Category Archives: Writing

Mission Improbable: from idea to first draft

Hello again world! I promise not to angry vent this time, despite the deep everything-ness of everything. That way lies madness. This way? Just a simple blogpost about writing, attempting to demystify the process.

Last month I was talking to Cathi (Celtic Duchess) on Twitter, and she asked me how I start in on writing a book—whether I outline or just hit the ground running. I’ve wanted to go into my process for a bit just because a lot of starting writers I talk to seem intimidated by the steps, so Cathi gave me a great excuse to get on that. (One might say… a great excuse to write it down? 😉) Here goes nothing!

A good first draft is like this triumphant, oddly shaped carrot: technically complete, but it needs more time to reach its full potential.

I think most people have some loose ideas that, when put together, might make for a decent book. I talked about where ideas come from in a March episode of The Beans, and the main thrust was this: ideas are cheap. It’s putting time and effort into them that makes them worthwhile and transforms them into stories. When I look at my body of work, I don’t think the ideas I chose to spend time on are super unique or interesting. They just reflect thoughts and feelings I was having at one point in time—things I liked and things I didn’t like and things I wanted to address. Images that just happened, that I grabbed onto as worthwhile. For our study of ‘idea to draft’ I’ll use an old story I’ll probably never rewrite to discuss particulars. The story was called ‘Trespass’ and I wrote 50,000+ words of it in 2011 for NaNoWriMo then stuck it in a drawer. Without further ado: the process.

1) Inception

The first step is just having an idea, and then turning it into a bigger idea. The story I’m using as a case study here came about from listening to ‘Close to Me’ by the Cure on repeat. The line “if only I was sure that my head on the door was a dream” made me imagine someone in a half-dream state leaning against a door. (I know. This is… really very basic. I told you I was demystifying stuff.)

The image unfolded in my head. The person is confused (why are they there?) and barefoot. They’ve sleepwalked somewhere—where?

It becomes something of a fill-in-the-blank exercise. Maybe thanks to Robert Smith, I imagine the person is a man. The setting fills itself in as fantasy because that’s what I wrote at the time. Through the door is a library, and inside that library is a fellow student doing a spell (this story is now set at mage school, keep up…) for peace and tranquility. The main character wandered there in his sleep out of a need for peace/comfort/presence of mind because…

…because he is doing a multi-day spell/ritual that puts his sanity at risk. What’s that dangerous, sanity-challenging spell? I continue filling in the blanks according to my preferences and whims:

The dangerous spell is a ritual to resurrect someone. Who? Naturally: his dead twin brother, who wasn’t a mage and died in a hunting accident. The spell will pull his brother’s soul into his own body so he can talk to him again.

WOMP! There’s the snowball rolling downhill. You start with a song lyric, or a thought, or an anything, and you let it sit in your head. Images form. Maybe you start from the other end, and think “I want to write a story about a haunted castle in Scotland”. It’s a different start point, but the same principle. You fill in the blanks until stuff starts falling into place in a way you like. Anyway: now I have a story about a young man resurrecting his prematurely deceased brother. At a glance, it will involve:

  • a focus on platonic love
  • ghosts / soul magic
  • a plot that somehow interacts with the main character’s predicament – ie, a plot where a body housing two souls will be important

2) Planning/outlining

Back in the day I probably would have just started writing and hoped the answers would come to me. I did everything by feel, although I realize now that the framework was my intrinsic understanding of storytelling. I’m pretty sure everyone who likes and engages with fiction has this sense, but relying on that alone was slow and got me stuck a lot. I still write slowly and get stuck a lot, but I know better how to un-stick myself and push through. Un-sticking includes going back to this planning/outlining phase occasionally.

So: I’ve had an idea. I want to write it out. First I might sit down with a notebook and have a brainstorming session on characters and plot, answering several questions:

    • what’s the MC’s backstory?
    • who are the other important characters? (brother, mentor, maybe a love interest or rival?)
    • what will the general thrust of the story be?

You might notice the third bullet-point is an impossibly broad question, but I can narrow it down for myself. What do I want for this story? I know I don’t want the MC or his brother to be villains. I want the resurrection to ‘work’, and to play with what it means to have two souls inhabiting a body. I want banter and a shared goal for the main character and his brother. Because I’m not making the conflict about the resurrection itself, it needs to be adjacent: something related, where the MC’s predicament is relevant but not the whole story. This means other forces have to be at work. It’s easy to make this soul-related by having it pertain to other mages also doing resurrecty things, but being evil about it. I acquire my villain: some nebulous group of mages is using soul magic to [DO SOMETHING EVIL] and the main character must find out what/why/how they are doing it. In the process, he will learn [SOMETHING ELSE]. He will have to face what he is doing and possibly give up on resurrecting his brother fully to stop [EVIL THING].

