Tag Archives: Writing a novel

‘With One Leap Jack Was Free’ And Other Solutions To Impossible Situations

19 Aug

The title of this article refers to what’s generally considered sloppy story telling. Your characters end up in some seemingly impossible situation and then with no explanation beyond saying something like ‘and suddenly they were free’ they manage to get away unscathed. This is a really good way to annoy your readers as they’re left wondering what actually happened, but it’s an easy trap to slip into if you’re not careful. A similar situation arises when a character picks up an essential tool or weapon which has never been mentioned before, or suddenly reveals a key skill the reader never knew they had until the very moment they need to use it to escape.

So how do you avoid this in your writing? One obvious solution is not to let your characters get into impossible situations in the first place, but then you lose the tension such situations create and your story becomes dull and uninteresting. A better solution is to plant the seeds for everything needed for their miraculous escape earlier in your story, often as casual comments or passing references. This way, the reader is left thinking, ‘Oh, of course!’ rather than ‘Where did that come from?’. However, you need to be careful exactly how you insert these little ‘plotlings’ (the seedlings from which your plot will grow). If you’re not, you’ll find they end up jumping up and down in the reader’s mind waving their arms and screaming ‘PLOT DEVICE!!!’ at the top of their lungs and that just makes them seem clunky.

To illustrate this point, we’ll take a scene where two characters, John and Max, are being chased by a group of zombies. They see a cottage in the distance and decide to take shelter in it. They reach the front door, managing to get inside and get the door shut before the first zombie arrives. While catching their breath they look around and realise to their dismay that there’s no other way out, meaning they’re well and truly trapped. Meanwhile the zombies are now battering and the door and it’s threatening to give out at any second. How do they get out alive?

Well, they’re going to find a gun and shoot the zombies just as they finally break through the door, allowing them to escape unscathed. However, you can’t just have a gun lying around in the room they happen to have become trapped in, that would be way too convenient and reader just wouldn’t buy it. Instead, you could have them finding a gun at an earlier point in the story so that they are already carrying it when they become trapped in the cottage (which, for arguments sake, we’ll say happens in chapter 10). For example, you could introduce a gun when their search another house for food earlier in the day (maybe in chapter 8) with the line:

‘Just as John was leaving the room he spotted something, “Oh look a gun! That will come in useful if we ever get into trouble.” ’

Your readers now know John has a gun which can be used to help them escape from the cottage, but it’s not exactly subtle; you might as well reach of the page and smack your reader in the face with said gun and say ‘Remember this, it’s going to be important!’. A better approach might be something like:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the couch. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes and what looked like an old pistol. Before he could examine the contents properly there was a shout from outside telling him he only had time to grab the backpack and run.’

Here the gun is only mentioned as a possibility along with a list of other items and items like the food might be more critical to the plot at that specific moment in the story (since that was what they were looking for in the house at the time). Thus, the ‘plotling’ is planted but without drawing too much attention to itself. This means when you first write the cottage scene in chapter 10, you might have them being pursued by five zombies and have the following to reveal how the gun will be used in their escape:

‘Suddenly, John remembered the pack he’d found when they were looking for food; hadn’t he seen a gun in it? He frantically rummaged through the bag until he found what he was looking for. It was indeed a very old and very dirty pistol. John had no idea whether it would still work, but he knew it was their only chance. In a single movement he pulled it out and slid it across the room to Max just as the door finally gave way.’

Max grabs the gun, shoots the zombies and hey presto, your characters are finally free to leave the cottage and your readers are left thinking ‘lucky he remembered the gun when he did or they’d never have got out of there in one piece’ rather than ‘where’d that gun suddenly come from?’ or ‘finding that gun there just when they needed it was a bit too convenient’.

