20 April, 2017

Fun in the Gun

Nah... the point is that I DON'T have a gun to my head.

My biggest fear has always been the passage of time.  Let me tell you a story, even if it takes a little while.

When I was on the MFA, sitting across from Paul McAuley (a god to me at the time) he was talking about the scenes not perfectly meshing into a cohesive emotional effect.  He paused in mid sentence, looked at me with a squint and said, "Is this a first draft?"

It was.

"This is good for a first draft."

"I edit as I go," I said.

He put the papers down and said, "I want to see a second draft."

I published that second draft.  It's called "Temple of Mirrors".  You can read it here. 

It held the 3rd place spot in popularity on Short-story.me for like 4 years or something.  The second place spot only beat me by a few clicks.  Last time I checked, about a year ago, mine had around 8,000 reads.  Now it has 14,000.  That said, now it's number 34, but I'm still perfectly happy.  People are reading it seven years later.  Hail Lord McAuley for his help and criticism, but in his opinion, the biggest thing he taught me was to write second drafts.

Oh, if only I weren't such an idiot.  Or maybe I just fear the reaper.  Fear makes people stupid.  People have been telling me to re-draft for years.  Terry Pratchet once said the first draft is just the story we tell ourselves.  He doesn't have six computer screens so that he can see more pages of his drafts.  He's got one devoted to plot outline, one devoted to ideas, and I have no idea what he uses screens 4-6 for.  Maybe I'll be a better writer if I ever figure that out.

Here.  It's in pictoral form too.  See?  That proves it.

 first draft is just you telling yourself the story. ~ Terry Pratchett ...



Most importantly, every writer I know of who doesn't redraft properly writes in quite a rambling, unfocussed fashion.  They're usually qutie good at plotting, hence getting away with it, but as I read I can always feel the central narrative screaming to escape.  And these people do go back a cut superfluous scenes.  Nobody just finishes and says, "Booyah!  Done!"

I'm not really guilty of THAT.  I'm not that bad.  I do redraft, but the redrafting is cursory.  I can't say I sit there with a manuscript and a pen filling each page with notes and then re-writing the book.  That's what the best writers do.

To sum up, my period of idiocy is over.  I refuse to feel bad about all this time.  If anything it means I have a crap load of stories I can make something special of if I spend a long time editing.  I hate editing.  It feels like work.  But honestly sometimes feeling like you've suffered for work just makes you feel like a grown up, so I'll get to it.

I'll leave you with another great Terry Pratchett quote.

first draft let it run turn all the knobs up to 11 second draft hell ...
So he thinks editing is hell too, but he does it.  And there's no gun to my head.  If a book takes me eight months to write instead of four, and it's twice as good a book, I win.

06 April, 2017

Getting Personal

Over the last couple of months I have had an almost spiritual crisis that I'd like to share with you, in the hope that others going through the same thing might find it helpful.  This is another post for the artists, rather than the readers.

Putting things in perspective is always hard.  I can't remember which popular (million subscribers plus) Youtuber said that if PewDiePie dropped to his level of subscriptions he'd probably throw himself off a bridge.  This Youtuber's point was that, while he's pretty successful, PewDiePie is vastly more so, and a significant dip always feels awful.

I got a serious kick in the junk recently, which is that my agent has stopped representing YA and Mid-grade fiction.  I've found myself creatively moving more and more towards that age group.  For me, fiction is about change, and those years are the time in which people define themselves most--a time of tremendous upheaval.

I then had some thinking to do.

Step One:  Wallow in despair.  Check.

Step Two:  Decide what I want to write next.  This one has taken a long, long time. 

I used to love adult fantasy, and adult science fiction.  But it's rarely the modern authors that appeal to me.  There are some greats, but my tastes tend elsewhere.  In science fiction, it's towards the human stories of the 1960s.  In fantasy, it's the highly experimental, strongly themed stories of the 30s.

I've done a lot of thinking about this.  I've asked myself exactly what I like about the genres.  I might only write one fantasy and one scifi in my life, and I want each to embody the potential I see in the genre.  This doesn't mean I'm saying it will be brilliant.  It will just be exactly what I have to say.