I would then take a stab at outlining. At the very least I’d put my broad idea here into an outline format. The book ‘Save the Cat Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody has a fantastic guide on story arcs, and I might reference that. My writing partner Ash helpfully excised the information as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for us to use. The most useful part for me is asking the following questions:

  • What is your MC’s problem, or a flaw of theirs that needs fixing?
  • What does your character want/what goal are they pursuing?
  • What does your character actually need? (What lesson will they learn in the end, through exposure to the story?)

I also write down some cookies. Cookies are scenes and concepts that make you want to write. In the case of my mage story, I loved the thought of the nerdy mage brother being judged by his more active, athletic twin for not looking after his body. The twin brother making the MC exercise would be a cookie for me.

So there’s my messy process. Inevitably, I will fill in half an outline, get enough of an idea for the story’s broad strokes to get going, and then… get going. I’ll pull out the outline and add to it when I’m stuck, but that’s it.

3) Writing

This is the part of the process that’s just like exercise or cleaning the toilet or washing your hair. Hopefully it’s more fun than that, but by and large you just do it. My mage story started with my main character walking through the door set down by Robert Smith and being confronted by the other student doing the spell that made him sleep-walk there. They had a confrontational conversation where little bits of the set-up were explored. Every scene you ask “where am I going next?” and then go there. It can be really fun and really arduous, sometimes at the same time.

4) Losing your way and then finding it again

Writing tens of thousands of words isn’t easy, at least not if the words are meant to make sense in order. Looking at how far you have to go before a draft is done can feel incredibly overwhelming. I’ve been trying to think of analogies for non-writers, and the following is a stupid analogy but it was the best I could think of. Here goes: the losing-your-way part of writing a book is like living in a world where worn-down shoes are a valuable asset you can sell, and you look down at your almost-new shoes (an investment) and think of how much more you’re going to have to walk in them to wear them down properly, and you have a moment of doubt. The shoes are no longer new to you so you know all the places they rub, and maybe they don’t look as good away from the shop as you thought they would, and will anyone really want to buy these shoes at the end, when you’re finally done with them?

The analogy is really, really stupid. I should stick to fiction. But anyway: it’s hard. I sometimes think it gets easier with each book, but it remains hard. It might be easier if you pick a format and stick to it, but I haven’t done that and so I continue to punish myself. When I lose my way, I first ask myself if there’s a problem in the plot or tone or character interactions that I need to fix. Often there is. If there’s not, I remind myself of a few things:

  • my specific cookies for the project
  • that I’m tired of the book because I’m spending so much time on it every day, not because it’s a steaming pile of shit
  • if I keep going the book will eventually be finished and I may learn to like it again
  • there are solutions to plot problems and saggy pacing bits that I won’t be able to see until I’ve finished the draft and gotten some distance from it; nothing is unfixable

If none of this works, I may set the draft aside for a bit and focus on other things. If it does work—great! Back to step 3. Eventually step 4 stops kicking you back to step 3 and you make it to 5.

5) Bathe in the sweet glory of finishing a first draft

There’s really no rule for how to celebrate this sort of thing, but I think it helps to have a treat planned. Conspire with your loved ones to make this a special moment for you, or conspire with yourself to open a bottle of prosecco and watch something you love. Just make it nice for yourself so you don’t fall into a deep depression of “what now?”


And that’s it! There really is no magic formula. It’s just staying in touch with yourself and your process, making the time, and keeping going. A first draft isn’t the finish line, but it means you have something to work with. If I’ve made all of this sound super unmagical, devoid of muses and all the things that make creators seem fancy, I’m very sorry! There are lots of special moments, but you can’t plan them in. You just make space for them and hope they come. I hope this is helpful or at least interesting to someone out there… and happy writing!

Writing Solo

I’ve wanted to do a blogpost about how Ash and I collaborate for ages. HOWEVER, we sent in the latest draft of our book last month, and it’s left us at loose ends. We’ve worked a little on our book 2 outline, but neither of us want to get really stuck into anything big while we wait for edits. As a result, for the first time in a while, I’m writing a new project (a short story) solo.

Unlike the triumphant song I just linked you mainly because it has the word ‘solo’ in it and I like it, going solo for me has been hard. Did you know that when you write alone, you have to write everything yourself? Did you know you have to ask other people for help when you need it, rather than having the help supplied without your asking? Did you know I’ve forgotten how to do all that?

There we were, happily doing stuff together…
And then, there we weren’t!

Sometimes when collaborating, it sucks. Bad moods happen, and sometimes you get tired of having to communicate well. Both of us are needy for praise from the other, and when there’s no immediate positive response, feelings get hurt. That’s basically the worst part, and I say that as a person who used to HATE group projects.

So read that again: sometimes, in the process of writing hundreds of thousands of words together, Ash and I hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to. In terms of crosses to bear? That is a feather-light cross made of soft, foamy material.

