Peripheral Bits

So, I find myself today trying to outline my novel.

I may need to buy this shirt.

I may need to buy this shirt.

No, wait, wait.  I’m not quite as full of crap as that just made me sound.  The thing I realised today (while reading an article by Brandon Sanderson in an issue of Leading Edge) was that I actually like outlining, provided that the story is big enough to need it.

Sanderson’s own description of outlining sounds a great deal like something I’ve done more than once myself.  It’s detailed, but not obsessive; a process that develops the frame for a story instead of a point-by-meticulous-point map of it; and the scope of the outline fits the scope of the project.

The issue I take with Lovecraft’s Thou Shalt Outline approach isn’t that it’s bad to outline, but that you don’t always need to outline.  After all, he wrote mostly short fiction, and sometimes quite tiny short fiction.  If he genuinely sat down and outlined some those pieces, I’d be just as genuinely astounded.  For me, particularly with shorter pieces (anything that’s, say, five thousand words or less), I love the spontaneity of taking an idea and just running with it.  Sometimes there is an outline, and for longer stories I’ll certainly have a concept of a few points that are key to the tale I’m telling.  But even for those, the outline is usually simple enough that I can hold the entirety of it in my head.  I never need to sit down and plot it out on paper.

But for bigger works…well, outlining is definitely an asset.  There are more people, more threads, and there’s a whole lot more scope.  And for me at least, the two are wildly different in this regard.  Short fiction is something of an outlet for me to simply write, to create a story without careful planning.  Novel-length fiction, on the other hand, is an opportunity for me to craft something larger.  They both appeal to me in quite different ways.  And while I can write something out that’s novel length, entirely spontaneously and without any planning or outlining, this typically becomes a bit of a mess.  And what happens more often than I’d like is that I find myself feeling stranded, lost and directionless within my own story.

Outlines prevent that, and this is where they get wonderful.  As much as I don’t like outlining, they make the writing part of the writing totally awesome.  You’re never lost.  You know what’s coming next.  And, chances are, you have some big climax for the story in your head that you’re working towards, you know how you’ll get there, and you can’t wait to write it.  That’s part of what excites me about writing in the first place, that process of getting from A to B.  And so, as odd as it is, the idea of actually outlining my novel right now feels exciting to me.

But for short stories?  No thank you.


The non-writing bit
So, lately, I’ve found a little more spare time than I expected to, and I’ve been able to expand my entertainment horizons a little.  Firstly, I finally completed Silent Hill 3 — that’s a nine-hour game from start to finish, and I somehow stretched it out to last around fourteen months.  On the reading front, I’ve been concentrating on H.P. Lovecraft, which has been an interesting experience; and when it comes to television and movies, aside from watching some truly excellent South Korean productions (including the superb I Saw The Devil, which I recommend unreservedly) I’ve been watching a number of sci-fi and fantasy shows that I’d been meaning to try out.

Seriously.  If you haven't seen it, go and watch it.

Seriously. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it.

First amongst these, as mentioned earlier, has been Doctor Who: it’s a series that spirals from crap at one end to pretty good at the other, and is good enough in its good moments to hold my attention (and has an excellent Doctor), though after six or seven episodes it still doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  Also in the list is the (apparently unfairly-cancelled) Dresden Files, which is mostly decent but occasionally descends into the realm of naff, predictable tropes.  And to cap it off, I’ve also watched the first third of the first half of the pilot mini-series of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  (As I’ve said before, I like to come to shows quite late.)

But so far, given what I’ve seen, Galactica fails to grab me — and I’ll try to illuminate roughly why.  So far, the story is as follows: There was a war between Cylons and Humans, the latter group apparently having  never read any Isaac Asimov.  Then the war ended, and the Cylons went away for a while, presumably a nice vacation with beaches and a massage chair.

Forty years later, the Cylons came back in a Little Red Dress and kissed a guy while things blew up for no apparent reason.  (I assume the reason for the blowing up will become clear; but the reason for the kissing is certainly ratings, no matter what spurious reasoning they offer later.)  Then, the Red Dress Cylon snapped a baby’s neck before having sex with some other dude and glowing a bit.  Either that, or there are multiple red-dress women who all look the same, which could be possible, since she’s apparently a robot, and you can make two of them look the same if you like.  However, two other non-Cylon people had a pointless and obviously pre-sex fight which began to become sex, and…by this point I was completely, painfully bored.  Galactica is, so far, apparently all I feared; a bad soap opera that happens to be set in space.

