Character creation: basics

It is my belief, but not mine alone, that a story’s most important advocates are its characters. The fictitious people make the fictitious world, so let us take a look at the basics of character building.

There should be a good reason for the presence of each and every one of your characters. A character can serve a multitude of purposes. Maybe he is holding back vital information. Maybe her story arc mirrors the protagonist’s for contrast. Maybe he will try to help but end up causing trouble.

Which brings us to guideline number two. Nobody is perfect. Perfect is boring, and happy people don’t make for good stories. Make your characters human. The best flaws are relevant to the story. A randomly near-sighted character is not as interesting as one who needs to win an archery competition. What if your leader has a beta personality? What if your soldier can’t stand the sight of blood?

However, there is a fine line between “she’s an idiot, I want to kick her” and “I’ll read something else”. In the first instance, the reader is still engaged. Do not allow your audience to give up on the protagonist. It’s okay to be an idiot if you’re brave. It’s okay to be snarky if you have a good heart. Walk the line.

With these very basic tips at your disposal, go forth, my friend, and remember: a good character can save a bad plot. A good plot cannot save a bad character.

 

 

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The Village on the Hill

The Village on the Hill

There once was a village, and the village was built on the eastern side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the western side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The village was surrounded by fields of oats and barley and the villagers were mostly farmers. They lived from the fruit of their labour and kept to themselves as much as possible. They did not care for the world beyond the fields and the farms.

There was a girl, who lived in the village. The girl had never known her mother and father for they both had died when she was just an infant. From the beginning of her young memory, she had been living at her grandmother’s house. The girl’s grandmother was the oldest person in the village, so that she was considered the wisest one, one whose speech was always truth.

One day, the grandmother was sitting on the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, sewing a skirt for her granddaughter, and the girl came and sat next to her.

“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”

The grandmother let out a long wheezing sigh. She had known the day would come when her little girl would grow and start wondering. She had watched the questions form on the child’s face for several days now and she had known that, soon, the questions would find their way to her lips. But curiosity is never a permanent trait. It comes with adolescence and goes with adulthood. If only the grandmother could stall long enough, the questions would vanish from the girl’s face and their quiet life would go on quietly as it always had.

“Grandmother,” asked the girl, “what is there on the other side of the hill?”

“My child, there is nothing on the other side,” said the grandmother.

The questions on the girl’s face grew stronger. Her young eyes sparkled brighter.

“But there must be something! Please, grandmother, tell me what is on the other side of the hill.”

“My child, on the other side there is a dark and deep forest.”

“Grandmother,” asked the child, “what is there in the forest?”

“My child, in the forest there are poisonous creeping weeds and savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes gleaming red in the darkness.”

The girl’s eyes grew wider, but nonetheless she kept asking.

“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the forest?”

“My child, beyond the forest there is a swamp that sucks all living things into its depths.”

The girl’s face turned pale, but still she asked again.

“Grandmother,” the girl asked, “what is there beyond the swamp?”

The grandmother was very old and getting weary of the questioning.

“My child,” said the grandmother, “the swamp spreads out forever. There is nothing beyond the swamp.”

“Grandmother,” said the child, “how do you know all this about the other side of the hill?”

“My mother told me about it, my child,” said the grandmother. “Just as I am now telling you.”

“But how did your mother know all this about the other side?”

“Well, my child, her mother had told her about it. Just as my mother told me about it. Just as I am now telling you.”

As another question was about to escape the girl’s lips, the old woman raised a warning finger.

“I told you all there is to know about the other side, my child. You must never try to cross the chain of rock, do you understand? There is nothing for you but danger on the other side.”

The girl fell silent and stared into the fire for a very long time, so long in fact, that when she finally tore her eyes from its fading glow, she found that it was night, and that her grandmother was sleeping in the rocking chair.

Presently the girl got up and went to the shed, and she came back with a log large enough to keep the house warm until morning, which she put in the fire. She tiptoed to the front door. There she paused with her small hand upon the handle and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping shape of her grandmother. For a moment, something caught in her throat and she thought that she would not leave. But then she was outside, closing the door behind her and looking out at the village quiet and dark.

