May 30, 2011

Great Bookshops

A couple of weeks ago, I placed an order for Hounded, by Kevin Hearne. I initially considered going through Amazon, just for convenience, but the delivery cost would have been about the same as the price of the book.

So just to see how long it would take, I called up Hidges Figgis, one of the oldest bookshops in Dublin (the oldest? Probably) to place an order. Less than a week later, I got a call to let me know it was in, and it was going to cost me €4 less than it would have cost from Amazon, once delivery was factored in.

I love Hodges Figgis. It's such a nicely laid out place, with really knowledgeable staff. One of their staff was happy to discuss options for buying books on narrative and artisitic symbolism for a solid ten minutes, and his first choice out of all of them was a book he fully admitted I'd probably have to go online to find.

Every now and again I rekindle my love of a good bookshop. I could spend hours just wandering around looking at the shelves and smelling the books. I've let that love lapse a lot in recent years. I think it's high time I made more of an effort to get my books from somewhere like Hodges Figgis, especially since I'm discovering so many great writers to check out these days. I'll be buying more books, so rather than being lazy and spending extra money to have something delivered to me, I think I'll put in the extra effort and support a good bookshop, particularly if they can keep beating the likes of Amazon on price like that!

Who else has a favourite bookshop? And what is it about them you love?

May 27, 2011

Getting In The Groove

I think I'm getting my writing groove back. Yesterday I managed to write 1,700 words, the closest to my actual target of 2,000 words a day I've managed yet on my current WIP.

I first set my target of 2,000 words a day when working on my first book and I managed to stick to it pretty faithfully on the days when I was writing. This time though I've had a tough time getting back into the groove. It's frustrating, knowing I can produce so much, but still falling short. I try not to let it get to me, though. I just knuckle down and write what I can manage.

As always, music has been my companion through this. I think closer to my first book's release date I'll do one of those playlist post series and share the music that has helped inspire me and keep me going. It's the music that makes me feel like the story is a real, living thing, making me feel like I need to do something, anything, to get the story out or my chest will burst.

If there's any one thing that has helped me get back into the groove, it's persistently filling my head with music and thoughts about the next book. I make myself so excited about the story that I can't wait to tell it to people. Then, instead of telling people, I write it down. It's like the ability to share the story when it's done is part of my reward for getting it written.

Does anyone else have particular tricks they use to get into their groove?

May 25, 2011

Thinking Like a Publisher

This post over at Karen Jones' blog got me thinking about the way I regard my writing.

I was about twelve when I first realised I wanted to be a writer. My first ideas where, naturally, quite simple and immature. As I grew older my attitudes on the kinds of stories I wanted to write changed. I started to see that there needed to be a certain amount of marketability to what I wrote. It took many more years, through my time in college, to learn that there was more to getting published than having original ideas. I realised it was better to learn how to tell a story that many people would enjoy hearing than to worry about originality.

But what I also learned, without noticing, was that my ideas were not necessarily going to appeal to everyone. Ideas would have to be changed, shaped into something that would appeal to enough people to make my work worth publishing. I came to this realisation through studying other stories. I read the kind of books I wanted to write. I turned the examination of narrative structure into an instinct. Now, it's second nature for me to watch a movie or read a book and see all the tropes and techniques in motion behind the images and words. It has hugely increased my enjoyment, as well. I don't become disappointed by predictable plots. Instead I watch to see how a particular writer or director has chosen to tell their story.

The biggest challenge for any writer, even bigger than hanging in there, trying to get published, is the inevitable moment when they find out that yes, their book is publishable, but no, it can't be published as it currently is. Our egoes are funny things. We can be beat down by rejection letters, feeling like we have no talent, but we can also become very protective of our little babies, these words on pages we've created. We can fall prey to the assumption that something shouldn't be changed, that it can't work if it's changed.

You know what? It can work if it's changed. In fact, it may even work better. Agents and publishers know the industry better than any first-time author can. They know the trends, the right timing for release, the right way to frame that closing chapter, or to name your protagonist's love interest. And because they're looking at it from the outside, they can see the things that don't work better than we can. If you've named your hero John and him nemesis James, they can suggest a different name, to avoid similar-sounding names cropping up and confusing your reader. If you talked about that antique winchester over the bar in your hero's favourite hang-out, they can tell you that it'll create a great sense of completion and satisfaction if your hero has to grab that rifle to defend themself in the climax. They can help you keep your reader satisfied and still hungry for more.