Contrast with the positives. They’re too numerous to count. Built-in discussion partner who is exactly as invested as I am: check. We can joke and laugh about the characters, come up with silly scenarios (that sometimes make it into the book), and whenever one of us feels insecure, there’s a person who can provide immediate reassurance. No, the scene you just wrote doesn’t suck. Here are all the things I liked about it! Yes, this concern you have is valid… I have some ideas on how to fix it.

Do I sound nostalgic? I’m nostalgic. The short story I’m writing is cute, with swashbuckling and magic talents, but motivating myself is hard. I’m no longer used to building momentum alone. I get so tired of my own writing voice, and how often my characters fall into introspection I have to delete later.  I can do it—it’s just less fun. Even with Ash reading it and encouraging me, it’s not the same.

I’ll get the A to my V back one day…*

I don’t want to lose the ability to write alone. That’s how most people write, and it’s good exercise for my brain. At least some of my reluctance is laziness. It’s hard being alone with your thoughts and wrestling with yourself without someone there to help—but it’s important too. To an extent.

To all you writers doing this solo: I have more respect for you than ever. Well done! To my future self NOT doing stuff solo: you lucky dog. Send me some of your energy; I need it.

* They haven’t gone anywhere I’m just being dramatic.

Out of Time

At long last, it happened!

What happened?

I finished reading I Capture The Castle.

“Why would you frame such a non-event like there’s actual news?”

My reason is simple: “because”! Writing/publishing updates seem less interesting than reading updates. The querying process for book one of my space opera with Ash continues to be a waiting game, and we’re working on other things in the meantime. There are thousands of advice posts that can tell you about querying in general, so it feels boring for me to rehash it, even though I’m sure it’s at least mildly interesting for non-writers. The short version is: we’ve had lots of rejections and a few full & partial requests, but waiting on an answer is like waiting for a warm, non-windy day in Scotland. Suffice to say I’m not holding my breath.

This is where anyone reading with a focus on my career should stop reading, as no more progress-relevant details will be discussed from this point onward. My computer scientist husband beta-read this post and said that, while he enjoyed it (which I think he was telling the truth about), it’s ‘definitely a ramble’.

So here’s the actual subject of the post: the concept of being out of your time. Beyond your time. (Not to be confused with the platitude “ahead of their time”.) Does that make sense? You’re right, it doesn’t. Let me try to explain:

I’ve always loved stories about loneliness brought on by displacement. Being alive and a human being is hard, and in fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—we can see characters we love struggle through a landscape that makes this struggle more literal. A character can leave their home, their loved ones… but they can also leave the time they know, whether they spend years in stasis or walk into a mushroom circle to be transported three-hundred years into the future. That’s what I mean by “out of time”: a character leaves behind the world they know, and suddenly they’re somewhere temporally separated from all the things they care about. You can get a sense of the past that birthed them reaching for them, but that time will never reach them again. The people who were important then may have thought of the character, may have wished to speak to the character again, but those people are only memories now. And in the present, the character may long for those people—but can’t return.

It’s grief and change and the march of time we all experience put in more obvious terms, and no mushroom circles are needed in reality—but SFF dealing with characters “out of their time” gives a vivid illustration of something I know to be true:

You can’t go back.

The trope reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:

I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between places.

It’s simple truth, but I love seeing it written into the plot of a story. One story I love that dealt with a character out of her time is Medair, by Andrea K. Höst, which involves a champion who goes to find a mythical weapon that will turn the tide of the war destroying her empire—only to return, weapon in hand, centuries too late. Then there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game, where an outcast in a post-post-apocalyptic world goes in search of her mother and the truth of her society. She becomes a force to be reckoned with in the present, gaining recognition she would have longed for when she was an outcast child, but the search for truth leads her again and again into the distant past, to people she can’t possibly gain recognition from. She can’t punish those who did wrong; she can’t reassure those who hoped they did right. She’s a witness to a story that’s already unfolded, and it’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful as she’s forced to do what she can in the present.

Thousands of non-genre novels deal with the same theme. Characters try to connect with their ancestors and draw meaning from history—but I’m a shallow person who enjoys the shininess of fantasy and science fiction, where this quandary can be brought to the fore in especially beautiful ways.

Anyway, I digress. The nature of reaching for the past and falling just short of it brings us—at last!—to I Capture The Castle and the reason for this rambling post. This classic novel by Dodie Smith isn’t fantasy or science fiction, and doesn’t deal with any sort of time travel. It was just written in the past, which is the relevant point for me today. Smarter and more literary people than me can explain the book better I’m sure, but it’s an exploration of a girl’s adolescence as set down in her journals. She’s imaginative, introspective, given to flights of fancy and melodrama—and in her extremely sincere attempts to get to the heart of what this whole “being alive” thing is about, she has reminded generations of readers of their own adolescence, when they were experiencing things for the first time and filled with their own questions and musings.

