Thursday, 31 December 2009

What to do with critiques

First let me take the opportunity to wish all readers of this blog a very happy New Year, where you get all that you wish for. Sounds like an ancient Chinese curse, doesn't it? But you know what I mean.

Second, although the one New Year's resolution I kept, ever, was the one where I resolved not to make any more resolutions, I am making a solemn undertaking (not quite a resolve perhaps?) to post this blog every weekend during 2010.

Drat, that means I've got to think up something semi-interesting to say about 50 topics next year.

Now, on to business - the editing process.

Last time, I discussed sending out your finished first draft to a panel of readers. Remember, this is draft A-1, where you've already fixed the problems you became aware of during the writing of it, and done a quick proofread to fix obvious mistakes.

Today, let's think about who is going to be on your panel of readers.

First, they must be habitual readers. That might seem obvious, but choosing, for example, a brother-in-law to read it, when he doesn't generally read a novel from one year to the next, is useless. He has no background on which to base an opinion of a work of fiction. People who read a lot, on the other hand, know what works for them and what doesn't. There is also every chance they'll be able to offer an informed opinion on what needs to be changed to make it better.

Second, they should not be close friends or family. To use the brother-in-law example again, he might feel obliged to heap praise on it for familial reasons. (Alternatively, he might feel compelled to savage it because he can't stand you. Either is a likely outcome.) You want people who are either total strangers or cyber-buddies. I'm thinking here of sites like Goodreads and the Online Writing Workshops These people may be friendly towards you, but they are insulated by the electronic medium. They can be brutally honest. In fact, you should always ask for honesty in their critiques, just as you would give honesty when critiquing the work of others.

Third, it helps if they write themselves. Fellow writers can point out mistakes in the larger structure (the macroscopic elements) of your work. Holes in plot, faulty chronology, lack of pace, conflict,tension and so on are best picked up by writers who have made the same mistakes themselves. They are also more likely to correctly identify the microscopic errors - shifting POV, too much tell, not enough show, and all the other mistakes we (I) tend to make when churning out first drafts.

Fourth, they have to be willing to do it. Again seems obvious, doesn't it? If someone says 'I'll read it, but I'm so busy I can't do it till August' - that basically means that person cannot be of any use to you right now. They may really be too busy, or they may not want to do it. Either way, you are in no position to insist. Nor should you.

Fifth, balance in the composition of the panel (this is an ideal). Equal numbers of men and women, young and old, cynics and romantics, fat and thin, active versus sedentary, a mix of sexual orientations, dietary preferences and religious inclinations. Yeah, well, good luck with that. This is a blog about writing fiction, but even I'm not that far into the realms of fantasy.

How many should you have on your panel? You need enough so that you can have a majority opinion on improvements. So, more than two. Remember that if ten people promise to critique your work, only seven or eight will actually do it, at best. That's a fact of human nature. Other things crop up, disasters occur, and reading your stuff is going to be fairly low on their list of priorities. But do ask at least seven or eight to read your stuff.

Do set a time limit - politely of course. Can I please have it back six weeks from now at the latest?

How do you get readers in the first place? By doing the same for them, being brutally honest, praising whatever is possible to praise and sticking to agreed time limits. Reciprocity is the name of the game here. Reciprocate first :)

What do I want these readers to do exactly? Just what the name says. Read your book. Make suggestions for improving it e.g.

  • this scene doesn't work
  • this character serves no useful purpose
  • you need more action in the first quarter
  • the climax isn't big enough
  • character Y shows no development during the course of the book
  • you have a character in two different places at the same time
  • this fact is wrong
  • the dialogue isn't natural here
  • people in Venice don't do that
  • your POV shifts suddenly in these scenes
It would be nice if they added what they did like about the book. Most people will do this anyway. They feel uncomfortable about criticising (even complete strangers) and are happy to praise.

What you don't want them to do is painstakingly proofread the thing, getting subject-verb agreement, tense, syntax and flow right. After all, you're going to be rewriting large chunks of it after you've absorbed their opinions, so there would be no point, right?

So, as agreed by email, you send off your (ideally) Word document. I would send it off as a .doc (i.e. save as Word 97-2003). Not everyone has Office 2007 yet.

A Word document because you want them to be able to make comments and insert examples of what they mean. If you use Open Office or Star Office or similar, save as a Word document. PDFs are no good, because they aren't easy to change.

A Word document because you want them to use the 'Track Changes' feature.

What about readers stealing my ideas? Any ideas we have and write about, other people have also had and written about before. Others will get the idea and write about it in the future. While there are horror stories about copyright theft and plagiarism, they are, in my experience, vanishingly rare. So don't worry about it.

Having sent your baby off, start doing something else while you wait the month, two months, whatever time limit you agreed on, for the responses to arrive.

Next time (this weekend, honest!) I'll write about what we actually do with the critiques when they come back, using examples from the book I'm editing right now.

Till then...


Monday, 7 December 2009

Editing and proofreading - 1

Hello again, Constant Reader!

Today and for the next few weeks, I'm going to be focusing on the various processes that go into producing a polished manuscript from a first draft.

First, I must make an admission. I am perfectly happy to talk about plot structure, theme, tone, pace, style, characterization, romance, action and the actual mechanics of producing a finished first draft (be it novel, story or screenplay). I even think that I have a fairly good idea of what I'm talking about. I produce finished first drafts that are, by all accounts, good.

Editing is different. It's a newish field for me. I've done some basic research and now I'm learning by doing, making it up as I go along. If you think what I write here is absolute rubbish, please tell me. You probably know more than I do about this.

Some definitions first:
  • Critique - the specific opinions of non-related readers about first draft A
  • Editing - the act of restructuring draft A, adding scenes, removing characters and so on, based on the critiques and your afterthoughts, to produce draft B.
  • Proofreading - the re-reading of draft B, with minute attention to detail, to remove extra spaces, typos, wrong words, POV shifts, clumsy sentences, wrongly named characters etc.
So, the difference, to me at least, between proofreading and editing is one of scale.

Editing means the big changes. Character X serves no useful purpose, and you want to get rid of him. You want to introduce Character Y, because she adds some sexual tension. You need three extra chapters from the antagonist's POV. The setting changes from Kansas in the summer to the Himalayas at mid-winter. Your protagonist is in fact from another planet.

Proofreading means catching all the rest, all the little faults that are so irritating when we read them in other people's work.

Step one then, logically, is to send out draft A to our willing panel of readers, to get their helpful critiques.

Or is it?

Not really. I've noticed that by the time I've finished a novel or screenplay, I already have second thoughts. I know I've certainly made mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice, character names, chronology...

To me, it would seem rude to send out such an ill-moulded lump of clay to readers, willing or not. So I have an intermediate step. Fix the problems I already know are inherent in the work (let's call this the preliminary edit) and do a semi-thorough proofread before sending out the draft. We'll call this draft A-1.

Then send it off to the readers and get on with something else. When it comes back, begin assembling their opinions.

Which is what I'll pay more attention to in the next blog. The critiques and what to do with them.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Back after NaNoWriMo

Hi all, I'm back! After the unmitigated hell that was the National Novel Writing Month.

OK, I did the requisite 50,000 words and a bit more, so I was proclaimed a winner. However, the book isn't finished, and I actually wanted to do 100,000 words, so I only feel partially successful.

Back in July, I wrote 100K in a month, but I was on holiday from one job and one course then. It's not so easy to chisel out three or four hours a day when many of those days are twelve hour work days as well. Even forgoing wimpish things like food and sleep, it's not easy.

So although I made the 50K with a couple of days to spare, I'd already given up on the idea of 100K.

It was also difficult at times to find the motivation to do anything after a day's work and/or a teacher training course. Doing stuff before going to work might be considered an option: until you've heard my wife complain about being woken early, that is.

I still have about 10,000 words to go to finish the book, and in general I'm happy about the structure, shape, content, language, tone and pace. When done, I'm going to set it to one side and start producing second drafts from the three other completed books I have stacked up.

But that's editing, not writing. So I've developed the ideas for several short stories to keep my hand in while I'd doing the editing and patching and cutting and moving and rewriting and adding and subtracting...

And I'll have slightly more time for this blog as well. The next post will be about editing.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Plot: themes expanded

In this last blog before I start the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month if you didn't already know), I'm going to go slightly deeper into the topic of themes.

But first a digression. The aim of the NaNoWriMo is to write a fifty thousand word first draft of a novel in a month, the month being November. This is my first attempt. I've done the sister campaign, the April Script Frenzy, when you write an entire movie script in a month. I did a mock NaNo in July, when I wrote 100K words. So this time I'm aiming for 100K words as well.

To that end, I've been outlining the plot and detailing the characters using the snowflake method - see Randy Ingermanson's site for more details. Basically, you describe the story in one sentence. Then expand it to a 5 sentence paragraph. Then create character summary sheets. Then expand the plot to 5 paragraphs, create a one page character synopsis for each of the major characters and so on.

