My wife’s cousin owns an animation studio. He’s a top bloke. Those are really the only two things you need to know about him for the moment, because for now he’s going to serve as my everyman in this situation.
Anyhoo, his studio. Does a lot of good work, making short animated info films for local government, businesses and the like, and a while ago he gave me a call.
“Michael” (says he) “You’re a writer and stuff.”
“I am” (says I).
“I have this idea for an animated short.” (says he) “I’d like you take a look at the script.”
This is a roundabout way to say I reviewed a script written by someone who by his own admission didn’t know how to tell a story. As i went in and began correcting things and making suggestions, it occurred to me that we writers who have yet to Make it Big(tm) are a little too hard on ourselves. We look at what we do and think “Well, that’s too obvious” and agonise for too long on how to make it less so because we think we’re telegraphing our ineptitude, when what we’re doing is laying down skills that are second nature to us as storytellers. They’re only basic to us.
Is this extra work we force on ourselves worth it? Maybe. Depends on the story. But my point is we’re in the habit of paralysing ourselves unnecessarily.
Stop it (I’m talking to you), and just write. You got this.
Seriously, it has. Don’t fear, I’ve been here all along, but my attention has been elsewhere. Jobs, families and bills wait for no one, and my limited writing time has been elsewhere. But luckily, we all have more free time now, right?
Anyone in the middle of this lockdown working from home with children will tell you exactly how much they miss school and child care. But despite that, after getting my last manuscript to the publisher – hoorah – I’ve made progress on plotting the next. It’s….. slow going, to say the least, and ti does not help that everyone keeps posting that fact about Shakespeare writing whole plays while he was in lockdown, and the Insta set showing off their newly found skills in sourdough baking and Inuit nose poetry.
You are you. Get done what you can. These are trying times for all of us, and any progress you can make over whatever timeline is still a step forward. Good for you, give yourself a pat on the back, and I hope you live in a country where alcohol stores are classed as an essential service.
Yes. It has been a while. No, there’s no hiding it – it’s been a &^%ing long time. Life, as they say, has gotten away from me. Work and family and all that brings. It’s not a struggle unique to me, as nothing is in life, but that does not make it any less real.
And, if I’m being honest, the enforced ‘holiday’ from writing has hit me hard. Award submission opening have come and gone and for the first time in years I’ve had nothing to send in. My daily word count has dropped to near zero, and confidence I had in msyelf that I’ve steadily built up over years has worn to nearly nothing until it feels like the point at where i once was is now a mounting in front of me.
But, mountains are meant to be climbed, right?
I’m not a gritty, tough guy who fights because they have something to prove, but I am contrarian as *(&^ and I will get back up there. So, this is my pledge to you, imaginary reader, I will get my manuscript (from herein renamed ‘Mt Manuscript’) and get it to a publisher before the new year.
It’s been a while since my last post*. (*Perennial opening). Although I haven’t been idle, constant reader, oh no, but I have been slow. Work, you see, has taken one hell of a chunk of my time. This isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing. I love my new job, and I have the satisfaction that each day I leave I’ve done something good for the planet and the environment. But that doesn’t leave much time for writing.
Neither does child #3. See that link tot he title?
Yes, the old pram in the hallway. Well, h’es a toddler now, so it’s less a pram and more one of those weird laying down balance bike things without peddles, but you get the idea.
So, with work, kiddies and all the guff associated I have roughly -25% free time to write.
So, what do you do?
No, drinking comes later.
You grab what time you can. That minute while you’re waiting for the soup to warm, for you youngest to choose his favourite socks – keep the laptop handy, warmed up and ready to go.
Transient time, if you will. Liminal time. This is where you live. This is where you get your writing done.
I’ve been lucky enough that this period of my this current work coincides with editing rather than writing, but it’s still hard and slow and frustrating.
But it gets you there. Slowly. And now I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and it came from editing one paragraph at a time.
Also now the little one is toilet trained, so more time! Huzzar!
Let’s run a little experiment – who here is an adult, raise your hand…. OK, that’s pretty much everyone.
Let’s try another – keep your hand up if you’re also a writer….. right, almost everyone again.
Now the kicker – keep your hand up if you have enough time to write.
There, see? Pretty much they all went down.
And that’s where this little adventure begins. Y’see, here’s the thing – I’m a father of three with a full time job. After the essentials of spending time with the kids, making sure they’re fed, their nappies are changed, their homework is done (different kids, don’t worry), they’re tucked in, all the housework is done, I’m up to date on my current work projects, the house maintenance is under control, and I’ve actually spent some quality time with the wife because, well, being married is nice, I’m pretty much exhausted.
