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The Mislaid Art of Storytelling

July 2, 2019

It’s July of 2019. If you’re reading this blog, you can likely write creatively. You’re probably thinking about writing a novel, or you’re already writing one. At some point, some way down the line, at the back of your mind, you’re probably thinking it might get published.

The chances of that are very high in the era of 2019. You have various options. The least likely is traditional publishing, although you will spend a disproportionate amount of time pursuing it.

If you want your book available to a broad audience rather than ignored by a few, to own a real physical copy of your book, then indie is an option.

Whether you are going traditional or indie, there is one crucial detail you will probably mislay along the way which is story, or rather good storytelling.

There are two types of book writers in my experience, and you can work out which you are by how you describe what you’re doing. If you’re writing a novel, congratulations, you are among the 99.8% of writers who can write, who have a great idea but are unable to give that idea to an audience, and by give I mean make it an entertaining story. Call it stubborn, ego, apathy, self-interest, insecurity or a lack of insight.

If you’re a writer who believes you’re telling a story and the only thing that matters is the wider audience, then you’re very rare. It has to be said neither is more likely to be successful, but one is more likely to entertain an audience.

So how do you become a storyteller over a novel writer? The first step is to realise what an audience expect from a story, in a nutshell, they want to know:

The world and timeframe, to be hooked by dynamic characters very quickly, to understand the story stakes and dramatic theme.

What is the false goal the characters pursue during the extraordinary journey that has them fall in love and discover hidden qualities and even a few nasty traits? What forces them to take control in the middle of the story, what truth do they learn fighting increasing odds, in the face of despair and even death?

How do they use this uncertain truth to face the bad guys, and how does the conflict resolve? How does the theme punch you emotionally, have you thinking about the characters after the credits or the last page has turned?

If a story doesn’t deliver all this, the audience instinctively knows something is missing without necessarily knowing what that something is. As a fully paid-up member of the audience, how will you know your novel is hitting the required marks as a storyteller, as an author?

I thought you’d never ask.

If I tell you story requires structure you will roll your eyes. I know, right! You’re creating art! You’re not writing to a formula!

Let’s consider whether you would buy from an artist who visibly doesn’t understand the foundations of composition? Or from a musician who audibly doesn’t understand the principles of rhythm?

The problem with novel writing is that our entry point is an ability to write well, we’re well educated, the page to page works, it’s misleading. Our broader perspective of story is built on a lifetime spent as a consumer. It’s instinctive.

It should be no surprise to discover telling a good story is as challenging to master as fine art or good music. While a few take to it naturally, 99.8% of us will have to graft to gain insight.

Getting hold of the right material to learn from can be confusing, there are a lot of people ready to take your money, a whole bunch of books to buy. I would buy just two:

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (great for the essential structure)

K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story structure, plot and character development (the absolute reference for blending everything else).

Then understanding story structure and character arc is just the beginning, seeing it implemented across a broad scope of fiction is necessary to build our storytellers muscle memory, our point of reference.

These past few years, I’ve been doing just that, breaking down story to gain insight into how it’s put together. The last year I’ve been figuring how best to breakdown a story as a video, to learn and share that knowledge. I think I’m getting there.

The first video is linked below: Monsters Inc. The breakdown is on YouTube. It’s free. You’re welcome.

You don’t have to be mad to be a writer…

June 1, 2019

I haven’t really talked about what happened to me back in December 2017.

It’s taken me quite some time (and quite a bit of therapy) to work it out for myself which means I can now cut to the chase and tell you that I had a breakdown. I was signed off work for three months with depression and spent another three months gradually building back up to working full time.

During most of 2017 I wrote not a word, save vomiting up the odd sanity preserving (or so I thought) piece of flash fiction. Each was a little darker than the last. Each a little harder to write.

Just before Christmas 2017 I started counselling with a fantastic lady called Julie.

For six weeks I cried like I have never cried before.

Crying is underrated – it’s incredibly cathartic.

Julie asked me what I wanted to get out of her sessions – I didn’t have an immediate answer, but eventually we got to the point where I knew what I wanted. I wanted my head to be empty of the noise that filled my quiet place and I wanted to be able to write again.

It seemed impossible. I could not see how I would ever find my quiet place again, my brain a constant, torturing buzz of angst and doubt and failure.

Julie knew I had my writer’s retreat just after our penultimate session together. Somehow, she got me to a place where the noise was at least subdued. A slim chance that I might be able to write something at the retreat. I didn’t know what, just something…

I decided that I was going to try and write a story for the Fantastic Books Publishing Fire and Ice Fantasy Anthology Competition. Somewhere, amongst the dusty shelves of stories long abandoned and jars filled with the pickled remnants of old ideas there was a flicker of life. There was an old story, a really old story, that was the seed for a novel that I started when I was sixteen (but never finished), joined WordWatchers twelve years ago intending to resurrect (I never have). It was a story about Fire and Ice and, to get away from the buzz, I went back to my childhood quiet place and there was the story – dusty, tatty, neglected, but still alive, waiting for some love and attention.

So, amazingly, I wrote that story. I’m a much better writer now and I wrote the 1500 words over the weekend and was confident enough to read it out to the rest of the group on our last night at the retreat. We literally told stories around a roaring fire…

The story was well received, sensible suggestions were made. Edits were duly undertaken and then, with nothing to lose, I submitted it to the competition …

… then … nothing. Months, indeed a year went by before I found out story had indeed made the longlist for the anthology. I waited with baited breath – would I make the final cut? It would take a couple more months, but yes, I would be in the anthology.

