Monday, 27 February 2017

Bitesize Reviews of Books About Writing

Recently, I've read a number of books about writing. Two were written by agents, one was written by a creative writing professor, one by a poet, one by a screenwriter, and one was On Writing by Stephen King which was definitely my favourite.

If you're looking for advice on a particular area of writing, I think any of the books I'm reviewing here will prove very useful. I did enjoy some more than others, and if you were only going to choose one, I'd have to recommend On Writing - but that's because it speaks to my pantsing heart. If you want more of an industry guide, I think Writing 21st Century Fiction is a great place to start.

I've linked to Waterstones for each title. Personally, I borrowed two from my local library and picked up second-hand copies of the others from Book Depository.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

This is a very well-known guide. It is geared towards screenwriting, and chunks of it are irrelevant to writing novels, but I found the Blake Snyder's breakdown of the three-act structure and his exploration of genre extremely useful. I was quite sad to learn the author died in 2009. I wanted to see what scripts he'd written since the book's publication. Tragically, he died only four years after Save the Cat hit the shelves. And yes, that title will make perfect sense once you read the book.

Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maas

This was written by US agent Donald Maas. I really enjoyed this. It's packed full of excellent advice about writing modern fiction that will appeal to the modern reader. It talks about how to explore your themes, how to create compelling characters - both protagonists and antagonists - and explores ways for you to find your best writing method. It has some great exercises at the end of each chapter, which I know I'll be using when I hit my next edit. 

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

This was written by poet Natalie Goldberg in the 1980s. I did chuckle at her "I've never tried writing on a computer" line near the opening of the book. For Goldberg, writing is like a spiritual experience. She practices Zen meditation, and it comes through in her work. If you're a poet or enjoy writing in verse, Goldberg's book is sure to resonate. She really hones in on using free writing to open yourself up, connecting with your own emotions and experiences, and using that to write as honestly as possible.

Write for Children by Andrew Melrose

This book examines writing everything from picture books to YA. Andrew Melrose refers to writing for a specific age range as 'Writing the Height'. Very handy if you're not sure where your book fits in. I also particularly enjoyed the exploration of point of view, and how to keep a tight grip on characters if you're writing series fiction.

On Writing by Stephen King

I have been meaning to read this book for years. It was fantastic. Part biography, part how-to guide, it pulls you in quickly and easily. King goes from exploring the events of his life that led him to be the kind of writer he is (if you can make it through the early doctor's visit section without squirming you're a stronger person than I am), to sharing his ways of writing. I loved how he described the act of digging up the story that was already inside him. It rang so true for me. Cannot recommend it enough, even if you've never read any of King's work.

Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction by Juliet Mushens

This book is set up to take the place of a workshop. Exercises are provided to help you work through everything from initial planning of a story all the way through to getting an agent and publication. It also looks at self-publishing as a legitimate path to publication. One aspect I really liked about this book was its acceptance of using fanfiction as a perfect way to enhance your craft when you're building up to write an original idea. It's also very specific to YA and what does and doesn't appeal to that audience, so I think plenty of you will find it very useful.

Thursday, 16 February 2017


I have now officially begun my Golden Egg Foundation Year and I think the most important lesson I've had so far is knowing that I can (and must) allow myself to slow down so I can develop my writing skills.

For the past few years, I've hurtled through ideas and drafts, always thinking of getting that agent and finding my way to publication. But I'm not quite ready. My book is not the best book it can be. But if I give myself time, I can develop the necessary skills to make it amazing.

For once, I'm not just bashing out another draft; I'm assessing my novel from a structural standpoint. Where does the first act tip into the second? Where does my main character make a decision she cannot back down from? How does that decision develop the action in the novel's second act? Is the middle compelling enough? When does it seem like all hope is lost and the story builds to its finale? Does the finale take place in the right location? Have I over-complicated the plot and lost track of some of the central plot threads?

On top of that, I'm taking a good look at my secondary characters and clearing out the deadweight. I'm also making sure the characters that have escaped a cull deserve their place in the story. How do their actions impact upon the main character? Are these secondary characters developed enough to deserve their place in the novel? If so, they stay. If not, I drop them.

