Category Archives: writing

Review: The Gone-Away World By Nick Harkaway

Most books I read I have some idea what the story is. This one I did not. Instead, it came as a recommendation from a good friend.

I was really not sure where this story was going at the start. For one thing, it is definitely post-apocalyptic, yet the world is not completely destroyed. People still have a life that resembles what we consider normality. And then once things got going, we had a massive flashback to what is clearly before whatever forever changed the world.

Harkaway’s writing is what I would have to call florid. Current advice about writing encourages shorter sentences over long meandering description. Would-be writers are shown how to break a long sentence up. However, Harkaway meanders not just with description but with narrative and even plays with point-of-view. I find this a highly unusual style – yet it works here. He has clearly been developing this style for a while.

I was also unsure as to quite what sort of story was being told. Several times I wondered if a statement was being made about climate change, or nuclear war. Many many novels have been written down through the decades about what humans would do after some sort of catastrophe, either man-made or otherwise. But I’m not sure that that was what Harkaway was intending. Regardless, the actual mechanism of the Go Away Bomb is certainly unique. The pseudo-science behind it is certainly creative and effective. The full description unfolds in pieces as the narrator grasps it and the final pieces get ever more chilling.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still not sure what story was being told. There is definitely an exploration of coming-of-age early in the flashback. There are several personal reactions to a number of different types of wartime or war-like situations. And a couple of times the narrator has to deal with people not only vastly different to himself, but also to honest kindness from the same.

In the end, the story asks a really serious question about the right to make the world “normal” and who or what should or could be sacrificed to do so. And I’m still not sure if it really answered it.

 

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Write the crap.

It is a sobering fact that a successful author with a few novels to their name will have probably written several million words of original fiction by then. This is an uncomfortable fact that new writers have to both ignore and respect. Including me.

When you do get the writing bug and want to create The Next Great Novel, many new writers launch into it with a vague idea and just spew out a cascade words of undirected fiction. This is how NaNoWriMo is intended to work and some people create best like that, but there is a much older technique, too. And that is to write less than novel-length stories. Lots of them. Your first half-dozen might tap out at a few hundred words, but with even this little practice you will get better at creating bigger ideas. Before long two thousand words feels like not enough. Given enough time, ten thousand words will sometimes not be enough room.

However, it is still a god-awful big leap to go from a ten thousand word story into a sixty thousand word novel.

And I still cannot resist editing as I write, which makes my own raw output considerably slower than it could be.

So what do I do?

Well, I started paying attention to some of the more sober advice about writing. They usually all descend into: write. Write lots. And then write some more. No, still more. When you reach at least a million words of finished work, throw it all away and keep going. This is the writer’s version of an old programming mantra: “Be prepared to throw the first one away.”

Another way of putting it is that anyone has to practice a new task before they get better at it. Our brains don’t come with much pre-wiring. Unlike most mammals which can figure out how to walk in a few days, we need about a year. Any task needs practice. Although I did woodwork in high school, I’m still pretty crap at it. I still usually fail to cut wood square and easily strip screw heads. But I know it’s just a matter of practice. Likewise, I’ve picked up a few random phrases in Korean, but if I want to speak the language, I have to learn it properly.

Writing is the same. “Waiting for the muse” is a furphy.

Similarly trying to produce Great Writing means you first have to produce Good Writing. And that means you have to first produce Okay Writing. And that means you have to first produce Crap Writing.

So I’m trying to just write potential scenes for one or more of my Works-in-Progress. It doesn’t matter how well they all meet up. There will be conflicting storylines. That’s okay. Once I have a body that tells a more-or-less complete story, I can clean it all up into a coherent work. But there needs to be the writing to edit first.

After all, you can’t edit an empty page.

 

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Scrivener is too heavy

I’ve decided to put Scrivener aside for now and write in a basic word-processor.

Now before I get lynched by writers who swear by it, I should, of course, explain why I’m setting it aside for now. There are several issues. And the biggest problem is the hardest to describe. It has never felt like a comfortable app to use, for me. I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something about that isn’t quite right to me. It is as though I’m always trying to scale the learning curve instead of happily using it at some plateau.

