Fiction Friday Episode 3 is Coming!

Hey everyone! Due to an unforeseen event this morning, I’ve not been able to compose anything worth reading on here. However, I do have an important reminder for you all!
Fiction Friday: Episode 3 will be here in 2 days! That means you only have a short time left to add your contributions to the story for this week. Just follow the link below and leave a comment with your entry. It doesn’t have to be perfect, long or even remotely intelligible – just write whatever you want!

>> Fiction Friday: The Story – Episode 2 <<

And if you encounter any difficulty leaving a comment on the post, just contact me with your entry and I’ll consider it with the rest!

I’ll see you on Friday. Be there or… well… don’t be there!

~ James

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Breaking Free From Chapters

I heard some good advice last week. It was basically saying that not every writer writes the same; some like to plan in detail and write chapter-by-chapter, while others find it easier to be less constrained. We all know this anyway, but the most important point I took away from it was that you shouldn’t always feel an obligation to write in chapters.

I recently started trying out this with my own writing. I’m exactly the sort of person who hates detailed planning and feels pressure to achieve a certain amount of words per chapter. So, I took one of my three viewpoint characters, mapped out their next actions clearly in my head and just wrote. When I felt a natural break/end of scene, I moved onto my second character, without naming a new chapter and only dividing the text with a single asterisk. In this way, I wrote pretty well and progressed nicely. I didn’t feel constrained by a chapter and felt more able to throw my ideas at the page and leave the major edits for the next draft.

You may think that the above is commonsense, but sometimes us writers need a reminder of the obvious. Try it out and see if it works for you.

Remember, you can still take part in the Fantasy In Motion fantasy story! Just take a look at the below post and leave a comment with your entry.

Friday Fiction: The Story

Fiction Friday: The Story – Episode 2

Welcome one and all to the second episode of our brand new collaborative story!

If this is your first time taking part or reading, you can find out more about this regular feature here.

Every week, you will all have the opportunity to continue the story by leaving a comment on this post. I will then choose my favourite entry and add it to the story for next week, at which point I will continue the story from where you left off.

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~Last week’s chosen entry is highlighted in blue.~

Fiction Friday: The Story

In Last Week’s Episode:

It was a grey day. Grey in mood, in weather and in prospects. A light drizzle fell over the small coastal town as mourners flocked to the beaches to pay their respects. A young man named Aleksander, a fisherman’s boy from further up the coast, watched the scene with a mixture of anger and guilt. He hadn’t attended the funeral earlier that day, or the ceremony of cleansing afterward. He was a spectre, doomed to observe from a distance and never feel a part of the real world again.

‘Grim, isn’t it?’ a gravelly voice muttered. ‘Too grim for times like these, anyhow.’

Aleks saw a huge bulk set itself down beside him and immediately knew who the voice belonged to. He smiled.

‘I knew you’d come,’ Aleks said.

‘Couldn’t let it go by.’ Pebbles ground under the sea lion’s bulk as it twisted its thick neck around to scratch the middle of its back. ‘One less hunter with a harpoon is all to the good. There’s few enough of our kind left, as it is.’

The lad kept his eyes on the procession at the water side. ‘Did you mean to kill him?’ he asked somberly.

Episode 2

This week in Fiction Friday: The Story…

The sea lion considered the question a moment and slowly nodded its head. ‘Aye, I did. The red rage came upon me… I just couldn’t–‘

‘It’s alright,’ Aleks said. He placed a comforting hand on his friend’s nape. ‘Come on, we should make ourselves scarce.’

The odd pair took their leave and proceeded across the dunes, away from the beach and back onto solid earth. As soon as they were out of sight, the sea lion let out a cry and started to change even as it waddled along. Slowly, its features began to twist and morph and it started to resemble a human. Whiskers retracted and the leather-grey skin smoothed to a supple pink. The strange girl that now walked beside Aleks gave him a wry smile, her eyes dancing and impossibly black.

‘At least you decided to wear clothes before you shifted, this time, Naia,’ Aleks said.

‘Yes,’ Naia replied, flushing. ‘That was an awkward moment, wasn’t it?’

Now it’s your turn! Just leave a comment and continue the story from where I left it!

