Traditions

I enjoy celebrating Christmas even though I’m not religious. I enjoy spending time with my family, exchanging gifts, eating good food, seeing all the lights everywhere, decorating the Christmas tree, and all the different traditions that go around it. But you also find that different family groups have their own traditions and practices. For some families, religion is the central piece of the celebration and so there are carol services and nativity events, mangers and midnight mass. For others, religion doesn’t play a part in it and the traditions are centred around family and friends.

We have a few traditions in my family. Like meeting up to go and look at the wildlife photography exhibit in the Natural History Museum. Various aunts, uncles, cousins, partners of cousins, and so on all meet up to have a look at the photos and then go out for a nice meal. This isn’t something you would find in any summary of the Christmas traditions, but it’s something we’ve done for a few years now and so it’s become part of our tradition.

We have other things, like a trip to the cinema on Christmas Eve with my parents, and a hamper that we all contribute too. This isn’t a fancy hamper packaged up by a shop, but a box that we all fill with special treat foods, things that we don’t get very often, or things that just seemed different and fun. Sometimes things in the hamper are specifically intended for one person (like the crystallised ginger my mum loves) but other things are intended for all of us (like a shared chocolate orange).

So why am I talking about this on a writing blog?

I think when world-building, it’s tempting to make everything too homogenised. All the people in this area follow the same religion and practice the same traditions in the same way. In the real world, it doesn’t work that way. Everyone has their own subtle takes on the standard. Even in the same region, culture, and religion, you will find variations. It’s worth including that in your stories, and especially tying it into other factors. The differences around a shared experience can be a great way of highlighting other differences between characters or showcasing their backgrounds or even bringing in moments of conflict and character development.

Perhaps one character makes a big deal about the shared meal because they used to go hungry a lot when they were younger, and having lots of good food is a reminder to themselves that those days are over. Perhaps one character follows an older set of traditions because of a religious upbringing. Perhaps one character feels that they have to shower everyone with gifts while another feels uncomfortable receiving so much and ashamed because their own gifts are small. Perhaps that could be a cause for resentment between those characters.

I enjoy creating traditions, rituals, and celebrations in my world building, but it can be fun to think about all the different takes people might have on these same traditions, and the ways that they might add to them based on their situation or character. Next time you’re inventing some big holiday in your world, consider each of your characters and imagine how each of them might treat this holiday a little differently.

Christmas Fair

Last weekend was the start of Christmas fair season for me. I use these fairs as an opportunity to sell my books as well as a few other items, such as hand-stitched pin badges and bookmarks, which helps to cover the cost of having a table. This fair was one held in a local school and it’s one I did pretty well at last year. One of the highlights of last year was the guy who wanted to buy badges for all of his grandchildren who cleared out half my stock in one go.

This year wasn’t quite so successful. It started out reasonably and I sold three books and some badges in the first hour (including a girl who bought a bi pride badge who then came back to buy a rainbow one for her girlfriend), but after that it got dramatically quieter and I only made one more sale for the entire rest of the fair. I didn’t take it personally because it was quiet for all the stalls around me. The guy across from me selling wooden toys and puzzles looked like he might be falling asleep at times.

I did have some good conversations and a few people took cards saying that they would look up the e-book versions, so fingers crossed about that. I also got some chuckles for my new bookmark designs. This was the first outing for my “aliens believe in you” and “always finish what you sta…” bookmarks and both of them amused people, which was what I wanted.

I ended up rearranging my stall part-way through. I started out with all the books on one side and all the other stuff on the other, but then I rearranged it so that the books were in three groups with the other things in between. Any thoughts on which layout looks better? Leave your opinions in the comments.

Christmas fair stall Christmas fair stall

It wasn’t my most successful Christmas fair, but I still sold four books that I wouldn’t have sold if I’d stayed at home, so I’m counting it as a win.

Call for Interviews

It’s been a while since I’ve done an interview on this blog. I do author interviews of writers who publish science fiction or fantasy books. I’m especially interested in authors who include LGBTQ+ representation or who otherwise showcase diversity in their writing.

If you are an author who wants to promote your books through one of these interviews, let me know. You can contact me by leaving a comment on this blog post, or by filling out this short form with your contact information and a bit of information about your books. I generally conduct interviews over email by sending a few questions at a time for you to fill out when you have an opportunity. Filling out the form doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do an interview with you if I feel that your books aren’t a suitable fit for my blog, but I do want to support other writers so get in touch if you think you might be a fit.

Check out some of the previous interviews if you want to get a feel for what to expect.

Antagonists and villains

In writing, the antagonist of a story is a person who is directly opposed to the desires, goals, or well-being of the protagonist. They are the person that the hero of the story is fighting against or trying to overcome, or an obstacle in the path to achieving their desired outcome. Very often, people conflate antagonist with villain and often, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, they clearly are. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is the main antagonist and he is definitely a villain – a force of evil trying to conquer the world. Voldemort is a fascist murderer. But someone can be an antagonist without being a villain – and this can sometimes lead to interesting conflict and more nuanced stories.

