Monday, 25 May 2009

Getting back into it

So tonight I actually managed to kick this whole procrastination habit and do some writing on my novel for the first time in almost half a year. I'd been putting it off for long enough, with trying to figure out where it's going, then plotting that out, then trying to fill in the plot holes. There are still one or two gaps in the story, but rather than obsess over them I've decided to just jump back into things and worry about them at a later date.

I was worried that after so long I wouldn't be able to get back into the novel. Would I be able to remember my characters? The voice of my lead character? Why I'm writing it in the first place? It turned out to be not quite as hard as I thought it might be. A quick dream sequence with symbolism so obvious I feel like I'm cheating by calling it symbolism got me into the mindframe of my lead character, and then some banter between him and the other characters has reminded me what they're like. There's only been a little bit of plot progression, but I'm not that worried about that since it was more important that I got back into the swing of things. I've managed to write 1,217 words tonight, which isn't too bad seeing as it's my first night of real writing in months. There were a few extended periods where I got stuck and had to step away for a little while, and a couple of moments where I wondered why I was pretending I could do this, but that's to be expected.

I'm feeling pretty good about myself at this point. I've made a pretty good start on the second half of Running To Stand Still, now to continue on from that start.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Chess Match

In working out the plot of my novel, I've been going over what I've written so far. This has made one things abundantly clear: my characters love to talk. Once I've got them started it's kinda hard to shut them up, particularly if they've been drinking. This is all well and good for something like NaNo where every word counts, but it leaves me with long periods of dialogue which don't really add much to the story and will eventually need to be cut out.

Like this bit. This actually started through a dare (have your characters play a chess game in a pub), and quickly took on a life of it's own. It's not exactly the best thing I've ever written, but I like the way it turned out, especially the ending, which popped up out of nowhere and turned out to be better than anything I could've come up with. I hate to think of it lying unseen in a Word document on my hard drive forever, so here it is for your perusal.

