Ahoy March! Surgery, The Ninth Rain, Mass Effect & Bats. Bats!

How did it get to be March? How did it get to be the middle of March, in fact? Timey wimey nonsense.

Actually, for me personally I will blame this particular space/time cock-up on the fact that I spent much of February recovering from surgery, and then the last bit of it launching a book (and having a birthday) which is a lot to fit into one month. Having surgery was interesting. I am, at heart, a coward, and I remain faintly stunned that I went through with it at all, and there were a few days afterwards, where Marty still had to help me in and out of bed, that I was convinced that I was in much more pain than was usual and it was all a bit outrageous. However, that proved to be me being overly dramatic and I must express my gratitude to Marty and my mum for looking after me, and all the lovely friends who sent me books and sweets and DVDs – what lovely people you are, I don’t deserve you.

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Me, signing like a boss, in my new favourite jumper.

Luckily, I was up and about in time for the launch of The Ninth Rain, which was handy because it was a brilliant night, with so many people in the queue at Forbidden Planet I suspected more timey-wimey shenanigans. Thank you again to everyone who came out to celebrate the publication of this epic fantasy with bats, bad-ass ladies and explosions, I had a completely amazing time and was very moved by all the support.

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So how’s it doing? Quite well, it seems, which is a lovely surprise. Everyone worries every time a book comes out, I suspect, but The Ninth Rain was quite a different beast from the Copper Cat trilogy, and a riskier undertaking in lots of ways. There have been some lovely reviews, and yesterday it popped up in a ‘best recent SF, Fantasy and Horror books’ round up in the Guardian, which you can see here. The word ‘eldritch’ is used! Hooray! If you have read it and enjoyed it, a review plonked up on goodreads or Amazon is always hugely appreciated – it does make a difference and helps get the book in potential reader’s faces. IN THEIR FACES.

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In other news, Den Patrick and I have stepped down from running Super Relaxed Fantasy Club. We have wrestled with the decision for a while now, but ultimately we are both horribly busy at the moment and we didn’t feel we could put in the time that SRFC deserved. The good news is that SRFC isn’t going anywhere: the running of the thing is being passed over as we speak, and you can expect monthly events of fantasy fun and booze to continue for the foreseeable future. We’re very proud of what we’ve built, and the little community of SRFC regulars should be very proud too. Watch out for updates on twitter, via @SRFantasyclub.

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I will be spending late March with these awesome dudes. YESSSS.

So, March then. March will see me working furiously on The Bitter Twins, which is the sequel to The Ninth Rain, whilst also furiously playing Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I am ridiculously excited about. The original Mass Effect trilogy is my favourite piece of SF ever, and I can’t talk about it for any length of time without staring moodily out of windows, heroically holding back tears. If you don’t see me on social media much, this will be why.

See you on the other side, and remember, Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space…

Holy crap it’s THE NINTH RAIN pre-order competition! UPDATED

So. The Ninth Rain, the first book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy, is out next week, on the 23rd of February. Starburst said it’s ‘fantasy adventure at it’s very best’, SFX gave it 5 stars, an ‘SFX LOVES’ badge and said it’s ‘a sublime read’, while SciFiNow said The Ninth Rain is ‘a fast-paced and vibrant fantasy romp’, and also walloped it with 5 stars. I am pretty chuffed, as you can imagine!

To celebrate, I am doing a little pre-order competition. It’s pretty easy – if you’ve pre-ordered The Ninth Rain (any edition) just tweet a picture of your pre-order confirmation/receipt at me (with private details chopped off if they’re on there) and you could win a little signed art postcard thing that I made myself. Think of it like the little dragons I draw in signed copies, only I made a bit more effort this time. There will only be one such thing in allll the world, and I’ll write hello on the back and such. I’m @sennydreadful on twitter, if you’ve managed to miss me waffling on.

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EDIT: There are now two cards to win! The winners will be picked at random on the evening of the 22nd of February. So tweet me! And if you’re in London next Thursday, please do join me for the launch at Forbidden Planet.

2016 is over… and thank fuck for that

Well. I felt that I should write an end of year post, because that’s what you do with a blog, isn’t it? But how do you talk about 2016 without a lot of very energetic swearing? I won’t rehash the horrors and disappointments of this year, or the heroes we’ve lost, because I feel like I’ve spent months being alternately angry or sad. What I will do instead is poke myself with the great stuff that happened, selfishly, for me – because with these bits of glittering salvage I will build the good ship I’m Fucking Coming For You 2017.

2016 was the year I finished the Copper Cat Trilogy

The Silver Tide was published in February, bringing to an end my journey with the Black Feather Three. Lots of lovely people turned out to launch it with me, and I had a high old time. I will miss Wydrin, Frith and Sebastian a great deal (although not really, they’re with me all the time in my head) but I was very pleased to give them the ending I felt they deserved. Ye gods and little fishes.

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I didn’t manage to eat a single one of those bloody cookies…

The Copper Cat made her debut in the US and Canada

Thanks to Angry Robot, the Black Feather Three can now be found across the pond, with The Iron Ghost to follow in the first week of January. Surreal and exciting to know that my books are popping up in Barnes & Noble, and every time I look at the fabulous, almost movie-poster style covers I am filled with absolute glee.

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The Ninth Rain is imminent…

Starting a new trilogy is hard. Much of this year was taken up with writing the first book in the Winnowing Flame series, and it has been an interesting journey (interesting in this case can be taken to mean: difficult, alarming, nerve-wracking, thrilling, confusing). The Ninth Rain was a tough book to write; partly from the sheer terror of writing something new, and partly because I spent much of the period feeling quite unwell, and had to deal with a fair amount of physical pain and anxiety. What fun! I got there in the end though, and it’s a book I’m very proud of. It’s published on the 23rd of February, and I’m terrified.

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How amazing is this cover? *actual heart eyes*

Award nom nom noms…

To my genuine enormous surprise, The Iron Ghost was nominated for Best Fantasy Novel in the British Fantasy Awards 2016. To no surprise whatsoever, I didn’t win, but like The Ninth Rain, The Iron Ghost was a very tough book to write, and the fact that people loved it enough to put it forward for an award was hugely significant to me.

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SRFC continues to go from strength to strength

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club has had an excellent year. We moved venues to the very lovely Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road (check it out! It has a bar!) and guests included award-winners such as the brilliant Zen Cho and Adrian Tchaikovsky, and effortless entertainers such as Sarah Pinborough and Joe Hill. More to the point, our little community continues to grow and I hope to see you all back there for 2017. (Big thanks to my partner in crime Den Patrick, and all our excellent guest presenters).

There’s more I could write, but as usual when I come to construct these posts I realise what a terrible memory I have. Reading wise this year I have loved discovering Temeraire for the first time, and I loved The Flame Bearer, The Fifth Season, Station Eleven and The Lie Tree. Films I adored this year: Rogue One (oh Star Wars how you have my heart these days) and the new Ghostbusters, which was warm, clever, and really fucking funny. Here’s to more brilliant books and films in 2017 – I think we will need them, more than ever.

Happy New Year, my lovelies – let’s get out there and make things! 😀

Notes on surviving Nanowrimo AND KICKING ITS BUTT

It’s Halloween! Which not only means it’s time to eat lots of novelty shaped chocolates, it also means it’s practically Nanowrimo: that special month of the year where a bunch of very enthusiastic people attempt to write 50,000 words or more in 30 days.

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This pleases Skeletor.

I am, in my own small way, a Nano veteran. When I first started taking writing seriously, I decided to try Nanowrimo as a way of teaching myself some discipline, and much to my surprise (being an inherently lazy person) it worked! In 2008 I reached my wordcount with an odd little fantasy book for younger readers called Bird and Tower. In 2009 I won with a YA book called Ink for Thieves, and in 2010 it was with an oddly named SF crime romp called Dead Zoo Shuffle. 2011 was where it got complicated – I intended to write the rest of this odd little serial I was writing, called the Copper Promise or something, but then the first section of it received a lot of attention and Nanowrimo dropped off the radar for me…

I was back in 2012 with another YA book called London-Under-Sea, with which I did reach the 50K goal but the novel itself remains unfinished, alas. By then, The Copper Promise was on the verge of being a real book, and what I found was that publishing schedules neatly elbowed Nanowrimo out of the way. I never seemed to be writing a first draft when November rolled around – I was always in the midst of edits. Consequently, 2013 was a miss for me, but with 2014 I squeaked in with 50K words of The Silver Tide. Similarly, history records that last year I registered The Ninth Rain as the novel I would be working on, but edits for The Silver Tide put a stop to that.

This year I have decided, with a heavy heart, that I will not make the attempt. I love Nanowrimo dearly, but I am in the middle of the copyedits for The Ninth Rain now, and there is no greater antithesis to the spirit of Nano than the dreaded copy edit. However, I thought it would be fun to have a think about all the things I have learnt about surviving a month of super-fast writing, and collect some of it here. If you are about to experience the strange adventure that is Nano for the first time, it might be useful. Or it might at least indicate what not to do…

No edits
It’s the most obvious and tiresome piece of advice, and if you are doing Nano you will have heard it 800 times already but: take your inner editor by the hand, give her one last hug, and then give her a sharp shove down the basement steps. Ignore her squawk of outrage and snapping limbs – for the next 30 days, you don’t need her. Soz, lady.

