I’m currently reading two quite different fantasy novels – Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, by David Barnett, and the newly-released Half-Shell Prophecies, by Ruthanne Reid.
Barnett’s book, the second in the series, continues the adventures of Gideon Smith, a former fisherman and now official Hero, in a steampunk Victorian world where men can be kept alive by steam-powered prosthetics, and a dead woman’s brain can be placed into a clockwork body. The daring female air ‘stat pilot, the corpulent author of penny bloods, the Ninja warriors of the Japanese-maintained territory of California and the slavers beyond the Mason-Dixon Wall – all these characters and more populate Barnett’s seething pages. He has created a rich, detailed world of sights and smells and sounds, often grotesque but always interesting.
Reid’s book is by turns funny and psychedelic. It follows the fortunes of a woman tasked with unravelling the mysterious foretellings of a clamshell – which doesn’t sound like a traditional fantasy, probably because it’s not. Reid’s vivid descriptions hurl the reader into the story of many, many hidden worlds and their multifaceted magic systems. The sarcasm of the heroine, and the clamshell, bring light relief from the intensity. The enemies are terrifying and their magic is blisteringly original. The pace is relentless, but the humour keeps it readable.
The things I enjoy about both books must be my pointers for writing my own fantasies:
chaotic travels to strange new worlds
unique magic system/technology
immersive details of daily life
alternate history of our world
plenty of humour
promise of more stories to come
To this, for my own taste, and despite the fashion for misery, I would always add:
a happy ending (because my fantasy is to live in a world which offers these)
What’s your wishlist of fantasy fiction components?
I’m doing the 50-Book Challenge again this year. For the challenge, you pledge to read 50 books between January and December – and the website has virtual shelves where you can view the books you’ve read, write a review, and assign star scores. It’s visual and easy to use, and you can create extra shelves for the books ‘to be read’ and ‘currently reading’, too. Find out more and sign up here – and as I complete a raft of books for this year, I’ll put the list here on the blog along with my thoughts.
Meanwhile, I have compiled some of my 2016 favourite reads. (To see the list, click the image or click Read.) There are 25 books here, across various fiction and fact genres, and every one of them was brilliant. If you’re looking for books to read in 2017 then start here!
Having a target makes me focus on reading in every spare moment – instead of other time eaters such as flicking through my phone looking at Facebook, or, the worst, Tumblr. I love Tumblr far too much.
I read mostly on Kindle on my phone, but I do have paper books too, from the library and from my inveterate book-buying habit. The more paper books I read, the better it probably is for my sleep/eyes/neck, since I’m not hunched, peering at a blue-light screen.
I think we exist in a world of reading all day – but instead of reading 144 characters at a time, or one status update or news snippet or meme at a time, I’m choosing to read books.
I’d love to know what you’re reading right now – or what’s on your list for 2017. Do you take part in reading challenges? Let me know in the comments!
I spent a morning recently building some interactive online dashboards as part of my day job. It was not exciting work and mostly it was frustrating, as software wouldn’t co-operate, or connections fell over halfway through trying to achieve a thing. I looked at the clock. Yes! Quarter past twelve.
Nearly lunchtime, or actually lunchtime if I liked. An hour of My Own Time awaited me.
In that time I was going to write. Yessss!!!
I realised then, that whenever I saw that clock tick to My Own Time, I was excited – not to be stopping the IT work, but specifically to be starting to write. Scenes and voices began pressing themselves against the inside of my forehead. I thought of looking at one last customer email and decided it could wait.
Writing would not wait. I didn’t want it to wait. I was thrilled it was lunchtime, delighted to be able to start doing what I enjoy.
So off I dashed, ready for fifty minutes of solid writing, plus ten minutes of mad-rush eating to sustain myself through more IT tasks in the afternoon.
How can I maintain that excitement – forever? I’ve never sat down to write thinking, Oh God, not this again. I have very frequently sat down to my day job with a sinking heart. So how do I stop my writing becoming like a wretched broken dashboard with nuh-uh errors and drearily slow connection time?
