On writing

The ubiquitous prologue

Hmm. Looks like we’re going to start with a prologue on this novel.

I’m not a fan of prologues.

Some writers, particularly beginning writers, seem to think that because they’re writing a fantasy their novel absolutely, positively must have a prologue, whether it needs one or not.

A common mistake is writing a prologue that really is the first chapter of the novel. If the prologue uses protagonists from the main novel (particularly point-of-view characters), and covers a period of time shortly before the rest of the novel starts then this is not a prologue, it’s part of the main story and should be treated as such.

If a prologue is used to denote a time break, then that break should be a long one, again particularly if the protagonist is a main point-of-view character.

Personally, I like the way they do in the movies in this case. Start with the beginning of the story, then pop up a line—”Four years later”—at the start of the next chapter and keep going.

Another common mistake is the “This is a fantasy. I must have a prologue” type prologue.

This one has absolutely no reason to be in the story whatsoever. You could cut it out and no-one would even know it had gone.

A prologue has to be there for a reason.

David Eddings‘ prologue at the start of THE BELGARIAD series is one that works. You must read the prologue to fully understand what the story is about. It deals with matters that happened to secondary characters hundreds of years prior. Things that were written about in another series. What happens in The Belgariad is a direct result of events triggered in the prologue. (Some people might argue that Belgarath and Polgara were not secondary characters, but I say they were. The story is Garion’s, start to finish.)

On writing

Do you see what I see?

It wasn’t until the fourth draft of POTION that Sherylyn and I realised we didn’t see the characters the same way.

Tegan, one of the point-of-view characters in Potion has long dark curls that frame her face. We mention her eye colour—blue—when comparing her to someone else but that’s pretty much all the description you get of Tegan’s physical features.

We were talking one day and realised that Sherylyn’s Tegan had rich, chocolate brown hair with chestnut highlights that fell half-way between her shoulder and her waist, and the curls were quite, well, curly. My Tegan, however had hair that fell past her waist. It was darker, and the curls were more waves than actual curls.

In another story, SHARED MEMORIES, the point-of-view character comes from a world called Nuan. Sherylyn pronounces it “Noo-one”, I pronounce it “Nah-wonn”.

Does it matter?

Not in the least?

The vision we share for a book depends less on the physical than on how the characters act and react. Yes, there are some phyisical things we know about each character—Tegan’s long dark curls, for example—but it’s more, “Tegan wouldn’t muck around like this. She would unleash a magical firebolt instead, and it would all be over in minutes”, than “That’s not how Tegan looks”.

We do, however, need to share a common vision for the story, and where it’s going. I mentioned in an earlier blog about writing as a team that before we start writing we talk about the story, finessing it until we have a story we can both visualise and are prepared to work on. SATISFACTION is the most extreme example of this to date, where my original idea was changed totally. Changed for me, that is. The final concept of SATISFACTION, the one we’re going to write, is the picture Sherylyn saw in her mind in the first five minutes as I described it to her that first day.

That was unusual. Normally we meet somewhere in the middle.

Writing a book with a writing partner is a lot like reading a book you both love. What each of you gets out of a book when you read it is totally your own. But it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the story for either of you.

On writing

Peek into another book

Finished a major draft of SHARED MEMORIES last night. I’m sitting here now with pen in hand while Sherylyn reads it through, waiting to write down her comments as she reads.

  • She doesn’t like the start. That’s normal. She never likes the start of our books. This one has already been re-written about five times. We replaced it with a different start for a while, but just recently reinstated the old one.
  • Then she starts on the holes. “Kym would have gone through his bag that first night, particularly if she thought there might have been drugs there.”Hmm. This one is a problem, as Kym’s going through the bag two days later is important. If she finds the map any earlier it loses impact. Unfortunately, Kym is a professional. She would check the bag that first night.

