Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

Elasmotherium
I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Putting your talent to good use: on adjusting your expectations and putting your nose to the grindstone

Hello, internet! Tom here. 

It is, once again, my turn to entertain you for a week here on The Art of Writing. It’s been a while since my last post, and I have to confess that my writing hasn’t been going very well in the interim. I feel a little disingenuous dishing out writing advice when I’m not doing much writing myself, but writing a blog post can be a good of way of solving your own problems as well as helping other people with theirs. So today’s post is going to look at why we sometimes find it hard to write, and how we can get past that. 

The German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote that “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” I entirely agree with him. I have always wanted to be a writer, I have had a talent for writing since I was ten or eleven years old, and I have honed that talent over time to the point where I consider some examples of my writing to be quite good. I still can’t think of anything else that fills me with the same passion as writing, or anything that I want to do more than creating entire worlds and using those worlds as the backdrops for entertaining stories. But none of that means that I am ‘a good writer’, because our definition of a writer must be ‘a person who writes’, and our definition of a good writer must be ‘a person who writes a lot’. I do not write a lot. For someone who would like to write for a living, I am extremely good at avoiding writing, and there’s an obvious problem there. If we went to a party and met someone who said that they wanted to be a rock star, but then we found out that they hadn’t played their guitar for weeks or written any music in the last few months, then we’d smile and nod and walk away and find someone else with whom to quietly share our scepticism about the aspiring rock star’s artistic ambitions. That person at the party is us, if we spend months without writing anything and still go around considering ourselves to be writers. 

I have a fairly uncompromising view of what constitutes a writer. I think a writer is a person who writes about 3,000 words a week (or preferably more), even if their cat just died or their significant other is hurling breakable objects at them or they’re suffering from an advanced case of gout. I do not meet this definition. I went through a period last year of reliably writing 3,000 words a week, but now I barely manage 500, and I don’t have a cat, or an angry spouse, or even a mild case of gout (that I know of). I fall well short of my own estimations of how much a writer should write, and I feel horribly guilty about it. But that is how much I think a writer should ideally write: or perhaps that’s how much I’d have to write every week to really feel like I deserved to go around calling myself a writer.

You may disagree with me. You may think that “writers” are writers because of destiny and cosmic predisposition, and that you can be a “writer” on some indelible vocational level even if you don’t write anything on a regular basis. If you think that, then keep reading. 

There are legitimate mitigating circumstances in which aspiring writers might be forgiven for not meeting my definition (although that doesn’t stop them from not meeting it). Selayna, my fellow blogger, has a crazy schedule and works much harder than I do. If she wanted to write 3,000 words a week then she’d have to do it all during the weekend. Some authors do that, but I’d rather Selayna was using the weekend to get some rest and talk to her loved ones and do whatever it is that normal people do during the weekend when they don’t have writing ambitions. 

Unlike Selayna, I have plenty of free time. My own circumstances leave me with no excuse not to write, and I am left wondering why – if I truly want to be a writer – I find it so difficult to get into a productive, reliable writing routine?

In an attempt to answer this question, I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

War of Art

Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance and moved on to write epic works of military historical fiction, several of which are on the reading list at US military colleges. He also writes self-help books, and The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, is a self-help book targeted specifically at struggling writers.

I have a deep-grained and inherent scepticism of self-help books, especially when other people recommend them to me, but in Pressfield’s case I can definitely advocate that you should get yourself a copy. The first read-through left me feeling energized and optimistic, and if you’re feeling discouraged or poorly motivated as a writer then you can open it to any page for an instant self-esteem boost or kick in the ass. He also writes a lot about the concept of ‘Resistance’ – that force that sometimes makes it so hard for us to get around to doing the things we want to do. He writes, “the more important a call or action is to the soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it”. 

The War of Art made me think a lot about how I’m viewing my writing, and how I’m viewing myself as a writer. Pressfield places a lot of stress on the differences between an amateur writer and a professional. An amateur has different habits, different ideas of what success will look like, and different levels of emotional investment. The key lesson I’ve taken away from his book is that it’s a mistake to get too personally invested in what I’m writing. That may sound surprising, but it makes a lot of sense once you think about it.

Pressfield doesn’t necessarily think that we should aspire to define ourselves as writers. He thinks that we should simply be people who write stuff, and publish it, and don’t allow our writing to get tangled up in our own personal aspirations. He writes that, as professional writers:

“we do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognise that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur,on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright…the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.”

That paragraph really made me think about how I’ve been approaching my writing. I have absolutely been paralysed by my writing, because I have absolutely been ‘overidentifying with my avocation’. That surprised me when I realised it. I had considered myself an uncompromising pragmatist, who didn’t subscribe to any ideas that writing was ‘in my blood’ or that I was a ‘writer by nature’. Yet here I was allowing my own aspirations and dreams and fears to prevent me from putting words on the page. Succeeding as a writer has seemed so important to me for so long that it has stopped me from actually writing, because I was scared that I wouldn’t be good enough to succeed: a Catch 22 scenario that would, inevitably, lead to me not succeeding or writing anything.

