Category Archives: things I’ve learnt

Writing Lessons from George Lucas

Last week I mentioned the three last-minute books I bought before I embarked on No More Books 2012. But now I have a confession to make: I was lying.

There was one other book.

That book was Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

A friend of mine called this purchase the geekiest thing he had ever heard. And he’s a huge geek himself. But I don’t care. I love stuff like this, the behind-the-scenes of the writing. It’s a chance to see how other writers work, a chance to examine how they do things and to learn from them.

To prove it, here’s three things I’ve learnt from the geekiest purchase ever.

Steal From Other Stories If Need Be

“I have a bad feeling about this”, a line which ended up in every Star Wars film, was originally in the script for Indiana Jones. But Lucas felt it would work better in Star Wars, so he took it out of Indiana Jones’ mouth and placed it in Luke Skywalker’s. If you’ve an idea that would work great in one project but you originally envisaged it in another, don’t protect one and hurt both. You need to make this current project as strong as it can be.

Remove Characters With Nothing To Do

In earlier drafts, Lucas didn’t kill Obi-Wan. But he found he was making no contribution to the film after the escape from the Death Star. Alec Guinness was going to be very expensive set dressing. So he killed him off.

If a character is a good one, killing them off should feel like a loss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the story. Sometimes it’s a gain.

Don’t Be Precious; Change Whatever You Need to Make It Work

Lucas’ first treatment was radically different to the final film. About the only things that remain from treatment to screen are an empire, a rebellion, a force and a few names. Luke Skywalker was Annikin Starkiller. Obi-wan was after a Kiber crystal. Darth Vader was a bit part.

No writer should be afraid of the red pen, even if it causes the end result to be almost unrecognisable from the first plot outline. If it’s making things better, it can only be a good thing.

(Bonus Lesson: If you’re tempted to create a Jar Jar Binks? Don’t.)

Find out if I learned these lessons by downloading a free copy of my debut novel, The Fey Man!

5 Ways to Get More Twitter Followers

Twitter has over 100 million active users. That’s a lot of people and they all want more followers. So how do you stand out from the crowd? Do you need to go wild, wacky and winsome? No, but I think the following will stand you in good stead. It works on me!

Be Interesting

You need to provide great, useful content. Whether you create your own or aggregate others’ (properly credited, of course), providing me with content I want to consume is a sure-fire way of earning a follow.

Be Funny

If you’re not interesting you can always be funny. People like to laugh and they like (and follow) the people who bring the chuckles.

Have a good bio

Speaking for myself, no bio equals no follow. If you can’t be bothered with a bio, it’s not unfair to assume that you can’t be bothered with Twiiter in general. A good bio draws people in and gets them looking at your tweets.

Be Social

It is, after all, a social network. Reach out to people and engage them in conversation. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m on Twitter to meet new people and I think others are too. So engage with their tweets and they’ll probably engage back.

• Be Reasonable

If you haven’t tweeted in weeks, tweeple could be forgiven for thinking you’d abandoned the account. Of course if you tweet too much that’s just as off-putting. I unfollowed Stephen Fry (I know, blasphemy!) because he was drowning out everyone else in my feed and I got sick of seeing him. Don’t be that guy.

Now, if I can just practice what I preach I’ll be set! What do you think? Anything else a Twitter user should be doing to gain followers? Or did you stop reading as soon as I admitted to I following Stephen Fry?

5 Things I’ve Learnt About WordPress Sites

The more observant of you will have noticed I’ve moved. No longer do I blog on a WordPress.com site, but on my own self-hosted website powered by WordPress.org! Admittedly, the place is still a little basic. I’m rocking an oh-so-original Twenty Eleven theme. But the basics are here and I’m looking forward to making this a place you’ll want to visit. If there’s anything you’d like to see, drop a comment!

But what you see here are the results of my efforts this weekend and I’ve already learnt quite a few things. In the spirit of warning anyone following a similar path to me, I present my findings to the board:

Don’t be a hero: I decided that it would be best that I install WordPress manually, using an FTP client and all sorts. I thought it would teach me a thing or two. It did. It taught me not to be an idiot and to use the one-click option my host provided. It was called Softaculous and it managed in two minutes what I couldn’t in sixty.
Get plugged in: There’s a lot of great plugins for WordPress and getting them sooner rather than later can make your life a lot easier. Trust me. I’d recommend Jetpack for a whole host of WordPress extras, Google Analytics for WordPress for a quick and easy install of Google Analytics and Google XML Sitemaps to make your site easier for Google to index.
Find your inner child: Creating a child theme is vital if you’re going to start customising a theme, as any updates will wipe your changes. Doing this looked a little tricky so I cheated; I used a plugin that did it for me. Gotta love those plugins!
Nothing doing: Nothing found for wp-login or wp-admin? When I got that error it was my theme causing the problem. I had to use an FTP client to change the name of the theme’s folder in wp-content/themes, which forced WordPress to default back to Twenty Eleven. That fixed it, and I deleted the offending theme.
Fitting in: The Twenty Eleven theme liked to display the side bar underneath my posts. This was because of a line of code in the header file. Making a copy of “header.php” and pasting into my child theme’s folder and then deleting solves the issue.

