The Christmas Tree Approach

A seasonal metaphor for an approach to drafting your story.

I’ve just finished drafting chapter 31 of my current ‘work in progress’. Thirty one chapters! It’s certainly the biggest writing project I’ve ever taken on, and is proving to be quite a challenge. It represents a departure from the kind of storytelling I’ve stuck to in the past, and ultimately is part of a much larger story already mapped out. This is essentially proving to be quite a learning curve for me, and I’d like to share some thoughts on the drafting process, if you’ll indulge me.

In previous works I have adopted an approach to drafting that led to certain complications. I would sometimes strive to get it just the way I wanted it first time, looking to include as much ‘fanciful’ language as possible, which ultimately left entire paragraphs looking convoluted. For this current, very large work, I’m taking on a more bare-bones approach. Now, there is every likelihood that what I’m doing has a very distinct name that has escaped my notice. However, I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Christmas Tree Approach’ to drafting.

Now, for this metaphor to work, I’m afraid it has to be an imitation Christmas tree, not a real one. Sorry if you prefer the genuine article, but let’s keep in mind it’s a metaphorical tree. The reason it has to be an imitation tree is that such trees are usually able to be broken down into sections for storage, and in trees of average size, this means three sections. The larger base, the mid section, and the top.

Or, in writing terms: Beginning, Middle and End. Such is dramatic structure.

The most complex stories in the world can be broken down to these three key sections. When working on this new project, I mapped out the entire story in a very basic, hand written draft. Some of the details have evolved during the later writing process, but the fact remains that the overall structure remains in place. I know how my story begins, the central event in the middle, and how I wish it to end. The three key sections are in place, without which we would not have a story, or indeed a Christmas tree.

Now, with the various Christmas trees I’ve had over the years, once you’ve put it together, you need to go around taking hold of the imitation branches and begin manipulating them into position. Pulling this way and that way, bending up or down as necessary, pluming the tree until it begins to take a more pleasing shape. This, when writing, could be thought of as either the overall editing process, or the little bits of editing we sometimes do while writing.

I have striven to refrain from doing too much editing while still drafting the overall story, but it does happen. A key plot point, or indeed a hole, appears that needs your attention in order for the story to work. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have tried to limit the amount of times I go back over a chapter and start changing too much. Instead, I’ve been keeping notes about various plot points I may wish to address or indeed add once the overall draft is complete. This ultimately allows you to get a fuller picture of the story and where these edits fit in. This is why, ultimately, the pulling about of the branches can be thought of as the process of editing. Getting all the details in place to make sure the story takes shape the way you want it.

Once the basic dramatic structure of the story is in place, and you’ve edited it to make sure it all works, we come to the final stage of our metaphor. Decoration. Every home that celebrates Christmas will have their own way of decorating the tree, and I’m sure there is many an argument to be had over the correct way of doing it. However, for the purposes of this metaphor, you are the only one who gets a say over how you decorate your writing. You are in charge here.

Apart from a few moments of inspiration, in this current draft I have not been too worried if some of my dialogue or prose comes across a bit flat. What I have been focusing on, in the overall draft and the little bits of editing is the fundamental point of each chapter. What is it I want the character to say or do in this moment? What, on a basic level, is happening? This is ultimately part of making sure the story works in its entirety before you go about beautifying it. During the editing process, once you’ve filled in any plot holes you find, you can go back and look at what you’ve said and ask yourself one question: how can I say this better?

This is where you can allow yourself to have some fun and get truly creative. Play with how a character speaks and how they behave in order to craft that sense of individuality that is going to make your reader identify with them. Take that bit of dialogue and jazz it up a bit, so long as the underlying message remains. Find a better way of describing what is going on so that your reader is transported into the scenario without the event itself being lost in description.

Many writers struggle with the notion that their first draft has to be near-enough perfect. They will strive to make sure it all sounds wonderful from the get-go but risk sacrificing the story in the process. I know, I’ve done it myself. Like most of us, I’m learning as I go along. No approach to writing is going to work for everyone, but I’m certainly finding that this is currently working for me. I’ve experienced a sense of flow in my writing that I’ve not felt for a while, and it’s allowed me to persevere with a project larger than anything I’ve taken on before. I focus on the essence of the story first, then seek to beautify it later.

Essentially, one cannot decorate a Christmas tree without first putting it together and pulling all the branches here, there and everywhere. The fun comes in making it look pretty, but you have to do the boring bit first.

I hope this has at least made some sense to you all, and in some cases actually proved useful!

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 3

Volume 3 in my World Building series of blogs, looking at the nature of belief in a fantasy setting.

I’ll start by acknowledging the fairly lengthy gap between this blog and the last in this series. It’s been a long time. There, consider it acknowledged. Truth be told, I started a new part time job back in October which has meant my blogging efforts (such as they are) have taken a back seat. In all fairness to myself, I have also been very busy actually writing. Indeed, the very project that prompted this series of blogs on world building is coming along nicely.

A swift reminder, folks, that this series of blogs is to document my own experiences and discoveries when taking on the creation of a whole fantasy world, and should not necessarily be taken as expertise. One day, perhaps, but for now I am stumbling through and trying to make as much sense of it all as I can. Nothing new there.

This particular entry shall focus on the subjects of belief, faith and organised religion. The chapter I just finished drafting has my main character come face to face with the equivalent of a demon in his world. I may even go so far as to say the devil himself. Obviously I don’t wish to give too much away regarding this particular project, but suffice to say the being he comes across is not quite what it seems, or what my main character expected. This got me thinking as to the nature of belief.

