derek des anges

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noises from my head and projects from my mighty fists

A companion, not a sequel

I released this a little while ago but what with one thing (repeated terrorism) and another (general election) and another (massive fire in my city), my job-that-pays-the-rent of “reading all the national newspapers” has been rather all-consuming and my time off has been filled with trying to forget all about it, so this post is late.

A while back I published an odd little short story called The Renaka Device, a post-Revolutionary fantasy story about propaganda and truth. I also have novel I’m currently editing which is, in the main, about the mutability of memory, gaslighting, and truth.

Since the latter isn’t ready yet, I ended up writing another short story set in the same post-Revolutionary fantasy land as The Renaka Device, about the different sizes of commitment, the expendability of the individual, and fanaticism, and how the latter can be picked up and used by whoever wants to, not just one position in the political spectrum.


Available on Amazon Kindle UK (and also on most other Amazon regional sites).

Twenty years after the Revolution, the journalist Shukach Istynyya is permitted to speak with the Revolutionary Republic’s number one enemy, in a once-in-a-lifetime interview. “It might be any man within the cell that I am brought to face, but the Party is honest, and the Party is just, and the man in the cell is called Lubach Zahradnik, and he is The Traitor.”

Future announcements regarding more short stories are on their way but have to been reined in for the time being! Thank you for reading.

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Circling closer

The time has come for another book to be released into the wild, to flourish where it can, like a weed, and hopefully sow fertile seeds in the imagination. Or at least take up some prime real estate on someone’s bookshelf, which is of course identical to becoming an important part of their inner life.

The year is 1900. An Earl, an 
engineer, a suburban philosopher, 
and an enigma meet at University
and make a pact to learn the art
of conjuring…

Consider yourself warned: the rabbit is out of the hat and the cat is out of the bag.

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30 Days Of Original Fiction

I’ll be honest, this year’s NaNoWriMo outline is kicking my ass. I am feeling the deadline somewhat. And in that confession I’m pretty sure I’m scared a few people who are already nervous of the whole concept of NaNo, so I kind of considered maybe letting anyone who doesn’t feel confident enough to do the whole “write An Book in a month” thing or who remains flummoxed by writing original fiction have a go at basically whipping up an outline over the course of that month instead, with this Helpful Selection of 30 exercises (one per day).

Days 1-10 are for exploration. This is when you begin to discover who you’re writing about. It might not stick, but that’s okay. You can always do it again if you need to.

1. Make your protagonist.

Or the person you think is going to be your protagonist. This can always change! Write about three paragraphs giving a vague idea of what they’re like – how they look, sort of, what they want, what they fear, where they’re from, what kind of person they are, really. This can and will be added to later.

2. Make a place.

Chuck down three paragraphs about a location, making it up as you go. Where is it, what kind of function does it have? How does it relate to the world? Is it a room, is it a business, is it a place in the wilderness? How do people get there?

3. Put your protagonist in the place.

Get them to explore. Maybe four paragraphs this time, or as much as you need; what emotions does the place arouse for them – have they been there before? What does it remind them of? What does it smell like? Feel like? Are they comfortable there or ill-at-ease? How do they move around the space?

4. Make a second character.

Same process as 1.

5. Put that character in the space, and have the two characters interact.

Give yourself a side of A4, and write their interaction. Pick whose point of view you want to represent, and try to consider how they’re going to convey the interaction – how do they perceive it in their own head, how much attention do they pay to what they’re doing vs what the other character is doing.

6. Write the same interaction from the perspective of the other character.

What is different? What is the same? How clear is it that their experience of the situation differs? What is suggested about their relationship as people? How does the other character’s narrative voice – their way of conveying themselves and the situation to the reader – differ?

7. Reflection.

Write a few paragraphs outlining the additional things you have learnt about the space, and each of the characters, based on their interactions with each other. Is there some hint of a struggle, quest, or unresolved issue that needs exploring? What is missing? What are they avoiding?

8. Create another location

You will want to write more than the first time you did this. This location is to be explored in the context of how it differs and relates to the first, and to your two characters. You will want to people it, and think about its use and function in a narrative: what kind of things might happen here? How would they effect your nascent characters?

9. One more character.

This character is hiding something from one or both of your characters, and wants something from one or both of them. When you write your description of this character you need to consider all of the previous days of writing: how do they relate to the two locations, and to the two characters, especially? What deeds have they committed in those locations, and how were the other characters – including the people you placed in the second location – involved?

10. Answers.

Today is for answering any questions that you have found arising in the Reflection section or any of the previous days of writing. Can you answer questions about your characters and locations that you couldn’t answer before?

