Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A New What?

1977 was a significant year in the world of movies. For cinema-goers, there was a change that became a lasting legacy, one that is still talked about. For one film franchise, a benchmark was set that’s never been matched since.

Some of you are ahead of me on this. Your encyclopaedic knowledge of this franchise is matched only by Trekkies.

But I also know some of you are already straying down the wrong path. Because, while 1977 saw the very first Star Wars movie hit our screens, it also saw the release of The Spy Who Loved Me.

For those of you who were already playing John Williams’ iconic theme in your heads and have just heard the needle scrape to an abrupt halt, this may have come as something of a shock. But bear with me. (more…)


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Four Things, Apparently

In my recent post about prologues I gave a short list of things that I felt a prologue could do for a story.  However, I also added that my list wasn’t exhaustive and asked you (dear reader) to let me know if you came across any others I could add.

Fortunately, someone was paying attention and not only thought about it, but went to the trouble of telling me.  In the unlikely event that you have not encountered the… (what’s the adjective I’m looking for?) …unique (that’ll do it) …talent (another suitably ambiguous word) …that is Tara Sparling, please do make the effort to go and visit her blog.  To be fair, you may never come out again, but the experience will be well worth it.

Anyway, Tara kindly pointed out the following:

Another good reason to have a prologue – or so I’ve been told – is because you’re using a POV which doesn’t appear in the rest of the book, or at most once or twice more. For example, the killer in a crime procedural.

I’d like to elaborate on that, because point of view can be interpreted in different ways.  The obvious way to write from a character’s point of view is to do it in the first person.

There’s been an increasing trend in recent years for stories to be told in the first person by different characters.  James Patterson is probably the most high profile author to do this.  I’ve got to be honest: it’s not a style I’m particularly fond of.  To me, a first person narrative should be from the same person, otherwise the book should be written in the third person.  But who am I to judge?  I’m the writer with only one book out there earning next to nothing, and he’s the one with millions of dollars in the bank (or is it billions now?), and a team of monkeys with typewriters.  Not that I feel in any way bitter about this…

Anyway, taking my own prejudices out of the picture, it can be very effective to have a particular character appear in the prologue and for the reader to see something from their perspective.  In a sense, they fall into the significant character box, but not in the same way as the Simon Templar example.  Especially  as they may not appear until much later in the book.  Or maybe they do, but you just don’t know it, and you’re left guessing who it was.

Funnily enough, it occurred to me as I wrote the last sentence that I’ve done exactly that in Ravens Gathering.  It’s funny how the obvious passes you by.  Bearing in mind my earlier comments, though, it should come as no surprise to know it was written in the third person.

Anyway, we now have four things a prologue can do for your story.  Does anyone have any other suggestions?







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After giving some feedback to Marje (find her on the delightfully quirky blog site Kyrosmagica) about the prologue to her current WIP, she suggested I write a post on the subject.  I suspect my enthusiasm for prologues came across quite strongly.

To be fair, I think that enthusiasm stems from a misspent childhood. (Sadly, when I say misspent, I mean my life revolved around the TV rather than getting up to any more interesting shenanigans.)

You see, a lot of the TV shows of the 60s and 70s opened with a scene to set up the rest of the programme. That set-up might be a crime being committed, a pursuit (surprisingly often in the case of The Avengers), or even an incident unrelated to the rest of the story, but demonstrating the hero’s abilities.

The bottom line, though, is that prologues are basically pre-title sequences.

I was talking to another author a couple of years ago who’d read Ravens Gathering and felt I should get rid of the prologue.  I can’t recall her exact argument, but the sense I had was that prologues were no longer considered either necessary or (for want of a better word) fashionable.  Never having been noted for my fashion sense, this wasn’t an argument I was ever going to agree with.  What matters to me is whether it works.

So here’s what I think a prologue can do:

  1. Introduce a significant character
  2. Create a question in the reader’s mind – e.g. I wonder what was really happening in that scene?
  3. Set the tone or theme for the rest of the story

I don’t mean they need to do all of them, but at least one.

Let’s look back at some examples from the TV of my childhood.

Every episode of The Saint introduced Simon Templar.  There would often be an opening monologue, sometimes action, then the inevitable halo.

A lesser known series, Department S has fallen off the radar for a lot of people, though more will remember its spin-off Jason King. While the production values of the programme would be laughed at now, the openings were always very good at drawing you in.  Watch this one up to the titles and I dare you not to be left wondering “How did that happen?”

Also drawing you in, but really setting the tone for what happens next was this short prelude to an episode of The Sweeney.

I’ve picked on those examples because you can watch them in a couple of minutes (unless they really worked and you were dragged into watching the whole episodes). Do you see what I mean, though?  They’re a hook.

