Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Writing About Writing (For Once)

One of the original purposes of this blog was to document any successes or pitfalls I had as I tried to get a novel published. You might have spotted that more recently it’s been a lot of film review stuff (though I like to think the Chain Reaction Film Club posts end up saying more about me than the films themselves) and some noodling about video games. That’s because I’ve fallen into the deadliest pitfall of all – not actually doing any writing. Why haven’t I been writing? I dunno. A combination of factors from the risible to the more serious. Partly I blame Southern Rail.

I changed my commute about two years ago because Southern became too unreliable. I used to write on my way to and from work – somewhere between an hour and an hour and quarter of beautiful writing time. But that’s not possible on my new commute. Also, I shared a pro-critique of the novel I thought I’d finished a while back. And while it was positive in places, it also confirmed some things I feared about the manuscript. And I think it probably knocked me back a little further than I let on. Hey ho, that’s the creative life isn’t it.

And the novel I have been working on in the interim, the one about the teenage punk band and the devil, well… the second half is really not coming together for some reason. I’ve got what I think is a kick ass first half, somewhere around 60,000 words but… Well. I’ll work it out at some point.

But it’s a new year, and I’m pissed off with my lack of creativity. So instead of bang my head against The Judas Tattoo (or We Are The Scene or whatever I end up calling it) I’m turning my attention to one of the other books I’ve had in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I read though most of my notes today, a form of archaeology of the self, and got quite excited about it – there’s a more coherent plot than I remembered for a start.

When I started planning it the main character was intended to be a trans woman. Over the last few years since I started it’s become increasingly clear that there’s a bit of trans tokenism going on (I work in TV advertising, so I’ve seen the tokeniest, believe me). And while I do think my character was more than tokenly trans, I also don’t think I want to try and appropriate that experience out of something akin to pure curiosity (and empathy). So I decided today to have a cisgender female protagonist which will be a sort of first for me. Somewhere I’ve got a second draft of a zombie novel which is about 60% male POV, 40% female, but I haven’t read it since finishing a few years back.

It’s about ghosts, psychic terrorists, a kick-ass photographer of derelict spaces, judgement, death and guilt. And there’s stuff set in the 60s psychedelic revolution as well as present day. And some really creepy mummification. But the cutesy version is that it’s Chloe Price (from Life Is Strange) vs Edith Manning (from The Invisibles) vs John Dee (from beyond the grave). That’s all very exciting to me, and I may write more about it here as it develops. We’ll see.  It means I get to read lots of esoteric nonsense, which always makes me happy.

On a completely separate project, I may be doing a thing. I’ve written a short script for a two hander play or film, and the person I’m working on it with has very sensibly stuck a deadline on when we’re going to do something with it by. So hopefully by the end of the Easter hols I’ll have some news about a short film (that doesn’t involve ghosts, magick or other esoterica for once). Everything’s too scary until there’s a deadline, then you just have to work and fucking do it. So here’s hoping I just work and fucking do it.

@BornToPootle

 

How on earth do you write a game?

Notebook next to laptop, ready to write a game

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m part way through making/writing/developing a game for the very first time – doing everything from the art to the coding to the VO myself. So just to manage any expectations: the title of this post is a genuine question. I don’t have the answer…

I’ve written for a fair few different media up to now; not with massive success, I’m the first to admit. I’ve got a completed novel that’s done the agent rounds (dig into the previous articles if you want to read up on that process), other novels at varying stages of completion, short stories, a couple of play scripts gestating, an experimental TV episode, even a few scenes for a rom-com film script. All of these share one key feature (other than lack of publication): they’re not interactive.

Even though writing for the stage is very different to writing a novel, there is that lack of interactivity tying them together. When a play is performed the actors and director will of course find different things in there, in just the same way that a novel will tickle people’s imaginations differently. They all begin, have a middle and have an end. The actions between the beginning and end are utterly predetermined.

There are exceptions – the Alan Ayckbourn play that changes on the toss of a coin; Fighting Fantasy style adventure books; Punchdrunk-style immersive theatre… But that’s not the kind of territory my writing has taken me into so far.

So. I repeat my question. How on earth do you write for games? And I’m thinking here of narrative-driven games more specifically.

Maybe the big con is the illusion of non-linearity? Some games don’t try to escape the linear – I’ve been playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order and the Uncharted trilogy recently and they’re fairly straightforward. Cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit, cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit and so on and so forth.

Alternatively, there are games like the Walking Dead where choice forms the central interaction (well, choice and quick time events). This is more the style of game that I’m interested in making, so I’m going to ponder a little deeper.

