Human focused high fantasy: The Fledgling Account by Y. K. Willemse

Readers of high fantasy have their expectations. The story is supposed to be set in an invented – usually magic-using – world, and writers of it are expected to adhere to certain tropes. Elves, dwarves, wizards, some supernaturally powerful bad guy, dragons, magical creatures and often a protagonist who is someone special or powerful. Usually the world is so complicated and “real” for the purposes of the tale that a map is included to help the reader visualise places and background information. Some writers include glossaries and appendices to “flesh out” things without having to break the narrative with great wads of information within the text. They will have invented languages and characters with “fantasy” names  like Rand al’Thor or Boromir or Arya.

12124210_752059948256220_208476135_o

And then there is Y. K. Willemse’s high fantasy series The Fledgling Account.

Willemse has done things a bit differently. She has an invented world, the Mio Pilamúr. She has a map, although it doesn’t appear in the books. She has an invented language, too. But she also has what I venture to say are radical departures from the genre. Her characters (some of them at least) use firearms as well as swords. Some have fantasy names, others are called Robert and Roger and Elizabeth. She has the supernaturally powerful bad guy, known as the Lashki Mirah, who differs from most fantasy villains by having no real agenda – he’s a total psychopath. He wouldn’t mind taking over the world (hey, don’t we all?), but he enjoys killing people anyway just because it’s fun.

All of these are good things.

12071818_752059871589561_33873744_n

The Fledgling Account is to be a seven book series. Two are out at the moment: Rafen and The Sianian Wolf. Coming this month is Servant of the King, and that will be followed by The Fourth Runi.

There is a lot to like in the series. I like the fact that fights take place using guns. I like that fact that there are no elves or dwarfs or hobbits or any of those other “required” races in high fantasy. I even like the fact there is no world map of the Mio Pilamúr* in the books: Willemse does have one she drew up and I have seen a copy of it in an email. But it’s not in the books and that’s a good thing. It means I can imagine what her world is like, I am involved in the creation process.

I also like the fact that so far Willemse has managed to avoid the two major plot lines of high fantasy: the War and the Quest (or both). The Quest is a major theme of high fantasy: the plucky hero goes off to save the world either by finding some desperately powerful McGuffin or getting rid of it. The War theme is exactly what it says. Often there is a War going on while a Quest is being fulfilled.

I don’t know whether there is a War planned for the series – there’s definitely an excuse for one, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it does come in due course. But what Willemse had produced in the first two books is a Bildungsroman. And if you don’t know what that is, it’s a literary genre (by no means restricted to high fantasy but sometimes forming part of  it) that focuses on the protagonist’s  psychological and moral growth from youth to adulthood.

Willemse’s protagonist, Rafen, starts out as a boy at the beginning of the series, a slave in a coal mine, and over the course of the series develops as a character, makes mistakes, rebels, loves, hates, triumphs, falls again, and ultimately (we hope) wins out over the bad guy. In other words, this series is about the main character growing up. The fact that he is fighting elemental forces of evil is a nice addition on which to hang the story of Rafen’s life. But ultimately the series is about Rafen’s clash with evil rather than the clash of good and evil in the first place.

12162780_752060394922842_24958562_o

And this is what makes Willemse’s saga such a refreshing thing. The main focus of the series is a character. Not a magic ring or a map or an invented world or some fantasy creature like an elf (be honest,  how many actual elves do you know in real life?), but a raw, vulnerable, fallible human being. So far, Willemse hasn’t let the Mio Pilamúr and all that it contains overshadow the main point of the story: Rafen himself.

I guess that’s why the first book is called Rafen. Makes sense. In fact, when you think about it, all of the four (known) book titles refer to Rafen. Even the series title – The Fledgling Account – refers to him.

I’m not saying high fantasy is jaded or tired or overdone. But it’s nice to find someone willing to take it on and show the world that there is another way of doing it. It’s a brave move and, I hope, a successful one.

(Map excerpt by Y. K Willemse; Illustrations by Ruth Germon)

_________________________________________________________________

  • Apparently it’s called THE Mio Pilamúr, not just Mio Pilamúr.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

________________________________________________________
* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 3: Affective Memory

In the last two parts of this short series (don’t worry, this is the last) I proposed a method of character creation for the writer which is based on the method actors use to create a persona for stage or screen. It’s called the Method, and was developed through rehearsal by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky.