For myself and other writers like me, I think the key to avoiding that paralysis is just to sidestep it, face the facts, and redefine success. In my pursuit of success as a writer, I’ve acquired enough experience and skills to become decent at writing, but I have also allowed the pursuit of success – and fear of failure – to hold me back. I think the trick is to forget about success or failure, exit that mindset, and find a good use for the skills I’ve gained: almost as if I’m giving up on ‘being a writer’ and just writing something instead. I can try to write the next great fantasy series, allowing my personal aspirations and delusions of grandeur and sense of self-worth to get wrapped up in what I’m writing, and allowing them to paralyse me. Or I can roll up my sleeves and put my talent to good use, writing readable B-list fantasy books that will bring home the bacon. That seems a lot more achievable, and a lot less stressful. 

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Adapting our imaginations into prose

Hello, internet!

I’m slightly frazzled from travelling, so today’s post might be a little disjointed.

After several weeks of intense travelling (and sleeping off my intense jetlag) I’ve finally got myself back into a healthy sleeping pattern where I actually see some daylight now and then, and I’ve found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – it’s really benefiting my writing. I sat down this morning determined to begin a fresh new draft of my book and I shot straight out of the starting blocks, writing 1,000 words and only stopping because I had to go and buy myself a shiny new phone.

I’m back now, with my shiny new phone successfully purchased, and I find myself eager to get back to writing. This is almost a novelty, because I’ve had a few weeks of fairly intense writer’s block, where I’ve been asking myself a lot of crippling existential questions about my writing and my desire to make a career as a writer, and it’s been tying me up and stopping me from getting any words down on the page.

I think there are a few factors which have renewed my creativity, as well as just having a healthier sleeping schedule. One was all of the advice and inspiration that I got from attending NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago. It’s only now, with all of my travelling done, that I’m really finding time to apply all of the lessons that I learned to my own writing. Mostly the authors speaking at NerdCon just reaffirmed a valuable lesson that I already knew, but had perhaps forgotten: every writer, even your favourite writer, sucked to begin with. All of the great writers in history began with a crappy first draft, which probably didn’t even get published after they’d rewritten it into a well-polished final draft, but the only way they eventually got published was by writing, and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. As Maureen Johnson always says, as an aspiring writer, you have to “give yourself permission to suck”. You have to abandon the idea that you’re going to like what you write, at least at first. The only way to get good is to be bad, and then improve.

Sucking at something

I find that advice very empowering, so whenever I get a fresh dose of it, I’m always raring to go and write pages and pages of my crappy first draft without worrying about the quality, which is exactly what young aspiring writers should be doing.

As well as that, though, I think I’ve stumbled across another important lesson, in my recent writing.

I’m really enjoying the latest redraft of my story, which I’ve only just embarked upon, but as I get it down onto the page, I can’t help but shake my head at how different it is from how I originally imagined the story, when I first envisioned the book and the world it’s set in, about two years ago. I like this new envisioning of my book, and more importantly I think it’s the ‘easiest’ incarnation of my world that I’ve ever come up with, in terms of how well the plot and characters melt down into a story that I can actually tell. It’s more malleable, and less troublesome to mould into scenes and plot arcs, linked by a consistent narrative, which of course are all of the essential bare-bones elements of a story that can eventually be turned into a book.

That doesn’t change the fact that the book is very different from the one I was writing a year ago, or even six months ago. The narrative voice is very different, the events have changed sequence dramatically, characters who were in the background have moved into the foreground and vice versa, the technology that they use has regressed by about a century in terms of it’s level of advancement, and I have introduced some explicitly supernatural elements that were completely absent in earlier drafts. All of these changes have made it easier for me to write, and easier to actually tell the story, but they have moved the book further and further from my original conception of the story and the world that it takes place in. And I’m completely okay with that.

I think when authors first conceive of a fantasy world, and think it out, their original idea can be a very beautiful thing. Perhaps that’s fantasy at it’s purest – when it is just mere fantasy, in a writer’s head. But it’s a mistake to think that the world in our heads at the moment of conception is going to be exactly the same world that appears on the page once we’ve finally written the world into prose. The world you’ve created has to be filtered through you if it wants to get into print, where other people can experience it, and you’re an imperfect vessel for that transition. You can’t just open the floodgates and let it pour out unchanged or undiluted. You’re a human being with wants and needs and time constraints and bills to pay, and ultimately you have to change the shape of the world you’ve created so that it’s easy to draw out of yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s no good having a vast, wonderful and expansive fantasy world in your head if you find it impossible to turn into a story which you can actually write: if you can’t mould it into a format that will actually flow through your fingers and out onto the page. Ultimately, I think writability must come first, before any kind of integrity to our original vision. Sacrifices must be made to get the world out of our heads and onto the page.

