We went to Sizewell this week. Camping. It was a lot of fun and I've got to admit I thought the nuclear power station looked really, well, powerful I suppose. And it's big blockiness reminded me of my own little block. And the massive, faceless building made me thing about writing a novel. It's not just a blank page. It's grey. It's huge. It's intimidating. And when you stand looking at the outside you have no idea what there is beneath its grey-blank skin.
This week I wrote about 2500 words. I discovered the target feature on Scrivener. I tried the pomodora (no idea how to spell that) with my marking. And I'll try it with my writing when I get up tomorrow morning.
And so I set about conquering my writer's block by paying attention to the stuff under the skin. Plotting. I came to realise what I think I knew anyway. The barrier was that I hadn't planned my plot enough. So I did some of that. Just a couple of sentences about each scene, and now I can see beyond the towering concrete. And I think I know what to do. I feel more positive about getting back to target. I really want to finish the first draft by the end of the month.
So I've done that and I feel more secure. One lesson that I've learned with this draft is that I really need to plot in as much detail as possible next time. I can 'pants' short stories but for the long haul stuff I really need an extensive scaffold.
I did do some plotting. I've used KM Weiland's plot points and character interviews (which I will definitely do again) and mixed that up with a bit of StoryGrid foolscap. But these aren't enough for me on there own. Next time everything needs to be much more something.
I wrote my bad guy's big speech this week. And as an English teacher I quite like seeing different themes and possible interpretations emerging. I aint saying they work yet, or if they ever will, but I can see the potential.
Anyhoo, onwards and upwards. Time to start cranking out the words.
MY WRITING REPORT FOR THIS WEEK
Word Count - it's not complicated; it's practically non-existent.
I've been finding it hard to focus on writing this week and when I do I make little progress. I think this is for a number of reasons:
1 - fear of completing it and it being shit.
2 - being distracted by other ideas.
3 - being exhausted in exam season.
4 - Not having planned the third act properly.
Hmmm - yeah I'm definitely not a free-writer that's the take hoe of this week. When I wrote I wrote nothing and I figure that was because aside from the ending I had little idea about how the third act would go.
Word count aside - a friend of mine read the first half of the first draft. She hates all the names of the characters - which is fixable, and she hates the setting (Margate) which isn't. She also hates a key scene where the antagonist is introduced - there are other problems too, some of which I knew about (introducing protagonist effectively) and she liked my ideas about altering my approach to the flashback scenes.
Come to think of it:
5 - fear of completing the novel while knowing that there will be some major rewriting to undertake.
Honestly... I am worried about my protagonist being too bland.
Oh and you can get some Marvel Comics for 99p on the Kindle. I downloaded the Dr. Doom origin story and started reading it with my four year old - it was on the razor edge of appropriate I admit, but he loved it and they look great electronically.
Every dad ought to take a look - I love The Fantastic Four by the way - It's Clobberin' Time!
You'll enjoy 'Lock In' if:
- You are 14 or over.
- You like sci-fi and social dystopias like 'Noughts and Crosses'.
- You like a fast pace with plenty of dialogue.
In 'Lock In' a new virus has swept the planet leaving a portion of the population in a comatose state but with a fully operant consciousness. Thanks to technological investment, these Hadens can access society through human like robots called threeps. Some of these Hadens recover with the ability to allow other Hadens to use their bodies. These people are called integrators.
The book begins with a murder involving an integrator, and Chris Shane, a Haden detective living through a threep and new partner a former integrator called Vann set out to solve the crime.
What follows is combination of 'I, Robot' style speculative fiction and 'Maltese Falcon' style crime caper – two genres that I love. And I enjoyed the action scenes. I also liked the way the book tackled themes of ethnicity and of the marginalisation of minorities.
Later the plot did enough to keep me interested, but the book didn't do enough to get me enthralled. There was some sense of character, but I didn't really click with Scalzi's voices. With his heavy focus on dialogue (which I generally like, I didn't feel that the characters' individual voices were sufficiently differentiated, and the book, for me lacked a bit of texture.
Having finished the book,, I did enjoy it, but it's not one that I think a whole lot about. I may read more Scalzi. I may not.
I read this on kindle, and the formatting was pretty, but there were a lot of errors with the paragraphing. These don't bother me massively. But be warned if they're likely to bother you.