But writers should not simply bow to pressure. Certainly they should explain why they want something a certain way and are reluctant to change it. Then you can open a dialogue with your agent or publisher and come to an agreement, together, on the best way to keep the things you want and still make it appealing to the reader. Building that relationship is essential.

The best way to make sure you're ready to build that relationship is to get started early. Start thinking like a publisher. The fact is, if you want to be a professional writer, you have to make compromises. You have to look at your story as a product. If it's going to sell, you need to learn what will make it sell. Read the popular books in your chosen genre. If you want to write children's fiction, read Harry Potter. Urban Fantasy, read The Dresden Files. Paranormal Romance, read True Blood. Study the work of successful authors, taking note of your favourite moments and the elements that keep you coming back for more. Ask yourself "What is it about this that made me want to keep reading, and how can I bring that to my own writing?"

May 23, 2011

Chekov's Gun

Jen and I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides yesterday. It's a fun movie, but the first is still the best of the lot, and I don't think it quite manages to match the second and third installments.

It got me thinking, though, about Chekov's Gun. Without giving anything away, On Stranger Tides features a number of dropped Chekov's Guns; plot elements that are made to seem significant at the time, leading the audience to expect something more, and then turn out to have no real importance to the story. When writing a story, it's important to ensure that your Chekov's Gun goes off before the end of the final act.

Following the rules for Cheov's Gun when writing a book is about more than just adhering to narrative theory. It's about set-up and reward. When you entice the reader with something, you need to let them enjoy the results, otherwise you're trailing them along like a donkey with the proverbial carrot-on-a-stick. The donkey sees the carrot. The donkey wants the carrot. In order to have a satisfying story, the donkey must eventually get to eat the carrot. If not, sooner or later the donkey gets tired of chasing the carrot and does something else.

Sticking with the Pirates series, in Curse of the Black Pearl we have a literal Chekov's gun. In this case, it's Jack's pistol. It's made clear early on that he is carrying a pistol with just one shot's worth of powder loaded, with no extra ammunition, and this pistol is one of the few things he insists that no-one ever lose or let him go anywhere without. Later we find out why: it's the pistol Barbossa gave him when he was marooned, and Jack's been saving that shot for his former first-mate. At the film's climax, we get the payoff for all that set-up. Jack outwits Barbossa and uses his one shot to kill him, finally getting his revenge.

The series is rife with more examples, but this is the most clear. Others include Will's medallion, the "touch of destiny" Tia Dalma senses in Will, the method by which the Flying Dutchman gets a new captain, even Elizabeth's corset in the first movie. These elements are all shown or described early on and then feature in plot development later. That's the payoff. The audience won't always spot a Chekov's Gun, but when they do, the expect to see it go off. If it doesn't, then they wonder why it was even there to begin with.

Keep your Chekov's Gun loaded and ready. Don't always let it be seen, or make it obvious when it's going to go off. But make sure it goes off. Otherwise take it off the mantle and out it away. It doesn't need to be there.

May 20, 2011

Too Much, Too Soon?

Lately I've been somewhat intimidated by the amount of stuff that looks set to happen in my current WIP. It got me thinking about complexity creep in an ongoing series, and how a writer can know if there's just too much going on.

I have my external conflict for Nathan to face; a new villain to take on, as well as the internal conflict he has to overcome by the time the book ends; finding a proper place for himself following the events of the first book. There are also new revelations as part of the ongoing storyline, showing more of the world Nathan has entered and the role he has played in it in past lives. So I have my three core plot elements. It's just the dressing that's making me squirm.

As it stands, I have major and minor characters from book 1 returning, as well as maybe half a dozen new characters of varying degrees of importance. I know that not all of the characters from book 1 need to return. In fact one won't be featured as more than a phone conversation until the next book beyond this, and some won't even return until book 4 in the series (really hope I'm not too presumptuous in planning ahead this much).

I think the key to returning characters is ensuring that, if they're there featured for more than just keeping the plot moving by providing assistance, or to serve as a simple obstacle, then they really should show something new of themselves and contribute to the hero's journey on a personal level. The same should go for new characters. They're either there to service the plot or there to help the protagonist grow.

I'm hoping that's what the other plot elements will do as well. This is still Nathan's story, after all, and while other characters can share his experiences and the themes can relate to them, it's Nathan's show. His continuing development needs to be what keeps the reader coming back. Of course, that's tough too since he hasn't quite yet become the hero he's meant to be. He's still got some hard lessons coming.

Where book 1 was about the sacrifices people make, book 2 is really about loss, and the acceptance of that loss, turning pain into the desire to become something better than you are right now.

