Category Archives: My Projects

Read This First: The Accidental Anthology

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Some of you might remember that, last November, I did a short story in daily installments on this blog about a post-apocalyptic library. It seemed to go down pretty well, and when it was over a couple of people got in touch to ask whether they could write a follow-up.

Things snowballed from there, and now we have an anthology of sixteen short stories set in the world of The Collection. Somehow, with very little editing from me, these sixteen stories fit together to tell the evolution of The Collection’s guardians through the generations. It’s all rather wonderful.

BookCoverImageI am so pleased and proud to announce, therefore, that the Read This First anthology is now available on Amazon. You can get it either in black and white, or with Andrea Cradduck’s gorgeous illustrations in colour.

And there’s so many more stories to tell about this setting. Who or what is Rohini? What about the other collections? What is life like on the doctors’ train? There’s shades of John Wyndham, Robert Chambers and Walter M Miller to be explored. I’d love to do a second volume. So if you have any interest in contributing to the expansion of this Cold world, do let me know!

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In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

Last Orders For 2016!

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It’s Christmas this weekend. For those that celebrate it, I hope you’re all stocked and good to go. For everyone, no matter what your religion, I wish you a very happy winter solstice. 🙂

51gwxkqatwlThe final days of 2016 have been pretty good to me, I’m pleased to say. Not least because L. A. Little’s SFF anthology Outliers of Speculative Fiction is now available for purchase on Amazon, and it contains two of my stories!

‘The Death of Mohenjo Daro’ looks at the worst decision a general under siege has to make, and a possible link between real-life archaeology and the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

‘Souls in Other Space’ follows Giacomo Moroni (Jack the Idiot to his enemies) the space-scavenger (he prefers ‘pirate’ – it’s more dashing)  as he investigates a strangely empty wreck.

Next year I will be starting a very exciting collaboration with an artist friend of mine (the same artist, in fact, who did the cover for my Moonlight is Third anthology ). She is illustrating some of this year’s Twitterature – the mini-fics I post every week day on Twitter – and we’re going to put together an illustrated journal which will be available to buy. Her work is available as prints on etsy over at Paint Magpie – check it out.

There’s also some plans for an anthology of stories inspired by my serialised November project, Read This First, exploring more of the world of The Collection. This will include tales by other talented writers and more of Paint Magpie’s fantastic art. So keep your eyes peeled for that!

And finally, I offer the traditional New Year toast in my circle of friends:

May the coming year be average: better than the last, not as good as the next.

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

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I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.

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READ THIS FIRST – 12

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Yellow Hat is here. I didn’t hear him arrive but I just looked up and there he is, standing under the observatory dome. Smiling. He hasn’t said anything, only nodded when I asked for enough time to write this page.

I didn’t finish the filing. Sorry. And I didn’t wash up the dishes this morning. There was more I wanted to tell you, about Sanna, and the place in Koh Phangan where they still have pineapples, and how the seed catalogue works, and what to do when Rohini has toothache.

I thought I was ready. I’m not ready at all. I’m scared. I love this place. I don’t want to leave it. I don’t want to leave Rohini. You have to look after them both, Theseus. Please. Please love them both for me.

I wish I could have met you.

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READ THIS FIRST – 11

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I’ve left the front door open so Rohini can get in and out. He hasn’t had much chance to hunt recently, what with all the running, and feeding him from bartered stuff gets expensive. That cat eats a lot, given the chance. He’s not too keen on rat, but horse or rabbit are good treats if you can get them. I think there’s quite good hunting round here so hopefully he’ll be fine until you come. The door opens into a cave, so the snow doesn’t come in, and most other animals will back off when they smell Rohini.

I wonder if he’ll be lonely without me. Maybe he’s already lonely. Sometimes I hear him roaring outside, a way off. There’s never an answer. Perhaps there’s no other tigers left in the world. Lots of things died in the Cold. There’s copies of them downstairs in the DNA bank, but what good is that? Even if the tech to bring them back still existed, and the fuel to make it work, the world is too broken for them to survive in. The war didn’t just take lives. It took the way of life.

