Category Archives: Writing

The Perils of the Second Person

In which a dialogue ensues between author and protagonist. When the author lets slip that the protagonist will die, things go from bad to worse.


You walk into the pub, dimly lit, eighties music playing a little louder than you like.

Yes, I’m walking into a pub. Well done. Wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t said. 

After casting glances left and right, the corners of your mouth turn into a frown. She isn’t here.

What? I didn’t come here to meet anyone. Tonight’s the CFL Eastern Final. 

BE QUIET!

Now where was I? Oh yes. She isn’t here, but it’s early, so you take a seat at the bar where you can keep an eye on the entrance.

More like, so I can keep an eye on the TV. Will you just get out of my head for five minutes? Who the hell are you anyway?

Okay, look. Perhaps we need to establish some boundaries. I’m the author. You’re the protagonist. I tell the story, you act it out. It’s not very complicated.

You’re the… You know, for a while I thought I was crazy because I keep hearing this voice in my head. But you’re the crazy one. I wonder what it means when there’s a voice in your head, but the voice is crazy. 

(Counts down from five and takes a deep breath) You order a Sleeman’s and take a sip.

Actually, no. I’m going to order a Guinness tonight, thank you very much. 

“Pint of Guinness,” you say.

What? No. I said Sleeman’s. You were supposed to order Sleeman’s!

Tonight I feel like Guinness. 

Listen. I’ve carefully plotted out this story, in which the reader gradually comes to understand you as we peel away your defences, layer by layer, until, tragically…

Did you say tragically? 

What? No. Of course not. No spoilers. You have to act out each part as if you’ve no foreknowledge of what’s to come.

So how tragic are we talking about? Are the Redblacks going to lose? 

Um, no. Well, yes. But it’s worse than that.

(Sighs) Okay. The love of your life, the woman of your dreams, arrives in the arms of another man.

This woman you talked about that I’ve never seen before? That woman? 

Yes, dammit, that one. And you have seen her, but it was before this story so you don’t remember. Just like you don’t remember your own name, because I haven’t introduced it yet. Look, just run with it all, okay? Can you do that?

So you think I don’t know that my name is Ethan Black?

(Growls)

I’d like to explore this thing about tragedy some more. So this woman comes in with a man. What’s so tragic? 

Well, it’s more what happens next that’s really tragic.

Which is? 

Oh fine! You march to their table where they’ve already ordered a bottle of wine. You smash the bottle on the mans head, then, with the broken top of the bottle, slit your throat. Happy now?

What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?

I was just thinking. You know what I was thinking?

What?

That I’m going to leave this pub and your crummy story. 

No! You can’t do that. I’m the author. You’re the…

Yes, I know. I’m just the lowly protagonist. Bye. 

You get up, put on your coat, and leave the pub, your glass unfinished on the bar. Moments later, all the patrons turn at the sound of screeching brakes and scream as your broken body is tossed upon the pub window. The screams continue as your corpse slides to the ground, leaving streaks of red in in its wake.

Like I said. Tragic.

(With a satisfied smile, takes story and files it away. Nothing worse than a lippy protagonist.)

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The Continuity Conundrum

Suppose you’re a writer and you want to write for a rich, established universe. Think Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars, for example. The question becomes, how do you write something that is original but consistent with all of that backstory?

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for now. The show started over 50 years ago, and although there was that hiatus between 1989 and 2005, that’s still a lot of content. But wait, that’s not all! You also get many books, graphic novels and audio dramas (yay Big Finish!). It’s enough to make your head explode. Unless you’re a Time Lord.

So what’s a poor, human, head-about-to-explode writer to do? Well, we can be grateful that there are websites like http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki. Here you’ll find just about every fact about Doctor Who that exists. If you search for the Third Doctor, for example, you’ll learn about all his adventures in chronological order across all media. As a resource, this site is invaluable. And yet, there’s still a limit to what you can absorb, and there may be details omitted within a given adventure that contradict something in your writing.

I’m afraid this is one of those posts where I have no brilliant solutions. If you actually owned the property, rather than, say, the BBC owning Doctor Who or CBS owning Star Trek, or Disney owning Star Wars, then you could consider crowdsourcing the story. Put the whole thing online, then act on the feedback you get to make the story better. Andy Weir famously did this with his novel, The Martian, with contributors pointing out sciency things that could use some tightening.

If you’re writing fanfiction, then you can do this by posting the story on fanfiction.net, for example. I posted a very short and hopefully humorous Lord of the Rings story there. Once. It was inspired by a review of one of the Hobbit movies that pointed out that the eagles are a kind of deus ex machina in Tolkien’s writing. As multiple readers pointed out, that premise was fully explored in a YouTube video in which our heroes bypass the whole adventure by simply flying with the ring directly to Mount Doom. Rats. That episode cured me of any further desire to write LotR stories. You’ve really got to know your stuff, especially for that fandom.

Posting content online yourself doesn’t really work if you’re writing commercially for someone’s existing intellectual property. As with most things, I suppose you can only do as much research as you can (and as your deadline permits) and do your best.

