On Writing

Stephen King is a writer whose work has never appealed to me. His early books were all in the horror genre at a time when I wasn’t reading horror at all, and I found the covers unpleasant (yes, perhaps I was judging the book by its cover). Later, when I started reading some horror books I avoided his books as being too mainstream – in fact the only story of his that I have read is a Cthulhu Mythos short story called “Crouch End”. It’s all right, but not the strongest story in the anthology (New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos).

However there is one book of his that I read and recommend highly – On Writing.

Its first part is a memoir, covering his early years, his development as an author, the stresses of dealing with his fame, and through the awful road accident in 1999 that came so close to ending him. The second part is a distillation of his writing wisdom. It’s personal and therefore individual to him (your mileage may therefore vary – mine does) but it’s always clear and well articulated.

The one part of King’s advice which I follow without exception is that when I finish a manuscript I leave it alone for six weeks. I print it out with its own cover, and then put it in a locked desk drawer where it will rest for long enough to allow me some distance when I come back to it. That really really helps me.

But there’s lots more in there. “On Writing” is a worthwhile book.

Thank you, Mr King.

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Kissiltur: Book One state of play 24-Sep-2012

As I mentioned last week, my main WIP is the Kissiltur trilogy. I have been working on this story on and off for the last seven years.

Currently I am trying to make book one interesting.

That’s not to say that I think it is dull now, but of the three MCs only one has a real motive to his story. The other two are at least active, but they largely react to things rather than that they are going after something they want. There’s not much conflict or rising stakes, and what I need here is to set the stage for the rest of the trilogy in as compelling a way as possible.

So, the work at the moment is to weave a plot into the book which will provide momentum to the story as a whole, and motivation for the two less driven MCs.

This is a complicated book. It has three interleaved narratives, which each operate in their own timeline. One of the things I have struggled with is how to indicate that the three stories don’t run simultaneously, using things like seasons and astronomical events to signal the different timing, so one of the unexpected benefits of the new plot element is that this difference in timing is much clearer.

I have an incomplete second draft of 120k and some notes on the new plot and a couple of chapter fragments from an abortive effort in June to work this through. The plan is to finish this off in November, using NaNoWriMo as the impetus to get it done.

This does mean that I will be cheating in November – that is, working on an existing manuscript – but it will not be the first time and I am willing to bet that it will not be the last. But they will be new words, on new plot, and I think that counts for something.

Also, starting this blog has done some good already – I have had a critical realisation about the way that the Imperial roads work that will help many parts of the story be more vivid.

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Terrible Minds

Terrible Minds

Chuck Wendig is an author with a salty turn of phrase and a dark imagination. He is also a purveyor of, as he puts, dubious writing wisdom.

I’ve been reading Chuck’s blog for a while now, and his lists of 25 things about writing and the business of writing are opinionated, often instructive, and equally often laden with strong language (so, that easily offended person over there? Not appropriate. Sorry). He sells these lists collected as ebooks, and I think they’re worth buying. I have all of them on my portable reading device, and return to them regularly for a top up of Chuck’s choice phrasing.

His fiction is vivid, and underlines to me that he knows enough for it to be worth listening to his advice. I have his Miriam Black books loaded up on the Kindle too. They are exquisitely paced pulp stories, realising the consequences of a horrible idea – that the protagonist can see how people will die. It’s pretty dark stuff, sometimes difficult to keep reading but always hard to put down.

So, that’s Chuck – go and visit him. He won’t bite unless you ask him to.

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Fiction Is Software Is Fiction

I tell stories to computers, as my friend Howard has put it.

This is what programming is: writing down the story of how a piece of information is turned from one thing into another, or how a set of data is to be interpreted, or how to paint a picture which shows the information to the user of the program. Sometimes I write programs that help other people write programs – indeed, there was one tool where I wasn’t just writing a program about programs, it was a program about programs about programs about programs*, which in my experience is about as abstract as it gets in software.

But still – the point here is not the occasional abstruseness of my day job, the point is that programming is story telling, and as such is close kin to writing fiction.

One of the most powerful tools in software is something called the use case. A use case describes something that the system does – a way in which the software can be used to perform some piece of work: open a file, for example; add a case of gin to the shopping cart; make the alien’s head explode. Where the power comes in is that you describe not just the the general feature, but the state of the system before the use case starts, and the ending conditions: the file must be present on the disc; the user must be on the distilled liquor page; the alien’s helmet must have been removed. You do not define how you get from one state to the other. This is all about what the user sees, and maybe what long term state changes. The implementation is not specified.

When I am laying out a novel, I effectively write use cases for my chapters. Each chapter gets a note on who is in it, what the starting conditions are, and where the chapter needs to end. Unless it is important to the plot, I leave the location loose, and I may add a couple of things that need to happen if they are not implied by the end state, but that’s all. Out of that looseness comes the discovery of the setting and the invention of minor characters that I enjoy so much.

Of course, the deeper truth about programming is that although you are telling the computer what to do, you are really writing the story for the next person who touches the code – so we are telling stories to each other using bad spelling and too much punctuation.

[*] for the record, it was a tool for writing descriptions of reusable diagram components which were then used to create diagrams which could then be used to generate application code.

