It’s almost here. I can’t believe it’s almost November.
As you may know, it’s National Novel Writing Month in a few days, and I’ll be trying to write 50,000 words in a month again. It’s my seventh year and I can’t break the pattern! I’m also MLing this year, which means organising loads of events, including a weekend away on a tropical island for around 30 writers.
Yes, I’m crazy. Luckily, I have help this year from a couple of fellow nutty writers, and they’re doing a wonderful job of lightening the burden of organising stuff. (No, they won’t help with the 50,000 words; they have their own novels to write and I’m not eager to share that part of NaNo!)
So, other than getting the events all lined up and good to go, what else have I been up to in preparation for my annual Month of Madness?
- Getting my nails done, all themely. Because these things are important.
- Putting party bags together to give away to writers. Because we’re all secretly 5 years old. (Okay, in many cases, not so secretly. Some of us are shameless.)
- Putting hipster PDA/lanyard packs together with report cards, so that writers can collect stickers through NaNo when they achieve goals. (See point above for reasoning. Writers love stickers.)
- Getting piles of prizes ready for various competitions.
- Planning out two projects, because I’m having a decision-making disorder.
- Getting the next month’s strategy for my team at work all lined up and ready, because I’m taking a lot of November off.
- Tying up loose ends at work so I can be away for the next couple of weeks.
- Trying not to panic.
- Attempting to figure out if I’m taking a hiatus from Starwalker or going to keep writing it while I’m novelling.
- Remembering to feed the cats.
A couple of weekends ago, we had an awesome Planning Day for our NaNo peeps. I took along a pile of notecards and wrote a load of colour-coded goodness. Both of my proposed projects are now fleshed out, and planned about as much as I plan anything I write. After I got back home, I diligently stuck the notecards up onto their respective pinboards, so now I have pretty planning boards for the stories.
If only I was sure about which one to write! I think I’m leaning towards Vampire Electric at this point, though it’s entirely possible that I’ll wind up bouncing to Screw Loose if the steampunk doesn’t flow or work the way I want it to. Yes, I know it’s rebelling, but I’d rather write words I know will be useful than bang my head against a story that’s just not working.
I had semi-planned to take a break from Starwalker and go on a month-long hiatus. However, it’s not that long since I had a break (when Book 3 ended), and I don’t think it’ll be a huge drain to keep the posts going over the month. My readers have been awesomely patient with me while I’ve been sick and I’d like to reward them by maintaining their usual weekly service of posts. Also, I can count the posts I write in November towards my total.
Last Sunday, we had our Kick-off Party for NaNo; a BBQ in the park where we can get together, give away loads of stuff, get excited about NaNo, talk about our novels, and meet fellow crazy people. It was great! The weather was perfect (not too hot for a change, and it didn’t rain on us at all), and there was a good mix of familiar faces and new people to welcome into our fold.
This week, we have a drinks meetup on the 31st October. I expect there’ll be lots of ‘ahh, I can’t believe it’s the 1st tomorrow’, ‘I have no idea what to write!’, ‘I can’t wait to get writing’, and ‘is that a costume or do you always dress like that?’ It’s going to be a blast. Looking forward to it!
I’m currently reading over the first draft of Vampire Electric, to get myself in the mood for picking it up again. It’s reminding me of how much I like the milieu and the characters, and I’m already starting to pick out the bits I want to redo heavily in the rewrite. I plan to start over from scratch, and it’s good to have a clear idea of what I want it to be.
This time last week, I was drained and weary, and trying not to fret about being ready in time. This week, I’m getting enthused about the writing and more comfortable with how prepared we are for the events. There’s just the logistics for the Retreat to sort out, and then we’re good.
I’m getting there. Soon, there will be novelling. And on top of it all, I’m having fun with an awesome group of people. I love my region. Luckiest ML and writer ever.
This blog is all about my creative writing life, but really, that’s only part of the picture for me.
As some of you may know, I’m a technical writer by profession/employment. I have been working in the field for many years now, and have learned many interesting and useful things along the way.
So my question to you all is: should I start blogging about the stuff I’ve learned as a technical writer? Would you like some insights from someone in the industry? Is it something you folks would be interested in? I know, it’s my blog, I should write about whatever I like, but it’s always good to check these things before I start babbling into the void.
If you would prefer that I didn’t start talking about tech writing, I’d love to hear why.
If you don’t want to comment directly, feel free to use any of the buttons on the end of this post. I will take all of them to mean ‘yes please’ (because I know you’re all polite like that). Comments are always gratefully received, whether made here on the blog or by email.
Thanks for reading. :)
I can’t believe that it has been so long since I posted here. Things are busy, my health is crap, and most of the time I’m scraping through the bare minimum to keep my head above water. Plus there’s Starwalker to write and post, and all of this year’s NaNoWriMo stuff to prepare, including another ambitious Writer’s Retreat. Oh, and there was GenreCon, which was awesome and I should post about that.
So much to do, so much to report on, and so little time. With NaNoWriMo starting next week, that’s where a lot of my focus is, so let’s start with that. The ML stuff is coming along nicely (much thanks to my co-MLs and other friends who have leant a hand; I’m so grateful to have them). The Retreat is ticking along and about to start sucking up more of my time, as we approach deadlines and confirmations and the need to pay for things.
And I’m still not sure what I’m going to write this year. I’m determined to write something new/different and not focus on Starwalker for once (my brain needs a break, and I’ve been writing Starwalker for the past three NaNos, so it’s time for a change). But in my looooong list of potential projects, which one to choose? I have two that are in a good state to start writing and I’m currently struggling to decide between them.
500 years ago, electrical creatures rose up and drove humanity out of their city. In the wilderness, a strange bargain was struck and the first vampire was made. Humans went on to build their new civilisation on steam and clockwork, while this new breed fed on the energy of humans in secret.
Now, Diza just wants to prove to the university board that a scholarship girl can earn a linguistics degree. To do that, she takes on the translation of an ancient text that tells the tale of the first vampire, the deal he struck, and a device that might create a newer, stronger combination of man and electrical entity. But she knows that this is no fable; this might be her chance to take revenge on the vampire that killed her family. As she gets drawn deeper into the politics of the vampire world, she begins to wonder if the protection of the man who hired her will be enough to keep her alive long enough to see that revenge through.
