Six Tips on Narrative Voice

  • Writing in the First Person is harder than it looks: the narrator defines the sort of story you write. Compare the way the intelligent Katiniss Everdeen tells her story in The Hunger Games with that of the much less aware Riddley Walker in the novel of the same name.
  • There are very few stories written in the Second Person, something which makes those few attempted stand out and say something. Unfortunately, the thing they are usually saying is that the writer has just been on a course.  Best avoided.
  • Stories written in the Third Person offer the most flexibility, and are the best choice for the beginner writer. Of these…
  • The Third Person subjective is the easiest: here you can describe individual characters’ thoughts and emotions from the inside.
  • Third Person objective is harder: here you describe the characters from the outside, you’re not privy to their thoughts – rather like watching a film.
  • Third Person omniscient is the easiest but seems very old fashioned and lacking in skill. Most importantly, Editors don’t like it!

See Also

Thoughts on Cosmopolitan Predators!

Aethernet Magazine Issue #12 was published on Saturday, and with it the last episode of Cosmopolitan Predators!

What was the experience of writing a piece of serial fiction like?I’ve already already posted on this blog about writing serial fiction as well as the experience of working to deadlines. The various writers who contributed to Aethernet Magazine have also written about their experiences. I think it’s fair to say that none of us expected writing serial fiction to be quite so different, nor so difficult. But was it worth it?

Definitely! Writing serial fiction was enjoyable, exhilarating and frustrating. Every writer should always be pushing themselves, be trying something new, doing whatever it takes to keep improving. To borrow an excellent piece of advice from the musical world, “never put down your instrument until you’ve done something new with it.”

I’m now working on Dream Paris, the follow up to Dream London. I’ve set myself a target of 10 000 words a month (a bit more than the typical 7 – 8 000 words of each episode of Cosmopolitan Predators!) and I intend to deliver a complete episode to my first reader, Barbara Ballantyne, on the first of each month. Okay, I won’t be under quite the same constraints as when writing Cosmopolitan Predators! as I will have the luxury of going back and changing things. Will Dream Paris be a better book for being written this way? Well, I’m very pleased with how things are going so far, but then the final say on the book is not really up to me. For the moment though, I’m trying something new, and that’s what I love to do…

Six Books Every Writer Should Read

  1. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
  2. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
  3. Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor by Sol Stein
  4. The Turkey City Lexicon (You can find it here)
  5. A Dance to the Music of Time: vol.1: Spring by Anthony Powell
  6. The book which inspired you to become a writer. Ask yourself, what makes it so good?

I also now recommend a seventh book: The Pointless Rules of English.  Read more about it here on my blog.

See Also

A Techy Whinge

A computer needs an operating system. You buy a PC and about 90% of the time it comes with Windows installed (about 8% of the remaining are Apple OS).1  A significant part of the cost of the PC goes on the operating system. Not a problem, Microsoft spends a lot of money developing their software, they deserve to paid for their work (just like I hope to paid for my writing).

The problem arises when you try and choose another operating system. What if you don’t want Windows?

Okay, I don’t do politics on this blog. If you want to know my politics, read my books. Better yet, buy me a pint at a convention and I’ll bore you with them as long as the beer keeps coming.

However, I’m taking a brief break from that rule this week. This might seem a boring techy whinge, and I suppose it is, but it’s important.

I’ve installed Ubuntu Linux, my preferred operating system, on three Windows 8 machines this week. It’s been a tremendous pain, something that was once a very easy job has become a nuisance because Windows does not want to let go of the machine. This is not just a Linux issue, my technicians at work are having trouble installing Windows 7 on new Windows 8 machines.

A lot of people have been rude about Microsoft in the past, sometimes unfairly in my opinion. But I’m about to join their ranks.

Why shouldn’t I install whatever operating system I choose on a PC? I bought the machine, it belongs to me and not to Microsoft, no matter what the pre-installed software seems to think. That’s like the estate agent saying I’m not allowed to choose the carpets or wallpaper for my new house. Or the bank saying that I have to have PPI when I take out a loan (and that didn’t work out so well for the banks here in the UK… )

I feel that we’re at crossroads. So many people are asking me to install Linux on their machines because they’re fed up of the dog’s dinner that is Windows 8. However, the process of installation of another OS hasn’t been this difficult in years. That’s why I’ve logged my experience so far here on my tech blog for anyone who might find it useful.

As I said earlier, this may seem like a boring techy whinge, but there are other issues at stake. For example, here in the UK, Microsoft allows schools to use Office 365 for free. Okay, Microsoft benefits by getting kids used to its way of doing things, but education benefits because even if Office 365 were not that good (and it’s excellent), schools are free to spend the money saved on other things.

Good for Microsoft.  Or so I thought. A few weeks ago at BETT (an educational trade fair) I was told that schools in Malaysia had to pay for Office 365.

Let’s just think about that. Countries who probably need the money more for their children’s education don’t get the free software.

Free, open source software has the potential to make people’s lives better. It helps to level the playing field when it comes to education. That’s just one, minor reason why I use Linux, and one reason why you should. If you’re using it, you’re helping to develop the software (read how here) so that other people can use it.

That’s one of the reasons why I blog occasionally about Linux. That’s why I’ll be making an effort to transfer more Linux notes across to my tech blog Tony Ballantyne Tech in the coming weeks.

I use Ubuntu Linux, there are many other flavours available. Why not give it a try? If you know someone who uses it, ask them what to do, they’d probably be delighted, if not downright evangelical about its benefits.

In the meantime, you can find out more about Ubuntu here.

Blog Chain: All the Things You Are

Thanks to Chris Beckett – Arthur C Clarke aware winning author of Dark Eden and too many excellent short stories – I’m a link in a chain. The idea is that writers answer four questions on their blog and then nominate one or two other writers to do the same thing. You can see Chris’s answers here.

And here are mine:

What am I working on?

I’m just completing Cosmompolitan Predators! for Aethernet Magazine, after which I’ll begin Dream Paris, the followup to Dream London. I’m also working on a series of stories set in the Recursion universe, the first of which will be appearing in print soon. And lastly, Penrose 3 continues its slow progress towards completion

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

How does it differ? I must admit, I’m more fascinated by the similarities. What is it about a genre that means you can take two very different works like, for example, the Foundation Trilogy and The Handmaid’s Tale and say that yes, these are both SF (even if one of the authors may claim otherwise… ).

As for differences? I don’t write heroes, I tend not to write competent people. I’ve always been struck by a line in a Pulp song “Do you want to see how common people fail?”. Golden age SF featured competent scientists and engineers solving problems. Those were great stories, but the protagonists never struck me as being particularly authentic or representative.

There are problems to be solved in my stories, there is (I hope) fascinating technology, but the protagonists don’t understand how things work, there are no easy answers. I don’t write about sewer operators saving the Earth, I write about how groups of people make a difference, sometimes better, sometimes worse.

Why do I write what I do?

Because that’s the way my mind works. I get ideas all the time and I write them down to be used later, but every so often one idea collides with another and I suddenly get really excited and I just have to begin writing.

How much of the path of a book is made up, and how much is fixed by my experience and personality? I feel as if I’m creating when I write, but often when I rewrite I think of a good idea and I include it, only to find a few pages later that I’d already done that on the first draft.

I think that a lot of writing is just improvising around a well established series of chords. To take a Jazz metaphor, we’re all just blowing to “All The Things You Are”.

How does my writing process work?

Basically, I write something every day. I write down ideas, I write down scenes, I write down conversations I’ve overheard on the tram and then I keep redrafting. I’m always writing in time snatched between other responsibilities, but I still need to book in longer stretches when I can draw things together undisturbed.

If you’re interested, there’s lots more on my writing process here on my blog.

And so that’s me done. Here are the next links in the chain, two excellent but very different writers at two very different stages in their careers:

Philip Palmer is a screenwriter, radio dramatist, novelist and producer. His screen credits include THE MANY LIVES OF ALBERT WALKER and THE BILL. For radio his plays include THE KING’S COINER, BLAME, and THE FAERIE QUEENE. As a writer of SF novels he is responsible for considerable galactic carnage; his five published books are DEBATABLE SPACE, RED CLAW, VERSION 43, HELLSHIP and ARTEMIS. Philip is the founder of Afan Films.

He has a part time role as a lecturer at the London Film School, on the MA Screenwriting course.

