Posts Tagged Writing

Finishing the Series

The Eighth Court, the fourth and final book in the series, The Courts of the Feyre, is finished. It’s with my publisher, who may request some revisions or amendments, and after that it has to go through copy edit, and proof-reading, and all the other publication magic but, to me, it feels finished. I’m not going to spoil it for readers by sharing the plot, but I would like to reflect on the series, and what writing the last book was like.

It was hard. The last year hasn’t been the easiest of times for reasons to do with the health and well-being of the people closest to me. Fortunately everyone seems to be pulling through and things are generally on the up, which is a relief to us all. Setting myself apart from all that to write has been difficult, but even without the events of the year this book would have been hard.

The Eighth Court

The Eighth Court

I’ve been working full-time while I’ve been writing, which is great because it pays the bills. I have a job in IT that is engaging, complex and sometimes difficult, and one of the challenges has been the gear-change between working, where I’m thinking about networks, servers and infrastructure, and  writing, where I’m thinking about characters, plots, scenes and settings. Writing requires a different mind-set, and I confess that some evenings I wasn’t able to make the switch, which meant that either I got no writing done, or the next day I would sit down and delete everything from the previous day and start again. Although the book is just under 120,000 words, I estimate that I’ve written closer to 180,000 words. Some chapters have been written two or three times before I felt they were right.

I set out with some clear goals. I already knew how the series would end, or I thought I did, and I had to work towards that end in a way that made sense for the characters and the situation that had already been created. There were some questions that were created by the previous books in the series, and those questions needed answers. The series themes, of things hidden in plain sight, of events from long ago having impact in the present day, and of a hidden world beneath the one we know, needed to be continued and developed. The one big question – what has this all been about – needed an answer.

With this being the final book in the series, I didn’t want to bring in a lot of new characters or elements which hadn’t been seen before. There are already well over 50 characters in the books, some of whom are dead, or won’t be seen again, but I felt there was plenty to work with. There are a few minor characters that appear in this book but mostly they’re people we’ve already encountered earlier. The magic in the book is consistent with the magic that already exists. There are some surprises, but those are consistent with what we already know. The world of the Feyre has a lot of detail behind it which dictates how and why things are the way they are, and in this final book more of this will be revealed, but the world will remain largely mysterious. Be assured, there are rules and constraints and reasons, but they’re not in the book. Perhaps one day there will be a Courts of the Feyre bestiary, but not yet.

Most of all, I wanted this to be a satisfying end to the series, and that meant delivering on the promises set by the previous three books. Niall, Blackbird and Alex each have their own plot arc, and each of these arcs needed to reach a conclusion in this book. Each of them had been changed by the events in the series, and in the final book those changes needed to bear fruit – we should feel that they have reached a conclusion and a resolution. It turns out that writing the final book in a series is harder than writing any of the others. I think I said once that if I’d known how hard writing would be I would never have started – that applies even more to a series. I liken it to rolling a snowball – the more you roll it, the bigger it gets and the harder it is to roll, but roll it must.

And when I got to the end that I’d planned from the start, it didn’t work the way I thought it should. I was forced to step back, reconsider, and write a different ending. I like the new ending, but it was a total surprise. I had no idea it was going to end quite like that, but the new ending works so much better.

Before I sent the book to my editor, Lee, I went back to my goals and asked myself where exactly I had delivered on the objectives I’d set for myself. I found the pieces in the text and read them back to make sure I’d done what I set out to do. To me, it’s all there, and that’s why I can say that it feels finished. Of course, I’m not the final arbiter of that, and you the readers must judge that for yourself.

To me, though, The Courts of the Feyre feels complete, and I’ve told the story I set out to tell.

 

 

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Strangeness in the UK

To celebrate the release of Strangeness and Charm in the UK, I thought I would follow up my previous post with some more on the church at Kilpeck. in Herefordshire.

I said in my post, Publication Day: Strangeness and Charm, that while he outside of the church was fascinating, the inside held even more surprises. The first thing of note is that the church is not exactly aligned along the east-west axis, as it normally would be, but is offset by a small amount. The reason for this is not obvious until you discover that an underground watercourse runs directly beneath the church, and the church is aligned with that, rather than the compass.