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Douglas Adams

“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”

I spent a large part of my teenaged years emulating Marvin the Paranoid Android, the depressive robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“I seem to be at the bottom of a five mile deep hole. What does that remind me of? Ah yes – life.”

One friend and I would recite passages of dialogue from the book as we were walking home from school. This was from the book only – neither of us had heard the radio show since it had been broadcast too late at night for us to hear, and the BBC tapes didn’t come out until years later.

“Making it up? Why would I want to make anything up? Life’s bad enough without inventing any more of it.”

I read the first book many times. A dozen, two dozen… honestly, I don’t know. My Dad bought me that, along with the records. The records were the only audio I had of the stories for a long time. Those scripts for the records later surfaced as the TV version of the story.

“The first ten millions years were the worst. And the second ten million? They were the worst too.”

My Dad and I were waiting in the car once for my Mum and sisters to turn up at Leeds train station. That was where we figured out that six times nine really is forty two, as long as you use base thirteen.

“I seem to have this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.”

There are many authors whose work I like, some who I admire, and a few whose books I actively collect, but Douglas Adams was the first author whose work I was really obsessed by. The Dirk Gently books are great, too – I love the way that a complex emerges from seemingly disparate elements.

So if you ever happen to notice a character of mine who is described in sympathetic detail only to be killed off suddenly at the end of the chapter, that is an echo of Douglas Adams’ whale slamming into the surface of Magrathea.

I should go and read those again.

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Works In Progress

I write novels.

I tried to write novels in my twenties, but I never got past chapter two and ended up taking ten years off from writing fiction. I came back to it by signing up for National Novel Writing Month in 2004, and I have competed and won every year since.

Finishing NaNoWriMo gives you a completed story arc – a very rough first, or even zeroth, draft. What I have not done with any of these early drafts is completed them. This is a run down of the stories I have worked on in NaNoWriMo, and where each of those stories is now.

2004 – The Vampire Hunters

A story about vampires and their effect on the humans they touch. The original version was first person and had a good voice but problems with the incomplete knowledge of the MC: meetings kept popping up to tell him something he needed to know, or at least something the reader would like to know.

I tried rewriting in third person to work around that, but the voice was lost. Then I tried alternating first and third person, but the third person chapters displayed massive thematic overload: I came up with so many ideas I had to put in. Any rewrite will go back to first person and have a much tighter thematic focus.

2005 – The Flamecrown of Kissiltur

A story about a boy who becomes a king. It was about halfway through writing this when I realised that this was actually a trilogy: the multiple points of view I was using and the scope of the setting were such that I didn’t see any way to fit this into one novel satisfactorily.

2006 – Paragons

A story about the end of the world. This was supposed to be apocalyptic horror, but ended up being mostly lab techs whinging about their jobs. Usually I read my books six weeks after completion, but this one was so obviously bad during the writing of it that I didn’t open it for several years. My fears were entirely justified.

There’s still a story in here that I want to tell, but not like this.

This is the closest I have come to not finishing without external circumstances intruding.

2007-2010 – The Kissiltur Trilogy.

Expanding out the story from the 2005 effort. I wrote early drafts of all three books, then worked on the second draft of book one in 2010. I love this setting and the characters.

The book two draft in 2008 was the other year I nearly didn’t finish, because I lost my job halfway through November. I hit the basic word count goal, and finished the story later.

2011 – A Turquoise Song

A near future science fiction story about robots, aliens and synaesthesia. The longest work I have written in November at more than 80,000 words.

So as of now I have two books in active development:

  • Book One of the Kissiltur Trilogy – what I call my main WIP. This is about halfway through what is properly a third draft, working to enhance the drive ofthe characters. This is the book I plan on shopping around the traditional publishing route once it’s ready to go.
  • A Turquoise Song – the first draft got positive feedback from early readers. I need to rework quite large chunks of it, but this is the one I plan on self-publishing.

So that’s what I have in the works. How about yourself?

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Identity Function

Welcome to my writing blog.

I used to have a blog called “Why Should I Listen To You?” It was important to me for a while, but it was always an unfocussed place and its relevance to my life diminished over time. When the platform broke during a server move I didn’t even notice for a year.

But I still wanted to write about writing, which is where this place comes in.

Identity Function is my blog about writing. I have been working as a professional writer in the genre of software for a long time. In that area I have written a lot of code and documentation and design documents. But what I want to be writing is fiction… I wrote fragmentary pieces as a child, put together some roleplaying scenarios when I was at Uni, and wrote a couple of works of serial fiction after I started work. Then I stopped writing stories.

Ten years later, after I had moved to the States. I found National Novel Writing Month. It was a revelation. That first novel took me less than three weeks to knock out. I have since competed in National Novel Writing Month seven more times, winning every time (although 2006 and 2008 were close).

The place I fail in writing fiction is in completing revisions so I have something to actually submit. My goal with starting this blog is to talk about my experience of writing, but in the very short term just to get me writing regularly again. Because, you know, writers write.

What I write is speculative fiction, mostly science fiction with some occasional horror elements. As of this writing, I have two books in active development. I will probably self-publish one of them.

In this space you’ll hear more about all of these things, along with war stories, influences, and perhaps even occasional nuggets of advice – which in this context are things that work for me. What you won’t see here is my fiction: if that is available on-line it will be under separate cover.

So that’s me. How about you? Do you write? What kind of stories do you enjoy?

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