alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

I know, you want to write the next Lord of the Rings, or possibly the next Game of Thrones. So do I, to be honest. But I also want to read as many more epic fantasies as can be brought to the bookshop table, and sometimes I go looking for them in the Kindle shop. Frequently, you can download the first episode of an epic fantasy series for no cost at all, and decide from what you read whether you want to buy the rest of it for real money.

So far, I have to say, I’ve not yet found one I felt moved to spend money on. I’ve seen lots of books where the hero(ine) discovers they’re special, finds a magic weapon and goes off to rid the world of the evil overlord, and in lots of them I’ve felt completely unable to suspend my disbelief. Not because the magic was too outre, or the hero(ine)’s superpowers were too odd, or the secondary non-human race was too strange – sadly. I would have been delighted if they were, tbh. But because the author displayed a complete ignorance about the mundane things of their pseudo-medieval world that I actually know something about.

When you’re trying to sell your readers on the possibility of a world with fantastical elements, the reader needs to know that you are a reliable source of information and have thought about how this works. That is instantly undercut if you get your real-world details wrong. So, here are three very vital things you need to do to prevent your reader from throwing the book at the wall before you’ve even got the story going.

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  1. Understand how your technology works.

And I don’t just mean your gravity defying steam dirigibles. If you’re writing a pseudo-medieval fantasy and your characters are lighting a camp fire, Google “how to light a fire without matches.” Never just make it up, because it is a thing that somebody out there knows how to do, and they will know if you get it wrong. And they will go “Oh, bloody hell, Author! Those are ashes. Ashes don’t burn! If I can’t trust you to get that right, what can I trust you with?”

In the same way, decide on the technical underpinnings of your habitations. Things like plumbing. (Is water brought in to your houses by wooden pipes? Are there fountains or wells in the centre of the village? Does everyone have to walk to the stream every morning? Engineering – how were the heavy blocks that form the temple of doom transported onto site/raised onto the sacrificial platform? (By treadwheel crane? By teams of oxen? By teams of neutered trolls?) Exactly how far is the range of that arbalest? Can I really gallop from Dover to Sherwood Forest in a day? Etc etc.

The more you get right, the more convinced your reader will be that you know what you’re talking about, and the more solid, the more reliably real your world will seem.

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  1. Understand how your economy works.

Doesn’t that sound dull?! This is something you can paint in broad brush strokes, so it doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. However, I have thrown a book at the wall because it was set in a small community where every single person went to their shop at the beginning of the day, sold unspecified goods, and then went home. The community was surrounded by a wall and isolated from the rest of the world. This made me wonder several things, specifically – if no one is making things, and no one is bringing things in from outside, what on earth have they got to sell in their shops? If no one is farming and growing food, why don’t they starve? Does the author even know the basic facts of existence, such as ‘food has to come from somewhere’, and ‘clothes don’t weave themselves’?

This economy did not work, because nobody was producing anything. You need to ask yourself “What do they eat?” “Where do they get the food from?” “Who produces it?” “Where do they get clothes?” “Who produces those?” “How long does it take them, and who feeds them while they’re doing it?” “Where do they live?” “Who builds those places?” Etc.

In order for your character to have leisure time to go off and become a warrior/magician/assassin/whatever there needs to be a large social infrastructure in place to create enough surplus so that not everybody is occupied at simply trying to survive. As the author, you need an understanding of how that infrastructure hangs together. Even if you lift it wholesale out of medieval Europe, like 99% of other Fantasy writers, you really need to know how it works, or people will ask themselves why your populations are not too busy starving to worry about the return of the Old Ones.

Plus, once you have a basic idea of how your economy functions, it may turn out to be a surprising source of story ideas. If all your country’s food has to travel up river through that bottle-neck between the Fangs of Fear, that’s a prime site for a bandit queen to capture so she can starve the city into compliance.

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  1. Understand how your society works.

This will tie in with how your economy works, because everyone needs to eat. Once you’ve established who’s producing the food and necessities, ask yourself who’s profiting from the surplus, and how.

Is your society a traditional medieval one in which the food producers were barely free, the merchants had a little money and therefore influence, and the top of the food chain were the heavily armoured blokes running a protection racket on top (aka knights and kings)? It’s reliable and so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible, and you can get right on to your story about the Chosen One confident that the readers are thinking ‘oh, it’s another one of those things.’

But perhaps you want to do something different? Maybe the arable land is scarce and everyone relies on a small powerful clique of farmers to provide food to a starving manufacturing class? How would that affect the things that were respected and valued in your world? Would you have people rebelling by raising their own crops in window boxes? Would seed-peddlers be daring heroes of the proletariat? If you developed that, all kinds of weird things could happen. Your heroes would probably not be warriors, they might be gardeners, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve already had too many warrior heroes. Time for something else, maybe.

