Friday, 25 October 2013

Why Characters Need to Speak With Their Own Voice and Not The Author's

Every story has a central protagonist. This is the character who mostly drives the action of the story and it is through their experiences that the plot is filtered for the reader. We may not always agree with this character's motives, but it is important that we empathise with them and understand what it is that drives them. For an author to achieve this, he or she must give the character their own unique voice.

A common trap for authors to fall into is to put too much of themselves into the lead character. This is particularly dangerous because it removes the character from the action. It makes them appear hollow and somewhat fake. The character no longer reacts naturally to the story and comes across as bland. A good author does not dictate the decisions of their characters, but instead tries to second guess and figure out the way that such a character would genuinely react to the situations thrown at them.

When writing in the third person, the author can add description and information about the characters in any way that they choose. In a first person narrative this is not so easy. In this case, the author cannot tell us directly about a character, but they must show it through the way that said character speaks and acts. The voice that tells the story is no longer their own, but that of their character. If a story has multiple narrators it is imperative that the reader can distinguish each one as an individual entity with its own style and flavour.

In my second novel, Stealing Asia, the story is narrated by three different characters in turn. Each one has their own motivation and each knows information that the others do not. Only by putting their three stories together does the full picture become visible. Each one also has their own unique voice, which stands apart from the other two. When the narrative baton is passed, we know instantly that we are going to get a very different take on events.

The first narrator is Ben, a naive and inexperienced backpacker. He is unsure of himself, but also trusting and optimistic. This is how he begins his story:

"Travelling is supposed to be easy. People join the trail all the time. It is simply a matter of bumping into them in the right place and at the right moment. A hostel dorm room, a crowded bar; anyplace can provide the backdrop to an unexpected bringing together of kindred spirits. You could find a drinking buddy for the night or make a lifelong friend. Who knows?."

The second narrator is Esteban. He has a conscience, but does not allow it to cloud his decisions. Esteban is also a realist and he speaks bluntly and tells the story exactly how he sees it. These are his first lines:

"My name is Esteban Cruz. I do not consider myself to be a bad man, but I have done bad things. Terrible things. For this, I am not proud. I thought that I could make amends for my past, but I was wrong."

The story is completed by Asia. She is also bluntly honest, but unlike Esteban she does not take responsibility for her flaws. She can be antagonistic and mischievous and this shows in the way that she opens her part of the narrative:

"I knew that it was wrong, but I could not help myself. A psychologist would call it a plea for attention. I just call it one in a long line of easily forgettable hook-ups. If I am really honest with myself, I only screwed him to see if sex would feel any different on a boat."

For each of the above, I essentially had to take on the persona of the character as I narrated the story through them. I had to allow them to tell it how they saw it and to not let my own opinions and prejudices get in the way. In order to write a realistic character, we must first become that character. When writing fiction, particularly in the first person, the one voice that does not belong is the authors.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Three Is The Magic Number

It is generally regarded that the key to publishing success on Amazon lies in writing a series of novels. Readers love a series and it also has the added bonus of an inbuilt marketing plan whereby the author can make the first book free (known as a loss leader) in order to attract more downloads, of which a large part will hopefully convert to paid sales of the other novels in the series. This is all very well if what you choose to write about cannot be told in just one book. Unfortunately for me, my writing thus far has been based around standalone titles, so I have been unable to take advantage of these supposed benefits.

However, after The Outback and Stealing Asia, my third book has provided me with the opportunity to take the story further. Thus far, I have plans to convert it into a trilogy. Of course, with this, there comes certain considerations that I did not need to take into account with the standalone novels. This will be most felt during the editing process. The books need not only be self consistent, but they must also be consistent across the entire series. When then should I publish - one book at a time or wait until all are completed before publishing the first?

After some consideration, I have decided to go ahead and publish the first of the trilogy, Diamond Sky, as soon as it has completed the editing process. Having looked at some successful trilogies, I have noticed certain patterns emerging. As evidenced in movies like Star Wars and The Matrix, the first of a trilogy is often a standalone in its own right. They have endings that are tidy and satisfying, but leave space for further exploration without the need for an unresolved cliffhanger. Diamond Sky fits in with this style.

Books two and three of the series however, are a different prospect. Like with The Empire Strikes Back, my sequel will be left with an unresolved ending (ie - the battle is finished, but the war is far from over) and like the Matrix sequels, I will be writing them back to back. This way, if complications arise in part three, I will have the luxury of adapting part two to suit any unexpected story developments. In terms of release dates, this will place me under pressure, but the most important thing is always and always will be the story. The moment I compromise my art is the moment that I have no further right to call myself an artist.

