Write what you know, but do it differently.

Hello everyone.  I am going to be thinking on the page at you and trying to come to some sort of conclusion, and I would like to invite comment from you as this will be more interesting and fun with reader participation.  I want to talk about one of the things you hear a lot.  Write what you know.

It is an easy thing to say, and it makes a lot of sense.  How can you write about what you don’t know, after all?  Well, research helps though some would argue that to write from a perspective you have to have experienced that perspective to write with fidelity.  I think that is a discussion for another time.  Today I will stick with write what you know.  And I will make one admission here.  I don’t know if this will work for everyone.  I know it has worked for me.  So, let us hope that you take something away from this.  I am going to tell you two brief stories first.

I am playing in a game of Dungeons & Dragons at the moment.  5th Edition if it matters to you.  My Games Master has been quite rigorous in creating a world, and encouraging us players into making deep characters.  After my initial wizard character was basically vetoed as his purpose for being went contrary to a player’s wishes, I came up with a Dwarven Character called Hadrin.  I gave him a clan, named his living relatives and gave his clan some history and their position in Dwarven politics.  Then I wrote about an encounter Hadrin had with a powerful magical being that his Grandfather, the clan leader, had a deal with.  The premise being that I wanted the Dwarven Clan to be pioneers in vehicle technology.  Since regular industry was vetoed at character creation, I worked this encounter in so as justify magical technology.  So, imagine Magic Powered flying machines for instance.  The Clan supported itself by mundane means, mining and smelting like good little mountain Dwarves.  The Games Master said he liked the idea of the magical technology.  He liked the background and history of the clan, and their position in Dwarven society.  He then said he found the fact they were mining mountain Dwarves boring.   He wasn’t vetoing the idea, he wasn’t even vetoing the fact that they were miners in the mountains.  He just wanted to encourage me to push the boundaries a little bit.  So we got to talking about it.  And eventually we came up with an idea of an offshore clan of Dwarves that live on a massive platform.  The platform has drilling shafts and lifts to the seabad where the Dwarven farms are, whilst the platform itself served as a base for them to build their dirigibles.  We took the idea of an industrious dwarf, and took him out of the mountains and made the idea work at sea.  The end result was the Coraldeep clan of Dwarves.  Dwarves that effectively live on an offshore rig, build airships and their warriors – the Tidebreakers – wear armour that is akin to deep dive apparatus.  I made a Dwarf trained to fight underwater, to protect workers from sea monsters.  Not your standard Dwarf.

My second story is about the books I am currently reading/rereading, the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  They are a fantasy series set in a world where there are different kinden of human, each of which is basically an evolution along the lines of one form of insect.  And, members of these kinden take on the characteristics of their parent insect.  So, Ants have a hive mind, Mantis are really good killers and wasps have a sting and can fly.  So, it is a fantasy world with city states at a technological level somewhere between middle ages and renaissance Europe.  However, magic was once a major factor in the world in times referred to as the Days of Lore.  Magic is more or less gone, except for a rare few kinden that still practice – Moths and Mosquitoes spring to mind – and the story is mostly about the politics of city states within the Lowlands, with the Wasp Empire invading.  All sounds fairly fantasy so far?  However, in Shadows of the Apt an industrial revolution has happened.  The Days of Lore ceased as the slave races of the Moths and the Mosquitoes became Apt; technologically proficient.  And from this they developed automotives, flying machines, crossbows and more.  Magic is no longer the dominant factor in this fantasy, Industry is, and it has a similar effect on the politics of a fantasy book.  Technology becomes the “Tool” employed to defend against the Wasps, where magic might have been used in another fantasy.  The main wise character/mentor archetype in this book , Stenwold Maker, fills the roll that a wizard might in another fantasy.  He is a professor of engineering.  And a spymaster.  And when you think about it, what is a spell but a process or procedure using components in a specific way to achieve a specific effect.  Assembly of a device could fall into this category.

In both my stories there is something I was familiar with.  An Industrious Dwarf.  And a fantasy setting with a learned man aware of approaching doom.  And in both cases it would be easy to write only what we know.  About an industrious Dwarf who hails from the mines.  About a Wizard that senses the approach of war.  However, in both cases, something has been changed in the setting or circumstance without changing the fundamentals of the characters involved.

Hadrin Coraldeep is still an industrious dwarf.  However, his clan work the sea rather than land.

Stenwold Maker is still knowledgeable, sees the approaching doom and can come up with solutions others cannot.  But he builds things with his hands rather than casts spells.

In each case the standard trope that has been changed is changed into something that serves the same or similar purpose.  However, this change in circumstance creates an entirely new idea around a particular story.  So, let us think.  What other things can be changed?  Is this idea transferable?

Horror – Vampires survive by feeding on blood.  Perhaps we create a creature that has a different survival mechanism that is equally terrifying?  Maybe we change their weakness during the day…I know that was done in Twilight.  I am sure there are other ways to change the nature of a dark creature that would add to the horror, rather than simply make them obvious.

Science Fiction – What can we change here?  It is such a huge genre, to have only one entry is inadequate.  What about a close encounter/first contact story?  Where the protagonists meet aliens for the first time?  What if the protagonists are not from Earth, and the aliens they encounter are?

