Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Writing: Expectation Vs Reality…

I was having a sort out in my room the other day, in the aftermath of nanowrimo and all, and I found something I wanted to share with you all. I don’t … I don’t really know what the lesson is here, but I suppose if we go through it all together, maybe we can figure it out?

So I found my first notebook from way back in the very beginning, at the point when I decided I’d quite like to write the series. Wow, that was a long time ago now…

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Anyway, I dug it out and I sort of wanted to share it with you? As you can see, it’s a bit battered and it’s definitely stuffed to bursting! I carried it around with me on the ride to and from work, which I bring up because the writing’s weirdly neat for me and my bus-writing!

It wasn’t anything ground-breakingly original, nor anything very complex in it’s conception either. It was essentially just a collection of pictures I’d found online (me having no artistic talent whatsoever and thus being incapable of drawing my own) that vaguely fitted either the general vibe of the stories I was looking for, or an effort to try and get a fix on what I thought various characters looked like, how they acted, what their backstories were, all that jazz…

I started work on it initially, if I remember rightly, because I had some many images and ideas and little fragments and flashes of inspiration floating around in my head and I wanted to tie some of it down in one place. I wanted to see what the common threads where, what my imagination was driving at, and having it all down in hard copy in front of me was very useful in that regard.

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At first it was all pretty well-organised; just a few notes, some snatches of Old English and translations, the odd place-name I’d decided on…

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But after a while, things got a little out of hand! Even the notes were trying to escape the confines of the notebook!

One of the more interesting things about having a ratch through this old thing, after several years of it being tucked away safely in a box, has been seeing what ideas I have kept largely unchanged since the very start of this whole endeavour and what has changed, sometimes quite radically!

Whole character arches have been completely altered and swept away, whole others have only had small additions or subtractions made. Sometimes I’ve even stumbled over characters I came up with way back when which I’d since forgotten about entirely, only to realise I’d been trying to recreate them from scratch because my stories still needed them! Talk about inadvertently reinventing the wheel!

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I suppose the big question is: Was all this cutting and sticking worth it? Well…

I feel that it would be dishonest to say that this has been a practice I’ve continued into my writing endeavours today. Just as an example, this is what my current notebook looks like!

I know, glamorous, isn’t it?

And you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, but surely that’s just the outside, right? It’ll be full of pretty pictures on the inside, naturally!’

Nope! ‘Fraid not!

(Sorry Mam, I know my handwriting’s … distinctive!)

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It’s not pretty, but it works!

But that doesn’t mean that all that work on the old notebook was wasted effort.

For some people, I understand that world-building is quite literally the process of building a whole world from the ground up and then populating it with characters to explore it. For others it’s a case of having a bunch of characters and needing to build a world for them to fit inside of. For yet others (and I realise this might not be how most people think of world-building, but I reckon it still counts) the whole thing starts with the story and they build the world and the characters as necessary for the story to take place.

But none of those broad models works for me at all…

The beginning of my writing journey was a mess of origin stories for people I didn’t know would be main characters (and indeed rather suspected would not!), a single clear crystalline image of three wildly different castles, some flashes of scenes in no particular order, and a smattering of world-mechanics for travel and magic and culture. And through of of this, the certainty that it would all fit together perfectly if I could only find a way to fill in the blank bits!

Filling up a notebook like this was a helpful first step towards filling in those gaps. Getting down everything I knew I knew, not worrying about what order I knew things, not worrying about whether I was being wildly different to everyone else, just pushing all that swirling mess inside my head out onto paper and making space for carrying new ideas… It helped me feel like I was getting somewhere, even if – in the strictest of writing senses – I was doing no such thing!

Come the New Year, I think I’ll be dipping into the old notebook a bit more and sharing some choice chunks with you all! Some ideas that sounded good in principle but just didn’t quite stick the landing, some characters I realised I hated already and they hadn’t even made it through the story yet, and one huge integral feature of world-building that made it through several drafts before I realised I’d almost created a monster I couldn’t make myself stand behind.

After all, if we don’t share out mistakes, other people have to go and make them for themselves, don’t they?

Have any of you found old notebooks lurking long after you’d finished with them? Did you find buried treasure or ghouls best left forgotten?

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Oxford Odditites

Judging a Book By its Cover…

Friends, today’s post is short, but I need to share something with you all. Partly because I need sympathy, and partly because I have so many questions!