The Chess Match

It was later on. The food and come and we had eaten it, and there had been a few more drinks in the intervening time period. Steve had just noticed a chess board, and had gone to get it.
'You and Steve play chess a lot?' Sally asked.
'Yeah. We're fucking chess masters man.'
'This should be pretty interesting then.'
'Baby, it'll blow your mind.'
'Here we are,' Steve said, sitting down with the chess set opposite me and beginning to set it up. 'Do you want to be black or white?'
'White,' I said.
'Black it is then. You should know by now not to take me at my word for that.'
'I do,' I said. 'That's why I said the opposite of what I wanted.'
'Okay then,' Steve said with a wry glance at me, 'you can be white.' He turned the board around so that I had the white pieces.
'Oh darn. You saw through me,' I said, winking slyly to Sally.
'Right. Your go first then.'
I considered the board, and moved a knight's pawn two squares forward.
'Aaah. The classic Dukat opening gambit,' Steve said. 'Classic, but all too easy to counter, with... this!' He dramatically picked up his king's pawn, and slammed it down one square forward.
'No! The Sarek maneveur!' I said. 'My one and only weakness!' I looked at my pieces, scanning them for something I could use to counteract the cunningness of Steve's opening move. My eyes settled on the left knight, which I moved up two and right one.
'The Vorta style?' Steve sneered. 'You really are in a tight spot, aren't you?'
'Do you guys even know what you're talking about?' Sally said.
'Of course we do. You doubt our chess skills?'
'Yes. Yes I do.'
'Forget her Steve. She is merely too in awe at being in the presence of two complete masters of the game that she doesn't know how to process these feelings that she feels, so she responds by lashing out at us. She will see through her ineptitude in time, and then it is us who shall have the last laugh. The laugh... of chess!'
'Whatever dude,' Sally said, rolling her eyes.
'You know, it's a hoary old cliché, but it seems to me that the game of chess is much like the game of life,' I said.
'Indeed. And it takes the mastery of the inner workings of the game that only comes from being chess master such that we are to truly understand the truth behind those words.'
'Yes, I concur. One such as Sally, who is not versed in the nuances of the game of chess, could never properly understand.'
'Take, for instance, this knight,' Steve said as he picked it up to play it. 'A noble creature, a knight of the realm, made a sir by the King himself. He has plucked his way up from obscurity to become a figurehead in the war that the black kingdom wages against the white kingdom. And yet, he is handicapped by a curious ailment. They did not know it at the time, but the knight has obsessive compulsive disorder. For every one step he takes in any direction, he must take two steps in a direction at right angles to that direction.'
'This is indeed a powerful reminder that even the best among us can have idiosyncrasies which would be enough to topple us. And yet, he proves his worth on the battlefield time and time again, using his disability and forging it into an erratic fighting style, such that the enemy can never be sure which way he will strike from next. And then, just when they think they have him all figured out, he strikes, and takes down an enemy soldier.' With this, Steve moved the knight onto the same square as one of my pawns, removing it from play. 'Truly, we could learn much from the knight. In particular, how horses have the ability to become great figures in a well oiled war machine.'
'But forget not yon bishop,' I said, picking up the piece. A man of the cloth, forced into war by a cruel harsh truth that he cannot fight against. A man of peace, conscripted into the army by an enemy so horrible and bloodthirsty that it would destroy his very way of life if given half the chance. He does not want to fight, but he finds that he must, for he cannot just sit idly by and do nothing against this new horror that infects his lands. But his pacifism manifests itself in new and horrible ways. Unable to cope with the reality of the situation it finds itself in, he finds that his subconscious has made him limit himself to moving in diagonal directions only. Cursed by this affliction that he finds himself unable to shake, he nonetheless charges forward unto war, determined to do what he can for the safety of his realm.' My spiel almost over, I moved the bishop to take out one of Steve's pawns. 'And of course, in war he will do as he must.'
'Of course, we would be remiss in not mentioning the Queen,' Steve said. 'The archetypal strong woman, the power behind the throne, she possesses none of the psychological hiccups that the King's other forces have. Using her feminine wiles, she has the ability to traverse the game board as she wishes, unrestricted by the fences and borders that the male forces are bound to. The only thing that can stop her is being blocked by one of her own forces, showing the woman once again being held back by the men in her life. But they are only too happy to move out of her way at a moment's notice. One must wonder why exactly this is. What is there about her being the only female in the army that allows her such power, such a position of massive importance within the game plan? For it is usually the Queen who decides the twists and turns of the battle, the one who the other forces fear the most. And with good reason,' he took out one of my knights with his Queen, leaving my King in a potentially dangerous position, 'for after all, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'
'What the hell does that even mean?' Sally asked. 'What on earth are you two babbling about?'
'On the flipside of the Queen,' I said, ignoring her, 'let us give a few seconds to ponder the King. Slow, weak, the one piece on the board which serves no offensive use, the King is a dead albatross around the collective necks of his troops, for they are constantly forced to keep one eye on him to make sure that he is not in any danger. The best example one can find of the fact that great power will eventually make one weak, if presented with a threat the King's only course of action is to run away and hide from the enemy forces. You have to wonder why exactly the King felt the need to show his face on the battlefield on the earth in the first place. Did he show up hoping to inspire his forces by his mere presence, to urge them on to victory? Or did he operate under the delusion that he could actually play some kind of role in the battle, only to find himself presented by the horrors of modern war, a type of war much different from the kind that he had back in his day, much more brutal and unforgiving? No, the King is the most useless piece, much like in real life where we could get on much better if we didn't have to put up with those that profess to be our superiors and betters.' I moved the King out of harm's way.
'In all this talk of the most important pieces, it would be easy of course to forget about the smallest one,' Steve said, picking one up. 'The pawn. Mere foot soldiers in their liege’s crusade against the enemy forces, these plucky young conscripts have been taken from a training all too short and thrown head first into the brutal atrocities of war, ill equipped to deal with such atrocities.'
'I'm getting more drinks. I need to dull my brain my alcohol to the point that I can put up with listening to this shit,' Sally said, getting up.
'Yes, the pawn. Thrown into a world they do not understand, expecting to give their lives in the service of their cold, unforgiving King. The pawn is often the first to fall, sacrificing their lives in the name of the greater good, keeping the enemy distracted and away from the more important units in the battle, allowing them precious time to get into place so that they may attempt to turn the tide of the war. But there is hope for the pawn. For every so often, one might be lucky enough to make their way deep into enemy territory, even into the stronghold of the enemy forces themselves. If one can manage such a feat, they are rewarded with the greatest reward of all. They may take the King's hand in marriage, and become his Queen.'
'But,’ I interrupted, pointing at Steve, ‘you must realise that in this lays the greatest hypocrisy in all of war. For the King is merely using this pawn for his own sick pleasures. He already has a Queen, and yet in his lust he will take this new specimen who has proved herself nubile in the field of war. Our King, for all his supposed exalted greatness, is dabbling in polygamy, the very thing he has a law against! Doesn’t it strike you as corrupt that he would allow himself a pleasure that he denies others, just because a new specimen has caught his lustful, ever wandering eye?’
‘But what if his old Queen has died in the field of battle?’
‘Well, that’s even worse! He’s barely past the grieving period, and already he’s scouring his forces for a suitable replacement for his departed love. Has he stopped to think of the feelings of this new partner, this concubine if you will? No! No, he has not! He only cares for himself, and filling the hole, emotional and otherwise, that his Queen’s passing has created through any means necessary, no matter who he hurts in the process!’
‘That bastard!’ Steve said, angrily. ‘Well, I won’t stand for it! He shall die!’ Steve toppled his King, knocking it down so it led on the ground.
A smile crept over my lips. ‘I win.’
An expression of realization dawned on Steve’s face, followed by horror. ‘Wait, no! That doesn’t count!’
I noticed Sally coming back. ‘Sally, Steve’s toppled his King. Doesn’t that mean I win?’
‘Yes it does. I thought two chess masters like you would have known that.’
‘Well played man. A battle can always been won well through psychological warfare.’ Steve offered his hand, and I shook it.
‘Thank you.’
‘So it’s over? Normality can reign once more?’ Sally asked.
‘Normality?’ I asked.
‘Well, you know what I mean. Normality for us.’
‘Yes, that can happen.’
‘Good. I thought I was going to have to do something to you guys if you continued on like that for much longer. Gag you with my socks or something.’
'Oh god, anything but that! I've smelt what your feet smell like first thing in the morning, and that's not pretty. God knows what they're like after a day's walking.'
Sally shot me an evil look. 'You really know how to charm a lady, Greg Summers.'
'Hey now, if you want charm you're with the wrong people I'm afraid.'
'We do a good line in cheesy jokes though,' Steve interjected.
'Ah, that's okay then. As long as it's not too bad. I enjoy a good cheesy joke from time to time.'

