New Sample Synopses

As someone was asking on facebook about Synopses, here’s some that are fairly recent that might help some folks.

First of all, for the short story The Ninth Book.

And a novella, Catechism of Hate.

And the last novel of The Sundering, Caledor.
Older ones can be found here, here and here.

 

Published in: on November 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Big Mo

I have been a terrible blogger of late, so it is with profuse apologies for my recent absence that I must begin. This is due to a number of reasons, none of which are terribly interesting, but revolve around work, a long holiday decorating and gardening with my girlfriend, and general slackness…

Yet I also have a good reason for my tardiness in posting a new article, which is the subject of this post: momentum.

Being a full-time writer is just that – writing all day, five or six days a week. It is a luxury most folks cannot enjoy, what with having day jobs and whatnot to fill up their time. It does come with a downside though, and that is the matter of sustaining the workflow. For some writers workflow is simply about what commissioned work they have in the pipeline and as any freelancer will tell you, there is rarely such a thing as too much work. However, with lots of work to do, one has to be careful to pace oneself properly or risk burning out. I am in the fortunate position of having plenty of work to do, and quite a lot lined up for the future. This schedule is somewhat compromised by an extended holiday I am planning later in the year, which will eat up the best part of a month and a considerable chunk of my finances, so in a way I am ‘front-loading’ my work for the year to ensure I have both time and money for my New Zealand trip.

Head Space and Typing Time

In order to ensure that I am not caught short on either the time or money front, I have recently begun to plan my work in a bit more detail than before, using a spreadsheet. One important part of the scheduling has been to include time for ‘planning’ – coming up with a writing synopses for future projects. Despite this, it is very hard some times to concentrate on the work at hand knowing that an upcoming project hasn’t been properly planned yet, and the temptation is to spend a little time on that now rather than later.

To counteract that, I have been making sure that my ‘writing’ time of late is focussed solely on typing time – actually sitting at a keyboard and writing words in the novel. I have a daily target to reach, calculated quite easily by dividing the amount left to be written by the number of days left to write it.

So far, so straightforward.

Corax about to 'Bring It'

Issues have come from taking a break at the halfway point of my latest novel. Quite a long break – over a week – in which I have not been thinking about writing at all. Getting back on the horse and picking up where I left off has taken a few days, which has obviously impacted on the schedule. So it is that for the past week and a half I have been avoiding any and all distractions – like blog posts – in order to get back up to speed on Deliverance Lost. It has been especially tricky with this project, my first Horus Heresy novel, because it has quite an involved plot and has to cover a lot of ground in the space available. Word count wise it is still going nicely, but my worry is that the ‘dawdling’ I’ve done in recent days might well show through in slow narrative.

I am resisting the urge to go back and edit it already. I have a principle that the first draft gets written without too much re-reading, otherwise I could end up revising the same few thousand words over and over and never finish. This is a problem I hear from writers who are just starting out.

Keep on Truckin’

When I get into the groove, the writing comes smoothly. Thankfully I am back in that happy place with the novel. For those who are still learning about their own process, it might be worth bearing in mind the importance of momentum. Remember that there will be time to re-write and revise later – if you get the first draft finished. If something occurs to me – a scene that should be inserted or a lingering doubt about something I have written previously, I insert a note into the manuscript [like this]. This means that I don’t interrupt my general flow by going back and making the changes there and then, but ensures that when I do my first read-through, I won’t forget what it was that had occurred to me.

I may even make such a note in the section I am currently writing, if I get a little stuck but want to carry on. For example, you may want to end a chapter on a pithy line of dialogue, or open with an awesome description of the setting, but the words aren’t coming cleanly at the time. [Write a note] about it and get on with the narrative, coming back to the problem sentences later on, maybe even leaving them until the second draft. There is nothing worse than letting a line or two bog down your work for an hour or more, when whatever you come up with probably won’t survive the first rewrite anyway.

Always bear in mind that your first draft is rough. There will be typos, spelling errors and some bad prose. Do not fret about it, but make sure you get the narrative finished. When all the words are there, and the story is complete, then you can concentrate on making the delivery as polished as possible.

P.S. The tagline on the cover ‘War within the shadows’ is a cutnpaste, not the final one…

Published in: on May 10, 2011 at 10:58 am  Comments (13)  

What a Tangled Web We Weave

I’m in the middle of fleshing out the synopsis for Deliverance Lost so that I can start writing soon. It is possibly the most complicated single book I’ve written, for reasons that will become clear when people read it, due to a number of sub-plots and overlapping character threads that need very particular portrayals and timings.

At first I tried my usual method of sitting down at the keyboard with the overview and simply expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, but that hurt my head and I couldn’t keep everything straight.

I then went back to the drawing board (well, disposable flipchart in my case) and tried employing the process I use when coming up with the initial ideas – scribbling notes and drawing different coloured lines in a form of mindmap. This also failed to bring together all the elements I needed.

