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


So, we’ve done our first pass edit. We’ve plugged the plot holes and the story is hanging together as a marvellous creation that has a beginning, middle and end. Everything’s tied together in a chronology that could work, and no character has accidentally been forgotten half way through. Surely that’s our job done, right?

Not quite. Writing a book is a little like carving a sculpture. First you quarry the basic story stone out of your subconscious, and crudely hew it into the right rough shape. That was your first draft and first revision pass. Now you’re going to put down the saw and pick up the chisel – it’s time for the fine work.

For this pass, we’re going to go through the story we have already, and see where we can make it better. Start again right at the beginning and consider how you have told the reader what you have told them.

This is where most writing books pull out the most well known piece of writing advice that ever existed – Show, don’t tell. Which is all very well, but what the hell does ‘show don’t tell’ actually mean?

Well, for example, suppose you want to open your book with a quick precis of your character’s backstory. My first reaction would be ‘don’t’. Why do we need to know that he was brought up in Northampton and had a pet dog called Spot? Is that relevant? If it’s not relevant, can we perhaps not put it in at all, and just start with the story?

But if you insisted – if you said ‘No, my character’s backstory is the most interesting thing ever, and will be essential to understanding why he chooses to ignore the evidence that his wife is an alien until it’s too late’ – I would have to say Okay then, your funeral.

Let’s consider how to show, rather than tell, your character’s backstory.

When you ‘show’ something, you think up a scene in which that thing becomes obvious to the reader. So if you want to show that your character was afraid of bats ever since he fell down the well in the grounds of his mansion (I wonder where I got that example from), you write a scene in which you allow the reader to feel what it was like for a boy at play to feel the ground crumble around him. You evoke the terror of falling by making the reader feel like they are falling, letting them feel the punch of rocks against their back as they crash into the ground, drawing in vivid detail the stench of ammonia and the crawling, flapping blackness of a bat colony as it swirls past his face.

We’ll call him ‘Bruce’ shall we? So if you were doing this, you would end up with something that read a little like this:

Bruce’s foot plunged into the earth, dislodging stones, wrenching his knee. He tried to scramble away but the long grass was sappy and slick beneath his weight. A burst of green smell and he slid sideways, arms flung out, gripping for the boulders that fell away beside him. Rushing noise and rushing darkness, something whipping past his face. His back slapped into something sharp edged that punched the wind out of him. Stones smacked into his face, lights bursting behind his eyes, and then he hit the ground.

The stench awoke him, acrid and brilliant as a desert sun – the only brightness in the endless dark. He felt the darkness like a plastic bag taped around his face, stopping him from breathing, thinking, had to force himself to wobble to his feet. That was when he heard them, above him. Something rustling. A single huge rustling, and a drip, drip, drip of what he thought at first was rain. But it was urine, concentrated and toxic, like acid on his skin.

“No!” he choked, wanting to crawl out of his own body at the touch. “No!”


And so on. We haven’t even seen the bats yet. At some point he’s got to find his way out of the cave into a place where there is enough light to see them, and then he’s going to have an epiphany about using the power of that image to turn his fear into other people’s fear. But hopefully you see what I mean about ‘showing’. In this example, I’m not telling you that Bruce got his bat idea after being frightened by bats, I’m showing you what it was like for him to be frightened by bats and come up with his familiar idea.

There are things to notice about this. One is that ‘showing’ produces a more viscerally engaging and entertaining thing to read. Another is that ‘showing’ takes up an awful lot of words and space. And what that means is that the pundits who say ‘Always show, don’t tell,’ are wrong.

Show any time you want your reader to really live through the information. Any time you want them to remember it as something dramatic that happened to them. Any time you want them to feel an emotional connection to the information.

But telling is useful and legitimate too. Suppose you just want to get information to the reader with as little fuss as possible? Suppose you’re already in the middle of an exciting scene and you don’t want to interrupt it to have another nested one to explain something you could tell them in a paragraph? Then I say do that instead. A whole load of unnecessary waffle can be cut by a conversation between two characters that goes a bit like this:

“Why the bat motif?”

“Oh, he fell down a well when he was young. Figured that the things that terrified him then would terrify others now. And maybe when he became what he feared, he thought it wouldn’t fear it any more.”


“Yeah, but it seems to work.”

So, that was a long-winded sidetrack to my point about editing. We’re going to have many many editing passes, but the purpose of this one is to decide which things you want to show and which things can be passed over quickly by telling them. Obviously that’s very much up to you, but I would sum it up this way:

If you just want to quickly get across information with no emotional impact – tell.

If you want to make an emotional and visceral impact with the scene – show.

It’s up to you as the author to decide what should be minimized by telling or maximized by showing, but I would also say if you always do one, try to do the other one occasionally, just for variety. Variety will help stop your reader from either being burnt out by all this excitement, or bored by all this exposition.

Next time, dialog and characterization. Coolness! :)

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

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

So, following the ‘just plough on until you reach the end’ advice – advice which is much easier to follow if you have a plot plan, btw, because at least you’re never left not knowing what happens next – you’ve finished your first draft. What to do now?


1. Celebrate. Reward yourself. We train dogs and children to do good things by rewarding them when they achieve them and not rewarding them when they don’t. Train yourself to finish your first drafts by rewarding yourself when you finish, whether that’s with a new book to read or a trip out, or a packet of smarties, or whatever your imagination most wants and your pocket can reasonably afford. I recommend getting something you wouldn’t have allowed yourself otherwise. Something that will last quite a while and will continually remind you of the benefits of finishing your stuff.

2. Take the rest of the day, if not the week off. Writing a novel is a long sustained mental effort, and just as you would rest at the end of a physical marathon, if you didn’t want to end up like Pheidippides – glorious but dead – you should also rest after a mental marathon.

Of course, taking the rest of the week off must not be allowed to turn into taking the rest of the month off. It’s very easy, once you get off the writing bandwagon, not to get back on again. As with physical training, a few days off won’t harm you, but leave it too long and you’ll find you’ve lost all your muscle and you’re more unfit than you were when you started. Then you’ll have to go through all that slow, tedious, painful warming up again before you can get back on track.

