A Dog Ate My Homework

“To rush into explanations is always a sign of weakness.”
Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery

Okay, I admit it. I haven’t even looked at this blog in a long time.  I have no good excuses, so I thought up a few. Choose your favourite and believe it with all your heart:

  1. A dog ate my blog (I like this one because it rhymes)
  2. I was abducted by aliens (I like this one because, y’know, X-Files)
  3. The demands of being two writers and a fulltime academic got to me (I don’t like this one because it’s sooo boring)

I have had much to blog about, too. Book deals and research trips and awards and achievements. I will catch you up on all of those over the coming weeks. In the meantime, thanks for being there still, wherever you are.

My old cat

photo-1I’m sitting on my bed working and my old cat is lying next to me, pushing her head against me and purring. Every so often, I take my hands off the keyboard and rub her head hard, kneading her ears, and her purring intensifies and her big paws reach out to grasp my hands and hold them there.

I’ve had my old cat since she was a kitten: fourteen years to be precise. She was a little scrap of a thing with big round eyes and a face like a little bear. Her go-to move was the silent miao. Her face would miao, her mouth would open, but no sound would come out. She still does that. It’s her way of saying, “Hello, I am here.”

Her whiskers are turning silver now and she doesn’t do much but lie around. She tolerates the dogs because she knows she is top of the tree. She sheds too much, she dribbles like a tap, but she needs me more than ever because she is old.

Lying here, stroking her soft, light head makes me feel as if the sun is shining on me gently. Everyone should have an old cat. It’s a beautiful thing.

Plot driven versus character driven? All bullshit.

From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.

1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each othttps://i1.wp.com/www.quickmeme.com/img/8d/8dc1c587351499e97e4ebaf3e21ca63ba55b4fa764b8e4f9d0fe1c1d3cb0f582.jpgher. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way; and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader.

2. What the writer must know first and foremost is the relationship between the people and the problems. Why is this person involved in this problem? Is it random? Or is it a function of the very person they are? What kind of attempts do they make to solve the problem, and where do those attempted solutions lead them? You must always think of the problem as belonging to somebody: a story describes that relationship between people and their problems.

3. Use the problems to create the narrative steps. How is your character going to get out of their predicament? What new problems can arise? The problems create the horizontal movement of the story, from beginning, through middle, and to the end; the movement that sustains narrative interest and keeps your reader turning pages. In some respects, the plot is driven by character: it evolves uniquely from the people and their responses to the problem they were given on page one.

4. Use the people to create the emotional connection. How does it feel to experience this problem? What history of acts and ideas does the character bring to the problem at hand? What do they think of their problem? This creates the vertical depth of your story; the depth that makes the story emotionally meaningful to your reader. In some respects, the characters are driven by the plot: they evolve uniquely from the narrative trajectory, which brings about their transformation from the person they were on page one, to the person they are when you write “the end”.

Friday Writing Tip: Managing Scope

Do some writing this weekend, y’all.

Stories come in all lengths, but it can be hard to judge the scope of a story before https://fantasticthoughts.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/95f3d-19wizardofoz.jpgyou start writing it. You might find as you write that the story is pulling up too short, or going on far too long.

  • Consider your form. A short story simply can’t deal with too many ideas. A novel has to represent nuance and complexity. If you misjudge, you might end up with a novella.
  • Consider your genre. These things aren’t set in stone, but audiences expect certain word lengths in certain genres. Epic high fantasy, for example, is usually long. Literary fiction, by contrast, is often short.
  • Consider your target age group: Generally speaking, novels for children and young adult are shorter than novels written for adults.

So, what do you do if your first draft of a historical epic for adults is only 40 000 words long?

  • Look for a character with potential for development. What is their version of the story? Could it make a worthy subplot?
  • Check that you haven’t rushed the plot. The tension should rise slowly over the course of the story: perhaps you’ve simply peaked too soon, and need to go back and write a few “spacer” scenes.
  • Look for scenes where you have summarised and see if you can dramatise instead. Sometimes in our hurry to get things down, we don’t take the time to lay out details. For example, “Frodo took the ring to Mount Doom” cuts out a lot of interesting action.

Conversely, what do you do if your young adult romance clocks in at 250 000 words?

  • Check that you haven’t started the story too early. A story should start with a point of strong narrative interest, not with acres of character history.
  • Reduce the amount of viewpoint characters. Do you really need all of those perspectives on the action?
  • Cut all repetition. Look for characters who perform similar functions, scenes that describe similar actions, even sentences that say the same thing twice.
  • Look at every scene and decide whether or not it’s contributing meaningfully to the progress of the story. Those that don’t will have to go.

Of course, a story is as long as it is, and you shouldn’t feel you have to cut out important things, or puff it up with irrelevant subplots. But if you are determined to be published consider the expectations of your reader, and don’t wear out your welcome or abandon them too soon.

 

Why I loved Godzilla

So this is not a review, but a discussion about all the cool stuff in the latest Godzilla movie, so it has a billion spoilers. If you want to just watch the trailer then run away, here it is:

In the 70s, my brother and I would lie flat out on the living room floor and watch 1950s daikaiju movies on the TV together. I remember being particularly affected by Mothra, though now I see pictures of him I wonder why. Godzilla is, of course, the most famous of the daikaiju, a monster who lays waste to Japanese cities the way that the atom bomb laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a decade earlier.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/29/Godzilla_%2754_design.jpg

Now you probably all know by now that I love the b-grade stuff big time. I don’t go to see art movies because it seems a waste of a trip to the cinema if there are no ‘splosions (and a waste of money because I love Gold Class where you can eat ice-cream and drink wine), and then I tend not to watch much on the small screen at home because I get bored and uncomfortable and would rather be reading in bed.