In short, the important thing is to create a faithful prose adaptation of whatever fantasy world exists in our heads, the same way that a movie director would try to create a faithful cinematic adaptation of a fantasy world that exists in prose. There’s a certain nobility to preserving our original idea as much as possible…but it can be a useless nobility, if our goal is to get published. Sometimes characters must be swapped around, plots must be truncated or rearranged, and extrenuous dragons must be mercilessly excised, in order to make a book writeable. And, for that matter, publishable.

What are your thoughts?

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

NerdCon: Stories, and disassociating the dream of “being a writer” from the practice of actually writing

Hello, internet!

Sorry that Tobias had to cover for me on Sunday, but I had a good reason.

I am a Nerdfighter. If you don’t know what a Nerdfighter is then this video may, or indeed may not, help.

I’ve been a devout follower of Hank and John Green for over a year now. That means I’m very late to the game compared with other Nerdfighters, some of whom have been subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel since it’s creation in 2007. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, Hank and John started out recording daily video blogs – some magnificently silly, others serious and thought-provoking – and have slowly expanded their online aegis into a vast array of web series, charity fundraising efforts, and educational shows about science and history. Hank Green also runs VidCon, a huge convention for online content creators. Their self-ascribed mission is to fight worldsuck wherever it may be, and make sure that nobody ever forgets to be awesome.

As well as a Nerdfighter I’m also a writer, and an aspiring author. So when Hank Green announced that he was going to use his famed convention-creating abilities to throw together an event that celebrated stories and the human capacity for narrative thought, I was beyond thrilled.

Initially it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go. NerdCon: Stories was being held in Minneapolis, from which I was separated by a not-insubstantial ocean.

Probably sharks

Even if I could somehow cross the Atlantic, tickets to NerdCon were limited. And there was also the small problem of being in a job that didn’t pay very well and didn’t give me much time off to attend fun conventions. My prospects seemed bleak.

Fortunately, my former employer dealt with both of those problems in one fell swoop, by making me unemployed and paying me my last month’s wages without expecting me to come into work. With free time and money to spend, I decided that NerdCon would be worth the cost. I think I might have been the only British person who thought so, although I did run into someone from the Republic of Ireland. (At a vending machine. He wanted to know if $3.50 was too much to pay for a bottle of soda, and out of all of the attendees in the Minneapolis Convention Centre he managed by sheer chance to ask the only other non-American. I had to tell him that I didn’t know.)

As well as the vlogbrothers, NerdCon had a heap of featured guests whose names might be more familiar to you. I spent the weekend soaking up the imparted wisdom of heavyweight sci-fi and fantasy authors such as Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, Lev Grossman, and Holly Black, and being entertained by humorists, musicians, and creators like Paul & Storm and Darin Ross (the genius behind Superfight). 

Despite the theme of the conference, I don’t want to just tell you the story of what happened at NerdCon. I could write a 10,000 word post about all of the technical writing advice that I got from just one of the panels, or a long thought-piece dwelling on all of the ramifications of the discussion into the ethics of writing that Patrick Rothfuss led on the last day of the conference. (How many deaths from lung cancer can be causally attributed to the romanticised depiction of tobacco-smoking in the early chapters of The Hobbit?) The morning and evening shows in the main auditorium were enrapturing, full of poetry and theatre and comedy and messages every day about why stories matter. I was moved to tears by the power of John Green’s address on how we should never look down upon fiction that allows us to escape ourselves when our own bodies start to feel like our own private prisons. As someone who’s had my own bitter struggles with depression and anxiety, I knew exactly what he meant.

I can talk about all of that stuff in later posts, if that’s what people want. What I’d like to write about now is the changes that I started to notice in my own attitudes to writing, over the course of the conference. I took a lot away from NerdCon that wasn’t in the program (including a lot of happy memories and a nasty case of con flu), but I think that Hank Green was kind of hoping that everyone would leave NerdCon feeling like they attended a slightly different convention, and that they’d all draw their own narrative conclusions from it. Here are mine.