I have been writing this one on and off for a couple of years now. It’s one of those things that I poke at in the background when I have time or need to do something a little different. I’m about 70,000 words through it and haven’t reached the end (it’ll probably hit 100k before I’m done). I’ve got to the stage where I know all the things that I want to fix, do differently, and do better.
So while this one wouldn’t be a ‘fresh start’ exactly, I think I’m in a good position with it to start a new rewrite.
Tales from the Screw Loose
It’s not a good time to be an android on the colonies. After Earth was evacuated, floods of refugees needed homes and jobs. Automated solutions are being pushed out, and with it, the need for droid mechanics is on the decline. Grace is forced to leave her home outpost and seek work in the big city.
She ends up as the maintenance engineer at the Screw Loose, a robot brothel. With competition from the real-flesh whorehouse across the street, rising anti-robot sentiments, and an inconvenient corpse that could close the Screw Loose permanently, Grace’s new job quickly proves to be more fraught and dangerous than fixing farm gear.
I have talked about this one on and off for some time. It has taken a couple of years for the pieces to come together, all the elements that will take it beyond an amusing situation (robot brothel, lol) and turn it into an actual story with something to say. Not that I’m aiming for Fiction With A Message; I prefer stories to have a plot and an arc to them, and an idea that they’re ‘going somewhere’. As much as I love serial writing, soap operas and situation comedies are not my style.
Now, I finally feel like the Screw Loose‘s elements are all there, and it’s about ready to start.
The truth is, neither piece is speaking to me very loudly at the moment. It’s possible that there’s just too much going on in my head right now for them to be heard. I kind of suspect that, come 1st November when the starting pistol goes off for this year’s novel-writing challenge, I’m going to be staring at a blank yWriter project, wiggling my fingers above the keys to try to encourage a decision to come out. And then I’ll start writing.
Wish me luck!
This is a piece I wrote some time ago. It was forgotten until I was poking through my netbook for a piece to give to my writing group to be critiqued.
It’s the result of a random idea I had, revolving around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, support groups, and vampires. This led me to the Vampire Victim Support Group and how hilarious that could be, charting the stories of each of the members in vignettes or shorts, maybe framing it in the context of a meeting. Awkwardness over bad coffee and donuts. Uncomfortable plastic chairs. That one member who’s not quite sure why they’re there. All the different types of reaction to a very odd kind of trauma in the context of our modern (supernatural-oblivious) world.
This piece was put aside mostly because I have a million projects already fighting for attention, as well as a web serial to write. But the idea of it still makes me smile and I was so happy to polish up this first little piece of it.
So here you are! The first (and possibly only) vignette of the VVSG. Enjoy.
VVSG - Jaime
Jaime woke to the sound of sleeping. The susurrus of slack breathing; the soft rumble of a snore; the shift of heavy limbs. The sounds washed over her like a tide trying to drag her back down. She shouldn’t be awake. She should let herself slip under again, give in to the dark whispering in the corners of her mind.
She knew that if she opened her eyes and let light into those dark corners, the headache would start. From the heaviness of every muscle and the twist in her stomach, she knew she’d had way too much to drink last night.
But who could she hear sleeping, and why did she feel naked?
Jaime cracked her eyes open and sat up, wincing. Yes, she was completely naked, and so were all the bodies lying around her. She was adrift on a sea of flesh, spotted with clumps of tangled hair like seaweed.
She was breathing way too fast. She swallowed and forced herself to slow down. Take things one at a time, Jaime. Don’t panic. It can’t be as bad as it looks. Even if it looks like the aftermath of an orgy.
One thing at a time. She was lying on a couch. She wasn’t hurt, except for the hangover and a sore spot on her shoulder. A scab: had she cut herself? It ached but it wasn’t bad. She got up, wobbling, and swallowed back the urge to vomit.
She really didn’t want to wake these people, whoever they were. She didn’t recognise a single one of them. She also had no idea where her clothes were. Her underwear, her shoes, her purse: she couldn’t see them anywhere. It made her feel more naked than ever and she wrapped an arm over her breasts, as if that might help.
She looked around, trying to locate at least the blue dress she had been wearing. Details popped out of the scenery: the antique swords on the wall; the aged brocade of the furniture; the solid oak coffee table with the girl sprawled atop it; the couple twined so tightly on the other couch that it looked like they fell asleep mid-coitus. There were more bare breasts than she’d seen since she left high school.
Every instinct in her body screamed at her to get out of there. Jaime spotted a scrap of blue fabric and snatched it up as she picked her way across the room on shaking legs, trying not to wake anyone.
It wasn’t her dress but she pulled it on anyway. She hurried through long hallways and tried random doors until she stumbled outside. The early morning silence shocked her ears and the sun hit her like a hammer. Jaime’s head spun, and when she glanced back at the house, it was looming over her, all glass eyes and creeping vines. With a confused sob, she ran barefoot down the drive and along the street, and kept going until she ran out of breath.
She was about to hail a cab when she realised that she still didn’t have her purse and that meant nothing to pay with. Should she go back for it? Her keys were in there. Her ID. Her phone. Her knickers were back there, too.
Her mind kept returning to the girl on the coffee table. She had been sprawled on her back, arms and legs flung out with abandon. It couldn’t have been a comfortable way to sleep, especially not with the way her head lolled over the edge of the table. She hadn’t seemed asleep; her eyes had been open and staring. But she wasn’t moving, not even a twitch or a blink. Not a rise or fall of her bare breasts.
Oh dear god, the girl was dead. Jaime now knew what a real corpse looked like in the flesh. Her eyes filling with burning tears. She couldn’t go back, not now. She had to get out of there, go home and lock all the doors. There was a spare key in a plant pot, money in the house…
She rushed out into the street to wave down the next cab to come along, vowing that she wouldn’t throw up until she got home.
Over the course of that day, Jaime tried to put together the night before. She wanted to call the police, but what if they thought she was involved? She had stolen a dress and run from the scene of a crime. What if they thought she was guilty?
What if the dress belonged to the naked, dead girl on the coffee table? Jaime wanted to burn it, but settled with burying it in the bottom of her bin.
It was supposed to be a simple night out with the girls. But after they got to the bar, all she had was flashes of memory. They had started on the tequila slammers and it had gone downhill from there.