The idea behind all this is to ensure that come November 1st, everything is worked out, plot is known, each scene is sketched out and all I have to do is write around 4000 words a day.

So what's my story about (I hear you ask)? What's the theme?

By theme, I mean which essential human emotion is being most thoroughly explored. Which element of the human condition is being plumbed and exposed.

There aren't that many themes, just as there aren't many basic emotions. Perhaps the commonest ones, the heroic ones, together with some filmic examples are:

  • Vengeance - (Gladiator)
  • The reluctant hero (High Noon)
  • Overcoming inner demons (My Beautiful Mind)
  • The tragic hero (Troy)
  • The family protector (The River Wild)
  • The coward transformed (Deliverance)
  • The tortoise and the hare (Die Hard)
  • True love conquers all (Casablanca)
  • Doomed lovers (Romeo and Juliet)
Now, my story can be summed up in one sentence:

"Can two lovers persuade their opposing factions to fight the enemy in their midst?"

What theme is being explored here?

I mention lovers, so there's obviously a romantic element. I mention opposing factions, so there's obviously conflict. I mention an enemy so there's more conflict.

It's clear from that one sentence that the lovers are going to have to convince warring groups to co-operate, so Romeo and Juliet might spring to mind.

But there's personal tragedy a-plenty, for which vengeance must be sought. Neither of the lovers wants to be a leader or a hero, so they're reluctant. Each has his and her own inner turmoil to confront. The enemy at first seems unbeatable, so tortoise and hare. The only ones that aren't present in bucketfuls are the family protector and the coward transformed.

This is often the case. A novel's main plot may express one theme, but other themes are brought out in the sub-plots. One major character may represent one theme while another may have completely different motivations.

And so it is here. I would say that honour and duty are the predominant facets of both the major characters, so reluctantly, they do what must be done, no matter the cost to themselves or others.

In my next post, whenever that may be, I'll expand on the ideas of conflict and romance a little more, as they are two essential elements to nearly every fiction and every theme.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

7th Son: Descent by J C Hutchins

Just a quick reminder: I don't give 5 stars (well maybe once or twice a decade). I'm stingy. I'm mean.

So, on with the review.

7th Son: Descent by J. C. Hutchins

Now, I haven't read all of this book. I've only read the first 33 pages. So I can make no comments about the book's overall structure, or character arcs, or sub-plots.

What I can comment about is the quality of the writing.

It is superb.

From a real kick-ass opening, unexpected metaphors and unusual word formations flow with assurance. Characters are introduced with almost dizzying rapidity, yet each establishes his individuality, his own personality, rapidly and with great economy of prose.

The dialogue is believable, snappy; the internal thought processes consistent with the character thinking them. Vignettes of their various normal lives are pointed enough to let us get an idea of what they were like before something happens to them.

Something unexpected. Something horrifying.

The action sequences - and yes, there is plenty of action, from the prologue on - are well executed and realistic.

The basic premise of the book is excellent.

All I can say is that I'm going to order a copy this week - the print version comes out on the 27th - and if the rest is as good as the start, I'll write another review, this one going up, perhaps to that fabled 5 star realm where only the literary giants dwell.

OK, hyperbole, but this book is really very, very good.

So, Mr. Hutchins, or Chris if you prefer, excellent beginning. I was hooked from the first page.

I'm happy to give it 4 stars.

PS - I bear no relationship or affiliation with the author, and have not been offered any inducement of any nature to write this review, apart from a simple request that I do so. I don't know if it's a requirement to make that statement yet, but I thought I'd make it clear anyway.

Previews and the first episode of the book can be seen at

The book details are: ISBN 978- 0- 312- 38437- 1

and it is available to order online from:

Barnes & Noble

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Review: 'Riders of the Spew' by Robert Thompson

Remember, I hardly ever expect to give 5 stars to anything. 1 star is so bad, I wouldn't even finish the book.

2 = OK, passes the time
3 = Good, would recommend and read again
4 = Very, very good.

'Riders of the Spew' by Robert Thompson (available from Smashwords and Amazon)

OK, where to begin with this one? Don't think I've read a book quite like it before. Robert Thompson fills nearly all his pages with action, action and more action. Occasionally interspersed with dry humour.

It would have been hard for me to imagine that I could have come to empathize with a collection of six sociopathic, sadistic killers and their savage, mutant steeds, but perhaps the book contains a kernel of hard truth. A few centuries in hell changes a person. And some of the creatures they encounter!

Well drawn characters, natural dialogue and a host of unexpected twists kept me reading 'Riders of the Spew' non-stop from start to finish. I look forward to the sequels - their work is not yet done. Well worth three stars.

Reviews: Spellbound by Jaimey Grant

My review system:

5 stars is only given to books that are brilliant; ones that I will want to read again and again, ones that will become classics. I haven't come across more than a double handful of those in my lifetime, and I read a lot.

4 stars is given to books that are very, very good.

3 stars goes to good books, that I enjoyed and which had few or minor slips.

2 stars means that it passed the time in the absence of anything better to do, but I wouldn't want to read it again.

1 star indicates that I was sorry I ever picked the thing up, and wouldn't want to recommend it to my worst enemy.

"Spellbound" by Jaimey Grant, ISBN: 1440414726

I read this recently.

Now I have to admit, the genre, Regency romance, is not something that I habitually read. Well, to be honest, it's not a genre I've ever read.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a lot better than I was expecting. The protagonist, Raven, was someone I took to immediately. There was an admirable supporting cast of eccentrics, Regency fops, nobility in various shades of good, evil and torment, and a good story line. It's not a genre I could relate to, but I was hooked and made to care about the ultimate fate of Raven. All the characters were believable and well-realized. There were sub-plots and red herrings in abundance, and the dialogue was often snappy, believable and witty. There were a number of words and phrases that were new to me, but that were authentic to the Regency period.

The book was also proofread and edited with very few mistakes that I noticed.

I have to admit I got confused at the late introduction of the nemesis, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it; much more than I was expecting.

So I am happy to award this a 3 star rating. Nice one, Jaimey.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Plot structure - expanded

This post focuses on the classic Aristotelian three act structure.

Broadly speaking, any work of fiction, whether a novel, novella, short story, play or film script, will fit into the three act structure. I'm going to generalise here, but the structure goes something like this.

Act one:
About one quarter of the length of the work. Starts off with the main characters going about their daily business. A little scene-setting, as it were.

A short way in (3-7 minutes for a film, somewhere in the first chapter for a novel) comes the

Inciting incident (also called the complication.)
This is the thing that forces the protagonist into motion. It doesn't even need to be in the work. It can have happened way back in the back story. In Lord of the Rings for example, you could argue that the inciting incident happened in the Hobbit, when Bilbo found the ring. Or a thousand years ago, when Gollum found it. Or three thousand years ago, when Isildur didn't destroy it. But generally, it happens in the work you're creating.

The II is the thing that propels (or perhaps compels) the protagonist to become involved in the action of the story, often reluctantly.

Also in Act one, all other significant characters are introduced, especially the nemesis. The threads of the main plot are laid. Some of the major sub-plots are introduced.

Act one ends with

Plot point one, a critical incident. Our hero(ine) discovers a crucial fact, gains a significant ally (buddy, rival, mentor or similar) or develops a talent he or she will need to defeat the nemesis.

All the significant features of the story have now been exposed to the audience. From this point on, all that occurs is inevitable because of the groundwork you have done.

Act two:
This is where the majority of the character development, the other sub-plots and a lot of the action takes place. Generally about half the length of the work. If Act one was about laying the foundations, Act two is about building the house. About halfway through this act comes the

Midpoint. This is the first significant trial of strength against the nemesis. Our hero may retire, defeated but alive. He may defeat the chief lieutenant of the enemy. The point is, it is inconclusive. The threat remains, and from here on to the end, intensifies.

Act two concludes with

Plot point two (also called the Crisis.) Our protagonist is at his lowest ebb. His wife has been kidnapped, his dog shot, his son proves to be the spawn of the Devil, and he's hanging head down over a vat of boiling sulphuric acid.

This point is perhaps the most important of the whole story. This is why our protagonist is a hero. Remember the classic themes mentioned in the last post.

Now, any reasonable being would give up at this point. Heroes don't. They're too stubborn, or stupid, to recognise that they're beaten. Instead of dying quietly, they get mad. They stiffen themselves for one final attempt.

They take full responsibility for their life and their actions, taking charge of events. If they have been reacting so far, now, in a titanic expenditure of will and courage, they take charge of events, driving on to the end. Their entire life has narrowed down to one focus; victory or death.

Act three:
This occupies the final quarter of the work. If Act one was laying the foundations, and Act two was building the house, then Act three is defeating the neighbour who objects on planning grounds, stopping a horde of crazed bikers from trashing the place, throwing up a wall of dirt to stop the flood from washing the house away and finally moving in with your loved one.

Almost immediately, we are plunged into the

Climax. The final trial of strength. Our hero generally overcomes his fears, his limitations, masters that crucial flaw and defeats his nemesis, who cannot do the same.

