While actually writing is vital to becoming an author, so is identifying one’s weak areas and working to improve them. I certainly know I’ve got a few but I think at present my biggest issue is with story. Not so much the larger, overarching story but all the little bits in-between that get us from A to B.
A while ago while I was procrastinating work things by looking up other work things, I stumbled across a few templates for writing using the Snowflake Method. This involves plotting your entire story starting from a single sentence and then slowly building up and up, expanding into increasingly longer synopses until you’ve got a story. It’s a technique I’ve wanted to try for a while because my own method of planning generally ends up a bit chaotic and my stories often feel very linear. I think this is because in general my mind works on a small scale when planning, moving from scene to scene and ending up with something that’s a bit too straight forward.
I’ve been tempted to try the Snowflake method as I think it might help me see the big events earlier and more easily see things that are too simple or boring. It’s a problem I’ve got in many of my manuscripts and leads to a LOT of work later when editing. While I’m still on schedule with The Fairy Godfather, I’ve made a lot of extra work for myself by having to entirely re-work huge sections of the novel. Plotting is clearly something that I need to work on.
I’ve decided that as a side project I’m going to try it out on a fun personal story I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a while. Not one that’s meant as a serious piece, more as just a workout to see if this method a) works for me and b) helps me with some of the issues that I know I have with plotting.
Also, as I have a love of templates and filling out boxes, I’m going to be using Caroline Norrington’s Scrivener Template. It’s got documents for all the steps of the snowflake method, scene planners, huge character templates – all the good stuff. As this is a basically a side side project, I most likely won’t be sticking to the schedule listed in the template even a little. It’ll be a while before I’m doing a first draft of a proper project as opposed to something just for fun for myself, so I won’t need results any time soon.
Hopefully by the end of it I’ll end up with another daft story for myself to enjoy and a bit more skill when it comes to creating compelling stories.
A short excerpt from The Fishperer.
Some of the other bounty hunters liked to mock Xin’she Hydrocall for her ‘advanced age.’ Those bounty hunters had never been chased by her. Or in a fight with her. When Edar’he Eelspeak heard she was coming for him, he’d been apprehensive. Then when he heard a description of her, he’d laughed. Edar wouldn’t run from a fifty-five year old.
He was running now.
He was running harder and faster than he had ever run in his life. Pain tore through his chest with every breath as he dodged and ducked through the jungle, leaping over thick vines and swinging across branches. Every time he glanced back, she was closer. Perhaps just a fraction but she was closer. His face was livid and desperate. She didn’t even look to be sweating. He wasted air swearing and ran on. He didn’t need to get far but he had to get there first.
Xin kept a steady pace behind him. She didn’t want to burn out before the ensuing fight. It wasn’t difficult – Edar was clearly a city kid. His movements through the jungle were clumsy and obvious. He wouldn’t lose her at this rate. It was only a matter of time until he was in reach.
A thick fallen trunk blocked his way and he clambered over it at speed, despite his waning strength and lack of grace. Xin took a short cut, using a nook on the trunk of one tree to launch herself up and grab a high branch, swinging her lithe body with ease over the obstruction and hitting the ground with momentum. Edar was almost close enough to grab.
There was a sudden break in the jungle onto a river and Edar released a giddy laugh as he launched himself at it, disappearing beneath the surface as Xin made it to the edge. Without breaking stride she grabbed a knife from her belt and stretched her hands above her head in a point and leapt in a shallow dive beneath the surface. Her eyes easily saw through the warm, clear water. Edar was frantically mouthing something with the rapid expulsion of air bubbles.
That’s a mistake, sunbeam, she thought, stretching one hand out in front of herself.
Three eels, long and thick, powered up from the depths making a frantic beeline for her. Edar actually took the time to throw her a grin before he began to kick back to the surface. The first of the eels reached her and twisted around her legs. Xin ignored it, sweeping her hand around sharply and snapping it shut. The river stopped flowing downstream. Panic spread across Edar’s face as his rise to the surface stopped abruptly. The current had changed, dragging him downward. Yet more air escaped him as he was pulled toward the riverbed.