There’s a trick in this kind of game, which isn’t a criticism – I absolutely adore Telltale’s style and what they’ve done for narrative games. Having replayed a couple of their titles, the impact of the choices is sometimes less than may be imagined. Huge SPOILERS coming for The Walking Dead Season 1…

Whatever you do as Lee, whoever you sacrifice or save, the game will still resolve in pretty much the same way. You’ll go to the farm, then the coast. Clementine will be taken. Lee will get bitten. Clementine will wind up on her own. That said, the emotional journey Lee and Clementine (and the player) take will be different each time as the choices change.

This is interesting, and starts to move the narrative technique away from other media to a degree. In writing fiction, one of the big lessons is to ensure thatthe plot spirals out of the characters’ actions. If in a game the characters can take various different actions but the overall plot remains the same then how does this work? Why doesn’t everything feel contrived in Telltale games and their ilk?

I think the answer is a combination of a few things: firstly, on initial playthrough the player can be unaware of which actions are causing which consequences. So there’s the potential for pulling the wool over a player’s eyes. There’s a great example of the opposite happening in Witcher 2, by the way. Half way through the game you get to choose between following Roache or Iorveth. This takes Geralt and the player to a radically different area – a whole massive chunk of the game and narrative won’t be accessed by players who only play through once. Well done CD Projekt Red! Both options are well worth playing through, if you haven’t already.

I digress though. The second point to consider is which choices the player is given. And how that fits in with the various levels of plot. Is The Walking Dead a game about a man finding a young girl alone following a zombie outbreak, falling in with a group of survivors and doing what he can to protect the girl and the group? Or is it about the relationship between the man and the girl? The plot for the former is set largely in stone, with a few minor tweaks along the way. The latter though is completely mutable and up to the player.

Firewatch (which I’ve written about before), created by some of the team that worked on The Walking Dead, is an example of this to the nth degree. The plot is utterly unchangeable, and there isn’t really the illusion of choice about it; instead the interaction hinges on the relationship you build with a voice on the other end of the radio. Having chosen the protagonist’s backstory at the beginning you then get to decide how this affects his social interactions. At the end of the game you’ll have a character that may feel completely different from someone else’s, but will have gone to all the same places and ‘done’ all the same things.

Last thing to consider – the quality of the writing. Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands is worth a mention here. Playing through, it felt like the choices were fewer and for the most part less dramatic than The Walking Dead, but by gum it’s great fun. That’s not to detract from The Walking Dead of course, which also features top quality writing. Tales… just elevates things even further. I wouldn’t really have cared if it wasn’t at all interactive – I loved the characters, the premise, the dialogue, the acting (another big plus). And it features the very finest gun fight in the history of everything – without a single gun.

So perhaps linearity isn’t necessarily as old hat as I thought. This is good news, as the game I’m making features a straightforward objective – the protagonist has to escape a ship that’s crashing – but how they achieve that could vary. The main interaction is in three branching dialogue scenes with different characters in our hero’s way, and the options chosen will lead to success or failure. It’ll all be over in a few minutes, but hopefully will be worth a replay to see what other options lead to. Also, worth mentioning that I am in no way comparing the quality of what I’m working on to the games mentioned above. Mine is a doodle that those developers could knock out in half an hour. But it’s a start.

Where the trick lies is remembering all the standard narrative plot structure stuff and lacing the interactivity around that. It’s not something I’ll manage this time around, but definitely useful for the future.

@BornToPootle

Writing a Game

A controller for videogames

You may have spotted that I’ve been banging on about games for the last few posts. That’s because I’ve been playing a lot of games. In fact I’ve been doing a lot more of that than reading books. And I’ve been thinking about how narrative works in games. Which has led to the obvious conclusion of trying to write a game.

So that’s what I’ve been up to.

And will be up to for a little while, because my joyful enthusiasm for writing a game has been met with the actual reality of writing a game.

Because games have code.
And graphics.
And sound.
And all kinds of other shenanigans, as well as the, y’know, fun bit of writing some frippery.

But I’m giving it a go and will post the result here when I’m done. First off though, here’s a few initial thoughts.

How the arse does one start making a game? The good news is that there are a shedload of tools available for free these days. Including some pretty impressive pieces of kit. Like the Unreal Engine.

That’s the engine that games like the next Shenmue and Psychonauts sequels are being built around. It’s bona fide triple A. Also, hurrah for Psychonauts 2! So, being a rookie game developer, the engine responsible for massively ambitious games seemed like the very best place to start.

Yeah. Right.