My current project is being written, by and large, in the first person. My main character is reflecting on his life, during which his beliefs have undergone a great many changes, mostly as a result of his experiences. What I have found tricky recently is reflecting this in my character’s voice. He must describe his actions, his feelings and his beliefs as they were at that time in his life. The fact that he is recounting the events after many years could, if I am not careful, lead to too much being given away about how he will change throughout the story. So far I believe I have avoided this, but no doubt some points will be picked up in editing. That’s what it’s for.

So, without giving too much away here and now, just what are my main character’s beliefs? As a child, he listened to the sermons he was required to, and was forbidden from speaking of the devils he would later meet in person. He had, in my view, a child’s faith, but one with room to erode over time. He comes across many more devout than him, some of whom would not have coped with the experiences he ends up having, simply because their faith would not allow them to. My main character ends up conversing with both angels and demons, and discovers that the lines between them are blurred.

This might all sound a little woolly, but I firmly believe that it better reflects the full and in many ways true nature of belief. There are always those who believe more resolutely than others. Some people’s beliefs change over time and find their faith either growing stronger or waning. Some will hold firm to their beliefs, seemingly no matter what. Of course this is not always limited to religious beliefs, but for the purpose of this blog, we are very much discussing the main religion of the world I have set out to create.

When creating a whole culture, it is far too simplistic to say that everyone within that culture believes the same thing, or even if they all follow the same religion that they all follow it with equal devotion. You will always have your silent doubters, unwilling to speak up about their misgivings. Then there are the shallow, paying lip service to a system when it suits them. You will also get those who seek to use religion to further their own ends. Take a good look around our own world and tell me I’m wrong.

Then, of course, there will always be the equivalent of atheists. Those who reject the dominant belief system entirely. Then you’ve also got those who interpret the dominant belief system differently to others. Again, take a look at our own world and you’ll see what I mean. When crafting the religion of a whole new world, I believe it is important to reflect the nature of belief. Your characters live in this world, but they are not automatons. They each see the world differently, and will have their own thoughts and levels of belief. To have everyone believe precisely the same thing is robbing yourself of the chance for great conflict.

So, with all this in mind, what are some of the things to consider when crafting a religion in a fantasy setting? Again, remember that these are just my own thoughts on what I’ve done so far. You’ll find no theological degree attached to my name, but here we go just the same.

In any organised religion, there is a structure. A hierarchy. The person at the top. In my case, it is a race of beings seen and spoken to only by one person at a time, the Warlock Emperor. These beings, these angels, select one person to rule over the empire, their chosen representative. They do not present as omnipresent gods, however, more like guides or teachers. Their choice of emperor, however, is absolute and to suggest that their choice is flawed would be considered heresy of the worst kind. The Warlock Emperor sits atop the throne, commanding both the civil and religious bodies of the empire.

Of course, as with any religion, the ministers and followers are organised. In my world, there is the Congregate, the body that administers the teachings of these higher beings to the masses. Of course, there are plenty of names to give to such religious bodies, all of which can sound grand or intimidating when spoken by a character with enough reverence. I went with ‘Congregate’ to suggest a more humble purpose, but the reality is quite different. Once again I’m verging on giving too much away, and this first draft isn’t even finished yet.

Within this religious body I’ve created, there are the ministers, responsible for preaching. I’ve gone with the simple term ‘Followers’, to once again suggest a kind of humble nature to this system of belief. The duplicity therefore lies in what the characters within this system do, despite the image of humility they present.

I certainly haven’t forgotten the dissenters. Those who go against the dominant belief setting one way or another. Indeed, I’ve got a civil war brewing over whether or not these higher beings actually exist, as well as a secretive, forbidden cult that are considered highly dangerous, and not without reason.

The main point to consider when creating a religion for a fantasy world is how that religion and the society you have created intertwine. Do you have characters for whom religion is not necessarily a big factor in their lives? Do you have characters that would do anything in the name of their beliefs? Are there conflicts between differing factions, and how did they come about? All these are things you can look at to give your world and the beliefs of those in it greater verisimilitude.

The main impact this can have on your actual storytelling is that it can greatly inform and enhance the interactions between certain characters. What one character says can provoke a number of different reactions depending on who they’re talking to. Does what they say carry more weight with another character because of their beliefs? This is very much how much of the real world works, so weaving it into the world you’re building can only enhance your writing.

2020

A little blog reflecting on what has been a most unusual year for us all.

Well, it’s that time of year again, namely when it’s nearly over. I think it would be the understatement of the century to say that this past year hasn’t gone as planned. Many lives have changed and a great many of us have lost family, friends and loved ones. As much as we might like to put this year behind us and forget about it, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to those we’ve lost to still take a moment this New Year to reflect.

Ultimately, I look upon the New Year with a sense of hope. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but a gradual return to normalcy is on the horizon. Will things be entirely the same? Perhaps not. Some industries may find they benefit from having more people work from home more regularly. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the possible outcomes of this pandemic. Being able to get together with others, when we desire to, is something that will not change. I’ve greatly missed being able to rehearse a play with friends, or the chance to get on a set and see which of my new friends I might run into. Whereas some individuals (usually with a greater amount of influence than I) have been demanding that we simply ‘get back to normal’ straight away and pretend nothing is happening, I see it as our duty to stay away until such time as it is safe for us all to be together again. Do I lament the lost opportunities of this past year? Sometimes, yes, but pretending we aren’t in the grip of a pandemic helps no one. I want to be able to meet up with friends, but not if it means putting them and their loved ones at risk of catching this terrible virus.

