I knew the odds when I took this job…

This week, I got two reviews of my novella Clockworks Warrior. The first one came from a fellow Hatracker. He said the story was too tight and needs to be expanded into a novel (not the first time I heard that about my stories). He also said that a certain “deus ex machina” appears in it, solving a really desperate situation with in a too easy way.

I can understand why he got that impression. I also know why it made sense to me. I am prone to creating monstrously large stories. When I try to put it on paper, the only way for me to do that is to cut the story in pieces, writing each in turn. What he called a “deus ex machina” is in fact a connection to the other pieces of the aforementioned monster. The next story in line will reveal the same events from a different point of view. This is where that “deus ex machina” will come into contact.

At this point, I sound like that classic bit of defence rookie writers usually make when someone tells them their story could be written differently. “No, you didn’t understand the point I was trying to make.” No, I’m admitting the fluke, plain and simple, because if I couldn’t persuade one reader what my point was, I didn’t do my job as a writer. So yes, I made a fluke. It happens. At least it wasn’t a plot paradox like the one I found an hour before saying: “OK, now Clockworks is done.”

I mentioned two revies coming in this week. Interesting that my brother-in-law who usually doesn’t read books, let alone books in English, decided to give my story a read. He loved it. He could not stop telling me how much he enjoyed that story. He also commented on that same “deus ex machina” and said he loved that too because it came at just the right moment to relieve the desperate moment and that in the epilogue there is a hint why this salvation came along at all.

Today, I have more confidence to write than I did yesterday. The story doesn’t have to be perfect to entertain and to give someone a good day or two. Or three. And there nothing more satisfying than to have someone tell you with that sparkle of madness in their eyes: “Write another one, quickly!”

All the modes your heart desires…

I thought I was still caught in the Editorial Mode from finishing up Clockworks Warrior but no, this is a problem from planning the Arena.

Planning Mode is something I hoped would speed up my outline process like story boards for a movie. And while it has done the job, I became stuck in it. I looked at my scraps and if I saw a scene already written down, my brain refused to go into Writing Mode.

I have tons of writing scraps that I refuse to discard so the whole story is in little pieces. Clockworks was too short to fall into that trap but Arena should be nearly three-times longer. I kept saying to myself: “You have a ton of snipets. Don’t ignore them or all that work will go out in smoke.” Now I tell myself: “Those were done for planning, stupid! You can’t make a novel out of them.”

This week I finally rediscovered the state of mind that has enabled me to write a chapter a week when I was doing my fan fiction. I call it Documentary Mode. The trick is not to plan or rehearse but wade into the story and describe what is happening as it is happening. I plan only the roughest draft, and not worry about details as they will come by themselves. Documentary Mode asks me to take a leap of faith, faith that the story will somehow find its way through to a satisfying conclusion without my guidance. I imagine it’s a similar experience to a parent taking their hands off the rear of their child’s bicycle for the first time. It goes against every instinct. Did I mention I’m a control freak?

Leap of faith is something that does not come naturally to me. Small wonder it took me this long to rediscover it. Now let’s see how long it lasts…

(Told you there would be a lot of modes)

Bloody introverts…

We writers are a strange bunch as we are introverted by default. And that’s good, otherwise what could possibly force us to sit down and write for hours without stopping? If we weren’t introverted, there wouldn’t be anything worth written down. Being an introvert is a good thing but there are also some bad sides to it. The flaw that is most important to writers is a lack of personal character.

Personal character can only be developed by interacting with people and introverts are not very known for that. The problem is that our personal character gives character to our writing as well. While we may develop fascinating worlds and awe-inspiring situations, it’s the character of our writing that makes our stories something special. It’s why that same hero/villain thing can keep getting used as the main plot and we don’t get tired of reading about it (most of us, anyway).

We’ve all read something that seemed tasteless and odorless and we all know those stories that gripped us, chewed us up and spitted us out, not just because they had a great plot and setting but because we could almsot hear the author’s charismatic voice next to us, guiding us through the story. Even if the story is about something terrifying, we feel safe because we know we are in good hands of a skilled and experienced author.

Myself, I love to read Heinlein’s books. I never get tired of his voice, the way he makes everything smooth and profesional but then I don’t read his books very often. There was a time when I read Terry Pratchett in large doses. Soon, his voice turned out monotonous, so I stopped reading the Discworld series. I had a similar problem with other writers too. Devouring books of a single author can do that to me. That’s why lately I make a point of trying to discover new writers.