She passed the baker’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the barber’s, and she walked in the fields for what felt like days although the sun did not come up until she was reaching the foot of the big rock chain, on the very top of the hill. There she stopped and looked up at the massive obstacle before her. She looked up until her frail neck hurt. The rocks stood tall and impenetrable, stretching a long shadow over the girl. Beyond, the sky was yellow and pink with morning light.

I have been a fool, thought the girl. I will never be able to climb over the rocks. I am neither big nor strong enough. Maybe a grownup could do it, but I certainly can’t. I have been a fool. So the girl leant against the rock and cried, for it was a long way back to the village and she missed her grandmother very much. As she wept, clouds covered the sky above the hill and it started to rain. It was one of the cold rains of wintertime and soon the girl was drenched to the bone and shivering. I must find shelter somewhere, the girl thought, or I will freeze to death. With that thought, she forgot to cry and looked for a place to hide from the rain. She noticed a tear in the rock, like the entrance of a cave, some small distance away. It was almost hidden behind a curtain of thick weeds, but there it was, and the girl walked up to it. She pushed the weeds aside. They were heavy and pushed back against the girl, as if warning her to stay away. But the girl was cold and determined, so that eventually, the weeds gave way. The crack behind the weeds was quite narrow, and the ceiling low, so that a child could just fit in.

Walking through the girl stopped and marvelled, for what she had first thought to be a cave was in fact a tunnel, digging deep into the rock. This could lead to the other side, thought the girl. So she advanced with her arms outstretched towards the obscurity in front of her. Five minutes passed, and still the girl walked on. The tunnel was pitch black and nothing seemed to indicate that it would end. Five more minutes passed. More than once, the girl thought she should turn back, but every time the thought entered her mind, it was pushed right back by another. What if the other side was close? What a shame it would be to give up just before success. So the girl walked on. Five more minutes passed, and suddenly, the girl saw the tiniest hint of light, far away in the darkness. The girl laughed with relief and the pride of having come all this way on her own. She pressed on with a smile on her face. But soon, the smile faded, for as the light was getting closer, it seemed that the tunnel was shrinking and narrowing. I will suffocate before I can get to the other side, thought the girl. With every step she took, the light grew stronger, yet more inaccessible. From the other side, a breeze brushed the girl’s face and whispered in her ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But it’s close, thought the girl. I can’t go back now. I’m almost there. I won’t go back.

And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone as the girl emerged into a forest deep and so dark that she wondered for a while if night had come back already. One could barely see two feet ahead and the air between the trees was still and quiet, so that every little sound rang out like a bell toll in the silence.

In the strangeness of the forest, fear came over the girl. She thought about her grandmother’s words, about the poisonous creeping weeds and the savage beasts with claws and fangs, and their eyes glowing red in the darkness. She daren’t pick up a branch to defend herself, for fear that it would sting her and spit venom into her body.

The stillness soon became oppressing, and the little sounds of the forest shaped themselves into unseen dangers. It was a long way back to the village, and the girl missed her grandmother very much, and wished that she had never left home. So she sat down in the fallen leaves and covered her face with both her hands, for children’s monsters become less real once the eyes are shielded from them. Some time elapsed like this. Five minutes. Ten, maybe. Then a voice rang out in the silence of the forest.

“Good morning,” said the voice.

The girl looked up and standing in front of her was a boy. The boy was peering down at her with his head slightly tilted sideways and his eyes round and quizzical, much like an owl’s. At first, she was afraid of the boy, for she remembered her grandmother’s warning. But as she studied the boy, she could see neither claws nor fangs, and his eyes were bright blue, and round and quizzical like an owl’s.

“Good morning,” said the boy again, and the girl thought that he had nice manners.

“Good morning,” said the girl.

The boy grinned a toothy grin, but his teeth were normal as far as the girl could see, and his grin was friendly.

“Where do you come from?” asked the boy.

“I come from the other side of the hill,” said the girl.

The questions on the boy’s face grew stronger. He stared at the girl with suspicion in his bright blue eyes.

“That is not possible,” he said. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”

“But there is,” said the girl. “My village is on the other side.”

The boy was silent for a while. Then he took the girl by the hand and pulled so she would follow him.