So I have fallen back on one of favourite methods touted by many creative writing workshops and websites: plot cards.

No, it's too small to read the details, stop hurting your eyes by even trying!

Each column is one of the various characters involved in this particular wrangle of deception and false identities, and each card represents one of the events that has to occur in order for the story to come to fruition. By putting each event on its own card, and being able to insert new cards to smooth the flow, I was able to bring together the connected but disparate storylines in a very satisfactory way.

All that remains now is to structure those cards through the relevant chapters and I should have a plan!

So today’s advice would be to try out all the different techniques available to you as a writer, even if you have an established process or method. There are many ways to order and visualise a creative process, and each has benefits and drawbacks.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 11:00 am  Comments (8)  

Aaaaand… Scene!

So, craft won the vote, with creativity second place. The peeps have spoken and the hamster will reflect the will of the populace.

The building block of a story is not a sentence, or a paragraph, it is the scene. A story could be a single scene, it could be hundreds, but regardless of how long the story is the reader interacts with the narrative through a succession of scenes as they explore the world, get to know the characters and follow the plot.

Smooth and by the Numbers

A well-executed scene is like a well-executed special forces mission. Stick with me here. For success, the writer must identify the objective, choose the right gear, smoothly enter the fray and withdraw without any fuss. Some writers may have these factors pre-planned, others might go into the scene in ad-hoc fashion and improvise their way through. Often, it will be a combination of both, with a general idea of what is going to happen but the precise details not known until the fighting, I mean writing, commences.

And like a good military operation, the debrief is vital. When neck-deep in the white-hot turmoil of the scene, things happen that were unforeseen, and it is hard to keep a clear head. In the calmer moments of the read-through and edit, it is important to evaluate each scene, judge its success and make changes as required.

Hit Hard, Hit Fast

Highlighting the objective is perhaps the element most commonly overlooked. Writers will have an idea of what the scene will do to move the plot along, either in mind or already conceived in a synopsis. Narrative is not simply a matter of plot, but also character and setting. Every scene should include something that furthers the reader’s understanding of all three.

A scene may be heavily weighted in favour of one element or another, but it should never neglect the other two. This is not as difficult as it might appear, because by the nature of writing every scene takes place somewhere (setting), shows the characters (er, character!) doing something (plot).

The two things I see occurring frequently in novice fiction are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sometimes the writer will produce a scene that is purely plot-driven, and forgets to immerse the reader with the setting or involve the characters in any way other than as vehicles for the plot. On the flip side, sometimes the writer will lavish love and care on the setting and characters, layering description and dialogue into a wonderful tableau, but will totally forget to move the plot on at all. The scene becomes a nice bit of window dressing.

The way to counter this is to ask yourself questions either before or during the scene (and after whilst editing). Does the reader have a sense of where the scene is taking place? In what emotional state are the characters in the scene, and what effect do the events of that scene have on that state? What has the reader learned about the story that they did not know before the scene started?

Most importantly, what reaction do you want the reader to feel as they read the scene?

For example, you may wish to create sympathy for a character, or turn the reader against him or her.  A setting-heavy scene might be conceived to induce a sense of wonder or dread or excitement. Sometimes a scene is needed to draw plot threads together, reminding the reader of everything that is going on, the stakes at play and the consequences of the characters’ failure or success.

Just as the underlying story is built on a platform of conflict, so each scene must serve to further or resolve those conflicts. This may be internal and straightforward – an enemy to be physically overcome – or it could be external and complex – characters confronted by emotional and moral problems brought about by themselves or other characters – and everything inbetween. The conflict can be an argument, a death, a piece of news, a birth, a fight, a terrible realisation, or any number of other things. A scene that has no inherent conflict is just stuff happening, not a part of the story.

Boots on the Ground

Often the most daunting part of a scene is getting it started. It can be the dread-inspiring barrier of the blank page, over and over, throughout the whole story. I often know what needs to happen in a scene and why, but can sit around doing nothing for ages as I work out the best way to guide the reader into the action. There are several ways to introduce each scene, and though it would be awesome if there were hard and fast rules regarding which worked best in which situations, writing isn’t that simple. The important thing to remember is to ensure that you don’t fall back on the same solution every single time. Repetition will make you look lazy even if you aren’t.

In media res is used to describe a story that starts in the middle of the action, and it can be used for individual scenes as well. The opening lines plunge the reader into the thick of what is going on, and then as the scene unfolds the narrative backtracks to fill in the blanks of what the reader has missed. It’s a good technique to use if the reader has a firm idea from previous scenes as to what is going to happen; if it’s inevitable that a fight is going to happen from what occurred two chapters earlier, for instance, then it should not be too confusing for the reader to be thrown into that fight once it is well underway. The downside with using this opening too much is that the story will become a patchwork, jumping forward a lot and then retreating to explain the missing parts in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back manner. Overuse can also mean that the narrative cause-and-effect is continually reversed, so that the reader is left with seeing lots of effect without having a good understanding of why things have happened. To get around this, the writer has to use exposition to fill in the blanks because they did not take the time to explain things as they were going along.