Heading into the New Year, I believe we do need to look for the positives, the ones we’ve had and the ones to come. What I take away from the fact that we have had to stay away from others is that when we can get together safely, it will be all the sweeter because of this time away. I intend to hug others more, to let them know how much I appreciate them. Days out and trips away will be planned, more than I might have otherwise, simply because we can. There is too much I was taking for granted before all this. Never again. We can come out of this stronger than before. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories and the ill-informed scaremongering of certain individuals. I trust the experts and the spirit of those determined to get through this without trying to make things worse in the process. We can do this.

Furlough gave me the chance to edit the third book in the Figment Wars series, which is now set to become a trilogy. Yes, this next book will be the last of the Figment Wars. It has long been envisioned as such, but with the announcement of its publication set for 2021, it is now official. Working on it has been wild, to say the least. This was the first literary venture that I felt I could really throw some weight behind, and I’ve learned a great deal in the process, though of course there is still so much to learn. The trilogy will still get plenty of attention from me marketing wise, and I’m very much looking forward to my first signing session, wherever and whenever that may be. In the months to come I shall steadily be releasing details about the newest book, including the title, front cover, and eventually the release date.

I’ve also begun a whole new writing project these past few months, which has occupied a great deal of my time and energy (both of which are well spent). Even while the Figment Wars was being unleashed, I’ve had a few ideas for further books but few really came to anything. This one, however, has already proved to be much bigger in scale than Figment Wars. It’s another fantasy, but very different in style to my previous work and touches upon some LGBT themes, which are very close to my heart. What will happen with this latest project, I cannot say. It will be some time before it is even remotely ready to see the light of day, and of course I shall make every effort to get it published. One thing I feel I’ve definitely had affirmed this past year is my belief that I do not write with the sole intention of getting published. I write because I want to, and because I enjoy it.

The next few months are going to be tough. There’s no denying that. I remain firm in my belief, however, that we can get through this by working together. I offer all my readers my very best wishes for the New Year. Stay safe, keep reading and writing, and we shall meet again soon.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 2

Volume 2, detailing my exploration of world building.

Geography has never really been my strong suit, even after I got 99 out of 100 on a geography test in Year 9. The missing point was because I’d misplaced Bordeaux on a map of France. It is, however, maps that I’ll be discussing in this blog and how important they are when world building.

As well as not being much of a geographer, it will surprise few to learn that I’m not particularly skilled at drawing. Embarking on this new project has meant having to more than brush up on both, although admittedly the map I have drawn for the world I’m building will be most likely handed over to a professional at some point with a cry of “Make this look much better, please!” The map itself, crude as it may be, is something I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful in visualising not just the world, but the story too. As I said in the first volume of this blog, the story comes first.

I’d already worked out the basic premise of both the world and the story before setting out to draw the map, which informed a few key elements. There needed to be a main continent, with two large islands on the west and east coast of that continent. To the south, we see the top of another continent, which is as of yet, undeveloped. At first, I began dividing up the main continent into different nations. While this will be vital to the story, after a bit of research, I was reminded of a basic principle. The idea of borders as we know them are a fairly recent notion. It is geographical features and obstacles that would have formed the first, rudimentary national borders. It therefore become necessary to add a series of mountains along one border, which in itself then informed and enhanced the lore of the world I’ve been crafting.

Economics also have to be taken into consideration. The world I’m crafting is very much a fantasy world, and magic plays a part in everyday life, but it isn’t the answer to everything. The people living in this world still need to acquire food and materials, so the notion of trade comes into play. If I’ve got two continents, where is the best place along the coast to establish a port or two? How has the location of a settlement influenced its development over the decades and centuries? As an example, I have one settlement essentially right in the middle of a pass between mountains which border two countries. The settlement was set up as a fortress, originally, and has to rely on its friends to the east for supplies. The fortress has become a little less essential as a military post over time, allowing for a small city to develop, but nowhere near the level of those cities closer to the ports. All little details that should be considered when crafting a new world.

Time and space matter in storytelling. It’s still taking me a bit of research to nail this one down, because as I’ve said, this blog is an exploration of my journey. I’m not claiming to know everything. A map usually comes with a scale, to let you know just how great a distance a centimetre on the map represents. Ultimately, this informs just how long it takes a character to travel from one place to another. Of course, it depends on their mode of transport, and I have cheated just a little by creating a breed of horse that’s been trained and enhanced with spells for greater speed and durability. Still, the point stands. If you want a character to be in one place today and another tomorrow, you need to be sure of how long it’ll take them to get there. There’s no teleportation in this world, no great shortcuts.

Similar to this, being able to see one location in relation to another has helped me a great deal when it came to visualising the story. The bulk of the action in the beginning takes place in one location, but as my main character begins to travel, I found that having a map to look at really did inform certain decisions about the story. If your character needs to get somewhere but must avoid a certain place, the map shows you where they must go. It also allowed me to better visualise certain political alliances, based solely on geographical locations. It makes battles easier to see and informs the tactical decisions you make your characters take.

