Tag Archives: general

Tough Work


Well it has been tough finding time to write this past month.  A new baby and more work on my plate than I can code my way out of has put a dint in my progress.  But I’m now ready to start proofing my query letter for The West Queen.  I’m initially going to send it out to my online writing group and see what feedback I get.  The group includes a couple of authors who have managed to snag an agent and at least one who has books in print.  I’m hoping I can get my letter ready over the next couple of weeks and then send it out.

I’m still not entirely sure The West Queen is ready to go.  I think it may need more words in it and more proof reading.  I also think I may be over analysing it.  I’m not sure how to determine which is true so I’m going to just read it out loud to my wife then start querying agents.  With any luck the first couple of agents (ok, maybe 10) will provide some feedback.  Not necessarily personalised feedback, but you never know.  I may get a hint about book length, genre or similar.  I may get a personalised rejection or a request for partial.  That would be awesome because it would mean better feedback.  At the moment I’m kind of swinging in the dark without professional response to provide direction.

After I proof the query letter a couple of times I may post it up here so others can see what I’ve come up with and maybe someone will point out something that will help me.


Do I Rewrite and Submit?


I’ve written the first book of my trilogy, The West Queen, and at least one third of my way through the second, The Fallen Prince. I had intended to finish book two and get underway with book three before I even thought about reworking book one again. This is because I got book one to a point where I wasn’t reading it any more. It was all so in my head that I used the words only as a type of progress metre so I knew where I was up to. As a result I missed typos, homonyms and some passive voice. Other than grammatical errors, some of the feedback I got was that I needed to go over what was happening more often. A couple of my readers said they felt as if they kept missing things or that they had to go back and reread sections to know what was happening. I had intended to keep the edges a little blurry to give an epic feeling and to make things seem less certain but I didn’t intend to lose readers.

The Point I’m At

So the point I’m at now is that I’ve got a stronger handle on what is happening and what is going to happen than I did while writing book one. While I had a story planned out I hadn’t worked through all the plot points. Now I’ve outlined book two down to the chapter level and got book three down to at least the large events I’m feeling confident in being able to describe the full story. My writing has slowed down for various reasons, one of which is the imminent birth of my second child. I think it might be helpful to go over book one, patch the grammar, patch together Candia’s personal journey from carefree princess to Machiavellian plotter and more often go over what has happened and the implications. If I do that I could start looking at pitching to some agents.

What I’m hoping for

I’m hoping that in completing book one and getting it out to agents that I will either get accepted or at least get some feedback to make the writing more “real”. I’m hoping to be encouraged in my writing and to take that extra step from having written something to having tried to sell it. I’m sick of being a wannabe, I want to be a published author! Yeah, The Simpsons are good for pretty much any situation.


Back to the short story


I’ve decided to try to enter a short story competition. The FAWWA (something something Writers of West Australia or something equally meaningless) is running a competition for short stories of any genre up to 3,000 words. I figure I could do with the practice and it is only $10 to enter, so why not? The main reason I might not is because I may not have a story ready in time. The 3,000 word limit is quite difficult for me because my stories usually require considerable set up and due to their subtlety require a fair time to run.

The real trick

The real trick with such a short story is to pick a single theme and a single conflict. It is an exercise in focus and is the reason I’m having a go. When writing a novel you need to start as close to the start of the main conflict as possible and end a quickly as possible once it is done. It might take five books each of 100,000 words to do that, but that’s the idea. Short stories are even more so.

To Explain

If you were to write a story about a young boy who discovers he is the missing prince and he must defeat his evil uncle to retake the throne (why not?) then you can’t just start anywhere. It might be tempting to start with the boy waking up one day to go about his usual daily chores, meet the various characters who will are important and then the next day have him escape from an assassin. The reader may well be lost before they get to the assassin. So start with the action. Start with the assassin trying to murder the prince who, while fleeing is told by his adoptive parents (as they die?) that he is the prince. Bang! That’s just how we roll. admittedly there are some stories that seem to start further from the start. It might be tempting to think a story like the Curious Case of Benjamin Button breaks the rule by starting with a child’s birth. But the story is about Benjamin’s life so you’d probably have to start with his birth no?

Back to the Short Story

A 3,000 word short story needs to have just one conflict and needs to start really close to it. If you were to break it down you’d have 1,000 words to set up, 1,000 words to climax and 1,000 words to resolve it. Considering approximately 250 words per page, you’d have to do each of those things in just 4 pages. The West Queen and The Fallen Prince both have chapters around the 2,000 – 3,000 word mark and each has about 30 or so chapters and there is a third book of similar size to finish the series. So I have to come up with a character, world, conflict and resolution in the space of just one chapter.