A variant of this approach is the opening line of dialogue. Having a character say something is a nice and simple way of kicking off a scene. This works well if you don’t envisage there being a lot of dialogue in the opening. Why’s that? Because at some point you will still have to tell the reader where the characters are and what they are doing. It comes around to the backtracking I just mentioned, and if done too late the dialogue is left hanging in a vacuum, a conversation without context; but if there’s ongoing dialogue it will get broken up by the description of the scene and lose its flow. Often writers will get around this by drip-feeding the description of the scene and characters through the dialogue. This can work well if what the characters are saying and doing merge together naturally and the dialogue is used to segue into the description.

For instance, the characters may have arrived at a new location. One of them says, “Well, would you look at that.” This gives the writer a route to describe what to look at. That’s a crude example, but by having characters interact with their environment, the dialogue and description can blend together.

This is not a good approach if the dialogue is very important. If you want the reader to concentrate on what the characters are saying, it’s not a good idea to be constantly interrupting their focus with snippets of other information or dropping in a big block of description part-way through. For this reason, one of the best methods of opening a scene is with simple description.

“It was a dark and stormy night…” is a cliché, but its heart is in the right place. There is nothing wrong or lazy about opening a scene with a paragraph or two that does the simple job of describing the setting, the present characters and their actions. Just remember that the description is not purely a one-way dump of information for the benefit of the writer; there may be purely mechanical requirements of time and place but that does not preclude being evocative or talking about the characters. It is possible to mix up this description, so that the physical is related alongside the emotional, laying out not only the place but the state of the characters and their relationship to their surroundings. Don’t just describe the front of the haunted house as the characters walk up the path, describe their sensations and feelings as they do so. Our experience of our environment is only a small part physical, our perception constructed also on emotion, memory and motive.

Lastly, there is narrative voice, or what might be called an info-dump or exposition. A lot of writing guides will tell people to avoid these at all costs, but frankly they are wrong. Sometimes the best way to move the reader along to the cool part of the scene is to be up front about what’s happened, how we got here and why. I say this not because pages full of exposition are good writing, but because pages full of pointless dialogue and action trying not be exposition are not good writing either.

We’ve all come across those sections in stories where the characters are clearly talking to each other about something that they would have no need to discuss in-world, purely for the benefit of explaining things to the reader. It’s poor. As a writer, do not be afraid of your narrative voice. You are not restricted to using characters as your mouthpiece. If the army had to stay in camp for twelve days because of blizzards, just tell the reader and get on with the cool stuff, don’t labour the point by having a whole scene of characters in a blizzard talking about how they can’t do anything. If you are going to include that scene, it has to have some impact on the story greater than conveying a piece of simple information – back to what I said at the start about each scene adding to setting and characters as well as plot.

Gear Up and Roll Out

Having identified the objectives of the mission, you have a number of tools at your disposal to achieve them. The perspective you take, the amount of dialogue, the style and quantity of description all perform different tasks to better or worse effect. Choosing which tools to use is at the heart of writing.

One huge consideration is the matter of perspective. The whole story may have a generally applied perspective which must be adhered to – first-person being a prime example – but even with third-person the style of perspective used, or the number of different perspectives employed, alter the scope of the scene considerably. In general, the more personal the scene, the narrower the perspective; the larger the scene, the more omniscient the voice or the more numerous the character perspectives required. In short, if you’re inside the character’s head the reader will be getting a very narrow, personal view of events, which is good for depth but not for breadth, unless your character is in the advantageous position of having a good view of what’s going on. On the flip side, a wide-angle lens of the scene gives good overview but tends to gloss over the finer points of what the characters are doing.

It is possible to shift perspectives within a scene, though think long and hard about this, and whether the change of perspective is in fact a change of scene. I think very visually, almost cinematically about scenes. Changes of perspective can be achieved by imagining a mental camera pointed at the action. It can move around and show different things, but it also has a zoom function. As an example, one of my first short stories, The Faithful Servant, starts by following a flock of carrion birds over the aftermath of a battle, spiralling down until the protagonist comes into view, at which point his perspective can take over. Conversely, you might start with a close-up shot (remember that’s emotionally as well as physically in terms of description), which then opens out to reveal the wider scene; which in turn could then shift on to somebody else.

Choose how to reveal the information within the scene appropriately. It is at this point that the show-don’t-tell maxim starts to make itself felt. Once your perspective has settled on a narrower front, the characters’ words and actions become the description, showing how they feel as well as what they are doing. Don’t over-qualify by showing something and then telling the reader the same thing. If a character is crying, you don’t have to mention that they are sad. If they are laughing, it literally goes without saying that they are amused.