OWWF Rating: 6/10
You'll enjoy Leviathan Wakes if:
- you are 12 or over.
- you like space and stuff, or maybe Ender's Game.
- you're a fan of P.I mysteries and tough cops.
- you want to find a great series with the option to stop after one.
Okay so The Expanse is like the best thing I've seen on TV, like ever - well, alongside Stranger Things and People Just Do Nothing anyway. And so I figured since their isn't a second series yet, and I just wanted more, more, more, that I would read the book.
They call this series an epic space-opera, and I guess it's epic. That said, the cast list is pretty restricted, and the action rolls out in the space between Venus and Mars (okay maybe Saturn at a stretch). And I've got to say the term space-opera is pretty unappealing (too much like soap-opera, you know?).
Anyway the book is narrated from two alternating perspectives: Jim Holden, first Officer of the Canterbury, a Belt based ice miner, and Miller, a well weathered space-station detective, with a divorce and an attitude. Of the two perspectives I found the Miller chapters more compelling, but I think that the two narrative voices work well together, and that it's a bit unfair to compare Holden unfavourably as the tensions between Holden's innocence and Miller's experience make the book what it is.
As I read, I got about thirty pages in and I just thought - YES! This is what I've been looking to read. Just awesome! The voices and the atmosphere had me totally hooked. I'll admit that as I read on my enthusiasm waned a little. I did feel at times that Holden and Millers repeated successes against overwhelming odds, started to feel a little contrived and I found myself craving failure or even just a partial success, and having finished the book, I still feel that is a weakness.
If. like me, you come to Leviathan Wakes via the TV series, I think you'll be surprised by the extent that the story has been altered for TV. I love the TV series, but I really liked the way the story panned out here too. A lot more happens in this fist book than the TV series, and I think across the arc of this book the plot is excellently structured.
The ending of the book was effective, and not too hammy. It also felt like the close of a proper novel, as opposed to a first episode, so you won't be disappointed even if you decide not to read the whole series.
ZA by Molly Looby
You'll enjoy ZA if you are:
- a fan of zombie fiction;
- you like a fast paced read with plenty of action;
- aged 12-17;
- a boy or a girl;
- you like getting in on a series right from the start.
Review by Geoff Smith
The story begins with a bit of character stuff presenting Zane, his skills and concerns, before the zombic action kicks off, when our characters are out at a Zombie Run event, no less. What follows is an escalating series of Zombie conflicts, a death or two, and one almost uncreditable coincidence. It's good stuff, action packed, an easy read and solid slapstick zombie fare.
At about twenty pages in I thought that I would hate the book. I found the language pretty stuffy a number of times and I was having some formatting issues with my Kindle. But as I got into the book I got into the action and I started to enjoy the writing too. I did become more and more aware, however, that the book has been written with creating a series in mind.
I guess what makes Zombie books so compelling for a lot of people is that the antagonist doesn't get in the way, you get a seige situation and a sort of Lord of the Flies, Darwinian dynamic, that must really resonate with young adult readers.
Now I'm not a young adult. I haven't been one for a while. And being honest, I struggle a bit with the TV culture of sprawling soap-like series like Homeland, The Walking Dead, and Lost, and I did think that ZA had something of those shows about it. There are a lot of loose ends here, and this wasn't for me. My 'disappointing ending spider sense' was definitely tingling by the 65% mark. And my spider sense was proved right (for me, anyway). There was no hint of a solution to the Zombie problem and no clear resolution of the characters' internal conflicts.
I'm sure that Ms. Looby has interesting things mapped out for future books – so if you're looking for a series this might not be an issue for you. I had the same feeling about More Than This by Patrick Ness, so the fault possibly lies with me.
If you like those shows – and if you're a Zombie fan, you probably do watch The Walking Dead, then this won't bother you – as you'll be happy to wait till book two – and I can totally imagine the YA readers I know loving this book.
And I enjoyed it too.
If you like The Walking Dead, or enjoyed More Than This by Patrick Ness, I reckon you'll like ZA.
OWWF Rating: 7/10
I think you'll enjoy Thread of Hope if:
- you are 14 or over.
- you're a fan of Philip Marlowe mysteries.
- you like a fast moving page turner.
- you're more into character than sophisticated Police procedure.
- you want a good FREE book!