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Stop! Put that editing pencil DOWN!

Time is precious
Nano is brilliant because it teaches you to give yourself periods of time dedicated solely to writing. This time is precious. It must be offered up in sacrifice to bring your characters to life. But with Nano I would also suggest looking closely at all those bits in your day where you briefly have nothing to do, and snaffle those as well. Write bits of your novel on the phone when you’re on the bus. Scribble a section on your lunch break. Stuck in a waiting room? Get those words out. It sounds a little, uh, over the top, but even 20 words or so will help when you’re dragging yourself towards that 1667 words a day.

With that in mind…
I almost always write in a linear fashion these days, with scene following scene, etc. But with Nano, all rules are out the window. I highly recommend, particularly when you’re on the bus or stuck at work, scribbling little extra scenes, snatches of dialogue, conversations that pop up out of nowhere. The beauty of these little isolated fragments is a) they add to your word count and b) they can often lead to unexpected things – a secret about a character you didn’t know, a piece of worldbuilding that suddenly slots into place, and so on.

Sweets
A more responsible writer would tell you to eat healthy snacks, and if you like them, go for it, but I am not a responsible person and I like sweets. Snickers Flapjacks are bloody amazing, and there’s always the trusty Peanut Butter Chunky Kit-Kat. PLUS I highly recommend buying up all the cheap Halloween candy on November 1st.

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Shredder cannot *wait* to get his mitts on those tasty kit-kats.

The Desk of Awesome
If you can, make yourself a base of operations for November. I like my desk to be quivering under the weight of a thousand toys, but you might like a more minimal approach. I dunno. I guess some people like that. Jeez. I found that having a dedicated space to return to for writing sessions made more of an occasion of the whole process, and helped to get my mind into the right head-space.

Share it
Get other people to do it with you. Or, at least tell other people that you’re doing it. Abandoning the project halfway through November is much easier when it’s your secret challenge – if you have friends and family asking you how it’s going, that little flicker of guilt can be enough to get your bum back in the writing seat. And with Nanowrimo the little things count.

Incentivize!
Decide beforehand some landmark word targets, such as 10,000 words, 15,000 words and so on, and treat yourself when you hit them. An hour playing videogames, a special cake, a big glass of booze, or a giant Lego set. Or all of the above.

Get involved with the community
Although I was always more of a lurker than a poster, I spent quite a bit of time on the Nanowrimo forums. It’s comforting to know the struggles other writers are facing, and I was always fascinated to see what other people were writing. It goes without saying that the forums are packed with advice themselves.

Above all, have fun! The spirit of Nanowrimo is wild abandonment, so write whatever you bloody well like, and relish the freedom! FREEEEDOOOOM!!!*

*Wild spelling and outrageous use of exclamation marks are an inevitable side-effect of Nanowrimo.

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Look! Mumm-Ra believes in you!

Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 3: The First Draft

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(Here are Parts One and Two, on ideas and planning, if you want to read back)

So I bet you thought I had forgotten about this, right? Well, maybe slightly, but mostly I’ve spent the last six months or so writing the first draft of my new book, The Ninth Rain. As with all first drafts, there were times when I thought I had made a mistake, when I thought that I was writing entirely the wrong book, or that I would never finish the fucker; there were even times, let’s face it, when I thought I was a small asthmatic lemur called Nigel.

But I got there in the end. So here I am with some thoughts on writing the first draft, assisted by Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, because, why not? There is, it has to be said, not an awful lot to say. The main thing is:

JUST KEEP BLOODY WRITING

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Sokka on hearing that the advice in this post is essentially ‘just keep writing’

You’ve developed your ideas, you have your plan. It might be super detailed, it might be just a series of linked events – either way, you are ready. It’s time to take the plunge.

The difficult thing to embrace about a first draft (especially if you’ve just finished a final edit, like I had, but let’s not go there…) is the sheer, free-fall creativity of it. You have to let go. You have to follow where the story leads. There will be times when you end up going down the wrong path and you’ll have to abandon that section and start again, but that’s okay. Just keep bloody writing. You’ll get fed up with the entire thing, usually when you’ve passed some excitingly large number of words (60,000 words for me) and you’ll be convinced that there’s this other, much better book you should be spending your time on, but ignore that, and keep bloody writing.

The first draft of The Ninth Rain has several sections marked up in highlighter, with notes next to them saying things like: THIS CHARACTER IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE NOW, REWRITE or OH GOD JUST DO SOMETHING ELSE. The important thing is, highlight those fuckers up and keep bloody writing – when you do the edit, you have the delicious task of deleting these unneeded sections later. Just keep bloody writing.

ALL PROGRESS IS WORTHY

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You will be tired. You will eat too many Haribo. But it will be worth it.

Sometimes there will be days when you only dribble out a few sad little words. A couple of sentences. But they are still words and sentences you didn’t have before. Cherish their little bottoms. As you go, you will also have thoughts and ideas about the future books in your trilogy. Write them down, and then go back to this book. This book gets written first, or the other books will never exist. Don’t worry about them too much yet.

THINGS DO NOT GO ACCORDING TO PLAN

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Everything is fine. No really. Fine. It’s the quenchiest.

This is frightening, but actually it is the great joy of first drafts. About three quarters of the way through The Ninth Rain I had a huge realisation about the nature of the fictional world I was writing that changed several things about the book. I made lots of notes, knowing that in the edit I would have to rewrite several chapters at the beginning – a pain in the hole, but it would absolutely make the book better. I genuinely think that sometimes you can only have these revelations when you’re in the middle of writing the book. They only come when you are waist deep in the world, trying to figure out how to get one set of characters to a new location, or wondering why you chose to give someone such a difficult name to spell. Your brain is working silently, figuring all these things out for you, and sometimes it throws up unexpected solutions. These are brilliant, because:

THE FIRST DRAFT IS ESSENTIALLY YOU TELLING YOURSELF THE STORY

This is hugely important. The book doesn’t have to be beautiful or polished, it doesn’t even have to make sense at this point – you just need to find out what it’s about. The edit, and all the following redrafts, are about making it readable. For now, you tell the story to yourself. And you will be surprised. So:

DON’T PANIC

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How cute is Sokka? Really fucking cute.

No one else needs to see this draft. It can be as monstrous as you like. I know lots of people do show their first drafts to other people, and that’s cool, but this is my blog series and I’m telling you what I know works for me, and no one sees my first draft. Oh hell no. I’m figuring things out on the page, and that private space is vital, because it gives you complete freedom. No one needs to see my inability to spell words like ‘eighth’ and ‘sorcerer’, or the fact that at least two character’s names are consistently spelt wildly differently from page to page, and none of that matters at this stage anyway. Listen to the story, chase it down, and when you catch it, hold it close to your shriveled, blackened heart. For now, it is yours alone.

KNOW THAT YOU WILL REACH THE END

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And it will be glorious. The first draft is hard, and beautiful, and can feel impossible, but if you just keep bloody writing you will get there. I did a poll on twitter recently asking writers if they preferred the first draft or the edit, and I got a wildly different range of reactions. For me, the first draft is where the story is really born, all bloody and screaming and ready to kick ass. The edit gives it clothes and a haircut and makes it presentable to general society, but enjoy those wild days while you can.

 

If you want more thoughts on writing the first draft, I also wrote this blog, which has a greater emphasis on kit-kats.

On The Ultimate Guide to Fantasy, The Ninth Rain and reviews. Also eggs.

Oh hello! How are you?

Some quick things. The Ultimate Guide to Fantasy is out now, which features the very beautiful Jon Snow on the front and an article by me on the inside, on optimism in fantasy. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I am quite eager to get my mitts on this myself.
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Yesterday I finished the first draft of The Ninth Rain. It was a strange old journey, and I discovered much I wasn’t expecting (I like that about first drafts). There will now follow a fairly hefty second draft, where I re-jig and rewrite and polish and juggle until it becomes a thing that other people can read as well as me. Now that it’s all clearer in my head, I hope to be able to share more details with you soon, such as, what it’s actually about etc. Also, this means I can write the next blog post in my ‘How to Write a Fantasy Trilogy’ series, possibly the slowest blog series of all time.

