Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.

False Starts

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where your story starts, the style that fits it, the way it wants to be told. When I was starting the Codename Omega series, I had the pieces of the story. I had fragments of plot and beginnings of characters, but whenever I sat down to start writing, the story faltered. The flame of inspiration sputtered out within a couple of pages. Something just didn’t feel right, just didn’t grab me and make me want to sit down and tell the story. Except that’s not quite true. I definitely wanted to tell the story – but I didn’t want to tell the story this way.

When I started writing the first book in the series, I thought it was going to be like the other books I’d written up to that point, Child of the Hive and the book I was at the time trying to find a publisher for, Shadows of Tomorrow. I thought it would be an ensemble story told through a group of characters with a range of different viewpoints. I thought the main characters of the story were going to be Navy, Knight, Princess, and the others of Nuke’s team. But there was a character lingering in the back of my mind. I wanted one of Mrs Grey’s team to switch sides. I knew I had to make sure that the change of allegiances felt genuine, that the character’s justification made sense, and the more I thought about it, the more this character seemed like the interesting one, the one with a story to tell.

So I tried again. I sat myself down at the keyboard certain that this time the story would work. I had my new protagonist and it was time for her to get to work.

Except the story petered out in the first couple of pages. Again. Something still wasn’t right.

I’m not sure how many times I started and stopped that story before it started working for me, but it must have been at least half a dozen, probably more than ten. It was OK though, because I kept trying new angles until I found the one that worked. Something clicked and the story started to flow and before I knew it, I had a first draft.

The reason this springs to mind now is that I have another story that’s behaving in the same way. I’ve tried starting this story three times now and it doesn’t feel right. I have a bunch of ideas floating around in my head but they won’t cooperate and get on the page in any way that seems to work, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on this story. It just means I have to try and find a new angle. I’m going to try starting in a new place or with a different character, looking at the story from a new perspective. I have all the pieces of a good story as long as I keep trying to find the place to begin.

That’s the piece of advice I want to give you: find a different angle. If you’re struggling to know where to start, pick a different character and explain how they got involved in the story, try changing it from first person to third person or vice versa, start it earlier, start it later. It’s OK to get frustrated sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t worth writing.

Review: Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall

Writing Fight Scenes coverWriting Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall (UK link, US link) is a great resource for writers of action stories. It includes both information on getting the details of a fight correct as well as advice for crafting an action scene in a story. Its subject matter is varied, with a lot of time spent on the use of historical weapons and hand to hand combat, but with pages also devoted to guns, sea battles, and even magical fights. The only types of fights I can think of that aren’t covered are spaceship battles and aerial dogfights. Everything else has a place somewhere in the pages.

The information given is clear and concise, making it a straight-forward read, which is always an advantage in a factual book. I read it straight through, but the way it’s organised means you could easily jump to a particular chapter if you wanted advice on, for example, how your werewolf protagonist would fight in their animal form (yes, animal fights are covered too). It’s obvious the author has put a lot of planning and research into this book and it pays off.

One thing I liked was the way the author addressed the fact that writing a story is not always realistic. Some genres demand vivid realism, but others want action to be light and fun. The book goes into the different approaches that can be taken, and when either is appropriate (e.g. don’t write gruesome, traumatising realism in a children’s adventure book) as well as how to blend the approaches for a middle ground between drama and reality. This sort of detail is what makes this a book about writing rather than just a book about fighting.

The one thing that annoyed me while I was reading though was that it felt like I was only getting half of the content. The book is filled with links out to YouTube videos to show demonstrations of weaponry in use, or examples of fight scenes from movies. This would have been fantastic if this content were given as an online course – the combination of text and video content would work really well – but I first read this book while I was sitting on a plane with my kindle in flight mode. I couldn’t jump out to YouTube every couple of pages to watch a video. In several places, it felt like I was missing out on important information because I couldn’t watch the videos. I understand that author wanting to include extra resources, but I would have preferred it if the text of the book had included more descriptions of what the videos showed so that those readers who couldn’t have internet access could still get the same experience.

The same applies to images. There were several points where I thought diagrams or pictures would have been useful, such as when explaining the differences between various sorts of polearms. In a few places there were links out to pictures on the internet but, as with the videos, I couldn’t take advantage of these when I was first reading the book. The book could definitely have been improved by bringing these images into the pages.

