Posted in creative writing

Writing Fantasy: Part 3

Or, how not to dig yourself into a hole.

I’ve had somewhat of a revelation recently. Writing fantasy is not like any other genre. With other genres, you can simply jump into the world and start cranking out the chapters. But not with fantasy.

With fantasy, you need an introduction. Fantasy comes with fanfare; an orchestra at the beginning of a show. It has fireworks and dancers and dragons… Okay, the dragons are optional. But the point is, fantasy rarely ever begins with the protagonist. Usually, it begins with a character, usually a minor one, on a mission to do something. They introduce the world.

Think Game of Thrones.

You’re not immediately introduced to the Starks, or the Lannisters. You begin with the Nightswatch and the White Walkers. You begin with one of the major plot points of the story; Winter is Coming. But through this small section, the world is introduced. You know it’s the world where the dead can be reanimated, that magic exists but is not believed, that there are men guarding the wall. George R.R. Martin uses this formula for all his books.

Even Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo uses her opening chapter to set up the world through the eyes of some lowly guard. It sets up the stakes and establishes the world.

Now I’m not saying all fantasy books need nor require this, but it will help you write. By sitting down and introducing the reader to a small section of the world, you are showing them it. You do not need to tell them that the building is ‘old as balls‘ if you write ‘Amelia walked down the cobbled pavement towards the crumbling sandstone building‘ because they would already know that. Sandstone, being a common building material, is known for its soft material that makes it so easy to work with. That being said, the older a sandstone building is, the less stable it becomes. But even if the reader had not picked up on that small notion, the word ‘crumbling’ would have done the job and it even implies a lack of care.

That was just a simple example I wrote on the fly and I’m sure there are better examples in the world to demonstrate.

But why don’t you try it the next time you write Fantasy?

Let me know what you think.

 

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Posted in creative writing

Thick skin

So you want to be a writer?

Mate, you better have thick skin then. If you decide to share your work, especially with other writers, it’s going to be ripped apart.

Every line, every error, every metaphor, every word is a judgement against your character. You will be judged.

But what matters is how you take it. If you refuse their advice, refuse to take on board what they are saying, no matter how good their intentions are, you won’t improve. In fact, you won’t even survive the publishing process.

Part of being a writer is taking a step back from your work. It’s letting other people tell you their thoughts and feelings about it because they are your reader. If they don’t understand something, then you need to edit it so the next person does.

Of course, there are instances where their advice goes against everything you want to achieve. I was once told to remove a metaphor by several peers on my course from my short story. At the time, I could see why they wanted me to remove it. It was cliched, but that was my intention. My character had romanticised this person to the point of cliche. So I made the decision to keep it, especially after speaking to a lecturer.

It’s a very fine line to making every change that’s requested to you and sticking to your guns. Another writer once said to me, and I would quote them if I remembered who it was (but it was a few years ago now), that she would make all the changes that were requested of her until she came across a draft she defended with all her might. When she reached that level, she waited a few more weeks, read it again and if she was still that proud of it and that’s when she knew she was done

Of course, everyone has their own way of determining whether they love a draft or not. I know people who love their work from the very beginning and refuse any semblance of help. I know people who, even when they’re not too proud of it, will still defend their work and become highly insulted if you even utter a word of negative feedback (negative here being “you need to build the character’s a little more” or “it could use a little more detail”).

When I started my degree, our lecturers turned to the class and said “appreciate peer readings and feedback. It’s the only time you’ll have this level of criticising your entire writing career.” Whilst I had squirmed at the thought of other people reading my work, I understand the sentiment. I even appreciate these moments in class, although I certainly do not go out of my way to have my peers read my work. One thing I quickly found out is that feedback can certainly be hard to get other than the generic “oh it’s good” or “I like x, y, and x”, which, especially if you’re looking for something to improve, is the greatest pain in the ass you could ever receive.

To all aspiring writers, I leave you with this: how do you take criticism? 

Posted in creative writing

Dear Writers

There are many things I could say to you. Advice about writing, inspiration to write, encouragement, even tips on common grammar mistakes. But as a writer myself, I know that none of that is really helpful, just an illusion.

I would have thought pursuing a degree in creative writing meant I spent more time writing the things I wanted, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I spend most of my time chasing faint wisps of ideas pretending they’re elaborate enough to satisfy my lecturers.

I am not the sort of person to wing it when it comes to writing. I like to know exactly what the world is supposed to look like, smell like, sound like, but most importantly, I like to know how it works. The economic, social, and cultural differences. Maybe that’s a bi-product of writing fantasy, but the point still stands. I have to have a grasp of my world before I can write. But my degree does not allow for that sort of focus. We breeze through topics and styles like tomorrow doesn’t exist. I get brief inspirations and brief acquaintances with my characters, but I never fully understand them. And… I think it may have damaged my ability to write novels.