Perhaps your society is run by nuns who genuinely do collect from all what they can give and give to all what they need? In our world, Communism has slipped rapidly into corruption, but what would it be like living in a society where everyone genuinely was treated as equal to everyone else? Owned no more than anyone else, and had no more power than anyone else? What would that be like, really? I’d be interested to find out.

Or perhaps your civilisation is an actual democracy and there are branches of magic dedicated to getting the votes of every person in a society that doesn’t have the tech level to do long distance communication otherwise? It’s up to you to say, and so it’s also up to you to know.

These three things may not be as glamorous to think about as that spectacular battle scene you have in your head, but they are the foundations on which your world rests. If your readers catch you making elementary mistakes in these things, you’ll be very very lucky if they (a) ever get to your spectacular battle scene at all and (b) ever read something of yours again. So pay at least enough attention to these so that your foundations won’t crumble and let the whole edifice down. You might even find out you’re writing something much more unique and interesting if you do.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

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Okay, so we’ve talked about the equipment you need to write your novel, about finding time and space for writing. We’ve considered structure, setting, characters and plot plans, and we’ve done as much research as we need to do to get to the stage where we feel it’s possible to write about this setting.

If we’re a highly organized planner we now have character sheets, timelines, several binders full of notes on settings and other such stuff, and we have a nicely structured plot plan to write to. If we’re a pantser we hopefully have enough of an idea about the main character, the setting and what’s about to happen next to dive in.

Now we can finally start writing.

There’s really only one secret you need to know in order to finish the first draft of your novel, and that is “don’t stop moving forwards until you’re finished.”

When I started writing, I wrote on a schedule which went like this: I wrote the first five chapters of a novel in a state of high enthusiasm, thoroughly enjoying myself and the book. Then, somewhere around chapter six I had a brilliant idea of how to make the first five chapters better by completely rewriting them. So I completely rewrote them. But by the time I’d finished the rewrite I had a better idea still, so I rewrote them again.

After several cycles of this, I would be so fed up that I never wanted to see the book again, and I would be seized by the wish to write a different brilliant idea.

So, I would set that book aside, unfinished, start a new one, and the cycle would start all over again. By this means, I wrote at least six beginnings of novels, which I still have in my desk drawers. I still take them out every now and again to see if I want to finish them, and I still can’t bear to work on them ever again.

If this doesn’t happen to you, then you are fortunate, and possibly quite rare, because it seems to be a common affliction of writers.

If it does happen to you, I have one guaranteed solution which I have tested and adopted myself. It is this – don’t stop writing, and don’t go back to rewrite until you have finished the end of the first draft.

By all means, if you have a brilliant idea which changes everything, make a note that it needs to be introduced earlier and then carry on writing as if you had already done so. By all means change everything from the point where you currently are – everything that only exists in idea form anyway – just don’t go back and change what you did write until you’ve finished.

This seems to be an odd way of going about it, but a novel is more prone to stall than a vintage car going up hill in too high a gear with water in the petrol and snow on the road – and with equally disastrous results. You need to do everything you can to maintain forward momentum if you’re not to end up tobogganing backwards off the slope to ruin.

If you don’t stop to rewrite, if you don’t stop at all until you’ve finished the first draft, then you will have a finished first draft, it’s as sure as summer. And OK, it may be a very rough first draft, but it’s easier to edit something which exists than it is to edit something that doesn’t, and five chapters of perfection doesn’t actually do you anywhere near as much good as a whole novel no matter how rough it is.

I offer this advice quite strongly, because it has been of immense use to me. However, I know that I am not all writers. I’ve met some people who, when their novels stalled 5 chapters in, began another novel, and then they finished both novels by working on one when their muse wouldn’t let them work on the other one. If you get fretful and bored working on one novel at once, maybe this is the solution for you. It doesn’t work for me, but there’s no law against trying it and seeing if it works for you instead.

A lot of writers insist on the idea that you should write your first draft from start to finish without troubling yourself with worry about how good the words are. Don’t stop to polish, just get the words down, they would say. Don’t let your inner editor get its claws into the first draft, this time is time for your inner creative genius to roam free, unfettered by things like grammar or attempts at poetic expression.

I tend to be of this school of thought myself. I find it’s much easier to concentrate on making up whole worlds and people from thin air if you don’t also have to concentrate on making your sentences beautiful. I like to do a content draft and several editing drafts, so that in the first draft all I have to think about is what happens next. Then I work on beautifying that later. It gives me only one type of writing task to do at once and means I can concentrate on each type (writing v revising) fully each at its own time.

However, if you really can’t stand moving on from a day’s work knowing that it’s imperfect, there’s nothing wrong with writing a first draft slowly and carefully, mindful of things like word choice and grammar right from the start. Then you can open the next day’s session with editing what you did yesterday, and proceed to further writing as soon as that’s done. As long as it doesn’t stop you moving forwards, it’s fine.

