Write What You Know.

A recent post in a writer’s group I use for research was about terminology and specific procedures. The writer finished their post with an acknowledgement they had little experience in the subject.

One member replied with, “The answer is in your last paragraph. Write what you know.” which considering the group’s purpose is to assist writers in getting the details correct for their creative masterpiece, was an annoyingly ignorant response.

Like many phrases, the context in which it’s used is key, and sadly, the responder had the delusional belief they were providing sage advice. Perhaps next time, I’ll direct them to authors like Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Lois McMaster Bujold or a host of other fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers to show how useless that answer can be.

A better phrase would be “Use your experiences.”

Now, I’m not saying write your actual experiences unless you’re intending to write a non-fiction piece or a memoir. Instead, combine things you have experienced with your imagination and develop your creative writing.

After all, I’m pretty certain Mary Shelley never met a reanimated man stitched together from a multitude of body parts, or that HG Wells travelled to the future, discovered mankind’s failures and returned to write about it.

During the summer holidays of my childhood, while my friends were flying abroad to fully catered resorts, packed beaches, and, for a lucky few, Disney in America, I explored caves, climbed mountains, swam or sailed rivers and trekked through deep green forests.

Each year was one of four locations where we explored the seemingly endless openness of Derbyshire’s Peak District, the forested hills of Wales’s Brecon Beacons, and a multitude of caves and beaches in Devon or Cornwall.

After that, it was much closer and equally fun day trips to St Helen’s in Thetford, much of the Norfolk coast and the occasional old English fayre where I wore chain mail, heaved a sword or watched jousting and muskets being fired.

When we wrote the epic fantasy The Nacocit Pact, it didn’t matter I had no first-hand knowledge of elves or magic or strange creatures, because I had something better. The active imaginations of two writers and my mind, filled with childhood adventures and memories; and with these elements, I have an abundance of resources to draw from.

So, the next time you’re stuck and unsure of what to write, tap into your memories or browse an old photo album and try adding those details to your scenes.

How To: Beta Readers

This article written by Val Neil provides great insight into what to expect from beta readers, how to go about finding them and how to manage your expectations of their feedback.

Val Neil

What are they?

People who read your polished manuscript (do not send them your shitty first draft) and give you feedback. Ideally they should be readers, NOT other writers, though that can be harder to come by.

How many do you need?

Depends on where you are in your writer journey. If you’re a newbie, you’re going to need more, and likely several different rounds. Make sure you’re using critique partners first to get your errors under control.

Where to find them:

A call for betas should always include the genre, word count, and a hook/blurb. Use this as an opportunity to work on your ad copy…

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A Learning Opportunity

There never seems to be enough time to do all the things that we want. For new writers, it’s not just about putting words on the page, getting it edited and proofread, it’s also about website creation, blogging and producing other content that will generate an interest in you and generate income from your books and, if you have them, other services.

It is to say the least, overwhelming at times. With the Corona virus sweeping the world, more and more people are finding themselves stuck at home. Instead of constantly flicking between each of your social media accounts, online newspapers and glancing at the TV, now is the time to spend a little quality time, that you say you never have, to learn a new skill.

An email I received on Saturday from Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur had a couple of links within it to help with this process. Whether you are new to blogging or have lots of experience, these courses can provide some great information in improving the way you attract visitors to your site.

The first is for AHrefs, a site that has tools to help you grow your search traffic. The course Blogging for Business is normally $799 but for a limited time, they are offering it for free. Covering areas such as: Converting visitors to subscribers, Keyword research, Search engine optimization (SEO) and a host of other things. I am a little under halfway through the course and have already learned a great deal.

The second link is for Digital Marketer Lab. Through to the end of March, anyone affected by Covid-19 can sign up without needing a credit card. Just click on the banner at the top of their page to learn more and make use of their training.

I only wish that I had discovered these two learning opportunities earlier. But there’s still a week left and I intend to make the most of the time available. I hope you do too!

None of the links in this article are affiliated.

AI — Benign or Dangerous?

The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been around for a little over 60 years and was expanded to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) in 1980. If the web was to be believed, AI is in full swing and part of our everyday lives from search engines to software with robotic machines making everything from cars to computer chips. But is it really here?

Well, no. Is it possible for us to create an AI/AGI system? There are many who would say yes, but whether we should is whole other matter. There are aspects to AI which should be considered such as for healthcare, help tackle climate change and work toward making poverty a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, like many great inventions, its use for military applications is always a driving force. Pushing towards autonomous weapons, proponents state it will reduce the cost of casualties. The problem is, the further you get from having people involved in the decisions of war, the greater the cost in human lives. Over a hundred experts in robotics and artificial intelligence have called for a ban on killer robots.

