How Not to World Build in Your Opening

Wularz was the youngest son of the prominent Backth family. They lived on Knaphi, and like many others made a good living trading in Abilia, in the warmer seasons at least. Life seemed good, but Wularz’s family were oblivious to his dark secret…for three months he had been a card-carrying member of the Scisac-Clan. Today he was set to be half-blooded.

This is not the opening to my next project. These are the prototypical first three sentences I read in many a novice writers efforts at writing science fiction or fantasy.

I get it. I really do.

The Backth family has a vast and interesting history which spans for generations, and the lore of Knaphi is so incredible you could fill a companion bible with its culture.

But I’m never going to read that bible. I’m not going to hang around long enough to find out that an Abilia is a sort of cow, and that the Scisac-Clan is a street gang, and to be half-blooded means committing assault on their behalf for the first time. And it’s a damn shame I’m not going to hang on, because that all sounds like it has the potential to be a good story.

But you’ve already lost me:

  • Dropping five jargon words in the first paragraph is a red flag.

  • Naming jargon, and then writing about it in a way which sounds like I should already know what it is, is a red flag.

  • Giving supplementary information about jargon, before I even know what the original jargon even is, is a red flag.

I only need one red flag and I’m putting down the book and considering if I’ve made a bad choice. If I get hit with three flags that quick; bang, bang bang – you’re either getting deleted from my Kindle or you’re going in the bin.

magic girl

You’ve put a lot of thought into your magic-system? Think maybe we can talk about that later? Pretty please?

Maybe you think the main problem with that opening is that it was telling all that information, rather than showing. Well, let’s see how showing the same quantity of gobbledygook is just a big a turn off:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

Drospe, a full-blooded, tutted.

‘Why are you even here Wularz, you’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy Backth?’

This elicited chuckles from the other Scisac-Clan members. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years tending Abiilia have given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, and if he passed, he’d finally be half-blooded.

This is a much better opening, but it’s still got too much jargon for my liking.

As a reader, I’m frustrated this blooded thing keeps getting mentioned and I’m still in the dark, it feels like I’m the last one to a party.

The sentence about tending Abiilia giving the character a fine right hook makes perfect sense to the author, but no sense to the reader.

We’re only seven paragraphs in and we’ve managed to overwhelm, exclude, and also confuse the reader.

tap

Your jargon is water coming from a tap. It needs to drip, any faster and the sink overflows, and then you then slip and die.

Let’s fix it. Cut the mention of the family name and establish it later. Cut the mention the blooded system, and establish it later. I might even cut mention of the Scisac-Clan, and establish it later. We have got a whole book to get this stuff in after all.

Let’s see how the scene looks now:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

‘Why are you even here Wularz,’ tutted Drospe. ‘You’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy?’

This elicited chuckles from the other men. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years working on his Daddy’s farm has given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, it would take a better man than Drospe to make him slip up today.

Now we’re rolling. Our jargon count has gone from nine words to three, but we’ve still got the exact same scene.

Of the three jargon words that are left; two are character names. Names are pretty important in prose, duh. If your reader is only going to remember one piece of jargon by the end of your opening, it better be your weird-ass character’s name.

Anyway, that’s the end of today’s lecture. If you liked the small taste of my writing why not check out Inferna – a  web serial/writing exercise hosted for free on this blog.

Have you got any pet peeves that bother you in the first couple pages of a story? Do you have any books to recommend which ease you into the world, rather than throwing you in the deep-end? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L

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Making Time to Write

You’ll notice the title of this week’s blog is making time to right, rather than finding time to right.

In my experience, if you go about your week waiting for the perfect time to sit down and write, you’ll never actually get anything done. It’s an easy excuse to blame the malicious voice for my inactivity the last five years, but at least some of the blame has to fall on my shoulders.

Between my day job, spending time with my fiance, visiting my family, chores around the house, the garden, exercise, and actually daring to sit down to watch some TV and play a video game every now and then, I’m not left with a great deal of excess time.

hourglass

I lose like two hours every week just enjoying myself on the toilet

Since I’ve committed to updating my blog once a week, I’ve not actually found any time to do any non-blog related writing. Terrible, I know. I’m never going to get anything done this way, and I can’t exactly run a weekly writing blog if I never actually write anything. That’s just madness.

With that in mind – I’ve decided to keep a very public record of just how much writing I got done in the last week. Shall we?

Day the First (Friday) – Mixed results. While I did manage to drag myself out of bed early, it was to fix a couple of mistakes I’d found on last weeks blog. I should mention that I had a self-imposed writing deadline for a short story that expired today. The plan was to knock it out before work, but that was a no-go now. I had plans later to go to the cinema to see Ant-Man and the Wasp, but I’d surely have time to fit in a little writing after the film, right?