And, if you use a prologue in the same way, unlike the first chapter, they don’t have to be directly part of the narrative. What I mean by that is that the prologue doesn’t have to fit sequentially into the timeline of the rest of the book.  Events there can take place:

  1. At some point in the dim and distant past – an event that foreshadows what will happen in the story
  2. At the climax to the story, but shown as a preview – a teaser, if you like, of what’s to come,
  3. At a significant turning point in the story, which may well be part way in – again a preview/teaser

To the reader, it won’t always be clear which applies – that’s part of the mystery that they’re looking forward to unfolding.

Obviously, these are my interpretations of what prologues need to do for the story. Their ultimate aim, though, is to leave the reader wanting to read more.  If they don’t do that, they shouldn’t be there.

So when you’re deciding on the next book to read, look at the sample on Amazon or, if you’re still supporting bookshops, pick up a hard copy. If it has a prologue, read it, and ask yourself if it fits into any of the criteria I’ve mentioned.  If it doesn’t, but it still hooks you in, let me know.  I’m not claiming this is an exhaustive list, so I’ll be happy to add to it.

If anyone wants to give me feedback on my own prologue, follow this link and click on “look inside” for a free sample.

And, if you’re writing a prologue yourself, ask yourself whether it meets the criteria. But consider something else as well: how would the ending blend into theme music and a title sequence?





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If you got to the end of my last post, you may still have been wondering: But where’s all this going?

To be fair, I wasn’t 100% sure myself at first, but I realised this isn’t a side of my life I’ve talked about before. And it has eventually led me in a particular direction, including informing some of my writing.  In Carrion there are three key scenes that take place in and on water.  In Birth Rights a climactic scene involves a boat chase.

The funny thing is, it’s only become apparent in the last few years how important water is to me. In my late teens I was convinced I wasn’t a good sailor, largely because I had a couple of experiences on ferries in choppy seas that left me nauseous (it can’t be a coincidence that the word “nausea” includes the word “sea”).

When my sister moved to the Isle of Wight, I visited regularly and even felt queasy crossing the Solent. So it’s perhaps understandable that I had no plans to take up sailing at that time.

Swimming continued to be fun. Pools, water parks, playing in the sea at any opportunity, all were experiences to be enjoyed and, as my children came along and learnt to swim, my own version of my dad’s games came into play.  The crocodile was replaced with a shark, but they rode on my back as I submarined.

Something else my dad used to do was get us to stand on the floor of a pool while he attempted to swim between our legs. In practice, of course, there was only room for his head, so we’d find ourselves rising out of the water on his shoulders, usually laughing hysterically.  Inevitably, I shared this joy with my son and daughter.

These days, of course, some of these things would be difficult to do in a public swimming pool. Not only would there be Health and Safety issues, you’d probably feel self-conscious about playing in such an intimate way with a child – even if it was your own.

As you’ve read this (and hopefully the previous post) you may have picked up on a recurring theme. But just in case you haven’t, I’ll spell it out for you.  When I say I like being in water, I mean completely in it.  Being totally immersed gives you a terrific weightless sensation that must be the closest you can get to being in a zero gravity environment without becoming an astronaut.

Aside from swimming, there were other clues I should have picked up on. When I was about 12, I went camping in the Lake District with the scouts (which will have come as a surprise to anyone who knows me at all: camping and the scouts are not things you’d naturally associate with me).  Anyway, during this trip we learnt how to canoe and my favourite part was the capsize drill.  The canoe was tipped over, leaving me suspended upside down in the lake.  You’re supposed to pull yourself free and head for the surface, and I did – I just took an extra few seconds to savour the moment.

Many years later, I helped arrange a couple of white water rafting trips (sadly only on a man-made course). In both cases, I managed to fall in, the second time backwards off the raft and into a whirlpool.  As I spun upright, I felt the water pulling me down.  There was no sudden tug, or any sensation of restraint, but the water seemed to enfold me and ease me down to what turned out to be quite a deep bottom.  What struck me most about this experience was that, at no point did I feel frightened or panicky.  I was quite happy to let the water do its stuff.  And as I touched bottom, I bounced gently, then rose slowly and steadily to the surface.  It was a very peaceful experience, broken only as I surfaced to find myself caught in the flow of water and thrust towards the bank.

I think it was around this time that I decided that you haven’t really been on the water unless you’ve got wet. It’s a philosophy I firmly believe.  And when the decision was made to start sailing a few years ago, I took it with me – much to the dismay of my partner.


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One At A Time

I’ve been away from my blog for a while, dipping in occasionally, but not really focusing on writing posts. There have been good reasons for that, the main one being that I completed the first draft of a new novel, Birth Rights, in January.  I’d been working on it in fits and starts for several months, but I really got my teeth into it in December, and wrote over 50000 words in six weeks.  So I hit a major milestone, but to do that you have to sacrifice things.