"By the way, I'm sleeping with your evil twin."

“By the way, I’m sleeping with your evil twin Boris.  And your sister Marge.”

What keeps my attention is the stuff that is, currently, lingering around the edges of the crap bits.  That stuff is interesting, it’s legitimately science fiction, and it seems like it could become something good.  But it damn well better stop hanging around the edges and get into the middle, or I’m going to get bored.

And that’s it, really.  I can live with crap, but not boring.  That’s how I survived the early episodes of Doctor Who, as I was amused, bemused, and confused, but never exactly bored.  And I’ll watch Mega Shark versus Crocosaurus, and as crap as it is I’ll enjoy it, because the nonsense is rarely dull.  But predictable and boring will make me turn off, and make me very hesitant to turn back on again.

The Writing Bit: Part 1
To begin with, I come to Mr. Lovecraft.  Not his writing, which a friend summed up for me succinctly, and which is excellent for what it is.  But more to do with something he wrote about writing, which is something that I think proves perfectly that not all writers are the same.  It’s from a list of points that he wrote about what writers should and shouldn’t do:

“It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be.”

Firstly, this almost entirely describes the process of what I would do if I wanted to hate my writing and never return to it.  I can’t write this way.  I may have the ideas of a plot, perhaps, but I don’t always know where it’s going, and the idea of sitting down and drafting the plot out makes me inclined to chew off my own feet.  But secondly, I think it deeply highlights Lovecraft’s shortcoming, as well as his strength.  His work is seemingly rich in description and idea, but generally weak in character; and that’s a really important fact when you look at the above quote.

Sometimes, fiction is plot-driven, as with Lovecraft and some others.  Other times, it’s character-driven; and when it’s driven by the characters, sometimes they’ll take it places you don’t expect.  I used to read quotes from other writers, talking about how their characters had lives of their own, and I used to laugh at the idea because it sounded like nonsense.  But now, I’ve written enough to know it’s true.  Sometimes, I may expect a certain set-piece to come up, or for certain events to happen, for certain characters to end up in certain places.  And then, when it comes down to it, they end up doing something completely different.  The set piece never happens, and the characters end up in all the wrong places.  But I don’t complain about it, because when it happens, it’s almost invariably right.  And it’s nothing that I could predict in a plot synopsis; the only thing I can say for certain about a plot synopsis for me is, if I write it before I write the story, it’ll be wrong by the time I’m finished.

However, there’s another quote from another author — one Mr. Vonnegut, who you may be familiar with, and who I am somewhat ashamed to say I’ve read very little of (though he, like Lovecraft before him, is on my List To Read — I will get to him, hopefully sooner than later).  And he had this to say, with regard to eloquence and editing:

“It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

This echoes greatly what Stephen King commented in his own book, “On Writing”, when he talked about having learned about the importance of editing.  Removing the superfluous and the unnecessary is like making Scrumpy; you’re not weakening, you’re concentrating, turning your story into a more potent brew.  Sometimes, words can be left, because they add beauty to what is written; but sometimes, the words simply add words, like the unnecessary water in that barrel.  Getting rid of them is a good thing.

The Writing Bit: Part 2
Away from other authors, I come to myself, and the strange function of the unconscious mind, and specifically the way that information creeps into the brain — sometimes incomplete, and sometimes only shadows of things — without you noticing.  I have a terrible memory for many things.  I remember story names, author names, actor names, people’s names, with unerring inaccuracy.  In my attempts to describe a movie, I may well describe it as “that movie, with that guy who was in that other movie with the thing”, or something equally helpful.  I will eventually remember some key detail that lets someone else remember what it is I’m talking about, in essence using other people’s memories as a kind of external storage device for my own.