I've almost cracked it for a fantasy book.  Maybe it's not everything I'll have to say.  Maybe writing one will make me rediscover my love for the genre.  All I know is that it's something I'm compelled to do for professional reasons.

I could just write the mid-grade idea that's bouncing in my head.  Honestly I'd love to do that, and on my study wall, right smack above the computer screen, I have this:

Kurt Cobain Quotes – WeNeedFun
(Different pic but same quote.)

I'd find a new agent eventually, and I'd find a home for my midgrade stuff.  I have an agent referral.  I have a popular blog (thanks!).  I have my youth and my health.  I know my past self would have figuratively killed to be in my position now.  But a step back is a step back.  I don't believe I can justify deliberately letting it happen.  Not when I think I might actually enjoy writing an adult book once I get into the swing of it.

So expect some posts about adult fantasy and what I love about it in the near future.

As always, hail Cthulu,

Luke

02 March, 2017

A Look at Story Beginnings

After years of reading, it strikes me that I fell prey to a fallacy in my early days as a writer.

We're so often told never to start with exposition. Get into the action. Hook them with a scene. Editors love scenes. Start in scene or they'll stop reading.

The trouble with this advice is, it is completely and utterly false.

(I point you towards an old post of mine: The Editor is Always... wait, what?)

Exposition is not the enemy. There is a running thread of it through every good book. It's the character's motivation, their emotion and reason for doing what they do. It's POV at its deepest. It's what the reader holds onto, while they're watching the action. And importantly, every story must start with something to hold onto.

I'll start by saying there are exceptions to the ideas set out below. Some rare souls like Roal Dahl have such a compelling voice that they can basically just talk to kids at the start, and the kids are rapt.  Matilda opens with, "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most digusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful." Really Grandpa? Tell me more! Dahl is just fun to listen to. He knows it, and uses this superpower to great effect. Maybe one day I'll understand his magic. Until then I won't be so arrogant as to assume I have it.

Almost every story starts with some variant of "Once upon a time..."

It's possible to put this in action, but that action must ground the reader in an interesting premise. It must tell them that Once upon a time there was a boy who was half hedgehog (Hans the Hedgehog by the Brothers Grimm) or something, even if it happens with Hans rolling down the hill and landing, spikes first, into a pile of hay. If that opening's done well, the reader may learn what time period we're in, what kind of town/village Hans lives in, and almost certainly will learn that he alone is covered in hedgehog spikes. It will be action filled with exposition. Why? Because the thing that makes his hedgehoggedness compelling is what the opening is about.

The vast majority of stories take a more direct approach, especially in kid's fiction.  Kids have very little patience as readers. That's the chief difference, and that's why their tastes are so telling. They want to know instantly what the story is about and what's compelling about it, or at least some compelling idea that will keep drawing them forwards, whether it's that they'll get to read the life of an interesting character in diary form (the excellent Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance) or that they'll get to see some amazing events take place.

So let's look at some openings of books, mostly kids fiction.  I'll throw a couple of adult books in there too for good measure.  I'll also link to every one of them, because I'll only quote from things I think are excellent and that people should read.

Here goes:



"Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house."  O.o  There's a door, you say?  And a girl named Coraline?  This seems otherworldly, and I wonder what's behind the thing?  It's obviously something good, or the girl with a cool name wouldn't be so interested in it.

In other words, "Once upon a time there was a girl with a cool name who discovered a most peculiar door." Old timey fiction would have taken this kind of direct approach. The modern author must be more subtle, but must understand human psychology to the exact same extent. If anything, more so.




"If you walked into the Pish Posh restaurant on any given night, you would be sure to find a smallish eleven-year-old girl wearing large black sunglasses sitting by herself at a little round table in the back."

In other words, "Once upon a time there was an interesting girl in a snazzy restaurant who seems like she's either up to something, or at the very least doing something out of the ordinary. Oh, and according to the back cover this book is about a robbery."



Last of the kid stuff but certainly not least, one of my favourite writers, David Almond's awesome magnum opus. I cannot recommend this one enough.

"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon."

