Big Budget Does Not Mean Good Story

With working some long hours, and over-taxing my body, I’ve spent more hours than normal in front of the TV in the last week. In hindsight, I realise it was time not well spent. Even though it was shows and movies I wanted to watch, I found most of them bland and uninspiring. Even high-cost productions lacked a good story line, leaving my overall impression at “bleh”. I moved from anticipating the new series through to just feeling obligated to finish it.

The one exception to this cacophony of lacklustre entertainment was the Marvel movie Doctor Strange. Spoiler alert: read no further. From a cinematic point of view it was too heavy on CGI for my liking, but in contrast to everything else it had a good story line, even if it was cliché.

Good: Doctor Strange played by Benedict Cumberbatch is a deeply-flawed egomaniac who wants to win at everything. He ends up defeating the bad guy by being willing to fail endlessly.

Bad: I’d have to say I didn’t believe the transformation. I didn’t see him changing over time, it was like someone flicked a switch and all of a sudden he’d changed. Not so much a character arc than a plot-required u-turn.

Good: Being willing to fail is something that most people can relate to, and for the perfectionist it is a hard thing to accept.

Bad: In hindsight, it was kind of a weak ‘fail’. I mean he was willing to loose in another galaxy, population 1.. There were no witnesses. It’s not like he was willing to admit his mistakes on international TV.

Good: There was some good humour to break up the action. (Marvel are good at this). Take for example this where his cloak has ideas of its own.

Bad: And then the super-cheesy, I-so-didn’t-see-that-coming from the monk who never laughs. (Guess what he does?)

There were other problems with it too, which I guess just shows how bad the others were. From now on, I’m reading, not watching TV when it’s the approach of bed time.


Today is the Day

I barely slept a wink all night.

The countdown is close to reaching zero on two separate events. One event is that today I mail off my submission packet for Vengeance Will Come to a publisher.

My very first submission. It feels like I’m breaking new ground. Or better yet, stepping out on the ice, hoping that it’s frozen enough to bear my weight.

To be honest, I’m fully expecting a template rejection letter. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s my first novel and I’m sure I have much to learn about writing. I could have moved on without attempting to publish this first book – but the project would never have felt complete otherwise. (I still have a few wrinkles to smooth out in the manuscript, but they are minor and I hope to be actually complete in two weeks).

And without attempting submission I would never have learned about writing a synopsis, which was both a pleasure and a pain.

Writing a synopsis is an art all of its own and different to a query (or “pitch”). It forces you to distil your entire manuscript down to the core ingredients. (Vengeance Will Come is 300 A4 pages and my synopsis was 7 pages). In complete contradiction to an author’s normal impulses you must outline all major plot points, plot twists and character arcs. You must lay bare your secrets in a summarised recounting, without making it sterile.

I found creating the synopsis helpful in how it articulated the character arcs. In future projects I’m going to write the synopsis in parallel to the manuscript.

Writing Stats Spreadsheet v1

Now available is the spreadsheet that I’ve been using to record my statistics for The Rebel Queen. (It’s free, which means use at your own risk, no liability accepted. Always back up your files :-)). Writing Stats Spreadsheet v1

While it’s highly probable that I’ll make improvements to it later, I don’t envision doing any work on it for the foreseeable future. The spreadsheet is designed to keep track of word count in both draft and revision versions of a story. The Excel spreadsheet contains the following worksheets:


There’s really not much to see here. You can enter the name of your writing project, and it checks that all of your scenes have a point-of-view character assigned.


As the name would suggest, it shows some basic stats about the writing project. One of the cool things that I’ve recently added is the concept of an “estimated reading time”.

While the estimated reading time is of less value here (whole book), the value comes out in the per-chapter analysis. My new-found opinion is that I want chapters ideally to be 15-20 minutes long, ideal length for a commute. (Though it strikes me as I write this; commutes vary).

Basic Stats

While the table on this worksheet could be deemed ‘information overload’, it is important to be able to monitor word count reduction at a scene-by-scene level. Also on the stats page is a way-too-small chart which shows chapter and scene comparisons between revision and draft.

Chapter Summaries

A more useful by-chapter view of the world: scene count, word count, estimated reading time and percentage change between revision and draft.