In this last part I’ll discuss two other means that can be used to flesh out story characters, and to help when the writer is a bit uncertain how a character might act in a given situation.

The first is called The Magic “If”.

You’re writing a story. It’s going well, and suddenly you place your character into a situation and wonder how they might behave or react to what is going on.

“Well, let me see…” you think, staring out of the window at the passing parade of human beings, and suddenly realise you have no idea what they should be doing in terms of the story. “I’m not him!” you wail. “I created this person but I’m not him! How would he react?”

And you suddenly realise that you’ve created a monster, someone who doesn’t behave like you at all and so you have no idea what to do. “He’s a serial killer. I’m not a serial killer…how do I know what to do in this situation?”

You just solved your own problem. The Magic If means asking yourself “What would I do if I were in this situation?”

If I were a serial killer…

If I were a King…

If I were in love with a handsome man…

If I were a fifteen year old boy who just got kicked out of school…

There are millions of situations we never encounter. But that doesn’t stop you writing about them. Just mentally put yourself in the same situation as your character and write about what you would do.

And that’s what your character would do.

The other technique for creating realistic characters, linked to the Magic “If”, is called  Affective Memory.

You may have heard the phrase “Write what you know”. It is often regarded as a misunderstood phrase, and it is, since it tends to limit fledgling writers to writing only what they have personally experienced. New writers run the risk of limiting themselves to certain places and character-types, since they think they can’t write about something about which they have no experience.

But, as a number of other writing tips sites have suggested, “write what you know” is about emotions and sensations rather than actual experiences. A writer should write about being scared, sorry, angry etc rather than try to re-create a place or time or situation they have never actually encountered.

The thing, is, I don’t think those sites go far enough. This is where affective memory comes in.

A person who has never lost a family member might find it hard to write about a family member dying in a story. How do they know the sense of loss and gut-wrenching sadness that such an event entails? How do they take their character through that experience if they’ve never done it themselves?

Here’s the problem: you have a great character on the boil, she’s rolling the story along at a fantastic pace, she’s funny and engaging, emotional and thrilling all at once. The readers are going to love her. You love her. “Why can’t I always write characters like this?” you think to yourself, as you slurp coffee and go along for the ride.

And then, in the course of the story, something happens that you have no experience about. And you – and the character – come up against a wall. How will she react in this situation? What would she do? You’ve never experienced this situation in real life, so you have no idea how anyone would behave. How do you “write what you know” now?

Affective memory is applying personal experiences to fictional situations. You, the writer, recall experiences that produced an emotional response at some time in your life and write about how you felt. If you have never experienced the death of a family member, you write your emotional responses to something that you have experienced. Maybe the loss of a pet, or how you felt when you broke up with a friend. Something – anything – that could produce a similar emotion. And write how that made you feel.

Actors and writers are different species. As I pointed out earlier, an actor on the screen usually has to worry about just one character. A writer has to worry about all the characters she creates, and make them real so the audience cares about them. So a writer has a harder job than the actor, in one sense. Using Objective/Obstacle, the Magic “If” and Affective Memory will aid the writer to make characters that are alive on the page.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

A Different Way to Write Realistic Characters – Part 1.

(http://shakespeareslines.tumblr.com/)

Everyone who teaches creative writing will tell you that it’s important to have realistic characters. They must be people the reader can relate to — even like — and the reader must be concerned for the protagonist. This is good advice. After all, it’s characters that make the story interesting.

As a teacher, it’s often my job to get students interested in a particular film or book or, God help me, poem. But kids these days seem more interested in action than people. I tell them that all the chases and gunfights in the world won’t make a story interesting if the audience isn’t interested what happens to the people involved in the chase or fight.

“Ah, but, ” they say, thinking it’s possible to outwit a teacher (innocent lambs!), “what about giant robots? What about aliens? We get concerned for the robots in Transformers. We get worried for Chewbacca in Star Wars if he’s in a fight. And they aren’t human.”

I calmly explain that the reason we’re concerned for them is that they may be giant robots or aliens, but they have human emotions. The reason we think Optimus Prime is one cool dude is because he behaves like one. He doesn’t behave like a robot, he thinks and feels like a human being.

