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.

Author’s Notes: When Nightmares Wake

This post is my author’s notes to When Nightmares Wake where I describe my thought processes, decisions and mistakes in writing the story. Think of it like the Director’s commentary on a DVD; only better because it won’t be in monotone (unless you read it so).

Continue reading

Another Great Hook

I’ll admit to being a bit of a fanboy of superhero sagas. Don’t judge me, I’m not alone if the box office and TV ratings are anything to go by.

Recently Netflix released season 3 of Arrow. Having just finished watching season 2 of Daredevil the timing was wonderful. I sat down to watch it and accidentally started at season 1, episode 1, which I decided was a good place to refresh my memory from.

A TV show, especially a pilot episode where they’re seeking funding is very similar to the first pages of a novel;  you need a great hook to catch your audience. It’s not enough to be ‘okay’…it has to be great. With my writer’s hat on I marveled at how well the beginning of Arrow hooked me.

“I am returning, not the boy who was shipwrecked but to bring justice to those who have poisoned my city.” (1:36)

Within minutes of the show starting we know that the protagonist is out to get vengeance against the bad people in his city. He’s motivated by a semi-noble pursuit of righting the wrongs of his father.

He mysteriously speaks Russian and has the reflexes of a cat (not literally, Dark Angel fans) and super-bad ninja-like skills.

“Everyone is happy your alive. You want to see the one person who isn’t?” (12:29)

He’s also got a boat load of guilt and emotional distress (pun-intended). When he was shipwrecked he was in the midst of an affair with the sister of his girlfriend. The sister didn’t survive the shipwreck (at least that’s what we think at this stage). He of course still loves his ex, but she understandably doesn’t want anything to do with him. Smart woman, all things considered. However, there’s enough backstory there for some serious emotional conflict: He’s in love with her, but also  pushing her away so she’s not collateral damage in his war on bad people.

“Did he make it to the island? Did he tell you anything?”

He’s abducted by masked assailants (15:00) who want to ensure his father is dead, and what his father might have disclosed. The intrigue of a mystery and a hidden enemy loom large.

His younger sister is abusing drugs and alcohol (10:53), in much the same way as he did.

Bad guy, about to die: “You don’t have to do this?”

“Yes I do; nobody can know my secret.”

He’s an anti-hero, a bad guy killing other bad guys.

So in one episode you have plenty of hooks, external dangers and mystery with enough inner turmoil for the character to overcome. An excellent beginning.

(I’ve written before about great beginnings of TV shows in hiding the horrific through the eyes of children).

Plot Twists

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 19. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I admire great plot twists. The go-to example of plot twists has to be the movies Sixth Sense and Snowpiercer. In the literary world, Isaac Asimov does a brilliant job in Second Foundation where the heroine succeeds almost by mistake in solving several problems at once.

I aspire to writing great plot twists. In my experience these have been a mixture of planned and unplanned events. When I wrote my short story The Captive I knew from the beginning that essentially the whole story is about the plot twist. In writing my first novel Vengeance Will Come I have plot twists which occur in the novel and twists that are only foreshadowed to be revealed later in the series.

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist should be something that surprises the reader (they weren’t expecting it), but makes total sense in hindsight.
  • Using plot twists correctly is about out-thinking your readers: fulfilling the promises you made, in a way they don’t expect.
  • Plot twists should be character- affecting, because otherwise there is no emotional investment for the reader.

How do you ‘come up’ with plot twists?

  • For the discovery writer it is an act of discovery, for the outliner it is discovering a conflict that can be used.
  • Sometimes its serendipity: you might not plan it, but it works out that way.

How do you do plot twists?

Surprising: The reader should not expect the plot twist. Throw away the first couple of ideas you have that readers would assume is going to happen.

In the podcast they say: “If you’ve seen it before in a movie or read it before in a book, then it’s not good enough.”

This statement stopped me. I agree with the following:

  1. A fresh plot twist is an excellent plot twist
  2. An overused plot twist is a bad plot twist

But what about those plot twists that sit in the middle; not fresh, but not overused? Surely there is room for some of those plot twists occasionally? To me books are not all about plot twists. I can enjoy a book with basic plot twists if it also has great characters or a solid plot. In all the books that have been written over the centuries, I think truly fresh plot twists would have to be rare. I think the statement is a little strong: or it could be the difference between being a writer and an amazing writer.