I do think this book is a thorough and comprehensive guide to writing fights, definitely useful to anyone who wants to learn to write thrillers or other action-heavy stories. Definitely read it when you have an internet connection though if you want to get the full advantage out of it.


This post is part of Mystery Thriller Week. Find more book reviews along with trailers, interviews, prizes and more.

4thewords

Are you the sort of person who gets motivated because of games that offer simple rewards for achieving small goals? For example, are you encouraged to get up off the sofa and go for a short walk because you don’t want to lose your Pokemon Go streak? If you find these sort of games work for you, and you’re a writer struggling to hit your word count, I would like to recommend http://4thewords.com.

4thewords word count screenshot This is a web-based game that lets you fight monsters by writing.

When you sign up, you are introduced to a fantasy world location and assigned quests to complete. These quests usually involve collecting enough of a certain item, but there are some that involve fighting a specific boss monster or maintaining a streak of number of days in a row you’ve written.

When you choose to fight a monster, the game starts a timer. The timer could be for as short as 30 minutes, or you could get several hours for the tougher monsters. You also get a word count to achieve. You can create files and write in them using a basic word processor page on the site which saves your work every few seconds and keeps an updated view of your word count. You can also see the status of your battle – how much time you have left and how many words you have left to write. As you write more words, the progress bar moves up until you reach the target. Then you get your “reward”. The game offers you reward items that you can use to complete quests or give you bonuses to your battles. 4thewords battle screenshot

As well as competing with the fictional monsters, you can compete with other users on the site. The site has leaderboards that let you see how other users are doing in terms of their total word counts, the number of battles they’ve won, and the length of their writing streak. You can see how you stack up against other players and try to climb to the top of these leaderboards.

All your work is saved as files on the site and you can group those into sections and projects – so you could have a project be a story and each file be a separate chapter. You don’t have to do all your writing in one file for a battle; you can jump between files as often as you like as you strive to reach your word count. There’s no rule saying that what you write has to be fiction. As long as you type it in their webpage, it could be anything at all. For example, I’m actually writing this blog post in 4thewords right now.

From a legal/copyright perspective, all your words are your own. The creators of the site don’t take ownership of any of it, and you can always delete files later if you want to take them off the site.

While you’re working on your writing, the files are private, but you have the option to “publish” the files, which makes them visible on the site to other users. You can go into this section and find things that other people have written available for you to read and rate.

The site is still being developed. Since I joined 10 days ago, they’ve launched a forum so you can have discussions with the other writers using the game. I’m sure there will be more features added as the game grows.

4thewords core crystals screenshotThere are just a couple of things to note. One is that there is no easy export option. I wish there was a simple way to click a button and download my writing in a Word file, but there’s not. Still, it’s not the end of the world and there’s always copy/paste. The other thing to note is that this is a paid for game. You get the first 30 days for free but after that you have to pay for “core crystals”. It costs $4 to get enough core crystals to pay for a month’s membership, but these are in game objects and you can actually get some of them for completing quests. Combine this with the fact that you can buy bundles of core crystals and get a better price for buying in bulk, it could end up being significantly cheaper than $4 if you play regularly.

The free trial doesn’t require a commitment (no one’s going to ask for your credit card number or anything), so you can try it out and see if it motivates you to write more. If it doesn’t, you’ve not lost anything. If it does, it’s up to you to decide whether you think it’s worth $4 to you.

Edit: when you sign up, if you enter the referral code DFXRI67115 you will get 20 bonus core crystals, which is nearly half the month’s cost, so you won’t have to pay the full amount for your second month.

A well-executed plot twist

If you follow me over on Tumblr, you may have noticed me getting quite excited recently about an anime show called Yuri!!! On Ice. I thought this show deserved a mention on this blog because it includes what is probably the best-executed plot twist I’ve seen on a TV show. I will explore this here while attempting not to give major spoilers (which is going to be tricky, since I am discussing a plot twist).