NerdCon was an excellent resource for any aspiring author, with the featured guests offering a huge amount of very practical advice that I can take away and apply directly to my own writing. For me, though, it also had the potential to be a bit of a trap. This was not NerdCon’s fault at all – it was mine – but the problem was only compounded by the warmth and personability of the featured guests. I felt like I’d made friends with all of them by Saturday night, even though part of my brain knew that it was a fundamentally unequal relationship. I didn’t go to any signings or smaller meetings where they might have learnt my name or formed an impression of me, and even if I had, I would still have just been one fan among 3,000. But being in a friendly environment with these successful writers for a whole weekend made me feel like I could bask a little in their fame and success. The mere act of being at NerdCon gave me a sense of authorial gratification that was perhaps undeserved. “Here I am, at a writer’s convention”, I could think, as I rocked up at the conference centre with my cup of coffee each morning. “With real successful writers, just like I’m going to be one day.” I watched them on stage, enjoying their well-earned limelight, and delusions of grandeur began to take root in my mind. I began to wonder how long it would be before I (inevitably) got invited to speak at writing conventions. I imagined myself on stage with the panellists when they played Superfight. Instead of listening to their advice in panels, I started to let myself think of the kind of advice that I would give if I was sitting in their place.

And eventually, after I’d wasted a lot of time doing this, I remembered how many other attendees there were in the room. They were all writers too, some of them far further down the road to publication and financial success than I was, and I realised that I was being an idiot. Daydreaming about success was very gratifying, but it was ultimately completely useless.

The latest page of Wondermark, a webcomic that I adore, sums this up nicely.

2015-10-06-1164novel

Unlike the aspirant novelist in the comic, I did actually manage to write something at NerdCon, which I was hoping to read out at one of the open mic events (alas, they were fully booked before I had the chance to sign up). But that doesn’t vindicate me at all if I still go away from NerdCon and spend the next week daydreaming about how amazing it will be when I’m a famous author on stage at a writing convention. I should be striking while the iron is hot, writing as much as I can while the advice and inspiration from all of the speakers is still fresh in my mind.

Perhaps this conclusion might seem totally self-evident to the writers who were speaking at NerdCon, and many of the other attendees, if they were to read it. Perhaps the panellists never had this problem themselves, because they didn’t have any delusions of grandeur to start with. Perhaps when fame came to them it was as a genuine surprise, rather than the achievement of something that they’d aspired towards since they’d first decided that they wanted to write books. Perhaps they just set out with realistic expectations, pressed their noses to the grindstone, and worked tirelessly over the course of years and decades to produce some truly excellent books. And that’s exactly what I need to do. Statistically speaking, not everyone who attended the conference and heard the panellists speak is going to end up as a financially successful author, even if they are naturally talented writers. I think the ones who do succeed are probably going to be the ones who sit down at their writing desks and banish any thought of fame and glory from their minds. At least until after they’ve published something.

I suppose it’s possible that all of the other attendees were already fully intending to do that, and I was the only one narcissistic enough to get wrapped up in wondering how I’d answer when attendees at future conventions asked me about my writing process. But I’ll post this anyway, just in case there’s anyone else like me, who needs a cold shower to get the thoughts of fame out of their head, and a motivational boot up the arse to get them back to their writing.


NerdCon itself was wonderful, and I could go on for weeks about it. If you have any questions, or you’d like me to post some of the notes I made during the panels, then please let me know in the comments!

What are the best life circumstances for the successful writer?

Hello, internet!

I have a slightly shorter post for you today, to atone for last week’s epic uberpost.

I’ve written before about whether it’s necessary or remotely useful for writers to make ourselves suffer for our art, and how important it is to persist through tough ruts in pursuit of our dreams. Today I want to talk about the best lifestyle for an aspiring author. I don’t have any definitive answers – if I did, I wouldn’t have to write blog posts trying to puzzle them out – but I can share a few observations.

I recently lost my job, when my company downsized their operations and cut half the staff. I wasn’t particularly upset about this, because I hadn’t really been enjoying the job. I spent the last few months working there daydreaming about my book, writing reliably most evenings, and thinking that if I didn’t have to go to my stupid job every day then I could increase my creative productivity by about 1000%. I even found myself writing snippets of my story in a scaled down window whenever my manager was out of the room. In retrospect, this might have been one of the reasons that I was on the list of employees made redundant. But I maintain that it was worth it.

Fortunately I have supportive parents who are letting me fall back on them while I regroup and look for other job opportunities. I have to admit that, in the first few days of unemployment, I had soaring hopes for my productivity. “Between now and finding another job,” I thought, “I’ll have half a book written.”

In the weeks since then I’ve learnt an important lesson, which I’ve expressed pictorially below.

being-a-good-writer-is-3-percent-talent-97-percent-not-being-distracted-by-the-internet-writing-meme-photo-kill-your-darlings-atl1

I haven’t found another job yet, but I certainly haven’t written half a book, either. My old employers paid me for my notice period without making me work it, so I effectively got an extra month’s salary. They could have been paying me to write. Instead they ended up paying me to level up on Skyrim and conquer half of India on Empire: Total War.

(And attend a writing course, and go to a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I wasn’t a complete layabout. But let’s pretend I was, because that makes for better narrative progression.)

