I recently finished writing my next book, The Dragonfly Delivery Company. It’s a sequel, which is not something I’ve ever written before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for trilogies and series in the past, but I’ve never actually written one, which made writing The Dragonfly Delivery Company something of a unique experience. As such there are a number of things I’ve learnt along the way that I think you might find of interest.
Sequels Are Easier
Now you might think having to write a story as good or better than the first would put a lot of pressure on you as a writer, and whilst I can see that being true, it wasn’t something I experienced. Quite the opposite in fact.
Writing book two was easier because everything was so familiar. I knew the characters, the landscape, the type of story I wanted to tell. I had fewer decisions to make on style and substance because I’d made them all before. It was more like visiting an old friend than it was meeting someone new, and that was a lovely position to be in.
Fractured Timelines Work
I grew up with chapters being like scenes in a play. You arrive somewhere, you watch what happens, and you depart. But more and more I’m finding that treating my book more like a movie than a play works best for me.
It’s perfectly acceptable to leap from one scene to the next and back again, doling out little bits of information along the way. It’s preferable even, as it allows you to keep the whole thing fresh and interesting. It also stops you getting bogged down in unnecessary fluff and waffle, which brings me to…
It’s Okay To Just Stop
I am cursed with the need to wrap up each section of my writing. To put in a sentence or paragraph at the end that ties everything up with a neat little bow. But guess what, you don’t have to do that! If you’ve said what you needed to say you can just… stop.
Once you’ve got across the necessary information it’s perfectly fine to move on to the next bit. You don’t have to explain everything away, to make everything all nice and neat. Life isn’t nice and neat, so why should your writing be.
Don’t patronise your audience by treating them like children. They get what’s going on. You don’t have to explain it all. Plus, a little ambiguity goes a long way. Nothing make a reader want to move on more than mild uncertainty about what just happened.
I Am An Under-Writer
Book two has ended up sixty-three thousand words long. This is much less than the one hundred and three thousand words of book one. I’m not too worried about this because, unlike most writers, I’ve realised that I am an under-writer. I add words later to make my stories good, not take them away.
I can’t tell you how freeing this revelation has been. It has allowed me to be the writer I am, instead of the writer I thought I should be. I no longer worry about my work being boring, because I know I’ll fix it later. This has allowed me to finish my first draft in just nine months, instead of the usual God knows how long.
Yes it means more work further down the line, but that’s fine. At least I have a first draft to be getting on with. And whether you’re adding words or taking them away, all good books are made in the edit anyway.
I hope you’ve found these realisations of interest. Normally I would write a nice wrap up paragraph here to conclude this post, but because of my third point above, and in recognition of the fact that I’ve said what needed to be said, I’m going to just stop instead.
Ever wondered what authors talk about behind closed doors? What about themselves and their work makes them cringe? What secret sins they whisper of in the dark? Well wonder no more!
Asking Authors Awkward Questions is a new series where I ask some of my author friends the sorts of questions you don’t get asked in your average interview. Questions designed to make them squirm, make them blush, and to maybe, just maybe, get to the heart of what it means to be a writer.
First up on the chopping block is Tiffany Christina Lewis. Tiffany is the author of six books and has been published more than a dozen times in anthologies and magazines. She is also a publisher at Rebellion LIT, where she very kindly published an interview with yours truly a little while back.
What was the first novel you ever sat down to write? How old were you at the time?
The first full length novel I ever wrote was completed around 2009 and I was a fresh, young 24 years old. It was a Romantic Crime Fiction, very Urban and it wasn’t for me. It had kind of a Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah feel. Basically, a girl falls in love with a drug dealer. I now know that was not really my style, lol.
How old were you when you finally got published? How many novels had you written by then? Which one got published first?
My first book, Inside Out, was published in 2014 with Steamy Trails Publishing and I was 29. I think by then I’d written 2-3 other novels. The other novels weren’t even an option for publishing, in my opinion, so I didn’t share them with my publisher, lol. Back then I was heavy into short stories because I was in a group that used prompts and writing challenges. A few of those shorts were published between 2009 and 2014.
