New online courses @ Futurelearn

Last year I did a free online course with Futurelearn, all about Writing Ficiton.  The posts that I made during the course can be found here;

Week1 || Week 2 || Week 3 || Week 4 || Week 5 || Week 6 || Week 7 || Week 8 || Finished

I found the course quite helpful and, of course, it was free (providing you didn’t want to buy your completion certificate).

Well, I’ve been through their catalogue and have identified another two that have some literary / writing links and have enrolled for them also;

William Wordsworth – 4 hours per week for 4 weeks.

Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales – 4 hours per week for 6 weeks

As usual, I’ll be providing some level of review against them as I work through them and will put it all up on the blog.

There are also a couple more that sound interesting, but I just won’t have the time to commit to them.

Shakespeare and his World – 5 hours per week for 10 weeks

Literature of the English Country House – 3 hours per week for 6 weeks

I’m not endorsed in any way with regards to Futurelearn, but I would urge anyone who is looking to learn something new, and have some spare time to do it to take a look.

Killing Your Darlings – Writing Excuses

What are your darlings?

The Writing Excuses podcast suggests that ‘your darlings’ are parts of your writing that you have a particular fondness of to the point that you begin to wrap your plot around them, even if it becomes detrimental to said plot.

The most obvious type of darling will be a particular character that, for whatever reason, resonates with you more than the others. Very often it isn’t the villain nor the hero either but a cast member that we find difficult to keep in the background.

Further examples discussed were particular first lines that had the power to drive an entire story before it was accepted that the line didn’t quite fit the plot after all. From a visual point of view, an image can also be fundamental to the creative process, it can be the catalyst for an idea that underpins a particular novel (after all, we do say a picture paints a thousand words!).

Many of these are common areas and I can see why, especially if we’re utilising our notebooks to scribble down particular phrases or images that set off a spark deep within our imagination.

This isn’t a bad thing for our writing when it is done well, but when they begin to take over it can be a problem.

How do you recognise your darlings?

Quite often it isn’t the writer himself that will recognise them. Chances are, you’re too close to your writing to see the effect that your darling is having on the rest of the novel. The discussion on the podcast all had a similar point in common; that is, nearly all darlings were pointed out by external influences. Advice or criticism from writing groups, editors, agents and friends were all examples where darlings were pointed out, often to the surprise of the writer.

If you, or your writing, doesn’t have the benefit of such an audience, then a good tip is that if you’re finding yourself writing the same conversation, the same scene, the same chapter over and over again without resolution then you’re probably trying too hard sub-consciously to keep a darling alive.

When should you kill them?

Many of us already know the benefits of writing the first draft with the internal editor locked tightly away. Whilst this does enable the first draft to be written relatively free of changes, it does mean that our retrospective view of things isn’t used until the re-writing process. It is here that we get to look over what we’ve written and are able to decide what works, and what doesn’t. Doing it in this part of the process enables you to have a lot more of the novel available to compare your darling against.

A wonderful quote about when you should become detached enough from your writing to kill your darlings is, “… start getting paid for it. Money brings a whole new level of detachment.”

Why should you kill them?

Similarly to recognising them, your darlings often hide from the writer and, the deeper they hide, the more damage they can do to your writing. Without knowing it, that joke you thought was funny and just had to be included may not be funny to anyone else. You could keep a scene in the novel because you think it is wonderful when, in truth, it could be an immersion-breaker for all other readers.

It will be tough to do it and you may not want to do it but, if there is the slightest chance that it makes your novel better, surely it’s worth at least trying?

The podcast discusses how some authors will purpose pad their writing out with more words / characters / scenes than is really necessary just so they can go through the cutting process without really hitting the areas that matter. This isn’t condoned in the podcast but does make you realise just how far some people will go to avoid killing their darlings.

There was some good news on the podcast though; Brandon suggests that the more books you end up writing, the easier this process becomes as you become less detached with your books as the numbers increase. I don’t think this is a professional thing, you just naturally end up spending less time on each book, and therefore don’t build up the same relationships.

Where do your darlings go when they die?

Well, that depends on you. From my own experience, one of the biggest darlings I killed off was an entire chapter around a particular event. I wrote that event as the first chapter of a novel and kept it there for months before I finally realised there was very little action in it and it contained quite a bit of exposition.

I knew something was wrong when I kept starting my re-writing process from chapter 2. In the end I didn’t quite kill it off, rather I chopped it up into pieces; some of it became a prologue, some of it was introduced throughout the novel and the rest was fed to the DELETE key.