Diamond Sky is due for release this Christmas and (hopefully) the sequels will be ready for spring and summer of next year, respectively.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

My Literary Autobiography

My earliest memory of reading comes from the Garfield comic strips that were on the back page of my Dad's newspapers when I was a child. Not only did I used to look forward to coming home from school to read these short 3-box panels, but I also used to cut them out and paste them into my own scrapbook.

After Garfield, I moved on to regularly collecting the weekly Transformers Comics. Although, if I am honest, I did not so much read these as just want to own them as an extension of my favourite childhood toy. This in turn led me into collecting the Transformers - Find Your Fate series of books. These were printed back in the day when 'interactive' had nothing to do with digital content. They were written in the first person-present tense and at the end of each page, the reader gets to choose what happens next by picking from 3 options (by page number). I do not think that I ever survived right through to the one successful ending, but this was not for want of trying!

The next and final step of my childhood literary journey came from reading Asterix comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. This may seem like a literary step backwards from the choose your own adventure books, but thanks to a plethora of complex and sometimes funny (Cacophonix) French sounding names, it was not always easy going. Every night I would spend my reading hour after bedtime with my head buried deep into one of Asterix and Obelix's adventures.

There were other tomes from my childhood, but none made as much of an impression on me as those listed above. I then had a barren few years lost in the world of Sega where my reading lapsed considerably. Unless required to do so at school, I never really read at all. That is until I turned fifteen and a friend introduced me to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels. The same friend also introduced me to the wonders of alcohol at around the same time and both had a profound effect on my outlook. My mother kept grounding me for the drinking and my English teacher kept marking me down for the surreal tone that my Pratchett influenced writing was taking on (I recall a story that digressed into a brief section written from the point of view of an irate stick). Between that final year at school and starting university, I was never without a Discworld novel to guide me through any moments of spare time (when not too hung over).

Discworld was a peak for me, as after that, once more, my reading lapsed. Doing an English Degree seemed to sap the pleasure out of reading. Sure, I enjoyed many of the books that I studied, particularly anything from the Gothic and American Fiction modules (Maybe it is personal taste, but I find Twain has aged far, far better than Dickens). Favourites from this period were Catch-22The Monk and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to name just three. Other highlights were being introduced to the works of Paul AusterToni MorrisonVladamir Nabokov and of course, William Shakespeare. The downside was that reading had become an academic pursuit and no longer something that I did for pleasure.

After leaving University, I slumped into a dead-end office job and forgot about a lot of my prior passions. It was only when I bought a one way ticket to Australia that I began to read again. Every hostel had a book exchange and I always took full advantage. I usually played it safe and went for authors that I had heard of. I worked my way through the bulk of Stephen King's catalogue this way. The author that had the biggest influence on me however, I would find by complete accident. I have never been a fan of courtroom dramas and so had stayed away from John Grisham novels. Only when presented with no other choice was I willing to give Grisham a go and it turned out to be one of the best decisions that I have made. Twenty odd books later and barely a courtroom scene between them, I can honestly say that Grisham is my favourite  author.

The list is now getting nearer the present and recently I have tried to be more eclectic in my reading approach (I have also run out of Grisham) so I am now more likely to grab a book I had never heard of by a writer that I am not familiar with and give it a go. This list is a lot more eclectic and there are too many names to mention, so I will simply say that I have developed a taste for the humorous and the slightly offbeat. I will also eat up any speculative science books, the best of which (and most accessible) are by Marcus Chown.

I suppose the only thing now missing is my favourite book. The answer to that is simple as it is by the most outspoken member of my favourite band; the Beatles.

In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works is an anthology of John Lennon's short stories and poetry. It is very off-kilter, extremely politically incorrect and a remarkable insight into the mind of a very troubled and often misunderstood genius. It is not a book that would appeal to anybody (possibly only die hard Lennon fans), but that does not matter. Nobody else has to like my favourite, only me.

Two books that are not on the above list, but are very much favourites of mine are my own two published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are now available in paperback and as ebooks at Amazon and selected online retailers.

Refusing to Give in to the Spam

In my first few months of blogging, I was feeling optimistic. The traffic to my site had been steadily growing and far exceeded my expectations at the outset. Then I began to notice something rather peculiar in the stats of my blog. On the slower days between posts, the total number of hits did not match with the total of my individual pageviews. At first, I thought nothing of it, but then the gap started to increase. It got to the point where my stats would be showing 40-50 visitors to my blog, yet my pageviews only totalled a dozen or so. Clearly something was amiss.