It’s not only convenient that we personify aliens with human emotions so that the reader can relate to them. Human emotions are the only ones we can give them. We don’t know how an alien would emote or think. Chewbacca acts like a human because from our limited anthropocentric perspective that’s the only way we can imagine him acting.

So we think Chewie is a cool dude too.

So we need to give our characters emotions that will get the reader concerned for their welfare. If we don’t care what happens to the character, the writer has failed. It’s the same with the bad guys, too. Every protagonist needs a good antagonist. I’ll write about antagonists later, but for the moment I’ll stick with our protagonists and getting the most out of them.

The problem for the writer is, how do we create different characters? How do we distinguish one from the other? Hollywood is full of actors who only play one character or type of character, usually someone very similar to themselves. I won’t mention any names for fear of getting burned at the stake, but as a professional actor I can definitely say that some other professional actors (some big names too) are the same person in every single movie.

For the writer it’s the same problem. We run the risk of writing the same person over and over because that’s who we are, or who someone we know is, and it’s easy to put them down on paper. But in order to give variety, and above all realism, to our characters we need to bring them life, to make them colourful and vivacious.

So I’m going to propose a way of doing this similar to how actors do it. It’s pretty easy but does take a bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness.

I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, but I’ll leave you with a classic example (literally, an example from a classic).

Hamlet.

andre_skull_tennant_800

(http://andretchaikowsky.com/miscellaneous/skull.htm)

One of the most complex characters ever written, from what is arguably the most famous play of all time, at least in the English language, Hamlet is not just one person. He presents as someone different in every scene. This makes him hard to act, but fascinating to watch, as he runs through a plethora of totally different character types in the course of the play.

When we first meet Hamlet in Act One Scene Two, he presents as a depressed and rather lazy university student. However, he quickly moves on to fearful ghost hunter, determined criminal investigator, pretend lunatic, ruthless psychological manipulator, angry ex-lover, suicidal wreck, whining mummy’s-boy, wanted criminal, pious Christian, fierce warrior, resigned fatalist, murderous avenger and repentant tragic hero.

Phew!

english-what-shakespeare

(https://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm)

That’s what makes Hamlet one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. We never know what to expect from him. That’s also why he’s so hard to act, as the performer has to justify each of these Hamlets to the audience in a way that stitches together seamlessly.

It’s possible to write characters like that, obviously. Shakespeare did. But Shakespeare was pretty darn good, so what hope do we less gifted hacks have?

That’s what I intend to do in the next few blogs, to show you how an actor creates a character. The same techniques can be used in writing. Stay tuned for more.

“Rafen” – Y. K. Willemse

It’s my pleasure today to interview a fellow writer and all round decent human being Yvette Kate Willemse, otherwise known as Y. K. Willemse, who has just released the first of a new fantasy series titled Rafen – The Fledgling Account Book 1 out now from Permuted Press.

IMG_6583

(Y. K. Willemse in typical New Zealand weather.)

Yvette hails from New Zealand, and is a talented writer who has written a different and challenging epic fantasy series. A seven book series is no mean feat, and as you’ll learn from the interview below Yvette takes her writing – and her beliefs – seriously.

I am proud to recommend her fantasy series to you and I hope she earns the success she deserves.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Y. K. Willemse?

Yvette Kate Willemse is a kid who was fortunate enough to be saved by God. Most everything I do is an expression of that – I kind of can’t help myself, to be honest. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an author, ever since my Mum put a pencil in my hand and taught me to write my name. There’ve been many times when I thought that there was no point in treading such a hard road, and I was close to giving up or actually did give up. It never lasted long, however. Not writing is a form of mental agony with me. For me, writing is a type of prayer – a liberation, therapy, and immense relief, because I seldom express myself properly in speech. Making music gives me the same high, but to a lesser degree.

2. Where do you get your writing ideas from?

This is the ultimate question! I’m a true novelist: I only have a few good ideas, which I stretch into books or a series of books. I pray for my ideas. But the best ones come completely unbidden, like a strike of lightning. They feel like a tangible pressure point on my brain until I get them out.

3. What inspired you to write in the first place?

Rafen inspired me to write. I’ve known my main character since I was five or six. Having a story to tell propelled me onwards. Without the story, I wouldn’t be an author.