Actually the plain truth is this – the only reason first drafts don’t get finished is that authors choose not to finish them. You can finish anything if you just refuse to allow yourself not to. Whether or not you finish is entirely up to you. Just do it, therefore, and don’t make excuses. As Chuck Wendig says – “Finish your shit.”

That is the secret formula to finishing a novel. As easy as that. Don’t stop writing it until it’s done.

You’d think it didn’t need saying, but so many authors buy into the idea that writing is a matter of being swept away by the muses that when they get to the inevitable point where writing feels like hard work they stop and wait for the muses to come and rescue them. The muses, being faery creatures, laugh their little socks off at this and take it as an opportunity to pixie-lead the writer off down another dead end path, and much effort is expended achieving nothing. As with genius, writing is 1% gambolling with the muses, 99% nose to grindstone. The muses will do their bit, but you have to your part too, and sadly, your part is everything.

I was about to say that was all there was to say for this part. Whether you finish or not is your decision. If you want to finish, just keep writing until you have.

OTOH, there may be some cases where you grind to a halt and you simply cannot force yourself to work on this thing again. There may be some cases where you’d rather spend your leisure time stacking shelves at the supermarket than carrying on with this book, because you loathe it. You loathe the characters, you loathe the plot and you find the whole thing bores you to tears.

If you really can’t push through a block like this, and you know because you’ve tried, and you know that you normally can push through, because you’ve finished several books already and recognise the normal pitfalls of the process, then a really powerful repellance from a book may be a sign that there’s something wrong with the book as it stands.

Then it’s worth stopping for a couple of days and thinking about it. Is this actually a book you want to write at all? Why are you writing a book about clog dancing in the Urals when you’re really interested in Texas cup cake bakers? Are you doing this because other people want you to? Because statistics proved more people wanted to read about the Urals? In short, do you hate it because it’s the sort of thing you hate? (As opposed to hating it for no good reason because that’s just how a writer’s emotional roller coaster goes.)

If you hate it because it’s the sort of thing you hate, but you’re writing it because it’s the sort of thing you think you should write, then the entire project is fundamentally wrong-headed and your best solution is probably to stop writing it as soon as you can and start writing something you actually want to write instead.

If you hate it for some smaller reason, such as because your main character has grown up to be a complete git who you’d rather see eviscerated than happy ever after, then you have the chance of a less drastic solution. Kill off the MC and replace him with someone you enjoy being around, then write on. The plot’s boring? Re-plot and write on. The setting’s actually kind of pretentious? Put them all on a boat and get them out of there, you can finesse the start to match in the second draft.

If you can salvage a novel that you’ve been working on for five chapters, it’s well worth doing it, even if that means jettisoning your entire plot from that point and reworking it. It’s always a shame to have to abandon any of your work. But on the other hand it’s also better to abandon the millstone around your neck if it means you avoid drowning. Just imagine the millstone is made of gold and only drop it if you’re absolutely certain you have to. Otherwise, write on until you reach the end.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

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Last week, I started to talk about the structure of stories. At its most basic level it’s true to say that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But there are other things that you might want to think about before you start to make a plan for how to write your story – refinements and additions to that basic structure which make it a bit more fine-tuned.

If you crack open almost any writing book on the subject of structure, you’ll come across more tables and graphs than – if you’re anything like me – you know what to do with. I do much better with words than pictures (it’s why I’m a writer and not an artist), so the graphs don’t convey a lot to me. But I can summarise what I’ve learned from these books so far:

Beginning.

In the old days, the beginning used to be quite a leisurely process. In fact, I have some writing software which suggests that every novel should start with the character in his ‘ordinary world’. We should see what our main character is like, when he’s in the setting where he has been up until the story started. We should get to know the character in the place where he is at home, before anything out of the ordinary happens to make things take a turn for the unusual.

You don’t have to look far to see examples of this. The Lord of the Rings opens with Frodo at home in the Shire, doing fairly normal things with fairly normal people. The Hobbit opens with Bilbo at home in the Shire, being determinedly ordinary, until Gandalf provides an inciting incident of some dwarves at the door.

In the old days, it used to be standard to introduce the MC by watching him grow up, so you got all the backstory as well as the current ‘Ordinary World’ setting.

The idea of this was that you would get to know what your MC was like on a normal day to day basis before something comes along and throws him into a story. The structure went a bit like this:

Ordinary World > Inciting incident > hero rejects the quest > hero accepts the quest > main story starts.

I’ve never been quite sure why it was important for the hero to reject the quest to start off with, but that’s what the epic journey people usually say ought to happen. These days, however, we’ve all become much more impatient with our stories and we’re no longer interested in watching your MC get up and have breakfast, brush his hair and feed the dog. Not, at least, unless he’s feeding the dog in small bite sized chunks to his unsuspecting room-mate.