“Come to my house,” he said.

She pulled the other way.

“But what about the swamp that sucks all living things into its depths?”

“What swamp?” said the boy.

“My grandmother told me about the swamp.”

“There is no swamp,” said the boy.

He seems to be telling the truth, thought the girl. So she followed the boy out of the forest and onto a moor that stretched all the way to the horizon. There was no sign of a swamp anywhere.

“Where is your house?” asked the girl as they walked through the moor.

“It is in a village, by the sea,” said the boy.

“The sea?” asked the girl.

“Yes,” said the boy.

The girl smiled. She had read about the sea in books, but had never seen it for real. The sea was a place of exciting adventures and she found herself walking faster, and pulling the boy behind her.

There was a village by the sea, and the village was built on the western side of a hill. The people of the village had never been to the eastern side, for the hill was cut from north to south by a huge chain of rock, like the protruding spine of a bent giant. The villagers were mostly fishermen, and they lived from the fish they caught, keeping to themselves as much as possible. They had no care for the world beyond the moor or over the sea. But now a girl was running towards the village, hand in hand with a boy, who lived in the village, and the boy was growing curious about the world on the other side of the hill.

The boy had never known his mother and father, for they had died both during his early childhood. From the beginning of his young memory, he had been raised by his older brother. The boy’s brother was not much older than the boy, but already the questions were starting to fade from his face. Now the boy and his brother lived and worked in a lighthouse on the coast, some little distance from the centre of the village, and that is where the boy was taking the girl. He wanted the girl to tell his older brother about the other side of the hill, for he valued his brother’s opinion above all else and was curious to know what he would think of all this.

The brother was preparing lunch when the boy knocked on the door of the lighthouse.

“My brother, I found a girl in the forest, and she comes from the other side of the hill,” said the boy.

“That is impossible,” said the brother. “There is nothing on the other side of the hill.”

“But there is! Come, she is waiting for us on the beach.”

So the brother followed the boy to the beach. And the girl was there, looking out at the sea, for she had never seen it, and it was huge and beautiful under the winter sun. Seagulls were crying over the waves, sometimes diving for fish, and then coming back up, shaking beads of water from their feathers.

“Good morning,” said the brother.

The girl turned towards the pathway that led to the lighthouse.

“Good morning,” said the girl.

“My brother says that you come from the other side of the hill,” said the brother. “Is that the truth?”

“It is,” said the girl. “I live in a village with my grandmother, beyond the chain of rock.”

And she pointed a finger in the direction of the hilltop. The brother considered this for a while, and then spoke very slowly, for he still was not sure whether it was wise to believe the girl’s words.

“How did you cross the chain of rock?” he asked.

“I went through a tunnel in the rock,” said the girl.

Questions flickered back into life on the brother’s face, and he smiled.

“Come have lunch with us,” said he. “Tell us more about the other side.”

So the girl followed the boy and his brother up the pathway that led to the lighthouse. The brother laid one more plate on the table and they ate together. The girl tasted fish for the first time. She had read about fish in the same books that told stories of the sea, but she had never seen them, for there was no sea on the other side of the hill. The boy and his brother listened as she spoke of her village, of the fields and the farms, and her grandmother’s house.

In the afternoon, the boy took the girl to the town centre, and the girl thought that this was not so different from her village on the other side. There was a baker and a barber, and the villagers looked almost the same. But the air was different. It was damper and there was salt in it. Instead of meat, people sold fish on the marketplace, and the houses were of grey stones instead of red bricks and wood. The boy and the girl roamed the village and the coast until the sun was setting over the western side of the hill. With night, a shadow descended on the girl and she stopped laughing.

On the way back to the lighthouse, the boy tried to make her laugh again, or to make her speak, but she was lost in a pensive mood. The boy did not understand, and he asked his brother about it when they got back.

“Well,” said the brother. “It is quite simple. She is homesick.”

“Homesick?” asked the boy.

“She misses her village on the other side of the hill,” said the brother.

So it was decided that, the next day, the boy and his brother would accompany the girl back to the fissure in the chain of rock. With this decision, the shadow lifted from the girl and she laughed and spoke again. The boy and the girl exchanged stories of their villages for a good part of the night, and when the sun came up over the eastern side of the hill, the boy, the girl and the boy’s brother left the lighthouse.