Romance – This was done perfectly by Daphne Du Maurier in Rebecca, where the bulk of the book was about post marriage and post honeymoon period, whereas standard conventions have romance dealing with the courtship phase.

Crime –  What if your main viewpoint character was the criminal?  Perhaps there is a threat, perhaps of murder or theft.  And maybe the main character is somehow involved in the security operation, but is actually the criminal.  I feel this has probably been done, however I suspect if you do it well it would be masterful.

So, over to you.  What things do you write about, and what could you do differently to set yourself apart?

Fantasy World Building Part 1: Establish the Rules through History

Hello folks.  Welcome.  I have been wondering about what content to share with you that is different from every other writing websites out there and inspiration struck.  The one thing that Sharp-Writing has that other writing websites don’t is me.  It was so simple really.  I started thinking about my own creative writing and decided to share the process, if not the details (you’ll forgive me for keeping my stories close to my chest until they are ready for reading).  A couple of disclaimers.  I write fantasy so my posts will often refer to that – and this will be one of them.  And secondly, whilst I have studied creative writing at Degree level and consider myself skilled enough to know what works much of the time, I am not infallible.  I am going to share what I am doing just now, and perhaps it can help some people.  And perhaps some of you can help me by sharing your thoughts.  This post will be part of my Fantasy World Building series.

Disclaimers done, let’s get to the good stuff!

I am currently working on a Fantasy Story.  I have been working on this story in one form or another for the better part of 10 years.  It has gone through many evolutions, and I have abandoned hundreds of pages of work when I realised that they were going to fail for various reasons (cliche, strands pulling apart and so on).  However, I still want to tell the story even if some of the details change, even if some of the setting changes.

One of the problems I kept encountering was that whilst I liked the characters, and their goals, the rules of the world were just too convoluted.  Individually they were fine, but because they were not developed consistently.  I would write some stuff down one day, and then not add to it for months and thus forgot important stuff (highlighting the importance of Writing Daily – I did a post about that).  So, I started again.  I often start again when a rework is so monumental it would take equally long or longer to revise what I had.

I knew in my world I wanted the technology level to be somewhere between medieval and renaissance Europe.  I wanted Magic to be a thing, and even had the “laws” of magic in mind.  I didn’t want guns or cannons.  I knew I wanted necromancy and various states of vampirism to be a thing.  I knew that I wanted a Pantheist society, and I even had a few of the Gods worked out.  In my original lineup I had a major plot device spring from a division amongst the gods.  I penciled this in, but was less sure about it.  I had an idea for the over arching plot, and the underlying message and who the villain would be.  I wanted to keep that villain, so they were added as a character.  Though I decided that their background was going to be different as the original one was too convoluted and didn’t quite work.  I had all these ideas, and they weren’t dissimilar to the stuff that I had written before (yes there were some changes, but not many).  And I wondered how I could rationalise it all, and not forget it.  And that is when I decided to write, in brief, the history of my world.  Don’t get me wrong, at this stage basics were all that were necessary but I figured that I would write the history of my world and work into that history, into that story, how all the things I wanted would come to be.  And then I would have a reference document that I could update along the way, which I can then turn into a single document to read through anytime I need a refresher.  I used the software Scrivener, and if you click on the following video I will show you how I did it.

So, that short video deals with creating a history of your setting, in the example a history governing one of the rules of the world.  I alluded to it in the video, however I will reiterate it here.  I am more likely to remember the rules of my fantasy world if I remember the history, the story that created them.  This is because your brain remembers thinks that are more vivid and evocative.  History is a story.  Rules are bland.  Writing the background history establishes the why, and once you understand that you don’t forget it.  And, as an added bonus, writing background can generate unexpected story.

knowing the history of your world helps you remember the rules of the world and can generate story

It occurs to me that I have talked about needing to be able to understand the rules of my world but never said why.  And it is simple.  It is about consistency and stability.  If your world has sorcery that can conjure fireballs, seemingly from nothing, then that needs to be part of the rules of the world.  And thus that means anyone can do it under the right circumstances.  Fantasy Narratives are a hard pill for some folk to swallow, but nothing helps them fall apart more quickly than when the writer breaks their own rules.

So, does this seem like it is of use to you?  What do you do and how does it work for you?

The Importance of Writing (daily)

Hi there, welcome.  Today I am going to talk about writing.

Well duh, some of you said I imagine.  Ok, let me be specific.  If you go to any writer’s blog out there, and I mean any of them, sooner or later you will find a piece of advice telling you that you should write every day.  I am not denigrating that advice, frankly it is good advice.  If you want to become a marathon runner you need to exercise to build stamina else you are going to hit the wall very early on and never complete.  I am going to borrow from this analogy.  Writing is work, and it uses your brain.  Your brain is a muscle.  A muscle works best if it is regularly exercised.  Reading helps in this respect,

A Mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone quote from game of thrones, used in relation to things writers can do to keep their minds active and focused.

…and so does writing.  The more you write the better you get at it.  However, sometimes even the most talented or dedicated writer gets blocked.  Assuming of course you believe in writer’s block.  I think that is just a fancy term for a mixture of boredom and fear.  I may come back to that in a bit.  Anyway, moving on.  It is (relatively) easy to write everyday when you are feeling positive and when you are feeling inspired.  Some people will say that they can’t find the time.  I will say, I don’t believe you.