After posing the topic to several message boards and forums, I finally got the answer. I had been the recipient of something known as 'Referrer Spam'. Without getting too technical (I don't actually fully understand how it all works), basically the spammers send a load of links to my blog (usually to porn sites) and if I click on them (I never will) they receive a fee, just like pay per click advertising. By far the majority of this unwanted trash comes from Russia and the Ukraine (the links show as .ru) and as far as I know there is no way to stop it. All that I can do is ignore it and hope that it goes away.

If you have a blog and are experiencing the same - Do Not Click on any of the suspect links. This will only encourage the spammers. Our best means to fight them is to spread the word and try to get as many people as possible to stop clicking on these links as that is how the spammers make their money. As writers, we are curious as to were our blog traffic comes from, but in this case, curiosity will only increase the spam. I repeat - Do Not Click on any unknown links to your blog (particularly any with a .ru domain name).

Suffice to say, the early optimism that I felt about blogging has sagged. That is not to say that I have lost it completely. I am determined to fight back. Okay, not literally fight back. I have already discovered that I cannot do anything against these spammers, but I can try and boost the number of genuine visits to my blog by giving it greater visibility to my potential readers.

I have joined a site named 'Networked blogs', which always me to syndicate my blog feed with my FaceBook Fan Page and allow readers to access them directly from there. I have also connected my blog to my Goodreads Author Page and my Amazon Author Page. And most importantly, I am going to continue to blog regardless of whether my website traffic is made up of genuine readers or shameless spammers. With luck, I will in time, attract more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Climbing a Mountain (The Hard Way)

I do not know whether it is because I am a writer, but recently my life has been taking on elements of the novels that I write. Namely, it seems to contain much more drama than is necessary. I could go into a lengthy discussion of the age old argument of life reflecting art, but instead, I will talk about my recent expedition to the top of Mount Snowdon.

As is usual with this sort of activity, I left all of the planning to my wife, Katie (minus 5 man points). The summit can be approached by several tracks (the Pyg, Miner's and Llanberis tracks), but Katie decided on the most difficult - the Snowdon Horseshoe. With no climbing/scrambling experience, we should not really have attempted this route, but that is my wife for you.

People who had previously scaled the summit had warned me that it can get very cold up there and we planned accordingly. At the start of the climb I was wearing a warm base layer under my fleece, a pair of leggings under my trousers, hat, gloves and full body waterproofs. The thick mist smothering the base of the mountain suggested that all of this was necessary too. With so many layers, I was bound to sweat profusely, so I also filled my extra large backpack with 4.5 litres of water.

The beginning of the track was steep and despite the cold, after just ten mins we were soaking in our own sweat. The only way to cool down was to strip back the layers, so into my backpack they went. It was a tight squeeze, but I managed to get everything in (although my sandwiches got considerably squashed).

We then carried on up the path until we came to the first fork in the road. We had the choice to take the easier Pyg Track or to begin the steep ascent up towards Crib Goch. I gave Katie one last chance to change her mind, but Crib Goch it was. After a few mins of following a steep, grassy trail, we came to an almost sheer cliff face.

We checked our instructions and they stated that we should 'follow the track up'. The problem was that we could no longer distinguish a track. Some more people had joined us at this point (Aussies or Kiwis - it has been so long I can barely tell the accents apart now) and they were equally confused. We tried making our way around at several different points, but each led to a dead end. It was at that point that we were joined by a group of British girls who unlike everybody else, had followed this route previously.

'Which way?' I asked.

'Up,' came the reply.

It was at that point that I realised that we would be literally climbing a mountain. Feeling nervous about supporting the weight of my fully laden backpack, I followed the girls as they climbed what seemed to me like an almost vertical ascent. All the way I tried my best not to look down. After about ten minutes of climbing, I began to notice that the fog had dissipated. We now had the sun shining directly upon us. It was only when I stopped on a small ledge for a break that I realised that the fog had not really dissipated. We had merely climbed above it. It turns out that the fog was actually a cloud.

We were high. Very high. The fact that I could not see exactly how far away the ground was did not help either. I tried to tell myself that we were only twenty feet up and the cloud was actually a covering of snow. This did not work for one very simple reason - I knew that I was lying. I wanted to give up (minus 25 man points), but going down looked a lot steeper and therefore a lot scarier. I had no choice but to continue upwards (regained 20 man points).

