The video I’ve linked to above beautifully articulates what I feel about most of my own characters (male and female). I love the idea of them finding a ‘team mate’ rather than a saviour; a partnership neither of them can do without; someone with whom they make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
The Wordcount is a capricious beast. It is simultaneously the carrot and the stick. The milestone by which you mark what you’ve achieved, and the one that tells you just how far you have to go.
My current novel WIP is sitting on about 65,000 words. I envision it will come in around 90-100,000 words. Which means I’m about 2/3 of the way there. But, hoboy, those last 5000 words have been a slog. I don’t quite know why. I’ve got the key plot stuff all planned out, but I’m having trouble moving between plot points. Generally this means I’ve got to go back and do a bit more work on shoring up the foundations of my story, but that’s a whole other blog post.
A piece of tried and true writing advice is that if you commit to writing a certain amount of words a day (or a week, whatever), it will only be a matter of time before you’ve completed your 80,000/90,000/120,000 word novel. And that’s true…to an extent. It’s not quite the whole picture, though. You can write 90,000 words in three months, but if by then your protagonist hasn’t yet found the magic widget, vanquished the evil nemesis and saved the cat, you’re not finished. You might have another 10,000 words to go. Or another 50,000.
If you’re a good planner – or, perhaps I should say, if your writing practice revolves around planning your work – wordcounts are probably a really good yardstick by which to measure how you’re meeting your writing goals. You probably know you want to write a 90,000 word story and you know X will happen by 30K, Y by 45K, and Z will happen in the last 5K. Great.
But I’m more of a pantser. I feel like this will be a 90,000 word story. I’ve got my plot bones set out, but I don’t do detailed planning around how I’ll get from A to B to C. I’ve already had to revise my chapter plan about 4 times, because the stuff I thought would happen in chapter 7 won’t happen now until chapter 10. It’s all good. That’s what first drafts are for – working all this stuff out. The thing is, though, I find I just can’t commit to progressing my story to a certain point within a certain wordcount. So, for me, I often find that plot milestones are a better way of measuring the development of my work. Have we found the magic widget? OK, now we’re halfway through. Have we just set out to vanquish the nemesis? OK, that’s the 3/4 mark.
The wordcount is still there, sitting down in the bottom corner of Word, alternating between mocking me and being a triumphant marker of progress. I’ve found myself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m in that mid-draft slump. When I’ve reached 70,000 words, I know I’ll be doing OK.”
The fact is, though, I am doing OK. I’ve written 65,000 words. They’re not perfect, but I’m generally happy with them. And having the manuscript sitting at 70,000 words won’t be any guarantee that the 2000 words between 70 and 72 K won’t also be a bloody hard slog. There are times when it feels like I am inching myself forwards by the raw edges of my chewed-off fingernails. But I’m not in bad company.
George R R Martin on writing A Dance With Dragons:
The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.
I just have to keep on swimming.
It’s not just a useful reminder about what that spark is that tells us creatives we have something to offer the world, it also explains why we’re always trying harder, why we persist even when we haven’t quite measured up and…
…why, even when we haven’t necessarily hit the dizzying heights of perfection that are the standards we set for ourselves, we still have something to offer our friends, peers and colleagues in our field of creative endeavour that will help them improve as well.
Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.
This week’s guest is Ian McHugh, who sports what is surely one of the most resplendent beards in the Australian speculative fiction scene. His writing speaks for itself and has featured in publications such as Asimov’s, Clockwork Phoenix and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is renowned as a blunt and fearless (and therefore extremely useful) beta reader, and his critiques often start with a variation of: “Your story starts here on page 3.” He can frequently be found running workshops at the ACT Writers Centre, or teaching at the University of Canberra.
Tell me a little bit about your latest book/story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.
I’m currently writing a secondary world fantasy novel with early modern technology – steam engines and gunpowder weapons and whatnot – combined with magic. It’s not steampunk, I just wanted to step away from the standard medieval-era for adventure fantasy. So, I needed to know early steam technology, firearms and artillery, as well as naval warfare in the transition from sail to steam, siege warfare with early cannons and (because it’s a magical secondary world) golems.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?