OK, so this is the Oxfam Bookshop in the middle of Oxford.

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It sits just across the road from my workplace. It is also one of two in Oxford, and the other one was five minutes walk from my old workplace. I have never been more than ten minutes walk from one or the other of these in my whole time in Oxford, and I’ll be honest, there’s the vaguest possibility that this may be ever so slightly connected to my massive hoard of books and my lack of money. Maybe.

It’s OK to despair of me, my family is right there with you…

Anyway!

So I was walking past the window on the way to work one morning and this piece of majestic-ness is sat in the front window!

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I mean… Just look at it!

I have so many questions! How do these creatures go together in places that aren’t this blog?

Only in Oxford, am I right?

Long-time readers of this blog will know that we of course have a tiny dragon in the office, getting into my stationary and judging me when I’m not writing and generally causing trouble. 

And if you live in Oxford then you also know that ducks get everywhere. They keep nesting in college quads and then causing chaos once the ducklings have hatched, because no mama duck ever has apparently thought to herself prior to building a nest, ‘Hmm… I managed to reach this nice quiet nesting site in this fox-free space by flying. But my ducklings, they will not be able to fly straight out of the egg. Is this site, therefore, a good idea?’Ch.9 - Duck and Cover

So Trinity (Summer) Term is one long saga of students with cardboard boxes chasing down ducks and ducklings to help them all reach a nice body of water. It’s probably character-building? At the very least, it’s a distraction from looming exams, I suppose.

Also, if you have twitter, and you don’t already follow Twitter of then please go and check them out, they are an absolute delight and treasure and I can think of nothing which so wonderfully summarises so much of what is good in Oxford. It’s ducks, it’s literary puns, it’s madcap adventures sometimes; frankly I don’t know what else you could possibly ask for, but even that is probably to be found right there on that feed.

The annual duck-related shenanigans naturally has made it into the Ghosts and Gowns series, if you fancy checking it out?

Anyway, so obviously I had to read this book and find out a few answers. Was it separated out into poems about dragons and poems about ducks? Were there poets about dragons and ducks together? Did these two groups of agents of chaos finally join forces and inspire great sagas commemorating their epic deeds? Were they eternal enemies locked forever in combat from whence there is no end or escape? What?Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2

And now, I know, I know that we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s – frankly amazing – cover, but I regret to say that we can only speculate about the hidden potential behind it. For now, alas, we come to the saddest part of this post…

You see, the bookshop does not open until 10am, which is notably after the time I need to be in work. So I waited, eagerly, patiently I waited until my lunch break. Who needed to go to eat lunch? Who needs sandwiches when there is a book to hunt down? That book must be mine!

And then… disaster!

By the time I reached the bookshop, the book had been sold already! I missed it!

In hindsight, I suppose it was inevitable; with a book so inherently amazing, someone probably pounced as soon as they could get in…

Never will I read the epic adventures of ducks and dragons… *Sniff…*

On the other hand, I now can’t stop thinking of other amazing book titles! I have several ideas already:

Knights and Kittens – in which either the knights are often rescuing kittens from high perches in castles, or possibly doing battle with terrifying and fearsome kittens? (If this sounds unlikely, please check out the British Library’s post about knights battling snails! If it sounded totally legit on first thought, check out the pictures of knights battling snails anyway – I promise you that down that path lies only magnificent and wonderful things!)

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Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Mice and Magicians – In which a band of brave mice help and advise an apprentice magician as they journey through a series of challenges to reach the great magic tournament. Think the Knights of the Round Table (Round Cheese? Keep work-shopping that…) assisting Merlin, with side quests including the Green Squirrel, the Lapwing of the Lake, narrated throughout (naturally) by Gerbil of Monmouth…

Seagulls and Sphinxes – Neither side of this title will make much sense, but only one will eat you while you’re alive? But no seriously, this is really the perfect pair-up, since I don’t think that sphinxes can fly, but obviously seagulls have that down, and if you’ve ever been mobbed for your food by seagulls then you will know that seagulls would absolutely ask you impossible riddles if it got them more food somehow! I don’t know what their adventure would actually look like yet, but I’m working on it…

Anyone else have any suggestions? It has to be a team-up between a fantasy character/creature and a non-obvious tiny mundane animal… And if possible, do chip in with what the adventure story would look like!

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) – Part 1

In which there are many ways to plan out your novel, but why bother taking all that time?

