Mar 30, 2012


This weekend is Vaticon, the UCD Games Society's annual games convention. I've been involved with GameSoc ever since my first days in college and I've loved having the opportunity to go back and help out with the convention on occasion, as well as finding new friends to have in my weekly games.

Since this is a pretty big year for me, I figured I should go all-out for my contribution to Vaticon this year. To that end, I'm running a game scenario set 15 years before the events of my novel, Locked Within. It'll give a lucky few people a sneak peak into the supernatural world of New York and let them have a taste of the dangers to be faced by Nathan Shepherd.

Here's the blurb I wrote for the scenario:

All your life you've felt you were different, born for something greater. Your dreams are filled with images and feelings of distant lifetimes. The heat of battle. The passion of love. The ache of loss. You are Reborn, able to see past the veil that humanity uses to hide itself from the supernatural. For centuries, the Conclave of New York has offered shelter and guidance to your kind. But now the Council of Chains, those who seek immortality and fear rebirth, have grown strong. Eager to rule all within their reach, they are driving the Reborn from the city. The Conclave has fallen. All you can do is run, and try to save those you love. 

Then, on the Sunday morning, I'm thrilled to be giving a reading from my book. Even if you're not a gamer, if you're in Dublin and can make it, do come along. Entry to the convention is especially reasonable and there'll be time for a Q&A session over tea and coffee afterwards.

Hope to see some of you there!

Mar 28, 2012

Shoot Your Novel

On Monday I talked about making sure not to "shakey-cam" your writing. Today I thought I'd discuss in a more general sense how to learn from movies to improve your writing. I work visually when I write, picturing scenes in my head before I write them down, so paying attention to movies was a natural choice. The time when authors could get away with long prose descriptions and dead scenes where we learn only small amounts about a character or the story are gone. Modern readers have movie theatres, Tivo, Netflix, musicals, Youtube, Facebook games and MMOs to take their attention away from your 250-page book. How do we keep their attention?

We take a lesson from the US Marines.

We improvise, adapt and overcome.

I'm not saying we load our books with sex and violence. I'm saying we watch the techniques used by filmmakers to keep the audience enthralled. What are the things that keep you watching? Here are some of the elements I find hold my attention best:

1: An Actor's Performance. A great tool for keeping a character consistent in your head is to cast an actor in the role and write the character as though that person were playing them in a movie. You get appearance, behaviour and even speaking habits in one easy package.

2: Show. "Show, don't tell" is applied better nowhere else than in good movies. Watch how a character's emotional state can be seen from their facial expressions, or the way they hold a photograph of a loved one. How they stare at a drink in a bar. How hard they slam a door. The human body has a language all its own. Don't forget that.

3: Pacing and Timing. There are fairly strict guidelines for how long the camera should remain stationary on a single character or shot. Generally a film editor will cut to another shot or angle within 60 seconds. Consider how long you dwell on a particular description or scene. Could it be shorter and snappier? Get to the point and move on. Readers are smart, they'll understand what you mean. The same goes for pacing your story. Have you got a lot of dialogue in the first half of your book, then nothing but action in the second half? Consider breaking things up. Pepper your action through your character development scenes to give the reader a breather, but enough incentive to keep on reading.

4: Music and Emotion. Now, I know not everyone likes to write with music playing, and my dream of having a book that plays appropriate music as I read is a long way off. But consider the effect music has on a movie. Music is one of the most important parts of the movie experience. Don't believe me? Watch an action scene with the sound turned off. Dull, plain and simple. Music keeps a beat for the action. Work a beat into the words on your page. It creates a natural flow to keep the reader going. Music guides our emotions to what the story needs us to feel. Consider what kind of music would play in a scene while you write. Keep that feeling in mind and apply it to your words. Don't hamstring yourself by trying to write a sad death scene while you're still laughing from that episode of Friends you just watched. Dredge up the emotions of the time you cried at the end of ET.

5: When to Start. The best movies throw you right into the story, sometimes without warning. Star Wars has space ships blasting across the screen. Superman has Krypton explode as Kal-El's parents send him hurtling towards Earth. If you're not introducing the reader to the core story within the first few pages, you're risking losing their attention. A lot of readers will flick through the first chapter in a book store, or read a sample chapter online. You have that much time to hook them with as much of your story as you can. Don't waste it.