More holes, all the way through the novel. They get worse (because the first part of the book has been re-written so many more times than the second half), and Sherylyn’s comments get more and more honest, especially if we’re doing this over a glass of wine, which we often do.

By the time we’re at the end it’s:

  • “… and the poor Wyverns, they just come charging into the room and make straight for Roland and try to kill him. They’ve had plenty of time to do it before, but they don’t. Instead, they go out of the room and then come back in and then race over to kill him … and they don’t even succeed. They can’t even slash his throat with their claws. I mean, these claws are inches long. They would have done it. Then Roland’s father comes in behind them and what does he do? Absolutely nothing.”

It’s funny and very honest. We have a great time.

Some people think it’s too honest. We had a friend staying one night (they were staying a lot longer than that, otherwise we wouldn’t have been working on our novel that particular night). She was horrified that Sherylyn was so brutal.

“Karen has gone to a lot of trouble to write this,” she said. “The least you can do is give her positive feedback about what she has written.”

She didn’t understand that we didn’t need praise, we needed an honest assessment of what was wrong.

When you’re critiquing for a writers group—such as the excellent Critters, for example—you need to say positive things about the story as well as telling them what doesn’t work. Firstly, it’s polite. You don’t know the writer, and a writer puts a lot of him/herself on show when they put a story up for critting. It’s up to you to respect that they have done so. (Not to forget that Aburt will boot you out of Critters if you are not polite.)

These writers need to know what works, as well as what doesn’t work.

But Sherylyn and I, we have been writing together a long time now. I know the story must be working on some level or she wouldn’t stick with it through all those rewrites. Not only that, when she says something works, she really means it works. When she says, as she did for this review, “The bit where Marco and Hamill talk about his son is much better. You have really improved that,” she means we have really, really improved it.

On writing

Your novel doesn’t write itself, you have to work at it

Write a novel in a month. 50,000 words in 30 days. Start on 1 November, finish on the 30th.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is back. It started in 1999, when 29 people took up the challenge. Last year 59,000 people started, and nearly 10,000 finished their 50,000 words.

It’s a wonderful idea.

I’m tempted. Sorely tempted.

Herein lies the trap.

There are many temptations along the road to completing a novel.

There are always other things to do. Some of them are unavoidable. Work deadlines, family commitments, unexpected crises. Others are things we choose to do—like NaNoWriMo.

Last night Sherylyn and I chatted over a bottle of wine and some home-made pizza. We really enjoyed it. By the time we have finished talking it was too late to do any writing.

Another 1,000 words we didn’t write.

Novels don’t write themselves. They take time and commitment, and a big chunk out of your life. Your family and friends don’t understand why you bother. Deadlines help keep you on track, as does mixing with like-minded individuals. That’s where things like NaNoWriMo are so good, as they provide both.

I would love to take part, but we’re already working on Barrain, and Shared Memories is waiting in the background for another polish. The rules of NaNoWriMo specifically state that you must work on a new story (and no writing together, either).

If I was between novels I would probably do it. Right now, though, insofar as my novel writing is concerned, I’d be foolish to take it on.

On writing

Why write novels

A question related to “Why do you write?” but slightly easier to answer, is “Why do you write novels?”

Because we can’t write any shorter.

I read numerous writing advice where they say, “Start off with small steps. Start off writing short stories, and then graduate up to novels.” Sound advice but I, for one, have never been able to do it. Every short story story we have ever written is sitting in our story ideas file, waiting to be turned into a full-blown novel. The characters in these shorter works have stories just waiting to be told, worlds we need to write about, ideas we want to explore. Way too much information to go into a short story.

It’s a pity, because I think becoming known as a writer of short fiction would definitely help us to sell novels—both to an agent and to the general public.

From my own personal experience, I will buy a novel written by someone whose short works I have enjoyed. Having read Connie Willis’ Firewatch and A Letter From the Clearys (okay, Firewatch was a novella), I went out and bought her novel, Lincoln’s Dreams. True Names (another novella) introduced me to Vernor Vinge’s writing.

