R… r… r… research.

Just a quick one this week, and a new style of topic to keep you updated with.

This trimester I am teaching a module entitled “Research Practice and Society”

Why do we research? For fiction that is quite easy to answer – if I am writing in the real world, even historical fiction I must know how things are, how they work, the realities. Even in Science Fiction I need to know the physical realities so that I don’t break them and bring the reader out of the story – but in other contexts it’s more difficult. I often tell my students that it is the best way to learn something, and I honestly believe it. And, what else is academia for, but to learn?

Anyway, during the course of the module I will be asking my students to write blog posts based on discussions and research they have conducted. When they do that, I plan to do a similar blog post so that we can compare. This week I asked them to plot out a timeline out their module, including deadlines and how they would break down the work. I tried to do something similar, but as I don’t have any real deadlines I failed. Hence this blog post, which is more of an introduction to the concept.

We’ll see how it goes next week.


Book of the Week

I finished the book I was reading last week the day after I published the blog post about it, and I have to be honest, the end didn’t really redeem it.

This week I am reading another Arthur C. Clarke award nominee (I’m actually working through last years nominees and winner), The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

It’s an interesting concept and quite a short novel, and there are bits that I have enjoyed. However, for the most part the prose doesn’t really interest me, and in some parts I would dare say that it becomes quite annoying. The main character is an accelerated human, who is only a matter of years old, and I suspect that the prose is written to reflect this, but it often comes across as naive and basic. This is especially frustrating when the main character has supposedly read thousands upon thousands of books in her short life, but seems amazed by the smallest detail. She also seems to fixate on food, which isn’t particularly interesting as far as the story goes.

I often find first person writing a struggle to get into. I often feel more distanced from the character, rather than finding myself in this story, and this is one of those examples. I have sixty pages left, and it is enjoyable enough that I will finish it, but I am not wowed by it.

If I were to be pedantic I would describe it as more of a fantasy novel than a science fiction novel, as none of the fantastical things that happen within its pages are explained, nor related to science. (I’m fairly sure the characters even break Newtonian Physics, but we’ll let that slide)

Anyways, I’m sure as in all things other people will enjoy the novel in their own way.

Thanks for reading!

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2016 is Dead, long li- Nah, scratch that.

So, I haven’t blogged in quite a while (March last year was the last time – eek!) and a couple of conversations over the past few days have encouraged me to say hello again.

Hello! Thank you for stopping by. I’m hoping to publish a weekly blog on all sort of writing things. This may be a Wednesday, but I’m looking at posting every Monday in future as that works better for me. What day is best for your readers? For now here’s an update of what I’ve been up to.

2016 was an odd year, and a bad year for many reasons (Let’s not talk politics right now!). I spent the second half with the worst sinus infection I have ever had. I haven’t felt that ill since before I was first diagnosed with ME in 1999. From about June I felt constantly exhausted and bunged up. Only now are things starting to clear up and I’m starting to feel like normal. I’m using that as my excuse for not blogging in so long. I wanted to, believe me! During that time I’ve self-referred myself to the local ME therapy clinic, and I’m booked in for some sessions, so I’ll keep you updated on how that goes. (When I was first diagnosed there was nothing like it).

Back in June I also started work on my PhD at Liverpool John Moores University. My thesis is currently “The Affect of the Second World War on Science Fiction”. I aim to keep you updated on it through this blog. At the moment I am plotting the novel and making sure it’s of a PhD standard. I may post some excerpts/updates on research from time to time.

In May, I finished my First World War novel Objection. I’m currently making a spreadsheet of agents that are accepting Historical Fiction submissions. (If you know of anyone, agent or publisher please get in contact!) Then I will begin querying them with the novel. I’ve sent it out to one agent that I know so far, so let’s see how that goes.

As if I didn’t have enough to do, I’m currently toying with the idea of putting my MA Writing and Academic Teaching experience to good use and offering an editing/proofreading service to writers and students. I haven’t had a chance to contextualise it yet, but if you are interesting in some help then please feel free to comment below, or get in touch through my contact page and we can discuss it. I will post something more solid on this soon.