She had danced, writhing in a morass of bodies that shared a single rhythm. Heat had pressed against her skin, beaded her with perspiration. Somewhere, she had lost sight of her friends. She had breathed heady cologne and warm musk. She had sung until her throat hurt, her voice lost in the thump and trill of the speakers. She had danced on a coffee table, hands high and head tipped back.
The same coffee table that the dead girl was sprawled on. No, that had happened later.
There had been a strong arm around her waist: a single, solid contact on a shifting dancefloor. He had spun her until she laughed at her own dizziness, and his kisses had stolen her breath away. He had pressed her back against a wall; they fucked fast and heated that first time, the passion thick with gasped breaths and alcohol’s buzz.
The first time. There were several more with him that night: the rest were in the room with the antiques, though she didn’t remember travelling there. Or all the other people she’d woken up with.
How many had she slept with? She only recalled one. She remembered his pale eyes and the wicked curl to his lips as he licked them. He had made her belly flop over in that good way. She hadn’t even minded when he bit her shoulder hard enough to hurt.
Now, she had two crescent marks on her shoulder where his teeth had torn right through her skin. Strangely, the wound was neat and clean, as though someone had tended to it. His mouth had spent a lot of time on the wound, as if he wanted to stop it making a mess but was too busy fucking her to fetch a dressing. Or as if he was…
No, that was just ridiculous. People didn’t actually drink blood.
The floor was a pool of people, naked and gleaming in a golden half-light. Their bodies were dribbled with fine trails of blood: released from some; devoured by others. Hungry mouths gasped for air or closed over open wounds. The sea of them rippled with pleasure.
A pale-eyed lover sunk his hook into her shoulder and drew her in. She tumbled towards him, her head swimming, let it all wash over her…
Jaime woke up abruptly on her couch, her heart pounding and throat strangling. Realising where she was lying, she scrambled to her feet as if her own furniture was on fire.
She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. It was barely midday and she never napped, late night or no. She didn’t feel like herself at all. She was pale and shaky; this was unlike any other hangover she’d had. Trying not to think too deeply about the dream, she took another shower and scrubbed her skin until it stung.
There were no murders reported in the news. No stories about debauched orgies or girls turning up tragically dead after a night out. There was a three-car accident on the highway and a drunken punch-up outside a nightclub that had landed a young man in hospital. There was a robbery in another city.
Jaime should report it. She knew that was the right thing to do. She’d seen the body and the authorities had to know. But she had no idea how to explain what had happened, where she had been or how to get there. As the day dipped down towards dusk, the scene she had awoken to was becoming more blurred and surreal.
Maybe she had imagined it. She had been very out of it when she woke up. Her night was so full of holes; maybe someone had slipped her something. Rohypnol caused memory loss. There were other drugs they might have used. There might not have been a dead girl at all, just random sparks of narcotics.
Somehow, being drugged was less frightening than the idea that she had slept near a corpse. It was less horrifying than the girl’s staring eyes and the way her face had looked hollow. Someone would have found her if it was real and reported it. Someone would know.
And yet, Jaime couldn’t shake the girl’s face from her mind. She was like a stone wedged in Jaime’s mental shoe and no shaking would throw her loose.
She was making something out of nothing. It was the drug haze playing games with her. She couldn’t even remember the house she had woken up in, not beyond the antiques. She had been caught up in something beyond her control under the influence of a narcotic. Now it was over. She had to put it behind her.
The next morning, she found her knickers in the mailbox.
One of the most consistent pieces of advice you’ll see about how to create a good (e)book is: make sure you get it properly edited. I have to agree (and I say that as an author who is currently in the process of re-releasing her ebooks because they needed to be re-edited). I also say that as a reader who is intensely irritated by mistakes in published works, however the book is published.
I’ve come across many professionally-published (including traditionally-published) books that have errors in them. Spelling mistakes, grammar errors, missing or incorrect punctuation, clumsy wording… all these things make me want to take a red pen to my pristine paper book and post it back to the publishing house. Once in a book I can forgive; I understand that the book was created by fallible humans, but even that is disappointing. More than once? Come now. I expect more for my hard-earned money.
I’ve read books where there’s an error in pretty much every chapter. Recently, I had to put a book down because it was so clumsily edited that the story was ruined for me (and it’s a rare thing for me to abandon a book once I start it). The poor editing was tripping me up so often that I kept losing track of the story; it constantly threw me out of the flow of the narrative and I wasn’t engaged with or enjoying it at all, so there was no point in progressing with it.
The quality of the editing is a sign of care. If a writer cares so little about the presentation of their work that they’ll release it with multiple errors, should I care deeply about it as a reader? If they have been careless on this front, how much can they be trusted to take care of other aspects of writing? Will my tiny trust be betrayed?
Writing should be invisible: this is what I believe writers should aim for. The mechanical aspects of writing are things that writers care about; readers care about story and character and getting caught up in this wonderful thing you’ve laid out before them. The more I notice the writing, the less I’m involved in the story. (Note: literary fiction can be an exception to this, but I’m talking about the mechanics of writing – spelling, grammar, ‘the basics’ – rather than technique, like metaphors. Even in literary fiction, the mechanics of spelling things correctly and using the right punctuation is important.)
I’m the sort of person who notices these things, and they grate. They spoil stories for me, though the extent varies widely depending on how many mistakes there are. I know I’m not the only one; most, if not all, of my writer friends say the same thing. As a professional (technical) writer and editor, I weed these things out as part of my daily work and with a measure of professional pride. Mistakes reflect on my abilities and skill in my job, and they reflect badly on the company I work for if they should reach our customers, so it’s important to me to make sure my work is as clean and correct as possible.
It’s a fact that it’s harder to edit your own work than it is to edit someone else’s. You’re too close to your own work to pick up the errors; your mind fills in gaps and smoothes off rough edges too eagerly. It takes distance and discipline to edit your own work well!
With the web serial, it’s not always possible to catch everything before I publish a post. This is part of the price I pay for writing it on the fly and editing it entirely myself (with no gap between writing and editing). I have accepted that there will be the occasional error and I fix them up whenever I (or my readers) spot them (and I’m glad to say that they are only occasional!). I also plan to edit the stories thoroughly before they’re published as ebooks, so I’m not overly concerned if there are minor typos at the moment.