Modern readers tend to want to skip the ‘ordinary world’ part and go straight to the ‘inciting incident’ – the thing that happens that sets the MC off on a story.

Modern readers want to know, often in the first paragraph, that some epic shit is going down (or at least that something intriguing is happening right now.) This is what editors and agents mean by ‘a hook’ in the first paragraph. Something needs to be happening at once to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read on.

I didn’t want to believe this, but after several weeks of reading indie fiction in which nothing does happen in the first few chapters I discovered that it doesn’t matter how brilliant your later chapters are if your reader is so bored by your earlier ones that they put the book down two chapters in and never pick it up again. If I read like this myself, I can’t blame others for doing the same, I must just accommodate them and start being interesting earlier.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have backstory any more, but it does mean that backstory will have to be threaded into the story while the story is going on, and is no longer allowed to take up chapters on its own.

So, the beginning has become quite minimal. We’ve jumped straight to the thing that happens to start the story. Our character has been shoved out of an aeroplane without a parachute, or he’s noticed that his room-mate is sporting a nice new pair of tentacles this morning, or he’s received a letter from the bank telling him he’s being thrown out on the street, or he’s knocked down a cyclist and fallen in love with them on the spot. We have hit the ground, hit the story and we’re running.

Middle:

But because our beginning is shorter – it takes less time to get the story up and running – our middle is longer. Suddenly the middle has to advance the story and let us get to know the character and include any absolutely necessary backstory. And it has to do this while resisting the tendency all authors know about – the tendency to get a little saggy and bloated around the middle.

There are a couple of things I’ve found in story structure books which suggest ways of tackling the long slog of the middle of a book without allowing it to be too much of a slog. One suggestion is that there should be a point in the middle of the middle – at the mid point of the book – where the story changes focus.

Perhaps our character has been seeking revenge up til now. Perhaps his housemate failed to water his special plant, and in return he fed the dog to the man, and has been systematically alienating all his housemate’s friends and trying to convince the housemate that he’s insane. As we’ve said before, this will be expressed as a problem (how to get revenge on his hm) to which he has tried several solutions, none of which have entirely worked. How about, at the mid point, one of these attempts fails so disastrously (not only does HM fail to believe he’s mad, he actually buys MC a new plant!) that MC is forced to realise that his goals until now have not been entirely a good idea.

Now the book has changed direction and the problems he faces are new ones (how can he get the friends back? Can he persuade that interesting fellow in the castle, Victor something, to reanimate the dog from the bits he has left? Our character is still driven by his reaction to the relationship with his housemate and the houseplant, but now he’s trying to mend the things he broke in the first half.

This gives you a nice opportunity to do something fresh and surprising in the second half.

Another thing to bear in mind with the middle is that the second half ought to be higher octane than the first. Yes, you start with something immediately interesting, and you carry on with interesting things, but the stakes ought to be getting higher and the tension building up as you go along. Nobody wants to read a story that gets less gripping as you go along, and a story that stays at the same level of peril and anxiety all the way through is rightly called flat.

So, when you’re structuring your novel, make sure things build up to a climax. And not an unrelated climax. It’s no good to suddenly have MC and his housemate come together because they’re threatened by random aliens. (Though you might get away with it if they were vegetable-aliens and the strange plant HM killed was actually an alien child.) The point is that the climax has to build naturally from everything that’s gone before.

To put it in a shortened form. Your middle can go something like this:

MC first attempt to solve problem, fails. MC does something even more serious in an attempt to get revenge, but that doesn’t work either. MC does something really bad, and HM responds with unexpected generosity (Mid point). MC changes his mind about his goals, but now his previous actions are having dire consequences which he must combat. He tries, but things get worse. He does some epic shit, but it only makes things harder. He tries something batshit insane. Crisis!

The crisis is the point where your middle turns into your end. For example, in The Hobbit, there’s a mid point shift where Thorin turns from being ‘relatively reliable companion’ to ‘gold and power crazed idiot,’ and is now acting as antagonist. Everything has escalated from uncomfortable behaviour at the dinner table to ALL OUT WAR.

When you have all out war, there’s not much further you can go in terms of racking up the stakes and the tension, so now it’s time for the story to resolve itself.

Ending

Once you have a crisis, there are generally only two ways the story can go. The characters fail, or they succeed. MC and HM fail to rescue Victor from the mob and the dog remains dead, leading them to be permanently estranged. The elves kill the dwarves and then are killed themselves by the goblin army, and the kingdom is never restored.

This kind of tragic ending will gain you much kudos from literary reviewers who think it’s an unflinching look at the realities of life. I generally find them terribly depressing – and every bit as made up as the happy ending, but if that’s the way you want to take it, it’s your story. Do what you like with it :)

Or, your characters can succeed – the dog is reconstituted, the household is saved. The battle is won and the kingdom is left to prosper.