(Which in writerly terms translates to whining, making coffee, doing the ironing, spending longer at work, doing your tax return, watching another episode of [box set of choice] discovering an obscure relation you really have to visit and then finally eking out 250 words in the last 5 minutes of the day before bedtime, before falling into bed hating yourself for being such a loser.)

3. Now (mentally) put a tea towel over the first draft and set it on a mental airing cupboard shelf to give it some time to prove.

Or to be less metaphorical, commit the first draft to the care of your subconscious and turn your mind to something else for a while. This is a good time to do the plot plan of the next book, or write a couple of short stories, to edit the book you finished before this one, or to do some other kind of writerly job which has no connection to this one.

4. Once you’ve done that, and you’ve got to the point where you’ve mostly forgotten your first draft, you’re ready to give it another go. I like to print it out for this stage, which I think of as either the ‘second draft’ or the ‘first edit’. Somehow it’s easier to see things on the printed page than it is on the screen.

Now it’s time for a slow read through, with a notebook to hand.

Don’t even start fixing things at this stage. The read through is to figure out what needs to be done, so you can do it in the most efficient fashion. So you do read through and notes first, then you fix things.

There’s a good reason for this. As you read, you’ll notice lots of typos and awkward sentences, and it’s worthwhile noting them with a number on your list of things to fix. But you’ll also notice that there are plot holes, there are places where you filled in the flow with [research this later] notes, there are timeline problems and big, structural elements that are wonky. There’s no point polishing sentences that are only going to end up on the cutting room floor when you have to fix the big plot hole associated with them.

Once you’ve identified all the things that are wrong with the book, fix the big things first. First close the holes and fix the time line. Then you can go through and do all the research you left for later, incorporating that where it’s needed. This will often involve getting rid of some scenes altogether and doing large chunks of re-writing. That’s why it’s still no place to worry about the commas.

With the major problems sorted and the manuscript now making sense as one coherent story with all the appropriate research incorporated, then you can do another pass, concentrating on making those sentences beautiful. But for the moment, the first editing pass is a structural job. Here’s where you decide whether your characters are acting in character, where you decide if a boring bit of exposition ought to be re-written as an exciting scene, or an interminable scene can be shortened into an off the cuff exposition while a character does something else. Here’s where you identify the boring bits and either re-write them to be interesting or delete them and write something new to replace them.

Which leads me into the exciting world of editing, of which, more anon.

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

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

Most of what I have to say on this subject, I have already said in an earlier post in which I was vehement about voice. I decided to repeat that here, and add a little bit on the bottom about how you develop your voice.

If there was one thing that came out of the UK Meet for me (and actually there were several) it was the importance of voice. Let me say that again, because I don’t think I used enough emphasis. It was the importance of an author’s VOICE. Aleks Voinov speaking on behalf of publishers everywhere, and Jenre, speaking on behalf of reviewers, both emphasized strongly how much, when they cracked open a new book, they were looking for a unique voice.

It’s all very mystical, and possibly vaguely amusing in an ironic kind of way. Because the internet and ‘how to write’ books appear unanimous that the way to good writing is an adherence to action verbs, and a willingness to pare down ones adjectives and adverbs to the absolute bare minimum. Cut, cut, cut, people say. Make your language transparent, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story. You don’t want to throw out your reader’s suspension of disbelief every other sentence with a gorgeous phrase or a word they need to look up in the dictionary. Have good characters, have a story hook in the first paragraph, keep piling on the tension, break for a black point three quarters of the way through and set everything on its head at the half way point.

If this is advice on ‘voice,’ this is the advice to write like everyone else.

How can you write like everyone else and still have a unique voice? You can’t.

When I listen to this advice about paring down your words to the minimum, I think about the writers whose books I love and it applies to none of them. Tolkien, with his chapter-long descriptions of scenery and his insistence that you had to spell ‘dwarfs’ ‘dwarves’ because obviously it was formed on the same principle as ‘loaf’ and ‘loaves’. That if you spelled it differently, you denied it its history. Tolkien who taught me what a hythe was, and gave me the gift of finding out that ‘gore’ isn’t only blood, or a triangular panel in a skirt, but it’s also a spear-head shaped piece of land. Tolkien who never flinched from a right word just because nobody but him remembered what it meant.

Patrick O’Brian, with his rampant, laughing lists of 18th Century words, and his puns and his sometimes-roaring, sometimes sly delight in combinations of phrases that make you chortle.

China Mieville – oh Lord, I just finished reading ‘Kraken’. There’s another man who loves his words when they’re decked out in carnival costumes and on the trapeze:

“Subby Subby Subby,” whispered Goss. “Keep those little bells on your slippers as quiet as you can. Sparklehorse and Starpink have managed to creep out of Apple Palace past all the monkeyfish, but if we’re silent as tiny goblins we can surprise them and then all frolic off together in the Meadow of Happy Kites.”

You may not particularly like any of these writers but, lets face it, they are incredibly successful, critically acclaimed and widely regarded as being at the top of their respective genres. And none of them are writing stripped down transparent, zero-added-value prose. They all have VOICE (imagine that said in a Doctor DOOM tone. I know I do.)

It doesn’t mean that your voice as a writer should be like their voice. If you don’t like obscure words and you don’t feel strongly about how to decline ancient nouns, don’t rush to use them because you think you should. Voice is about being you, after all. But I find it comforting to think that so many writers who’ve said ‘fuck you’ to the transparent-prose-style-gurus, so many writers who’ve reveled in the language they’re using, dived in and splashed and played with words, should have reached so high and done so well with it.