Original cover of "I Capture the Castle".
The original cover of “I Capture the Castle”.

And so: a book written in the past, depicting an imagined past inspired by the real past, sends readers back to their pasts. Then we come to what inspired this ramble. After the ending, I leafed back to a random page of the introduction to skim, and read the line “by her death in 1990—” about the author’s life and legacy.

I’ve looked it up: Dodie Smith died towards the end of November in 1990, about 3 months before I was born. There’s always something strange about people whose lifetimes didn’t quite overlap with yours. If I reached out towards the very start of my life, and she reached out to the very end of hers, our fingertips would almost—but not quite—touch. Yet the girl, time, and place she depicted in I Capture the Castle long ago connects with the me existing now and the imagined me I remember from my own adolescence.

The whole time connect/disconnect is a fanciful study in contrasts Cassandra Mortmain, main character and dreamer, would probably like. And the image excites me for all the intersections of past, present and future we get to experience just by being alive and interacting with our environment. Perhaps more importantly for me as a writer, it excites me for the way fiction allows us to connect beyond gaps that seem unbridgeable. Time is the longest distance, and anyway, I don’t want to brush shoulders (or fingertips!) with all the authors whose work I admire even if they happen to be alive today; meeting heroes can be disappointing. Still, it seems like a huge privilege that we get to share these experiences, whether the distance between author and reader is temporal or simply the distance between two squishy, differently wired brains.

Sometimes I look at the length of my to-read list and see it as a chore to be managed instead of an opportunity for the kind of connection that makes art seem worthwhile and life worth living, but I prefer it when it feels like this. All sparkly and full of opportunity.

It makes me want to write.

Environmental details

Memories of my early writing days are patchy, but I still remember bits and pieces—and one thing I remember, quite fondly, is how I used to think I had to describe everything.

Imagine this: you are thirteen. You are a reader and a writer. The stories closest to your heart are the ones vivid with colour and meaning, so what do you do when you write? Well, that’s obvious: you try to do the same! Your unsuspecting characters (who have probably been described in excruciating detail) wander the world noting carpet colours and types of trees and what everyone is wearing, and you think you’re doing a good job because your readers will know exactly what to imagine.

It’s cute! It’s really cute. I love growth trajectories. My favourite parts of movies and TV shows and even books are often the training montages. Mulan going from trainwreck recruit to superstar in the Chinese army, the girl in the Grisha series learning how to use her magic at the academy, Kageyama Shigeo working his little heart out in the body improvement club to go from 0 stamina to 0.3 stamina…

Incidentally I’m also at the start of my T-shirt designing montage.

You get the gist. That moment before you knew better is just the jumping off point. The twelve year-old girl who thought it was important to mention the carpet colour, dimensions, and smell of a room that was entered once in chapter three then never again is gone, because she learned better. But deciding what descriptions to keep and what to leave out is still a form of art, and I love to hear opinions from people as readers more so than writers. What descriptions are important to create a vibrant world in a reader’s mind, and which ones are duds that just slow the whole thing down to a crawl?

It’s an ongoing question for me. Sometimes I choose not to add environmental details, trusting readers to know their own minds—until I reread my work and realise the characters are floating in a jelly-like mass of nothing. Other times, I won’t shut up about the angle of light slanting in through a window. There’s a balance to be struck, and every day of writing is an effort in finding it.

What do you think as a reader? How much is too much? Can you read Lord of the Rings without skimming? Do you wish Brandon Sanderson novels were longer?

This wonderful post by Patricia C. Wrede (author of the fantastic Enchanted Forest Chronicle series & enchanted chocolate pot fame) is an interesting view of the subject. I don’t totally agree—I have friends who love reading who have read nothing but fanfiction for years because they enjoy the slower pace and the way fanfic can linger on details without caring too much about plot—but there are published novels and saga-length fanfictions that lost me as a reader because they refused to get to the point. There’s beauty in brevity:

Patricia C. Wrede on leaving things out.

Tastes differ. There’s no “right” way—but if you’re in a talky mood today as you read this post, I’d love to hear your opinion on what descriptions catch you. What books strike you as particularly vivid? When have you been annoyed by a lack of description, if ever?