I like to plan ahead. I have Nathan's story planned out in loose, changeable terms. It's going to be a hell of a ride. I just need to make sure I don't saturate the reader with too much all at once.

May 18, 2011

On Being Irish

I thought I'd take a break from my usual writing topics and today talk about being Irish. More specifically, what I feel it means to be Irish following our first state visit from a British monarch since the Republic of Ireland became a free state.

Here's the thing. A lot of the famous Irish writers wrote about Ireland. Being Irish, living in Ireland, the struggles of the different classes before, during and after the Irish War of Independence. A lot of the books, plays and movies about Ireland have relatively straightforward plots and characters, the creative focus being on the distinct Irish charm.

I'm not that kind of writer. I know where my strengths lie, and they don't lie in harnessing solid Irish wit and attitude.

But I do know that to me, being Irish means having a long and proud artistic heritage. We have some of the most imaginative and creative people in the world, a wealth of talent which is all too often left untapped. So many talented people let self-doubt or cynicism stop make them give up without a fair shot. It's sad to see, because I think the majority of Irish people are wonderful, caring individuals who could do amazing things for themselves, their loved ones, even the world, if they could set aside the unfortunate Irish attitude that there are better people for a particular role than us, or that some things are beyond them or deserved more by someone else.

Then we have the ignorant minorities who would turn a solemn, historic moment like this:

And this:

Into this:

The two top pictures are of Queen Elizabeth paying her respects yesterday at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, a memorial to those who died fighting for Irish freedom, standing alongside our own president, Mary McAleese. I don't believe it can be stressed enough how significant this is.

The bottom picture is from violence which broke out during what should have been a peaceful protest to the Queen's visit.

I fully respect the right to protest. What I have no time for are ignorant thugs who just want to start a fight. They are not protestors, and their actions darken not only the reputations of those who went to protest in a peaceful manner, but those of every Irish person, everywhere. It's sad to see a momentous occassion like this marred by the actions of these few.

May 16, 2011

Too Soon For Peril?

One of the pieces of advice commonly given to writers is to make sure things start happening early in your book. Writing and reading have come a long way from the days when whole chapters could pass by with just the depiction of a character's daily life. These days we need to grab the reader's attention early and hang onto it.

But the trick is balancing the need for action with the reader's own acceptance of challenge. You obviously can't put your hero into a life or death situation in chapter three and expect to incite tension in your reader, because there are still seventeen more chapters to go and it'll be pretty hard to write a story with a dead hero (presuming your story isn't about your hero coming back from the dead of course...).

That said, we still need ways to challenge the hero early on. So we need our hero to be in a position to lose something valuable. This is why a good hero needs to have a stake in what's happening. Your second chapter is too soon to put your hero's back to the wall in a showdown with his nemesis. Even if the reader believes the hero is in real danger, you're blowing too much emotion early on. Such confrontations need build-up or they'll feel wasted, throwaway scenes poorly added to pad out a slow beginning. You don't want that.

But if your hero finds out that the villain is going after a friend, or even just an innocent bystander, then you might have something. It may be to soon to kill someone off, but hurting a supporting character, that's fair game. Nothing serious. Maybe even just a scare. The villain can be chased off before any harm is done. The point is that because the supporting character can suffer without hampering the story itself, the reader can start imagining what might happen. And that is gold.

What a reader fears will happen will always be much worse than what you can come up with. Or at least, it should be worse. If you push your reader too far, showing them their worst fears for your characters, and then pushing further, you can burn them out. Ever after, when a character is in trouble, they'll look back to that horrible thing you did and reassure themselves that what's to happen next couldn't possibly be that bad. Until the moment you go even further. Before long, your work becomes an increasingly bloody trail of suffering, with you always trying to find the next fix for your reader.

Hold back a little before throwing your characters in harm's way. Don't just have bad things happen for the sake of excitement. Think very carefully about how those early threats will affect the tone and events of your book, and make sure they serve the story.

May 14, 2011


Now that Blogger seems to be back up and running, I can make yesterday's post.

Many things change in the process of a book going from manuscript to published novel. Often, as far as I've seen, the most common thing to change for a first-time author is the title. You know why this is? Titles are hard. I mean, as much as your first chapter needs to draw the reader in, your title is essential in making your book stand out from the countless others on the shelf or in the online store. It needs to speak to the consumer, be catchy, but not obviously commercial. Tell part of the story without giving it away. Be relevant without being an encumbrance.