Writers, do your career a favour: go out and meet new people. Your readers will be grateful in the long run.

Great endings and all those others

Today I read a blog post from a fellow Hatracker. MaryAnn talks about how story endings need to reach the reader/viewer’s expectations, otherwise the whole thing falls apart. While I was writing a reply to her post I got into my rant mode and since I don’t hate her that much I’ve decided I will dump this in my own blog instead.

I stopped watching Lost for the same reason I stopped watching the X Files: a lot of promises and too little realization of those promises (for those same reasons I don’t like politics). When it comes to character vs plot, I’m usually a character man myself but Lost had a beginning that clearly promised a mystery to solve. That was what I expected of this show. The character development was a great part of it but it wasn’t why I watched the series; I wanted to see if they are indeed lost in Jurassic Park or not.

Instead of a mystery to be solved, all I got was more twists and eventually I figured out that there’s too much smoke and lightning for it to end in an interesting way. So I saved me some time and went to watch Battlestar Galactica instead.

Speaking of endings and speaking of Battlestar Galactica, there’s another topic waiting to be violated. Sure, it was a nice poetic ending but completely unrealistic. Don’t tell me that people who use make-up, wear fancy dresses and are used of pushing buttons all their lives will voluntarily choose to live in the wilderness, wearing animal skins and reproduce with the monkey people they found on some alien planet. Was that why we fought for? I’m not sure what ending would be more satisfying but “God did it” really wouldn’t be what I would go for.

That said, yes, endings do need a lot of work to be good. That’s why I usually come up with an ending early so all the twists I invent after are in sync with the ending. Sometimes I will even plot the story backwards, from the ending to a beginning, always looking for the reason something happens, not the consequence.

And MaryAnn, don’t try to find a perfect ending. Find a suitable one and get to work on the next story. Trust me, we’ve all been there.

Upgraded?

I believe I’ve made a major breakthrough in honing my craft of writing. After finishing Clockworks Warrior, I tried getting back to Arena and it proved very difficult. It seems I’ve upgraded significantly because the style in Arena seems very tacky to me now. This doesn’t mean I plan to abandon the project, it just means that I will need to put much more work in it than I previously imagined. Maybe it’s time to make up another deadline…

The major problem with Arena is that I wanted to use 1st person present in it. Since a lot of it is physical action, 1st person present works perfectly. You don’t get to hear a report of it as in past tense but get to watch it unfold in front of you. 1st was chosen because there were so many comments by my POV chacter that half o fthe text would be in italic. So 1st person present feels like the best way to go at it and yet I have a very queasy feeling about it. So I said to myself: just write it down, you can alway rewrite it later. True, and yet not completely true. I have to feel the text as I’m writing it, otherwise I can never make a story that would be good enough to publish. I can’t write in gloves, so to speak. It has to be genuine or it’s not worth doing it.

If anyone reading this blog has any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them so send them my way.

Death of characters

Lots of times it seems that writers don’t dare to look a dying character in the eye, as if afraid to be blamed personally for the murder. When it comes to killing, a writer needs to be a monster; no emotions, just every gruesome detail. George R R Martin never forgets to make the dying of his characters personal, no matter how minute they are. To me, every death scene in Song of Ice and Fire is a tragedy (and there’s plenty of them), even if the character was made to be hated (you all know which characters I mean). There’s also one line in the HBO series Game of Thrones (yes, I’m nuts about that show), delivered by King Robert about killing men: “They don’t tell you how they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs.”

To that purpose, I love Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Not because they are quirky and don’t even have to make sense to be awesome but because the killing is always personal. It’s important to show the dying as well. That character wasn’t just a prop, it was a person. The least we can do is say farewell to them, not pretend like they never existed in the first place.

Battle scenes

It seems many upcoming writers have trouble with describing action scenes. This is something I’ve been working on since forever and there’s still much and more to learn. But here are some things I’ve figured out.

First of all, a battlefield isn’t a playground. The Narnia books/movies have battles where the main fighters are children and hamsters. Excuse me? Grown men return from a battle broken and ruined and you want to see a 13-year-old charging a minotaur head on? Oh right, it’s fantasy.