However, I can’t tell you how mortified I was to realise that there were errors in one of my ebooks. I’m currently having an independent editor go over all of my books so that I can release fresh, more correct editions (which should be free for those who have already bought the ebooks). I wish now that I’d taken more care before releasing the ebooks, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
This is why I’ve had an independent editor go over the Apocalypse Blog ebooks. This is also why I’m looking at starting up an editing service, to edit others’ work and offer them the professional look and feel that readers expect from published works. I believe I have a lot to offer in this area.
I love stories. I love making them shine as brightly as they can, and getting the mechanics of the writing correct is just one way to help that along. So just as soon as I get all my stuff together, I’ll put myself out there as an editor for hire, and see if I can’t improve the quality of ebooks everywhere, one corrected typo at a time.
I didn’t intend for the hiatus to be a break from writing altogether, but this is what ended up happening. I did some planning (for Tales from the Screw Loose and upcoming Starwalker), fiddled with some logistical stuff, read a few things, but otherwise… nope, no writing. No editing, no short stories, not a single thing. I didn’t even post here very much.
In truth, I needed the break. I needed to catch my breath in so many ways.
Clearly, my body thought so, too. When I decided to take a couple of days off work to have a bit of a holiday from that too, I got sick with a nasty cold/flu bug that has been doing the rounds. Isn’t that always the way? You take a little break and your body decides it’s time to indulge in that thing it has been putting off for a while: collapsing in a disgusting, dribbling heap. That was three weeks ago, and I’m still trying to shake off the last of the virus.
I had some personal-life stuff explode during the hiatus, too. Nothing bad or disastrous, but family is moving around and there has been a lot to do to help them out with that. I’m currently house-sitting (effectively) and looking after all the family pets. Juggling everything at home with work and being sick has been a challenge. It’s another level of complication that I have to deal with.
With everything that was going on, July ended with surprising alacrity; before I knew it, I was knee-deep in August. Starwalker was suddenly due and I was ill-prepared for it. I had fallen out of my usual writing routine and habits, and I was still struggling to recover enough energy to think straight after being sick.
I was stuck. I really didn’t want to extend the hiatus, because that’s a bad habit to get into and I needed to force myself back into my writing routine. At the same time, I didn’t want to put up a sub-standard Starwalker post; that wouldn’t have been fair to my readers.
In the end, I chose a compromise: a teaser post that featured a regular AI, both shorter and simpler than the usual story entry. It was easy to put together, it went up on time, and it led neatly into the next storyline.
I was so relieved when my readers reacted positively to it (they’re lovely but I still hate to risk disappointing them). And since then, I’ve managed to get a full, Starry-narrated post up that started the fourth book off properly, thanks to a handily-placed public holiday.
I’m still struggling to get back into the rhythm of writing on my daily commute. It has been hard for a while now and it’s only getting harder. But I’m determined not to miss any more deadlines. This week, I got the first draft of the next Starwalker post written at my monthly write-in. I’m going to push myself to keep working away at it, gather some momentum, and push back into the routine I once had.
I’m also going to tackle my health issues and see if I can manage them better, too. Something has to give and I’m sick of the fatigue getting in the way of what I love.
I have so much I want to do. So many projects. I just need to figure out how to make it all work.
(Part of the indie vs trad series.)
Kudos is like happiness: a slippery fish to catch. It’s a fluffy one to consider, but I’ll try to break it down here as best I can. Some time ago, I wrote a post that compared traditional and self-publishing, and their relative legitimacies, and I’ll be building on that here.
There’s no doubt that being traditionally published is a reliable way to prove to the world hey, I’ve made it as an author. You tell people you’re a published author and they’ll automatically think that you mean ‘in a traditional deal with a publishing house and now I have shiny books in every store you can shake a wallet at’.
There’s a level of respect that comes with it, because of all the gatekeepers you had to get past in order to get your precious manuscript out of your sticky hands, through a printing press, and onto a shop floor. As if writing the book in the first place wasn’t hard enough.
Meanwhile, self-publishing is still seen in many eyes as cheating, lazy, and the sign of a bad writer. It’s the last resort of writers who couldn’t get a publishing deal (that is, who weren’t good enough to get one). Self-published books are second-rate, bad quality, unedited wank someone decided to shove out into the world to make a few pennies and drag down the good name of literature everywhere.
True or not, this is what common opinion seems to be. If you tell someone you self-published a book, a little crack appears in their mental image of you. (If you tell them your novel is vampire romance with fairies and BDSM, that image will probably shatter entirely.)
However, this is changing. As self-published books become more common and more people read them, these attitudes are being worn away. Many readers state that they don’t look at the publisher when they’re browsing for books, so if a book looks professional, they may look at it without even realising it’s self-published.
Definition of Success
For a traditionally-published author, this is pretty simple: getting the publishing contract is a definition of success. If you tell people you’re a published author, there’s an immediate assumption of success; after all, your book was good enough to be accepted by a publishing house. That must mean something. (I’m not saying this is true; this is the common assumption and reaction.)
There are other ways for traditionally-published authors to succeed – for example, with bestseller status – but let’s focus on those initial assumptions for now.
For a self-published author, having a book out in the world doesn’t mean success. There are no gatekeepers to get past, so no yardstick to prove that your work is actually any good. There are also the assumptions I listed above about how terrible the book must be if you had to publish it yourself. For a self-published author, success is defined not by being published (because anyone can do that), but by sales. If you can say you’ve got respectable sales, or better yet a breakout, then you can rise out of the usual morass of self-published wannabes.
In a chat with a published author, I was asked what my sales were like. When I said that I was selling over 100 books a month (this was a little while ago before the drop-off), I was met with surprise and respect. It’s better than a lot of traditionally-published books sell in a month.
So you can be seen as successful as a self-published author, but the onus is on you to prove it. No-one’s giving respect away for free.
Literary Lists and Awards
Historically, this has been the sole domain of the ‘properly’ published author (by ‘properly’, I mean traditionally-published, of course). The occasional self-published book that poked its head above the parapet of bestseller lists was quickly snapped up by a traditional publisher and validated.
Now, self-published books are making their way into the bestseller rankings on respected literary lists all by themselves (and authors are willingly turning down traditional publishing deals). They’re hitting #1 on Amazon and the New York Times lists. Runaway ebook hits are not unheard-of. Self-published books are proving that they can hold their own among the readership with their traditionally-produced brethren.