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Plotting woes

I hate plotting. Plotting is completely counter-productive to the whole idea of writing in my opinion. There are two things that I love about writing:

- The genesis of an idea or story, when it pops up in your head and you spend time thinking about it and mulling it over. It's like having a ball in your mind, and you throw it about and see what it's like, and have it collide with other balls to see what happens when they come together. Slowly but surely it changes from a vague idea into something more tangible, which you can take away and do something with.

- The actual act of writing, in particular the moment when everything comes alive. The characters stop being a list of attributes and become actual people inside your head, able to think and talk for themselves. This can get annoying if they then decide they don't want to do what you had in mind, or if they start talking back to you (which has happened more times than I'd like), but it also means that your story's really taken off, and there's no real way to describe that feeling.

Plotting sits in the middle of this, and serves as a giant stalling block for me. I'm very much a seat-of-my-pants writer; I don't like to think things over too much, I prefer to just start writing it and see what happens. Having to work out the details of what's going to happen isn't one of my strong suits, and usually ends up with me getting frustrated at my lack of progress and putting the whole thing off. Plotting is a necessary evil however, as without it you can get lost on your way from point A to point B, and veer off the course spectacularly, or just run out of road altogether. Plus you need to have some idea of what you're doing, so you don't get to a certain point and then have to stop while you figure out what exactly's going to happen.

This is what happened with Running To Stand Still. I had a pretty good plan of what was going to happen in the beginning, and hoped that once I'd run out of that the story would have built up enough steam that it could just keep going. This worked well enough for the month of NaNo, where it's generally not a good idea to overplan anyway, but by the end of the month I was running out of things to write with no real idea of how to get from where I was to the next big event. This has actually left me stalled for quite a while, and it's only lately that the road ahead of me has come back into view. I've got a plan of what I'm doing for the rest of the novel, which isn't massively detailed so I can still wing it for a certain amount; I don't have chapter summaries for instance, partly because I don't write in chapters. I just need to flesh out a few details before I get back to the really fun stuff. I had worried that after such a long gap I wouldn't be able to get back into this story, but now I'm getting it all planned out ahead of me I can't wait to get back into it.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Running To Stand Stand Still - What It's About

This post is a little later than I wanted it to be. This is because a few things have gotten in the way. I've moved up to a bigger room in my house, meaning that I now actually have space to breathe amongst all the comic books and general geeky stuff. And some Londoner friends descended upon us for our annual weekend of drinking and being forced to dress up in embarrassing costumes. But probably the biggest one is that thinking about this story again has made me quite depressed. Running to Stand Still started life through the frustrations that I feel with the modern world, and going back over the plot has brought those frustrations to the surface to the surface again. All of which has led to a very unproductive Chris, something which needs to stop now. So, without further ado, here is the plot of Running To Stand Still, my first novel.

Five years ago, something wonderful happened. A man named James, who vanished mysteriously a few years ago without trace, reappeared suddenly in Trafalgar Square, able to perform the most amazing feats. Amongst other things, he could fly - properly fly, not just that fake levitation crap some magicians pull off - create images in the air, and teleport from one place to another instantaneously. People doubted it at first, but everyone who saw him in the flesh believed that it all was true. The best part was that the ability to use magic resided dormant inside everybody, just waiting to be found and unlocked. Soon enough James started to help people to unlock The Spark, the thing that allowed us to harness this power, and before too long people everywhere were learning how to magic. People were excited, certain that this discovery heralded the dawn of a new golden age for mankind where all our dreams would come true.

Come forward to the present day and, well... not much has changed really. Magic has made certain aspects of life better, but for the most part it's just slotted into our world without making too many massive changes. Greg Summers was in a dead-end job, not really knowing what to do with his life, when magic came along, and was sure that it was the thing that would change his life. One of the First Awakened, the first group of people who unlocked The Spark with help from James, he did amazing things for a while, before settling down into a job in marketing making magical advertising displays. Without really wanting it to, his life has gone from one rut to another. Attending a thirtieth birthday party makes him realise that his own thirtieth isn't too far away, and with that he notices just how unsatisfied he is in his life.

After a fair amount of moping around, he decides to do something about it. It's clear to him that he isn't finding what he wants where he is, so he quits his job and decides to go on a road trip to meet up with the rest of the First Awakened and attempt to find some corner of the world that he can exist in. Accompanied by Steve, a perpetually unemployed person who gave up on finding the right job a while ago, and Sally, another of the First Awakened who found her part of the world only to have it taken away from her, he sets out on a voyage of self-discovery. Along the journey, the three experience wonders as they find the parts of the world where people have retained that sense of wonder that magic brought along and have done amazing things with the power, Sally and Greg realise that they still have feelings for each other after a brief hook-up five years ago, and the whole thing leads to a climax where... well, that would be telling ;).

So that's what it's about in a (fairly big) nutshell. As for What It's About, it's basically a huge rant on society. I hate society. It's been set up over the years in such a way that discourages anything too far away from the norm. Anything creative, anything too different needs to be quietly pushed away to one side as it doesn't really help you be a nice productive person doing their bit to make sure the world keeps working. Now I understand why things are this way, as it helps the world to run, but that doesn't make it suck any less. We live in a world of wonders. Take the internet for example. I'm typing these words now, and when I click 'Publish post' they will go up for anyone to read, even on the other side of the world! That's just mind-boggling, and it's just the beginning of what we can do these days with the net. Stuff that was unthinkable twenty years ago is now the norm. Yet we take all of this for granted. Rather than being amazed at it, it's just become another part of the world in which we live in. It's been dragged down to an everyday level because that's the only way we can deal with it, and to be perfectly honest that sucks. And that is what has happened to magic in the world Running To Stand Still takes place in. Most people just can't deal with the new possibilities that magic opens up, and so without really realising it they've dragged it down to a level where they can understand and cope with it.

At the same time we depend upon things like this. People are always searching for some kind of meaning to their lives, and we can all too easily depend on something else to find that answer for us, or delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve found the answer when it’s just a stop-gap solution.

But all of this isn't true of everybody. There are people out there who can look past the superficial and see the world for what it really is, who realise that they have the potential to do so much more with their lives. But because the world isn't made for people like them, it makes it that much harder for them to do anything as they can get too bogged down by day-to-day existence. They are pushed to the boundaries, where they have to find like-minded individuals and carve out niches for themselves.

And all of this ranting ties into the story. Greg, Steve and Sally are three people who don’t fit into the everyday world, and they never will. They simply aren’t a match for it. They need to go out and find the parts of the world where magic is still magical, find those little gaps in the world where people like them can be themselves. And they need to get out there and find it themselves, and not hope that it will come to them.

Okay, I’ve once again rambled on for too long, and I probably haven’t explained everything properly, but I’m getting tired. I’ll see you crazy kids later.