Tag Archives: plot

Random musings on “no new stories” and writing new stories

I’ve been plotting a series of cozy murder mysteries (which may or may not have resulted in me wandering around the house muttering to myself, occasionally absently chatting to my mother about the best way to sneakily kill someone, and maniacally laughing) but I’m struggling to write them, and I still can’t get the damn voice for Necromancer’s Charm right. I’ve been feeling grey and annoyed; writer’s block at its finest, when there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping me writing, but I just can’t get it right.

So I trundled over to see Adrian last night for a kick up the butt and some advice (and a few board games).

“Well, it’s yer ego.” (He’s actually insufferable if you ever meet him in person. Half of my job is a beta reader and half is his ego-flattener, because he needs both :-D). “You’re trying to write something popular, not what you want to write. You’re a good writer but you aren’t writing something you’ll enjoy.”

I promptly argued back that No Man’s Land was what I wanted to write, and that’s not what anyone wants right now. I do need to at least have one eye on what agents/publishers/readers want…so we had a discussion, and I threw some ideas at him. And then he threw one back at me.

Now, there’s no new ideas. Every story boils down to a few things, and as Desire says in Gaiman’s Sandman, every story boils down to the same thing; someone wants something. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.

But one of the problems of being a writer is that you have far more ideas than you could ever write. I have a folder stuffed with them! But because I can’t ever write them all, I’m happy to give them away: after all, if someone can write that story, then best of luck to them! And I’m lucky that Adrian thinks the same.

Besides, as I spotted the other day someplace on Twitter; every story has already been told. It just hasn’t been told by you.

So I have a base idea from Adrian, fitting in with the general time period and theme that I wanted to use. How I tell it is going to be my story; I’ll add twists, tell it in my own way, give it my own spin. It doesn’t stop him using it; if he ever did want to, he’d put enough of his own spin on it that it wouldn’t be the same story, even though it might have come from the same root. Maybe we could start a new genre…

Anyway. I’m not going to tell you anything about it, beyond that it’s a cross between Moist Von Lipwig, Agatha Christie and Only Fools And Horses – and may involve a parrot. Watch this space and we’ll see if this works!

To Fantasy or not to Fantasy?

I have started thinking again about The Thief & The Seer, which has a possible working title of “As Old As My Tongue” or possibly eyes. I haven’t decided yet.

Anyway. I’ve got the basis for a plot, which involves politics and a Quest and a Thief (duh) and stealing a Thing. I wanted a Baddy, something huge and overwhelming, and so I temporarily put in Dragons…and the whole thing seems to currently be set in the traditional Fantasy Cliché world. So I was trying to think of a twist that would make it more interesting.

Well, I can’t think of one. And so I was chatting to a friend over the weekend about it, trying to work out what to do.

The plot could move to anywhere; it’s two people and a third and a theft and politics. That could go sci-fi, or medieval, or ancient, or futuristic. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the setting is.

And that, as my friend pointed out, is the point. Why bother? If those settings aren’t going to add anything, then why not write it in the world I’m comfortable in, using dragons?

Ok, sure, it’s clichéd. But actually the plot is going to have a few anti-cliche twists, and it’s the relationship between the characters that is the interesting thing. The world around it could change, and once the story is written, I could tweak. I could edit. It could move if I suddenly came up with a different setting.

So…fantasy might be the way to go. It’ll be traditional Western Fantasy, sure, but…hey, I’ll have fun.

On wolfpacks and stories

I’m plotting a new campaign!

I’ve been GM’ing a game in the Dresden Files universe for a little while now. However, so far, it’s mostly been one-shots – partly because I was getting used to the world, partly because we weren’t sure when we’d be able to play, and partly because we originally had a mix of players. The one-shots were based within a framework; I’d sent my players hunting for various items, as that allowed for individual games and a varying set of formats and people; I wanted to be able to go between political manoeuvring and action-based adventures depending on who I had playing and what they wanted to do.

However, the sessions have now settled down into fortnightly games with two or possibly three players, aka my wolfpack. We’ve gone from a series of one-shots to a more ongoing game, possibly because one player did something stupid (hooked up with a sex vampire) and then everyone else did something stupid (the current plan is “gain allies, burn everything”) and it’s. So. Much. Fun!

Anyway! The point is that the players are dropping their characters into the political side of things, and I’ve got the chance to do some more overarching stuff with the plots.

My usual plotting technique is “this is what is going to happen if the PCs aren’t here to stop it”, which works pretty well for end-of-the-world and general chaos. However, for the political side, I think I’m going to go a bit more subtle. The idea I’ve got at the moment is to give them tasks, options, choices from the various factions. Who do they want to side with? Who do they want to work for? Who now hates them because of what they’ve previously done?