I’m going to give an example for a TV show recently aired on Netflix that had surprising nuance for the kids fantasy show that it is: The Dragon Prince. Only a handful of episodes have aired so far, so it’s not certain what direction the writers will take the story or how the conflicts between characters will play out, but it seems to have a lot of potential for interesting dynamics between the characters.

The heroes of the show, the protagonists, are clear. The story is about two human princes, Callum and Ezran, and the elf assassin Rayla trying to stop a war by returning a stolen dragon egg to its mother. The antagonist of the show are more complicated because there are a number of characters who directly oppose these characters without necessarily being villains. I am going to give some spoilers here, so if you’re interested in watching the show, be warned, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything major.

Runaan is the leader of the assassins who come to kill the human king and Prince Ezran. He wants Ezran dead along with their father/step-father. He won’t hesitate to kill humans he comes across. At first glance, his character seems like a clear villain, except his actions are also about protecting the lives of his team, and getting justice for a crime committed by humans. Within the narrative, he is quickly put in a position where we as the audience are meant to feel pity for him. While he is narratively opposed to the heroes, we can have sympathy for him as well.

Soren is even less like a villain. When he is introduced, he is training Callum in sword-fighting, doing so in a teasing and joking manner that shows affection between the characters. He is a friend to the princes, and is a generally likeable character, laughing and joking, messing with his sister. He has his flaws and shows occasional meanness in his jokes, but overall his character is firmly on the side of the good guys. Except he is given the instructions to kill the princes. This order is framed as being for the good of the kingdom, to ensure that someone with experience is on the throne when war comes. He is told that this is for the greater good, but the choice still clearly troubles him. This is a character who wants to do what is right being told to kill the heroes of the show but still not quite being a villain.

Claudia is in a similar position. She is given the task of hunting the princes down and in an early episode tries to kill Rayla, but she does so to protect Callum and Ezran. She uses magic and sometimes has the appearance that would more normally be associated with a dark magic doer in a fantasy show, but she uses her magic to defend the princes from a perceived threat. Seeing the scenes where she’s joking with her brother, it’s hard to picture her as a villain, but she’s clearly an antagonist.

General Amaya is even more clearly one of the good guys. She tries to kill Rayla but she does so because she thinks Rayla is a bloodthirsty elf who had kidnapped the princes. She wants to protect the princes and the kingdom. She wants to stop someone claiming the throne through treachery. She stands in the way of the heroes’ goals, but because she is trying to help them without having all the information.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes with all these different character dynamics, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. As writers we can look at an example like this and think about how to put more nuance into the relationships between the characters in our stories. Just because someone is an antagonist doesn’t mean that they have to be an evil villain. There’s a lot of potential for interesting drama when they’re far from it.

Acceptance

While I was on the writer’s retreat which I posted a review for last week, I finished off a novella. This was a gay, fantasy, romance about a man being sacrificed to a monster and finding that the monster showed him more kindness than his former neighbours. I submitted it to Less Than Three Press, a publishing house that specialises in LGBTQ+ romances (a number of their titles are on the queer reading list), and I received the automatic response saying that I would hear back from them in approximately six to eight weeks.

When I saw an email in my inbox less than a week later, my heart sank, because the response was so much quicker than I expected and, from experience, rejections are always significantly faster than acceptances. I saw that email and I knew that my story had been turned down.

Or not.

Apparently acceptances can be that fast because they had said yes. They sent me a contract to publish the novella as an e-book, which I have now signed. The book still has to go through the editing process, but watch this space for more news as it comes out.

This is the fastest I’ve ever had a story accepted and it’s made me more than a little excited. It’s always a thrill to have a story accepted, but to have it accepted in less than a week on its first submission is something different. I can only assume that it means they really liked it and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Review: Retreats for You

I’ve spent the past week at a writer’s retreat in Devon called Retreats for You. I thought I’d post about my experiences.

The most important measure of success for the week is that I got a lot of writing done. I finished the final tweaks/cleaning of A Monster’s Kindness, wrote a synopsis, and submitted the manuscript to a publisher. I went through/edited/rewrote almost 28000 words of the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy. I wrote about 9400 words of the first draft of the next book in the Codename Omega series. All in all, I’m extremely pleased with how productive I was over the week.

The retreat is in an old house in a small village in Devon where you’re shut off from the distractions of the outside world. There’s not much there in the village – a pub, a village shop, a handful of houses. Apparently you can go for nice walks in the countryside if the weather’s good and there are some National Trust properties within reasonable driving distance, but I (and the other writers there) spent our time shut up in the house getting on with our writing projects. Each bedroom has a writing desk, so we generally spent a good chunk of the day shut in our rooms writing. There were other places we could have gone to write – the dining room, the garden, a summer house, a studio across the garden, etc. – but the weather wasn’t great and the bedrooms afforded quiet and privacy.