But ending the crisis is not quite enough. There must also be a resolution to all the other plot threads you may have going, and there must be a sense of closure.

It’s unsatisfying just to finish with the end of the big battle. We want to see how the world and our characters have been changed by the ordeal they’ve just been through. The heroes need to come home and apply the things they’ve learned to the task of making the world a better place, otherwise what was the point?

So the ending is where the characters come home (or decide not to come home, but find somewhere new to belong.) Plot threads are tied up, and all the unanswered questions you’ve raised finally get an answer.

Ends don’t seem to have undergone the shrinkage that beginnings have, but that’s probably because they’ve always been short. To go back to The Lord of the Rings, there’s nothing worse than the situation in the Return of the King film, where the ending just kept not being over. Everything would be said that needed to be said, there’d be some cathartic weeping and a sense of home coming, wrapping everything up, and then a fade to black and everyone would sigh with satisfaction. And then, fuck me, they’d wind it all up again and do it a second time, and a third, until by the end my feeling of satisfaction had turned into a wish to just get on with it already.

Endings – wrap everything up once. Then finish.

~

Next time – strangers from the subconscious. Still in ‘stuff to do before you even start’ mode, we’re on to creating our starter set of characters.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)
Picture from  Isabelle Grosjean ZA

Picture from Isabelle Grosjean ZA

So, you have an idea for a story. You’ve asked yourself lots of questions and you know you have a central situation in which one or two main characters find themselves, which they don’t like and want to change.

The essence of any story is to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the beginning you establish who the story is about – you draw your main character and you attempt to make the reader like him/her. You also give your main character a problem. Something is wrong in their life or their world. Something needs to be changed in order to save the character’s self-respect/the company/the princess/the world.

Beginning = establish the character and his problem.

In the middle we follow the character as he tries to solve his problem. In a typical story the character will have about three tries at saving the thing that needs saving, and he will fail each time. Ideally, when he fails, he will make the situation worse, until finally it looks utterly hopeless. The point at which the situation looks utterly hopeless is called the ‘black moment’, and it’s there to rack up the tension and the sense of peril – the sense that an unhappy ending is just around the corner.

Middle = the character tries to solve the problem, only to end up in a situation where everything looks hopeless.

But our character does not succumb to despair. He pulls one final attempt out of the bag and against all the odds he succeeds this time, solving the problem, making the world of his story a better place and learning the virtues of persistence/self-sacrifice/whatever virtue you were writing about in the process.

End = the character pulls out all the stops and succeeds, learning something in the process. The world is left better off (even though you may have introduced a second problem later on to set up a sequel.)

This is a very basic account of how it works.

For example – in a romance [beginning] we meet the characters. Each character’s goal is that they want to end up with the other, but both of them have a problem which is preventing that. Maybe A is already married, and B has a psychotic alien bounty hunter on his trail and doesn’t want A to get messed up in his life.

[middle] Now both of them attempt to solve their problems – A asks for a divorce, B sets a bear trap in his garden. But this only leads to A’s partner deciding they need to go to relationship counselling, and B finds an actual bear in his trap which tries to maul him. Oh noes! It all looks hopeless.

[ending] But then A has the brilliant idea of disguising his partner as B. The bounty hunter kills his spouse and A and B are free to be together (until the intergalactic police come to arrest them for the murder of the bear.)

Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Short stories are no exception to this. The same structure holds true whether you’re writing something 1000 words long or 100,000 words long.

So how do you know what the right size is before you start writing?

This is largely a matter of complexity. The best short stories consist of one single, brilliant idea developed without any subplots or verbiage. What would happen if someone went into the past and stepped on a single butterfly? Would it unravel the whole future? What would a car accident look like from the perspective of the tree they crashed into?

Short stories tend to be very minimal. One person, one problem, one attempt at solving it, one shocking twist of a conclusion.

This doesn’t make them easy. Far from it, in fact. There is less space in a short story to make mistakes, to waffle around until you find the direction you want to go in, to have some fantastic things make up for the less brilliant stuff. Short stories have to be self contained, disciplined and lucid. I think they are the hardest thing of all to write.

If you have an idea that you really want to explore from the perspective of two or more people, something where you want to add a bit of complexity, a digression or two where your characters meet someone particularly awesome, or explore an awesome setting, or do something to exemplify some philosophical point at tangent to your main story, then you are looking at a longer form.

All stories have a beginning, middle and end, but some stories also have sub-plots. Subplots are like a little extra story woven into the larger one. Maybe during one of your character’s attempts to solve his problem, he goes off to Tibet to learn snow-magic from the yetis. Now you have a little story inside your story where the character has a sub-problem [how to find the yetis and convince them to teach him magic] and this too needs a middle and an end. [He tries bribing them with yaks, but they're not having it. Then he saves the life of their shaman and succeeds, emerging having learned to control snow and ready to go and use this in the pursuit of his larger goal.]

