Advice for the advisors

Don’t write, just write. But don’t write, because you’re not good enough.

Like many amateur writers, I follow a number of online writing tips websites. I’m sure you have ones you like. Some of the better ones that I know about include DIYMFA and Bang2Write.

I mention these two because they’re high quality, and give writing tips from different perspectives. DIYMFA from a writer’s perspective, from someone who’s been through a Master of Fine Arts programme (hence DIY MFA); and Bang2Write from someone in the industry who makes decisions on scripts, as well as being a writer.

The good thing about both of those is that, generally, they give this advice: just write. That’s all you need, really. After that, everything is style.

But some writing tips websites almost go out of their way to stop people writing. Which seems a bit bizarre. They say things like:

Don’t write prologues unless you’re highly experienced.

And

Don’t write cliches unless you’re a really good writer and make a really good job of it.

Have you ever seen this kind of advice? It’s nonsense. In the first one, how would one get to be “highly experienced” if one didn’t write with low experience? And how can one use a cliché in writing and make it brilliant, if one doesn’t use clichés in their rubbish form and learn why they’re bad? They almost say to a budding writer, “Don’t write, you’re not good at it. Leave it to the professionals.” And then off we trot to find out how the professionals became good, and their interviews says, “Just write. Make mistakes.”

 

planetfall update

More work on planetfall book 2 this weekend. I’m about 24,000 words in now, which is about 80 pages. It’s already shaping up to be an action-centred book, where the first one was more thriller-esque. The theme of revenge is strong, and I’ve somehow managed to set up four storylines (one major story, three sub-plots) in that time, which I’m pleased about.

My writing approach with this book is a nice mixture of planned and organic. I know, have known, the overall story arc, and roughly where each of the characters needs to end up by the book’s close. So starting with the end in mind it’s now a case of letting the characters explore their personal space and their narratives, and seeing what crops up. Undoubtedly I’ll be editing things out, putting new parts in, treating what I’ve written so far as guide text and adding more exposition and so on, but for now, it’s going very well.

Regarding book 1, it’s still out with agents, and I’m waiting for feedback from about 10 of them. I think I said that I’d received feedback that it “has a big sci-fi feel”, which isn’t seen much these days, but that agents are looking for different kinds of books for current market conditions. (That’s the same feedback I received for my other book, Backpackers – market’s looking for different kinds of stories.)

 

I’d love to hear what you’re working on. Drop me a line.

 

 

planetfall – update

Years ago I started writing this little book and called it “planetfall”. And I failed. I failed to write it. I failed to make it happen, I failed to conceive of a decent story. I failed to have the ability and find a way into it.

But I learned from the failure. planetfall was supposed to alternate between two stories – how a war started, and the war itself. But writing from two different perspectives, with completely different characters, soon proved too much. I decided to split the story into two, and write ‘how a war started’ first. It took me just over four years.

Finishing that first book, which I’ve since named All Fall Down (though it remains Book One of the planetfall series), took a massive effort. I’ve blogged before about how much I taught myself and learned from others about plotting, character, editing and so on.

In the summer of 2011, with a finished draft of All Fall Down brimming with pride on my laptop, I sat down to write ‘the war itself’. And failed again.

So I wrote another book, called Backpackers. And a book of short stories, called Dark Things. I took a creative writing course at London’s City University. I joined a writing circle. I wrote an 8 minute film script, and then a 30 minute pilot sitcom script. And started a fanfic novella about Robocop.

Phew. I was busy last year, between Aug ’11 and Aug ’12. But then I was unemployed, so it was a good time to really improve my writing skills and achieve something.

Over that year I occasionally went back to ‘the war itself’ and tried to make it work. Occasionally I would have a little breakthrough. An idea for a scene. A line I’d edit which would work really well. And sometimes there’d be a big breakthrough, like finding the narrator’s voice. That, really, was the hardest part to get right – his voice, his view of the world.

“Voice” is an interesting concept in writing, and it’s not one that many amateur writers come across until they go on creative writing courses, hang out with writers more experienced, or really delve into the amazing writing tips websites now available.

