Monthly Archives: April 2016

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – How to write a Sentence


You might be looking at that deceptively simple title thinking, but everyone can write a sentence. Well, yes, illiteracy aside, everyone probably can. The point is to write a sentence that grips people and makes them want to read on. To write sentences that create sympathy between your audience and your characters. Used correctly sentences can alter the flow and rhythm of your prose, adjusting it to the correct pace.

This seminar was taught by Andrew Willie ( He is an experienced and enthusiastic copy editor, with a real knack for spotting good prose.

So to break things down to their constituents before we reassemble them;

Parts of speech

A noun – names a person, place, thing, idea, quality or action.

A verb – describes an action or a state (doing something, being something)

An adverb – usually describes a verb, or how, when, where or how much something is done.

An adjective – describes or limits a noun.

A pronoun – is used in place of a noun, to avoid repeating the noun. (She, him, it)

A conjunction – joins two words, phrases or sentences together (and, as, but)

A preposition – usually marks the relationship between nouns or pronouns (of, on, in, into, around, along)

An article – is used to introduce a noun. (a, the, an)

An Interjection – expresses emotion or surprise. Often followed by an exclamation mark. (Hurray!)

A participle – is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun or noun phrase, and thus plays a role similar to that of an adjective or adverb. (Singing, writing – present participle. Written, sung – past participle.)

So those are the parts of a sentence. How do you string them together?

The subject of a sentence is the person/animal/ thing which the sentence is about.

The predicate is what the subject does.

Eg; the cat (subject) sat on the mat (predicate)

The most interesting thing in a sentence is not the subject but what the subject is doing and why. Ideally you always want to scatter a breadcrumb trail of ‘why’ for your readers to follow. So that the read the next sentence and the one after that and the one after that.

In most cases the best way to do this is to avoid using the passive voice.

An example of the active voice would be ‘the cat sat on the mat.’

In passive voice it might read ‘the mat was sat on by the cat.’

The passive voice is less gripping, less interesting. It doesn’t convey action in the same way. However there is a place for the passive voice. If for example you wee setting a scene where there was about to be a lot of action, you might start with some passive voice to lull your reader into a false sense of security or to even out pace. If time has been spent setting up an event the passive voice provides contrast.

Eg. The mat was sat on by the cat. The mat exploded.

Also passive voice is useful if you are extending sentences.

Eg the mat was sat on by the cat, where he then went and shat. (Sorry that was the class example.)

For more information, try the guardian essays by Phillip Pullman and Phillip Gardner.

A few other things to consider;

You can use first person, second person or third person but second person is harder to read and much harder to sell.

Present or past tense – either is fine but in general most people write better in past tense. A notable exception is Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, where the present tense adds to the tension.

I’ll leave you with the same quote Andrew left us with;

‘A first draft is just a writer telling himself the words of the story.’ Sir Terry Pratchett.

Recommended reading; Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale (which is on my kindle but I haven’t read it yet. Must get on that!)

Thanks for reading. If you missed this class, I hope the above notes helped. 😉


Throwback Thursday: A Perfect Dystopia

(First published on my old blog, 24th October 2013)

One of my favorite forms of genre fiction is dystopian fiction. The word Dystopia is of greek origin, coming from two words meaning ‘hard land’. It was used in answer to Thomas Moore’s coined term ‘Utopia’ from the book of the same name. While a Utopian world is an idealised version of our own, a dystopian world takes the darker aspects of human nature and examines them. This is what I find endlessly fascinating.

Dystopian societies may be anti-utopian, in other words taking the worst of human behavior and setting, and magnifying them. Or it may be Counter-Utopian – presenting a society which is Utopic on the surface, with one fatal flaw. The latter is the one I find most interesting. Just as a character’s fatal flaw may help drive the plot of a book or film, a society or races fatal flaw may do the same in dystopian fiction. As unsettling as much of it is, I think dystopian fiction allows us to look at ourselves, at our current society and ask ourselves ‘is this where we are heading?’ There are often strong moral conflicts involved, revolutions and uprising against a totalitarian regime or subtler struggles for public hearts and minds or even just a pocket of resistance clawing out some space to think for themselves; all of which is right up my literary alley.

Here are some of my favorites, try not to laugh at the first few;

The Stand by Stephen King –  ok so many people would class this as a horror story. For me, despite it’s opposing poles of good and evil, it is a huge tome set in a dystopian future (though technically we’ve gone way past the year it is set in.) A human designed plague has been released killing 99.9% of the worlds population. It has caused society to grind to a halt while those survivors who happened to be immune try to find each other and reestablish some sort of working civilisation. The thing with plague killing off the populous is that it has not destroyed buildings, power plants, supplies, weapons etc. They are all waiting to be picked up and used. Add to that a force for goodness and a force for evil fighting over the scraps of mankind. This is self examination in it’s rawest form in many ways. Not all of the people who followed the dark man were wholly bad, not all of those who went to Mother Abigail were entirely good. Everyone is caught up in something bigger than themselves and not just the plague. It  is the choices you make in those situations that make this so interesting.
Watership Down – Richard Adams. – Yes I know it’s about bunnies. I still maintain that there’s a case for it being included in dystopian fiction. Fiver the seer, knows that  bad danger is coming to the Sandleford warren, with his brother Hazel and several other rabbits they manage to leave before, what would be to them, a catclymic world altering event occurs, killing all the others. Struggling to find a place in the world they stumble on Cowslip’s warren. This is a false Utopia, as it turns out all the rabbits there, while never hungry or worrying about enemies, are being kept safe and fat for when the farmer wants to catch a couple. The whole area is snared. And yet the rabbits of that warren make believe that they serve the shining wire, that death chooses them. Hazel’s group moves on and eventually finds Watership Down. It’s near perfect except that they have no does, without which their ociety will die out in a generation. Finding the Efrafra warren, a true totalitarian regime, where you are perfectly safe as long as you don’t disobey orders and live in (for rabbits) unnatural conditions, Hazel’s group effects a daring plan to break away a group of does to join them. The final battle for the survival of their own warren is against the dictator General Woundwort – possibly the scariet rabbit ever.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – The World State controls almost everything, it is all surprisingly peaceful, a stable society with plentiful goods and supplies. Natural birth has been done away with. Children are instead created and raised in hatcheries where they are conditions and separated into five caste systems. Citizens are conditioned to value consumption above all else. All need for transcendent, spiritual experience is managed by the state with Soma – a hallucinogenic approved for ‘holidays’. Recreational sex is encouraged. So with everything provided for you and everything figured out for you, where is the reward of thinking for yourself? What is there to strive for?

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – there’s a lot more to it that this but books are outlawed and burned as they promote free-thinking. This is literally my personal hell on earth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell – not so much a favorite as a must read. After a global atomic war (so set in obvious dystopian landscape) we follow the story of Winsten Smith, who is at intellectual war with The Party and has an illicit romance with Julia. His consequent imprisonment, interrogation, torture and reintegration are chilling.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood – read this first when I was 16 and was horribly struck by how possible it seemed. A christianity based theocratic regime rules everything after a global disaster. Few women have viable ovaries. Those who do are re-educated and sent out as handmaids to bear children for members of congress. The ritualistic adultary  in which the wife takes part, rendering the handmaid merely a womb for hire while the husband inseminates her is truly horrific. The ambiguity at the end is disturbing but right for the story, especially as one of the themes of the book is not knowing.

The Chrysalids – John Wyndham – possibly my absolute favorite. Man is made in a specific image, people are conditioned by a cut off, theocratic state, not to succour the mutant. Something as simple as being born with an extra toe can get you forcibly serilised and sent into the barren lands. But what about mutations that don’t show? A group of children develop a kind of telepathy which is found out and abhorred as a mutation. Their struggle is to find somewhere they can live un-persecuted. It is suggested that this mutation is actually one of nature, rather than nuclear fallout. So the question is how far will society go to control natural gene expression?