It’s a good rule of thumb that the longer you want your story to be, the more characters you should add. But each of these characters has to be woven into the book’s overarching plot somehow, so unless you want to write something as long as the ASOIAF series, five main characters is probably an upper limit for a novel.

Whether you gravitate more to short or long forms will largely depend on the kind of story ideas that come to you by nature. The minimalist, single brilliant ideas of short stories can’t really be developed into novels, and the sprawling complexity of novel ideas can’t usually be reduced into shorts.

But the modestly complex ideas suitable for novellas can easily grow while you’re writing them and end up as novels. My feeling is that if you find that happening, it’s good to go with it. Never look a gift novel in the mouth.

You can also make short stories into novels if you really want to. I wrote Captain’s Surrender that way. By writing each incident in the characters’ ongoing relationship as a story of its own [Josh kisses Peter and Peter doesn't condemn him], [Peter puts down a mutiny], [Peter decides Josh makes a good alternative to debauching the local women], [Josh appears to die in a naval victory and Peter grieves], etc etc, I was able to finish each part and feel a sense of achievement over each individual story, while slowly building an arc that would stand as one novel.

This is also how I wrote my first ever finished novel – an old man tells a story about Loki, Loki appears and tells a story about his listener’s true love, his listener finds the true love and tells her a story that means she has to come back home with him etc.

I don’t honestly think it’s a good way of writing a novel. In both cases, the joins are visible (at least to me) and the internal structure of the stories fights against the structure of the overarching plot. But if you have problems achieving length in a story – if you can only think of short story ideas, and you desperately want to write a novel – this is the only way I know of to turn one into the other. And the experience of fitting a series of shorts into an overarching structure which tells a novel plot from start to finish is very good experience in what goes into a novel, so that next time you can plot the novel without needing the stepping stones of the shorts.

To sum up. Look at the idea you got last week and ask yourself ‘how many main characters have I got?’ ‘How many problems have they got?’ ‘How many different settings are there?’ ‘How many potential ways are there for an attempt to solve this problem to fail?’

If the answer to most of these things is ‘one’ then you’ve probably got a short story on your hands. If it’s ‘Oh God, where do I start, there’s so many?’ then you have a novel. If it’s somewhere in the region of ‘a few’, then start off aiming for a novella, and see whether it grows as you go. It may, it may not. If this stuff was entirely predictable it would be a science, but it’s not. It’s art, and uncertainty comes with the territory.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

Sorry about this. I normally write my ‘Write on’ post on Sundays in readiness for the Monday coming, but was ill over the weekend, and still am, so I wasn’t able to. I will catch up as soon as I can put one word infront of another again and have them make sense.

Tolkien on Fairy-stories

In the mean time I thought I’d share Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories from which I learned a great deal about the importance of using concrete, direct words (such as grass, green, bread etc instead of verdure, verdigris, nourishment) to create a sense of immediacy and solidity in my settings. I hope this link ought to be in the public domain! But I trust an educational establishment to know whether it is or not. I can’t recommend this essay highly enough for anyone who wonders how stories work, and how to get a style that brings their world to life.

http://public.callutheran.edu/~brint/Arts/Tolkien.pdf


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

Getting Started – the tools of the trade.

Hoards of people want to write a novel. Just as doctors find that everyone they meet tells them about their ailments, authors find that everyone tells them about the novel they intend to write. Authors generally nod politely, say “oh, how interesting!” and go home secure in the knowledge that about 99% of the people who ‘want’ to write a novel will never put pen to paper because they don’t really want it at all.

It’s only when the partygoer/man on the bus etc says “I am writing a novel” that it’s worth while rolling up a trouser leg, exchanging the secret handshake of writerdom and settling down to talk shop. Like winning the pools, owning a dream house, being famous, going on Britain’s Got Talent, meeting [movie star of your choice] and dazzling them with your wit, for most people writing a book is one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ things that will never come to pass.

483px-Jean-Bernard_Restout,_Le_Poète_inspiré_(MBA_Dijon)

The people who enjoy dreaming about being a famous author – of looking seriously out of a window while the sun floods over their manuscript and somewhere in the distance an influential reviewer is overwhelmed by their profundity – are probably better off not considering the reality of the thing. This is advice for the other people, the ones who want it enough to actually do something about it.

So, you’ve never written anything before, and you want to become a published novelist. There is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in this goal. It’s not like my desire to go and live in Rivendell – a resolution hampered by the fact that the Last Homely House is sadly fictional. Becoming a published author is entirely in the realms of the possible, providing you’re willing to put the work in for as long as it takes.

How to start?

Writers are very fortunate. The tools we need to begin writing professionally are very simple. At their most basic they are even very cheap. You can go from aspiring writer to Writer using nothing more than a pen or pencil and a piece of paper.