Partly this pleases me because I like to see the internet pundits proved wrong. But mostly it pleases me because it gives back to every writer the chance to do what the hell they like with their own voice. Maybe you like stripped down prose, where a very few perfect descriptors give the effect of a splash of colour in a minimalist white house. Good for you – do that then. Ursula LeGuin does something like that, although she also makes sure the rhythm of her sentences sounds like poetry. I love her stuff, but don’t have the elegance to write like that myself. I’m just glad to know that I don’t have to try to. I’m free to discover whatever it is that I want to do with my words instead.

When I tell my words how high to jump, I want them to ask “d’you want me to be wearing the sparkly skirt with that?” Not to worry about how other writers do it. They’re my words, after all.

To quote Terry Pratchett (another top hatted master of the three ring word circus): “If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”
Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies


Having said that, how do you go about developing your author’s voice?

The first thing I would say is that IMO it’s not something you need to worry about when you’re writing the first draft of your first novel. Actually it’s not something you need to worry about at all. Your voice is simply what happens when you learn to express yourself in the way that comes naturally to you. So all you have to do is write lots of stories, and your voice will happen by itself.

This is not very helpful advice, is it? You want to know how you develop your voice right now. You don’t want to have to wait until you’ve written 15 novels, all of which you’ll look back on at some time in the future and think “that doesn’t even sound like me!”

And this is true. If you don’t want to find your voice by churning out lots of text, making mistakes, correcting them and trying again – the way we learn to walk – much can be done by reading advice on style. Only so long as it’s the right advice – advice which is congenial to you.

Out there on the internet there are hundreds of people who will tell you to mangle your grammar by removing the word ‘was’ wholesale. There are people who will tell you that any verb ending with ‘ing’ is ‘passive’ and must be annihilated by nuclear warheads (when actually a verb ending in ‘ing’ indicates that the action of the verb is continuing. Ie they didn’t ‘run’ in the past, they aren’t going to ‘run’ in the future, they are ‘running’ right now as we speak. You can’t get much more active than that.)

If you’re going to take style advice from someone, look for advice from the writers you love. If you love their writing, chances are their advice will tend towards producing writing like that.

I thoroughly recommend “Steering the Craft” by Ursula LeGuin and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These authors do not lay down hard and fast rules about which words you’re allowed to use and which you aren’t, they encourage you to pay attention to the way words sound together, to hear them like music or poetry and allow them to have rhythm and character and fun. They also give you some exercises to do to develop a style of your own.

Just as I would say “go for style advice to writers whose style you admire” I would also say “look at the writing of writers you admire and try to work out how they do it.” If necessary, try writing something in their style, so that you can figure out which bits seem to fit you and which bits feel horribly awkward.

I trained myself to write settings, description and atmosphere by imitating Tolkien, who I consider a master of the creeping ambiance. I trained myself to look for the most concrete words instead of vague ones because he said that was how he did it – and I think it works. You may start off imitating, just as a new dancer starts off imitating what they see the experienced dancers doing, but before long the parts that come naturally to you will become your own, and you will drop the other parts and be left with a new amalgam which is specifically your own.

If you see a device being used with lots of panache by another writer and it speaks to something in you that says “Oh God! I want to write like that!” then do. Steal the technique (not the actual words, that would be wrong) and apply it yourself. I love Patrick O’Brian’s sentence fragments. They spatter the book with a flying spray of words like sea foam flying past the bow of a ship. So I started doing it too.

Editors aren’t terribly fond of that aspect of my writing, so I’ve dialed it back a little these days, but I still feel that some of the exuberance of the technique has made it through to influence my own voice. And after all, I don’t want to sound too much like someone else. Take techniques that work from anywhere you see them, but use them in your own way.

How will you know what your own way is? It will come naturally. It will be the only way you can write. It will be the sentence you look at and think ‘yes. That’s right.’ The simile only you could have thought of, because no one else seems to have had the same experience, the turn of phrase that makes you grin like a sickle moon. Trust yourself and write on.

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

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


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)


Everyone has to do research. Even writers of contemporaries will occasionally have to look up police procedure, or how much a luxury yacht costs or what is the price of a room in the Waldorf, or what would really happen if you turned up in A&E with gunshot wounds etc etc. Writers of historicals know that research is essential and inescapable (and actually a great deal of fun). Even fantasy writers don’t get it all their own way. As I’ve said elsewhere, if a fantasy writer wants to convince me she knows all about dragons, she’d better get right things like how to lay a fire or shoot a bow – and that, if you don’t know it already, takes research too.

So, how much research should you do? How much is enough?

How long is a piece of string? On the one hand, no amount of research is ever enough. There will always be some little thing that you don’t know. There will always be something that some cunning reader trips you up about, because you thought you knew something that you didn’t, or you assumed something that turned out to be wrong.

Plus, of course, the more you know, the better. The more research you’ve done, the more embedded you are in that society and time, the more detail you can include, the more appreciation you will have for it, the more certainty and confidence you will have while writing, and the more authority you can speak with.

So on one hand you could research for ten years and not be finished. On the other hand, if you researched for ten years and never actually sat down and wrote the book, that would be too much. If you researched for two years and found, at the end of it, that you were so fed up of hearing about this subject that you didn’t want to write the book at all, that would also be too much.

I researched for two years before I wrote False Colors, but I was writing other Age of Sail stories at the time, and I was mostly ‘researching’ – by which I mean ‘reading fascinating books and learning new stuff which I really enjoyed’ for entertainment. I read it because I was interested and I wanted to know, not because I wanted to write a book. But of course when I did decide to write a book, all the research was there at my fingertips already.

This was a fortunate occurrence but not to be relied on to happen as a matter of course.

Research is a tricky thing. When I was writing Under the Hill, I thought I would research for a book set in WWII. This would be the book I wrote after I had finished the story in UtH. But the research turned out to be so interesting that I couldn’t wait to use it. It sneaked into UtH and made that a very different book than I had initially expected.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the timing of your research is also important. If you can research one book while writing another, well done you. If you can’t, that definitely puts a limit on the amount of time you have to do the research you need. If you’re trying to produce two or three (or four or five) books a year, and you have to do the research for each one immediately before you begin writing it, you’re probably limited to a month of deep immersion in research at best.