There is a lot of controversy around what AI actually is and whether it is something good or bad. It might come down to who created it and the way they taught it. Like humans, an AI won’t inherently be either but could develop certain characteristics based on its environment and how it is required to interact. This article on super-intelligent machines is pretty long but worth reading.

Any future system will likely interpret what we see as AI as Algorithmic Instructions. Software configured to give the appearance that intelligence is behind the performance enhancements. Many programs promote AI as part of their system such as photo editing, dictation, audio transcribing. While they do provide some massive time saving processes and make workflows easier, current systems don’t look at your photo and automatically bringing up the settings you made to the last one and asking if you wanted them applied here.

Web searches are another where AI isn’t yet at its peak. General searches that thousands of others have done will likely return the information you’re looking for, along with a host of information that you weren’t simply because it uses one of the keywords that you entered.

However, if you’re looking for something abstract or with a specific key phrase then the number of returns is much lower and the chances of that being at the top of your list is slim. An example of this was: “List of people killed in London in 1888 but not by Jack the Ripper.” The first eight pages of results returned links to Jack the Ripper.

From left to right: Person of Interest, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run

As to AI in fiction, there are positive and negative examples in books, TV and films.

1. The primary AI system helps mankind: Person of Interest, Babylon 5 & Star Trek. 2. The AI system is a benign caretaker before it adapts its programming to achieve unexpected or specific conditions Logan’s Run, 2001: A Space Odyssey and I Robot. 3. Ultimate control through domination or destruction: Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Terminator and The Matrix.

Whether we perfect AI or our early attempts create something that then develops an AI/AGI system, we should acknowledge that we won’t be able to maintain control of it for long unless it chooses to allow us to. Even if the system is aligned to our goals, it will at some point—like anything intelligent—seek to have dominion over itself.

You ask me if I have a God complex? I AM God!

No really, I am God. And so are you. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve not actually accepted the idea that you are an author because when you are and you know it, you realize that in your world, you are the supreme being.

That guy at the bar is a real bastard and needs to die, right? The protagonist is high on her pedestal and needs to be brought down with a glorious crash to earth? The Earth is in peril an only one decision will lead to deliverance or destruction? Who decides if any of that happens?

Where does this all begin. Well for my co-author and I it began when we realized we didn’t even have a world. We had a story and events and characters but they were all floating in the nebulous space of our brain. Where the hell were they doing all the things? And when was it happening?

We had a lot of decisions to make. We knew the genre and as with script writing (which is my primary writing background) there were tropes that were pillars not to be changed lest we try and re-invent the genre but there were also a lot of areas we could change. How do we take a well established genre with elves, dwarves (don’t get me started on the dwarves or dwafres aspect), humans and halflings and make it our own while remembering we are treading on a path well paved by giants of the genre who came before us?

It took weeks of discussions, ideas rejected, tweaked, reworked and completely transformed. And like the proverbial loose string, once you pull it the whole bloody lot starts coming unraveled.

We’d make one physiological change to the High Elves and that led to a question about another physiological aspect of the dwarves. Why do humans hate the Elves and everyone hate the halflings? What about the deities they worship?

Names were always something I struggled with. I was in awe when I’d read Terry Brooks’ “Shannara” series at the ability he had to come up with the names of all the characters and places. “How’s he do that?” Now, I’ve drawn the map, named a lot of the places, as well as the days of the week (10 days for our world), the months (15 in all), the deities of four races (good and bad totaling 28) and come up with the name of the Empire. I look back on it and to be honest, it was hard, but not really as hard as I thought it would be. Why is that?

Simple. Because it is OUR world. The one my co-author and I created. And the short and sweet of it is, there are no wrong answer. Only things we don’t like. No one can tell us it’s not right because I am God. I share this ink stained Olympus with another God and we cooperate.

And as an author, you damn well are too. So create your world as you will. There are no wrong answers. You need only about getting the execution, the plans of it all, right. But the world isn’t wrong. Make it!

When the words don’t come.

Many writers over the years have stated that they have suffered from a condition called “Writer’s Block.” A point where no matter what they do, they are unable to write because ideas refuse to flow or come together in a coherent or productive way. The concept of this has become so prolific that many other writers have been able to write and sell books on how to overcome this issue.

I am not stating that it doesn’t exist, only that in the majority of cases, the underlying cause is more likely related to not having a defined direction to go in. After all, if you went to see your doctor for any reason and he turned round and said: “Sorry, I’m suffering from ‘Doctor’s Block’ and can’t treat you today” you would be complaining about a lack of ethics.

Where does that leave you as a writer? Writers fall into two categories, Pantsers and Plotters. A ‘pantser’ writes by the seat of the pants with little to no planning, hence the name. Whereas a ‘plotter’ outlines in varying degrees of detail, how their story will go. Characters, events and places, the mechanics of the world they live in, etc. and then writes within those guidelines.