My edits came back from the FBP’s editors at the end of April. They were reasonable and very doable. Unfortunately they arrived exactly when I was also struggling with my mental health again. I procrastinated for a whole month. Eventually I begged for, and was granted a one week extension to the deadline for the return of the edits and, reminding myself of something important I had promised myself, I finished the edits one Saturday morning a few weeks ago.

So, that’s it. The Anthology ‘The Forge’ will be available in early August 2019, over 18 months since I wrote, ‘Elemental Sacrifice’.

I’ll be buying the usual number of copies to have on the bookshelf at home, but I’ll be buying two extra copies – one for my GP who has been amazing during the last 18 months (and only discovered I was a writer during our more in-depth heart-to-hearts in his surgery) and, of course, a copy for Julie, who got me writing again, when I truly believed such a thing was not possible.

Before I go, I’d also like to say that I could not have done any of this without the support of my amazing family and without my brilliant friends in WordWatchers.

I love you all.

Last week (at time of writing) it was Mental Health Awareness Week – but every week should be Mental Health Awareness Week – we don’t talk about it enough, it comes with all sorts of negative connotations, but, at the end of the day, Mental Health is just ‘Health’.

Take care of yourself and, as always, thank you for your time.

John Hoggard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE (24th July 2019): ‘The Forge: Fire and Ice’ was released on July 14th in Paperback: http://www.wordwatchers.net/books/the-forge-fire-and-ice/ 

Author John Hoggard is smiling while holding up a copy of the Sci-Fan Anthology 'The Forge: Fire and Ice'

‘The Forge: Fire and Ice’

How to Deliver a Writer’s Group Critique (as painlessly as possible without losing the message).

May 7, 2019

This is a wry but honest series of observations on the peculiarities of human behaviour that sometimes distract us from the true path of offering good advice to other writers. Frankly, there are as many opinions of how to do this properly as there are members of my group, but this is my take.

Delivering a good critique is not all about nailing all the defects in a piece of writing. Everyone is different, and how person on the end of the critique will receive this information should determine the way it is delivered. So, as well as being experts at communicating ideas to on the page, we need to use emotional intelligence to determine the best way to deliver the critique to someone we probably know well.

There are all too human quirks that we all possess to some degree that need some attenuation to deliver a good critique. Most of these are traits that I have observed in myself, both in giving and receiving critiques. It is useful to identify the tell-tale signs in terms of their outward manifestation so that we can identify these tendencies in ourselves as we slide over the rim of the fiery pit of self-indulgence!

Receiving the critique is like having red-hot coals inserted into your brain. Receiving a critique is nonetheless a good thing. How can this be? The trick is to listen to what’s being said, establish exactly what the critiquer is saying, then move on. This is easier said than done. I’ve observed mature and well-adjusted people either close to tears or wailing in despair (mostly me) during this process, so it’s important to remember what it’s all for.

No matter how perfect we think our story is, it’s quite likely that unless we’re God’s-Gift to the literary world, there will be many issues that need attention. The aim is for a group of writers, used to searching for errors in their work, to do the same with our own work. If they are doing their job properly, they will find a lot of areas of concern. There are two reasons for this: we will have become overfamiliar with our own work, and also because their strengths and weaknesses will be different to ours. This applies equally to published writers and those of us still toiling in the foothills.

Critiquing in a writers’ group follows two principle pathways: a considered written review and a discussion face to face. However, both methodologies are susceptible to being handled badly by the unprepared critiquer and critiquee. The individual being critiqued needs to be aware of the potential pitfall of not being receptive to criticism, in which case all the hard work of the rest of the group will have been in vain. Equally important though is the need for those delivering the critique to fulfil the primary objective of this process: to assist with improving the work of the recipient. What can interfere with this process?

Let’s deal with the most obvious and overarching problem: to forget that the objective is to help the recipient. The job is not to merely find fault, but to pick out the areas that need attention, and present them in a way that will help the writer to improve. Bombarding the writer with a blizzard of petty faults  will not help this process; they’ll just switch off and move on to the next issue. Far better to pick out one or two glaring examples. This principle applies to writing defects large and small, but you’re wasting your time by flagging them all up without supplying underpinning evidence.

But this is not about what, specifically, these individual faults might be…

All common sense, you might say, but if we drill deeper, what areas get in the way of following this simple principle? The answer is, unsurprisingly, human nature.

When we start to review another person’s work, one emotion we experience is relief. It is our opportunity to remind ourselves that others in the group are human after all. If not properly checked, this relief can give way to overconfidence: the conviction that surely this evidence of fallibility must be the result of one’s superior writing skills. The horses are then in danger of bolting in the direction of showcasing one’s own skills, rather than gently guiding the perhaps fragile ego of the recipient in the right direction! Rather like the Roman Emperors of glory past, we need to have a slave standing on the footplate of our chariots whispering in our ears to remind us that we are merely human.

Character clashes can get in the way of delivering an objective critique. There seems to be no such thing as a generic writing personality: we are as diverse as the society we occupy. As a result, we might enter into the process with a preconceived notion of the kind of faults we are looking for and our comments can be coloured by our view of the individual. This also works in reverse, of course, and we might be susceptible to judging a friends work more favourably. Whilst this is common practice in the book endorsement world, we should try to hold ourselves above such pettiness. We are not helping our friends by giving a ringing endorsement to a book that everyone else judges as flawed. Furthermore, that friend will not be able to trust you to deliver an objective view on later critiques.

Some purists, be they of grammar, history, logical consistency, or setting out on the page, become overheated in the process of reviewing a piece of work. We are usually out of our comfort-zone, not only in terms of writing style, but also of genre. As a result, quite naturally, the process of hacking though unrelenting pages that we are not necessarily enjoying, generate a tension. If we then encounter one or more problems in the course of reviewing the work, our language can become more emotive and more combative.