Alternatively (and this is mentioned in the podcast) I keep an ‘ideas’ folder in Scrivener that almost all darlings are sent to. It’s a kind of literary limbo. Every now and then I scan through them all to see if anything can be used in my current writing project. If I find something, I use the godly power of the writer to resurrect it and the whole process can start again.

In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson is able to retain his deleted scenes / characters on his website and allow them to live on without them affecting the novel that they initially inhabited.

Interesting advice

It was suggested that this topic can be a significant issue for new writers, especially those who have spent a long time working on their first project. I can certainly understand what is being suggested; my own first novel is almost ten years in the making and I personally feel I just HAVE to get it out of the way before I can settle down and move on to newer things.

If you are in a similar position to me, then the advice can be quite shocking.

The advice is that you are probably already too detached to elements of this particular novel and, if you continue, you will find it very difficult to kill your darlings successfully.

The old saying of having to write a million words before you become a good writer is discussed to the point that it shouldn’t all be from the same book i.e. don’t keep trying to hammer out something when you may be better off just starting something different.

Personally, whilst I know I’ve invested quite some time into my own particular project, I don’t think I’m able to give up on it just yet. Whether that means I’m in for a rough time later on, I’ll just have to wait and see.

Writing Excuses Episode 3, Season 1 has a fifteen minute discussion about this.

Publisher’s Weekly

The other day, James Scott Bell told me to subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly so I could get a better understanding of trends, fashions and news in the Publishing industry – apparently all good stuff for an aspiring writer.  Actually, I read it in one of his books but I know he was thinking of me when he wrote it.

Did I have time in my life for another magazine?  Probably not

Could I resist the urge to try the 30 day trial on Amazon?  Probably not

Three episodes in (weekly editions) and I’m finding it very interesting, although it is heavily US-based. The kindle edition makes it easy to read on my tablet and I find that I can get through most of a magazine in the space of a couple of dinner half-hours.

Got a few tidbits of information that I can add to the blog which can never be a bad thing.

Worldbuilding Basics #1: Campfires

Ah, the staple of a good fantasy novel; the campfire. Who hasn’t heard stories of heroes huddled around a campfire on a dark, cold night? Or the villain who hatches an evil plan whilst the flickering flames reflect in his eyes?

But how many have wondered if the fire had been built safely, or if the correct materials had been used?

There are a number of things that should happen before our heroes can relax into a night of warmth and safety.

Things to consider when choosing to build a fire

* On the run. A campfire can give provide a great source of both heat and light but if your heroes are hiding, or trying to be discrete, then maybe all that heat (and rising smoke) is burning a large hole in your plot instead. There’s a reason fires were used as signals hundreds of years ago – they can be seen for miles on a dark night.

* A rainy night. Much of the success in getting a campfire going will depend on how dry your materials are. It’s not to say that a campfire can’t be started following a heavy downpour, it just means your heroes may need to spend more time not only finding the dry materials to start the fire, but they’ll also have a harder job keeping it burning.


Where to build your fire

* Location, location, location. The location for a good fire can be driven by where your heroes are planning to spend the night; no point in building a fire in the open if it’s raining and there is a cave nearby. Similarly, if the cave is known to harbour wild animals, or a mythical beast, then it may be best for our heroes to keep walking. Protection from strong winds should also be a thought, especially if our heroes are camping in an exposed area.

* Safety first. Ideally, campfires should be built in a pit where the grass sods have been removed and stones have been placed inside. There should be no loose roots or vegetation that could possibly be ignited. Obviously, our heroes don’t want to bore the reader with this detail, but there should be some time allotted to the preparation of the fire.


What to collect for your fire

Apart from oxygen and a flame, the only other ingredient for our heroes’ fire is fuel;

* Tinder. Small shavings of wood, or twigs.

* Kindling. These are larger sticks around the thickness of our heroes’ fingers

* Fuel. Any kind of wood ranging in size from kindling to small logs. Remember that carrying logs can be heavy work so perhaps the burly warrior should manage this rather than the frail cleric.


What kind of fire to build

Three of the most commonly used fires are covered below;

* Teepee. Possibly the most common type of fire used for bonfires, this design requires the tinder and kindling to be placed in the centre of the fire pit and the fuel to be built up around it in a teepee, or pyramid, shape. As the fire burns, more fuel is added around the sides. This type of fire generates tall flames and is good in winds.

* A-Frame. This type of fire is the one most people use for cooking, the design requires the kindling to be built in the shape of an ‘A’ with the tinder collected in the centre. To keep this fire burning, the fuel is added directly onto the A-frame. This type of fire is the quickest to establish.

* Log cabin. This type is possibly the longest lasting and easiest to maintain. The design of the log cabin fire ensures that the pile of tinder in the centre is surrounded with stacks of kindling and fuel at right angles forming a box. The stacking will also enable more oxygen to reach the flames.


