Month: June 2013

Local language

Do your characters speak as if they inhabit our world or theirs?

Your audience wants immersion in the environment you are describing to them, and the suspension of disbelief can be broken by using terms and attitudes that are modern or culturally inappropriate.

Anachronisms are well understood and picked upon in TV shows of course: the 1960s drama with the modern car in the background, or the early era Roman battle with late Imperial armour, but keeping language appropriate to the setting in writing is surprisingly difficult.

In my own work, Bluehammer has been challenging because so many idioms in English rely on simile with things that aren’t in the Bluehamme world. What do you call a ponytail when there are no horses? Or a handlebar moustache when there are no bicycles? Or even a T junction when the written language is not using the Latin alphabet?

As an example from a published author, Mary Robinette Kowal has spoken about how she wanted to ensure that her Regency-set novels used language consistent with the period, so she created a word list based on the text of Jane Austen’s novels which she used to check the novel manuscript (this is of course exactly the kind of task which computers are helpful for).

The counter to this approach is that if the characters use too much language which is specific to their world then they can be too alien, but for my own work I try hard to avoid the use of our own terminology and attitudes since I really do want to make a different world rather than just our own in drag.

Being a transplant from another country helps here.

What vocabularian disindicators do you try to avoid in your work?

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A busy summer

It’s nearly July already.

We’ve got a busy summer which will eat very significantly into my writing time, and I do still want to keep up with writing the actual book I want to finish, so I will be writing less on this blog over the warmer months.

The summer schedule then is going to be to post once a week on Wednesdays, with supplemental posts on occasion.

As for today, I am still working on a post that will pop up later.

Thank you for reading.

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Super TV

In preparing A New Dawn, I’ve been watching television superhumans.

“A New Dawn” is a supers game setting which concentrates on emerging super humans in the style of “Heroes”, “Alphas”, or “Misfits”.

I have watched Heroes twice, including the third series (which I think demonstrates my ability to allow inertia to overtake common sense) so I didn’t really feel like I needed to re-watch it again.

However, I had not seen Alphas (a SyFy* show) or Misfits (which was shown in Britain on Channel 4 but is distributed in the US by the BBC).

They are two very different programmes.

The premises are distinct, to start. in Alphas we follow an established group of enhanced humans as they search for and help (or neutralise) other similarly enhanced humans. It’s basically a cop show, albeit with more angst about the role of government in controlling and suppressing superhumans than is usual in such stories.

My initial reaction to the programme was not positive, but I ended up watching the whole of the first season (all that’s available on Netflix at the moment) and found the last few shows to be more involving – I think because they moved away from the more formulaic plots of the opening shows and started to deal more with the tension between the goals of the supers and their government masters.

The production values for Alphas are high: it’s a polished American show with a relatively large cast and budget – lots of locations, lots of different characters.

But much of it is dull and humourless. There are efforts at jokes in there but in trying to be serious it comes across as solemn.

Misfits, on the other hand, is as quintessentially British as Alphas is American: it has a small recurring cast (which manages to be more culturally diverse with only five than Alphas is with six) and a tiny ancillary cast – a handful of other speaking parts in a typical episode. The number of locations is also much more restricted: the whole show is more tightly focussed on the protagonists and their journeys.

The characters in Misfits are a bunch of young criminals sentenced to community service. In the opening scenes of the show, there is a weird storm and they are struck by lightning, granting them superpowers. The discovery of their abilities is a fascinating and harrowing, and despite the narrow orbit of the show the stories that play out are compelling.

And it’s funny. The plots are dark and revolting and the language is filthy, but it is funny: not all of the time, and the humour is measured out in salutary dollops countering the occasionally morbid plot lines, but the emotion is real. You care about every single one of the characters, no matter how damaged or dysfunctional or gobby they are – there is more emotional impact and more depth in the first two episodes of Misfits than in the whole first season of Alphas.

It’s great. If you can deal with the language and the sexual content (which is less explicit than Game of Thrones but still quite, er, direct) then I highly recommend this show.

Working on A New Dawn has been a delight, and finding Misfits is great bonus.

[*] I loathe this new name. I didn’t like the old name, because I prefer the abbreviation “SF” for science fiction, but this new name is just vile.

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Some actual writing happened

My wife gives me a glorious gift each June, a combined birthday and Father’s Day present: she takes the kids away for a weekend.

The intent is to allow me to get some writing done.