There are plenty of tutorials knocking around (of varying quality – one was by a chap who had no idea how to use it, but decided to upload a tutorial anyway. Weird), but I swiftly realised that it may have been just a tad ambitious. Particularly as I was missing the most important thing: an idea.

Stupid, huh? I wouldn’t start writing a novel or short story or play without a decent idea of what I was trying to accomplish, so how on earth could I start fiddling around with game design without a plan.

So I had a bit of a think about the games I’ve enjoyed the most recently – Life Is Strange, Witcher 3, The Stanley Parable to name a few – and what common themes I could glean. I’ve also, while looking for some light relief, been trying Wolfenstein: The New Order. It’s a standard linear shooter; very well put together, but I really have struggled to engage with it as it’s so… well… linear. So there’s the answer: I wanted to make something with options and choice.

An idea formed, and after a frank discussion with myself about my art skills (C at GCSE was bloody generous) I settled on an engine called Gamemaker Studio. There have been big games made with it – Undertale and Hotline Miami for example – but it seems a bit easier to get to grips with. There’s also a massive tutorial community on YouTube which is great and much needed.

And so for the last few weeks I’ve been teaching myself the basics of coding, getting increasingly lost in ‘if’ statements, plus learning about pixel art. And somewhere in there I’ve written a load of dialogue and recorded half of it in a variety of silly voices.

Watch this space.

But don’t hold your breath.

@BornToPootle

 

Games as storytelling tools

I’ve written before about using videogames as storytelling tools – specifically Fable 2 and the awesome stories you can tell away from the main thrust of the game. Well, in addition the shorter narrative-centric games I mentioned in my last post, I’ve also just finished GTA 5 (as with Witcher 3 which I mentioned last week, ‘finished’ is something of a misnomer for games of this size) and it’s got some great tools for storytellers.

My love for Fable comes in part from the interactions you can have – you can get married, go off on a quest and then find that your wife has left you. What you do then is up to you; it’s not important to the ‘proper’ plot, but if you want you can decide how your character would respond. Go to the local tavern, get roaring drunk and pull a barmaid? Give up adventuring for a while to live a life of celibacy and wood-chopping? Have a breakdown and start massacring innocents? Belch everywhere you go? It’s absolutely up to your own creativity.

GTA 5 is slightly different. Sure, when certain things happened to the main characters I updated their outfits and hairstyles to better suit their mental (and financial) states. I made sure they listened to the radio stations they liked rather than my favourites all the time. But although there are myriad things to do in the main GTA 5 game, the way you actually interact with the world doesn’t give that sense of creative freedom…

…until unleashing the director mode and Rockstar Editor. And it’s utterly brilliant.

In director mode you can select from hundreds of different characters in the game (including animals after a bit of unlocking), as well as your own customised characters from the online game, and record them doing… whatever. With all manner of gestures and dialogue, as well as the ability to add props into the world, it’s creative paradise. Once you’ve recorded some action, you can then completely edit the hell out of it, changing camera angles, speed, adding music, splicing scenes together to create whatever you want.

My first foray into the editor was a simple ‘I wonder what I can do’ type scene. Playing to the cliché, I attempted to blow some things up and cause a bit of mayhem. Here are the results – ‘attempted’ is the important word.

That was fun to put together, but ultimately I fancied doing something non-violent. I’ve been a longtime GTA fan, but as games look ever more real I find some aspects more problematic than I used to. Strippers are paradoxically less fun to visit when they look like strippers rather than polygons. Weird, right? And while the blackly comic tone mollifies some of my qualms, not everything needs to come down to violence. So that’s where my next video came from.

Here’s the audition day for Los Santos Community Theatre’s production of Waiting For Godot:

I shan’t expect Hollywood (should that be Vinewood?) to call any time soon! That said, the latter clip only took a couple of hours of messing around, and I haven’t really dug deep into the tools available on the editor yet. I’m going to try a few more non-violent videos and see what I can come up with – no idea how it would work yet, but some kind of rom-com is quite appealing…

@BornToPootle

 

Always Talk About Your Novel

Or, the fine line..

This is probably the wrong way to go about it... Probably.

This is probably the wrong way to go about it… Probably.

I’ve found there’s a fine line when it comes to talking about my writing. There’s something in talking to people about it that helps drive me to carrying on – people ask how it’s going which is a great motivator. Too much though, and of course I become a prize self-serving nuisance and open to smug ‘no sign of that, er, that novel yet eh?’ whisperings.

I’ve just spent a few days with my Dad and his other half, and in due course my writing came up. In truth, I have hit a brick wall with one novel, but I have just started researching and plotting a new one while I let the older one unblock itself. I almost didn’t go into any detail about the general ideas and plot as it’s pretty early in the process, but decided it might help me firm it up. Lo and behold, something good came of it.