Of course, one way to get round this is to use a similar setting for several books. That way, you can research for six months and then rattle off three books on the strength of it, one after another without a delay.

If you have a strong attraction to one period of history, such that all you want to write for years is Regency romances, for example, then you’re set. You can learn as much as you need to write your first book in a few months or so, and you can continue to learn more and more as each book goes on, until eventually you will be a foremost expert on your period.

But if you want to do something different each time, you need to be satisfied with less research. It is simply not practicably possible to become an expert for every book. You need to become an expert in creating the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

How to do this?

I suggest a short period of intensive immersion in reading anything and everything you can get your hands on about the era/subject you are learning. Give yourself a month to get all the books you can find out of the library, to read all of the websites and hunt down all the books in the bibliographies of the books you already have.

The first week is of necessity a week of the broad brush. Here you’re learning the shapes of what you don’t know – you’re learning where the gaps are that you have to fill. By the end of that week of indiscriminate reading, you will have an idea of where you need to look for more. I recommend that by the end of that week, you narrow down your century to an actual date. It’s much easier to find out what happened in 1742 than it is to find out what happened in the entire 18th Century.

Once you’ve got a grip on the basic details of the culture – what people wear, what they eat, what their houses look like, how they travel, what they live on, what they believe in – then you can begin to write.

Don’t at this point think that the research is over. It may take you four to six months to write your book. That’s four to six months more you have to read up about what you’re writing about. With editing and polishing and submission time, you may have a whole year to give yourself a crash course in your subject. By the end of a year spent reading up intensively on any subject you can usually know a decent amount about it, and until the book is actually being sent to the printers any mistakes can be still changed.

The reason I would start writing as soon as I had a broad overview of the culture in hand is this – you don’t know what you need to know until you know the needs of your story. Only if your hero is going on a carriage journey from Dorset to Inverness will you know that it’s vital to look up the state of the roads in Britain in [date]. If you did decide to research the roads on the off chance, and then he ended up taking ship from his home-town and spending the rest of the novel in the Bahamas, that would have been a waste of your time.

By writing and researching as you go along, you can make sure you’re focussed on the research which is most necessary to your story. Also, if you are writing at the same time as the research is permeating your consciousness, it will be most immediately in conversation with your muse. Your whole mind, intellect and creative powers alike, will be working together at what you’re doing, reinforcing each other.

To sum up, do as much research as you need to do to feel that you can create a reasonable simulacrum of this culture on the page. Then fill in the small details when you need to know them.

Or, do it in whatever way works for you, because if there’s one thing that’s become obvious while I’ve been writing this series of posts, it’s that there is no aspect of writing in which one fits all.

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

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

I should have put this in last week’s post, since it’s part of the whole plotting thing, but as usual for me, I don’t have a lot to say about it, so it can slip in here with no problem.


Writers appear to be divided between those who like to make a plan of their plot so that they know what is going to happen next in every scene from the beginning to the end (aka plotters) and those who find that if they know what’s going to happen next at all, they lose all interest in actually writing it. (Aka pantsers from ‘flying by the seat of their pants’.)

My position is that there’s nothing wrong with either method, but that you should experiment with both to find out which one suits you best, and then use that.

I started off as a pantser, which at the time was the only way I knew of to do it. Not knowing what was coming next lead to an awful lot of time spent staring out of the window waiting for inspiration to strike. It also lead to an awful lot of time spent blocked while I had apparently written myself into a corner and simply could not imagine how my characters were going to get out of their perilous situation or tight spot. Eventually the answer would come, but it was disheartening and anxious waiting for it, unable to count on it, thinking that the entire thing might have to end up in the bin.

So, when I heard of the revolutionary idea of figuring out what to write before you actually wrote it, I thought I’d give it a try. The book I heard this from was one of those formidable ‘structure’ books, which lays out how a plot should go as if it was a military exercise, along with charts and graphs of where exactly the pivot points and beats of maximum tension, bullet point lists of character flaws and motivations etc etc. That was way too organised for me.

Interestingly I recently read a book which read as though it had been written in absolute accord with this technical manual. That was Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath. I found it absolutely competent, interesting enough, and completely soulless, which is tragic when the story’s premise is so fantastic.

Anyway, I think that book proves that you can pay too much attention to the dictates of mechanical plotting. I suspect that most people will find that somewhere between the extremes of ‘make it all up as I go along’ and ‘mapped out to the slightest comma’ there is a happy medium that suits them.

For my part, I like to know what I’m going to be writing next. If we define a ‘scene’ as ‘the minimum amount of writing necessary for you to make one interesting thing happen’, then I plot by scene. The first thing you need to do, to be able to do this, is to figure out about how many words it generally takes you to describe one important happening in your story. It’ll have to be an average, obviously, because sometimes you can do it in two words (“he died,” for example) and sometimes it takes ten thousand.

My average tends to be 2000-2500 words per scene. Knowing that allows me to roughly estimate right from the start how many scenes I’m going to need to fill a book of a specific length. If I’m writing a short 20-25K novella, I need to think up 10 interesting things to happen (aka scenes). If I’m writing a 100K novel, I need to make a list of 40-50 scenes.

I still consider myself to be a fairly mild example of the plotter. I don’t make graphs and character sheets and timelines and floorplans etc as some people do. I just make a list of things that need to happen to get from the beginning to the end. I eventually end up with a plot plan which has no more than a short paragraph describing each scene.

Knowing how many things you have to think up to happen actually helps you think them up, in my experience. And not starting to write until you have an appropriate number of interesting things to write about has for me many additional benefits: I am excited about what I have to write that day, as opposed to unsure that anything will come to me at all. I know how far along in the story I am, so when I’m in the long grind of the middle, I can tick off a scene a day and have the reassurance that I’m a measurable distance closer to the end.

I wouldn’t go back to writing without a plan now – I wouldn’t know where to start or how to continue, at least without wasting at least half of my writing time on each occasion on sitting and thinking stuff up time.