This doesn’t always happen. Last year I wasn’t ready to write, and indeed spent much of the weekend dealing with an annoying cold, but this year I had an outline for Song and an actual plan for my writing.

Well, no plan survives contact with reality. Although I wasn’t ill I was more tired than I would have believed I could be (it’s almost as if I Put a lot of energy into my job!) so I managed to write about half of what I had hoped.

However, I do have a stronger supporting cast including a new name and an actual background for the protagonist’s wife, a character who was quite rightly noted as being a cipher in the first version of the story.

So, I would have liked to have got more words down, but it’s been a productive weekend all around so I am not going to actually complain about that. The main thing is that I am writing again.

I am thinking that taking part in the July Camp NaNoWriMo might be a good idea. April’s effort was feeble, but I’ve made a much stronger start this time so keeping going into July seems much more plausible.

The word mines are open once more.

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2013 Goals Post: Midsummer Edition

The last six weeks has been more productive than the ones before, but not really in the ways I had intended. However, having started using a burndown tracking system I feel like I have done a better job of staying focussed.

1. Finish Bluehammer

Last action: fix the outline.

I still think about this book, but I have done no further work on it.

  1. typo/consistency edit
  2. improve outline – ongoing.
  3. make the text match the outline
  4. hone the text
  5. make submission materials

Next action: fix the outline.

I will probably pick this up again once the second draft of Song is squared away, so look for more work on this in August or September.

2. Execute the Song plan

Last action: polish the outline.

As with last time, this is the primary work I have been doing over the last period. In particular, I finished the overall story and I have been working on more detailed scene descriptions. I have those for the first three acts.

Now, I am late with this outline. Last time I said that I would be done in two weeks, and that plainly didn’t happen – but I have kept working on it, and many of the ticklish details have been resolved.

  1. To outline what I have
  2. To expand the outline of the first half into a complete story
  3. To work on that outline until the story is good.
  4. To plug in text I can use from Song 2011 – this is no longer a meaningful goal since I need to rewrite everything.
  5. To rewrite to match the outline.
  6. Make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

Next action: finalise the outline.

I will be finishing this outline today.

Next action: rewrite.

I will be diving into the rewrite over the weekend. The plan at this point is to get the second draft done by the end of July.

3. Submit one novel.

Last action: finish a novel

Song is still the best bet here, and I am at least making progress. More work required.

Last action: to find some markets

No work on this.

4. Start looking for an agent.

Last action: research agents who represent science fiction.

No work on this.

5. Establish a daily writing practice.

Last action: write every day.

Using the burndown chart has helped enormously in keeping the next task in front of me, and in being realistic about what I can actually accomplish in the time I have for writing.

I’ve been working on three things:

  1. blogging – almost always the most time-sensitive work
  2. A New Dawn, of which more shortly but this has deadlines built in too
  3. Song

Song unfortunately has been consistently at the end of the list but I have still been working on it even so, and I have been writing every day.

Next action: use burndown chart to maintain focus.

A New Dawn

In the past I have been on the edge of quitting roleplaying entirely because of the time it requires to run a game, but I enjoy it too much (spending time with friends is important!) and is another outlet for my writing. It is also the only outlet I really have for my thesping – mostly I do accents rather than actual characters, but it’s what I can do and I get a lot out of it.

The previous campaign wound down at the end of May and I have had the idea for A New Dawn bumping around in my head for a while. It was time to wheel it out.

I am doing a few things to try to control the amount of time this game takes up:

  • plan what I need, busk the rest – a common fault of mine is to put too much writing into descriptions and set pieces which then don’t get used because the players go a different way. This ignores my actual talent for making things up as I go, which I want to exploit a bit more.
  • use state charts to deliver the story
  • keep a tight rein on the time spent (see previous remarks about the effectiveness of the burndown chart)
  • only run short segments – A New Dawn could run for a long time between the plot I have and the excellent character backgrounds the players wrote, but this is intended as a fill-in campaign to populate gaps in the schedule.

Of course, starting this in the summer when there are going to breaks in play will help manage the impact a bit.

Next action: run at least one session.


More productive and focussed than last time, so that’s good, although not as directly productive as I had hoped which is a little disappointing.

Summer will be interesting. I have my writing weekend, um, now then camping trips which will bomb many of the weekends, and general summeriness which will see me occupied outside more.

But I have an outline.

To the word mines!