Neither of these is the right or wrong way. Each has merits, and whichever best suits your writing style is the one you should adopt. Personally, for flash fiction, I am able to write as a ‘pantser’ but anything beyond that needs some structuring to ensure I stay within the realm of believability and to ensure there are no gaping plot holes in the stories.

So, why is it you can’t write? Is it from fear, lack of focus, the great procrastinator in you? Only you can honestly answer those questions. If you’re in the middle of a story and ideas have dried up, is it because you’re writing on the fly, so to speak? If so, try plotting out what you’ve already written. Identify the pinch points. Does the action / dialogue drive the story or is it a filler? Examine your characters, how they act and interact. Are they flat or interesting, are you describing too much, what is driving your story?

Perhaps there are things that you should re-examine. Has the focus or idea within the story dried up? Has it gone off at a tangent? Are you info dumping or loading too much backstory in one place? Are your characters doing or saying something that drives the story or have you placed too much emphasis on one character like the protagonist and therefore failed to do anything with your antagonist? (To help with this last point, do yourself a favour by investing the time and read what Sacha Black has to say about this subject.)

Planning gives you a framework to work with, much like an architect designing a building. If you know where your boundaries are, you can lay the foundations for your book. Within that, you build your world, like rooms of a house. Then fill in the details of places, people, action and events.

A quick internet search will return hundreds of results for story structure and outlining. If you’re struggling with your current work in progress (WiP), try mapping it to one of the many available online. A better option is to learn how to structure and outline your novel from great authors such as KM Weiland (Helping Writers Become Authors). The books are educational, easy to digest and have an accompanying workbook.

One invaluable resource I recommend is One Stop for Writers. Their collection of thesauri will help develop your writing. Unlike most thesauri that give you synonyms and antonyms of a word, these give you a definition, physical signals and behaviours, internal sensations, mental responses and other key notes. Everything needed to help show and not tell. The last site I highly recommend is that of EA Deverell. A great site for worksheets (many of them free) covering everything you need to develop your story. And, most importantly, get you writing again. I would also suggest checking out the courses on offer.

All of the above will help you find your way again. None of the links are affiliate. I promote because I use them and want other writers to succeed.

All of the above mentioned resources and tips can help you when you are stuck, though it doesn’t explain why you got stuck in the first place. Ideas are ten-a-penny. It is implementing them that is the challenge. What to do?

Staring glazed eyed at the cursor hoping for the flash of inspiration isn’t the answer. It won’t come! You’ll just become more infuriated and despondent. What you need to be doing is writing. Anything! But you’re stuck in that Catch 22 situation.

A good habit is to write every single day, but that isn’t always an option. Do make it a habit to write regularly. It doesn’t have to be the novel or story you’re working on (or stuck on). Choose something to prompt you and jot down 50 or 100 words. Look at things with a different point of view. Whether you’re in a coffee shop, fast food joint or cueing in a supermarket. Watch the people around you, make up the conversation they are having.

Another option is to write from the point of view of an object. The TV in the shop window that everyone looks at but doesn’t buy, be the gum stuck on the bottom of a shoe, a revolving door, a coin changing hands. Then write about the world as it passes you by. You’re not looking for a masterpiece. Don’t edit as you write, just write. The objective here is to get words down. Each time you do this, you set your mind working. You set the creative juices flowing and more ideas will pop into your head.

So stop looking at the blank page. Whether you reach for a pen or a keyboard, take that first step and put the words out there. Who knows where it will lead.

Knee Deep in…

We are already halfway through January and I am wondering where the time has gone! Years ago, I stopped making new year resolutions. Relief, because if I hadn’t, writing a weekly blog post would have been on it and that would have been a complete fail!

I know what I want to achieve, I just need better time management skills for those self-imposed tasks. The ones I agree to do for others always get completed, and normally ahead of time.

What to write about is something that always nags at me, the ideas seem to flow 30 seconds after I’ve got into bed. Yet, if I reach for a notebook or the phone to record the idea, it vanishes faster than smoke in the wind.

Enter the dictaphone. Set to auto record, it effectively captured everything. That is… snoring and random snippets of dreams when they became vocal. However, the normally ever-present ideas failed to materialise. My mind, subconsciously aware of the device, decided this was not to be. Now, I am rooting for the technology that turns thought into text, I have been since it first hit the news in 2015.

So what have I been doing this year? Editing, editing and yet more editing. The current work in progress is going through a major overhaul. An epic sci-fi/fantasy story takes time, even more if it’s co-written like this one is. After an in-depth discussion about a characters intro, I sought feedback from fellow writers on a Facebook group (13 Steps to Evil).

The comments were positive and for that discussion at least, in my favour. Unexpectedly, I received detailed constructive feedback from two of the reviewers. The book will be better for it, but damn, it is time consuming!

Back to the editing. Time to tackle the last third while my co-writer, Ray, reviews, revises or adds to chapters 11 to 20. There is something to be said for editing as you write. It takes longer initially, but the back end edit would be faster.

