Apr 30, 2012

Start in the Middle

This seemingly counter-intuitive advice was given to me by my new editor. When you think about it, it makes sense.

What grips the reader from the start? It's not a slow build or descriptions of people and places. It's action, tension, drama. Of course there needs to be a reason to care, otherwise no amount of action will keep the reader interested. In fact, too much action too soon can leave the reader quickly feeling jaded. After all, if you threaten your protagonist with death in the first chapter, the reader will know you're not going to kill them off so soon, so they'll just want the action to end so the real story can begin.

So what do you do? Keep it simple. Kick things off in the middle of something important to your protagonist, but which can be brought to some form of resolution soon enough that the reader can be brought up to speed shortly. Ease the reader into the story from there, feeding them little bits at a time instead of either cramming it all down their throat at once or starving them for excitement by dragging things out.

Threaten the protagonist's values or goals, rather than the protagonist themselves. Give them an early setback to set up the later story. If the tension at the climax is a 10, open the book on a 4 and let it drop to 2 or 3 after the first chapter. That's when you can introduce the finer details of the setting and the goings-on of your world.

I had to learn this the hard way. When I first started editing Locked Within, the first 50 pages had to be cut because I started the story too soon, with not enough tension to keep the reader interested. It was that long before the real story began. I've made sure to correct this in anything I've written since, to make sure I don't have to lose editing time to that kind of work again.

For the writers, how do you like to start your stories?

For the readers, what are some of the bets openings you've read?

Don't forget my Hero's Journey Challenge. Suggest me a movie, and I'll see if I can apply the Hero's Journey model to it in a blog post.

Apr 27, 2012

Hero's Journey Challenge

I've spoken a lot about the idea of the Monomyth, the Hero's Journey model which can be applied to pretty much any popular story. I'm planning to do a whole series of posts applying the Hero's Journey to different movies, but there's a catch.

I'm not going to choose the movies.

Starting today, I will be accepting requests from all of you to analyse whatever movie you want me to. If I've seen it, or I can readily get my hands on a copy to watch it, I'll see if I can apply the Hero's Journey to it and detail what elements appear and where.

So here's the deal. Name a movie, either in the comments here, on my Facebook, Twitter, or by e-mail to pashortt (at) gmail.com, between now and this time next Friday, May 4th, and I'll compile a list of the movies that I'll be examining. I'll publish the list in next Friday's blog post.

I reserve the right to turn down any suggestion that I just can't get my hands on, or if I'm aware of something about a particular movie that I find too distasteful or disturbing to watch (So I won't be doing Marathon Man (dentists...) or The Butterfly Effect (anyone who knows me and has seen this movie will know why), for example).

Let the challenge begin!

Apr 25, 2012

RPGs For The Kids

I've just finished writing a roleplaying game for a charity project being organised by the Irish Games Association. The IGA is a voluntary group which promotes roleplaying games, board games and card games in Ireland. They're a good bunch and are responsible for running Gaelcon, the country's largest games convention, every year. I've been running games at Gaelcon for over ten years now.

Several regular game masters were asked to write some games that would be suitable for children, to be sent to a charitable organisation called The Meeting Place, based in Tramore. The Meeting Place offers after school care to children from disadvantages backgrounds, many of whom have suffered severe physical and emotional abuse. The goal of this project is to see if roleplaying games can be used to teach these children about teamwork and help boost their confidence.

Given the circumstances, the games had to be age-appropriate, which meant a lot of the more grown-up themes most gamers are used to went right out the window. We also had to keep violence to a minimum, or remove it entirely and focus on problem-solving. It was definitely a challenge to come up with ways to tell stories that would be exciting enough to keep the players' interest, but also avoid bringing up potentially painful memories.

I decided to write a game about teddy bears. In this game, the players take on the roles of stuffed toys who watch over children when they sleep. At night, the Bears guard their child against monsters who come to steal their laughter or give them nightmares. I hope that the game can show children that even scary things can be overcome if you've got friends with you.

If the game goes down well enough, and there's enough interest from others, I'll make it available publicly. I'm not sure in what format yet, but I think it's a fun idea and I'd love to share it.

Apr 23, 2012

Writing and Editing Update

It's been a while since I talked about how things are going, writing-wise. I've got a new editor at WiDo, and over the weekend I went over her notes on my ms. So far I think we're very much on the same wavelength. I love her comments and her advice is great. I still have a lot of work to do, but we're getting close to the last push.

I've got a new WIP in the works as well. Having finished writing the sequel to Locked Within I've decided to take a break from that series for a little while and write a YA superhero dystopian called Origin. I'm really enjoying this. I'm only about 5,000 words in but I have the story planned out. It'll hopefully be a standalone novel, assuming I can fit the plot into a reasonable length.

I'm aiming to be finished the first draft of Origin by July. My goal is to be able to query it around the same time as the sequel to Locked Within, which is changing title from Silent Oath to Amongst Wolves. With Locked Within due to come out in October or November, I want to do whatever I can to have another book out next year as well.

