It’s been a while since I blogged about my writing progress, so here we are. I’ve noticed recently that the busier my life becomes, the more ambitious my writing plans are. For example: start new business this year? Great! Also self-publish for the first time this year? Er, ok. And do NaNoWriMo? Um…
Ok, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I am planning to take part in NaNoWriMo this year, in which I will be writing 50,000 words (actually only 41.67% of my projected novel – yes, I just checked!) in the space of 30 days, but that’s over a month away yet so let’s just forget about that. (Note: I haven’t forgotten. Not at all. I already have reams of planning material, to make sure I’m genuinely ready to start a major novel by then, not just launch into a directionless mess.)
So if we’re forgetting November, what am I currently up to? Another novel, of course! Sort of. Essentially, I decided I want to have a go at posting something to Wattpad, which largely revolves around serial fiction (something I’ve been thinking a lot about ever since I started writing fortnightly for Chronicles of Tyria). Could I have simply chopped up an existing story to post? Of course! Is that what I’m doing? Ask a silly question…
Let you introduce you, then, to my latest progress bar.
Whilst I’m aiming towards a short novel of 60k words overall, I’m planning to break the story into three parts of 20k each (roughly 10 chapters of 2000 words – about what I write for CoT). By the end of October, I want to have that first part complete and ready to post, which means aiming for a word count of 1000 words most days. Not a huge number, or it wouldn’t have been once upon a time, but did I mention that new business? Yeah… It’ll be a good warm up for NaNoWriMo anyway!
So, lovely readers: what are your current writing targets? Are you being as ambitious (read: idiotic) as I am – and are you joining me in the craziness of NaNoWriMo this year?
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably noticed by now that there are some strange facets of the writing life that, to outside eyes, don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Try to describe them to a non-writer and you’ll generally get a blank look, whilst writer’s partners will probably groan in exasperation, if not exactly understanding. In fact, the only other people who do understand are other writers – here are a few of my examples:
You lose the ability to speak. You spend all your time putting words together, crafting perfect sentences and making your thoughts flow onto the page, hopefully in a coherent fashion (on a good day, anyway). And yet, when you step away from the computer and try to hold an actual conversation with an actual real life person… Something goes a bit wrong. Words, sometimes whole sentences, elude you. You start speaking, only to trail off halfway, distracted by some recalcitrant plot point or ornery character. Alternatively, you manage a sentence, only to realise it didn’t make the slightest bit of sense; somewhere between your brain and your mouth, everything got jumbled into random words, which your poor partner/family member/friend is left to ponder. At which point, you wonder if you should just commit all conversations to print instead, and cut out the incoherent mumbling and blank looks from acquaintances.
You’d rather spend time with your characters than your friends. Speaking of ‘real life people’, spending time with them is all well and good, but sometimes they’re just not as… interesting as the ones in your head. You love your friends and family, of course, but there comes a time when, instead of seeing them, you start making excuses. And the more creative and elaborate those excuses? The more you know you’ve got the writing bug!
Procrastination. You’ve made your excuses, fobbed off the family, and have a whole day to yourself. Free, uninterrupted writing time. Bliss! So you sit down at your computer, open your word processor, and… decide you’d better have a look at Twitter first. Okay, that’s done, back to writing… except when did you last check your email? Right, that’s done, writing time… but maybe you should put a load of laundry on, and tidy up the kitchen, and isn’t it about time for another cup of tea…? The strange thing is, no matter how much you love writing, adore writing, live and breathe it, when it actually comes to writing, somehow there’s always something else to do.
Word choice is IMPORTANT. You’ve finally got to work. The words are flowing, the story is coming together, the characters are really speaking to you, until – what’s that word you’re looking for? This is yet another problem non-writers won’t understand. There is, for every circumstance, that perfect word, the one that just absolutely expresses what you want to say. You know it’s out there, you know that you know it, it’s just on the tip of your tongue… but it won’t come. And if you ask someone else, a non-writer, for advice? They’ll tell you your placeholder word is fine, it makes sense, it’ll do… When you know very well it’s not quite right, and you can’t keep writing until you find the word that is.