Draft Scene Info and Revision1 Scene Info

These two worksheets are near identical. They both possess a table where you specify chapter number, scene number, a scene name, a point of view and the word count.


(Ignore the bad scene names; I don’t want this to be a spoiler for The Rebel Queen). The scene names for the same scene must be the same in both draft and revision worksheets, but they can be in a different order (different chapter or scene numbers). Also, the revision worksheet can contain new scenes or absent scenes. (That’s what revision is all about). Filling out the Point of View is easy, with a drop-down list.


This worksheet contains a list, and summary of the characters who get a point of view in your story. (Non point-of-view characters aren’t included).


Characters POV

This worksheet is also a recent addition, which also has the benefit of being aesthetically pleasing. I discussed this in a recent post on character balance.

Draft General Pkar POV

If you have any questions or problems using the spreadsheet, please add a comment below.



Describing Characters

I’ve written before that I am still finding my style when it comes to describing characters. (I previously panned Robert Jordan, and then realised I was mistaken and he was correct).

I’ve recently read Mirage by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul. (I’ve never known quite what to expect when ‘with’ is used. Is it truly a collaborative work, or is one author simply nodding through someone to use their name? Of course it could be different in each case). However that’s a tangent; whilst reading it I made special note of how the characters were described. Below are the samples I noted:

He wore prison blues, with a thinly padded jacket to ward off a little of the arctic air. At first, it looked as though he had tightly cropped dark hair, but, in fact, his head was perfectly shaved. It was the intricate design of interlacing tattoos covering his skull that made it look like he had hair. The tattoos continued around his throat and disappeared into the V of his prison shirt. He wasn’t necessarily a big man, but there was a feral intensity to his glacial blue eyes that made him seem dangerous. (page 4)

Having seen season 1 of Prison Break I can envision this.

Both of them were massive, standing at least six foot six, with hands like sledgehammers and biceps and chests that strained the fabric of their shirts. Also like the newly arrived prisoner, their necks were adorned with prison tattoos, though one had a strand of barbed wire inked across his forehead that denoted he’d been sentenced to life with no possibility of parole (page 5).

While the man ate like a near, drank like, well, like a Russian, and exercised every third leap year, he was still in pretty good shape for a man of fifty-five (page 15).

I appreciate both phrases “hands like sledgehammers” and “exercised every third leap year”. The first tells us form and function, the second is clever word-play.

Heavyset, with a florid complexion, a crescent of ginger hair ringing the back half of his skull, and a nose that had been broken enough times that he could have been mistaken for a professional boxer… (page 47).

Methuselah was a teenager compared to the man who trod out of the craft’s broad rear deck. He wore robes and a head scarf and leaned on a cane made of gnarled wood. Wisps of pure white hair coiled from under the scarf while the lower part of his face was covered in a beard befitting a fairy-tale wizard. (page 82).

Patronov was so fair-haired and pale-skinned that he almost appeared albino, and with an upturned nose that looked like the double barrels of a shotgun, he was considered porcine as well. His wet lips were overly large, and he had a cauliflower ear from his days as a boxer in the old Soviet naval academy.He wasn’t particularly tall, but had wide shoulders that sloped up to a bullet head that he kept trimmed in a half-inch buzz of pure white hair. (page 151, 152)

So on the character-description continuum Cussler definitely comes in longer-than-shorter. I also noticed that he also likes to describe clothing. I’m not kidding; the protagonist has more wardrobe changes than a stage performer (and they are all described). He does this I assume to show the character’s fashion sense and wealth.

The story is an action adventure which is fast paced and continual. It’s not my normal genre (although I have read a fair amount of them). On reflection I realise now that I never really thought about any character’s appearance beyond turning the page.

Perhaps in an epic fantasy, which is character-driven, the character’s appearance matters more than a plot-driven adventure where plot overshadows character? Just a thought, but it sounds right to me…

And then the other shoe drops…

Ever changed the plot and had it have unforeseen consequences later in the story? Well, now I have…


And as yet I don’t know how I’m going to solve the problem of my own making.