You always have some time, however you may choose to spend it doing other things.  And I do appreciate there are those out there with families and other jobs that demand a lot of their time.  My comments here are not really aimed at that demographic.  I daresay those folks could find some time to write, but perhaps in their case free time is a rarer commodity.  I am talking about the folks that do have plenty of time, but choose to spend it doing other things.  Tell me you don’t have free time and I will tell you that you are undisciplined.

That is something that people don’t always get at the outset.  If you are wanting to make a living from writing, or maybe you aren’t interested in a living but you want to publish a novel, then you need to be disciplined.  With discipline you can find the time to devote to your craft.

So, now we have time.  But we aren’t feeling up to it.  Being disciplined helps here too, however that isn’t everything.  After all, particularly if fiction is your forte, you are making stuff up and if you are feeling uninspired then, where do you start?

For some people it is free writing from a prompt, which if you don’t understand what that means it is fairly straightforward.

A writer is given a prompt, the start (or part of) a sentence and might start a paragraph using it as their first line.  Or As a line in the paragraph, or not at all and just writes what the prompt makes them think.  The important factor is that the writer takes the prompt and writes.  They don’t self edit, they don’t stop; they just write.

What comes out might be chaotic, it might be nonsense or it might be the start of something unexpected.  It doesn’t matter.  The quality doesn’t matter either at this point.  If the writer has been able to write anything, then the exercise has been a success.  That is free writing from a prompt.

Another method, that I personally find helps, is keeping a writer’s journal.  I find I am at my most prolific if I keep a journal every day about my writing.  Obviously if you spend your entire Saturday writing 3000 words of decent quality work, you aren’t necessarily going to want to spend loads of time writing about it.  If you are keeping a journal, enter the date and write down you wrote 3000 words on whatever topic it was you wrote.  That is enough.  However, the power of the journal comes into its own on those days you don’t write 3000 words for your novel or your script or your blog.   On those days I tend to start writing what I think about my work, start talking to myself on the page.  I write down what I want to do, asking myself “What are the consequences of this?”  And then I answer myself.  I might spend 500 or 1000 words talking to myself through the keyboard exploring an idea, and by the end of it I may be happy.  Or I may be closer to a solution.  Or maybe all I have done is figure out that something doesn’t work.  The key thing here is I was able to write.

I mentioned earlier I don’t really believe in writer’s block as a concept.  I humbly suggest that journal writing is a potential solution in two ways.

  1. If you are “Blocked” talking to yourself through your journal might actually present a solution
  2. Regardless of immediate solutions, keeping a journal forces you to write which functions as a warmup exercise, focusing your mind.

keeping a journal can help overcome writer's block by helping you talk to yourself and thus troubleshoot problems. And writing anything helps focus your mind which also helps overcome block.

I think I have arrived at the point I originally set out to make.  The purpose of this article was to encourage folks to write daily, and provide an answer for how to do that when it is difficult.  However, it is ultimately down to you – the individual – if you feel you can do this.  It is not for me to say what you should or should not do.  Only that my method as described has helped me, and I believe it can help others.

Just one final thought to ponder.  Imagine you wrote in a journal 500 words every day for a month.  In a 30 day month that is 15000 words, which equates to about 50 pages of a paperback.  500 words doesn’t take long to write once you are in a flow.  Maybe 30 minutes?  (It takes 30 minutes for me).  Now imagine, if that 500 words wasn’t in your journal, but your novel manuscript.  You’d have a decent length first draft in 6 months, spending half an hour a day.  Still think you don’t have time?

What are your thoughts on writing everyday?  I’d love to hear them.

To Plot or Not – a post shared and a discussion had

Hello everyone, and welcome.  Today I wanted to talk about plotting, or rather I wanted to draw your attention to a post I wrote on my gaming blog a while back.  Let me explain why you may find it relevant.  The original post is about creating the perfect roleplay game experience, by considering players and intent etc.  This specific post is about how much plotting a Gamesmaster might do in preparation for the game.  If you substitute the word Gamesmaster for writer, and the word player for reader there are a number of useful ideas that can be drawn from the post.  Click on the link in the excerpt to have a read of the original post, and then come back to see what I have to say afterwards.

Hello everyone, and welcome!  Today I am continuing my series of posts searching for the perfect roleplaying game experience.  Quick disclaimer, there is an affiliate link in this post.  This time …

Source: The Quest for the Perfect Game Chapter 4: To Plot or Not – It’s More than Just Gaming

Sometimes you write a story with an end in mind.  There is no problem with this.  If you start with an end in mind, by its very nature you are going to need to plan to a fair extent just to keep your story going in the right direction.

However, sometimes you write a story with the beginning in mind.  You have planned out characters and what has gone before, and your narrative happens as a result of asking yourself “How do my characters respond to this stimulus?”  Suddenly a narrative evolves organically and you are no longer a planner.  You are a gardener, planting seeds and seeing what flowers grow.  (I borrowed that from George RR Martin, from an interview of his from many years ago.

sometimes you plan a story based on the beginning and sometimes the end

Admittedly this method will work better for some stories, so for instance if you are writing a standalone mystery this methodology might work.  If you are writing a high fantasy series, you might want to plan a bit more.  The lesson to learn, I think, is to know that multiple methods of creating a narrative exist and when to apply them.