They walked through the town centre. They passed the baker’s shop, and the fisherman’s, and the barber’s. They crossed the moor and entered the forest. The boy noticed that another shadow seemed to weigh on the girl, for she was silent again, and her face was set.

“I thought she was homesick,” said the boy to his brother. “I thought she wanted to go home.”

“She does,” said the brother. “But in order to go home, she has to leave here. That is what makes her sad.”

The boy thought about this for a while, and he was still thinking when they reached the fissure in the rock. Then the boy and his brother, and the girl, bade each other farewell. And just as the girl was about to disappear in the darkness of the tunnel, the boy had an idea.

“Wait,” said he. “What if my brother and I came to the eastern side with you? Then we could see your village and meet your grandmother.”

The girl’s face lit up, not with questions this time, but with joy. But the brother shook his head.

“I cannot get through the fissure,” said he. “I am too big. But you, little brother, you go with her. Go and see the other side of the hill before it is too late.”

The boy felt sad, for he loved his brother very much and did not want to leave him behind. But he did want to go and see the other side of the hill. The girl watched as the boy wrapped his arms around the brother’s neck, and she thought of her grandmother.

“Go, little brother,” said the boy’s brother.

The girl saw that he was crying. She wondered if her grandmother had cried when she had noticed that she was gone. She wanted to go back and hug her grandmother and tell her of all the wonderful things she had seen on the other side of the hill.

The boy bid his brother farewell and followed the girl into the tunnel. They walked with their hands extended towards the darkness in front of them. Long minutes passed, and finally, a dot of light appeared far away. Then the tunnel seemed to shrink and narrow once more around them. The boy was scared. He thought he would run back to his brother, but the girl said not to be afraid. Then the breeze whispered into the boy’s ears. Go back, the breeze whispered. Go back. But the girl said not to listen to the breeze. So the boy did not listen.

And all at once, the breeze and the tunnel were gone. And the boy saw the farms and the fields. The girl led him through the country and, soon, he saw the village. They passed the barber’s shop, and the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and walked all the way to the grandmother’s house. The girl wrapped her arms around her grandmother’s neck. She told her about the tunnel and the other side and the boy and his brother.

“Come and have dinner with us,” said the grandmother to the boy. “Tell me all about your village on the other side.”

So the boy stayed, and he tasted meat, which he had read about in books but never seen in reality. Then, the next day, the girl took him around the village and showed him everything.

And when he went back home, he told the villagers on the western side stories of the eastern side. And the girl told the villagers on the eastern side stories of the western side. And soon, it became tradition that young people should cross the chain of rock to see the world on the other side of the hill before they grew.

3 tips for writing a good sex scene

3 tips for writing a good sex scene

Wotcher!

Here I am, back in writer mode with a writing-themed post for you guys. As the title probably suggests, there is going to be mature talk going on around here, so there. Ye be warned.

As an asexual writer, I get asked – okay, so I don’t get asked personally, but I see a lot of asexual writers getting asked and I’m right there reading the conversation and feeling way involved and all – how one approaches sex scenes when one doesn’t have that instinctive pull towards sexual activity in the first place.
So I thought I’d try to clarify some stuff for you guys and give you a glimpse into my own relationship to sex scenes in the media, as an asexual person and as a fiction writer.

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I think there is an assumption out there that sex scenes exist solely for sexual people to get off on them. Surely asexual people are excluded from the intended audience. We must be repulsed, or at the very least bored, the second clothes start flying off. That’s just not true. There is no universal taste, in anything, for any group of people. Really. Just like not all gay men are obsessed with Judy Garland, not all asexual people crinkle up their noses at sexual content. I know I don’t.

I write sex scenes. In fact I’ve written quite a few of them. It’s not a chore and it doesn’t make me cringe or blush or want the earth to open up and swallow me.

There are many reasons why I might enjoy a particular sex scene.

It’s well-written.
It fits the story.
It makes me feel close to the characters involved.
It’s exciting.