OK, our hero may die in the process. In many ways, it is deeply satsfying if he does. After all, who would actually want to know or live with a genuine hero? They can't be easy people to get along with.

Of course, if you're writing from the 1st person POV, it is not a good idea to have your hero die here. That's the end, fini, right there. If you've used third person, shifting POV, fine. Film scripts, you have written omnisciently anyway, so no problem.

The climax was presaged in Act one, developed in Act two, and is now fully realized in all its violent, terrible beauty.

Act three finishes with the

Resolution. All the loose ends are tied up. Unless you want to leave room for a sequel. Boy gets girl, music swells, they walk hand-in-hand into a beautiful sunset. The audience sighs in appreciation, gets gently returned to reality and walks out happy, having shared time with someone who took charge of their destiny, albeit briefly.

Something most of us can never, will never do.

That's why they're called heroes.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Plot - theme or structure?

First, yet another apology. It seems that whenever I'm presumptuous enough to post that I'm going to write about something 'tomorrow', fate intervenes, and I get buried in extra work. Yet again it's taken me three weeks to dig myself out far enough to see daylight. In future, I'm going to simply say 'next time I'm going to...'.

So, not tomorrow, but three weeks later...

There are two ways of creating a plot - with almost any sort of story.

You can focus on the structure - that is, what happens in the story?

Or you can focus on the theme - what is the story about?

As a concrete example, consider the clasic Western 'High Noon'.

Structurally it's about a man who is systematically abandoned by all those on whose loyalty he has a right to depend, prior to his impending battle with a band of vengeful killers.

Thematically it's about a man's struggle to maintain his integrity and honour when surrounded by cowardice, hypocrisy and overwhelming temptation. He is an archetypal reluctant hero.

I suppose you can say that structure focuses on the events; theme focuses on how the participants feel about those events; or perhaps the actions they choose when faced with those events.

Now, you might say that the two are very much interdependent. You'd be absolutely right. A person can't be a hero, reluctant or otherwise, unless there is an occasion where heroism is called for.

There are only a limited number of themes available - such as:

  • Vengeance - (Gladiator)
  • The reluctant hero (High Noon)
  • Overcoming inner demons (My Beautiful Mind)
  • The tragic hero (Troy)
  • The family protector (The River Wild)
  • The coward transformed (Deliverance)
  • The tortoise and the hare (Die Hard)
When designing a story thematically, I suppose you would have to start by creating a protagonist with a flaw, and an antagonist, also with a flaw.

You can already tell that this story would be about the protagonist being able to accept help and advice, overcome his weakness and so defeat the antagonist - who of course, because of hubris was not able to overcome his, and so failed.

Structurally, you would start with an exciting idea - a protagonist who has a mortal falling out with his former best friend. They fight on a high, swaying bridge above a bottomless pit.

Synthesis of the two gives you the protagonist afraid of heights, who falls in love with his beautiful psychoanalyst and rescues her from his former best friend turned nemesis. She is of course at the far end of the bridge on which the two are fighting. The nemesis was in love with her till she fell for our hero. He spurned her offer of help overcoming his fear of hamsters.

At the height of the battle, our hero presses forward despite his profound acrophobia to rescue the woman he loves. He hurls his pet hamster at his nemesis, who recoils in horror, slips and plunges to his death. Boy and girl reunite, hero risks all to rescue beloved hamster from the lip of the abyss, and hand in hand in paw they walk into the sunset as the music swells...

OK, it's a silly example, but it illustrates my point. Theme and structure are different ways of looking at the same small, isolated sequence of events that makes up a piece of fiction. Both are still, and always will be, subordinate to the story.

Avoiding hubris myself, I'm simply going to say that next time, I'm going to examine plot structure in more detail.

Till then, enjoy!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Plot structure - Introduction

For as long as people have been telling stories, there has been a structure that works well. One that captivates the audience, hooks them, draws them into the world of the storyteller.

As far as I'm aware, that structure was first analysed and codified by Aristotle in his work 'The Poetics.' Of course, he was talking about epic oral poetry and Greek theatre, complete with chorus. Nonetheless, what worked for 100,000 years huddled round fires at night, worked for Ancient Greece, was followed by the Romans, the writers of Northern European epics such as as Beowulf, the Prose Edda and the Nibelungenlied and was obeyed by great writers of the Medieval and Elizabethan periods (Chretien de Troyes, Mallory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson and others) is as relevant and important today as ever it was.

Don't forget, people have told stories as long as there have been people. The idea of reading stories has only been around for some 500 years. Watching them at the talkies or on the telescreen has only been around for a century.

What I'm saying is that what worked for millennia worked for a reason. It satisfied some basic human need. Technology may have evolved, but the human brain has not kept pace. What worked when the sabre-toothed tiger roared outside and mammoths roamed the plains still works.

We call this the Aristotelian structure.

Aristotle's six most important elements of any drama were:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Theme
  4. Dialogue
  5. Music
  6. Spectacle

This list still works marvellously for films, though sadly, Hollywood seems to have reversed the order in recent decades. Special effects do not make a great movie no matter what the movie moguls think.

You might also notice that music is on the list - important for Greek drama, crucial in films.

OK, if we're talking about writing books, you can ignore music.

Spectacle for books is what the reader envisions as he or she reads your prose.

Tomorrow, I'm going to write about the two ways of creating (or analysing) any decent plot. In later posts, I'll go through every other element on the list with the exception of music.


Sunday, 6 September 2009

Ideas - where do they come from?

OK, after a slightly longer than expected absence, due to family stuff, I'm back with the next installment. By the way, I do apologise most humbly for the delay.

Ideas and where do they come from?

I suppose that's the one question that we all face if ever we mention that we write.

"Where do you get your ideas from?"

So where do they come from?

A few concrete examples. My first film script (it's available if anyone wants to buy it for the going rate - hint, hint) was about eco-terrorism masking corporate greed, and it came about from reading an article on dams in Idaho and the potato farming that had been made possible by these dams. This was an article in National Geographic, and I was reading it in the dentist's waiting room. The rest of the plot was elaborated in thirty minutes of semi-inebriated conversation with a script-writing friend of mine, Dr. Roger Cottrell, a few days later. Just a few concrete (no pun intended) facts and then the 'what if' moment.

My third novel (no, it's not finished yet, just the first draft) was loosely based on the premise - 'what if man-made global warming is a reality? What if Governments and corporations were aware what they were doing? What if they were doing it deliberately? Who would benefit? What if the beneficiaries weren't human?'

Add a few facts and figures, and a degree of inventiveness and you have the idea from which the plot develops.

My second film script was based on an article in one of the broadsheet newspapers, commenting on the increasing divide between urban and rural communities. I thought 'what if you take this to its logical conclusion?'

You would have totally separated communities living entirely dissimilar lives, with the chattering urbanites being blissfully unaware of their complete dependence on the rural society. Throw in a few other semi-related facts and stir. Voila! You have a plot.

You can see from the examples I've given, that my ideas come from events or facts in the real world, twisted by my warped imagination into some sort of demonised offspring. Add in a few other facts, similarly distorted, and you have an idea.

The 'what if?' bit is crucial. Take Event A, as reported by e.g. the BBC. What if it were totally false? What would be the consequences? OK, what if someone stood to gain from a widespread belief in this event? How would they organise it? Who would notice what they were doing? Who would try to stop them? Then stick the story thirty years in the future when - unrelated fact - all cars apart from emergency services were electric, state owned and driven by computer. Add in an elevated concern for health and safety, risk avoidance and litigation, exaggerated to extreme levels. (I know, that bit is already true, but bear with me.) What sort of society would we have? What would be the likely outcomes? And you have the basis for a story.

So, today's homework: choose your own event of interest, extrapolate thirty (or fifty or a hundred) years, add in two unrelated facts of your choice, and then (this is the fun bit) open a bottle of your favourite tipple, sit back, kick off the shoes, loosen the tie, ignore the dog and just ... speculate.

When it comes to facts, related or otherwise, I'm lucky. I have the sort of memory that stores immense quantities of information. OK, 95% of it is completely useless, but the remaining 5% - oh yes.


I've read other writers who say their ideas come from watching people in the street, or a chance conversation overheard on a bus or ...

Fine, whatever works for them. I store up observations and snippets of conversation to give authenticity to dialogue or description, but my ideas are always generated by events or facts.

Or at least, by articles that claim to relate events and facts. I don't actually believe much I read in newspapers or hear on TV, but if it's interesting, the authenticity quotient doesn't matter.

Finally, I would like to quote an answer that Stephen King gave when asked, on a chat show, where his ideas came from. He said the usual things we always say, but was then asked, 'But why do you always write horror and darkness?'

To which he replied, 'What makes you think I have a choice?'

Tomorrow I'm going to start a series of articles on plot structure - typical Aristotelian plot structure that is. A technique that has worked well for story tellers for the last 10,000 years.