Maybe, at this point, you’re shaking your head and wondering what drugs I’ve been taking. Or… maybe you’re vigorously nodding in agreement – in which case, welcome to the club! The crazy world of writer problems might seem incomprehensible to the outside observer, but rest assured, some of us do understand – although that doesn’t necessarily mean we have any idea how to fix them!
It’s true I’ve been a bit short on writing time lately, but I have been squeezing in a fair amount of reading – and after getting my hands on a shiny new copy of ‘The Relic Guild’ through a Goodreads giveaway, I was eager to review it.
First of all, a confession: I have a real weakness for novels that take place in unusual settings, so ‘The Relic Guild’ was never going to have a hard time drawing me in. Whilst fantasies set in single cities are becoming increasingly common, Labrys Town is something apart, situated in the centre of an endless labyrinth, and apparently a realm in its own right. Once a hub of trade and travel, connected to hundreds of other worlds – the Houses of the Aelfir – it’s now been cut off by war, leaving it isolated and apparently abandoned by all but the humans trapped within its walls. Except Labrys Town’s old enemies aren’t as dead and gone as everyone seems to think, and they certainly haven’t forgotten their past foes.
Taking place across two timelines, forty years apart, ‘The Relic Guild’ relates both the first war and the re-emergence of those enemies thought banished. We see the Relic Guild itself, both in its prime and in its ‘present day’, much diminished form. Multiple characters appear in both narratives, and the two arcs run parallel courses, intertwining rather than one simply being used as an excuse to provide backstory. Both are equally compelling, too, and I found myself eager to get back to each timeline as chapters ended – if not always on cliffhangers, then at least on points of tension.
It helps, of course, that there wasn’t a single character in the novel that I disliked. There’s a certain creepiness about the villains, of course, particularly towards the end, but I found each equally fascinating – and whilst there are numerous heroes, each felt well-rounded and distinct from the others. It seems a little unfair to pick out favourites from such a large and diverse cast, in which each member of the Relic Guild has their own particular role to play, but I found myself warming to Marney and Samuel, whilst the necromancer Hamir – though appearing only infrequently – seemed to have by far the most intriguing secrets left to reveal. (On a side note, I was also pleased to find so many female characters in the book, from protagonists and villains, to women who appear for a single scene before meeting a sticky end; too many fantasy worlds, after all, seem to have populations that are 90% male, judging by the named characters and ‘spear-carriers’ in their pages.)
Plot-wise, ‘The Relic Guild’ starts and ends well, but does flounder a little in the middle, as the key characters are forced back and forth across the city with the enemy always one step ahead. The two parallel timelines also work against the otherwise decent pace of the novel: because of their interwoven nature, and the way the story jumps between them, it takes a long time to get any answers from each of the two strands. Still, the prose is rarely wordy and focuses on moving the story on, meaning I found myself turning pages surprisingly quickly for such a chunky book.
On the subject of plot, though, a warning: here lie cliffhangers, and big ones. Neither of the two narratives has reached anything like a resolution by the end of the book, and whilst both have reached suitable stopping points, there’s definitely a feeling that there’s a lot more left to come (and big, important stuff too, judging by how much has to happen to finally connect the timelines together). If you can take the wait for a sequel, however, ‘The Relic Guild’ is certainly worth your time, bringing together an intriguing setting, likeable characters and some enjoyable weirdness that suggests the story’s only just getting started.
It’s fair to say that my life has been fairly turbulent recently. First there was quitting my job, then moving house, then renovating said house and opening a B&B. For a while, I thought I’d be able to keep writing consistently, just as I have done for the past few years, with an aim of at least 200,000 words a year across multiples novels, novellas and short stories. I had good intentions, in other words, but when your life turns upside down, it’s difficult to stick to them.
Today, then, I want to share a few of the tips and habits I’ve learnt for trying to combine writing with every other aspect of a chaotic life. First of all, I’ve discovered it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. I spent weeks agonising over not getting enough words down, whilst trying to manage a burgeoning business and not go completely insane in the process. In the end, I realised all my stress about word counts and time spent in front of the PC wasn’t getting me anywhere – I was worrying about writing instead of actually doing it. At the moment, then, I’m cutting myself some slack and only aiming for 500 words a day (still 180,000+ words over the course of a year, I was amazed to work out). As I tend to plan several scenes (at least) in advance, I can easily hammer out that number of words in 20-30 minutes, meaning I’m both making slow, steady progress, and not beating myself up over missing my targets.
