Saturday, February 26, 2011


You don't approach a real-world task, like cooking a meal, or making a pirate ship, by simply dragging out the first glitzy tool you see and trying to put it to use. Do you?

Well? Do you?

OK, maybe you occasionally get a shiny new toy and want to try it out, but that's not how you go about tasks most of the time. I hope.

So why should writing be any different? If you're cooking, you have knives to cut things up with, pans to boil things in, ovens to bake with. The analogues of writing are not as physical and obvious as cutting, boiling, and baking, but they are there.

I like to think of it in terms of tangible outcomes. You don't pick up a tool thinking "I'd like to use, what am I going to do with it?" You start off by thinking "I need to do ... (fill in the blank), which tool will best achieve that?"

The problem with writing is that I reckon people rarely dig deeper than "I need to write a story." Sure, the written story is the ultimate outcome, in the same way that a meal on the table is the ultimate outcome of cooking, but I believe there are some intermediate goals in writing that people maybe don't think of as concrete outcomes with appropriate tools to get them there. They just get stuck in with all sorts of writerly things, and eventually a story emerges.

Of course, I may be wrong! Please feel free to share in the comments how closely, or otherwise, this describes you.

The things I want to share are how I see different aspects of the process of writing. And I'm going to look at some desirable outcomes in this process.

I'm kicking off with one that I'm sure most people will relate to...

Outcome - factual consistency

This is about avoiding things like the blue-eyed hero on page one turning up with brown eyes on page fifty three. Or the captain's cabin being next to the sick bay in one scene, and a hundred yards away in another.

I thought I'd get this one out of the way because it's a bit of an oddball. It's both easy and difficult to discuss.

The easy part is that I only really have one tool to offer here, and that is to keep records. Document any facts from your story that you might need to use in more than one place. This applies to events, settings, characters, culture, technology...pretty much anything you can think of.

The difficult part is that practically any tool you might come across could fall into this category. They can almost all be used for factual consistency checks. Conversely, I suspect very few tools are used solely for this purpose.

Example 1: a plot outline is primarily a tool for organising your thinking about the flow of the story, but you can also refer back to it to ensure you keep your story consistent about what happens in what order.

Example 2: I draw maps and floor plans a lot to help me envisage a scene when I need to describe it. Those same drawings are crucial references later on to make sure other scenes at the same location are consistent.

Example 3: If I had to hazard a guess at the most commonly-used writer's tool, I'd suggest character sheets. Many folks use detailed templates to capture appearance, background, traits, beliefs, etc. They may well use these sheets as tools for developing fully-rounded characters, but once you have this information written down it becomes a tool for factual consistency.

This is all common sense, and this post is a bit light on startling originality. But I do have a few specific suggestions to make.

Once you have a record of some facts relating to the story, remember to use your records. The records themselves don't ensure consistency. Only you can do that. When you write a scene, check over the details of the characters that appear in it. Is it taking place in a setting you've already got some facts about? Review those to refresh your memory.

Avoid duplication. If you have the same facts repeated in different places, you can create a maintenance nightmare for yourself if (read "when") you need to change something.

While writing Ghosts of Innocence, I started keeping a dictionary, or glossary, of words important to the story. This included people, places, drugs and poisons, items of technology, cultural references. This was a useful reference, and may make a great appendix to the book itself one day, but I soon found it difficult to maintain. The reason? Almost everything in it was a duplicate of information I already had elsewhere, and the elsewheres were more important to my process, so the glossary kept getting overlooked. This is probably something that would be best left to the end. With hindsight, I'd make sure my other tools had some way to identify information to be extracted into a glossary later.

Adapt your tools. Maybe you need to keep some information about your characters that isn't in the character sheet template you use. Well, why not adapt the template this time? Add in the extra details rather than keeping them separate. You might even find occasions where it makes sense to merge two tools into one to avoid having parallel sets of details.

If you do have to duplicate information, and it will be necessary sometimes, decide which tool is your authoritative source.

For example, you might have sequences of events listed in a plot outline, and also mapped out on a timeline in a calendar. I suggest you choose one of those to be your definitive source of truth. That is the one you start making changes to. The other records then follow. If there is ever any conflict between different records, always refer back to your chosen authoritative source.

Quick aside: What if your facts are variables rather than constants? What if they change during the course of the story? You may have characters who change over time, or a setting that is totally different after some catastrophic event. In this case, you need to make sure your tools allow for some kind of version history. Maybe you keep a separate character sheet for your heroine as a young girl, compared to same heroine as housewife, compared to same heroine in her secret life as an elite undercover agent. Just make sure you use the right version in each scene!

Finally, before you go overboard documenting the crap out of every little detail, remember that both your memory and the story itself are valid records too, if you choose. Some things might be so embedded in the story that you won't forget them. Or some scene in the story might describe a place so effectively that it can serve as your primary reference. The choice is yours.