Just as each scene has its part to play in the overall story, each line of description, each exchange of dialogue should serve to either enrich the setting, move the plot along or develop the reader’s sense of the characters. In particular, when writing dialogue remember subtext and the simple fact that real people often don’t say exactly what they mean or precisely what they are thinking. You can use this to build internal conflict, as characters show their feelings or hide them, have moments of honesty or deception. What they say, what they do and what they think may be contradictory, and as the narrator you manipulate this to paint the picture you want the reader to see; you can choose to give the reader information the characters are not privy to; you can outright misdirect your reader; you can present different versions of events from one scene to another. As a writer, you are not beholden to explain everything; just enough will do nicely.

Get to the Choppa!

One of the greatest challenges I face when writing is not how to start, but how to stop. Having identified your objectives, chosen the right tools, you hit the ground running and execute a perfect scene. The only problem is how you get out of their before it goes pear-shaped. Having an effective exit strategy means that you end the scene where you want to; it doesn’t drag on past its usefulness and it doesn’t get cut short before the job has been done.

All of the comments about starting a scene apply equally to ending one. The final line of dialogue, the last poignant description, the parting comment or cliffhanger make an incredible difference. Whether the scene ends on a high or a low, on a dramatic revelation or a moment of conclusion, all ties in to what the scene was about. The way you end the scene will probably have more impact than they way you started it, because it is the final impression left on the reader before you move elsewhere.

For this reason, the chosen exit strategy must be based firmly on the objectives you set out to accomplish. Do you want to make the reader sad? End on a low point, everybody in tears, the future bleak. Do you want to shock the reader? End with something unexpected and then get the hell out of there. Do you want the reader to be contemplative, concerned, laughing, relaxed, tense? The final few lines will reinforce your efforts throughout the previous scene if done well, and completely undermine it if chosen poorly.

And with that, I shall leave you to ponder…

Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm  Comments (4)  

A Poll-try Effort

I realise it’s been a while since I’ve posted any writerly insights here, so I’ve resolved to find some time to rectify that. Riding the last waves of the UK General Election vibe, I thought I’d leave it up to you lot to tell me what you’re most interested in reading about (plus I haven’t used the poll feature in more than a year and it’s getting dusty).

So, would-be writers and fans alike, what would you like to know more about?

Behind-the-scenes: The less glamourous aspects of being a career writer, such as planning, editing, feedback, marketing and so on.

Creativity: How to use and abuse archetypes, create characters and plot, expand themes, develop settings and that sort of stuff.

Craft: Actual writing technique, turning ideas into words, creating scenes and the use of language.

Presenting ideas: The processes of synopsis creation, pitching ideas, finding creative space and establishing author identity.

Feel free to post other suggestions in the comments.


Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  

SSS – Sloppy Synopsis Syndrome

A typical planning day

As those who follow me on Twitter/ Facebook will have realised, my last project was, at times, a bit of a headbreaker. It took about half as long again as I expected (and planned), which has put my ongoing schedule under a lot of pressure.

What was the problem? Well, when people ask me about writing I usually summarise my process as think-write-think. That is synopsis-write-edit.

You’ll notice that I don’t include thinking as part of the writing… If I have to think and write at the same time, my pace slows down to a crawl. Not only do I get wrenched out of the creative flow, I get frustrated, I can’t think straight and so the problem takes even longer to solve.

This happened on my last project.

The cause is easy to indentify in retrospect. You can probably guess by the title of this post what that cause was. There was a line in the synopsis which blithely assumed a sequence of events in a single sentence. As it turned out, this one line (one line!) needed about 8,000 words to resolve in the actual piece. In a 30,000 word novella, that’s a big chunk of the story that I had not worked out.

I ran into similar issues in The Blades of Chaos. The synopsis called for a character to do a particular thing, but I hadn’t sat down and worked out precisely how she was going to do it. It became such a roadblock during the writing that I ended up skipping the chapter, finishing the rest of the novel and then going back to fill in the gap.  I could do this because the result of the action was known. This wasn’t the case with this latest oversight – the process by which the characters were going to achieve this aim had huge ramifications for the rest of the story.

I am sure I will repeat this error again. After all, I can be a slow learner at times, and sometimes the schedule pressures for synopsis mean that you cannot think through every detail up front. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. Now and then – at least once per project for anything longer than a short story in my experience – it will catch you out.

So, as I start writing The Crown of the Conqueror (yes, I’m writing book 2 of The Crown of the Blood before the first one is released!) I am spending a couple of days sifting through the synopsis, looking for those little assumptions that could turn into major pitfalls. It is my reckoning that the time spent doing that now will more than pay itself back when I start the actual writing later this week. If two days now saves me a week of low productivity and angst later, I’ll take it.

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Caledorian Musing

A Dragon Rider (Not Imrik).

Today I should be finished making the ‘notes’ version of the Caledor synopsis. What’s a notes version? Like the manuscript, any synopsis I write goes through several phases or drafts. The first is the conceptual phase, and is just a semi-random collection of ideas, scenes and storyline. The next phase is usually some form of structural timeline. Both of these drafts are done in a notebook/ scraps of paper/ flipchart pad.