Trying to get into the mind of a person and speak from their point of view, to find their voice, is difficult. And that’s what kept bringing me back to that original story, and sending me away. I kept coming back because if it was difficult finding this character’s voice, then it must be a prize worth achieving. And I kept leaving the material to rest so that I could develop my writing skills in other media, try writing in different voices, and bring them back to this original idea I had in 2007.

A couple of months ago I sat down and re-wrote the opening 15 pages of the original planetfall. And I found a voice. In truth it wasn’t so different from the one I started with originally; the changes really were that it had more hope in it, less misery, it had a pinch of vulnerability, but it was also confident. It was angry, remains angry, but there’s a sense, I hope, of it building to something. This soldier has a mission.

A few weeks later, though, still unsure if this re-write was working, I re-wrote the first 5 pages from a completely different point of view: 3rd person, near (or 3rd person, limited, as it’s also known).  This worked, and I had a voice in that, too. And of course a quandary: I now had two versions which worked, one in first person and one in third. What to do?

At this point I was just finishing my sitcom script, which follows two characters whose lives cross early on, and keep crossing despite neither of them wanting to. A thought struck me: I needed to pick up the events of book 1. I’d always intended any reference to book 1 coming through from the first person narrative, a very narrow point of view (POV). But writing the sitcom, where the viewer would need to know more than a single POV, gave me an idea. What if I could go back to my original idea? Write a first person narrative with the voice I’d found, and write a third person narrative which followed other characters, so that necessary plotting could be picked up there.

It’s a risky decision. It essentially means the chapters go like this (example text):

Chapter One – My team died that day, and it made me angry. Three months later, I died. And that made me angrier still. I vowed revenge.

Chapter Two – Kate was alone on the planet when the ship came to get her. After twelve years, her solitude was over, and like it or not, she was going to be plunged back into the war.

Chapter Three – …and so on back to first person…

So how’s it working out? Is it another failure?

From my perspective, it’s working beautifully. The change between points of view has unlocked so much of the story, and made it so easy to write, that I’ve gone from 15 pages to 65 in a matter of days. The third person narrative brings the events of All Fall Down into the new book, providing continuity for the story and reader. The third person narrative brings something new. It places the reader in two parts of the world: a god-like part, where plot unfolds and great events move forward; and a personal part, where we feel what it’s like to be on the frontline of the war, narrated by a soldier.

It is a risky approach to telling a story, and I’ve never tried swapping POV like this – or rather, I did, once, in 2007, and I failed miserably. And five years of writing experience has given me the ability to achieve my original ambition. From failure came a number of successes.

As writers, we need failures. We need to write crap and tear it up. We need to write awful dialogue and curl up with embarrassment when we read our work aloud when we vocally edit. And we need, importantly, to learn from those mistakes and failures.

I’d be interested to know what failures you’ve had, and what you learned from them.

Character profile: Win Ho-Yung

So, for a few blogs I think I’ve promised to go back to talking about some of the characters in planetfall. The last blog post was about updating the storyboard for book 2, which may need further updating after I wrote to the end of chapter 3 yesterday and found the story writing itself into an interesting place. It’s not the forward storyboard that will need updating, it’s what’s already been written: probably just needs a minor tweak here and there and some extra character development and scenes to make it feel complete. But I digress. Let’s get onto a character from the first planetfall book.

In this blogpost I want to talk about Win Ho-Yung, and from the perspective that (at the time of writing) the book isn’t yet available, and so you haven’t met him. Let’s consider this an introduction, then, and avoid any spoilers (sweetie).

The first thing I want to talk about here is the name, “Win Ho-Yung”. All the characters in planetfall book 1 have names that either cropped up naturally (cf: Kate Leland) or which I constructed to have a specific meaning (cf: Sophie Argus) or which are a nod to cultural issues outside the book (cf: Masjid Currie, named after Marie Curie). Not so for Win.

Win’s name I agonized over for a quite a while. It is a made up Chinese name; actually within the context of the book it is a Qin name, the evolution of the Chinese society, which allowed me to take some licence – I have no idea if “Win Ho-Yung” would be a real Chinese name, or indeed if the names are more suited to nearby Oriental language groups, like South Korea.

