What I’m Reading – July 2012

I thought I’d talk a little about what I’m reading at the moment. Usually, I’m known for not reading much at all and taking ages to get through a book. Recently, however, I’ve decided to make amends for that and I am now reading four books!

A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)

This one I keep in the living room downstairs and read whenever television is uninteresting enough to allow me. I’m currently about a third of the way through and am just finding out more about the former Hand (Jon Arryn) and his mysterious death. It’s really fantastically written and it’s going to be really hard not to go and pick up the second in the series straight away. As a writer, I try to read a variety of authors so that I experience as many styles and stories as possible. As a reader, however, I just plain love the story!

Empire of the Saviours (A. J. Dalton)

This one was given to me as a birthday gift by my lovely wife. It’s a typical epic fantasy with a young boy who must leave his parents and go out into the world to make it alone. However, there are two other viewpoint characters who really change up the formula and offer something fresh. I’m only 48 pages in at the moment, so have only read the chapters for Jillan and Freda so far. Let me tell you, Freda is really something original and different. Go and read a snippet on Amazon and see what you think.Elric of Melnibone

Elric (Michael Moorcock)

Of course, a classic tale that needs no other introduction. I loved reading the Conan stories, have yet to pick up Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and have read a lot of sword & sorcery in the form of fan fic, Warhammer novels and game-based fiction. Simply put, Elric is fantastic. Go check it out.

Pregnancy For Men (Mark Woods)

This one’s my non-fiction bedtime reading at the moment. The title says it all – it’s about pregnancy. It’s actually pretty funny and interesting. I’ll be a father in November, so I need to get this one tackled quickly!

What are you all reading at the moment? You can share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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?

Learning From “A Game of Thrones”

English: Part of the A Game Of Thrones board g...

Who would have thought not having the internet at home would be so limiting? Roll on next week so I can get my posting back on track! Anyway, today’s post is going to take two forms: a quick review/update on the book, A Game of Thrones, as I now near the halfway mark and a few points about what I’ve been able to take and learn from it.

The Review

When I first starting reading A Game of Thrones, I was a little apprehensive. I’ve read a lot of badly crafted fantasy over the years, interspersed with some absolutely brilliant fantasy. More often than not, I abandon reading a novel if I don’t feel a connection or reason to keep reading – it’s a bad habit and it’s one I’m working on breaking. Why? Because every piece of writing has the power to teach me something about my own and even bad writing is worth reading. The reason I was apprehensive to read Martin’s (George R. R.) book is because I feared it wouldn’t draw me in and I’d be abandoning it in short order, forever tarnishing me as The One Who Never Finished A Game Of Thrones. I’d be very likely torn apart, chewed up and spit out by every fantasy community on the internet.

It’s lucky, then, that I now find myself… addicted!

Why am I finding myself unable to stop thinking about Martin’s world? Is it because his plot keeps delivering and taking on new twists when you least expect it? Perhaps. Is it the rich lore and history that he’s weaved into the fabric of Westeros? Maybe. Is it the characters, with their very human ambitions, fears and secrets? Definitely.

I suppose it comes from the author having been a screenwriter, but I find his dialogue is also one of the main things that I’m impressed with. It’s not like reading a book (you know, on paper and stuff), but it’s like listening to a really good audio book. All the dialogue feels so natural and each line fits perfectly. There’s no obvious infodumps or monologues. These people are as real as you’d want and they’re just speaking how they would if you met them. This is the mark of a good author – the ability to make everything seem so natural and un-forced that you leave the real world each time you read and actually inhabit the fantasy world itself.

Hopefully I’ll make steady progress through the last half and then I’ll share my final thoughts. I’m 99.9% sure it’s going to be all positive.

The Lesson (In Summary)

  1. Direwolves hate dwarfs
  2. Dothraki are all sex, sex, sex
  3. Arya Stark is more interesting than she first appears
  4. Jon Snow shows great potential
  5. The Lannisters cannot be trusted

Here’s a list of the book’s viewpoint characters, from my favourite to my least:

Tyrion Lannister

Jon Snow

Bran Stark

Arya Stark

Daenerys Targaryen

Ned Stark

Sansa Stark

Catelyn Stark

Come on, let’s hear who your favourite Song of Ice and Fire character is!

Author Interview: Zacharias O’Bryan

Right, I’m back in business, although I don’t get internet at my new place for a while yet 😦 So, we have a brand new interview for you today. I really hope everyone’s enjoying this series and getting as much enjoyment from it as I am. Next week, I’m going to leave another short break and I’ll put up a special article instead. Following that, however, we’ll have two more authors on the blog which you will not want to miss! Please enjoy.

Zacharias O'BryanZacharias O’Bryan is the author of Spirit Thorn, a scifi/fantasy story which brings together some interesting and original elements. Keep reading for more from Zacharias and to find out more about his writing! Continue reading

It’s Moving Time!