Of course, sometimes you’ll find that as you edit your story, you need to go back and change these little ‘plotlings’ to keep everything consistent. If we go back to the example above, the reference to an old pistol could be taken to mean a revolver, which would have a maximum of six bullets in it (assuming it was fully loaded). However, when you come back to edit this scene, you might start thinking that five zombies isn’t really enough to build any real tension, and you up the number to ten. Except in order to be able to kill them all, the gun would need to reload at some point and you’ve not explained where the extra bullets came from. This is when you’d go back to the scene where John finds the bag while looking for food and change it to:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the sofa. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes, a half-full box of bullets and what looked like an old pistol …’

It’s a small change but now the bullets are mentioned in passing along with the gun as part of the list of newly-found things, so you are free to use them in the cottage scene. Of course having to reload the gun half way through a zombie set piece also allows you to rack up the tension with things like:

‘With the first four zombies down, Max pulled the trigger again but it just clicked. He looked at it for a second before he realised it was empty. As John fumbled in the bag, trying to find the box of bullets he’d seen earlier, Max leapt backwards as the remaining zombies surged towards him. After what seemed like a life-time, John found the bullets and threw them to Max before pulling out one of the machetes …’

This has the advantage that you are now also using one of the machetes the reader knows was also in the bag. If these had never appear in the story again, your reader might end up wondering what ever became of them. This, of course, is the flip side of ‘plotlings’: you can’t introduce something such as a weapon, if your characters never make use of it. If you do, you’ll leave your readers wondering why you ever mentioned it in the first place. You don’t need to use everything mentioned in a single ‘plotling’ for the same escape scene, but you do need to use everything you mention at some point, even if it’s just something like (maybe in chapter 9):

‘In his haste to climb onto the tree which lay across the ravine, John flung the bag over his shoulder, sending one of the machetes clattering onto the rocks below. John cursed his stupidity, knowing they wouldn’t have time to retrieve it before the zombies arrived …’

This tells you one of the machetes has been lost and will play no further part in the story. The other, however, remains in play (to be used by John later when Max runs out of bullets in the cottage in chapter 10).

However, you still have a bit of a problem. Max has managed to grab a gun off the floor and shot four zombies with a maximum of six shots (which is pretty good going for anyone!), and you can’t have a character popping off perfect head shots like that without explaining how they know how to shoot (well you can, but it’ll probably annoy your readers!). This means you also need to mention this somewhere before the cottage scene. This can be quite subtle, with something like this placed in chapter 3:

‘As the night closed in around them and they reached the bottom of the whisky bottle, they started to reminisce about their lives before the zombies. Max took another mouthful and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “I sure as hell won’t miss my old man. He was a mean drunk, forever wailing on me. When I was young I’d sometimes sneak his gun out of the bedside table when he was out drinking and use it to shoot tin cans off the fence in the back yard just to get my own back on him. Only one time he came back earlier than I expected and caught me. He beat me so badly that day I couldn’t sit down properly for a week. He’s one son of a bitch I’m glad I’ll never see again.” There was a brief pause as he took another slug from the bottle, “I’ll miss my little sister though.” ‘

Here the ‘plotling’ seems to be more about Max’s relationship with his (presumably now dead or zombified) family; yet it also serves to introduce the idea that Max knows how to shoot and would be capable of picking up a pistol that had just been slid across the room and scoring direct hits on the zombies as they pour through the cottage door.

So in the example here, the reader has been armed with the knowledge that: 1. Max can handle a gun (mentioned in chapter 3); 2. John has what might be a gun along with some extra bullets (from chapter 8); 3. John also has a machete, again in chapter 8, having lost another one due to his carelessness – in chapter 9. Each of these elements has been inserted into the storyline in an appropriate place long before chapter 10 when these two characters become trapped in the cottage, with what at first might seem like little chance of surviving. This means everything is in place for the characters to make their narrow escape as the zombies finally break through the door.

Getting the knack of slipping in these ‘plotlings’ into stories can be quite difficult, and probably the best way to learn how to do it successfully is to look at the work of others. J.K. Rowling is one of the best authors for this. The Harry Potter books take place in a relatively complex world meaning it would be easy for escapes to appear miraculous. Yet, she always introduces just the right amount of information ahead of time so the reader is never left feeling cheated whenever the characters escape by the skin of their teeth through one magical means or another. Sometimes the ‘plotlings’ for specific dramatic events are planted several books before they are needed, making them particularly impressive. For example, a major plot line in book 6 revolves around a broken vanishing cabinet which we hear about for the first in book 2 where it gets broken as part of a seemingly insubstantial action, and then again in passing in book 5. Even if you’re not a fan of her books or their subject matter, they are worth reading purely from a technical point of view to see how well she does this.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

The Difficult Second Book

14 Nov

In music, people often refer to the difficult second album.  The issue here is that a band or an artist may have slaved away for years before they get any recognition, and when they finally get signed they put all their best material developed across this time onto their first album.  If that happens to be a success, you can bet that their record label will be after them to put a second album out pretty soon after.  This is where the trouble begins because they’ve used all their best stuff and they have to scramble around to find songs that are good enough to fill the next one.

