Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

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I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

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They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

Loglines

logline

The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?

Chivalry

In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.

Oneiromancer

They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

Cheap thrill

For all I’ve learnt about writing, for all that I’ve harped on about planning, character development and more planning, I can’t stop myself. There’s something about the absolute thrill of getting words on the page that I can’t resist. I have to get into it. I need to learn by doing, to traverse the maze intimately.

Having just undergone a painful series of revisions – two drafts together taking over a year – I should know better than to just dive in without a clear idea of who and what I’m dealing with and where I’m going. I have vague ideas, for sure; there is a shape of the story ready to be filled. But I know I should be fleshing all this out first, working out my pacing and devising climaxes, plotting the Hero’s Journey step by step.

And I’m doing something of this; I’ve decided to try and find my midpoint between planning and ‘pantsing’ (a horrible term that I presume means to fly by the seat of the pants). I’m writing fresh, letting the words take me, but at the same time I’m building up a spreadsheet, scene by scene, or what happens and of what consequences this brings. I’m noting the reason for every event and what my characters are doing ‘off-scene’. And I’m making random notes, ideas, thoughts and even planning scenes ahead as phase-space collapses and I get a vision of the future.

That’s the idea, at least. That’s the intention.

Still, there’s nothing like the sheer delight that comes from simply writing; from creating on the fly. You’re on a journey too. Every action and every scene must take place in its own world – and it’s down to you to make that world rich and convincing. Even just building an environment for your cast forces you to reach deeper into your creation, to understand it better and more completely.

The greatest joy, for me, comes from creating new characters from the air. My very first novel, The Ballad of Lady Grace, needed a policeman. I had my main character going into a cop-shop and he needed someone to tell his story to. Out of nothing arrived DS Cook, more of less fully formed. He became one of my favourite characters – a point-of-view character, no less – and he also brought with him his boss, DI Vaas.

In my new work (working title Oneiromancer, fact fans) I’ve just had this experience once again. I had a shape in my mind for a down-and-out caffeine-junkie with some important information to impart. I had an idea of some hyped-up wizard image – Gandalf on amphetamines – begging for coffee.

Before I got to him, however, I was writing a scene in a hostel. One of the POV characters is resident and I’m using him to show a little of the ‘ordinary world’ of the novel. I wanted a conversation to break up the mundanity and it occurred to me that Mr Twitchy could be a resident also. And, whilst trying on different shapes, the character suddenly changed sex and grew younger. Now she’s Ms Twitch and she makes me smile.

This is the joy of writing, for me. This is the thrill. You spend so much time blundering down blind alleys, feeling your way around a labyrinth of textures and emotions and mudslides. When you get a moment when the words grip you and they’re flying almost without effort – that’s when, as Pratchett said, writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.

It might all be rubbish, of course. None of this might make the final cut. But that’s what editing is for. For now it’s just time to enjoy the moment.

A poem

For no reason other than my own whimsy, let me share with you a poem.

I’m not a poet. I’ve never really read poetry, or understand much about what makes a good poem. Apart from brief periods – the sort that everyone has when they’re growing up – I’ve never explored it as a medium.

I reckon that I’ve accidentally written three in my life; three decent ones, at least. Why accidentally? Well, I might not be a poet, but I have written a lot of lyrics over the years.

I came to writing through music, I think it’s fair to say. In another world I’d have been a musician, but now I’m too old, too fat and too lacking in talent. But music still infuses everything I’ve ever done. I always write with music in the background. My first novel, The Ballad of Lady Grace, was really a love-song to the world of the amateur musician. And when I was a teenager (and beyond) I’d soak up the images and the feelings in the things I’d listen to and try to ‘seal’ my own emotions in words.

I’ve still got copies of (almost) everything I’ve ever written sitting in boxes in the spare room. I don’t know why I keep them, really. There’s a few I might go back to, but in the most part rereading them will, I suspect, be quite a painful experience. There are hundreds of ‘dry songs’ there. A lot of my life. Not necessarily the good parts.

Out of this morass of uselessness has come the aforementioned three pieces that I reckon might just qualify as poems. Below – just because I feel like it – is one of them. I wrote this back in 2000, I think; and then a year or two later I entered it into the Dublin International Poetry Competition. It made the top 500. I am still inordinately proud of that.

Looking at it now, I think I see things I’d like to change. But I’ll leave it as is. Time trapped in amber, as I am over-fond of saying.

Incidentally, if anyone has any questions or subjects they’d like me to discuss, please let me know. I am, after all, dependent on my readership; the power is with you.

TTFN

 

Excarnation

 

We ride across the causeway in silence
For ours is a cold burden
All the words have been said
For now
And this is not the place

Not once do we see eye to eye
Again
We cannot change the routine – we must complete this task
I’m thinking this is a beautiful thing we do
We get the decay
Safe

Away – for us
It may never be over
But we can leave now, kick into a gallop and ride
Together.  We know what we have to do – all the words have been said, and only as you draw ahead

Do I look at you – I am your shadow
And we are gods
We will ride forever

Alone.

But don’t you ever wonder?

I find myself thinking
Is this what we really want? You are perfect, you are so perfect
I want you
And don’t you ever wonder
How it is to dance?

Soon, I’m thinking, it will be time to leave.
I will be turning away – it’s so easy
You won’t even notice
I’m gone.

We both know what to do, but next time you ride
Across the causeway
You will be with someone else.
What will you say?
Can you feel change in the air?  I used to talk to you

But now we are gods
So will you remember?  Will anyone remember?
This work we do

This is a cold burden
And it is mine to bear
Alone

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.