After that, I start word processing, layering on more detail into a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The amount of detail varies depending upon how much I’ve worked out at this stage. Rather than worry about the wording I’ll use in the synposis to convey the story to the editors, this notes stage simply puts together the building blocks of the story or novel, plus any additional notes or references I need to bear in mind.

From these notes, I will then turn the document into the final synopsis, suitable for editorial examination.

To give you an idea of what these notes might look like, I have dug out the draft for Shadow King. For those that have already read Shadow King you can see two main things. First, not everything makes it into the final synopsis/ novel in the order necessarily laid out in the notes. Second, with Shadow King we made the decision later in the day to extend the novel by an extra 50,000 words. This extra material is not covered in these notes (though I could probably find the proposal I sent to the editors if people are interested).

These notes are less detailed that those I am putting together for Caledor, but will give you the general idea.

As with all synopsis material, these notes contain information about what happens in the novel. In other words…

MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT! WOOP! WOOP! WOOP!

Synopsis

[[[Map of Ulthuan and its realms and cities.]]]

Part One – The child of Kurnous – Strife in Nagarythe – a trailing shadow – the treachery of Malekith

  1. Shrine of Kurnous – The White Stag – The Raven Herald –
  2. Falling in love with 1st love
  3. Morathi’s agents – first fight at the manse – nobles gather – Naggarothi on Naggarothi action
  4. [Malekith attacks Ealith] The Raven Herald – shadow and confrontation – Elthyrior – reveals secrets within secrets – warns that all is not well – Alith sworn to secrecy about Elthyrior
  5. [needs something here for passage of time – foreshadow what?]
  6. [Infiltration of Anlec for Malekith] meesenger arrives at manse with plan – find cultists – diabolic ceremony – slay cultists and take gear – tense journey to Anlec – almost discovered – more killing – Malekith attacks
  7. Relative peace restored – return of Elthyrior – Eoloran sends him away as a pawn of Morathi and Alith is forbidden from seeking him out – Alith goes after Elthyrior – Nagarythe turning against the Anars – returns to manse – Alith scorned and abandoned by his first love – hatred stirs
  8. Malekith’s betrayal – arrest of Eoloran – Eothlir’s feigned acquiescence, if they fight they justify Malekith slaying them as traitors – Alith sent into hiding in Tiranoc – assumes a new name and hides for several years

Part Two – exile in Tiranoc – an usurper’s folly – hope restored – the fall of House Anar

  1. [Slaughter at the shrine] – rumours abound – death of Bel-Shanaar – return of Elodhir’s body and funeral – Yrianath’s succession – Palthrain on the prowl, suspicious of Alith
  2. Morathi freed – Court of Tiranoc perverted – Palthrain’s discovery of Alith – Alith rescues Elodhir’s son and vows vengeance on Yrianath – sacrifice of Yeasir – Alith returns to Nagarythe
  3. Alith reveals what has happened – Eothlir sends out the call to arms – Naggarothi gather – counter-spy work, wary of infiltraitors
  4. Battle of Dark Fen – death of Eothlir – army scattered
  5. Alith flees with Elodhir’s son, Maieth and Elthyrior – Raven Heralds chase across Ellyrion – Reaver knights rescue them
  6. The city of Tor Elyr – more revelations – Finudel declares war on Nagarythe -
  7. 2nd battle of Ellyrion plains – some families fight for Morathi -
  8. Affection for Atharielle – Finudel’s warning – must give up his love – bitterness deepens

Part three – Alith’s vengeance exacted – a troubled alliance – an traitor slain – the coming of the Witch King

  1. Alith in the Wilderness – vision of Kurnous – the white stag returns – runs with the wolves – dream of Lileath and discovery of the moonbow
  2. Attacks on the Naggarothi – spirit of vengeance – other Naggarothi drawn to his growing legend – Alith tries to dismiss them but they will not go
  3. Forces loyal to Imrik hunt them thinking them druchii – Alith and his band kill them – Imrik sends Carathril to mediate
  4. Meeting Imrik/ Caledor – will not join Imrik – true Prince of Nagarythe – ‘Shadow King’ used as a warning – ‘Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is forgiven,’
  5. Alith returns to Tiranoc to kill Yrianath – Yrianath’s ‘salvation’ – no pity from Alith
  6. ‘Rescue’ of Eoloran – confrontation with Morathi – taking of the crown
  7. Alith returns to Nagarythe with an army to confront the druchii The Witch King Revealed

Describing the Familiar

I recently received this message from Inquisitor Engels, which got me thinking:

I was reading Graham’s blog post about tie-ins and such and it got me thinking. I’ve written a small amount of fan-fiction (one is hanging out in the Stories and Art forum somewhere) but I’ve always come down on the line that tie-in fiction has the luxury of not having to establish the universe to the same degree that a stand-alone fantasy or sci-fi novel might.