Oh don’t give me that look.
Sexual content can be exciting even for asexual readers/viewers. Here’s how I like to explain that one to bewildered, shocked friends. The reason erotic content can turn me on is because I’m able to tap into the characters’ feelings and sensations. It doesn’t mean I’m attracted to either/any of them. In the same way, I have never wanted to go bungee jumping. But if a character in a movie or book has always wanted to go bungee jumping and finally gets to experience it, I will feel their joy and elation as they jump and I will be very enthusiastic about this whole bungee jumping experience.

You know.

Bungee jumping.

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On the flip side, it is also quite frequent for me to roll my eyes loudly – that’s right – at sex scenes. That is because sometimes, and by sometimes I mean often, it ends up being tasteless, boring, useless or all three.
So I thought I’d conjure up a little list for you, because who doesn’t like a little list?

These are my top three tips for writing sex scenes.

1. It’s not a sex scene. It’s a scene.

If one lazy Sunday afternoon, you find yourself writing a sex scene into your story because well you have to have a sex scene in there somewhere, right, then please… pretty please… can you not?

It is perfectly okay to fast forward to the next day, or the next morning, or the next shower. Not in a “it’s icky and taboo and we shouldn’t show it” way. I trust you know that’s not what I’m saying at all. No, just in the same way that you wouldn’t show your character going to the restroom unless something important or relevant was going to happen in the bathroom stall.

When you’re writing a sex scene, you’re not just writing about the sex. You’re writing a scene that adds something to your book. Maybe your character is going to call out the wrong name and it’s going to trigger a whole lot of awkwardness. Maybe it’s your hero’s first time and that’s what the story is all about. It doesn’t even need to be that big – hahaha, shut up. Maybe your character is a little bit lost in life right now and they’re trying to find something reassuring to cling to. Maybe your couple is in love and you want to express their connection through sex, among other things.

The point is, unlike in real life, sex in a story is always about more than just sex. You want to make sure it is, and you want to know what’s really going on there. Being in control of that will also allow you to figure out the tone and conflict of the scene. Because yes, even a sex scene deserves tone and conflict and all that good stuff that makes stories great.

In conclusion: there is nothing more annoying than two or more characters having sex just because the writer wants them to have sex.

2. Leave euphemisms in the trash where they belong.

Repeat after me, class.
Vaginas are for sex. Dark caves are for speleology.
Penises are for sex. And peeing. Love sticks are for… hell I don’t know.

You get my drift. Euphemisms belong in crappy romance novels and I’m not even going to put an “unless” here. Oh wait! Unless your goal is to make the reader laugh out loud in the middle of the train station. Then go right ahead. Knock yourself out.

Otherwise, please use your words. You actual words. If your characters are fucking, why not say fuck? It’s a good word. It’s short and to the point. And it’s rude, which is always fun. Go on then, don’t be scared. Fuck.

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3. Don’t slip out of character.

If you are telling a story, you have most likely spent a lot of time figuring out the perfect point of view to tell it from. If you haven’t, then you possibly have more urgent stuff to deal with than how to write a sex scene.

Don’t throw all that hard work away as soon as the clothes come off. If, say, Tania is your main character, let her tell the story. She’s in there, she’s living it. She probably has very personal, funny, sad, interesting stuff to say about it. It feels a certain way because it’s her and, say, Chloe.

Sex is between specific people and it’s different every time. Make it special. Make it specific. Make it personal.

 


 
Those are my top three tips to you, and myself, for writing interesting, well-rounded, useful sex scenes. Of course I’m always interested to know what you think, so please leave a comment if you have any thoughts. How about sharing your favourite sex scene? Or giving me some of your top tips?

The Boy and the Tree

The Boy and the Tree

This particular writing exercise was about Hemingway. We were reading The Old Man and the Sea – what a wonderful story, that Hemingway fellow sure knew what he was doing. This was about emulating the way Hemingway describes work, and the fable tone of the piece. The job I chose to describe was random, if memory serves.


 

The son had never known the great lights of the city. All he knew was the country he had been born in. His entire childhood had been spent in the same small country town, trapped between the deep woods on the West and the high mountains on the East. But the boy was not a child anymore. The fact that his father had allowed him to come to the forest this morning proved that he was now a grown man. Chopping the trees was not a child’s job. This morning, his father had walked up to his bedroom just as the sun ascended over the mountains. He was a tall and strong man, his father, and his huge frame had cast upon the sleeping boy a shadow even darker than night itself.