In writing, I suspect there is a related issue with your second book. You’ve probably already used all your best situations, your well-honed plot devices and killer dialogue, basically all the stuff you’ve been storing away in the back of your mind for years.  This means you’re left staring at a blank slate (or more likely a blank screen) with much less in your ideas bank to work with while your publisher is pushing you to get the next one finished ASAP. If you’re second book is a sequel or part of a continuing series, you also need to make sure that it is different enough from the first so that is doesn’t just seem like a carbon copy with some of the names changed, but similar enough that it has the same basic feel to it, and this can be a difficult balancing act.

This is the situation I now find myself in.  My first book is being finalised for publication as I write (it will be out in the UK at the start of January), and I’m meant to be getting my teeth into the second in what may eventually grow be a four book series. It will be set in the same world as the first (a post-apocalyptic alternate reality) but will involve a new cast of characters. The problem I’m facing is that for the first book I’d been mentally building up ideas for events that could take place in this world for about four years, so I had a lot to draw on.  Now, as I work on the second book, I have much less in there and I find I’ve already taken all the best bits out. This means I’m having to work harder and faster than I did with my first book just to generate the new ideas and scenarios I need to refill my ideas bank and it’s a pace I’m not as used to working at.

Add to this the fact that I’ve gone from working on a pretty much finished piece, which has been polished and honed over many months, to a very raw first draft, and I find I’ve forgotten just how raw this can be. I need to constantly remind myself that the first book was once in this state too and that the important thing is to get a completed draft written.  Once there, I can go back and start the editing process once more and gradually whip it into an acceptable shape.

Writing the first book was undoubtedly hard, but I’d mistakenly thought the second one would be easier.  It turns out it’s also hard, but in different ways and for different reasons. This is something no one ever warned me about but I presume I can’t be the only one who has found themselves facing these same struggles with what could rightly be described as the difficult second book.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

There’s More To Modern Publishing Than The Mainstream Vs Self-Publication Debate

9 Nov

With the advent of publishing programmes such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Create Space, there has been a great deal of debate about the relative merits of mainstream publishing and self-publication. Yet, this debate has primarily focused on what could be considered two extremes of modern publishing frequently brushes over other publishing options that fall between them. In this posting, I’ll take a very quick tour through the full range of alternatives and put them in the context of the more familiar mainstream/self-publication extremes.

Firstly, it’s important to realise there’s more to mainstream publishing than the ‘big six’ (Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group and Hachette). There are also many mid-sized, and well-respected, publishers out there. Some of these are widely recognised publishing brands in their own right (such as Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books), while others will be less familiar. If they become successful, mid-sized publishers may get bought up by one of the big six, but a good number remain publishers in their own rights for many years. The important thing to remember here is that just because your book is published by one of these companies, doesn’t mean it can’t be successful (just ask J.K. Rowling!).

Next on the list are the independent publishers.  These are ones that are not associated in any way with the big six and are unlikely to ever be targeted for takeover by them.  Independent publishers come in a variety of guises. First, there are the small presses, some of which may specialise in quite specific areas. Small presses usually publish a more limited number of titles than mainstream publishers, and may lack many of the publicity resources available to larger companies, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be considered second-rate. This having been said, many can be precariously perched on thin divide between financial success and failure, meaning there is the possibility they could disappear suddenly and without trace.

After this, comes niche publishers. Niche publishers can be thought of as small presses which specialise in a very specific subject matter or market.  An example of this is Permuted Press which almost exclusively publishes books with an apocalyptic (and often zombie-fuelled) theme.