6: When to End. Good movies don't do long epilogues where we learn how many children a character has or what age they started collecting a pension. They end at just the right moment to show the audience that the hero has achieved his goal and that it's time for life to move on. I know it can be hard to let go of our characters. We think that we're doing them some injustice if we don't explicitly tell the reader that things turn out okay for them, or we feel like we're abandoning them and want to hang on just a little longer. But you're not telling their story for you. You're telling it for the reader, and the reader wants that sense of the uncertain. it lets them imagine what life might hold for the characters in the future. The end is when the reader gets to own those characters.

Next time you're watching a movie, pay attention to these and other lessons. Please feel free to share what you find out!

Mar 26, 2012

Don't Shakey-Cam Your Writing

We went to see The Hunger Games in the cinema this weekend. I loved the book and I'm happy to say the movie was a fantastic adaptation. The changes made helped make the story more suited for the cinema format and all helped push the story forward for a movie-going  audience.

But the one thing that bothered me was the use of shakey-cam in an awful lot of the action scenes.

In case anyone's not sure, shakey-cam is when a scene is shot on a camera designed to hold focus but allow for the image to move rapidly. The effect is meant to give the audience the feeling of actually being present in the action, with all the chaos and confusion that includes.

Personally, I'm not a fan. If I want to be confused, I'll read a book on physics. I like being able to take in everything that's happening in a movie. Shakey-cam pretty much feels like being told "there's lots of cool stuff happening, but you don't get to see it." I get why it's used, but as a viewer, I think there are better ways of portraying chaos than actually muddling the audience.

I think the same should apply to writing. Action scenes can be some of the hardest things to write. You don't want to see stale descriptions of every blow. But you also don't want a dull summary; a whole scene reduced to a couple of lines.

The danger, then, lies in letting your words get away from you. As important as it is to sweep the reader up in the drama and tension of an action scene, it's still vital to keep your writing clear and concise. All the exciting storytelling in the world won't matter if the reader can't remember where the hero is standing. Even less so if you actually forget and have him hopping around the battlefield like an over-caffeinated frog.

I have a few techniques I like to use to keep my action scenes clear:

1: Plan, plan, plan. Mentally rehearse your action scenes, even if you're not yet ready to write them. By the time I write an action scene I'll have gone over the scene dozens of times so I know exactly what's going to happen and how it will affect the story.

2: Focus on one point of view. It's always wise to stick to a single character's perspective within a scene, but sometimes, if you're careful, you can bend or break this rule, especially if you're using an omniscient narrator. However I would strongly advise keeping an action scene as firmly in the head of just one character as possible. This not only helps keep things clear for the reader, but also helps keep the action feeling personal. If you need to show a different perspective, consider breaking your action sequence into several scenes and assigning different POVs when appropriate.

3: Imagine. Think about how your action scene would look in a movie. Consider what would make you enjoy the scene and apply that thinking to your writing. If your scene needs a sweeping vista shot, be ready to give an overview over all the events. If you want all your shots to be concentrated on one character's struggle to survive the danger, keep your POV firmly in their limited range.

4: Strategise. Work out what it is that you want your characters to gain (or lose) in this scene. After you've got that worked out, then you can decide what role they'll play and what challenge they'll face. There's no point in having your hero fighting on the front lines of a battle if you need him to break into the enemy general's command tent, is there?

I hope this advice is helpful. Does anyone have any other tips they'd like to share?

Mar 21, 2012

Video Games, The Rush To Win

I've been hearing a lot of criticism of the ending to Mass Effect 3. People who finished the game within 4 or even 3 days of its release hate the ending. That's some pretty hardcore playing for a game which requires at least around 24 hours of playing to complete. I play games much more slowly. Many people I know, for example, finished Mass Effect 2 in something like 40 hours. I clocked 86, including all the downloadable content.

I'm not sure why it seems to take me so much longer. I enjoy taking my time. I like to look at the scenery, consider my dialogue options, and I'll happily use less-effective weapons and armour choices if I prefer how they look. I'll even take the time to make sure a less-successful outcome if I think it makes a better story.