The final thing of this blog is for me to ask you, the reader, what kind of content you would like to read. If you have a particular idea you would like to know my thoughts on, or a particular writing issue that you have, then get in contact and I will try to help in a future blog. Even if you just have a question comment below and if it needs a long answer then I will incorporate it into a future blog. Another interesting question for you is, “how long should a blog be?” How far do you read before you get bored? Answers in the comments below!


One feature I would like to add to the blog is something I am currently calling “Book of the Week”.

Last year I tried to summarise all the books I had read that year with a single blog post. The problem was that I couldn’t remember much of the books I had read earlier in the year. So, from now on I will tell you which book I am currently reading and my thoughts on it. As it may take me more than a week to read some books you will see how my opinion changes throughout reading.

I’m currently about 40 pages from finishing Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson. This book is published by Solaris who are predominantly a Sci Fi publisher, and it was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award.

Honestly, I can’t see how it made the shortlist. It’s an interesting idea, and a Europe of the future is intriguing. There is some intriguing Le Carréesque espionage plotting, but its main downfall is the vast swathes of info dumping. Info dumping and exposition is a trope of Sci Fi, particularly when a large amount of world-building is involved. However, when you find yourself scan reading, you know something is wrong. As with most novels, I like to persevere till the end (I usually have to know how the story ends, or I get annoyed), but I don’t think I will be recommending this one to anyone. The ending might be enough to save it, but you’ll have to find out next week!


Once again, thanks for reading, and please do comment below.

15 Things to Tell a Writer

Okay, so it has been a while since I have added anything to my blog post.

I have been busy working on my first novel, which is also my portfolio for my masters degree. I thought I would have a break and update my blog. This blog post has been sat in my drafts folder for a while, so I guess point number 1 should really be ‘finish things.’

The last session we had on the masters was a visit from the lovley Jenn Ashworth. One of the things she talked about is her ’15 things to tell a novelist’, which I found quite interesting. Some of the points were things I probably take for granted, but it was nice to see them written down and they are often things that as a writer you forget.

It was mentioned that we could write our own list of 15 things, and I thought that it might be a nice idea. There are some things that I have come across and/or struggled with in my writing that it may help other writers to see. I’ve not called this a 15 things for novelist as I also write short stories and I think the disciplines apply to all types of story whether prose or otherwise. This list is in no way a rulebook, but merely some thoughts that might help you to either produce more, or better work.

Here is the list, in no particular order.

1. Plan your Work. 

There are two main writer paradigms, the ‘planners’ and the ‘seats-of-pantsers’, and either method is fine, but I think in any story there will come a point where the writer needs to know where they are going. This could be a fully outlined synopsis, or chapter breakdown, or by simply researching and knowing your world well enough to wing it. Synopsis have definitely helped me when I’ve got stuck with a story, even if they are the devil to write.

2. Know your Characters

I think that in order to qualify the names you have written in your work as characters then they need to have a backstory. You need to know as much about them as possible. That way when you write them, you will a) know where they are going, and b) give your readers something to care about. It doesn’t need to be a character-driven story, but the reader wants someone they can invest in.

3. Don’t be a Slave to your World-Building

Along the same lines as character backstory, world-building is important. In some genres more than others. But if you do create your own world, as much as you should know everything about it, it is there to serve the story, not the other way around. Don’t let what you want the world to be hold you back in writing the story you want to write. The latter is always more important.

4. Don’t Edit as you go Along

One of the biggest ‘mistakes’ a new writer can make is to try editing as they go along. I even tell this to my academic writing students. Get to the required word count (or end of scene/chapter is probably fine) and then go back and edit it. Otherwise you will spend hours berating yourself over one sentence and never getting anything finished. You may have one perfect sentence, but a sentence does not a story make.

5. Always Show your Writing to Someone Else

One of the main things we learnt on the masters was to be less precious about our work. We were all writing for it to be read, but even then it was a struggle to give it to someone else. One of the most valuable parts of the masters was the workshops we regularly engaged in, and we still meet as much as possible to carry them on outside the course. A reader can tell you things about your work that you take for granted, or simply miss. It may require having a thick skin, but it will definitely improve your work.