Days 11-20 are for interlocking narrative and planning. Some people find it easier to write if they know where they are going; others find it easier to work out where they are going by writing. The following exercises should give you the opportunity to work out which you are by alternating between both.

Feel free to loop back round and do days 1-10 again if you were unsatisfied with the characters, before moving on. Strictly speaking, there isn’t actually a time limit on any of this.

11. Blind writing.

Take your two locations, your three characters, and all that you have learned about them in the ten days so far. Pick an object at random from the room you are writing in, and write a short scene – no more than 400 words, no less than 200 – with dialogue and descriptions of action/place, in which the item is a source of conflict or tension between the characters. This can be as silly or as trivial or as deep and meaningful as you like; trivial conflict can often be mined for much more profound plot and character development than you first realise.

12. Unpicking.

Today, draw a flow diagram or similar chart – whichever you find works best with your way of thinking – showing how the conflict over the random object evolved from the past interactions of the characters, however minor, and how you think it is likely to affect their future interactions and behaviour.

13. Planning.

Referring to your scene, and to your flow diagram, write three paragraphs about how the conflict might be resolved favourably, unfavourably, and to whom, and how likely you think each outcome is based on what you know of these characters.

14. Pathfinding.

Pick the most likely outcome and write a scene describing how it comes about. If the outcome is complex or takes a while to reach fruition, resist the temptation to try a different outcome or return to the drawing-board. Instead, write a series of one-to-two sentence snapshots of how you think the progression takes place. These will constitute an outline. You do not have to write these sentences in order if you get stuck. If you know where you think the scene is going but not how to get there, start at the end and work backwards.

And congratulations, you’ve made it a fortnight. You’re doing well!

15. Elaboration.

Look at the conflict and potential resolutions you’ve just described, and the one you chose to follow as most likely. What could happen next? Think about the situation as it has come about, and the world you’ve created (it’s often a good idea to do this thinking while you’re engaged in something else, like exercise or chores, sometimes that helps the brain tick over things differently), then write a list of the following circumstances:

A.  Something that could realistically happen which would improve the situation for the protagonist.

B. Something that could realistically happen which would improve the situation for the antagonist.

C. Something that could realistically happen which would cause a temporary collaboration between the antagonist and protagonist, or the foundations of a more lasting one.

16. Twists and turns.

Pick one of the circumstances above and, without a set limit on how long the piece should be, write it out as prose narrative. If this becomes unwieldy, or threatens to take up more of the day than you can reasonably afford, remember the outlining technique from Day 14.

17. Return to the start.

By now you have a reasonable understanding of your protagonist and antagonist, and a decent selection of characters who surround their conflict, interact with them. With this in mind, make a list of reasons that their opposition might have begun, and what formed the relationship between the protagonist and one of the other characters. Try to bear in mind that it’s rare in reality for a single, defining event to create a strong opposition without some kind of underlying pressure, be that pressure social (prejudice, disparity), historic (prior interactions, family feud), or psychological (own past, suppressed attraction).

18. Deprive your protagonist

This should reasonably form the beginning of a narrative. Bearing in mind what you know about your protagonist as a person and how they respond, prior to any developments you have explored following on from your introduction of the objective they are in conflict over, write at most one page of an outline, using the short, linked sentences approach, in which the protagonist has something taken away from them (this can be an item, a person, a state of being, social status, certainty…) which leads to their pursuit and conflict as previously described.

19. Map the power balance swings.

Look back over all the narrative and outlines you have of character interactions so far, including those between secondary and side characters. Make a list of all the characters who are present or mentioned in the story and outlines. Next to each character, write down a short summary of all the moments when things appear to be in their favour. You may also wish to write down what action of theirs or inaction of their led to them gaining or losing the upper hand.

This will help you to visualise the shift in power balance throughout the narrative; it is usually good for a story to take the protagonist through losing and gaining the upper hand in a situation, no matter how trivial, in order to keep the reader interested, and traditionally a protagonist (or indeed any character) should cause at least some of these power exchanges through their own actions.

However, like most narrative rules, this can be broken intelligently and to great effect!

20. Winning.

Write a short scene in which the balance of power between the protagonist and an antagonist – it doesn’t have to be the antagonist – starts out in favour of the antagonist and shifts to the protagonist. Read over it: how does the power shift occur? What does the protagonist do to make it happen? Remember that in a good story, the protagonist is active, and causes – if not always directly – the plot to progress through their behaviour and responses. Things can’t just keep happening to them.