More than that, they’re winning awards. Not many, but the pressure is rising and one day the tide might turn the other way. Self-published books are clawing their way up to an even footing with traditional books; it’s a way off yet but I believe things are moving in that direction.
No doubt, there will still be literary awards who will always refuse to look at anything but exceptions in the world of self-published books, if any at all. But how long can they hold back the tide? Only time will tell, and right now, the patterns tell us which way the wind is blowing.
What does this all mean? It means that things are not even yet. Self-publishing simply doesn’t have the kudos that being traditionally published does. One day it might, but you’ll have to be patient (or battleworthy or very lucky) to get there. You have to be a huge bestseller in the self-publishing realm to be able to sidle into anything like the same position in people’s heads.
The real questions: how important is kudos to you? How willing are you to demand respect as a published author?
There’s still a part of me that would like the kudos of being traditionally published. I think that’s my own prejudices speaking, and even I know they’re outdated. I’ve tried to make peace with it and I do enjoy being self-published, but in this literary journey of ours, it’s one of the trade-offs that I had to make. And it’s one I’d make again.
Next up: Not sure! What would you like me to cover?
This weekend, I spent some time planning out two different projects: the next stage of Starwalker, and Tales from the Screw Loose, which I haven’t started writing yet.
I don’t plan my writing very often. Those who know how I plan, know that I don’t plan very deeply, either. I’m not truly a planner or a pantser; I’m an ad-hoc adventurer with a barely-legible roadmap.
A guest at one of my writing group meetings back in the UK described her planning/writing process as ‘stepping stones’. As it turns out, this is the process that works best for me. There are probably other names for this type of system. Skeleton. Outline. But I enjoy the stepping stones analogy, so I’m sticking with it.
Imagine that your story charts the path from one riverbank to the other. You could describe each and every inch of the path before you take it, and know exactly where you’re going before you leave the riverbank. You could wade in and see what happens. Or, you can identify some stepping stones to aim for, and find your way between them.
That’s how I plan. I have stepping stones that I know I want my story to land on, and my characters determine the path between those points. I discover the story as I go, but I always know where it’s headed, even if it’s just the next stepping stone.
Those stones vary widely in size. Sometimes, I’ll have a specific scene mapped out in my head, in incredible detail. Sometimes, it’s just an idea of an event, or a particular psychological corner that a character has to turn. Or sometimes it’s a single image, a snapshot or a concept, or even just a parting glance of the end of something. The lead-up to these stones is always something I discover on the way, as I balance the characters and their choices, the roadblocks in their way, and the goal that is rolling around in the back of my brain. Sometimes it takes some wrangling to get the outcome that I’m after – all the way to that next stone - and sometimes I end up taking a path I never anticipated, but it usually works out.
The characters are always my greatest guide through the stories. I write heavily from a character’s perspective (even when I write in third person, which I do outside of the web serials), and staying true to what those characters would say or do is important to me. Their path has to make sense, and they soon let me know if they’re going to take the easy path to that next stone, or if they’re going to make me work for it. Whether it’s throwing a help or a hindrance their way, I seldom find that there’s no way to get to where I want the story to be.
As for how this stepping stone method of planning takes shape in a practical, physical sense, I love using pinboards and notecards. My original plan for Starwalker was a series of 12 notecards, and they carried me through all 3 books so far (three and a half years’ worth of writing!). Just 12 notecards; that was all I needed!
Over the weekend, I got my stock of blank notecards and glittery-inked pens out, and freed my pinboards from their exile against the wall. And then I went a bit nuts. I colour-coded stuff. I grouped the cards into sections: characters, chapters, different sections of characters, milieu notes, etc. Only the notecards under ‘chapters’ actually made up the stepping stone plan for the story, but the rest is useful for reference.
It helps me to make it all visible. For Starwalker, I filed my original 12 chapter notecards under ‘done’ and reorganised the character lists so that I know who’s currently part of the crew and who’s ‘dead’ or ‘captured/missing’. Then I started adding more cards: 3 more chapter notecards and a chunk of new characters that my intrepid crew will meet in the course of their next adventure.
I’m not quite done there yet, but the ball is rolling. Ideas trickle against each other. The notecards have gaps; for example, none of the new characters have names yet, but the important characteristics are down. The space station still needs a name.
Likewise with Screw Loose: I have a pinboard with the bones pinned to it, but there are lots of gaps I need to fill. Characters I know I need to define before I start. The chapter list needs more stepping stones in it, and doesn’t have a particular order or flow yet. I can see the size of the work I have to do before I can truly start writing it, though, and that’s powerful. It’s more than I knew yesterday. I’m starting to see the shape of the story and pick out the important highlights.
I mean, a story about a robot brothel is all well and (raunchy-)good, but I’d like there to be a plot, too. Now, I know what I need to do to be ready.
Stepping stones are a great way to allow yourself freedom and exploration in your story. Visualising it is a good way to look at the shape of your story and see what gaps you might have, and what you might need to do before you start.
Together, they arm me for my adventures. I know all the tools I have in my backpack and I have a vague map to point me in the right direction. I set off surrounded by characters whose voices I know well enough to let them guide me, and a compass to keep us all true as we explore the story.
I’m standing at the edge of the river, toeing the water and eyeing that distant bank. Soon, I’ll be donning my hiking boots and striding out into it all. I can’t wait.
You know when you read your work, and you’re stunned by how utterly awesome it is? How no-one has ever put words in that exact, shining order before, with such cleverness and richness?
You know when you read your work, and you’re appalled by how terrible it all is? How you have somehow forgotten how to string words together, and there’s no way anyone will ever understand your slack-mouthed drivel?
At both of those times, you’re wrong.
Writers are their own worst critics. It’s not that we always criticise ourselves too negatively; it’s that we are bad at criticising ourselves, positive and negative. I’ve seen both polarisations happen, though the negative is far more prevalent; writers are very keen to stamp on their own work. As a rule of thumb, the more extreme the polarisation, the more wrong you’re being.
It is a matter of perspective and distance. Our internal editors chitter away on the edges of our brains, like ants. They cover our eyes and cloud our judgement, until we’re so busy swatting that we have no perspective on what we’re smacking and sweeping away. Or they cover the bad parts and all we can see are the bright, shining sections.