What are your crutch words? Which words do you most overuse?
Aww man, you name it, lol. Recently my editor had to trim down “towards” but I definitely make people “smile” a lot. I have a list of words to trim from my writing but they are more like “was”, “that”, “just” and “like” lol. They are all words that are considered filler or words that “tell” rather than “show”. I’m not obsessed with eliminating “telling” but whenever I can, I like to remove words that don’t improve the story.
Which character of yours is your favourite, and why? (And why is it never the main character?)
I’m lucky to have a ton of characters to pick from more recently. My new release has 8 stories with many different characters. Overall though, my favorite characters are always those who I would love to hang out with. Positive role models who represent my culture best and have fun hobbies. For instance, in my new book Helpless: A Short Story Collection, my favorite character is Gia. She’s an African-American career minded woman like myself. More specifically though, my favorite character is Azlynn Matthews from my Michael Taylor series. She’s caring, smart, funny, but also tough. She’s the kind of person I would want to be my friend.
I think our favorites are never our mains because as humans we crave support. Our support characters are made to cradle and care for our main characters and we would love to have someone rock solid like that by our sides too, if we don’t already.
How’s your grammar, spelling, and punctuation? What mistakes do you make most often?
Commas are my enemy and my friend. They are definitely the ones I screw up most of all. I try very hard to spell correctly, but dictionaries are always at my right hand. Grammar is not even real. I just try to write good English whenever I can, lol.
How disciplined are you as an author? Do you have set goals? How often do you fail to meet those goals?
I am as disciplined as a human who is very determined to be a full time author. Humans can be very undisciplined sometimes and I have that in me. I think my lack of discipline can occasionally come from overworking because again, I want to be a full time author. I also don’t want to work for anyone else so this forces me into pushing myself hard. This creates those “undisciplined” days where I watch four movies in one day and never touch my laptop.
I don’t do “goals” because they upset my anxiety. It’s not realistic to think I have no goals, but I keep my goals and dreams a little more lofty, this gives me the opportunity to instead set easy to manage tasks which will automatically help me achieve those goals. For instance, if I have a sales goal, I’ll set it for the year. This gives me 12 months to achieve it. I then make tiny tasks that are more tailored to getting my book in reader’s hands as opposed to torturing myself with how much money I made each week.
With this method, I don’t feel like I fail often. My bigger goals may fall short, but I’m constantly moving towards those goals because my tasks are being met and I’m really trying my best every single day. It makes me feel good, despite my long-term goal not being met.
What’s something you hate in other people’s writing that you try to avoid doing in your own but often end up doing anyway because words are hard?
Repetition. I detest repetition. I think it’s the kind of thing that bothers readers (not every reader) and I don’t wanna see it ever! Yet, I still find repetition in my work. For instance, I don’t want to see the same word in close proximity to another (outside of and, the, but, etc.). For instance, if two characters smile at one another after dialogue, I do not want to see the word smile in each of their dialogue tags. I want the author to vary their word usage.
While I was in editing for my May release, I was finishing the eBook in March and sure enough, I had people smiling and smiling and smiling, all in the same paragraph. It’s annoying to me because it distracts from the story and I don’t want that for my readers.
If you could go back and change any of your already published work, would you? What would you change, and why?
So far, the only thing I would change would be the format of my third book. I made the book 6×9 but all my other titles are 5×8. It looks kinda cool on the shelf right now, but in the future, all my books will be 5×8, so eventually I have to change it.
As for storylines, I’m very proud of them all and I wouldn’t change anything.
Which part of the writing/publishing process do you like the least?
I hate formatting so much. Editing, I actually love because it helps me grow as an author and brings me closer to my major plan of writing full time, even though I think it’s the part of writing most hated by other authors. Lol.
Formatting my upcoming release has been a sh*t sandwich. Can I curse on your blog? Lol. Seriously, it was very challenging. I ended up buying Vellum which changed everything. I hope on my next book I’ll have a better method for working through formatting.
If you could write anything you wanted and guarantee it would get published, no questions asked, what would it be? What’s stopping you from writing it right now?