What have I come up with

So what have I come up with? I’m not sure yet. It seems to be two different stories in one. Originally I was going to have a woman come home to a farm she has inherited to discover a sinister cave in the hills where it seemed her father was sacrificing sheep in a kind of religious fashion. This was done to appease a monster / spirit that lived in the cave. Since her dad died and stopped making the offerings the monster comes out and scares the woman until she decides to continue the sacrifice. But as I was writing I added more and more conflict between the woman and her dead father. She was remembering arguments she had, how she left in a huff without making peace with him and so on. She goes up into the hill looking for some sheep and finds the place where her father’s helicopter crashed. She has a cry and says sorry then the clouds clear up and the sheep wander in. She goes and decides to keep the farm rather than sell it like she was going to. That’s right, a sort of literary piece rather than a horror like I’d initially intended. But this is the nature of the short story. If I had 10,000 – 15,000 words I’d probably be able to have both the emotional conflict of the woman and the blood thirsty monster. Heck, I could probably drag the whole thing out into a novel by throwing in a handsome vet just arrived from the city and a large corporate farming company trying to buy the property. Add in a stack of unexplained deaths, a mysterious pregnancy and an ending without a clear future and I’d have an “airport” novel no worries. But I had just 3,000 words and my tense, angsty horror had to be dropped in favour of a more straight forward emotional journey. Besides, when they say the competition is open to any genre, I have a feeling you’d have to write an extraordinary science fiction / fantasy / horror story to get a serious look in.

Tactics

An interesting point with this competition is that the stories must be submitted with a pen name. The judges won’t see our real names. Because this story is about a woman and her emotional conflict with her father and the farm I might be a little tactical and pick a pen name that puts the reader in mind of a middle-aged woman author. I don’t for one minute doubt that readers are influenced by the name of the author when they read. Since I’m going for a post-colonial search for place with a feminist bent I should choose a pen name that puts the reader in that frame of mind with the hope of inducing the “halo” effect. After I submit and get results I’ll post the short story and the result here.


Children’s books


Now I have a child and another on the way I’m wondering what it would take to write a children’s story. I guess I’m talking about a book aimed at eight to ten year olds. It seems pathetically simple to write one of those “see spot run, run spot run” type of books. I feel it is significantly more difficult to write a book that a primary school kid would enjoy.

Themes

I don’t want to write a condescending book nor a book that introduces concepts alien to a child’s world. For example the ideas behind money and banking are a little abstract for even educated adults to grasp let alone an eight year old. I also doubt any kind of sexuality based concepts would strike a chord and complex emotional themes that lead toward cathartic drug use or self harm might be a bit much as well. So what does that leave? I think it leaves a great many things. For example loneliness, friendship and the joy of belonging. Ownership issues are wide open though just not the finer political points. I also don’t think you can be too subtle. It might be a bit much for a youngster to come to grasp with much subtext.

Language

For a story to be understood it must be written in the language of the target audience. That means picking a vocabulary and grammar approachable by a fifth grader. While at that age I’d imagine they understand pretty much all the words you’d want to use, they may not pick up on some of the more technical aspects of grammar. While considering that I think I’d also want to make sure I challenge them every now and then; I don’t want to patronise them.

Imagery

When writing for a young reader you have a responsibility to not frighten or disturb them. I remember I watched a bit of the movie An American Werewolf in London when I was seven and it scared the crap out of me. I had nightmares for years after. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, I became immune to imagery based fear and suspense. My wife refuses to watch horror movies because she simply can’t bare the suspense. I don’t see what the fuss is. A monster jumps out and rips a character in two and it doesn’t seem to bother me; I’m more interested in how realistic the effects are.

My Idea

I had an idea for a child’s book. It was that a young boy was born into a special family (aren’t they all?). It is a family of half dragons. Somewhere in the family’s past they descended from some legendary dragon who chose to live as a human. The special thing about this boy is that he has no dragon ability at all. Everyone else in his family can breathe fire, shape change a little, speak with lizards and are unaffected by fire and heat. This boy is perfectly human in all respects. Obviously this makes him the black sheep. He even has to go to a normal human school so he won’t be picked on. Well it so happens that his family, and the other half dragons, start to get sick. He is the only one to escape the terrible flu that has put his family and family friends in bed, unable to get up. He has to rise up and find a cure before his family all revert to simple lizards. I haven’t though much more than this, but I like the twist that he is special because he is the only normal one. Being normal of course means he doesn’t get the dragon flu but it also makes it that much harder for him to find the cure.

Maybe I’ll flesh this idea out a little.


Taboo


Am I talking about the fun and exciting word game? Sort of, but not literally. In the game you have to describe something to get your partner to say a particular word but you aren’t allowed to use that word or any of a list of associated words. In writing are there any taboo subjects? Is there something you simply can’t write about?