I even redesigned the novel's haunted house. I added a couple of extensions, collapsed a few floors, moved the garden, built a couple of guest houses in the grounds... All because the plot is evolving and changing as I deal with the issues above. As some characters disappear and others become more important, the events of the story move and change organically. It's very exciting.

I am hereby giving myself the development time this book deserves. I haven't lost any of my excitement. I'm impatient, yes, but I know doing a critical evaluation of what I have and what I need is going to help me.

It's less plotting, more remodelling. All the new scenes I've written have definitely come to me as I've reworked what I already had. I know Ghost!Story is going to be something really, really special when I'm done.
 See you next time!

(You're welcome)

Thursday, 19 January 2017

This Blog Is Taking An Editing Break! (Rewrite Chronicles III - OMG IT'S SPIRALLING OUT OF CONTROOOOOOL)

Why is it when I set myself a deadline for editing, huge chunks of my novel decide they want a complete rewrite? Why? Why does this happen?

My advice? Don't panic. DON'T PANIC! No, really. Deep breaths. You can do this. (Hear that? I can do this!) Focus on your novel. Put aside non-essentials which, for me right now, is the blog. I really do need to get a tighter draft ready by the 28th for the start of my Golden Egg Foundation Year course. It's going to be okay. I will get this draft done in time, and my book is going to be a lot better for it.

I'll see you when I see you...

Friday, 13 January 2017

Character Studies - John Watson and the Destruction of A Secondary Character

Please don't sacrifice good characterisation of your secondary characters for the sole purpose of making your main character appear EVEN MORE AWESOME. It's incredibly frustrating. And it only serves to make your main character less interesting.

I've been struggling with Sherlock for a while for many reasons. Its treatment of women, its lack of compelling mysteries, its insistence on ramming its head straight up its own arse. But I think it all comes down to what the writers have done to John. Poor, poor John Watson. As enjoyable as it was to watch Sherlock solve crimes in series one and even series two, John was always the more engaging character for me because he was so much more realistic. His complexities, and a degree of his own intelligence, seem to have disappeared in favour of making Sherlock more spectacular. The more convoluted an episode is, the less John has to do or say that doesn't serve to reinforce Sherlock's talents.

And never has this been clearer than it was in The Lying Detective.

The rest of this post contains SPOILERS! Consider yourselves warned.

Here’s my problem: John is constantly manipulated by both Sherlock and Mary. The central plot revolved around Mary telling Sherlock he had to “save John Watson”. From who, you ask? Himself. Mary couldn't trust John to grieve in his own way, in his own time. Sherlock, she says, must put himself through hell for the sole purpose of ‘saving’ John. How noble, you might cry.

No. No, no and no again. This is ridiculously over the top writing, where a smaller, more character-focused plot would’ve been so much more emotionally satisfying. Ignoring the whole 'fridged woman' or 'disposable woman' aspects of Mary's death (must. resist. urge. to. scream), think how much more powerful The Lying Detective would’ve been as a tale of John and Sherlock coming to terms with grief in their own ways without the heavy hand of Mary the puppet master. Well, Mary and Sherlock are the puppet masters, because Sherlock colludes with her. Allow me to create a rough synopsis of an alternate take on The Lying Detective (which would need a different title, but go with me here):

Sherlock, swamped with guilt after Mary dies to save him, slips back into his self-destructive drug habit. He throws himself at any case that comes his way, with little regard for his own safety. John, consumed by grief, guilt and anger, cuts himself off from Sherlock, knowing he has to focus on raising his daughter. Weeks pass without the two seeing each other. Mrs Hudson, who is at her wits end with the drug taking going on in her home, begs John for help. John, despite his heartbreak, knows he can't abandon Sherlock. He seizes the opportunity to lose himself in a case and temporarily forget his loss. Supervising and supporting Sherlock through withdrawal, John works with him to prove that Culverton Smith is the serial killer Sherlock insists he is. In doing so, Sherlock and John are forced to confront the event that so nearly destroyed their friendship. Both men support the other through their grief and guilt, and their friendship is even stronger for it. 