However, things get in without me knowing, and that happened to me today.  I was reading the news briefly, and noticed that: A) An Everton defender had been denied a goal in his match, and B) the name of the Everton defender looked worryingly familiar.  It turned out that one of the more important second-tier characters in my novel had exactly the same name; and seeing it come up in print was a shock, because until that point I believed it was a name I’d made up.  Somewhere in my brain, though, the names must have been linked.  The character’s first name was given to him over a year before he acquired the second, and somewhere in that time I must have seen this name in passing.  Not important enough for me to remember it, or remember who it was; but it still made it into my brain somehow, and then treacherously crept back out when I was trying to think of a surname for my character.

He looks almost exactly not like the character in my novel.

And he looks almost exactly how the character in my novel doesn’t.

So, now I need a new surname for him.  However, as much of a shock as this was, it’s still not too terrible — the name may suit the Everton chap, but in all honesty, the surname never really suited the guy in my novel.  So I get a kick to think of a new one!  Hurrah!

(And, also, I get a fine reminder to Google all the names in my novel before I’m done.  Mr. Distin is the second name I’ve had to scratch because of something like this.)

The Writing Bit
Most of my short stories are fairly concrete, and I set out with a good idea of the entire story arc from the very beginning.  Even when stories need a lot of editing after the first draft (which is often, as I can be tremendously lazy with my word selection in my first drafts) I usually have a good idea of how far a story will run, what its potential is, and at least the essence of what will happen.  Some of the details strike me as I go, of course, but the general shape is there.

But every now and then, there’s something different.  A short story that, despite my initial intent, seems determined to grow like a green-deck’s mana supply.


Oh yes, my references are ultra-cool.

Seriously, though, this is exactly how my current novel began.  The short story hit 8.5k words, and I knew then it was too big for its boots, as  the story had barely started at that point.  There was a lot more there than I expected.  The story has changed a lot since then.  The lead character has become about thirty-five years younger, less powerful and more competent, and his world has acquired a massive amount of flesh that it didn’t have in the short version.  Which is all great.  The story’s developed a fair number of side arcs too.

But now I have another one.

This story won’t expand without limits.  The current novel I mentioned above has a whole world to fit itself into, but there’s a definite ceiling in this one for how much story there is to tell.  The environment is much more restricted — counted in feet, not miles — and the story’s escalation inherently means that the protagonists will either succeed or die (and I don’t know which yet).  But what is certainly true is that, from the beginning, I’ve underestimated just how much story is tucked away within the characters and their interactions.

The ongoing novel is a fantasy tale, a mini-epic of irreverent nature; this one is a sci-fi light horror affair that takes itself more seriously.  But like the fantasy tale that preceded it, there are conflicts and allegiances.   They’re all in small-scale, but all nonetheless creating a story that’s richer and with more potential than I’d anticipated.  It may end up as a novella rather than a novel, but I’m already at 12.5k, and there’s a lot more story to be told here.  I love writing when it goes like this, as I’m learning more with every story I write; and in particular, every story that goes differently to how I expected teaches me about how to engineer the originally unexpected effect.  All these things can only make me a better writer in the long run.

The Non-Writing Bit
So, I watched episode two of Doctor Who.  It was better than episode one, but unfortunately not better enough for my wife to have any semblance of interest remaining.  Pursuing it from here will be a slow affair, and almost certainly an on-my-own-time affair.  That means it’s likely to fall behind the Korean espionage drama Iris that I was already watching, as I don’t want to push finishing that to sit behind the eighty-odd episodes of Doctor Who that I can stream.


If it’s geeky pop culture, someone’s made a Magic card of it.  And a dozen t-shirts.

That said, I’m still inclined to give it a try.  Nonetheless, I’m still bemused by the show’s utter lack of skill in balancing its conflicting elements.  It seems to want to be serious and moody while being irreverent at the same time, and doesn’t seem to know how to do both fluidly.  The contrast between the two so far is jarring.  (Not quite as jarring as Rose, in my opinion, but there we go.  Again, only two episodes.  Hopefully that’ll evolve too.)

The two can be balanced, if it’s done skilfully; even complete nonsense and drama can be balanced.  Fringe did it through the use of a flippant character in the shape of Walter Bishop, set within a world that was itself serious; Eureka, meanwhile, took a world that was at its heart not serious, and put some occasional serious characters in it while ensuring that the others were both well-developed and consistent.  And even the nonsense was, while sometimes foolish and funny, consistent within the world as well.  Thus, in both cases, they managed to achieve balance.  So far, that’s what Doctor Who is lacking for me.