4. Who are your favourite writers/influences on your writing?

I love Scripture, particularly the Psalms. I’m also a huge fan of Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield – depressing authors, surely, but so exquisite. The blood and grit of authors like Stephen R. Lawhead and Matthew Lawrence have influenced me as well. J. K. Rowling has made a profound impact on me, and her critic Jim Adam (author of Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series) has forced me to become more conscientious about my character development.

5. What are you working on now?

I’m working on The Fledgling Account, bouncing back and forth between different books. I’ve just finished editing book three with my editor, and I’m working on book five, preparing to submit that for publication at some point. I’ve also worked hard on book six this year, and put together some notes for book seven. A seven-book series is complicated!

Rafen_eBookCover

(Cover of Rafen – Book One of The Fledgling Account)

6. Do you think readers are after book series these days, or is there still a place for the one-off novel?

A series is hard work for a reader to stick with. It’s effort to keep getting the books and pushing through them. However, I think people enjoy them because once they’ve found an author they like, they can keep going back for what first pushed their buttons. Nevertheless, there have been some one-off successes, so I still reckon there’s a place for them. However, depending on how commercial the author and their publishing company is, these one-off hits might become a series! Even Harper Lee wrote a sequel in the end.

7. Are you working on anything else besides The Fledgling Account? What else can your readers expect?

I have a trilogy I’m desperate to work on after this series. But I may have to wait for a while, as a seven-book series is such a job. The Window Trilogy is true children’s literature, with a boy protagonist who is intent on making as much mischief as possible. The only problem is, “every bad child has a window”, which appears beneath the culprit’s washing line and opens up to reveal a band of kidnapping monsters. Jerry’s trouble-making might not last long…

8. What do you like about fantasy stories?

I adore fantasy because it simplifies the world around us, enabling us to see patterns and reasons behind things. At the same time, it exaggerates particular sufferings and desires, painting a vivid picture that speaks to our souls. I like to think of fantasy as a metaphor that helps make better sense of the world around us. For me, the genre is a lens that distils reality.

9. What are your pet hates about fantasy, if any?

For a start, I can’t stand commonly used fantasy names like “Freya”. I just can’t. I also think there are too many female protagonists these days, and there are way too many vampires. In some cases, it’s almost like particular YA authors decide that because they can’t write a sex scene, they can pen the next best thing to it: the exchanging of blood! Such sensuality can never replace a good story. Also, I hate it when people write in the present tense. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too fussy, but it drives me nuts.

10. What are the necessary qualities for a fiction hero/heroine?

I think one of the most important things is that they have a goal or desire to fulfil, and they actively work toward it. I also love it when they are genuinely good – when they inspire you to do better. Nobody likes a moralizing character, but I think there’s still a place for the hero that tries hard to overcome their shortcomings.

11. Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I honestly don’t know. I really hope it’s London! I’d love to have successfully finished my Fledgling Account series by that time, and to have done a good job on it. I also like to think that it will have gathered a readership that appreciates it. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur regarding fame. I’d be happy just to have a handful of loyals.

Oldschoolmaplookvladimier

(Part of Yvette’s fantasy world of Mio Pilamur)

12. Music plays a big part in your life. Does it influence your writing?

Yes! So much! As a singing teacher and piano teacher, I love instructing my students to “tell the story” with their music making. I literally cannot write or edit without music. When I run out, my mind goes blank and I have to find a new CD to listen to. Music lifts me above drudgery and transports me to where I need to be to write effectively. Life would be very bleak without music, I think.

13. What would be your top three favourite books and why?

The Bible, because I can’t live without it. It’s totally changed my life. Then I love John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, because it’s probably the most incredible example of descriptive writing and character development that I have ever read. The dialogue is incredible. And J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is another essential for my bookshelf. I learned so much about setting up a series from reading this book.

14. What are your top three favourite films and why?

I’m going to be really uncreative here and just say The Lord of the Rings trilogy forms my favourite three. I’ve just never seen any other films that move me so much and that speak to my heart in this way. They’re not too idealistic either. I felt like the Harry Potter series was a bit idealistic – at the end, in the books, Harry’s not torn up by everything that he’s seen. He’s not struggling to go back to normal life or to heal. He’s thinking about Kreacher bringing him a sandwich, and in the background, Peeves the ghost is singing. Such a let down at the end of an epic series. Frodo’s state of mind, after all his travails, was much more realistic, even comforting. The idea that feeling old scars isn’t a sin was very reassuring.