Unfortunately, we were given a story where Mary plots how her husband will grieve for her. It didn't come off as kind and thoughtful, but monstrous and callous. Grief, and responses to it, are an intensely personal thing. You can't plot to jolt someone out of it. Except, in the Sherlock universe, you totally can! Because John, being less of a character and more of a narrative device, can't work through his emotions in his own way. Instead, Mary and Sherlock force him to respond to Sherlock's self-destruction which, rather than being a legitimate reaction to Mary's death, is a fabrication. You could argue that Sherlock willingly harmed himself after how awful he felt about Mary taking a bullet for him, but it doesn’t ring true because he still gets everything right despite being off his face on heroin. Even the drug use is played for laughs - Sherlock's been "off his tits" for weeks and John should've noticed. Sherlock has an answer for every argument John makes. John thinks he's being tricked (which he is), but Sherlock says it's not a trick, it's a plan, like that somehow makes this all okay. The story, regardless of how clever it might be on a very shallow level, falls flat emotionally because John doesn't make his own decisions. He can't. The writers don't allow him to. It's Mary and Sherlock's way, or no way at all. There's no room for John to say "I have a child. I have other priorities after the loss of my wife. If I explain this to Sherlock, he'll understand. He is a good man at heart."

And here's my other major problem with this episode. John has a baby daughter, but the writers obviously have no idea what to do with her, so she's written out. The audience is clearly supposed to accept John's total disregard for the child because of his grief. It makes no sense given John's previous characterisation! He is shown to be loyal to a fault. Even Moriarty commented on it!

John always stands by Sherlock. He didn't tell Mary to get lost after it's revealed she's been keeping huge secrets from him. But this loyalty doesn't extend to his daughter. Even the hallucinations of his dead wife are telling him to stay with Sherlock rather than be with his child. What? No, really, WHAT?!

The baby should radically change John's priorities, but the writers can't have that because John's world revolves around Sherlock, and they still want to have a show, sooooo...

John has been stripped of so much characterisation at this point, he no longer resembles the character the audience originally met. He hasn't grown, he's shrunk. John merely accepts Mary’s master plan and Sherlock's implementation of it. Even when he attacks Sherlock in the hospital morgue, it's not because he's snapping from realising he's being kept in the dark about everything, he's doing it out of anger at Sherlock who's too wrapped up in his 'game' of crime fighting. At times, John is shown to be self-aware enough to know that Sherlock hides things from him (like him questioning if he's being tricked into helping Sherlock), and yet he completely accepts the lack of control he has over his own life. It makes no sense to me because how can John both be totally self-aware about how Sherlock treats him and utterly oblivious at the same time?

Remember John in A Study in Pink? The man who overcame the trauma of war to make an expert shot to save Sherlock’s life? A shot absolutely no one else could’ve made? Who proved that he was Sherlock’s equal, even though he marvelled at the man's abilities? Who offered insights? Who used his medical training to support Sherlock? I guess that characterisation didn’t serve the writers’ 'isn't Sherlock amazing' plots, so they methodically, if carefully, undid John's strengths by making sure he still rolls his eyes at Sherlock's antics, or delivers punchy one liners that remind the audience he's a badass, without him actually doing much to back that up. Because no compelling character, and certainly not a character established with the intelligence of series one John, would allow himself to be controlled without realising it was happening, turning around and shouting No! NO THIS IS NOT OKAY!

I miss the show this used to be. I wish the writers did more with John rather than cliched one-liners that tell us he's a dangerous man to anger. I wish they'd let him be himself, rather than merely an object orbiting the all powerful Sherlock Holmes.

Stories are compelling when the characters are well-rounded and fleshed out with strengths and weaknesses, especially if those characters are going to be with us across a number of stories. When all of the secondary characters are demoted to plot tools there to serve the needs of the lead character's godlike gifts, they cease to read (or watch, in this case) like characters at all. Sherlock himself is no longer very interesting. He's too perfect. His drug taking and poor socialisation are not interesting flaws, because they're always framed as a kind of strength for him. And there's no sense he'll ever fail. It's boring.