I was curious to explore this. What makes my unofficial-job of writing so exciting? What keeps it that way, year after year? After some thought came up with this:
Control and ownership. My writing belongs to me and I can do it any way I like.
Freedom. I can try new genres or styles, write poetry or news articles, or paint watercolours if I choose. I am not working to a brief – or rather, I am, but it’s my brief.
Feedback. I get regular feedback from my writing group, and from readers of my just-for-fun fanfiction. This means I can respond and learn on the job.
Personal development. I read craft books and blogs and apply new techniques in my work. If I had endless money, there are conventions, courses and festivals I can attend to improve my writing. But even working with free and cheap resources, the opportunities for growth are huge.
Escapism. I write fantasy, and I write it because it lets me travel to other places and meet interesting people – a bit like my real-life job, except I don’t have to stay in a lot of budget motels to do it.
Progress. I can see wordcount building up and structure taking shape. Ifd I read stories I wrote fourteen years ago, I can see the improvements I’ve made in style, technical approach and structure. And eventually I will be tracking, I hope, progress in the form of sales.
And not to forget the big reason, the overarching reason I do what I do, mostly for free, devoting hours of my life to it:
Working with words. I have to do some writing in my day job and it’s among the best aspects of what I do. Words are powerful, and fun. Of course I want to spend as much time working with them as I can.
To me, these things are what keeps me thrilled to dash off at lunchtime and write a ton of words towards my current project. And it strikes me that by paying attention to each point, ensuring that I continue to learn, escape, experiment, respond – then for me, writing will always remain exciting.
I wrote too much this week.* I mean too much of one thing. I had writer burnout. I am trying to maintain a steady 1500 words a day, similar to the NaNoWriMo daily target wordcount. It’s more than doable, even if you’re busy. Yet I reached Friday this week and could not face doing it. I was sick of writing this story, not the story itself (which I still love) but writing this world, these characters. I could not think of another way to have them look at each other, turn to each other, react except with a blink or a grimace.
I had story-specific burnout.
I was very tempted to just slump in front of X factor and message my judgement on each candidate to my BFF.
I didn’t, though. I have been driving a lot, doing thirteen hour days, six of them behind the wheel. And in my drives I’ve been thinking about some old stories, including a two-year-old Musketeers fanfiction which has a lot of love from my readers, two of whom messaged me this week asking if I was ever going to update it. I’ve also been thinking about Jack, hero of my Philip Marlowe/Bertie Wooster-style humorous fantasy stories.
So when I sat down Thursday night to catch up on writing, I wrote my Musketeers fanfic. It came easily, the characters seemed fresh and new and they moved in their distinct ways in the world I’ve made for them. The tiredness dropped away from my writing. I’m not saying it was great – I wrote and posted it very quickly – but it’s got a lot of reviews, all positive. I’m on track to finish it in three more chapters, which will bring this 2-year, 45,000-word romantic thriller to a close.
Then last night, bracing myself for some more of my official story, I just swerved aside and wrote a few thousand words of Jack instead.
Now I feel much better. I have achieved. (Jack as an overall story is now around 40,00 words, none of which have involved trying). And I’ve been in touch with my very loyal Musketeers readers who were gratifyingly delighted to have me back.
Tonight I must knuckle down and write my main story again. But I’ve enjoyed my break and learned that it suits me in ‘real’ writing, as it always did in fanfiction, to have several things on the go at once, so I can switch around between genres and styles when I tire of doing too much on each one. If I can consciously use this strategy, it will allow me to write stealth books in amongst my main one.
So if you’re exhausted or stuck – turn to one of your side projects and bash out some energetic new words on that instead. Don’t stop writing – just stop writing what’s burned you out. It will freshen you up and remind you that your writing can still be vibrant and compelling.
Have one or two side projects – passion projects, if you like – which are not top priority but which you love.
These projects are not loaded with pressure, only fun.
Write for one of these projects as your recreation from your primary project.
Go back to your main project refreshed.