From niche publishing, we move onto micro-publishers. These are usually one or two person operations, and are often run by authors who use them to publish their own work and those of a small number of other authors who are already known to them. Some micro-publishers may, indeed solely publishers their own work.  They differ from self-publishing in that they are set up and run as small publishing operations (including having their own ISBN numbers for the imprints). This means they make use of free-lance editors, cover designers, proof-readers and copy editors to help maintain high standards for their work. To confuse things further, not all independent publishers fall neatly into one of these classifications, and some may straddle two or even three. For example, while Permuted Press started out as a micro-publisher, it was (and indeed remains) a niche publisher. However, it now has a sufficiently large catalogue of titles that it is probably best classified as a small, rather than a micro, press.

Self-publication can also come in a variety of guises.  This can include those who produce their own books and publish them through outlets such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lulu.  Self-publishers differ from micro-publishers in that the authors are generally solely responsible for all aspects of their books ranging from editing to proof-reading, cover design and copy editing, rather than using external free-lance specialists for these specialist jobs.

At this point it is also worth mentioning vanity publishers, just to complete the picture. Vanity publishers as ones that, unlike all other types of publishers considered here, require payment upfront from an author to publisher their work.  As such, their business model is to make money from authors rather than from books sales.

While we might all aim to be signed up by one of the big six, with the associated possibility of large advances, this is extremely difficult to achieve, especially for an author seeking to get their first book published. This means you might wish to consider some of the other options mentioned above. If you do, you will quickly find yourself asking, ‘Which is best for me?’  Unfortunately, there is no right answer to this question and it will vary from author to author (and indeed from book to book).

If you just want to see your book in print and are not particularly interested in making a reputation for yourself as a writer, or indeed selling any books, then vanity publishing might be the one for you.  If, however, you are even remotely interested in becoming a recognised writer, you’d be better to stay clear of such publishers. Instead, you could consider one of the independent publishing options. If you are confident you can cover all the skills required to successfully bring a book to market on your own (such as editing, typesetting, cover design and so on), then self-publishing might be a good way for you to go. This is usually the cheapest option, as there may be little or no layout in advance (especially with ebook publishing).  If you do decide to go down this route, you have to be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities otherwise you risk getting a reputation for publishing sub-standard work (and this is something that has tainted the self-publication market as a whole).  If your editing skills aren’t up to scratch, or your design skills are not quite as good as they could be you need to admit this to yourself.  If you find yourself lacking certain essential skills, consider whether you should, instead, go down the micro-publishing route and make use of free-lancers to cover the gaps in your abilities. Yes, this will cost you money, but if it improves the quality of your published work, it should mean it’s more likely achieve sales, get good reviews and/or get a reputation for producing good work. Either way, if you decide to self-publish or micro-publish you will almost certainly be wholly responsible for publicising and marketing, and, assuming you have written a good story, its success or failure will very much depend on how well you handle this aspect of the publishing game. Since you can’t really on the skills and resources of a large publicity machine, you’ll have to box clever on this front, but you’ll also need to be careful not to over-do it.

If you’d rather steer clear of everything associated with getting your book from a manuscript to something that’s actually on sale, you might want to consider submitting it to a niche or small press. These presses are more likely to accept unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers, however, there are also some nightmare stories out there from authors. This means you need to do your research before you consider submitting a manuscript to one of these publishers. There is also the issue that, by their very nature, these publishers are more likely to fail, potentially trapping your book in the limbo of liquidation. This having been said, if you can find the right niche or small press for you, then it’s likely that you’ll be able to have a greater input into things like the cover design and the internal layout.

If none of these options seem like your cup of tea, then you will probably need to find yourself an agent who can submit your manuscript to a medium-sized publisher, or maybe even one of the big six. However, be warned, getting an agent can be a struggle in its own right. If you succeed in going down this route, you will benefit from all the expertise that these bigger companies can throw at your book. This won’t guarentee its success, but it is potentially more likely, and while you will still need to do some of the publicity and marketing, these companies will have many additional resources you can draw on.

So, this ends my whirlwind tour through the full gamut of options available in the modern publishing industry. For the new author, it can all seem very confusing, but hopefully this has provided a few hints that might help push you in the direction of the solution which is right for you.

