Tag Archives: world-building

Ghosts and Gods in the Machine

My brain is all a-scatter today.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

Focus has been a real issue for me lately. This could be due to tiredness, or anxiety over whether my current book is any good, or stress over the fact that I’ll be receiving edits on ‘Emmeline’ from my agent during the month of August (which will be painful), or it could be due to none of those things, or all of them. All I know is, I sat down yesterday with the intention of finishing my WiP, and it didn’t happen. I struggled to write half a chapter and eventually – my forehead burning and my brain in a knot and my mind and body shattered with exhaustion – I had to give up in the hope that I’d do a better job the next time I tried.

Well, today is upon me now. The ‘next time’ is about to begin. And I feel about as capable of completing the work today as I did yesterday.

I think that finishing a book is difficult, in and of itself, but what makes it more difficult is the fact that, by the time you’re writing your last few chapters, you have to keep a lot of stuff in your head. You’re trying to keep your characters consistent and pick up on the little ‘hints’ you dropped all the way through your story and remember the imagery you’ve already used so you don’t use it again (on this point, I read a book recently which used the exact same metaphor for something twice within a hundred pages, and I found it unspeakably annoying) and you’re trying to bring your plot to a satisfactorily interesting, unique and surprising climax. Is it any wonder that my brain is baulking at the prospect? What adds to my difficulty in this case is the fact that I’m writing a ghost story, which in some ways is cool and in others is ridiculous, because I’ve never written about a ghost before and I haven’t read very many stories about them. Also, I can’t watch films which feature ghosts or spirits for fear of losing what remains of my sanity. So, it’s safe to say I don’t know the genre in any great depth. It was somewhat of a disaster, then, when this story suggested itself to me and having a ghost in it was absolutely vital to its existence.

Booo!! Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

Booo!!
Photo Credit: Shain Erin via Compfight cc

One thing writing this book has taught me, though, is the importance of rules when you’re creating a ‘world’ – and every story creates a world, whether you set it smack-bang in the middle of your own home town or on a far distant moon in the twenty-fifth century. Writing fantasy stories, of course, can involve more rules – the more elaborate and imaginative the world, the more rules you’ll have and the more important it will be not to break them – but even in a contemporary story (which my WiP is, to a large extent), you cannot break the rules once you’ve introduced them. Not if you don’t want your reader to rip your book in half, at least. Contemporary-set stories have to obey the rules of our world – people have bills and mortgages and jobs, and gravity works the way we expect, and people get sick, and accidents happen, and characters need to eat and sleep and go to the loo, and distances have to be crossed without recourse to teleportation or something which would make it any less difficult, and there’s time (which can be a major pain). Then, if the story has other elements – supernatural or magical, say – they have their own rules, which may interfere with the real world all they like, so long as they do it in a systematic, consistent and believable way. The upshot is you make the rules, whether in whole or in part; you’ve just got to remember what they are, and keep to them.

So. In relation to my story: I have a ghost in it. She has certain abilities, which revolve around water. She has a particular ‘realm’ in which she is almost all-powerful, and then there’s the ‘real’ world in which her abilities are limited (though she’s still scary). It’s very important for me to remember these limitations when it comes to writing the conclusion to the story. I’ve been relying on them all the way through the book, and so the worst possible thing at this stage of the tale would be to reverse that, or develop an ‘exception’, or something which is a blatant breach of the construction I’ve worked so hard on up to this point. Pulling the rug out from under your readers – if you’re a master of your craft – works well if you’ve foreshadowed it correctly through the book with just the right balance between blatant ‘Look! Look what is happening over here! My goodness but it is a Hint!’ and subtlety you’d need an electron microscope to spot; anything else just looks like the writer threw their hands up in despair and decided to go for broke. I’m not a fan of ‘deus ex machina‘ (‘God in the Machine’) type plot twists, unless they’re done with huge skill and intelligence – and if they bring something exceptional to a story, which often they don’t. In order to break my own narrative rules, I’d have to rewrite the whole book, which is something I’d really rather not do. There should be no need for drastic action like this if you’ve thought about your plot and characters and you know where you’re going with them.