This current project started with canals. The canal infrastructure from the early industrial revolution in Britain was incredible. They had actual mechanical lifts – not locks, lifts – for barges, where the barge would go into a gated tub and be lifted, water and all, straight up a cliff, with a counterweight tub coming down. So, that canal infrastructure became a bigger part of the story as I wrote, and a number of the pivotal moments in the story are built around canal things.
How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?
I tend to research big things before I start writing, then research details as I go. As such, research is important to both my writing process and my procrastination process. It also means I do a fair bit of backtracking to retrofit corrected details as I write, so forward progress some days can be slow even if I’m working hardly rather than hardly working.
Is research a distraction or an inspiration?
I think once you have writer-brain, everything and anything can become research and inspiration. Generally speaking, research is inspiration. Research is also incredibly distracting. So many rabbit holes to disappear down! For example: I recently wanted to know if a 1700s era cannon was in an elevated position – on top of a wall, say – how close to the foot of the wall could it shoot? How did they shoot downwards? Could a cannon’s barrel be declined to shoot downwards? Was it ever the done thing? I lost hours. Found a multiplicity of blogs and rants and treatises and articles and instructional manuals about the optimum angle of elevation for maximum effective range for every kind of cannon and carronade and culverin and mortar and firestick. But what about when the other fellas are nearly at the bottom of the wall? I know they used a cotton bung to stop the cannonball rolling out when the gun was pointed down, but beyond that, I’m as ignorant as when I started.
When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?
Something like how to shoot artillery from the top of a wall might seem like a detail I could write around, but it’s the little details that can catch you. If I want to have my characters defend a fortress when both sides have artillery, I need to know what the actual real strategies were for both attacking and defending a fortress with artillery. Just because it’s a secondary world, I can’t just make shit up that sounds good to me, because it will probably be completely wrong. Whatever secondary world you’re writing, it’s going to have a lot of real-world stuff in it. You have to get that stuff right first, if you want your secondary world to have any kind of credibility, then figure out how your magic and dragons and whatevs fit in with it and change it.
Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.
I think you need to approach research with the expectation that it’s going to change your story, because research is a critical part of the process of developing and refining your story idea. And, if you’re like me and keep researching as you write, it’s also part of your drafting process. As such, every bit of research tends to have consequential changes for my plots and scenes and worlds. Less so with characters, I think, unless they’re non-human (and I find a cool way to pimp them up some more) or based on historical figures (and I turn up an interesting factoid about the real person).
I have a draft of a historical fantasy novel currently filed in the Cry For Help folder, which featured a version of Peter Lalor, the leader of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion. I originally conceived him as a fairly idealistic figure, but then reading about the real man, I discovered that, after leading this rebellion to demand democratic rights for gold miners, he became a member of parliament and voted against those rights. Although the men he led to take up arms were Chartists and other advocates of democracy, Lalor wasn’t. He was a republican and a liberal, but not a democrat. Given that the conceit of my novel is, in part, “what if Lalor’s rebellion was successful?”, this tidbit threw up some interesting questions. So my version of Lalor now became a kind of Australian Robespierre and his rebellion/revolution followed the template of the French Revolution – including the Terror. Suddenly my character had way more depth and a way more interesting arc.
Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?
I said before that research is inspiration. Sometimes it’s also an obstacle or a roadblock. I don’t know that I’ve ever abandoned a story because of something my research turned up, but research often turns up inconvenient bits of knowledge that then need to be accounted for. In my story (deep breath) Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture, I conceived an alien species with five genders. Initially, I just said they had three available sex chromosomes which could be paired in five viable combinations. But then I read about the other non-chromosomal ways that gender is determined in nature, like temperature variance and haplodiploidy (look it up), so I had to not only have my scientist protagonist consider those possibilities as well, but I had to consider for myself whether they were more realistic than what I’d proposed.
What was the weirdest thing you had to research?