It’s not just short stories. Any writing will do. I bought Nancy Kress’ books based on her monthly column in Writers’ Digest. I admired her writing there, liked what she wrote, so when I came across Beggars in Spain in a bookshop one day I bought that.

Outside of this, I tend to discover new writers at the library, rather than buy books on spec.

If you can write short stories then do so. Not only does it hone your writing skills, but you have a much better chance of selling a shorter work than a full blown novel, and the credits you get from that short story sale may just help you sell your novel.

On writing

Why do you write?

People ask, “Why do you write?”

It’s a difficult question to answer, and my reply would more be along the lines of, “How can one not write?” rather than a considered reflection on the reasons I write. I just do. I always have.

Sherylyn and I analyse other parts of our writing in depth. Style and method, the how, what and when, but seldom the why. Both of us have always told stories, I suspect we always will.

No-one is forced to write. You can always go off and do something else. Make pots, take up skiing, go out to dinner with friends, read a book.

People write for different reasons. Some people write because they have a story to tell. Others write because because they see it an easy way to make money. (Except in rare cases these people soon find it’s not the case, and go off and do something else.)

Most of us write, I suspect, because we can’t imagine not writing.

Writing process

Do we outline before we write

Do we outline?

Not really.

Isn’t it dangerous not to outline?

Yes, but … you could almost say that our first draft is the outline.

Outlining a story almost always cuts down time to write, and cuts down then number of major rewrites. I suspect it’s a little like making the transition from writing by hand to writing direct to the computer. The process is slower to start with, but the more you do it the more comfortable you become with it, and the easier it becomes.

Some professional writers outline, some don’t. Some do a hybrid of both methods.

For the moment we’re happy to write a very rough first draft, use that as the outline, and expand on that. It’s a long, hard way to write a novel, but it seems to work for us.

I suspect that over time we will outline more, particularly if we ever go professional.

Why don’t we outline now?

Because we don’t really know a story until we finish the first draft. We don’t know what’s happening; we don’t know the characters. We talk about the story a lot while we are writing that first draft. Where it’s going, what’s happening with it.

The main problem with not outlining are the holes in the plot that arise as a result of the story evolving.

A plot thread that was important when you started writing becomes inconsequential. Other, originally minor threads assume greater importance and need to be changed accordingly.

Outlining keeps you organised, ordered, and sometimes I think that the way we go at a book is a little like cleaning house by moving all the junk from one room to another, cleaning that room, and moving the junk somewhere else, but never really getting rid of the junk until we have cleaned the house.

On writing

Killing off your characters

So J. K. Rowling intends to kill off a couple of major characters in her Harry Potter series, according to an interview she did with Britain’s Channel 4. In the widely quoted interview, Rowling says that she

… understood an author’s desire to kill off the main character of a successful series. …

“I can completely understand, however, the mentality of an author who thinks ‘Well, I’m going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author-written sequels … so it will end with me, and after I’m dead and gone they won’t be able to bring back the character’.”

Two die in final Potter book, Rowling warns, SMH, 27 June 2006

I don’t pretend to know the reasons behind Rowling’s decision to kill off the two characters she plans to, but this is one subject that both we, and our friends who are readers, are very passionate about, and have been for years €”long before Harry Potter arrived on the scene.

Killing off a character in a story is fine, provided it’s a logical and believable part of the story. But killing off characters simply because you are sick of them, or worse, for some belief that in doing so you ensure no-one else can write about them is not only stupidity, it’s breaking a pact with the readers who have supported you by reading your novels.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the most famous author to do this, when he tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but he is not the only one.

No author appears to be immune. Even some of our own favourite authors have done so. Ivan Southall, author of the Simon Black series, attempted to kill Simon and Alan off in an unpublished novel Simon Black in Arabia. Peter O’Donnell killed off Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin in The Cobra Trap. (I confess, I’m like a lot of Modesty fans. I haven’t read the story. I don’t want to.)