One of the things I liked about “Raven’s Flight” in particular is that you didn’t spend a paragraph describing about what a bolter does like some other BL authors, but I suppose that’s a double edged sword.

I suppose this is even crazier in your Fantasy books (which I also enjoy, even though I’ve only found time to read Malekith) since there’s nuances and relationships that have existed in players’ minds for three decades?

Where do you draw the line as an author in general, and a BL author?

Start from Scratch

Although I am sure at least 90% of the readers of a BL novel are existing fans, I never assume this is the case. It might be easier to forget about establishing the setting for new readers, but it would be pure laziness. I never take it for granted that the reader knows what an elf looks like, or an ork, or whatever.

As I’ve remarked previously, most of Warhammer and 40K exist as very broad backdrops, and the amount of additional detail needed for a particular scene doesn’t change whether the world was created by the author or someone else. I would never simply say “They saw the hive city on the horizon”, with the assumption that people will know what I mean b a hive city. I will describe the towering edifice piercing the clouds, the smog banks gathered around its foothill-like suburbs, the millions of twinkling lights and the vapour trails of dozens of shuttles enetering and leaving the gaping holes of its docks.

It goes back to a mantra we had in games development about background, which applies equally to description in novels: evoke, inspire and inform. Some writers only use the last of these – description exists to inform the reader of what is happening. That isn’t enough for me. The descriptions of the world should evoke a response in the reader, whether that is horror, delight, humour or awe. And it should inspire their imaginations, making them think beyond the context of the scene, maybe creating an image in their head that remains for hours, days or even years.

You can never tell what it is that will set off someone’s imagination like that. It might be a single line, a piece of dialogue, even a character’s name, or an entire scene. A reader might be previously informed about hive cities and their billions-strong populations, but not until a particular description do they get excited by it, swept away by an author’s portrayal that captures their imagination in a way that nobody else has done before.

And the same is true of the humble bolter, or a space marine, or the Worlds Edge Mountains, or anything else that one might reasonably assume readers know about.

Less is More

On the whole, I prefer to leave as much as possible to the reader’s imagination. This became increasingly apparent – and necessary – while I was writing The Purging of Kadillus. In that novel, there are lots of battles, and all of the battles take place between space marines and orks. To describe every fight in the same way would get awfully repetitive. In terms of action, it is important to focus on the narrative of what is happening, and only delve into the detail if it helps inform the image in the reader’s head. It’s like a lot of modern CGI-heavy movies; many of the action sequences are just not that good because they’re put together frame by frame by nerdy graphics guys to show off the twiddly bits they’ve put in, rather than doing what they’re supposed to do – tell the story.

It is often quite hard to describe things in a meaningful way. Beyond basic shapes and colours, trying to physcially describe something can be very difficult. Take a plasma cannon for instance:

Plasma death, Astartes-style

You can start with talking about its bulk. And there are some cables. And a glowing green ridged bit on the top. And the muzzle? How do you describe that? More importantly, what does the reader learn about plasma cannons from its physical description? Not a lot. The effect of a plasma cannon, that’s something else. The ravening ball of energy, the blast that tears apart the foes, the ear-splitting shriek of the detonation. That adds texture to the scene.

With regard to the example you gave, of bolters in Raven’s Flight, I kept the descriptions deliberately vague because it would be a distraction to go into detail when there are so many other cooler thigns going on – a Primarch ripping apart a tank and hurling the shards through the enemy, for a start. Also, as Corax is the focal character, his sheer badassness means that he isn’t concerned about bolters too much. The reader’s attention is directed by the character’s attention, and it’s the streaking rockets and lascannon beams – the things that can really hurt Corax – that are the thing I wanted listeners to be fixed upon.

Description is Narrative’s Bitch

A writer should feel no compunction to describe something purely for its own sake. This is especially true in fantasy and sci-fi, where huge effort can go into world-building. All elements of that world, and all the descriptions of it, exist only for you to tell a story. If the story, the scene, doesn’t lend itself to describing something, don’t do it. This is very true of characters. Nothing makes a scene stumble like a pointless description of a new arrival right in the middle of something else going on.

I also think that author’s need to trust their readers to imagine the right thing. Some writers want to nail down every little thing in the reader’s head, so that they know exactly what x looks like, exactly how y talks, exactly how z did a particular thing. It’s not necessary. Writing has a huge advantage over other art forms – it allows the creator to leave some of the details to others. Where there are fuzzy patches, the reader will fill in the blank canvas if needed; and if that fuzzy patch isn’t important at all, the reader will happilly leave it blank and carry on.

There is a caveat to this though. If a test reader or editor says that he or she couldn’t picture what was going on, or got confused, then it it probably a good idea to put in a bit more. Like cooking, it’s easier to add more ingredients later if needed than to take them away.