I’m planning my dissertation, but it’s not clicking. Like, at all. I’m lost with it. I’ve changed so much, yet nothing is sitting right with me. It seems so… bland.

I guess that’s a problem all writers must face at one point or another. But I’m finding that the feeling is cropping up more and more. Have you ever felt like that?

I guess I’m taking things for granted. In around five months I’ll be nearing the end of my degree. I will no longer have the pressure to write creatively every week to fuel me, so what does that mean for my writing? I will admit that over the years I have been the type of writer who writes when inspiration strikes or whenever the moment feels right, but that’s wrong! I should be writing every single day. I should be letting all forms, regardless of style or continuity, be free on the page. I need to be courageous with my writing. I need to stop making excuses about why I can’t write – to stop saying there is not enough time in the day or that I can’t write on the train ride back to London. I need to seize the day. I need to write like a professional writer.

So I ask you; what things do you do to write? What habits have you created to induce creativity?

From,

The struggling writer.

Posted in creative writing

Creative writing – a rant

Do you know what really, really frustrates me about doing a creative writing degree?

Whenever I tell one of my lecturers that I’m finding it hard to progress with my story that I’ve started for the course, they simultaneously tell me to keep writing but also focus on what I’ve started writing and make it better.

Case in point: last year we had to begin writing longer fiction. We discussed how to build characters, building tension, good dialogue… you know, everything needed to make a good story. What we needed to submit at the end of the year was the opening chapter, roughly 2,000 words with a plan of how the story would progress. This was easy enough. The problem was that I didn’t know how my story was going to continue.

I flip between meticulously planning points to bring in, and winging it. But with this story, meticulously planning just wasn’t cutting it. The story felt forced and flat. It’s didn’t feel exciting, especially for something that would be fantasy once I’d finished it. I went to my lecturer and explained the problem. She told me the plan didn’t need to be perfect but demonstrate a narrative arc. I just produced one and left it at that.

Then she read my first chapter.

“You need to world build more,” was one of the major faults with my piece (well, besides errors in spelling and grammar, which is expected for a first draft anyway).

When I asked what she meant, she explained that she didn’t get a sense of the world I was trying to build. I was baffled. Yes, I understand that I needed to fully introduce the world my characters inhabited. But to do so completely in the first chapter, on the first draft? I wasn’t sure how to go about it. So I told her that. “Well, that’s what you need to do,” was all she offered.

I sat with the piece for a week struggling to figure out what to do with it. In the end, I decided to throw in as much detail about the rooms my character inhabited as possible.

When I presented the updated work, I was told the narration flip flop between third close and third omniscient. I was frustrated. How could I build a world close to my character when she wouldn’t notice these details? How could I stray too far from her mind yet get across her thoughts?

At the same time as going into my third draft of the opening chapter, we were being told not to focus on our beginnings because they almost always get rewritten when you finish the story.
So why the hell was I sitting here editing the first chapter if the chances were I wasn’t even going to use it?

Whilst I love my degree, sometimes it is one of the most frustrating things because you are constant being told conflicting advice – you must write all the time, but you should dwell on what’s written until you edit. To submit this piece, it needs to go through a series of edits first, you shouldn’t edit as you go along.

It is one thing to be a writer, another completely to be a student of creative writing.

Posted in creative writing

Writing Fantasy: Part 2

The Trials and Errors of a Supposed Hero.

I’m still in love with fantasy. So much so that it’s going to be my main topic for my dissertation at uni. I love the new worlds, the creatures, and the story lines. But like everything, fantasy is more complicated than you initially think. There are a lot of sub-genres to fantasy.

So what do you think of when you think fantasy?

For me, I think of Game of Thrones. Of Narnia. You know; epic fantasy. The kind of fantasy set in new or parallel worlds. The ones that always hit the mark for their complexity.

But there’s also urban fantasy, like Harry Potter or Vampire Academy, which always has an ‘urban’ (read: normal) setting and contains supernatural elements.

Then there’s alternate history (like I, Coriander), Romantic Fantasy (Twilight), and Steampunk Fantasy (The Time Machine). And that’s just the surface.

But the one thing that has always gripped me is the heroes and their portrayal. They mainly seem to all be relatively on the straight and narrow when it comes to our heroes. They may walk a grey path (like little Arya in Game of Thrones), but mainly they’re good.

Except when you come to women. Women in Fantasy fiction, more specifically the ‘strong female characters’, have always been referred to as ‘quirky’. Actually, the reality is that this isn’t something that limited to the fantasy genre… but in all genres, in all mediums.