O’Donnell, apparently, was one of those people who did not want others writing about his characters after he dies.

Why bother? Why kill off a character just because you are sick of them?

No-one is forcing you to write. Contracts notwithstanding, you can always stop writing about the characters you have grown to hate and start writing about something else. And if you do have a contract…you knew what you were getting into when you signed that contract. If it’s a long one let’s hope you are well paid for your troubles. You signed, you need to deliver. But if you re-sign again afterwards on a series character you know you can’t keep going with, you need to seriously look at your reasons for doing what you are doing.

A reader who has remained faithful to your characters over a number of novels deserves more than an arrogant kick-in-the-teeth decision of, “I’m sick of this character. I think I’ll kill him/her off.”

Respect your readers. Respect your characters.

Who knows. You may even find there’s another story in them. Robin Hobb did with Fitz and the Fool. She says herself that,

“Many readers probably recall that at the end of Assassin’s Quest I was certain that I had finished writing about Fitz and the Fool. Then I found out I was wrong.”

Robin Hobb, Is Fool’s Fate the last book about Fitz and the Fool?

Look what a few years break did for her. We got the Tawny Man, our favourite Robin Hobb series to date.

Writing process

Online novels

An ongoing link to other on-line novels.

John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars is a comic look at a Hollywood agent who takes on his biggest clients yet. Aliens who want to improve their image. Read this and enjoyed it, although it’s probably not normally my cup of tea. Showing signs of the writer Scalzi will become.

Jennifer L. Armstrong has three on-line novels at Free Online Novels. I haven’t read any of these, have no idea what they’re like.

The Romiley Literary Circle also contains a number of novels.

Douglass Gore’s Faithful is a newer story, with only a few completed so far. I particularly like the way Douglass has used the media (the web) to link outside of the story. Thus you can click on the name of a character while reading the story and find out more about them, and so on.

Writing process

Our fiction

Throughout this blog we’ll talk a lot about our own fiction, commenting on characters, how we did it in other stories, how we’re doing it in future stories, and so on. Here are the stories we’ll talk about, and some of the characters we may mention.

Not So Simple After All (formerly Potion)

Our first, fully completed novel. 140,000 words, five major drafts, seemingly hundreds of minor ones (at least it felt like it at the time). Not So Simple After All took years to write. It’s a traditional fantasy journey novel, for those who like their fantasy tinged with light-hearted fun. Not counting the fact that this was the first major story we ever completed and were happy with, and that we can still read it a couple of years later and not be embarrassed by it, Not So Simple After All also introduced us to the magic of the character who took on a life of his own outside our control. Calderwas only meant to have a cameo role in the first three chapters, but he came, he stayed, and took us with him to places we never expected. (A friend of ours who has read the book says he gets all the good lines.) So much so that we plan a second book based on Calder’s story.

Shared memories

The working title of our second, fully completed novel, going through another major draft at present. This one is 120,000 words. We sometimes refer to it as Roland, after the name of the point-of-view character. This one’s a science fiction, although it started out as fantasy.

Barrain also known as Caid of Barrain.

You’re reading this blog. By now you probably know all about Caid and Scott. This is one of those trans-world fantasies that start in our world and cross over to another, more medieval one. It was also going to be part detective story, but as you will see that’s changing, draft by draft. We don’t know where we are going with that one yet. We should know by the end of draft three. Because it’s an experiment and we’re putting it online, it gets put aside for other writing.


Older even than Barrain, but it’s still tucked away, waiting for a major re-write. Another science fiction. We suspect this may be the first novel of ours that ever gets commercially published as it has a strong story.


Another story waiting in the wings for us to write. We mention this one particularly because it demonstrates how much a story can change from the idea to conception due to the input of the other writing partner. The idea for Satisfaction started out as a slightly risque adult novel. Right now we envisage it as a children’s screenplay.