6. Set Yourself Targets

Writing regularly is an absolute must if you are serious about writing. Of all the advice I got from published writers when I was starting out that was what they all said, without exception. Obviously, the day job and other commitments can get in the way and things like family always come first. However, if you can set yourself targets then this can ease the pressure. I have a daily word count that I need to meet, which varies depending on the project. Others I know have a monthly word count, or simply set themselves a deadline for having something finished. This allows you to add an element of professionalism even before you have been published, or have a book deal. It will be important then.

7. Allow Yourself to Write Crap

I guess this sits with my ‘not editing as you write’ point, but one of the most difficult things to do as a writer is not worry about the writing. I honestly believe the best way is to turn your internal editor off and get the words down on the page. An analogy that I always use with my writing students is ‘a sculptor cannot sculpt without stone to chip away at, and a writer can not make good work without the words in place.’ I once went to a seminar on ‘Fear and Writing’ with the excellent Kim Newman and the one thing she said that has stuck with me is ‘Give yourself permission to write shit. The first draft is always shit, but you can improve it.’ Excellent advice.

8. Draft and Redraft

Never hand in your first draft for anything. For most editors – and I find the same in an academic setting – a first draft is very obvious. Often you need the first draft to get the story on the page and then use it to figure out your POV, key themes and subplots, to name a few. At the very least you should read it through once and make any obvious edits. I’m not talking spelling and grammar mistakes, everyone makes typos, but glaring story problems, etc.

9. Read Aloud

When I’m reading through a draft I find it immensely useful to read the work aloud to myself. I can’t remember who first told my this tip, but it has been useful to get things like dialogue right. Feel free to put on accents, but simply reading the words aloud helps you to see if the dialogue is wooden or unnatural. I also find that if you stumble over a sentence, or have to read it twice then that highlights that there is something wrong with that sentence and it needs a fix. This obviously can be difficult if you live with other people, but if you are serious about writing then I am sure they will understand. I often have conversations with myself to test dialogue. I’m not mad, honest…

10. Know your POV

One of the most distracting things for a reader is when they don’t know who is telling them the story, or is the prose is confused. This can often be caused by the writer not really knowing what POV (point of view if you don’t know the term) they are trying to employ. Third person past tense is very common these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write it in another style. Just make sure you know how you are trying to write it and stick to the same narrator and tense. That way the reader can get inside the characters head, or follow the story in the way you intended. It can also help you avoid story mistakes.

11. Think about the Function of each Scene/Chapter

Yes, fiction should be fun to read and that is the most important part. But to have a truly effective and fun story the reader needs to know why they are reading. We could talk about character development, arcs and such things, but it can be simpler than that. What is this scene doing? Is it designed to show us the character’s motivation? Is it simply setting out the world? Thinking about it lets you know what you need to include and what is unnecessary information. It will make the writing stronger and more focussed, not to mention fun.

12. Keep Reading

Never stop reading. Well, okay you can go have a wash, books get wet in the shower, yes, but you should always have a book on the go. A writer can learn so much from their peers. If you want to write Science Fiction see what other writers are doing and how they tackle issues. If you want to write historical fiction see how other writers get across the setting and dialogue. See what works and what doesn’t work. Even if you are reading ‘just for fun’, you are always learning. It can be worth trying to pinpoint why you really enjoyed a book, or what it was that meant you put that book down after fifty pages.

13. Don’t take all Feedback as Gospel

At the beginning I stated that these are in no way, shape, or form a list of rules. Find what works for you. If you show your work to others don’t always make the changes that they suggest. Learn to way the good and bad suggestions and edits. The more people you show it to the easier this will be, but there will always be subjective stuff that others don’t like. Be true to the story you are trying to tell, but take on board suggestions and see if you can compromise. If a few people are giving you the same feedback, then maybe you really should delete that needless sex scene…maybe.

14. Research is Key

You might think that certain genres of fiction require more research than others, but that’s not really the case. Readers of science fiction are just as particular as historians, or readers of historical fiction. If you have sound in space then someone is likely to put down your book and go read something else. Research is absolutely key, and it helps you to build a true world, whether it is fantastical or not. It helps make the characters more than just pronouns you have moved around on a page, but actual characters.