In summary, it really is true what they say. “Location, location, location.” This is the first time I’ve tried using a map to inform my story telling, and it’s been a revelation on many fronts. Even if it never ends up being seen by anyone else, I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone dabbling with the genre.

“That’s not a proper story …”

A blog on the importance of building confidence in young writers, not destroying it.

As I scrolled through Twitter this morning, a tweet caught my eye, which is what tweets are supposed to do. It was asking whether I could remember the first story I ever wrote. This got me thinking about something that I hadn’t thought of for many years, but now that I come to consider it, it explains a lot.

The fact is, I do remember the first story I ever wrote, and I remember the scathing criticism that came with it. My first ‘bad review’. Sadly, it came from my teacher, an issue that will form the bulk of this blog, but first, the incident itself.

I was in Year 1, so I must have been about six years old. Our teacher, whose name I have genuinely forgotten, asked us to write a short story. I decided to write a story about a pair of robots, one of whom was looking forward to Christmas, the other one didn’t like Christmas. I cannot remember the precise names I gave them, but they were something like RX-4B and TR-3P. When my teacher saw this, a look of pure disgust rippled across her face. “Those aren’t real names,” she said. I looked up at her and said “You’ve never seen Star Wars, have you?” Surprisingly, she and I never really got on very well.

Despite a strong sense of defiance radiating from my bad-ass six year old self, like everyone else I found that criticism can hurt. This isn’t me saying that children shouldn’t be criticised, but there are ways to go about it so that the criticism is constructive. I went on to train as a primary school teacher and despite deciding to go in a different direction job-wise later in life, I learned enough during teacher training to look back at my own schooling and recognise that I had some abysmal teachers at times.

Criticising a six year old’s names for robots just comes down to a lack of imagination in the teacher, which still isn’t an excuse for tearing down the work of others, let alone a child. I’ve never really let this hold me back when writing, but teachers in particular have a key role to play when it comes to developing children’s confidence, or destroying it.

My handwriting has never really been the neatest, even now. I can make it out, and if I’m writing something in a rush it can become illegible. While learning joined-up handwriting, I had a teacher who would literally gag if you presented her with a piece of work that wasn’t your neatest handwriting. I’m not kidding. I can clearly recall one incident, bringing my work up to show to this particular teacher, she took one look, blanched and said “Take it away.”

I would make mistakes quite frequently when writing, which meant ink blots and badly formed letters having to be crossed out. The fact that this teacher insisted on us striving to write neatly was not the problem, it was her visceral and over-the-top reaction to our mistakes. It got to the point where I was terrified to show her my work, because once you made one mistake, that was it. It was ruined. I would descend into tears in the classroom. To this day, when someone remarks about my handwriting, my insides tighten. I worked hard at improving my handwriting, but I struggle to recall receiving any genuine help from a teacher on this particular issue. I also, in all fairness, don’t recall any of my teachers in secondary school remarking one way or another on my handwriting, but this one teacher was all it took for me to develop a ‘thing’ about the neatness of my handwriting.

Again, I am not advocating only ever telling children what they want to hear. If a child’s handwriting needs improving, it’s the teacher’s duty to help them to do so. Refusing to even read their work because of their handwriting says one thing to me, namely “What you have to say doesn’t matter because I don’t like the way you’ve written it”. Reading the child’s work and discussing the content should come first, saying what you like about it and what could use improvement. If it’s the handwriting that needs improving, you explain why it’s necessary to be precise in how we write, namely so our words can be understood. You remind the child that this is still a relatively new skill they’re learning and that mistakes are going to happen. You allow the child time and give them the necessary support. Looking at their work and literally making a gagging noise is hardly good teaching practice, yet it’s how one of my teachers chose to conduct herself.

My own teacher training was an eye opener in so many ways, but even before I started my course, I learned about the rule of 2 to 1. Both my parents were secondary school teachers and they explained that this ratio was how to go about discussing a child’s work with them. For everything that needs some improvement, you sandwich it between two things you liked about their work. Constructive and confidence building. This is a principle I’ve always striven to employ when working with young people.

One thing I will say for the teacher who used to become quite ill at the sight of my handwriting, at least she did it in private. In my first year of teacher training, I was on a placement in a Year 6 class. Obviously, being a student teacher in my first year, I was mostly there to observe and support wherever I could. Not there to rock the boat.

The class I was assigned to had a supply teacher in one day. I’ve nothing against supply teachers, I’ve done it myself often enough, but there was something about this guy. The class was asked to write a story in fifty words. A great exercise in concise storytelling. One child wrote what I felt was a humorous, imaginative story in precisely fifty words. Exactly what had been asked of him, and he had the courage to read it out loud in front of the class. The supply teacher declared “That’s not a proper story, listen to what I’ve done.” He then went on to read out what he’d written about a man crossing a desert. Descriptive, yes, and under fifty words …but there was no story to it. It felt more like an extract than anything else. The class had been asked to write a story in fifty words, namely beginning, middle and end. This child had done so, but the supply teacher didn’t like it so he read out his own work to compare it.

To this day, I remember feeling utter indignation on this child’s behalf. He’d done precisely what had been asked of the class, written a funny and engaging fifty word story, and this teacher had the audacity to humiliate him in front of the whole class. Still, being a student, I was very good and said nothing to contradict the teacher openly. I did, however, make a point of speaking to the child later and telling him I enjoyed his story and that he was very brave for reading it out. I can only hope I undid some of the damage that could have been done.