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 12:37 pm  Comments (3)  

Finding Mr Rewrite

With the first draft of Purging of Kadillus despatched to the editors, it’s time to move onto the next phase for The Crown of the Blood - rewrite! Having spoken with Marco at Angry Robot for his feedback and left the manuscript dormant for a while so I can look at it with fresh eyes, its time to polish it up ready for the copy layout and proofreaders…

There are a number of things to be looking for on a re-write. Often time is at a premium so I only get a chance to go through a couple times looking for everything, but if your schedule allows, it is a good idea to separate out each of these into its own read-through, so that as much gets caught as possible.

Structure – If you’ve written a synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown there shouldn’t be any fundamental structural changes to make. However, pay attention to pacing – long description that slows down action scenes, or lengthy dialogue where it breaks the flow – and also make sure that you haven’t had to rush the ending because you’ve gone on one too many side trips earlier on. Presentation falls into the category as well. The Crown of the Blood doesn’t follow a normal chapter format, so we discussed ways that the lengthy sections can be broken down to make it easier on the reader to follow what is happening, signal changes of perspective and time and so on. Your book may be divided into ‘Books’ as well as chapters, or have some other structural features that should be reviewed.

Purge Purple Prose - Although ‘purpleness’ is a bit of a subjective measurement, a good way to go about this is to examine every adjective and adverb and ask whether it really adds to the text. It’s also good to look for possible tautologies and similar repetition – “burning flame”, “bright sun” and so on. This also goes back to the ‘tight’ writing advice I passed on in a previous post.

Dialogue – Along with a general review of the dialogue in the piece, I take the opportunity at the re-write stage to look at the main characters’ dialogue and make sure that they speak in a generally consistent style. If a character is meant to be terse, look for any wordy dialogue; if they use lots of run-on sentences, check that this comes through; if a character swears a lot, while others don’t. Anything that creates a better sense of character.

Description -Alongside the purple prose check, review description for two other things – all senses and emotional involvement. Make sure the reader does not only see the scenes, but can hear, smell, taste and touch them. Don’t forget senses like tiredness and hunger, the texture of things. This isn’t an excuse simply to extend every descriptive paragraph, but a means to ensure the reading experience is immersive. As for emotional involvement, you have to make sure readers interact through the characters – this is really part of the Show Don’t Tell ethos. Don’t describe a vista as awe-inspiring, show characters being awed, that sort of thing. Question the internal consistency of the setting as well – a really useful piece of feedback from Marco regarding The Crown of the Blood was to work harder getting across some of the scale of the empire, the army camps and so on. Make sure that the descriptions actually create the scene in your head.

Collation – I don’t make many notes while I’m writing, but I’ve learnt to make more during the re-write – check names are spelt properly, make lists of people mentioned, places visited. In The Crown of the Blood there are passing mentions of old kings, tribal names, villages, mountains and rivers, and all sorts of other information like physical descriptions of minor characters and places. Some of it will never be needed again, but some of it has to be recorded to ensure future consistency. Lists of people and places are good, and even if you don’t want to make your own wiki-style records, its worth keeping page references of where things are mentioned so that they can be looked up quickly later on.

While it is ideal to cover each of these subjects on its own – if you look for everything at once, you’ll get sidetracked and miss a few things – it isn’t always possible. Gather like to like if you can, so that all of the description and purple prose stuff is done at one pass, all of the dialogue and info-gathering is done on another, and so on.


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm  Comments (8)  

If You Can’t Take The Heat…

A short while ago a comment asked how, as a writer and games designer, I deal with criticism (apologies to the person that asked the question, I trawled through all of the many comments but couldn’t find you again…). So, this is the Mechanical Hamster Guide to Taking Criticism.

Wheat and Chaff

‘Criticism’ is a much-loaded word these days, and has been mostly superseded by the much friendlier ‘feedback’. It is important to remember that being criticised is not necessarily an attack, and that there are different types of criticism. Learning to negotiate your way around the different responses you’ll get from people is part of being a creative and putting your work out to scrutiny. If you really can’t handle both constructive and destructive criticism, you’re going to be in for a bumpy ride.

The first questions to ask (internally) of any critic is why are they providing criticism, and on what basis is that criticism being made? There are ‘professional’ critics (editors, reviewers) and there are ‘amateur’ critics (readers, gamers, friends). Writers will tell you that you should always pay attention to the former, but it is equally important that you don’t ignore the latter – for all the influence editors and reviewers have, it’s the people that pay money to read your books, play your games that you are attempting to please.

While the person making the criticism should be borne in mind, the content and style of that criticism is equally important. A well-worded, carefully thought-out single comment from a fan is just as useful as a page of notes from an editor. The real distinction usually comes with a better ability of the first group to structure their thoughts and arguments, whereas it can often prove difficult to glean something useful from the second.