I don't do so well spending long periods of time playing a single game. Long stretches make me feel drained, and completing a game after a lengthy playing session leaves me feeling a heavy sense of "Well, what now?" Like I've let myself down by finishing the story too soon. While I understand the desire to get to play a great game more often, I don't understand the drive to complete it as soon as possible. Even on a day when I'm at home with nothing else to do, I just can't work out how someone can manage, or even stand, to play for a full 10-12 hours in a single day.

To any of my gamer followers reading, particularly those who've played the likes of Skyrim or Mass Effect, which do involve a hefty enough investment of time, what is it that drives you to finish? Where does the rush to win come from? Do you ever feel like you're missing out by just powering through a game as quickly as possible? Is there something in particular you get from finishing a game as quickly as possible?

Or is there anyone like me out there? People who like to take their time in a game, even when they get a long stretch of time in which to play?

Just a note to say there'll be no blog post this Friday as I'm a groomsman at a friend's wedding. Have a great weekend everyone!

Mar 19, 2012

Favourite Endings

I've been laid up with a sinus infection for the last few days. I finally went to the doctor and got some antibiotics which have left me with little energy to do much practical editing or writing.

Still, I've had a lot of writing-related stuff on my mind. Endings, in particular. Endings are usually my favourite part of a story. If an ending doesn't hold up to the story that comes before it, the entire thing can be ruined for me.

My favourite endings are the ones where the hero defeats the villain in a soundly satisfying manner, which tie up loose ends but also leave open the possibility that there's more yet to come for the hero. I like to think that the story could still carry on, even though we don't get to know exactly what happens next. This could be why I like superhero origin stories so much, because they show us the rise of the hero and leave open the possibility of further adventure.

Certainly, I don't want to think that the story I've just read is the greatest adventure the hero will have, or that the happiness they're rewarded with is the best they'll ever get. I want to feel that the hero can either have a long and fulfilling life, or still do good even after I close the book or watch the end credits.

I think this is why I'm not really fond of epilogues which show the characters's lives years in the future, reflecting on the story we've just seen. That suggests that there's nothing really left for the hero. They've achieved their greatest moment and now they have nothing but obscurity to look forward to.

How do you like your endings? Do you have any favourites?

Mar 16, 2012

Miracle of Sound

I'm still on a bit of a Mass Effect buzz this week. So, here are three unbelievably epic songs by Miracle of Sound, all inspired by the Mass Effect series:

Mar 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3

This week my copy of Mass Effect 3 arrived. I've been waiting for this for years, ever since I first played the original instalment in the series. Mass Effect takes the best elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and many other sci fi settings and rolls them all into one awesome package. It presents a deeply developed galaxy where humans, rather than being the most important of races, are considered among the lesser-regarded sentient species. It's only the actions of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 1 that elevate them to full membership of the Galactic Council, something some species have been trying to achieve for millenia.

You won't find any "token" characters here. There are as many female characters as male. As many aliens as humans, if not more. The actions of characters and even governments cover different shades of morality. From choosing whether or not to kill the last of an alien species, to the straightforward determination to make a stand against seemingly unstoppable forces bent on the eradication of all organic life.

Through it all, the series is defined by the idea that the player should feel like the hero, the protagonist of their own space opera. Commander Shepard is larger than life, a force of nature whose personality is largely dictated by the choices of the player. As such, each player's Shepard is a little different. Choices as personal as choosing which friend's life to save, or as huge as determining the fate of the rulers of galactic civilisation, give each player a unique experience. Bioware have worked hard to ensure that every decision matters. Mass Effect is Shepard's story, but in being so, is the player's story. I've never seen a game do such a good job of making the player feel like a hero.

I love that video games are becoming their own unique form of storytelling. And, just because it's awesome and I feel like getting all psyched up for the rest of the game, here's the official launch trailer for Mass Effect 3:

Mar 12, 2012

Book Reading

I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook the other day that I got some good news and here it is.

I'm going to be giving a reading from my novel, Locked Within, at the Vaticon games convention in UCD. The convention takes place from March 30th to April first. The UCD Games Society was a second home to me in college and I've been involved in running the convention several times. It feels great to be returning to do something like this. The details are still being worked out but I'll be reading a scene from the book, followed by a Q&A session.