Chances are, you’re being too hard on yourself. Maybe you’ve edited and reworked and massaged the piece so many times that you can barely see it any more. Maybe you’re having a bad day. Maybe someone said something to you that has dented your confidence, and now it’s reflecting on your writing. Does any of that mean that your piece is crap? No. It means that your perspective is wonky.
Alternatively, maybe you’re so caught up in the idea of the piece that you’re not reading the words on the page. You have that image so clear in your mind that you can see it, regardless of what the piece actually conveys. Maybe there’s a phrase that makes you happy because it’s so intelligent and sharp that you’re proud to have come up with it. Maybe someone praised you today and you feel like you can do anything at all, including writing golden words with nary a flaw. Does that mean your writing is wonderful? No. But go enjoy the feeling while it lasts; come back to reality later.
The truth is, you’re too close to the work. When you’re feeling so strongly about a piece, you need to step back and clear your eyes. Accept that you’ve lost perspective and are wrong about it. Put the piece away for a while. Write or read something new. Distract yourself with something completely different.
Better yet, get someone else to read it. Get several someones, because many opinions are better than one. Make sure they are people you trust. Gather feedback and perspectives, and see what your rose- or mud-tinted glasses are really doing. Clear your eyes; adjust your mental view.
It’s never as bad as you think it is. Embrace the wrongness of the writer’s perspective, and then put it aside. You’re better than you think.
I don’t often feel moved enough to do a review, especially when it’s a computer game. However, with this one, I feel compelled to record my reactions.
I don’t talk about it much on this blog, but those who know me know I’m a bit of a gamer. I love computer games and I freely admit that I’m not that good at them. I’ll never be one of those gamers who wins at competitions; honestly, I’m pleased when I find a game I can finish before I reach the limit of my skill or frustration tolerance. I don’t like PvP because I’m terrible at it and getting your ass kicked repeatedly sucks. Reflex or twitch-gaming isn’t something I excel at.
The games I like are usually RPGs of some kind, and I’m attracted by good stories and characters. Pretty graphics and the ability to kill the shit out of things are good too, but that’s not usually all I’m looking for in a game (only usually, because sometimes just running around and killing things is exactly what I’m looking for).
I have played (and finished! Go me!) a couple of the Tomb Raider games before: Legend and Underworld. They’re probably at the limit of my twitch-gaming ability, but I do enjoy making Lara Croft do cool shit and shooting tigers in the face. But let’s face it: the stories are okay and the characters are pretty static. Lara doesn’t tend to grow much through those games, if at all, despite the personal nature of the mysteries she unravels.
So when a new Tomb Raider game was announced that was going to go back and look at how Lara became the capable, kickass woman you flip, tumble, and fight through the games, my ears pricked up. An actual character development story? The writer in me brightened. Of course, knowing how these things usually go, my excitement was reserved until there was some proof that the promises had been fulfilled (I’m a poor, jaded thing).
I didn’t get the game as soon as it came out (I actually didn’t wind up buying it until about a month ago, when it was a reasonable price), but I did keep an ear out for the reactions to it. What I heard was disappointing: a lot of whining about the sexual politics of the game and how dare they put a suggested rape in. The objections centred around the suggestion that, in order for Lara to become the strong, confident woman we know from the other games, rape had to be threatened, as if there was no other way to get the same result.
Considering the historical sexualisation and objectification of Lara (let’s face it, she’s famous for the skin-tight outfits, short-shorts, and pneumatic boobs as well as (possibly more than?) for being kickass), this wasn’t a good sign. My enthusiasm was dented. But not enough to reduce my willingness to give the game a go. If nothing else, I was pretty sure there would be acrobatics and shooting things, and I was curious from a writing point of view just how well they really did with the character side of things.
My opinion of the game in summary: those who criticised the game based on the facet mentioned above focussed on one moment in a pretty long game. Out of context, yes, it can look skeevy. However, those reactionary statements don’t do the game justice. There is a lot to enjoy about the game, and the character stuff is well done. It has to be some of the best character development I’ve seen in a game.
(I’m going to get pretty spoilery from here on in; if you don’t want to know how the story goes, look away now! Go play the game instead.)
First, let’s get this out of the way: the thing I like least about the game is the name. There’s no subtitle or post-colon-term to distinguish it from the rest of the franchise, so I wind up referring to it as ‘the latest Tomb Raider game’. I get that it’s a bit of a reboot, but come on, guys. You could have called it Origins (oops, Dragon Age did that), or Zero (wait, Resident Evil used that one), or Beginnings, or Genesis, or something. But no, all we get is ‘Tomb Raider’. Confusing. I’ll be calling it ‘TR’ from here on in. Okay, everyone with me? Good.
This whole game is really about Lara Croft becoming a bunch of things. The promo material will tell you ‘a survivor is born’, and that’s true, but that’s not all. Also, there are many ways to be a survivor (some of which we see in the game) and Lara has her own, specific kind of evolution.
She starts out as a young woman fresh out of college (I think at one point it pins her at 21 years old), embarking on her first archaeological expedition and taking her first tentative steps in her father’s shadow. She has a bunch of people around her, each with their own stories and reasons for being there. But let’s focus on Lara for now.
So the ship bearing the expedition party crashes in a storm and Lara is thrown ashore with her crew and friends, and a bunch of hostile island inhabitants. Cue the start of a (literal) fight for survival, liberally sprinkled with superstition and something freaky going on with the weather.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Lara is still gorgeous, but she’s not the sleek, slinky, curvy ass-kicker we know from the other Tomb Raider games. She only has one outfit and it’s the one she washed up in. She gets increasing beat up, scratched, bloodied, and muddied through the game, and her poor vest suffers, Die Hard-style, until it’s a torn, stained mess at the end. (Luckily, she’s wearing something underneath, so her modesty is maintained.) Her hair isn’t all neat and sleek, and she winds up taping her pants together (you don’t actually see her doing this, but her outfit gains bindings of tape or string or bandages as you move through the game and she gets more beat-up). When she crawls through bloodied channels, she comes out covered in yucky red stuff. When she walks through the rain, she winds up a bit cleaner.