*sigh* At least I'll always have the first series.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Index Cards And Novel Editing - Rewrite Chronicles II

I actually managed to get a first (extremely rough) draft of the rewritten Ghost!Story done on New Year's Eve. I then went and spent the rest of the evening and the first day of 2017 in the company of dear friends, before throwing myself into FULL INDEX CARD EDITING MODE on January 2nd.

By January 3rd, I had reread the book. I summarised each chapter, and made notes on what needed tweaking. I also used white index cards to show where I needed to add in extra chapters.

Once I'd summarised every chapter and noted down what needed adding or changing, I added tabs to the chapters so I could get a view of the story's overall structure.

This gives me an overview of the story's flow. It's all big picture stuff - I can see what happens when, where the major developments happen (I've referred to them as 'acts' in my notebook), the key moments in various chapters, and how the subplots carry through. I've also marked chapters with things that need switching around, and tracked what happens on what day so I have a rough timeline.

Unfortunately, I don't really have anywhere I can leave the cards splayed out at all times. I specifically wanted to do a card per chapter so I could get a good idea of the entire book. Based on the research I did on using index cards to check a novel's structure, other writers seem to use a lot less... Ah well, this is my way, and so far, it's proven very useful. I have a much better grip on my plot, its highs and lows, where the subplots come in, what needs development and where backstory needs to be moved to.

Why did I choose to go for index cards this time? Because I've never carried out a massive structural and plot rewrite before. I've removed several chapters, separated chapters into shorter ones, and found a few places where chapters need to be added. I wouldn't have been able to see this so clearly if I hadn't used these index cards. Having the story splayed out this way gave me the aerial view of the plot I so desperately needed.

Now, this is a method of using index cards specifically for editing. It probably could work for plotting a novel from the outset, but this is geared more towards editing. Especially those of us who've:

1) pantsed a first draft and you need to clear up your structure.
2) rewritten an existing novel and need to get a clear overview to see what changes you've made and where further changes are required.

I still have a lot of work to do on this book. I just wanted to get a rough draft to see if the change to the plot would work. The good thing is it definitely does. I'm going to have a much stronger book for it. All I have to do now is write all of the new material and dive into the line edits...

Buuuuuuuut maybe after a bit more Rise of the Tomb Raider...

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Farewell, 2016!

2016. You were all over the place. On a global political and human suffering level, you were horrific. On a personal level, it was a bumpy ride with some really fantastic highs. Got to travel around Europe with beloved friends, and took some essential steps towards a new career.

Best Book 

Going with something a little different this year...

This book needs to be required reading for every single person who uses social media. Of all the books I've read this year, fiction and non-fiction, YA and adult, this is the book that has really stuck with me.

Best Videogame

Yup, totally cheating here. So, first up, best videogame of 2016, from 2016!

Uncharted 4 was everything I wanted it to be and more. No, I don't like it more than the third game, but I still love it. Naughty Dog finally took the time to slow the action down enough to give us a really emotionally engaging story. It was well worth buying a PS4 for, and my goodness have I had way too much fun tweeting screenshots from this and other games in 2016 :P

And secondly, best older game I played in 2016:

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is one of those games with a story that captured me and continues to haunt me. It's so beautiful, and the music is just stunning. I write with it all the time, and listen to it when insomnia strikes. 

And an honorary mention to my beloved Lara, because I'm sure if I'd played this game to completion, it would've beaten Uncharted... but I'm only about 25% of the way through so...

Best Film


You know, I actually did a great job on this year's goals. Nope, still don't have an agent, but I'm trying something new for 2017.

