Act One Scene One (Draft One)

Gilly leant on the concrete balcony and stared at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. Rosenkrantz was by her side. He touched her arm.

“There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and street lamps, burst into the bowl created by the squat circle of tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Big – not especially tall, but broad-shouldered, well built – he sighted the girl and made for her.

Rosenkrantz, at Gilly’s side, hissed and drew his sword. His muscles tensed as he turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What?” The word carried urgency, impatience. Below the girl was running as fast as she could for the far exit, where the towers failed to slam shut and the main exit to the complex was to be found. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly.

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably but the sword remaining unsheathed.

Another glance back and the girl realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out an object. As the man approached she held it between them – a flick-knife, Gilly realised, as the blade sprang forwards, street-lights reflecting off the deadly metal.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them but he barely hesitated, now only a step out of range of her trembling arm.

“Gil –” Rosenkrantz began, fiddling with his sword-hilt, rocking the scabbard back and forth.

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time – almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. Numbed fingers jolted open and the blade skittered across the paving stones to rest against a wall.

The man spoke again and this time, to judge from the slight tilt of the head, it was definitely a question.

The girl had backed up against one of the stunted, bare trees that seemed so out of place. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until, Gil realised, she was actually taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo had been hiding beneath the skin and was now coming out to play –

The man stepping forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against one of the stunted trees but didn’t seem to feel pain. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades down to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid…

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have the man calmly extended a boot and planted it in the woman’s neck. And he pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boots. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she or Rosenkratz could move there was another crunch of cartilage giving – and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase, still watching as the man kept his boot on the throat for another minute – making sure, Gilly thought, that she was dead. Then, as they reached the harsh grey steps, he stepped back, let go of her arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

He was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“What about you?” Rosenkrantz asked.

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 *          *          *

This is the opening scene from my current work in progress, Oneiromancer. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and there’s a good chance this will be either heavily rewritten or cut completely as the inexorable tide of Editing swamps the novel. But, for now, all I can say is that I hope you enjoyed it. Or at least that it didn’t make you vomit coffee at the screen in disgust.

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Level up!

When you get told you’re not very good at something – in writing or in any field – you have two options. You can deny it and make excuses or you can turn around, take a good look at what you’ve done and make it better.

Sometimes criticism is incorrect. There are times when you should it brush aside and stand your ground. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to separate the ego from the moment and so an immediate denial is rarely helpful. More often, the criticism is minor and so you can say ‘yup, you’ve got a point there, I’ll get that changed’ and move on without any great insight being gained. But if you go around exposing yourself often enough you should eventually be able to work out ‘themes’ of error (as well as some idea of what you’re good at) and how you respond to that is how you’ll be shaped as a writer.

Once you’ve realised you’re not very good at, say, dialogue, your choices are simple. You can avoid it: no direct speech in your novels, all reported, or action, or description. Or you can go away and work on your flaws and make your whole work better from that point on.

It should be obvious which the better line is. But there are instances where avoidance is the best option – if you’re working to a deadline, for example, or you’re so deep within a project that a major rewrite would break your heart. So side-stepping the stumbling-block may be a sensible approach.

But long-term the best way to become better at anything is to work out what’s causing you a problem and spend time specifically on that. That requires an external perspective, someone who’s not afraid to tell you when you’re not doing it right, and a willingness to accept criticism.

(By the way, time is your friend. No-one expects you to like criticism at the time it’s given; you’re allowed to be hurt, to feel misunderstood. Go away, kick the metaphorical cat around the room a bit, sulk, moan how no-one gets you. Then remember that the critics aren’t judging you but your work, and if they misunderstood something then it’s your fault for not making it clear.)

I’ve had it. I’ve learnt not to overuse swear-words (to keep them effective rather than for any sense of prudery), to keep dialogue fractured and roughly-hanging, to look again at how much description I provide. Now I’m beginning to feel like I don’t know how to use backstory. I’ve got it – in spades – but just how to bring it in..?

It’s really the action of writing that makes you a better writer; constant exposure to words, both the reading and creating thereof. But when you find you’re doing something badly – sub-optimally, at least – then you have the opportunity for an instant ‘level up’, a leap forwards in your chosen craft. To turn your back on criticism is to miss the opportunity to develop. Remember that most ‘work’ consists of reading books and thinking – of being mindful. And isn’t that what you do anyway?

Pick your moment, pick your area and pick your brains and the brains of others. That’s what writers do. And never stop moving forwards because you want to be the best you possibly can. Right?