Research for stories is often esoteric, but I think it’s only weird to other people. If you’re geeking out on it, it never seems weird. And if you’re (if I’m) researching for a story, then you’re (I’m) probably geeking out. You just end up knowing a lot of unusual factoids – for my recent story Demons Enough I decided I needed to know how much blood is in an adult human (five litres, for anyone who’s interested). Knowing it wasn’t critical for the story (read it, you’ll see) and finding it out didn’t change how I told the story, but I was geeking out on the story, so I wanted to know. Not weird at all, see?
What kind of research have you needed to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? How do you approach that?
If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind you’re always researching for stuff that doesn’t exist. I think most of the time, you’re riffing on what’s real – extrapolating technology or politics, mashing things together to make a monster, filing off the serial numbers from some meditative technique and saying that’s what you do to work magic. And if you’re not riffing on what’s real, you’re probably riffing on something someone else made up before. So, for me, I don’t think there’s a difference in the research approach – writer-brain is always switched on. It’s more what I do with it once I’ve done the research. If I’m researching something that exists, then I regurgitate it as accurately as possible into my story. If I’m researching something that doesn’t exist, then I bang together things that do until I get sparks of something new.
Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honourably mentioned for world year’s bests and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.
Ian lives in Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.
…Next time you’re having trouble getting the story flowing, Leife, stop and have a think about how you can make that particular plot point have emotional consequences for your characters.
I’m amazed at how often I forget basic pieces of writing advice. Then when I remember a thing I’ve known for years (usually when I’m in the shower), it’s an epiphany.
I’ve been struggling to move my current WIP along for the last couple of weeks. It’s been a bit puzzling. I’ve got that bit of plot all mapped out. I know what’s supposed to happen. But, somehow, I just haven’t managed to bring it to life.
I’d put it down to the depressing necessity of returning to work after holidays, tiredness, general malaise, burnout from having gone hammer-and-tongs at the manuscript in the two months leading up to Christmas. I couldn’t figure it out.
Then, in the shower today (of course), I worked it out. I had a plot point. I had a thing that had to happen to move the story along, but it was entirely mechanical and bereft of any emotional impact on my characters. I just had to spend a few minutes thinking about how I could
use the scene to mess up my characters some more add an element of emotional narrative to the scene and Voila! It came alive.
Somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the term “emotional stepping stones”. This idea resonates strongly with me and how I like to write. I can plot out a sequence of events for my story, but what brings it to life in my mind and gets my creative juices flowing is the emotional touchstones of a character’s arc. Every time I think about a candy bar scene that I had to get up in the middle of the night to write, it’s a scene involving some kind of emotional high (or low) for my character.
So that’s my note to myself. To remember that my story isn’t just a sequence of events, but a series of emotional stepping-stones, and that, actually, is what keeps me interested.
So glad I sorted that out. Now have some more Pre-Raphaelite pictures of beautiful people having emotions.
Here I am over at Angela Rega’s blog answering her searching questions about fairy tales…
This week’s Fairy Tale Friday is writer, Leife Shallcross. Leife lives in Canberra, Australia, with her family and a small, scruffy creature that snores. She reads fairy tales to her children at night, and then lies awake listening to trolls (or maybe possums) galloping over her tin roof. Her work has appeared in…[see more]
I’ve been indulging in some candy bar scenes this week. These are typically the scenes you hold off writing, because they’re the fun ones; the ones that signify major plot points or key emotional stepping-stones for your characters. You’re supposed to hang them out in front of you like a reward you get after the rest of the wordage is down.
I find, though, these are also the scenes that help me keep a story on track. They’re the ones that set the character of the whole novel, and the touchstones I keep returning to when I feel like I’m losing my way. Getting a candy bar scene down ahead of time can help me focus on where the bit I’m actually up to in the plot is heading. They’re also the points at which my characters shine brightest – where their personalities and motivations are most clear. So they also keep me focused on how I am developing the people inhabiting my story.
Typically, these are the scenes where my Muse kicks into overdrive, so they are addictive. I tend to find they leave me a bit wrung out, though. And often when I come to incorporating them into the story as a whole (imagine a kind of literary connect-the-dots), I find they are heavy on emotion, but lacking in the kind of world-building depth that really brings a story to life. That’s fine, though. That’s what first drafts are for, after all.