Rewrite the scene to show the balance of power shifting through a different action of the protagonist. Can either version of the scene be placed within the narrative you are building?

Congratulations, you’re two-thirds of the way through this list!

Days 21 to 30 – the last stretch of these exercises – will be about refining your ideas and introducing subplots. Always remember, please, it’s okay to change your mind at any point, or decide to pursue a different part of the story. You’re exploring, all the way through this, and no “false start” is a waste of your time – it’s a valuable decision made, because you find out what it is you want to be writing.

At this point it’s worth making an overall note: share your ideas with people. Don’t get locked into the idea of the ivory-tower creator or feel that you must remain aloof until the finished work is available and perfect; that makes the business of writing unnecessarily difficult. Instead, describe your story and lament your blind spots to those willing to listen – even if they have no solution, you may find often that explaining it to other people helps you to straighten things out in your own head. Often, someone will ask a question you haven’t considered, and set the story off on a new course. Talk to people. Remember that writing is a communicative art!

21. Reflection: What unanswered questions and new characters and places have you acquired?

You don’t need to answer them! Just make a note of them when you think you’ve come up with all of them. If the answers and profiles for these new characters come up while you’re making a note of them, though, feel free to note them down. This would be a good time to talk about what you’re doing with someone else, to see if they have any questions you might not have considered before, too.

22. Take a side character for a walk.

Get the protagonist and antagonist to stop hogging the limelight. Take one of the side characters in any given scene you have so far, and write the interaction from their point of view. What are they thinking? How are they responding? How do they see what is going down? Is their interpretation radically different to those of the main actors? How important is it to them? What else is on their mind? Where did they come from? Where are they going?

23. Follow the thread

Review what you’ve written on day 22. Make a list, or mind-map, or whatever other method you like, of how you think this character’s story touches on the main story, and where it diverges. What are they likely to do in the same timespan as the main story which has an effect on the main story? What else are they doing? What questions about their life and their goals do you want to see answered?

24. Take another side character for a walk.

This character should be someone who both appears in a scene you have written previously, with the main characters (the protagonist and antagonist) and also someone who has a connection – personal, or professional, but quite strong – with the character you wrote about on day 22. In addition to sketching out how they see the scene they appear in, write about their prior/future interactions with Character From Day 22. How does this progress/impede either of their agendas?

25. Map your threads

Time to draw or write out how you think the two (or even three) plots you now have relate to each other. Pay special attention to how they drive each other: what would happen if one of the people involved wanted something different, or behaved differently? If it alters the entire way the story is going, do you prefer that direction? Is it still in keeping with what you would expect of that character?

26. Alright in the end.

Taking as long as you want and as many words as it needs, write the climatic scene. This is not the same as the final scene, as many stories close with a coda, or a rebalancing – a tying up of the remaining loose ends, a series of scenes dealing with some of the remaining consequences, or cementing what has already been hinted at. Quite frequently in a story with a romantic subplot, the conclusion of the romance occurs after the conclusion of the main plot. It’s up to you to decide (And re-decide) when the subplot will come to its conclusion, or whether its conclusion is bound up in the main plot’s end.

Today, though, take into account everything you have so far, everything you know about the story so far, and write the flashpoint, the part of the story in which evil is finally defeated/good finally defeated, or the goal achieved/irretrievably lost/judged to be not worth achieving.

27. How did we end up here?

Today, write the two short scenes immediately preceding that ending. It’s possible one may be part of the subplot; it’s also possible they may both be from the main plot, but whatever happens in them should see the characters and the narrative progress from the state they were in, driven by the events and their own actions, to the state in which the story reaches its climax, which you wrote on day 26. Remember that even if they are reacting to external events, the characters have to drive some part of the story themselves. Even people trying to survive an inevitable extinction-event-causing meteor impact still have other obstacles that can be altered or exacerbated aside from the incoming space rock, for example.

28. Reflection.

Take today out to look over all of your work so far. Arrange what you have, narratively, in a chronological order (when you come to write the story it needn’t be presented in that order, but it can help to get a grip on what’s going on). Read through it. Does anything leap out at you as unanswered? Is there a nagging question which has arisen as a result of what you’ve come up with? Are there conflicts which haven’t been resolved? Make notes of them. Don’t attempt to answer or resolve them, just note what they are.

29. Loose Ends #1

You saw this coming: pick one of the loose ends, and write about how it can be resolved. This can be done either exploratively – by jumping into the scene and following it to its conclusion – or descriptively – by sitting down and making notes on what a likely or desirable course of events within the narrative would be to see this thing resolved one way or another.

