Friday Flash – Evil in Paradise

They called in her dreams: Beyond the compost heap, among the foxgloves. She found them in the morning sun, gossamer humanoid things, large-eyed and curious.

They fluttered all around her and trilled with laughter: You came.

One by one she caught them, tore away their pretty rags, pulled their wings and pinched off their heads. Each and every one.

‘Alice! Alice, come in for tea.’

In the night, in her dreams, Alice danced and danced. Danced her feet to bloody stumps. Danced with flowers in her hair, laughed and sang and did not care.

Until she woke.

~

No. 31 in the ‘Beyond the Streets‘ sequence – a series of 100-word flash fiction.

Top Ten Writing Tips #10 – The Road Goes Ever On…

It might feel like that, and there’s always something else to talk about, but all these musings of mine are supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Reading books and articles on writing can easily become a form of prevarication (so can blogging), so for now at least this is the end of my series and I’ll be getting on with my own writing for a while.

I’m sure I’ll be back. Gaie and I can natter on endlessly about writing. There’s this thing, and there’s that. Oh, and then that other thing too.

So what are those things? What else could I write about instead of actually getting on with the writing itself? Here, in condensed form, are:

Five More Top Tips!

1. Give yourself breaks and holidays. When I finish an ms I can crash for a few days. I’ve learned not to beat myself up if that happens. If you run a marathon at least sit down and have a cup of tea* before running the next one.

As a coda to this – celebrate your achievements! You finished a story, a book – Yay! And if it’s a biggie, open the fizz.

2. Give, don’t take. Blogs like this help pay it forwards. You had help and advice, return the compliment by helping those behind you. Getting published is not a zero-sum game.

3. It’s not about you. It can feel like it, but it never is. Criticism, reception, it’s all about your writing. It can be frustrating as hell, but it’s not about you. Unless you’re being a dick.

4. Don’t be a dick.

5. Finish what you start. 10 stories 90% written are no stories finished. You’ve got nothing. Finish it, then write something else.

There’s a coda to this too. If you’re struggling with something, if you no longer believe in it, walk away. I’ve got 20,000 words of a novel I know I will never finish. Half the ideas have been used elsewhere, and I might get back to the rest one day, just not in that form.

Coda to this coda: Never throw anything away, There’s often meat to be picked off an old carcass.

6. Keep your sense of humour.

And there are those books on writing. Two I really like, from the opposite ends of the spectrum are:

Techniques for the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler

Swain’s book addresses the practical nuts and bolts of writing, why you do certain things and when not to, and is full of excellent pragmatic advice. Vogler writes primarily about the archetypes underlying characters. If Swain’s book is about how you do it, Vogler’s is about what it is you’ve actually done. You might not agree with Vogler, you might find Swain’s style old-fashioned, what they will do is help you think about what you’re doing.

On Writing, by Stephen King is also very good. And if you write genre fiction Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Wonderbook is highly recommended.

(And I’ve just remembered on I’ve long wanted to read – John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Found it! Bought it! I’ll let you know.)

These books are not only worth reading, they are worth dipping back into from time to time as reminders and prompts. Between all that – the writing, and the road.

And Finally:

Beyond the Two Rules there are no rules, only guidelines. If there is a rule it’s that there is always an exception to the rule. (Except for this rule, because that would be a paradox and would also prove it’s not a rule. I digress.) Those two rules are:

1. Writers Write

2. There are no other rules

Simples.

~

* And cake. If there’s time for a cup of tea there is inevitably time for cake. And that is a good thing, Frodo.

~

The First Croziers of Spring

Fern CrozierI’ve always been loved ferns and other ancient plants. They hold a fascination I can’t fully explain. It’s partly it’s their ancient lineage, their strange way of reproduction, their fractal symmetry. In the end it’s just because I like them.

Ferns were a big part of my motivation for studying plant biology at university. I still enjoy growing and propagating them today.These days I’ve got what sometimes feels like an impractically large collection of tree ferns – mainly hardy Dicksonias. This one is a Cyathea, smaller and more delicate, and overwinters in the conservatory. As a result it’s the first to start growing in the spring. It’s always a delight to see the first croziers of spring.

~

Friday Flash – She’s Just a Kid

‘What’s that got to do with anything? Look at her.’

Angry, Hulce banged the cage with his mace. Angry, and frightened too.

They had captured grey children before. It wasn’t easy. Scissor men and ghouls always followed close behind, the children themselves were animals, savages. Hulce had seldom been more grateful for his armour.

Grey children never spoke. They didn’t need to. Their presence this side of the river said more than words.

The ragged girl jerked upright, turned, faced south. Now they had a direction.