Culture

Obviously different cultures have different taboos. For example in Thailand you aren’t allowed to criticise the royal family. This is both a cultural and legal taboo. In most countries you shouldn’t write about the abusive relationship between an adult and a child in any way but as an abhorrent deviation. But are these boundaries worth preserving just for the sake of preservation or is it an artist’s duty to deconstruct these taboos? A photographer in Australia recently (a couple of years ago now) released a photo series of nudes that resulted in protests both supporting his artistic merit and condemning him for perversion. The subject was a fourteen year old girl. None of the photos could be said to be sexually explicit as they involved heavy use of light and shadow and fairly neutral poses. But the question was raised of if perversion is in the eye of the beholder or if it is representable.

Art

Art is often about challenging our perceptions. Sometimes it challenges our perception of colour, light and shade and at other times it challenges our distinction between real and unreal. Other times it asks us what is wrong with those things we all take for granted as wrong. More recently an artist inspired angry mutterings because his landscape portrait of Port Arther in Tasmania included a small, almost ghostly, image of Martin Bryant the infamous mass murderer of Port Arther. People raised their voices saying it glorified his actions, that it painted the town as somehow complicit in his actions. The artist said he included the image because, like it or not, the murderer has become a permanent mark on the landscape. We can’t just wash him away and pretend it never happened. The fact people got upset reinforced the requirement of the inclusion of the image. When you see the landscape painting you are supposed to be upset about that part of history. To ignore it is to disrespect the people who died.

Is a novel art enough?

So in writing a novel can we use topics that disgust, repel or horrify? Certainly horror novels do, but they use those topics as their source of plot. You are intended to be scared and you know it is evil. Is it possible to have a serial killer who dismembers his victims in a cold and clinical manner be the hero? Could we have a book where we quietly barrack for the cannibal psychopath? It seems we can because they made Darkly Dreaming Dexter into a TV show and Hannibal Lector starred in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. But what about the quieter, more insidious taboos? Sure, Lolita very daringly explored the topic of a teen fascination with an older man and vice versa but it was written to be a literary novel. I’m talking about genre fiction. Imagine an urban fantasy about a forty year old man and his desire for young boys. Now imagine he isn’t the villain but rather the hero (or anti-hero). could that be done? Maybe it could but I’m not sure I’d have the stomach to try. How would you present the main character and his desire in a way that the reader felt some sympathy for him so they wouldn’t just hope he was caught by the police and locked away forever?

Stepping back from the brink

Now I’ve got you thinking in dark directions try stepping back a tad. Pick a taboo less distasteful (to you) and see if you could think of a way to make a protagonist sympathetic and heroic while engaged in your chosen perversion. Maybe your hero could be eighteen and in love with a sixty year old woman or perhaps he gains power by eating parts of willing victims. You’d need a strong background and powerful reason for such a person to be the way they are. It seems too easy to just have a guy who is honourable, charming and classy without any real background as to why. If your hero has a dark streak, especially if it is a rather dark streak, you need to provide background and you need to work constantly to keep the reader from turning away is revulsion. That is art surely? I might try it some time.


Use your setting


There is an important distinction to be made between premise, plot and setting. People read for the plot, imagine the setting and become intrigued with the premise. Come for the premise, stay for the plot you might say. It may seem obvious that there is a difference between all three but in practice it can be hard to understand how they work together or against each other.

Premise

The premise is the base concept behind your story. For example: An airliner crashes on a mysterious island inhabited by a strange and unseen monster. That is a premise. You can get a lot out of it without having any sort of plot. You could write about some characters getting on the plane. Then you could write about the way the plane crashes and the immediate reactions of each of the characters as they stand around in a daze wondering what has happened. Eventually though you’ll run out of premise and you’d better have a plot handy or people will lose interest.

Setting

The setting is the world the story takes place in. Sometimes this is tightly bound to the premise, but still separate. For example you could have your story take place on a tropical island cut off from the rest of the world. You could have mysterious anachronisms and misplaced animals and a force capable of healing people. The setting can be strongly in focus or just a backdrop to a dramatic plot. You won’t get much out of a setting without a plot, but you could have the before mentioned characters wander around bumping into polar bears and spotting ghosts of their dead fathers. Once that novelty wears off you’d better have a plot handy…

Plot

The plot is how everything happens and provides the motivation and direction for the characters and so indirectly the reader. It helps if your plot starts at point A, moves to point C through point B. Some authors get tricky and play with timelines by starting at B, head toward C but explain that direction through revisiting A. The point is you need to have an end point and you need to let people know you are heading toward it. A trick ending, like M. Night Shayamalan likes to have will only work if the plot looks like it is leading one direction before twisting. If the plot is directionless to start with it doesn’t matter what ending you have because the entire plot will feel like a trick.