Found who? And this person is so interesting he deserves an entire book? "Once upon a time there was an interesting person found in a garage." Just what kind of person gets "found" in a garage anyway? At this point, the story could be about a cat, a clown, or a physical embodiment of all the world's evils. We don't know. What we DO know is that they're interesting. They raise a million questions. Hooked.

Let's end with adult books, just to prove the trend persists into adulthood. This is not some testament to the simplemindedness of children. Take that attitude, and I promise you could never write for kids. Children's literature is more pure, more direct and in some ways more honest with its readers. Techniques employed in adult fiction are more apparent. That's all.

I'll start with a good hybrid, because like much of Ray Bradbury's works (when you count his short stories) it works well for YA too.



Two openings here.

Prologue: "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."  These kids are up to something, and it may well have to do with Halloween. This coupled with the story's title, which to my mind is possibly the best title ever, gives the "Once upon a time two boys did something interesting in October" a special kind of mystery.

But some people skip prologues, so onto the Chapter 1: "The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm." This is such a stark and excellent example of an opening hook that it requires little explanation.

"Once upon a time there was a terrible storm, for which a lightning rod salesman upon whom our tale shall focus, arrived just in time."  My old timey version is long winded and sucks, but you can see the parallel.



"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."

Almost Shakespearean in its obvious hookishness, we have an old crone, a symbol of prophecy, coming to visit the mother of a mysterious boy who's about to embark off to a mysterious place.

And for my final book, I choose one from probably my favourite living author, Connie Willis. David Almond and Philip Pullman are contenders for the top spot, but nonetheless. It was Ray Bradbury, then Harper Lee, and now that people can read Go Set a Watchman the way she intended (over her dead body... too soon?) the mantle falls to Connie Willis.

I choose this book because it does not start with a flashy obvious hook, but it does accomplish the same thing the kid's books accomplish. It just does so with a softer touch, for a reader who won't put the thing down just because the first sentence doesn't grip them like a vice. What it will do is compell them, make them at least have some impression that there's an interesting thing around the corner.



"Mr Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up."

So why did they steam up? These people are about to have an interesting conversation. We swiftly learn through that conversation that at some point in the far future there were a group of scholars who studied history via time travel. And it's called Doomsday Book? Uh oh...

These softer adult hooks remain significant. Of Mice and Men doesn't start with a hooky first sentence, but we swiftly learn that once upon a time there were two fascinating companions, one a quick witted little man, the other a giant with a child's heart, on an adventure through Great Depression America.  To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't begin with a really obvious hook (it sort of does, about the brother having broken his arm) but we swiftly learn that the brother broke his arm in a fascinating circumstance involving a conflict with some people who bear a closer look and a fascinating shut-in rather cruelly nicknamed "Boo".

All through my early attempts at getting published, I'd been told by the low-rung editors that you need to start in immediate action. I'd wilfully, for the sake of impressing them, blinded myself to reality. Stories begin with making the reader know, as quickly as possible, which usually involves telling rather than showing, that something interesting is going on. They begin with compelling exposition, otherwise known as a hook.

So I hope that helps a few people not make the same mistakes I did, or at the very least I hope you found it interesting. If you've decided to buy any of the books I mention, please do so by clicking the links from my page. It gets me money! I need money and you like good books, so everybody wins!

18 February, 2017

The Last Guardian

I had no intention of writing this, but felt the burning need when... oh man... I wish I could give spoilers, but suffice to say something I thought would involve trickery and logic turned out to need only a simple hug. Hugs and wugs. I nearly cried, because the game had done such a great job of making me think the problem was something else, when all I needed was love.

Honestly, if you're looking for a typical gaming experience, this might not be for you. It's evocative, and beautiful, but I wouldn't say it's particularly fun. Art isn't always supposed to be fun, and that's just it: this is art, not a game. This is what you show your elderly relative when they tell you video games can't be works of art. Or if you're of my generation or younger, this is what you'd like to stuff down Roger Ebert's grave screaming, "Look, you old coot!  We always told you!" Ahem... Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but he did say games would never amount to much artistically, and they have, and The Last Guardian is a beautiful testament to that achievement.