Writing in longhand in a notebook has the advantage that a certain degree of slowness is built in. It gives you lots of time to think as you work. If you’re starting to write fiction from a basis of never having done anything of the sort before, a pen and notebook can seem less intimidating than a computer. Plus it’s more private and more portable than all but the smallest net books.

If you’re going from zero to novel, it can be helpful to do a lot of your initial character and plot roughing out in longhand. However, I really wouldn’t recommend writing out your entire novel in longhand if you have another choice. You can, if you honestly can’t afford a computer. But then you’ll have to send it off to be typed by someone who does have one, because no publisher takes longhand manuscripts. In fact, most publishers will only accept emailed manuscripts in electronic file format these days, so there’s no getting out of it. Just the researching, marketing and networking opportunities of the internet make it worthwhile alone.

So, a computer with word processing software ought to be down there as one of your necessities. In the short term it will make the mechanical act of getting the words down easier. In the medium term, the internet connects you to beta readers, advice, publishers and agents, submissions calls and places where you can begin to establish yourself as a voice to be heard. And in the long term your publishers and editors will need to be able to contact you by email and send your edits back and forth with tracked changes attached.

In short, you can learn the craft of writing using pen and paper but once you’ve done that, if you mean to write for publication, you’ll need a computer.

I should probably just assume you have a computer already, shouldn’t I? After all, how else would you be reading this post?

Assuming you have a computer, you also need some kind of word processing software. In the long term, most publishers will require you to have Microsoft Word, because that’s what they use, and it has the nifty Tracked Changes ability which editors use extensively. You may also end up using a dedicated programme for writers, such as Scrivener. I can’t get along with it, but many writers seem to swear by it.

In the short term, I recommend LibreOfficeWriter. I do all my writing on this. It’s completely free, it does almost everything Word does, it even opens Word docx files which my version of Word itself won’t do, and once you’re finished it can save its files in a doc format indistinguishable from that made by Word, so nobody knows the difference.

OK, we have pen, paper, a computer, a word processing programme and the internet. What else?

The final things you need to get hold of before you can write are time and space.

It’s finding these things which proves so difficult many people don’t even start. Anyone can buy a pen and some software, but ordering your life so that you can have time to write is a sure sign of being sufficiently committed to actually succeed.

What you need is a place where you can achieve a deep state of concentration, and enough time to use that state for something productive. Finding this place and time varies from writer to writer according to their individual circumstances. In my case, I began writing when I was at home all day with the baby. The baby would sleep for approximately one and a half hours in the middle of the day. I would put her down, tuck her up, switch the computer on and write until she woke up. This meant sacrificing all of my “Oh, thank God, peace and quiet and space to be an adult” time, but it was worth it.

If you’re lucky enough to be someone who can concentrate in a crowded room, you may find you can write for half an hour every day in the coffee shop on your way home from work. You could take the laptop to the library at lunch time. When I had two children with asynchronous sleep cycles I booked an exercise class at the local gym, put them in the creche and typed for two hours in the cafe instead.

If you’re a person who can’t concentrate without solitude and silence, you may have to go to more extreme measures, such as getting up half an hour early every day and locking yourself in whichever room in the house the rest of the family are unlikely to disturb when they wake. Or even taking a camping heater down to the garden shed and typing until your laptop battery runs out.

Going to the effort of building writing time into your day is a good litmus test of how serious you are about this writing lark. Much of what separates the writer from the wannabe comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put in. So finding the time to actually do it is the most important step of all.

The next most important step is finding something to write about, and that’s what I want to talk about next week, in Getting Started – What’s the Idea?


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

So, I noticed that nobody had posted on The Macaronis for a while, and thought that the blog post I was going to post today here would be probably much more useful to readers of that blog. (Because I’m sure all my friends are already perfectly aware of how to start a fire.)

But then I thought “but still, readers of my blog might be interested, if only for the laugh” so here’s the link :)

A Pseudo Medievalist’s Guide to Fire


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

Being too mean and/or poor to buy new books, I went over to Amazon’s kindle store yesterday and downloaded a large variety of free fantasy and mystery novels. All of these appeared to be book one of a series, which made a lot of marketing sense. The risk of liking a free book so much that I have to buy the rest of the series is a risk I’m more than prepared to take.

At any rate, I settled down with a book with a gorgeous cover – some sort of fantasy – and was forcibly reminded of one of the very few stylistic quirks that makes me want to sharpen my nib and convert my pen into a sword.

Dire Wolf

Starving, dropping with exhaustion and about to die of exposure, the heroine found herself in a “rather dire” situation. This was the point at which I deleted the book in despair. This wasn’t the first time such a namby pamby, uncommitted, lazy construction had been used, it was just the point at which I couldn’t take any more.

I fully admit that I’ve been guilty of this one myself. I hate it so much because it’s one of my own old mistakes. It seems to be a typical mistake of beginner writers in fact, and now I’ve mentioned how much I hate it, I should probably explain why.