Friday, 28 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing - 2

Yesterday, I showed you how to estimate the time it will take to produce a finished first draft for a novel. In the model, it took us 12 weeks to plot, research, write and edit the first draft. Today, we'll go through the next stages.

Assume, for the sake of argument, you started writing it on the 1st September. By the end of November, your manuscript is finished. Now what?

1st December, you send it out to your panel of readers. Ideally you want a mix of readers - some writers, some who like reading the genre. The 'reading readers' will tell you if it works as a piece of fiction. The 'writing readers' will tear the structure apart, savage the language, and in general cover the manuscript in red. To save costs and a few acres of tropical rainforest, I suggest you email the readers an electronic version of the manuscript, and, assuming they're using MS Word, ask them to 'Track Changes' - so all their revisions will show up highlighted. If they want to comment on any particular part, ask them to add notes.

How long will the readers take?

It doesn't matter!

Because on the 1st December, you're starting work on your next project. This is a conveyor belt, remember? You are totally dismissing novel A from your thoughts and working on novel B. For the next 12 weeks, you're producing another semi-polished first draft.

When the readers respond, and surely they will within three months - if not, send them a polite reminder. Do be polite because they're doing you a favour - thank them and promise to get back to them. Then carry on with novel B.

According to our model, you'll have finished that at the end of February.

Then what?

Send it off to your faithful readers. And begin the second draft and edit of novel A.

If you recall, we assumed that the first draft would take about 100 hours, writing at 1,000 words per hour. (Obviously plug your own figures in there.) Allowing a margin for error produced a figure of 120 hours.

How long will the second draft take?

You've been away from the story for three months. In that time, you've come up with some more and better ideas for parts of the plot. Your readers will have come up with suggestions. So, take some time, re-read what you've done, familiarise yourself with the concept. Immerse yourself in the action once more. Then consider your new ideas and the ones your readers have dreamed up. Choose the best, ignore the rest. Tighten up the plot, cut out redundant characters, correct factual errors. Let's say 30 hours for this + the surplus = 40 hours.

There isn't as much typing in a second draft. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, although perhaps moved around. You will be rewriting perhaps 30% of the story completely. You'll also be correcting all the errors your readers spotted.

If the first draft took 120 hours, shall we say this takes 60 hours?

The final edit - like the first, but with even more scupulous proofreading and formatting. I'm going to say 60 hours. Some might say it takes longer.

Then the final bit. You have to summarize your marvellous, genre-blurring, profound work of fiction in 500 words or less - the synopsis. You also have to produce a query letter, where the task gets harder - you have to describe theme and concept and give an overview in two paragraphs - the query letter. This letter you send off, perhaps with the synopsis and a couple of sample chapters, to as many agents simultaneously as you can.

The first time you do this, it will take quite a while - after all, you have to identify the agents who deal with your main genre, weed out those who are not accepting clients, or who do not accept email submissions.

Only do this once - record the details (email address, submission guidelines, contact name and phone number) in a database or a spreadsheet. Why do it each time you submit something?

I'm going to average out the time it takes to do this. Let's say 20 hours for the query, synopsis and submissions.


You're done. Time for a novel = 400 hours.

According to our figures, this second, post reader, bit took 180 hours (9 weeks).

Then immediately begin working on the second draft for novel B.

When you've finished and submitted that, write a couple of short stories. Alternatively, go lie on a beach, or sit in a bar, or climb Mount Everest.

Or, let's hope, work on yet another round of editing according to the diktat of the agent who agreed to represent novel A. Or talk to the director about the film version.

Using this conveyor belt system, you can easily produce 2 novels per year.

Tomorrow I'm going to ramble on about ideas and how there is no end to them.

Have fun!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing

Yesterday I told you how I managed to convince my spouse that writing was more than a hobby - by using deadlines and third party involvement. Today I'm going to explain how I arrive at those deadlines. Of course, if I had agents, publishers and producers clamouring for my output, the deadlines would be externally imposed, but since that isn't happening (yet) I set my own.

The first thing to do is work out how long any particular piece of work is going to be.

A full length novel is typically 100,000 words; a novella - 40,000; film script about 30,000; short stories can be immensely variable, but let's say 8,000.

I know that something that starts out as a novella can turn into a trilogy of full-sized books. I also know from personal experience something that was meant to be a novel can come to an end after 50,000 words - it's shrunk to a novella. Maybe the writing was too hot? But let's assume for the sake of argument, that any given piece of work is going to be around the predicted length.

OK, so you're going to write a novel. What are the stages involved?

  1. Research and development Well, actually, it's the other way around. Work on the plot, sketch out skeleton scenes or chapters, identify your plot points - then work out what research you need to do. Go away and do it.

  2. First draft - pretty obvious, that one.

  3. First edit - by which I mean: adding the bits you forgot, or that are obviously needed by unexpected changes in the plot; removing bits that have become redundant for the same reason; and going through the actual writing to correct typos, remove waste words, change passive to active and so on.

  4. First reading - it goes off to a panel of readers to critique, do some editing, make suggestions, and proofread.

  5. Second draft - this is when you incorporate those readers' suggestions you want to accept and tighten up the plot, focusing more on structure. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, so far less typing is involved.

  6. Second edit - Either done by you or someone else - a final proofread, tightening language, formatting the manuscript correctly.

  7. Create query letter and synopsis, and submit.
Ok, that's it. All done. Those are the stages involved (at least for me) in writing a novel. Other writers may go through another cycle of third party reading and critiquing, followed by another draft and edit, but I don't. For the sake of this post, let's assume that you follow my model.

How long is it all going to take?

An impossible question to answer, you might think. Waiting for inspiration, struggling with stubborn plot issues, recalcitrant characters - I mean, how long is it going to take?

Remember, we're talking about production line techniques here. Never mind losing your Muse's number. Never mind the creative juices are suffering an unprecedented drought. We're treating this like any other business.

So, what do we know?

We know the first draft is going to be about 100K words.

How fast do you write? Work it out. Set aside one hour and write something fast and furious. Never mind the typos, the spelling mistakes, the inconsistent names. Ignore all of that. How fast can you physically write?

For me it's about 1,000 words per hour. It doesn't matter that half of them are going to be discarded. That's what the editing is for. We are going to steam through the first draft at 1000 words per hour. It's going to take 100 hours to complete the first draft.

Well, no it's not, because stuff happens. Allow some margin for error, unexpected interruptions, the odd natural disaster or two. Let's say 120 hours.

The R & D? Remember, this is a business. Assign a figure and make sure you stick to it. Let's say 30 hours. Add on the margin for error. Be generous. Give yourself 40 hours. That's equivalent to a full working week, Monday to Friday, 9 till 5. And don't forget, you're always advised to write what you know, so the actual research should be a few hours with Google and Wikipedia.

First edit - tricky. There's a lot to do, but remember, you still have another edit to come afterwards, so let's say it takes half as long as it did to write the entire thing - so 50 hours plus our margin = 60 hours.

From the very start - sketching the outline, to the end - an edited first draft ready to send to readers, has taken 220 hours.

How many hours can you definitely chisel out of the week to write? Why don't we pretend that you can absolutely free up 20 hours a week. Producing the intermediate product is going to take you 11 weeks. Add on one more week to cater for nervous breakdowns, plumbing leaks and swine flu.

Twelve weeks from the day you start, you have a finished first draft. Put it in the calendar. Time is money, the tide waits for no man ... the date on your calendar is the date you have to finish. Tell yourself your job depends on it. Sack yourself if you miss the deadline. Inform your readers now that you'll be emailing them the Word document twelve weeks from today.

Tomorrow, we'll go through the next stages - the second draft, the second edit and the submission.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

(Ab)normal service is resumed

Hello again, faithful followers! (If I were Hannibal Lecter, I could count you all on the fingers of one hand. Am I complaining about the small number? No, I'm not, and I'll explain why in a minute.)

There has been a long gap since my last post here. That gap can be explained in one word.


For the past four months, I've been refining and industrializing the process of writing. Well, to be more precise, the process of writing fiction as a part-time job, relying on something else (a job) to pay the bills.

It seems, from the many people I've chatted to on Goodreads and from reading other writers' blogs, that writers seem to fall into three distinct groups.

One group is made up of those select few who are good enough and persistent enough to be able to write full time. Like the upper class, this is the group the rest of us want to join.

Another group is made up of the stay-at-homes. Although burdened with children, dogs, household chores etc., they can fit in a fair amount of writing time per day, in an unpredictable pattern.

The final group is made up of those (like me) who have to go out and work to pay the bills. Our writing is fitted in during the time we manage to chisel loose from our non-work hours.

I would have used the term 'free time' but free time seems to be a very malleable concept. To me it means any time when I'm not doing paid work, eating, washing or sleeping. To my wife, it means any time I'm not being co-opted to take out the trash, wash dishes, shift heavy objects, redecorate rooms or joining her for theatre/cinema/friends/dinners/TV/social events (weddings, funerals, christenings, birthdays etc).