Details about the convention can be found here:

I'm running a game myself, a prequel to Locked Within to give some people a sneak preview at the supernatural world of New York.

If you're in the area, please stop by to say hello, maybe even try out a few games. Newcomers are always welcome at games conventions and there's a pub quiz on the Saturday night which is always fun.

Mar 9, 2012

Freak-Out Moments

While digging into some edits on Locked Within last Sunday, I started to get a little freaked out. I realised just how short the book was getting as I was cutting words. I sat there and stared at the word count. 59,000. It was barely a novel anymore and I was still only halfway through the word cull. I wondered how I was ever going to have a finished product that was going to be worth buying.

So I saved my work, closed the file, and made some coffee. I spent the rest of the morning chilling out and later went to the cinema with my wife (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it was fantastic, see it!).

Then on Monday morning, like I do every day before work, I opened up the file and got back to editing.

It's easy to be enthusiastic and self-assured when everything's going your way. It's even easier to back down and give up when things start to get scary. Yes, I was scared. My book is coming out later this year and that's a big deal. This is my life's dream. I have friends, family, people I don't even know and have never met who want an invitation or are waiting to buy the book. It would be very easy to hide and hope it all goes away.

But if I did that, who'd tell Nathan's story?

That's why I took a step away from my work to unwind and get my mind off it. I needed a few hours to not be thinking about how many times I've re-used a word or wonder what the hell I was thinking with my sentence structure. I know that, with my editor's help, I'm going to make this the best thing I've ever written. I just needed to give that doubting little voice in my head a time-out.

How do you handle freak-out moments like that?

Mar 7, 2012

Locked Within Artwork

Book trailers are getting bigger and bigger, it seems. I love trailers, whether for movies, tv shows, video games, or books. So I knew from the start that I wanted a good one for my book. To that end, I asked an old friend, Janto McMullin, if he would consider working on some stuff for me. Boy has he ever come through.

The trailer's still under construction, but I've seen a preview and it's looking great. With Janto's permission, I've decided to start sharing some of the artwork he's created, inspired by my book.

This first piece I'm sharing is titled "Sword in the Snow." It depicts a pivotal moment from one of Nathan Shepherd's past life memories.

I love this image. It perfectly captures how I saw this scene in my mind. As more pieces are ready, I'll be sharing those too. I hope everyone likes them.

Mar 5, 2012

An "On My Mind" List

Last week I realised that I've been giving up a lot of my thoughts and attention to other people. Possibly a bit too much, in fact. To the point where my own wellbeing could be suffering.

So I wrote out a list of all the things that would typically occupy my thoughts on a given day. These ranged from making sure I had something prepared for the weekly gaming session, to issues in work, to making sure I was keeping up with my blog posts.

I won't repeat the full list here, because several of the items on the list are things I know in confidence or relate to very personal matters.

There were a total of 34 items on the list. 34 things that, in my head, I had to be aware of and ready to act on at a moment's notice.

Of these can you guess how many were things that were either purely just for my own personal enjoyment or benefit?

4. 4 things that go through my mind on an average day are just for me. Of those, three had to do with reading or writing, while the only one that had nothing to do with either was thinking about when I'd next get to play whatever video game I'm currently playing.

That kind of shocked me. I always thought I made sure to balance what I gave to others with what I gave to myself. I believe that if you give too much of yourself, you end up drained of anything useful and can't help anyone anymore. I thought I had that one down. Obviously I was wrong. I need to work on that. For my own sake, and the sake of those I care about.

I'd encourage everyone to take a couple of minutes and write their own "On My Mind" list. Are you making yourself enough of a priority?

Mar 2, 2012

More Music From Skyrim

Today I'm plugging an amazing artist, Malukah. There are a number of songs that the bards in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim can be asked to sing. Among the songs is one called "The Dragonborn Comes," about the return of a hero born with the blood of dragons who will save Skyrim from its foes.

Malukah has recorded a cover of this song, incorporating some of the lyrics from the track I posted previously.

Just try and listen to this without a shiver down your spine: