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Words done this month: 6000, ish.

Current total word count: About 18,500.

Current mood: Excited!

April low point: The last few days of the month, when I felt really stuck on where the story was going.

April high point: 21st and the following few days. I pledged to write 1000 words a day. I didn’t manage that, but got a lot written, and was really enjoying it.

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So, Christ on a bike, it’s May 2010 already. This year is absolutely belting along, like a runaway train it sometimes seems. Like Rob, I’m going to keep this brief.

March was a pretty crappy month, for many reasons, let alone the utter lack of writing that I managed to get done. If you read mylast update you’ll know how down I was feeling, after struggling through March. April has been much better. After a bit of a slow start, March still being fresh in my mind, the writing began to pick up towards the middle of the month. Now I’m really in territory beyond that which I normally write. The story is nearly at 20k words now, and besides my NaNo novel, which was written a long time ago, my stories are only ever a couple of thousand words long. So, getting my teeth into something longer is proving really exciting, if very challenging at the same time.

About two thirds of the way through the month the writing was really going strong. I was writing both on the computer and longhand, at different times of the day, long writing sessions and smaller snippets of writing tucked into lunchbreaks and at the end of the day before dropping off to sleep. I was really enjoying it, and was also invigorated by some rather exciting news. Some of you will know what that is, those of you who don’t will find out tomorrow…

Unfortunately, the writing ground to a halt at the very end of the month. I became unsure about the plot of my novel, and found myself writing without really caring what was happening. The ‘jumping’ that happens in the novel is key, and at the moment it involves jumping to another place, another world. Yet I was suddenly unsure as to what this world should be, and my questions about whether I should change it ranged from subtle tweaks to complete overhauls. I have yet to write anything in May, with having a busy weekend away, but I think I have now decided where to take the plot of my novel, and settled on what the jumping in the story actually entails. Hopefully this will mean that when I come to write later today, I will be more comfortable with the story, and it will begin working again.

I am feeling particularly invigorated actually, after talking with my good friend Ben on Saturday. I have asked him to create a cover image for StairJumpers, and he agreed! We had a really in-depth discussion/brainstorming as to what the cover might look like, and he is excited to work out some ideas. Visualising a cover to StairJumpers has really got me excited about the story again!

Let’s see what May shall bring!

We begin in the rain.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

Ohhh…that’s good isn’t it? Not least because it’s an ad-lib. Film buffs and quote fans will know it’s from ‘Blade Runner’ and, as well as it being just bloody good, it illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about in this post. The Name Drop.

The Name Drop in fiction is a fine art and, done right, will expand the imaginative borders of your story without you really trying. Be warned though – it’s a thin line between igniting your reader’s imagination and putting together a boring list of names. ‘Blade Runner’ does it right, by obeying the rule of mystery. What are C-beams? Where is the Tannhauser Gate? I have no idea, but it’s more fun imagining in my head than being shown. Because the power of a name can be so potent and so inspiring that it will put images and stories in the mind of your reader more intense than you could ever tell. It will allow them to take that name and conjure up their own notions of it.

Here’s a couple more example to illustrate the point, and they’re all from sci-fi, but that’s because sci-fi (and fantasy) does this so very well. You don’t find this sort of thing in Pride & Prejudice. Plus I’m a big geek. Another occasion when the Name Drop is done well is with Khan’s speech from Star Trek 2 (incidentally, fact fans, this speech is sort of a 23rd century update of Moby Dick)

“He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

The Antares Maelstrom… What does that bring to mind? A tower of boiling nebula gases stretching for Lightyears across the dark and cold? A whirlpool of unstable gravity, flexing and distorting Space and swallowing up stray planets? Something else entirely? That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to know what it is. It’s not going to affect the plot. But it sounds bloody exciting. And it gives some extra depth to proceedings.

‘Doctor Who’ does it to, and it’s one of my favourites when it comes to sci-fi name-dropping. Planets and places mentioned but never seen include Shalakatom, Woman Wept, Poosh, The Lightning Skies of Cottapalooza’s World, The Celestial Belt of the Winter Queen, The Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magella-Geshtat, Pyrovillia, Klom, Villenguard, and the inimitable Rexacoricofallipatorius. Aren’t those places you want to go to? Don’t they make your mind wander to the farthest corners of possibility and linger there, revelling in exotic ‘maybes’? The mention of all those things stretches the scope of the universe the story is set in and, more importantly, fleshes it out. It gives it depth in the reader’s head. Be careful not to overdo it though. A few choice names work and pique interest; a great list of them will bore your reader.

And be sure to make any names interesting. They have to have some quality about them that provokes further thought. The Antares Maelstrom sounds dangerous and exciting. The Antares Cloud does not. I can’t tell you what works and what doesn’t – it’s trial and error. You just have to come up with something, say it out loud, and see if you get that thrill of possibility. Don’t inhibit yourself. Put words together you might not think would work. Flick through a dictionary or a book and just pick words that sound fun or evoke a certain thought/feeling, and see if they gel to make something. The crazier the better. Use foreign words too if you feel like it. You might just come up with the next panserbjorn.

It’s a device I’m using here and there in ‘The Invention of Steam’, mostly to fill in the nine year gap between the end of the Victorian Empire and the rise of the Empire of Steam. Events such as the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, The Sterilisation of Paris, and illusions such as ‘The Charybdis Cord’ and ‘The Crimson Five Million’ all add to the mystery and thrill of the world without me blabbering on about it for pages and pages, slowly draining the mystery from them by explaining them.

So the next time you’re writing your sci-fi or fantasy, or maybe writing in a real world setting but need a good name for a book or game, give the Name Drop a try. Trust your reader to fill in the world for you. Let their imagination do the work. They’ll feel all the more rewarded for it. In just a few words you can give them the building blocks to imagine places more wonderful than your words can describe. Above all, have fun with it. If you do, your readers should certainly have fun with the results.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see those attack ships…

Like Rob said to me yesterday, this Duel feels a lot more real now that we are sharing our writing with you all! Hope you all enjoyed Rob’s excerpt yesterday – I certainly did, it was just as good as I expected it would be! – and hope it whetted your appetites to keep following and to find out more about The Invention of Steam.

Here is my first offering. Sam has followed his brother, in the middle of the night, to a graveyard. That’s all you really need to know.

I look through, and shiver when I see the four figures gathered amongst the gravestones like ghosts. They are illuminated by a flickering glow that comes from a flame held up by one of them. The flame is a thick piece of wood, a primitive torch. I’ve only ever seen people on television use them, like explorers in films searching deep, dark, scary caverns and ancient temples. I don’t feel like an explorer any more. The figure moves the flame up, illuminating his face more now, and I can see that it is Ollie. He looks slightly mad, covered in moonlight and firelight. Maybe he is the real explorer. And I’m just following in his footsteps.

He is facing across the graveyard towards me, but I don’t think that he can see me. I am deep  in the bushes, and slightly higher than where he and his friends are gathered. The low squat shape of the dog is restrained now, lying down in the snow. The figure holding its lead sits on a headstone, tiny legs dangling just above the dog’s head. The figure looks like a girl.

I look around the others. The one opposite Ollie is a round silhouette, his flat back staring at me. It must be a boy, besides his large shape his shoulders are broad. It is hard to tell from behind, but I think he has got his arms crossed. There is a skinnier boy, definitely a boy, between the big round shape and Ollie, and opposite the girl with the dog. He is the only one that looks cold, hopping back and forward. He takes his gloves off for a moment to blow into his hands, and the gloves dangle from his wrists, tied on strings through this coat. I try not to laugh. Even I don’t have gloves on strings.

Ollie is talking to the group. It doesn’t even look like him. He’s not an explorer, I realise. He is a General. The leader of this gang. But no ordinary gang. An otherwordly, alien gang. And I am Sam the Astronaut, hiding from an alien colony, and its General has shapeshifted into my brother to lure me out, using my weak human mind against me.

None of this feels real.

I realise I have absolutely no idea what time it is. I didn’t even look when I left the house, and that seems like hours and hours ago. It is probably not been that long since I was woken up by the snowballs at the window. I have certainly never been awake at this time of the night before. Let alone outside of the house. I am awake in a new world, watching someone who looks like my brother standing in a graveyard, holding fire and talking to ghosts.

I concentrate on my breathing. Long, slow, silent breaths. I close my eyes, and listen to my heartbeat. That is definitely real, still thumping in my chest. My breathing is real. I touch my arm. Even through thick gloves and a thick coat, my arm is real. I am afraid to open my eyes and look back down into the graveyard. Reality might disappear again.

One last look, just to make sure what I’m looking at is really there, and then I will go.

Something sharp presses into the back of my neck. Somebody laughs behind me.

“Well, well, well….”

There you go… hope you liked it! Please let me know in the comments.

I find plot hard to come by.

Luckily, in the beginning stages of writing a novel, plot it not essential. I do know that a lot of novelists, like my opponent for instance, like to plot  and plan their stories in advance – so that before they start writing they know (in the main) how and when things will happen in their stories, and how one thing will lead onto another and so on.

This, I really cannot do.

I am quite lucky in that I have never struggled to find ideas and inspiration for stories. The central idea for StairJumpers came to me very easily, without me even thinking about writing a story. So the initial premise was set very early on, and the main characters sketched out, but other than that I did not know where the story (or the plot) was going to go.

I still don’t. I have no idea how my story will end, and no idea how it is going to get there (wherever “there” is…)

Currently, Sam (my main character) is standing in a snow-covered graveyard with his older brother Ollie, and Ollie’s friends, in the early hours of the morning. Around them, I can feel ghosts watching them.

Note: I can feel ghosts watching them. I haven’t written about the ghosts. And I’m not even sure I’m going to. Y’see… if I write about the ghosts, my plot is going to go one way. But then, where will it go from there? I don’t know! I’m not even sure if I want it to go that way.

Besides the ghosts, I have several other plot ideas that are trying to form themselves into some cohesive form in my head. At the minute they are lurking just out of view and just out of mind, like the ghosts themselves, waiting to see whether I will turn and look at them, and make them real. None of the ideas that I have, for where to take my story next, are very fully realised. So, I am scared that if I start down one of these paths, and take my story in that direction, that I will write my way into a dead end – that I will write my way into a story I don’t like or to a place that I can’t write my way out of.

This all comes from not planning, of course. But, like I wrote earlier, I find planning a story (beyond initial brainstorms and ideas) to be nigh on impossible.

So, what can I do about this? Simple really: I just have to keep writing. If I let the fear of the unknown get the better of me, I’ll carry on stressing over which direction to take my novel, instead of writing the damn thing, and I’ll never get anywhere. Instead, if I just sit on my arse and WRITE  (which is by far the best single piece of advice I’ve heard to any aspiring author) then my story will take on its own shape. If I trust in my characters, and in my own skill as a writer, plot will (or should) begin to happen naturally. I know the kind of things that I want to include in my story, and the kind of story I want it to be.

I can feel the ghosts, and the plot, closing in. I just have to look at them, not be afraid, and figure out which of them are real.

See what I mean?

For instance, in a worst-case-scenario, the story might actually make more sense backwards than it does forwards. But then, by the time you reach the start of this article, you’ll already know that.

So time-travel is out. You won’t find any members of the Adherence of the Quantum Evocation coming from the 16th Steam Century back to Victorian London to make sure that Queen Victoria lives to 1901. It’s a bit of a shame, but it does save me an extra 25,000 words, and as we’re reaching the end of the Duel’s first month I’m accutely aware of time passing all too quickly, so I suppose it’s not all bad. Time-travel can often be seen as, or used as, nothing more than a flimsy gimmick. Plus, I don’t have to deal with any of the tricksy time issues that can occur. And they really are tricksy. They can break your story if they get out of hand.

I hadn’t expected introducing time-travel would remove all the drama. I think it’s because a control over time is the ultimate power. Nothing is impossible, everything is possible, and as such all tension is removed. All drama goes out the window. If character X dies then what’s the problem with skipping back a few minutes and preventing their death? Or why not travel to the future to amass an army of robots to slay your foe in the present? Things can get ridiculous pretty quickly, and if you try and introduce rules to combat that ridiculousness then you can end up running head first into the aforementioned ‘confusing the reader’ territory. No, time-travel is like booze. A little bit is good, maybe exciting, but too much and soon everything just gets fuzzy and gives you a headache.

It’s a problem I just encountered. In ‘The Invention of Steam’ Time gets changed, but there’s no time-travel involved. It’s an organic change and it happens over a period of years, just like it does in the real world. But then I got a bit clever and came up with some grand time-travel scheme that saw future Steampunk Britain rebel and try to prevent its creation in the first place back in Victorian Britain (Incidentally, by doing that I’d also be filling the ‘punk’ brief of ‘steampunk’, because as I’ll post about at a later date, people do seem to think adding cogs and brass makes a steampunk story, and forget that it actually needs to have an act of rebellion – an act of ‘punk’). It was a nice idea, a bold idea, and it fitted in perfectly with everything I’d done so far or planned to do, but the minute I put the first ideas of it in the story everything I’d written just felt, well…ridiculous. Worse still, everything I wrote after just didn’t feel right. The moment I introduced time-travel the world that I’d spent 7 chapters diligently creating just shattered. The Noir Victorian setting, the characters in it, all just felt flimsy. I’m still trying to work out why. It’s like an experiment went wrong and I’m trying to figure out which chemical was responsible for it. I think it’s because in writing the first chapters I’d set up the rules: a period novel that’s true to the details of the period. I hadn’t created alternate Victorian Britain – I was writing in the real one. So when I suddenly introduced a very sci-fi trope completely out of the blue it was like putting a talking whale in a Deerstalker there. It just blew all the drama apart. I had broken the time-page continuum. The minute I removed the offending sci-fi-ism the story flexed back into something I thought good.

The main problem is that, to put it bluntly, time-travel is very confusing. Not even the world’s smartest quantum physicists fully understand it. So already, as a writer, you’re starting out from a point of ignorance that you’re going to have to fill with your own ‘Laws of Time’. And in trying to explain it and how it weaves in with your story there’s always a danger you can lose the reader by super-saturating your text with sci-fi jargon (A Temporal Energy Deficit Factor? What the-?!). But even if you set up your own rules and understand them and your reader understands them you still run the danger of ending up with a story becoming overly-complicated (eg: ‘Wait, how many versions of ‘X’ are there running around?) too full of head-scratching loose ends (eg: ‘So, when Time was put right what happened to Mr. Y?’), or riddled with plot-hole paradoxes (eg: ‘How can ‘Z’ be there and there if they were there?’). Unless you do it right you’re likely to confuse your reader. But time-travel doesn’t just hurt your head, it can hurt your book.

When it is done right, it’s spectacular (like ‘The Time-Traveller’s Wife, The Time Machine, and any of the Thursday Next books but especially ‘Something Rotten’), and I am a HUGE fan of the time-travel genre when it’s done right. But as much as I love it, as a writer I also fear it. Because if you use time-travel in your story you suddenly posses an immense power to do anything, change anything, and bend all the rules to fit your whim, and if you don’t set yourself boundaries and rules on how to use it you can ruin your story in oh so many ways.

Time travel…it’s very hard to get right.

***WARNING: This article has been subjected to a ‘Jankis’-class Paragraph Continuity Paradox. Ensure your browser is updated with the latest temporal-feedback firewalls before reading***

Names! Never underestimate their importance in a story. They can tell you a lot about a character, the book, and even the author. Sometimes they can even be a theme in their own right. They are in The Invention of Steam. There are characters looking for names, someone trying to clear theirs, another trying to reclaim it, someone using a name to hide themselves, and even a shadowy organisation which goes by many and yet never settles on one for the purposes of secrecy. There’s even a name for the age following the fall of the Victorian Era.

I like to think names are my strongest point when it comes to writing (well, that and an amazingly acute ability to alliterate awesome arrangements of words) and I have pages and pages and pages and pages of notepaper at home filled with names that I’ve come up with over the years. Names come to me easily. Everything else I have to work at. A lot of people in The Invention of Steam have rather idiosyncratic, but not unbelievable, names; there’s Mr. Washington Amberghast, Mr. Lionel Shivers, Hartley Salt, Mrs. Gullsdotter, Dr. William Fesker-Mandible, Ms. Gertrude Spool, Inspector Oswald Forge, Mr. Basil Gunwoodge, and of course, the ever-popular Josiah Nutbudget. Actually most of them are supporting characters, but I like to think that even people with just one line deserve a memorable name.

But all this is nothing compared to the genius of Dickens when it came to naming characters Not only did he create memorable figures, he gave them even more memorable and flamboyant names: Lady Dedlock, Wackford Squeers, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Abel Magwitch, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and (I kid you not) Mr. M’choakumchild. Such a talent was he at names that one actually became an noun and a verb: Scrooge. There’s such a glorious sense of wordy fun to them. To look at a list of surnames from Dickens’ novels is like watching the alphabet dance: Snagsby, Turveydrop, Jellyby, Smallweed, Pickwick, Mantalini, Knag, Lillyvick, Sliderskew, Creakle, Pumblechook, Wopsle, Jaggers, Chuzzlewit, Chuffey, Pecksniff… I could go on and on but you get the point. Glorious. And, not only were the names entertaining, but they hinted at the character’s personality, a secret, or even their job. Mr. Krook in Bleak House is essentially just that; a crook. Wackford Squeers mercilessly beats his pupils. Mr. M’choakumchild is a cruel master of the school in Hard Times. To look at each surname instantly gives you an idea of who you’re dealing with.

That’s what I’m trying to do: give my names some meaning – not just make them interesting to look at but make them little clues about the character. Will it work? Well I guess I’ll have to wait ’til someone reads it. I’m basing an entire character’s big secret on their name so I’m hoping it’ll be partly successful.

There is one problem though: I still don’t have a name for my arch-villain. Everyone else, right down to the tea lady, has a title but not him. And that’s fine for the first non-Steampunk half of the book, where we don’t see him and he’s only referenced as an ’employer’, but come the second act when brass Hell is let loose on the world and people see their future marching, rolling and ticking through the streets, well that’s a different matter. The Steampunk Age will have it’s leader, and he needs a name. But what? Everything I’ve come up with sounds too corny or too weak.

For inspiration I’ve been looking at the names of the great villains, the arch-nemeses: Blofeld, Moriarty, The Master, Lex Luthor, Hitler, Darth Vader, The Joker, Satan (if your hero is Jesus), Doctor Evil, Cam Winston, Lord Voldemort, and yet none of them have helped. However I have learned that in fiction you can divide villain’s names into 4 distinct groups, which I have titled ‘Smedley’s Categories of Evil Nomenclature’:

1st Category: ‘The Real Names’: Villains operating under their own name, often using only a surname, such as Blofeld, Moriarty, Sinestro, Satan

2nd Category: ‘The The’: Villains who have come up with the defining feature of their evil and put a ‘The’ in front of it, such as The Joker, The Green Goblin, The Devil, The Riddler.

3rd Category: ‘The Titled Villain’:Villains who are Counts, Lords, Dukes and other members of the aristocracy, such as Lord Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Darth Vader, Lady Gaga. This category also covers Doctorates and PhDs of whatever subject, and even just the title ‘Mister’, so Professor Moriarty, Doctors Evil, Octopus and Horrible, Mister Freeze.

4th Category: ‘Evil Expositors’: Villains named after what they do, or how they do it, such as Jack the Ripper, Spring-Heeled Jack, The Strangler

Simples! Go on, try it out for yourself. Think of a villain, any villain across history or one that you have created yourself, and I guarantee they will fit the model. It’ll also be of use to you when coming up with your own villains for your own stories/screenplays/secret villainous identities. I’m thinking of using a 1st Category name for my baddie. Anything else would sound too corny. An ordinary name seems to fit the rest of my story, something that wouldn’t suggest the presence of a malicious mind. I’m honestly not too sure. If you can think of one that might help me let me know! In the meantime I’ll just have to write ‘John Smith’ in place of whatever evil name I do come up with. Mr. Dickens, I could do with your help right now…

This is it people: it’s the 1st of January 2010, and amid the snow and ice and bitter air, the year-long writing duel has officially commenced!

You know the deal by now: as you read this Chris and Rob are putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboards as they each attempt to write their novels before 2011 comes a-knockin’. Coming soon will be the first individual posts from the combatants, as they give a bit of explanation and background to the stories they’re creating. And the Scrapbook page will soon begin to see its first scraps of inspiration.

It promises to be an exciting event, so remember to sign up to the blog and Twitter feed. Then just sit back and watch the words roll in…

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Chris and Rob

Twitter

  • Rob: NEW POST! 'The Separated Man' fifth & sixth month update! Name changes, apologies and teasers. http://bit.ly/9ALoCg 7 years ago
  • Rob: everything is starting to coalesce. Unfortunately it's coalescing a couple of months behind schedule. 7 years ago
  • Rob: I just permanently deleted a 9,000 word chunk of text. Yep, 9,000. I'm a bad writer, but I make up for it in brutal editing. Ha! 7 years ago
  • Rob: May has so far been the best writing month since January. Everythings starting to wind together. 7 years ago
  • Rob: Thinking of the title change for my story. 'Rebel Steam' is good but sounds like a steampunk Steven Seagal movie. I'd watch that. 7 years ago