I might know now that rooms entered once but never again should be described sparingly, but there’s plenty left to learn. If I think of authors whose descriptions have enchanted me in the details and phrasing, the first one I think of is Juliet Marillier, who writes lush historical fantasy romances. She cheats by being an author I read as a teen, but that’s not her fault. My quotes page bears the following passage from Child of the Prophecy, and I haven’t stopped loving it since I first read it a decade and a half ago:

It was a night of restless dreams, and I awoke before dawn, shivering under my woollen blanket, hearing the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea as it pounded the rocks of the Honeycomb. Not a good day to be abroad. Perhaps Dan Walker and his folk would decide to stay a little longer. But it never did happen that way. They were as true to their time as birds flying away for the winter, their arrivals and departures as precise as the movement of shadows in a sacred circle. You could count your year by them. The golden times. The gray times. It seemed to me the voice of the wind had words in it. I will sweep you bare… bare… I will take all… all… And the sea responded in kind. I am hungry… give me… give…

Child of the prophecy by juliet Marillier

Are you shivering? I’m shivering. I’m transported to beneath a woollen blanket, with the sea and the wind raging. Of course, a science fiction author writing about ship-based life (me) might envy Marillier for getting to harness these powerful natural images while they—poor SF authors that they are—deal with life aboard a dinky spaceship… but that’s all right. Even when I don’t get to play with certain images as a writer, getting to experience someone else’s talent as a reader is pretty awesome. It just makes me excited for other projects, where I will get to play with those things.

SO! I’m ready for homework, if you have homework to give. I refer to the questions above. You’re not required to answer—but I’d love to hear from people reading this. What descriptions have you enjoyed, and what details complete a book for you?

We could all stand to push our limits here and there.

Writing with and without depression

Today my husband told me he was tired of seeing the otter on my front page. Putting aside the fact that people should never be tired of seeing cute otters, he did have a point: this blog has been gathering dust for a while. Well, let’s change that.

Lee Pace gifs: a fresh new feature of my blog.

2018 was an incredibly uncomfortable year for me—and also a plain incredible one. It started, as all calendar years do, in winter. I had a good, consistent exercise routine, I endeavoured to eat healthy and write a lot, I was surrounded by people I loved and talked to them regularly… and I was miserable. At the time I put this down to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which didn’t make a huge deal of sense as I’d just spent almost three weeks in Florida celebrating Christmas and New Year with my family, but it turns out that feeling miserable all the time doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for accurate self-reflection.

Thankfully, it wasn’t just me seeing me. My misery was closely tied to my writing, and 2017 had seen me try something entirely new: co-writing a book. My co-author was Ash, a friend I’d met in fandom, and we had no idea what we were doing—but we did it anyway. We raced our way through NaNoWriMo, and then Ash kept going and I stalled out.

It wasn’t writing I hated—I still loved writing fanfiction—but I hated producing original content. It made me feel vulnerable, unqualified, forced to make decisions I didn’t want to make. (This post from July 10 2017 seems, in hindsight, a fairly obvious attempt to conquer those feelings; it didn’t work.) Ash and I had poured ourselves into this book we both loved, with characters we both loved, and I couldn’t stand to work on it. Needless to say, Ash had a few questions… and a few theories.

Eventually, I accepted the idea that I might need help. This became another problem, as my denial turned out to be the only thing keeping me afloat. Once I stopped denying how I felt—and how I’d been feeling for a long time—I became terrified that I’d visit my GP and he’d tell me I was fine. Worse: that this was just how I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

I went to my GP, and he didn’t tell me I was fine. He told me that, given my lifestyle (ie: doing ‘everything right’ yet still depressed), I was a good candidate for antidepressants. An uncomfortable adjustment period followed. The nausea was no joke, but over the course of about a month I started feeling different. It was REALLY odd. Music brought on a storm of emotions. I got angry sometimes, instead of feeling resigned. Colours seemed more vibrant.

Me after a month of meds.

Anyway, the ins and outs are too many and too legion to properly discuss in a blogpost that’s meant to be about writing. Suffice to say that, once I had Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors on my side, I had the energy and the capacity to make changes. It’s amazing what a brain can do when it’s not waging war with itself; knots years in the making began to untangle, and my relationship with myself improved. Finally I could relax—and once I could relax I could have fun.

It took time, but original writing became something I loved again, the way I loved it as a teenager before it ever occurred to me to doubt myself. I’ve had more joy in original writing the past year than I did in the five years previous. Being a ‘tortured artist’ helped me about as much in my writing career as repeatedly stubbing my toe would have.

Antidepressants aren’t the solution for every depressed person, but my experiences have given me some insight. I have no patience for people who see antidepressants as a quick fix or a band-aid. For one thing, it wasn’t quick. Every week I stumbled over a new stupid thing I had to change about myself to be happier. For another, so what if people need chemical help to feel happy? Sadness is not inherently more authentic than happiness. It’s just sadness. It feels bad and it drains your energy. It stops you from being able to fix the things that make you unhappy, then calls you lazy to boot.

I’m calling it: you can’t “mind over matter” when your mind doesn’t have the right matter. I’ve spent the past year unlearning all the unhealthy coping mechanisms I picked up in half a decade of struggling to overcome depression without medication; I ought to know. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe The Good Place actress Kristen Bell. She speaks openly about her mental health struggles, and hearing this from people like her—who seem bubbly and successful and like they couldn’t possibly struggle with anything more laborious than picking out cute outfits—should help people realise this isn’t about trying, or weakness, or a person’s community being unsupportive. The worst thing about going on meds for me was the sense that I had all the tools to be happy and yet somehow failed. I’d failed my family and my friends and myself. I’d taken all the love people around me gave, and I’d squandered it by letting myself fall into this pit.