I don’t think I have anything like that… I don’t seek traditional publishing, at all, so for me I can publish anything I want and it would get published, lol. I don’t have any controversial views that I want to share (as far as I know) so no one can stop me publishing from that angle either.
Finish this sentence: Reviews are…?
Reviews are a reflection of a readers feelings related to a book and are not a personal attack against an author. Usually, lol.
There are cases where a reader adamantly disagrees with an author and will take personal attacks against them, but in most cases, reviewers are writing to let other readers know how they felt about the book and that is all they really want to do.
Written communication can be misunderstood, so I always try not to take reviews personally.
Which of your books should a new reader start on? Pitch it to us.
My 2nd book, Stitches, is the best place for a reader to start in my Crime Fiction series. This book has many story lines, including multiple murder investigations, a personal life story with my main character, Michael, and it is the book that introduces all my major characters for the continuation of the series including his new partner, a love interest and a major antagonist to the series. Book one is great, and it should be read but I’ve made a lot of permanent introductions in book two that will carry readers through the series.
But! I think if readers want to be introduced to me and my writing style, my new book does that very well. In Helpless, there are stories in five different genres. It is the best writing of my career for sure, because its recent, lol. But also, the stories are deeply personal to me because they all have female main characters.
These eight stories of women kicking ass are my opposition to the tropes of true crime. As much as I love true crime, women are often just represented as victims. The strong, smart, caring, and even wicked women in my book exemplify what women are and can be. I’m proud of it for that, but additionally, as I said it’s some of my best writing and gives a taste of what I can do in multiple genres.
Aside from book sales and big piles of cash, what does literary success look like to you?
Being known for my skills as an author. I work very hard to know and use writing rules to my advantage. I work hard to craft stories that my readers will devour without being distracted by my ineptitude, and more so than money, the best feeling is when a reader tells you how much they loved your work and why. When that happens, I know I’ve done my job.
If you want to find out more about Tiffany and her work you can do so via her website, via Goodreads, or on Twitter, where she can be found lending her support to the writing community on a daily basis.
Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!
Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.
Let me explain…
1. What is that? (Non-Action)
I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.
Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.
John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.
The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.
See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.
NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.
2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)
Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.
When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.
NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.
Again, here’s an example:
Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.
With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.
Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.
You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.
3. What are they up to? (Active Action)
This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.
This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.
For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.
The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.
John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.
The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.
John gave chase.
Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.
This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).
“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”
“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”
“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”
Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”
“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”
“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”
But why have these definitions in the first place?
Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.
When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).
To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.
So what does this all mean?
For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.
And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.
It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.
I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.
These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.
With the release of animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks on Amazon I thought I’d share with you this short story of mine, called Committee On The Bounty. It’s about what would happen if the Red Shirts in the Star Trek Universe were to unionise. After all, no one ever asks if they want to risk life and limb for one of the command crew every week, now do they? Maybe they would have something to say on the matter, if anyone was to ever ask.
It’s not my usual steampunk affair, but it is a lot of fun, so I thought it was worth sharing. Don’t take it too seriously and you’ll be just fine.
Oooooo-WEEE-ooooh! — ‘Attention, crew of the USC Bounty. This is the captain speaking. As you know, in our recent encounter with the Volgons your ship-mate, Specialist Cantour, was captured and taken aboard a Volgon StarCruiser. That ship, as we speak, is heading deep into Volgon territory never to be seen again. Star Command have ordered us not to pursue, for fear of starting a war with the Volgons. This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is unacceptable.
‘It is my intention to pursue the Volgons and retrieve Specialist Cantour by any means necessary. Specialist Cantour is one of us, one of our own. We are a family aboard this ship, we take care of each other, and being part of a family means no one gets left behind.
‘Prepare yourselves. This could get messy. Grey, out.’
In engineering, Engineer Polk frowned up at the speaker in the corner of the room. ‘Seriously? Again?’
‘What’s that?’ asked the engineer next to him.
‘Captain Grey. He’s disobeying direct orders again.’