Closely related, and perhaps linked to the above, is the critique that’s been completed with a side order of beer/whisky/Merlot: name your brew. The symptoms are similar to the foregoing and can slide further towards hyperbole as the evening progresses. Yes, I do like a drink now and again!

These problems can be easily be remedied once we acknowledge they can potentially exist. We have an obligation to do the best job we can for the others in the writing group. As someone said to me recently, it is a high complement just for someone to want to read your work, whatever the basis. The simple solution to all these problems is to reread and edit before sending.

None of this relieves the recipient of the responsibility of intelligently interpreting the critique, no matter how painful the process. Very few people will undertake a critique with the intention of doing anything other than giving good and helpful advice.

As a worst-case scenario, I have read, though not personally experienced, instances of what I call the nil-sum reviewer. Such people populate the internet, especially online review sites and chat-rooms. I have heard stories about such a person in a writing group saying to another “Well if you managed to get that published, then we’re all in with a chance”. The objective here was denigrate others work in order to elevate his or her own. The giveaway here is when the reviewer leads with a value laden judgement of the piece, clearly designed to have an emotional impact rather than something to help the recipient.

Each member of the group will learn from the experience of critiquing. The process of spotting problems within a piece of writing serves to consolidate our existing understanding of writing techniques, as well as affording the opportunity to learn a few new tricks in the area where the subject writer excels. Critiquing work is therefore as much a part of the normal writing day as much as any other work production.

The vital final stage of submitting a critique is to re-read, especially the inline comments, on a later occasion. Have I been heavy handed in communicating that point? Am I needlessly using emotive language in putting that point across? Do the comments I’ve made represent my overall view of the MS – is the criticism proportionate? It only takes a few extra minutes to carry out this check. Overriding all of this is the consideration that you are helping the subject of the review, not airing your own knowledge or trying to identify every single error. To forget this simple principle risks doing more harm than good.

Good writing is not undertaken fearfully. The imagination of good writer is uninhibited and the ideas will flow directly onto the page unencumbered by self-doubt or the fear of harsh criticism. The overall objective of a writer’s critique is to improve the quality of the subjects writing by offering constructive advice. Clearly, the critique has to be honest, even if that means delivering unexpectedly bad news. But the tone and method of that message is key to the difference between a good and a bad critique.

 

Oliver Randle

7 May 2019

Fiction Therapy

April 7, 2019

Long before I started writing fiction, I was aware of the therapeutic benefits of writing, particularly for someone like me who is not quick thinking and articulate.  It takes me time to put words together and by then the opportunity to speak them may have passed.

 

I first started to understand how it could be therapeutic for other people when I worked for a number of years for a boss who had an unfortunate habit of always speaking his mind.  Some saw this as a virtue, but it didn’t always make him friends.  However, outspoken remarks can be glossed over, re-interpreted and explained.  The written word is less forgiving.

 

It became a problem when a letter came into the office that contained a complaint.  He found any criticism difficult to cope with.   ‘Let me draft something for you’ I would say.

 

‘No, no need.  I can reply to this’.  He would take it away and cover several sheets with angry scribble, pressing so hard that his words punctured the paper.  The sheets would then be put on my desk for typing.  ‘This is what I want to say and I don’t want you to change anything.’

 

Having read through the pages of vitriol, I would set about drafting a response that took quite a different approach, one that would promote better understanding while avoiding antagonising the recipient.  He always signed without a murmur and once it was in the post, I could shred the closely written sheets.

 

This made me recognise how important it was to him to be able to write down his feelings, but how equally important it was to be careful how these words were shared.

 

When I started writing fiction, I realised what a perfect vehicle it is for feelings and emotions that can’t otherwise be easily expressed.

 

Fictional characters almost always develop from real life models.  The unpleasant characters are sometimes the easiest to create.  When I shared my first novel with work colleagues, one of my characters made them fall about laughing.  This was not because the character was in any way amusing, but because they recognised the source.  I had been on the receiving end of this person’s unpleasantness many times and writing the character had given me great satisfaction.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have given him a name and occupation so similar to the model.  I’ve now changed a few non-essentials, but kept the essence of this character’s unpleasant nature.  Every story needs a villain or two. Another aspect of writing villains is that you have to explore what makes them the way they are.  This can bring greater understanding and even empathy.

 

The characters closest to the writer tend to have something of the writer in them.  They are the characters that the writers may use to express their own emotions, feelings and views.  Probably they will have some personal enhancements that the writer quite fancies.  They may be bigger and stronger or prettier and more agile.   Almost certainly, they will be more articulate, able to express themselves exactly as the writer would wish.

 

One of the great things about writing fiction is the opportunity it provides for exploration.  This can be the exploration of relationships or the environment.

 

Most of my writing has involved the exploration of relationships.  We all want to know what makes other people tick. Once you place one character you have created in the vicinity of another and allow them to interact, the result can be quite unexpected.  As you start to ask the big ‘what if’ question, you can allow your characters to act out your deepest anxieties and desires without any real life bloodshed.  It can be a very liberating experience and teach you a lot about human nature and incidentally about yourself.

 

Exploring the environment is something else.  Perhaps you have longed to travel to other countries or closer to home to see what’s behind the door of that house half way down the street that doesn’t seem to fit in with all the other houses.  You can send your fictional character on a journey to find out more.  If your own street seems a bit dull, then you can carry this to extremes and build a whole other world. If you hate the political system, you can make up your own and find out how it could work.  The possibilities are endless and may help to reconcile you to life as it is on planet earth.