The second eel made quick work of snaking its body around Xin’s torso, constricting her chest. She brought the knife down into its back and the thing opened its toothy maw in fury. A puff of red billowed into the water around her and the eel’s grip loosened. The blade had gone right through, nicking Xin’s clothing but nothing more. She pulled the knife free as the third approached, and the wounded creature lamely twitched as it retreated. With one hand she struck at the newcomer with the knife, while with the other she gestured toward the surface.
Like a soap bubble blown between a child’s fingers, a pocket of air pulled down into the water and wobbled into its own entity as the surface tension snapped. The bubble dropped like a rock through the water, settling around Xin’s head. She took a deep breath from the pocket of fresh air.
The third eel sharply changed direction at the last moment and powered away from her. Her eyes flicked down to her calves and the eel holding them together let go and shot off after its friend. They were both clearly far brighter than Edar was. That was the great thing about ‘mancers that most people didn’t seem to understand – yes, they had the ability to talk with their certain animal but that didn’t mean the animal had to listen.
She turned her attention to her bounty, flailing his limbs as he swirled around and around in a little vortex. She waited, wafting her limbs gently to keep her steady in the water, comfortably breathing from her personal air pocket, until Edar went limp.
She flicked her hand and the vortex changed direction, carrying both her and the unconscious Edar back to the surface. With lazy ease she pulled herself onto the riverbank and dragged Edar up with her. He was heavy, especially wet, but not so much so that she struggled. It didn’t take a lot to get him breathing again, and he didn’t cough anything up, so she didn’t much worry about secondary drowning. Either way he’d make it back to the Law Office fine.
“How?” he sputtered as she roughly tied his hands behind his back, one knee burrowed hard into his spine.
She let a grin slip. “Thought the currents were too strong? Kid, you have a lot to learn about hydromancers.” She yanked him to his feet. “You’ll have plenty of time to think about it inside that gibbet.”
This month I’ve been very excited about the Aye Write festival that’s been taking place in a city near me. There were loads of classes and workshops I wanted to attend but unfortunately due to money I budgeted myself to three. Even more unfortunately, one of them was cancelled right at the last minute, so I’ve only gotten to two of those.
Today I’m going to quickly talk about my experience at the first – that was “Creative Writing: What You Need to Know About Revision and Editing” with David Pettigrew, writer, lecturer and editor. I was excited for this event because editing is the stage I’m at with all my projects currently. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve got a huge backlog of rough draft novels that I’d love to be able to look back on with more than a cringe, so I’m doing my best to work some of these into shape before I get struck by any shiny new ideas.
For me, it’s such a great feeling to go to these events. Almost all my creative writing experiences can be summed up by “me, alone in my room, banging my face against a keyboard.” When I took writing up seriously after university, I didn’t live anywhere that I could actually attend any writing classes. There were no writing groups and I couldn’t find any likeminded writing friends who weren’t at their very closest in another country. It has at times felt very isolated. Being able to attend writerly things like this are not only great fun but a good way to get some of that desolate feel away from it. It’s refreshing and inspiring.
During the event, I never actually learned too much that I didn’t know already. The course covered the basics like when to use a full stop and maybe you should put in paragraphs, along with a couple of other bits and bobs. For me it turned out to be less of an educational experience than it did a confidence builder. I took the time after the event to chat with a few of the other attendees and there were folks who were very serious about their writing but felt the course had opened their eyes about a lot of things they weren’t thinking about.
I guess I’ve still been considering myself as a beginner when it comes to writing fiction because I’m still unpublished, when I’ve actually learned a lot this last five years. In the handout provided with the course there were a lot of examples that I at first thought to be hyperbolic for the purpose of learning. They weren’t – they were quotes from pieces submitted as assignments in an undergraduate creative writing course. I was taken back by that, as I still very much considered myself on the low end of the writing skill scale. It turns out that after five years of practicing and studying and learning I know how to polish things perhaps better than I thought.
I’ve realised that maybe, perhaps, I’m not quite as much a beginner as I thought anymore no matter how much I feel like it.