Fletcher Moss was an Alderman of Manchester who upon his death over a century ago, bequeathed a beautiful botanical gardens to the people of the city; a noble and generous gesture. This Fletcher Moss has significantly less to recommend him – he’s an Assistant Headteacher at a school in Greater Manchester who needed a pseudonym for the writing he fits in between lesson planning, marking and rattling around the M60 in his second-hand Citroen. The Poison Boy (2013) is his debut novel. The Night Wardens (2015, fingers crossed…) is on the way

Why I Write

I can tell when someone I’m teaching is going to be a programmer, I can tell it by the way they lose themselves when they stare at the screen. They’re not thinking of the syntax, they’re lost in the problem.

It’s like playing the piano. When I’m doing that, that’s all I’m doing. I should say, when I’m doing that well, that’s all I’m doing. I’m not reading a series of notes, I’m not trying to remember what the next chord is, I’m simply playing music.

And that’s what it’s like when a story is going well. Everything just flows, I’m listening in to a group of characters and writing down what they’re saying. I’m not making it up, I’m just writing down what it has to be.

That’s why I write. It’s not so I can read reviews of my books, or to blog about how hard those deadlines are, or to boast about my position on Amazon. I write because when I’m writing that’s what I’m doing.

Creativity 1: Groupthink

On a number of occasions, usually when I’ve been at work, I’ve been part of a group asked to think up a new slogan or tagline.

I’m never exactly sure what people mean when they talk about creativity, but I’ve never known these mindmelding exercises result in it.

First, someone comes up with a slogan, let’s say “Tony Ballantyne Blogs Better”. Then someone else comes up with another, let’s say “Tony Ballantyne Tells it Like it Is!”

So there we have it, two slogans, perhaps not the best ever, but at least they work. Then the group will take sides and argue for their favourite slogan, and it will look as if things are going nowhere…

And then the same thing always happens. Someone will look up with an inspired expression and, in excited tones, will announce they have solved the problem.

“I’ve got it!” they will say, “Why don’t we put the two things together? Why don’t we say Tony Ballantyne Blogs Better to Tell it Like it Is!

There will be a pause and then nearly everyone will nod and declare what a good idea it is. The only two people who won’t agree will be the ones who came up with the original slogans.

Combining the two slogans is not a good idea.

Firstly, the slogan is now too long.

Secondly, it now contains two ideas – one too many.

Now, I quite agree that creativity can sometimes arise through the process of combining two or more seemingly disparate ideas. But I would also argue that joining together two sentences without any thought for what they mean may result in something new, but that’s not the same as being creative.

Six Tips on Submitting a Story

  • If you don’t submit a story, it will never be accepted
  • Read the submission guidelines
  • The editor is always right. If they found your story boring, unconvincing or unoriginal, then that’s their opinion.
  • If you want to know what the editor finds interesting, convincing and original, then read the stuff they choose to publish. If you don’t like it, then you’re submitting to the wrong market.
  • Everyone hates having their work rejected. Every writer has their work rejected. Successful writers are the ones who learn from past rejections and keep submitting.
  • The best thing to soften the pain of a rejection is to be working on your next story

See Also

Six Tips on Beating Writer’s Block

  1. Go for a walk
  2. This is the age of the word processor, you don’t have to write your story in a linear fashion. Write a later section, one that interests you.
  3. Always have two or three things on the go at once of different lengths. If you don’t feel like working on the novel, have a go at the short story. Don’t feel like fiction? Work on non-fiction
  4. Stop trying to get it right. Just follow a character and see where s/he goes. You don’t have to use everything you write.
  5. Change things around. What if a character was the opposite sex? What if they were younger/older?
  6. Still can’t write? Then take a break. If you’re not enjoying writing your story, then it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to enjoy reading it.

See Also

Concatenation: If Only…

If you haven’t visited the rather excellent Concatenation website before, you might want to take a look:

There’s lots of very interesting stuff on there, including… er … me…

New up we have our usual Christmas treat, an extra one of the Nature multidisciplinary science journal, one-page ‘Futures’ short stories that we consider among the best of the 51 published by Nature the previous year. This time it is a Tony Ballantyne short. Tony is the only author to have more than one ‘Futures’ story selected by us each year. In fact this is now the third story we have of his over the years and that should tell you something about his writing. (His novels are nifty too.) For the link to the story see below… ‘Most recently added’.