Tag Archives: WIP

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.


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.


Are Medieval European Settings Passe?


I read a comment, and I’ve heard it before, that vaguely medieval European settings are a bit old hat in the fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set the standard, C.S. Lewis did little to break the mould and David Eddings and Robert Jordan took the ball and ran with it. So has it been done to death and is there room for more? Oh, no! The West Queen is set in an essentially European setting with swords and armour and horses. Am I done for?

Short Answer Yes.

The longer answer, ironically is no. Yes, medieval Europe has become a cliché. To such an extent that it is common to find whole books in the setting with little or no world building besides a couple of fantasy sounding names like The Forest of Doom and Zal’Ach-Kador. But I don’t think the rules have ever changed with regards to the setting or story. I don’t doubt Stephanie Meyers was told a vampire love story would never sell, but it did.

The Key

The key is to have something that makes the reader stop, cock their head to the side and squint trying to fit your world together. Meyers did it by having sparkly vampires and by having the misfit at the new school not immediately get bullied to the point of near suicide. David Eddings did it by having literal gods walking about and talking to people and by making everything so quaint as to feel like it came from a fantasy theme park. Jordan took the world’s cultures and mixed them all up so that one racial type wore another cultures clothes and had names and society more similar to another altogether.

The Rules

The rules haven’t changed. It has always been that you should not rely on cliché except to break that cliché. However there is another important factor to consider. One I call the Gardening Australia / Better Homes and Gardens model. Each year Gardening Australia has a segment on how to prune your fruit trees and Better Homes and Gardens show you how to train a dog or paint a wall or something. If you’ve been a regular watcher for years you will have seen the same information over and over. This is much like if you’ve read enough fantasy novels you’ll have come across the same cliché over and over. The idea is that each year there are new viewers, new gardeners, who haven’t seen the pruning segment. If you only catered to the people who started watching the series from the very first episode, by year ten you’d be up to advanced horticulture including latin naming and discussion of the exact bio-chemistry taking place inside a tree. This is also how Justin Bieber succeeds. The current crop of thirteen year olds didn’t live through the boy band explosion of the nineties, the new romantics of the eighties, sugar pop of the seventies and so on. They can’t see that Justin Bieber is a manufactured sweetie engineered to sicken because to them he is original and fresh. Imagine if you could that you had never heard pop music before. Imagine also that you are a young girl as yet unscathed by the harsh realities call “men”. A cute, slightly effeminate and inoffensive boy with a sweet voice who sings catchy rhythm and blues oriented pop would be like seeing Jesus come back from the dead. To me, a man approaching middle age he is just another face stuck to the front of a song writing and promotion team. So yo can write a purely cliché fantasy in a stock medieval European world as long as you expect to catch only the people who have never really read any fantasy before. Each year millions of people enter that market. All those kids growing up and discovering books for the first time or the long time romance reader who decides to take a stab at an epic fantasy will be your market.

The West Queen

Having said all of that I like to think the world of The West Queen has just enough difference in it to lure people in. There is no storyteller guiding a young man to the fulfillment of his destiny. There is no prophecy and no princess to rescue. More or less everyone knows their ancestry and those that don’t aren’t from lost royal lines. The real difference comes from the mysterious and morally ambiguous story. And the insanity of at least a couple of the main characters.


I am more than you see


When I’m not writing I’m a father of one, waiting for the second, an amateur carpenter, gardener, marathon runner, musician and computer game player. Naturally writing is not earning me the money to do any of these other things. For that I’m a technical architect / IT manager / programmer / sys admin / DBA. I wear a lot of hats because the company I work for is very small, consisting of only six people at present. How does this relate to writing? I’m glad you asked. Read on.

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