Construction of a Novel: Sleight of Mind

When it comes to novel writing, I’m a pantser. Or at least, I have been in recent years. This brings its own share of challenges and thrills, but one of my favourite things about it is the element of surprise. When I don’t know (or only have a vague idea) what’s going to happen next in my story, I’m frequently surprised by it. And there are times when that surprise truly astonishes me.

There’s a secondary character in my current novel who makes a few brief appearances off-screen (the protagonist never even meets him), and then sort of disappears. He plays an important role, but I wasn’t sure what happens next with him, or even if it was important. I sort of left it open-ended, with no plans to reintroduce him, yet also aware that I should probably go back and tie up those ends properly during edits, as it’s all a bit ambiguous.

And then, yesterday, tens of thousands of words after his last minor appearance, he showed up again, completely out of the blue. I had to seriously question myself to figure out whether he belonged in this section of story, or even if it fit what I’d already written about him. I ran a search for his name and read all my previous references to him, and to my astonishment, his reappearance fit perfectly. I didn’t need to rewrite anything. I didn’t need to shoehorn references in that would later fit with his return… I didn’t need to foreshadow it. Because I already had. It turns out I’d been foreshadowing it almost from his first appearance, and I had no idea. Re-reading the last references I’d made to him, it was almost like I’d gone back in time to write them from this point, knowing where he would end up and just how important he would actually become to the story.

So. Weird. And kind of mindblowing. When my brain conjured him back into the story, it’s almost as if it went ‘ta-da!’ as it did so. Like my subconscious had been performing a long, elaborate magic trick on me, and it was finally revealed.

Amazing. And I still have no idea how it was done.

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Panoply Reborn

This blog was well overdue a makeover. It’s a task I’d been putting off for ages, but I finally got my act together and gave it some much-needed freshening up. I’m really happy with the new look! It’s brighter, cleaner, tidier… but still retains some personality. The header image is a stock WordPress one, so I might change that at some point, but for now I kinda like it. I’m surrounded by plants at home, so this feels like an extension of my natural environment.

Onward and upward, little blog!

Music and Words

There seem to be two types of writers: those who need silence to write, and those who need music. I’m one of the latter type. That’s not to say I can’t write without music playing, but if I’m not feeling inspired when I sit down to get some words on the page, the number one way to up that inspiration and get my fingers flowing across the keys is to put on some suitable music.

It helps put me in the zone. It shuts out the distractions that try to pull me away from the story. And if I get the right music going, it can spur me on like nothing else. The right music is key. Radio is hopeless, with all its distracting chatter and randomness. Music with lyrics is rarely helpful, as the lyrics carry me off in a different direction from the one I’m trying to head. They impose themselves on my brain while it’s coming up with streams of prose, and generally interfere. So it’s almost always instrumental stuff for me.

I’ve found that the most useful instrumental pieces to write to are pieces of music that are in themselves telling a story or seeking to create a deliberate atmosphere. Contemporary composers like Ludovico Einaudi and Max Richter are excellent for this. The repetitive nature of their melodies can almost hypnotise me into a writing state while inducing the necessary emotion to carry the story.

But the music that achieves this best is soundtrack music. Film scores are designed to elicit emotion, to place the viewer in the story and impart a sense of urgency, or tragedy, or scope. There’s something about the work of a composer who has specifically written that work to accompany a story. That sense of story, of conflict and emotion and character, is imperative to writing, and having it conveyed through the medium of music really helps to uncover whatever story I’m trying to tell.

A good playlist is essential. There are some tremendous ones on sites like 8tracks – just type in ‘writing’ and you’ll get a massive selection of playlists put together for just this purpose, with all kinds of perfect scores and tracks you’ve never come across along with the familiar ones.

When I need to get in the zone, a cup of tea, a stash of salt liquorice, and an amazing playlist of audio inspiration is my ideal recipe for wordcount success.

I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favourites, from the sorely-missed master of emotion, James Horner:

The Power of Friendship

I’ve written about friendship before on this blog, in terms of what it means to me from a story perspective. I’ve always been drawn to stories about friendships, just as friendships have always played a crucial role in my personal life. My friendships mean the world to me. They’re some of the most important relationships in my life, and they always have been.

But as a society, I feel like we don’t honour friendship enough. Romantic relationships are always upheld as the ultimate in personal interaction. We denigrate friendship even as we distinguish it from romantic partnerships. We use terms like ‘just friends’ or ‘friends with benefits’, as if platonic friendships don’t have masses of benefits above and beyond sex.