I found Jeff Shelby on Amazon kind of by chance. I saw one of his covers – the newest one - I forget the name – Thread of Danger, Thread of Innocence. Anyway, I clicked along and found that the first book in the Joe Tyler series, Thread of Hope, was free! So I thought, what the heck? Let's give it a try.
So, Joe Tyler? He's a guy with a past. With a missing daughter and an untidy divorce and a best friend in a coma, and yes it is serious, actually. Anyhow Joe Tyler finds missing kids. That's what he does. But here he is in his old home town trying to clear his friend. Of course things get complicated, and there are romance issues too. Of course there are.
Anyway I got into this pretty quick. I'm a big fan of Chandler so this mystery hit the spot for me. Joe Tyler is tough, but not too tough, smart but not too smart, brave but not gung-ho. Very much in the Marlowe mould. The writing isn't blindingly crafted but it's clear, crisp, functional and effective. It does the job.
Download it now and see if you agree.
Having read the book I had a nose at Shelby's biography. He's a high school English teacher, like me; he writes P.I. Capers, and I'm writing one too. He's also written a YA novel that looks to be on the verge of YA and NA. Like my book. Shelby, though, is unlike me, super prolific. I'd love to know how he does it. Oh yeah, and he's a Jeff too - we're a pair of homophones.
I recently read Mappalujo by Jeff Noon and Steve Beard. It was a really interesting read. I had a great tie reading it. It felt like something innovative and exciting, and as I read I wondered about how the book came about. With its separate but linked narratives it seemed to defy my expectations of structure while still seeming well-themed and, well, exciting.
It wasn't until I got to the end of the book and the appendices that I found out about the writing process. Steve and Jeff used a formalised approach called Mappalujo. They based their chapters on a collection of cultural icons, from Gilbert and George to The Velvet Underground. Writing alternate chapters they ended up with something unique, powerful and just, well, cool.
I wanted to know more about how it worked. What about outlining? Character arcs? What about redrafting, sharing control? So, I contacted Jeff and he has answered a few of my questions.
I've got to be honest - this is the most exciting post I've been lucky enough to post. Mappalujo is a brilliant idea and I want to do it with... with someone, sometime.
So here it is. Check out the rules below, and my interview with Jeff at the bottom of the post.
The Mappalujo Rule Book
Mappalujo is a writing game designed to allow two or more players to create a shared narrative between them. It offers a balance between a collaborative work process and individual freedom.
Players decide between them on a bank of ICONS, a number of celebrity figures either living, dead or fictional. We recommend between six and twenty icons for each new story. Icons should be taken from as broad a range of cultural worlds as possible. An example six might be: OPHRA WINFREY, BATMAN, LADY GAGA, BENOIT MANDELBROT, JEAN-PAUL GAULTIER and BRIDGET JONES. Your chosen icons will be used to influence each chapter of the story.
Rules are decided about maximum length of chapter, for instance no more than three pages of text, or no more than 1,000 words. Mappalujo works best when limits are set in this way, to allow each icon to have its proper influence.
The game begins. The first player chooses one of the iconic figures and writes a short chapter based on it. The icon can influence the writing in any way. For instance the icon BATMAN might lead to a piece about masks, about fighting crime, about revenge, about losing a parent to a violent incident, about comic books, about superheroes, about people copying the behaviour of animals, and so on. This influence can be obvious, or tangential. There are no limits to the extent or range of the iconic influence.
Once chapter one is complete, the chosen icon is removed from the icon bank.
This first chapter is sent to Player 2, who chooses another icon from those remaining in the bank and responds with a chapter of their own, influenced in turn by this new icon.
Mappalujo is suitable for creating both traditional and experimental narratives. So, this second chapter can follow directly on from the first in terms of plot, characters or atmosphere; or it might not, depending on the agreed style of the story.
This second chapter is sent back to Player 1, and the second icon is removed from the icon bank.
The game proceeds in this way until all of the icons in the bank are used up. As the story reaches its final chapters, the players will have fewer icons to choose from, so increased creativity plays an important role.
Stage one of the mappalujo process is complete when the last icon has been used, and the final chapter written. There will now be a number of chapters or episodes, one for each icon in the bank.