There will be a wider plot running, but it’s the calm before the storm; it’s the arming up before the Apocalypse. Whose side are the PCs on?

I am also an exceptionally happy GM and friend, because one of my players is writing stories. It means that a) I don’t have to do it, b) I get to read extra information and additional background, and c) he’s an excellent writer so they’re good stories! Obviously, I wrote stories for the previous Dresden game that I played in, so I’m really happy that someone likes the characters enough to want to run with them.

So whee! Plotting ahoy!

On pregnancy, children and narrative satisfaction

No, I’m not pregnant. I just want to rant!

Over the past few years, successive members of my friends and family have gotten pregnant, had children, posted on Facebook about the process…and finally, after a conversation with a friend last week and a long commute with time to think, I’ve put my finger on something that’s been bugging me for a while in the books I read (and write).

When I think about pregnancy and children in fantasy writing, it’s not got much realism.

Where are the miscarriages? One in five real-world pregnancies ends in miscarriage, often at a stage where the pregnancy is known about – so it’s not a surprise! Where are the failed pregnancies, the painful terminations? It’s either the drama of an abortion choice or the happy healthy pregnancy-and-birth; what about when it’s taken entirely out of the character’s hands, and the pregnancy ends without a choice either way?

And where are the plans? Where are the stable couples trying for children and failing? Where are the uncertainties, the failures, the hope against odds that your bundle of cells will have survived? Where are the struggles and questions and problems and communications? On which note, the happily-married couples seem lacking; off the top of my head, Zoe and Wash are my favourite. I know it gives some narrative fun to have will-they-won’t-they drama, but can’t you have drama in a relationship, too?

Thinking of high fantasy in particular, if we’re in a medieval setting…have you looked at the statistics for survival rates? (Go find a book on Shakespeare if you want a good example). Even if the child and mother survived childbirth, the odds of getting to age 4 are terrifying. Ok, add some decent sewage systems and you’ll improve those odds, but even then, without things like cancer treatments, vaccines and even rudimentary bacterial knowledge, your chances of dying – and that’s generally, not even as a child – are pretty high. Where are the burials? Where are the missing playmates? Where are the Heirs that didn’t make it, all too common in the real-world history (Henry VIII…)? Where are the struggles of the ordinary couples trying to have children and not knowing what’s causing them to fail in a world where medicine isn’t particularly advanced? How about the number of women that died in childbirth because doctors didn’t wash their hands? Your world might have elves, but if their doctors are as stubborn and arrogant as human ones were, you’ve still got some serious death rates on your hands.

I appreciate that a lot of the choices made in fiction are down to plot, but…seriously. There are tropes, there are clichés, and they’re getting annoying. If there’s a rape, then oh look, the victim’s pregnant and that feeds into the plot. Lover died? Despite the fact they only had (glorious, beautiful, wonderful) sex once, she has this child to remember him by! Need a son and heir? Sure! Although it might be a daughter just to ramp up the plot twists. And all sex leads to a frickin’ child? I know people that have been trying for a child for a year and some bloody teenager who barely knows what body parts to put where gets pregnant because it’s their Special First Time?

Basically: where’s the ****ing reality?

And I’m not talking graphically. I don’t want intricate depictions of miscarriages and pregnancy plans. I don’t need an in-depth soliloquy from a mourning parent, or a graphic gore scene. I don’t need a side plot with the details of the talking and doctors and whatever else that fantasy world has in it to support pregnancy and children.

I just want an acknowledgement of failed pregnancies. Of children who didn’t survive. Of the talking and decisions that go on in a partnership when you decide to have children. Of the lingering illnesses and sudden fevers that take children more often than they takes adults. Of abortion decisions when maybe abortions weren’t well-supported, and the local witch and a potion was the only way to go. Of the deaths of mother and baby in childbirth, in a world where death is common. Of the physical pain and mental loss when the character’s three-month pregnancy ends in a welter of blood or at seven months in a stillbirth, and it wasn’t caused by an abusive husband or sudden shock or whatever other wretched plot device the author puts in. Of the struggle to conceive and bring a child into a world, be it classic fantasy or more real-world, and the potential for the death and loss of that child before it reaches adulthood.

In classic fantasy, I can put a lot of the problems down to the male author. Women’s bodies and the whole child-making process is pretty strange even for women, so the male author’s lack of knowledge is understandable. The pregnancy-and-childbirth themes are more common in “women’s fiction” or “beach reading” – I really hate those labels – because they’re aimed at women. But in the fantasy world, despite the proliferation of women writers, despite the increasing spread of genre and theme, despite the increasing subtleties and general acceptance of weirdness and difference…I’m finding myself getting annoyed by the sheer lack of any reference.