Though I’m not quite ready to broadcast the ideas to all and sundry yet, the important thing for this post is that the main antagonistic force is something (fictional) set in motion by John Dee or a fictionalised contemporary in the early 17th century. Turns out my Dad’s other half picked up a CD years ago that contains copies of various books by Dee and a lot of other esoteric writers from previous centuries. How cool is that? I’ve got various books about weird esotercism already, but they’re all either by modern esoteric writers or historians. Now I can connect to the source, and who knows what other bits of inspirations are buried in the ancient texts on the CD.

"Unless I've studied my Agrippa..." which I could now do

“Unless I’ve studied my Agrippa…” which I could now do

Has anything good happened to you after talking about your writing? Let me know what you’re working on in the comments, and maybe someone will happen by who can impart something useful!

@BornToPootle

NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 2

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Welcome to part 2 of my NaNoWriMo advice on how to make it as easy as possible for yourself to keep your word count high. These aren’t writing tips per se, just some ways you can help maximise your productivity without going nuts. I’ve been a NaNoWriMo devotee since 2009 and after a rocky first year have ‘won’ every time. On with the tips!
4. Social butterfly.
I had thought that NaNoWriMo would become about staying home and making no plans whatsoever, but I actually found that counter-productive. When I tried that I went stir-crazy and became unable to concentrate on anything at all. What I think is important is a) picking your engagements wisely, and b) planning for some writing time around them. As my Birthday is in November, there’s always the worry that crazy Birthday shenanigans will hamper creativity. Last year though, my other half bought train tickets for a day trip to a really cool town that happened to be two hours away – two hours of writing there, two hours of writing back and a lovely day out too! The other day I went to a couple of exhibitions, one about Gothic fiction and the other about witches in art – both incredibly inspiring for what I’m writing. So time out from physically writing, but great food for my writing brain.
5. Planning
This could be a tricky one, as some people just refuse to plan much. And that’s fine, whatever works best for you. But me? I started out as a pantser, writing whatever came, following that white rabbit wherever he led. Which was, most often, to a dead end. And having redrafted a novel I pantsed, most of it was unsalvageable. Since I’ve started planning, in really quite a lot of detail, I never have to stop and think about what’s happening next – I’ve done all that work in advance and can concentrate on wrestling those words into the right order, knowing that they’re going to end up just where I want them. I love this chap’s approach to story structure – really helped me get my head around planning.
6. Leave it to someone else
And by someone else, I of course mean future you! You NaNo novel will not be publishable. No disrespect to you, but however well it’s going it will need redrafting at least once. And most probably a number of times. That’s the writing process. Embrace it. Don’t keep going over sentences trying to polish the language. Move on. Get a first draft finished, then worry about making each sentence the very best it can be. Who knows, when you reread your novel, you might need to remove a scene or completely rewrite it so there’s no need to get every word publication ready quite yet. Make it the best you can in the moment and move on!
7. Writin’ Juice
If all else fails, a tot of whisky isn’t the end of the world to silence your inner editor and let you get on with it! Or pour a slug o’ hooch into your coffee (a hipflask carried around can liven up a turgid Starbucks Americano too). I don’t need it to write though. I’m fine, really. I just like the taste. I don’t know where that other bottle has gone. Why’s the room spinning?
Hope some of these are useful, feel free to let me know any hacks you employ to maximise productivity.

@BornToPootle

NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 1

Or, eating novel for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Ooooh, there's a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it...

Ooooh, there’s a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it…

As discussed in my last post, November is a magical time of year for me, as National Novel Writing Month rolls around once again. It’s a month where fun pastimes like film-watching, game-playing and drunk-getting are sacrificed on the altar of the great god Wordcount. The good news (for me) is that this year, as I was working on redrafting a quarter of my novel, I’m already done – a solid 35,000 words done within the first two weeks. This frees me up nicely for my Birthday tomorrow (seriously, leaving it late to buy a card guys, come on) but also left me pondering how different an experience it was to my first NaNoWriMo in 2009, when I barely scraped 40,000 words for the month. Since then I’ve hit the 50K target a fair few times, so here are a few top tips for maximising word count – some may be easy to implement, some may be for next time around.