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“It’s a Sunday night in March, the 24th. It’s late and its raining. You’re going to your usual occupation tomorrow but you’re having a tough time getting to sleep – your mind is racing with the events of the day.”

I have great players in my roleplaying group. We don’t always agree on what makes a good game, but they’re all game for a new setting and an interesting hook.

“You hear a noise outside – not a familiar noise or a loud noise, but a strange sound like a thousand rubber bands snapping at once. You wonder about getting up to look but then you think – no. It’ll be fine. I need to go to sleep.

“You sleep.”

We played the opening session of A New Dawn last Friday and I have to say that as origin-heavy as it was, they all did an excellent job of reacting to circumstance and adapting their background narratives to the new situation.

“When you wake it is broad daylight. You sit up, panicking. Hey, it’s sunny outside. Wasn’t it supposed to be wet today?”

They had all come up with characters that were interesting and well-rounded even before their awakening, and the format we used for the opening session of going around the table to get the individual responses and actions from each character (the characters started the game separate from each other for the most part) worked so well because the players stepped up and displayed excellent imagination.

“You feel different. You can’t put your finger on why, but you feel… more alive.

“Wait a minute – what time is it? It should be dark. Oh gods, I must me be really late.

“You glance at the clock. No, it’s the usual time.

“You get out of bed to look out of the window.

“Then you notice the date.

“It’s June. It’s a Wednesday in June.”

So, thank you to my players. It’s going to an interesting game.

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The Island of Lost Plots

Welcome to the Island of Lost Plots, where first novels, incomplete short stories, and failed scenes come to rest and bemoan their malformed narratives.

One persistent and pernicious myth about writing, especially amongst non-writers, is that stories are written in one go: that each appears jewel-like in the mind, and is then transcribed in sublime rapture while angels sing to soothe the passions.

I think the root of this myth is that writing is an inherently solitary pastime, and is invisible while it’s being practiced. A bestseller may be an overnight success, but that ignores the years and decades of practice and hard work which the writer put in to become good enough to write the best seller.

Writing is work. The words sometimes flow, but not always. The ideas will come, but only if you are ready for them and that means keeping your story in mind at all times, and not always going with the first and most obvious idea.

There is a principle in agile software development of using the simplest solution to a problem that could possibly work. That may be OK for a first draft of a story, but the simplest thing may turn out to be too obvious to the reader, or to distract from the point the story is trying to make, or to just be a cliché.

We reread, we rewrite, we reread again.

I am a great fan of NaNoWriMo, whose entire purpose is to encourage the writer to get the story down as quickly as possible: an entire month – nay, an entire charitable organisation – founded on the principle of writing the first thing that comes into your head but the luminaries at the heart of that organisation do not claim that after thirty days you will have a finished novel. You will have a story which you didn’t have before, and some characters who are new to you, but you still need to polish it at the very least.

Or you may be best served by throwing it away and starting again.

There is always more room on the island, and those plots are lost for a reason.

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Cheese and beer

Getting to know your characters is always a good idea. Describing their relationships à la the Fiasco method is good for plot hooks and background, while general character design sheets are good for collecting general information. But what brings a character description to life are specific details.

Here are some examples of detail questions which you may never use directly in your writing, but which will help give shape to the character in your mind.

  • what cheese does you character like? Is he/she allergic to dairy?
  • does your character drink beer? Do they care if it’s microbrew/real ale*?
  • drop and give me twenty… books that the character has read. Which ones would h/she read again?
  • your character has just moved into a new home. What’s the first thing to unpack?
  • and what colour would the walls be painted?
  • does the character drive? What would be their dream car/bike/travois? What do they actually have? Do they maintain the vehicle themselves? Do they care about it?
  • does the character like camping? Does he/she have a choice?
  • write about the character’s morning routine.
  • does the character pray? Who/what to?
  • is your character a collector? What of? Do they deal in the collected items, or just gather? How meticulously are they sorted? Do they spend time reordering the collection? Would the ordering make sense to anybody else?
  • the character is going to an interview for a job they don’t want but really need. What does he/she wear?
  • does the character play an instrument?
  • what is your character’s least-liked sound?

A good source for these kinds of questions are Internet meme surveys, although leafing through something like Schott’s Almanac for sideways things to look at is also helpful.

Like I say, the answers to these questions wouldn’t usually be used as is (unless your story is actually about a cheese-tasting numismatist) but it colours the character in and means you will describe them and their actions more convincingly.