The Doctor’s vacillations make sense, because that’s personality, and it fits past Doctors too.  Flippancy, overconfidence (or, at least, just plenty of confidence) and good humour are part of him, masking the darker side to him.  But the vacillations of the world are nonsensical, because it robs that interesting character of a consistent home with consistent rules that his story can play out in.  And you really can’t expect me to take seriously any tragedy in a storyline where the agents of the enemy are a repeated meme.  Because I’m not taking seriously a world where puns-made-flesh can threaten anything.  Worse, it’s a pun based in a 21st-century element that I strongly doubt will survive to make it to the 22nd, which means I begin from a standpoint of not believing in this world.  

I don’t mind that.  If I did, I wouldn’t be able to watch half the shows that I do.  But don’t put me in a world that ridiculous and then expect to be able to pull on my heart-strings.  And even if you’re going to try that foolish trick, don’t expect to be able to make that transition without — oh, I don’t know — an actual transition between the two.

A probable villain for episode three.

A probable villain for episode three.

Nonetheless, I can see why people would love it.  I know from having watched it before that there will be a great many ideas and stories, and its strength has always been in its variability.  That’s a big part of why I’m sticking with it.  I’m hoping that the series finds its feet more effectively as it goes, because if it can do that — if it can find a way to balance the humour and drama in a way that wouldn’t embarrass a novice fan-fiction writer — then I’m sure it really could be good.  Separately, the humour and the drama are both fine; but for now, they feel like pieces from two different jigsaws.  The writers need to get them to fit into one consistent picture, and I’m optimistic that they figured that out at some point.

If they didn’t, though, my inclination to “give it a try” isn’t likely to be limitless.

The Writing Bit
So, on one level at least, this is being a fun and productive year.  Previously, the highest number of submissions I’ve sent out concurrently is one.  But as of yesterday, I now have four of my stories pending review, approval or rejection.  One of those is a competition entry, and since the deadline forced it to go out when it did, I’m hardly inclined to count it.  However, the other three are simply stories that I’ve sent out to magazines within the last few weeks.


One of them is even on actual paper!

It’s been a lot of fun getting them out.  It’s rather less fun when they come back, but having received feedback on one of those few has been extremely encouraging and only makes me want to send out more, in the hopes that even if I don’t get published, perhaps I’ll get some more professional opinions of my work and advice about where I may be going wrong.

But then, there’s the other level — the suspiciously novel-shaped one.  I’ve been enjoying short-story writing so much that my current novel draft has suffered at its hands.  I don’t like the idea of letting it simply fade away, so over the last couple of days, I’ve stoked its fires again.  Hopefully it’ll settle in soon, because at the moment, the words really aren’t coming.

I might have better luck with this advanced typing technique.

I might have better luck with this advanced typing technique.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find a way around this for the time being, working out aspects of the story that aren’t exactly writing — not if you mean adding-words-to-the-manuscript, at least — but it’s important for the story, at the very least to help add depth to it.

The Non-Writing Bit
Aside from writing, I’ve been wasting some of my time on TV and movies lately.  I just finished watching the last series of Fringe, which I mostly enjoyed, and — hoping for some alternative sci-fi to fill the hole, and not feeling in the mood to turn to the final season of Eureka just yet — I turned today to the much-vaunted wonders of Doctor Who.  I like to come to series late, so that if I like them a lot, there’s plenty to watch.  (The exception to this so far is Game of Thrones; but even so, I wait for the series to be finished before watching it, as I hate having to wait a week between episodes for shows I like.  I’d rather wait and watch them all together at once.)

Unfortunately, I forgot what "BBC budget" meant.

Unfortunately, I forgot what “BBC budget” meant.

The word I’m looking for here probably isn’t “disappointed,” as it’s not like Doctor Who ever had a reputation for stellar effects, but I had hoped for more than a badly-animated wheelie-bin.  “Bemused” definitely fits the bill.  I’m prepared to watch another one of these, because I operate on the sound principle of “the pilot episode is probably terrible”, and I did like the old Doctor Who when I was a child.  But honestly, this first episode of Ecclestone’s stint as the Doctor seemed pretty bad to me.  It started so slowly it was annoying, stumbled into a weird transition, and throughout suffered from seemingly poor production values and inexplicably awful sound quality.