Think Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons – Intelligent eight-year-old well above the intellect of most characters on the show. Quirky.

What about Ramona from Scott Pilgrim VS the World? Quirky.

Susan for Narnia? Quirky.

Lucy from Howls Moving Castle? Quirky.

 

The point is, these characters, whether they are from fiction, TV or film, they are all treated the same. They are the enigma to the rule that is women. They are not seen as anything other than strange. They do not conform to what society expects and therefore they must be quirky. When in reality they’re not. They are females placed into situations where our normal expectations are altered. It’s a cartoon where anything can happen or a fantasy world where the rules are different. It’s okay to be positive about female characteristics – because the world is so absurd anyway. It’s not like it’s reality where women single-handedly helped shaped this world we live in – oh wait, history forgot that too.

I could rant about this until my fingers bleed – so it’s probably a good thing that this is exactly what my dissertation will be about.

 

 

Posted in creative writing

Short Stories

And why they are causing me grief.

I love stories. I don’t care if they’re a 900 page epic (I’m looking at you George R.R. Martin) or a 100 page novella. I don’t even care if it’s literally two lines. There’s just something so rewarding with reading.

As an aspiring writer, my admiration to published authors grows every second. Especially those who write short stories and flash fiction. It is an art form that is severely under appreciated.

Not only do you have to give the reader the same roller-coaster ride  they would receive with a novel, they have to do so with less words.

I always thought short stories were easy. But attempting to write one… I’m regretting ever thinking that

2,500 is nothing. That also happens to be my word limit for coursework.

I’ve read a few short stories from classmates and have found a common theme. Either their story seriously lacks something, or they have too much. If it weren’t for the word limit, their stories would be perfect. Short stories, and even flash fiction, have no exact recipe. Actually, no form of writing has an exact criteria. Novella’s are the bridge between novel and short stories, flash fiction less than a short story. so really you need to define short stories and novel’s, then everything else kind of slips into place.

Assigning a 2,500 word short story was kind of mean. To tell an efficient story, or at least the one they are expecting us to produce, you need a few more words to play with. A little more flexibility.

So far, it’s the one thing I have hated about the course.

My story is quite simple; it follows an old man named Henry as he goes to reunite with the love of his life… except she’s not really there and he ended up married with kids to another woman. Most of the concept is subtle. I don’t explicitly say that he didn’t end up with her, I just have his daughter question who he’s talking about when she finds him.

In terms of short stories, it really is a slow builder. Quite quickly the feedback I received was that there was a lot of description in the beginning. But these claims were refuted when they reached the end. In fact, the feedback I received was that the story wouldn’t work if there was less detail.

But the problem remains; it’s a slow builder. All year we’ve been told that our stories must be exciting. There must be conflict in every step. Mine does not have that conflict. The idea is so simple, so easily executed it has me worrying that it is not a good story.

I’ve already been told that the ending is shocking and brilliant, completely unexpected (and I know that sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but it really was the feedback I’ve received).

I guess time will tell. Tomorrow we have a major session going on where everyone’s stories are circulated. I’ll get to see then whether or not I’ve done a good job or if I have to use my Easter to revise my work.

Posted in creative writing

Romance novels

Warning; spoilers ahead.

Don’t read if you haven’t read/seen Divergent by Veronica Roth, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.

I hate romance novels.

Okay, small lie.

I hate being told that I should love them. I hate having romance forced down my throat. Nothing puts me off a book faster than reading the dreaded ‘Then s/he met (insert love interest)’. I’d much rather have a story line driven by action.

Of course, romance is vital to almost every story. It is, after all, human nature to fight for the people you love. I just don’t want to be told that the story is going to be revolving around their relationship.

Divergent, for example, is a book that, yes, had romance. But the way the society was built, the way Tris was raised, meant that she was quite reserved in her feelings towards Four. In the film, it is so overplayed. It is literally forced so hard down your throat, you choke. What makes it worse is that their romance is played up to the screen, sabotaging some great character’s development.

But that’s all I’ll say in regards to Divergent. Trust me, I can go on an angry rant all day about how the film messed up.

But it’s also true that it is a common theme among Young Adult books. Someone got it in their heads that YA want romance – and we want it bad. But when you look at some of the more successful YA books in the field; Hunger Games, Fifth Wave, and Divergent, none of them are romance heavy.