Over the next few days, I’m going to be dropping activity as I’m currently moving house back in the real world! In case you get bored while I’m gone, here’s a list of fun stuff you should do:

  1. Go check out Cyanide and Happiness (just Google it). It’s a brilliant webcomic that inspired me to create my own. Beware, if you’re easily offended, steer well clear.
  2. Check out the new Our Picks feature via the sidebar on the right side of the blog. There’s some nice articles and advice for all you aspiring authors out there!
  3. Visit SFF World – it’s a great site with author interviews, book reviews and a lively forum – perfect for every scifi/fantasy enthusiast.
  4. Try saying the following words/phrases ten times in a row, as fast as you can. Tell me which one ends up sounding the rudest: Lipstick / Kentucky Fried Chicken / Muffle Trucker
  5. Write a nice little story under 300 words and post it up here in the comments!
  6. Got any tips/advice for newcomers to the blog? Why not drop them in the comments section for them to read through?

See you guys shortly!

~ James

New Blog Feature – “Our Picks”

If you have sharp eyes, you will have noticed a new feature that I’ve worked on bringing to the blog today. It’s called “Our Picks” and you can find it on the sidebar just underneath the spiel about me. Basically, it’s a series of “post collections”, designed to cover topics such as How to Write Great Characters or Learning From Other Authors. I really hope you’ll all check them out and find them to be of use and interest.

A smaller modification I’ve made today is in the navbar (above). I’ve made it a little easier to navigate by making all of the pages you can visit visible on the drop-down list. A few people told me they weren’t aware that the button itself lead to a page and were only looking at the drop-down options.

If you have any comments/concerns about the blog’s layout or content, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

Cheers!

 

Author Interview: Orson T. Badger

Hi everyone! Today, we’ve got another author interview for you.

Orson T. Badger is a scifi/fantasy author whose work includes elements of the space opera, thriller and horror genres. I really hope you’ll enjoy reading the interview he gave and please leave your comments below!

ba7fd71760fa0ad8976f9a.L._V399596268_SX200_

* * *

Hi Orson, thanks very much for joining us.

My pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

When would you say you first considered writing fiction? Was it a conscious decision or something you had always done? Continue reading

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!

Writing Catchup: 15th May 2012

For your pleasure today I have brought together a collection of blog posts and articles that cover everything fantasy writing related.

I will also share with you a brief update on my own writing progress. I wrote a really nice scene over the past few days which takes place in a subterranean living stronghold that is home to one of my world’s non-human species. Without giving anything away, one of the central characters arrives there after a long time away and discovers that things have taken a disturbing turn for the worse in his absence.

Here is a very short snippet of dialogue from the scene that teases at what’s going on. This is first draft quality, so be kind 😉

‘Haven’t time?’ she said. ‘You have boundless time. Why come back to this world, the place of your making, when there is so much more out there? A tree grows from its roots; it does not grow back down to them again.’

Hope you enjoy the articles below!

Writing by Quotes – Conan the Barbarian

 

Conan Picture

I’ve been promising another Writing by Quotes article for quite some time. It seemed to be a popular feature and I’m glad to indulge you. Today, I’m going to be pulling quotes from the Conan books and films and explore how the quotes can also relate to writing. Wish me luck, here we go!

Conan: You have a name?
Tamara: Tamara Amalia Jorvi-Karashan. And yours?
Conan: Conan.
Tamara: [pause] Conan… that’s it?
Conan: How many names do I need?

~ Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Let’s start with a simple one. This quote was crying out to be included in this article. Simply put, it’s talking about names."Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-... You’ve all seen those ridiculous fantasy names before and you’ve heard all sorts of advice as to whether you should invent surnames or titles for your characters. I say, it depends on the character you’re writing. Conan is the best example of a character with only one name: Conan. It just works so well and it’s all you need.

“You cannot escape me!” he roared. “Lead me into a trap and I’ll pile the heads of your kinsmen at your feet! Hide from me and I’ll tear apart the mountains to find you! I’ll follow you to hell!”

~ The Coming of Conan (1953)

This is the attitude you need to take towards your plot as you are writing. Plots can be devious things and they can easily catch you off-guard when you least expect it. So, if your plot leads you into a trap, pile the heads of its kinsmen at its feet! If it hides from you, tear apart the mountains to find it! In other words, follow it to hell! By the way, if you’re actually running around your house screaming the above quote at your manuscript, I think you need help. Also, my name’s not James, it’s Fred and I live at 123 Fake Street… you nutcase.

King Osric: What daring! What outrageousness! What insolence! What arrogance!… I salute you.

~ Conan the Barbarian (1982)

ConanI couldn’t resist including a quote from the Arnie movies. Some loved them, others hated them. I, personally, loved them. The quote above kind of sums up those early movies. They were doing their own thing with the character of Conan. Maybe they didn’t do it the full justice it deserved, but they certainly have to be saluted for trying. The same goes for writing a novel. Many novels are written with a certain arrogance, daring or outrageousness. People may end up hating them, but if they succeed and people buy them… well, we salute them.

Wits and swords are as straws against the wisdom of the Darkness…

~ The Phoenix on the Sword (1932)

Every story has good and evil, no matter how you dress it up and tell me it’s “grey”. More often that not, the evil in a story can seem far superior, wiser and stronger. Not even a hero’s blade or a wizard’s magic seem to be able to stand against it. However, look at that quote again. What do straws do? They suck stuff up, like a vacuum cleaner. So, when the obvious means of fighting seem useless, look a little closer and see what else you can do. If the Darkness wants to try and defeat an army of deadly straws, I think we all know it’s going to lose. You can take this lesson and apply it to your plot. If the hero’s first line of attack fails, look outside the box and see what else he can do. Surprise yourself and you surprise your reader too.