Locked Within was always a placeholder title for my book. I knew it was likely going to have to change, but I needed a way to give the book an identity while I wrote it. Otherwise it was just "book." Now, I am the guy who named his first dog "Puppy," but this just wasn't going to cut it. So I took the title from the lyrics of a song called Locked Within the Crystal Ball:

When I'm working on a book, music is very important to me, so it was natural to choose a title from a song that resonated with a lot of the themes I had in mind while writing this one. Still, I know there's a better title out there somewhere. One that will simply scream that the book needs to be read. I can't wait to find it.

May 13, 2011

Blogger Shutdown

Since Blogger had some major problems this week and not everything is fully back up and running, I'm going to delay this week's Friday post until tomorrow.

Talk to you guys then.

May 11, 2011

What I'm Reading

At the moment I've got The Pain Merchants by Janice Hardy in my bag. I started it a couple of days ago and I'm really enjoying it so far. Good action, fun likeable characters, interesting fantasy setting without overwhelming detail.

I think what I'm enjoying most about it is that, apart from knowing Nya's age, you'd hardly guess this was young adult. It's got a quality that just sets it out as a good story, regardless of the intended audience. I'm actually considering adding a Reviews page to this blog when I'm done.

I have a lot to read in the coming months. Ghost Story is coming out soon, and I need my Harry Dresden fix. I've also discovered a new series called the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. This is an urban fantasy series inspired by Celtic mythology. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

What are you currently reading or looking forward to reading?

May 9, 2011

Disrupted Routines

First up, everyone should stop by Big Bad Ashi, a new blog by Aislinn O'Loughlinn. Ash is one of my oldest friends and is a great writer. Her YA urban fantasy trilogy, Big Bad Me, is currently in the querying process through her literary agency, The Rights Factory.

Right, onto this Monday's post.

I get into work really early. Often as much as an hour before I'm meant to start. I like to use this time to have coffee, catch up on blogs, and get a bit of writing done. This morning I got in and my PC wouldn't start up. It turned out the problem was just a faulty power cable, but it did mean I couldn't log onto my PC until nearly half past nine. I'd lost my entire morning of time normally set aside to start my day the way I'm used to.

I can't stand when this happens. When my routine is broken unexpectedly I feel totally out of control and can even get a bit irritable. It's like everything is in a rush and I've missed out on time I normally set aside for myself. This just throws me off for the rest of the day.

Still, I had Janice Hardy's The Pain Merchants (UK title of The Shifter) to keep me going, which I'm really enjoying. Hopefully I can get caught up on the writing later tonight.

Do any of you have similar problems if your daily or even weekly routine is distrupted?

May 6, 2011

When You Don't Feel Like Writing

First up, I'd like to thank Write2Live for giving me the Blog on Fire award you can currently see on my sidebar. I'll have to find someone to pass this on to now. :-)

I've been battling with my sinuses all week. I'm hoping it's not a sinus infection. My regular doses of paracetamol and Sudafed have been keeping me functional. I'm just glad I work in an office and can sit down all day.

Have you ever wondered how a full-time writer manages to keep working even when they feel terrible? I know I have. Even with my self-medication this week I've struggled to keep working on The Silent Oath. I did manage to break the 2k mark and I'm just about getting into the swing of chapter 1. I'll see what more I can get done tonight after work. If I can get the first chapter done I'll be very pleased, but I'm a far cry from last year's 2k words a day.

One of my oldest friends is moving to Germany with his girlfriend while she does a PhD there. Tomorrow they're having a going away party. I'll miss them both a lot, so it'll be nice to see them properly before they go. It'd be great if this sinus problem went away by then.

May 4, 2011

Picking Up Where You Left Off

Or, the challenges of writing a sequel.

When I last left Nathan Shepherd, his life had changed drastically. He'd discovered secrets of the world and learned some hard lessons. It's safe to say he doesn't make it to the end of the book without taking a few knocks.

Now that I know the book is going to be published, I'm all the more eager to work on my next one and get as much done before I have to start looking at edits for the first. After all, something may occur to me while working on Book 2 that could improve Book 1. Of course, picking up where you left off can be tricky.

I've had the following things to consider while getting ready to start Book 2, current working title "The Silent Oath."