Points of view

You all know the rules of point-of-view. You all know that 1st person gives intimacy and an emotional connection with the reader, but can be limiting and doesn’t let you escape your protagonist’s head. 3rd person is great for giving differing perspectives but risks shallowness and, if carelessly handled, can confuse the reader. There’s also the danger of giving the reader all the info, and thus killing suspense and surprise. And 2nd person is never used outside short stories because no-one likes to be told how to behave.

I’ve spent three years in the depths of 1st person. I actually chose to write my Australis trilogy this way for a specific plot-purpose and not for some deep ideological reason. I found it difficult, ‘tis true; and hardest were the times when my protagonist wasn’t really doing anything or couldn’t think how to proceed. How to not bore the reader? It wasn’t always easy, and there’s still a lot of work to do to iron out said issues.

But it had its advantages too. As long as you’re aware that other characters are still acting around your protagonist, there’s great potential for the unexpected and for conflict. It’s all a question of working out how to reveal information that your hero was not privy to at the time it occurred. This can be a wonderful tool, especially if an antagonist is actively working against the POV character. Their surprise is the reader’s, and that’s a very nice trick to have up your sleeve.

I’ve gone back to 3rd person for my new project, and I’ve done this for two reasons. Firstly because I’m sick of being stuck in one head, and secondly because I’m writing an ensemble piece and this is what’s demanded by the story. I’ve also broken my long-held and religiously-adhered-to commandment and changed POV within a scene. May any God or Gods listening please have mercy upon my soul. It was necessary, I assure you.

3rd person brings with it a wholly different set of challenges. Most obviously, you’re letting the reader into the private thoughts of a bigger cast and you have to make every POV character distinct, well-rounded and, above all, interesting: not necessarily nice or sympathetic, but interesting. Now I just need to work out when and from whose eyes we see each scene.

It’s the equivalent of not knowing what to do with yourself in 1st person, I suppose. In 3rd you have to select your protagonist for the scene, work out who’s best to tell the next step of the story – and yet still be aware of what everyone else is doing ‘off-stage’. So far I have seven different POVs in about 25,000 words. This may be too many; simplification may occur. But for now, for every scene I write I have to make that choice. Who’s going to tell this chunk of the narrative? Who’s where, doing what, with who? Complicated. And don’t forget that this is essentially seven ‘introductions’ – we’ve got to get used to these characters, get to know and taste their distinctive odours.

I may have got some of this wrong. I’ve got a scene introducing teenager Jazz’s home-life as she gets ready for a night out. It feels like it may need to go earlier in the novel than it currently does. We’ll see.

But the advantages are plentiful, not least in the way you can build up ‘mosaic’ scenes from a variety of perspectives. Set up a situation from one viewpoint; do the groundwork and build to a climax (or keep up the tension with short, snappy images from several characters, back and forth – but not too much and not too confusing) and then switch to view the same scene from a different angle, taking over from where Character One left off.

This can be very effective. It’s also great fun. It’s like directing a movie, picking your camera angles, presenting the same information in different ways. One character will see someone in one way, another will see it differently. Avoiding repetition is important, but it’s easier to dodge info-dumps when you see things through many eyes.

There’s never a right way or a wrong way to approach POV. For me it has always been about the best way to present a plot. It’s also about enjoying the process and surprising yourself, not just your readers. I don’t write for money (there isn’t any) but because I like to tell stories. The process is endlessly astonishing; it makes me smile, makes me angry, builds me up and dumps me down.

It ain’t never dull, though. And hopefully that means I won’t write dullness either.

World leader pretend

Building a world is not just about fantastical kingdoms or the sins of a solar empire. It’s about the mood you sprinkle throughout every bit of your story. And you can create the world in the simplest ways because humans are stupid.

Every single word you use has a whole host of connotations surrounding it. Words don’t exist in isolation, they rely on context to sharpen and focus their gaze, and each word you choose carries weight beyond the simple.

For example: ‘A rat skittered from a pile of rubbish’. Without any further clue I bet you placed that scene in the sort of place you most associate rats and rubbish; for most of us probably a scene of urban decay (for me it was the alley behind my old flat) but if you’re from the countryside your impressions may have been different.

The point is that you don’t need many words to form an image in someone’s mind. Mention weeds poking through broken concrete and you create not only a picture but an atmosphere. Replace ‘weeds’ with ‘wildflowers’ and the mood changes.

This is what you’re doing when you’re world-building. You’re not trying to describe everything that moves or everything that the character sees or feels. You’re trying to pick the points that are either integral to the plot or create an emblematic link in the reader’s mind. You’re trying to find the touchstones that illuminate not only what you’re focussing, but on the situation as a whole. And those touchstones have to be unique; clichés (and both examples I’ve given here might be considered clichés) are Right Out.