Pure – Julianna Baggott – in a post nuclear/ dirty bomb society, there are the pure, who live within the dome – seemingly perfect lives. And the aberrants who have eked out an existence outside the dome. As the politics unfolds it turns out that there is less perfection inside the dome than the imperfect aberrants think. There is also a question on just who set the bombs – surely not their own government on a mission of enthnic cleansing, attempting to set up their own superior race?

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins – I don’t care what anyone says about this being ripped off from ‘Battle Royale’. I don’t believe it is but even if it was, Collins took an idea and portrayed it a hundred times better. Deal with it. What the series looks at is what war really does to society, in particular, to children. The twelve districts of panem are controlled with a constant mix of fear, oppression, hardship, humiliation and a tiny insidious but of hope. Every year each district is forced to provide a male and female child tribute to compete in the games, where they are expected to fight to the death. A pretty good analogy for the pointlessness of war considering the arbitrariness of the  rules and what the games turn the children into.

There are dozens more books that cover various themes in a dystopian world. This is merely a small selection of my favorites. The attraction does not simply relate to reading either, I enjoy writing dystopian fiction. The themes it explores are close to my heart, questions that must be asked over and over in order to avoid such dark futures ourselves.

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one – Plot and Character

(First Published on my old blog, 28th October 2013)

By now I wouldn’t blame you if you were thinking, ‘just how long can she go on about York FoW13? It was a month ago!’ And you’d be right in as far as no amount of blog posts can recapture the experience of going yourself. That said, I did learn some quantifiable skills with regard to writing so I’m passing them along. Think of it as a taster in case you decide to go to York FoW yourself one day. (Also I have a quota of posts to fill this month. Don’t worry though – there’ll only be a maximum of two more York rambles.)

Jeremy Sheldon (who taught ‘Lovers and Buddies’) also covered this seminar on plot and character. Strong storytelling, hinges on one or both of these elements. If you ask an agent what they are looking for, they will nearly always reply ‘strong storytelling’, that’s if they’re not replying with ‘voice’ or ‘style’. What they don’t do, is explain what they mean by this. What is a strong story? What is Voice or Style? Aside from a technical description,  which is about as much use as someone telling you that a light bulbs blown but then refusing to tell you where the light bulbs are, no one can really say. I think in part this is because they mean different things to different people, but also t seems to be jut one of those things. You can’t put your finger on it to describe it to someone, but everyone knows when it’s not there.

However, all is not lost. If you look at plot and character in enough detail, chance are that you’ll build a strong story anyway. With voice and style. So, plot and character, is there a difference? Yes and no. It depends entirely on your point of view. Personally I think some narratives are more plot driven and some are more character driven. The best narratives, in my book, are both. The only person whose opinion matters there is the writer’s. Having said that, while you may prefer plot over character, or vice versa, in order to build a strong story you cannot consider them entirely disconnected. A character without a plot is just  collection of vices, virtues and mannerisms, all dressed up with no where to go. A plot without a character, is a fantastic stage set without actors.

“Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of the action not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” Aristotle.

Basically, Aristotle argues that in Tragedy, plot is more important than character. (He later goes on to say that in Comedy, character is more important than plot.) Actually I’m not sure I entirely agree. While it is important to ellicit an emotional response in your reader, surely one of the best ways of doing this is building a bridge of sympathies between your characters and your reader? Yes plot is important in tragedy – the events in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus have to follow the set sequence or the gradual upping of the stakes and dawning horror of the situation, just won’t happen. I’d be inclined to say that it was just as important rather than more important though. But then Aristotle would have said I am emotionally un-house broken due to my hair colour so…

Anyway, within a plot you have the writers perspective and the readers perspective. They should ultimately dovetail and that’s what you need to bear in mind when plotting;

The Writer;

Story = Crucible of invented human activity – affected by time and causality – resulting in The Final Outcome.