A fellow blogger was asking a short while ago about the merits of working on one project at a time, or having them overlap, or even working on several at once. It’s difficult to come up with a definitive answer to that one, because we all function in different ways and, for some of us, one process is more efficient than another.

But one thing I do know is that you get more done if you focus on one thing at a time. I don’t just mean when it comes to writing, but life in general.  Some people are able to multi-task and, in the modern age, this seems to be a general requirement for living life.  But it’s not particularly efficient.

When you’ve got several things to do, you tend to be distracted by all the things you’re not actually doing. So the thing you’re working on doesn’t really get the attention it deserves.  (And sometimes the thing you’re working on can be as fundamental as a relationship.)

So, in response to this blogger’s question, I suggested he should concentrate on one thing at a time. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that.  In my own case, having finished the first draft, it’s not my expectation that I’ll continue to focus on the same novel until it’s completed and published.  We all know that we need to set the draft aside for a while and come back to it later.  So my plan was always to take a break, but to do something else constructive in the mean time.

My initial something else was to do a sailing course – an interesting experience that I will share another time. The second thing (which I’m concentrating on at the moment) is to get back to the day job and put a bit more effort in there than I did in December and January.  After all, I’ve got to earn some money.

But, as that routine beds in, I will then turn to the more important project, which is re-writing Carrion, a novel I’ve been working on intermittently for over eight years.  I thought I’d cracked it once, but my editor pointed out some pretty significant failings, so I need to strip it back and restructure it – but this time I’ll do it properly.

Only when I’ve completed that revised draft will I return to Birth Rights.  That makes it seem like a long and drawn out process, but with the impetus I built up with in recent months, I feel confident that Carrion will come together more rapidly this time.

The problem had been my lack of focus, which was a symptom of trying to do too many different things at once. This time, I’ll be more focused.  You see, the advice I offered was right, but I hadn’t always followed it myself.

This year, I’ll follow it more. I have a big incentive.  The clock is ticking and I’m getting older, so if I don’t get on with it, I’ll never actually write the stories I want to.  But I know that when I start writing, I’ll have to do it in a much more focused way.

At the moment, then, I’m giving myself time to write some blog posts, but I may disappear again later in the year. If I do, and if you notice, you’ll know what I’m up to, so please cheer me on.

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It’s not often I write about my writing. Maybe the odd reference, but a whole piece about it feels more than a little self-indulgent. Still, I won’t let that stop me…

For a host of reasons, Ravens Gathering is set in the late 1980s and most – if not all – of my stories will be based in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I realised this meant they’d appeal to people with fond memories of those times, especially as they’d be more likely to get the popular culture references. In RG those include Inspector Morse, Columbo and Doctor Who (okay, we still have The Doctor, and the others are repeated, but my point’s still valid).

So, having something of a nostalgic bent myself, I joined some online groups set up to reminisce about those times. Most posts are based on movies, music and TV, and seeing these posts flash up on my screen does bring a warm glow.

One post included a still from the first ever episode of Thunderbirds. Fireflash

Any aficionado will instantly know which one I’m talking about but, for the ignorant among you, I’ll explain shortly.

Apart from childhood memories, the image also reminded me of a lesson I’d learnt when it came to creating stories. I deliberately say creating stories, because the one I’ll refer to here hasn’t been written yet, even though the original idea came to me as a teenager (I haven’t been lying about my propensity for bone-idleness when it comes to writing).

When I get an idea for a story, it’s generally a broad outline and the theme tends to trigger certain scenes in my mind. When I came up with Ravens Gathering, for example, it was clearly going to be creepy and the first image I had involved furniture coming to life. That scene’s still in there (so I’ll say no more about it – that’s spoiler enough for now) and it’s one of my favourites in the book.

The story I created in my teens was originally called Leave Them to Die, a title representative of the lesser quality action movies of the time. It will be changed when I finally get round to writing it – let’s face it, that’s just a bit too retro.

This was an action thriller: lots of guns, terrorists, an extended car, bus and Tube chase, and a threat to crash an airliner carrying a nuclear bomb into London. In my head, it’s evolved over the years and I suspect the emphasis on action may reduce a little in favour of plot and character.

Originally, the climactic scene involved the airliner attempting to land at an airport, but the undercarriage had been destroyed and a crash landing might set off the bomb. To overcome this obstacle, our hero implements an ingenious plan to use (wait for it…) buses to replace the undercarriage.