Villainous Words

Let’s start Monday off with a little reader participation. I want to see what you think are the best lines/monologues/taunts ever spoken by a fictional villain. Often, stories are known for their villains, sometimes more so than their protagonists. Just think about The Dark Knight, Star Wars or even Wacky Races. In fact, in a lot of comic-book movies nowadays, people care more about which villain will be showing up, rather than the hero’s story. And why not?

So, here are my top 3 most villainous quotes ever!

I’m not a comic book villain. Do you seriously think I would explain my master stroke to you if there were even the slightest possibility you could affect the outcome? I triggered it 35 minutes ago.

~ Ozymandius (Watchmen)

I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.

~ Hannibal Lecter

Stop kitchen scraps to orphans and lepers, no more merciful beheadings……..and cancel christmas!

~ Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

Right! Let’s hear it. What are your favourite villainous quotes? You can leave a comment below.

Sentence Length: The Long and Short Of It

New writers are always told about the importance of sentence length. Long sentences slow down the action and are useful for description and to give a sense of time. Short sentences speed things up, create tension and don’t give the reader time to think. That’s all very well, but how do you go about pulling this off? That’s what I intend to look at in this post.

The Long

So, long sentences. You’ve seen them before. We all have.

Once upon a time there was a boy called Jack who liked ice cream. Jack’s mother was a horrible old woman who liked nothing better than to prod his backside with a hot fork. To be honest with you, Jack’s life was pretty rubbish.

As you can see, a long sentence gives plenty of time to convey ideas and develop the story, without rushing the reader along or forcing things. With a long sentence, we can span seconds, days, or even years. We can take the reader to a new place and have them snugly back at home within the same paragraph. The long sentence is where it’s at when you’re talking about a writer “playing God”.

The Short

Now, short sentences are another beast entirely.

Arrows flew from the left and right. He stumbled, went to ground. Crack! One buried itself in a tree. He scrambled away. Then, a burning pain in his leg. He tried to scream, but no sound came. The hunters closed in. This was it. The end.

It’s actually a lot harder to write short sentences, in my opinion. Especially in the case of the above example, when you’re trying to make most of it short sentences. The beauty of keeping it short, is that you instantly build tension and create a sense of fear, danger and desperation. Every sentence is a split-second flash of action. A snippet of consciousness. A rushed reaction. This is a story taking place at a blinding speed–so fast that the reader gets carried with it and doesn’t have time to think.

A Final Thought

Think of the difference between sentence lengths like the difference between a slow-building drama and a summer action blockbuster. You need a mixture of both to keep things rolling. Not too much, but not too little. Getting the balance right is difficult and I can happily admit I’ve not got it down to a tee in any way. Practice is the key. Oh, and reading. Not just reading for pleasure, but also reading to analyse technique, style and structure.

Fiction Friday: The Story – Episode 1

Happy Friday everyone! Here’s a new feature I’ve been promising you. It’s going to go out every Friday, so make sure you check back to take part! Basically, we’re going to write an epic fantasy story together. There’s no established world, characters or anything yet – that’s all up to you! I’ll start by writing the first part and then you’ll write the next bit. Let’s try to keep our contributions brief so that the story is as diverse as possible.

How It Works

  • Each Friday, I’ll put up a post entitled “Fiction Friday: The Story” and it’ll go on in numerical episodes (1, 2, 3 etc…)
  • I’ll start/continue the story each week and leave it hanging. That’s where you come in…
  • You leave a comment on the post and continue the story. I’ll choose my favourite one and add it to the story for the following week. If I think there are several good contributions, I may adapt them all into the story.
  • Easy as that!

If I don’t get any contributions for that week, the story will just continue next week from where I left off. I’m aiming for us to write something on an epic scale, not just a piece of flash fiction or a short story. I’ll divide it into chapters as we go–remember, you create the characters, the world, the plot. You. Let’s see if we can get a decent-length piece written and then I’ll look into sharing it with fantasy communities across the net!

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Fiction Friday: The Story

It was a grey day. Grey in mood, in weather and in prospects. A light drizzle fell over the small coastal town as mourners flocked to the beaches to pay their respects. A young man named Aleksander, a fisherman’s boy from further up the coast, watched the scene with a mixture of anger and guilt. He hadn’t attended the funeral earlier that day, or the ceremony of cleansing afterward. He was a spectre, doomed to observe from a distance and never feel a part of the real world again.