The Reader;

Story = investment of time   –      leading to Reader Expectation – resulting in, Reader Investment Confirmed.
(sense of place, dialogue
writing etc)

In other words you can’t suddenly throw in bits and pieces and bend your plot to suit yourself without going back and sowing the seeds of suspicion. Think Chekov’s Gun. If you are going to use the gun in the third act, then it should be visible on the wall in act one. Not I said visible not necessarily blindingly obvious. Readers like to have their suspicions confirmed; it makes the book feel like a friend. Readers do not like being cheated or misled through laziness – do that enough times and the reader will put the book down. Remember you are the tour guide of your created world, it is your job to make the reader feel that you know what you are doing and will take care of them, otherwise they won’t feel like they are in a safe pair of hands.

Story should not contain any filler. So anything that does not build your plot or your characters has to go. We all know what it’s like with a first draft; there are place holders, half names, undecided bits. That’s fine. The finished product needs to have been on the mother of all Rocky style training montages so that it’s a lean beast, not a flabby, soft read.

Basic Structure (which you can adapt at your leisure.)

-Set Up (scene setting/ world building/ character introduction)
-1st turn – hamartia or fatal flaw. This is where the story stops telling what it’s about and starts being what it’s about.
– Development, Character tries to achieve goal, but is thwarted, often repeatedly.
– Mid point – Character starts to break through/ make progress, but isn’t there yet.
– Crescendo – protagonist is making greater step toward goal. Antagonist counters more strongly.
– Crisis – everything appears to be going wrong / unsavable
– Recognition and reversal – the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it.
– Climax – protagonist triumphs (or not, depends if last point occurs in time!)

In a tragedy the protagonist is unable to recognise their hamartia or reverse damage, at least not in time. Eg King Lear, Macbeth, Chasing Amy, Red State

In a comedy the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it in time for a happy ending. Eg Much ado about nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones

Character and Flow
– the flaw should appear unconsciously (to the protagonist) in the set up
– mid point plot break through is the first moment of real character insight. Significant step towards goal.
– Crisis – the self realisation and plot all go pear shaped. Character has not yet reversed his flaw.
– Character has to engage with changing on a positive level, turning the flaw into an asset.

With regard to hamartia or fatal flaw, it may be conscious or unconscious (usually the former is better.) It is a deep character weakness. It is also often the same as a character’s greatest strength. How self aware the character is and what use he puts that quality towards is what defines it as a flaw. For example the film As Good As it Gets – the MC has massive OCD issues coupled with social ineptitude. On the other hand he notices things, everything that other people take for granted. By the end of the film he’s learned to use the positive aspects of his OCD, namely noticing and anticipating, and controlling the negative aspects, the desire to control everything and push people away.

Or to use a personal exmple, in WIP my MC is incredibly resilient. She endures and doesn’t allow things to flatten her. She keeps going. The fatal flaw is that she doesn’t trust anyone to help her, she is to independant. She pushes people away and becomes isolated during a very dangerous sequence of event. Does she recognise and reverse this? Well if I ever get any where you’ll have to read it for yourself and find out 😉

Thanks for reading!

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one : The Sci-Fi Master Class

(First published on my old blog, 18th October 2013)

High time I continued with my York FoW13 chronicles. Only a fairly short one tonight, as this was one seminar where I think you had to be there.