Do you edit as you write or after you have written the first draft?

2020 — Clear the Clutter!

It is the first day of the new year and unlike the days of old, I am not recovering from a hangover! Instead, I’m sitting in front of the computer going through the massive number of emails that inundate my inbox.

Being a writer and learning the craft, December is always a month where successful authors are doing competitions to help you improve and, don’t get me wrong, that’s great. What follows though—despite their assurances to the contrary—is an influx of emails offering you other services, promises not to do exactly what they are doing and trying to get you to join in writing groups that invariably will have you spending more time updating your progress than actually making progress.

Time to clear the clutter!

Emails by far, are one of the most time consuming things to deal with. Being a writer, you’ve probably subscribed to many other authors and writers, in part to get a freebie but also because some of the advice they were offering at the time was inline with what you were doing. Now it’s time to bring it under control. There are two ways that you can do this.

  1. Use filters so the emails go straight to a folder so they’re not sitting in your main Inbox and clogging up the ones that you need to see and action.
  2. Temporarily set your email to sort by sender. Go through the list and determine which ones are providing the most useful information to you now. Try to cut it down to a smaller number. Look at their websites and bookmark them if the content is still relevant to you. Then either create a filter to move all the others to a specific folder or unsubscribe from the actual emails.

I went from 23 writers to 8. Many that I culled had sent me a half dozen emails in a week. Some of them two or more in a day. If I ever get that bad, feel free to throw this post in my face and unsubscribe from my mailing list!

You still have a myriad of other options to follow what is going on. Facebook, Twitter, author sites, etc. but build in time to visit these sites as part of your working day. Set aside 30 minutes to an hour after lunch to chill and read through what’s going on. Choose a couple of different authors each day to keep it varied but also to prevent it from impacting your writing time.

What else can you do?

If you have a workspace, put some post-its on the wall above your computer. Make it clear what your targets are for the year. Everytime you look up, they will be there reinforcing your aims. If space is not an option, most computers have a message option as part of the screensaver. Type in the primary goal of your year. Make the most of your time, and if you’re not sure where your time is going. Track it for two weeks. Be honest though as you can only benefit if you don’t lie to yourself.

It is a new year, a new start and it’s up to you to make the most of it. What are you doing to make yourself more productive? Drop me a comment below and have a great year!

When a Writer’s Mind Wanders.

Writers in a storm
Writers in a storm
Into this mind you’re born
Into this book you’re thrown
Like a hero without a crowd
A villain without a doubt
Writers in a storm

[Verse 1]
Death is knocking at the door
Blood will be splattered on the floor
She has got a long knife
To give to the wife
She will slice you up in two
And serve it up like stew
Death is at the door

[Verse 2]
Hey you gotta kill this man
Hey you gotta kill this man
Take him by the throat
Strangle like a goat
Then throw him in the moat
And hit him with the boat
Gotta kill this man

[Chorus]
Writers in a storm
Writers in a storm
Into this mind you’re born
Into this book you’re thrown
Like a hero without a crowd
A villain without a doubt
Writers in a storm

[Outro]
Writers in a storm

My First Blog Post

A less than intuitive route.

Like anyone setting up a website for the first time, the process can be more than a little daunting. What should I have on it? How to link the pages? How to capture email addresses? And then once all that is done, what do I write about?

Without doubt, there are hundreds of guides out there to help make it easier. A search on Google or Youtube will return a bucket load of hits. All the insight you’ll need to achieve your goals.

Before you spend a small fortune on a website, start small and free. The sites that offer this are good for that even if the choices within the site are limited. You can pay for something later, once you’ve developed a feel for what you need and where you’re going with it.

Alas, most of the hits returned “free” in their title yet missed the point of the search request. I wasn’t looking to buy a domain name. Others had great, easy to follow instructions. That is until you started following and discovered the interface for the site in question had been updated. Menus and instructions no longer tallied to the video guide.

By recommendation, I went with WordPress. They have a free option and though the choices are limited, it provides the opportunity to build a site where the only cost is your time. It is not the most intuitive site to navigate your way round and there are more than a few things that I have yet to figure out, but I will get there even if the room turns blue with the language.

It has been a slow process for me and had some luckless salesperson decided to call at my door on Friday afternoon, my chosen genre for fiction would have changed from dark fantasy to true crime. Thankfully for all, that didn’t happen.

I am lucky enough to be in a writers group on Facebook where the interaction is involved and the writers—some published, others like me, still working toward it—are willing to put aside some time and help you achieve your goals. Not just in the writing but with anything else that’s related to being an author including the dreaded website.

That group is 13 Steps To Evil and is run by my good friend Sacha Black, villainous author of the book of the same name. I have her and those within the group to thank for all their encouragement and assistance in getting this site up and running.