  1. The Passing of Time -  If I start up the very next day after the end of Locked Within, I'm severely limiting my storytelling options. Besides, does anyone really want to read about a character whose every waking moment is spent fighting monsters? No, that won't do. There needs to be a long enough break between books that the protagonist can recover from the events of the previous book, but also not so long that the reader feels like they may have missed out on important events in his life.
  2. Avoiding Repetition - I find it all too easy to fall into patterns. The last thing a writer wants is for someone to read their new book and think it feels like the last one with the serial numbers filed off. This means introducing new characters, showing how old ones have grown and changed, and coming up with new challenges for the protagonist that have a new sense of novelty to them, but aren't completely out of touch with what's already been established. Bring back the same villain, sure, but give him a new goal, new motivations, or some new tricks up his sleeve. Don't have Cthulhu show up just for a change of pace if the last villain was a vampire.
  3. Being Aware of New Readers - While every writer hopes that their books are read in the right order, there are going to be readers who pick up a book in the middle of a series, either because they can't find a copy of the earlier ones, or because a friend has recommended a later book as a better jumping-in point. So they need to be given enough information to understand what's happened before. However you don't want to dump too much repeated information on returning readers, either. It's a tricky balance, one I think I have yet to master.
  4. Escalation - Closely connected to Number 2, really. If you write four books where the hero takes on roughly the same level of challenge and is under similar threats throughout, it won't matter how good you are, readers are going to get bored. Especially true for a series with a planned ending, the reader needs to see the hero's ability and responsibility grow. A fight which would have left him near death in the last book should now be a bracing challenge. The new antagonist should be a grade above those who have gone before, as should the consequences for failure. This doesn't mean the hero ends up saving the world every book, though. Saving the world is a huge event. The scale of what could be lost is so huge that the reader will lose empathy, not least of all because if the world ends, then so does the series, and the writer is unlikely to go that far. Saving, perhaps, a hundred people, can easily be the climax of a book where the hero must now save just one loved one, especially if he is somehow responsible for their danger. As the story goes on, the hero must realise that his responsibility is increasing, and rise to match that challenge.
  5. Progression - Each book in a series must advance something. Whether it's the hero's plans to avenge his parents' death or an acceptance of the friends around him, something must be gained. But so too must things be lost. The story becomes a series of choices where the protagonist decides what things matter most and what he can sacrifice.
  6. Themes - Just like the first book should have had a theme, intentional or otherwise, so too should the sequel. This can be the same theme as the first, in which case it's likely that the whole series shares one primary theme. But it can be important to deal with other secondary themes as well. Where one book might be about sacrificing for the greater good, the next may be about learning to live with those choices and coming to accept a new life.
  7. Quality - We're only ever as good as our next book. Each time we write, we should be improving, honing our skills. I want to make The Silent Oath better than Locked Within. Better flow, better characterisation. I want to look at Locked Within on shelves or in people's hands and think "Yeah, just wait until you see what happens next!"
I suppose I should also point out that I want to get the ms good enough to actually be accepted for publication, too. ;-)

May 2, 2011

Monday's Thoughts on Good Story

My wife and I went to see Thor today. I'm a big fan of superhero movies and so far out of Marvel's pre-Avengers titles, Thor is my favourite.

The movie got me thinking about what makes a great heroic story. We want to care about the hero's journey, regardless of how well he can fight or how strong he is. We want to see his humanity and growth as he realises the choices he must make, and how perhaps his early choices were not so wise. The best enemy is one the hero helps create for himself.

Action movies have always struggled with how to make a climax worth watching. Objectively, we know that the hero is most likely to win, so any challenge where the only outcomes are success or the end of the story will be dull and uninteresting. A fight scene needs to exist for more reasons than just two characters trying to kill each other. They must be fighting for something, whether that be to save a loved one, hold off enemy forces, retrieve an item of value, or even to accept one's destiny as an ongoing opponent of this threat. The very best of these show us how the hero struggles with desperate choices, and must sacrifice something they want for the greater good.

All the special effects and well-choreographed fight scenes in the world can't make up for a hollow scene. I love a good showdown, I really do. But when writing your scenes, remember that why something is happening is often more important than what is happening.

May 1, 2011

A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post

April has been an incredible month for me. I've had the worries about my first child's health, a regular challenge to come up with interesting blog topics, a massive introduction to a great community of readers and writers, opened up about my fears and feelings about my writing, and experienced one of the greatest moments of my life when I was offered a contract with WiDo Publishing.

Looking back, I'm really glad I had the A to Z Challenge as a way to mark this month. I can't think of a better way to have recorded these events, express my fears, and celebrate success than this blog challenge. I can definitely say that this experience has changed me for the better and taught me how welcoming the online writing community is, and how much fun it is to be a part of it.

Now that I'm in the habit of blogging regularly, I think I need to settle on a schedule. So I'm going to choose Monday, Wednesday and Friday as my main blogging days, though I'm sure I'll have the urge to post outside that schedule a fair bit.

Thanks for reading, and here's to many more great months of blogging from all of us.