Just friends. Think about that for a minute. If we celebrated friendship the way we celebrate sexual relationships, such a description wouldn’t exist. Yet friends are the people we stick with through life. They’re the people we turn to in need. They’re the people we want with us when we’re celebrating. They’re the people who know us best. The people we can be our true selves with. The people who love the things we love and fight for the things we fight for. The people who’ve been with us through thick and thin, who’ve outlasted those lauded romances and hugged us through breakups. They’re the people we bond with on levels that far surpass the biological influences of reproduction.

Yet those influences are the ones we turn to, the ones by which we measure ourselves, the ones we see constantly highlighted through the media and in fiction.

I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker for a good romance. I’ll root for my favourite fictional couple any day of the week. I’m sad when real-life romances don’t work out. But fiction in particular comes with a certain expectation of romance. How often do we wait for the central pair in our favourite TV show to finally get together? How many times do we expect the platonic friendship to finally graduate to a sexual relationship? As if it’s not valid unless it does so? As if the true potential of that relationship hasn’t been fully explored until they’ve admitted their true feelings for one another and got it on?

I call bullshit on that. The true potential of a relationship lies in what those two people can achieve together. On what they share above and beyond what they have with anyone else. On what has bonded them and continues to bond them. On the absolute trust they have in each other. Whether that involves romance or not is irrelevant. When a romantic partnership has all those things, it’s one of those partnerships that’s built to last… a partnership that’s based on friendship. And friendship can, and does, have all of those things without the need for romantic attraction.

Mulder and Scully didn’t need to get together to prove the true worth of their friendship. Ron and Hermione could have stayed friends for life without getting married. Xander and Willow didn’t need to go through that weird phase of sucking each other’s faces off (at least they grew out of that one). Their friendships were amazing as it was. They had nothing else to prove. They didn’t need to ‘graduate to the next level’… they’d already reached the ultimate levels of trust and support two people can reach.

I want to see more friendships in fiction. Celebrated, appreciated, adored friendships without the need for romance. I see the Finn/Poe shipping and there’s a part of me rooting my arse off for it… but a larger part of me looking at the amazing potential to explore a deep friendship between two men. A friendship that doesn’t need to prove itself by morphing into romance. Friendship is worthy in and of itself, and I think it’s time we started celebrating that. Friendship has been an underlying theme in my stories for a long time, but I’m making a conscious effort to bring it to the surface. To really focus on it and allow it to be exactly what it is.

Not second best. Not ‘just’ anything. But among the most meaningful and worthwhile relationships it’s possible to have with another person.

Inspiration

Every so often, I come across an image that transports me into itself. It’s like the immersion that comes from good writing. The sense of being in a place, feeling it, the warmth, the scents, the sounds it evokes.

I came across one of these today. So beautiful I might have to put it in a story…

amazing-tree-tunnels-18

The Three-body Problem, and What America Can Learn from the Cultural Revolution

Science-fiction-inspired political action is my favourite kind.

Christoph Weber

I rarely write book reviews, but after reading The Three-body Problem I must yawp from my rooftop just how extraordinary this novel is, in the hope that others will experience the same mind-bending awe this masterpiece inspired in me.

The Three-body Problem is by no means slow, though it’s not exactly an action-packed, cliffhanger-type novel. I enjoy those as well, and I’ll highly recommend Red Rising if that’s what you’re looking for. But Liu Cixin didn’t need to blow shit up to keep me reading through the night: the sheer scope, originality, and power of his ideas do that job more than adequately.

The novel is set in China, largely in Beijing, a city in which I studied and worked for over a

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Achievement Unlocked

Delighted to announce my first sale of the year! My sci-fi alien story, ‘The Convincer’, will be appearing in Galaxy’s Edge. I’m ecstatic that this story has found a home in such a great venue, and can’t wait to share it with the world at last.

This was one of those stories that was eked out kicking and screaming. I knew what I wanted to say with it, as this story’s message is very close to my heart. But getting it to co-operate felt at times like wrestling jelly. I had to integrate a weird, complex alien society into a commentary on how we subjugate beings we deem inferior to ourselves, without sounding preachy, and with a workable plot. It took me ages to get the plot in shape, but once I had it I realised it had been heading that way all along, as is so often the case.

I’m really proud of this one. Watch this space for details on its future publication.