Expect another of these articles very soon…

As for tomorrow’s post on Fantasy In Motion, I have something really special lined up for you. Check back tomorrow to find out what it is!

LFG: Groups, Bands & Fellowships in Fantasy Fiction

The Fellowship

For those of you who noticed and understood the little gaming reference in the title… grats. For those of you reading this with question marks over your head: LFG = Looking For Group. If you are still clueless, that’s just tough luck. I’m going to carry on regardless! Mwahaha!

This article is going to look at groups in fantasy fiction. By this, I’m referring to either of the below:

  • The Fellowship of the Ring (Lord of the Rings)
  • The Black Company(The Black Company)
  • The Gentlemen Bastards (The Lies of Locke Lamora)
  • The Raven (Dawnthief)

There seems to be a whole sub-genre in fantasy that consists of these sorts of stories. Many of them are not blatantly ‘group fantasy’ (i.e. LOTR) but they equally rely on the group dynamic for much of their conflict. I personally love these sorts of stories. After a while, you feel like you’ve become a member of these groups and the banter and kinship soon has you investing a lot emotionally in the stories.

Now, groups in fantasy, the way I see it, are usually defined by ‘jobs’. Just think of the Fellowship of the Ring. If we had to categorize the members in terms of traditional fantasy roles, we’d do it like this:

  • Gandalf – Wizard
  • Boromir, Aragorn, Gimli – Warrior
  • Legolas – Ranger
  • The Hobbits – Warrior/Rogue interchangeably

You may disagree with the roles above, but the general consensus is usually the same. The way I see it, there are these types of ‘epic fantasy’ which involve a lot of roles together and then there are others where you just get a group of mercenaries/thieves and they all inhabit a very similar role.

Names

Some authors go with giving their group members realistic names with regards to their fantasy world. Others go with nicknames or ‘squad names’. Some examples are The Unknown Warrior, Sergeant Whiskeyjack and Croaker. I’m not sure which I prefer; a mixture of both maybe? Giving a character a nickname makes them instantly memorable, but it can also have the effect of making the characters appear two-dimensional and lacking, unless the author takes steps to develop them well.

Banter

The dialogue between members of fantasy groups is perhaps one of the key things that fixates a reader so aptly. It’s not an easy thing to pull off easily, as good banter and heart develops when people have been together for a long time and they’re used to each others’ company. To emulate that as a writer means that you need to really know the characters in the group and make sure their personalities bounce off one another.

The Quest

Nothing can wreck a story like the actual story itself. It doesn’t matter if a fantasy group is the best one ever put together, if the plot sucks and they have no real reason to be together, then it’s going to be a failure. What would the Fellowship have been without Frodo and the Ring? Would Boromir’s death have been as heart-wrenching if he hadn’t first tried to take the Ring and then realised his weakness? The concept that the story revolves around is the key element and it should be fully conceived before doing anything else.

I’d be interested to get all of your thoughts on this subject. So…

What do you think about groups/teams in fantasy fiction? What do you think makes them connect so well with readers? Do you have any favourite quotes you want to share?

Video Games, Violence & Addiction

Today I’m going to blog about something non-writing related in a sense and something that’s very topical at the moment. I was reading about the ongoing trial of Anders Breivik and the revelation that he took a year off work and played World of Warcraft and Call of Duty 16 hours a day in isolation. Now, I consider myself a ‘gamer’ (whatever qualifies me for that title) and I have loved playing video games since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog. I even played WoW for almost 6 years and enjoyed my stints in Battlefield, the CoD series and other shooter titles. Never once did I feel a need to hurt anyone in real life.

The reason I felt like blogging on this subject is because certain people have now come out with the usual cries to ban violent video games. No doubt some parents will be wrenching away the Xbox 360 from their children in disgust or threatening to throw it out the window because they think their child might become a murderer. This, of course, is an extreme view. A lot of parents simply just don’t want their children to become addicted to games and have no life outside of them. I understand this standpoint – I was probably addicted to WoW for a good few years until a year or so ago. Those sorts of games are addictive and they can eventually take over reality. But can they really prepare you for the reality of killing someone in real life? I don’t think so. It takes a certain type of personality and the desire to kill in the first place to drive someone to such an act. It’s interesting – if an avid reader committed murder, would people start blaming his love of crime fiction for preparing him for these crimes? Millions of people watch detective dramas on TV every day, yet the vast majority of viewers don’t feel compelled to copy what they watch. In no way am I defending the acts of such people, I just thought I would offer a viewpoint from within the gaming world on the subject.

I guess I lied when I said this post wasn’t about writing. Well, it’s not really, but there is a valuable point here. Writers can learn from and become inspired by every type of person out there and by every piece of news that makes the headlines. People are complex and so are their motives. Think about that when you next look for inspiration for your work in progress.