On another note I came across a story yesterday about Japan’s evaporating people. Reading stories like these help to broaden my mind beyond my own culture, which is never a bad thing when you’re trying to create your own cultures.

Keeping an Eye on the Clock

This blog is a record of my discovery of how to write well (through trial-and-error) .

Back in April 2015 (on a forerunner blog to I wrote about trying to time my scenes properly.

When, what?

By timing I mean how long has passed in and between the different scenes of the story.

In some stories the specifics of the time aren’t relevant and the reader doesn’t need to know how much time has elapsed. In other stories though, the passage of time can be very important. For example: a classic love story where boy meets girl, they dislike each other and then do a 180 to end up madly in love. If there was no passage of time, then the plot would seem implausible. It swaps from being a acquired taste to an instant attraction which is a different story.

(I should caveat this by saying it is always better to show the passage of time than to tell the reader about it. You could tell the passage of time by a change in season, by the length of a character’s hair or a change in their age…)

Sometimes it’s important to know the passage of time. If one scene is at midnight, does it make sense that in the next scene the hero can see all the way to the horizon? Not only does time of day matter when you’re painting the scene but it can also be crucial for having the right timing and flow.

Vengeance Will Come is what I am calling a ‘fantasy adventure’; quicker-paced than an epic fantasy while still having some of the fantastic elements. Because the pace is quick it is important that I keep track of what is happening. Like an episode of 24, I need to keep track of when it is day or night.

My first attempt

My first attempt at timing in April 2015 was to use Microsoft Excel to calculate it. This was based on two complex calculations that took hours to work out (between 2-5am, I might add) . The fact that the formula was so intense should have alerted me that it was not workable. Transparency and simplicity are the pillars of great execution.

My latest attempt

My latest effort, therefore is simple.

I have created a timeline (note a 26 hour day, it is other-worldy after all) and then I can write a reminder of what happens when each hour.I’ve also marked which hours are night.


Note: this isn’t perfect because sometimes a lot of things happen within an hour slot.

Changing Plot Gears

I’ve written previously that when writing I’m try to remember to consistently refer to the character-related attributes. For example if a character has “daddy issues” then that should appear (albeit expressed differently) in a number of places. The last thing I’d want to do is mention it once and have it like a cheap paint job.

I worried earlier that I’d failed to maintain consistency. Now I realize that wasn’t my issue. I can best describe the situation with an analogy. My novel was like a theme park with each character like an individual attraction. In the early chapters you get to know the characters. However when the plot really kicks in it’s like you’re on a roller coaster. The thrill of the plot is so intense that for the moment you’re not thinking about other issues. If you’re in the middle of the plot and thinking about anything beyond the immediate surroundings then the author has missed the mark.*

I have realized that my current speed bump is that my plot has changed gear. The engine has been racing but now the plot calls for some simmering instead of boiling. Wow, that’s more analogies than you can poke a stick at, which probably counts as another one.

Chapters 5 through to 9 are completed in 7 hours of story-time (13,000 words). The subsequent chapters will be over a number of days which is far less intense for the reader. My first thought was that I needed to find a way to keep the pressure on. That if I was unable to rush the timeline I needed to add pressure or intensity elsewhere.

I think that was also a wrong turn. There is an alternate view which says that too much intensity wears the reader out. The reader must get breathers between action.In a way I think we see this in movies like Jaws. The prolonged presence of danger can be more terrifying than instantaneous danger. Not that I’m writing a book that is  terrifying but I think that same intensity can translate across genres. Even James Bond has some time to wine-and-dine his female counterparts between bare knuckle street-fights.

Not entirely sure how I solve this issue of gear-changing, yet.

On another note, by way of an update. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you have probably noticed I overuse commas and semi-colons.  I’ve been going over my earlier chapters of Vengeance Will Come and correcting that. Consequently, the progress bar hasn’t moved (in fact, it has actually dropped as I found more words to cut). Hopefully it is a better story for the haircut.

vwc progress.PNG

Some of the columns are not actually comparable, given I’ve moved the chapter order around a bit. It’s now down to 97, 452 words. At the current rate of editing I think it will be down to about 75k by the time I finish, which is a good first-book length.

* There is a school of thought that says the plot should be character-driven. I don’t think I am breaking that rule.