Adults can have a devastating impact on children’s confidence if they’re not careful. Taking issue with my handwriting is one thing, but had I taken on board what my Year 1 teacher said about the names of my robots not being “proper”, I might have eventually decided that it was never going to be worth my time attempting anything creative. All writing is subjective, of course, but we should never dismiss a child’s efforts as “not being a proper story”. If you don’t quite follow a child’s reasoning behind writing something, ask them. Get them to talk you through the choices they made in their story. Teaching isn’t about giving answers all the time. It’s about asking the right questions that get children to realise their own potential for themselves.

It’s well known that a bad teacher can destroy a child’s interest in a subject. There are fantastic teachers out there who have inspired generations of children in so many ways. Confidence can take a lifetime to build, but in some cases it only takes a few knocks to leave a big dent.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 1

The first of a series of blogs, documenting my tackling of a whole new project.

One of the great joys of the fantasy genre is being able to step out of our own world and immerse yourself in another. So many authors have created fantastical worlds in their works that have captivated our imaginations to the point of making us want to believe that such a place exists. The ultimate question is, how do they do this?

 

I’m going to start this blog with a rare admission regarding that last question. The truth is, I’m still very much working it out myself. This blog, and possibly many more over the coming months/years, will document and explore my own efforts to craft a fully rounded fantasy world. There’ll be mistakes, pretty much all of which I’ll own up to. There’ll be a few dead ends and days when I want to bash my keyboard into oblivion. Hopefully some people out there will read it all and learn something from it. I’m certainly hoping I will.

 

I’ve had an idea for a new fantasy novel kicking round in my head for some time. During lockdown I’ve spent a great deal of time finishing off the final draft of the third ‘Figment Wars’ novel, but once that was done I decided it was time to get this new idea out of my head and onto paper, where it belongs. There were a few things I knew I wanted in this new project from the start. Firstly, that it would largely take the form of a dictation. A powerful man dictating his memories to a scribe. Secondly, I wanted to write something that reflected my own experiences as a gay man. This new project will most definitely touch upon LGBT issues.

 

More than that, I wanted to set about creating a whole world in which to tell this story. ‘The Figment Wars’, my first novel, tells the story of three human children plunged into a world populated by Figments of human imagination. In my mind, however, I’d always seen the Realm of Imagination as another plane of existence, rather than another world as such. It is very much linked to our own world, and broadly speaking there have always been two subsets of fantasy worlds. Ones that have links to our own world, and ones that exist entirely separate from ours. The Realm of Imagination very much fits with the former, with all its occupants having come from the imaginations of human children, and of course the main characters travel back and forth between the two realms.

 

So, having done that, I want to try my hand at crafting a world in its own right, with its own geography, history and natural laws. Ideas have been coming, sometimes thick and fast, other times in drips and drabs. The first thing I have discovered though, and I’ll share it with you all now for nothing, is as follows;

Story comes first.

I’d already started handwriting the overall draft of the story in my trusty notebook a few weeks ago when I got the urge to start thinking more about the history of this world I was creating. I’d already had a go at drawing a map of the main continent and islands that will provide the setting, and despite my poor drawing skills, I found that the map did help me move the story along, allowing me to plot where certain characters are going and what obstacles they might encounter. Considering that geography was not my strong point at school, this came as a welcome surprise. Yesterday, however, I felt the urge to delve more into the history of this world.

 

Now, it could have been a number of things. I’ve been experiencing some pain in my feet lately and I had an appointment to see a specialist yesterday. That may have been distracting me as I was trying to write. I’m a big believer in only writing when you really feel in the mood. Write in a bad mood and you’ll most likely end up deleting most of what you’ve written, which I did. I looked back at what I’d done, detailing the early history of this fictional continent, and I didn’t like it one bit. Deleted about half of it. Gone. *poof*

 

Then, when I stopped to think about it, I realised something. What I was writing was, at this point, not relevant to my main character’s story. I’ve drafted the outline of just about half my character’s story by now, and for some reason yesterday decided to take a break and begin giving some consideration to events that would have happened centuries before my main character was born. As it turned out, this was a bad idea. The story, as in the main story, must come first. I must, and will, finish mapping out the journey my main character will take before I start coming up with entire histories for multiple cultures.

 

That was my little epiphany which I’m happy to share. World building can be fun, and it’s easy to get distracted by coming up with all the details that make up this fantastical world you’re creating. Indeed, it’s those details that make that world seem real to the reader, as though it’s a world that people actually live in. Historical accounts, myths and legends, sayings that mean something to the characters that inhabit your new world are what make it real. However, certainly in this early stage of writing, I must be on my guard not to get bogged down in coming up with those details. They’ll come, when the time is right, but for now I must focus on the main story. I know how it begins, and I have an idea of how I want it to end, but there’s a heck of a lot that goes on in between that still needs to be worked out.

 

I hope to write more in this series of blogs as I continue on this new project. There’s a great deal of research for me to do and a lot to learn about effective world building. I just hope somebody finds my musings (and occasional ramblings) to be at least half-way helpful!

Happy Birthday Figment Wars!

A blog celebrating five years since the publication of ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’!