‘Grim, isn’t it?’ a gravelly voice muttered. ‘Too grim for times like these, anyhow.’

Aleks saw a huge bulk set itself down beside him and immediately knew who the voice belonged to. He smiled.

Writing by Quotes – Discworld

 

Discworld

I told you the next post today was going to be good, didn’t I? Welcome to the third installment of Writing by Quotes! When I was trying to decide which work of fantasy to focus on today, I considered Warcraft. I know it’s fantasy, but I think it would be nice to focus only on written works (and their movie adaptations) rather than video games. So, today we’ll explore the whimsical world of Discworld!

Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting ‘All gods are bastards’.

~ The Colour of Magic

This wonderful quote comes from the first installment in the Discworld series. It’s the first one I read and still a great read now. I love this quote because it’s very Monty Python-esque and makes me chuckle each time I read it. If we applied it to writing, I think the major piece of advice to take from it would be to think of this when you’re writing characters. Sometimes, characters do stupid things. Really stupid things. Usually it’s just a part of their personality, but other times it’ll be the author’s fault. If your character taunts gods and evil guys without a care for his safety, he should get obliterated. Be careful what your protagonist does…

Demons have existed on the Discworld for at least as long as the gods, who in many ways they closely resemble. The difference is basically the same as between terrorists and freedom fighters.

~ Eric

This same comparison can be applied to protagonists and antagonists (good ones, anyway). It’s good to paint characters in shades of grey and make the reader question who’s got the moral high ground and who hasn’t. If characters are falling a little flat and lacking depth, add a bit of uncertainty and make them question their own actions.

Death

‘You know me,’ said Rincewind. ‘Just when I’m getting a grip on something Fate comes along and jumps on my fingers.’

~ Interesting Times

A brilliant quote which explains what we as writers do to our protagonists to keep things interesting. If the goal is too easily achieved, we lose interest, don’t we? Make it difficult–make it brutal, even–and the readers will thank you for it even if your characters don’t.

Librarian

‘Look out of the window. Tell me what you see.’
‘Fog,’ said the Chief Priest.
Vetinari sighed. Sometimes the weather had no sense of narrative convenience.

~ The Truth

I have to say, I love this. It reminds us as writers that the world carries on around your characters when they’re going about their business. Things shouldn’t just work out perfectly all the time. Maybe your characters are going to have a walk under a clear, starry sky? Well, maybe that night there’s a storm and the characters have to find shelter instead. There might even be a greater opportunity for development in such a situation. Think about it.

‘In a world where we all move in curves he proceeds in a straight line. And going straight in a world of curves makes things happen.’

~ Night Watch

Why write a meandering, round-the-houses story, when you can get straight to the point and whack your reader in the face with a tonne of action, mystery and intrigue? Just imagine how much quicker you can write and how much better it could be if you head in a straight line? I’m not saying you should cut corners, but you can always stand to streamline the way you write.

The Novel That Didn’t Write Itself

Today I want to share a story with you all. I hope you all get something from it.

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Fantasy In Motion Presents…

A Fantasy In Motion Production…

From the guy who writes this blog…

Critics are calling it “Get out of my office before I call security”…

The Novel That Didn’t Write Itself

One day there was a novel. Well, there would have been one if it had been written. It existed, but only in spirit.

So, one day there was a novel’s spirit. This particular spirit wanted to be a fantasy novel. It was full of fantastic things like dragons, epic journeys and little furry, squeaky things that nobody really knows the name of. Since it had first been dreamed up, it had always wanted to be a novel and nothing else. Not a racing driver. Not an astronaut. Not a movie star. It was a novel’s spirit and being a novel was all it had going for it.

But there was a problem.

There was an evil writer called Zanniberous Zanzini VI (let’s just call him Zan). All his life he had been mocked because of his name and so he vowed that one day he would name a character after himself and nobody would ever laugh at him again. So, he started writing a novel. He’d planned it well, created a believable world and invented brilliant characters. It was going to be a success. He was going to be a success!

One fateful day, however, he stopped writing. He played video games, he read books and he watched TV… but he didn’t write his novel. Every day, he went online and read about other authors. He read their blogs, their interviews and devoured every bit of advice they threw out there. Zan was ravenous. He was going to have all that one day. He just knew it. But every time he sat down to write, he thought of something else he could be doing instead. Maybe I can just complete that level on Halo first? There’s a ton of TV I need to catch up on… maybe I could do that for an hour first? Every time he thought about playing games or anything else, he lost interest in writing.