I can’t help but think that, without a budget to really make it work, making living plastic into the enemy was a bad idea.  It seemed like they may have attempted to deliberately channel some of the old-fashioned cheese of Doctor Who into the enemies, especially since they somehow magically acquired the ability to shoot, which I can’t imagine any writer tried to justify for even half a second.  But in doing so, they threw away a lot of the idea’s potential, and wasted what seemed like it could have been a much more interesting idea than it ended up becoming.

However, even assuming they had to run with it, and assuming that the script allows for the plastic in question to consist of about a hundred shop dummies and one inexplicable trash-can with the ability to transport the people it chomps half way across London without explanation, it would surely have benefitted more from some creativity and less dependency on the same crappy, low-budget CGI that plagues Sci-Fi channel movies.  I’m sure it can’t be that hard to make some actual stretchy rubber that sticks to the actor instead of relying on crappy effects, for example.  I can live with bad effects, but it annoys me when people resort to CGI when more creative approaches would be both better and, in all probability, actually cheaper.

But I can live with that.  I’ve watched shows with cruddy effects and enjoyed them (Neverwhere being a wonderful example of a great story with great acting that, therefore, overcame the burden of its low budget).   But there’s a further thorn here.  I almost always watch TV with my wife — I have only so much time to watch shows, and so it’s nice to spend that time with her.  This has allowed me to successfully introduce her to a number of good shows, including some quite geeky and nerdy fare.  In return, she’s introduced me to some great shows and movies of her own, ranging from some older American shows to a number of great Korean productions, not to mention a much wider range of horror.

Unfortunately, my wife’s tolerance for crappy and cheesy has limits, and they’re much lower than mine.  She’d have loved the story of Neverwhere, I’m sure of that, but she couldn’t get past the low-budget quality of the show.  And while I’ll sit through things she won’t — which works fine if I have a lot of spare time and can watch things by myself — I rarely have enough spare time to just kick back and watch something by myself for an hour, so if she’s not inclined to watch it, then its boots will soon be taken by another show.  And if it wasn’t for me, I’m pretty sure she’d already have given up on it.  She’s about ninety-nine percent of the way there.

But it’s the pilot, and I’m inclined to be forgiving.  It may have spent far too much of the beginning on “girl goes shopping” and stumbled around a bit with scene-setting, but some of that is presumably because, after so many years off air, it really had to ACT like a pilot episode of sorts, filling in the gaps for people who wouldn’t have seen any of the previous ones.  And it’s in that single fact that I’m placing all my hopes.

I really, really hope the next episode is better than the first one; because if it isn’t, it may take me a very long time to make it as far as episode three.

If you happen to be like me (i.e., lazy) then here’s something I finally got around to making for myself.  It’s very simple, provided that you have either a flash-drive you keep plugged in or an external backup hard-drive, either of which has a fixed drive letter.  Oh, and provided that you keep all your writing in a single folder (I do — it’s fine if you have subfolders within that folder, but it all needs to have a single parent folder you can point the batch at).  And also, provided that you’re using Windows.  I’m sure there are equally simple solutions in other operating systems, but I don’t use them.

Anyway – to make it as easy to back up your writing as a double-click, put the following on a single line a text file:

xcopy c:\path\to\your\writing j:\path\to\your\backup /Y /S /E /C /H /K

Some of those optional flags are probably redundant, but they’re everything I put in place to try and make sure the copy goes smoothly.  To make it work for you, just replace c:\path\to\your\writing with the actual drive location of your main writing folder (you can right click on the folder in Windows, select Properties, and then copy it from the Location value that is displayed if you’re not sure what it is) and then replace the j:\path\to\your\backup with the corresponding backup folder location.

Save the text file as WritingBackup.bat (note — it must be saved as a .bat file and not a .txt file, or it will simply open up in a text editor instead of running), and then put it somewhere convenient on your desktop.  Then, whenever you want to back up your writing, just double click it, and your system will run the backup for you.

Nice and easy!