I wonder also whether it will get harder to write good plot twists. For example, previously killing off a main character might have been a good plot twist… after George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) which kills of characters as regularly as most people take showers the wow factor is gone. Seriously, I think the man single-handedly saturated that technique, among others. So a good plot twist is going to require something more intelligent to do well.

Foreshadowing: Because a plot twists must make sense, it must be foreshadowed carefully. This is normally ‘added’ during successive drafts (retroactive foreshadowing). They suggest that for foreshadowing you should mention something three times, in a different context, to hint at it. Anything that you needed to use in the third act has a story of its own, told in act 1 or early in act 2.

Thankfully, this means you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can have many drafts over which to perfect the execution of it. (You may not even see the major plot twist until you have nearly written the entire story).

Misdirection: Make sure there is a lot going on so that the reader gets ‘red herrings’ and can’t guess what the plot twist will be. Think of a magician who keeps the audience looking at his left hand while his right hand is performing the trick, and aspire to that.

Research and practice: Analyse critically how other authors do it.

Other Tips

  • You don’t want to dilute the impact by putting too many plot twists in a single story.
  • Keep ideas for plot twists. It may not fit in this book but it might in the next.

How I Solve Plot Problems (2/2)

This post is part 2 of how I solve plot problems in my fiction writing. (See part 1 for the background and an understanding of the problem to be solved). Note that this post contains some spoilers for the novelette I am currently working on, The Rebel Queen.

I’m not sure why, but the process tends to work better for me if I write it out on paper, at least initially. I think it’s because of the speed with which I can strike out, draw arrows etc. Or perhaps it is because I have less distractions trying to format perfectly 🙂

Identifying the problem

I start by writing down the problem to solved at the top left of the page. Normally I put it inside of a starburst or a bordered-box to make it stand out. It’s the problem to be solved and it’s what I want to focus on.

I don’t usually get it right the first time. For example when I started working on this problem I wrote down ‘Make The Touched an integral part of Deckarian society’. But as I worked through the problem I realised that making them integral to society wouldn’t work because of the power imbalance it would cause. Instead the problem description became: ‘How can the cloaking devices be maintained by the Touched?’

Identify the Constraints

On the left hand side of the page below the starburst I write down the constraints. These are the things that need to happen. I try to think about them and work down the issues to the lowest level, without any previous thinking slipping in to muddy the waters.

In this case I need to:

  • Limit the exposure of the Talmeni secret to the outside, including the colony and other species.
  • The Talmeni/Touched must still be involved with the colony, at least annually and have influence over the colony.

Brainstorm Solutions

On the right hand side of the page I start to brainstorm solutions. Indented under each solution I try and identify its strengths and weaknesses, and assign a positive or a negative number (as to how badly or positively they affect things).

In this example I had written:

  • The ships could be serviced at the Talmeni homeworld
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -3 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
  • The ships could be serviced at a satellite/hidden location
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -2 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
    • -1 The Talmeni are supposed to be non-expansionist
  • The Touched could live in the colony
    • -5 power imbalance caused by their presence
    • -5 unlikely to be kept separate and for secret to remain intact
    • -2 The possibility of The Touched being captured is greater if the Deckarian world were invaded. Chance of a suicide-pact working for a large group.
    • -2 Talmeni control would be reduced.
  • The Touched could visit the colony periodically
    • +2 limits exposure of The Touched to aliens
    • +5 no power imbalance created
    • +2 allow strengthening of associated plot.
  • Ships could be delivered “whole” to the Deckarians; no maintenance provided.
    • -4 Realism. The Talmeni are not going to want pay for entire ships, or be happy with half-working ships travelling around. Creates too much of a dependence.

From these options, it’s fairly clear which solution would be the best: the Touched could periodically visit the colony. This solution solves the plot problems, and allows for strengthening of other plot issues.




How I Solve Plot Problems (1 of 2)

To explain how I go about solving plot problems it will be better to use a real-life example. This will result in a small spoiler for the novelette I am currently writing The Rebel Queen. I will be vague at points to minimise spoilage.

(Given how long this post has grown, I will make it a two-post subject. In this first post I will explain the background of the plot problem and in the second post, how I go about solving it).