I’m still digging around so I’ll share any more tips I discover. Any you’d like to share? Let me know!

Leonardo Leads: Da Vinci at the National Gallery

I’ll be honest. Prior to The Da Vinci Code, my knowledge amounted to “he’s a Renaissance painter and he had a ninja turtle named after him”. The novel taught me a lot more but, with fact mixed in with fiction, it was difficult to know exactly what was true and what was not.

With this in mind, the Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition seemed like an excellent idea. In fact, as my girlfriend is an artist and the exhibition included items that would probably never be seen together again, it seemed necessary! But the tickets sold out in two days, so we were left with queuing for one of the 500 day tickets that were on sale.

I tweeted my experience of the queue, inspired by Betsy Transatlantically. We beat Betsy’s time. We got in the queue at 7:00am and got our tickets at 12:30pm. That’s five and a half hours of queuing!

But it was worth it. It was truly fascinating, a chance to see some of his great works alongside the sketches, studies and doodles that went into their composition. It was enlightening, too, to see some of his students’ work. It’s no exaggeration to say that none of them caught their master’s talent, though they were good in their own right.

My favourite room, though, was dedicated to The Last Supper. The original, of course, was not there; it’s far too fragile to move. Instead there was a print on show and a copy made by one of Leonardo’s students which has survived in much better condition. It was this copy that was used as a reference for the original’s recent restoration. The copy was surrounded by the sketches and doodles that went into the original’s creation, and it allowed me to truly appreciate what a great work it is. And why so much fuss is made over it!

(It was fascinating, too, to learn that the original’s decay is due to Leonardo experimenting with a new form of painting, one which would allow him to make as many revisions as he wanted but that ultimately was unstable and ill-suited to longevity. Even the masters make mistakes.)

The only downside was the attitude of other visitors. Too many of us were crammed into the exhibit and it seemed like the order of the day was selfishness. People would stand in front of exhibits and prevent anyone else from seeing it. Droves of audio-guide wearing cattle lumbered into each other, unaware and uncaring of their neighbours. My temper was quite frayed before the end and some of my internal grumbling did escape to the shock of some.

But if you’re thinking of going, go and go now. The exhibition closes on 5th February! But, if you’re going to go, you must do the following:

Hundreds of people queue to get into the Da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery• Get there early; as the exhibition comes to a close, I’m sure more and more people will try to get in. We got there at 7:00am and the queue had reached quite a length behind us by 7:30am
• Wrap up warm; it’s so cold at the moment! Wear thick socks, hats, scarfs, multiple layers. Our neighbours had a blanket that I was very jealous of.
• Be friendly; you’ll never make it through the five hour wait if you don’t chat to your neighbours. Everyone seemed very friendly and positive about the experience!
• Check your coats; because there’s so many people in the exhibit, it gets hot fast. Take all the layers you wore for the queue and put them in the cloakroom!

If you go, let me know what you thought. Personally, though my still-cold feet may never forgive me, I found it to be a fantastic and enlightening experience.

Amanda Hocking's Hollowalnd

Speeling iz imprtunt

Let me get this out of the way; I gave up on reading Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland. I stopped reading because I wasn’t enjoying it. I found the plot pedestrian, the characters flat and forgettable, and the story entirely lacking in heart. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be a Hocking fan.

Having said that, and based on my experience of Hollowland, I think Hocking is very harmful for self-publishing.

I’m a tyrant when it comes to spelling and grammar. I can’t overemphasise how important they are. And, as tyrannical as I am, I am even more embarrassed and mortified if I make a mistake in my own writing. I think this reaction is completely justified. Writing, after all, is what I do. Hell, I’m paid to do it, and so I expect myself to do it well. How can I be taken seriously as a writer if my writing contains simple spelling or grammatical errors?

See where I’m going with this?

Self-publishing is still new and readers are asking themselves why they should take an indie author seriously. Why should they read a book that wasn’t good enough for a publisher? Indie authors are still having to prove that their worth is as good as their traditionally published cousins.

Amanda Hocking is touted as the self-publishing success story. She is the cream of the crop, a big name. And yet Hollowland is riddled with spelling errors. Not just one or two, but dozens.

That is unacceptable from someone who makes their living from writing. And if Hollowland is a reader’s first experience of self-publishing, what will they think? That indie authors can’t take the time, or don’t have the care or professionalism, to check their work before publishing it? Instant turn-off. Indie authors lose a reader.