30. Loose Ends #2

What you wrote yesterday will almost certainly have created a cascade of new possibilities. As we are at the end! THE END! Of our planning, all you need to do now is make a note of these possibilities. Diagram out how you think they’re most likely to connect into what you have already, what you think they’re likely to change, and then put your pen down.

31. Put this in a drawer for six months and think about something else!

None of these techniques will magic a book into being. You still have to write it (yes, I know, how annoying). But hopefully these will provide you with an adequate selection of tools to get to grips with your own imagination and wrestle the narrative to the ground. Even if you’re tremendously experienced, there’s always some new method or problem left to tussle with.


If there’s an overall piece of advice I have, based on the questions I get asked a lot and the tension I see in people, it’s release your fear of fucking up.

You’re going to fuck up. It’s a necessary part of getting it right. You have to write wrongs before you can write right. That’s part of the process, and needs to be embraced that way. Charge in demanding to know which piece you’re going to end up throwing out the window. Produce too much. Fill the garden of words with gibberish and weed it until you’re left with glory.

When I was learning to stilt-walk – there are less weird examples from dancing and so on but it was stilt-walking that I learnt it in so I am giving you the advice from there – the first, first thing we learnt, after “how to put stilts on”, was how to fall. Not how to avoid falling, but how to fall safely. How to land on your padded knees, not your painful and underpadded butt. You had to unlearn putting your hands down to save yourself (this leads to fractured wrists); we practiced falling all day. Fall, fall, and fall again.

Artists fill sketchbook after sketchbook with pictures that aren’t quite right. Musicians play ten thousand scales, bum notes, and god alone knows what else. Imperfections, wrong directions, and a draft where you lob everything out of the window barring the secondary main villain and an interesting question about the role of animal passion in shaping fear or something are part of the process.

Henceforth address it as “whee, fucked that up” not “oh god this is terrible I have ruined this story and now the story can never be told properly”. They’re adaptable fuckers, and every story has a thousand iterations; you just have to find the one that works for you. Knock it back, pick a different cast, and try again.

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New short story: The Renaka Device

Exclusively on Amazon Kindle, on every Amazon Kindle site (I will link to UK | US but trust me: every site), a short story rather unlike any of my others in content and in style, The Renaka Device is fairly strongly-influenced by Ray Bradbury, I think.

My name is Potsve Revolution Renaka.

I was born a month after the fall of the old order. In celebration, my parents named me Potsve Revolution.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the story for you; feel free to pick up your copy (UK | US); Text-to-speech is available on this book for anyone who has difficulty reading from screens or is simply too busy to read but can listen.


Currently I’m plugging away at another sci-fi short story, The Grandmother Virus (which is giving me a headache, I won’t lie); other short fiction of mine you can treat yourself to in the meantime includes: Hannah Matchmaker’s New Skates (a rollerderby fable), Vessel 151-B (classic sci-fic take on the Pygmalion story), and Saint Grimbald’s Men (bodyhorror bildungsroman. Possibly).

Stay tuned this November for regular updates on how awful it is trying to pull an entire manuscript out of your face in one sitting.

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The Next Big One: Reader Reviews

From Amazon:

reviews

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Goodreads:

goodreads1

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goodreads2

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review2

Anyone spotted any others?

(If you’re contemplating leaving a review: please do. Not only are they basically oxygen for authors, they encourage people to try the book themselves).

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It’s Here. It’s too late to run. The Next Big One is upon us.

It’s here.

By which I mean you can buy the book.

You can buy it as a paperback from Lulu.com.

You can buy it straight to your Kindle from Amazon US | UK.

You can buy it in a number of ebook formats from a number of epublishing sites, by searching “The Next Big One Derek Des Anges”.

And you should buy it, because god knows where you’re going to find another epidemic thriller with an anxious bisexual hero and the world’s least flappable trans woman scientist in a major starring role. You’re certainly not going to see much in the way of critique of media reporting of disease, and you won’t get much debate. This book is not The Hot Zone. I promise you that much.

With the number of UK cases hitting a hundred, it’s clear that KBV is a problem which isn’t going away. Downing Street have released the following statement: “The total number of KBV cases in the UK is still comparatively small, and we are confident that the disease can be contained. NHS leaflets advising on lifestyle and behaviour changes which can help protect against infection will be available soon. We ask the public to remain calm and to continue to behave responsibly about their health in all areas.

Vocational journalism student Ben Martin is the last person who ought to be investigating a major viral outbreak. He doesn’t know a single damn thing about biology; he pays his rent by DJing for hipsters. He’s nervous, easily-discouraged, and not over his ex.

