13 October 2009

Writing Spaces

To some people, where we write is very important. Others can write anywhere anytime. I have different writing spaces depending on the weather, time of day, and family activity. When I worked in London I used to mainly write on the train during the daily commute. Of course, for tax purposes, I use the whole house, but most of the time I tend to keep to certain locations.

During the day, in late spring, summer, and early autumn, I take the laptop down to the summer house in the garden – more of a cramped shed really. I find moving to a different place, away from the housework and other distractions, frees up my mind.

I used to write late at nigh after the children had gone to bed, but I now find it more productive to retire early and rise early, before the children are up. During this time I sit at the desk, on the laptop, in the quiet of dawn, in the study/music/office/spare/junk room. With lots of hot coffees. Once the children are up, especially at the weekends, they take over the computer.

During the day, if everyone is out and the weather is too cold/wet for the summer house, I may write in the conservatory where there is most light.

The rest of the time, if a thought occurs to me, I grab one of my many notebooks and scribble so I can get the idea out of my brain and type it up later. Early morning – here come the children – time to hand over the laptop.

Where do you write?

06 October 2009

Help, my protagonists are two-dimensional

What can you do if your protagonists turn out a bit too two-dimensional. The problem, usually, is that they lack character. When I first started posting on WIT my protagonists were a bit like that.

The art of story telling is to reveal character. Remember, description is not character: how people react to events and what they do, is character so give them something to react to. Read your story again - what happens in your story to reveal the character of your protagonists and antagonists? Probably not enough if they seem a bit wooden.

The best way to reveal character is to introduce more conflict. A lot can be revealed about the character of our protagonists if we just place a few stumbling blocks in their way. Or, instead of two characters instantly liking each other, how about making them dislike each other or doubt each other’s motives. Think of your story as an assault course for your protagonists, and give them a good workout

Sometimes, when we have grown fond of our protagonists, we make life too easy for them. You’re a writer, so act like a Greek god and make life difficult for your protagonists (and antagonists); see how they react – they might surprise you, I hope they do.

29 September 2009

Book Commission

I am often asked to recommend reading books for boys in the 5 – 9 year category, that have nothing to do with football, to get them interested in reading. Even though my own children are all girls, I'm still asked about boy's books, as if, just because I write and have a young family, I'm some sort of authority on children's books.

If you ask at the book store, or library, about books for boys in the 5 – 9 age range, the answer is generally, "There's not a lot - a gap in the market, unfortunately." Whilst it is true there are far fewer books available for boys than for girls, especially character series, it is not a complete desert. I usually recommend the excellent, Dinosaur Cove or Secret Tree House series, or the not so excellent, but very popular, Beast Quest series. It may be just me, but I have a problem with the way story solutions, in beast quest, just appear from no where without warning, ex-machina-like. Still, they hit all the right buttons for young boy's: monsters, heroes, game cards etc, and if they encourage boys to read I'm all in favour.

Friends approached me recently and asked if I could produce a book for their 6 year old son's birthday, who is deep into his Wii and Super Mario computer games. Having researched the market, I have decided to take up the challenge and produce something technology based using the popular Rainbow Fairy's (girly book) format.

This means I now have three projects on the go, but more about them in other blogs.

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15 September 2009

Helium3 hits best seller list!

Helium3 is officially a best seller. It currently resides in 74th place on the Smashwords 100 best seller list.

I've blogged about Smashwords before - here's a reminder. Smashwords offer ebooks in all formats (HTML, JavaScript, Kindle, PDF, RTF, Palm Doc, Plain Text), in fact almost all formats used by Ereaders. The great joy of using Smashwords is that you only need to upload the manuscript once and they convert it to all the usable versions. They also automatically convert the manuscript into any new formats they introduce.

Smashwords is also a marketing company, which for me, as an author, is the other main attraction. In other words, they know how to promote, and it doesn't cost me a dime in additional fees for their services. They do take commission, of course, but let's face it, a percentage of something is a lot better than all of nothing.

The current success of Heliym3 is down to a Smashwords marketing campaign in the southern hemisphere, although sales appear to be holding up since the campaign finished in August so it must be gaining a fan base.

15 February 2009

The Importance of Character Flaws

I watched an episode from the third series of House the other day: the one just after he’s recovered from being shot and miraculously has the full use of his damaged leg again. This episode failed spectacularly, but to me, it served to highlight why the character of Dr House is so fascinating.

House is irascible and grumpy, because he’s in constant pain from his leg. We excuse all manor of rudeness, drug taking, and other outrageous behaviour because we know the source of his character flaws. While House is battling to overcome constant pain, he somehow appears heroic. His brilliant medical insights arrive in spite of the pain or maybe because of the pain. There are some unpalatable truths about human values and behaviour hidden in here, but that is the point: that is what makes House so intriguing a character to watch.

Now, remove the cause of House’s irascibility and what do you have left? A grouchy, rude, egotistical doctor who has failed to live up to expectations, and squandered his brilliance. Suddenly, we expect more of this character, and all our empathy dissolves; all the contradictions are gone and the fun of discovering the real Dr House evaporates, leaving us bored and unfulfilled.

So what’s the lesson for us writers? We all know our main characters need flaws, but the failure of this episode demonstrates very clearly that our character’s flaws need cause and effect to gain the empathy of our readers. The more believable the cause of our character’s flaws the more extreme, and therefore interesting, the flaws can become. This creates challenging, but interesting, and ultimately satisfying, writing.

04 January 2009

The Story and Human Nature

There exists a fascinating relationship between stories (narratives) and human nature. In fact, the human brain seems hard wired to prefer narratives. Given a list of hard facts and an intriguing but iffy story, we will always prefer the story. This is why there are so many urban myths, and why gossip thrives – we have an insatiable appetite for stories.

Our affinity for narrative over facts could even be a defining characteristic of the human species (how would an alien species without this ability act/think). Somewhere in out past, narratives provided an evolutionary advantage over the processing of pure facs. Now we are stuck with it.

Even in the most complex and extreme circumstances, such as the current credit crunch, which takes us completely by surprise we cannot help but construct a simple narrative to explain what happened. Regardless that as a race we could not see it coming, we construct a narrative, which had we known the story before the event, would have made the danger obvious to everyone.

I’m reminded of how a primitive tribe on an isolated island survived the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, without a single loss of life, despite their entire village being washed away. They had a story, which had been passed down through the generations, a legend or myth we would call it. This story basically said that when the sea god gets so angry he sucks all the water from the sea, run like hell for the hills.

Someone saw the sea being sucked backwards by the approaching tsunami, remembered the story, warned the village, and everyone acted on it: they ran for the hills. Their survival depended not on knowing the facts or mechanics of tsunamis, but on remembering a vague story hundreds of ears old. Canadian Indians have a similar story, about the sky god spreading his wings and holding back the sea, leading researchers to suspect a tsunami may have hit Canada sometime in the dim and distant past.

This affinity for stories is great news for us story tellers, because it means stories will never go out of fashion. There will always be a market for a well told intriguing stories, because that’s the way we are built.

Nick Travers