Very late post today! Sorry about that! Today, in keeping with my resolutions post, have a short excerpt from my novel Through the Black, first book of the Twyned Earth series currently with its second round of beta readers.
Tony and I were surrounded by the vibrant, lush wilds, shrouded by elegant trees and bathed in dappled mid-afternoon sunlight as it breached the thick canopy above us. The air was crisp and clear, a breeze rustling the branches gently. It. Was. Awful. I cursed aloud as I stumbled over another bloody tree root, ignoring as Tony laughed and ejected himself from my shoulder. I’d already lost enough drinking and moping time to this sodding safari as it was. The trail just seemed to go on and on. And, in all this time, I hadn’t found a single thing to drink. I was seriously questioning how anyone could consider this fun.
I’d lost track of how far we’d gone. The path was an unruly mass of green mess that had lots of features like waterfalls and rocks and other such things I was sure someone found interesting. Shame they weren’t the one writing this article. Fortunately writing bullshit was one of my talents. I could actually sound interested in the great outdoors on paper. Though maybe not without whiskey.
In the past twenty minutes or so, the path had become significantly thicker and rougher, as though we were trekking through uncharted territory. Honestly, who did this for fun? Certainly not me and probably not Tony. He glared around as he hovered in front of me. I didn’t know a lot about Aigorshuck, the city of the fairies, but Tony had left for a reason. Maybe trees were that reason.
“We’re lost,” he grumbled. “Hang here for a sec. I’m gonna fly ahead and see if we’re actually going somewhere.”
“Hey, now wait a second-”
He was already gone, disappearing off over the bushes. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, he may have been right. We’d definitely started in the right place. The walk was long and winding though. It was possible we came off somewhere when it became particularly overgrown. My face fashioned a grim scowl as I considered just who the hell asked for a review of a walk that doesn’t even get maintained. The glimmer of Tony’s wings caught my attention as he reappeared from deep within the thicket.
“Okay, fine, we might be lost-”
“Screw that,” he exclaimed. “Come on!”
Not the answer I had been expecting.
Tony looped over himself and disappeared back the way he came. I hurried after him as best I could, wrestling through the bushes, thorns and branches clawing at me. It was like wading through treacle. Spiky, spiky treacle. There were times, I was begrudged to admit, when being a fairy might have been handy.
What lay beyond must have been good – Tony hadn’t stopped to gloat about me admitting defeat. Now that was worrying. Hissing as a branch of thorns scraped my face, I managed to free myself from the leafy trap and emerge on the other side only to stumble to a halt.
“What’s that?” I asked, staring dumbfounded into the clearing.
“What does it look like?” Tony asked as though I were a child.
I furrowed my brow and tilted my head to the side. “It… It sort of looks like… Well… A bomb.”
Before us was a plain circle of land cleared down to the soil. A perfect circle. With no tracks of vehicles and no piles of refuse. Dead centre there was a box with some wires poking out of the top and into the side. Some of the wires disappeared down into the dirt but didn’t lead anywhere else.
“I can’t say I’m too happy about being stood here, Tony,” I said, heart beating just a hair faster than normal.
“This isn’t right,” he said, sounding distracted. “It’s all way too neat.”
“I’m more worried about it becoming un-neat very rapidly,” I insisted. “Let’s g-”
Another NaNo down! And I won (just) for my fifth consecutive year. This was the closest I’ve cut it that I recall but I made it in the end. And, as I was doing a rewrite of the very project that got me into writing again after my long, university induced hiatus, there was a lot of cringing along the way. Really.
On the positive side, it let me see that I’ve improved a huge amount at writing over the past five years. I already mentioned just how many words I was cutting in my progress post and that trend continued. At least six full scenes got completely binned, as well as others getting merged and whole paragraphs of absolutely nothing being skipped as well. There was so much superfluous, unnecessary and boring guff in there. There’s also the prose itself which is, in my opinion, miles better than the original even in its NaNo-form. If I ever get to the stage where I can edit this it might even become readable!