 

You could start by collecting stories.  They really are all around you and people use them in all sorts of ways.  There may only be seven basic stories, but the variations are limitless. You only have to listen to a television debate or be present at a business meeting and sooner or later someone will come up with a story. It may not start ‘once upon a time’, but you will learn recognise the various openings that people use.  It will probably be a story that has been told a million times and each time it has been embroidered a little to make it more amusing or more interesting or to hammer home a point.  Names may have been changed to protect the innocent or not so innocent. It has become more fiction than fact so that in the end the two may be difficult to separate.

 

Most children are able to escape into imaginary worlds when the going becomes tough in this one.  At school we are encouraged to write stories.  As we get older and life becomes more serious, many of us lose this ability.  Day dreaming has no place in an adult world obsessed with facts and figures.  Perhaps fiction therapy could help people unlock this under-used area of the brain and find fulfilment in creativity.

Photograph of Pam Pheasant

Pam Pheasant

Post Retreat

February 3, 2019

So, it is Sunday February 3rd. One week ago it was our last night at Mill House Retreat in Devon.

Mill House Retreat

The fire was roaring and we gathered in the main room to talk and to read. We talked about lots of interesting technical things related to writing. The use of the passive voice, the five act structure, our plans for the group in the year ahead…

Then we each agreed to read something to the rest of the group that we had written over the weekend. I think this is my favourite part of the weekend.

Pam got us going, reading a beautiful piece about using writing as therapy. As somebody who has a child who has used ‘art therapy’ as a coping mechanism for their anxiety and depression, Pam’s reading really resonated with me. I really hope you she turns it into a blog and you get to read it too, because it’s wonderful.

I’m not sure who went next, but I think it was Julian, who read from a new chapter on his current WIP that he’s been working on while on the Curtis Brown Course in London for the last six months. It was a wonderful insight into how the novel has developed since we critiqued it as a group last year. I like the change in direction and the reasons Julian has made it. There was some feedback from the group – positive plus some suggestions that Julian said he would take away and ponder.

I will pretend Helen went next who read from something very new for her – a children’s story. Written from scratch over the weekend. At 1200 words long, she read the whole story out and it was engaging and fun and we can all see the potential for a long running series of stories from this single idea. It was great to hear Helen doing something new in the run up to her starting a new writing course with her main WIP.

I think I might have gone next – I read three pieces of Flash Fiction I’d written/rewritten/remastered from snippets of ideas I had trapped in the amber of my 75-word stories that I often submit to Paragraph Planet. All were well received, I particularly liked Helen’s reaction to my final story about a werewolf. The thought of her expression will have me smiling for a long time to come. Of course the group made some very sensible suggestions and I edited the stories the following morning (just before leaving the retreat) and two days later I had submitted the entire Flash Fiction Anthology to the competition I’d been hoping to enter.

I have to say here that trying to chose from well over 150 pieces of flash fiction and then to down select, re-edit, re-write or just abandon some, to make what I hope is a coherent collection of Flash Fiction was much harder than I thought it would be. And, other than this blog, I haven’t written a word since I submitted the collection, as my tank of creativity is empty and only filling slowly.

Right – back to the evening. John Potter read next (I’m pretty sure). He gave us a chapter that contained a thrilling, fast paced fight scene from his futuristic but low-tech WIP. The group’s only criticism of the piece was that the fight was a little too long. John agreed and, like me, editing that section before he too, finally departed the retreat the next day.

Finally, Maurice, who has put himself in the unenviable position of having two novel writing projects on the go. The piece he read out that evening was from the first novel he started. As ever, Maurice is the master storyteller, he has a knack in both his writing and reading to spin you a yarn that on one level is somehow filled with the mundane and yet is absolutely real and engrossing. I’m really looking forward to reading the whole novel when it’s finished.

So, that’s it – a blog written almost as quickly as the weekend seemed to pass.

I am very lucky to be in such an amazing group and to feel completely safe reading to them (something that I had only finished a few minutes before reading it!), knowing that an points or criticisms will be aimed entirely at making the story better.

Mill House Retreats is a balm for the bruised writer’s soul and ego. It also seems to do the group as a whole a great deal of good too – we always seem to leave more invigorated, keener, with just a smidgen more self-belief our unofficial tagline – ‘Serious about Writing’.

WordWatchers pose for a group photo on our last evening of our retreat.

 

A retreat, but no surrender

January 19, 2019

This time next week I will be at Mill House Retreat a beautiful old house in Devon. This will be the second time we will have been there and almost exactly a year since we were there last. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a year has really gone past. In some ways, so much has changed, and in others so little…

In the month before the last retreat, a few weeks before Christmas, I finally admitted that I had depression. It was not the Christmas present I had been expecting. I was off work and at my lowest ebb. I had stopped writing and I didn’t see the point in going to the retreat.

My family and my fellow WordWatchers were amazing, they rallied round and got me to the retreat. The atmosphere of Mill House was calming and soothing and over the weekend I tentatively started to write again – unsure if I actually had a story in me – but at least willing to give it a go.

I wrote a story, themed around ‘fire and ice’ for a competition that my publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing, was running at the time. I wrote the story – I read it out to my fellow WordWatchers on our final evening, sitting round a roaring fire. I could not have asked for a better scene, atmosphere or audience. Responses to the story were positive, suggestions to tweak it were insightful and were, over the next week or so, made.

I submitted the story.

It was long listed.

I was as surprised as I was delighted. I could still write!

The story is currently in a state of limbo since FBP haven’t announced how many of the long listed stories will actually make it into the Anthology. I really hope I do make it into the anthology, not for me, not really, but because I told my counsellor that I just wanted to write again. She helped me achieve that. I’d really like to present her with a copy, as a thank-you, for being my guide from the darkness back into the light.