Yuri on Ice credits As a bit of background, Yuri!!! On Ice is a show about figure skaters and the main character is a Japanese skater called Yuri Katsuki. There are two other characters main enough to get featured on the show’s opening credits and one of those is a Russian skater called Victor Nikiforov. As the story opens, Yuri has just suffered a humiliating loss and is considering quitting the spots, while Victor is at his peak performance, setting world records, and winning gold medal after gold medal. In the first episode, Victor decides to quit skating, flies to Japan, and announces that he is now Yuri’s coach – much to everyone’s astonishment, especially Yuri. Yuri has idolised Victor for years, so their early interactions are filled with awkwardness, but gradually they open up to each other.

Yuri On Ice - YuriGiven that the show has Yuri’s name on it, it’s unsurprising that as the audience, we see all this from Yuri’s perspective. We see him discussing the situation with friends, we hear his thoughts in inner monologues, and he acts as a narrator speaking directly to the audience at times. This means that a lot around Victor, specially his reasons for coming to Japan, are concealed from those watching the show. This led to some speculation among the fans about his motivations.

Yuri on Ice VictorThen we reach episode 10 of this 12 episode show. After having seen 9 episodes narrated by Yuri, we get an episode with Victor as the narrator. During this episode, a key piece of information is revealed that changes the interpretation of everything that came before it. Not that I said “changes the interpretation”. This information doesn’t create plot holes or raise questions in the way plot twists sometimes do. The revelation instead answers questions – only some of which the audience knew to ask.

The key answer it provides is, of course, why Victor chose to become Yuri’s coach, but it allows their early interactions to be seen in a completely new light. On top of that, behaviour and dialogue from the minor characters, that had previously been dismissed as that character just being like that, now slotted into place. An insult from one character, an angry statement from another, an overly touchy-feeling greeting from a third, all make more sense in the wake of the revelation. It also allows the audience to go back and watch the early episodes again and see Victor’s side of the story. Nothing about the episodes had to change, but the intepretation of so many interactions is completely flipped.

As a writer, I think it’s worth highlighting what this show does well because these are lessons we can take to our own writing.

First, the plot twist doesn’t create any plot holes. I’ve read books and seen shows before where a plot twist leaves the audience wondering, “But if this is the case, then why did that thing happen?” You don’t want a plot twist to raise more questions than it answers.

Which brings me to point two, the plot twist should answer questions. A well-written plot twist will leave readers/viewers thinking, “Oh! So that’s why that thing happened. It all makes sense now.”

Finally, the plot twist should be surprising. I don’t think anyone saw this revelation coming. I watched the show with a friend who’d been seeing discussions on Tumblr about Yuri!!! On Ice and knew that there was a major plot twist coming in this episode, but she was still surprised by the nature of it. If a plot twist can surprise you even when you know it’s coming, the writers have definitely done something right.

So if you want a lesson in how to get a plot twist right, I recommend watching this show. Plus it’s fun, which is always a bonus.

A couple of editors

I’ve written a post in the past about editors and the work they do in turning a unpolished piece of writing into something ready for publication. I’ve worked with a number of different people over the years, some of whom were employed by a specific publishing companies and others who worked independently. If you’re getting published through a publishing company, that publishing company should handle the editing and get your manuscript in front of people with the right skills (not the word “should” – I once had an editor that kept getting past and passed the wrong way round and changing correct instances to the incorrect ones). However, if you’re embarking on self-publishing, you have to find the people with those skills yourself. An internet search will uncover a mountain of resources but it’s hard to know who can be trusted to do a good job.

Since I’ve been going through edits recently for the next Codename Omega book and the much sillier Technicality Man story, I thought I would mention a couple of people who have done some great editing work for me. Both of these are people I’m happy to recommend.

The first is Ro Smith, who I was once part of a creative writing group with. Since then, she has done work as a professional editor and proof-reader for both philosophy journals and publishing companies. She has been the main editor for two of the Codename Omega books now, including the one which should be coming out early in 2017. Her website is http://www.rhube.co.uk/ and you can find her contact details on that site if you want to work with her.

The second person is David Stewart. He was a former colleague who does work, amoung other things, as a librarian, researcher, and editor. He offers proofreading and copy-editing services, or a combination of the two. He is very flexible in offering what might be needed to check, tweak, edit, or reshape work. You can contact him at stewart_dk@hotmail.com if you want to hire him.