With that mini-rant out of the way, I can finally concentrate on the important stuff.

Make your characters fight dirty. It gives you a whole new way of showing their true nature. Who thinks about fighting honorably when they are actually fighting? Most people think about surviving through a battle, not how they must remain pure and noble. A decent character can be ashamed of it later.

There are some authors who are good at action scenes and one should strive to learn from them. Steven Pressfield writes gripping battle scenes and in his books you can see that most of the battle isn’t fighting but the waiting, the emotional and physical stress. Concentrate on those if you want to make a battle scene realistic. For instance, Aragorn in Two Towers just went through the Warg fight scene, fell off a cliff, nearly drowned, rode all night to reach Helm’s Deep in time and then calmly put on a 20-kilo suit of chainmail and fought for another night without stopping. Not realistic one bit, even for fantasy.

If you’re writing from a single person’s perspective and your character isn’t sitting on top of the battlefield, forget about the zoom-out feature where a reader can see everything that’s happening.

Don’t forget to show physical fatigue of prolonged fighting. A round of canne de combat lasts 90 seconds. The fighting stick weighs 0.15 of a kilo, practically weightless. Before half of the round is done, your arm feels like a ton of lead and you’re clawing for breath in that plastic helmet. Now imagine fighting four hours non-stopping, in a 10-kilo suit of armor (if you’re lucky) with a 4-kilo sword or spear and a 5-kilo shield on top of that. In a closed metal helmet, weighing another kilo or two.

Show your character conserving his/her energy. Show the exhaustion. Show your character taking rest in the middle of a battle. It’s genuine.

Back from Eurocon

Made it back from Zagreb where I experienced my first sci-fi convention. An incredible experience, particularly since sci-fi fandom is something my country simple doesn’t have or is meagre enough to be neglected. Everyone there was in a good mood. Met me an American writer (Tim Powers), a British writer (Charles Stross) and a Russian writer (Dmitry Glukhovsky). I listened their stories with much envy, not because of their success but because they come from an environment that appreciates their efforts and rewarded them accordingly. It’s also amazing how different their lives are and yet all of them live from what I want to live from.
There is something that I miss: company of other writers. No offense to my friends from Hatrack Forum but the forum chit chat is simply not enough for me. Internet is not a substitute for a real-life relationships.
I also had a conversation with a British agent (John Berlyne) and it was refreshing to take a look at the industry from a different viewpoint. All this talk of late of agents being cookie monsters, it was nice to see they are people after all. Yes, they are in the business of making money but aren’t we all?

T plus one… but what the hell

So I missed my deadline. No one died and one more read through revealed two major plot holes which might ruin the story for an intelligent reader. Good thing I saw and patched them up. If I missed any typos, someone else will have to find them.

Anyhow, without any further ado, I give you…

Clockworks Warrior cover

Link to Smashwords purchase page.

Link to Amazon.com purchase page.

Link to Amazon.co.uk purchase page.

Success recipes

The problem with many books and the majority of mainstream movies is that they use proven success recipes. These recipes work for a reason but their effectiveness to the reader/viewer drops with the number of times they’ve been used. Sooner or later an idea will drop into a full-blown cliche, not because it doesn’t work (cliches don’t become cliches if they didn’t work plenty of times) but because it’s been done to death. When this happens, some screenwriter/writer will try to make tweaks of the original idea, trying to create some variety. This often doesn’t work, party because it deviates from the success recipe and partly because its sole advantage was in the fact it is not the cliche it was trying to avoid. Tweaks are often boring, tedious and as a rule don’t work. When tweaks do work, they do because they aren’t just tweaks but whole new subplots, well developed and well defined.

Lately we’re witnessing a lot of successful tweaks to the original success recipes. That’s because audience is so more demanding today than ten to twenty years ago. Try watching old movies. Even the classics are getting a bit sour. When I look at some older shows or movies I can’t believe I used to be entertained by them. We are not so easy to satisy as we were before.

This is the main reason why an author should read books written by others: to see what works for him and why and to use that in their own writing. If they don’t do it, they will keep using the same old ideas until they turn into cliches. Read books by others, mix those ideas with your own and you will tweak your success recipe before it turns into a cliche.

Anything that deviates from the conventional success recipe runs a serious risk of not working.
Anything that deviates from the conventional success recipe and still finds a way to work has a serious chance of becoming a great story.