Gary Gibson, well known science fiction author of Angel Stations and Stealing Light (amongst others), took the Sci-Fi master class seminar. While Zi highly recommend attending this seminar yourself if this is in your area of interest, here are some of the things I found most interesting.
Sci-Fi has been written for a long time (if you include ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, it’s been written for hundreds of years.) Early authors include H G Wells and Jules Verne. The interesting point the Gary made was that you need 20th century understanding to make sense of sci-fi. Actually I agree. Partly because science needs to have emerged as something respectable from the esoteric studies it, and maths, were once part of. Partly because advances in scientific knowledge have allowed more and more plausible plots, no matter how far fetched, due to greater understanding. And partly because the human psyche needed to be less ruled by religious doctrine, of whatever flavor. That’s no slight to personal faith, it’s just that science and religion are in the uncomfortable, not-quite-friends-but-trying, post break-up phase.
In the last 100 years there has been a huge race of scientific progress. We are now at the tipping point of literally being overtaken by our own technology. (And yes I do find that a bit scary – I worry that we’ll lose an essential part of our humanity or at least humane-ness if we carry on without thought.) Anyway, as Gary Gibson said, science fiction is a way of questioning and making sense of this.
Originally after masters such as H G Wells had retired from the field, sci-fi became very sloppy. Pulp books were turned out very quickly with little thought, plot or research involved. Now there’s nothing wrong with something written purely to entertain – even OK magazine has found its audience after all. (Can’t for the life of me imagine why but I guess I’m not part of their target demographic.) However the knock on effect of so much crap sci-fi being published in the early 20th century, was a lingering belief that all sci-fi (and fantasy) was crap. This is clearly not so – think of Dune by Frank Herbert or Brace New World by Aldous Huxley or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood – however it is a stigma that has stuck, which is why there those who give you ‘the look’ if you say you write sci-fi or fantasy today.
All we can do is continue to write amazing sci-fi until the nasty, junk food taste of early sci-fi pulp is a dim memory.
Within Sci-Fi/ fantasy there are many sub-genres; slipstream, steam punk, cyber punk, dystopian, space opera, hard sci-fi to name but a few. They are all equally relevant dispute their different approaches. It all comes down to personal taste. Ultimately you should write what you love. I won’t tell the story Gary told, about his friend who lives a nomadic existence between sofas so he can write about dwarves hitting things with axes, because it’s not my story to tell. It is well worth hearing though. Ultimately it points at the fact that if you really want to write, you will make it happen. As my friend said to Gary Gibson, after a seminar ‘it was the most laid back motivational speech ever.’ From the look on his face I believe he took it as a compliment. 😉
So where do we go as writers of sci-fi?
Firstly read widely in the genre and research! You can be excused scientific ignorance if its something we haven’t discovered yet or if you hang your story on a theory that is disproved in twenty years time. You will not be allowed such lassitude if you make a gaff due to lazy research.
The example Gary quoted, was the ubiquitous asteroid field. In a lot of sci-fi films asteroid belts are deadly places full of whirling rock and space debris, ventured into only by the most fool hardy and navigated only by the bravest and most skilled. In actual fact, to hit anything in an asteroid field, you’d have to be trying pretty damn hard as there is no gravitational pull and the asteroids don’t move! We all love ‘Empire Strikes Back’, but we’ll have to assume that in that galaxy far far away, different laws of physics apply. It couldn’t be that George Lucas didn’t do his research…
Ultimately, whenever you write something that requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief, the mundane details must be as realistic as possible. Even if you are writing about a sentient, alien race as MCs, you must find an emotional level on which your readers can engage and empathize with them.
Another thing to consider, is that it’s rare for sci-fi and fantasy to crossover in a bookshop. They might do in real life, in the book. Alien is more of a space horror, Handmaid’s Tale is definitely literary. But as targeting for an audience, you particularly need to know where your book will sit in a book shop. Where will your fans go to find your book? There was one lad in several of the same seminars as me, who argued hotly against being pigeon holed. His book crossed seven genres equally. You know what that’s fine. But you can’t sell it in a book shop like that. You’re unlikely to be able to sell it to an agent. Exactly how are they supposed to sell it to a publisher? ‘Its a sci-fi horror fantasy steam punk space opera with literary overtones and magical realism.’ It might very well be but no one will buy it like that. Pick the main genre and maybe one or maximum, two crossover genres and describe it like that.
(A note here, never, as an author describe your book as being literary or containing magical realism. These are terms applied by agents and publishers. Saying that as an author makes you appear arrogant and is a distinctly unpopular move in the publishing world. What if you’re wrong? You’ve completely discredited yourself in five seconds flat. Stick to a more general description and let the professionals sing your praises.)
And the last point but the most important; those who succeed as writers are those who are writers first and anything else second. This doesn’t mean chaining yourself to your lap top or ignoring your spouse but cultivate the mindset that you are a writer, whether or not you are paid for your labors yet.
If you ever get the chance to go and listen to Gary Gibson, I highly recommend it; thoroughly nice bloke and very entertaining and down to earth.
Perhaps that’s the secret; if you’re writing about happenings amongst the stars, your feet need to be firmly on this planet first.