And so this cycle continued.

With every day that passed, the novel’s spirit grew weaker. No new ideas were flowing into it. It was dying. Every time Zan’s computer started up, the novel’s spirit looked to him for help. It tried to stand out, to make its desktop folder look inviting. But Zan always ignored it and loaded up a game instead.

Curse these games with their characters made out of pixels, their empty promises of engaging stories and their drug-like addictiveness! the spirit thought. What makes them so much more interesting than me?

From then on, the spirit would watch Zan from beneath a deep stack of folders. It would watch as the writer created new stories and dreamed up new ideas, only to consign them to an ever-growing folder called ABANDONED. The novel’s spirit would talk to the other hollow spirits and learn about their time spent with Zan.

‘I was going to be about a secret agent and a thrilling race against time!’ one said. ‘But then he just left me half-way through the first chapter and he never touched me again.’

‘He promised me the world!’ another cried. ‘He named me “The Ultimate Story”. He came up with all sorts of maps, histories and designs for me, but he… he didn’t even start writing.’

It was summer now. ABANDONED had grown over the past year and it had become a dangerous and confusing place. The spirits all peered out from their hiding places and watched as Zan loaded up a new file and gave it a name. The writer looked tired now, drained even. He started to type something and then stopped. He deleted the letters, stabbing at the backspace key with venom. He moved the mouse and hovered over the ABANDONED folder. His eyes were full of memories, hopes and desires. He looked at the folder and sadness showed on his face. Suddenly, he threw the mouse at the wall, kicked away his chair and stormed from the room.

Weeks, months and then years passed by with no sign of Zan. Eventually, some men in blue uniforms came and started removing things from the room. One of them leaned over and looked at the screen. The novel spirits looked back at him hopefully.

‘Hey look at this, Stevens!’ the man said, waving over his friend.

‘Jesus,’ Stevens muttered, staring at the computer screen. ‘This guy was the big time, wasn’t he?’

‘Yeah,’ the other said. ‘He was big time alright. A big time nut job.’

The men both laughed and walked away, carrying armfuls of Zan’s belongings between them. The spirits of ABANDONED all looked out at Zan’s desktop and gasped when they saw the wallpaper. It read: “Zanniberous Zanzini VI is a bestselling author from Manhattan, NY. He lives with his–” the words stopped there. Across the writing, the words “THE END” had been drawn hundreds of times in blood-red.

Zan was never published. He never even finished a story. The police found him dead in his bathtub, clutching a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing to his chest.

He never learned the most important lesson of all: novels don’t write themselves. So, if you sit there ignoring your novel’s spirit day after day, playing games to help you block out the nagging voice in your head, remember Zan’s fate and change your life today with one simple step. Write. Even if it’s terrible, embarrassing or full of spelling mistakes, just write. After all, nobody’s going to write your story for you, are they?

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And you thought it was going to be lighthearted the whole way through, didn’t you? Well, sometimes life is funny and then sometimes its not. That story was based on nobody real (thankfully!) but it was very loosely inspired by my own experiences over the last few years. I’ve only recently managed to get it together and actually devote myself to one story and know that I will finish it at some point. I’ve never gotten particularly frustrated or down over my lack of progress (I’m a pretty level-headed person) but I always wished that I would just finish at least one full-length novel.

I hope you enjoyed the story. Leave me your thoughts!

Writing in Colour

Yesterday, as I was typing up a scene for my novel-in-progress, I realised that I had included a lot of descriptions/use of colour. The scene itself is set indoors, in a rather dimly lit room, so all the colours were dark and kind of “grimy”. I described an antagonist’s ink-black eyes, a non-human bodyguard’s clay-coloured skin and the blazing hearth which seems to glow a murky grey-brown. It’s the first draft still, so I didn’t look back over it, lest I realise that it’s utter drivel and consign it to the Writing 2012 folder on my desktop. I knew the descriptions were not up to par and I was just getting the images in my head down on paper. I also immediately thought: Wow, that’s a lot of colours I’ve just written about.