Nope, missed my deadline. Damn you, Marvel.

Day the Second (Saturday) – I woke up at a decent time, but it’d had been a long week at work and I didn’t have a choice, my body wanted a lie in. Not an auspicious start to the day, and unfortunately it set the tone for my productivity, Saturday was a wash.

dog

Actual photo of me from Saturday

Day the Third (Sunday) – Nope. I wasn’t just tired from work, I’d hit writer’s block for my competition entry. I was dangerously close to the word limit but nowhere close to my ending. This needed to be fixed and frankly, I didn’t the energy to do it. I procrastinated, I did chores, I did everything but look at my work – and because of this blog, I was fully conscious of that decision. Yay.

Day the Fourth (Monday) – I knew the logical thing I needed to do. Sit down and write. Get my story finished, and fix the word count in the editing. I know that’s what I should do. But knowing that apparently doesn’t make it any easier…

Day the Fifth (Tuesday) – OK, It’s just embarrassing now. I was very tempted to trash this whole blog post at this point. I did sit down to write, I just didn’t get down any of those pesky words. I did some editing research, and I did some work on this blog entry – but no actual writing, again.

Day the Sixth (Wednesday) – I did it. It feels like I did the literary equivalent of shitting the bed, but I finished the first draft of my story. I don’t feel good about the work right now, but I know that’s natural. It’s the first draft I’ve finished in some time, and bugger me if I’m not a little proud.

Day the Seventh (Thursday) – What a difference a day makes. Clearly, I’m very bad at finishing projects, but boy do I love starting them. If every book was just the first three pages, I’d have written a million. With the short story finally done I actually managed to knock out a flash fiction in a single night. That’s in addition to putting the finishing touches on the blog you’re now reading. Go me!

Final Verdict: Definite room for improvement, but at least I ended on a high.

I only managed to wake up early one day, and I wasted a lot of evenings lamenting about not writing. While sharing this is a little embarrassing, it is useful. If I’m more conscious of my foibles I should get better at overcoming them.

There is after all, always next week.

How did you get on last week? Did you put me to shame or slip even worse? Give me a shout in the comments below.  

– H. L

Author Stats of an Amateur Writer

#Authorstats is a wonderful hashtag I discovered the other day – published writers are sharing the statistics of just how many years it took them to succeed. All of the garbage books they had to write, all of the rejections they conquered, every step of the arduous journey which kills off so many in the first couple of steps.

graph

This graph represents the number of stock photos I look at over time

When you start writing it’s not finding the time to sit down and get words on paper, it’s not learning some of the finer details of grammar, and it certainly isn’t thinking of ideas. The single hardest thing an amateur writer has to contend with is the malicious voice that lives within all of us:

You don’t know how to write. Delete the whole thing and start over. In fact, don’t bother. Your writing has no message. Your characters are pale imitations. Your dialogue doesn’t sound authentic. Have you even formatted it properly? Is any of it even formatted properly? Learn how to do that, and all the other stuff you’re not sure of. Learn all of it perfectly before you write another word. You’re going to embarrass yourself otherwise.

For me, that voice froze me solid for almost five years. I hear it every day when I’m at work in my office. It’s often the first thing I hear when I wake up, and after a bad day, it’s the last thing I hear before I sleep.

Today, I’m going to give you my author stats. Unlike the great inspirations, my story doesn’t come with a happy ending, because spoilers, I’m not a published writer. It’s not wasted time though, the last eighteen years have helped me find my formula, not for success, but for perseverance.

If you make it to the end, I’ll even share it with you.

2000 – I’m eight years old, and I’m in English class. The teacher got us to write a story. The first constructive feedback about my writing I remember: Have you ever thought about writing a story without guns or knives? I was also chastised for drawing periods much, much larger than they needed to be. Intellectual snobs.

2001 – I write a rap, not featuring any guns or knives. The teacher loves it, so much, in fact, they tell me they’re going to put it on the school website. I don’t have the internet, but I’m given a printed copy, and to my horror, I see some the words have been changed to help the piece flow better. I asked them to change it back, but I lose my first editing argument.

2003 – My sister gets a computer for Christmas. It very expensive, and she’s not really sure how to set it up or what to do with it, and bless them, neither are my parents. Eventually, I find some sort of word processor on the thing and I’d use it to write. One day my dad discovers a poem I’d written about marching soldiers. He tells me it’s bloody good, and him saying that sure made me feel bloody good.