‘Kill it,’ Hulce ordered. ‘Kill it and burn the body.’

~

#30 in the ‘Beyond the Streets‘ sequence – a series of 100-word flash fiction.

Top Ten Writing Tips #9 – Keeping Momentum

Ideally writing time should be such a normal part of your life you simply get on with it without thinking, like brushing your teeth before bed, or having breakfast. For some people this comes naturally, others (me) need to work to establish useful habits.

My first book took ten years to write. I kept stopping, I hadn’t made writing part of my routine. A month would go by and I’d come back to it and hardly recognise the story or the characters I was writing about. I had to read through, get my mind back into that world, finally I could start writing again. I was making things hard for myself. Since then I’ve found out a few things that work to make life easier.

Keep a Word Count. It might sound trivial but lots of people, myself included, find it surprisingly motivating. Simply setting targets and achieving them makes you feel good. A daily or weekly word count shows you your cumulative progress, and helps you reach the next target. Writing two thousand words every week gives you 100,000 words a year. That’s not so bad. Here’s a link to my Word Count spreadsheet. It’s quite simple.

Writing is a Marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself. Find your own way. I’m tempted to say the once a week 5,000 word epic session is not the way to go but now I’m also thinking Rule #2. Writing like this was doesn’t work for me*, but if it’s good for you, fill your boots. Just be aware that long term there might be a better way.

Stop Halfway Through. There’s only one day in any project when you’ll write the wonderful words The End. If today’s not that day there’s no point trying to get there. Quit while you’re ahead and leave some energy for tomorrow.

Some people like to stop mid-sentence, others when they are about to enter a scene when they know exactly what is going to happen. However you do it, the idea is to leave the flywheel still spinning so all that built-up momentum is waiting for you the next time you can write. Stopping at the end of a chapter or a major scene feels good at the time. If you reach a major break point in the story carry on for a short while, even if it’s just a few sentences or a paragraph. It will be easier to get going next time.

Write in Company A little bit of peer-pressure works wonders. Million Monkeys, the group I co-founded and ran with some fellow writers was a revelation. Even if there are only two or three of you, having other people sitting next to you and writing is a goad and an inspiration. After a few minutes you’ll start writing too. Those other busy writers don’t want to be interrupted – they’re writing. What else are you going to do but join them?

Pick Your Moment. I like to write early, one of my friends tells me he does his best work after midnight. If life does give you a choice when to write order the day around your writing session and do it when it’s best for the words, not for you. If early is best don’t do the weekly food shopping on Saturday morning ‘just to get it out the way’. Write first and buy your groceries when you’re at a lower creative ebb. That way you’ll achieve more, the satisfaction will build, and so will the habit. Both jobs need to be done, one benefits from a specific time more than the other.

Try Harder. You can always try harder. If it’s not working, back off, think about it, try something new. If it’s not working, it’s not working. Going at it in the same way again and again won’t make it work.

Good luck! Nobody is making you do this (only you and those characters that want their stories told). Fiction – keep it real.

Next Week: The Road Goes Ever On

~

* That’s not to say if it was my only option I wouldn’t do my best to make the most of it.

~

Indiana Jones Strikes Again

I watched The Woman in Black last night, a film based on the book of the same name by Susan Hill. It was very nice to see an old-style gothic horror film again, one that relied in the main on atmosphere and crescendos of dread for chills instead of the gore and brutalism in most modern horror films.

The Woman in Black is genuinely creepy at times, and well acted. The film centers almost entirely on Daniel Radcliffe’s character, Arthur Kipps, reducing almost every other part to a minor supporting role. The exception is Sam Daily, played by Ciaran Hinds, who brings real pathos to what is still a fairly small role. The other main character is the setting, a deeply troubled and isolated English coastal village, populated by the usual unwelcoming, hostile or tragic figures that populate such places in gothic horrors.

For all its qualities, the ending Continue reading

Friday Flash – Breakdown

Alone in the midnight alley Rositer gave the thing in the shadows a sickly grin. ‘You’re a real vampire.’

The creature loomed darkly. ‘Indeed.’

‘You want to bite me?’

‘We do not want. We yearn, we crave-’

The vampire swept forwards. Rositer scampered back. ‘Listen – I can take you away from this.’ He pressed his phone into the creature’s clammy hand. ‘Let’s do- supper!’

The vampire looked down at the phone. ‘When’s a good time-?‘

Rositer dashed away into the night. ‘I’ll call you!’

The vampire withdrew into the shadows.

Hollywood was starting to feel like a mistake.

~

No. 29 in the ‘Beyond the Streets‘ sequence – a series of 100-word flash fiction.