So, are you a planner, gardener, or a mix of both?  I have kept this post short as I am more interested in a discussion with you guys than in simply sharing an opinion.

Also – if you don’t play roleplay games, and get the opportunity and a good group, there are worse ways for a writer to pass the time.

Thanks for reading!

Genre – The Importance of Knowing which voice you are using

Hello everyone

Today I wanted to talk a bit about genre and voice for the purpose of creating the intended response.

When I was at University a large portion of my degree was spent sitting in a classroom reading other students’ work, and then providing feedback.  As you can imagine, there were lots of different styles, loads of stories and, as you might expect, varying skill levels.  By my final year, everything that I read was of a reasonable standard.  Not all of it was of interest, but the rookie mistakes were few and far between.  One day I was working my way through a pile of drafts and I found one whose title caught my eye.

Wendigo

Knowing that a Wendigo is a carnivorous, if not cannibalistic, spirit from North America I thought, “Great, a horror.”

I started reading a story about a bachelor party come hunting trip  gone horribly wrong, which made for a very good setting.  However, the tone and language read more like what I might expect from part of “The Hangover” series of movies.  It felt more like black comedy.  I was disappointed, however, it could easily have been intended as a Black Comedy and my expectations were unreasonable.  As was my responsibility,  I gave my feedback and noted that the tone was less horror and more comedy than I had expected.  I suggested, that if the writer was going for horror, they needed to change some of their language and the dialogue.  And that was that.  I never got to read the finished piece, which is a bit a shame really.  I hope the writer went on to produce a good piece of fiction.

It got me thinking.  In this case, Genre was defined by language and dialogue.  So, I started wondering, can we use this?

And the answer is, of course we can.  I attended University in an English city called Lancaster, which is about a thirty minute drive from the Lake District – a national park of hills, fells, mountains, and a lake.  Fun fact, there is only one lake in the Lake District.  The rest are Waters, Meres and Tarns.  The differences between them…are utterly irrelevant to me.  However, the Lake District is an idyllic setting of rolling landscapes, lush greenery and sparkling water.  Why am I telling you this?  Because the Lake District can also be cold, wet and blustery, isolated and dangerous.  The context of the place changes very drastically with a slight change of language.  Now, I am not for one minute suggesting that when you are writing about something grim and horrid, you simply change the background to reflect that.  That is pathetic fallacy, it is cliche.  The point I am making is that the same thing has multiple ways to describe it and the emotion evoked by differing descriptions is likely to be quite different.

A tree can be grand or looming.  A meadow can be peaceful or silent.  Fire can be warm or destructive.  A thesaurus is your friend when looking for alternative ways of describing things, though, a word of caution.  Don’t overdo it.  You’ll probably need to learn via trial and error to find the right balance, however I would categorically state that too much description takes us into the realms of overwriting.  To use a gardening analogy, seed a few descriptive words in your prose and let the emotional impact grow in the minds of your readers.

Seed a few descriptive words in your prose  Allow the the emotional impact to flower all by itself

Use words that evoke specific responses and let the reader do the rest.  Plant too many, and they fight for light and water, and diminish one another.

I think that is how you turn your voice to the genre you want.

What are your thoughts on this?  Have I overly simplified it?  Complicated it?  Have I forgotten something crucial?  Or do you agree?  I’d love to hear from you!

Editing – A Sharp Writing Guide

Hello everyone, welcome.  Today I am going to share my thoughts on editing

In later posts I will talk about feedback, and that should be a buddy or group situation.  Today, however, we focus on solo editing.

Editing is an important part of writing.  It is with editing that we refine our drafts into the fluid prose we need to engage the reader, and cut the excess/unnecessary words. Writers, to one extent or another, are perfectionists and egotists.  On some level we want our work to be as good as it can be, and for it to be read or heard.  This is fine insofar as it goes, however it also generates a problem.  In our quest to produce the perfect sentence it is very easy to write something and then stop, and edit as you go.  You’ve done it, haven’t you?

We all have.

It’s time to break that habit.  The processes of writing and the processes of editing are creation and destruction.  They are opposites, and thus use different parts of your brain.  You slow yourself down when you edit as you go.  Besides, and I will come back to this point when we get to feedback, you can only really do a proper job if you can see the full picture first.  You can’t foreshadow or plant subtle hints early on if you don’t know what happens later, after all.

So, first we need something to edit.  Something you have already written would do the job, however it is worth you getting some practice writing without editing as you go.  I am going to suggest you do some freewriting.  That is write in response to a prompt for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping or editing yourself.

Too many people try to edit as they go. This is a mistake and gave rise to the mantra, "You don't have to get it right first time, you only have to write first time."

Below there are 4 prompts or kicker lines.  They are there as starters or aids.  You need to write in response to them, either using them as your first line, writing a story that incorporates them or just write what one of them makes you feel.  Slavish adherence to the prompts is not what we are going for here

The kicker lines are

It was the largest [Blank] I had ever seen

This is the story of how we got a [Blank] for a pet.

When I went to the dump last week, [Blank]

When I went to the woods the other day, I [Blank]

Or

Just write something spontaneously.  The Kicker lines are only there as prompts, if you have an idea by all means, go for it.

Once you have your prompt or idea, start writing for 15 to 20 minutes without stopping, without editing yourself.  Then come back to the post.  I’ll be here.

Welcome back.