2004 – One of my friends gives me a floppy disc with a story he’d written. I find this act of transfer amazing, and I’m quick to reciprocate, for a brief time we start swapping stories.

fire

We were just like cowboys around a campfire, only with floppy disks and without the constant fear of dysentery

2005 – My parents enter the 21st century and finally get the internet. Like any teenage boy with his first access to the web, you’ve guessed it, I engross myself in reading and writing Harry Potter fanfiction.

2007 – I move on from fan fiction and, amazingly, begin an even more embarrassing hobby, the world of fantasy wrestling leagues, or e-feds, as they were known. For those (everyone) not aware, an e-fed was a roleplaying website where you would create a wrestling character, be booked in matches against other people, and for some the reason the winner would be determined with a writing contest, of all things. Think Dungeons and Dragons, but for wrestling nerds.

2009 – I enter a local writing competition, you can read more about this one here.

2011 – I’m a year into studying a Business degree at University, I’ve not written anything for a long time. The malicious voice has seemingly won. I don’t know it yet, but a lack of a creative outlet is making me pretty miserable. I go into my second year determined to join a society, and I find a small improvisation drama society. The voice is hating this, it’s determined to convince me I’m an imposter in a sea of creative types. It urges me to quit before they find me out as the fraud I am.

But I don’t quit. I don’t quit because for the first time in my life I am surrounded by people who are nurturing and encouraging my spark. Instead of expelling me, they welcome me with open arms. I start performing comedy, I start acting, I start writing again. The voice isn’t quieter at this point, it’s gone.

2013 – I have the winning pitch, and so I’m selected to write and direct the societies of end-of-year production. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility. It’s the biggest show they put on all year; the whole thing is a whirlwind which definitely deserves a blog post of its own in the future. The show ends up being, in my opinion, a modest success.

2014 – University is over. I move back home, away from my friends, away from their encouragement. I job search, I start work, I stress. I gain weight.

2015 – The voice is back. Thinking about joining a local drama group? They’re filled with an older crowd, you wouldn’t fit in. You were never any good at acting anyway, everyone was just too nice to tell you otherwise. Even if you could act, you’d need to lose weight before you got back on stage. The show you produced and directed wasn’t even good. You were an imposter. Quit these dreams and live in the real world already. Quit. Quit. Quit.

duck

Quit

2016 – I quit.

2017 – I create this website. I write the first post, ‘A Moment in Inferna.’ I think it’s OK. But try as I might, I can’t seem to write anything else I consider better than awful. I start looking at it again, and I wonder if my first post was OK at all. Actually, I start to think it’s quite bad.

2018 – Well hey, you made it. My sad, sole post was the only thing posted on this blog until three weeks ago.

The voice is still there. I didn’t fix it, because I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed. You have to accept and ignore it and move forward.

It’s nagging me even I as write this sentence, to delete this whole post and start again, or even better to quit the whole damn thing. 

I’m not going to though, not this time.

I’m energised. I have big plans for my writing and for this blog, and for the first time in a while, I’m getting stuff done.

It’s time for that formula I promised. Not for success remember, but for perseverance:

Fear of Unfulfilled Passion > Fear of the Malicious Voice

Something for you to think about until next Friday. Now, how about you give me something to think about, or even better something to blog about, in the comments below.

– H. L

My Struggle with Notebook Addiction

No, not the film.

I’m addicted to notebooks.

Family holidays when I was younger inevitably led to the souvenir shop. It’s a place you’re probably familiar with; it’s filled with mugs, coasters, key chains with your name on them, a general assortment of fine crap. My personal favourite, to the ever disappointment of my dad’s wallet, was notebooks.

An empty word document on a glowing computer screen can be intimidating. We’ve all thought the flashing cursor was mocking us at some point. It breeds doubt, insecurity, and fear; at times it can be a petty, evil little thing. I hear the guy who invented it actually end up being arrested for elder abuse.  

old man

Charles Kiesling invented the blinking cursor and he was actually a wonderful family man, this is also not a picture of him, it’s a stock photo that’s free for me to use without any legal repercussions

I find a notebook to be different. It’s a blank canvas, an invitation to create, the promise of endless possibility and freedom.

You know, on paper.

I have a lot of notebooks, and I’m ashamed to say there’s little to nothing in all of them. It sounds very vogue, but I think I’m more in love with the idea of a notebook, rather than the notebook itself.

Truth be told, there is (as often is the case) a dark side to my addiction. If only abandonment was the worst of my sins when it comes to my innocent paper-filled friends.

I actually treat them quite cruelly. The sad same story happens again and again and it’s only now, writing this blog, that I can see the error in my ways.