So, throughout 2018 I ‘ticked over’ – low dose antidepressants, practising my CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and lots of walking. I presumed I was doing OK. I wasn’t writing much, but I had several short stories accepted for publication and I had half a dozen 75-worders published on Paragraph Planet.

I took a chunk of November and all of December off work to spend time with my family, in particular my wife, Vee, who was recovering from major spinal surgery. I mostly ignored work, I cut back on my time on Facebook (and was so much better for doing so) and we, as a family, had a lovely Christmas.

I returned to work at the beginning of January to discover, in my absence, a course that I ran, that had been cancelled the year before, was no longer cancelled and that I had less than a month to get it organised to be run again. That’s when I discovered that depression, like many other illnesses, isn’t cured, it just goes into remission. I felt overwhelmed again, heard the little voices whispering the excuses I could make to not go to work today, or not even get out of bed.

I went back to my GP immediately. We had a really good chat. He doubled my antidepressants (still a low dose, but, also, still doubled) and wants me to get a refresher on my CBT, to make sure I haven’t picked up any bad habits over the last year.

So, here we are again. The WordWatchers retreat is upon us and I’m depressed again. I’m nowhere near as unwell as I was last year and I’m much better equipped to cope, but this blog is the most I’ve written in several months. So, I have set myself a target. There’s a flash fiction anthology competition being run by EllipsisZine which has a closing date a few days after the retreat. I intend to enter that competition.

Wish me luck! I think I might need it.

As ever, I thank-you for your time.

John Hoggard

National Flash Fiction Day

June 16, 2018

This isn’t actually a blog, which, considering how long it has been since any member of WordWatchers wrote a blog, that’s rather embarrassing, however, that’s a discussion for another day.

Today, June 16th, is National Flash Fiction Day – or it is, here in the UK – and looking a the links to the flood of tweets with that or the #NFFD hastag on Twitter has been a delight to follow.

So, this all ties in rather nicely with the fact that I recently submitted 3 drabbles to a new Science Fiction magazine, The Martian Magazine and the editor, Eric Fomley, chose one of them to be included in the forthcoming run of the magazine. He’s actually paying for the stories too – 10¢ a word, so my 100 word drabble is worth $10. It’s been a while since I was actually paid for my writing and I forgot what a lovely feeling you get from the phrase ‘I’ll send a contract over’ appearing in an email. Also, because Eric is actually paying for work, he’s trying to raise funds with an Indiegogo campaign, so he can publishing more stories, more often and pay more writers for their efforts.

So, I have two ‘spare’ drabbles and I have decided that today, of all days, would be a perfectly reasonable day to share them.

 

Enjoy.

 

I hope.


It’s a Dangerous Place

 

Somewhere en route between the Earth and Moon a transport shuttle transmits the briefest of Mayday calls. Two rescue ships power away from the nearest orbital station and head for its last known position.

Against the pinpricked blackness of space, a bloom of orange appears. It expands like the time-lapsed swelling of a mushroom cap. Moments later ribbons of swirling fire erupt from the perfect sphere. They are as beautiful as they are deadly.

The fires flare and fade to nothing. Sensors indicate that there is nothing left to be rescued.

The ships return to dock, crews offering silent prayers.


Life on Mars

 

The shutter winds noisily upwards, filling the small, metallic room with a pale, red light. I glance at the clock beside the bed noting both Earth and Martian time. The sun is already quite high in the sky, but it’s still early morning for the base as we slowly become accustomed to the length of a day here.

It used to be strange, thinking that I would die on Mars, but I look to my side, where Rachel still sleeps, and I realise I will live here, and eventually, like all humans, no matter where they are, I will die.


 

As ever, thank you for your time,

John Hoggard

Guarding your Manuscript against Computer Gremlins

November 12, 2017

A writing buddy recently lost half the book they’re writing to a failing disk drive. That was over 20,000 hard to come by words gone in the time it takes to smack the palm of your hand hard against your forehead.

I’m always stunned when I find writers like my buddy invested huge amounts of time and energy in the creativity of planning, research, and writing of their books. To find they spent no time looking into protecting that work from the myriad failures you should readily expect your laptop/PC/Mac to inflict on you. Especially when there’s no need for the worst kind of failure to lose you more than a paragraph at most.

Computers are complex, consisting of thousands of small and fragile components. They are designed to last on average 3-4 years, manufactured at extremely low cost to be sold for very low margin. They’re susceptible to damage by repeated fluctuations in heat, impact, wear and tear, contact with the environment. Or they will randomly fail because they really were cheap in the first place.

Compounding this is Microsoft’s Word, which you’re probably using to build your narrative, with the whole manuscript likely contained in one document. Word was designed for writing letters and reports. The bigger the Word document the increased risk you have of something nasty randomly happening.

Let’s start with simple steps for minimising risk.

Separate Word Documents

Consider breaking your book into separate word documents which will reduce the size of the working file. If the current document is corrupted or lost at least the rest of the book is retained in these separate files. As a starting point consider breaking the book document into first half and second half, or first act, second act, third act. Separating each act into two documents would be my preference, leaving you with six documents in a finished manuscript.

Backup Copy

Turn on ‘Always make a backup Copy’ from Word Options, Advanced, Save.
This will make a full copy of your document every time you save. You will always have a pristine copy of the whole document to the point of the last save even if chaos leads you randomly down the rabbit hole after that save.

Autorecover Frequency

Autorecover saves the changes made to the document since the last save. A sudden failure in Word means you will lose up to 10 minutes of work with the default settings. You can change the frequency of these saves from Word, Options, Save, Autorecover. I would drop this down to the lowest level that works with your computer’s ability to do this without interrupting your writing, starting at 1 minute.