However, that 500 words a day is only my target for now. Life comes in fits and starts; sometimes you can predict them and sometimes you can’t. I know in advance that my winters are likely to be far quieter business-wise than my summers (which comes with the tourism territory, in the UK at least), which means I’m already planning to take part in NaNoWriMo and, if I can, write an entire novel between November and, say, February of next year. There might also come lulls I didn’t anticipate, though, such as weekends with fewer guests than usual, or cancellations. Whilst it can be a bit of a shock to the system to change plans at short notice, I’ll need to be able to take advantage of these breaks and put them to good writing use.
Tangentially related to my first point, there are also times when I have to acknowledge I just can’t write. Maybe because I’m exhausted, maybe because I can’t get more than five straight minutes at the keyboard. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t fit in something writing-related. Time spent waiting for guests to arrive can easily be spent reading, for example, whilst even when I’m scrubbing bathrooms, I can be musing on plot points and world-building. Again, this is all about taking advantage of your time however you can, although it does sometimes require a fair amount of mental gymnastics.
I’m not going to tell you to write in every spare minute, or give up every other hobby so you can produce more words. Plenty of writers do both, of course, but I find that kind of single-minded focus can be counter-productive and, frankly, exhausting. I want my writing time to be enjoyable, something I look forward to (because when it’s not, I think that really shows in the work), and fitting it naturally into the rest of my day is the best way to achieve that. However, by making the most of my time, by being prepared to write at the drop of a hat, and by setting myself small, realistic word count goals, I’ve found I can keep writing even when the rest of my life has exploded around me. I hope you can too.
It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while to see Opeth mentioned here again. They’ve been one of my favourite bands ever since I discovered them, well over a decade ago, and their music has seen me through thick and thin. Although a metal band in their early days, Opeth’s music has very much drifted into the progressive spectrum with recent albums, a shift that has divided old fans but brought them legions of new ones. Am I sometimes a little nostalgic for the old, death metal Opeth? Yes. However, I’ve long been a prog fan too, and ‘Pale Communion’ proves just how perfectly Opeth have been able to embrace the genre.
Although their previous album also had strong progressive leanings, ‘Pale Communion’ is a very different beast. Whereas ‘Heritage’ never quite seemed to find its rhythm, sometimes sounding a bit too laboured, ‘Pale Communion’ is entirely cohesive, working best – as many prog albums do – when listened to from start to finish. And what a start that is! There’s simply no mistaking the opening song, ‘Eternal Rains Will Come’, for anything other than prog rock (in case you missed what has to be a reference to ELP’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ with the cover), and the rest of the album follows suit. There are guitar solos, synths aplenty, and the whole is overlaid with Mikael Åkerfeldt’s soft, ever-mesmerising vocals.
This isn’t just a pastiche of 70s prog rock, though. The whole album certainly leans in that direction (and there are moments that are pure Argent or Camel), but there are so many complex, intriguing hints here at something greater. There are riffs that could easily have come from one of the band’s earlier albums (the start of ‘Elysian Woes’ strongly hints at ‘Damnation’, for example), yet the two styles mesh perfectly together, forming a coherent sound that’s as compelling as it is intricate.
It’s fair to say that I really love this album. It grows on me every time I listen to it, revealing new subtleties and new layers. If you’ve previously been an Opeth fan, I’d say give it a try: it’s different from their earlier work, certainly, but so much of the complexity I’ve always loved in their music is still here. At its core though, ‘Pale Communion’ is both a tribute to 70s progressive rock and a perfect example of how much life there still is in the genre – and how looking to the past for inspiration isn’t always a step backwards.
I’ve been posting these Writing Life entries for some time now, and they typically reflect whichever stage of the writing process I’m currently at. However, my topics are nearly always something related to actually writing or editing – the early stages of planning novels and creating worlds I tend to keep to myself. Why? I suppose, in the past, there’s been a little part of me that’s worried about people ‘stealing my ideas’ – which is patently ridiculous, but is one of those little foibles all writers go through at one stage or another. I’m also aware that my process for world-building and starting novels is a) completely unsystematic, and b) different every time I do it.
