Tuesday 26 March 2013

Notes in the Margins

The astute amongst you may have noticed that the side bar menu has expanded...

This is kind of an experiment. And, because I apparently don't like to make life easy, it's two experiments at the same time. Alpha and Rise.

They are serials of a kind, growing, ongoing, at approximately one part a week. Each part is about one hundred words, and written using the weekly words from the Prediction. Just to take the challenge up that extra notch... ;)

I'm going to digress for a moment to talk about the Prediction...

There is an ancient tome, once in the possession of horror writer Lily Childs, if any could be said to truly possess it. Where she came upon it she will not talk of. In time she freed herself from its grasp in the only way it will allow, by finding a willing victim. So it found a new host in a young man named Phil Ambler, and though he had the tome for but a short while he was forever changed by it. In turn, he passed it on to an American, Colleen Foley, perhaps hoping the wide expanse of the Atlantic would wash some of its horror from his hands...

Each week the tome coughs up three words, and those that accept its challenge must create a story in a hundred words or less, using the three words. Something of the tome's nature creates a definite leaning towards horror, but other genres are acceptable. And in this way we satiate the tome, and keep its darkness from consuming the world.

Something like that, anyway. Seriously though, it's fun. My fellow cultists writers are a friendly bunch and all are welcome to join. Colleen picks a winner and runners up each week, but the best thing about it is the wide range of stories that come out of the same three words.

So, where was I? Oh yeah, Alpha and Rise. Fuelled by the Prediction's three words, which makes it harder than usual, because instead of finding a story to fit the three words, I have to fit the three words into an ongoing story. Sometimes this works more successfully, more smoothly, than others, but the prediction is good for keeping the momentum going. As a weekly challenge it makes me keep adding to the stories week by week.

So Alpha is a superhero story, and Rise is something like steampunk. They are first drafts, unpolished, and mostly unedited. In some ways they are the skeletons of what I hope to flesh out into something more meaty, more substantial. Think of it as watching me plot the stories, a peek at an early part of the process.

So the pacing may waver, it may dwell on a scene for a few parts before moving suddenly elsewhere. All those transitions that can be handled so nicely in a larger piece are not always so easy in hundred word sequential segments.

Plot is a very interesting part to the experiment. When I first conceived of Alpha, I knew straight away a few plot twists down the line, some I think are maybe obvious, some less so. And the problem I'm having is creating some kind of momentum at the beginning, something to carry Alpha towards the future tragedy that Jigsaw has predicted. So while I like a lot of the parts I've written for Alpha, it's not going anywhere in a hurry.

Rise, on the other hand, is off to a much better start. Because the story begins with the character thrown out of her comfort zone into a world she is familiar with only from her window, she is straight into the action. When I conceived of a larger story for Olivia it was more about a personal journey for her, and her discovery of her world.

So, in a way, Alpha is trying to find some way of arriving at my inspiration and ideas for the story, but Rise started out in the heat of the idea. Whether this means that when I approach endings, some time in the future, Alpha will then pick up the pace and Rise will struggle more... I don't know. That's all part of the experiment!

For now, please read what is there and let me know what you think. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you enjoy it enough to come back for more. =)


You can also hear me talking a lot of nonsense and a little about writing, as a guest on the latest Bros and Cons podcast. =)
Available on libsyn (which should work in your browser just fine) or iTunes. It's Episode 18.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Once upon a Time, in the Beginning

First lines are tricksy things, and they're tricksy twice over.

First lines set the mood. A good first line starts you on firm footing; a bad first line and you're already shaky, you already have to work to get back on the level.

It occurred to me the other day that first lines occur twice in a piece of writing's life. There's the obvious one: a reader looks at your website, or picks up your book, or turns the magazine's page to your story, and the first words they read are going to shape their initial impression of you, your writing, and your story.

I mean, how much pressure is that!?

If I see a sloppy first line I have to ask myself, if the author or the editor didn't care enough to make sure that first line was the best it could be, what must the rest of the story be like? An average first line is alright, the book could go either way from there, I'll read on. But an amazing first line grabs hold of you and hooks you right there and then.

OK, so sometimes a good first line draws you in and then the next few lines hook you, but you get the idea.

"As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk."

That's the first line from Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief. And it's superb. It instantly has me curious, it's unusual and interesting and I want to know more. The Quantum Thief actually has several great first lines - at the beginning of most of its chapters.

"Once there was a city of women."

Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey from The City of Silk and Steel. It's succinct and again, interesting, it makes me want to read on. Simplicity can work.

"On playing back the 911 recording, it'd seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a big shotgun."

Warren Ellis, Gun Machine. Less elegant perhaps, but it sets the tone, it amuses, it puts me in the mood to read more. And that's the important thing.

First lines are not the be-all and end-all of whether a story is good, of course. I'm sure plenty of bad stories have fantastic first lines, and vice versa. But if the first thing you present is bad, you've already got an uphill struggle to convince the reader that the story is a good one.

But I mentioned two occurrences. And the other is when the writer begins. The first words he puts onto the blank page. We all know how terrifying that expanse of empty white is, like a sheet of ice that needs breaking so that the narrative ship can sail smoothly through, and other such laboured metaphors.

If the first words I put to paper are great, it puts me in a good mood. If they come easily and hit the spot then, as a writer, I am already well-disposed towards the rest of the story. The story already feels good, and if I'm feeling good about it, then the odds are it's going to flow more naturally and read more naturally from then on.

A troublesome start, an idea that doesn't quite fall right, a character who feels clumsy from the outset, will put me in a frustrated mood, tense, and that will come through in the writing. It can be edited of course, and by the end I might have a better feel for the characters and the story and rewriting the opening might be easy, but I have to work harder to get into the story and bring that character to life. And just as when I'm reading a story, if I'm struggling to enjoy something I'm writing, I may not even get to the end.

As a reader, and as a writer, I enjoy a good opening. Both in reading and in writing one. Sometimes they come easily, and sometimes they can be elusive, troublesome bastards. But never, ever underestimate their importance.