‘So what about last week, when he brought that alien on board and it killed those two techs in the science lab? Or the week before that when he warped the ship through an asteroid belt and bounced too close to that black hole? Duncan and Foss still have nightmares about nearly getting sucked out into space when the cargo bay seals went. If they hadn’t hung on until the pressure shield kicked in they would have too.’
‘So! Now he’s going up against the Volgons? And for Specialist Cantour, of all people! I mean, if it was a one off, maybe, but that woman is a liability. She’s always getting herself into trouble. And every time she does we all have to go in and rescue her. It’s not fair I tell you. Something needs to be done.’
‘Well, you’re with the union, aren’t you? How about, instead of just standing there moaning to me about it all day, you actually go up there do something about it, eh?’
Engineer Polk stuck out his chin and gave a decisive, if slightly hesitant, nod. ‘Alright then. I will.’
On the bridge of the USC Bounty, handsome-haired Captain Damian Grey sat placidly amidst the industrious hubbub, as his Command Crew prepared for the jump to warp. ‘Are we ready Mr Kalarr?’
The captain’s fish-headed first officer nodded inside his water-filled helmet. ‘Ready on your mark, Captain.’
‘Good. Then, make it go, Number One.’
‘Aye sir. Ensign Sully, if you please.’
The ship’s pilot tapped her control screen. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. A third attempt had the same result. ‘I’m sorry sir, but we’re not getting any power to the engines. There seems to be a problem in Engineering. The hyper-core appears to be offline.’
Captain Grey hit his communicator. ‘Engineering? This is the captain. What’s going on down there? Is there a problem with the hyper-core?’
‘Um, hello captain. Engineer Polk here. I’ve, uh, taken the hyper-core offline I’m afraid.’
‘What? Why? Is it broken? How long before it can be up and running?’
‘I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that, Captain.’
‘Not as simple? What do you mean?’
‘I’m sorry about this Captain, but as the official representative of the Union of Non-Command Personnel aboard the Bounty, I have to officially inform you that all non-command personnel are now officially on strike… sir.’
Captain Grey and Kalarr exchanged a bemused look. ‘Come again?’ said the captain.
The atmosphere is Captain Grey’s ready room was tense to say the least. The captain sat behind his desk, glaring at the pale and visibly sweaty engineer in the chair opposite him. Kalarr stood off to the side, the liquid in his breather helmet bubbling ominously.
‘Run that by me again,’ said the captain.
‘Well, sir, it’s like this. We at UNCPER feel that you – and the rest of the Bridge crew – often fail to take non-command personnel into consideration when making critical decisions.’
‘But that’s the job Mr Poke. I give the orders and you carry them out.’
‘It’s, uh, Polk sir. Engineer Polk. And as a rule sir, yes. For the most part our members are happy to carry out your orders as given. But, let’s be honest, you are in the habit of putting this ship and its entire crew at risk in a manner that some might consider to be… a little reckless.’
‘For the good of the mission,’ said Captain Grey, sitting forward. ‘Everything I do is for the good of the mission.’
Engineer Polk paled even further. ‘I understand sir. And your dedication to duty is commendable. It’s just… not what most of us signed up for.’
‘Not what you signed up for? Not what you signed up for?!’ The captain leapt to his feet. Leaning on his desk, he looming over Engineer Polk. ‘You signed up for three square meals a day and to do what you’re bloody well told, that’s what you signed up for! This isn’t a democracy, for crying out loud, this is Star Command! We follow orders. We follow orders or people die. Do you understand?’
Engineer Polk swallowed loudly. ‘Yes sir. I understand sir, But – forgive me sir – but why should we adhere to the chain of command when our captain does not?’
‘I…’ Captain Grey stared at Engineer Polk. He glanced at Kalarr who very wisely said nothing. Adjusting his tunic Captain Grey sat back down again. ‘The Volgons will most likely kill Specialist Cantour, you realise that don’t you? In fact they’re probably torturing her for information as we speak.’
‘I do sir, yes. And believe me, this is not a decision I take lightly. But many more would die in a battle with the Volgons, I’m sure.’