I can’t explain exactly how this transpired, given my intentions. I spent a little time being hard on myself and accusing myself of barefaced laziness and weak-willed procrastination but that didn’t really achieve much either, and after a while I got to wondering whether having wall-to-wall free time is actually the best environment for an author to work in.

Perhaps this is only true for people of a certain persuasion who share my weaknesses for playing video games…and reading webcomics…and scrolling through Tumblr…and watching livestreams…but I think too much free time can be a bad thing. It allows you to put off your writing indefinitely, to after you’ve eaten, or after you’ve read a chapter of your book, or to tomorrow, or to next week. Unless you’re a naturally disciplined person, having more free time just encourages you to waste it. You end up becoming a vegetable. An unproductive vegetable.

veggie brain

Now that I lack the strict daily routine enforced by my job, I almost miss it. Having a set, limited number of free hours every evening where I could write encouraged me to use those hours as productively as possible, because I knew that if I didn’t write anything then, I wouldn’t end up writing anything at all. But a 9-5 routine can be counterproductive as well. Sometimes when you’ve had an exhausting day at work, you just want to come home and crash like a regular human being who isn’t trying to write a book. Successful superhuman writers seem to just learn how to soldier on through evenings like this, often with the help of alcohol or other stimulants, until they’ve finished writing their books. And that knowledge can be very daunting for aspiring authors who aren’t quite as battle-hardened. If we have a rough day at work and get home feeling dead on our feet, it’s natural to want to collapse in a heap and binge watch our favourite shows on Netflix. But we end up feeling guilty, because we know that if we do that every night, we’re never going to get around to writing anything. For me, it’s a double-edged sword. Even on the nights where I procrastinate, I don’t end up enjoying myself.

There must be some sort of midpoint – some way of having a good routine without completely surrendering our freedom to just collapse and vegetate every so often. The best way I can think of is probably academia. I didn’t write much myself while I was at university, but I mostly forgive myself for that. I spent most of my time stressing about my deadlines, or playing video games to flee from deadlines, and dealing with mental illness, compounded by a very unhealthy romantic relationship with an abusive partner. Obviously these weren’t the ideal circumstances for writing, let alone completing my degree. But if you can afford to stay in the academic bubble, without going through all of the extra drama that I did, I can imagine that it might be a good way of sustaining your writing. You have regular contact hours and plenty of other work to do to stop you from vegetating, but you also have enough free time to get a few hours of writing done every day, and still have some genuine free time at the end of it if you budget wisely.

I’m lucky to live in the UK where higher education is relatively cheap, and I’m lucky to have parents who will let me leech off them when I’m unemployed. All of my lucking out has reminded me of how much harder it must be for aspiring authors who don’t have the same opportunities. Small wonder that we see such a disproportionate number of white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender, college-educated men from wealthy backgrounds getting their books published and winning Hugo awards, when it’s so much easier for them to devote time to writing and editing. Authors who don’t fit that description are playing the game on a much harder difficulty setting, straight from the intro sequence all the way through to the final boss level. I know that a lot of readers might not have the luxury of staying in college or spending a few weeks leisurely unemployed. A gruelling 9-5 job, or worse, might be your only option. But if you’re in that camp then I hope you can take some solace from the fact that, in my experience, the daily grind actually encourages productivity.

As I said, I don’t know any answers. But I think the ideal lifestyle for writers is one that strikes a balance. You have to be jealous about protecting your free time and making sure that you have the headspace that you need to be creative every day, or at least to churn out a few hundred words. But you also need to make sure that you marshal your free time and use it effectively. From my own recent experience of unemployment, that process becomes a lot easier when you actually have less free time to work with. You know you have to use it wisely.

wisely use your time

So if you’re going back to your day job tomorrow thinking “if only I was at home, I could be writing right now” – ask yourself, would you really be writing? Or are you going to write a lot more effectively when you get home at the end of the workday and only have five or six hours to write before you go to bed?  I know which is true for me!

Anatomy of a writing course

Hello, internet!

Last week I posted a brief, muffled endorsement of the Arvon Foundation and their very fine writing courses, from beneath the proverbial bedclothes under which I’d crawled until I recovered from the substantial hangover that I’d accrued during the week. Now I think I owe it to all of you, and indeed to the Arvon Foundation, to go into some more detail. This post will probably end up being much longer, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it’s like to attend a residential writing course, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it would be a good investment for you.

I decided a fair while ago that if I was going to take this writing malarkey seriously (and give potential employers the impression that I was taking it seriously), I was going to have to do one or both of two things: get a short story published in a fantasy anthology (I’m still working on that one), and/or attend a creative writing course. At the time, I thought about it mostly as CV padding: in my ill-deserved arrogance, I assumed that there wasn’t much that a writing course could teach me about the art of writing which I wouldn’t already know. How wrong I was.