It is my observation that some writers will write their first draft and then immediately share it with peers for feedback.  There is certainly validity in seeking a second set of eyes to give a new perspective and to spot the mistakes that you could not.  However, it is precisely this reason that I do not like sharing my work at this point.  This is not a fear of judgement.  It is a respect for people giving their time and feedback.  I want them spending their time spotting the things I missed.  They shouldn’t be spending their time highlighting the careless errors of spelling and language that are inevitable in my first drafts.  So, that is why I always do a couple of edits on my work before sharing.

Some writers will write their first draft and then share for feedback. This is a mistake. You want people offering their time giving you useful feedback, not catching the careless errors of a first draft.

 

So, now we get to editing.

Firstly, Spelling – In this day of computers, there is very little reason for most spelling mistakes to survive the first draft.  If you are typing your work using a word processor, chances are it has a spell checker.  Your first redraft should include running the spell checker.  This will clear up any careless errors that creep in when you are writing freestyle.  Then, have a look through your writing.  Are there miss-spellings the checker didn’t get?

For instance confusions of same sounding words, with different meanings.  Here are some examples:

Two, Too, To

They’re, There, Their

Know, No

Your, You’re

If you think you are likely to be muddled by one or more of these groupings, keep a list of the various words and meanings so you can keep yourself right.  Many word processors have a search function that allows you to find specific words, meaning you can actually check every one if you so wish.

I also have Microsoft word set up to detect use of passive voice, which isn’t strictly an error, just weaker writing.  You can do this by adhering to the following instructions:

  1. Display the Word Options dialog box.
  2. Click the Proofing option at the left side of the dialog box.
  3. Click the Settings button.
  4. Make sure there is no check mark next to the Passive Sentences option.

 

For more detail on passive and active voice you can check out the Learn English British Council Page.

Next, read your work aloud.  I cannot stress enough how important this is!  Reading your work aloud forces you to slow yourself down, and even to an extent stops you skipping over parts and filling in blanks from memory.  It also is a good way of spotting clumsy language, and word repetition.  By this point you will also have a feel for your story, and if there are things that need to be adjusted or included, which you can go ahead and do.

This sounds like a lot of work to do for an early edit, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is.  Writing is often said to be 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  A significant amount of time spent writing is actually reworking a draft, rather than simply writing it.  Writing can be a long haul.  This is normal.

At this point you are probably almost ready to share your work for feedback.  However there are four habits you should consider getting into for the best quality feedback.

First – Know what you are trying to achieve.  This ranges from as broad as what Genre you are writing in, to what effect you want to have on a reader at a specific point.

Second – Ask those feeding back if you achieved what you intended.  People providing feedback will undoubtedly provide more, however this is the first opportunity for you to find out if you are having the intended impact.

Third – Be open to the feedback.  You may not always like what you hear, however going through the process will improve your writing and help build your resilience, which is a necessary attribute for a writer to have.

There is a fourth habit, however, I will deal with that in my next post on giving effective feedback.

So, let us summarise what we have covered.  Once you have a piece ready for editing

  1. Run the spell checker
  2. Look for same sounding words
  3. Read it aloud
  4. Repeat as often as needed
  5. Know what you are trying to achieve
  6. Ask those feeding back specific questions about your work
  7. Be open to what they say

 

Just a short list of the process I go through when editing

I hope I’ll see you here next week for the post on effective feedback.

 

 

Pathos – the Ally of Writing (not to be confused with the Porthos – Ally of Athos…)

Hello everyone, welcome.  Today I am going to scratch the surface of something that can help your writing.  Disclaimer, this post contains affiliate links.

Have you ever noticed that when you are reading a story or watching a TV show something just clicks in it, and even though part of you feels like it is rubbish, something is just working for you?  I get that when reading stories or watching stuff that has a modern setting, but that links back to the past in some way.   Stargate SG1, the TV show, does this in that the antagonists style themselves as deities whose advanced technology looks archaic.  The Vampire Diaries TV show (and presumably books) have a contemporary story with a plot thread set in the past.  The Katharine Kerr Deverry series of books is a High Fantasy Series set in one period, that frequently loops back to the previous incarnations of the main characters.

It occurs to me that I have nostalgia, or even romantic notions, related to the past.  The reasons why aren’t really important, only that it is true.  Nostalgia is the reason I watched three seasons of the Vampire Diaries before becoming utterly bored.  Nostalgia is (one of) the reason(s) I am on my third complete run through of my Stargate SG1 DVDs.

I watched 3 seasons of the Vampire diaries before I got bored. My interest was sustained by nostalgia. I also have old school pictures of Frys Chocolate hanging in my kitchen for the sam reason

For me, a link to the past is appealing as a plot device.  The plot tugs on my emotions, overriding sense (not necessarily in a bad way) and gives me a pleasurable experience in consumption of the media.  Nostalgia is the ally of the Writer against my resistance.

It is an ally any writer can make use of.  The theory is simple, and should be something a writer is doing anyway.  It is part of your audience research.  Who are your audience?  What do they like?  What do they have fond memories of?

More importantly can you legitimately get any of that into your plot?