‘Come, son,’ the father had said.

He had not waited to make sure that his words had been heard. The son had jumped off the bed immediately and pulled on his shirt and trousers in a hurry. How lucky I am, he had thought. My brother had to wait until his fifteenth birthday to be deemed ready to chop the trees. I am only twelve. How lucky I am, the son thought.

Walking into his father’s large footsteps, looking up at his broad back and his unkempt red hair, the son rolled this thought over and over in his mind with pride. The father was glancing around at the trees, now and then interrupting his march to examine one more carefully. He was searching for the one that would make the most beautiful furniture. Although the son knew that the most important part of his father’s job was the working of the wood into tables and chairs and cabinets, he was only interested in bringing down the trees. He hoped to work as his father’s assistant, chopping the best trees and bringing them back to the town to carve.

‘We will take this one down,’ said the father, standing in front of a large oak tree.

And the tree was standing in front of the father, tall and strong and proud. The son watched as his father extended his arm and touched his fingertips to the trunk.

‘Give me the axe, son,’ he said.

It was a bit difficult, at first, to lift the massive axe. The son had to adjust his strength to the weight.

‘Now, stand back.’

The father swung the axe over his shoulder effortlessly, drew in a sharp breath, and swung it back towards the base of the trunk. With a soft thud the axe hit the strong tree. Putting his foot on the trunk just below the place where the axe was now stuck, the father pulled on the handle with all his might, throwing his body backwards to use his weight as an ally.

Again and again the father swung the axe and it looked as if the tool was part of his body. How lucky I am, the son thought, that my father is such a great lumberjack. He will teach me very well and then I will be great too. He watched for long minutes as the axe dug deeper and deeper into the tree. He could see now that the job was not as easy as it had first appeared. The father’s body was strained. His face was white and patches of sweat stained his shirt on his back and armpits. The clash between the man’s body temperature and the cold winter morning materialised itself in little puffs of white every time he released the air from his lungs.

When the sun appeared from behind the high treetops of the forest, the father stopped working and turned to face the son.

‘Have you been watching carefully?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir,’ said the boy.

‘Then you try it now.’

The son took the axe in his small hands and stepped in front of the tree. The tree stood just as proud and mighty as he had before and he seemed to look down at the boy with a sneer. Tiny child, the tree was saying, you are so frail, you will never be able to bring me down. We will see about that, the son thought. With his frail arms, he swung the axe behind him as his father had done seconds before. He took a deep breath that froze his insides and sent a chill down his spine. Down came the axe, and landed on the trunk, digging a little further into the wood.

Quite proud of his neat first swing, the son turned to his father for approval, but the father stood motionless with his arms folded upon his chest, tall and strong as the great oak tree. So the son swung the axe again, and again, until the father’s deep voice interrupted him.

‘It is ready to come down now,’ he said.

Excitement began to build up in the son’s frail body. Now was the time he had been waiting for. The father stepped behind him to guide his movements.

‘Swing the axe,’ he said.

The son swung the axe.

‘Now put your foot against the trunk and push with all your weight.’

The son put his little boot against the tree and let his body fall forward. The tree did not move.

‘Your foot should be higher than this,’ said the father. ‘Again.’

The son tried again. He stretched his leg as much as he could and inched his boot up the trunk. The tree gave a long whine.

‘Stand back,’ the father said.

The boy took a step back and watched as the tree slowly fell and hit the frosted ground with a loud crack.

‘You did a good job,’ said the father.

The son walked to the fallen oak tree and lightly rested his hand against it. It was oddly warm and he could almost feel it shiver under his palm. He felt proud to have brought down this mighty giant. You see, tree, he thought, I am not a child anymore. I am a lumberjack now.

On the Joy of Left-Braining It

On the Joy of Left-Braining It

Hey folks!

So here I am again, with a sorta kinda essay-type post that I went and lazily pulled from my previous blog. It’s still relevant, I should think, and doesn’t make me cringe. Yet.