Photo by Mike Shevdon

The Monks at Kilpeck

Inside, the church is in two distinct sections – the Nave is lined with dark wooden pews and is separated from the Apse, which was added later, by a high stone arch. Into the pillars of the arch are carved six monks and each monk holds a token. The tokens are: a cross, a key, a feather, a scourge or flail, an arrow, and a rod or sceptre. The carvings are quite clear and the monks do not look as if they carry their burdens with ease.

Strangeness and Charm

Volume III of the Courts of the Feyre

Beyond the arch, on the floor to the right hand side is a mark in the stone, normally covered by a mat or square of carpet. The mark shows a four-lobed shape, like a clover or a highly stylised cross. The origins and purpose of this mark are unknown. On visiting the site, I couldn’t avoid the impression that the monks are hiding or protecting what lies beyond in the apse, and that this duty weighed heavily upon them. Clearly, though, that protection worked, since the church and all the carvings are still there, while the neighbouring castle is not.

You might be able to discern from John Couthart’s beautiful cover that the six objects play a central part in the story of Strangeness and Charm, and that the church and the relics are bound in with the story. As a writer it led me to ask myself what it was that the monks were protecting, and why such a thing would be placed in a minor church when only twelve miles up the road there’s Hereford Cathedral.

I hope you will enjoy the discovery of what the strange mark is for, and why those particular objects are carved into the pillars of the arch.

Strangeness and Charm was released in the UK on 7th June 2012 and is available from all good bookshops.

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The Other Five Senses

As part of my continuing series on Writing, this article is about writing for your senses. Here’s a refresher for those who missed the original article.

6. Write for all five senses

Some writers make the mistake of only writing for the visual sense.  In order to increase the depth of your writing you need to engage the other senses too, so when you are writing about a particularly romantic sunset, you will need to explain how it smells and tastes, as well as how it looks.  If you are writing about a sunset and you don’t know how a sunset tastes, you have already broken rule 1.

It seems obvious, therefore, that to increase the sense of immersion you engage the readers other senses through their imagination. However, I am not talking about those five senses in this article – I’m talking about the other five senses that are equally important in making your writing come to life:

A Sense of Place

In fantasy, the sense of place is often overlooked as the writer engages in creating their world. They create gleaming towers and forbidding castles, forgetting that people have to live somewhere and grow things to eat. Creating an imaginary place is harder, in some ways, than setting your story in a real place.  You have to imagine not just how it is, but how it came to be like that. Terry Pratchett does a fantastic job of this with Ankh-Morpork and, however unlikely a place it seems, you know the twin cities evolved from real places with real histories.

Readers carry around with them a huge knowledge of the world, and as a writer you can use that knowledge to evoke a sense of place in the mind of the reader and bring a place to life. To do this, you need to develop the eye of a photographer, and start looking at the world around you with a new and inquisitive eye. Develop a curiosity about strange names, oddly curved streets, eccentric landmarks and historic buildings.

Each place has its own story, and that story can feed your story.

A Sense of Purpose

As Kurt Vonnegut said in his Eight Rules of Writing (and his rules are much better than mine):

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
~ Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

In your story, each and every character should have a sense of purpose. Otherwise, why are they there? If they don’t have a purpose then they are cluttering up your story and diluting your action and should be cut. Be merciless – tell your characters, “Either come up with a reason to be here or get the hell out!”

However, not every character reveals their purpose immediately. In your first draft, be tolerant, let characters hang out and discover their purpose by interacting with others. Let them develop, mature and come into focus. Only if you get into editing and you still don’t know why a character exists should you excise them from the story.

A Sense of Humour

Kurt Vonnegut also said: ~

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

It is easy to get lost in the dreadful happenings with which you are torturing your characters. If you are writing well and things are flowing then you will be caught up on the action and driven to the end.

At these times you may need to remind yourself that life has a sense of humour, and that by echoing that humour and letting it resonate through your darkest times, you lift the entire story and give it depth and flavour that undiluted dread never has.

Remember to make them smile while you’re persecuting them.