I think this partly stems from her perception of my writing. To her, it's a hobby, on a par with angling or trainspotting. To me, it's work. Alright, it's work that doesn't yet pay, but one day it will.

It's the lack of a guaranteed return that makes it a pastime rather than a profession.

You might point out, quite reasonably, that any self-employed person, or anyone who owns their own company, spends perhaps a third of their working time doing stuff that may produce a return but isn't guaranteed to - things like product development, research and training to position the company ahead of future trends.

Well, yes. I have been self-employed. I do own a company. I have never managed to convince my wife that producing e.g. a software product, which may or may not sell in bulk, is anything other than 'messing around on a computer'. Writing is similar 'messing'.

Which brings me back to infrastructure. To the industrialization of the writing process - the establishment of a set of processes that take a certain amount of time to produce a defined end-product. Third parties are involved with this end product. It is tangible. It has weight.

Explaining it in this way to my wife has finally managed to lift writing out of the hobby category into an alternative niche - not quite paid work, but of higher status than stamp collecting. Involving third parties has been a definite plus.

Consider yesterday's conversation.

"Darling, I have to finish version 1.0 of this book. I have readers booked to critique it at the start of September."

"Well, how long is it going to take to finish?" she asks, quite sensibly.

"Thirty hours."

A quick glance at the calendar establishes that I need to be doing four hours a day, minimum, in order to meet this deadline. Free time becomes more organized immediately. Anyway, I really didn't want to go and see a performamce of the Soweto Gum-boot Dancers, so it's a double victory.

Tomorrow, I'll explain how I have regularized the writing process so it's just another evening in the office. How I have set up the conveyor belt of writing. And bits about time management and writer's block.

Oh, and why aren't I complaining about lack of followers?

Because writing each post takes time. Reading each post takes time. Answering each reply takes time. If I didn't have anything worthwhile to write, why should I waste my time and yours by doing it anyway?

But, thanks to the marvels of the conveyor belt system, I now have some extra time available each day to write useful stuff about writing, books and the creative process. I now have time to be abe to respond on a daily basis to each and every comment or query.

So by all means network this blog, tweet it, recommend it to your followers, mention it on MySpace, Facebook, Goodreads, Smashwords and anywhere else you have influence.
Be sure to mention that in the future, I shall be blogging every day, although many posts may be shorter than this one.

Enjoy the rest of the day!

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Narrative hooks and coherence


First some definitions perhaps.

A narrative hook is a sentence that raises an unanswered question - typically, "what happens next?" It is a device to keep the audience reading the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page and the next chapter.

Coherence is the flow of text, where one paragraph leads smoothly on to the next. In fiction, it would also be the way in which one scene drives on to the next.

Now, conventional advice is to incorporate something dramatic in your first page that keeps the reader - errm - reading. More importantly, perhaps, it keeps the agent and publisher reading!

So, your first sentence should be a narrative hook. The reader is almost forced to read on. But then end of the first paragraph also needs to be a narrative hook, so that the reader continues to paragraph two and so on.

We also have to hold the concept of coherence in mind, where paragraphs flow smoothly and imperceptibly into each other.

Have a look at this example, from "Phase-Up", a short story by - well, OK, it's by me. And why not?

The end

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death. The feel of the poison ripping through my guts: the pain, the sweat, the muscle spasms, the burning. The cold circlet of metal against my temple. A brief flash of light, then nothing. Just black, soothing, nothingness.

I always did like to be thorough.

After the end

When I was next aware of myself, my surroundings were so strange, so … alien, that for a long time I could do nothing but stare in disbelief.

Imagine if you will a vast grid of shining blue lines...

Apart from the sub-heading, which itself is a sort of narrative hook - I mean, who in their right minds starts a story at the end - the first sentence is a corker (or so I am told).

I can quite clearly remember the moment of my own death.

I might revise that now, removing the redundant word 'own'. But even so, the reader thinks - weird, what's next? Must read on!

Next comes the details - how did I die? Raising the question at the end of the paragraph - why poison and gunshot? Must read on!

The second paragraph answers the question. Why? Because I like to be thorough.

OK, so that's the end of the story, isn't it?

No! Because the next sub heading tells you that there is more - there is something 'after the end'. Must read on!

I wake up in very strange surroundings.

Raising the question - why are they strange? Must read on!

And so on. Each sentence, each paragraph, each page sweeping the reader on, as helpless as a paper boat in a torrent. Resistance is futile. The reader must read to the end.

Well, that's the idea anyway.

Remember the old adages about paragraphs. One paragraph = one subject; start with topic sentence, fill in the details, finish with a conclusion. Or, as Rita Webb says in her blog, when writing about scenes: "Hook, intensity, push". Frankly I prefer Rita's version. Hook the reader, build or reduce the intensity as desired, leave a push at the end to nudge the reader onwards to the next bit.

That's coherence.

Don't regard words as your building blocks when writing. Don't even think of sentences as the basic unit.

Think of paragraphs as the building blocks that create a scene or a chapter. Start with a high, fill in all the bits that the reader needs to know to enhance understanding of action, setting or character (but no more detail than that), and end on a high.

So we have hook, detail, hook ... hook, detail, hook ...

Easy, isn't it?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Away for a week

I'm off to Wales tomorrow for a week - no phones, no Internet - but we do have electricity. So, I'll take the laptop and write a full-length film script in a week! Do some general building and gardening in the afternoons. And some reviewing as well.

Bliss! (But I'll miss you all.) I expect I'll have 9000 emails to page through when I get back ;)

Then I'll get to writing somemore writing technique things - narrative hooks and POV, before a biggy: developing characters.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Romantic interest 6


It is too late for Rhian to go home. She spends the night snuggled up to Gaz, just sleeping.

The next morning…

When she came downstairs, breakfast was almost ready. She had dressed again, and seemed oddly shy, as if unsure of the reception she'd receive.

"You've shared my bed and my toothbrush," I said, "so it seems only right that you share my breakfast as well."

I removed any lingering awkwardness by giving her a hug, planting a quick kiss on her mouth.

"Good morning," I said. "You look good in the morning."

She blushed.

"I feel good," she said. "Better than I have in a long time."

I pulled a seat out for her at the drop leaf table and watched in pleasure as she stowed away bacon, egg and toast, washed down with several mugs of tea.

She glanced at the clock as she finished off the last piece of toast.

"I have to go to work in a minute," she said.

"Yes, where do you work?" I asked. "You didn't say much about yourself last night. Well, I suppose you didn't really get much of a chance, did you?"

She put her hand on mine.

"I'll tell you all about me the next time we get together." She put her hand to her mouth in shock. "Oh, God, I didn't mean to sound clingy, or possessive. There will be a next time, won't there?"

I squeezed her hand.

"Of course there will," I said quietly. "I hope there'll be a lot of other times. And thank you, Rhian. For being my friend, for listening to me, for staying with me. I'd like to think that we could be more than friends, in time."

She surprised me by laughing.

"Gaz, I've always been half in love with you."

I gaped at her. She laughed again.

"You mean you didn't know?" she asked.

"No," I said blankly. "I had no idea."

"I'm only sorry that it's taken us twenty years to get that out in the open," she said. "I know we didn't exactly waste those years, but still…" She blushed again. "Oh, and I work in the library."

They are now a couple. All that remains is for the relationship to get physical, but I'll leave that to your imagination… :)

Romantic interest 5


OK, so our couple have had a kiss and a cuddle. But it is not necessarily a close relationship yet. Gareth now forces himself to make a commitment - to trust Rhian and share his past with her, as well as sharing the real reason he has come back.

Then Rhian pushed herself away.

"Why are you back, Gaz?" she asked, staring into my eyes.

"I don't think my folks died of heart attack and stroke," I said flatly. "While I was killing total strangers in Guatemala, someone here in Brynddu was killing my parents.

"I want to know why, and I want to know how, and I want to know who. When I find out, I'm going to make them pay."

She stared at me in bewilderment, like someone who calls out to a friend only to find they are talking to a total stranger.

"How would you know your Mam and Dad didn't die naturally?" she asked. "You're just a squaddy, aren't you?" She pressed her hand against my chest, partly for contact, partly to keep me at arm's length. "Aren't you?"

I felt an unfamiliar sensation; anxiety.

"Rhian, if I tell you what I am, what I've done, I'm afraid you won't like me anymore. That would hurt."

I gazed at the floor, dreading her next words. I felt a flood of relief and shame as she stroked my cheek.

"Look at me Gaz," she said. "You've always been my friend; a good friend. Even when we were little, and it wasn't done to be friends with girls, you were my friend. You're a nice man. Anything you've done, I'm sure you did it for a good reason. I trust you."

It was her turn to tilt my head. She kissed me on the lips, slowly, gently, lingeringly.

"You don't have to tell me anything about the past if you don't want to," she whispered, her breath tickling my face. I put my arms around her waist, pulling her close again.