I have to say, her outfit isn’t the most flattering, certainly compared to other incarnations of Lara in the franchise. But she looks like a real girl. Her boobs are reasonably proportioned, which is always a good start. And she’s still nicely put-together; she’s a more realistic attractive woman than before. I’d love to know where she got the bottomless pockets, though; where does she keep all that equipment she’s not using? In which crevice does she put her shotgun? (I love that particular game mechanic.)
It’s also worth pointing out how well the movement was done in this game. All of it was motion-captured from the actress who voices Lara and it shows: the way she moves is smooth and plausible, and nicely done. The actress’s movements are graceful and neat but not fluffy or girly, with the right amount of femininity, all of which fit Lara and the things she has to do.
The other parts in the game were also motion-captured, so they’re likewise pretty slick. I appreciate good animation and graphics. Good job.
From the outset, Lara is set out as a sensible, capable person. Her mentor, Roth, is an adventurer and we learn early on that they’ve climbed mountains together before. He taught her how to hunt with a bow, start fires, and other general ‘survival’-type stuff. So her base skills of shooting things with bows, climbing rock faces and being physically capable are established and explained early on. This stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, which is a tick in the ‘good’ column for me.
She doesn’t know everything, though, and Lara gets help from others over the radio through the game. The tech guy from the ship’s crew helps her set up a beacon at one point, telling her what she needs to do. Roth also gives her instructions and encouragement over the radiowaves, particularly in the beginning sections when she needs it most. She has realistic gaps in her knowledge, doubts herself, needs encouragement and support, and so her abilities made sense to me. So often in these types of games, these kinds of thing can come out of nowhere and you just have to accept them. I like that that’s not the case here.
The one thing that jarred with me was the upgrading of her equipment. Lara adapts her own weapons, which seems a bit of a specialist thing to do, like extending mags and adding extra capabilities. Some of it was clearly ‘let’s tape a grenade launcher to the rifle and now BLOW STUFF UP’, and I’m pretty sure even I could figure out how to do that, but other types of upgrades started to strain the believability somewhat. On the other hand, blowing stuff up is awesome fun, so I’m willing to let it go, and as she had to collect ‘salvage’ to make the upgrades, I can accept it as a game mechanic.
Again, very well established in the game as part of her background. A cinematic shows us that she has driven this expedition and it’s her information that has led the ship and its merry band of explorers to the home of an ancient (creepy) queen. She’s confident and competent in this area already, and clearly knows her stuff. She doesn’t particularly grow here, though there’s plenty of lore for her to pick up and learn as she runs around the island.
However, her attitude towards archaeology and what it actually means to her, her father, and the world does change through the game, as she becomes a:
If you’ve played the Tomb Raider games at all, you’ll know that supernatural stuff is real and active in the world. There’s power and truth in those old legends, and worlds beyond the one we walk in. But once upon a time, all of that was just stories and superstition to Lara. Until she gets to this island.
It’s a long and fairly subtle journey for her, going from academic and sceptic to archaeological believer of legends. More than that: it’s realistic. I buy her gradual realisation that the storms really are keeping people on the island, even though she doesn’t understand the power controlling it (it could be mechanical, right? Or something?). The facts support it. I like that she doesn’t automatically assume it has an extraordinary explanation, or that the Sun Queen is somehow responsible. It has to be proven to her.
Belief doesn’t come easily or simply to Lara, and that fits her personality, too. It’s not until after she sees the Sun Queen’s spirit with her own eyes that she accepts what has truly been going on on the island (though she starts having suspicions before this). She doesn’t come to terms with it all until she reflects on it in the closing cinematic, and this is where we see this part of the Lara we know sliding into place: legends are real and archaeology has a lot more at stake than mere academic interest. It’s a big change for her and how she views the world, one she hasn’t truly come to grips with, and I believe it. That’s why it’s well done.
Killer / Warrior
In computer/video games, bad guys (human or otherwise) tend to get killed off with abandon (and sometimes very thin excuses). They’re shooting at you, so you shoot at them, it’s all good. Very few games that I’ve come across delve into the character impact of all of these killings, but TR is one of them, and it’s a refreshing change. Lara’s first kill isn’t off-hand, it isn’t brushed past, and it isn’t done casually at all. It’s a Thing, which is as it should be.
This is where the aforementioned threatened rape comes in. But let’s put it in context. (Here, I’m getting incredibly spoilery.)
By this point, Lara has survived a shipwreck, woken up hanging from the ceiling in a creepy cave with lots of dead people and candles around, escaped, found and lost her friends a couple of times, and she has now been captured by the freaky islanders again. She has her hands tied behind her back, and the leader of this group of freaky islanders orders the shooting of Lara and another couple of crewmembers from her ship. Those crewmembers are shot in cold blood right in front of her. She has an opportunity to escape, so she takes it, running and sneaking through the camp with her arms still bound. The island men are looking for her. She can’t move well or fast, and she can’t use any tools; all she can do is move and hide.
She’s spotted. A man drags her out of her hiding place and pushes her against a wall. Hands distinctly wander. He tells her she’s going to die. Lara struggles and tries to fight back, and they both end up on the ground. She manages to scramble away and break the bonds around her wrists, allowing her to grab the gun the man just dropped, and he’s coming at her again, so she fires… and he’s dead. And then she collapses to her knees and freaks out, because there’s a dead man and she made him that way.
So, is it the wandering hands that made her stand up and kill him? Was it the threat of rape that tipped her over the edge? I don’t think so. It contributed, yes, but either way, she knew she was going to die horribly. He was going to do awful things to her that would kill her. It was survival and instinct, and shooting him was a natural response.
The threat also fit the situation. These island men were all wrecked there, and they are all men; there aren’t any women among their ranks and that’s probably something to do with their habit of sacrificing them in an attempt to get off the island. Does that mean that all men are rapists if put in this milieu? No, that’s naive, but it does mean that rape is more likely. It’s a brutal and violent society. It’s also something that a man might do to threaten a woman, whether he meant to follow through or not. This is exactly the type of threat that could be expected in that situation.
Also, it’s one moment in a struggle, one I wouldn’t have given so much attention to if it hadn’t been for the histrionics I’d seen in the reviews and reactions (some of which I believe were in response to the pre-release promo, without actually seeing the game itself). If you fail to help Lara fight free, the man strangles her; there’s no follow-through on the threat (I know because I failed this bit the first time through, whoops).