Don’t use Word

There are plenty of alternative and very reliable tools designed for building large text projects. I highly recommend Scrivener if you’re in this writing lark for the long haul.

Protecting yourself from your laptop/PC/Mac

If the disk or computer holding your documents fails you have either lost everything or are in the hands of a very busy repair engineer invested in making things work, not protecting your data. Copying your documents from the computer daily, per session or even between saves is a great way to protect yourself against hardware failure.

Flash drive (and file copy)

USB flash drives are very cheap. A single 8Gb drive will hold more books than you could write in five lifetimes. Buy one. Buy two. One for daily copies of your project documents and another for weekly/monthly copies. Label them with a Sharpie. Keep them safe.

You must never EVER use flash drives to actually edit the book files. You are far more likely to damage, break or simply lose a flash drive than you will your laptop or computer. That’s why we only use flash drives as backup. For those worried about someone stealing your ideas from a lost drive many now come with reliable password protection.

Copying your files

Plug in your external drive and a few moments later it will be ready, often with on-screen notification. Browse to your book documents on the computer and copy them to the drive. You will need to know where your files are stored and how to copy. Both Windows and Macs use a Documents folder by default. You can also specify you’re own location to save files.

If you don’t know where your documents are on the disk or how to copy, then you need to employ the same determination used for book research and planning into finding out. The Google search will go something like ‘Copy files from my Mac/Windows Laptop/PC to external drive’. Better still befriend someone who can show you.

Online Backups

If you are open to using the internet for storing copies of your documents then Microsoft – OneDrive, Apple – iCloud, Google – Drive and my recommendation; Dropbox, all provide online services that will automatically copy your important documents to their servers the moment they are changed on your computer. The storage offered by these services for free is more than you will ever need for your books.

If Word fails you, simply roll-back to the last version automatically stored online. Even if your computer spontaneously combusts, not only the very latest versions but previous iterations of the documents (even ones deleted) will be waiting for you when you do log in.

Online backups require you understand the basics of file structures. Setting up requires a tiny amount of knowledge. Your Google search will look something like ‘Protecting my files using Onedrive/iCloud/Drive/Dropbox’ Or call a technical friend if you’re not sure.

Writing a book is a huge undertaking. Why risk all that work when a small amount of planning will give you peace of mind.

Elite Encounters

October 21, 2017

Elite Encounters RPG

Elite Encounters RPG

Almost exactly four years ago (November 2013), I wrote a blog (here) about my trip to Manchester to meet up with a bunch of people who had all fallen in love with the computer game Elite or one of its many, later, derivatives. Well, a lot of time has passed since then. Elite: Dangerous was released in November 2014, just in time to still be ’30 years since the original Elite was released’.

My friend, Drew Wagar, who I knew through one of those derivative games, Oolite, released Elite: Dangerous Reclamation, via my own publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing. Indeed, Dan Grubb, who co-owns FBP with his wife Gabi, had never heard of Elite until, Drew, plus a host of other authors (including BBC Click Tech reporter Kate Russell) produced a brilliant collection of themed special edition Elite: Dangerous Novels. Dan has now fully embraced the Elite: Dangerous family and his own Con, FantastiCon, is one of the many highlights of the Elite: Dangerous social calendar.

Drew has gone on to write and publish the only authorised follow-up novel to the Elite: Dangerous game, Elite: Dangerous Premonition. I can see my own copy sitting on the coffee table from where I am sitting writing this. This novel is rather unique in the sense that events in the game determined the final outcome of the book. If the main protagonist Salome survived an event in the game she’d survive in the book, if not, she wouldn’t…

Throughout all of this, I had a small vested interest in the fictional world of Elite: Dangerous – the Elite Encounters Role-Playing Game. My friend Dave ‘Selezen Lake’ Hughes, like Drew, had raised, via Kickstarter, the funds to buy a Writers Pack during the Elite: Dangerous Kickstarter. Now, I didn’t feel I could write a whole ED novel and so had not considered trying to raise the funds to buy a Writers Pack. I had also missed out on the opportunity to buy my place in an Elite: Dangerous Short Story anthology when Frontier Developments announced that the anthology couldn’t have any more than fifteen short stories in it. However, there was still the Elite Encounters Role-Playing Game. Dave had offered a limited number of slots to write a drabble (a 100-word short story) for the game and as you know, if there’s one thing I love, and I’m good at, is flash fiction.

So, I invested in a slot for a drabble, knowing it would also go through the Frontier Developments vetting process, and that if Elite Encounters was signed off, then, so would my drabble. I’d be ‘in’, I’d have some of my fiction weaved into the Elite Universe – my dream since I’d read Robert Holdstock’s, The Dark Wheel, way back in 1985, when I was just 14yrs old.

So, time passed, quite a lot of time actually. Elite Encounters was a massive project and Dave was working on it pretty much completely on his own. I was still writing my flash and so offered Dave a few more Elite themed drabbles that I had written, just in case he need some padding here and there amongst his own words. He took them and filed them away. Then Dave announced via Kickstarter that the project had properly stalled, his ‘Lore’, the backbone of the Role-Playing Game, reaching back into the original history of the original game had to go, Frontier Developments no longer considered it to be canon, or anything to do with the Elite: Dangerous universe. I was heart-broken for Dave (as were many other old-timers) and figured that would be the end of my drabbles too – figuring they wouldn’t pass this new scrutiny and attitude from Frontier Developments.

Dave, pressed on, slashing hundreds of pages, hundreds of thousands of words of the old lore and content from the game. Eventually, finally, Frontier Developments said ‘yes’.

Five of my six drabbles survived and are in the game.