15. Always Backup

Almost two years ago I had my Macbook stolen at work. On this laptop was over 15,000 words of un-backed up writing. You can imagine how devastated I was. Sufficed to say, I am yet to return to those stories because I can’t bring myself to realise the loss. The most annoying things is that even then I used a word processor called ‘Scrivener’, that can automatically backup to dropbox. Only, I had not ‘got round’ to setting it up yet. Now I have and every single word I type on my laptop, or my iPad is automatically saved there, as well as a cloud storage device I have at home. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

(I almost lost this blog post because my internet connection keeps dropping on my Mac and I hadn’t realised when I clicked ‘publish’.)

Well I hope some of these rules help you, feel free to comment with your own suggestions, or maybe make your own list. I would love to read it!

Thanks for reading.

Fear of Failure

Fear is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome when you want to do something. You may disagree, but it’s true, whether it’s conscious or subconscious. (It took me a few minutes to come up with that opening line for fear or getting it wrong).

As I sat here this morning, wanting to write and finding myself constantly distracted I came back to this idea. Every time we try to do something hard, or challenging, we as humans often try and find something else to do in its stead. Take for example, this very blog post. I really should be writing my novel, but instead I thought I would share my infinite wisdom with you, whether you like it or not.

We often don’t attempt things because we are scared of failing at them. Throughout our education, we’re warned off by failure, rather than encouraged by success. As such, there seems to be a general consensus that “If you don’t try, you can’t fail.” Which does seem somewhat backward, but it’s definitely out there. I often don’t blog because I’m scared that people might disagree with what I have to say, or probably more accurately, that no one will read it. Low blog stats or the most depressing thing for a writer. (Okay, maybe not the most depressing! But it still sucks.)

I don’t suffer from writer’s block, I suffer from fear. When I sit down to write, what stops me isn’t not knowing what to write (though my brain often tries to convince me that’s true.) I always outline my stories and know where they are going. It’s to do with the fact that I’m worried that it will be crap.

This all reminds me of a panel I went to at a convention, entitled “Fear and Writing” (Or something along those lines). It was hosted by Emma Newman (@emapocalyptic), who I believe was a teacher. One sentence she said then has stuck with me ever since: “Give yourself permission to write shit.” Which is probably one of the most important pieces of advice a writer can receive.

It’s okay to write crap, you can improve it. You can’t improve what isn’t there, no matter how awesome it might be in your head.

There are two types of writers “pantsers” (see: flying by the seat of your pants) or outliners. Both work fine if you can convince yourself to write and just write, then come back and edit it later, polishing it until it is as good as it deserves to be.

I do know of writers who “close edit” while they write, which is fine. It works for them, and they have learnt how to work that way in what I can only assume is a pretty exhausting and time consuming manner.

However if you find yourself sitting in front of a blank screen, convinced that you don’t know where the story goes. “Give yourself permission to write shit”. I dare say once you’ve got that first draft it will be better than you expected. Besides, you can always get out that red pen and start turning it into the masterpiece you envisaged.

I’ll leave you with an analogy. I always like to use sculpture as a defining point of art: A sculptor can chip away at stone and make a fantastic piece of art, but he can’t sculpt if he doesn’t have any stone.

Now I really should get back to writing that novel, huh?

Thanks for reading!

Taking the Scenic Route

It’s mad that this is my first blog post of 2014, but then the year has started off massively busy. My New Year’s resolution was to write every day, which so far I have managed, even if only a few words, or I have done some editing. This worked out pretty well until I realised that I had a week to paint an army for a tournament in Nottingham next weekend. Life is about challenges right?

That’s kind of what this blog is about. I haven’t done any proper writing in the last few days because I’ve been knee deep in paint. I also felt that I needed to type up the writing we did in class this week as, once again, I didn’t feel like reading it out in class. (Turns out someone wrote a similar story to me, but did it better – such is life!) It’s also, partly, what the title is about; taking the scenic route to finishing my tasks for this week.

This week we had the external examiner, Carol Clewlow (I had to research that spelling!) who is a novelist in her own right, come in and talk to us. At first it seemed as if she would just talk us through the assignment, but that was only a brief introduction. What followed from that was a very interesting workshop about editing and scenes. We discussed the importance of bridging scenes – just getting a character where they need to be without boring the reader – and crucial scenes – where the detail is included – and their differences. Carol also talked about how it was quite often a shame that a scene was used as a bridging scene when it had the potential for some much more.