But it’s him who ends up with the assignment, and it’s him who ends up facing down the truth: there is more to this than meets the eye.

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It’s Coming…

The release time for this creeps ever-closer:

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If you’d like to start imagining the book’s protagonist, Ben Martin, right now, please be my guest. He looks like this:

And he has a particularly trying time ahead of him. Keep following for signs of life, death, and deadly global epidemic.


The Next Big One will be available in on Amazon in Kindle and paperback form, and on Lulu in paperback and a variety of ebook formats. You’ve been warned.

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Other, Better Authors

Regular readers are tired of me hectoring them to buy my books and fund my decadent lifestyle choices like “being able to afford to get to my job” and “paying the electricity bill”. Irregular readers are confused as to why I’m not shouting about Huel at this precise moment.

In the fullness of time I’m going to come back and beat you all over the head with the imminence of The Next Big One, explain how I have gone from a banana-hating, coffee-eschewing meat addicted sandwich-lover to a cold-brew-hefting, banana-craving, bread-avoiding pescatarian hipster scumbag (actually that one’s pretty straightforward: turns out testosterone changes your tastes and body chemistry. Also, willpower and working nightshift. Hoo boy do you need to be able to stomach a lot of coffee).

But for now I want to draw attention to m’colleague and global opposite, Wayne Ree. Pronounced “Ray”, because fuck you, and also because there’s an acute accent over the second e that my keyboard wants no part of.

Wayne, a founding member of the aptly-named Global Beards, is a versatile and imaginative writer who I feel just isn’t getting the love he deserves. The man has written Yellow Princess: Attack of the Dinosharksbut also quieter, more adult and introspective pieces in Tales from a Tiny Room, and partnered up with the explosively excellent Anna AB on the ferocious collection Prompt – snappy, dangerous short fiction. Also, he’s bought me whisky at least once so that pretty much makes him a Good People.

So you should buy his stories, because they’re varied and exciting and because, if you’re very lucky and flatter him enough, he may one day let you touch The Beard. Maybe.

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Coming Soon: Horrible, Viral Death

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The Next Big One is coming.

You’ve been warned.

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Conversations On How To Write

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)


 

In the depths of the hellish night shift the brain has time to mull over problems not typically considered in a busier, more sunlit atmosphere. In my case I’m lucky enough that there’s someone in the opposite time-zone to me who is also frequently bored in charge of a computer, and has her head screwed on when it comes to the business of writing.

You’ll have to excuse the regular descent into internet vernacular with attendant poor grammar (on my part), spelling, and punctuation. There’s been a tiny amount of censorship and explanation but on the whole I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the original discussion, mostly conducted between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning in between hating the national press.

Your host, I (YHI): it’s much easier to think when answering questions too

Extraordinary Comic Maker (ECM): yeah, like.. breaking it down into it’s parts to assemble sentences, from nebulous thought into structure, even as it’s growing, helps with untangling and identifying gaps and obvious problems.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of “oh, I won’t answer that question until I’ve done some research/thinking”; I find that in answering a question on the fly it’s a lot easier to bring together elements that are bubbling away beneath the surface and get to a more concrete solution than by toiling away alone in the dark.

YHI: Yes! And in explaining it to someone else, one has to have an idea of what one means. It can be very helpful for filling in the gaps, as you say.

ECM: Yeah, always special to try to explain something and then go …????  I have no idea what I’m trying to describe???

YHI: I find the act of trying solidifies things, possibly due to my DESPERATE NEED to sound like I know what I’m talking about at all times, and suddenly all of the vague “I hadn’t really thought about it’s” turn into “QUICK PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR ASS SO PEOPLE DON’T REALISE HOW DUMB YOU ARE”. Amazing what a panicked ego can achieve.

Personally I’m a big fan of hacking the worst aspects of my personality in order to make things which are usually grotesquely self-destructive work in my favour. I may not be able to change the fact that I’m defeatist, ego-centric, and pathetically keen to sound intelligent at all times, but I can at least work on bending those personality traits into helping me to persist and achieve at least small goals!

Fortunately, ECM knows what I’m talking about:

ECM: Necessity, panic, something, invention? Ohhhhhhhh I know that one. A bit like the “I like how you did x, and how it parallels y” “YES, YES THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, YEAH. (???!!!!!)”