If you have any thoughts or experiences with any of these different publishing options, please share them by commenting on this article, especially if you think you can help other decide what publishing approach might be right for them.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

When The Novel You End Up With Isn’t The One You Started Out Writing…

29 Oct

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to move back to my hometown of Glasgow.  The reasons were complicated, but part of it was because I felt so uninspired by where I was living. This was Aberdeen in Scotland. If you’ve ever lived there, you’ll know that it’s permanently cold and has a nasty habit of being shrouded in fog when everywhere else in Scotland is bathed in sunshine (which is admittedly rare). If you haven’t lived there, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Anyway, after primarily writing in the dry academic mode for about twenty years, I wanted to stretch my creative wings a little. My aim was to write a novel loosely based on my student days at Glasgow University, but somehow the book I ended up with turned out to be a post-apocalyptic novel involving zombie-like infected (please, no jokes asking how I could tell the difference!).  I decided to ask myself how this happened.  This posting is the result.

I’d had the rough idea for both of these books floating around in my head for some years, but it was the one about student life in Glasgow at the start of the 1990s that I most wanted to write.  It was an interesting little sub-culture, with the potential for lots of intriguing characters.  It was also an interesting time to emerge from adolescence into adulthood.  This was Britain under the last few years of the faltering, and much hated, Thatcher government. Political unrest was in the air over things like the dreaded poll tax and Scottish devolution. So basically, there was a lot going for it that would make it a nice backdrop for a novel.  The trouble was I just couldn’t get into the head of the main character. Really, the issue here was I was having trouble writing from the point of view of an eighteen year old (I haven’t been close to that age in this millennium).  I knew what I wanted him to do, but I just couldn’t get it to come across as real.

This led me to make several failed attempts to get the book off the ground, each followed by several months of avoiding doing anything more with it.  I think I completely re-wrote the opening section where the main character is introduced four times but was just as unhappy with each one. So basically, I getting no where with this whole ‘Move back to Glasgow and write a book’ thing.

Then out of the blue, I heard that some of the filming for the movie version of World War Z was going to be done in Glasgow and that they were looking for extras.  I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and particularly of the Zombie sub-genre, and so I couldn’t resist trying out.  Also, the money would come in really handy. While standing around on the set waiting for something to happen (there’s an awful lot of that in being an extra), I got chatting to some other Zombie fans and at some point I casually mentioned the idea for a post-apocalyptic zombie-type story based around people being trapped on a boat I had lying in the back of my head.  I was surprised to find that people seemed to like the idea, especially the fact that it would be something a little different from the usual zombie books. More importantly, they told me it was a book they’d probably want to read (and maybe even buy).

After the filming, life got back to normal (well as normal as my life ever is), and I tried and failed yet again to get my book about life as a student in 1990s Glasgow up and running. A bit depressed, I stumbled over an outline I’d put together for the post-apocalyptic zombie book, and more to procrastinate over what I should have been doing than anything else, I started to flesh it out. It turned out I found it much easier to get into the heads of characters facing the complete collapse and annihilation of their world than I did that of a Glaswegian teenager (I don’t know what that says about me!).  In no time, I was up and running and I was finding it fun rather than a chore.  After all, what could be more fun that destroying cities with a few words, wiping out civilisation with a single key-stroke or dreaming up deadly scenarios involving zombie-like creatures infected with some mutant virus that my characters would have to escape from. It also helped that I’d chosen to set it around the northern Bahamas, I place I’d lived on and off for much of the end of the nineteen-nineties and I got to relive my memories from an interesting part of my life.

Before I knew it, I had achieved my aim of writing a novel (well it took about nine months in all – with time off in between to earn some cash), just not the one I’d originally set out to write. Even the zombie book has changed dramatically from the original sketches I had in my head.  It’s much darker and bleaker than I’d originally anticipated, and is more about post-apocalyptic survival in a world turned upside down than the zombies (or more accurately zombie-like infected).

I think the lesson here is that, as a writer, often we look up to find that somehow we’re heading in a very different direction from the one we set out in.  Most of the time, we need to rein ourselves back in to keep things on track, but sometimes we need to accept that this isn’t a bad thing and go in the new direction that we’re being taken rather than fighting it. I’ll go back and write that other book eventually (or at least I’ll dust the idea off and give it another go some point), but for now I’m happily immersed the post-apocalyptic world I’ve created, and in writing the follow-up to For Those In Peril On The Sea. It happens to be set in Glasgow and involves the city being over-run by infected and destroyed by fuel-air bombs. I know, I can already hear you saying it again: ‘How would anyone know the difference?’

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.