Which, of course, I’ve done.

In any case, after I shut the computer off yesterday and went to do other stuff in a fit of temper, ideas as to how to bring the book to a conclusion began to trickle into my overheated brain. Some of them were useful, and most weren’t, but it proved once again that giving yourself a break once in a while can be the most useful thing you can do for your writing. Let’s hope that today’s effort flows more smoothly, and that the rules remain unbroken.

If not, I’ll write something like ‘And then a giant donkey fell out of the sky, braying as it came, and it crushed everyone flat until they were all dead and then they flew up into the sky holding hands and singing tralala and everyone was happy. The End.’

(Whatever I come up with, it can’t be worse than that – right?)

 

A Milestone Note, and a Book Review

Good morning!

So, this morning I awoke to find that my blog had ticked over the 10,000 hit mark while I slept. Also, I’d gained a few new followers on Twitter, bringing me to over 600.

Image: last.fm

Image: last.fm

Of course, I am aware that Twitter is a nebulous and quicksilver thing, wherein you lose followers as quickly as you gain them (more quickly, in some cases); I’m pleased to have reached another milestone, all the same. I’m happier, though, to know that my blog has had north of 10,000 hits since it first came online last August, and for that I have nobody but you guys – my lovely readers – to thank.

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

It’s amazing to think how frightened I was of beginning this blog. I was excited and happy about it, too, but mainly I was terrified. I could never have imagined how much happiness it has brought me, and how useful it has been, in so many ways. Thank you to everyone who’s helped it, and me, to go from strength to strength.

And now, as I am wont to do on Saturdays, shall we have a little book review? Let’s.

I’ve been wondering whether or not to do a review of the following book. I wondered if I was brave enough. Then, of course, I woke up and saw all the wonderful milestone-y stuff I mentioned above, and realised: Yes. I can do this. For this book, friends, is the one I mentioned a few posts ago, the one which took as its core concept an idea which I had also had, many years ago, and hadn’t been clever enough to put out into the world.

That book is ‘Crewel’, by Gennifer Albin.

Image: wordchasing.com

Image: wordchasing.com

I’ll say at the outset that I liked this book, but there were some problems with it. The idea at its heart – that the whole world (Arras) can be ‘woven’, the threads of its matter and time manipulated as though they were fabric being woven on a loom – is the idea I also had, many years ago, and had started writing a story about. The world I’d imagined differed vastly from the one Albin imagines here, and it was fascinating for me to see where she took the idea. Her world is one in which the sexes are segregated until the late teens, at which time most people are expected to marry (without any real ‘courtship’ or any sort of gentle introduction to adult life), where there are particular jobs for men and women (I don’t need to tell you which gender gets short shrift!), where women have to conform to both purity and aesthetic standards, and life in general is very circumscribed.

Then, there are women like Adelice Lewys, Albin’s protagonist. Adelice is a girl who is gifted with the ability to see the weave, and to manipulate it. She has been coached all her life by her parents to hide this ability, because they do not want her to be taken away and trained as a Spinster (the name given to a girl or woman with this ability to see the weave), never to come home to them again. The life of a Spinster is painted as a good one, full of comfort, luxury and freedom – most girls strive for it – but, of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Adelice messes up her test, passes it by mistake, and gets abducted in the middle of the night. She gets taken to the Coventry, the training ground for future Spinsters, and thrust straight into the intrigue at the heart of her world.

There’s lots to like about this book. I loved the title, for a start – a play on the word ‘cruel’, and a reference to a type of weaving technique (crewelling). I liked Adelice, I liked her family – especially her bubble-headed, lovable, cutely childish sister Amie – and I liked the idea of the Coventry (or ‘Coventries’, as there are four of them), a cross between a convent, as Spinsters are expected to be (officially) celibate, and a quasi-military command centre. I (obviously) love the central idea of the matter of a world being woven, and the weaver having ultimate control over the ‘threads’ of life, able to rip people out of the pattern if they misbehave, or weave in new life wherever they wish. I enjoyed the way Albin uses this idea to examine notions of power, freedom and cruelty, and how easy it can be for those in power to misuse that power.