Both of these people do great work at very fair rates.

Submitting your novel

If you want to be an author, writing the book is only part of the book. You might have written an amazing story, but that means nothing if you can’t convince agents and editors to look at it. If you want to be traditionally published, you still have to go through the work of submitting the book to publishers and agencies. Here are a few top tips and things to think about when submitting your book. Some of these are based on my own experiences, some are based on advice I’ve heard from agents and editors over the years.

Send to the right place

I was at a talk once by an editor who worked with non-fiction children’s books. The publisher she worked for only produced educational books, but she said they still got hundreds and hundreds of submissions of fiction. Those were a waste of time for everyone involved because it didn’t matter how good those stories might have been, they were never going to get published by someone that didn’t publish stories. Pay attention to what the publisher does and doesn’t accept. If they have a big notice on their website saying that they don’t accept science fiction and fantasy submissions, there’s no point submitting your sci-fi novel. If they only publish romance, there’s no point sending your horror. You are basically guaranteed to be rejected if you send the book to the wrong place.

Most places accept electronic submissions these days, but you used to have to print out sample chapters and post them in, which meant each submission cost actual money to send. Now, you don’t waste money in the same way, but you’ll waste your time and the publishers. Better to focus on finding a publisher who does print the sort of stories you’re sending them.

Spend time on the cover letter

When you send in a submission, you send it with a covering letter or email. Some books get rejected here if the cover letter makes it sound like the book isn’t particularly interesting or isn’t what the publisher is looking for. Take your time to craft a description of the book that explains the key concepts, genre, and target audience of your book in a few short sentences. You don’t need to explain all the intricacies of the plot in the cover letter, but you need to explain how it’s going to be marketed. You want someone to read your description and think, “Yes, I’d be able to sell a book like that.”

Keep your cover letter short, describe your book in a way that makes it sound interesting, explain who would be likely to buy your book, and then proofread the whole thing at least five times. I’m serious about this last part. You don’t want to be rejected because of a typo in your first sentence.

Get someone to check your synopsis

When you submit a novel, you almost always have to send a summary of the plot. This is called the synopsis and it describes the key events that happen in the book from start to finish. Different publishers and agents provide different guidelines for how long your synopsis should be – 1 page, 2-3 pages, 500 words, 1000 words, etc. You may end up writing your synopsis several times to fit with all these different submission guidelines. I always find this incredibly difficult because there’s so much that happens in a book and it’s hard to know what to cut out. As well, you need to create a synopsis that’s coherent. Again, this is something I struggle with because I know all the background and everything that I’m leaving out, so something will make perfect sense to me while it’s thoroughly confusing for someone else. When I’m submitting a story, I will get someone to check the synopsis for me. It’s important that this is someone who hasn’t read the book because they will be in the same situation at the person to whom you’re submitting the story with no prior background knowledge. They will be able to spot any points where you’re assuming knowledge the reader doesn’t have.

This is not a definitive list of advice, but hopefull this will help you out if you’re at a point where you’re sending your story off to publishers. Good luck.

Advice that needs to stop: Write Every Day

Over the years, I’ve come across a lot of writing advice from a whole range of sources. Some of the advice I think is good, some I think has merit under some circumstances, and some I think needs to stop being repeated. One piece of advice I’ve seen so many times is this: to be a real writer you must write every day.

This just isn’t feasible for a lot of people. Many writers, even professional authors, have another job that takes up a lot of time. There are days when I have to go into the London office and this involves getting up early, catching a bus, train and tube, for a tedious commute. By the time I get home, it’s half-seven in the evening and I still need to get dinner. Once in a while, I get some writing done on the train but there are days when I spend the commute standing so whipping out my laptop and typing up a chapter just wouldn’t work.

Writers who have full time jobs to do, kids to look after, elderly family members to take care of, chores to do, or simply lives to live, see this sort of advice and feel guilty, or feel like they’re not really writers after all. So I say: scrap this advice.