I struggled with the name because of its obvious English meaning, “to win”. What I didn’t want people to do was associate the name with that English meaning, to think that here was a character whose name predicated their role (there is some of that in planetfall, just not for this character).

The name “Win” first appears in my Moleskine notebooks on 25 May 2008, and I’ve copied in some of my preparatory and biographical notes below. You also have another picture of my atrocious drawings, you lucky people. I didn’t record where it came from or why it was the only name I considered. I only know and remember that after much thought (translation: staring into space) that this was the name that I came up with. It felt right.

So the name has no specific meaning, but it is the only name I ever considered. In my notes there is no alternative, which is different for Djembe (I will cover that in a separate blog) and Kate Leland, for whom I have already talked about wobbling between Karen and Kate for a while, knowing only that the name had to start with a hard k sound. It’s also different for Sophie Argus and Masjid Currie, who will also be discussed in future blogposts.

Well who is Win, then? Enough about the anxieties of the author, and more about the character. Here are some heavily edited notes, originally written on 25 May 2008 in Costa Coffee, Crouch End, London, UK

Name: Win Ho Yung (note, no hyphen at this stage)

Age: 42

Born: Habitat in the Orion I system.

Biog:

Win Ho Yung’s ancestors remained in Qin space (the area occupied by the former Qin Empire, itself a closed-border volume of space created by Chinese peoples fleeing Earth’s environmental collapse in the book’s history), venturing out just three generations previously (before the book’s start). This conservativeness remained in their son, who was unambitious, despite his great skills and understanding of environmental systems. He was a person very much of his background, born in a Habitat, between Qin space and the rest of the human settled space. A Habitat between systems, but comprised itself of interlocking systems, asteroid and metal and farming pods, carefully balanced and carefully maintained. He wished not to go back to his ancestors’ roots, but neither to venture forth on his own. He had no desire to imagine different futures for himself. More important was understanding what was around him. How his environment worked, fit together, was influenced and influenced in turn. Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence and wholly focused on it. That allowed him to sense when something changed, not because he was out looking for it, but because it stopped affecting him. And that was also his weakness. If it stopped affecting him, he effectively became blind to it.

With an initial understanding of his background, I then tried to represent this as a picture. The photo below shows some of this, with the necessary explanation below it:

Planetfall notes on Win

Initial attempt to capture Win's character

Let’s take this picture from top left, go across the page, then drop down briefly to the bottom.

On the top left is a little graphic. In the middle is a dark dot, which represents Win, and out of it come a number of arrows. The strong arrows pointing up & down represent Win’s character trait as described: “Win was a person of the moment, his sense drawn around his immediate presence”. He looks left and right, to his immediate surroundings. A faint dotted line arrow can be seen pointing to the right, representing his limited traits of being a far-sighted person or thinking strategically. You can also just about make out an arrow going backward, which represents Win’s use of scientific data – already established facts, or “knowns” as I phrased it in my notes on the right hand side of the picture.

What you can also see in the picture is that I got confused between Djembe and Win’s characters when I was trying to represent them graphically. The crossings-out at the top and very bottom of the picture show the names being swapped around so that the drawings better tied up with the character biographies I’d written immediately above. What can I say? Sometimes we don’t concentrate on our work as well as we should.

Setting up these early character notes and biographies helped me in understanding how Win would respond to a situation. For example, because he is tied into the moment and the surrounding environment, he is very aware of people’s emotions; it allows him to be a more empathic character. And because of this tendency to empathy and emotional awareness, Win was the first character in the book for whom I developed any conception of family. He is married and has a son (you find this out in the book, and it’s not a spoiler). And because of that, he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre. My approach was, “If I can get the emotional content of this character right, then I can use the experience to develop the emotional life of the other characters”. I think because of that I formed an emotional attachment to Win, and in planetfall book 1 he’s my joint favourite character (along with Verigua, the Colony’s Artificial Intelligence).

In trying to work out the rest of Win’s character I didn’t have far to look. Having already blogged about the cultural references in planetfall, it will come as no surprise – given my teen years in the 80s – to find that Win is based on the character Data from the 1985 film, The Goonies, but grown up and now aged 42. (For those who need a prompt, Data was played by Ke Huy Quan, and carried about his body a number of ‘wacky’ scientific inventions.)