Yes, there’s gender equality. Yes, there’s strong women. But it’s a physical process, it only happens to one gender, it happens pretty damn frequently, and it would be really nice if it was – even as a minor thing – acknowledged.

This entire line of thought also feeds into another rant that I want to have about disability, which Joanne Harris made a very good blog post about. I took that one very much to heart and felt rather smug that I had already got a disabled protagonist in one of my stories, until I realised that was sort of the point, and I needed to keep thinking about it; I don’t have a quota and putting one in doesn’t mean I can stop being aware of it! But anyway, that’s another post…as is the one on children in fiction – or at least children who aren’t orphans. There was a very good panel on that at BristolCon last year, and I can highly recommend Jasper Fforde’s books for anyone who likes a) Swindon, b) dodos, c) Libraries and book humour, and d) awesome stories with kick-ass mothers.

Anyway. I will stop ranting…but when you’re writing, be aware; what’s your character’s backstory? Do they have a miscarriage, a failed pregnancy, a child who didn’t survive? Are they infertile, unable to have children, longing for a second child? It doesn’t have to feed into the plot. It doesn’t have to be a drama point. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it might be something, however small, that just brings a little bit of reality to your fiction.

On the plotting and writing process

I was recently asked how I plot. My answer, I admit, was something along the lines of “Badly!” – I’m not one of those writers who can meticulously plot something out and then just write it from notes! I get bored…and there’s no space for the story to adapt, which is my major way of writing. My characters go off on tangents, have strange conversations, do really stupid things – and I can’t forsee that! It just happens!

But anyway. It occurred to me that actually, I’m being a bit unfair to myself. I didn’t used to plot. However, I now seem to be settling into more of a rhythm, and for the last four books I have plotted. I did a general post on writing and editing, but I neglected to go into any detail about what happens between the original idea and the writing. So! I’m going to give you an additional bonus of some hints about the last story in the GreenSky series, Bright Spark & Sunrise, and use that as an example.

The story started with an idea about electromagnets, and a conversation with the household (well, the human parts of the household) about how to make one. Essentially, anything that turns can be made into a generator…and I then slotted that into my political situation. So! I’ve got a base idea. Then what?

Characters. Well, this is Meton, so I’ve got a cast there already. But I need a new one, too…I need a spy, probably, to steal the item. I need a spy in the Castle itself to be pushing information out, otherwise how do they know about the device?

This led to a blurb;

There’s a secret project being built in Meton, a device that will change the spark system and the world. And Zack Rezian, soldier of fortune and politician’s messenger, has been hired to steal it. It’s a simple job; he’s only got to contend with a frustrated sleeper spy, a deadly archivist, his own political masters and the radical new Lord of Meton…and that’s before he’s even found out anything about the device he’s been hired to steal.

My next step was figuring out where I wanted to start the story, and thinking about the first chapter. I then do a very rough outline of what’s likely to happen, where events would go. So we’ve got something like;

Zack given task – arrives in Meton – integrates into the Castle – finds device – steals device – escapes Castle – goes home.

For all of those sections, I can then expand. I need an explanation at the beginning, so that could either happen in Meton or in Zack’s briefing (or both). I can add motives; what’s his cover story for the Castle? Who would he meet? How does he get to the device? Does he steal it? What happens if he does? What happens if he doesn’t?

I can add in secondary characters, too. He’d meet some familiar faces; what would they think of him? What’s the sleeper spy’s opinion and thoughts on the situation? What would Zack’s cover story do to his relations with people? Are there any other cultural issues or character problems that could be dropped in to cause tension, plot twists or general chaos?

And all of that then starts to split into chapters. I’ve now got 12 chapters, which at 3000 words each is pretty much perfect length. I’ve got a rough idea of what needs to happen in each one – because I’m used to my writing style, I’m happy with some flexibility, and I know the events can shift between chapters if something takes up more or less space.

And there you go, I’m ready to start writing! I know some people do more plot at this point, working out the exact motives, dropping in everything they want to happen or know…but I’m a lot happier just letting my brain take over and the characters talk. I find that if I plot too much, I’d just rather be writing it!

And have a snippet…

“I don’t usually take commissions that put me firmly on one side of the political divide, but,” and Zack’s shoulders moved in an elegant shrug, “I’m bored.”

“And not getting commissions from the Dirrs,” Bechtol said bluntly, brushing a hand over his white hair.

“Now, now. You should know better than to buy into the rumour mill.”

“I have enough experience to know which rumours are true.”

“It was as much my choice as their to stop performing services for them.” The gentle, mocking smile was still on Zack’s face. “So! What are you going to offer to relieve my tedium?”

“How about a trip to Meton?” the old Marlin said, abandoning his line of questioning as unfruitful.

Zack raised his eyebrows, and then his boots swung off the desk and he sat up, all business. “Sounds less dusty than this place. Details?”