Still, I’ll soon be writing the first draft of a new novel in an entirely new world, so I wanted to talk about how I got started with its creation. For me, concrete research comes later: at this stage, I’m focused entirely on developing the tone of my world in very broad strokes. That might include what rough, real-world time period the world will be based on; whether the setting is analogous to a real-world country or region; what the magic system might comprise in very general terms; whether the story will delve into the religion, or politics, or economy of the world I’m creating (I may well develop all three, but that doesn’t mean the plot will ever touch on them).
Now, it’s virtually impossible for me to start developing a novel with no idea of setting at all. The world, or at least some vague conception of it, usually comes to me before character, plot, or anything else. This stage of my world-building, then, involves taking that ‘vague conception’ and turning it into something concrete enough that I can start researching specifics. There are two main aspects to this: lots of notes, and lots of pictures.
The former means scribbling down every idea that occurs to me, no matter how ridiculous. Ideas for character, for plot, for details of the world – at this stage, all go down together, and each concept tends to strengthen others (deciding a character is going to use a certain type of magic means I have to find a place for that magic in my world, for example; and yes, character does often force the world in a certain direction at this point).
As I mentioned above, I often have a real-world time period or region in mind when pulling together my very early world-building ideas, and this is where pictures come in. A quick Google search will instantly give me images to help set the tone of my world. My latest novel, for example, started life with a sort of faux-Medieval Spain, so searching for images associated with ‘Medieval Spain’ instantly gives my world grounding. Will the finished setting be anything like the real Medieval Spain? Probably not, but at this point I’m just feeding my brain, giving it related information from which it can start building all the really juicy details.
As I write this post, I realise how hazy this process sounds (and why I haven’t blogged about it before!). It is hazy, even for me, but the key concept is simply this: gathering together as many inspirations as possible, then letting them swirl around together until more concrete ideas emerge. Additionally, it’s important not to discount anything at this stage. Trying to force your story and world in a certain direction can easily turn them into something stale and probably something you’ve seen done before, whilst letting your subconscious throw up ideas that feel completely disconnected can sometimes lead your story down avenues you’d never have considered otherwise.
I don’t tend to do in-depth reviews of books very often, but I was very kindly provided with an advance review copy of ‘Fragments’ by the author, and as I’ve posted this on Goodreads and Amazon, thought it might as well have a page of its own here on the blog.
It’s fair to say that there are a few tropes in fantasy – often those that entered the genre via Tolkien – that have fallen out of favour in recent years. Reading ‘Fragments’, however, you start to wonder why.
The story begins with a particularly important moment in the formative years of our protagonist, the half-elf Askon. However, ‘Fragments’ is not a coming-of-age story, for which I was glad – instead, when we rejoin Askon after the prologue, he’s already an adult and a military commander, respected enough in his community to be considered to take over the helm of its leadership. First, though, he has one last assignment to undertake, and it’s fair to say it doesn’t run smoothly.
That assignment gives Barham a chance to really show off what I considered the novel’s two main strengths: its combat scenes and its world-building descriptions. For the latter, we get skilfully described landscapes and a real sense of place that does an excellent job of contrasting Askon’s idyllic home with the locations he later finds himself in; the former are even stronger, with tense, fast-paced fight scenes.
My only two real gripes with ‘Fragments’ are, as much as anything, my personal bugbears with a lot of traditional fantasy. First of all, there’s a bit too much travelling for my liking, and whilst Barham handles this well – with those strong descriptions and some interesting conversations taking place along the route – I still felt there were moments in the first half of the book when the plot was stalling for the sake of getting the characters from place to place. Secondly, there were a lack of female characters in the novel, but as ‘Fragments’ is really only the opening chapter in a series and features a fairly limited cast at this stage, I’m willing to give Barham the benefit of the doubt here.
That limited cast has expanded, too, by the end of the novel, as apparently disparate plot strands start to knit together. ‘Fragments’ continues to throw unexpected twists into the mix right until the end, providing a sense of mystery throughout, yet without resorting to a cliff-hanger. Instead, we get both closure and a sense that the story is just about to open up, widening the scope of both the world and its dangers in later volumes. That’s not to suggest there’s anything unsatisfying either about the conclusion or the rest of the novel, however. Instead, this is an excellent début that that simply hints at even better things to come.