In planetfall Win’s role is as environmental analyst and general inventor-of-cool-tech-and-weird-virtual-reality-simulations. He gives a lightness to scenes and acts as a foil to Djembe, who is very much a straight laced person. The two play off each other, and while they are very different characters, they are shown to be good friends, both admiring the other’s skills. Because of Win’s character trait of looking to facts and knowns, he is also the major character for filling out the history of planetfall, and for bringing in plot devices by interacting with his environment (translation: he runs around and pokes stuff).

In proof reading, it is Win who is mentioned most often as people’s favourite character, which is very pleasing. Scroll back several paragraphs to where I said, “he was my first attempt at creating a character with a tangible emotional centre”, and you’ll understand why this is pleasing.

So there we have it. Here is another character biography. Was it what you wanted? Would you have preferred to understand how the character developed as I wrote the story? Or about other interactions? If you have any feedback, please use the options on the page to let me know.

Writing planetfall

Last blog post I talked about finishing planetfall book 1, and writing a synopsis prior to finding a literary agent. I covered my immediate feelings on finising the final edits – that the book will probably end up like thousands of others, lost in a slush pile or flat out rejected, and how that awakened a determination to fight for it.

In this blog I want to step back from the technical process of writing – character development, plot devices, and so on – and give a little insight into some of the materials I use for writing. Other writers may gain more from this than casual readers.

I normally start writing in long hand. That’s not to say I can’t write straight to laptop – I’ll come onto that in a later blogpost. After some experimentation, I’ve found the following work for me:

  • Uniball black gel pen
  • Moleskine notebook
Moleskine notebook and Uniball gel pens

Moleskine and Uniball pens

The Uniball gel pen took some finding. I used to write with biro, and of course if I’m caught without my writing materials and feel the need to scribble, I’ll still use one. When I discovered I preferred starting stories in long hand, I realised immediately that I’d need a comfortable pen to write with.

I have very messy handwriting, and I’ve always found biros too skinny and slippy for comfortable writing. The thin stick of the pen casing digs into the flesh between my thumb and forefinger. The small circumference makes it hard for me to keep a reliable grip. And the easy rolling of the biro’s ball makes slips across the page far too easy. I knew if I was going to manually write stories that I’d need to change this.

I don’t remember how I found the Uniball pens. I know I bought a couple of different pens from a local stationery shop, and chose them all for the thickness of the barrel. The ink-type and nib had no bearing on the decision. The gel ink of the Uniball stood out immediately. It feels to me (and this may not be real, just perceived) that the Uniball has better traction on paper, that there is some resistance. The ink also comes out in thicker lines, which helps to hide the drunk-spider scrawl that is my normal handwriting. The thicker barrel makes the pen easier to hold and more comfortable for a longer period of time. In short, it is a more satisfying writing experience.

Now, the Moleskines. You’ll all be rolling your eyes – so cliched, right? Well, yes, but then cliches come from somewhere, don’t they?

I bought a Moleskine due to a story I read about  a writer who could only write with Moleskines (read it here). I was fascinated. What were these notebooks? It was around this time that I discovered they’d gone out of production. A short while later there was a newspaper article – Moleskines were back in production. This was long before I was writing seriously, so I squirrelled the information away: at some point in my life, I would try one out.

When I started writing more seriously, and found that long hand was my preferred initial method of writing, I resolved to try them. To that point I’d been writing on A4 pads, top bound, flip up. I found them unsatisfactory. Now, I know some writers swear by them. They write with a pencil on A4 block. They write only on on side, using the block’s longer and broader expanse to give their hand room to roam & write and make notes. But I don’t write with pencils – for a start you have to keep sharpening them, which means carrying a pencil sharpener around. I would lose it quickly. And pencil fades and slips across the paper. No, not for me.

I tried, too, Uniball on A4 paper. While I liked the feel of the Uniball, I found the ink is too heavy and thick, and the paper too thin, so that you can see the writing on the other side of the page. I don’t write on one side of paper, it’s a waste of resources. And anyway, I was going to be out and about writing. I’d already decided that. There are too many distractions at home – TV, Wii, internet (internet!) – so I remove myself to cafes to write. Somewhere where there is nothing left but the page and the pen and what’s in my head. Carrying an A4 pad around would be too bulky and awkward.