The view at the top was incredible. Words could not do it justice, so it is highly convenient that I can instead show you a photo (left). At just over 3,000ft we were only at a tenth the height of Mt Everest, but just to put that into a more useful perspective - we were as high as 3 Eiffell Towers! If it were not for the clouds shielding me from the true tower of the path ahead, I may have had to call Mountain Rescue. Rather than show my fear, I volunteered myself to lead the way for Katie across the infamous 'Knife Edge' (plus 25 man points).

Some people would walk across the top of the ridge, but some people are just insane. With a sheer drop of 3,999ft on the right, I decided to cross on the left side of the ridge. It began easily enough, but soon started to become tricky. This was mostly due to the fact that every so often, I had no option, but to look down. When we were at the halfway point and I found a flat enough platform to stand upright, Katie noticed that I was suffering from what is known as 'jelly legs'.

'Perhaps, I should lead the way,' she said.

'Okay, Pet,' I replied. 'I love you.'  (minus 25 man points).

After about fifty or so metres of traversing much steeper rock, I noticed a rather unpleasant consequence of what we were doing. I was wearing my wedding ring and it was taking a battering on the sharp, exposed rock. Not wishing to damage it any further, I quickly removed it and placed it in my pocket. It was only a moment later when I was at the most perilous part of the climb that something struck me. Don't worry, it was not a rock. It was instead a terrifying thought. Was removing my wedding ring bad luck? Ridiculous, I know, but that was not the worst of it. If you remember, my last words to Katie had been 'I love you.' In literary terms this was not so much a bad portent as inescapable fate. I was going to die on the mountain!

Ignoring my very precarious footing, I briefly let go of my hand hold in order to fumble about in my pocket to get the ring back. Once it was safely on my finger, I called out to Katie.

'I'm going to die on this mountain!'

This may seem rather alarmist, but I had my reasons for saying this and no, it was not just to scare Katie. Statistically speaking, the odds of an unqualified climber falling to their death on a mountain could be quite high, but the odds of somebody correctly predicting their own death from a freak accident has to be astronomical. (Using absurdly impossible logic to justify my actions - +30 man points). Just a short while later, we were both safely across the knife edge.

From that point on, the rest of the trail should have been easy, but for the two of us at least, it was about to get a lot more difficult than we could have imagined. By this point, we were both a little tired of rock climbing, so when we saw what appeared to be a clearly marked trail to the left of the next rock face, we followed it.

If you look at the photograph on the left, you can see that I have added two lines. The black is the route that hikers are supposed to take. It starts off rocky, but soon levels out onto a flat plateau with unparalleled views of the surrounding national park. The red line represents the route that we took. The trail we were following soon disappeared and the mountainside got very steep very quickly. Unlike on the other climbs, the terrain was now composed of loose shingle and was extremely dangerous. My initial reaction was one of panic and I foolishly ignored Katie's advice to climb upwards and began sliding downwards on my bum! (minus 30 man points)

It did not take long before I came to the conclusion that this was a stupid idea. The problem was that at this point I was committed and turning back was impossible. As was continuing the ridiculous plan of sliding down. We had no choice but to climb this non designated and highly dangerous mountainside. At times I wanted to cry and at times I wanted to vomit with the sheer effort of it, but in order to stay strong for Katie, I kept this to myself this time (plus 10 man points). It took a lot of effort and an even greater amount of concentration, but we eventually made it to safety, joining the Pyg Track just as it started its steepest ascent (plus 25 man points).

Having survived such an obvious near death experience, I did what any man would in that situation. I texted my mates to tell them all about it (+30 man points). Amazed not only to be alive, but also to have full mobile reception at the top of a mountain, I then decided to call my Mum and tell her all about it (minus 100 man points).
Once I had reassured my Mum that I would never be so foolish as to attempt something so stupid ever again, we made the final climb to the summit of Mt Snowdon. Suffice to say, it had all been worth it. I had made it to the summit of the highest mountain in England and Wales and took time to enjoy the view (plus 20 man points).

The horseshoe track carried on over and down another mountain, but after our diversion, I thought that we had more than earned our mountain climbing stripes. We took the Pyg Track back to the car park. This may seem like taking the easy way out, but it was still a steep descent and there was an easier option should we have felt so inclined. With some cold ginger beers waiting back at the car, I hurried down the track, sometimes leaving Katie trailing far behind, but always being chivalrous and waiting for her when I noticed this (plus 25 man points).

For those who have been counting, you will see that I gained 175 man points and lost 175 man points, meaning that the climb was man-neutral. However, it did not take long for me to break the promise that I made to my Mum. Just 3 days later, Katie and I went canyoning. We slid down steep white water slopes, abseiled over a waterfall and leapt 20ft off a sheer cliff face into a deep freshwater pool (plus 500 man points).

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.