A Dimly Lit Room

But then, this morning, I got thinking. Colours are important. I know that in fiction sometimes less is more, but I enjoyed describing these different colours and working them into the scene. After reading it all the way through, the reader should have a fusion of black, rust-brown and copper in their head and they’ll paint everything else that they read about in the scene with those colours. Everything except the protagonist, of course. This is where the power of colour comes into play…

Think about Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the Grey merges into everything around him. He’s a neutral colour in the world of Middle-earth and nobody really considers him anyone to be amazed by. Then he becomes Gandalf the White and suddenly he’s transformed. Now he’s an infinitely wise prophet who rides a white steed and blinds the enemy with his pureness. He stands out, because nothing else in the world is white, until you get to Minas Tirith, which is then led in its defence by none other than Gandalf. When you first meet Saruman (at least in the movies) you see that he has hints of black in his beard and his robes are kind of cream/dull white–there are hints of his corruption by Sauron already.

Gandalf

In my own story, my protagonist’s primary colours are midnight blue and a vivid red. Nobody else in the story dresses in those colours–they are rare, foreign and reserved for my protagonist. I like to build colour themes around certain groups of characters. My antagonist and his henchmen, for instance, constantly suggest at black, muted browns and oranges. Another character is strongly accompanied by dark green and fiery orange-red. See, there’s the kicker: she has some elements of the antagonist’s colours and the protagonists–is she a friend or a foe? Can she be trusted? The green elements suggest she stands on her own, that she’s wild and independent.

What do you think? How important do you feel colours are when writing?

What is a Fantasy Cliche?

So, have you ever really considered this question? If I asked you to give me an example and explain why it’s a cliche, could you?

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

Archetype is another word you often see cropping up in fantasy-related discussions:

An archetype is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures. Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense, “mother figure” may be considered an archetype, and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities.

Image

Here’s a list of classic fantasy cliches and archetypes:

  • The quest story
  • Stupid barbarians/old wizards
  • An object that holds the power to destroy great evil
  • Evil without a reason
  • Orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.
  • The chosen one/orphan
  • Prophecies
  • Lack of strong females
  • Drawn out fights
  • Characters who never get injured in battle
  • Unpronounceable names
  • Invented language systems

So, if we think logically, if we invert those cliches, we should get some pretty original stuff, right?

  • Smart barbarians/young wizards
  • Evil with a reason
  • No fantasy species, only humans
  • Lots of strong females
  • Short, bloody fights
  • Protagonist frequently injured
  • Realistic names

Yeah… the problem is, a lot of those have been done to death too. Sometimes badly, sometimes well.

Image

How do we be original?

The trick is, taking a cliche or archetype and tweaking it very slightly. It’s a really nice psychological ruse. Just have a think about all your favourite stories/games/movies – do you know how they tweaked a stereotype or overused idea? Here’s a few ways in which a small change can have a big effect:

  • A young boy is destined to defeat a great evil, but he doesn’t discover this until he has grown older. Now a middle-aged wizard, he must fulfill is true purpose.
  • A stupid barbarian and a clever thief – a classic team, right? Not this time. The barbarian is a master thief in disguise and uses his deception to confidence trick others.
  • Elves, orcs and dwarves dominate the surface world. Humanity dwindles. But now it has a chance. Empowered by a powerful wizard, humans acquire potent new abilities and take the fight to their sadistic oppressors.

Even just taking a story like Star Wars and swapping out Luke Skywalker for an advanced servant droid who is destined to defeat the Empire, the whole dynamic of the story changes. How will he interact with C-3PO and R2-D2? Will he fight for more rights for droids in the galaxy? Will he see humans as his slavers? We could even have followed Darth Vader as an antihero and it would have made the story entirely different.

What’s the lesson?

You don’t always have to come up with a completely original idea – in fact, I believe there are no truly original ideas and there never were. Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed. The key is how to make something feel original by putting your own twist on it and creating intriguing characters.

The Best Laid Plans of a Writer

Writer's Stop

Right, let’s get back on track with some posts about writing. After all, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? 🙂

Now, today I want to talk about planning. First, let me start out with a little story:

One day, there was a writer who didn’t like to plan. He had loads of ideas swirling around in his head and he wanted to write everything! But each time he would think of a story to write, when he sat down and started typing out the first chapter, he realisedhe didn’t know what would happen next.

