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This Writing Life: Writing Through Chaos

15 September, 2014

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.

Album of the Month: Opeth – ‘Pale Communion’

8 September, 2014

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.

This Writing Life: Setting the Tone in World-Building

1 September, 2014

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.

Review of ‘Fragments: Alora’s Tear, Volume 1′ by Nathan Barham

21 August, 2014

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.

Resurrecting An Indie Adventure

21 August, 2014

Back in the spring of last year, my partner and I started a new blog – An Indie Adventure – dedicated to reviewing the puzzle, adventure and RPG games that we both so love to play. Unfortunately, after the first few posts, we ran out of steam; or, more precisely, our lives kicked into a completely different gear, leaving us with very little gaming time (my own writing and this blog also suffered as a result).

Now, however, as you might be able to tell from my increased posting here, we’ve got a lot more time on our hands, and felt it was time to resurrect our neglected gaming blog. An Indie Adventure, therefore, is getting back on its feet, with the first new review appearing this week. If you’re at all interested in video games – particularly indie titles in the adventure and RPG genres – we hope you’ll check it out.

Summer Reading 2014

18 August, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about writing recently, and I haven’t come to the end of my music-related posts either. However, it’s time for a break in all that, for one of my regularly scheduled reading updates – and as my reading time has been boosted immensely lately (one of the hazards of owning a new business that hasn’t yet got off the ground), I’ve been charging through books as quickly as I can choose them. Here are a few of my favourites.

Umbral – Antony Johnston & Christopher Mitten     Let’s break with tradition and start with a graphic novel. It’s fair to say I don’t read much in the way of comics – I’ve always found myself daunted by the back catalogues of the big publishers, Marvel and DC, and also fairly uninterested in their endless revamps of the same characters. However, I’ve recently dipped into indie comics for the first time and found a much more appealing selection awaiting me. Umbral is, actually, the perfect starting point for a reader like me: the sort of well-developed fantasy world I’d expect from a novel, a headstrong female protagonist, and smart, snappy dialogue. The story is intriguing and sinister in equal measure, the artwork appropriately moody, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence     Prince of Thorns is one of those books that has received a huge amount of hype ever since its release. It also falls fairly firmly into the ‘grimdark’ category, which is a section of the fantasy genre I find myself frequently drawn to, without ever actually liking the books I find there. I’m still not entirely sure I liked Prince of Thorns either, which might make its inclusion in this list a little odd – except I raced through it in less than a week and will probably pick up the rest of the series. In truth, I suspect Jorg, the central character, isn’t exactly supposed to be likeable, but Lawrence’s writing is so strong and compelling that I couldn’t help but enjoy this one.

Pantomime – Laura Lam     I picked up Pantomime following the implosion of its publishing imprint, Strange Chemistry. Now, I feel I should get one confession out of the way: Pantomime is a book set almost entirely in a circus, and I really hate circuses. I find them deeply creepy, and clowns even more so. It’s amazing, then, that I enjoyed Pantomime so much, a fact I attribute solely to the characters. Micah, in particular, is such a wonderful character, determined and vulnerable in equal measure. There are all sorts of mysteries scattered throughout the book, too, which feel appropriately placed rather than there simply to tease the reader – we discover aspects of the world as Micah does – yet Pantomime always puts the characters first, and rightly so.

A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan     Finally, we come to one of my most recent reads. By the fact that I finished A Natural History of Dragons in less than three days, it would be fair to surmise I adored it. Female character fighting against the conventions of her day (Victorian era, at a guess, or Brennan’s equivalent of it), not to marry an inappropriate suitor, but to pursue her scientific fascination with dragons? What’s not to love?! Brennan also writes Victorian-style prose effortlessly, evoking a time and place without ever being stuffy, and making the whole book a joy to read. I almost ran out and bought the sequel as soon as I’d finished A Natural History, but managed to contain myself. Just (and probably not for much longer)!

This Writing Life: Music and Writing, Part 2

14 August, 2014

In my last post, I talked about music as a means of helping you to write, using it as a distraction, to improve concentration, or as a timer. Today, I’m looking at the other side of the equation: using specific music to help in the writing of specific projects.

It’s not uncommon to come across authors, particularly those writing series, who use music as inspiration or mood-setting. Certain songs will be associated with certain scenes, characters or locations – playing those songs immediately sets the tone and mood for writing about those things.

Now, I can’t tell you how to go out and pick a specific song for your protagonist, say. I’m not even sure you should. This is one of those situations where a song is much more likely to come to you at random, either because it gets stuck in your head while you’re writing said character, or reminds you of them when you hear it. Once you’ve found that song, though, listening to it can help you return to that character’s personality and thoughts, particularly when you’re struggling to capture them.

In the same way, music is a great tool for setting a mood more generally. I talked about Spotify playlists in my last post, and whilst I was referring to improving concentration for writing in general, there are several that set a much more specific mood. Perhaps your characters are going to a party and you want to hear what they’d be hearing and feel the same surge of adrenaline; perhaps you simply need to write a scene that’s joyful, or melancholic, or dark and angry. Finding music that evokes these emotions can be one of the quickest ways to translate that same emotion onto the page.

And then there are songs that are an inspiration in themselves. Songs often tell a story of their own (more on than in a future post!), and sometimes that story can spark ideas for your writing. As an example, the music and song titles from MONO’s ‘Hymn to the Immortal Wind’ album inspired me to write a short story filled with angry ghosts and snow-bound peaks; for some reason, those images simply popped into my head whilst listening to it (and it’s an entirely instrumental album, so that really was images conveyed through music). Other songs tell stories through their lyrics: certain lines from Vienna Teng’s ‘Blue Caravan’ send a shiver through me at every listen, and frequently make me imagine the world in which the featured character lives.

Music is just as personal a form of creativity as writing, and the same goes for listening to it. The emotions created in one listener will be entirely absent in another, or will call to mind something completely different. Learning which songs or artists trigger particular moods for you, or evoke certain characters, or simply tell stories that move you, can be invaluable for writers – they can be windows into worlds we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and ways to revisit them when they otherwise seem lost.

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