Now, the flaws in this scheme are obvious and plentiful, but I’ve seen much more improbable stuff in movies than a plane landing on three buses that are racing to match its landing speed. Eighteen year-old me was happy with it. It would be tense, nail-biting stuff that would have the reader on the edge of their seats – and just think how good it’ll look when they make the movie!

As I’ve matured, though, I’ve reined it in and the climax plays out somewhat differently now.

But what’s all that got to do with Thunderbirds? I hear you ask.

The series was re-run in the 1980s and I’m not ashamed to say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it when I got in from work (personally, I think shows like this are wasted on kids.)

However, the first episode involves an airliner (Fireflash anybody?) which has to make a landing without being able to use its undercarriage. Of course, International Rescue don’t have to worry about commandeering buses. They’ve got specialist equipment designed for this very emergency and they produce it for what is… well, a tense, nail-biting scene that has the viewer on the edge of the seat.

And if this is bringing back memories you want to relive, here it is.

So, watching this again, I realised that, aside from its implausibility, my climactic scene was a complete rip-off.

Of course, in those days, I was convinced I was capable of producing completely original stories. But it’s become clear that this isn’t the case, that there are only so many basic storylines. And a lot of what we write is inspired by things around us, including the influences we had in our formative years. The important thing is to make it readable, and you do that with characters and a strong story, even if some of those elements have been used before.

What would be a mistake, though, would be to take something as unique as that Thunderbirds scene, which uses futuristic technology in a far-fetched way to entertain children (I know…) and try to incorporate it into a contemporary thriller for adults. Even if those adults yearn for their childhood and are massive Gerry Anderson fans, it ain’t gonna work.

Sometimes, I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve taken a while to get round to writing. Having said that, frankly I’d be delighted if, whenever someone picked up one of my stories, another Gerry Anderson phrase sprang to mind….

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Brian Clemens is dead.  I only just spotted that on the BBC News website.  To be fair, a lot of people won’t even know who he was.  Why would they?

When you think about a TV series you enjoy, it’s easy to remember the stars, or recall the brilliant action sequences, the stunts and the special effects.  We’ve even got caught up in the dialogue.  One of the key ingredients of The Professionals was the banter between Bodie and Doyle.  It felt natural, so much so that the actors often took credit for it.  Not just the easy manner in which they spoke, but the words themselves.

The reality, though, is that – however good the acting was – they wouldn’t have had anything to work with if it wasn’t for writers who put together the storylines and provided the dialogue.

That point aside, as I’ve matured, I’ve realised how important men like Brian Clemens were.  Without their creativity, we wouldn’t have had (in Clemens case), TV shows like The Avengers and The Professionals.  Perhaps a little dated now, but they certainly captured the imaginations of those of us around to witness their heydays.  Of course, he had other successes as well, regularly writing for other major TV series in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as being involved in film and theatre.  But, for me, that period was a particularly creative time.  And he was among those whose writing could have me on the edge of my seat.

I was a child when I first encountered the Cybernauts (not to be confused with Doctor Who’s Cybermen, who came along later).  I was transfixed by their steady pace, unchanging regardless of how fast or slow their prey was moving, underlining the conviction that their victim’s fate was sealed.  Without showing any gore, they were simply terrifying.

Not that we should dwell on what turned out to be only a couple of episodes from the 150+ total.  But they do represent one of Clemens’s great characteristics.  The Avengers started out as a show about crime-fighting borne from a need to avenge someone’s murder.  By the time the series ended, elements of sci-fi and fantasy had been played with as well as a lot of humour.  Not one to be pigeon-holed, our Brian, which really appeals to me.

And let’s not forget one of my favourite parts of any TV programme – at least where we’ve got adventure, action, crime, mystery, horror or suspense (are there any other kinds?) – the pre-title sequence.  The key word in my list just now was suspense.  For a pre-title sequence to work, it had to finish at just the right moment, leaving the viewer desperate to know why something just happened, or what happened next.  And that’s down to the writing, isn’t it?  Okay, the director can decide how long he wants to leave a camera lingering, but they’re still going to be guided by the writing.  The Avengers did it brilliantly, as did The Professionals.

That sense of drama was prevalent in many TV series of that period – The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk (deceased), Department S (oh, yes, I know the really random stuff…).  And Brian Clemens was one of the leading writers of that time, setting standards that we should all aspire to now.  Yes, some of it was OTT and it’s true that some production values wouldn’t pass muster nowadays (have you watched an episode of Jason King recently?), but for escapism and sheer entertainment, they offered great value.

More importantly, in those early days of TV they set new standards, bringing new ideas to the screen and triggering imaginations all over – mine certainly.  So we owe Brian and his fellow writers a lot.  They must’ve had a lot of fun – and they took us along for the ride.  For that, I’ll always be grateful.

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