For me, the key issue is balance. If I write all my candy bar scenes all at once, I just end up with a bunch of disjointed, high energy scenes that don’t actually tell a story. I confess, this was pretty much how I approached writing in my teens. I’m not sure if it was the teen thing, or an overdose of candy, but the other problem I experienced with this approach is that what I ended up with was also kind of melodramatic and silly. Also, I ran out of energy to write the bits that knitted the story together as a whole.
But if I just try to slog it out from beginning to middle to end, I get lost in the fog of the present and can’t see where I’m going, or how to get there.
I like to think of it as finding my way by following a kind of trail of candy through the forest of my unwritten draft.
If you haven’t checked out the excellent Paying For Our Passion series of guest author blogs David McDonald is doing over at Ebon Shores, I highly recommend it. Mostly because of the insight it provides into how different writers make this writing thing work, but also because (full disclosure) my guest blog went up yesterday.
Here’s what David has to say about his inspiration for the series:
Juggling your creative time with a full time job can be draining at the best of times, how much more so when you feel like the time put into writing is being wasted because it isn’t immediately a huge success? And, what about people who have to juggle being a parent or a full time carer as well? People with a chronic illness? How do they cope?
Because this is a personal issue, we often keep it to ourselves. Worse, sometimes we don’t talk about it because we think everyone else is living the rockstar writer lifestyle and we are the only ones struggling to find that balance–and we don’t want to look like a failure. I thought this was a subject worth exploring, and hopefully seeing how others deal with these challenges might a) help new writers realise they aren’t alone b) give us all ideas that might help.
So far, David has had guest posts from a range of Australian authors and editors, and has even started profiling some New Zealand authors after a recent trip there. I highly recommend the post from writer and poet Maureen Flynn as one that’s particularly moving.
So, what I have I sacrificed in the pursuit of literary glory? Well, the hint is in the title of this post. It’s fair to say my creative career can be characterised as a constant battle to balance the conflicting needs for sleep and writing time. Go read the article, and check out some of the others!
Tonight I’m doing some research on fencing schools in London in the 18th century. So have some awesome pictures of 18th century fencing.
Being a very visual person, I do a lot of searching for useful images. So I was very puzzled when my last lot of Google image searching on fencing schools produced an abundance of images like this:
In my last post, I talked about how being a writer has limited my capacity as a reader. But I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t read any more. Far from it. I just find I have to be a lot more selective these days.
So what do I read and how do I prioritise? Well, here are some thoughts. In terms of priority, it’s roughly in order, but subject to change on the basis of necessity or whim.
1. I still read to my kids. I’ve put this first, because it happens almost every day, so it probably makes up the bulk of my fiction reading, even though it’s not technically for me. They’re 12 & 10 now, but they love being read to. Right now we’re reading Joan Aiken’s All But a Few. But we’ve worked our way through plenty of fabulous books. This is pure, unadulterated fun.
2. Books I really, really want to read. These are the ones that furnish the landscape of my imagination. These books have built the pantheon that I want to be a part of as a writer. They feed my muse and inspire me.
3. Books I want to read because they’re going to help me improve my craft. They might be beautifully written, or have an intriguing story premise, or won an award, or have caught the zeitgeist, or be somehow relevant to my own work.
4. Beta reading for friends. It might not be for leisure, but it’s reading fiction written by someone else and it certainly helps my own craft.
5. Non-fiction reading, usually for research, but sometimes for fun. Hell, the best research is fun.
6. Catching up on published work by friends. This is basically an impossible task now. But I do what I can.
And that’s it. That’s all I can fit in.
What I find interesting, now I’ve put that list together, is how all of it ties back, somehow, to supporting my own writing. It might just (just! *rolls eyes*) be reigniting my passion for stories and beautiful words, or it might be something more concrete, like learning more about a historical period, or how to construct a murder mystery. But I can’t not read without that writer part of my brain ticking over, hoarding the good stuff and putting squiggly red lines under the bad.
Which tells me, ultimately, that time spent reading is time well spent. Even though – or perhaps because – it’s rarer and more precious than it used to be.