I just realised I’ve been typing this in silence without music. Sometimes when you get in the flow that just happens, other times I need music to help me concentrate. If you’re a writer, what do you write to? I tend to favour soundtracks as I find I often end up following lyrics if I listen to anything else. They also help me imagine the drama. I think today’s choice is Game of Thrones season 2, though it’s now making me want to watch it.

Carol gave us a bridging scene:

We left home at 6.30. Not long after turning on to the motorway we hit an accident with a long tailback. A wrecked car was still on its roof as we passed. Despite this we managed to reach dover by late afternoon and by evening we were in France.

We discussed that this scene has so much potential for detail which could add to the story. So, Carol gave us a task, turn this scene into a crucial scene. What follows is what I wrote in that task and also a later edit where she asked us to find that one part that needed more. Rather than splitting it in to two of what is essentially the same thing, I give you the finished version (I may also have cheated and added more as I typed it up – oops!):

We left home at 6.30 in a hurry to put everything into the car. The car screeched as the wheels spun off the driveway under the heavy way and we were away. Not long after hitting the motorway we hit an accident with a long tailback. It wasn’t uncommon given the circumstances. Everyone was in a rush to get away and rushing made people careless. A wrecked car was still on its roof as we passed, glass smashed across the carriageway. The poor people were still trapped inside the crumpled mess of the vehicle. The incessant cacophony of beeping horns wasn’t helping and there was no sign of the emergency services. They had enough to do right now. they would have a job getting through this crowd in time. The victims weren’t worth worrying about. No one could help them now, it was every man for himself.

Despite the crush we still managed to travel the 60 miles from Bromley to Dover by late afternoon. It’s amazing that even in an emergency most Brits wouldn’t drive on the hard shoulder. Its against the rules! But who needed rules now? The port got pretty desperate and fights were breaking out everywhere as we snuck our small car onto the ferry. By evening we were in France, a bit of money changing hands could get you anywhere. The badge didn’t hurt, but showing that around everywhere would raise too many questions. It’s a shame the ferry wasn’t going further, but I didn’t have that much money.

The crossing went relatively calmly, once people were onboard the hysteria had died down.

Driving down the ramp into the yellow ramps lights of Calais, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought about those trapped at home. Poor old Britain. For now though, we were safe.

 

Some of the group decided to completely change the original scene we were given, but I saw this more of an editing exercise. So what you can see here is a typical example of how I might edit. I’ll take a piece I have written and see if I can embellish the sentences that are already there. Sometimes I may need to take out a superfluous word and others I may need to alter the tense slightly, but as the scene we were given was already quite tight I didn’t feel any need to.

My scene could probably be edited further, but then isn’t that true of everything?

On another note, as anyone noticed that no one really talks on Facebook anymore? All that appears on my news feed is people sharing links to videos and various surveys that tell you which character from that poor remake of  that dodgy sci-fi film you are most like. What happened to people typing and having conversations, you know, social networking? Maybe it’s just my Facebook, but I was curious if anyone else had noticed a similar trend?

On that perfectly 1000 word count note, I shall leave you.

Once again, thanks for reading and any suggestions, comments or thoughts are welcome.

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Blog

Greetings my dear fellow! It has been an age since we have been on an adventure together! Now I should warn you now, there may be some talk in the form of *Spoilers* in this prosaic discussion of the new Hobbit film. Though how you can really spoil a film based on a book published in the 1930’s is another discussion all together!

 

I should also point out, before I start, that I did actually enjoy the film. It was in all a well produced film that was pretty epic. There were just a few decisions in the process that I didn’t understand. I will be going back to see it again, and see if I fall in love with it like I did the Fellowship, but at the moment I’m not 100% convinced.

The first thing I don’t understand is how some of the people I know can be so sycophantic about it. Yes it’s a great film, I really liked it, but it’s not perfect. I’m probably going to get lynched by a few people for saying this, but they could have done better. The Hobbit was the first book I read as a child and I adore it, I was a little disappointed with a few things they did that changed the feel of it for me. It okay to like something without going all out to ignore some glaring mistakes and bad decisions. You don’t need to tell me how awesome it is, I know; it’s incredible that this film has even been made, it’s something I’ve waited for for years. But I don’t want to just blindly use superlatives to talk about it, let’s discuss it. Sometimes it seems that just because it’s Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Games Workshop, ADB, etc. (I could co on) that it has to be awesome, there is simply no room for alternative.