It's kind of scary to be at the start of both processes again. Writing with Origin and soon querying with Amongst Wolves. I know there's no guarantee of either one being accepted by my publisher, so I want to make sure they're both as good as possible before going ahead, which is why I'm taking my time.

How is everyone else? Whatcha reading and working on?

Apr 20, 2012

Epic Music: Indiana Jones

How have I not made an Epic Music post about this yet?

One of the all-time greatest pieces of music by one of cinema's greatest composers:

Apr 18, 2012

Epic Music: Evolution

The 2001 film, Evolution is one of my favourite movies. To me it's one of the perfect "gamer" movies. If you ever want an idea of how most gamers roleplay during a game, this movie tells you almost everything you need to know.

It also has an excellent score, by John Powell. Here are two of my favourite tracks:

Apr 16, 2012

Pub Fires and Tornados

So Friday was the 13th, but here in Bray it was the morning of Saturday the 14th that had the crazy stuff happening.

First up, myself and my wife's favourite pub, the Vevay Inn, caught fire. It's believed that someone set fire to a wheelie bin at the back of the building, but there wasn't much the fire brigade could do other than keep the blaze from spreading. Pretty much all that's left are the outer walls:

We're really sorry to see the place go like this. We knew the staff well and liked them all. It's a really rough blow.

Later that same morning, the following happened down at the Bray beach:

That isn't fake. That's a small tornado drifting very close to the shore of the beach in Bray. Thankfully it died out before it touched down or caused any harm. Still though, that's pretty scary.

Anything else crazy happen this weekend?

Apr 13, 2012

Character Morals

Today I'm asking a tricky question. How strong should a protagonist's morals be?

The best stories show the hero forced to make hard decisions that challenge their existing world view. A detective has to work within the law and let a killer live despite the lives he's taken. A farmboy has to find the courage to oppose the empire that has killed his family.

Sometimes the hero's journey presents them with tempting chances to get revenge. Sometimes it makes sticking to a moral code difficult. If a character has sworn to never kill, are there any circumstances under which it's okay to break that oath? Is it forgiveable for a married man to sleep with another woman? What if his wife was unfaithful first? Is it permissible to sacrifice a million lives to save a billion, or should the hero try to find another way? These are the questions that can create defining moments in a story.

But here's the thing, should the hero be rewarded/punished for making certain choices? Authors have the power to enforce karma, should they wish. I like to see villainous characters get their comeuppance, and I like to see heroes receive some measure of a reward in the end. Something to show that their suffering was worthwhile. If a hero has achieved success through purely noble means, then we usually have no trouble accepting that they deserve their reward. But what if they let an innocent person die when they could have saved them? Do they still deserve it then? What if the villain has one redeeming moment, one good act in the end? Are they then forgiven for all they've done in the past?

There is, perhaps, no one definitive answer. Nor should there be. Perhaps if that innocent person had been saved, more people would have died. Perhaps the hero just wanted to achieve their goal and considered the innocent an acceptable loss. Maybe the villain has been fighting for redemption for years, or that heroic act was just a ploy to garner sympathy. Each story will be different.

I'm a fan of those moments where the hero is faced with an impossible choice and manages to find a third option that both preserves their moral code and achieves their goal. Nothing says "hero" to me like a character seeing through the chaos and knee-jerk responses to work out a solution that neither their allies nor their enemies predicted.

But for those moments to have meaning, sometimes the hero has to make the tough choice. And sometimes, I feel, that choice should be wrong. It shows that the hero can make mistakes and makes their eventual victory more satisfying. But in cases where the choice was the wrong one, I think the hero should be made to answer fot it, and either find a way to make amends, or suffer the consequences.

What about you? Are there times when you've wished a hero would suffer consequences for a choice you disagreed with?

Apr 11, 2012

Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

Last night I finished Mass Effect 3. I took the red ending, and I'm fairly happy with my choice, but I thought I'd share my feelings. Yep, the rest of this post is packed with spoilers...

Apr 9, 2012

When The Story Ends

Yep, endings are still on my mind.

I've been thinking about that point in a story where you realise that the end really is near. You're on the last book in a series and you see that you only have about thirty pages left. There are only three episodes left to go in your favourite tv show. It's not long before the end credits roll on that movie you were waiting so long to see.

Sometimes you don't want the story to end. The thought of the story being over hurts too much.

Is it strange to feel that way? That even though the end usually means good has triumphed, you just want the story to carry on? You'd rather see the characters you love go through all that hardship again just so you can still be with them.

Are there any endings that have made you feel this way?

Apr 6, 2012

Video Game Endings and Epilogues

There's been more than a little activity on the internet surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3. I haven't finished it yet, so I'm going to hold off on commenting much there. What's interesting to note is that fan reaction has been so powerfully negative that Bioware has announced plans to release an "Extended Cut" ending as free downloadable content for the game.

