Variety is the Spice of Life

If you constantly work at only one thing, there is a risk that you will become bored with it, which could lead to a bad final product because your enthusiasm will be, well, almost nonexistent.  This has been my experience, at any rate, which is why I always try to add some variety to what I’m doing – whether it’s housework, office work, or writing.

So, while my novel is an ever-present medium-term goal, I don’t spend all my writing time on it.  I need to switch gears and do other things to maintain my interest.  This is why I also write short stories (often in different genres, too), roleplaying game adventures, and more recently modules for a video game.  This last bit represents a real departure from what I normally do, and that’s a good thing.

The video game module, which is basically a storyline that players can select and play through like a mission, has a plot much like a standard story, but the nature of the platform requires a much different structure.  In addition to descriptions of events, I have to allow for player choice, as this is an interactive story.  So, at every decision point I need to work out the options, and what happens if the player chooses action “X” or “Y”.  Also, because this is a game in which the player has attributes and skills (much like a classic roleplaying game), I have to work out the consequences of success and failure.  As a result, instead of the (more or less) straight line of a linear plot, we instead have a gnarled tree, with a single starting point (the trunk) leading to numerous possible outcomes.

Is it challenging?  Yes.  But it’s also fun, and it keeps me interested.

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The Long Haul, or Why Plot Outlines are a Very Good Idea

When I first decided to write a book, I knew I was in for a challenge. Up until that point I had only written short stories, averaging 2,500 to 5,000 words each. These were challenging, but rewarding, projects that could be sustained by my usual writing schedule. There were slow patches, but short stories form quickly, and I was guaranteed to have a recognisable product before long to raise my spirits. Organisation wasn’t much of an issue, either. I had a story idea, a conflict that had to be resolved within 5,000 words, and a couple of characters with enough traits to give them some depth. As an author, I don’t have the scope to do much more than that, once setting description, laying out the challenge to be overcome, the climax, and dialogue are handled.

Novels are a different matter entirely. With so much more room to fill (even a 100- to 120-page children’s novel, like the one I’m writing, will clock in at around 30,000-40,000 words), the author has to sustain reader interest. This means exploring plots and characters in more depth, venturing into the history of the setting if it serves the plot, and broadening the scope of the novel beyond the core plot enough to make the whole thing less linear. Novels that truly stand out, in my view, are those that can digress a bit from time to time to explore secondary characters and subplots. It sustains my interest, and if it’s done well I may want to read it again. All this can be very overwhelming.

While a little digression adds depth, too much results in the storyline going off on tangents, which only serve to frustrate the reader (“Enough about Sally’s sick son; get back to the bloody battle!”). I won’t mention any names, but many promising books and series start off on a strong note, but get so mired in detail and subplots over time that even the most devoted fan may be tempted to give up. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to develop a plot outline and stick to it.

This is exactly what I’ve done, and after six months and nearly 20,000 words it seems to be working. I sketched out ten chapters for my book, inserted a major conflict near the end and three others before that to build tension. Since I have two key characters, I determined beforehand which chapters would be told from which character’s perspective. Using that outline, I realised immediately that I had to build up tension between certain secondary characters to give the plot more depth.

Even with this outline, I still ended up making minor digressions to enrich the plot, such as adding a scene with a village (and tertiary characters) to give the setting more cultural depth, and to add tension to one of the planned conflicts. But, and this is important, I returned to the main theme once it was done. So, while the final product will no doubt be different from how I originally envisioned it, I should still make it to the finish line, on time.

Plot outlines: A good idea that saved my sanity and kept me on track.

The Importance of Being Well Read

Before anyone starts jumping down my throat, and accusing me of intellectual snobbery, let me clarify what I mean by being “well read”.  To me, a person is well read if they have sampled as many literary genres as possible – action, sci-fi, fantasy, romance (and possibly its own sub-genres), erotica, the classics, western, mystery, horror, and so on.  Bonus points would be awarded to those who go beyond dead trees to try other forms of “book”, including e-books, hypertext books, and even interactive fiction.

“But,” you might ask, “Why read unfamiliar genres?  I’m happy with my favourite authors.”  A valid point, but here’s something to think about:  What happens if you always eat the same foods, every day?  Well, lots of things can happen.  For example, your body might become intolerant towards one or more of your staple foods.  Or if your regular diet is incomplete, you could be depriving yourself of essential nutrients to maintain optimum health, which could compromise your immune system over time.  You might also, by not trying new foods, never experience new taste combinations that you might have loved.

The same thing applies to reading, in my view.  If you read the same sort of thing, day in, day out, your horizons will remain static.  You will probably never experience the world through a different narrative voice.  You might never be exposed to new storylines.  Plus, you might even become bored with it, given enough time. 

However, if you try a new genre – even just once – your literary world will immediately broaden.  Explore that story like an undiscovered country, and try to be as open as possible.  You don’t have to like it, but at least you will be able to say you tried it. 

So do yourself a favour.  The next time you’re in the library or a bookstore, go to another fiction section and pick up the first title that catches your eye, and read it.  You might discover a new favourite author…

Why I’m writing Low Fantasy

As some people may know, I’m writing a novel.  Specifically, it’s a fantasy novel for children in the 10-14 age range.  When I set out to do this, I gave a lot of thought to the overall tone of the book, which spawned a number of questions:

Was it going to be dark, or light-hearted?

What sort of humour would I try to insert? (more on this in a later post)

What sort of family life and socioeconomic background would the characters have?

And very importantly (to me), would this story be high or low fantasy?

This last question is very important to me, because the “fantasy level” of a story affects the degree to which the reader can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the plot.  Before I go on, though, I should explain what I mean by these terms:

High fantasy stories are those in which fantastic monsters like dragons, griffons, and the like wander the land, wizards are common (and in some cases a public institution unto themselves), and magic itself is pervasive.  Some could argue that high fantasy worlds, taken to an extreme, can be stand-ins for our own world if you simply replace our technology with magic.

Low fantasy stories are those where magic and monsters exist, but they are largely unknown to the average person.  Wizards are rare and secretive, and the discovery of a magic item (even an enchanted bottle opener) is something experienced by very few people.  Such a world can very closely resemble one of our own historical periods.

In my view both sub-genres are great in their own right; however, high fantasy backdrops can become a crutch to a writer.  How did the heroes manage to survive that terrible fall?  Easy, one of them had flying boots and held his friends’ hands so they could fly, too.  How did they sneak by that army?  The scout was silenced by magic.  I could go on, but I think you can see that almost any potential problem could have a convenient, magical solution.  And this works, provided that the reader is prepared to accept a highly magical world.

Not so with low fantasy worlds.  With no easy magical explanation available, the writer has to come up with creative ways to help his or her characters get past whatever obstacles they face, and reserve magic only for the critical points.  The reader doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief to as great a degree, and the writer can inject just enough wonder into the story to make the fantasy world more compelling than the real thing.

Which is, in the end, the whole point of writing a story.

Solstice Publishing’s First Anniversary Contest

Solstice Publishing will be celebrating its first anniversary in March.  In honour of the occasion, they are giving away one free Sony Ereader.

Anyone who buys a Solstice book (in print or ebook format) from any website will have their name entered into the draw. 

You have until March 31st, 2011 to enter this contest.  The winner’s name will be drawn April 1st, 2011, and they will be emailed on the 2nd. 

For more information, go to the contest page at www.solsticepublishing.com

Good luck!

Hello, and welcome!

Hello everyone.  Welcome to my little corner of the blogosphere.  This is where I will be sharing thoughts about my writing and what I’m reading, but I’m sure other things are sure to come up!