I think that people worry that a plan will shut down their creativity and will shut them into a rigid box with no space for those wonderful moments of inspiration which are the delight of making art. But in my experience that’s not how it goes. I’ll be writing along, sticking to the plan, and then I’ll think “OMG! What if he suddenly decided to retrain as a ninja?”

This will indeed throw a big wrench into my drawing room comedy about a bunch of layabout gentlemen who do nothing but behave like PG Wodehouse’s Drones Club. But if I think it’s an awesome enough idea, and will improve everything out of recognition, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from altering the plan. And given that the plan is just a list of short paragraphs, there’s not all that much work in changing it completely. Then you just write to the new plan instead. Simple.

But as I said above, if even this is enough to stultify your creative juices, there’s no need to do it at all. As long as you’ve tried both plotting and pantsing, and know for sure which one works for you, there’s no law that says you have to do either.

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

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

A lot of people have said a lot of things about plot, and I find it difficult to say anything different. But, as ever, I’m going to attempt it anyway.


Many of the how to write books I’ve read define plot as conflict. The character wants something, something is stopping him achieving that, there is conflict between him and the antagonist (be that another character or some more abstract force) and plot is what happens in an attempt to get that conflict resolved.

I tend to think this is all very well for certain sorts of stories but doesn’t apply to all stories. I would say that the essential thing you need to keep in mind in order to generate a plot is that something interesting ought to be happening.

In the old days, I plotted by chapter. I would write a numbered list of however many chapters I thought would make a good book, (usually around 25) and I would try to think of something interesting to happen in each chapter.

The Witch’s Boy, for example opens when Oswy – who has (offscreen) been sold as a slave to the local lord – meets his new master for the first time, thinks he’s about to be cut up for spell-components and tries to escape. I don’t know whether I would call this a conflict or not, because what Oswy doesn’t know is that he’s in no danger from the lord (no conflict there) and the guards can’t really be arsed to keep a watch on him, because he’s got a tracking spell on him which will bring him home anyway. He thinks he’s cunningly outwitting the lord and his guards, but really there’s no contest.

So I don’t know – it’s not conflict, but I hope it is something interesting.

And then of course, the ball is rolling. Once something has happened in the first chapter, it starts to make new things happen as a result. Either he gets away – in which case he’s alone in the wilderness as a runaway slave, and all kinds of bad things might happen – or he gets caught and sent back – in which case we find out what the lord and his henchmen really intend to do with him. (And we, the writer, have to decide what that is.)

Basically, plot is a series of interesting happenings, each one caused by the one before it, and causing the one after it.

Once one character is set on a sequence of interesting events, you can make the book longer and more interesting by adding a couple more characters. Each of these need to have something interesting happen to them. Then, once it starts happening, it needs to continue to be interesting until the character can begin to control the plot thread and wrestle it into a satisfying conclusion.

If you have more than one character in operation at once, each with their own series of events, all the plot threads need to influence each other. Character A’s flight from false accusation brings the police into Character B’s shady antiques business, and as a result, Character B hides his stolen diamond in the ghastly vase Character C has just bought. Then, later in the novel, C drops the vase when B tries to tackle him to the floor. C resists, and B falls in front of a train – and later A finds the diamond on the train tracks when he’s trying to shelter there in his state of penniless ruin.

Conventional wisdom is that your characters should not be passive. They should not be acted on by circumstances, but should be the ones who drive their own story. As always, I think this is mostly true, but I have caveats.

Not all characters will be the kind of people who have a burning desire for something and immediately set out to achieve that desire. I think it’s entirely OK to start off with a character who is acted upon, and turn them active as you go along. They can be catapulted into the story by outside circumstances, but at some point they do need to decide to take charge of their life and start trying to affect the world, rather than allowing it to always affect them.

For example, take two books about boys who go to wizard school. Ged of the Earthsea books is an active character – he always wanted to be the greatest mage who ever lived, and pretty much from infancy he is striving hard to get to that goal. (Only to be humbled later on when he all but destroys himself through his pride and ambition.) But Harry Potter starts off as a passive character, who has no real desires or drive until he gets his Hogwarts letter. Even then, things tend to happen to him for a large part of the book before he decides it’s up to him to do anything about them.

If your character has no pressing desires to start out with, don’t worry too much. It’s OK to start with the world forcing interesting things on them. They’re bought by a sorcerer, who’s decided he needs an apprentice. They accidentally witness a murder and the murderer decides to hunt them down to silence them. They are thrown out of a plane and mysteriously end up in another world. A dinosaur breaks down their front door and they’re too busy trying to survive to (a) sit around being passive or (b) wonder where it came from.

How your character reacts to this first interesting thing depends very much on their personality, so if they are a particularly lumpen and inactive sort of person, they may react to the dinosaur incident by running across the street, phoning the police, making a cup of tea while the authorities deal with the animal and then going back to their life as an insurance salesman with a shrug and a ‘well, none of my business’. This would be a valid reaction in real life, but in a story it runs the risk of (a) being quite dull and (b) bringing the story to an end.

You have a lot of book to fill, so naturally the thing to do is to choose whichever reaction (out of a choice of ‘what would a character like this do’) which will lead to the most fascinating thing possible happening next. If your character is the kind of person who honestly wouldn’t ever do anything interesting, then he may not make a good hero. Consider giving the job of protagonist to someone else and making him a phlegmatic sidekick. He might be quite amusing in that role.

The way your character reacts to this first interesting incident both illustrates what kind of personality he has and creates the next interesting situation. He shoots the dinosaur with the gun for which he doesn’t have a gun licence, and when he gets back from reporting it to the police, the body is gone, replaced by the body of a middle aged woman with a tattoo over her eye. Now the police think he’s a murderer… what does he do next to clear his name?