But I’m pretty particular about my b-grade viewing. It has to have something special for me to LOVE it, and 2014’s Godzilla was a movie I loved. Given the shitty reviews it’s getting everywhere, I figured I should explain why. Because, honestly, there’s a lot of crappy stuff in it too. At one point during the movie, my viewing partner and I turned to each other and rolled our eyes, and I whispered to him, “Let’s drink quicker.” A little wine makes the suspension of disbelief much easier.

Having said that, though, this movie nails it in so many ways that I forgave every flaw.

The film starts off with the kind of stuff that orients the viewer to expect what they’ve seen before in disaster flicks. I settled in with my Sauv Blanc and pork sliders and got to know the key characters, then BLAMMO a couple of them were dead. Slowly a theme emerged: the tissue-like ephemerality and savage randomness of human existence. People come together or they don’t. They save each other or they don’t. They survive or they don’t. No pattern of story-telling or genre seemed to govern the fates of characters. More and more, I began to notice that humans looked tiny and futile: swarming up the sides of a mine, or out in their cars jammed on the freeway, or running from a tsunami. A mass of undifferentiated and  almost completely ineffectual creatures, dwarfed by the extreme zoom-out or by the size of the daikaiju stomping on their stuff. The scene near the end, where the hero (by lucky happenstance a bomb disposal expert) is stranded on a boat with a ticking bomb ends nothing like you expect it will. It’s written all over his face: there’s nothing he can do. No message of America-fuck-yeah glory-of-human-action can be taken from this film. We are all fucking ants.

In a stupefying contrast of scope is Godzilla: big, beautiful, and b’dass. How I loved him. Especially the bit where (extreme spoiler alert) he grabs that other monster, spews blue lightning down its throat, then rips its freaking head off. I may have fist-pumped in the cinema (but then, I had drunk my wine quite quickly).

Godzilla was a glorious movie to watch. The last forty-five minutes, in particular, featured a series of beautiful set-pieces. The HALO jump that opens the trailer embedded above looked like a Gustave Dore woodprint, shaded in gold and fire. This last act of the movie blew my tiny mind, and I forgave any awkwardness that came before. Sheer, beautiful pandemonium. Godzilla is awesome in every sense of the word.

 

So, it’s been a while…

Surrealistic-Paintings-Salvador-Dali-Spain-06 I know, I know. I should have written before now. I got sick at the start of the year and have been playing catch-up ever since.

Rest assured that I’ve been busy. The big news is that the book formerly known as Garden of the Mad King is going to be published in November! At laaaaaaaaaaast! The new title the publishers have chosen is “Daughters of the Storm”. They’ve signed me up for a series, so YAY. I hope to have an extract and a cover to show you soon.

In order to make sure I keep the blog up-to-date, I’m introducing a new thing, which is every Friday around lunchtime I’m going to release a quick writing tip.

If you haven’t already, please sign up for my Facebook author page. There will be news and giveaways and other nonsense there regularly.

And finally, I gave a TEDx talk in March, and you can watch it below: It’s about being creative amid distractions. Don’t get too distracted now:

 

Your Writing Fitness

About a year ago, without really intending to, I started to get fit. I am a girl with a permanent moontan who has spent a great deal of her life in libraries, so don’t underestimate how unusual it is in my profession to be physically active or outdoorsy. It started with me buying a bicycle, then deciding I was going to ride it to the top of the mountain near my house. It took a few months for me to get all the way to the top (up the easy side), and then another few to make it regularly all the way around, then a few more to make it up the hard side and around (which is now my regular route). Because I started to get muscles in my legs and feared looking like a Tyrannosaurus, I then signed up with an exercise physiologist to do some upper body work once a week, then did a bit more of that, got back into my pilates, decided to learn to swim, and so on. It was kind of an avalanche of physical activity and I certainly feel wonderful for it (especially boxing; lord how I love boxing). My back has never been better and I’ve put on 4kg of lean muscle (still can’t get lids off jars though) and my resting heart rate is 62 beats per minute. I like to imagine my heart looking like Conan, pumping out such a big whoosh of bubbling blood every second that it can rest and pick its teeth in between.
kim on a bike
But this isn’t about physical fitness, it’s about writing fitness. While riding my bike around and around that mountain, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my writing and about writing habits in general. These are the five lessons about writing fitness I have learned from regular exercise.
1. A 6-week binge won’t improve your skills measurably and permanently. You need to do a little every day if you want results. Think sustainable, not grandiose goals that won’t stick.
2. There is always somebody faster than you. Don’t compete with them.
3. There is always somebody who seems to get to the top of the hill with much less effort than you. Sometimes it’s because they have an advantage, like a personal mentor, or a family who have encouraged them since birth, or expensive equipment. Don’t compare yourself with them.
4. Your writing fitness will be apparent in more than just measurable goals such as word count. It will be in nuanced craft things that you don’t notice at first, but which start to come naturally and readily where they didn’t before.
5. Find a way to enjoy the process rather than solely being motivated by the outcome.

That’s it.