***

2015-07-22 13.10.42

(A sample of the script invented for the series.)

So there you have it. Yvette’s novel Rafen, the first book of “The Fledgling Account” is now available from various places around this turgid little planet. Here are the links:

Amazon

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Wheelers

Fishpond

I had the privilege of reading Rafen before publication and I can definitely recommend it. Something different in the world of fantasy.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

alien-ripley-flamethrower

(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.

Actions Speak Just as Loud as Words

 

Writing dialogue is hard. Lots of writers have written blogs and advice about how to write dialogue, so why should I say anything different?
Did I just talk myself out of writing a blog post?

One trap for the fledgling writer is writing too much dialogue. “Show, don’t tell!” they are urged. “Dialogue is a good way of revealing exposition and backstories.” So the newbie sits down and reels off page after page of dialogue. The scene degenerates into people talking to each other and not a lot actually happening. Much information is given out but the scene is dull.

One trick I use to prevent this occurring is to add action to the scene. I give the characters something to do while they are talking. it could be something as simple as eating breakfast or catching the bus. They talk as they act, and what they do and how they do it can show us a good deal about them and their reactions to what is going on.

For example, take this witty exchange I just thought up:

“Honestly,” said Sally, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard.

“You never help with the cooking.”

“But I can’t cook. And you can.”

“But I need help sometimes. You can help with the basic things.”

“Like what?”

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing. “

“Oh, all right. If you insist.”

 

Not Pulitzer Prize winning material, I’m the first to admit, but it’s been a long day already and I’m not in the mood for doing any better.

I think it’s obvious that, while the above dialogue conveys information, it doesn’t convey it in an interesting way. We could learn a lot more about Sally and Bernard if we give them something to do while they talk.

So let’s rewrite it, putting in some actions, and see what happens:

Sally slipped into her raincoat and glared at Bernard, who was still sitting at the table with his newspaper. “Honestly,” she said, “you really annoy me sometimes.”

“Why?” asked Bernard. He didn’t look up: the sports section was particularly interesting today.

“You never help with the cooking.” Her right arm flailed in a desperate attempt to find the arm hole of the coat.

Bernard pulled his eyes away from the football scores and stared at his wife, who had at last managed to shove her arm into the sleeve. “But I can’t cook. And you can.”

Now the collar of the coat was twisted around. Sighing, Sally removed the entire garment and tried again, more slowly, “But I need help sometimes.”

Bernard frowned.

“And you can help with the basic things,” Sally continued.

“Like what?” He picked up the paper again and flounced it out. The rustle of the page almost drowned out Sally’s reply.

“Chopping the vegetables for one thing.”

“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the page. Manchester United won! He resisted the urge to smile. “If you insist.”

We learn a great deal more about Sally and Bernard in this second writing, where we give them things to do that reflect their moods. Bernard is impatient at being interrupted reading the paper. He’s a football fan. He is probably fairly lazy in other things as well. Sally is going out, maybe to work. Her struggles with the raincoat are a reflection of her frustration with Bernard. The mood of the two people is conveyed through their actions, leaving the words to supply information and give us some idea about how the words might have been said. we also are left with the impression that Bernard will conveniently forget to help with the vegetables next time.

I personally find scenes can easily degenerate into two or more people talking to each other. Page after page of words in quotation marks does not, in my opinion, make for great story-telling. But give your characters actions and much more information can be conveyed. The scene moves on. The actions can contribute to the plot. Exposition is all very well, but something else needs to happen as well. Action.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

Signature cover1a

By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

____________________________________________________________________________

*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

TheRedKing_EbookCover

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

Interview by Thomas J. Wolfenden.

Recently I was interviewed by talented author Thomas J. Wolfenden. Thom has penned two great post-apocalyptic books, One Man’s Island and One Man’s War. I’ve read both and recommend them heartily.

Anyway, Thom sent me thirty-nine questions a little while ago asking me about myself and I gave thirty-nine answers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t mind talking about themselves?

So here’s the link to his blog and the interview.

Great Opening Lines

 

One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.

The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.

And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.

And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.

So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.

The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.

So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.

First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.

Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.

Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.

Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.

It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.

Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:

The victim died as he had lived.

Cruelly.

Only more so.

Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.