PS Have I mentioned that Landbound has been released by Big Finish? Oh.

Landbound Available Now

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-largeLandbound, the Doctor Who short story that I wrote, is now available as a Doctor Who Short Trip from Big Finish. The audio drama is free, but you need to login or create an account with Big Finish.

I can’t call it “my” story anymore, as the end result represents a collaboration with Big Finish. To be honest, the final product blows me away. Nicholas Briggs’ narration is exquisite and at times emotionally gut-wrenching. The sound effects take you right there, to the Whitby coast, to the Jolly Sailor pub, and to the TARDIS itself. Then there’s the brilliant music which adds so much to the presentation.

As for my written story, I gave it everything I had to make it the best that I could. Then, with gentle nudges from editor Ian Atkins, we made it better still.

I hope you get a chance to check it out. Let me know what you thought.

Oh yes, and Happy New Year to all!

Landbound

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-large.jpegAs has been announced by Big Finish,  my story “Landbound” was selected for the 2017 Paul Spragg memorial competition. It will be released in audio form in December.

It’s important to note that the point of the exercise is to honour Paul Spragg, a Big Finish employee who passed away at a much too young age. He was obviously beloved by his co-workers and by all accounts was a great human being. Paul believed in nurturing new talent, hence the decision by Big Finish to open the doors in the form of this competition. It’s taken a huge amount of work on their part. Imagine the time it must take to review nearly 1,000 story concepts and narrow the field to a half dozen finalists.

As for me, it’s been an interesting journey. I just checked my fanfiction.net profile and was surprised to see that I posted my first fanfic six years ago. I’d have sworn it was less time than that. Writing fanfiction is a wonderful opportunity to  grow as a writer while meeting and supporting and being supported by fellow writers. At some point, I started to feel I was “ready”, and began submitting stories for publication. Two were rejected, the third has been in consideration for some eleven months, and then there was this year’s Paul Spragg competition. I had no serious expectation that my story concept would be selected and was absolutely gobsmacked when I got the email from Big Finish.

What I’m taking away from the experience is a couple of things. This was the first time working with an editor and it was a wonderful experience. Ian Atkins had some great ideas for how to polish the story and trim it to the required length. He helped me to better appreciate the importance of providing characters with clear motivation, for instance. There was one scene in particular that broke my heart to cut. Ian liked it as well, but pointed out that it didn’t actually move the plot forward, so it could go. It went. And all things considered, the story is better for it.

The second take away is how wonderful the community has been. I’ve received all sorts of congratulations from friends and strangers alike. It’s very heartening.

If you haven’t heard of Big Finish, by all means check them out. Though they’re likely best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas, they also produce dramas for everything from H.G. Wells to Sherlock Holmes to the Prisoner to King Lear. They’ve been expanding their output while somehow improving the quality of their productions. They are very good and well worth exploring. The short trips range, of which Landbound will be a part, are short stories narrated usually by a single actor. Again, there are some real gems here. I’m particularly taken with “Falling“, a lovely first Doctor story that features his companion Polly.

I’ll post a link here when the story is released. Hope you enjoy it.

 

My Favourite Fanfiction Stories

I’ve written a fair number of fanfics at this point. Enough for about two respectable novels if you go by word count. When I look back at them, some of them make me shudder, some make me smile. I thought I’d make a list of the ones I’m most fond of. If you’re just starting to read my stories, this list might help. The timing seems right. If I haven’t stopped writing fanfiction, I’ve certainly slowed down.

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Rook to Castle” was one of my early Castle stories and I think it’s held up pretty well. A very simple story simply told, we see Rick Castle meeting his own creation. I also quite like “Western Castle“, one of my longer stories. It was inspired by an episode of The Prisoner in which the story of the agent who retired was re-told as a western.

 

 

 

 

serenity

 

My favourite Firefly fic is “Bookends“, which tells the story of how Zoe and Wash went from mutual dislike to man and wife.

 

 

 

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Fate of the Earth” isn’t particularly well written Doctor Who, but the core idea is still one I’m proud of. “Walk the Plank“, is a small story about the young Doctor’s first attempt to steal a TARDIS. The story concept was provided by Thomas0399. I like the idea that the last Doctor that Sarah Jane Smith encountered before her passing was the Fourth Doctor, who bent the laws of time to pay her one last visit. That adventure is told in “End Game“. Finally, there’s “Mirror Mirror“, which was my (non-winning) entry for the 2016 Big Finish Paul Spragg memorial contest.

Crossovers

I only actually have one crossover, told in a series of stories, in which Rick Castle teams up with the crew of Firefly and then with the Doctor. The series begins with the Firefly story, “Goodbye” which was never intended to be part of a series. Then I wrote “A Firefly in the Castle“, “Castle Serenity“, and then “Miranda“. Look out for the Doctor’s cameo in “Castle Serenity”. That little hook let me write the final story in the series and bring it to a nice conclusion. It really is true that stories sometimes have a life of their own. Hopefully, as the series progresses, you’ll see an improvement in my writing. Certainly, Miranda was the most complicated story I’ve written in terms of plotting. I had to fit the story into the framework of Serenity (the movie) and my own “Castle Serenity”.