Last year, on World Book Day, I found myself addressing an assembly hall full of Year 10 students. An assembly hall of Year 10 students who’d never heard of me or my book. I acknowledged this from the beginning, telling them I wish I could tell them that I’ve sold thousands of books and that those books are about to be made into a film, but I can’t. I’m no good at bluster at the best of times and I was raised not to lie (bang goes any hope of a career in politics). I told them the truth because I felt it important to make a fundamental point; you don’t get into writing with the sole purpose of becoming rich and famous, and anyone who does is usually bitterly disappointed.

 

You get into writing because you love it.

 

That is why, when I look back over the last five years, I don’t feel any kind of regret. I’d made many attempts over the years at writing something I thought I could really do something with, all to no avail. Then there came that trip into Bath on the Park n’ Ride bus with a good friend. That’s when the idea first came to me, and I worked hard to turn it into something. I tried various methods of publication, and when Austin Macauley came along with an offer, I said “Yes”. I don’t regret that decision, not for a moment.

 

The past five years have been eventful, to say the least. When I first started writing ‘Through the Portals’, I’d only just moved in with my partner. A huge new chapter in my life had only just started, and there I was possibly embarking on a whole new one already. Since then we’ve bought our first house, a move that unfortunately coincided with a breakdown of my mental well being. I was signed off work and ultimately left my job. It was during that time that I joined my local amateur dramatic society, Sodbury Players, and not only rediscovered my love of performing, but made some excellent new friends. It was mostly down to the confidence I’d found from joining Players that led me to getting the second Figment Wars novel published. A novel that had been sitting in my computer for quite some time. As that book was published I began pursuing agency work that allowed me to balance work with writing.

 

When I look back at that moment when I first held an actual, physical copy of my book, it’s difficult to recall precisely what I was thinking. I know that I didn’t automatically expect it to be a runaway success. That wasn’t why I’d decided to write it. I’d enjoyed writing the story and I wanted to share it. It was as simple as that then, and the only thing that’s really changed is the ways I go about sharing the story. The world doesn’t owe anyone success, and even if you don’t achieve it, the point is to try. I’m still learning about the world of promoting books and there’s still a great deal for me to learn. Rather than obsess over the goal, I’m enjoying the journey.

 

There have been a number of experiences over the last five years that I’d like to reflect on. Getting to hold a copy of my book was fantastic, of course, but attending a comic con event and selling copies of my book for the first time was a truly rewarding experience. I’ve been attending such events for many years, so to be on the other side of the table was somewhat surreal. Collaborating with Ello Dave Media to create a live action trailer for the first novel was also a surreal experience, seeing my characters come to life, played by tremendously talented people that I’m fortunate to count among my friends. Getting honest feedback from friends and family about the story has also been something I cherish. Not only am I not obsessing over sales, I’m also not here to have smoke blown up my backside. I appreciate every thought and observation put my way.

 

It’s hard to tell what the next five days will bring, let alone the next five years. I’ve been hard at work on the next Figment Wars novel. I’ll give out no further details on that just yet, only to say that I’m hopeful about getting things moving fairly soon. Whatever happens over the next few years, I plan to do my best to bring my stories to the relevant audience as long as it is within my means to do so. As I said, I’m still learning a great deal about what it takes to get a book noticed. One thing I do know is that it isn’t easy, but it’s certainly worthwhile to try.

 

I’d like to end by thanking everyone that’s offered their support over the last five years and indeed, before publication itself. The team at Austin Macauley have always been supportive and without you all I would not have had these experiences. To all my family and friends, you give me the confidence to be myself at all times, even when being myself involves being a little strange.

What Motivates a Villain?

Some things to consider when creating your antagonist!

They say a story is only as good as the bad guy. We love to hate them. They provide conflict for our protagonists, allowing the tension in a story to mount until it all comes to a climax in the final confrontation. So, if you’re looking to craft a villain for your story, the first thing to consider is “What do they want?”

Every character has a motivation, something they want. Even the most seemingly insignificant background character might just want to live a peaceful life and make ends meet. That is a motive. Your antagonist, however, usually wants something more. Let’s take a look at some of the classic motivations for an antagonist and some questions for you to consider when writing them.

Power

Many villains seem to want power for the sake of power, and sometimes this is the case. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as John Dalberg-Acton put it. When it comes to villainous characters within a story, they can usually be divided into two categories; those who became corrupt once they achieved power and those who were corrupt long before. The quest for power and what they’re willing to do for it might be what defines your villain. What lengths will they go to? How do they treat those in their way? Do they have the ability to govern that they believe they have?

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of people who have gained power only to find that the quest for it isn’t as satisfying as having it. Perhaps the most dangerous type of antagonist is one who has gained power, and even though they are inept, they are also unwilling to give up their position. The question then becomes what will they do to keep their power? Is the fear of losing their power what corrupts them and causes them to do terrible things? Shakespeare’s take on Richard III (while historically dubious) presents an all-round power hungry villain, a man who does terrible things in order to become King, then commits further crimes to make sure he keeps his crown.

Many villains strive for power because they’ve convinced themselves it is theirs by right. The principle of the strong ruling over the weak. They might feel they’ve been unjustly overlooked, or that life itself has deprived them of what should be theirs. Taking this approach when writing a villain usually mandates a ‘corrupt from the beginning’ mindset, but keep in mind that few antagonists actually believe themselves to be ‘evil’. In their minds, they are righting a wrong and doing whatever is necessary. Even pantomime villains have a motive, but they’re now pretty much the only ones to actually revel in their villainy.