It was on a trip up the Lea Valley (north east from Greater London) when I was volunteering with Friends of the Earth that I spied a pack of 3 Moleskine notebooks in Liverpool Street Station’s W H Smith. I bought them, put them away, went and did my volunteering (for the Climate Change Act, as it became), came back to London after a pint and my first ever pickled egg, and put them away. And promptly forgot about them. It was over six months later, in January 2008, when I decided to go on a writing break to the Isle of Skye that I dug them out.

And was hooked.

Their covers are made of a rough, black card-like paper, so they look a little mysterious, like they could contain anything: diaries, stories, poems, sketches of sweethearts and brawling drunks. They have rounded corners which don’t get caught in things. The paper is thicker and yellower then A4 pads. The Uniball gel ink clings to the paper and draws the pen across its surface. They are a construction made for writing.

Stacked Moleskine notebooks

My Moleskine notebooks

I have since filled 7 notebooks with notes and storyboards and thoughts and plans for planetfall and a couple of other short stories (Ayla’s Journey, First Things First, The Boy). The picture above shows the 7 filled notebooks and the current 8th, and the picture below shows the first page from the first Moleskine I ever used, including my first attempt at story boarding.

Moleskine notebook opened to writing page

The first page of the first Moleskine notebook, plus my first ever story board

I now carry my notebook and pen with me pretty much all the time. There is always time to scribble something down, even if it’s a word, a short sentence, or just looking at what I’ve written, or the story board to fix the narrative in my mind.

When I write in the notebooks I record the date, time and place. Although it is not meant to be a diary, it gives me, of course, a reminder of where I was at particular times. Sometimes leafing through past notebooks makes me wonder why I was free at 14:52 on a Tuesday, rather than at work. In that sense it records some of the context of my life as I was creating this other place, this other world, these other people, these other events.

So there we have it. Uniball gel pen, Moleskine notebook. That’s how it all starts. Next time, a little something, I think, on transferring the writing to the laptop and how I go about editing the work.

planetfall: genesis

planetfall – correctly written with a lower case ‘p’ and as one word – was borne out of a short story, and like most first-novels went through a long development process.

I treated the writing of planetfall as a self-education in creative writing. While writing it I tried many different exercises and approaches, failed more than I succeeded, then failed some more, went off on tangents, took breaks, became frustrated, scrapped pages and pages of material and generally found that auto-didacticism is easier to spell than to do.

The short story from which planetfall evolved is about a Mexican man looking back on the Mexican-American war around the time of the Alamo. It was a writing exercise in which I challenged myself to write a short story that had a definite beginning, middle and end, was character based, and which would fit onto one side of A4. The story was mostly dialogue, the Mexican man talking to his young son about what it means to be a man while he shaved his cheeks and shaped his moustache. I put this story to one side and moved onto other writing projects (I think some exercises on colour and motion).

Some time later I returned to the short story and thought it would be interesting to re-write the story from the son’s perspective, this time he would be a grown man thinking back to his father’s advice. I placed the son in a war and wrote a nostalgic piece, the son looking backward, close to death, wanting the protective presence of his father.

Realising that a soldier on a battlefield gave me scope for more writing exercises – the ravaged landscape, the loss of life, commentary on war and its interaction with society – I continued to write. The story became science fiction when I decided a battleground of post-nuclear detonation would add drama quickly. After about 3 or 4 pages, I chopped off the original short story – the Mexican  man with his son – and started thinking about how someone would survive a nuclear blast: you’d need some kind of fancy protective suit for a start. And so secom was born, a material that never made it into the final draft of the first book (at least not in an obvious way).

planetfall evolved quickly after that. There were three characters – Ramirez, Mina and David – a mysterious planet and a scene I visualised as a ‘planetfall’, in which the characters would leave a ship in orbit and fall to the planet below, battling aliens as they went. This scene gave its name to the book. I later named the mysterious planet ‘Fall’ as a temporary joke (planetfall/planet Fall) while I tried to figure out a better name. I never found one. Planet Fall became the central character in the first book of planetfall.