The universe of every story is to some extent a fantasy. Very few novels exist purely in the ‘real’ world; they all have their frameworks that need to be defined. Even Dickens, the arch social commentator of his day, had to build a world that only existed in his mind. The wild marsh from the early stages of Great Expectations; it might have been based on a real place, but he had to define the harshness of the world from the same toolbox as the creator of an epic fantasy. Miss Haversham’s house could’ve been drawn by Stephen King.

Worlds aren’t just about political structures; they’re about the every day lives of the protagonists. And because the human mind is so amazing, describe the floor (carpet or lino? Dirty or clean? Does it muffle the sound or create echoes?) and you’ll find you’ve described the walls and ceilings also, and possibly the state of mind of your character as well. It tells you something of a person if their bedroom is shared by generations of the same family of spider. Are the knickers strewn on the floor or neatly laundered and folded away?

This is world-building. It’s all about the subtle little words you slip into action; no stopping to gaze around at your surroundings; it’s about graffiti or posters or perfectly manicured lawns. It’s the smell of damp, the whisper of wind in the trees. It’s the things delicately woven into the background that the reader barely notices but still influence the way they feel in this world.

Sometimes you’ll need a wadge of description if you need to describe something completely unexpected: and if your characters are searching a bedroom, say, or are having their first glimpse of a new planet, a look around is entirely necessary. But the real skill of writing is to give the readers something utterly normal and yet feed them the information they need to fully experience that place – without them ever noticing the writer’s hand.

10,000

Are writers born with talent?

No.

Right, that’s that cleared up. Shall we – Wait, you want more than that? Damnit, am I some kind of giant answering questions machine? Okay then, let’s talk a bit more about this.

In an article that’s generated more opprobrium than [insert witty simile about your favourite sports team] Ryan Boudinot said that he believes that ‘real’ writers are born, not made. Also that you have to start in your teens to be a member of the writing elite, and is generally snobby about non-‘heavyweight’ fiction. It’s similar to other stories I’ve heard about being selected to join MA creative writing course in the UK being mainly a measure of how many classics (Dostoyevsky, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and the like) you’ve read.

I totally, totally and completely disagree with that. I firmly believe that anyone can be a writer, just as anyone can become an expert in anything that isn’t dependent on the fallibilities of the human frame. Just as you can learn as much about the art from Harry Potter as you can from the ‘great works’. Bear in mind that Shakespeare wasn’t good enough for the founder of the Bodleian library; what’s considered to be a classic changes with time. I still remember snobbery about the Lord of the Rings when I was growing up. ‘It’s not real writing’. How can anything that isn’t about the human condition be considered worthy of your time?

Becoming a writer takes hard work and commitment. Mastering any skill takes hard work and commitment. 10,000 hours, that’s the figure that’s given. In order to become ‘great’ you have to have spent 10,000 hours practicing, training and learning. Of course reading the classics will help, but only in the sense that reading anything – reading everything – will help you learn how to put stories together and to experience new tricks and new perspectives. It’s true that starting early (writing as a teenager) will help you master the craft, but that’s just a case of getting your hours in ahead of the curve. Hey, I’m old now but I’m still getting better and better; reckon I’ve got plenty of time to knock off the remaining hours and build a career.

It’s worth saying that just because anyone can become a writer, I don’t think everyone should. Partly because of competition for my own work, but mainly because we don’t have time to master every skill under the sun. You have to love what you’re doing. You have to be willing to sink that time, and priorities are personal. It’s hard work. What Boudinot doesn’t seem to understand is that not everyone has that time at the same time: and it’s better to learn slowly and to really absorb the lessons than to become more and more stressed to the point of giving up completely.

10,000 hours is a really long time. I’ve done some thinking (a rarity) and I reckon that since I really started writing seriously – around seven years ago – I’ve clocked up about 1,500 of the buggers. That doesn’t include the time spent with my head in a book, or all the crappy essays I wrote as a student. And what about the time spent dreaming, concocting imaginary worlds as a child – should that time be factored in? In a way I hope it’s not: that means I can still get seven times better than I am right now.

Mastering a craft isn’t the same as making a career. You can be the most skilled artist in the world but someone still has to want to read your stuff. A market has to exist, and you still need to get the breaks, for your manuscript to land on the right desk at the right time. It’s a business, not a meritocracy – and even if it was there are a lot of writers out there who are as determined as you. They’re probably prettier.

But there’s not much you can do about that except to learn your lessons, drink your whisky and keep on trying. I’m personally going to keep on submitting my work whilst continuing to tap, tap, tappety away at my keyboard, working through my hours producing new and better material. The only thing we can really control is our own output and our own dedication. And more of that we pour in, the better our chance is of achieving whatever we decide success is for us.