is current and what is not. In ‘Because We Are’, the flashbacks to Libète’s earlier life are not immediately recognizable as flashbacks. This led to a lot of ‘oh this is another flashback’ moments on my part. Each time this happened I lost my connection to the story.
The reason the flashbacks were so jarring was because the author often told them in the present tense – “The small girl takes a step down from the large rock.” This is not the conventional way of writing flashbacks, however I could have gotten used to it if only the cues had been consistent. But they were not. Sometimes the flashbacks would not be in the present tense but the current storyline would be.
These inconsistencies made the story harder to follow than it should have been. And yet… despite getting a bit annoyed at times, the story itself was so good, so compelling, it never occurred to me to stop reading. That, to me, is the mark of an exceptional story, and that is why I am reviewing it – because it is too damn good to dismiss for a few mechanical faults.
It’s not often I criticize a novel and then turn around and tell you to read it, but this is one of those times. ‘Because We Are’ is a gem. Read it!
Yesterday I pontificated about what makes a great game, for me at least. Well today I’m waxing lyrical about stories and genres on Candy Korman’s blog.
What can I say? She did ask me to do a guest post. Mwahahaha… ahem.
For those who don’t know Candy, she is a writer obsessed with Monsters. Thankfully none of them are sparkly. Instead, Candy takes inspiration from classical monsters – such as Frankenstein and Dracula – and weaves their essence into stories set in the modern world. Each one is unique. And each one has a wicked twist.
Candy’s Monsters are very different to mine, but we both explore the darker side of the human psyche.
So hop on over to Candy’s blog and let’s get some interesting discussions happening!
All fiction contains a seed of truth and sometimes that truth can inspire deep thought in the reader. That is good. Sometimes authors write fiction with the specific intention of bringing out a truth and making readers think. That can work as well, but only if the fictional part of the story is allowed to dictate when, where and how the truth emerges. And then there are times when an author is so fixated on the truth that he/she uses the story as nothing more than a limp carrot.
I recently bought a book that falls into the ‘limp carrot’ category. It was well written in terms of basic requirements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, structure etc but it missed the mark completely in terms of story.
The author of this unnamed book clearly knew the theory – tell a great truth through the eyes of a fictional character – but he/she obviously cared more for the truth than the character. [To avoid tying myself into knots here I am going to call this character John.] Because the author did not really care about John, the inevitable result was that I did not care about John either and because I did not care I could not empathize. I read the words of pain and suffering but they struck no chord; I could have been reading a shopping list for all the impact they made.
And here is where the truly sad part comes in. Despite being highly sympathetic to the ‘truth’ the author was trying to reveal, my complete lack of empathy with John diminished my sympathy for the ‘truth’ as well. And that made me feel terrible, so terrible in fact that I simply could not get past chapter 2. I did try, a number of times because I hate leaving anything unfinished, but I simply could not do it. And that has made me angry enough to write this scathing non-review.
Please people! If you write fiction then please, please, please understand that the story and the characters must come first otherwise you give your readers no reason to CARE. And if we cannot care then your truths will wither and die.