Nostalgia engages the emotional centers of the brain, basically a pathos appeal. Writers can use this pathos appeal to build loyal fans and engage people in their writing

At its most basic level, you are using the Pathos appeal of Rhetoric.  You are communicating to the emotional centre of your reader.  (Classic rhetoric holds that there are three types of appeal, Pathos, Ethos and Logos.  Pathos is emotion, Ethos is the credibility of the speaker, and Logos is content of what they are saying.  And, arguably, Pathos is probably the most effective when used properly)

How do you do this?

Ask yourself, who is your audience and what do they hanker for?

For me, it is what I perceive to be simpler times.  Even the romanticised version.

For others it could be romance itself, the story that clearly has a happy ending.

Maybe it is having a character (not necessarily protagonist) that shares common values that your readers can relate to.

On a more visceral level, if you are writing a screenplay then it could be about getting the music just right (I love the movie Delta Force, with Chuck Norris.  It is about as good as most of his movies, however the musical score is done by Alan Silvestri, one of my favourite composers which means I have vastly greater enjoyment than I should.  This theory also applies to the old show Airwolf…click and have a listen.  It is more addictive than it has any right to be)

I am very much aware that this post may appear vague.   I consider it a starting point, as I do not know who your audience is.  Let’s have a chat in the comments.

 

Elements of Horror: Automata – Looking at Hush, Don’t Breathe, and Pontypool

I’ve watched a few horrors lately, namely Hush, Don’t Breathe and Pontypool.  I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another and it gets me to wondering, what are the elements a writer needs to master in order to spook the reader.   I am going to drift about on this post, and it is not intended to be exhaustive, and is purely opinion based on observation.  The topic I am drifting towards is Automata.  In this context, the semblance or appearance of life, but with certain things removed with the ultimate effect of dehumanising the automaton.

Hush was a standard slasher film, where an assailant with a white mask that made them look like a mannequin terrorises a deaf girl in her forest home.

Don’t Breathe is about a bunch of thieves breaking into the isolated home of a blind war veteran, trying to rob him, and getting more than they bargained for when he locks them in his house and starts hunting them.  (I guess he was meant to be the villain, and for much of the film, all my sympathy was with him)

Pontypool is a zombie movie, where the zombie infection is spread through infected words.  The action takes place inside the local radio station, the place uniquely suited to get word out about the new plague, but also risk communicating it.

I also studied the Uncanny whilst at University, if only for a short time and already had a few suppositions about what makes things scary.  I am going to go through each film, one by one and try to bring it together with previous studies to draw some form of a conclusion.

Hush

Currently available on netflix UK, and worth a watch.  If you want a review of it, you can find a good one over on Raistlin0903 Blog HERE (He does frequent movie reviews that I particularly enjoy, and often agree with – his review encouraged me to watch Hush).

So, we have a girl who is deaf living alone and in isolation.  First fear factor, without hearing she is deprived awareness of her surroundings except what is in her field of vision.  This effectively renders the intruder invisible to her, until he wants to be seen.

We then add to this the fact that the intruder wears a paper mache style mask.  Concealment seems irrelevant, since his intent was always to murder her and anyone who gets in the way.  So, you have to assume the mask has a different function.  I will posit that the mask is rigid, and this was the point.  A flexible mask that moves when a person talks, or looks around still feels human up to a point.  A rigid mask looks more like a doll, or a mannequin.  Taken on its own, each aspect might slightly unnerve us but let us consider what putting them together means.  We have an intruder with a face that equates to a mannequin, and a girl who cannot hear.  In essence she is deprived of several stimuli that should scream human.  Humans have eyes, and faces and sounds.  But if something moves like a human, but doesn’t have a face and doesn’t make sound then we are getting into territory that Freud spoke about in The Uncanny.  We have something that resembles an automaton.  A being that mimics the form of human, and goes through the motions, but is absent defining characteristics.  I am going a bit deeper than the film perhaps intended (but maybe it did intend this discussion).  One thing I know.  Dolls are creepy.  The idea of a featureless, soundless being walking or moving in a similar fashion to a human is also creepy.  I think we can justify saying that Automota is one element that can be used in horror to unnerve, if not scare.

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Breathe actually takes one idea of horror/thriller, the Intruder, and flips it as the protagonists are the intruders and would not have been in danger had they not broken into the house of the rich, blind, war vet played by Stephen Lang.  He has no particularly special powers.  He isn’t Daredevil with radar senses.  He is just a guy, a trained guy, but a guy nonetheless defending his house.  (There was a plot macguffin inserted to make you lose sympathy for him.  It kinda worked, I wasn’t keen on it.  But my purpose isn’t review).

Lang was blind.  His eyes, milky white.  And I think this is the most unnerving thing about him.  You can read intent in eyes.  If not emotion, you can see where eyes are looking and extrapolate intent.  But if they are solid, blank and unmoving then you get a similarly uncanny effect as with the solid mask in Hush.  Again, we have something taken slightly away from what we expect, moved in a direction that makes it less human and the result is Uncanny.

On a side note, I used this once in a roleplaying game where I had created a Wizard named Felix.  Felix lost his sight due to out of control sorcery, however I asked the Games Master if my character could start the game with eyes forged from silver.  They didn’t do anything other than see, but I wanted my character to have strange eyes.  The Games Master approved, and fortunately we have only encountered undead so far, so it hasn’t been a problem.