(Here be spoilers!)

One of the main things that frustrated me a little bit was the opening. Sufficed to say I think I was fairly underwhelmed by the whole beginning portion of the film and was starting to get worried. (It’s okay the rest more than made up for it!) In the Lord of the Rings, we open with a perfectly epic narration to the history of Middle-Earth explaining why Sauron was bad and what had happened, while still leaving enough room for the imagination. All voiced by Cate Blanchett who has a perfectly suited, haunting voice. In “The Hobbit” they tried the same thing again, this time showing what happened to Erebor and basically giving up all the information about what the company were going to go and do, save Erebor! In the book, you are placed in Bilbo Baggins’ point of view, having no idea why these Dwarves were turning up on your doorstep, but enjoying the confused ride as more slithers of information popped out. In the film, you are then left with all the dialogue of this part of the book chucked all together which actually detracts from the epicness of the opening sequence. It also leaves Bilbo as a bit of a supporting character, stood in the background, rather then the lead which he later becomes. It would have been far better to have choice flashbacks like in the book, revealing secrets and depth as we go. (Now I know that you have to change bits in books for screenplays, but this is one time where the original would have actually been better for a more engrossing film!) This is also done as a rather obvious nod to The Lord of The Rings, as Bilbo is recounting the story to Frodo (set just before his birthday party), which leads me to my next point.

Why tie in the films so blatantly to the Lord of The Rings films, then change bits of filming which make those films now seem ‘wrong’? For example, in the Lord of the Rings, there is a flash back to when Bilbo finds the ring. In that film he is crawling in the dirt and discovers the ring, dusts it off and says ‘What’s this? a ring!’. In the Hobbit, the ring falls out of Gollum’s pocket, lands perfectly on a stone. Shortly later Bilbo walks past, picks it up and quietly puts it in his pocket without a thought. It just seems like an odd thing to chance, now the continuity of four films is called in to question. There are a few other examples like this that I don’t need to go in to, such as the mountain trolls being turned to stone in completely different poses to how Frodo and the Fellowship find them in LOTR.

The main thing that bugged me was that Gandalf did not give Bilbo a shove out of the door! He even mentions that he did in the Fellowship of the Ring! Why was there need to change that?! It has such a small effect on the overall story, but is such a quaint part of Tolkien’s mythology. A shame…

Though it must be said, apart from these things, the casting was brilliant. Martin Freeman plays a perfect Bilbo Baggins and I can’t think of anyone better suited to the role. The Dwarves were all perfectly cast, Thorin dark and brooding and the rest giving the needed comic relief. Howard Shore also produces another great soundtrack, that I am currently sat listening to while I write this.

One final criticism that I must voice is this. 48fps must be avoided at all costs! It seems these days that film directors are constantly seeking the next gimmick rather than focussing on great story telling. 3D has taken over, and it can be used quite well in parts, but 48fps is simply awful and must be stopped. The main problem is that it makes everything look like a documentary (which is in fact where Peter Jackson saw the technology being used and decided to use it for the Hobbit). It completely ruins the cinematic experience and gives too much away. Rather than being sucked in to the screen with previous formats and being immersed in the story, you are instead left feeling like you are watching behind the scenes footage. It also gives far too much away. Okay, the wide angle scenery shots are fantastic. But once example of this technology failing the film is the fight of the giants. When there are wide angle shots of the giants fighting it is very difficult to see what is actually going on, despite the individual detail being brilliant. Then when it zooms in to the Dwarves stood on a giants leg, you can clearly see the difference from the CGI; the shot now clearly looks like the Dwarves are on a set. Simply put it is too real, cinema isn’t about reality, it’s about escaping it and therefore certain detail needs to be hidden from the eye.

 

Well that’s my thoughts on the film. As I say, I will be going to see it again (probably a few times to be honest). But I will most definitely be seeing it in 24fps and possibly in 2D as well.

 

Thanks for reading, and I hope I haven’t ruined the film for anyone!