You see, ‘rather’, like ‘slightly’, and ‘quite’ and my personal failing ‘a little’, are qualifiers. Their purpose is to take away the impact of the word you put them with – to make them mean less than they would mean alone. A ‘rather’ dire situation is nowhere near as dire as a dire situation, because that ‘rather’ dilutes the impact of the word.

Now this may be what the writer wanted to do in the first place. It’s possible he meant to convey the fact that the situation was not properly dire at all. If so, it works, in its way. But a better way would be to find a single word that can convey the correct level of direness without mealy-mouthed equivocation. To just slap a ‘rather’ in there is lazy and half-arsed.

So, the situation is not really dire? Perhaps then it’s ‘perilous’? Or is it only ‘threatening’? Or is it even less bad – ‘worrying’ maybe? There are perfectly good words for a range of levels of threat somewhere less than dire. It’s stronger, more efficient, more meticulous to use one of those instead.

But if the writer really meant that the situation was a dire one – honest-to-goodness, it really is. Seriously, brace yourself, she may not survive – then the writer should have the courage of their conviction and actually say so. Something which is rather dire is not more dire than something which is simply dire. Dire needs no stinking qualifier. Dire is cool enough to ride alone, with a four megatonne nuke under one arm and a grimoire entitled “Five easy spells to end the universe,” under the other.

And to be frank few other words need it either. I don’t believe in bad words, so there must be occasions when I’d rather have a rather than not. But on most occasions it’s better to write with certainty, rather (heh) than writing as though you can never quite commit to what you’re saying. And that means picking a good word and letting it speak for itself.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

I’ve held out for a long time against all this advice (indeed against the downright assumption) that all writing ought to be done in scenes.

“But I write in chapters!” I cried. “Why should I bother with fiddly little bits of scenes when I can see the whole chapter in one lump and just work from that?”

Then I thought “well, I’ll just try out Scrivener, everyone raves about it so.”

Scrivener is set up so that you do your plotting on virtual note cards. A single note card isn’t big enough to hold all the stuff that goes on in a chapter (unless your chapters are very small indeed.) And presto, I found myself plotting in smaller chunks. Then I found that my smaller chunks corresponded to segments of about 1000-1500 words.

Suddenly I knew how many cards I had to fill to create a story of any given length. Wow! I didn’t even realise I needed to know that until I knew it.

Plus, I can do 1000-1500 words in a go, which means I can write one (oh, God, let’s just surrender and call it a…) scene in a writing session. And that means I can cross off at least one card every day.

Which means I know how long it’s going to take me to write any project. 60 scenes = at most 60 days = 60,000-90,000 words.

All of which gives me such a heady sense of control you wouldn’t believe it. Plus, there’s the instant reward and gratification – the daily sense of achievement – of making measurable progress.

Sometimes, in the middle of a novel, it feels as if I’ve been going forever and there’s still forever left to go – that I’ll be stuck like one of those anxiety dreams, driving, driving, never able to find the turn off or get home. With this, every day the scenes left to write will be going down. I’ll know how many days I have to go. I won’t have to panic and run around tearing at my hair and ranting about how impossible it all is and how I ought to just pack it in and take up bonsai forestry instead.

I may still do so anyway, because that’s just me. But here and now I throw up my hands in a melodramatic manner and admit that OK, you did tell me. No, I know I didn’t listen, but yes, you were right. Scenes may actually be a very similar thing to sliced bread.


Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.

alex_beecroft: A blue octopus in an armchair, reading a book (Default)

I had a great time at the UK Meet this year, though the intense (and wonderful) experience of being in a room with 40 odd other people who are all buzzed and happy and excited at being with kindred spirits did lead to me being utterly exhausted the next day.

There have been several write-ups of the day that cover the excellent talks, sumptious food and the excitement of all being in this together.  For example this from Jenre’s blog, Well Read:

http://jenre-wellread.blogspot.com/2011/07/report-from-uk-meet-2011.html

and this one from Erastes

I would like to mention that the free anthology the attending authors contributed to is getting some great reviews!

http://kassa011.wordpress.com/2011/07/26/review-british-flash/

So if you haven’t got a copy it might be worth checking out.

I was involved in the panel on how to write the gay historical, alongside Erastes and Charlie Cochrane.  (I was glad they made me speak first or I would have been too intimidated after their contributions!)  We each spoke for about 5 minutes and then took some questions.  Rather than doing another round-up post of what happened, I thought I’d post the text of my speech, as a kind of hard backup.  I understand that all three will be available on Speak Its Name and/or The Macaronis by next week.

Anyway.  I wrote this down, then I read it out, then I practiced the speech three times without the text.  Then on the day I dispensed with paper or notes and just talked, trying to get the same main points across.  So this text and what I actually said are certainly not identical, but I believe that the gist of the two things is the same.

Read the rest of this entry » )

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