The controls are difficult, I'll grant. I've more than once shouted, "I said run left you little jackass!"  But you know what? I'm not sure an early pubescent little boy running around a castle scared out of his wits would control his body that well either. I'd even say it's part of the experience, and the whole game is so beautiful I've never actually gotten mad. I could certainly never say a bad word to Trico. Not without feeling guilty. Trico feels real, which in itself, given how primitive AI is at present, is a truly remarkable achievement. That's like painting the Mona Lisa on an etch-a-sketch. If Trico obeyed your every command, he wouldn't feel real. You genuinely feel like a team through the entire thing, and Trico is adorable, majestic, and sometimes scary as hell.

The-Last-Guardian-Screenshots-20-1280x720.jpg

It's noteworthy here that The Last Guardian is easily the most visually stunning game I've ever played, and as a lifelong gamer, that's saying something. I can pause the game at literally any second and the image would make a beautiful painting on my wall.

... griffin. Here’s an interesting screenshot from the Last Guardian
The Last Guardian - Screenshot-Galerie | pressakey.com
Kotaku Timeline: The Last Guardian | Kotaku Australia

Those are freaking screenshots. Even writing about it now, it blows my mind.

And again I point you to the game's humanity, and Trico's reality. Those beautiful pause button paintings are of a creature you'll fall in love with.

When I saw IGN's 7/10 review, I wondered if I'd made the right decision in buying the super deluxe version, which came with a statuette.

Shuei Yoshida Spacchetta Per Voi La Collectors Edition Di The Last

Would the statue forever remind me of a disappointment?

But no.  I wish it were bigger. I wish it dominated my back garden and the game had come with a painting too.

If I were reviewing this as a "game", I'd agree with IGN. The controls are fuzzy, the replay value is mostly aesthetic, the trophy hunt (if like me you're into those) looks fiddly and frustrating to me, the play time is short. But this is not a game. I doubt it was intended as one. If you want a game, get something else. This is a work of art.

Imagine you're in a bookstore and you're choosing between The Hogfather (Terry Pratchett, and awesome. Amazon link if you haven't read it and... do.) and To Kill a Mockingbird. There is little doubt that, if you're in the mood for something fun, you should choose The Hogfather. If you want something deep, that will haunt you for years to come, and that is a perfect showcase of just how beautiful and significant a work of art can be, then you should get To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought about choosing a more esoteric, arty book there, like Catcher in the Rye, but no--To Kill a Mockingbird is fun.  It's just not made to be fun.  In terms of fun content, easy 7/10.

The Last Guardian is, equally, not made to be fun. It's still fun. And I am not deriding other games.  I love video games. They've influenced my writing every inch as much as books. I'm saying The Last Guardian is an anomaly. The industry, even when telling a great story, rarely places the "game-ish" side of things in the background. I'm saying I understand the 7/10 review, but it's not judging The Last Guardian for what it attempted, but for what they expected. It is impossible to give an accurate impression of this kind of art (not level, but kind) when just measuring how much you think people should buy it. If you want nifty fun, I'd say only buy it if you have a good amount of cash to throw around, and feel like trying something unique. If you're looking for a fun puzzle platformer and have never tried, say Portal 1 or Portal 2, get those. They're awesome.

If you want to see just how beautiful a game can be, and how much it can evoke, The Last Guardian is an easy 10/10, and a must have.

Know what to expect. Don't judge it as a game, but as a work of art, and I promise, if you're in the mood for something deep and beautiful, you will fall in love with Trico, and you will be very glad to have experienced The Last Guardian.



13 February, 2017

A Thank You to Everyone Who Reads This

A-thank you, everyone who reads this.  Yes, I know I already said it, but I mean it sincerely.

When I first started this blog, I had one reader.  I set up the blog and within a couple of weeks somebody messaged me saying, "Are you the guy who wrote Temple of Mirrors!?"  I couldn't believe anybody read that story, let alone would remember it four years after publication.  I was glad to have that reader, and if they still read my blatherings, I'm all the more glad.  This is a special shout-out to you, if you're still there.  You rock.