I complete the first page with meticulous care and a steady hand, like you do with the first page of a workbook in school. Inevitably though, I’ll make a mistake; a smudge, a misspelling, some abandoned idea. This is where the crazy starts. I think to myself; crossing out is messy. I’ll just rip that page out. I’ll be careful, maybe it’ll give the book something of a shabby chic look.

It doesn’t. It always, always, always, looks like crap. Often it’s a fatal decision that just destroys the entire book. To avoid crossing out a simple mistake because I think it’s messy, we now have other pages falling out, jagged protruding staples, and the book spine equivalent of sciatica.

notebook

No, I clearly don’t buy the books designed to have pages ripped out. They don’t look as good. Shut up.

Cards on the table: I’ve very recently bought another notebook. I was shopping with my friends, and one caught my eye. We all bought one, we made a pact to fill them in a year, or suffer each others judgment and scorn. But how exactly am I, the Patrick Bateman of notebook writers, meant to accomplish this? My notebooks have a worse life expectancy than a mayfly.

The answer, I’m actually pretty proud of: I intentionally trashed the first page.

Well…I say trashed, the first page is an agenda of what I want to do in the next year with my writing and with this blog, and number two on that agenda is:

2.) Not destroy this book because of one mastake

That is a bonafide spelling mistake. It happened, I didn’t tear the page out, I didn’t destroy the book, and the world didn’t end.

That’s the self-sabotaging out of the way, now I’ve got a year to fill this bad boy up, and I sure could use your help. I’ve had a google and I’ve entered into a world with terms like morning pages and dream journals, but I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Do you own your own journal? Do you have any ideas what else I can do with this sexy thing? Please shoot me a comment below.

– H. L

My First Writing Contest in Almost Ten Years

One of my friends linked me to a creative writing competition that a charity called The Children’s Society is hosting as a part of their Seriously Awkward campaign.

The last writing contest I entered was about ten years ago, all the way back in high school. My entry probably wasn’t very good (mercifully I don’t own a copy) and I never heard back from them – I had just received my first rejection.

First rejection for writing, at any rate.

slap

Her smile said yes, but her hand very clearly said no

I didn’t take the loss well; truth be told it actually put my writing ambitions on hold for a few years – mistake. I’m playing catch up for it now, if I could I’d reach back in time and give that young twerp a smack round the ear. Friggin’ Millennial.

I’m older now, and I’d like to think I’m more mature, well equipped to not only accept my failures but to learn from them. Or, maybe my ego hasn’t changed a bit and the only thing I have to show for my age is deteriorating vision and an expensive mortgage. We’ll soon find out.

The theme of this contest is anything at all to do with 16 and 17-year-olds. Entering the contest means I won’t be able to post the story here (for the time being at least) but there’s no reason I can’t give you a sneak peek at the thought process for my entry.

One of the most awkward first experiences I ever had at sixteen was my first job interview. Job interviews suck, especially your first one. They’re awkward, unnatural social interactions where one side holds all the power. You’re in an unfamiliar environment, you’re most likely wearing unfamiliar clothes, and to top it all off, there’s an unfamiliar person demanding you prove your worth to them.

handshake

Touch it

Seriously, if you’re one of the few people who actually enjoy job interviews – you’re almost definitely demented.

So that was my launching pad. Take the nerves and uncertainty that come with your first job interview, and for a bit of drama let’s multiply the stakes and make it all a billion times worse.

How?

I’m picturing a world, not that far from now, but one where we as a collective have had some terrible hardships, made some terrible decisions. It’s uncannily similar to the world you know now, at first glance at least, but it’s one where its stability is not taken for granted, in fact, it comes at a terrible price. With resources scarce, the United Kingdom has implemented a policy known as The First or Final Interview.

For on the day of their seventeenth birthday, each person must attend their local town hall and have an interview to prove their worth to society. Scholastic achievements, sports, what you’ve done in your spare time; it’s all measured, and it all must be justified. The result is a binary one, you can either pass or fail.

And if you fail – you are put to death. Euthanised, for the good of the state.

Wish me best of luck with the contest – I’ll be sure to share the finished result with you just as soon as I’m able. In the meantime, if you want to help give me some inspiration – leave a comment with your worst job interview horror stories.

– H. L

A Moment In Inferna

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Everything had gone to hell.

That was the only thing that had gone through Amarok’s head for the last hour. He’d stopped walking, stopped planning, stopped trying to find a way out of this whole mess. He stared into the distance. And something stared back.

In a gloved hand Amarok held a small canister, his last one. It was a lifeline. A last flicker of hope that he’d hold out long enough for some reprieve or rescue, but he had long since given up. He was going to die.