‘And what about the fact the Specialist Cantour would gladly risk her life to save yours? Doesn’t that give you pause for thought at all?’
‘Sir, I have met Specialist Cantour exactly once during my time on this ship. She called me a Teryllian snot-monger for taking the last piece of birthday cake at a party we were having in Engineering.’
‘Well who takes the last piece of cake, Mr Polk?’
‘It was my birthday, Captain. And it was the first piece I’d had. I was late to my own party because I was busy fixing your ship, sir.’
The captain shifted in his seat. ‘Yes, well… Specialist Cantour does like her cake,’ he mumbled.
‘I’m sorry sir, but appealing to my compassion will not work. It lies firmly with my union brothers and sisters I’m afraid.’
The captain yanked open his desk drawer and grabbed the phase pistol he kept there. ‘And what if I was to shoot you for disobeying a direct order Mr Polk? How about that? Would that help change your mind at all?’
Polk’s stomach did an unwelcome back-flip as he fought to hold down his lunch. ‘Captain, please. Killing me won’t get you what you want. And besides,’ he added quickly, ‘the engineering computers are locked out, and only I know how to unlock them.’
Engineer Polk did his best to stay calm, and stay conscious, even though fainting and wetting himself were two very tempting options right now (he was ambivalent about which he would like to do first). He’d been warned there would be moments like this when he’d been elected UNCPER union rep. It was well known as a difficult and challenging position to hold. He hadn’t been warned there would be weaponry involved however. That was proving to be a most unwelcome development.
Captain Grey’s jaw worked overtime as he ground his teeth together, his pistol pointed directly at Engineer Polk’s chest. ‘If I may,’ said Mr Kalarr, stepping forward. ‘Perhaps if Engineer Polk was to tell us what he wants, we could resolve this matter sooner rather than later. Let us not forget, the more time we waste the further away Specialist Cantour becomes.’
‘Very well,’ said Captain Grey reluctantly, putting his gun away. ‘What is it the Red Shirts want? What do I have to do to make you go away?’
Engineer Polk bristled. ‘Please don’t call us that, Captain. Red Shirts is a derogatory term, and we are an officially recognised union after all.’
Squeezing his eyes shut, Captain Grey pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘What do you want, Mr Polk?’
‘Well, Captain, all UNCPER wants is to have a say in some of the more “non-standard” decision making that goes on around here. I suggest a small committee, to be consulted whenever activities that fall outside the bounds of normal operating procedure are being considered. We are not unreasonable people, but when our lives are being put at risk it would be nice to know we’ve had a say in the decision making process. I think that’s fair, don’t you?’
Captain Grey considered Engineer Polk for a very long time. He drummed his hand on the desk top, right over the drawer where he kept his pistol. He didn’t look all that inclined to agree, which was a problem, because Engineer Polk had no idea what he was meant to do if management said no? The union manual had been quite vague about that possibility. It always seemed to assume that success was inevitable.
Captain Grey let out a deep sigh. ‘Very well. I will accept having a committee of three people – no more! – to represent the non-command personnel in some decision making. But their input will be limited and their opinion will be non-binding, is that understood?’
Engineer Polk almost sighed with relief. ‘Yes sir. Of course sir.’
‘You will want to have elections no doubt, but since time is of the essence I suggest you find two colleagues willing to speak on behalf of the crew until they can be arranged. Is that acceptable, Mr Polk?’
‘Yes sir. Indeed it is sir. A very good idea sir.’
‘Good. Now, perhaps you would be so kind as to unlock the computers in Engineering so that we can continue our pursuit of Specialist Cantour? If that’s alright with you, that is?’
USC Bounty dropped out of hyper-warp above the Volgon home world. The Volgons dispatched a StarCruiser to intercept. Coming face to face with the Bounty the Volgon ship locked on all its weapons and powered up, ready to fire.
The Volgon captain opened a channel to the Bounty. ‘This is Tellos Mech, of the Volgon High Command. You are trespassing in Volgon territory. Depart at once or prepare to be boarded. Any other action will be seen as hostile and will bring about your complete annihilation. The choice is yours. You have ten of your Earth seconds to comply.’