(In fact, contact me again, dude.  I no longer have your details so far as I can see.  I think it's fun to know who you are, and I'd be happy to always give you a signed copy of my work.  I'd bet many writers would do that if they were privileged enough to know who their first fan was.)

To everyone else, I offer a big thanks too.  I haven't posted all that much over the past year.  I've been so busy, trying to set myself up as a novelist, trying to please my agent and get a book into a major publishing house.  It's a long, long journey.

About a month ago, I dared look at my view statistics again, thinking I'd be down to a meagre number, dreading the thought after making things pretty respectable over the years.

I also assumed they'd go down for another reason.  I used to write about the craft of writing.  Then I decided to take a chance and start writing more about me, about my thoughts and feelings.  Stream of consciousness ravings of a random bloke at a keyboard.  There's still stuff about writing and publishing, because it's perpectually on my mind, but it's no longer a deliberate, businesslike focus.

Long story short, I had several reasons to be afraid to look at my statistics.

And then I looked, and my jaw dropped.  Since I started posting about me, just sharing my journey, my views have more than tripled.  I don't know why you people care, you sick bastards, but I do know you have my enduring gratitude.  You make me feel like maybe I can accomplish this goal one day.  I consider myself tremendously lucky for every view.

So for whatever ungodly reason, the metrics suggest people enjoy reading about me, and what I think.  I'm going to restructure my blog just a little bit to reflect that.  If you hate the new format, please let me know.  If you like it, then thanks again.

I'm also altering the format to better reflect what I think about, and what I have to say.  Over the last year I would often be stuck for what to write, uncertain whether what was going through my mind would be of any value to anyone.  I mean, why would it?  I still don't get it, but if you people like reading it, and I like writing it, then everybody wins, right?  Let's say, for instance, I'm reading some ye olde Michael Moorcock, and I'm thinking about how he balances intriguing character with an elegantly simple story about overcoming a monster.  If that's what's on my mind, and if for some ungodly reason you guys enjoy my perspective, I accept your interest with gratitude, and will be pleased to share.  So I'll be sticking up a reviews section.  It won't all be books, either.  I play games every bit as much as I read.

I don't know what else I'll add yet.  This is a work in progress.  I might even self-publish some short stories--things I believe in but haven't found a market for.  Just a thought.  If anyone has any thoughts, please feel free to message me over Google or Twitter (I even set up Tumblr recently, though I haven't figured out how to use it yet) or write in the comments.

My fear in posting this is that it'll look self-congratulatory.  I assure you it isn't meant that way.  I am genuinely astonished that people read my blog, and I'm equally glad.  The least I can do is be candid with my readers, and design my blog to give them more stuff to read.

Pointless picture for Pinterest:

Blam.

31 January, 2017

Writing With My Old Friend Epilepsy

Well, my episodes are back.

Last time this happened, between about 2010-2013, I became fat, I accomplished nothing, and I forgot many useful skills I'd learned.  Treated at long last, I woke up hardly remembering those three years at all.

Here's hoping that doesn't happen again.
Image result for cheers


Already I find myself sleeping too much, perpetually a bit tired, and forgetful of even the most basic things.  As I write this there's a pile of cat sick outside my study door that's been there for a day now.  I intend to clean it when I get up, but will almost certainly forget within the next 90 seconds.  Isn't it grand?  I lose my zest for life, in short, and I find it very hard to force myself to be a hardworking, healthy professional.

But people who suffer with a disease have to learn to find the good in things.  I really think people with a neurological disorder have to learn to master themselves, in a weird way.  I know exactly how to use schedules and alarms to trick myself into acting like a healthy person, and how to look at things to keep my chin up. 

This latest bout has actually taught me something pretty neat.

A lot has happened in 2017 already for me, and I won't let the post get unfocused, but suffice to say I've felt compelled to edit a few adult novels into shape.

For me, writing is fun, and editing is work.  I know it's the other way around for some writers, and I envy those who find everything fun, if they exist.

Now, for weeks I was beating my head with one of these books.  I found no joy in editing it, wound up getting very little done, which made me more depressed, which made me more tired, more lacadaisical, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

People in my position must take very active steps, and be very self aware, to avoid falling too far.  I've allocated myself 30 minutes per day for "professional development".  That means either writing for my blog, or editing my book.  Odds are strong that when I sit down for 30 minutes, I'll want to stay longer, but it's important that I don't have to.  Yesterday I sat down at 3:30 and stopped editing at 7pm.  I got plenty done and felt great.