A Sense of Proportion

If you are writing stories, and especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction, it is important to give your characters something to fight for, and what better to fight for than their existence? In fact, why stop at their existence? Why not have them fight for the existence of time and space itself? Either they succeed in their quest or the universe ends.

This is where you need a sense of proportion, for it seems that size does matter after all, but not in the way you perhaps thought. Let’s consider – if the universe ended we would all be dead. Would we care then? Annihilation is not the threat it seems to be. The death of everything just isn’t personal enough.

Small things matter. A robin who carries a worm back to the nest to feed its chick, only to be caught and killed by a cat as it tries to land, matters more to us than a planet crashing into a star in fiery doom. We can empathise with a bird, or even with the worm, but not with a planet.

You are the most important person in the world to you (parenthood notwithstanding). Your loved ones are next. Your close friends after that. No-one can truly care about people they don’t know and have never met. So if your story does not allow you to meet and know the people involved, the reader will not care.

It is what happens to those people that matters, not what happens to the universe.

A Sense of Wonder

As a fantasy writer you would expect me to say that a sense of wonder is important, but I think this transcends genre.

Even in a fantasy novel, a sense of wonder does not necessarily come from magic. It can come from the cry of a new-born baby, or a person suddenly realising an inner truth. It can arise from revelations in the plot or from the discovery that a character you thought you knew can do something truly unexpected and still be true to themselves.

However it arises, a sense of wonder brings light into someone else’s existence, gives them the strength to overcome their own difficulties and can, at its best, change someone’s life.

More than that, it is a gift given to strangers, without expectation of reward, which restores our faith in human nature.

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Good Writing is Invisible

Continuing my series on the Twelve Rules of Writing, here is rule 2: ~

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

Did you spot the deliberate mistake?  This is one of my blind-spots – I consistently type grammar with an ‘e’ when I know it’s spelled with two ‘a’s. It’s the sort of thing that I rely upon copy editors to spot for me because I just don’t see it for myself. That’s what copy editors do – except it isn’t. They will do it, but only when you don’t.

What your copy editor is really there for is to sense-check what’s been submitted, enforce a consistent style, and make sure there are no unexpected surprises in the text. For instance, did your character wake up with blue eyes and now they’re brown? Has your character been drinking from the same wine-glass for five hours without ever filling it? Are names consistently used throughout the text – is it Catherine or Katherine? These are the sort of things that trip writers up, and copy editors are there to make sure you don’t fall on your face.

So what about spelling and grammar (see, I caught it that time)?  Well, curiously enough, that’s your job. You’re the writer and words are supposed to be your thing. More importantly words are meaning, and so is punctuation. Take the following passage: ~

he slaked his thirst taking long gulps form the glass realizing that no matter how much he drank he would never loose his thirst again: the eternal thirst

Starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending with a full stop (a period in the USA) is not optional. These, like commas, are clues that allow the reader to break sentences into digestible pieces. Learn where to use a semi-colon, a dash and a colon. You may think that this advice is obvious, but ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that there are those who believe they are unnecessary.

A spell checker is not a cure-all. The word form instead of from, and loose instead of lose, would not be picked up by a spell check. They are valid words, they’re just not the right words in that context.  Is it realizing or realising?

Is it single quotes around speech or double? Do you put one space after a full stop or two?  Is full-on hyphenated? These are things that may be adjusted by a copy editor to conform with house style, but if you don’t use them correctly in the first place then it makes the job of preserving your meaning that much harder.

Readers like to be drawn into a story. You know you’re winning when people can’t remember reading the words, they just remember what happened. Good writing is invisible, but spelling mistakes, poor grammar and bad sentence construction will have your readers puzzling out what you mean, and at that point they’ve left the story and are focused on the text – exactly what you don’t want.

In the next post in this series I’ll talk about meaning and how you select the words you need. Have your thesaurus at the ready.

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Write What You Know – Part 2

Continuing my series of posts on my tongue-in-cheek article, the Twelve Rules of Writing and in support of those people participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, this is the second on the subject of Rule 1 – Write What You Know.

In my previous post, I discussed the need for research and why using what you know can help you establish a vivid and believable setting for your story, together with the dangers of too much detail and data dumping. This is an important aspect of writing, especially in Fantasy, but it is not enough on its own. Having a believable world is only the first step in bringing a story to life.