Screw that outlook. Sometimes love isn’t enough. It doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and it doesn’t cure cancer, and it doesn’t cure depression. How lucky we are, then, that we live in a world where people are learning to treat these diseases.

I love writing again. I love coming up with characters and pelting them with problems. I love messaging Ash about what would happen if we stuck our characters in a supernatural novel instead of a science fiction one. At the most basic level, I love forming sentences in aesthetically pleasing ways, and letting an image take shape. I love this skill I have that, by my fifth year post-university, I’d learned to resent.

Some things don’t change with the right amount of serotonin. Rejection still sucks. Putting myself out there is still hard—but I’m lucky. I am so, so lucky. And thanks to modern medicine, the NHS, and the people around me, I can finally feel the truth of that statement.

It feels good.

Life is Strange, Fiction is…

In another post that will make me say, “I don’t play as many games as it sounds like, I swear”, I’d like to talk about a game I played recently, and choice-based gaming in general, and (of course) how it might intersect with books and fan communities.

Bear with me—

Storytelling exists in all kinds of forms. Plays, comics, games, books, movies, stand-up—and they’re not interchangeable. I once saw an interview with comedian Bo Burnham where he talks about his frustration re: every popular story being cut and pasted into other media (x) which resonated with me. Stories are stories—but the story you can tell in a video game is different from the story you can tell in a book. The story you can tell in a book is different from what you can do in a comic. My tiny bit of experience writing comics with artist friends (more on this one day, maybe, hopefully—) frustrated me because suddenly I was forced to be brief and remember that each panel can only really contain a single gesture. You’re limited in this completely new way—but you also have new tools at your disposal. Each medium has special features that (when utilised) give the story told that extra oomph.

Life is Strange is a video game that tells a story—and the video game mechanics it uses to tell the story enhances it, instead of being incidental. A Life is Strange book or movie might be good, but it wouldn’t be great. To summarise (no spoilers, promise), LiS follows a girl (Max) who starts having realistic dreams about a cataclysmic event striking the coastal Oregon town where she attends university, soon after which she learns she can rewind time after instinctively using the power to stop another girl from being shot. Throughout the game, you make decisions—whether to take a phonecall, or report a fellow student, or steal money from the principal’s office, etc. The game segues through soft indie music and gold-washed beach scenes, yet there’s a constant feeling of dread, both from knowing Max’s vision might be coming and from a sense of personal responsibility for all decisions made up till that point.

Do you let your friend take the blame  for the joint in her room and avoid future scrutiny from authority figures, or do you take the blame and help your friend’s already rocky home life? (x)

If the game is successful in roping you in, you come out of it feeling like you’ve been through the wringer—like you’ve actually lived life as Max for a while, and like her choices had real weight (probably because you pondered them so long as the choice screen flickered in front of you). A book can’t do that. No matter how great a writer is, there’s just no way to include video game mechanics in a book—and why would you want to? Well… at the very end of Life is Strange, there is one big choice that totally splits player experience. No matter what you pick, the other option is 100% different. The big leagues of “choose your own adventure” (or “choose your own trauma”, to be honest)—and it reminded me of…

…fanfiction!

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of fanfiction, it’s basically writing done by fans, involving characters and/or settings from an already-existing story. For instance, a fanfic might imagine Harry Potter falling in love with someone other than Ginny, but it might also be a story about an original character going to Hogwarts after Harry has already left, or a closer look into some time in Harry’s life we already know happens but don’t know the details of. I’ve been aware of fanfiction since I was 11 years old, and sometimes involved with it, and seeing the ways stories can be reimagined does affect the way you interact with them. Now, when I see a TV show and hate the way something was done, I don’t accept it and move on; I use my imagination to fix it in my head—and so do millions of others. Sometimes, when they care enough, they write it out for others to read. Fanfiction is the bread and butter of a community of people who love a story—or some aspect of a story—enough to want to change it, or linger there longer, or get more of the same story.

To me, it seems like fanfiction answers a need we all have for our own choices and preferences to matter to a story like they do in a video game, even in media where they don’t matter. We can’t choose love interests for the main character of a book like we can in a Dragon Age game—but we might want to. However, being aware of this penchant for reinterpretation is a double-edged sword. In my own stories, I find myself wanting to leave things open, for people to decide for themselves the details of how characters feel. This ambiguity feels good at the time, because I like reinterpretations, and I like fanfiction, and I can see multiple ways for my characters to exist and have fulfilling lives—but it weakens the narrative in the long run. You can’t tell a story with zero commitment. You don’t have to spell everything out, or write a nineteen-years-later epilogue where everyone is neatly paired off, children in tow (cough), but decisions have to be made. What looks to me like room for interpretation could look like handwaving to readers. I have to remember I trust in my own vision, my own characters. Just because I love seeing a story split into 100 different directions online, doesn’t mean that’s the norm.