Shutting off the communicator he awaited their response. The Bounty didn’t move, didn’t raise its shields, didn’t arm its weapons. It just sat there silently, doing nothing. After twenty seconds of this Tellos Mech opened communications again. ‘Well? Which is it to be? Will you run like cowards, or will you die like dogs?’
The Bounty opened a communication channel of its own. A lot of talking could be heard going on in the background. ‘Um, can you give us a minute,’ said Captain Grey. ‘We’re just discussing our options.’ The line went dead.
Tellos Mech turned to his First Officer, who did what passed for a shrug on Volgon. <What do we do now sir?> he said.
<I don’t know, First Of Many. Open fire, I guess?>
On the bridge of the Bounty they were still deciding what the Volgons meant by “complete” annihilation – ‘But surely they can’t mean everyone on board, can they? I mean, even the clean-up crew? It’s like, what did they do to deserve getting all annihilated and that, eh?’ – when a plasma torpedo ripped through their hyper-core, clearing the matter up for them once and for all.
I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.
I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.
It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.
I Am What I Am
You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.
NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.
But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…
When Is It?
I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.
Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.
Which bring me to my next point…
Make A Timeline
I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.
If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them
For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.
Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).
I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.
I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).
It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…
I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.
I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.
And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?
Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…
Too Much Description
One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.
(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)
What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.
Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?
Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.
NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.
As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.
But of course, just to contradict myself…
I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.
When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.
Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.
I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.
I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.
Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…
This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.
In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.
Watch this scene from Apollo 13.
In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)
We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.
I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.
Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.
With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…
Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’
First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.
The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.
I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.
And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.
Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.
In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”
Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)
I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.
Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.
If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.
Whenever you read something it seems obvious that that was the only way to tell that story, but of course there are a dozen ways to take a reader from A to B, and in trying to decide which is the “best” way you often end up with a lot of extra material you no longer have use for.
Whilst editing Dexter & Sinister it became clear that I needed to tighten up the start as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that was to get rid of side characters. First drafts often generate threads that don’t end up going anywhere, and Dexter & Sinister was no different.
I found two characters who made it as far as draft six, who I could do without – Becky Bates and Old Jimmy. Becky was a coat-check girl at the Scion Club, primarily there to provide John with information, and Old Jimmy was the former nightwatchman at the airship factory.
I was very fond of them both, but when I realised that everything Becky did could be achieved by two lines of text, and Old Jimmy could be cut out altogether and it not affect the story whatsoever, they had to go.
Still, it made me sad. They were good characters, with some nice writing around them. I didn’t want them to go. But that’s what they mean by “Kill all your darlings.” You don’t keep something because it’s good, it’s meant to be good, but if it doesn’t advance the plot then, bye bye.
Anyway, long story short, I thought it would be amusing to share Old Jimmy’s two appearances, since I like his moments very much indeed. See if you agree with me.
Part 1 – The original opening to the book:
Some people don’t know how lucky they are.
When Old Jimmy lost his job as night watchman down the airship factory he certainly didn’t feel all that lucky. It’d been a good job for a man like him. You didn’t need much skill or education to wander about making sure nothing happened, two things which Jimmy had never had an abundance of. It also helped to have a lack of imagination, as the factory at night was full of strange shadows and odd noises which would put the willies up a more creative man. Old Jimmy had no problem in that department either. Upon discovering there were two Jimmies at the factory he’d come up with his own nickname, Old Jimmy, and even that had taken him a while.
When they let him go a few weeks ago they hadn’t given him much of a reason. Cutbacks, that’s what the boss had said. Cutbacks, and changes. And re-or-gan-eye-zay-shun, or some-such. He wasn’t really sure. He’d stopped listening after the words “let you go.” Their reasons didn’t matter. He had a job, and then he didn’t. That was all that mattered.