And if you’re an adult writer with responsibilities I bet you feel pretty much the same way.
I still do get time to write. After a conversation with an editor last month I worked out I’d written over 200k words over the past two years, which isn’t bad, but they were spread over projects. And now I have a novel to deliver and I need the bugger finished.
Something, n short, had to be done if I was going to make this work.
So, in steps my wife. Like I said, being married is nice. She’s prodded me into action by taking the kids one evening a week, allowing me to stay in the city after work, head to the library (see exhibit A) and get some solid writing in.
An actual picture of me not writing but taking a picture…. you get what I’m doing.
And the crazy thing is, it worked. I know – actually doing something proactive had positive results – who would have thought?
I’ll still be trying to fit what I can in on the train to work when I get a seat (ha!) or at work if I get a lunch break (double ha!), but for now one evening a week is mine to write and nothing else.
There, now I have your attention. Although I will assure you that sentence has more purpose than to grab your attention, because by and large it’s true. Fight me. No, don’t, unless it’s at Street Fighter and I can pick e Honda. Super hero films are, mostly, shite. They fall back on the same characters who by the will of the studios, can’t grow, fight the same handful of well-known antagonists, and tell stories already told. Often multiple time.
Seriously, Uncle Ben and Bruce’s parents have been killed more times than Jack Harkness.
But, as usual, there are exceptions. Man of Steel (fight me again) is one, for reasons I won’t go into here, and the Avengers, for a particular reason I will.
There are a few reasons the Avengers is a standout. Joss Whedon is one, that it can forgo the character and scene setting most other films have to sink time into is another. But I want to talk about a particular shot. This one, in fact. And more specifically, the last 8 seconds:
For those who haven’t seen the film (and there are many, because superhero films are crap, remember?) here we see Bruce Banner being convinced veeeeery gently to come join the fun. But it’s the last part which is telling. Throughout the scene the hut has been surrounded by a squad of heavily armed soldiers. But why? Nothing happened. We saw nowt. In and of itself, that scene isn’t great, but that eight second camera swap was the payoff that made.
They were scared. That’s tight storytelling. That tells the viewer, even if they don’t know who Bruce Banner, that there’s something terrifying just below the surface.
The same technique is used in Inglorious Basterds, where we first meet Donny Donowitz, AKA, the Bear Jew:
And if you want a longer build up of the same, Jaws, where an entire town is held in sway by a threat we know is there, but all we see are the after effects of what that threat is capable of.
Done right, this technique is effective as hell. It draws on the viewer / reader’s own imagination because they – and us writers often hate to admit it – can conjure up much more frightening sights than we ever could. It’s one reason why The Blair Witch project and Paranormal Activity were so bloody frightening.
We’re often told to show, don’t tell, but not showing can be even more effective. By purposefully not showing, but describing around the subject, we give it context, we amplify its meaning, its potential.
Perhaps the best use of this in fiction is my firm favourite Adam Nevill, especially in his novel Last Days. The first half of the novel is the usual scrabblings in the dark, the shuddering of cupboards from within, btu delivered with Nevill’s visceral style.
Another example would be Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. Even non-fans of Warhammer 40k (and there are many, because if anything can suck harder than superhero movies it’s IP fiction – fight me all over again) would do well to read this first novel in the Horus Heresy series. Abnett treats the Astartes (giant, power-armoured supersoldiers of the far futures) as a antural disaster, showing us the after affects of these soldiers’ actions on the regular humans who witness them and who – and here’s the thing – are on the same side. Shell shock by proxy. Before you even see them you’re in awe of what they can do. It’s effective. Hell, it’s effecting.
Don’ describe the monster. Once it’s a monster, it’s a monster, and monsters can be beaten. But beating something that exists only in your head? Aye, give that a go.
This is something which I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and listening to the great Ramsay Campbell speak on the Best Seller Podcast recently brought it back to mind, so I thought I’d be a mind-splurge here.
When asked his tips for budding horror writers Ramsay said to write what made you scared, not what you think the reader would find scary. Makes sense. As the saying goes, ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. And he also name-checked Adam Nevill a few times on writers who manage to scare him now.
I’ve spoken about my love of Nevill’s work before, and he remains one of the authors whose books I preorder without waiting for reviews because I know they’re going to be good (not disappointed yet). What hits me most about his writing is how he manages to maintain tension throughout a novel, and his visceral prose (I read the second half of The Ritual with one hand clamped to the side of my head in sympathy with me main character).