I liked, also, that she explored ideas of ‘otherness’ – there are a pair of instructors in Adelice’s Coventry who have an unconventional and (in this world) illegal relationship. One of them is ‘remapped’, or has her memory and personality wiped, in order to quell her feelings for her partner, which leads to heartache and horror. The relationships between the girls in the Coventry is interesting; we see bullying and cliques forming, and we notice how easy it is for people who are disenfranchised to start turning on one another, exerting whatever control they can within the straitened reality of their lives. One of these characters, Pryana, is a little too simplistic for my liking; some of her actions and thought processes seem completely irrational and silly, and that annoyed me. But, perhaps there are women like her in institutions like the Coventry, with minds driven mad by fear and a desire to please, and the need to survive.

Now, for the things I didn’t enjoy so much. Firstly, the idea of Adelice’s kidnapping in the middle of the night, and the damage done to her family in the attempt to extract her. If being a Spinster is such a prestigious thing, and every family in the world wants their daughter to have this life of privilege, why do they come in the middle of the night to abduct the girls and bring them to the Coventries? I thought that was strange. I also found Albin’s descriptions of the weave, and the ways in which the Spinsters can manipulate it, very hard to imagine – and I’m speaking as a person who spent years visualising a very similar world! I understand the concept she’s using, and I get the idea of people and buildings and places and lives being akin to threads, vulnerable and prone to damage or ‘ripping’ by a Spinster, and totally under the control of the one who weaves; but in that case, how do Adelice’s parents harbour rebellious thoughts? How does anyone, if they’re all being ‘woven’, including their thought processes and minds? Perhaps this will be explained in a future book. I also found the end of the book confusing and hard to visualise; it also felt ‘rushed’ and a little too convenient.

I’m not even going to start on the love triangle between Adelice, Jost and Erik, and the relationship between the two boys (which I saw coming a mile off); that whole thing really irritated me. I felt it was unnecessary – unless, of course, it’s going to become a vital plot thread (no pun intended) in a future book in the series. Please, YA authors – enough with the love triangles, the instant attraction, the floppy fringes and the lopsided grins. Please?

So, overall, I’d recommend ‘Crewel’ as a good read. It’s quick and enjoyable and interesting, and sets itself up well for its sequel. It’s not perfect, but then what book is?

That’s a good question, actually. Is there such a thing as a perfect book?

Tune in next week to find out… Happy weekend, everyone!

Why Keep Reading?

Today, what’s on my mind is the ‘why?’ factor. I’m wondering about why people keep reading – what grabs and holds their attention, and what makes it impossible for them to stop reading until they’ve finished the story. I’d love to know why a person picks up a book in a bookshop, or wherever they buy their books, and reads the blurb, or the first few pages, and decides – ‘yep, this is the book for me’. I’m also interested in thinking about the things that keep a person reading – what do readers look for in a book? What sort of things does the story have to deliver for them to keep turning the pages?

His new work is so... Proustian, don't you think?

His new work is so… Proustian, don’t you think?

Perhaps I’ll never know the answers to these questions. If I did, I’d probably feel like a superhero – certainly, the ability to write books people want to read is the only superpower I’ve ever wanted! I’m not very good at writing blurbs – sometimes I do it as a writing exercise, in order to help myself to focus on what my current project is about, but I’m aware that, in the future, perhaps a lot will depend on my being able to write a compelling synopsis. It’s something I need to think about. Blurbs are interesting – a lot of the time, when I bring a new book home, my husband will pick it up and have a look at the back cover, and he’ll hand it back to me with a bemused look on his face. ‘I’d never have picked up that book,’ he’ll say. ‘It just doesn’t grab me.’ So – how to ‘grab’ the most people (in a strictly bookish sense!)? And how, once an innocent reader has been hooked, do you keep them interested in your story?