Pontypool

As noted, Pontypool is a Zombie movie where the infection is spread through infected words.  The infected wander around, hunting, repeating the same phrases over and over. This isn’t necessarily automata or blank eyes as with the other two movies, (though a zombie movie by definition is about automata) however the taking of phrases and repeating them over and over and over makes the infected sound like a broken record player, a broken machine.  The fact that the infected are simply transmitting the same phrase over and over also makes their voices “Undead” or “Automata”.  In essence, the words emulate a voice but it is only an approximation of voice.

 

Automata

When seeing something resembling human, acting in ways that a human might but deprived of essential human elements, such as active eyes, facial expressions or a voice then we wonder what exactly we are seeing.  Is it a biomechanical engine?  Does it bleed?  Feel pain?  Feel Joy?

It unnerves us because we have no frame of reference.  How do you deal with a flesh construct?  A vicious animal, a deranged shooter, both are terrifying in their own right but we understand them somewhat.  They are familiar.  We know that they have emotions, and they have motives and in some respects we can try and evade or reason with them.  Don’t reason with a tiger.  They are notoriously hostile diplomats.

But we don’t understand the automaton.  Does it have will of its own?  Does it have a master.  How do we deal with it?

If it simply looks human but is a construct of other material, is it alive?  How does it work?

If it appears human, but outward signs of humanity are gone, in the eyes, the voice, the expression/emotion, then more terrifying is the question:  Can it happen to us?

I am not claiming expertise on this subject.  What are your thoughts on use of automata in your writing?

 

Pontypool – How changing an old idea can work

There is a, perhaps less well known, horror movie out there known as Pontypool.  It is currently available free to Amazon Prime customers, and if you are fortunate enough to have a subscription, then I would recommend it as a movie.  As usual, this is not a review, but a basic overview and then applying it to your writing.

I am going to be referencing this movie in a couple of blogs, as it is surprising how many useful elements can be drawn from it.

Pontypool is essentially a Zombie movie, set in the rural Canadian town of Pontypool. It is heavily implied the locals are very much involved in everyone else’s business, and for news beyond gossip  the citizens turn to Grant Mazzy – Talk Radio DJ with aspirations beyond his (local) station.  It is implied he was once mainstream, and respected in the business.  Mazzy, played by Stephen McHattie, is desperately trying to matter in a situation where he doesn’t feel relevant.  And then, strange things start happening in the town.  People start acting in herds, chanting repetitive nonsensical phrases, attempting to kill and eat other townsfolk (none of this is shown on screen – I’ll talk about that in my Pontypool – A Short Story Movie Blog).

Like I said, it is a zombie movie.  However, and this is the part that had my attention, was the twist on the idea of zombie infection – the zombie virus/condition was not transmitted through fluids, bites, scratches or even airborne transmission.  It was transmitted through infected words.

Yep, I said infected words.  And despite IMDB only rating Pontypool 6.7*, I have to say, this was a brilliant idea.

Zombies, if you’ll forgive the pun, have been done to death since the 60s.  Anyone who has seen one Zombie movie knows that the contagion spreads through bites and scratches and, despite the virility of these, there are ways to defend against them.  Polearms, Armour, Guns, chopping off hands and teeth.  All are viable defences in fiction.

Pontypool has taken a genre that everyone is familiar with, everyone knows the tropes and introduced an X factor, changing mode of transmission.  And this makes the story fresh.  It brings about a new perspective on the Zombie genre.  I will talk more about its effectiveness in adding to the horror of the situation in a future blog.  For now, I just want to examine the process here.

Take a genre that everyone is familiar with, that has established rules and tropes.

Take something integral to that genre.  And then change it.

Now that I think about it, Pontypool is not the only story I have encountered that plays with genre stereotypes.

For part of my degree, when studying romance, I was required to read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.  We were taught that a standard trope of the romance formula was that the hero or heroine falls for someone (maybe not the right someone), pursues them, all the while obstacles appear in their path (in the form of the other man/woman, or the fact that the person is not the right person for them in the first place).  The romance is essentially a quest narrative with the reward being the protagonist getting together, happily, with the right person at the end of the novel.

Rebecca doesn’t do that.  The nameless protagonist marries her love by page 50.  But this isn’t happy ever after.  Now the protagonist has to come to terms with settling down, which is nowhere near s exciting as the brief romance on the Riviera, and she is constantly compared to her husband’s deceased first wife.  How do you find love when your opponent is a ghost?  (not literally, she is dead and only her memory remains).

Mitchell & Webb, the British comedy duo, did a fantastic sketch turning this on its head.

In this case, the effect is comedic – taking the idea of a husband holding his wife to the impossible standard of his other wife – in this case, his future wife rather than his first wife.

How can we use this?  Truthfully, I have been wracking my brain about this for a while now, trying to figure out other corruptions of tropes that might serve as a starting point – and let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy!

 

Have a think about your favoured genre.

What are the accepted practices of that genre?  Are any of them often repeated?  How do they come together?  What can you change about one element?  What effect does this have?

I cannot create a list of possibilities, but lets try at least one – fantasy.

Young/childlike hero.  Possibly with a powerful artifact.  (Works for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad.  Sword of Truth)

There is a mentor, possibly an old man and maybe even a wizard.  (Works for all of the above)

The Mentor may die, to motivate the protagonist (Actually, only 2 of 6.  You can increase to 4 if you change it to removal of the mentor to force the protagonist to act on their own terms.  It has been a while since I read the Belgariad or the Sword of Shannara.  I cannot recall this happening in those books).