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The Silver Tide has been out for almost exactly a month now! I have loved hearing reader’s reactions to the final book in the Copper Cat series (and dat ending), and I have been very chuffed to see some great reviews popping up here and there. Here is one from The Eloquent Page which made me a little misty eyed…

Us writers do tend to bang on about it quite a bit, but reviews really do help the book along – which in turn helps secure the future of future books. As it were. So huge thanks to the lovely people doing that. <3

Right, I hope you’re all having an excellent weekend (with the possibility of chocolate eggs). I am off to drink a cider in celebration of ending first drafts…

An End of the Year Waffle: featuring books, life & Star Wars

I like the idea of an end of the year post very much, but I am always somewhat scuppered by my terrible memory, where I’m never completely sure if what I remember happened this year, or when I was seven, or that night at Uni when I’d been at the Red Bull and vodkas. Anyway, here’s some stuff I’m almost certain happened in 2015:

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The Iron Ghost was published, and I survived releasing my second book into the wild

The sequel to The Copper Promise was a difficult book for me to write (I think I’ve waffled on before about the weird pressures of writing your first book to deadline when you know people will actually want to read it) so it was lovely to launch it with a bunch of friends and family, and generally people seem to be of the opinion that it’s a better book than the first one – even people who really loved the first one. I was worried about The Iron Ghost, but looking back on it, all the blood I sweated was worth it.

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The Silver Tide was written and edited, and I wrote the end of the Copper Cat trilogy

The last book in the trilogy was difficult for a different reason – I had enormous fun writing it, but ultimately I was saying goodbye to characters I love very much. It was the longest book I’ve written (so far) and I put everything I had into it, so suffice to say, what with all the crying and gnashing of teeth and general stress, I’m bleeding knackered. But happy. I have finished the trilogy and I am enormously proud of it. Roll on February, when we’ll be having the biggest Copper Cat party yet (come to the launch, it will be EPIC)

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Please note: Not an accurate depiction of the events of The Ninth Rain

 

I signed a new three book deal with Headline, and The Ninth Rain was born

I’m still getting over this, to be honest. I cannot tell you how much it fills me with glee to know that I get to continue writing books for a living, and that this next series has a home already. I’m writing the first book at the moment, and its too early to say too much about it I think, but I’m having a lot of fun with it – new world, new characters, new crazy stuff to engineer. It’s a challenge, this one, there’s no doubt about it, but I have witches blowing things up so I’m happy. Big love to my amazing agent Juliet Mushens for making amazing things happen.

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Angry Robot are sending The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost to the USA

ROAD TRIP! I’ve had a lot of people ask me over the last couple of years why they can’t get the Copper Cat books in the States – you might think it’s to do with Wydrin trying to smuggle in copious amounts of rum, but actually its because no one had bought the rights. Thankfully, the most excellent legion of metal overlords have taken up the meady chalice and readers across the pond will finally be able to enjoy my nonsense. There will be new covers for the books, which I am very excited about – they are very different to the UK editions, but huge bags of fun, in my opinion.

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I was nominated for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Society awards

This was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me! And a totally lovely one. I didn’t win, but I did have a high old time at the banquet with fellow nominees Den Patrick and Ed Cox. It feels exceptionally cheesy to say it, but I’m honestly touched I was nominated at all, and super chuffed that The Copper Promise made such a favourable impression.

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I changed my day job!

I’m a copywriter at a creative agency now, which as well as sounding dead swish, also means I am a professional writer in both aspects of my life. When asked what I do, I can (almost) confidently say ‘I’m sort of well I’m a writer actually technically I suppose’ without looking too awkward. It’s fun, and it’s great to be using my actual skills between 9am and 5pm.

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I read lots of excellent books!

This is where it gets tricky, because I am awful at remembering what I read when, but off the top of my head here are a bunch of books that I enjoyed this year (If you want excellent reads, look them up): Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb, The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neil, The Vagrant by Pete Newman, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

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So many amazing films

2015 gave us Age of Ultron (which I liked very much) and Mad Max: Fury Road which was fucking incredible. I’m currently obsessed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens (going to see it again soon) and feeling over the moon, tbh, that one of my favourite franchises has returned not just with a fantastic film, but with a fantastically diverse film. John Boyega is so enormously charismatic as Finn (how cool to finally get a Stormtrooper’s POV?), Rey is all I could have possibly wanted (I shan’t dally in spoiler territory, but thanks to her Star Wars has truly won my heart again) and like most of tumblr I now have a terrible crush on Poe Dameron (stormpilot trashlords unite).

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And we watched all of Thundercats. It was amazing. 

On that ridiculous fangirl note, I will stop waffling on, save to wish you all an excellent winter holiday and to hope that your 2016 will rock your socks off. I am looking forward to it.

Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 2: Planning

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(here is Part One, on ideas, if you want to track back)

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This is us, bravely preparing to plan our trilogy. Yes, we are as badass as She-Ra.