Outcome - long term memory

Just a little addendum, for those who like to throw themselves into a story without any kind of ancillary documentation. Outlines and character sheets are for wimps, you think, and you might remember every little detail about your characters now, while you are writing their story, while things are fresh in your mind.

But what about in six months time, when those batches of queries you sent out are starting to bear fruit, and an agent is interested...providing you make a series of revisions...and you've been working on a totally different story in the meantime and now can't remember who was who, and why was it so important to go to Mordor in the first place?

All of the above, talking about maintaining factual consistency while writing, applies equally to remembering what the heck was going on when you come back to your story after a break.

Just a thought. No pressure...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Writers' toolkit addendum

Now I've had a chance to think more about the task I set myself yesterday, I can see this is a big task.

There's a lot of ground to cover, so I thought I'd better say something up front about how I see this emerging.

Firstly, I plan to break this up into digestible chunks.

Secondly, my time is quite limited so this will be a gentle long distance jog, not a sprint. I'll try to get out a post in this series every week or so.

It looks like the biggest body of work will be posts about function, or outcomes that you might be seeking, and some of the tools I've come across that help achieve those outcomes.

By the way...another quick addition to the "What this is not" list...

This is not any attempt at an exhaustive list of writers tools! I wouldn't be that pretentious (I hope). All I can offer are things I've heard of in my very short time as an amateur writer. I would very much appreciate any additions you'd like to share in the comments as we go.

In between these posts, I'll slip some thoughts about the other aspects I mentioned. Personal preferences, scalability, and a few other things.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Choose your weapon!

Recently, I followed a trail from Janet Reid's blog to a post by author, Gary Corby, where he describes a spreadsheet he uses to envisage and smooth out story flow.

First thought...Wow! That's cool.

Second thought...Hmmm, that's kinda similar to a spreadsheet I use, but for entirely different purposes.

Third and subsequent thoughts led me to ponder my writing toolkit, and most especially the "Wow! That's cool" reaction. Because I think, judging by the comments on Gary's post, a lot of people see things like that and think "What a great idea" followed by either "I must try that" or a plaintive wail "I'm not that organised. I'll never be a proper writer like him!"

I'd like to inject a bit of balance to counteract both of those extremes, which I think can be damaging (especially to frail writerly egos struggling for acceptance, battered by rejection, or overawed by the arcane business of publishing.)

So, I'm embarking on a series of posts, of indefinite length, duration, reliability, and even more dubious authority or quality, to look at what kinds of tools are out there and how to decide which ones might be right for you.

What this is not

This series is absolutely not about the craft of writing. Oh, no no nonono! What the heck do I know about that? I write from the heart, instinctively, untutored. Any coherent sentences emerge entirely by accident. So there'll be no talk of story arcs, or three act structure, or character development.

This is not about MS Word documents v. spreadsheets v. index cards v. Snowflake Pro v. good old pen & paper. Yes, I know those are tools, but not the kinds of tools I'm talking about. For the purposes of these discussions, all the above are just different kinds of media that you can work with. In the kitchen, for example, maybe you need a spoon. Whether it is wooden or metal or plastic will depend on your needs at the time, but the spoon (something to scoop up stuff with) is the tool. Similarly if a writing tool is based on a two-dimensional table, then it's up to you whether you are more comfortable using Word, or Excel, or engraving it with a chisel into your kitchen counter. The table, and what it contains, are the important things, not what media you build it in.

What this is

This is all about equipping yourself with tools to help you with your writing. More importantly, it is all about making conscious choices about what tools to use, and when. My mission is to equip you with one tool to rule them all! A framework of questions to ask yourself, and things to think about.

The framework has a few different parts to it, which I'll delve into over the coming weeks, such as...

Function - what are you trying to achieve? It's kinda stating the obvious, but you use a tool for a purpose. You wouldn't try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer, for example. But I wonder how many people see writing tools, which are largely conceptual, the same way? A carpenter's toolkit is built around a fairly small number of functions: cutting, marking, drilling, screwing, nailing, for example. So what functions are important to writers?

Scalability - some tools perform the same function, but maybe one is good for a high level view, while another is needed to handle volume or detail. What scale are you working at?

Preference - how you like to work can make a big difference in what tools are right for you. Are you a planner, a pantser, a big-picture person, or detail-oriented?

More to follow...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Character assassination

About a year ago, I posted a couple of interviews with assassin, Shayla Carver. In reading through critiques of my early chapters I realised I needed to get more firmly into the head of her antagonist, Imperial Chief of Security, Chalwen ap Gwynodd.

So, before revising the chapter where Chalwen first appears, I decided to interview her to find out what she was really thinking at that time. The interview follows. It's pretty rough, but it's done its job. For the first time, I'm actually excited about tackling a piece of rewriting because this interview tool has helped me envisage how to portray her.

Whether I can get that down into coherent words, of course, is another matter entirely...

Spoiler alert (in case anyone from CC critiquing early chapters reads this): Chalwen is not who she first appears to be. This interview mentions things that only come out later in the story. It kinda gives away something of Chalwen's position, which I try to keep the reader guessing about.