These completed chapters are regarded as the raw material for a story. The two players now work together in a more traditional manner, editing and tweaking as they see fit in order to improve the story. During this part of the process a balance should be found between perfecting the story as a whole, while retaining the individual iconic nature of each chapter.
When both players are satisfied with the outcome, the mappalujo game is finished. The story is complete.
Interview with Jeff Noon.
You wrote Mappalujo with Steve Beard. How well did you guys know each other when you began the Mappalujo process?
J: Hardly at all. I’d recently moved to Brighton after living in Manchester, so I was looking to make new friends and contacts. I went to a book reading session at a bar and heard Steve read. We got chatting afterwards, and then met up a short time late for coffee. We talked about working together on something. But we were both aware of the difficulties of writing prose in a collaborative manner (as opposed to writing film scripts, say, which lend themselves much more to a writing team’s joint efforts). So we decided to come up with some kind of formal approach that would allow our different styles and interests to merge in some way. The Mappalujo process was born from those discussions.
I think I read that you decided the number of chapters that the two of you would write. To what extent did you outline the story arc of the project as a whole?
The first stage of the Mappalujo process is to choose a number of chapters, say ten, and a set of iconic figures to go with them. Iconic figures are people of influence in the worlds of art, politics, science, philosophy, etc, living or dead, real or fictional. These iconic figures are then used, each in turn, to influence a chapter of the story as it builds. Steve would choose an icon, write a chapter based in some way on that icon’s life or work, and pass it on to me; in turn I would choose another icon from the list, and write an answering chapter. The story builds up in this manner until all the icons in the list are used up. So the story is written chapter by chapter, with the two authors swapping chapters back and forth. We didn’t plan the story out in any way, not to start with. We just improvised and jumped off each other’s previous chapter. It was very much an explorative process, finding pathways through a labyrinth. The overall arc of the novel only came into being as the individual stories were completed. We soon realised that all the events were taking place in the same city, which we named Lujo. Very gradually the story of Lujo emerged, with a whole set of characters living there, to carry the story forward over many decades of the city’s history.
How much did you and Steve talk about the story during the process of writing the first draft?
We would meet up every so often to chat about the process and the story, and to exchange ideas on future events. It started out as an experiment in writing; only gradually did we realise that we were actually writing a novel, or a series of interconnected short stories. But once that idea took shape, we started to think of it in novelistic terms; so more planning took place, the longer the writing process lasted.
Was it more enjoyable producing the first draft than writing a first draft alone?
Yes, it was very enjoyable! But also frustrating at times. We found it was quite easy to wander off down pathways that looked really exciting to begin with, only to discover that they were actually dead ends. So we would then have re-think meetings, to discover a new approach for the story. But the whole game-playing aspect of Mappalujo always keeps it interesting, and fresh and lively: you never know where you’re going to go next. And of course the more we did it, the better we became at utilising the system.
Was the redrafting and crafting of the final draft more complex than for an individual project?
The first draft produced a kind of soup of raw materials, from which we then crafted the novel. This second part of the process is more traditional; rewriting a second draft pretty much as an individual writer would. One of us would have a go through the material, shaping it, changing it, adding things, discarding other things, etc. The second writer would then treat that new draft as his own, and rework it. We’d then meet up to decide on the final draft. It was probably a little bit more complex than a writer working alone, but not much. This final stage was very similar to how two writers might work on a film script together.
Did the redrafting process take a long time?
It’s really difficult to talk about chronological time passing, because we would have intense periods of working together, and then periods where we took breaks. I would guess that the whole process of writing the novel, beginning to end, took about five years, with breaks here and there. We probably spent half of that time on the initial icon-sharing process, and half on the redrafting. I do remember that we did a lot changes later on, when we starting thinking about how a reader would respond to the book.
Did the Mappalujo process teach you anything about how to write with another author?
I think it solves a lot of the problems of collaborative novel writing, because two or more authors of different sensibilities are able to feed their individual styles and interests into the chapters. Even when we were working on the novel’s overall story as an arc, we never wanted the book to lose that initial feel of a game being played, of different styles meshing together. We wanted it to be a bit ragged at the edges, rather than super smooth. And out of that Mappalujo process, Steve and I have recently started to work together again, this time on film scripts, a much more standard way of writing, but one that is definitely informed by the lessons we learned from creating Mappalujo. I think we’ve learned how to let our individual styles feed into the whole, which is probably the most important aspect of any collaborative project.