"But I do want to," I said. "I've wanted to be able to tell someone I can trust for years; to share the shit I've paddled through with someone who won't run to the News of the World or Special Branch." I paused, trying to choose the right words.

"I'm not going to be melodramatic and say that if I tell you, your life will be in danger. But I'm being truthful when I say that if I tell you, and you tell anyone else, my life will be in danger. So I'm trusting you now. Do you want to hear it? My past?"

She kissed the end of my nose.

"I want you to make me a promise first," she said. "From your heart; from your soul. I know you might do things that hurt me. I know you won't want to, but you may have to. But I want you to promise me that you'll never lie to me."

I held her hands and gazed into her eyes, deep blue, almost violet.

"I will never lie to you Rhian," I said. "I promise."

She pulled away, all briskness now.

"Right, let's get some more beers and you can begin."

I glanced at the mantel-clock. It was nearly eleven.

"It's getting rather late," I said doubtfully. "Would you like to leave it for another day? I expect you have work in the morning."

She shook her head.

"I don't want to wait. Do you?"

No, I didn't. I ached to be able to put my trust in someone, to confess and bare my soul to a friend, to Rhian. She was perhaps becoming more than a friend, but only time would reveal the weave of that tapestry.

"I think I need something stronger than beer for the stuff I'm going to tell you," I said, opening one of the wall cupboards and removing another bottle of JD.

I looked at Rhian. She nodded, so I poured us both a generous shot as she opened another couple of bottles of Hobgoblin.

She sat on the sofa, patting the cushion beside her.

"Come on then, tell me," she smiled. "And I don't believe that you're afraid. You've never been afraid."

I sat next to her. If only she knew, I thought. I'd been afraid, terrified, on more occasions than I could count.

She snuggled up to me, legs curled up on the cushions, an arm round my shoulders, gazing at me with trust and innocence in her eyes.

I began.

Gareth now shares some of his tormented past with Rhian.

"I was a squaddy, for 3 years," I said. "In Three Para. I moved from there to Special Forces, just in time for the Gulf War. The first one, you know, Desert Storm and the mother of all battles."

I briefly relived the hot, sandy, fly-infested hell that had been Iraq; outlining my part in it to Rhian.

It was hard, telling her of the seventeen years I had spent with the SAS. I had spent time in nearly every shithole in the world, doing various nasty things on behalf of an indifferent Government.

I told her of the fire fights; of the bombings, the sniping; of the friends I had made and lost in remote parts of the globe. I told her of the petty warlords and dictators I had helped overthrow, or prop up; sometimes both in successive months as Government policy changed. I told her of the squalid corruption I had encountered at every level - in our system as well as the foreign ones. I told her of the honourable people; of the betrayals and abandonments.

I told her of the dead who visited me in my dreams, the memories that tormented and goaded me through the day, of the way that certain sounds or smells dragged me back into the hell that had been my past.

When I had finished, Rhian was crying again, but she had also snuggled closer, empathising with me.

"No-one should have to bear all that suffering alone," she said. "Was there no-one who could help you? A counsellor or a psychologist?"

I laughed, but there was very little amusement in it.

"There was only one psychiatrist who had a high enough security clearance to be able to listen to me without breaking the Official Secrets Act," I said. "And he committed suicide a week before I was due to see him. He couldn't stand the sort of thing he had to listen to, I guess. Even second-hand it was too much for him to stand.

"Besides, if the Foreign Office, or MI5, or the SIS even thought that I was going to start revealing their dirty laundry, to anyone, I'd have ended up as just another traffic fatality."

Rhian hugged me tight, resting her head on my shoulder.

Then I told her of the endless training between missions. Of the Bachelor's degree in computer science I had gained in my spare time; of various Master's degrees in the same field. Of the security consulting I now did, mainly for Western Governments. Of the languages I had picked up while working undercover in South America, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia.

"Which is ironic really," I said, "because that was what caused the rift between my folks and me. They were dead set on me going into research, building in a career using my first degree. You know, settling down to a secure, respectable, professional career, getting a wife and two point four children, buying a house - all that conformist stuff.

"But I was too restless. I actually wanted to do something real, to see a bit of the world before I settled down. So I joined the Army. That was what we argued about, and because of it, I hadn't seen them in twenty years. Then it was too late.
I was in Central America removing a so-called terrorist leader when my folks died.

"I think they'd have been happy that I had made a career for myself eventually. I'm one of the most expensive security consultants in the world now. I even had Linda and children. Then I was sent off to Afghanistan again to remove some minor warlord. And my family died."

I sighed.

"It's almost like it's a pattern, don't you think?" I asked bitterly. "I get sent somewhere to kill some asshole, and as a balance, someone close to me dies."

"Oh Gaz," Rhian sobbed. She held me tight, stroking my chest.

I actually felt better now, having told someone my awful past, and finding that they didn't look at me like some loathsome creature in the bath.

They have bonded now - there are only a few more steps to go in the relationship. See next post.

Romantic interest 4


Our protagonist's relationship with Rhian progresses as they go out together.

One thing about Rhian - she didn't believe in this 'fashionably late' rubbish. She never had done. To her, seven-thirty meant seven-thirty. One of the reasons I had always liked her. Her Volvo estate pulled up to the kerb as I was reaching for the takeaway door.

"No dark glasses?" I said as she swung herself out of the car. She was wearing a pair of tan slacks and a snug pink sweater - cashmere possibly, though I wasn't an expert on that sort of thing. She looked stunning.

Rhian smiled at me.

"No, I decided I wouldn't be too embarrassed to be seen with you," she giggled. "This is silly, I feel like a teenager going on her first Prom date."

"I'm flattered," I said, meaning it. "I feel pretty good too."

She took my arm in both of hers, leaning against me.

"Come on then," she said. "Feed this girl. I'm starving!"

As we entered the takeaway, I saw our reflection again. We looked even more like a couple than we had before.

After the usual five minutes deliberating over the menu, we handed our order to the plump, smiling, middle-aged Chinese woman behind the counter.

"I'll pop to the offy and get the wine," Said Rhian. "What sort do you like?"

"I'll leave the choice to you," I said, gallant to the last.

She looked at me for a second, as if pondering a difficult decision.

"Will you think I'm really uncouth if I tell you that I don't really like wine?"

"Not at all. I don't care for it that much myself. What do you like then?"

"I'm a real ale girl," she said, fluttering her lashes in parody. I stepped back a pace, clutching my heart.

"I'm in love!" I cried, falsetto.

The comment wasn't taken in the spirit in which it was meant.

Rhian's face clouded.

"Don't say that to me Gaz," she said in a low sombre tone. "I've had too much of that crap in my life already."

She stood unflinching, waiting for my response - whatever form it took.

I put my hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Rhian," I said. "I do like you though. I always have. You know that, don't you?"

She rested her palms on my chest. When she smiled, it was a sad, sweet smile that hit me like a blow to the stomach.

"I know," she said. "And I am glad you asked me out."

She brightened, smiling in happier fashion.

"Now, are you going to trust me to get real beer? I am just a girly you know, not a macho hunk like you."

"Go on," I said. "I trust you. Just remember, real ale doesn't come in pink bottles."

I laughed. After a second, she joined in, and the evening was back on track again.

Rhian indicates that she has had some pain and trouble in her life before. But an important point is established here - they like and trust each other. They have done for years.

So where do they go from here?

We sat back on the sofa, bloated with king prawn, Szechuan beef, noodles, rice and sundry other bits of Oriental cuisine. Mugs of Hobgoblin foamed darkly in our hands.

We had enjoyed a relaxed evening, eating, sharing food off each other's plates, off each others' spoons. There had been a mildly hilarious interlude when I tried to teach Rhian how to use chopsticks properly. I'd made a note in the book to clean the carpet in the morning.

We'd talked about old times, at school, college (I had gone to London, she to Aberystwyth, but we had visited each other on a couple of occasions) and fun, drunken evenings out in the long summer vacations. We'd played the 'whatever happened to so and so' game, and the 'do you remember thingy' game. We'd both, I think, made a conscious decision to avoid more recent events.

Unfortunately, the topic could be avoided no longer.

"I met Owen Lewis today," I said. "I've hired him to do the renovating."

"Mmm, I haven't seen Owen for months. How is he?" asked Rhian.

"Seems OK. He likes a pint. He was telling me about this Order of Agrona."

Rhian flushed and almost jumped off the sofa. She banged her mug on the table. Beer slopped out, over the wood. She stood glaring at me.

"Is that why you asked me out?" she snarled. "So you can get information out of me?" She started towards the door.

I jumped up and caught hold of her arm. She whirled, hand smacking hard against my face.

"Get your hands off me! Don't touch me!"

Her voice was wild now. Tears glistened in her eyes. I pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her and holding her despite her attempts to punch my chest. Her struggles subsided. I stroked her hair as she started to sob convulsively; great racking gasps that shook her entire body.

"Ssshhhh…" I said, continuing to stroke her hair. "It's alright Rhian."

Her voice was muffled against my chest now.