My first novel has evolved a bit since I wrote this, and I might make another post on the topic soon, as I am currently working a lot on revisions.

Hopefully this will be the first of many more posts about writing techniques, musings and advice – to take or leave as you see fit, eh? I ain’t the boss of ya. So let me know what you think, let me know if you’d like me to tackle any particular topic, let me know if you think I ramble on too much.

Here we go…


 

When we were little, my brother and I used to play with something called kaplas. Kaplas were these small pieces of wood that you could pile up in all sorts of ways to build constructions. I absolutely loved them. They were the simplest toys ever but there was no end to the possibilities. Just as I loved kaplas, I now love stories. With these simple little things that are words, you can build sentences and shape paragraphs. It’s not easy. You have to be smart about it, and careful, because a story built on a shaky base will eventually fall. A word too many on one side of it will impair the balance of the structure.

I grew passionate about the workings of stories, in a compulsive and geeky way. I began reading extensively on the subject. John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, Yves Lavandier’s La Dramaturgie, everything I stumbled upon, really. A bit formulaic, maybe, but in these recipes I found some useful tips as well as the reassurance that the craft I wanted to learn was indeed a craft, and that it could indeed be learnt. But as much as you can know in theory about how to tell a story, in the end you still need a story to tell.

The premise of my first novel, Half the World Away, did not come to me. I went looking for it. You see, as much as I love the developing part of writing, the whole plot-characters-voice business, I’m not overly furnished in the ideas area. This lack of whatchamacallit – could inspiration be the right word? – used to be the source of great shame and a whole lot of worries. How on earth was I to be a writer if I only got a decent idea once in a blue moon? And worst of all, my brother was riddled with them. Somehow it seemed like an unfair deal that he got all the ideas and I got all the allergies.

This was because I used to think, as people often do, that any idea that’s not entirely original, that hasn’t come to you from the depths of your brilliant artist mind automatically belongs in the trash.

To be deemed worthy of the title, a work of art has to be the result of some touch of the Inspiration, or the Muse, or whatever higher power happens not to be too busy at the moment. Not to be rude but this is just utter bullshit. Terrible – and dangerous, if you ask me – misconception. One discards a lot of potentially excellent material.

This particular material was waiting for me in the form of a French writing competition. This particular short story competition was themed, and here, loosely translated, was the prompt:

Invent a future in which all women have disappeared and men rule the earth. Main themes: science fiction, action, romance.

Quite specific, as you see, and yet this was precisely the starting point my unimaginative right brain needed. From there, my much better equipped left brain began working, covering sheets of paper with tiny handwritten notes. Shall I bore you with the details of the process? It involves bubbles, arrows, columns and quite an impressive amount of tea bags. No takers? Ah, well, let’s just fast forward to what came out of it then.

About women’s rights – the obvious subject skilfully hidden in the premise – what can I tell you? In my teenage years, I was desperately trying to keep far away from anything feminist. I sighed heavily at anyone who went all girl-power all-men-are-bastards on me. For the most ethical reasons, you understand. I simply wanted people to regard and speak of men and women as part of a single undistinguished group. Gender equality was not something we should have to fight for. Except it is, of course it is. It’s a terrible thing, really, but sometimes you have to tug very hard at the blanket just to get an inch of it back to your side of the bed. And as much as you love that person on the other side, well they are bloody annoying when they drag the whole blanket to themselves, aren’t they?

At this point, you might be telling yourself something along those lines: “that’s a great theme but if it wasn’t her idea to write about it, maybe it means she’s not that interested in the subject of her own book.” To which I would answer quite simply that I would never have chosen this prompt if I wasn’t interested in the subject. It is a bad idea to write about something you are not interested in. In fact, it may well be impossible.

And if you still feel there is something dishonest about that method, consider this: when you are creating from a prompt, you want to make it your own. So it is going to be about men and women, about how the ones think of and treat the others. Possibly a good start, but this is not enough. What you want now is a point of view, an angle to approach the theme. This is where you have a huge margin for originality. This is how you create a personal story, one that could not be told by someone else. One of the many great things about working on an idea that didn’t come from you is that it removes the temptation of skipping this necessary step. Because as long as you haven’t found your angle, a nagging guilt constantly reminds you that the story you are telling is not yours.