Or he flings a steak from the fridge into his car, traps the dinosaur, and runs the car off the end of the pier (you’d better go back and make sure he lives at the seaside) only to have the car eaten by an ichthyosaurus. At which point he decides there’s something fishy going on, and because he’s that sort of person he becomes determined to figure out what it is.

The art of plotting is the art of making sure something interesting happens next. You need to combine this with the art of structure, which we discussed before, and make sure that things actually get more interesting as they go along, that sometimes (particularly around the mid point of the novel) they get surprising as well as just interesting, and by the end they have passed ‘interesting’ altogether and evolved into ‘nailbiting’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘awesome’ and then (to use Tolkien’s word) Eucatastrophic at the end. (Well, unless you want an unhappy ending.)

As a rule of thumb, if you start the book with dinosaurs trying to eat someone, you’d better end it with dinosaurs trying to eat everyone, or – at the very least – dinosaurs trying to eat everyone the main character ever cared about, and probably the Queen/President too. If you start with a worrying ooze of ectoplasm down the wall, and you finish with the builders putting a damp course in and the problem going away, it will be a short and somewhat non-existent plot. (Unless you then do a Scooby-Doo and discover the builders put the ectoplasm there in the first place so they could frighten the character out of his house and use the basement to tunnel across and rob the local bank.)

Nowadays, instead of plotting by chapter, which tended to mean writing 4000 words on each interesting thing, I plot by scene – which means about 2000 words on each interesting thing, leading to there being two interesting things happening in each chapter. Ideally this means I have doubled the fascination of every chapter. But the principle of the thing is the same.

Make interesting things happen – that’s all you really need to know about plot.

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

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


As with so many things, the germ of your worldbuilding is already present in the initial big idea. At least for me, the setting turns up as part of the inspiration. The big idea comes as a Hero Role A and Hero role B [do something] in [somewhere exotic]. So, a berserker and a bard [go on pilgrimage] in [Anglo-saxon England], or a naval captain and a lieutenant [are shipwrecked] in [the Pitcairn islands].

This is obviously very convenient in one way, and slightly restrictive in another. If I try to think of an idea in a setting I don’t like, for example, nothing comes. I think this is because for me the setting is an essential on the same level of the main characters. If I can’t like the setting it’s as big a problem for me as it would be if I couldn’t like the characters. I can’t decide on a plot and then later try to decide which setting would complement that plot best. They come as a job lot.

If you can think of a plot and main characters before you think of where these things and people come from, good for you. You can then sit down and ask yourself whether you want your pirates to be modern day pirates or space pirates or historical pirates, Cornish pirates, Barbary coast pirates or Caribbean pirates, or whether your tragic bartender is a bartender in LA, the past, the future, a city ruled by supervillains or serving liquefied brains to zombies.

My advice there would be ‘choose the one you find most exciting’. Also, ‘choose the one in which you can think of lots of interesting things to happen.’ If you choose to set your scholar meets jock romance in a tea shop in the Cotswolds, you need to be the kind of writer who enjoys, and can make enjoyable, small town politics and angst on a low level, one who does not yearn for explosions and battleships (unless you’re going to have your small town invaded by tanks, of course.)

So, having decided what your setting is going to be, what next?

If you’ve decided on a real world setting, now is the time for research. Unless your setting is one with which you are already intimately familiar, you need to read up as much as you can get hold of about it. Bookmark pictures, borrow books from the library and photocopy the most relevant pages, buy books where you can afford it, talk to people who know the setting better than you, make notes and generally steep yourself in the ambiance. This applies as much to a modern city you don’t know as it would to a historical setting of any sort.

Actually, if the modern city is a city in a different country from your own, the research is even more important, because a modern city is full of modern readers who know better than you do. I’ve been reading along with a sporking of 50 Shades of Grey, where the English author has not realised that her American characters wouldn’t wear ‘dressing gowns’ or get house calls from their doctors, because these things seem self evident to her. She didn’t know that she didn’t know these things, so she didn’t know she needed to research them.

It’s best to assume you know nothing at all, and try to work up from there. What do people eat for breakfast? Where do they get their money? What do they call the thing they carry it in? Do doctors make housecalls? Would you offer a workman a cup of tea or would that be considered an invitation to rape?

In a way it’s easier if you’re writing fantasy and you can build all this stuff up from scratch. At least there you start off on the understanding that you know nothing, it’s up to you to make up everything, and yet nobody knows better than you do.

I thoroughly recommend maps and floorplans, whether these are pre-existing maps and floorplans obtained by Googling, or maps and floorplans you have to draw of your own imaginary land.

There are many many questions you need answering about any society before you can realistically write about it. Who’s in charge? (A king, a council of elders, a theocracy, a democracy, an oligarchy, secret ascended masters, an elite military caste?) How do they enforce their will? How happy are the commoners with them? Where does the wealth of the society come from? What is the basis of their economy? (Is it all peasants growing food and warriors sponging off them for protection money, or is it mostly a manufacturing and trading economy?)

What do people wear? What do they believe? What does any of that mean? How do they eat, what do they eat, who cooks it, where do they buy it from? What kinds of things do they value? Are they a literate society, if not, how do they pass down the things they think it’s important to remember? What sorts of things would they die for and why?

What is their relationship to animals (are they herders who live close to their cattle and move with them across the steppes? Are they settled agriculturalists whose cattle stay in fields which belong to the whole village? Are they wild horsemen/T-Rex riders, who ride through the settlements of more civilised people pillaging as they go? Do they use tame wolves to hunt deer or to herd sheep?

What is their relationship to the natural world? Is it an abode of demons, as the Saxons thought, or a waste of good resources waiting to be tamed, as the Georgians did? Is it full of spirits which need to be placated, or is it actively working against our heroes?

What is their society’s relationship with its neighbours and its own underdogs? Who are they at war with? Who do they despise and look down on? Who do they admire and try to emulate. What stories do they tell themselves to make themselves feel better?

Culture isn’t simply material things, it’s the attitudes and beliefs of the people. These are the things that people will live and die for. And certainly some things are universal – such as love and hate, envy and fear – but some things really aren’t – such as the belief that the gods depend on human blood to survive, or that capitalism is the universal panacea.