It's not the first time in my life I've learned the importance of those little tricks, but it is the first time I've learned this:  you don't rule the creative mind.  It rules you.  It's of tremendous importance to spend each day writing something that makes me happy, whether that's reading some favourite adult fantasy books for inspiration, or writing a midgrade idea that came to me in a dream a couple weeks ago.

I always maintained that art doesn't happen when writers write, but when readers read.  It isn't in the pianist's fingers pushing keys, but the listener's ears.  But there's more to it.  I think art is found in the love of the creation, whether it's the artist's love or the audience's.  It's in the spark of joy that teases the pianist's fingers to life, too.

Less eloquently, I've realised why so many artists become childish, diva bastards.  It seems I have to let myself join the ranks just a little bit.  I have to follow that joy, especially now, or else succumb to the depression.  I'm inspired to link to an old Radiohead song.  Not sure why but screw it.  It's a good song.



DO NOTE:  This incredibly weird and arguably naff video must be viewed through the lens of 90s playful sarcasm, or else it's nauseating.  We did it first, hipsters!  And in the right spirit!  Stop sullying our good name with your sleeve tattoos and "ironic" t-shirts!

Here's to you, epilepsy.  Even if you make me forget something every day, I guess occasionally you help me learn something too.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/43/a4/60/43a4606198fd76365ab1b6ac69f0f5bc.jpg


22 January, 2017

Meaningless Meaningful Methods and Fruitful Formulas... and arbitrary alliterations...


Most writers can boil down their method into a few words.  These words will mean almost nothing to anyone else, but can be interesting to hear.  They've certainly be useful to me.

Neil Gaiman:  "Make good art."  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikAb-NYkseI)

Paul McAuley:  "The reader follows the character, not the story."

Scott Bradfield:  "It's all about point of view and narrative time."

Elmore Leonard:  "F**k you!  I'm working!  I wrote a book with 10 of these epithets already!"

If you haven't read it, get it:



(Do note that this book is extremely short and simple, and it's entire contents, roughly 1,000 words, can be found on the internet.  Personally I enjoy having a hard copy and found my investment, some 7 years ago, valuable.  If I'd just read it online, it wouldn't be there calling to me and I wouldn't be reminded of its importance every time I look over my bookshelves.)

Anyway, most of us have a stupid epithet because it helps us.  Einstein said if you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it.  What that means in this context is, explaining something in simple terms helps you understand it.

And I think I've discovered my formula, so:

Wm. Luke Everest:  Something you care about, written in a simplistic way.

Let's break it down.

Something you care about doesn't have to be about politics, or culture.  It can be that you care about your fantasy world.  Or, as is usually the case when I write, it's caring about a character and that character's journey.  Either way, before you sit at the keyboard, ask yourself why you care.  When you type, do care.  The objective here is to make the reader care, too.

Writing in a simplistic way doesn't mean it looks simple, or even that it would be simple for someone else.  What it means is, it's a story you have a handle on, and it all seems simple to you.  This doesn't even have to be from the start.  Maybe you're really pushing your boundaries.  Great.  But by the end of it, if you can't look at your story and go, "It's definitely all about this stuff here, and it all works because of this," trust me, the book needs work.  Why and how it works should be very obvious to you, the creator, by the end.  If it doesn't work for you, it won't work for anyone else.

There will of course be exceptions to everything, and I do not claim the above to be all inclusive for everyone.  The whole point is, it's inclusive for me.

So there it is.  My little method might not help anyone.  It almost certainly won't be your phrase.  But I've always found reading other writers' methods interesting and useful.

My pointless picture for pinterest is of a kitten at a keyboard.  I thought about a monkey at a typewriter, because that's what I feel like sometimes, but then I thought, kittens are cuter, so why not?  This is the sort of thing I frequently wake up to, anyway.  The joys and tribulations of living with a cat.

Image result for kitten at keyboard