This year I wanted to:
  • Qualify as a NVQ assessor  - done! And I am now working as an assessor for a local further education college :D
  • Write a new book - done! I wrote a fifth Ghost!Story back in the spring.
  • Join an amateur orchestra - done! ^_^ I've even performed in my very first concert, and I wasn't terrible!
  • Keep on blogging! - I admit it's been a lot quieter around here this year, but I'm still blogging.
  • Go to at least two videogame music concerts - done! I went to the US to see Symphony of the Goddesses, and I went to London to hear Symphonic Fantasies and the Tomb Raider concert. All were fantastic.
  • Sign with an agent - Nope! And despite what I said about not taking it off my list until I did, I kinda am taking it off the list for next year for reasons that will soon become clear...
Goals for 2017

  • Put my all into my Golden Egg Foundation Year course! I still can't believe I was offered a place on this. Being told your writing has potential is pretty thrilling. This is the best chance I have to turn Conspiracy of Echoes into a publishable book, and I am going to seize every opportunity I get to make it something really special.
  • Continue sticker charting. It's my version of a bullet journal, and I love it. It's super motivating, and it's fun to look back on ^_^ I am a to do list kinda gal, but my non-working life lists tend to be monthly rather than daily or weekly. I'm not interested in planning my life down to the tiniest detail, but noting my achievements looks pretty when I use so many fantastic stickers ;)
  • Become a better violinist. I know what I need to work on, so here's to inching towards fluency in music in 2017.
2017 is going to be a lot of things. It's up to us to endure, survive, and make it that little bit brighter in any way we can.

See you soon!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Concert Review - The Tomb Raider Suite

On Sunday, I battled train cancellations and sinusitis to hear the Tomb Raider Suite's World Premiere in London. I am so glad I made it. It was so, so, so nostalgic. 

I can't believe it's been twenty years since my eldest brother brought the original game home. I remember being fascinated the moment that original cutscene started. Lara was so cool! She was smart and confident, and she took down anyone who stood in her way. I was obsessed with her instantly. I wanted to be her. I still want to be her! After all, I did dedicate an entire character study to her in February. Anyway, I didn't know at first that the soundtrack was on the disc, so I used to replay chunks of the game just to hear the music again. Also, I was ten in 1996 and I suuuucked, so I had to replay plenty anyway :P Poor Lara had to stand around a lot just so I could revel in the music.

When I heard this concert was taking place, I knew I had to be there. Nathan McCree's music was the first videogame music I was able to listen to outside the context of the game, so it was really special to finally hear it live. I've listened to it for years, and been inspired by its grandeur and sense of adventure in my writing. You could hear how the music evolved as we moved through each game, but that central Tomb Raider melody linked them together. It always felt like we were hearing Lara's stories, and I loved how the notes themselves made up the Tomb Raider Suite's logo.

There was a real elegance to the performance, and I was immediately thrown back into all the adventures Lara and I had. The music from Tomb Raider II was especially meaningful for me, because it is still the best game in the franchise. No, not even the 2013 reboot tops my love Tomb Raider II. When the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra played Vertigo, I had chills that were nothing to do with the temperature I was running. The City of London choir added to the beauty of the music; it wouldn't have been the same without them. And hearing the string section perform Venice live!!! That was definitely a highlight for me.

The music from Tomb Raider III was also pretty special. Hearing this India inspired track live was an absolute treat because I hadn't been expecting it. Such fond memories.

The use of light and smoke effects during the concert added a great atmosphere to the performance. It was especially effective at the beginning when sound effects from the original game were paired with lights flashing in the darkness. It was like the sun breaking through cracks in the cave's ceiling, lending the auditorium an ominous, mysterious feel. I felt like I was Lara, exploring strange caverns and forgotten tombs.

The whole evening felt like a giant celebration of that era of Tomb Raider. Winston came onstage with his ever present tea tray. Shelley Blond, Lara's original voice actress, was the host. Nathan McCree did a pre-concert talk where he discussed how he created the music for the games and how he composed the modern arrangements for the concert. The whole event was fantastic. I do wish I could've stayed for the meet and greet afterwards, but I had to catch my train before the strike resumed at midnight and all the trains stopped running. I've been humming the music ever since Sunday, and I sincerely hope more people have the chance to attend this concert, because it was a great twentieth anniversary celebration.