NOGOA – to be short – nearly defeated me. I won’t go too much into the story as you really should read it, but the supernatural elements of the horror take a while to kick to in, which is fine. A writer as talented as Nevill knows the benefits of a maturing tension. But in this case it allowed a sceondary horror to creep in – that of the poverty trap.
And that’s what stopped me reading. I’ve been there, of living hand to mouth and that despair of seeing no way out, and Nevill portrayed it perfectly. I don’t know if he intended it that way and one day In intend to ask him, but it was so close to the mark of one of my very real fears that when the regular horror kicks in and people started dying that it was actually a relief.
And that’s what sticks out to me for this book. Nevill tapped into a very real fear of mine, and for a while it made me put the book down and walk away, because it was just that much too close to the mark. And at teh end of the day, it was far more frightening then an kind of supernatural haunting, and by a long margin.
I’ve tried to include that in my own writing. In Grind, my story in Fox Spirit’s Pacific Monsters, my horror wasn’t being trapped on a barren island by a half-seen ocean creature. It was that the humans there could let the tension break them in npredictable ways, it was that the main character may never see his child again.
We all see the monsters in our mind differently, but we all understand the terror of being separated from our children.
Anyway, now I’ve managed to frighten myself all over again, I’m off. Toodles.
I got my hot little hands on some contributor copies of A Miniature Christmas recently, and oh my is it pretty. Easily the best looking edition of the collection so far. But more importantly, the first review are coming in….
Kids’ Books Review posted a very nice review of the collection, and wouldn’t you know it, Straight on ‘Til Morning got a mention:
“I love Oliver Phommavanh’s story about the little elf in an app that comes to life to tell Nathan how much fun he can get out of each toy he wants for Christmas. George Ivanoff’s story about a Christmas fairy trap is magical and Michael Grey’s reimagining of a Peter Pan ‘chrimbas’ is fun and authentic.”
It’s so nice when that happens, and it’s really made my day.
Well, that’s enough self-congratulating out of the way. The edits to this novel won’t make themselves…..
Long time readers (I know there are some of you, Analytics wouldn’t lie to me) may remember a while back I used to post about what I learned from each book I read. I thought with was a better take on reviewing books, especially coming from the “if you have nothing good to say, say nothing” school of being brought up and, well, there are some pretty bad books out there.
So, in the spirit of keeping things positive I decided to pick a few things I learned from a book as I’m old enough to be sure now that you will always learn something new if you pay enough attention.
So, let’s pick up this series again with Nemesis Games by James S A Corey…
For those who don’t know, Nemesis Games is the fifth book in the Expanse series of sci fi novels, which follow Captain James (why is it always James?) Holden and his merry around the inner solar system in a hard sci fi version of our nearish future.
To cut to the chase, you should read this series. The hard and realistic application of politics over long distances has me pushing The Expanse series as Game of Thrones in space, and I’ve managed to get misters (they’re a writing pair) Corey a few extra readers (No need to thank me, but a names character wouldn’t go amiss).
But, Nemesis Games in particular….. it’s often harder to learn something from a good piece of art then it is from a bad one. By definition, a good piece of art is good at more than one thing, so it can be difficult to pick exactly what was good about it. And that certainly is the case here. The pacing is steady where it needs to be, racing where appropriate. The action is mind blowing in its scope, without crossing that indistinct line into silly, and the characters are believable…. ah, there we go. Characters. Or, more specifically, the crew of the Rosy. Or even more specifically, the Captain, James (always James!) Holden.
Here’s a thing – one rule writers are always told is avoid the White Knight protagonist. They’re boring, they avoid conflict. Bad bad bad. And Holden is about as cookie cutter a White Knight as they come. He always does the Right Thing, will never do anything which could hurt someone else, even if they deserve it, plays by every single rule, and will go out of his way to be honest accommodating.
And yet, Holden manages to be the biggest conflict creator in the actual solar system.
Corey gets around this by making Holden’s decisions be the creator of conflict in others. Semi spoiler alert for the first book, but him insisting on following his moral code of being open and truthful almost sets of a civil war int he first book. Twice.
That neat little sidestep alone would make Holden a worthy main character, but Corey compounds the interest by giving him more complicated sides, in the form of his crew.
“What? We always casually hang around the table casually like this.”
We have Alex, the pilot acting as Holden’s regret, Naomi who gives him the awareness to question his own actions, and, my personal favourite, Amos, who ably embodies the amoral psychopath in us all. And without giving too much away, in Nemesis Games Holden is left on his own, bereft of his personality extensions he very much was left at the whim of the conflict he himself set in motion in earlier books.
So, what did I learn from Nemesis Games? That there are rules to writing, but if you have a plan, sometimes they’re more guidelines.