Hocking doesn’t have to write the kind of books I like to read, and I wish her all the success in the world with her career. But I will not sugarcoat the truth; she needs to proofread her work. Because it hurts the burgeoning industry that she, however unwillingly, has become a figurehead to.

5 More Tips For Writers

As the nation returns to work after all the bank holidays and such, this morning I too attempted to return to my morning habit of writing for an hour. Whilst I didn’t completely neglect my writing over the holidays, it has been stalling a lot. I’ve missed a lot of days, written little on the days I didn’t miss, and I seem to have been stuck in the 80,000s forever! So I hit the ground limping today, but I have learnt a few more lessons I’d like to share with anyone thinking of embarking on a life in writing:

1. You can’t write on an iPhone.

I’m sorry, you just can’t. The on-screen keyboard is a masterpiece, but it wasn’t designed for extended periods of typing. The only exception to writing on the phone is using a Bluetooth keyboard; that works fine. Which brings me to:

2. Documents To Go is not a Word replacement.

If you’re going to write on an iOS device, don’t use Documents To Go. It’s handy, oh yes, especially in conjunction with DropBox (which I recommend to all and sundry), but it has an annoying habit of “suggesting” words. Not in a predictive text kind of way. In a “I’m going to combine two separate words into one” kind of way. Which is very annoying. Or, according to Documents To Go, velveteen.

3. DropBox is brilliant.

If you’re writing on more than one machine, be it computer, tablet or smartphone, DropBox is indispensable. Drop a copy of your novel into your DropBox folder and it will upload to a secure online server which you can access from anywhere.

4. You can’t write in bed.

At least, not very well. Especially if it’s 6:00am and it’s cold outside and warm under the sheets and you’re sleepy and comfy and warm and what was I writing about again?

5. You need to write every day.

The observant amongst you will notice that I “learnt” this already. But I’ve relearnt it and it’s so true it’s worth repeating. Creativity is like a muscle; if you want it to be buff, you have to lift weights every day.

Now it’s time for my first January blues induced nap.

2011 Roundup

Ah, who doesn’t love end of year retrospectives? They’re a little nostalgic, often wear rose-tinted glasses and sum up a whole twelve months in fifty words or less.

This post won’t be like that. I’m not hip, you see. I’m not down with this new-fangled stuff you kids are listening to. While the world is raving about Bruno Mars, I’m discovering Bruce Springsteen. So my top five books of 2011 weren’t published in 2011; that’s just when I read them. So, in no particular order:

Skulduggery Pleasant
Derek Landy (2007)

A story about a magical skeleton detective, Landy’s book has heart and humour and fun. In short, it’s bloody brilliant.

Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Brontë (1848)

A powerful tale of a woman who finds herself trapped in a marriage with a reprobate husband who is leading their young son astray. Her choice between duty and self-preservation is moving and admirable.

The Brontës
Juliet Barker (1994)

The definitive biography of a family that produced four creative geniuses. Barker manages to provide a wealth of information within a compelling narrative. Its size is formidable and intimidating, but worth it.

Encyclopaedia of Fairies
Katharine Briggs (1978)

Briggs is the definitive authority on fairies and the folklore and beliefs surrounding them. This book is full of fascinating tales and names and folkloric beliefs. It will quickly dispell any notions that fairies were just little people with wings; they play an integral role in the construction of our modern world.

What Alice Forgot
Liane Moriarty (2009)

The surprise hit of 2011 (for me). Alice takes a knock to the head and forgets the last ten years of her life. Instead of being in a fresh new relationship, she’s got three kids and a messy divorce. It sucked me in from the word go and I ached and laughed in all the right places. In fact, it may be my book of the year.

So, okay, so this isn’t much of a 2011 roundup. But they’re all great books, and, if you read them, 2012 will be a good year for books. For you, anyway.

Cryo’s Dune: Unlikely Inspirations

I think nearly every writer can point to a single book, film, comic or somesuch and say “that’s why I’m a writer”. It might not be the only cause, but it’s a primary cause. The blame falls mostly at its feet. Most writers seem to point to classics in their genre, be it Lord of the Rings for fantasy writers, Star Wars for science fiction writers, or anything by Stephen King for horror writers. I must come clean, though; my major inspiration is rather unusual.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a masterpiece of science fiction, a piece of work that you can return to again and again and find something new each time. Dune packs in the power and danger of religion, the role of the figurehead, the influence we have on our environment and vice versa, undermines the hero’s journey as he takes it, and much more. It’s an epic book and it’s been hugely influential; without it we probably wouldn’t have Star Wars. It’s been a huge literary influence on me and I think everything I write, no matter how unrelated, probably contains in it a nod to Dune.