  1. Make it easy to write

The first year I tackled NaNoWriMo it was predominantly on a combination of notebook/pen and a cheap phone with a qwerty keypad, written while out and about. I’d then type up the handwritten bits and copy the phone document into a single Word doc on my desktop at home and, if I could face it by that point, do some more writing. The following year I used a battered and pretty hefty laptop with a whopping 40 minute battery charge. Then I finally invested in a cheap netbook – Samsung NC110 – which is pretty rubbish at surfing the internet but great at running Scrivener and Word. Fits easily on my lap on the tube, starts running in seconds to maximise my lunch breaks at work, lasts for ages, and is a natty purple.

  1. Meals

This is a small, but useful tip – I cook a lot, and found that by the time I’d got home from work, caught up with my wife, cooked a meal and eaten, not only would time be ticking on with no more words to show for it, but I’d really feel like goofing off and doing something a bit mindless. These days, with a bit of planning, I make sure that all the meals I’m going to have in November are either quick and easy to prepare or make a massive amount of leftovers – so I might make a hefty pie or stew on Sunday night that lasts through most of the week, freeing up time and brain-space!

  1. Condition yourself.

Always be ready to write. Always have the tools needed to hand. This is one that I think has developed over time as my brain has got used to writing – these days I can start without needing to get ‘in the zone’ or whatnot. A great way I’ve found of developing this skill, along with just writing all the damn time, is to use the same music all along for a particular project. It might take me a while to find the right album or playlist, but when I’ve got it I don’t deviate. That way, after a few sessions, as soon as the first notes of the first song play, my brain associates it with writing and the words start to flow. Round at a friend’s house the other day, he had to make a quick work phone call. In went the headphones, on went the laptop, up went the word count.

That’s it for now – another few tips coming in a couple of days. If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, let me know how it’s going.

@BornToPootle

 

NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!

@BornToPootle

Creative Distractions

Or, the play’s the thing. Unless the novel’s the thing.

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

My latest mash-up attempt. High culture and Firefly (or, as I would have it, HIGHEST culture)

I mentioned in my last post that I had, for a little while at least, stalled while redrafting the novel I’m working on. The good news is that I’m back up to speed, but this post is about something a little different. While I was stalled my brain threw up all kinds of things to distract me from the task at hand. And fortunately I’ve been in such a routine of writing that some of those distractions were creative. So over the period of a couple of days when I was supposed to redrafting I wrote a play. Don’t worry, I was as surprised as you.

Despite training and working as an actor for a few years, I’ve never really had the inclination to write a play, so I was quite surprised when an idea popped into my head almost fully formed that had a nice bow tied around it reading ‘for the stage’. Odd how ideas instinctively seem to know what medium they’re going to be in.

Well I wrote it, a nice half hour two-hander set in the cockpit of a spaceship, and then gave it a quick redraft. And then… I didn’t really know what to do with it. It feels so different to writing a novel – I’ve spent the last few years teaching myself about that process, and suddenly felt adrift.

The thing with a play is that, unless you’re going to direct and star in it as well, other people are going to get their grubby little paws all over it. Reading it after the redraft it became very apparent that I needed to hear it out loud, in other peoples’ voices, or I wouldn’t have a clue how it actually came across. Fortunately I know some awesome, super-talented actors, so I assembled my crack squad of two, both rather handily with experience in writing and workshopping material they’d created, and on Saturday I held my first workshop for something I’d written.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

Definitely best to theme clothing to the task at hand.

The first order of business, after admiring the Jayne Cobb T-shirt and hat one of the actors arrived in (see above for my attire for the day – you may have spotted I’m a Firefly fan), was a first read of the play, sat in chairs, sipping tea. Even just that was really useful – both actors approached the roles in interesting ways, picking up on a dynamic I hadn’t thought of. And rather pleasingly I thought the writing held up pretty well when vocalised – with a few clunkers thrown in for good measure, of course. It was clear to me though that the drama was very one-sided and the denouement slightly rushed.

After a brief chat about the play and the characters in general, I got the actors to improvise around a couple of the key moments. The play opens with one of the characters wanting solitude and the other wanting interaction, so I gave the actors different levels of how much they needed that solitude/interaction and then made them raise and lower that need throughout the improvisation – it helped unlock a couple of interesting dynamics that will feed back into the script. I might leave out the dance routine though.

After three different improvisations, each looking at a different part of the drama, we went back to the script, and had a second readthrough, but this one following the few stage directions I’d written and moving around the space as and when the instinct kicked in. It all came together remarkably easily, helped by the fact that I hadn’t written much physical action, and once again really highlighted the two big weak spots in the play which, thanks to the improvisations, I’ve got some great ideas for how to fix.

So what now? Well I’ll have another re-write and then I don’t know. I’ll look up some short play festivals and see if I fit the criteria, or check out some new writing nights. Which is all-new, all-scary but also all-cool!

@BornToPootle