So here we are at part 2, after a lengthy break, ironically because I’ve spent the last couple of months finishing off my previous fantasy trilogy. I suspect it’s a thing that only becomes apparent when you’re in the midst of the publishing process, but writing professionally involves a lot of hopping around: there was a time there when I was promoting the second book, editing the third book, and writing the first draft of the new book. Exciting times! Anyway, the proof read of The Silver Tide is finally handed back and the story of the Copper Cat has come to a close (let’s just swiftly skip over all the crying I did) so I have a wee gap in which to talk about planning things.

This is a super brief outline of how I personally go about it. Take note, ignore or openly mock at your will: There are three stages to planning a fantasy trilogy that I can see. Expansion, whittling, and the abuse of stationery.

Expansion

So you have your idea. The seed that will become a trilogy of books is in your head now, and there’s a special aura to it, a certain feeling that this is the thing. You’re excited about the idea, and you get a slightly fluttery sensation when you think about it (not kidding). The idea may take different forms. A lot of people will have a hook, a thing that is almost handily like an elevator pitch – ‘sword and sorcery Escape from New York’ (I swear I am writing this one day) or ‘a girl fails her exams and flees into a radioactive desert full of mutants’ (already written that one). My ideas more often take the form of characters – ‘lovable female rogue with a tendency towards recklessness attempts to avoid responsibility for the end of the world’ or ‘teenage girl with latent magical powers and OCD discovers that her council flat is haunted by the ghost of a serial killer’. My first planning stage is writing down as many details as I can about that idea. All possible things that could come from it, even if I won’t use them or they don’t work, are written down into a fat notebook of some kind. I ask myself lots of questions.

What does this character look like? Where are they from?

How old are they? Do they have family? What is their relationship with them?

What do they care about? And then: What do they want?

What terrible thing has just happened to them? How do they react to this terrible thing?

From there, the story starts to spool outwards, and I follow the trail of things I find exciting. Which details pique my interest? What do I want to know more about? One or two notebooks will be filled up in this way, a great jumble of Lego bricks, and somewhere in there are all the pieces required for the awesome space-castle-dragon I’m thinking of building.

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You will need approximately 800 of these for this stage.

Whittling

This next bit is a little odd and will possibly sound a tad obsessive, but I’ve spoken to at least one other writer who also does it so I’m sure it’s fine. I have my fat notebooks full up with a zillion thoughts and ideas. I get a new notebook, and in that I write down everything I can remember from the first notebooks, without looking at them, if I can help it. All the really important stuff, all the significant stuff that has lodged in my subconscious, will come through, and what you end up with is a distilled version of the idea explosion. From there, I will work on them again, ask myself more questions, and these are the questions that start to become very important if this is going to cover more than one book.

There will be multiple setbacks. What are they?

My characters are changed by events. How are they changed?

What revelations will they have?

What sort of bad-ass cool things do I want to see in these books?

Now, that last question sounds somewhat daft coming on the back of everything else, but if I may drop an entirely wanky phrase in the middle of this: I am quite a visual person. My favourite ideas often come in the form of what I think of as ‘shots’: how cool would this look in the movie version? Early on with The Copper Promise I knew I wanted to have a scene where the heroes are riding griffins, whilst flying around an enormous dragon – the griffins are tiny in comparison, like fat bees buzzing around, um, a giant scary lizard. That image hung in my head while I was writing the book, along with many others (Wydrin and Frith in an opulent gaming house, a young girl with bare feet covered in blood) – ideas that knew it was their time to happen.

So I have a new notebook with the distilled ideas. I go and buy a new notebook, and I do it all again (I did say it was a little odd) – whittling the ideas down further. Everything becomes a little sharper, a little clearer. The characters become more defined, and crucially, the structure of the books start to emerge, like the wreck of a ship revealed as the tide goes out (but only, you know, more optimistic).

You might at this point say: Jennifer this is bollocks. You write everything down and eventually it becomes clear? Are you taking the piss? The difficulty is of course that so much of writing comes from instinct, floating up from the deep dark channels of your mind. Other writers will no doubt have an infinitely more systematic approach, but all I can tell you is: follow the things that give you that fluttery, excited feeling. Your trilogy is at the ends of those.

Next stage: notecards. Rainbow ones, if possible, because I have a stationery problem and will use any excuse to get pretty stationery. I have two sets of notecards: one set for characters, and one set for story. I write down all the vital things about each character (they each get their own notecard) and then everything I know about the story on a set of numbered notecards – these will be split themselves into three sets, one for each book. Inevitably, book one will need more notecards than books two and three, because I know more about how it all starts. This lot will then get pinned up onto my corkboard, usually with a variety of rainbow pins and pins that look like tiny turtles. Yes.

corkboardmess

A portion of my corkboard at about halfway through the process. I’ve smudged the notes so they are unreadable- my handwriting isn’t quite that bad, honest.