The rooms didn’t have ensuite, although the owner of the retreat has plans to fit this for some of the bedrooms before the end of the year. When I was there, there were a couple of shared bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. This was fine, but the house was quite old and if I wanted to sneak to the loo in the middle of the night every floorboard in the place creaked like I was in a horror movie. I think the ensuites will be a big improvement, but everyone was reasonable about the shared bathroom so we didn’t have any issues with it and the owner made sure we had plenty of toiletries available if we wanted them.

Everyone was very friendly. The owner was a lovely lady who was nice and supportive and checked to make sure we were all happy. There were a couple of other staff who came to look after the place and cook meals who were also very nice. And the other writers were great too. There were four of us staying the week I was there – me, two other writers, and a non-writer who was there for the retreat part – but the place could hold up to six guests.

It felt very sociable as we would share evening meals together or could hang out in the living room and talk. Lunches and breakfasts were laid out buffet style, so we had the option of eating with everyone else at the table or taking the food up to our rooms and continuing to write. We spent the time talking about our projects and progress, sharing advice and tips, and have general discussions about writing and everything else. I think this was what really made the retreat. Yes, we got the quiet time to get lots of writing done, but it never felt isolated because of the shared meals.

The meals themselves were excellent. It was all home cooking with plenty of fresh vegetables, and the staff were happy to take into account allergies and preferences and other dietary requirements. I didn’t have a bad meal when I was there and there were flapjacks and cakes available. On Wednesday, the retreat opens the dining room as a tea room so we were able to get cream teas. I took mine up to my room and ate a lovely, homemade scone with jam and cream while working on my books. It was really nice.

While I’m talking about food, I need to make a special shout out to the butter. This was the greatest butter I have ever tasted in my life. It was made at a local farm and sold in the village shop, so I bought myself a roll of butter to bring home with me. The retreat deserves a full ten out of ten marks for the butter alone. I realise it may seem strange that I’m dedicating a whole paragraph of this review to butter, but I’m not kidding. This butter is amazing.

So on the whole, I had a great time at the retreat and got a load of work done. The biggest drawback of the place is the shared bathrooms, but as I said earlier, the owner has plans to put in some ensuites before the end of the year, so that issue should be resolved soon. It was a great retreat and I’m already planning on going back next year.

Writer’s Retreat

I have next week booked off work, which will be awesome, and I’ll be using the time as a writer’s retreat. My intention is to get some peace and quiet and really focus on writing for a few days.

I always have several projects on the go but there are three in particular I intend to focus on for this holiday:

  • finishing the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy
  • writing the first draft fourth book in the Codename Omega series
  • getting the m/m monster romance novella ready to go out to publishers

I will probably work on all of these at some point over the week, but the question is where I should prioritise my efforts.

The first of those projects is probably the most urgent one as it’s been ages since the second book came out and the publishing process will take about a year even after I’ve finished it. One of my coworkers keeps asking when that book will be out, and since she’s still not forgiven me for killing her favourite character, I probably should finish the book at some point.

But having said that, tidying up the novella will probably be a shorter task. If I focus on that, I can probably get it done and have the book ready to go to publishers by the end of the week and it will feel great to have something definitively done out of this focus time.

But it would also be amazing if I could buckle down and get a complete first draft of Codename Blank Slate written.

I want to set myself definite goals because otherwise what will probably end up happening is that I’ll flit between all three of these and spend half the time writing fanfic instead. I will write some fanfic this week, but that’s not the point of doing this.

I’ve decided to set general writing goals as well as specific goals for each of these three projects. My goal is to spend at least half an hour a day on each of these three projects. That’s a small enough target that it doesn’t seem too daunting and over the course of the week off work, I should make decent progress on all of them, but it allows me the freedom to work longer on whatever happens to be flowing better that day.

I’m also going to set myself a word count target: 10000 words a day across everything, including fanfic and whatever other random stuff I end up writing. They won’t all necessarily be new words if I’m editing the novella which is why I think I can get away with setting the target so high. I can reevaluate after a couple of days if that seems like it’s going to be too much.

The Problem of the Shiny New Idea

I’ve never been very good at focus when it comes to my writing. I can write a lot in a short period of time, but it’s not always for the thing that I feel I should be working on. At any given time, I might be actively working on a couple of books, another couple of fanfics, a short story, and have the ideas for half a dozen other stories bubbling away in my head like something on the backburner of the stove, ready to boil over.