In Hunger Games, Katniss never really gave romance a thought. To her, love was synonymous with children – something she was adamant she didn’t want. When the whole ‘who will she end up with’ debate began, I was so angry I was frothing at the mouth. Katniss loved no one but Prim. End of discussion. It was only when I re-read the novels that I realized that there was no question about who she would end up with. Yes, she loved Gale – very much in fact. He was initially the one she was probably going to settle with. Not out of romance, but out of convenience. They had similar ideals, similar attitudes. But the moment she was put in the arena with Peeta – the moment her life changed forever – Gale was never in the picture. If she had come out of the games alone, she would never settle with him. She would be a pawn in Snow’s show for the rest of her life. She would become like Haymitch – Suzanne Collins referenced how alike the two were on more than instance, you can’t deny that.

Throughout Katniss’s narrative, you see glimpses into her subconscious. She’s been keeping an eye on Peeta since the day he ‘saved’ her. It was more than out of curiosity. She respected him. Admired him. You could possibly even say she was attracted to him. But because of the circumstances, she would never have let herself be with him. And thus the conflict begins when Peeta proclaims his love for her on TV, because how can the guy she’s been secretly crushing on like her too? It must be for the camera’s.

The reason why I love Hunger Games is because of this analysis. The romance is not key to the story. The key is survival – survival in a world hellbent on seeing you dead. Katniss’s inner conflict towards her feelings is pretty much why I love the book. Every time I read the book, I come to a new conclusion because she is so adamant that Peeta is the enemy.

Divergent was similar. Tris, although she did have a huge crush on Four, tried to repress her feelings because she was raised in Abnegation. The most she ever saw her parents do to show affection, off the top of my head, was hold hands in home. They believed displays of affection, especially in public, were selfish. And, if you know anything about Abnegation, they are the fraction of selflessness.

In the Fifth Wave, we see Cassie struggle. Sure she initially has a crush on a guy in school – who doesn’t?  But her drive is finding her brother. The love interest has a role – he’s not there to be hot. To add some steam to a boring plot. He’s there to help her fulfill her desire – to reunite with her brother. Yes, it is hinted at on the blurb that there is something more, but it’s not shoved down your throat.

So why do production companies think YA want romance? I’ll tell you why.

Twilight.

It all comes back to Twilight.

The success of the vampire novel, no matter how much you try to deny it, has influenced the YA genre. Twilight might be one of those books globally hated (and I can see why, although the series doesn’t bother me as much as others), but it impacted teens in a way no other book (exempting Harry Potter of course) had done. It re-marketed the genre. Think of the amount of vampire books that were published after Twilight.

But despite this, YA books are still popular. In fact, it’s reaching far beyond the YA market these days. My mum absolutely loves some of the books I’ve read, like Hunger Games and Divergent. She found them refreshing after years of reading Nora Roberts and the likes.

So why are we constantly being sold romance? On finding true love?

Posted in creative writing

Writing Fantasy: Part 1

Or how I am slowly losing my mind.

I have always admired fantasy writers. It started with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and more recently has spiraled into the masterpiece George R.R. Martin created, Game of Thrones.

Even before I became literate in my use of the English language (and trust me, it’s an ongoing battle), I was creating my own little worlds and stories. I was the one in my group of friends who initiated our world play, whether it be tornadoes wrecking havoc in the park, or evacuees preparing to flee London during the Second World War.

It’s one of the reason’s why my Mum never questioned my decision to do a creative writing degree. In fact, her exact response was “no shit”.

What is only just starting to occur to me is my preferred genre. Before this  degree, I didn’t realize how much novels are tailored to their genre. How much you expect as a reader when you pick up a book. Fantasy has so much work behind it. Not only do you have to think about a story line, you also need to build a world.

Quite often in fantasy you are thrown into these ‘brand new’ world (and I use brand new loosely because quite often there is a LOT of history created before you’re thrown into the story). In these worlds not only do you meet new characters, but you are also greeted by new languages, places, creatures, and magic. All of this has been carefully constructed; years of hard work correlating in one book (well, fantasy is often a series. But that’s for another day).

Today I have spent trying to figure out my fantasy world.The idea has been bouncing around in my head for a few years now, but I’ve never felt equipped to handle it. Only now am I becoming more comfortable with the idea of writing a fantasy novel.

However it is one of the most difficult things I have ever embarked on in my life. Trying to wrap my head around a kingdom, and how my main character fits in that kingdom. Then trying to figure out the dynamics of the world. Figuring out what each character wants and how that effects the overall story and their interaction with each character.

Really by loosing my mind I mean I’m becoming overwhelmed.

I don’t know my story inside and out. There I said it.

But I’m not ready to start writing it just yet. So it’s fine.

Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

But the key to any writing is determined. And I am. I want this story in words that I can show to others. I’m not particularly fussed about publishing it. I just want to prove that I can write a full story; a good story. And then I’ll feel accomplished in my life.