What advice would you give to other writers considering their own Mappalujo project?
Set a limit for the length of chapters, say two pages. Don’t start with two many chapters: six to ten icons should be fine. Start small, and build from there as the story reveals its true potential. Make sure the icons are interesting. Figures with highly individuated attributes and styles are best, because they lead to the most influences. Avoid direct parody of an icon’s working style, if possible. Try to think of more lateral kinds of influence. And most importantly: have fun! To begin with, it’s a game, an exploration of possibilities. Then it becomes something else, a narrative. Follow the flow of the story, wherever it might take you.
And there it is. I think it's a really exciting idea and I've had a few ideas about possible projects. I hope you might have a go too.
Ad Hoc Fiction is a brilliant weekly flash fiction competition where incredible writers produce 150 words stories that contain a specified prompt word. Each week the public vote and a winner is selected. The voting system does an incredible job of finding the diamonds in the, well not rough. Let’s say the public do a great job in selecting the most polished diamonds from a grab bag of gems… no that sounds poncey. You know what I mean. Right?
The winner each week gets free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction competition proper, which has a top prize of £1000.
Last month I interviewed Alison Wassell and I’ve been keeping an oar in and an eye out ever since. Last week I read ‘The Definition of Us’ by Christina Dalcher and I just thought – it was a really interesting piece. So I asked Christina about it and this is what she said:
How often do you enter stories on AdHoc fiction?
Since August 2016, I'd say every other week on average. I don't set a clock, but whenever my fingers start to itch and I don't already have a flash piece (or two) cooking, I head over to AdHoc and check out their word of the week.
How do you usually approach key words / prompts? Was this different?
The very first thing I do is look up the word in the OED and in urbandictionary.com. I dig deep, keeping an eye out for archaic/obsolete uses, etymology, unexpected parts of speech or meanings or references. Since the prompt word that begat "The Definition of Us" was cast, I farmed a metric ton of raw fodder from dictionary entries, and that gave me the idea to capitalize on the rich lexical semantics of that single word. Once I knew where the experiment was going, I plugged the string 'cast' into an online Scrabble dictionary and pulled several of the longer words that contained the four-letter string.
Did you outline your piece before you wrote it?
Outline? What's an outline? No, seriously, I didn't, mostly because I didn't have much time left before the deadline, and also because I never outline my short work.
How did you approach the writing / redrafting of 'The Definition of Us'?
This piece started differently than most of my flash fiction. Rather than begin writing, I allowed the dictionary entries of 'cast' and words containing 'cast' to create the story. The bones, so to speak, were about two dozen dictionary entries. Since the top entry happened to be one of the more common meanings (direct one's eyes at someone), the theme was headed for romance right from the start!
Roughly how long did you spend writing 'The Definition of Us' ?
I'm afraid if I tell you this, you might not like me very much! Once I had a short list of the dictionary entries, the piece came together in about ten minutes. I owe this to my fabulously fast mother, who taught me how to type.
Do you tell others when you have posted a story?
Sometimes. "The Definition of Us" was the first AdHoc piece I sent to my critique group (the inimitable FastFlash5). I confess I'm a rather sporadic tweeter, though, and when tomorrow arrives, I tend to forget yesterday.
Do you think about your story much during the week it's up on the AdHoc site for the public vote?
Oh, goodness, if I thought about every story that was out on submission, I'd go mad in a New York minute. I do love reading the weekly AdHoc entries, though!
Do you enjoy writing within the 150 word limit?
Absolutely. And the 300-word limit and the 50-word limit and the 743-word limit. Since I'm also a novelist, anything under 80,000 words is a refreshing break, a quick sprint to interrupt the marathon. Also, (and I'm recalling the wise words of my late syntax professor, Charlie Jones, here) I believe that if you can't say what you want in the confines of a page or a paragraph, you probably can't say it in a few hundred pages or a few hundred paragraphs.
'The Definition of Us' is one of the most imaginatively structured pieces I've seen on AdHoc. Can you tell us about it?