Lighting the fire

Again, your novel can dictate this. If matches exist in your world, then viola! Similarly if magic is prevalent and there is a (responsible) mage amongst your heroes then problem solved. For most other situations, a flint and steel would be most commonly used;

* Fierce, but fragile. The first few breaths of fire can rage quickly and are easily extinguished. Due to this, our heroes should try to block as much wind as they can (wide dwarves are helpful here). Once the flint and steel are used to create a spark, the tinder will burn quickly. Ideally the tinder should be lit in a number of places to ensure the fire grows rather than burns out.

* As the fire grows. Our heroes should ensure that more tinder is added as quickly as the fire can devour it. Don’t risk overpowering the flames with too much too soon, only add more when the previous fuel is burning.

* Now we’re cooking. Not quite yet, but our heroes should continue to add bigger and bigger pieces to the fire, ideally in a kind of overlapping pattern. Save your biggest logs for when fire is fully established and the cooking pots are ready, although remember that food should be cooked over slow burning embers, not raging flames.


Maintaining the fire

* Brrr. If the fire begins to die or becomes a pile of slow burning embers, it is possible to re-ignite the flames by gently blowing on a particular spot. This should obviously only be done from the side of the fire (and definitely NOT by the bearded dwarf).

* Tossing the caber. It’s perfectly natural to want to add more fuel to the fire to keep it burning. But this should be done in a controlled manner, not by simply throwing logs into the flames. This only risks damaging the structure of the fire and could potentially cause sparks to fly.

Anyone remember this famous poem?

There once was a maiden called Claire

Who spent a night in the woods for a dare,

She threw logs on the fire,

Settled down to retire,

And woke in the morn with no hair!

* First watch. It is not considered safe to sleep next to a lit fire. However, all good fantasy novels require at least one person to keep watch. This person has a responsibility to keep the group safe from wild animals, enemies and to keep the campfire going.


Putting the fire out

When the time comes to put the fire out, there is a safe method to follow. Again, the plot of the novel may allow the time for this, or it may require a quick kick of dirt to kill the flames.

* One night or two. Any small embers can be put out with a sprinkling of water. Any more than that and you risk soaking the area and giving yourself problems for the next night. The embers should be turned over with a stick or branch to ensure all is wet and extinguished.

* The Travellers Code. Some travellers live to a code where they prepare a fire pit for the next person to come along (most commonly used in wooded huts). Others, such as rangers or druids, prefer to pass through without impacting nature too much. If this is the case, then the fire pit should be filled back in but only once the fire is completely cold. This is a decision for your heroes to make.

Returning to your book…

I returned to my book today, it was exactly where I left it. More importantly, it was exactly how I left it; unfinished chapters, annotated sections, broken timelines. I’ve neglected it to the point that it doesn’t need ‘more’ work, just work.

Remember the saying “Can’t see the wood for the trees?” It means you spend too much time focusing on individual parts that you begin to lose view on the one big thing you were trying to accomplish.

This is where I am, and am sure others are, at the moment….

The reason for this blog was to keep me driven in my goal to finish the draft within a year. That was in 2013, and it didn’t happen. I’ve done similar for 2014, yet already I have made a start, and completed, a few short stories, gotten involved in world-building for my novel, and am looking to get a website up and running. Furthermore, I’ve continued with my Fantasy/Sci-fi book lists, as well as my non-fiction writing book list.

You may have something different, but they are all trees; the wood that is your novel is fading away amidst the flurry of you doing other things.

We don’t want that to happen. We can’t allow that to happen. We have to put in the effort.

The first draft of my novel is currently around 83000 words and I’ve estimated that it is around 45% complete. I have a baseline plan for around 300 words a day and an average of 2000 words a week. At that rate, I will complete my first draft this year at the latest.

I don’t know how far along your novel is, nor what plan you need to get it back on-track, but you should do it now. Step back from some of those trees and, hopefully, this time next year I won’t be writing a similar post.

My updates will be tracked on this page.

Book # 13 King Rat by China Mieville

Just finished reading this and I have to say, it wasn’t what I was expecting.  I hadn’t read any of the back cover (e-books) and hadn’t read any of China’s other books.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the book; a modern story with a twist on an old fairy tale. I felt it was put together very well with some good characters that you rooted for.  Excellent description of the city of London made it feel like a character in itself.

Enjoyed it that much that I’ve now added China to my huge list of twitter followings (it’s now a total of three with Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss for company).