Bring it all together

The best thing to do is bring it all together. Have a powerful, driving plot exploring an intriguing premise in a rich and interesting setting. This is much harder than you think. Many stories come out of a premise or a setting. You might be thinking “Wouldn’t it be cool if when Niel Armstrong landed on the moon he discovered what looked like an Egyptian ankh medallion inside a mystic circle.” That sort of premise can excite you to start writing. You think you’ve got a plot but really you only have a premise. Once the medallion is found and Armstrong says “Wow” then what? Likewise you can have an exciting science fiction setting with spaceships and aliens but if your plot is simply an alien drug dealer murders a guy and the good guy has to catch him then why bother with the spaceships? Why have an alien drug dealer? You’d better make sure you have something in your setting that means your story couldn’t take place in any other setting without completely changing everything.

Me

The West Queen came about as an organic mix of setting (an old world I created for a roleplaying game), premise (What if a god was a force of change only and it was people who made that change good or evil) and plot (the rise and fall of a number of powerful people / families). So I’ve reached book 2 and I’ve plotted out book 3 to an extent (the final). On the other hand Angel Bones is all premise and setting and I ran out of plot. I like the premise and love the setting so I’ll be taking a step back and coming up with a plot before resuming writing of that book.


I bought an e-book


Well, I got a free e-book. The Intergalactic Medicine Show is a science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes short stories. They recently released a compilation of their best short stories. For the first couple of days it was available for free from Amazon and so i got it. The stories are really interesting and very entertaining, so well worth it.

All Good

I don’t have a dedicated reader so I just used my Android with the Kindle app. The screen is a little small, but I got used to it. It is really convenient because my phone is fairly small and I carry it pretty much everywhere. I can pull it out, fire up the book and have a read. With a physical book I need a little more planning and lugging it around everywhere is a bit of a chore. This book was free (I think it is $3 now) so very good value for money. I could definitely see myself buying books like this.

All Bad

As chance would have it, I was also cleaning out the spare room to turn it into another nursery (because one baby is never enough). I had to shift a book-case and all the books out. While I was doing it I was looking at the covers and remembering the good times reading them. It was amazing to see so many books all piled up and to think they could all easily fit on my phone. But you know what? Both my wife and I have read all those books. Many of them came from my mum or she has read while staying. My dad also has read most of them and we’ve lent a number of them out to friends. The e-book I have on my phone isn’t really capable of the same kind of use. I haven’t looked into it, but even if there isn’t any DRM I would have to take a bit of effort to copy and send the book and then whoever got the copy would have to some how organise it in their reader. Oh, and being a good little boy I would have to delete the copy from my phone (bollocks the lot of it). Certainly less convenient than just pointing at my shelf and letting my mum rummage to her heart’s content.

Are They Good or Bad?

It an e-book cost the same as a physical book I’d say go for the physical one unless you specifically need it to take no room (you’re travelling) and you didn’t intend to lend it to anyone (that’s theft remember? It’s called copy right violation letting anyone else enjoy the words you’ve read). I would say the e-book would have to be significantly cheaper than the physical version to worth buying. As it happens, in Australia a paperback will set you back about $20 (yes you lovely people in the US, that’s a lot). But when I buy a book I expect at least three people to read it (me, my wife and my mum) so I think an e-book would need to be at most $6.66 so I could buy three copies. But considering I wouldn’t then have the option of donating to the Salvoes or lending to a friend or just filling my bookshelf for my kids to eventually read I would say the upper limit for an e-book would be about $3 if it was any good, $1 if it was only acceptable and free otherwise. Just think of it. I bought David Eddings’ Belgariad to re-read (I originally read my mum’s copies which have since gone separate ways). I stacked it on my shelf and thought to myself it would be perfect for my little daughter to read in thirteen or so years. She wouldn’t need to re-buy it or have a special reader. She could take it from the shelf and snuggle up in bed and read like I did when I was in highschool. Had I bought the e-book version that would not be possible because in thirteen years the format will probably be out of date and I doubt I’d still have it on a storage medium that worked.

How Many Are Lost?

I have to wonder how many wonderful books and other works of art are lost because we are not allowed to make copies of them. Already there are many e-books that are never released in hard copy format. When you buy one of those it is illegal to print it out because that apparently is theft and you wouldn’t steal a car would you? How many books never see the number of readers they deserve because you can’t loan them to another person? That’s also theft. Heaven forbid the words you paid to see are seen by anyone else! Imagine if you accidentally said one of those words out loud? That would be like stealing all the money from a bank and throwing it up in the air wouldn’t it? I think e-books, when combined with ridiculous copy right laws will result in the loss of untold number of books and all the art, culture and entertainment they contain. Will book collectors in the future hunt down old Kindles with first editions on them or will anything not published on paper be lost forever? This is the same for movies and television shows. Because of the length of copy right we have lost many wonderful things because no one was allowed to make copies to preserve the work. Oh well. I think at some point I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is and freely distribute my work so it has the best chance of living on beyond me.