‘Oh, bugger!’ he cried. ‘Oh well, never mind. I’ll just write something else.’

And so he was stuck in an eternal loop of unfinished stories and unfulfilled dreams of being a published author.

Yeah, that’s right, that was me. Until a few months ago, that is…

‘What happened a few months ago?’ I hear you ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

I learned to plan.

It’s not a particularly easy thing for a writer to acknowledge, but I knew deep down that my writing was suffering from a lack of planning and I am by no means a naturally gifted and “special” writer who can just rush through a story without anything to show them the way. You know what those sorts of people are called? Pantsers. That’s what us writery types call them, anyway.

Here’s the official definition of the word. *cough* taken from urban dictionary *cough*:

Pantser

A NaNoWriMo term that means that you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ when you are writing your novel. You have nothing but the absolute basics planned out for your novel.
This outlook towards writing is often opposed by the ‘planner’, who knows exactly what is going to happen, when it will happen, and where it will happen. There is often enmity between the two types of writers.
Another pantser?! Seriously, GTFO.

Take note of the second paragraph. Planner. That is what you should aspire to, more or less.

I hate planning, I will admit that, but it does have HUGE benefits. Take a look at this example:

Chapter One

  • Swordfight / conflict
  • Rain
  • Slippery footing
  • Main char – discussion about amulet
  • Discovers amulet’s power / destiny
  • Attacked by assassins
  • Almost poisoned – fear
  • Escapes with amulet into city
  • Who do the assassins belong to? Who wants him dead?

That’s it. That is as much as I write about any one chapter. I tried out this method after browsing the web on the search for planning advice. Before, I had stuck to strict play-by-play summaries of each chapter and I’d always burned out and got bored. I like it when there’s still a lot of freedom to move in my writing. Think of each bullet point as an island and imagine there’s just blank space in between each one. That blank space is where you can really use your imagination and play around as much as you like. So long as you stick to the bullet points and hit each one of them at some point, you can’t go wrong. I guarantee it. Just make sure you have a few points that conjure up an image and set the scene, a few points that deal with the plot and character’s progression and then a couple that are just action/movement and finally one that asks a question for the chapter to end on and draw the reader deeper into your story.

As for the overall structure of the plot, I approach it like so. This is advice I adapted from Michael Moorcock’s brilliant How to Write a Book in Three Days, by the way:

Part 1 – Hit the hero with a heap of trouble. Give them a problem to overcome. Give them a reason to try to overcome it.

Part 2 – Increase the trouble that the hero is facing. Give him more crap to deal with. Keep giving him a personal reason to keep trying to overcome it.

Part 3 – Put your hero in so much trouble that the reader isn’t sure he’ll survive it. Break him, bash him about, make him beg for mercy.

Part 4 – Find a way for your hero to triumph. Tie up any loose ends. Provide a satisfying conclusion.

All you need do is fit your chapter plans in and around those four parts and you’re already halfway to the finish line.

My Top Ten Planning Tips

  1. Whenever you feel lost or don’t know what to write, just look at your chapter plan and make sure you’re sticking to each bullet point.
  2. Cover everything and don’t try to rush.
  3. If your characters insist on going in a different direction, stop and plan ahead a few more chapters to see if it works.
  4. Make sure that you have the ending already planned out.
  5. Plan out at least one chapter from the middle of your story. Make it an event/scene you really want to write.
  6. Make sure all your characters and their motivations/goals are clear in your mind before you plan.
  7. Think of a few objects and images that will form the visual theme of your story. Incorporate these elements into your plot.
  8. Don’t plan out every single chapter before you start writing (unless you enjoy planning). Most likely a lot will change as you delve into the first chapters of your story and you’ll only demoralise yourself. Plan ahead by two or three chapters at all times.
  9. Equally, make sure you have the entire journey/arc of your story clear in your mind. Just in very basic forms (e.g. amulet discovered, hero goes on journey to east, takes part in huge battle against demons, confronts antagonist in ruined temple).
  10. Enjoy your writing! The best advice I can give you is to write what you find interesting and fun. If you’re bored writing it, people will be bored reading it. That’s the secret to writing well.

What do you reckon? Got any of your own planning tips or stories to share? Are you a pantser or a planner?