Top Ten Writing Tips #8 – Be Bold

I’ve heard more than one agent or editor say the quality of writing in their submission stack or their slush pile is not that bad. They say there are a few terrible pieces, a few that stand out, and in the middle there is a lot of decent writing, good story-telling, and interesting ideas. It just doesn’t shine.

Leaving aside whether or not you’ve written what they want to publish, part of the problem is that the writing is not vivid, the narrative is not captivating, it doesn’t dare enough and risks little. It’s not just people who read thrillers who want to be thrilled.

One of the reasons is that, as a writer, you haven’t been bold enough  – with your writing and with yourself. I know it’s part of the problem because I’ve read stories exactly like that in my writing group.  And to be fair I’ve had those comments come back at me. That realisation is where this piece is coming from. To write well you have to step outside of yourself, get out of your comfort zone. How do you do this? Here are a few things that work for me:

Push your ideas. Push them hard, then push again.  You come up with a great story idea, an intriguing character, an action scene. Now push those ideas further.  Take your character, your situation, your plot right to the edge, beyond what is reasonable, make it the strongest, maddest, the most grotesque or passionate version you dare – and then push it again.

Here’s Pwimula Nesbytte, and she’s floating in a balloon. Better than that, it’s an airship, a 1,000’ Zeppelin with a crew, engine nacelles, passenger gondolas and searchlights. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Now it’s an underground airship, and it’s articulated for manoeuvrability. She’s navigating the pitch-dark tunnels and caverns of a lost empire. For a map Pwimula is using the design she found tattooed on the flank of Bismark, her battle-mole, when she shaved him to stitch his wounds. Ahead in the vasty dark is a subterranean ocean, somewhere out there is an island – and The Answer.

Get uncomfortable. Write about things that bug you, or obsess you, or things that freak you out. Draw these things into your stories when it’s right to do so. Let your mind and imagination off the leash, explore these places and events. Don’t worry about letting your feelings show, they need to show. If you have opinions, then so will your characters – and they shouldn’t necessarily agree with you either. Share your insights into the motivations and feelings of your characters.  To do that you need to:

Keep on digging. In the same way you push ideas, tunnel down into a character’s motivation until you find out what really drives them. You can do this by continually asking the same question – Why?

Arthur Edward  Choke is a brilliant engineer, but he refuses promotion to airship flight engineer. Why? He’s scared of flying. Why? He has terrifying dreams of falling. Why? He ate some ergotised bread as a child, thought he was an owl and broke both legs when he jumped off the roof.*

You don’t have to put all these reasons in the story, but it helps if you know because then you will understand your characters.

And then there’s Sex.  Oh yeah. Write the most gruesomely horrific fight or murder scene and people don’t give you funny looks. Write a sex scene and they’re nodding and winking and ‘We know what you like to get up to.’

Right. The same way we enjoy shooting people in the head with harpoons or dropping nuclear bombs on Calgary.

Writing your first sex scene needs some boldness, a certain chutzpah. Maybe you’ll find it’s easy. I didn’t at first. Sex scenes, like anything else, have moods and tones, they can be funny or hot, or plain weird. Like any other emotion such as fear or anger, or joy, you need to feel it.

A friend once told me about a character in their book, a lyrical explanation of their innermost feelings, the true core of who that character was. This was exactly what was needed to bring the person alive, genuine insight into who they really were. None of that had made it onto the page and the lack of it showed. I learned something then. Write what you feel. The only person putting boundaries round your writing is yourself. You have to be bold.

A lot of this can be fixed after the event (there wouldn’t be much point in critique groups if it couldn’t) but it’s easier if you explore as much of this before you start writing. I think it’s more fun too, and fun is good because it brings energy. For me this is one of the great advantages of plotting. Once you’re done all those scenes and events and characters are waiting for you. All you’ve got to do then is write the story.

Next week: Keeping Momentum

 ~

*Which also explains why there’s never any bread in his sandwiches. Go figure.

~

Friday Flash – An Offer To Die For

Bardolf had gone and Amroye was confused.

This was her life, her future. Her father, kind in his own way, had duties and obligations. As did she. If not Bardolf, then – another.

Lost in thought she wandered the crumbling ramparts and smoke shadowed halls of Bleak Swale. Her home, her childhood, the ancient castle and high moors sometimes felt like a prison. To leave, and not return…

Bardolf – charming and attentive. His personal retinue was larger than her father’s entire household.

It came down to this: She did not love him, and he didn’t care.

~

#28 in the ‘Beyond the Streets‘ sequence – a series of 100-word flash fictions.