All of these things are things you will have to either make up or find out. After that you’ll have to find out or make up everything else, from ‘do they write on paper or tie knots in cords?’ to ‘what’s their policy on washing? Every year at Christmas or four times a day before prayers?’

In general, the bigger questions about how the society organises itself ought to be answered before you start writing, but the smaller questions can wait until you need them. You need to know whether you’re operating in a monarchy or an anarchy before you start, but you don’t need to know what they use for toilet paper unless a character is suddenly caught short. So basically, do as much world building before you start as you need to be able to understand and predict the actions of your characters. After that, fill in as you go along.

Next week, enough with the nebulosity, time to crack on with the plot.

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

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Having got your big idea and decided how long your story is going to be, it’s time to actually get started. A lot of people say they start with characters, but I think the idea must come first.


For me, character creation starts with three things. The character’s role in the story, their name and their face.

The character’s role in the story.

You don’t know whether you want a hardened gunslinger or a sensitive poet until you know what the story is roughly going to be about. It’s no good having a psychic with a neurotic horror of dirt in a story about off-road motorsport, where nothing vaguely supernatural happens at all. He’ll spend all the time in the bathroom washing, and the reader is going to be very disappointed when after all that build up about how he can see ghosts there is nary a ghost in the book.

There’s no point in creating a character who cannot fit in the story you’re telling. Create a gay recluse by all means, but then don’t expect him to be of any use as the lead character in a story about a rabble-rousing ladies man.

However, once you know that you’re writing a story in which you need a gardener and a police officer, or a were-dragon and a were-crocodile, you can begin to create those characters in a way that will allow you to tell the story, but will still provide some unexpected complexity and interest.

Their name.

A hero’s name is very important. It will tell you a great deal of information about them in a single concentrated shot. Considering what to call them will force you to ask yourself what nationality the MC is, what kind of class he is. Bert Smith is going to be a very different person from Algernon Smythe, for example, and both of them are likely to be quite different from Bogdan Sterescu. (Substitute names and examples from your own country’s varied levels of class as you like.) In choosing a name, you choose a class, and with it a lifestyle for your character. Alternatively, in considering a class and position in society, you limit your choice of name.

I have a tendency to go through at least three or four changes of name for each main character, while their personality coalesces around the name. For me, a John is a more straightforward, honest name than, for example, a Eustace. A Frank is even more so. But Roy may have some overbearing characteristics to go with his kingly name, and Victor is even worse, since the name has been used for so many villains.

Once you’ve rolled through all the possibilities and selected a name to stick, you’ve already got a basic idea of what kind of person that name belongs to, because the name brings its own preconceptions. Though you can, of course, choose to undermine those preconceptions – have an Igor who doesn’t say ‘yeth marther’ or an Anna who is an old man (it’s a Saxon king’s name after all.)

Their face.

A good shortcut for filling in the ‘what do they look like’ boxes on character sheets is to page through a bunch of pictures of actors on Google and pick one who looks roughly how you imagine your character to look. Once you’ve done this, you’ll find that hir face immediately gives you a feeling of what hir character might be like – whether he or she is kindly or incisive or suspicious, or wary – something you can use for a foundation.

When you meet a new person, you automatically make many assumptions about them on the basis of what they look like, so it’s a completely natural and instinctive process to create a character on the basis of a picture.

These three things will be enough to give you a feeling for the character, which can then be expanded into further facts.

If you Google for character creation sheets, you’ll find a whole load of options for sheets to fill in, detailing things like height, weight, distinguishing features, birthdate, occupation and so forth. These are all good things for you to know about your character. From your instinctive understanding of their character, drawn from their face, occupation and name, you can begin to build them a backstory. Where were they born and brought up? What formative events shaped them? What were their parents like? Did they have any siblings? What are their relationships with these people now?

For the purposes of the plot, each character needs to have an aim/goal/problem which drives them. You need to pick one for them which will cause them to act, but which will also be in keeping with the rest of their personality. The lawyer will have a strong drive to make sense of things – to put them in their correct boxes and order the world. The were-dragon might want to possess all the shiny things – maybe that’s why they became a famous thief.

For me, character creation is not a science but an art – a process of accretion and discovery, which happens by itself once you start to write down a character’s history. But there are many things you can also do to help it along.

You can base a character on someone you know. It’s not a good idea to just lift a person from real life and put them in a book – they might recognise themselves and be insulted/disturbed enough to sue you. But you can certainly use your knowledge of how their character works to build one very like it.

You can base a character on yourself. Again, don’t take the whole cloth and use it – that’s usually quite boring. Pick parts of yourself you understand well and recombine them. Pick other parts of yourself and discard them, replacing them with something different. Now see if the differences can be reconciled with the samenesses – you might have created someone with fatal flaws or complexities, or a split personality, or fascinating contradictions.

You can base a character on a philosophy. Ie, perhaps your character’s defining trait is that he totally believes in Christianity/Marxism/Capitalism/the belief that ‘what does not kill you makes you strong’. How would this philosophy shape a person, if they took it seriously and tried their hardest to live up to it?

You can look up the Myers-Briggs personality charts and pick a personality from there. Is he an INTJ? Is she an ESFP? How would that manifest itself in a were-crocodile? Would her wish to always be around other people be a drawback given her work as a priestess of Set, or would it just lead to her throwing the best orgies?

You can draw a half a dozen Tarot cards and with the aid of a handful of website telling you how to interpret them, you can come up with a psychological sketch of your character – tweaking it as necessary to fit into your story. Is he the Fool, suspended between decisions, or the Empress, looking for rulership and harmony in the world?

You can get hold of a couple of role-playing games and roll a few main characters with their character generation systems.