Writing fiction is an art – it is about creating something, not reporting something. While you can include a beautifully described world with a developed ecology, an eon-spanning history, a viable economy and a vibrant culture, that does not provide a story. We’ve painted the scenery, but the play has yet to begin.

It is tempting to make a special case for Fantasy and SF. After all, these genres are specifically about creating situations that are inherently unreal, but actually this is true of most fiction. The fact that one genre explores alternate worlds and another trawls the depths of the criminal mind is looking at the same thing inside-out – we’re in another country in both cases. That one is set in the past and another in the future is simply a matter of perspective. Even in a historical novel, the writer is making things up. The one exception is perhaps Literature, where it can be more about stye and technique than about story-telling, though the best Literature is all that and more.

So what is the purpose of fiction? For me, it is encapsulated in the following quotation:

Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures – Jessamyn West (1902-84)

If you want to discover facts you should read non-fiction. History, biography, travel, science – all will increase your knowledge and perhaps your understanding of the world. If you want truth, though, you need to read fiction.  And if you want to write fiction, you need to be able to write the truth.

“Write the Truth” was what Robert McKee wrote inside my copy of Story, his seminal work on the art of screenwriting. If you don’t have a copy then buy or borrow one.  Better still, pay to go and listen to him at one of his occasional lectures. He’s irascible and cantankerous, but you learn a hell of a lot in three days.  It’s simple enough, then.  If you want to write fiction, simply tell the truth.

That’s not an easy burden, though. If you want to discover how easy it is, simply resolve to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as they say in court) for a single day. Careful, though – if you’re wise you’ll lock yourself in a room and neither see nor speak to anyone. The truth isn’t kind or considerate, it doesn’t take prisoners and it will trash your friendships, ruin your relationships and wreck your career.  You’re going to have to tell the butcher that she has dirty fingernails, your boss that he’s greedy and selfish, your husband/wife that they’re overweight (while you’re no sylph), and your children that they’ve disappointed you. If you make it to the end of the day with your life intact, you will be very lucky indeed.

There’s a paradox here, then. I’m saying you should write the truth, but at the same time I’m telling you that if you do, it will ruin your life – the writer destroys himself. The saving grace is that while you write the truth, you make the characters up. Your characters become your proxies for the purpose of telling the story.  But if you want your characters to be full and rounded then you need to have them react in the way that real people do and for that to reveal some truth about them, or about the situation they are in, and in doing so reveal some truth about yourself.

That can mean taking yourself and your characters into some dark places, and being honest with yourself about how you feel and how you would react in that situation in order that you can transfer those feelings to your characters and say, “That’s me, how about you?”

This is what you know. This is your truth.  You know how you feel and you can imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation. How you feel makes you unique and individual, but it also connects you to everyone else.

Maybe your characters feel the same as you and react accordingly, or maybe they sneer at your reaction and go their own way. Perhaps their reaction is prompted by yours through empathy or revulsion, either is valid, or perhaps you are greeted with incomprehension. Whatever their reaction, it must be true to you and to the story you are telling.  You don’t have to explain why they react the way they do, that should come from the story and be revealed as part of that character’s development, but the reaction should be true to that character in that situation.

As an example, take the funeral scene from The Road to Bedlam. Niall is drawn into participating in a joint memorial ceremony after the tragic death of his daughter. His initial reaction is to revert to his default behaviour and throw himself into work, organising the event. This allows him to distance himself from the shock and the grief, but it doesn’t allow him to escape. It’s only when he comes to stand before the assembly and speak about his daughter that his grief hits him, suddenly and profoundly.

As a piece of writing, that scene meant visiting the idea that I might lose my own child, and how that would feel.  It was an extremely difficult piece to write and it meant treading a very fine line between sentimentality and honesty.  It was challenging both technically and emotionally.  Personally I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, but not everyone reacts the same way to it.  For some people, the scene leaves them bemused and untouched, while others have told me that it made them cry in public. Unsurprisingly, it’s the parents who found it the most difficult to read.