I guess these questions are on my mind because I’m currently within 80 pages of being finished with my final (FINAL) draft. I don’t care what happens, I’m not going over it again once I’m finished with this draft. I’ve reached the point where I’m entirely sick of my book and can’t bear the sight of my characters* – admittedly, I’ve read and re-read this book more times than anyone else ever will, but still. It’s got me panicking about whether the book has any merit, whether the story is interesting enough to keep someone reading to the end, and whether anyone else will ever love my characters. Have I created a proper, fleshed-out protagonist, complete in all dimensions, believable and interesting? Have I put her in a scenario in which a reader will believe her struggle to save her father’s life, where they’ll travel with her to a foreign country to will her on as she fights her way into a fortress in an attempt to find him, and her brother? Is she ‘real’ enough to withstand the pressures of battle, brave enough to conquer her terror of heights, clever enough to save her friend from death, strong enough to bear deep sorrow? As I’m not a reader of this particular story, I don’t know the answer to these questions.

In a book, I look for several things. I need a protagonist I can engage with – not necessarily like, but it helps if you like them – and a set of characters who seem real. I’ve tried to do this with my characters; as far as I know, all of them have flaws, as well as strengths, which should allow a reader to get a grip on them and believe in them. Maraika (my protagonist) is brave and clever, but she’s also naive and impulsive. Her father has a dark past, but has tried to raise his children well and leave it all behind him. However, his inability to understand his oldest son, and his reluctance to take the issues in his family seriously, cause a lot of problems for everyone. Jan Polico, a young man living in his father’s shadow, is fun-loving and generous of spirit, but bears a sorrow so deep that he can’t admit it, even to himself; Vik, a freedom fighter, is a fearless warrior, but is driven by pain and loss. I think my characters are interesting. They all have motivation for their actions, and they all do their best to do the right thing – but I created them, so it’s hard for me to see them clearly.

Secondly, when I’m reading a story, I need the world the characters inhabit to make sense. I hope I’ve done this with my own book – I spent a lot of time thinking about the world my characters live in, and the systems, society, history, laws and (most importantly, for my story) religions that are found there. Spending a lot of time thinking about something, though, doesn’t mean that the resultant world is watertight and ‘real’, especially when you’re trying to do something complex with the structures you’ve created. I’m still not sure I did the right thing in changing the setting from a pseudo-medieval to a pseudo-nineteenth century steam-powered, proto-Industrial world, but I can’t imagine them living anywhere else at this stage. I’m worried that, if this book was put to the reader test, that they’d see a giant hole in the fabric of this world, one that I’ve managed to entirely overlook. I’ve done my best to avoid that, but one never knows!

Another thing I need in a good book is a gripping story. If you care about the characters, then the story is bound to be gripping, but I think my favourite books are ones where both the characters and the story are unforgettable. I don’t want my characters to be like paper-people, whose only function is to move a story along; I’d like them to be interesting no matter what they were doing. I hope I’ve managed this. Maraika, as well as being the heart of her family, is also a young woman with dreams and plans for her future, someone who likes to explore her city and who longs to find her place in the world. Her younger brother is a mechanical genius, and her older brother has a world-changing talent of his own. They’re all caught up in the crisis which threatens not only their family, but their whole existence, and none of them end up exactly where they’d planned to be. I hope that their journeys don’t feel ridiculous or contrived to a reader.

I know, I know – the only way to find all this out is to let someone else read it! I am aware. I’m working up to it. It’s difficult to open the cage around your heart and let it out! But that’s what I’ll be doing, in one form or another, over the next while.

I’m glad to note that writing this post has given me back some of the love I’d lost for my story and my characters – that can only be a good thing. Hopefully, the last stage of edits will go quickly now. While I’m doing that, I’d love to know: what makes you keep reading? What do you need for a story to hold your attention? And what’s the one thing which would make you give up on a story?

Happy Tuesday. It’s the birthday of both David Bowie and Elvis Presley today, so I hope you’ll celebrate appropriately. Thanks for reading!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!

 

 

*Not really. I love them, but it’s a case of needing my ‘dance space’ back. My brain needs to think about something else for a while!