Book # 6 – Ready Player One

The throne melted and morphed into an old coin-operated videogame cabinet.  Two joysticks protruded from its control panel, one yellow and one blue.  I couldn’t help but grin as I read the name on the game’s backlit marquee; JOUST, Williams Electronics, 1982.

“Best two out of three games.” Acererak rasped. “If you win, I shall grant you what you seek.”

“What if you win?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“If I am victorious,” the lich said, the rubies in his eye sockets blazing even brighter, “then you shall die!” A ball of swirling orange appeared in his right hand. He raised it threateningly.

“Of course,” I said. “That was my first guess. Just wanted to double-check.”

The fireball in Acererak’s hand vanished.  He stretched out his leather palm, which now held two shiny quarters. “The games are on me,” he said.

Wade fights an undead lich in a deadly game of Joust in Ready Player One.


Before I start, I should say that I’m not sure I’ve read a book like this before.  It probably sits within the Sci-Fi genre, but has elements from other genres, such as fantasy and mystery.

The story is set in a world where a global recession has been underway for a number of years and rather than address the world going under, humans do what they do best – ignore it and log in to a virtual world where the possibilities are endless. (Think Matrix dipped in whatever genre you prefer).

The originator of the virtual world, OASIS dies and decides to leave his massive fortune to whomever is first to solve a set of clues / Easter eggs hidden within the worlds. Our protagonist is Wade, a rag-tag kid with little else happening in his life other than logging in to OASIS.  Furthermore, he is so poor that he cannot afford to leave the school ‘world’ like all his friends. So, he decides to devote all of his spare time to solving this mystery, although with a prize pot of over $100 Billion he isn’t alone.

A journey ensues that takes the reader through many different virtual destinations as the race begins to get underway as the clues are found – all of this is shown via a High Score screen that most of the planet eagerly watch. The pace increases as different people unravel the clues and the barriers to the goal begin to fall quicker and quicker.  All of these lead us to an ending that culminates wonderfully in a style akin to an action movie mixed with the fighting elements of a World of Warcraft raid.

If that wasn’t enough (ok, my inner geek is grinning), there are so many references to 80’s pop culture that anyone lucky enough to be around in that decade (which I was), will be reminiscing with a great big smile on their faces.  (I hit Youtube so many times during the reading of this book just to look up old TV programs, games and music videos).

Aside from the core elements of the story itself, Cline has clearly done some research in this area and many of his ideas could easily become real, if they aren’t already, such as having to attend virtual school where the a hologram of a teacher reads out the lessons, and the students are automatically muted so they can’t be disruptive.

A little bit of information about the author himself shouldn’t go amiss here.  Ernest Cline, whilst having a name that reminds me of someone from the 40’s or 50’s, was actually born in 1972 (hence the affection for the 80’s) and is the brains behind the movies, Fanboys.  This movie is about a group of Star Wars fans who have a friend suffering from terminal cancer.  They decide to break him into George Lucas’ house so he can watch an un-released version of The Phantom Menace


Book # 5 – Mistborn: The Final Empire

Eventually, she spoke. “So..what does this all mean?”

Kelsier smile. “It means that you, Vin, are a very special person.  You have a power that most high noblemen envy.  It is a power that, had you been born an aristocrat, would have made you one of the most deadly and influential people in all of the Final Empire.”

Kelsier leaned forward again. “But, you weren’t born an aristocrat. You’re not noble, Vin. You don’t have to play by their rules – and that makes you even more powerful.”

(Kelsier informing Vin that she has some very special powers).


In Mistborn; The Final Empire (part of the Mistborn trilogy), Brandon Sanderson writes an epic fantasy novel wrapped around a heist plot, adds an excellent magic system, known as Allomancy, and places it all in an ash-laden city, surrounded by mists and in a world where the dark lord actually won. Phew..  There is a LOT of world-building / history related to this series.

This story has so many great elements; humour is good, action scenes are well written and some of the violent scenes are in grim detail. The class system between Skaa and noblemen is developed and explained throughout the story rather than in a grand piece of exposition.  Also, the ‘blurb’ at the head of each chapter provides additional information, but in a format that you don’t expect.

The main characterisation is very good; Kelsier is a strong character with history and Vin is someone who you can sympathise with. However, the rest of the ‘crew’ don’t seem to instil the same feelings, whether that is by design or not…

However, I have to admit that when I tried to read this book last year I didn’t get further than the first hundred pages.  I didn’t dislike it, nor was I put off by the thickness of the book (I like reading epic fantasy). I just stopped reading it.

This time around, for whatever reason, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The pace picked up throughout the book with the later chapters keeping me reading long after I should have gone to sleep.

In keeping with my rule of not reading a trilogy sequentially, my new book will be Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.