The Collection is a memorial for everything that died. Including us.

You’d think, after the war, people would try harder to get along. But everywhere I’ve been, there’s little fights and big fights and murder for no reason than because someone’s different. Like we’re not all dying slow anyway. Like fighting will fix anything. The world’s ash and ice, and we’ve learned nothing. Worse than nothing. It’s too easy to forget, these days.

The Collection has a real physical place, by the way. It doesn’t just live in a weird pocket dimension, like some of the books on Class 8 talk about. It’s inside a mountain in the Himalayas. We built Leibowitz’s cairn on top, near the observatory window. It seemed right to bury him next to the thing he made. I go and sit there sometimes. He deserves to be remembered for what he did, even if it’s only by one person.

You’ll have to go back occasionally to wipe the snow off the dome. If you pull the handle of the antikythera so it’s pointing straight out from the wall, then turn so it’s facing down and push it flat again, the door will go there. You know what it looks like from the outside. That’s where you came in.

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READ THIS FIRST -10

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In case you’re wondering, there’s no way to turn the lamps off. They’re powered by thermal coils, and my best guess is they tap into the same heat source as the hot water (wherever that is). It never bothered me – there’s so much dark outside and it’s not like they’re especially bright – but Sanna used to bury her head right under the pillow to get to sleep.

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They don’t break often but very occasionally the metal wire will warp or snap. There’s a coil in the workshop which should be enough for two lamps, but after that you’ll need to barter for more. There’s plenty of that kind of thing in the European settlements still. When you’ve got it, lift the lamp cover off – it comes easy, it’s not secured to anything – and use the tiny screwdriver to release the old wire from the two clamps. Change it out for the new stuff, and replace the cover. Easy. The wire will heat up pretty quick though, so you can’t hang mess around.

The left-hand lamp in the bathroom needs fixing. I couldn’t. I’m sorry.

When you go into markets to barter, you need to not be too clean. It’s an easy thing to forget. There’s enough hot water for a shower every day, more than one if you want. But being clean’s a sure way to mark you out as different. Privileged. At best, they’ll make you pay way over the odds. At worst, they’ll kill you. You know being clean’s reason enough in some places.

Also, don’t go alone if you can help it. There’s not many places are friendly to strangers. The last few times, when Sanna wouldn’t leave The Collection, I went with Rohini. He doesn’t like it, all the people and the noise, but he’ll come if you take a treat with you. Rabbit’s a favourite, and not too rare.

Sanna saw Yellow Hat at the market. It’s why she wouldn’t go out. Every market, anywhere we went, she said she saw him. Just out of the corner of her eye or disappearing round a corner. I never caught a glimpse but she swore he was always watching. I didn’t push, figured it was just a reaction to Mum going and she’d get over it eventually. But it got worse. After a couple of months she started seeing him inside The Collection. I knew that wasn’t true – Rohini would have growled – but she refused to leave the workshop, where her bed was. Is. Still is.

I came back from helping design a waste drainage system for a small settlement, and heard her screaming. I thought she’d had an accident, broken a bone or burned herself. Broken bones don’t necessarily mean death in The Collection but shock can still kill you. I dropped everything and ran to the workshop. She was curled up on her bed, pushed right up into the corner, with both hands pulling at her hair. I shouted at her, slapped her, wrapped myself around her – nothing worked. In the end I used some of the morphine from the medicine cupboard. It’s valuable but I didn’t know what else to do. Finally she went limp. I tucked her up and brought my own blankets to sleep on the floor next to her. I didn’t want her waking up alone.

It took me ages to drift off, and I felt like I’d only been out for a few hours before Rohini woke me up by headbutting my stomach. Sanna’s bed was empty. She didn’t answer when I called. Rohini was whining by the door, shifting from foot to foot. I followed him to the lift and he took me down to the basement. When he stands on his back legs he’s tall enough to punch the buttons with his nose.

She was in the bathroom. The noose had broken the lamp. The metal in it was as cold as her.

I couldn’t bear to fix it. I’m sorry.

Sanna, I’m sorry.