At the time of writing this blog, the game has been available for purchase for three days. It’s happened. It’s real and for my friend Dave and all his hard, hard work and, no doubt, many tears, I am so very delighted to be even a tiny part of this amazing piece of work.

As those involved in the fiction side of Elite (Dangerous) fiction say – ‘Write on Commander’

o7

John ‘CMDR DaddyHoggy’ Hoggard

 

Sci-Fi London Flash Competition

April 18, 2017

At the end of March 2017 I signed up for a short story competition. It was a competition that involved two of my favourite things in writing: Flash and Science Fiction.

The premise was relatively straight forward: At 10am on April 8th, the Sci-Fi London guys would send me a title, a line of dialogue and a scientific premise to weave into a story. The story could be no longer than 2000 words long and would need to be submitted by 10am on Monday, 10th.

Brilliant, thought I, two days to write 2000 words? Not a problem.

On April 6th, my boiler blew up and threw the house and my plans for the weekend into total chaos. It was not looking good for my entry to the competition.

April 8th duly came round and my Title and other details became available. The title was, in my mind, utterly uninspiring, indeed, it made no sense. ‘Flow Me All’ was the title I’d been given. Throw in a truly awful line of dialogue and I was pretty much done with the whole sorry idea. In frustration, I went outside to dig my garden up for the next four hours (having promised the guys coming to fit the new boiler that I would clear it sufficiently of brambles, ivy and jasmine so that they could lay a new gas pipe).

Turns out four hours of digging, scraping, cursing, being cut and jabbed gives the subconscious mind a chance to muse on the writing challenge it had been presented with. I came in from the garden, cleaned my aching hands and dumped a short story into my computer. 1800 words in less than 2hrs. I went about the rest of my day, came back to it later that evening and edited it as best I could. It crept up to 1850 words and, knowing I didn’t really have time to fiddle, and fearing more boiler frustrations would make me forget to send it, I packaged it up and emailed it.

Sci-Fi London received over 400 short story entries and, at the time of writing, have not yet presented their short-list. I’m really not expecting to be on it. I was just really pleased that I managed to come up with something in response to an uninspiring title. I’m pleased with the story, especially given all the constraints imposed by life and the competition itself.

So here it is, ‘Flow me All’.

(I’ll let you guess, what the line of dialogue was that I had to include)


FLOW ME ALL

 

Dan waited patiently in the Reception of Unit 4. He stood with his arms behind his back staring at the name that glistened in the Hologlass:

Nicola Jefferies – Head of Sanitation.

He wondered how long she would make him wait today. Four minutes was her average. He turned his head slightly, catching the eye of the girl behind her desk. She dipped her head immediately, refocusing her vision on the data filling her eyepiece.

“You are distracting my trainee,” said the wall mounted ‘Bot, swinging its sensor in his direction. “Can you desist please?”

“Desist from being male?”

The door slid open before the ‘Bot could respond.

Four minutes. She was getting predictable.

He stepped inside and the door slid shut behind him. He was not offered a chair. He wouldn’t have taken it even if it had been.

“You know why you’re here of course?” she said as Dan stood to attention.

Dan nodded. The question was rhetorical. He noted the modulation to her voice, she’d taken another enhancement perhaps? Sub-vocal transmitter? To go with her cybernetic eye from last year? Perhaps she was worried about an up-and-coming junior? Or a new ‘Bot? He’d heard the Series 7 was pretty special.

The air between them lit up in response to a tiny click she made in her throat, confirming his suspicions about the enhancement. The image was a 3D map of the city. It panned and zoomed, bringing them down to street level. Street and ‘Bot sensor feeds of the incident were overlaid on the scene, before the view plunged underground, into the old drain and sewer system, where the only useful sensor overlay became that of Dan’s own visor.

In response to another click, time accelerated.

“How long did the chase last?”

Another rhetorical question, but Dan answered it anyway. “One hour and six minutes.”

It was for the six minutes that he was here.

“Getting sloppy in your old age?”

“No. There were more bugs than normal and they’ve changed tactics.”

“Nothing in our studies of them has given us any indication that they have sufficient mental capacity to have ‘tactics’, despite your repeated claims.”

“I’m sure that’s true, and yet, tactics they have, and those tactics have changed.”

She tutted, partially masking another throat click.

They watched the closing scene of the chase. There were minimal additional sensor overlays now. There was little need to have sensors actually in the Flow Me district, at least not official ones. Nobody worried about male-on-male crimes and their sub-dermals tracked and updated their positions to the authorities.

Except in the sewers of course.

The visor feed showed Dan emerging from a drain and running towards a nearby building. The view became unstable as he raced up a fire escape and in through a window on the fourth floor. A bug was still pulling itself out of the toilet bowl when Dan hit it with the containment field. The bug writhed furiously, managing to break free where the field was struggling to mesh with the ceramic of the toilet bowl. Dan had immediately cranked the field up to max and it had collapsed, crushing the bug, squeezing it out through the collapsing mesh like pushing jelly through a colander. Dan’s visor was covered in a sticky innards and the view was killed, both then and in the office now.

“A failed containment and six minutes over our Guaranteed Service Delivery maximum process time.”

“Indeed. I’ve had better days. One small consolation is that the apartment resident, Phil 16, is a former Sanitation Specialist. He seemed to take things rather well.”

“Yes, quite. We have an audio only transcript of his reaction ‘Geez, what the hell did you do to my bathroom, it looks like you exploded the Dulux dog in there.’ Somewhat of an understatement considering we had to send in a level five decontamination team to remove all traces of bug contamination. The City will, of course, be extracting the cost of this from your Awards and Privileges.”