Greetings everyone!

So, I know I’ve had a lot of time away from all you lovely people, but in my defence I have been doing Actual Writing for the Novel! I know, I amaze myself sometimes…

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super VillainsAnyway, while I’m buried under a pile of trying to remember how sentences combine to make chapters, I thought I’d share with you some of the ways in which I planned my novel; what order I tackle things in, and how each method helps me. Obviously, as I have been repeating since the beginning of this series, this is in no way intended to be any kind of ‘How To’ on the ‘correct way to plan a novel’, because I generally feel that no one should ever look to me for guidance on the right ways to do anything (I have far too much trial-and-error, with a strong emphasis on the error!) but if you are currently plotting out a story, or trying to, or will want to some time in the future, then hopefully this will prove useful!

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.

Why Plot Ahead?

So you know how it goes: you get this really great idea for a story, and you just know it’s a strong one, and you’ve got all these great characters to go in it, and there’s going to be all these exciting twists and turns and you want to just start writing immediately! Get going while it’s all fresh in your mind. You might forget the best bits otherwise! And you’re all fired up with enthusiasm and muse-vibes!

Why risk all that by taking a step back and wasting time with planning it all out on paper before you get going?

Now, I do have to acknowledge, here and now, that plotting out your story before you write it isn’t for everyone, that there are amazing cryptids out there called ‘pantsers’, as in they write by the seat of their pants. For those of you not familiar with these magical beings, these are writers that can just sit down at their keyboards and just know what to do without struggling about and they just… they just write a novel. Without planning. Or like… needing to know what comes next!

To all of you such magical beings out there, I am in awe of your mad skills but I really don’t know how you do it!

Failing such wondrous gifts, I feel that planning out a story before you sit down and devote time and effort and everyone else’s sanity to it has several advantages:

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

For one thing, I find that having a whole story planned out means I’m far less likely to abandon the project. (This may or may not have been a common issue in my early writing career. And my current career. Um.)

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2
Before we dive into designing our own maps, let’s take a good long look at other famous maps and see what lessons they can teach us all.

I can’t lose my train of thought if Life gets in the way for a while and I need to put the project down for a few days: my train of thought is already there in the broad strokes and the writing process just fills in the details. Jotting everything out in as much detail as I can while the ideas are fresh, shuffling them hurriedly into order while the shape of the story is there right behind my eyelids is a great help. I’ll have a beginning, middle and end of the story all laid out and even if I get a bit lost in the middle (more on that in a minute) I’ll still have signs and clues to get me back on track.

As a result, I don’t get discouraged so easily, and can at the very least force myself to bash out the roughest of rough first drafts to fling at a friendly beta reader who can try and explain where the madness has crept in!

What Is My Story Anyway?

Terry Pratchett once said of first drafts that they were “essentially just telling yourself the story.” That’s how I feel about writing up my plan for a story.

I might start off with some initial ideas, but it’s only by jotting all those ideas down, shuffling them around and generally corralling them until they start making sense that I can find the story that’s been floating around in my head for ages. And having told myself that story the first time, I can start to get a better feel for things like; what kind of story is it? What kind of tone should I aim for? What kind of audience? Where might it fit with other stories of mine?

It’s also a useful stage for me to try and identify any weak points in the plot, any areas where I might have made a leap of intuition or just have left a big gap in my plot which needs to be thoughts about and fixed.

For example, I find that it’s common for me to easily plan up to the middle of a story when things are about to pretend to go right for the protagonist, or the tension’s the highest, and then… well I know the ending! I have the last chapter! But no, I have no idea how we got from Point F to Point M.

Not a single clue!

Alternatively, I might have a character with a big role in the first half of the book who has apparently completely disappeared around chapter 9, never to return! Well, if he vanished like that, did I really need him at the start? If not, I could maybe combine his character with another person with a role in the second half who maybe showed up around chapter 7. If he did in fact need to be there the whole time, is there any way he can be tied to the end? If not, I can still make a note that I need to write him out properly.

Aren’t I glad that I’ve spotted that at this initial stage?

What Is My Story Actually Saying Though?

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffins
When you need to hide the Magic Thingy, but you don’t know where? Well, we have a few suggestions…

Finally, plotting everything out in details allows me to try and identify any themes or ideas that I especially like and would like to develop more fully. We writers can really mine gold-dust out of our subconscious given half a chance, but we don’t need to leave such gold-dust in its raw form. Spotting something I really love at an early stage allows me to try and make the most of anything that will make my story stand out and shine among all the others, and the earlier I find it, the better it can be integrated.