What he missed most about the job was the peace and quiet. He missed the money of course, what little there was of it, but he missed the silence even more. He was home all the time now, and though he loved his wife dearly, she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. And her sister, who always seemed to be round, was even worse. She’d been there for over an hour already tonight, going on about how next-door’s dog was always trying to hump Trixie, her Teacup Pomeranian. ‘And you know how delicate little Trixie is, poor thing. Shaking all afternoon she was, after what that Great Dane did to her!’ It was enough to drive a man mad. He may not have had much of an imagination, but all Old Jimmy could think about as she banged on was what would happen if he turned round and told her to ‘Shut yer pie hole!’ Y’know, just this once, just to see the look on her face.
But he didn’t of course. No one ever does. Instead he simply sat there in the lumpy armchair, eating two day old stew, ignoring his sister-in-law as he looked forward to his bedtime and the sweet refuge of sleep.
Yes indeed, Old Jimmy had no idea how lucky he was. If he’d been at work that night the only thing he could have looked forward to was a slender blade in the rib cage, followed by a cold and lonely death on the factory floor.
Part 2 – After John’s first visit to Gravesend Bridge he goes to the sewer outlet pipes, where the body was found:
John spotted an old man over the road, sitting on a squat little stool outside his squat little house – a small, fluffy white dog at his feet – openly watching him as he drank his beer. He went over to him.
Half way across the road the little dog started yapping. ‘Shut up,’ growled the man. He took a swing at the dog but it dodged the blow, jumping around like this was a new game or something. The old man fished a small wooden ball out from under his seat and tossed it into the street. ‘Here. Go get it, you little bugger you.’ The dog shot past John, falling over its own feet as it chased the ball into the gutter.
‘Nice dog you got there,’ John said, smiling. ‘What’s he called?’
‘She’s called Trixie,’ said the man. ‘And she’s a pain in the arse.’
‘Right. I see. Um, listen. I was wondering if you could help me? There was a body washed up here a few days ago, and I was wondering if you knew anything about it?’
‘Oh, aye. I do at that. It were the wife’s sister that found it y’know.’
‘Yup. Found ‘im on her way over Saturday morning. She usually comes round early on the weekend so she and the wife can get to the market when it opens. Turned up pitching a fit this time she did, wailin’ and sobbin’ and being all dramatic. Took us ages before we got any sense out of her. Then I was dispatched to go get the bloody coppers wan’I?’ He didn’t sound too amused about that.
‘And what time was this?’
‘Some time around six I reckon. Or maybe nearer seven. I dunno. It was too damn early for all that racket though, that’s for sure.’
‘Right. Um… I don’t suppose your sister-in-law is here is she? I’d like a quick word with her if I could.’
The little dog came trotting back – a Teacup Pomeranian by the looks of her – and dropped the slobbery ball at the man’s feet. ‘No, she’s away,’ said the man, reaching for the ball. ‘The shock were a bit much for her, so she and the missus have gone off to their mother’s for a few days to get over it, like.’ He tossed the ball down the street, and the little dog shot off after it. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but they could have taken the bloody dog with ’em. Damn thing won’t sit still. I gets no peace at all.’
‘Sounds rough,’ said John. ‘Say, I don’t suppose she said anything about the body did she? What state it was in and that?’
‘She didn’t say much of anything mate. Just a lot of Lordy Lord!s and Oh my days!es. Besides, what was there to say. I’ve seen a few bodies in the river before now, living here, and they all look the same in the end; dead. Beyond that, what does it matter? Nowt to them, I can promise you that.’
‘Right. I see. Well, nice chatting to you. I’ll see you around.’
‘Aye, right enough,’ said the man.
John wandered off down the road. The dog passed him in the opposite direction, the ball in its mouth, looking very pleased with itself. Behind him John heard, ‘I swear to God I’m gonna make you into a stew one of these days. Here, gimme that.’ followed by the pock-pock-pock of the ball bouncing off down the road again, and the flappy slap of the dog’s feet as she gave chase.
Can you see why I didn’t want to get rid of them, but at the same time how they advance the plot in no way whatsoever? Weird, eh.
Still, it’s not the end of the line for either Old Jimmy or Becky Bates. They’re good characters, so they may yet make an appearance in future novels. And when they do you can say you heard of them here first! Now that’s the kind of insider knowledge you normally pay good money for.