This goes against all the wisdom which advises a ruthless focus on a single project until completion. but don’t think of it as a loss of focus. Think of it as a more productive alternative to X Factor.
How do you avoid burnout during a long project? Let me know in the comments.
* I wrote this piece in September 2016. Since then, my Jack story has grown to 100,000 words and is almost ready for me to start the second draft.
I took time out to write a 14,000-word fanfiction in November too, then returned to Jack.
I first read Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks a couple of years ago, when it was published amid a slew of well-known authors venturing into fanfiction. There was this by the award-winning Faulks, but also Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, (not to mention the rest of Austen’s titles reimagined as part of a wider project) new Sherlock Holmes titles by Anthony Horwitz, Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, and more – each of which involved not just creating a fresh story, but imitation of the original author’s style. I have already blogged here about Longbourn by Jo Baker, and using others’ work as a jumping off point for your own inspiration. In this case, Faulks set out to write a new story about Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, the duo created in 1919 by PG Wodehouse. And I’m fascinated by Faulks’ skilled mimicry.
I am re-reading the book for pleasure, but also to examine again how Faulks achieves such closely-observed imitation of Wodehouse’s light touch and precision humour. It’s not absolutely perfect, but what could be? Wodehouse wrote almost 100 books, and a quick count suggests that I’ve read 38 of them, so I am rather familiar with his style. (Also, good news: 60-odd more books to read, if I can find them!)
Pinpointing what works in an impersonation, and what doesn’t, is great practice at close reading. It encourages you to examine not just the language used by the original author but also the rhythm, and the manner of sentence construction.
I find badly-chosen language is the first thing that jumps out. Elizabeth Bennet exclaiming, “Oh my God!” in casual conversation would leap from the page as something not found in the Austen originals. (Austen’s characters do say God at times – but the word is presented as “G-” when used as a curse, and only used otherwise in extreme circumstances.) Anachronistic language identifies a fake too – Dickensian characters ‘tuning out’ a boring conversation, or a Bronte heroine saying a carriage went ‘like the clappers’ – radio-related slang, and WW2 RAF slang respectively.
So how can we writers use imitation to improve our craft?
Different hats. As teenagers, we often try on different styles, different personas as we work out the kinds of adults we might become. I think as a writer it’s good to do the same, whether you’re a teenager or not. Try to be Dickens, or Austen, or Grisham or Child. Let’s face it, it would be pretty cool to be them, or maybe JK. So why not? Try on their styles.
Mad mashups. These pieces are for practice. Clash together unlikely style and subject matter. Try sci-fi noir in the style of Brontë. Write a Georgian comedy of manners in the style of Chandler. Applying a style deliberately to unlikely content will also ensure that you are not copying these authors’ stories, only their execution.
Elementary, my dear Watson. Mimicry is good for developing distinctive character voices, too. Fanfiction is great for this. When you need Spock to sound like Spock, it’s no good if he giggles and describes stuff as awesome. He has to use the right language, in the right rhythm, or it simply won’t convince the fans. Pick a fictional character you like and give them lines. What makes Mr Darcy distinctive? Try dry, restrained language, short sentences, drop in some signs of classical education. How would you know that it is Hermiine Granger speaking? Adopt a rather acidic tone, cut with earnestness, and use long sentences with impatient endings.
Focusing on the capture of these distinctive characters gives you good experience when you come to check your own work. Do all your characters speak in the same way? How could a reader tell them apart without the dialogue tags? Sometimes watching TV you can tell if one character’s line had been given to another, to balance out the scene. It jars a little if the characters are well enough drawn. Listen for individual tics and habits.
All these imitations feed into the creative decisions you make about your own work. Trying on other voices helps you become aware of your own. What style will you adopt?
I’m very nearly done with the first draft of the book. Very nearly. I just have a couple of scenes to write near the end, plus some backfill to do at the start. This means it’s time to do what I always do at this stage of a story, and make a scene list. Which might leave you thinking, What? Make a scene list after you’ve written the book? That’s backwards! What?? I can explain.