As I understand, the plan is to add some additional ending cutscenes and the traditional text-based epilogues for each of the characters. Usually, I'm not a big fan of these. I don't think a well-told story should need an epilogue. This is the usual attitude taken towards books and movies, that an epilogue is most often an unnecessary add-on, a sign the author isn't quite ready to let go of their characters. Personally, I prefer not to know everything that happens to characters after the story ends. I find that epilogues add a sense of finality to a story, that it really is over forever. Whereas if there is no epilogue, just the right amount of suggestion of what may lie in store for the characters in the future, it feels more like they live on, like the story never really ends.

Sometimes when I'm reading or watching a movie, I think there's nothing more sad than the thought that the story truly is over and there's nothing left to tell. Maybe it's because that's the only way a fictional character can ever really die, for there to be no more stories left for them.

Video games, on the other hand, seem to have a different approach, and set of expectations. Without that epilogue, players feel let down that they don't get to know how their characters get on afterwards. It could be a matter of investment. Some players may feel so much more attached to their own characters than to those in a movie or book that they have a deeper need to know for certain what happens next.

I think it could also be due to the nature and restrictions of storytelling in video games. When video games first started to try and tell stories, they were limited in terms of technique. Music started off as little more than electronic melodies. Graphics were primitive, limited by technology. Words became the primary storytelling method. But the skillsets for developing a video game and writing a story are quite different. So video games used very basic techniques to portray their plotlines.

As the technology advanced, new ways to tell stories could be introduced, but I feel that while the nature of video games as a form of entertainment evolved, many of the techniques used by developers remained the same. Improved graphics and animated cutscenes started to be inserted. Musical flourishes accompanied key scenes. But these rarely felt like an organic part of the game experience. Most often they interrupted the flow of play to tell a part of the story that the player wouldn't be able to interact with. But they often helped to make the game that much more entertaining.

The balance between player interactivity and making a game feel more like a movie has been a difficult one for years. Game developers are still relying on old techniques, however. They never stopped using those text-block epilogues, and so players come to expect them and rely on them to complete the story. As a result, I think most players aren't in the right mindset for these traditional techniques to be set aside. Maybe because they're used to waiting for the end cutscene and epilogue text to explain things, they feel let down when they're not there, or not what they expect.

But what if game developers really started treating their work like a novelist or film-maker? What if they learned to take the technology at their disposal and let go of the old crutches they needed in the past? What if they made a video game like a movie, showing the story rather than just telling it?

The Mass Effect series may be the first real attempt to bring video games beyond their old limitations. It pushes boundaries and gives the player a strong interactive experience where you feel like everything you do matters to the story. Why the need to tack on an epilogue? I don't know yet. But I'm looking forward to finding out and coming back to this topic once I have.

Apr 4, 2012

Getting New Ideas

Something I hear often is how people don't know how writers keep coming up with new ideas.

One of my stock responses is that there are no new ideas, only new ways of telling the story. I find it very freeing to accept that pretty much every plot has already been done countless times before. It means I can focus on the things that really draw people to a book; the characters, their relationships, the reasons the reader should care.

When I get a new book idea, it most often starts off with an idea for a good scene, or an interesting relationship. The most common source of ideas is a new song or piece of music. I'll think of a scene or story that suits the piece and before I know it I've added another entry to my folder of book ideas. My list currently stands at around 35 individual books, both adult and YA, fantasy, urban fantasy, and some science fiction.

My most recent idea is for a science fiction space opera I got from this song:

I'll probably leave this one on the backburner for a while. My sci-fi  tastes tend more towards pulp action over hard science, so I'd rather make sure I can either pull that off or I've learned enough to make the science believable enough that it doesn't get in the way of the fiction.

Where do you get ideas from? What do you think about the concept that there are no new plotlines or ideas?

Apr 2, 2012

My First Reading

Two rows of empty chairs stood before me. My throat was sore, despite taking painkillers and drinking copious amounts of honey, lemon & glycerine. I'd been suffering from a cold and sore throat for the past few days and my voice had already gone the day before. I was worried it wouldn't hold out.

The room had been set aside since 11 for tea and coffee. I was due to start reading at 12. My wife and I were the only ones there. We had already found the best spot for her to take pictures and video. I'd placed my business cards on the chairs. I had my excerpts ready. I'd asked a friend who had done readings before for advice. I was all set.

And I was scared out of my life.

I viewed the reading as a performance. Not only did my audience have to like my writing, they had to like how I read it. I hadn't performed in from of an audience in about seven or eight years. My reading was a relatively late addition to the lineup of Vaticon, the UCD Games Society annual games convention, so I wasn't sure how many would show up. And to top it all off, I knew my voice wouldn't last long if I wasn't careful.

People slowly started to filter in. I went to double check that everyone who might be interested knew that we were starting and went back to wait a little longer.

I went back to the room, sat back down and began.

My voice held out, and at the end I got the best applause I've ever had.

Thank you to Vaticon for having me, and to everyone for turning up. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the book.