For what it’s worth, I think a lot of the instances of “yes, yes, that was intentional” are at least subconsciously so:

YHI: ah, my old friend “i think that was wholly subconscious but i’m going to pretend i’m totes that clever”

The discussion moved onto the specifics of world-building for a while:

YHI: so useful to have intercultural conflict even between characters which get on – it’s just not a realistic representation of sentience otherwise

At which point ECM gloriously and brilliantly climbed onto a soapbox which I can’t articulate half as well, and I’m going to give you her response in full to mull over for your own writing projects, because she nails so accurately the real core of creating a believable, meaty, weight world:

ECM:

And yeah, it’s the thing of not wanting to make people too reasonable or emotionally competent. And there should always be more stories about people of different backgrounds and cultures mixing in positive or at least non hostile ways and still being people – that is, a bit dickish and self involved, getting on best when there is a shared goal, running into each other when stress is high, more forgiving and able to handle offence and upset when well rested and secure, more willing to admit guilt when they trust each other, able to compromise but not all the time.
I dunno. I understand all the reasons why fiction matters, that nothing is without ideology in some way, but… arg. People are dickheads and it’s not the end of days. People hurt through well meaning and indifference and spite and and sometimes it doesn’t matter in the slightest and other times it does. Aaaand for the most part people just do not give a shit.
I don’t want tedious ‘if onlys and should be-s’ and I don’t want nightmare ‘if you’re not carefuls’. Not exactly reality but something that breaths, that is recognizable as real, if out of focus, perhaps more interior. Like dreams – moments of sharp focus and lots of dim movement and shapes and knowings.
I want this world to have big difficult powers that wear lots of hats, and the rage felt by not being able to see your enemy, of being under attack and going out of you mind to find the source of the sharp pains that come for invisible sources. And I want these big powers to be mortal and fallible. Always on the brink of finally becoming too arrogant and blind to survive, but mean and determined enough to get where they are. For this universe to heave and shift and everyone just try to hang on and make dinner and a life.
And I want it to over exposed and desperate and cold and quiet. Very very big. Deep, wide, shifting. Big structures that change the shape but not the texture. Things decaying even as they’re built. And new life, always life, thriving and struggling and fucking and getting in it’s own way. No great answer no great conclusion just more of the same until it all ends. Horror and beauty and fart jokes. No right answers and nothing beyond hope and it’s all indifference and bitter unfairness. No special ones. Absolutely no special ones. Not and ideal universe but a universe that has – and fails to live up to it’s – ideals. And for it all to have some fucking bite.
“Horror and beauty and fart jokes”, possibly the greatest manifesto heading you can ask for.
YHI: it makes sense and your ambitions are narratively speaking deeply worthy… i mean, imo, what you’ve set out to do is encompass the entire realistic human experience as painted on a broader canvas, hugely ambitious and right. you can’t just detach any part of existence from all others and have it make sense, the whole machine of environment and prejudice and interaction and history has come together to make every single moment and quirk, right? so the engine of story you’re building is functional and accurate, unlike the “i’d like it to be this colour and the details can just go spit” approach people take most of the time.
Back to specifics:
ECMI think this story will live and die on how emotionally believable the story is
YHI: All stories worth reading live and die on that. Emotionally unbelievable stories may have technical perfection but no one ever loves them.
And then, my dear audience, she asked me a whole bunch of questions.

How do you manage the emotional integrity of a story?
you keep drawing on the depth of your characters until they feel like real people, you get a template of them in your head and then you drag them out of their depth and bang them into each other; as long as none of their responses feel inauthentic you know it’s working out. sometimes the plot has to change as you go along because the characters have their own life and just won’t do the thing you’ve said they should… it’s usually best to listen at this point. it’s a pretty organic way of working admittedly but you can’t force things. if a character refuses reconciliation and goes for a big sacrifice that’s just what it’s in them to do…

When do you know a story is done?
there’s a shape stories have. it’s usually sometime after the lowest point. there’s about three “lowests”, and the absolute lowest is followed by an up-tick, where there’s a kind of cool moment of calm or stasis, usually with the promise that something will happen, but not just yet… that’s where the plot ends. That’s the end of that story. [the “something” that’s about to happen can be of another order of magnitude, dr who is quite a good reference point for this – old dr who anyway. sarah waters is with me on that one]. in terms of “ready to be written” done-ness it’s usually when the fucking thing starts writing itself; the characters start talking and won’t shut up, you’ve assembled something so lively that the narration is burping its way into quiet moments of your life, and the wretched infection has to be written or you will not get a moment’s peace. as soon as i can “hear” it clearly i know it’s approaching readiness.