First, thank you. That's a lovely compliment. The narrative itself is quite simple (girl loves someone, girl's parents are against the couple—you've probably seen this before in, say, Romeo and Juliet). It probably wouldn't have worked as well if I'd just come out and written what these characters wanted and how they went about achieving their goals. Complicating the form lets the reader have some fun in assembling the pieces: the key word, the definition, and the application of that definition are all there on the page, but their arrangement is a bit of a surprise. People like surprises, right?
Is experiment with structure something that you do a lot?
Oh, yeah. Almost half of my published short work is in some sort of experimental form: emails, diary entries, recipes, word games, and epistles are a few examples. I particularly love playing with words—it's the linguist in me. Also, I'm a cryptic crossword addict, which will make sense to my fellow Brits, not so much to my fellow Yanks. As a side note, the first piece of flash I read was a fantastic story by Ani King titled "Conjugate 'to be', using complete sentences." It's over at freezeframefiction if anyone fancies having a peek.
And do you think structural experimentation is particularly suited to flash fiction?
Very much so. And not at all suited to longer writing—imagine an 80,000-word novel all in dictionary format or Associated Press blurbs! There's a certain amount of work that needs doing when you read a story through the filter of unexpected forms, and the novelty can grow old if it's overdone or prolonged.
What advice would you give to other writers having a go at the AdHoc fiction competition?
Read the winning entries, read the long listed entries, stretch outside the box of the first thing that comes to mind when you see that single-word prompt, write some stuff, edit and polish and read it out loud. Hit submit. Do it all again the following week!
Read more by Christina Dalcher
Christina is an incredibly industrious and prolific writer... I am more than a little awestruck. She has about 45 flash credits so far and was placed second in the Bartleby Snopes Dialogue-only Contest this year.
If you'd like to read more of Christina's work, check out the following:
The Molotov Cocktail: Prize Winners AnthologyAfter the Pause Year 2Vine Leaves Journal, Issue #17I really loved this interview. I've ordered the Molotov title and look forward to hearing and reading more of Christina's work in the future.Find Christina Dalcher at www.christinadalcher.com or tweeting @CVDalcher.
Act One: The Beginning of Everything
The first act is where you set up the problems that you the character is going to have to resolve. It takes up about the first twenty-five percent of the novel.
This is the first of three posts that put forward a simple interpretation of the three act structure.
KM Weiland suggests that there are two main events that we have to worry about here: the inciting incident and the first plot point.
The Inciting Incident
Michael Hauge calls this opening The Set Up . Here we have to introduce the protagonist in his 'ordinary life', the first 10% allows us to demonstrate the character and his situation, to establish him or her in the readers' sympathies.
In short, the opening scenes need to make us like or respect the hero.
For Hauge, the inciting incident is a choice. The character has a chance to attain some kind of new life or situation. That creates a new desire, setting the story in motion.
So the inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. Weiland is more flexible in her approach than Hauge. And perhaps this is because Hauge is a screenwriter rather than a novelist. Weiland's view is that while the inciting incident can happen on the 10% mark, it might be in the first couple of scenes as in The Hunger Games, or even before the start of the action of the novel.
First Plot Point
So from the inciting incident to about the 25% mark the character will react to the inciting incident, and this usually involves a choice on the part of the protagonist. During this section of the novel the character will encounter a bunch of problems and revelations that will most likely dampen enthusiasm and lead them to doubt themselves, until …
You guessed it – that pesky first plot point!
Hauge tells us that something big needs to happen to our hero about a quarter of the way through our story. The hero will usually make a choice here, a decision that cannot be reversed. Whatever it is, this event must change the hero's goal from a generalised desire into a specific goal with a definite end point.
And with that we end act one. We have shown the hero's ordinary world, seen him choose a new situation; we've seen his world view being challenged by a series of obstacles until finally he makes a dramatic choice that sets him on a new path towards a specific and finite goal.
Star Wars: A New Hope
If we think about Star Wars as an example we see Luke Skywalker's ordinary life on the farm. We see his competence and skill and his frustration, until at the ten-percent mark he accidentally triggers the message from Princess Leia, and this is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
From here Luke is tested. He is attacked by sand-people! Meets a crazy old man. He refuses the call. Then the first plot point occurs when Luke discovers that the storm-troopers have torched the farm and murdered his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke makes a choice to follow Ben Kenobi to Alderaan and to join the rebellion.
And that's the first act: an appealing protagonist, an inciting incident and a call to action.
Next up – Act Two