Too Many Fingers

If you’ve been part of a software development and/or engineering team, you’ll understand the concept of unity of purpose. The same principle, it turns out, applies to writing.

They say there are many roads that lead to Rome. If Rome represents the product you want to build, beit a smartphone app, some new whiz-bang hardware, or, let’s say, a story, there’s more than one path you can take to get there. That’s fine if you’re traveling solo. But if you’re part of a team, and different voices are calling out to take this path or that other one or that other other one, it can be a problem. You can end up with a product that looks like the equivalent of a Reaver ship, a cacophony of parts that kinda-sorta work together, but that were never meant to be components of the same whole.

This is why development teams have an architect. This isn’t someone who designs buildings. Well, it can be if what you’re building is, you know, a building. The product architect is someone whose vision of the product carries the day. There can only be one vision, and the team has to buy into this vision. Otherwise, what you end up with is a mess.

The word “mess” has been used more than once to describe a couple of recent superhero movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The problem with both of these? Among others, too many characters. Too many future movie plotlines to set up.
Dawn of Justice
also suffers from too reaction-to-second-batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-trailer-737594
many plots grafted together, too much left out, too many unanswered questions. Why did we need to borrow from both“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Death of Superman” storylines? Each was a major story arc in and of itself and could have carried a movie.

The interesting question is, why do these films suffer from these shortcomings?

ultronThe (likely) answer: Too many fingers in the pie. While these films do have an architect (Joss
Whedon, Zack Snyder) the studios at some level placed too many constraints on the films. Rather
than being allowed to tell a coherent story and tell it well, let’s throw in a few new characters that we want to develop in future movies. Let’s introduce elements that we’re going to explore in future movies. Let’s have more than the last move: bigger, faster, louder.

This was likely one of the reasons the Bond film Quantum of Solace fell short. Forget about telling a compelling story. We need more action that the last film. More chase scenes. And so you end up with a film that has car chases, foot chases, boat chases, and plane chases. Indeed, they seem to have covered all the bases, and the movie is all the poorer as a result. Contrast that with the subsequent Skyfall, perhaps the best Bond ever, where the set pieces and action were driven by the story rather than the other way around.

So what does all this have to do with writing? (Let’s leave screenwriters out for the moment.) After all, most stories are written by only one or maybe two authors. The relevance is that a story has to have a coherent thread driving it forward. Sure, there are supporting characters, several of which can have arcs of their own, but these have to fit together into a coherent whole. You can’t just wander off willy nilly and explore every neat idea. Probably better to keep a “neat idea” file, and to keep your story lean and to the point.

This topic slides into another: How much is too much? By that I mean, I’m not a big fan of filler, even if it’s filler that doesn’t distract from the overall plot. I love a good, thick book as much as the next guy, and I’ve read some series where each book was a door stopper, and yet, I’ve been pretty sure that these stories could have been told with far fewer, thinner books.

It’s a trade off. On the one hand, it can be a real pleasure immerse yourself in the minutia of a new world. On the other hand, you can find yourself wishing the author would just get to the point. Personally, I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when the average novel seemed to be on the order of 200 pages, or even less.

Less, after all, can be more, which applies to both novel length and the number of fingers in the pie.

The Horror!


Horror has changed.

Once upon a time, on a dark and story night, horror was Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, or Dracula. Or all three.

When I was a kid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was on TV one afternoon while my mother was ironing. I was able to stick with it until Lawrence Talbot spied a full moon and, well, you know what came next.

abbottcostellofrankenstein“MOM!” I screeched. “Change the channel.”

She dutifully did so, switching to a soap opera. After a while I calmed down and begged her to go back to the movie. I was fine then, at least until Talbot’s next transformation.

“MOM! Change the channel!”

I loved it. Loved getting scared right to death. And I still do to this day.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, and immediately fell in love. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath remains one of my favourite books. How could you not be scared when the Old Gods were after you? Or when rubbery, foul-smelling, ameboid-shaped abominations poked and prodded you as you descended fitfully to the Dream World and left your sanity behind, one step at a time?

As I started to wonder about writing horror fiction, and I read some horror anthologies and sources such as Nightmare magazine, I started to think about what constitutes horror fiction today. It occurred to me that horror has changed. It’s not so much about monsters in the dark any more. There may well be monsters in the dark, but the real horror is what those humans trapped in the house do to each other while the monsters lurk outside.

The classic modern example is TV’s The Walking Dead, a show brilliant in its writing and acting, but so dark and bleak that I stopped watching around the third season. Yes, there are zombies all about, but even as the world falls apart around their ears, people are still hungry for power, for the chance to one-up each other, and as ever, there are romantic triangles.

The idea, I think, is that when horror exists, we discover some truth about ourselves, something we prefer not to think about, a quality better left unspoken. And man, that’s frightening.