Perhaps it is because I use the Linux version. The Linux version has had a rough start. The current versions are pretty good now, but for quite a while it struggled a bit with some Linux-isms that Windows didn’t have and OS X didn’t have. Things like correct library versions and filename and path handling that was just a little different (it probably didn’t help that Linux filesystems are completely case correct, unlike both Windows and Mac – this means you can have a file called “file.x” and one called “File.x” in Linux; Windows doesn’t like that and OS X will tolerate it but will do unexpected things sometimes).

Another way of looking at this was that I couldn’t really get into the same UI mindset as the designers. I don’t have a problem doing this with LibreOffice. This might be because it was originally an OS X app. I recently switched to OS X at work and there are a few things that bug me about OS X that I know Apple has no intention of changing, even if they could understand why I don’t like them.

This might also be related to the fact that I struggled to embrace Scrivener’s workflow. Scrivener makes it so easy to switch between scenes often when writing. However, that is quite disruptive and I shouldn’t do it. It is harder in a word-processor, but it doesn’t feel so disruptive.

The last problem is trying to manage my writing on multiple devices. You’d think I could access a Scrivener project on my flash drive just as comfortably in OS X as in Linux. However, it always feels fragile. It also leaves out my Android tablet.

So, I’m going back to writing in a word processor. I know word processors. I’ve used LibreOffice since it was called StarOffice. I’m more comfortable in it.

 

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Every experience is a learning experience

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know”. There have been multiple arguments about quite what that means. Does it mean you can’t write about life on a farm if you’re only ever lived in a city apartment? Does it mean you can’t write about spycraft if you aren’t trained for it? Does it mean a white middle-aged man can’t write from a black girl’s perspective?

Writers are always doing research. Not just formal research – deep in the reference sections of large libraries, or down the back of specialised book stores, or finding and buying obscure works off the ‘net – but also informal research. Watching people around them. Listening to stories and paying attention to their own experiences.

I got threatened with assault on the train yesterday afternoon. I know I don’t have any combat training and I rather doubt the pimply adolescent with more arrogance than sense did either. It was an intense experience corralling my reactions under the wash of adrenaline. There is a reason it’s called the “fight-or-flight response” because that’s the two options your body presents. It is calling for basic animal reactions. It is a difficult time for rational thought. Without any sort of training in the arts of hand-to-hand fighting, it was all I could do to not physically attack back and to go for diversions instead.

What did I learn out of this?  The immediate learning is that an untrained defender will not behave coherently. It is incredibly difficult to respond rather than react. This is why those who are expected to go into such a situation are trained so heavily. They need an instinctive response in that situation and that’s what training provides. Perfect information for writing a warrior in fiction. Especially one who is yet to undergo the necessary training.

I got out of this unharmed, of course. First step was to flee to the next carriage, then I called upon the train guard, who (to my considerable surprise) gave me a seat in his cabin to let me recover in a safe space. Because recovery is also needed from an intense adrenaline burst. This is also good information for writing. Once the emergency is over, your body pays the price: there is weariness, emotional vulnerability and in extreme cases even nausea as everything goes back to normal. I kind of suspect having a safe place and someone watching gives a reference point for ‘normal’ to aim for.

This is definitely not an experience I would normally want, let alone would want to repeat. And, sadly, it made me a bit more wary of which carriage I boarded on the journey home later that night. But I am aware of my own reactions enough to be able to learn from it. This is what makes me a writer.

 

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Starts and Finishes

There are many lessons a writer must learn. How to create distinct characters. How to craft a narrative. How to throw away words. Where to start and where not to to. And when to finish.

To mutilate a sentiment that is often spoken to new writers, a story needs to be finished before it can be published. Or should be submitted. And figuring out how to wrap a multitude of story threads into a conclusion, satisfying or not, is a pleasant experience.

On the other hand, pick another project you might have started over the years. How many have you finished? I mean really? Still got boxes not-unpacked even though you’ve lived there for five years? Or that cross-stitch someone convinced you would be fun? How’s the garden? Full of plants thriving? Or is it mostly weeds? I could go on. That’s not to say that writing fiction is only ever going to be a fad for most people.