Instead, figure out what works for you. There is definitely something to be said for a regular writing routine, for having a pattern to stick to, but the pattern can be something more forgiving. For me, Saturday and Sunday mornings are good writing times. I get a lot done then, but if I have family commitments or something else going on, I know that the world isn’t going to end if I don’t get my weekend writing done. Once in a while, I have an overnight stay somewhere for work and there’s not much to do in hotel rooms on my own, so I get lots of writing done then.

I have a lot going on with work and other commitments, but I know I can fit writing around them. So don’t worry about writing every day, but have a think about your usual week and figure out if there are any gaps that can be your regular writing time.

Above all, remember that if you write, you’re a real writer, even if you only get the time to write once a month or less.

Line Editors

I have a short story, Reading Between the Lines, which is coming out in the next Mischief Corner Books anthology. It’s spent the last week going through line editing, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about what line editing is.

There are different types of editors who might get involved with your writing, particularly if you get books traditionally published. Two main types are Developmental Editors and Line Editors. I won’t go into detail about developmental editors in this post, but they essentially look at the big picture of a book. Line editors, on the other hand, go down to the details of the writing. They work through the story line by line, looking for any point where word choice is unclear, where the grammar is non-standard, or where the phrasing is clunky. They go through and make corrections or changes to the text.

I had someone ask me once if having editors work on my stories made them feel like they weren’t really my stories anymore, and the answer to that is a definite no. Line editing is a collaborative process. When I got my short story back from the line editor, it was as a document with track changes turned on. I had to go through and look at each change and decide if I wanted to accept it. If I thought the change was an improvement, I accepted it. If I disagreed, I wouldn’t accept it and I would leave a comment explaining my  point of view. One sentence in this story, the line editor and I went back and fourth on a few times before he agreed to stick to my way of doing things. In the first Codename Omega book, I used the phrase, “after an unbearable eternity” which the line editor objected to because eternity is forever so there could be no after. I was using the word as a hyperbole – when someone says, “that line took forever” or similar, people know it’s being used as a metaphor. I was confident that my readers would know I was using the word “eternity” in the same way to imply the character’s frustration at the length of the wait. As the author, I could say that I wanted that sentence to stay as it was.

At other points in a story, a line editor might tell the author that a change needs to be made, but leave it up to the author what the precise change should be. For example, if I use the same word three times in two paragraphs, the line editor would probably point this out and suggest I find a synonym, but not necessary pick the synonym for me. Another time, they might point out a potentially confusing section and suggest a rewrite, but let the author do the rewriting.

At the end of the day, the author still has control over the changes that are made but the line editors polish the story up and get rid of the rough edges. It’s an important part of the publishing process. If you’re self-publishing a book, I would strongly advise that you bring a line editor into your project.

Authorial Intent

I find articles and discussions about authorial intent interesting because, as an author, I don’t always intend some of the things that turn up in my books. Sometimes I will be writing a book, or reading a draft in preparation for editing, and be hit by something in the text. It won’t be something I deliberately put in there, but it will be something that’s there anyway.

For example, it took me way too long to realise that Mira was named after Amiron. I named both of them and I’d used a naming pattern for other characters where male names end in “on” and female names end in “a”. When I realised the connection, it clarified some of Mira’s motivation, some of the emotion behind her actions, but I noticed it after I’d already written the foundations.

I’ve just finished the first draft of a book that includes a scene discussing fancy dress costumes two of the characters had planned to wear. I included that scene because it gave nice insights into those two characters, their relationship, and their relationship with another key character. It was only after I’d written the scene that I realised there were parallels between the story I had planned for them and the two characters they planned to dress up as. Holy freaking foreshadowing, Batman! It wasn’t a conscious decision. Either I got lucky, or my subconscious is cleverer than I knew.

When I see something like this in an early draft, I can choose to work with it and build on it in the later drafts, in which case it becomes intended. That said, whenever I recognise something like this in my drafts, it makes me wonder if there are other things in there that I didn’t notice.

A lot of foreshadowing and symbolism in books is put there deliberately by the author, but it’s always worth remembering that these things can be in the book without the author intending them. It doesn’t make them any less real. If you spot symbolism/foreshadowing/parallels, then those things are there, even if the author didn’t realise they were writing them.

And if you’re a writer, don’t worry too much about trying to put the clever symbolism in right from the start. It may be that you get to the end of the first draft and see things you can build on later.