The advantage of this is that I’ve never really struggled with writer’s block. If one of my stories is at an awkward place, I can write something else until I have a bit of inspiration about how to fix whatever is flagging. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a writing session. I’ll write a few hundred words on one project and then find myself stuck because I need to research something, or I can’t think of the right word, or I’m just not sure what should happen next. When that happens, I can flip over to another writing project and usually blast out a few hundred words on that instead.

This approach can also be useful with editing, because I can finish the first draft of a story and then go and focus on my other projects for a bit, and when I come back to that first story I can look at it with fresh eyes and spot the problems that need to be fixed.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the part of me going, “I really should finish the second draft of the third Shadows of Tomorrow book,” gets drowned out by the other part of me that goes, “There’s a shiny new idea over there.”

I have some time booked off work soon that I’m using as writer’s retreat. I really, really should spend that time finishing the third Shadows of Tomorrow book. Anyone want to make bets about how quickly I get distracted by a new and shiny idea?

Recipe for a Story

My nephew has the most amazing book. It’s called Recipe for a Story and it’s all about creating a story, but told using the metaphor of baking a cake. The narrator mixes in ingredients like characters and words, good and bad. At one point, the narrator stirs it until the plot begins to thicken.

This is the sort of story that will appeal to writers because there are lines like “I’ll weigh out the words – just enough. Choosing the rights ones can be tough.” There’s another bit later about not knowing what the story’s about until you roll it out, and I’m reading this thing going, “Yep, sounds about right.”

There are some wonderful illustrations too, like a jar of “giggly words preserves” that’s full of smiley faces, and full stops are in a pepper shaker. On one page, there’s a pile of books with various word pun titles.

My nephew enjoys it but as a writer, I think it’s fantastic. It’s my new favourite book because it’s a beautiful way to talk about the writing process.

This isn’t exactly a formal book review, but if you have young children you want to read to, I highly recommend it.

Drip Feeding

Drip feeding is the concept of providing your readers with information on your story’s world or your character’s backstory a little bit at a time, with small pieces here and there that come together to form a bigger picture over time. This is in comparison to, for example, a prologue that explains the entire history of your sci-fi setting in one lump of exposition. This works because it allows the reader to get to know the characters before being dumped into a history lesson, it allows for hints at a bigger and more complex universe without you necessarily needing to explain every tiny detail, and it allows for reveals and plot twists through the story about that history.

I want to talk about a TV show that is a very good example of drip feeding done right. Steven Universe is a cartoon aimed at kids, but it has a complexity to it that has given it a large number of adult fans too. In the early episodes, we are introduced to the protagonist Steven, who is living with three gems – beings who each have a gemstone that is their core being but who can project a physical form that looks similar to a human (but often in a colour that matches their gem). We learn from the start that Steven is a hybrid between a human and a gem and he spends these early episodes trying to control his magic powers, going on adventures with the gems, and fighting monsters.

What we don’t know about right away is the thousands of years of history, rebellion, warfare, betrayal, and loss that led up to this. That comes later and no all at once. We are shown little hints that point to something bigger going on. In one episode, Steven is taken to a gem battlefield that is covered in fallen weapons. Looking at what’s left, all these years later, it’s clear that a battle on a massive scale took place here, but the details of exactly who was fighting whom is not revealed until later.

Similarly, there are hints about the gems being in hiding. The gems use warp pads to travel around Earth, and one episode shows us the galaxy warp – a pad that will do the same thing but allow gems to travel from planet to planet. This warp is broken and the gems are performing a regular check to make sure that it’s still broken. An episode has Pearl trying to build a spaceship and wanting to show Steven the galaxy. At one point, she mentions homeworld, but she doesn’t talk about taking him there, she talks about maybe seeing it from a distance. When something finally comes to Earth from another world and starts trying to repair the galaxy warp, the gems are scared and the reveal comes that they rebelled against their government and are in hiding. They don’t want anyone from their homeworld to know that they’re still alive.

This reveal fits with all the clues that have come before it. As the audience, we’ve seen all the hints leading up to this moment, so the information slots into place and completes the picture.

This is just one example of many. Over the course of the show’s run, information has been provided about where gems come from, how they’re grown, the structure of the society, the rulers, the powers that they have, the war to protect Earth thousands of years ago, the history of the main characters, and so on, building up a picture of a complex setting with a rich history.

This means that the plot twists aren’t necessarily a complete shock to the audience, especially in a case like this where a lot of the audience are adults watching a show that’s primarily aimed at a younger audience. The adult viewers pick up on clues that the younger viewers might miss, speculating about future reveals, but there is something very satisfying about being proved right when one of those twists comes. When the show makes a revelation, we can look back at the clues and think, “Yes, that makes sense.”

Often, drip feeding isn’t about shocking plot twists. Instead, it’s about having a box of jigsaw pieces and gradually putting them together to reveal more and more of the picture to your reader/audience.