Language advisory: one or two naughty words.

Chalwen ap Gwynodd - on being in the hot seat

Imperial Chief of Security, Chalwen ap Gwynodd, sits at her desk, facing me. Her aide had ushered me in but did not offer me a seat. Chalwen's eyes lift up from the dazzling stream of information flowing across the top of her desk. I realise that I now have her full attention, which is not a comfortable feeling. I feel like a moth caught in a spotlight, and I sense her impatience...

When you first heard about Chantry Bay, what went through your mind?

Momentary disbelief. [She presses her lips together and her face reddens] That didn't last long though. I've grown too accustomed to atrocities in this job to waste time with pointless incredulity.

Then I was fucking furious. I saw red.

Just as well the attendant who woke me with the news had my uniform ready to hand to me...

[Her fists clench, and I wonder if I dare prompt her to continue]

But then...have you ever had that feeling, somewhere in the back of your mind, that you've fucked up big time? But you can't put your finger on it.

It's just some grey dread growing inside you, because something's not quite right.

No, but I think I know what you mean.

Humph. Well. A ship down on home turf, that's bad enough. But I just had a feeling there'd be more to it. Something told me I wouldn't be able to just punish the perpetrators and get on with my life. Not this time.

What were you afraid of?

[She glances down at her desk. Her fingers twist together] What I've always been afraid of since I took on this fucking job. Screwing up. Letting something slip through the net. Something that'll destroy us all.

It sounds like you don't enjoy this job. Why do you keep doing it?

Julian appointed me because he trusted me. I can't let him down.

But why you?

I worked with his father, Paul, to root out the rot in the Empire. Part of a covert movement to fight an army of forces with vested interests in the old ways. Change and reform was something which Julian believed in, too. He needed someone he could trust in this position.

[She shakes her head, corners of her mouth turn up slightly] It was a smart move. I couldn't deny it. I was nobody, so nobody had cause to fear me or wish me dead.

No more than usual, anyway.

Julian could have picked a supporter from the ranks of the security service, but all those factions out there, all those shadowy figures, would have torn down anyone stronger. Me? I was an unknown. Someone they saw as weak and malleable. Someone they could turn and use.

So they thought.

I think most people would agree that you've been a very successful Chief of Security.

But I feel like I've been a fraud all these years. What did I know about security? I had many enemies within the service, jealous, ambitious people. All those eyes on me, waiting for me to fail. I kept ahead, only just, at times. But all the time my fear was that my enemies, our enemies, would prove them right.

So...I had this premonition that this was no simple act of sabotage. This was it. The small beginning that would turn out to be my downfall.

That scared me shitless.

I have trouble picturing you as someone who could be scared of anything.

[She looks down at her desk. Her voice is so quiet I have trouble hearing her]

Believe it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


A brief and rag-tag collection of updates.

I got my paints out again last week. That brought back a whole new load of memories as I wrestled with long-unused painting techniques once more.

No, this is not the Death Star (as Ali insists), nor is it the planet around which Pandora from Avatar orbits (as Matthew thinks). This is the mining moon, Jemiyal, from Ghosts of Innocence. This is unique for me, as it is the first time I've started a painting actually trying to illustrate something specific. Normally I am just getting a pure image out of my head onto paper, an image with no story behind it other than what the viewer wants to invent.

Also checking off finishing touches on the pirate ship (see the Pirates Ahoy! tab). Rope ladder and halyards done. We got a set of signal flags to brighten things up, but still have to find a proper pirate flag.

I'm still taking a break from writing submissions, and find myself looking for excuses to avoid tackling the next round of revisions, but I've been able to fit in a few critiques in the meantime. Limiting my blogging time seems to be paying off.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oh yeah...I remember!

With all the effort on the pirate ship, I stopped cycling to work in the middle of last summer. I don't cycle in the dark of the winter anyway, so it is now almost six months since I was last on a bike instead of the usual winter break of two to three months.

Last night, I was having trouble remembering all the things I need to get ready for the morning. The well-rehearsed routine was gone. Wash kit...clothes...hmmm, something missing...oh yeah, I remember now! Lunch! Very important.

Twenty-one kilometers there, and the same back. Maybe I should have done some shorter rides on the weekends to prepare, but what the heck!

Cold and squelchy feet from cycling through puddles. Clenching circulation back into handle-bar-numbed hands. Saddle sore bum protesting its presence when I ride over the speed bumps on Lochside Drive. Oh yes! I remember that. But it's early days and I'll get used to it. I remember that, too.

Pulling wet socks and shoes back on for the ride home. Luckily the yuck factor doesn't last long.

Legs too tired to climb the kilometer-long hill at the end of the ride home. That, too, will come with a couple more trips.

The wind on my face. Wow! They've filled in those nasty potholes by Lochside Park. Checking off today on my calendar with a green pen to show a cycling day. Friendly greetings from fellow sufferers travelers. A family of deer grazing on leafy suburbia.

Yes, I remember why it's all worth it.
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