"I thought better of you than that, Gaz" she said quietly. "You didn't have to pretend to want to see me. You could just have asked me about Agrona straight out. I thought you were my friend."

I put a hand under her chin, tilting her head so I could look into her eyes. Tears were trickling down her face. She made no effort to wipe them away. I cradled her face with my hands, brushing the tears away with my thumbs.

"I am your friend, Rhian," I said quietly. "I've enjoyed tonight more than anything else in the last year. I asked you out because I like you, I like your company. I wouldn't lie to you, or use you. I'd never knowingly hurt you."

Very slowly, giving her time to refuse, I lowered my face to hers and kissed her eyes, left then right. Then, gently, I kissed her lips. She stood like a deer in headlights for a minute, then, like frightened animals, her hands crept round my back, holding me as I held her. She put her head on my shoulder, and I stroked her back, tracing her spine through her jumper.

We stood together like that for several minutes, not speaking.

Here, in the space of a couple of pages, I've employed the old cliche - boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl - which tightens (I think) the narrative by compressinbg the course of the relationship into a single evening.

The rest of the evening in the next post.

Romantic Interest 3


What if they do like each other at the beginning? What if they are already friends?

Let's consider an extract from my novel, 'Revival'.

The basic scenario is that a man has returned to the old family home after twenty years. His parents have been dead for two years, and he has had his own family killed in a car crash nine months ago.

The second day back, he is going into a shop.

As I went to go in through the swinging glass door, a woman was trying to come out. We spent perhaps fifteen seconds performing that curious dance of the socially inept, each deciding simultaneously to give way to the other, hopping from side to side like exotic birds of New Guinea in a previously unseen mating ritual.

Then the woman stopped in the middle of the doorway and stared at me.

"Gareth?" she asked hesitantly. "Gareth Lloyd?"

I looked at her. Perhaps forty, the same sort of age as me. Someone who knew me from when I had lived here? Memory tugged like an undertow. Curly blonde hair, nice face despite the little encroaches of age.

"Rhian?" I offered.

"It is you!" she said triumphantly. "I heard that someone had come back to the house. I thought it might be you." She thrust out a hand and we shook. Someone muttered behind me, and we moved out of his way onto the pavement, still holding hands.

"Sorry," I said, releasing my grip. "You're looking well."

Rhian Davis had been one of the children I had gone to school with, and later one of the adolescents I had hung out with, when we both attended the secondary school here. We had been friends, I suppose, but never quite made it to the stage of a couple, despite a few kisses and cuddles in bus shelters and taxi ranks when waiting to come back from a night club in nearby Barmouth or Aberystwyth.

She was indeed looking well. Under the baggy jumper and jeans tucked into green Wellingtons, her body looked trim and fit. She still had her fresh country complexion and clear blue eyes. Almost unconsciously, I looked at her hands. No rings or recent evidence of rings.

"Is it still Davis?" I asked. She shook her head, smiling a little sadly.

"It is now. I was a Johnson for a while, but it didn't work out." She looked at me again, putting her hand on my arm in a gesture that was surprisingly tender, almost intimate. "I was sorry to hear about your parents. They were well liked. I miss them. How's the wife and family doing?"

I swallowed. My voice was rougher than I intended when I answered her.

"Dead. They died in a car crash nine months ago."

Rhian's face showed shock and surprise. She had barely known Linda and the children, but she was one of the few who had sent Christmas cards every year after I went away.

Her hand tightened on my arm momentarily. I looked into the glass window of the newsagent and saw the pair of us reflected there. We looked like a couple.

"Oh, Gaz, that's awful. I had no idea."

"I was in Afghanistan at the time," I said roughly. "A drunk driver smashed into them head-on. Killed himself as well."

I didn't add that I had wanted to have the satisfaction of killing him myself, but it must have shown in my face, because Rhian withdrew her arm and took half a step back.

I took a deep breath and swallowed again, feeling the prickling in the eyes that presaged the pointless, detestable tears. Looking away for a second to get myself under control, I saw us again in the shop window. We didn't look like a couple now. My face, reflected in the plate glass, looked like someone who has been to hell, and brought some of it back as a souvenir.

"I'm sorry Rhian," I said, forcing myself to look at her once again. "I don't really want to talk about it yet. How are your folks?"

"They died a couple of years ago, just after yours," she said. "Within a few weeks of each other. A lot of people seemed to die round about then." There was a curious hardness in her tone. "I don't really want to talk about it either. Not here and now anyway. Are you staying long?"

I thought about it. Depended on your view of long, I suppose.

"I've moved back for good," I said. I'm going to do up the house and settle down here."

I felt a little stab of pleasure as her face brightened.

"Oh, that's good," she said. "Perhaps we could get together for a drink sometime next week." She seemed suddenly hesitant. "That is, if you want to. I mean…"

It was my turn to touch her arm.

"I'd like that," I said. "Let me have your phone number."

She recited the number and I jotted it down in my notebook. I remembered that, at school, she had always been good with figures.

"I'll ring," I promised. "Tuesday sometime?"

We parted. I watched her walking down the street for a moment.

When I turned to come face to face with myself in the window again, some of the hard expression had left my face. Now I just looked unkempt, shaggy, and vaguely lost.

Note how our protagonist feels a stab of pleasure when she is pleased he is staying. Note also the little tenderness - her laying a hand on his arm in sympathy; their reflection looking as if they are a couple.

OK, they have been friends for over thirty years, and they are both lonely and therefore vulnerable, but they could become more than just friends, if the writing is any indication.

Always start small and build. Don't start with a passionate kiss, start with a handshake, or a pat on the back.

This relationship develops thus:

On the way back through the darkening afternoon, I used the payphone on the corner to call Rhian.

"Hello Rhian, it's Gaz."

"You're a day early," she said, sounding surprised, and perhaps a little pleased. "I thought you were just being polite - you know, don't ring us, we'll ring you - that sort of thing."

"Well, I don't want to sound eager or anything," I said, "but are you doing anything tonight?"

There was a lengthy silence. I was determined not to be the first to break it. When Rhian answered, the pleasure had gone from her voice, replaced by caution.

"Why? What do you want Gaz?" she asked.

"I'm sitting in the old house alone every night," I said, "and you're one of the few people I still know and like in this town. I'd like some company, that's all." I was startled at how much truth there was in that. "I've been alone for nine months now," I added.

When she responded this time, the warmth was back in her voice.

"Oh, Gaz, of course. I could do with some company as well. What do you want to do?"

"You decide," I said. "I'm only just back, so I don't know much about the night life."

"Night life!" she scoffed. "The best selling postcard here in the summer is completely black on one side. Guess what the title is - 'night in Brynddu'. Why don't we just get a takeaway and a bottle of wine and go back to your house? I'll meet you in the Happy Garden about half-seven"

"Aren't you worried people will gossip?" I asked innocently.

"It's OK," she said. "I'll wear dark glasses and a scarf. No-one will recognise me."

"Half seven it is then," I said. "And I'll spring for the meal."

I was about to hang up when I heard her say something, very quietly, almost as if to herself.

"Thanks Gaz; thanks for asking me."

I felt another curious rush of warmth towards her.

"No, Rhian. Thank you for saying 'yes'".

I gently put the phone back in its cradle.

So they have a date! You youngsters, trust me. When you get to forty, or more, you no longer care about looking like an idiot. You will just ask someone out, just like that.

The next post will show the progress of this relationship.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


The relationship continues to blossom. (Funny how many botanical terms are involved in describing relationships isn't it? Bloom, flower, blossom…)

Now, in a hotel room decorated in early hideous, we finished our planning.

"So we're just going to spend a couple of days here absorbing the atmosphere?" asked June.


"And then move to Lamingdon and do the same there?"


"And then walk through the front gate of the Research Unit and start asking them questions?"


"You really are a master of strategy and tactics aren't you?" she said, fluttering her eyelashes.

"I try."

"So … beer and curry?"

I usually let her make major decisions like that. After all, she was nominally in charge.

Yep, getting along well. And shortly afterwards, June makes the first overt move to increase the depth of the relationship.

"And how do you suggest we get these samples?" June enquired sarcastically. "Kidnap one of them?"

I nodded.


"God, you are a ruthless bastard aren't you?" she said.

"Is that admiration in your tone?" I asked.

"Actually - yes. It is." She flushed slightly. "Never thought I'd hear myself saying something nice about you. Or to you."

For once, I had no ready answer.

June has actually admitted that she admires Player.

It takes danger for them to get physical though.

I put a hand on June's shoulder. She jumped at the unexpected contact. I put my mouth to her ear.

"Pull back," I breathed.

She looked at me, uncomprehending.

I gestured towards normality behind us, pulling her arm. She struggled. I persisted.

Our target stopped below us.

Directly below us.

He stood immobile, the tethered goat awaiting the tiger.

The bait in the trap.

June's face showed sudden understanding. We began to slide back through the elders and hawthorns.

Through this thin strip of woods lay an open field. The far side of that was in what we had begun to call 'the normal region'.