Life is strange, but fiction is shaped by a vision someone had: to tell a story, and to tell it in a specific way. Even in games, your decisions are bounded by what the writers wanted you to experience. You can’t have it all; a story can only do so many things. I might look at the ending of Life is Strange with envy, wishing I was allowed to write two endings to my books, to cater to different people—but unless that becomes a thing people do, I’ll just look like a noncommittal weirdo who doesn’t have faith in the story she’s telling.

It’s fun to think about the things you can do in one medium but not another. It’s important to remember what tools you have available, and use them to the fullest—but in the meantime, I’ll probably continue to be caught between possible story endings like a diner at a buffet choosing between desserts, wanting to return to my table with all of them. Since I can’t, I’ll have to choose and hope for the best. And if people don’t like it, well—there’s always fanfiction.

In Memory of the South Road Tesco Trolley I Passed on the Way to the GP Sometime in January And Laughed at Because It Looked So Sheepish

Dawn was a gradual affair. One moment couldn’t be separated from the next, but the stages had some distinction. First the realisation that black was not black but blue, then the world below the tiptoeing sky turning greyish, then splashes of colour on cloud—and then, somehow, everything all at once.

The Tesco trolley wasn’t aware of the sky changing. It stood on frosty ground, wheels planted, and by the time it became aware of its surroundings—became aware that the world was no longer blackness cut by yellow streetlights—it was utterly exposed. Sometime during the night it had been deposited at the very centre of a white-dusted field, no more than a hundred feet from the Tesco Extra where it lived. Now it faced the eastern sky alone as if in penance. The ominous bulk of the Tesco jutted out behind it, looming, to be sensed but not seen. Gradual as the dawn had been, it was too late now for the trolley to escape its master’s notice.

Oh no, it thought. Not again.

Escapism and settings

I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Ready Player One this week, and it’s made me think about settings. Okay—lots of things make me think about settings, but the book is what inspired the blog post.

Ready Player One takes place in our world a few decades from now. The world is pretty crummy—natural disasters, recessions, energy crises, etc—but it includes an expansive virtual reality world that almost makes up for the real world’s crappiness. In the virtual world, you can mute other players, design your own avatar, and explore a whole universe of fantasy and sci-fi worlds. You wouldn’t want to be in main character Wade’s real world, but a shot in that virtual reality? Sign me up barring the fact that you apparently lose all progress when your avatar dies which is pretty much the lamest rule ever and can only be there to increase story tension but that’s another matter entirely. Shh, self.

AHEM. Anyway, I’ve always considered myself more of a characters person than a settings person. I never got through the Silmarillion; I couldn’t bring myself to care about a book that seemed to be just world-building—but of course there’s no such thing as a “just characters”-person. People don’t exist in empty white rooms. The way I see it, settings in escapist novels can entice readers in by having attractive qualities, or they can force readers to relate to the characters by being so soul-suckingly horrible that readers root for the main characters to change the setting. For instance, the setting for the Mistborn trilogy is grim, but there’s a cool magic system that pretty much allows characters to fly, and it’s set up in a way that makes it seem real—and the main characters are trying to change the world for the better. The characters in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe have to fight against oppression and foreign invaders, but they live magical lives that include facetime with gods and goddesses, who are always awe-inspiring. Lastly, horrible as it is, the pageantry in The Hunger Games makes for an engaging read while readers wait for Katniss to triumph against the odds. Setting is the backdrop for any scene, and much as I didn’t want to accept this when I was still finding my footing and only wanted to write “the good bits”, it matters. A lot.

great hall
It wouldn’t be Hogwarts without the enchanted ceiling

When creating a fantasy world, or even depicting a real-world town, I think it’s important to give readers something to hold onto. The changing weather patterns above Hogwarts’s Great Hall might not be essential to the story, but they add a kind of glamour people remember. The same is true for any other fictional place, even when it’s set in the real world—and even when only the story is fictional. What’s special about the place? Why would people escape to it? I think it’s important to know why you’re creating the world you’re creating, and what purpose it serves in the story. If it could be replaced by a green screen or persistent fog, wouldn’t it be better to add something else to draw people in? I think so—but then, I am a fulltime, grade A escapist. This player one is always ready to head for the fictional hills. Some flicker of hope is vital to my favourite escapes, and I prefer some scenic backdrops along the way. What’s essential to your favourite fictional places to go?