It’s funny how these things come about. A few months ago, I did an internship with an academic publishing company, and I found out that their chief book editor was an aspiring writer, far further down the line than I was in terms of having prepared her manuscript, and gauged interest from a few agents and publishers. I sat down for a short conversation with her where I asked her about her experiences as a writer and hungrily jotted down almost every word she said, not caring about the vague awkwardness of the meeting – a mere intern ruthlessly grilling one of the senior editors of the company – so long as I gleaned a few useful morsels of advice out of it. She said a lot of interesting things about her writing habits and the best day-job to pursue if I wanted to become a full-time writer, but the most useful thing she said was “do a creative writing course.” She’d attended one herself, and she had only the most glowing praise for Arvon, the company who’d orchestrated it. I was initially sceptical, but I was surprised to learn that Arvon had a writing centre only about an hour’s drive from where I live. She’d gone to the same centre herself. And when she told me about how much it had boosted her confidence as a writer, I started to come around to the idea.

It was only recently that I booked the course. I paid the £750, filed the absence form at work, and was called into the manager’s office a day or two later to be told “Well, seeing as you’re off on your holidays soon enough, we thought we’d best give you the bad news now.”  So when I turned up on the doorstep of the Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Craven Arms, it was in a slightly more advanced state of unemployment than I’d been anticipating. But the beautiful venue helped me to forget about my redundancy pretty quickly.

House

The Hurst was once the home of the English playwright John Osborne, famous for originating the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement in British literature. I confess to never having read any of his work, but after living in his house for a week I can at least attest that he had good taste in architecture and interior decorating. There was also no WiFi and no mobile phone signal. This came as no surprise to me, having lived in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside for most of my teenaged life, but it did make me think about how a writing course in an isolated mansion would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. I will be logging that idea away for if I ever want to write a quick best-seller.

Fortunately, nobody died (A sentence which I’m sure Arvon will be plastering all over their promotional material if they read this review). The first night consisted solely of getting to know the other writers on the course, along with the authors who’d be tutoring us over the course of the week. Arvon has a colourful carousel of different authors who they bring in for different courses throughout the year, and my tutors were Christopher Wakling and Anjali Joseph, authors of some very fine works of contemporary literature. The other writers on the course were from all walks of life: there were practicing journalists, one or two graduates doing slightly better than me in the world of employment, a few full-time mothers, and a brace of happy retirees looking to polish off their books now that they were free of the trammels of the daily grind.

Upon arrival, I felt a little like I’d misunderstood the brief of the course. It had been advertised to writers with a “work in progress”, and I’d taken this to mean writers past the point of embarkation, still moulding the first drafts of their book and viewing publication as a distant dream rather than an imminent possibility. I turned out to be in the minority. Most of the people on the course had completed their first draft, and many of them had consulted with agents, gaining the accolade of having their manuscripts rejected, or even published, albeit in languages other than English. I was far behind – but this didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would.

On the first night we also had to think ahead about when we wanted to schedule one-on-one meetings with the tutors. I booked a tutorial on the first full day of the course, and realised only towards the end of the evening – once I’d already had my fill of complementary wine – that I hadn’t written a synopsis for the tutors to read, or compiled 3,000 words of my first draft into a presentable sample. I retired to my room (well-furnished with an en-suite bathroom and vintage writing desk) and tried to gather my addled wits together and rattle off a short summary of the book I was trying to write. Easy, I thought.

Or perhaps not so easy
Or perhaps not…

I was amazed how difficult I found it to sum up my book in just under a page. Having never submitted a manuscript before, writing a summary was something that I’d never had to do. I stayed up until long past midnight agonising over the synopsis, alternately worrying that the whole concept for my book was completely juvenile, or thinking “these literary snobs aren’t going to appreciate good fantasy when they see it.” In retrospect, having to write a synopsis for my tutors was good practice in of itself for whenever I come around to making submissions, but I didn’t see that at the time. I eventually wrote a fairly apologetic synopsis and went to bed feeling like a sham writer who’d signed up for a course that wasn’t going to be of any help. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I got up early the next morning, printed off the previous night’s desperate efforts, left them on the designated tutor’s shelf on an upstairs bookcase, and went down to breakfast. From there on in, things improved drastically.

The course lasted four days, and each day had roughly the same schedule. We all got up early and helped ourselves to breakfast in the communal kitchen, chatting about whether we’d got any writing done the night before, and hoping to sit near one of the tutors in case they let slip a few esoteric secrets of how to become a successful author whilst it was still early and they hadn’t quite gotten their guard up. Then we went straight into tutorial sessions that lasted until lunch.