Two hundred pages came out quite quickly, and at that point I took a break to write a short story (“Ayla’s Journey”). I opened up the writing process for this short story to a friend with professional writing experience. She taught me how to edit, about rhythm and flow, and what was good in my writing and what not. A very instructive experience, I went back to planetfall three months later and sat down to edit. Two hundred pages collapsed under my editor’s eye in a cottage on the Isle of Skye, and became 35. From there I wrote out again to around seventy five pages, and got stuck. A sub-plot, a conspiracy theory centring on the planet Fall, wasn’t working. It took a few months before I decided to pull the sub-plot out into a separate story, which would run alongside the main story of the soldier (now a Marine) and act as counterpoint to his first-person perspective story.

I tried writing the two stories side by side, but their different writing styles and points of view soon forced me to stop. I decided to focus on the story of the planet Fall first. That story, in retrospect, was easy to write. Daoud was a character I already had from writing background notes on the planetfall universe and its history. Kate arrived one day while I was in Costa Coffee in Crouch End. Verigua was supposed to be a limited character, borrowed from an Iain M. Banks Culture novel. I will write about these separately.

Each chapter, except for the final one, was written with a particular approach in mind. Some chapters are sense-based: visual, auditory, tactile. Some were very much about movement (a Doctor Who: Confidential episode, in which they discussed up & down movement, was a particular influence), and some were indulgent: abstract, dream-like and experimental (on my part). One chapter was simply written in a short story style as a break from the main narrative (The Tale of Huriko Maki).

The first draft was finished in December 2010 and I started to think about returning to the main story, the story of the Marine’s experience of a great war. As I’d written the story of the planet Fall, I conceived a story structure in which that story would revolve, DNA-helix-like, around the main story of the Marine. It would be capped with a short story (The Tale of the SS Maris One) which would act as the telomere to the story’s helix. However, in early 2011, three and a half years after writing the story of the Mexican, I made the decision to publish this story of the events on planet Fall, the start, the genesis of the war, as the first in a sequence of books. I still intend at some point to release the series as intended, with new, original material throughout to tie it all together.

Until then, you have planetfall book 1 this summer, and planetfall book 2 currently in development. Enjoy.

Welcome

Time to start blogging again.

Years ago I kept a blog on the great, much-missed BBC online magazine “Collective”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/U207003

In many ways Collective was ahead of its time. It pre-empted Facebook with its offer of a profile page, it allowed users to write their own blogs, and it asked users to contribute their own reviews of new media. In return, with the weight of the BBC’s name behind it, Collective offered a weekly magazine featuring reviews of new music, film, books, art and so on, as well as exclusive mixes and downloads from new music artists. Occasionally it would put on live shows for up and coming bands: Hot Chip played an early gig at the Spitz in London’s Spitalfields market.

As the users and Collective’s community producers got to know each other better, its functionality expanded, and it created a “community” area where users could collaborate on projects or pool long term projects. I was proud to be part of that early development by initiating and curating the online art gallery “Unique forms of continuity” which you can see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A2208151

For all that Collective asked for user generated content, it also knew it had to appeal to the materialist and give rewards. Each week one user’s review would be picked as a featured article and would win a CD or book – or whatever turned up on the community producers’ desks from music or book or DVD companies.

For many the magazine provided a place for artistic inspiration, and it’s fair to say that there are many people out there whose lives are now different because of the discussions and contributions they made. Some of us even made friends and are still in touch almost 10 years later.

For me Collective offered a way to practice writing. Many of my reviews were experimental in nature, some provocative, and just as many commented upon and the source of many a philosophical discussion.

And it was on Collective where I gained the confidence to write creatively. To dare to think that I could write stories, and that perhaps, one day, one of those stories might lead to a novel.

Without the BBC’s Collective website, there would never have been an astrotomato, and there would never have been a science fiction book called “planetfall”.

To the community producers who worked on Collective, to all the people I met, talked with, who inspired me, and to everything that Collective gave me, this first, opening post on astrotomato.com is dedicated to you.