Cementing a Character Through Description

I was thinking about character description this morning. You may have noticed I’m heavily into characters at the moment, as I’m developing my entire cast for my novel in detail at the moment. Anyway, I was thinking that in order to “cement” a character in the reader’s head and make them come alive, you need to build three layers of description.

  1. The Physical Description
  2. The Shining Personality
  3. The Memorable Action

You can achieve any of these three steps via dialogue or narrative. The idea is to create an image in the reader’s head, then build on that by attaching a personality to it and then cement it in place by making the character do something memorable and fitting.

Here’s an example from Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve highlighted the three layers in corresponding colours:

Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.

–LATER–

“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”

Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.

“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.

Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.

“Tut, tut — fame clearly isn’t everything.”

As you can see, the three layers don’t necessarily have to be in any set framework or order, but it does help. Here’s an example of my own:

Jemima Wattlefrock was a plump old lady with rosy cheeks, kind eyes and a way about her that reminded Nicholas of a hen, fussing about her chicks.

‘Good day, Master Fisher!’ Jemima cried. ‘Oh, it’s so won’erful to see you at last. Me an’ the animals ‘ave been so lonely ‘ere by ourselves.’

Lifting her skirts off the ground, she bustled around Nicholas, as if herding him inside the old farmhouse, and clucked madly as one of her flocks of chickens pecked excitedly around their feet, searching for nonexistent seed.

In the first part, we get a nice description of Jemima from Nicholas’ viewpoint and he compares her to a hen, making the description stick in our minds. It’s the same as when an author describes a character as “lithe, powerful and keen as a wolf stalking its prey“. Because the physical description relates to something we know from our lives (or at least have heard about/seen on TV) we can better picture that character.

In the second section, we get a glimpse of the character’s personality through dialogue. She’s obviously very friendly and excited to have a guest. From her manner of speech and what she says, we guess she lives in the countryside and might not be that intelligent. So, now we have a bit of personality attached to that original description.

Lastly, the memorable action. This is perhaps the most important step, because as we all know: “actions speak louder than words”. From one simple but memorable action, we can get a sense of a character’s attitude towards others, their motives, whether they’re trustworthy or not, etc. etc. If you’re clever as a writer, you can even foreshadow a character’s future within the story by carefully lacing their memorable action with clues.

So, you see, characters come alive better when they have layers of description, not just one flat and dull paragraph detailing their eye colour, hair length and what type of boots they’re wearing. If you haven’t already, give this technique a go when you next introduce a character and see how it works for you. If it makes it easier, highlight the three layers in different colours and you’ll soon start to notice them in most author’s work, too.

Have you got any techniques of your own for describing characters? What do you think makes a character stick in our memory?

What To Do When You Lose Interest

It’s happened to all of us. You get a story all planned out, you create the world, the characters, the set-pieces and you storm through the first few chapters. ‘Excellent,’ you say, ‘this is really going somewhere.’ But then it happens. You lose interest.

Then what do you do? You start writing something else. Whoa, hold on! That’s the last thing you want to be doing. I should know, I’ve done it more times than I can count on an octopus’ fingers (if they had fingers).

I want you all to be honest. If you’ve ever done this before, leave a comment on this post with a simple “Yes”. The first step to breaking this nasty cycle is admitting that you do it.

The second thing you need to do once you’ve acknowledged your habit is to go back to that story that you now supposedly “hate” and find out where it went wrong. You may think you don’t need to do this, but you really do. What you need to do is run through this checklist and make sure that your story has all of these things:

  1. A clear theme (e.g. betrayal, the human spirit, love)
  2. A plan for a beginning, middle and end
  3. At least one central character who is interesting to read about
  4. A conflict that makes people care about the outcome
  5. A change/progression in your main characters

If you feel that your story was missing any of the above elements, go back and fix it.

If none of those things were missing, then there might be an even simpler solution: swap something around. This can often make all the difference. Here’s an example:

Hero A is honest, charming and kind. Villain B is selfish, impulsive and brooding.

Now, if we change things around a little, things become a touch more interesting:

Hero A is brooding and impulsive but also kind. Villain B is honest and charming but also selfish.

Immediately, we’ve blurred the lines between what’s “good” and what’s not and made the characters much deeper.

So, next time your story starts to flounder and you feel yourself switching off, try the techniques above and play around with what you have. Remember, just have fun with it!