The sessions had a different theme every day, progressing chronologically through the writing process – starting with openings and first lines, moving on to characterisation and pacing, and ending up with editing and how to get your work published. If I tried to cram all of the stuff I learned into a single post then you’d be reading for days, but it was all very insightful and practical advice, conveyed by two very talented teachers. It ranged from technical lessons in prose and structure to general discussions about how to maintain the levels of self-confidence that any author needs to see their book through to completion. We did five-minute writing exercises to try and bring extra life and depth to our characters, and then if we wanted to we could read them out to the group, letting everyone get a flavour of the kind of book that everyone else was writing. All in all, the sessions were as fun as they were informative. On one morning we ventured out a little way into the grounds of the Hurst and strolled around looking like we’d escaped from a rehabilitation centre for romantic poets, trying to capture the sublimity of the English countryside in prose. Which proved a little difficult, given the pervading scent of manure.

English countryside
A glimpse of my native Shropshire countryside

The grounds were open to us throughout the week, meaning we could go and stroll through them as much as we liked during the afternoons, which were left free for us to spend time writing or doing whatever we pleased. A few writers made regular pilgrimages to the pub in the nearest village, whilst I personally found it hard to resist rifling through Arvon’s expansive library. Given the huge amount of books on site, the paltry half-shelf devoted to fantasy and science fiction seemed a little bit of an afterthought, but they did have Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, which I’d never had the pleasure of reading before. I can recommend the whole of the Shattered Sea series. Even if Abercrombie did basically steal my world-map, the fiend.

Half a King
Read this! It’s good!

Others took the retreat more seriously and bolted themselves away in their rooms every afternoon, only coming out for meetings with the tutors. We were given twenty-minutes of one-on-one time with each of the tutors, which might not seem like a lot, but it proved to be more than enough. 3,000 words and a synopsis is what any agent or publisher will expect when a new author is submitting their work, and it was enough material for the tutors to get a good sense of my work and give me detailed feedback. I got to guide the discussion as much as they did, and Chris Wakling went out of his way to address my concerns about the characterisation of my narrator, being kind enough to look at several different drafts of the opening page of my book and help me decide which narrative voice was best. Anjali helped me in unexpected ways by giving me a few plot and character ideas from Indian history, which has always been a huge source of inspiration for my writing. One of the things she mentioned gave me the germ of an idea for an entire book, which will hopefully come midway through the series I’m writing. Between nailing down my narrative voice and figuring out the plot for a whole book, I’d say the one-on-ones by themselves were worth the price of the whole course.

One of the other things that made the week truly worthwhile was the atmosphere of communal living, which really came to a head during the evenings. The writers took turns cooking dinner for everyone else in groups of four, under the watchful gaze of the site staff, without whom we probably would have set the place on fire or poured whole jars of chilli powder into the risotto or heaven knows what else. Everyone came together at 19:00 to eat, and then moved to the lounge, where we sat around and heard different readings on each night: first from the tutors, them from a guest speaker (ours was David Whitehouse, author of Bed), and then from the favourite authors of every writer on the course (in my case it was, of course, the late Sir Terry). Finally, on the last night, we read out five minute excerpts of our own work. The sheer variety of good writing in the room was staggering, covering genres all the way from political thrillers to romantic comedy to bold experiments in writing about people with mental illness. And each of the readings was followed by hours of discussion, lasting well past midnight, full of the kind of off-the-cuff inspiration which had me scrabbling for my notebook and underlining things with an urgency that seemed a little excessive when I tried to make sense of my notes the morning after, unhelped by the fact that wine had been flowing by the bottle since before we sat down to dinner.

Carnage
An example of the kind of heady carnage wreaked when writers are given alcohol and left unsupervised

I should probably add a brief disclaimer that the liberal consumption of alcohol was by no means mandatory or even encouraged during the week. I can recommend the course even to the strictest teetotallers. The organisers made us all aware on the first night that there was a local wine merchant who would be taking our orders if we wanted, allowing us to stock up based upon our personal estimates of how much we would be drinking during the course of the week. Naturally, some of us ended up making bigger estimates than others. There was a full spectrum of imbibement from total abstinence to the kind of indulgence that Ernest Hemingway might have been proud of, perpetrated mainly by myself and one of the tutors. (Although being the youngest attendee and thus having the biggest ability to bounce back from hangovers, I was probably the worst). Most of the writers went to bed at a respectable hour every evening and probably benefited from it by being clear-headed and fully awake for the 9 o’clock tutorials. I was not among their number. And indeed, on the last night, I stayed up with a dedicated core of other writers until 05:00 in the morning, meaning I had to be woken up by the site staff at 10:30 AM to be told that all of the other writers had left and my father was waiting in the car park to pick me up.

For me, that by itself is the mark of a very good week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a writing course sounds worth your time and money, even without all the drunken revelry, but I can heartily recommend it.


If you want to replicate my experience exactly, spending a week among fellow souls with excellent tuition and facilities in the heart of English countryside, pay a visit to the Arvon website and book yourself in on a course!