Story Origin

The Rebel Queen came into being when I excised the plot line from my first novel Vengeance Will Come. I loved the plot line but it simply added too many characters too late in the novel. Even though it shared some common characters it was a separate story, and so it was best that I treat it as one. My intention is that it would not be the second story in the series, but bonus-content.

So after completing Vengeance Will Come I started working on shaping The Rebel Queen into a fully-fledged mini-story of its own. Foolishly I thought that as I already had 10,000 words written I could knock off the project in a month. (For more such foolish thoughts, please go to http://BenEzar..). My point is I wasn’t starting with the blank canvas, but from existing content and a requirement that certain elements remained true to the ‘canon’ I had laid out in Vengeance Will Come.

Background of the Problem

The Rebel Queen is a story about a semi-communist, matriarchal colony of aliens called Deckarians. Think of the species as a futuristic space-fearing version of pirates; friends of few, and pestilence of many.

Deckarian society is composed of 3 classes of individuals based on rigid occupation selection:

Pilots – spaceship captains who fly trading or raiding vessels. Retired pilots transition to become wealthy merchants. This is the most prestigious class.

Soldiers – provide internal security and defence of the colony from outsiders, as well as providing military might to the raiding vessels. Soldiers lack the wealth of the pilots, but have more prestige than the workers.

Workers – every other task. Necessarily this therefore contains administration, education or medical work but the class is considered to be blue-collar workers – too weak or cowardly to be soldiers, and not smart enough to be pilots. Though the vast majority of the colony are workers, it is the most scorned role.

When The Rebel Queen had to be elevated from plot line to story I felt it was necessary to do some world building of the species. From that work I discovered that the social structure with its bias against academics (workers), and the fact they live underground would result in a primitive technological level. The technological advancements that they have achieved or stolen are very focused (space travel) and do not extend into other fields of endeavor. Consequently the wealth of the colony is invested mostly in ships (to bring in more wealth), to the detriment of the rest of society.

This spawned a series of minor problems, and the one major problem.

Minor Problem 1: Technology. In Vengeance Will Come the Deckarians are said to have highly advanced cloaking technology on their ships, which help them evade detection. This is in contrast to the low-level of Deckarian technology, and so needs to be plausibly explained.

I resolved this problem with the introduction of another alien race, the Talmeni. The Talmeni are very advanced technologically in most fields of science. They supply the cloaking technology to the Deckarians.

Minor Problem 2: Commerce? But why don’t other species who lack the cloaking technology just buy or trade it with the Talmeni? (Thus nullifying the Deckarian advantage).

The Talmeni are exceedingly private to the obsessive extreme. They are isolationists who prefer to hide in the shadows. They are anti-expansionist and so still reside on their own single homeworld, seldom leaving it. They only deal with Deckarian colonies, at their complete discretion.

If any species can hide from the universe, it would be a species with advanced cloaking technology 🙂 For privacy (and other plot reasons which will stay under the veil of secrecy) only the Queen of the colony is aware of of the Talmeni’s involvement.

Major Problem 3: Upkeep with Privacy. But if the Talmeni provide the technology, who maintains it?

While The Rebel Queen involves a single colony of Deckarians, there are numerous colonies all who deal with the Talmeni. A steady stream of Deckarian ships, some with faulty cloaking devices, even in the incredible vastness of space would surely not go entirely unnoticed. (Let’s say that, anyway). Further, if most Deckarians don’t know of the Talmeni’s existence…they can hardly be visiting their homeworld often.

To try and solve this problem I thought that a group of Talmeni-trained Deckarians (“the touched”) could be returned to the colony. This has a number of flow-on problems which I didn’t identify until later:

  • The need for the secret shroud of the Talmeni would mean these touched would have to remain isolated in the colony, essentially a fourth group in society.
  • The touched having experienced Talmeni technology would hate being on a primitive, technologically-backward planet where they are kept isolated. Control and separation of this group would be impossible, and the secret would leak…
  • The solution felt ‘bolted on’ as though it didn’t fit with the rest of the world-building (mainly because it was added last from necessity, not from design).
  • If the touched taught other Deckarians the secrets of Talmeni technology, the Talmeni lose their bargaining chip.
  • The main problem with this is though it creates a power imbalance. These touched are smarter than the rest of the colony and they know a secret with which they could blackmail the Queen. They would effectively be in control.

Tune in for an upcoming post on how I went about solving this problem.