There is an evil power from times gone past.  They might have an army (More or less true for all, though Smaug doesn’t have an army but he is an evil from times long past).

The destruction of the evil power is linked to the protagonist or their artifact. (again, works for all)

There is usually a journey involved, both geographic and metaphoric. (not really the case for Harry Potter, at least not physically, but he does grow over time throughout the stories.  In every other listed story there is a long journey involved).

Let’s put that all together.

A youthful/naive protagonist, possibly with an artifact, is induced to go on  quest by a wizard/grandfather/mentor figure.  They must travel far to find the ancient evil that now threatens, as only they protagonist/artifact are capable of defeating the evil.

Lord of the Rings plays around with the artifact idea.  Frodo Baggins must carry the Ring of Power to Mount Doom to destroy it, but in doing so he must carry it into the realm of Sauron – potentially delivering it into his hands.  So, the thing of power that can destroy the enemy is also its greatest weapon.

Harry Potter does not go on a geographic journey, he goes to school and grows that way.  What other ways might a person grow knowledgeable without having to walk longer than the Proclaimers?

Why is it only the Protagonist that can carry the artifact?  In the Sword of Shannara, it is due to Royal Blood.  In the Belgariad, if I recall, it is the same.  In the Lord of the Rings, it is the innocence of Hobbits, acting as a shield against the malevolence of the Ring of Power.  In the sword of truth it is worthiness, as determined by the mentor character. What other characteristic might make the Protagonist appropriate?  Does that change them from youthful and idealistic or naive?

Why is the mentor often portrayed as a Grandfatherly wizard?  Because to a youth, the elderly know everything that has gone before.  They might even be perceived as a bridge to the time of the evil.  They are powerful, but lack something the hero has (youth, for instance).  Maybe something else portrays some of these characteristics?  Or maybe the mentor idea has no place in your story.  If so, who/what motivates an teaches the protagonist.

Does the grandfatherly wizard have to be the mentor?  Can their role be shifted in the story?  If so, to what?

Does there have to be an artifact to destroy, or that can destroy the evil?  Could there be something else instead?

Does the Evil have to be from times gone by?  If not, what does that do to the whole quest narrative/roadmap?

 

I hope that has left you something to think about.  If you have any ideas, feel free to share them, or link me to your bestseller when it hits amazon.  Happy writing!

Zombies have fallen – A low budget movie, and a discussion on language, narrative voice, genre and respecting your reader

I was recently contacted by a friend with regards to the film Zombies have Fallen.  It is a low budget movie, with zombies in it, that has recently been advertised to me on Amazon Prime.  And none of that would have had any interest for me were it not for the fact that the writer & director is a graduate of the University I attended.

Given my allegiance to my former institution, and given that Amazon did in fact advertise it to me, I felt I should make the effort and watch the movie.

This is not a movie review.  However, so you are aware of what you are getting into if you decide to watch for academic or other reasons, here are some impressions.

The scripting is poor, the acting is wooden, and the editing could have been significantly better.  All that being said, the first 45 minutes of the film had a certain tone to it.  The movie was trying to be a hide & seek thriller, with one bounty hunter trying to kill a psychic under the protection of another.  The story just about works, and there was one element that I thought was really clever, though not executed as well as it could have been.

Then at 45 minutes, Zombies appeared in Gretna (a town down the road from where I live).  Allegiances shifted very quickly, almost as quickly as the tone of the film changed to one so far beyond black comedy; I would almost call it a farce.  (The Zombie farce was quite entertaining, to give credit where it is due).

So, let’s get to the point.

For me, the major issue with the film was the fact that it didn’t know what it was trying to be.  (I am not saying the writer/director didn’t know, only that something happened that caused a radical shift in direction that breaks the narrative flow, making it look like there was no clear idea).  Perhaps obviously, this is applicable to written work. Stories exist and, whether or not they belong in a genre, their language sets the tone of their overall impact.  Where applicable, language choice helps define genre.  And genre guides reader expectations.  Language and Genre give a story identity, it gives it a voice.  As a writer, you have the freedom to choose whatever genre and/or voice you want.  You also have a responsibility to do it properly.

I once read a piece of work by a peer.  The piece was ok.  I expected it to be a supernatural horror as it was named for a Cannibal Spirit.  There were certainly parts of the piece which felt like they were in a horror.  Unfortunately, other parts read more like the movie “The Hangover”.  I never did find out what genre the author intended, or if he even realised he what he had done.  All I know, the piece had a mixed voice and it was hampered by this.

Zombies have fallen started as a thriller.  It tried quite hard in this.  It became a ludicrous comedy.  This was entertaining but wasted any tension built up in the first part.  The title bore no relation to the film, sounding very much like a recent Gerard Butler movie (the design work looked a bit like that too).  The end result was a movie with no identity, no personality (or more appropriately, multiple personalities).  As a movie, it didn’t stand.  As 30 minutes of sillyness tacked onto the end, it was ok.

I guess what I am saying is that you need to know what you are trying to communicate, and in what voice, in order to know what language to use.  I would suspect a reader would be less forgiving of a book littered with mistakes, dull characters just to get to the last three chapters worth of silly.  A book is an investment that a reader makes.  Don’t waste the reader’s time.