Dialogue? How?

let characters talk to each other in your head, write down what they say, remove approximately 90% of it so that it doesn’t take up four thousand pages. if they won’t talk to each other write about the way they’re not talking to each other and what they interpret from the silences. throw in raymond chandler’s man with a gun to make them interact if necessary. the way i approach it, at least, they should be a) out of water enough to behave beyond the limits of normality as a result of plot events, and b) so well-fleshed that their responses to events can be relied upon to be natural; dialogue follows as a result of that. to take what you’re working on as an example: someone bursts in and demands to see the navigator, clearly not knowing who that is, while [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] is standing right there. what does he say? what do they say? what information are they trying to convey and how is their ability to convey that impeded by [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] being a moody bitch at them? eavesdropping conversations was something i was taught to do both in theatre school and on various writing courses, and i did some audio typing work for a friend who needed her phd interviews transcribing; if you spend a little time writing down verbatim what people say to each other (then remove all the fucking repetition and 99% of the hesitations and at least some of the circumlocution) it helps to internalise what natural speech patterns sound like and what kind of character they’re attached to. the aim is to be able to determine who is talking without any attribution [and once you’ve got it settled you can play with it, having people speak in a way that is not natural, and which therefore makes readers feel unsettled].

Single thing you wrote/created that you’re most proud of?

usually this is just “the most recent thing i’ve written and didn’t hate”, and currently really is the case, i have genuine confidence that [it] is probably the most well-constructed and emotionally broad thing, the least over-indulgent thing i’ve written to date. but it’s not ready.

Work that you most admire? 

for clarity of vision and character stability, pat barker’s regeneration books. for character voice lolita and the book i’m reading at the moment [this was The Debt To Pleasure, which i wholly recommend]; for break-neck pacing and sheer excitement, glass books; for abject poetry and management of delicate clue-laying and emotional sadism on an incredible scale mary renault – her touch is so light you sometimes have to read and reread to get all of the layers, and the rhythm of her sentences occasionally makes me angry because they’re so WELL BALANCED AND JUST. TOO GOOD. – there are a lot of works where the concept is just mind-blowing but i have no idea if it’s a technical thing or if it’s simply ideas that resonate with me.

What do you find to be the most useful thing to know about a character?

It kind of varies on the character, which is bewilderingly unhelpful, I know. Currently I’ve found things like: the book I’m planning has a major character for whom singing was an important part of his life until various events took place, and now he has lost both that and his very strong religious faith. What has proven to be the key in unlocking him in my head is not this, nor his relationship with his family, but what his voice sounds like now. It changed his look in my head and made him an individual character with his own life. Learning which swear words another character favoured as given me her voice. In [the most recent project] it was getting to grips with how [a major character] felt about his position as a golden boy and what effect that had had on his confidence and also recklessness; sometimes I have to keep prodding a character because they feel flat and weird and wrong and something has to be changed about them and I’m never sure what it’s going to be. But there needs to be a handle onto which I can hang in order to make them solid.

Favourite part of the writing process?

I realise I’m in the minority here but THE ACTUAL WRITING. I hate having a wrestling match with my brain trying to plot things. Once all that is in place the scenes usually just write themselves. It’s like running down hill fast or, at some points, like hitting the crest of a rollercoaster. Fantastic feeling, highly worth it just to submerge myself in a totally different reality that I’m also getting to shape without feeling like it’s me doing it? I think part of the reason it is usually not so hard to write the actual content is that by the time I get started I’ve spent so long with the characters/world that there’s no concern about voice or reality. But easily that “god this stuff is just pouring out of me” sensation.
What writing skill/part of your writing are you most pleased with?

I can guarantee that as soon as I focus on something here I will become dissatisfied with it. Previously I’d have said character voice diversity, but I’ve been on an editing read recently and I’m convinced all my characters sound like me. I guess the ability to provide a sense of place without going overboard on details? Not sure if that’s something I actually manage or if I just leave people floundering in white space though. Oh, emotional impact. I’m okay with that.
What do you find the hardest/want to most improve?
Nuts and bolts: I cannot pace for shit. I have real trouble with cause and effect, my endings are ropy, there is little to get plot resolution happening as a result of character actions rather than as something that happens to them – I suffer from chronic Passive Protagonist Disorder and I don’t think it’s going to clear up until I start writing a different sort of protagonist and that’s not happening until I sort out some mental issues. WHICH IS EMBARRASSING, FRANKLY.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a good protagonist? Or at least a compelling/effective one?
My friend [REDACTED], with whom I disagree about a lot of things, said something very good on this: he said if he has made it through a book for 100 pages and he doesn’t care whether the protagonist gets his heart’s desire or has an anvil dropped on him, the book is lousy and the protagonist is lousy. I am inclined to agree. They need to provoke some kind of strong emotion, even if it is just curiosity, and no matter how repellent they are as a person you need to want them to be in your field of “vision” – you have to want to know what they’re up to, what will happen to them. In effect a species of charm, even if it’s achieved by them being horrifyingly charmless.