A Novel Idea

typingNow that grad school is over and I have completed my long trek to the desert (I’m now living in Arizona, which is a big change from the Virginia mountains – it was 100 degrees at sunset tonight! Sheesh!), I finally have time to write again. As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have never really gone for the whole “writing an entire book” thing because I suck at worldbuilding and I often have trouble having time to finish such a large project. However, I decided in the interests of self-improvement and strengthening my writing, I should give it a go. Plus, I had a really cool idea that came to me in a dream one night (involving Neal, one of the writers for this blog, getting stabbed in the eye with a tattooing needle), and I quickly became obsessed with it, as characters and plot lines and almost entire chapter structures for this post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy novel started playing out in my head. I’ve written the prologue, which is about 12 pages single-spaced, outlined some main characters, and started working on the first full chapter. It’s pretty exciting! The main thing I’m doing differently this time from the other few times I’ve tried novel-writing is that I’m not worldbuilding all in advance; I’m making it up as I go along, which is very helpful (my next post will be on that subject). So far, it’s going well, and I’m hoping to finish up chapter 1 this week. I am bound and determined to finish this book, come hell or high water, as my very Southern grandmother likes to say. Any of you more experienced novel-writers have any tips for me as I work through this process?

Brainstorming Tips: Be Thankful

So, it’s Thanksgiving time, and I couldn’t be happier. I have a week off from work, I’m in the middle on the North Carolina mountains with my boyfriend’s family, and I get to sleep in as long as I want every morning. Pretty much paradise for this exhausted educator and thesis writer. Anyway, I often have trouble doing any creative writing during this part of the holiday season because I’m so worn out that I can’t think of anything to write, and since I only have a week, it’s difficult to rest up enough to let the ideas come along on their own in time. I do have a little trick I do to both get myself in the holiday spirit AND in the mood to write: I write out a “thankful” list. Most people do around this time of year, but I don’t just do the generic “family, friends, and work” sort of thing. I get as detailed as I possibly can with about 25 events (major or minor) that have happened this year and 15-20 objects and/or people I’m thankful for, and I leave an anecdote with each one. Usually, at least one of those write-ups on my list will spark an idea, and off I go to write. So here’s a couple examples from my list this year:

1) Thankful for: My boyfriend. Anecdote: He always tries to get me to attempt new things; this semester, he’s wanted me to go to a football game because he loves sports and I have never so much as seen 5 minutes of a football event. I agreed to go, rather begrudgingly, but the home football games for my school’s team never lined up quite right with my schedule. The day we finally got to go was the last home game of the season, and it was ridiculously cold outside (about 30 degrees). We were there early, so we got bobbleheads of the school’s mascot, and pretty nice ones at that. I still don’t know what to do with mine, but who cares? So anyway, we sat in the student section, and it was kind of ridiculous. I had no idea what was going on (why is it called football when their feet don’t come in contact with the ball?), particularly since the game kept getting stopped every 5 seconds, and it was so cold. Boyfriend told me we could go after the first quarter, but I had promised him I would stay until the half, so I said I would wait. He laughed at me for being stubborn and bet that I would give up. Me being me, that taunting made me even more stubborn. So despite the teasing and the ridiculous cold as it got darker and darker, I stayed put until the whistle blew to mark the end of the second quarter. We both ran for the nearest building and sat in there for 2 hours to warm up. I still have no idea how football works, but I’m thankful for having that experience with my boyfriend because it made him very happy I was willing to try it, and it brought out his more playful side (he really likes teasing me when I’m being stubborn). It was a good day, despite the cold and confusion. football1

23) Thankful for: my spice cabinet. Anecdote: I was in a car accident a couple months ago, and the vehicle swerved quite a bit after the initial impact before we finally stopped. I was in the back seat and got thrown around a little; I later went to the hospital and I was diagnosed with bad whiplash. Anyway, when the car first stopped, my head hurt really badly, and I was dizzy and kind of freaked out. The police and an ambulance were there, and we all had to get out. Despite everything going on, all I could think about was finding my salt and pepper shakers…I’d brought dinner in my bag, and with it I’d brought along my black peppercorn grinder and my expensive sea salt. They fell out of the bag when the accident occurred, and I remember being terribly worried that I wouldn’t find them before the tow truck came and took the van away. I actually had one of my friends crawl around the car looking for them – she obliged me and found them, and I was at peace despite the fact that we were stranded on the side of a road in the dark out in the backwoods somewhere. None of that mattered because I had my salt and pepper, and I was greatly thankful for it.

I don’t know where I’ll go with these things creatively, but I’m already starting to get some ideas. In almost every case, I start off with the item or person in question, and end up somewhere in my anecdote that I hadn’t even considered. It helps me not only remember things to be thankful for, but also remember occurrences to bring into my stories, and it’s quite inspiring. So what are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?