Through the whole sequence, I love Lara’s reactions, because they seem like a real person’s reactions to this type of situation. She defends herself; and she was no cowering creature before then, either, so it’s not like it was a huge change in character. She loses her shit when she sees what she’s done, despite the fact that she’s still in the middle of a camp crawling with men just like the one lying in front of her, all of whom are looking for her. Killing is a big thing and it takes her time and emotional strength to pull herself together enough to fight her way out of the camp, but she does it (killing more in the process, but the emotional damage is already done). Later, she stumbles over admitting the killing to Roth, still shocked by what she has done and coming to terms with it.
The rest of the game is rife with weapons, killing, and bad guys falling by the wayside, but I think the character side was nicely done. It’s perhaps a little too easy to fall into the rhythm of the violence, and she doesn’t have emotional reactions to it repeatedly (which is a relief, because that would get annoying). At the same time, she grows numb through much of the game, doing what she knows she has to, running and jumping and fighting, swimming through pools of blood, climbing over mounds of body parts (I’m not kidding), fighting a guy who seems to be too huge to be real, battling mysterious ‘oni’ and suspected undeads, going up against the ghost of a dead queen… yeah, Lara has a lot of traumatic stuff to deal with. She freaks out occasionally. Her hands shake. And then she deals with it and moves on, focussing on her goal. She does whatever unpleasantness she has to to get herself and her people off the island, because she led them there and it’s her responsibility to get them safely home.
It’s all of these things that make Lara from the inexperienced, shocked woman who washed up on a beach into the survivor who is strong enough to pull herself and her friends out of a hellish situation. The whole game is her evolution, far more than that one moment when she was caught with her hands tied behind her back. The rescues that come for them are thwarted, but she pushes on, determined to find an answer. She loses friends along the way – painfully – and the losses she suffers all spur her on to save those she has left. She takes control of her actions and she takes responsibility to fix whatever is happening, to save the people she loves and led there. She becomes capable of rescuing herself and her friends.
I think this game achieved exactly what it set out to do: it explains how Lara became the woman we moved around in the previous Tomb Raider games. Better yet: it promises that future TR games will continue on this new deeper, more character-focussed vein. A glimpse around opinions on the subject suggest that Crystal Dynamics intend to do this, carrying Lara’s story through into a rebooted storyline. Darker and grittier than before, with deeper, more complex characters, all of which I thoroughly approve of. Personally, I can’t wait to find out where they take it next.
Lara’s not the only character in the game, so let’s look briefly at the other members of the game’s cast. Lara comes with several friends and crewmembers, all of whom have pretty well-defined personalities. They’re all quite distinct from one another (apart from the generic crewmembers who are killed close to the beginning of the game).
They don’t all like or obey Lara; she’s not the boss in this expedition and she has to earn their respect. No-one follows her blindly and some refuse to follow her at all, for reasons that are explained in the game’s story. The ship’s mechanic, Reyes, gives Lara a particularly hard time, which is in line with her personality and the inter-personal clashes between the two of them.
Through the various game zones, we find bits of the crew’s stories (though how their letters and journals got all over the island is a mystery to me). We’re allowed glimpses into their backgrounds and motivations. We get to read an apology to a far-away daughter, and a slide into dangerous delusion. It’s not often that I’ll take the time to read content like this, but I enjoyed it in this game. The voiceovers probably helped!
We’re encouraged to care about these characters, so much so that it’s upsetting when they die (I won’t say who!). I didn’t particularly like all of the characters who were alive at the end, but at the same time, I liked that it wasn’t only my favourites who survived. Sometimes, puppies die to drive the story forward, and that only works if we care about them.
This is a review of a game, so I should touch on this. I liked the interface and the controls (I play these types of games on the XBox 360, so it’s a controller for me). I was able to pull off the required manoeuvres without too much trouble or repetition, which is always a plus for me, despite some of them being pretty complex.
The combat was pretty good; I usually play this kind of game on Easy for the first run-through, because I don’t like being shot in the back of the head repeatedly (like I said earlier, I’m not the most skilled gamer), but it was a fun challenge. There are stealth options as well as ‘blast the crap out of it with a shotgun’ options, so you can choose the tactics that work best for you and the situation. There was plenty of ammunition lying around, too, so you’re not really in danger of running out completely (something which some games use to create a false sense of difficulty, I find). There’s usually enough for at least one of your weapons to fire, and if you need a particular weapon to progress (like blasting a door open with the aforementioned shotgun), there’s always ammo available at that point so you aren’t held up or stuck because you used all your shells in that last fight.
There is a lack of the big, complex puzzles that are a staple of the Tomb Raider franchise. Personally, I didn’t miss them too much. The zones and optional tombs contain small puzzles, and I was inordinately pleased with myself when I managed to figure them out all on my own (without looking up the solutions, which I’ll do if I’m getting too frustrated with a problem that has an unobvious solution or no way to figure it out beyond trial and error). That probably says more about me than the game.
The other thing that is missing from TR is Croft Manor, which is an explorable area that gives you bonuses in the other games. I don’t miss it, and it wouldn’t have made sense in the context of TR, which is entirely set on a single island. So I’m glad they cut it out of there. Instead, you’re able to go back through all the areas on the island to pick up collectables that you couldn’t access or missed previously (which unlocks bonuses). If you have a completist urge (like me), this is a welcome thing, though the ‘fast travel between campfires’ mechanism is a bit weird (it’s not exactly realistic, where most of the game seems to be striving for realism). I’ll live with the weirdness, though; it’s better than running back through the maps.
Do I really need to write this bit? I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to say here by now. I enjoyed the game. The story was well-constructed and the character work was wonderful. It’s refreshing to see a strong woman explained in a way that doesn’t make her deeply damaged, a bitch, an ice queen, or a whore. It’s nice to see Lara less shiny and sexualised, and I like the grittier, harsher edge to the game (compared to other games in the franchise).
There’s a brilliant contrast built into the game. At the beginning, Lara looks at herself in the mirror of her cabin, just before the ship is wrecked. Much later, you take her back to the (ruined) ship, and she catches sight of herself in that same mirror. The difference in her appearance speaks volumes, and the story of the game is captured in that look.
Bravo. I’d like to see more games like TR, please.