More annoyingly the consensus of writing books, which I am less inclined to agree with, is that a protagonist has to be active. Things have to happen because of something they’ve done. I’m kind of a fan of the “giant events far beyond the protagonist’s control” approach as well, if only because a) the universe works that way, and b) I think the individualist, non-fatalistic hero is probably a modern/western invention to a degree. So Budgie’s edict, yes.
 
what is a protagonist that you would like to write?

a total fucking shit. I want to be able to write someone with whom I have almost nothing in common and with whom i disagree massively, and still care what happens to them. i want to be able to make myself sympathise with them and care what happens to them, the way that better authors have made me done with complete shit protagonists. in a slightly pseudo-religious sense i think it’s actively important to humanise The Other so that we learn to accept a diversity of viewpoints as being human even as we try to change their views, to approach them as mutable rather than alien and only worthy of destruction and hatred. which means i at some point need to overcome my cowardice relating to being misinterpreted as sharing the views of characters i write, i suppose.
What the most useful thing to keep in mind when going for emotional impact?

  1. small and personal trumps massive and wide-reaching – even if you’re writing about wide-reaching things bring the focus down onto as small a group of people as possible. choose individuals and write about them, pick individual moments rather than a stream – panels/snapshots, not trying to capture the whole event. the glory of the human imagination is that we will fill in the gaps with whatever’s most affecting to us, and the work being done by the reader will surpass anything a writer can do on their own.definitely worth remembering that the consumption of Story is a collaborative act.
  2. i know people go on and on and on about “show, don’t tell”, but it is really important in this area; you only need to devote a sentence or two to the description of an emotion and the rest should be the physical or whatever effects on the character, how they appear, the sensation of that. also with describing an emotion metaphor’s usually helpful? like “mike was sad” blows chunks unless you’re going to contrast it to him either a) being demonstrably not sad (irony) or b) being demonstrably totally fucking devastated (understatement). meanwhile, “mike was hit by a breaking wave of sadness” (or whatever works with your own idiom) is something which makes the experience relatable. “sad” is nebulous. “agony” is relative. “hot needles of shame breaking out in his cheeks” is something most of us are familiar with on a visceral level.
  3. pacing really fucking matters. you can’t pull an immediate emotional impact out of the bag without some build-up – it will just fall flat. you can have tension ticking along in the background of other scenes as you move onto different topics with this “what will happen” hanging over people’s heads, you can twist and bend the narrative however you want, but if you don’t give the moment of emotional impact the space it needs to grow it will just fall flat. also, be wary of either a) getting it over with too quickly – people need to be able to process it and it will feel flat if you just rush past it, or b) dragging it out like you’re milking the damn thing. mawkishness will make readers resent the shit out of it and stop caring both about the event and about the characters.
  4. something that i’ve been writing on my angry post-its to my former self as i go through the first editing pass on my last MS has been “seed this”. it means making sure there are sufficient roots for an event or character leading up to a situation that they feel anchored in the narrative and the world, rather than airlifted in to provide conflict or whatever at an appropriate moment. and  be careful of this, readers get fucking irate if they think you’re just playing them for emotional release for no reason, to no end, without any indication of the point of what you’re doing. it has to have a function in the plot, ideally, or in the character’s development. but also yeah, don’t fridge characters either.

 

We then had a brief interlude for relishing the mere memory of the moments when creation is easy.
ECM:  I get that glorious creative-iron-filings-aligned thing with painting sometimes – like for bloody once one’s brain is doing what it should, all the things that don’t work in every other fucking circumstance pulling together and functioning in an almost unconscious effortlessness.  feels like being a dancer or a sea gull or something, but mentally. never lasts but worth going through the agony and self doubt to do it again. and again. and again.
This seems like as good a point as any to end a very long post full of rambling about the Process, because what she says about the sensation of writing or creating anything, when it works, is all that really needs to be said about that. We are drawn to this annoying, gruelling, frequently otherwise unrewarding path of activity littered with mistakes and disappointments for that addictive experience of the whoosh of creation – when everything goes right and there’s no casting about for words or overstepping lines or wondering what happens next, only the unstumbling rush forward through scenes or colours or compositions, which is worth a thousand of any other kind of experience you could ask for.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the praise and the money when the finished product briefly catches people’s eye, but that’s not why I do it, and I don’t think that’s why anyone else does it, either.

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)

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