Sidenotes: Worldbuilding and The Rules

By this stage I will have lots of notes on worldbuilding. One of the most important questions I ask myself early on is: where is this character from? The place that they grew up, the experiences and relationships they had there, will inform the character in hugely significant ways. Wydrin Threefellows grew up mostly on Crosshaven; an archipelago of islands that’s a little like Mos Eisley, full of dodgy dealings and a wide variety of people. It’s not difficult to see how such an environment can produce a smart-arse mercenary with a morally dubious outlook. Similarly, Sebastian’s childhood in the largely religious and somewhat austere Ynnsmouth has led to a quiet, thoughtful man who is trapped by the need to do the ‘right’ thing. World-building notes at this stage are written down carefully on approximately a billion post-its, and carefully pinned around the notecards on the board. Over the course of planning and then writing the book, these post-its will normally end up three or four post-its deep – but they’re not really there for reference: they’re there so that the idea is fixed in my head.

tools

A selection of serious and important stationery currently being used to make The Ninth Rain happen

Now, the extra special pain in the arse about writing a fantasy book is the magic, of course. How you approach this will ultimately depend on the fantasy book you’re writing. Some fantasy books have barely any magic in them at all, while others will have a vast and complicated magic system. Or some will have simple magic, with strict rules, that is at the heart of how their entire world works. It’s not always possible, but it is a good idea, I think, to know what you’re going for before you start. Whatever you know about your magic, whatever the rules and restrictions might be – chuck them on to their own special notecard. Cover them in glitter, maybe. And get ready to change it as you go, because if there’s one thing that magic tends to be, its unpredictable.

Aaand when I’ve done all that, I take some fresh notecards and I write the story out again, and then I pin those over the top of the originals. It sounds ridiculous, but you’re starting to know what the story is now, deep in your heart. That golden thread you will follow from the start to the end is there, and you’ve just caught the beginning of it. Then you have to start writing the bloody things.

The next post will be all about the thrilling rollercoaster of horror that is The First Draft. Any questions or comments, do shout me in the comments!

Writing a fantasy trilogy Part 1: Ideas

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

Disclaimer the second: This is a giant wall of text so I have chosen to break it up with pictures of old cartoons. Look I’m sorry but I’m not sorry.

thunderlaughing

The Thundercats just had the BEST idea – Let’s all laugh at Snarf!

 

Ideas

Let’s go back to the very beginning (a very good place to start*). Where do you get the idea for your fantasy trilogy? Well, the good thing about starting with this is it is a completely impossible question. I cannot answer it. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is traditionally the question writers hate the most, and the truth is we do like to sound like we know everything, and it’s annoying when we don’t. I wish I could tell you where The Copper Promise really came from, or where exactly it started, but if there was a eureka moment it has been lost in the mists of time. The truth is, I think, that books start out as a gradual thickening of ideas. Lots of little ideas will start to bunch together, and eventually they will grow little legs, and suddenly you have a thing.

I knew that I wanted to write modern sword and sorcery, and there was this loveable rogue I wanted to write, who was a woman and *pop* Oh there’s Wydrin, and perhaps the characters are a sort of dysfunctional group who wind each other up, and I really like dragons…

she-ra

Actual picture of me, having an idea

 

I do have a theory about this thickening of ideas though. I think that writers tend to fall into two groups: writers whose ideas centre around characters, and writers whose ideas centre around stories. I am a very character-driven writer, and the characters of the Copper Cat trilogy were all in my head long before I knew what the story was. Other writers that I know well often talk about having an idea for a story first, and how sometimes bits of other stories latch on to that and become a book. I think (and this is a slightly wilder theory) that often story-centric writers (that is to say, writers who begin with the story idea) gravitate towards science-fiction, that genre of ‘what if?’. This is probably why the one SF novel I wrote revolved around a shoal of fish living in an exo-suit and a gangster spider.**

That isn’t to say, obviously, that character-driven writers have no story, or that story-driven writers can’t do characters. We’re all making the same journey, we just get there in different ways.

For me the question is rarely ‘What is the story?’ but ‘Whose story am I telling?’