We ducked through a rusted wire fence and began running across the field.

Noises erupted in the woods behind us. A dozen men emerged from the sheltering darkness under the trees.

They ran after us.

We ran faster.

The noise behind stopped. June looked back and tripped, falling into the uneven wet grass. I pulled her up, looking behind.

The men had stopped in an even line about halfway across the field. They reminded me of footballers waiting for the national anthem.

They stood and stared, motionless.

We walked towards what we hoped was safety.

As if in response to some unheard signal, the men turned and retreated into the woods.

We watched them go.

"Back to the car then," I said.

"How did you know?" asked June.

"Too quiet somehow podner," I drawled.

We sat in the car. I told it to go to the hotel. As it glided away June threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around my neck, pressing tightly.

I could feel her heartbeat. She whispered into the side of my neck.

"I was so scared. Thank you. Thank you."

I could feel my heart beating too. I'd been scared, but that wasn't the main reason for my racing pulse.

She kissed me, her lips moist, her mouth opening slightly, her tongue probing.

I didn't resist much. Actually, I didn't resist at all.

He has saved her from being caught by the aliens. We now have physical contact and a kiss. A passionate kiss.

They go further.

"We obviously need a different game plan," I said as we recuperated in the hotel room. "It seems to me that we need to start with small things that don't fight back."

"Like what?" asked June sarcastically. "Blades of grass?"

I nodded.

"That might not be such a bad idea," I said seriously. "Maybe throw in an invertebrate or two - see if their behaviour is different."

"Invertebrates don't have behaviour," she retorted.

"Ants do, bees, any social insect."

"And I suppose we use the SAS to perform this daring mission?"

"Why not? I don't really want to be transformed into a zombie.

I quite like myself the way I am."

She grinned at me.

"You do start to grow on one after a while. And after half a bottle of Jack Daniels."

June leaned across me to pick up the bottle. As she did so, she pressed a firm young breast against my arm.

"How old are you, June?"

She poured my drink before answering. Her tone was defensive as she did so.

"Sixty-three. Why, does it matter?"

"Not to me. I wouldn't have put you a day past eighty."

She put most of her weight in a very sensitive spot as she leaned back. I yelped. She raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing," I said. "It was nothing."

"You're eighty-one, aren't you?"

I nodded.

"You look about thirty, thirty-five. God, isn't technology wonderful?"

"Mmmm. Have you been married?"

She sighed.

"Couple of times. They didn't work out. And you?"

"The same. Except it was me that didn't work out."

I sometimes have these painful attacks of honesty.

June stood up, grabbing my arm and pulling me up off the bed.

"Your room or mine?"

It ended up being both of them.

And the bathroom in-between.

So we now have a full-on relationship. This is signalled by the relaxed intimacy they now share and the exchange of sensitive personal information.

Their relationship will get deeper and more intense as they become more and more threatened.

Nearly every story should have an element of romantic interest. Without sounding like Mills and Boon, love and romance are important elements in most people's lives.

The good side is, of course, falling in love. The bad side is the breakup of relationships. Nearly every reader or film goer has had the experience of falling in and out of love. You strike a chord with them; you recruit their encouragement or their sympathy when you detail these things. The reader has suddenly become engaged - he or she is now your tacit partner in the book.

This is why it is so important to have love and romance in your work. Not many people have met a seven foot, blue-skinned alien wielding a ray gun. The readers have to use their imagination there. They don't have to imagine what it feels like to be in love. They know.

Note that the title of this section is romantic interest. There are of course many other kinds of love, and you could quite profitably use all of them in your works: love of parents; love of children; love for a house, a piece of land or a country. Nearly all your readers will also know what those emotions are like.

It is also quite easy to write romance and other loves well. Just honestly examine your own feelings. How did you feel when you met someone special? How did you act when you were in love? What was it like when the relationship turned sour?

See, you know how it feels, don't you?

As Frank Herbert says in 'Dune': 'beginnings are such crucial times'.

Extreme care must be taken at the beginning of something.

Consider the first meeting of boy and girl (or man and woman, or any other combination you might want). The two may not initially like each other. Your path in this situation is to, gradually, over the course of the first half of the book, find ways in which they can come to admire and respect each other.

That admiration must turn to mutual liking, and then to love. It could well be that boy rescues girl from life threatening situation. The sex follows, as a celebration of continuing life.

Here is an example from my work in progress, "The Symbiont".

There were two people in the office. One was Under Secretary Whitehead, who always reminded me of a surprisingly clever caricature - the toad in human guise.

The other occupant was obviously a woman and, less obviously, an American.

Mister Charm-and-Personality was the first to speak.

"Where the hell have you been, Player? I've been tickling you for nearly two hours!"

Amazing! Even his voice was a guttural, batrachian croak. I replied with considerable restraint and dignity. Well, I thought so anyway.

"In the pub, where do you think? Tickler must be malfunctioning again."

His face turned an interesting shade of ugly.

"Your contract says forty-five minutes for lunch, not four hours!"

"Fine; so fire me. Better yet, I quit."

I turned to leave.

The woman, who had been following the conversation like a tennis spectator spoke for the first time; confirming that she was indeed American; West coast probably. The tan strengthened that impression.

"Can you quit in a few weeks? We need you for a while longer."

I looked at her with as much insolence as I could muster. And that was plenty. I've had lots of practice.

Pretty, shoulder length dark hair, oval face, nice body. Dressed in American office-casual - slacks and sweater, trainers, white socks. No rings or other jewellery.

She withstood my look with composure. Obviously she was another with more than the usual quota of arrogance.

"You want me for what exactly?"

She picked up a buff file from the corner of the Whitehead's desk. She quoted from it at length, without once looking at the pages themselves. Impressive.

"So you're the famous Richard Player? A legend in his own lifetime. How many research programmes have you -" she mouthed the word as if it were tasty - "sequestered?

"Don't strain your memory; I'll tell you. Seventy-two."

I shrugged. She continued.

"Which is the only reason you're still working here. Your personality profile puts you at borderline sociopathic. A drunk, a loner, a misfit; who hates himself marginally less than he hates the rest of the world.

"Make no mistake Player. You are only here on sufferance - because you're a useful tool. As soon as you cease to be useful, we'll put you in a psych ward for the rest of your miserable life."

I couldn't help myself. I laughed. A look of surprise crossed her face; then she followed suit. Her nose wrinkled nicely as she did so.

I pulled one of the nice leather swivel chairs over next to her and sat.

"You must know I'm a sucker for flattery," I said. "So, once again, what is it you want me to do?"

So what is happening here? Player, our protagonist, has just met this woman. He finds her attractive. This is clear by the sentence Pretty, shoulder length dark hair, oval face, nice body. So he is interested.

She, on the other hand, is not interested. She describes Player as borderline sociopath. Not an ideal start to a romance is it?

However, towards the end of the passage, they do find something which they can share - a laugh. A contact has been made.

Later we have this passage:

She looked at Whitehead in surprise - almost as if she had forgotten his presence.

I found myself almost liking her.


"You want?" she enquired. Whitehead reverted to Civil Service Mandarin mode.

"That is to say, that my masters, the powers that be, require it."

"Then let it be so," I said. "Miss Hill, let's go to my office and start digging."

We walked out together. I was old school enough to open the door for her. She was old school enough to take that as a courtesy and not a sexist and demeaning act that forever trapped her in an inferior socio-economic stereotype.

We talked as we drifted down the slo-tube.

"What is your name then, Miss Hill?"

She actually blushed.

"Juniper Hill," she said. "And please don't make any pathetic jokes about it sounding more like a piece of real estate. Call me June."

I bit back my flow of those exact pathetic jokes.

"Call me Dick, and please no jokes about it sounding more like a hobby."

She laughed again.

"OK, it's a deal".

We shook hands and left the slo-tube.

Now we have dialogue and the beginnings of a relationship. It is still a fragile bud, which could be destroyed by a single careless word or action.

Player and June work closely together for the next few days, building the relationship.

Oh, and let's not forget the murder of crows patiently stalking a cat on the outskirts of Lamingdon itself, seen from the train window.

"A murder?" enquired June.

"Collective noun for a group of crows," I explained.

She looked at me for a moment.

"You're just full to the brim with useless information, aren't you?"

"I try my best," I admitted modestly.


For the last two days we had carried out a ceaseless verbal war of sarcasm while we worked.

Fuelled with beer and Jack Daniels - the real stuff, the harmful version, not the New No 8, bland and packed with nanites.
June had spent both nights at my flat, though not in my bed.

"I'm claiming expenses for a hotel, of course," she confessed. "But I don't actually want to waste perfectly good money on a room. I'd rather invest it in alcohol."

"Thought all you Americans were sober, industrious, clean living, all that good shit."

"Yes, maybe, in America; but this is like being on holiday for me. I'm just copying the habits of you English natives."

"You picked a good role model then," I said.

She winked and drinked.

They are getting along quite well now, on a basis of good-humoured banter.