I plan backwards. In total contrast to those who write out a scene list at the start of their project, I get down all known parts of my story first, and then shuffle them into shape, ready to go through and add backbone where is needed.
Essentially, the whole first draft of any of my stories is the rough outline, the brainstorm, the freewrite. It’s dialogue, action, description, ideas. The difference is that by the end of my outline, rather than a bulleted list of one line scene descriptions, I have 80,000 words.
I’m not totally ad-libbing it as I go. The shape of the story is in my head when I start, key scenes, all my Would Like To Meets. Writing like this lets my brain off the hook, frees it to make connections and throw in clues I have not yet consciously considered.
At the end, or near it, is when I get the scene list together in order to let me do just that – work deliberately on the structure my brain has been creating as it goes along.
What is a scene list? For me, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – a long list of every scene in my book, just a line saying what happened/what the purpose of the scene was. Maybe it’s the scene where aliens arrive; maybe it’s the scene where the hero reflects on his mistakes whilst fleeing a murderous tree.
Sometimes, when I try to describe the scene and it comes out as the bit where my hero dances with his love interest and they discover childhood similarities and get a bit drunk together, I realise that in fact the scene is doing nothing at all except indulging my romantic impulses, and so I ditch it then and there. This makes my scene list shorter.
Losing wordcount is a hazard of writing this way, but generally I’ve got so much by this point that the odd thousand words here and there don’t have a huge impact. And because my writing style tends toward the sparse, I know I’ll be going back in second draft and making it more descriptive and less like a load of dialogue in a bald occasional setting, and that will bring the words back in.
When I write out the scenes, I’m checking a number of things, separately and in this order:
1. Gaps. Has Bob gone from A to B without warning, and does the reader understand the transition? Is another scene needed to clarify or emphasise a key point? Have I referenced Bob’s dog in chapter 20, but failed to mention the mutt in chapter one?
2. Timeline. Do I have the aliens vanishing before the incident which sets free their nemesis? (Yes. This is a problem.) What are the logical consequences of each scene, and does what I’ve got next, make logical (and psychological) sense?
3. A decent shape. Does the story pan out in a way which will keep the reader interested? Are there slack bits which they will skip and if so, can I skip them too? Do the big scenes happen at the right moments, or have I created a three-hour movie where the story is all wrapped up, and then Bond goes off on a seemingly fresh mission for another ninety minutes? I hate movies that do this. If the story you started with is resolved, then stop. Doctor Who has become guilty of this lately, and the Mission Impossible franchise. Boo.
4. Clues. Is everything needed to resolve the story, shown to the reader early on? Agatha Christie-style last minute convenience is not allowed. You cannot have the hero suddenly find a Planet Salve in his pocket just as the world needs a solution for massive nettle rash. For a perfect story, in this respect, see Star Trek Beyond. All you need to know is set up in the opening scenes. Nothing is wasted and nobody pulls any rabbits from space hats.
5. Tone or mood. Glancing through, I check that the mood shape works with the story shape. This is hard to formulate, but basically, I check that I don’t have a happy-go-lucky scene right after a tragic one, unless that makes emotional sense in the story. Do I need to move my comic moments around, or add more? Do I need to hint at darkness sooner in the story?
When I’ve done all this using my scene list, all plot holes should be filled in, and the shape of the story should be pretty reasonable. I’m then free to write the remaining scenes in the light of the scene list.
And once that’s complete… I’m ready to start on the second draft.
Lots of story methods use scene lists, but they are generally written before you begin. I have tried this, and found that I lasted less than two weeks of writing. By trying to nail down my story shape too early, I stretched my suspension of disbelief and got tangled in theoretical plots and subplots before I even had a clear voice for my heroine. That might mean I was doing plotting wrong, or it might be the way my mind works, but anyway the result was rubbish.
Anyway, for the traditional approach to scene lists, try the first two of these links below. They make perfect sense, even if they don’t work for me personally. And although I’ve yet to read it, the third is on my list to read next and seems to be right up my street.