So in order to write the truth successfully, you have to be able to imagine the best and the worst, then transfer that to your characters in such a way that it becomes true for your readers, connecting back to your readers through their own empathic response and delivering a direct emotional reaction in a way that feels right and true.

Or to put it more simply, write as if it were the truth, no matter how hard that might be.

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The Twelve Rules of Writing

The Internet is a superb resource for writers.  With a little effort you can find hundreds of sites with advice on what to write and how to go about it.  You can end up being overwhelmed, though, by the plethora of different views and approaches.

Helpfully, I have condensed the entire Internet into these handy Twelve Rules for Successful Writing:

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.

As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

3. Words are interchangeable, it’s what you mean that’s important.

The English language was created to mislead you.  Take the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Clearly, the word ‘right’ is misspelled, since ‘write’ goes with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ should be paired with ‘left’.

Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.  Feel free to impose your own logic on the language as many people have before you.

4. Characters must be three dimensional

Creating characters is difficult enough, but you must also make them three dimensional by describing them in excruciating detail. In order for your readers to be able to picture your character in 3D, they must know what underwear they have chosen and whether they floss their teeth.  It may help if you can get your readers to wear those cardboard spectacles with red and green filters.

5. Develop a writer’s voice

In order to be a successful writer you will need to develop a style which is distinctive and immediately identifiable.  To help develop your writer’s voice, try doing impressions of other writers.  YouTube is great for this as you can download clips of writers and imitate their speech patterns.  Once you have the hang of it, you can try developing your own voice.

6. Write for all five senses

Some writers make the mistake of only writing for the visual sense.  In order to increase the depth of your writing you need to engage the other senses too, so when you are writing about a particularly romantic sunset, you will need to explain how it smells and tastes, as well as how it looks.  If you are writing about a sunset and you don’t know how a sunset tastes, you have already broken rule 1.

7. Start with short stories before graduating to novel-length pieces

There is no point in trying to write a novel before mastering the short story.  As John Steinbeck said: ~

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances..”

If Mr Steinbeck isn’t ready to write a novel then you certainly aren’t.

8. Word-count is important.

Only books with specific numbers of words ever get published.  This is why many books never see the light of day.  Once a word-count has been used, though, it can’t be re-used, which is why books are different lengths. The exact number of words required is a secret of the industry and is only known by editors and publishers, which is why they are often published authors in their own right, as they know what number comes next.

Try counting the words in recently published books to try and guess the next number in the sequence.

9. How should I deal with exposition?

Here the old ways are best, I’m afraid.  First tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.  If they haven’t got it by then they should be reading something simpler.

But isn’t the rule: Show, Don’t Tell, I hear you ask? A simple question: do you tell a story or show it? Showing is for dogs and horses.

10. Which point of view should I adopt?

This depends on genre.  If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect.  First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.

11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?

That depends.  If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it.  If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

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Tools for Writing 6 – yWriter

We’ll be looking at a PC tool in this part of the series, and it’s one that is squarely aimed at the structured approach.  yWriter is produced by Spacejock Software, and as you can probably tell from the developer’s moniker, is designed and built by an SF writer, Simon Haynes.  Like some other tools that have been reviewed here. yWriter is free to download, but unlike some of the others it is actively being developed and supported.  There is an active user community and there are even video walk-throughs to watch on the website.  There is an opportunity to donate if you find the software useful.

yWriter Main Screen

The opening screen (shown right) provides an insight into yWriter. You see the main project window with chapters arranged in the left pane and the description associated with those chapters in the panel below.  The main panel has a number of tabs showing Scenes, Project Notes, Characters, Locations and Items.  Clicking on a chapter in the side-panel shows the scenes, etc. for that chapter in the main panel.

yWriter aims to structure your work into chapters which then comprise multiple scenes.  Clicking on a scene shows a preview of that scene in the bottom of the main panel, along with Characters, Description, Locations, Items, Scene Notes and Goals for that scene.

Writers working on multiple projects, or writers with large and complex works will know that it is sometimes hard to keep track of all the information associated with their work-in-progress and yWriter aims to address this by giving you ample opportunity to document what you are doing and build structure around your work. Read the rest of this entry »

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