If none of these work, I also have a set of cards and a book which I can highly recommend, called The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit by Pam Cutcheon and Michael Waite, which has 50 different cards so you can pick six or seven character traits at once and see if you can find a way to reconcile them into one balanced character. Remarkably, dealing traits at random often results in something you can work with – because your subconscious figures out how they could work together as one rounded human being. And because these come at random they’re often stranger and more interesting than what you might come up with when you’re being all rational and super-ego driven.

Once you have your main characters, it’s time to think about your setting/world, and that’s another separate question I’ll come to next week in Write On – world building.

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

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


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:


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.


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.


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.

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

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

ideabutterfly(The idea butterfly)

(Seriously, its’ scientific name is “idea idea” – how cool is that?)

Your notebook is open to a blank page and your pen poised. Your wordprocessing file is open to a blank screen and your fingers pressed to the keyboard. You have set aside an hour to write, and have the appropriate amount of noise/company/solitude/silence for your liking. What now?

Possibly you’re one of the lucky ones, whose desire to write a novel has turned up complete with an idea that you want to write about. You don’t just want to write a novel, you want to write that were-cuttlefish romance with a kraken villain which will break the mould of formula romance forever and ensure the whole world has to fan itself whenever they look at ink in the future. If that’s the case, you can proceed straight to the “filling your idea out” section.

But don’t think you get off scott free! What happens when you’ve written this idea? Will another one  just be waiting for you? Or will you too be left looking at the untrodden snow of a fresh page and wondering how on earth to get over it?

If so, join us too while we think about where to get ideas.

Assuming you’re not one of those people with more ideas than time to write them, how do you come up with an idea strong enough to support a whole novel?

As with all writing, this depends very much on what sort of a personality you have. You may want to test yourself. When you’re reading someone else’s books, do you often think “pah! That would never happen!” Or “Ridiculous, a dragon wouldn’t fill a person with warm fuzzy feelings like that. It would be more likely to turn its rider into a ruthless, cold hearted marauder.” Or “why don’t they ever ask the eagles to fly them to the mountain?” (Tolkien gives a good answer to that one btw,  at least in The Hobbit.)

If you catch yourself doing this, note these reactions down in a notebook. Each time you disagree strongly with an author’s premise is a time when you obviously have a better idea, even if it’s buried deep down. Each of these is the germ of a story idea.

I don’t tend to find this happens to me with other author’s books. I don’t generally get inspired by other author’s fiction. But it happens to me often when I watch film or TV. I’ll see a character I find fascinating who (in my opinion) is wasted. (Generally it’s a sidekick or spear carrier or non speaking part who gets killed in the first act.) And I’ll want to pick him out of there, figure out what makes him so interesting and give him a story of his own. Or I’ll do that same disagreeing thing I’ve mentioned above with some point in the plot. Or there will be a visual – of a city, of a location, a special effect or a hero shot – that makes me want to tell a story about a city like that, or people with a ship like that etc.

If neither fiction nor TV nor movies pose any questions you want to answer, you could look through still pictures on the stock photo sites, on Deviantart and other artists’ sites, on Pinterest etc. Find a picture that speaks to you somehow and ask yourself questions about it. What is it a picture of? How did the scene in the picture come about? Who are the people and what do they do? Who lives in that house/on that mountain? What threatens them? What are they doing and why?

I also find that non-fiction is a brilliant source of ideas. Pick a historical period you know nothing about but think sounds interesting and read up about it. The chances are that many of the things they did or believed were quite bizarre, and bizarre things are often a good jumping off point for Fantasy or Historicals – why did they do that? What if the bizarre things they believed were actually true? What difference would it make if it was? What strange and interesting things would happen?

As you can see, the key to this process is asking questions, and refusing to believe the answers that other people may have given before.

Filling out your idea

Once you have the germ of a story idea, asking questiona and answering them is also the way you test it to see if it can be expanded into a plot that can keep a reader gripped.

Let’s go back to that idea that bonding to a baby dragon would cause humans to become colder and more ruthless (rather than full of confidence and warm fuzzies.) It’s barely a factoid at present. To expand it into a novel we start to ask questions about it, and to answer them. Where have these dragons come from? (Were they bred to replace cars, when petrol ran out and a post apocalyptic situation set in on earth?)

Why are humans being bonded to them to start with? (Were the first few dragon riders test subjects to see if the process was viable? Maybe when the bonding took with them, they decided they were now superior beings and broke out of the test centre with a view to propagating themselves as a new species?)

Do they only breed among themselves, or do they recruit riders from the surrounding populace? What do the dragons need to eat? How do they support themselves? (Maybe the dragons demand only perfect humans as riders, so they practice eugenics among themselves and also kidnap the best children from their surroundings? Maybe they force all the normal humans to grow vegetarian food for their riders and farm cattle for the dragons to eat?)

What would the non-dragonriders think of this? I can’t imagine they’d like it, but what could they do against a bunch of psychopathic fascists armed with dragons?

(Maybe one of the stolen children can think of something to do? Maybe one of the dragonriders resists the draconic influence and tries to undermine his society from the inside? Maybe it’s one of each and they team up?)

But the dragonriders aren’t just going to allow it, are they? How will they try to stop our heroes? Who has the most to lose of the riders? He’ll be your main villain.

If an idea is viable (as I think this one is), you’ll find that each question starts a cascade of new questions and answers, and now you only have to pick out the most interesting ones and put them into some sort of order.

Here we have an idea for a story in which innocent young people are pressured into a fascist cult by being bonded with ruthless reptiles. The rest of the world are being held in subjection as a food source and a baby farm. This bad state of affairs is going to be changed by a main character who is one of the kidnapped children, and a second main character who is a rider with a conscience. (Maybe she lost one too many children to the eugenics programme and wants to rescue this one to replace them.) They will be menaced and opposed by a villain among the riders who has a whole lot to lose.

Very soon, we can start filling in the details of the characters and the plot. But before we get onto that there’s one more preparatory step to go – to decide what sort of length you’re aiming for.

That’s what we’ll tackle next week in Write On – Size does matter.

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.


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)

September 2017

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