Now, should writing a trilogy change how you approach having ideas? Does it differ, at this very early stage, from writing a standalone book? I think not. Is the idea big enough for a series? Does it naturally split into three, or four, or ten books? For me specifically, because I start with the characters (and I always have more than one main character) I am rarely worried that I won’t have enough story to go round, because I have their whole lives to play with. If anything, I’m not sure where to stop… (I’ll come back to this in the next blog, on planning)

 

So in terms of helpfulness, how do we assist the thickening of ideas? Here are some things I have been known to do:

Dedicated daydreaming time. Carving out a slice of time when you don’t have anything else to do for a bit. Easier said than done, of course. And I think the key to this is not to sit glaring angrily at your desk trying to boil your own eyeballs in your head with ‘THINK OF A BLOODY IDEA DAMNIT’ but to summon the sort of imaginative play-think-dream-time you would have had as a kid. Alright, that sounds like bollocks, I know. The truth is, 99% of your best ideas will come when you’re on the bus, or having a shower, doing the washing up or falling asleep, which is why:

Have a notebook with you. I HEAR YOUR COLLECTIVE GROANS: ‘Jeez Williams, everyone already knows this, you charlatan.’ Yes okay, but really, my notebook is never more than a few feet from me unless I’m in the shower. Ideas get thicker faster if you’ve written them down somewhere.

heman

True fact: Battlecat looks after He-Man’s notebook for him.

 

Read lots of everything you like. People have a lot of differing opinions on this, but I’m going to go with a straight up: read what you bloody well like. I know some people suggest you should read bad books so you can learn what not to do (ye gods no, life is too short) or read those stonkingly enormous bestsellers so you can steal their secrets. Some people I know won’t read books that are in any way similar to the book they are writing, just in case something seeps through, and I know people who read exclusively in their genre to absorb as much as possible. I try to read lots and lots of what I love, and I try to figure out why I love it so much.

(I do sometimes avoid reading books written in the first person while I’m writing, as I write third person POV and I like to keep my brain in the right headspace – however, this is clearly nonsense as I just read Fool’s Quest and The Empty Throne, both amazingly good first person books and I REGRET NOTHING)

Look out for odd things, and collect them to your bosom. Often for me, ideas tend to spawn from a single image or a scrap of random information. I read a description of an enormous ancient city in a history book not so long ago. Threatened by the possibility of invasion it had been abandoned, and this sprawling metropolis – one of the greatest cities in the world at the time – was claimed instead by weeds and prowling wolves. Reading that, I knew I wanted to write about such a place, and that was one of the seeds that eventually grew to be The Ninth Rain.

Ideas are attracted to each other. Get enough of them in the same place, and stories start to happen. You’ll know when it happens, because you won’t be able to scribble in your notebook fast enough, and suddenly everything makes a beautiful kind of sense as all the pieces plop delicately into place. It is, in my opinion, one of the finest parts of the writing process – the little hitch and flutter in your chest that means your book is coming alive.

When you have your idea – or your membranous collective of ideas – then you can start planning, which will be part 2 of this blog series. And if you have any questions about ideas, or why I have an unhealthy obsession with Thundercats, do stick them in the comments.

 

*thank you, Sound of Music.

** I probably shouldn’t write SF.

snarf

Look, this just makes me happy, okay?

New characters and new journeys: upcoming posts

Come with me now on a journey through time and space, and Chunky Peanut Butter Kit-Kats…

catss

space be cray

Over the next year (and indeed, years) I intend to do a series of blog posts charting the creation of a fantasy trilogy – from the ideas to the planning, to the first draft, to the inevitable scrapping of that first bit, to the 60K point where I traditionally pause to panic, to the revision and the eventual editing. I won’t be going into super specific details about the trilogy for obvious reasons, but I hope that seeing the birth* of The Ninth Rain, to some extent, might be useful or at least interesting in some way.

Anyway, this isn’t one of those posts, more a warning of what might be popping up over the next few months, but it occurs to me as I plunge myself into this new world, that the weird thing is the characters. Or specifically, the lack of them.

Now, I do have lots of characters. Four main ones already, and they are already a treasure and a joy and a pain in my bum. But it’s like the beginning of The Copper Promise. When I started the first Copper Cat book, I had Wydrin, Lord Frith, and Sebastian, but I didn’t yet have Ephemeral, Ip, Crowleo, Xinian, Selsye, Tamlyn and Nuava Nox, Toast, Gwiddion, O’rin, Dreyda, Bezcavar, Enri and Roki, Mendrick, or any of the other characters that were to make themselves known to me over the years. They all emerged from the story, stomping up with big leather boots, or on sinister bare feet, unknown to me until they appeared, sliding in at the edges or appearing in a fanfare of violence; they grew naturally from the story, causing trouble for my beloved Black Feather Three, or just occasionally, offering help. And that’s what I look forward to the most I think – all the new characters I’ve yet to meet. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

 

*seeing the birth – I know this sounds gross. I am sorry.