So, if it’s the quest for power that’s motivating your villain, consider from the beginning what they would use it for. Give them reasons, even if the antagonist never states them outright. Keep that motive clear in your own head and you’ll find it more likely to slip into the writing with a greater degree of subtlety. Again, it’s only pantomime villains that really feel the need to declare their intentions in full!

 

Self Preservation

There are very few selfless antagonists out there. They’re in it for themselves, first and foremost, although there are some that are arguably thinking of others. Magneto, for example, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, fights for his fellow mutants against human aggressors. Forever at odds with his counterpart, Professor Xavier, he commits violent acts in the name of defending mutant kind. This raises a whole other question of whether violence is acceptable in defence, or does a more diplomatic approach get better results? For some villains, there is nothing but fighting the good fight, and they’ll do it by any means necessary. Again, such antagonists don’t believe that what they’re doing is wrong. They’re defending themselves against an enemy, but they’re usually not picky about who is labelled as an enemy.

Such antagonists, claiming to be fighting for a greater cause, usually won’t see the need to differentiate between the enemy and the innocent. Having been backed into the ultimate corner, they’ll usually hold to the belief that you’re either with them or against them. No room for middle ground.

The other way to look at self-preservation as a motive is more literal, the notion that a villain truly is in it for themselves and will do anything to keep themselves safe. Taking this approach when writing an antagonist allows for a more callous, cruel character. They’re more likely to sacrifice others, even those on their own side, if it means that they stay safe. This also allows you some options for when an antagonist is facing a truly hopeless situation. How are they going to respond? Does the thought of their inevitable demise drive them past the breaking point?

 

Obsession

This one is often very closely tied to the previous two motivations. They say obsession is dangerous, even more so in a character that means ill to others. If you want to paint your antagonist as obsessed, decide for definite what they’re obsessed with from the beginning, then stick to it. Is it an object? A person? Why do they want this so badly? What will they do to get it, and how do they react to the prospect of failure?

As a little sub-set to this, let’s take antagonists that are obsessed with money. They say the love of money is the root of all evil, after all. There are few examples of antagonists obsessed with accumulating wealth for the sake of having it, because ultimately most writers will consider what having great wealth brings for that character. In most cases, we circle back round to power. Being ridiculously wealthy affords one the chance to be incredibly powerful and influential. However, we should not dismiss the notion of greed as a motivation.

For many villains in film, literature or even real life, enough is never enough. Don’t be afraid to make your villain undeniably greedy, for it will help sour the reader’s view of them, but if you want to avoid making them a one dimensional money grubber, give them a reason for always wanting more. It ultimately moves the plot along, giving your protagonist something to thwart. In the classic legend, the Sheriff of Nottingham is most definitely greedy, but it’s his attempts to wed Maid Marian that cause Robin Hood to stop him once and for all.

 

Revenge

This can feel a little over used as a motivation, but I prefer to see it as a classic when handled properly. Keep in mind what we’ve said about antagonists, namely that they don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong. If someone has thwarted them, in their eyes, they have been most unjustly wronged. If you’ve decided to make your character obsessive and cruel, revenge on your protagonist is the natural way for them to go. Villains are almost never the type to simply ‘let it go’, though there are rare times when circumstances force them to do so. One of my own antagonists in my second novel is forced to forgo his chance at revenge when it becomes necessary to team up others for his own protection.  The principle here is ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

It’s tempting to say that, like the pursuit of power, actually getting revenge is not as satisfying as wanting it. If you want to give your antagonist real drive and bring a sense of threat to the story, make it clear that they’ll stop at nothing to get vengeance. While this might seem to contradict the point I made about my own antagonist, keep in mind that it all comes down to what you want the reader to believe about your villain. If you want them to fear for your protagonist, make it clear just what the enemy will do to get hold of them and leave them with no doubt as to what they’ll do when the time comes. Writing a credible villain is coupled with making the reader fear for your protagonist, the character they’ve come to root for.

 

In conclusion, when sitting down to map out a story, I’d advise making notes on your antagonist if not first, then certainly put them high on your priorities. It is their actions that are going to create the problem for your protagonist, and their actions are based on their motivations. Decide what they want from the beginning and determine in your own mind just what they’re prepared to do. Write these down and keep them close to you when writing. True villains don’t need to declare their every evil intention, they just need to act upon them. If you know just how terrible your antagonist is, it will shine through in your writing.

 

For me personally, lack of empathy is the true source of villainy. Sadly, there are many people in real life for whom empathy is an alien concept. In these difficult times, please look out for each other while striving to keep safe.

When Inspiration Hits

Thoughts on the definition of ‘inspiration’.

“Inspiration”.

Defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the process of being filled with a feeling or with the urge to do something’, ‘a person or thing that inspires’ or finally, ‘a sudden clever idea’.

Let’s have a look at these three a little more closely, shall we? I was only going to do the first, but since you’ve been kind enough to read this blog thus far I might as well make it worth your while.

 

Definition 1 -‘the process of being filled with a feeling or with the urge to do something’.

We’ve all felt this at some point, writers and non-writers alike. Most of the time we wouldn’t even say we’d felt inspired to do something, we might even pass it off as an impulse. I do believe there’s a major distinction though. An impulse is but a flash, a momentary urge and is more often attributed to the doing of things we really shouldn’t. Inspiration can strike in the most fleeting of moments, but inspiration in the higher sense should lead us to work on something more long term.