It took me some time to work out my angle. Months, maybe a year. Trying to find a way into the subject, I turned the thing over and over in my mind, looking at it from every possible side I could think of. There I stood in a world totally devoid of women. Why were there no more women on earth? They had been exterminated. What triggers a mass killing like that? Hatred, no doubt. What triggers hatred? More often than not, incapacity to connect. The trail of thought led to communication issues, which was not strictly speaking a surprise. In everything human that ever existed, there was always the problem of communication. We need other people, we want to connect, and at the same time, we have the hardest time getting it right. And getting it wrong has all sorts of consequences, ranging from unpleasant to catastrophic.

Imagine you are, say, in the pub having a friendly chat with your mates. Suddenly, an itchy subject creeps into the conversation. Let’s say politics. Chances are that around that table is someone who disagrees with you on every point. This otherwise charming person is your friend and you really don’t want to fight with them. They state their point of view while you roll over and over in your mind the vehement sentences you couldn’t possibly say aloud. By the time they are finished, smoke is coming out of your ears. If you’re going to say something, it’s now. You should say something. He or she got it all wrong. You should say something. But you hesitate one second too long and then it’s too late. The subject has been changed again. Everyone has moved on except for you. This kind of frustration eats at you for weeks.

Here is the point: one needs to speak.

By the time I figured all this out, the submission deadline for the competition was well behind me. Well, don’t you know, it didn’t matter anymore. When one spends so much time with a story, one tends to become sentimental, you understand.

It is a wonderful feeling to narrow in on what you want to say. Everything around it clicks into place. You get a picture of what the book is going to look like and you can start moving stuff around so that the actual thing matches the picture in your mind. At this point, the canvas, as you may imagine, was not blank anymore. You do not wait until you’ve figured out what you want to say before you start building. Maybe some people would say you should, although I’m not convinced it would lead to better stories. Anyway, the fun part is the moulding of the characters and the world and, for better or worse, that is what I tend to start with.

Because they are human like us – well, most of the time – characters are our most immediate and emotional link to the story. They are among the first things I think about when I write and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that other writers work the same way. But, ideally, you want the characters that will be best suited to illustrate the point you want to make, and to achieve that, you often need to refine them so that everything fits better together.

Sid is an overly self-aware, slightly paranoid, twenty-seven-year-old pizza delivery guy. Jamie is a thirty-year-old freelance journalist, disappointed by the world and bored out of his mind. When we meet these guys, they have given up on communication (linking them ever-so-subtly to the theme). They are not trying anymore. To stop trying is the worst possible thing to do, but it is easier and can get very tempting at times. We all have a well-rehearsed reproach-proof excuse at the ready in case we should stand accused of not trying. I’m shy, is my excuse. It’s more difficult for shy people, you can’t deny it. Sid will tell you that nobody would take him seriously anyway. He’s paranoid. It’s not his fault. Jamie firmly believes that people are stupid and not worth the trouble.

As for the world, it pretty much came naturally from the premise. Although the novel was obviously going to be a science fiction of sorts, the subject matter called for a feeling of reality, so it became more of a dystopia. Had I tried to add flying cars, robots and whatnot it would have felt wrong. Or rather, it would not have felt wrong enough. One big thing that goes crazy in a world of normality attracts more attention. No women meant a slowly dying mankind, a feeling of impending doom that would have a considerable impact on the atmosphere of the story. I chose to make it slow and oppressive like a dying animal struggling to breathe, with sporadic outbursts of violence, as if the creature were kicking in protestation against its fate.

After a lot of building, tearing down and rebuilding, this is how the story came out.

One night, Sid and Jamie come back home to find somebody waiting for them in their living-room. Olivia is one of the only women who escaped the killing, she’s traumatised, scared and she wants to speak. She has an urgent need to establish a connection, to communicate. This is why she has the potential to propel the other two into action, which is exactly what she will do.
Half the World Away is the story of three people struggling to bring communication and truthfulness back into their lives, in a world that has not seen either of those things in years. And once you’ve let them slip away, well it might be hard to get them back. The story came from a prompt, but it sure as hell is my story.