There is a third group – the attackers. This isn’t just those folks that are negative about your work, but who include personal insult, negative emotive language and a general level of unpleasantness in their criticism. Ignore them. Seriously, if someone cannot construct their criticism in such a way that they cannot make their points without resorting to abuse, they really aren’t worth your time. It doesn’t matter if there is a valid point beneath the vitriol; their conduct excludes them from rational discourse.

Confirmation Bias

People don’t like to think that they are wrong. Our brains have a trick of seeking out and remembering evidence that supports our views whilst ignoring things that challenge them. This is called confirmation bias and affects everybody, whether talking about their favourite TV show or world politics. As a writer, be aware of confirmation bias. This doesn’t just mean being careful not to focus solely on praise, it equally means don’t just see the criticism.  Listening to just your detractors can be as dangerous as paying attention only to your fans.

As a creator, you should be seeking to build on your strengths and guard against your weaknesses. Pay attention to criticism of your strong areas, it will serve to make them even stronger. Equally, look for positive things people have to say about your weaker areas so that you can build on them.

Live and Learn

It is important to actively seek out criticism. This is why many authors will tell aspiring writers to join feedback groups or forums; to enlist the help of knowledgeable associates who can provide constructive criticism.

Criticism is only useful if you act on it properly. Try to understand the processes at work behind a particular remark or piece of feedback. This can prove to be really tricky. Quite often fans, in particular, will say what they like and don’t like, but it is often hard for them to articulate why.

Don’t concentrate solely on criticism of your own work. Look at what other people are saying about other authors and books you’ve read; how do their views overlap and differ from your own opinion. You may find out something that helps with your own work. You may hear someone say that Author A is great at characterisation, but what does that actually mean? Have a look at Author A’s work and try to find out what methods he or she uses to bring individuality to their characters.

Sometimes a reviewer or fan will say what they think is good, but again you may be left wondering what makes it so good. Be prepared to go back to your own work and read it again, bearing in mind the comments others have made. It may be too late for that particular piece, but the lessons can be learnt for future projects. Gaining experience as a writer is a constant process of doing, evaluating and doing again, whether it is rewrites on a single piece or throughout a career.

The important thing to remember is that criticism will make you better. Seek it, embrace it, learn the lessons so that next time around the criticism is different. If you can’t find someone with something bad to say about you, it doesn’t mean you’re perfect, it means you’re just not trying hard enough!

Take a Deep Breath

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are and how much confidence you have in your work, taking criticism can be difficult. After labouring so hard, putting heart and soul into your work, it’s an entirely natural action to push back against criticism. Even now, after years of it, I sometimes have that ‘you’re missing the point!’ reaction. It is also easy to get trapped into a defensive or passive-aggressive mindset when dealing with criticism.

Never respond to criticism immediately. Your thoughts simply aren’t clear enough to consider what it being said, and certainly not rational enough to compose a reasoned response. And I don’t just mean fan comments; the same is true of editorial feedback. There’s usually at least once piece of feedback on every novel I write that gets my back up. On occasion it gets me really agitated – we’re talking the ‘lying awake at 1 am’ sort of agitated. Often you just have to let it lie, for a few hours usually, sometimes for several days. It’s only after you’ve vented the unjustness of it all, called people names in your head and ranted a bit at the wall that you can go back to analyse the criticism and see if it has genuine merits.

When dealing with fans, don’t get tempted into thinking that you can change their minds. You probably can’t. You might be able to point out that a plot hole isn’t really a plot hole, or that a character really would act in such a way because of x, y and z. You might change people’s appreciation of a piece, but you can’t make them like it.

Accepting feedback doesn’t mean being a doormat to everything your editor tells you. If you think you have a case to argue for not making a change or doing something a particular way, then make your point. Many writers, especially when starting out, are craving acceptance and legitimacy of their work and are desperate to please. That can be just as damaging as refusing to take on board any feedback.

When getting back to your editor, do this with a conversation if at all possible – emails usually make it more difficult to explore nuances of ideas. Find a compromise if you can.

Often writers don’t like being told what to do, so perhaps you can acknowledge the problem highlighted but come up with your own solution to it. In this way you can feel that you are still in control of the work.

And always remember this – an editor’s job is to make you, the writer, even better.

Being a Good Critic

I’ll just finish with a few pointers to fans who like to express their views on their favourite games and authors:

Be civil. Manners never hurt nobody, and your point is not made any more relevant by being nasty about it.

Give reasons. This is a tricky one, because sometime we just like or dislike something. If that is the case, just say so, don’t try to rationalise an emotional response. However, if you can put your finger on what it was that swayed your opinion, pass that on.

Give examples. Often as a writer I will read criticism and wonder how somebody came to that conclusion. If you can give two or three examples of what you found to be good or bad, it is a massive help. If you can only find one example in a given work, you might just be nit-picking.

Be balanced. Critics are just as prone to confirmation bias as everybody else. If you like a work, also try to find something that was less than satisfactory that would have made it even better. If you didn’t like it, try to think of something positive you can say amongst the negative (even if it is just a single character or particular scene).

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