 

Inspiration is not often linked with convenience. It strikes, sometimes seemingly randomly, and often at the most inconvenient moments. Just as you’re about to go to sleep is a common time, hence the notepad that many writers will keep beside their bed. Indeed, the notepad is the true best friend of many writers, always at hand to make note of an idea. Just a few months ago I was struck while doing the washing up, fortunately nothing was broken during the ‘Eureka’ moment.

 

This first definition clarifies that inspiration is a feeling, or an urge. What then, does inspiration feel like? For me, it is an unbeatable rush. When an idea comes to you, a truly inspiring thought, it is better than any artificial high in my opinion. In particular when it solves a problem you’ve been having with a point of plot or character. It’s an elation coupled with a tremendous rush. It’s not a high we can command or truly summon, but when it does hit, it can lift you through the stratosphere.

 

Definition 2 – ‘a person or thing that inspires’

We all have our heroes, literary or otherwise. They say you should never meet them but I say that depends entirely on the identity and character of your hero. I’ve met a number of people who I can honestly say have inspired me in one way or another and to varying degrees. Famous, well known people who probably hear that they’ve inspired someone three or four times a week. I know I cannot speak for all, but in my experience, when I have conveyed (or attempted to through a tangled tongue) to someone how much they’ve inspired me, they’ve always been happy to hear it. No artist stands alone and we have all been influenced by others. To my mind, true artists want to inspire others, and appearing grateful when they hear they’ve done so is never a mere formality.

 

Inspiration can also come from a source much closer to home. The people we meet on our doorsteps can inspire us just as much as our heroes from their pedestals. My family have always been a great source of encouragement and support to me, as indeed has my partner of nearly eight years. When it comes to pushing myself in new creative directions, I hold my friends from Sodbury Players personally responsible. I wouldn’t have thought of adapting parts of my book into a live action book trailer were it not for the group’s chairman, Rob. Every single member of the adult group, and indeed the youth group, has inspired me over the last few years to push myself both as a performer and a writer. I shall always be grateful to this talented, loving, mad bunch.

 

As far as “a thing” that inspires, this is deeply personal to each person. It could be a story, a painting, a view, a place, a rock. Whatever floats your boat, as they say. It may very well be an actual boat that sparks an idea. I’ve found a great deal of inspiration in certain places, not necessarily far-flung locations, quite local in fact. Mundane and ordinary to some, yet each place has its own striking beauty to the right person. Coastlines have long been a particular favourite of mine, yet still inspiration strikes in the oddest places. I was recently walking through a local graveyard on my way home, late in the evening. As a light struck a particular grave, I was struck with an idea for a chapter in a story that I’ve been planning for some time. Within minutes, this one image had cascaded into including characters, moods and an incident. None of which I can go into, you understand. This is a future project, so you’ll just have to be patient.

 

Definition 3 -‘a sudden clever idea’

Is every idea that comes to us during that rush of inspiration going to change the world? No, sadly not. It’s said there is only seven basic stories, though it may be five depending on who you ask. Does this stop us from striving to create? Certainly not. Even if an idea that feels a real stunner late at night turns out to be a dud in the cold light of day, it takes nothing away from that moment of euphoria when it came to you. Every idea deserves to be explored, even if it’s only one in a hundred that ends up taking you to that next level. Inspiration can lead to success or failure, both paths involve plenty of blood, sweat and tears.

 

It is always worth the risk.

Should We Write Everyday?

A little blog for writers who worry they don’t write enough.

Every author feels it. That sense of utter shame when you haven’t worked on your current writing project for almost an entire day. That panic that it’s never going to get done. Fear of losing the flow. The dread of facing the blank page having been distracted for so long.

 

Should we be writing every day?

 

Yes, no and maybe.

 

Of course it’s important to keep up with your current project, because we all know an idea for a new one is going to pop up anytime soon. I’d like to say I’ve never succumbed to the temptation to place one project on the back burner in favour of starting a new one, but it would be a big bare-faced lie. Sometimes, however, you need that avalanche of new and exciting ideas to force you to prioritise. Take yourself to the breaking point that is the agony of choice, forcing yourself to pick a project and give it your all.

 

I’m also a big believer in the concept of work-life balance. Whether you’re a professional writer or not, let’s consider writing to be ‘work’ for the moment. Giving yourself over to work might yield fantastic results in the short term, but you know what they say about the candle that burns twice as bright. First and foremost you owe it to yourself to allow some downtime, and I do mean proper downtime. Take a day away from writing to relax. Go somewhere that inspires you. Make time for the people you’re closest to. These are the things that fuel our writing endeavours, not hinder them.

 

In a similar vein, never beat yourself up over not having written today. You are allowed to take time out. Stress can affect anyone and everyone, it’s not picky. If you write professionally and work to a series of deadlines, you still owe it to yourself to take regular breaks. If you write as a hobby, you shouldn’t let something that is supposed to relax you become stressful to the point that you no longer enjoy it.

 

Finding the time to write can be tricky, especially for those who write around full time jobs. I haven’t written a blog entry this past month because I’ve seen a marked increase in my work as a supporting artist. I’m certainly not complaining, it’s been a great summer filming on various professional projects. I’ve had a few days of supply work in a few new nurseries. I also spent a week in Cornwall with my partner and spent some time with friends and family. I have, on occasion, made time to work on the third instalment of the Figment Wars series. All in all, a nicely balanced summer.

 

That’s what it’s all about, really. Balance.