Practice really is the key to anything. I’m so much happier with my writing now than I ever have been – and I know there’s still massive space for improvement. I still don’t consider myself “good” (but will I ever?) but I’ve come leaps and bounds. It makes me so glad that I’ve stuck with it, even through the low moments. It’s like with art – I would love to improve at it but I always get disheartened when I try. Things never work out the way I’d like. I stumble and struggle and eventually end up taking long, substantial breaks from it and every time I do I end up back at square one. It needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. Unfortunately time isn’t something I have in abundance.
The only difference with writing is that I’ve stuck with it even through the hard times. From scenes I just couldn’t write, things that sounded awful, bad plots all the way to crushing beta feedback and rejections. Time and practice has brought me to where I am today. And I’m happy with where that is, even though I hope to keep improving as I go. If you love something and want to get good at it, stick with it. No matter the setbacks. Keep at it. Some people say you need to write every day but I don’t think that’s true. Just keep it regular and don’t let your skills slide.
Now if only I had more time for art too!
NaNoWriMo is a go! This year I settled on my WIP War of the Heavens. Originally I had planned to pick up from where I left off but I decided that since it needed such extensive rewrites I would just start from scratch. This way I can just carry on and hopefully not have such a huge disjoint once I’ve got the draft finished. It’s quite funny, rather against the spirit of NaNoWriMo the overall word count relative to the point I’m at in the original version has been cut by 36.6 %. Which is quite mind boggling really. There was a lot of superfluous guff in there. It’s also quite the relief to be honest as the original version was on track to be another 200k plus manuscript if it continued along the trajectory it was on. Yikes!
After my last post I was umm-ing and ahh-ing as to whether or not I should even attempt NaNoWriMo this year but I decided that I didn’t want to let the negative in my life effect the things I love. It’s worked out well because I’ve started a new job which is far better for my health. I think I might actually get my 50k this year, despite insisting to myself that I will be super casual about it. (Which is still the case – if things start getting rough I’m not going to make myself sick worrying about it!) I’m living closer to the line than I think I ever have but I’m still on track!
Through the Black is of course still top priority and going smoothly. If you’ll direct your eyes to the widget on the right, you’ll see things are getting excitingly close now. I’m twenty pages away from having all paper edits done, then it’ll just be plugging in the changes to Scrivener. That is, until I do my final read through and decide I hate everything all over again. Ahhh, the writer’s life!
How are you all doing?
One of the hardest things about writing is worrying about appeasing everyone. It’s an important and difficult lesson that needs to be learned – one I’m still struggling with. You can’t please them all. No matter how much you try.
When someone dislikes some aspect of your story, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It could be that it’s just not for that person. No story is for everyone. We all have different hopes and expectations for things, and sometimes there are people who are just not going to like your thing. No reason. It’s just not for them. And that sucks but it’s important to remember that it’s because we’re all different.
Take the example of me and one of my co-workers. He likes expensive things. He comes to his day job wearing a suit that is—and I know I’m fond of hyperbole, but this isn’t—worth more than everything I own put together. The other day he complimented me on my jacket and I yelled “TWELVE QUID FROM PRIMARK” and moonwalked out of the room like I’d just won the lottery. I get embarrassed if I think I’ve spent too much on something. My co-worker on the other hand wouldn’t be seen dead in a £12 coat. The things we brag about are polar opposites.
What’s my point? Just that everyone is different. The things people enjoy or respect or whatever can be completely inverse to yourself for no other reason than that’s who they are as a person. So it’s important to remember that while, if you’re trying to get published, we need to write stories that audiences will like, there is no way whatsoever to write a book that everyone will like.
All we can really strive for is to write something that we like, so long as it’s not hurting anyone*, and hope some other people out there like it too. Because really, if you’re too worried about making it for other people rather than for yourself, you won’t be enjoying it as much.
It’s hard, hard advice but we all need to remember that someone, somewhere, will hate my story no matter what I do. And that’s okay.
*There’s a different between writing that something that someone might not like and something that is misrepresenting and harming marginalized groups. There are loads of great articles out there about writing characters you might not have any first-hand experience of. As always, research is your friend!