Seasons, moods, places

In November of 2014, I moved further north than I’d ever lived before—to Dundee, on the east coast (ish) of Scotland. There were a lot of warnings about the weather, and how oppressive it could be in winter, but my husband and I were pleasantly surprised. “Manageable,” we concluded in the spring of 2015. “Not that bad.”

Fast-forward to last winter, when suddenly the place I lived felt less like Dundee and more like The Pit Of Eternal Night. There seemed to be two types of darkness: day-dark and night-dark. It shook me to feel so disconnected from nature, even though I don’t consider myself a particularly outdoorsy person. Seasonal affective disorder reared its ugly head, and I clung to my blue daylight lamp like a lifeline—even though it strengthened the impression of being on some spaceship where light from an actual sun was a distant dream.

The Tay from Kinnoull Hill

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Do swans get SAD? – taken at Clatto Reservoir

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Blue Sidlaws & frosty fields

Given the opportunity to write about an oppressive (not snowy—oppressive) winter, I could easily call specifics to mind. The days that barely dawned, the damp feel of the air, how grey a city can look and how little the yellow streetlights do to combat it. Each time I move somewhere, there’s a different feeling, a different way of life, a different slant to the seasons—in short, a different everything, and it makes me leery of writing about any place I haven’t lived, and even about places that I have. My memories of the Netherlands are all cycling, school, train stations. Do I know what it’s like to live there now, as an adult? Could I write it convincingly? Does Alexander McCall Smith ever worry if he’s getting Edinburgh “right” in his books?

With fantasy, local knowledge problems don’t exist in the same way. You come up with a world and a climate and you stick with it. It’s inspired by the real world, or what you imagine the real world to be, but it isn’t bounded by it; that draws me, but lately I’ve been enjoying books set in the real world too. Moving around hasn’t made me any less curious about all the other places out there, and reading books by authors with local knowledge is the only way I’ll get to experience them. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng sent me to Malaysia; Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought me to Nigeria. The fact that they were novels—not nonfic, which I still don’t have the stomach for—kept me invested. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a book like that, one that sets the reader firmly in one locale, expertly written—but it’s interesting to think about.

Could you write about your town, city, village, if you wanted to? Would you want to? And how much complaining about the weather would there be?

Place names, Dragon Age, and originality

Coming up with fantasy place names that haven’t been used extensively elsewhere is an ongoing challenge in my writing life. I don’t want to name my glittering empire after a quiet village in England, after all, but I don’t want to use so many hyphens and accent marks that my names are unreadable, either. So what’s the happy medium?

Well, apparently—at least for me—it’s Dragon Age names. Since a false start on the first game last year, the various place names in DA keep occurring to me when I’m trying to use the fantasy place name generator known as my brain. My fantasy place name generator is pretty flawed to start with—it likes to just throw syllables and bits of various languages together until something sounds right—but to make matters worse, often when something sounds right it’s because I’ve already seen it.

These days, it’s because I’ve seen it before in Dragon Age. Who can blame me? It’s got a lot of great, atmospheric place names. Here, don’t believe me—see for yourself:

Taken from the DA wikia
Taken from the DA wikia entry on Thedas

There’s the empire of Orlais, a world of high fashion where a lady once kept a live songbird in her birdcage-hair, the kingdom of Ferelden, drab and full of dogs, the forbidding-sounding Tevinter Imperium, and all the little places in between and within. Being surrounded by these names as I play settles them in my mind until I (apparently) can’t distinguish them from my own creations. It’s a pain! But it does help me think about my name-creation process, and decide what I like about certain fantasy names and not others.

When it comes down to it, the thing I like about DA names is the simplicity. When coming up with names of places or characters, the realer they sound, the better—assuming the “point” isn’t to set these characters or places apart from human society. But eventually, won’t every realistic fantasy name have been used in some story? There are so many worlds like the DA one: in books, movies, games—you can only put letters together in so many likely ways. So won’t we run out?

I think we will, to be honest, so I try not to worry too much about using the same place names as obscure fantasy novels from the 70s—but it’d suck to accidentally use the same name as some big-name author or big-name game. My process is the following:

  1. Look at a lot of maps
  2. Write down real place names I like
  3. Keep in mind likely additions to place names (“X Castle” “Y’s Reach”, “Z-wood”)
  4. Alter them subtly or throw them together
  5. Google the result!

Creators can always try their luck with online generators too, though I’d warn against comical results like “Fieldbush”. Usually, the answer isn’t in the generated content but somewhere between twenty other options. When I’m writing a story and can’t think of a name, I often write “XXX” in the text to find and replace later. With how long it takes to come up with a good name, who can blame me?

Anyway, that’s my process. I’d be interested to hear what others do to come up with names—and whether they have also been victimised by media like Dragon Age stealing names they would have liked to use. Sigh. Oh well—I guess BioWare got there before me… this time.

[add] I have just been informed by a friend that Thedas is short for “The Dragon Age Setting”—the perfect fun fact addition to this post!