All around in every direction lay a wasteland of sand. Desert dunes stretched for miles upon miles. Empty. No vegetation, no noise; not a trace of what had once been here. Just sand and Amarok. And the things staring back.

If I dug here, miles down I would find a city, he thought. A city buried in sand, littered with corpses. Would the remains still be there though? It had all happened so long ago; who knew what the heat had done to them. Amarok pictured petrified bodies, mouths wide open in fear. Maybe they had been reduced to ashes, a sterile but final end. He feared his final theory was correct; they were mulch. Dripping and stagnating; nasty piles of oozing mush.

Amarok could very much feel the heat of the sun. It worked its way towards him, penetrating through his thick suit, drenching him with sweat. Breathing was becoming difficult, when he coughed his visor was sprayed with spittle, clouding his limited view.

He sighed and squeezed his last canister a little tighter.

What good would a few more days do me? He was lost. The great Amarok, lost two days into a fucking hunt. He’d got turned around, took a left somewhere instead of a right. Such a small mistake. Monstrous sandstorms would ravage the land on occasion, shifting mountains of sand and flattening others, meaning Inferna was never quite how you’d left it. The best hunters however had always been able to spot the subtleties, and Amarok was meant to have been the best of the best.

Far away in the distance, at the top of the furthest visible dune, Amarok could just about make out three figures, unmoving. Amarok knew they were watching him.

They were jet black against the horizon. For a while Amarok thought them to be an apparition of the heat, a mirage, brought on by his failing equipment. He had walked for days and they were always there, a half-a-dozen leagues away, but always there. Amarok never saw them move. The heat shimmered all around them, making them look like ghosts.

They were real. Amarok had suffered through more than a few risky hunts in his time, none anywhere close to this one, but he wasn’t a stranger to the odd mirage now and again. This was different. Whatever the figures were, they were real.

Other hunters, prodded a quiet voice in the back of his mind, not for the first time.

“No.”

Amarok cursed at his own idea. He could see the figures and they could see him. If they were other hunters, they would hail him on his radio, or, failing that, they’d surely give some sort of signal. But the radio was dead, and no matter how long he waited, or prayed, or eventually even cried; the radio had remained dead.

He stood, dropping the canister to the sand.

“What do you want!” he screamed, fists clenched at either side, knuckles white. “What do you want from me! What do you—”

He began to cough, began to choke; to die. Amarok fell to his knees and tried to breathe. Nothing. He tried again and the whole world started to fade away.

Finally a breath came. It was weak and made an unpleasant rattling noise; Amarok was sure it was his last.

It wasn’t. A second came, and eventually even a third.

Slowly, Amarok rose to his feet gripping the top of his mask. 

“I know what you want.” he whispered, eyes wide. 

Amarok ripped off his mask, and he began to scream.

The intensity of the sun was unimaginable. In an instant every inch of skin on Amarok’s head began to blister. His nose began to bleed and his eyeballs bulged horrifically as if they were about to burst. A smell of burnt hair invaded his senses as a crippling pain at the back of his skull brought him to his knees. Huge white spots blinded his vision; his hands scrambled for the discarded mask.

As soon as it was secured the sheer intensity of the heat faded, but the searing pain remained. He could feel the meat of his body, cooking. He vomited, plastering his visor. A loud ringing in his ears disturbed him most of all.

Amarok knelt like that for a while as a ruin; as broken as the city that lay buried beneath him. The pain did not stop, but eventually began to dull.

His mind was made up. He patted the sand, caressing it here and there until his hands found what he was searching for.

Amarok stood to his feet, his body shaking in fury and pain. At the back of his suit was a thick, technical panel with a canister protruding slightly from a fitted slot. Carefully, Amarok removed the now empty canister and replaced it with the one he’d found on the floor. His last one.

The suit hummed to life, cool air surrounded Amarok and offered him some small relief from his agony.

As best he could Amarok squinted into the distance through his soiled visor. The vomit smelled foul and turned his stomach, but he dared not remove the mask again.

The dark figures were right where he’d left them, not having moved an inch during the display of madness.

Amorak took a tentative step without incident, surprising himself. So far so good. 

He’d been pushing forward for days, hoping in vain for some sign of home. Now he pushed backwards, in the opposite direction, retracing his steps. Home was no longer the objective. 

An hour passed; Amorak found himself pleased with his results. He’d closed the gap between him and his stalkers considerably. Were they moving towards him too? He hadn’t seen the bastards move, but it sure seemed that way to what was left of his melted senses. Shadowy vultures, coming to claim the rewards of their careful patience.  

“You’re not coming for me,” he panted, still moving. “I’m coming for you.”