Dan nodded. He performed a quick mental calculation of his current Awards given he’d moved back to Flow Me rather than keep his entitlement of a Main City apartment. He winced internally when he subtracted the value of a level five team from it. Things were going to be tight for a little while. The important thing was, he’d still have enough to keep his boys at their academy, he didn’t want them coming to him in Flow Me until they’d finished their training next year. A partial trained Sanitation Specialist was an expensive nobody.

He let out a slow calming breath as Nicola continued to talk at him.

“You’ve had your medical clearance I see. No additional signs of infection or mutations other than those previously logged it would seem. Phil 16, also given the all clear.” His results and DNA profile flashed up above the desk in the space between Dan and his superior. “His mutations are at acceptable levels too. You do realise that the cost of that will also be deducted from your Awards?”

Dan didn’t, but nodded and smiled anyway.

“Very well. Dismissed.”

*

Dan reached ground level and headed for a transport hub before he remembered his Award situation. He’d have to walk back to Flow Me. If there was an incident, they’d send a Sanitation Unit to his location and pick him up.

He kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked. He ignored the stares and the gasps. “A man here? Outrageous!” he heard one female say to her companion. The companion seemed less outraged. He knew that look. Curiosity with a small side order of lustfulness. He was forbidden fruit and the attention made him uncomfortable. Give him a bug any day.

The smell of bugs was strong here. He knew that’s what his mutation was. He knew that’s how he tracked them. That was another reason he’d moved back to Flow Me, no bug smell. The bugs did not live under Flow Me. That made him curious. He’d asked the question several times but they just smiled, as if his little male brain might not be able to cope with the answer, or that he’d asked a question that was so silly in nature that even its very utterance was the source of amusement.

He was grateful for the rain which started as he walked. It emptied the streets, and pulled the smell out of the air and down into the gutters. Down into Bugland.

He preferred it down there. Fewer sensors watching his every move. Down there he wasn’t the inferior. Down there he was untracked and free.

It was growing dark as he crossed the park that separated Flow Me from the rest of the city and, as the tree canopy thinned, there was the ‘FLOW ME ALL’ sign, glowing red in the darkness.

Home.

The spacing between the letters and words was jarring. He guessed that was a deliberate choice now. He remembered when it used to say ‘THE FOLLOWING OF MEN IS NOT ALLOWED’

It had fallen into disrepair, only ‘F L OW      ME       ALL’ remained illuminated. It had become a tourist attraction, ‘I got me some Flow me’ street slang for a female who had dared to visit a man for pleasuring in the traditional, biological way, rather than the recommended cerebral stimulation followed by synthetic womb pregnancy if so desired.

Dan had tried that, just the once, despite the woman’s best efforts she’d fallen pregnant, with twins. A month’s worth of illicit Awards as payment had quickly paled into insignificance compared to the costs of keeping two boys at a training academy. He’d had to pay for it of course, the pregnancy had been his fault after all. He had seduced a sweet and innocent young woman the court had declared. That’s not how he remembered it, but his opinion didn’t count for much, then, or now.

He entered his apartment, dumping his wet clothes in the cleaning and drying unit on the way to his small office. He slid back a panel in the wall and removed some cabling, hooking up a small terminal to a socket that looked crudely attached to the cable.

The terminal began to bypass the minimal security on the Dataflow. While his actions were illegal, so was the cable itself. He was grateful that his neighbour in the apartment above was so popular with the ladies. Happy to do their bidding via illicit streaming for the sake of a few Awards and Privileges.

Piggybacking the signal, he jumped across feeds, back-tracing towards Unit 4’s Medical Section. He logged in via a test account he’d found left on the system months ago and began to dig.

DAN 33 SANITATION SPECIALIST

The phrase ‘Sanitation Specialist’ still made Dan smile. He was a specialist in sanitation in the same way an outlawed, old-fashioned butcher had been an animal welfare specialist.

PHIL 16 SANITATION SPECIALIST (RETIRED)

The terminal was struggling with the datafeeds. It was not designed to handle the multi-dimensional datastack, but Dan was getting good at down-selecting data even when he couldn’t see all the menus due to their failure to render in 2D.

He looked at the two DNA profiles, his own and Phil’s. He saw now what he had seen, briefly, in the office. He asked Unit 4’s Medical AI to confirm his suspicions. The Medical AI was happy to oblige.

The chance of Phil 16 not being Dan’s paternal grandfather were so remote, they were effectively zero.

This explained a lot about grandma and the attitude of the family towards her, towards Dan’s father and, when he was old enough to notice, towards Dan himself. Not only had she dared to get pregnant ‘the old fashioned way’ but it would seem Dan’s grandfather, her companion at the time, wasn’t actually his grandfather.

How many Awards, how much power, had his family had to relinquish to keep that one quiet Dan wondered. It would certainly explain their meteoric descent from the upper echelons of the new post-Man world order.

He looked at the DNA data again on the terminal which was trying its best to render it. However poorly that rendering was, the mutation was as obvious as it was identical. Dan had not acquired his bug mutation through an early, on-the-job, scratch or a bite, it had come to him via his grandfather, and that grandfather had been Phil 16. Not a carefully selected synthetic sperm.

Dan wondered if this is why his bloodline was cursed and still producing males.

Bug sniffer and Male-Maker.

He disconnected, hiding the terminal before sliding the panel back over the data cable.

He put his clean and dried suit back on. He was heading back to the sewers under Flow Me. There were rats, not bugs, in the sewers here. He was hungry and had a sudden appetite for real meat.

He would manage without his Awards just fine.

Tomorrow, bug incursion notwithstanding, he would pay a visit to Phil 16. They had a lot to catch up on.


John Hoggard

John Hoggard

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