Maybe a closer example is song-writing. This is as tough as writing a story. I know this because I’ve tried it. I’ve heard from well-known song-writers that for every song they finish, there are easily ten they don’t. Ten songs unfinished! How does that stack up on your story-writing? Ten ideas or story starts for each one that went to completion?

It rather puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

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Tell a story.

I’m attempting NaNoWriMo again this year, although in a slightly informal way as words have already been written in that story. I’ve already mentioned this. I’ve also been involved enough with others doing NaNoWriMo and others who write closer to fulltime than me to see that there are many different approaches to penning a story.

This is not a surprise to me. Not anymore.

But taking it a step further and activities and exercises that one NaNoWriMo regional group provide (and encourage participation in) simply cannot work the same for everyone. It is easy for those running the same group year after year to get in ruts with familiar tools that seem to work. It is less easy to look around and find other tools and activities that might help more aspiring writers.

I did a new one the other week. We were given a word or brief thought every 20 minutes or so and asked to respond as our main character. I know my main character fairly well at this point. Or rather, I know parts of him fairly well. But this exercise reminded me that my MC is on a journey. The whole novel is to show this journey from fleeing farmboy to leader of a powerful insurgency. I’ve had this goal for months. This is the story I want to tell.

There is a reason this blog is called “Just Add Story”. World-building cannot produce a novel. Interesting characters cannot produce a novel. Dialogue cannot produce a novel. All of these are necessary to write a novel-sized work, but the one thing a novel always needs is a story. ‘This happens, then this happens, and them because of that, this happens.’

Simplistic? Perhaps. Simplistic can sometimes get your attention when complex does not.

Write a story. Let your characters change and be changed. Find the journey you want to take your readers on.

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NaNoWriMo Is Coming! (again)

Line art representation of a Quill

A writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you want to get the novel you know lurking inside you out onto the page? Feel like doing it within just 30 days? Great! Welcome to National Novel Writing Month! Well, actually, NaNoWriMo, as it is known for short, is November and it’s international, not just the USA. And with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world participating, it is definitely on the radar at many publishers. Just don’t sent them your first draft.

Amongst other things, NaNoWriMo has possibly popularised the term panster. This refers to ‘writing by the seat of your pants’ – kind of a no-belt, no-braces, no-safety-harness approach to writing. The opposite is a planner, which is what most writing courses teach. Many many writers attempting NaNoWriMo start with just an idea in their head and then spend a month spewing out undirected fiction, creating characters, scenery and story as they go. And over the course of the month, the NaNoWriMo forums acquire more and more posts from writers who discover their characters going off in unexpected directions. And towards the end of November there is a shift to writers who start discovering their finished work is really quite crap.

However, one of the really good things about NaNoWriMo is that for a lot of people it shows them that they can create fiction. There is a kind of “unstopping the blockage” that happens when you want to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. That’s nearly seventeen hundred a day and for many people, that is somewhere between one and two hours of writing. Each day. Newcomers who used to struggle to write five hundred often develop their skills needed for ten or a hundred times that through sheer practice. And it is only through practice that it happens. It is quite simply true that the more you write, the more you can write. A thousand words used to feel like an awful lot to me. Now it doesn’t. Not for a story. It can be easy to underestimate the value of this.

Still, one of the recurring criticisms of NaNoWriMo is that it doesn’t encourage writers to plan. That’s not the same as discouraging them from planning. It’s just that the program is focussed around writing and provides little or no support for designing the shape of a novel beforehand. (There is also little support for editing, which can range from fixing typos, tense and terminology, to wholesale re-writing of 99% of the work. But that’s a separate problem.)

And planning does have to be done beforehand to some extent. I know of an author who plans his NaNoWriMo novels over a couple of months from around August. He goes as far as chapter and scene breakdowns and big charts about what is intended to happen. When he reaches November 1, it is  a fairly straightforward matter to turn all this structure into fiction, often to the 85,000 word mark. He has written and self-published five novels this way.

So what I’m trying to say is that if you think you want to have a serious go at writing a novel in the month of November, you should already be halfway through your planning!

I’m not kidding.

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Filed under NaNoWriMo, writing