Conversely, it is worth acknowledging – as I will also discuss in more detail in another post – that some of our ideas, once we write them down on paper, are terrible. Now, I know that everyone’s criteria for something they neither want to write nor read will be different. But I am currently trying to properly unpick how I managed to write in a major over-arching theme into the whole series of my novels that I flat-out disagree with and will not stand behind.

It’s not that I set out to write a theme that in the cold light of a new day is kind of xenophobic, because of course I didn’t! But it can happen that you have one idea, and then another one, and another one and individually none of them are bad or even questionable at all. And then they all start coming together and make up a pattern between them that… well, that could raise some eyebrows, let’s say.

The point I’m making is that one of the reasons I think many creators respond defensively to audiences of their work objecting to certain themes which they did not intend to be in their work lies in how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve expended in making that work. No, they might not agree with every aspect of their own creation, but trying to back down from a completed piece is extremely difficult. You’ve spent months and years slaving over that work, and it can be extremely difficult to look at the finished product and acknowledge that there’s something kind of messed up lurking right there in the middle where you didn’t spot it.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the level of personal investment I have for my work, even when it’s terrible and bad.

Ch.9 Fantasy Idioms - A Shortcut to Writing a New Language
Creating your own Colloquialisms: a shortcut to writing a new language! Have fun with words…

But by planning everything out in detail, in the event that I notice something I’m not going to be proud of myself for writing, there’s a lot less of a connection to any single part(s) of my whole. As you’ll see in Part 2, which is full of pictures of my personal planning process, although unpicking a particular plot-thread is difficult and time-consuming, it’s also not so emotionally draining. Either I’m discarding bullet-points in a document, or colour-coded post-its, and neither of these took a lot out of me in terms of eloquent word-play or refined story-telling. They were ideas, and on consideration they weren’t that good.

Essentially, planning – for me, at least – is the practise run. It’s the equivalent of speaking your ideas out loud and checking that they all sound as good outside of your head as they did while still inside of it. If story-telling was dress-making, it would be the mock-up.

And for me at least, no matter how tempting it might be to just sit down and get writing straight away when I have a good idea, I think it’s the most vital step you can take.

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.

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If this is your first time on this blog: Hi! Chronicles in Creation is an on-going series in which I discuss various aspects of writing and world-building in more-or-less real time, screw ups and all!

If you’d like to see some of my actual original fiction; check out the Ghosts & Gowns series and see what you think!

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

When I asked for Murder Books…

… This very definitely was NOT what I meant!

Sorry everyone, this week’s post has been delayed slightly because my bookcase tried to murder me yesterday morning!

Yes, a completely solid, previously perfectly happy bookcase which has rested peacefully for over two years toppled over yesterday, throwing books across the room, and damaging me and the laptop I was working on! When I started writing, people warned me that writing wasn’t glamorous, but no one mentioned physical injury!

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffinsFortunately – despite crashing into two lamps, my favourite mug and, yes, the laptop – nothing was broken, the bruise on my head is barely noticeable and I’ve now picked everything up.

Unfortunately I don’t yet know what caused this murderous tantrum and must now try to think of a way to placate the Keeper of the Word Treasury. What common motives can I ascribe this trail of destruction to?

Greed cannot be the cause – that bookcase has as many books on it as it can possibly hold, and always has. It’s seemed fine for two years, so I must assume that its needs are being catered to here.

Loneliness seems unlikely, as it has several other bookcase-friends snuggled up to it, so plenty of emotional as well as physical support to be had all round.

At last! I think I may have hit upon the answer!

Obviously the root cause is jealousy, as I have been spending far more time writing than reading recently. Perhaps the bookcase feared it was being replaced by another in my life?

Ch.20 - The Magic that Walks Among UsThis would naturally explain the action of throwing books at the laptop, would it not?

Sadly one cannot really punish bookcases, can one? I mean, they exist in a permanent state of ‘Time Out’ already. They live by going to stand in the corner.

I know it’s bad discipline, but I see no other option than to give in. I shall simply have to human up and make an effort to read more books than I have been lately.

I know, the sacrifices I make for peace at home know no bounds, right?

I’ll catch you later when the laptop and I have licked our wounds…