Are there any character questions you like to ask?

[*] no, these are not the same things, but they cover similar character traits for US and UK beer drinkers.

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Happy Birthday To Me

“But I didn’t want to be an accountant! I wanted to be…
a lumberjack!”

Today is my birthday. It is also the first anniversary of my starting work at my current employer.

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on work, passion, and hobbies.

I am fortunate to have chosen a field of employment (software) which has always had a low unemployment rate, and which pays me to write. The stuff I am paid for is not fiction, but it is at least writing something durable and interesting.

My career has spanned almost a quarter century, but I was a hobby programmer before that. Software really was my passion, both in work and in hobby time, for many years.

I’ve written fiction much less consistently: some serial fiction here, a desultory short story there. I didn’t write any fiction for at all for nearly a decade, but the recent spate of writing has lasted nearly ten years so I think it’s going to stick. Writing fiction is my passion now.

But again, I have been lucky: I have a passion. Not everyone finds one, or even needs one.

A friend observed recently that during commencement season many addresses are given which advise new graduates to follow their passion, not acknowledging the fact that for most people a job is work and that that job will pay them money in return for not having enough time to spend in the way they choose. Because most people won’t find their passion in their first job, or their second job, or even in their paid employment at all: they will find it in their hobbies and pastimes.

That’s where most people want to spend their time – playing games, or watching sport, or collecting, or crafting, or tinkering, or gardening. Hobbies are hugely important to give you (as Denis Healey* put it) a hinterland.

Hobbies are important, but that does not mean that the job is unimportant.

My personality is such that if I am unhappy in my job, then I am unhappy. I have had jobs where, for whatever reason, I was unhappy and it was a profoundly corrosive experience. The world turns grey in summer, the night becomes unquiet and restless with the crushing weight of it all.

Even my hobbies became a burden. I would read Terry Pratchett and not laugh.

So, if I have advice to offer in this realm it is to find a job that you don’t hate, and to perform it diligently – even enthusiastically – for as long as it supports your avocation.

But if the job becomes inimical to your hobbies and your personal life, if the psychic damage done in your occupation greys out the joy, then really: look for something else.

For myself, I moved to the States to get away from such a situation, and I have left other jobs since because they were pulling me into waters I do not wish to immerse myself in again. Where I am now is a vibrant place filled with energetic people, and although it is a demanding environment it is supportive.

I can still write.

On this day, that is the birthday gift I am most grateful for.

[*] a British politician of the 70s and 80s who, I am delighted to learn, is still alive.

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A New Dawn

A couple of weeks ago I posted about some world building for a roleplaying game. That’s not the setting that I am actually using, since I don’t want to tip my hand to my players. The setting I am building is called “A New Dawn”. I am describing it as “concentrat[ing] on emerging super humans in the style of “Heroes”, “Alphas”, or “Misfits”.”

Currently I am engaged in the interesting work of building this out to make it playable.

I have my mechanics sorted out (including borrowing a sanity mechanic from Cthulhu Mythos games to model the alienation the PCs feel – “because super humans are still human”), an opening story ready to go, and I am currently making characters to oppose the PCs.

The tools I am using for this work are all the ones I’ve been talking about recently relating to outlining: state diagrams, gating events in act structure, and the Noteboard. The goal here is to have a broad story structure which the players can explore. I am trying very hard to avoid too much prep on aspects which the players may well avoid – the point here is to have enough structure in place that I can improvise details as I go.

However, the most disruptive aspect of this preparation exercise is the research. I mentioned three TV shows in the descriptive statement: I’ve watched all of Heroes, but I had never watched any of Alphas or Misfits, so I have been catching up with those shows on streaming video services.

Based on the pilot episode at least, I don’t think I would recommend Alphas. They lost me right at the beginning by misapplication of the term “synesthesia” to mean “enhanced senses” – synaesthesia (as I prefer to spell it) refers more to cross-wired senses, and that is the way in which the synaesthetic Alpha character uses her power for parts of the story, but the first usage of it is enhance her hearing, which is a bit off.

On the other hand, Misfits is a real corker. It’s a classic British show with a small cast and limited location scope (at least in the first couple of episodes) but it manages to pack so much mystery, tension and character development into those tight spaces.

Anyway, all of this means that I have watching more TV lately which is not good for my routine.

But it’s going to be great. More on this post-game, I think.

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