The truth is, though, that my inspiration lies not with the book, but with a lacklustre spin-off: Cryo’s Dune. An adventure/real-time-strategy video game that would make a PS3 owner gag (check out this short video to see the early 90s cutting edge graphics!), it’s based loosely on the novel but fails to encompass the themes, the drama, even the distinctive authorial voice. The gameplay is linear and the player simply clicks what the game tells him to click when it tells him to click it. It is, in short, not a good game. But it managed to incorporate the magic of Dune and I encountered it before the novel, so the faces and voices are what I see and hear when I read it.

Cryo’s Dune is my guilty pleasure and I replay it on a regular basis. I’m also a little embarrassed to say that I own the game soundtrack and listen to it even more regularly.

But as much as you may judge me for that, the truth is it led me directly to the book, which in turn led me to the greater world of science fiction and genre fiction as a whole. And so I owe it a debt for every SF book I’ve read, every fantasy film I’ve seen and pretty much every story I’ve ever written. Cryo’s Dune is the cause for it all.

Do you have an unlikely inspiration for your writing? Let me know in the comments. Don’t be shy; I’m sure it’s not as odd as mine!

How to Make Comics Good

So I mentioned recently that I cancelled all my comic subscriptions and I picked up the last batch the other day. Aside from dropping six nerd points and losing 50 XP, why have I decided to forsake the four-colour kingdom? It’s simple really: they’re juvenile nonsense and they don’t respect the reader.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman, illustrated here by Michael Zulli, is a classic comic book that I would recommend to anyone.Comic fans are right now throwing their mouse across the room and cursing my name. They’re invoking the greats and the classics of the genre. And I won’t argue with them. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for instance, stands as a perfect example of the type of mature, deep, beautiful pictorial storytelling that comics are capable of. But, alas, comics like that are the exception. But it would be so easy to make that exception the rule. But what’s so bad about comics anyway?

Marvel's Civil War saw Iron Man and Captain America clashing over superhero rights. But was it a story about civil rights or an excuse for a punch-up?

Let’s start with the constant need for violence. Take Marvel’s Civil War as an example. A disaster claims the lives of a school full of children after a typical superhero/supervillain clash. The American public demand that heroes register themselves, undergo training and become accountable for their actions. The story possesses real potential for exploring the value or lack thereof in sacrificing freedom for safety. But, instead, the writers opted to show Iron Man and Captain America beating each other up.

Worse than the wasted opportunities, though, are the retcons. A retcon (retroactive continuity) is a storyline that rewrites the character’s history. Famous retcons include:

• Green Lantern Hal didn’t go insane with grief after his hometown was destroyed; he was just infected by a yellow space bug made of fear.
• After Aunt May is shot, Spider-man chooses to save her life by letting a demon change history so that he never married Mary Jane.
• DC Comics jettisons decades of history to restart every title with a new number one. All so they can make Superman a sulky teenager. Oh and not married to Lois Lane.

Grant Morrison's Final Crisis killed Batman. Except he wasn't dead, just lost in time. But he found his Bat-map, so he's back now.And, of course, the worst sin of all: the revolving door that you and I call death. Superman, Batman, Captain America, Hal Jordan, Hawkeye, Colossus and so many more have died only to come back to life. If someone dies in a comic, they will come back. It’s almost a law of physics.

These problems all have a single cause and fixing that would make comics worth buying. That cause? They don’t end.

All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. That allows for growth, for development, whilst cutting out any extraneous nonsense; after all, you’ve only so much space to tell the story, so there’s no room for pages describing the colour of the wallpaper. But comics don’t end. The stories go on and on and on. Writers scrabble to fill pages with anything they can. The easiest filler is a fight. But that gets old fast. The second easiest thing is to kill the character but, hey, they can’t sell Batman for too long without Batman. So back he comes. And, of course, you can actually tell a story, let things grow and change. But a few months later a new writer comes along who didn’t like that change so they change it back. And this happens over and over and over.

A lot of comic writers claim that comics deserve to be taken seriously. They’re wrong. Some do. But most don’t. Not until publishers stop selling issue 576 of Spider-man and start selling proper stories. That doesn’t exclude a man in spandex. But it does include a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It demands it.

5 Things You Need to Know About the iPhone 4S

1. Siri is very impressive, but it’s not 2001 yet.

Siri is a huge improvement on Apple’s old Voice Control software and it’s certainly worthy of the fuss people have made over it. It’s capable of stringing together a conversation (almost), in the sense you can ask, for example, “what’s the time in New York?” followed by “what’s the weather like there?”. A lot of speech recognition services I’ve seen seem to reset after each interaction. It’s also capable of remembering relationships, which is really impressive! But at times I’ve got carried away and spoken to it as if it’s intelligent. It isn’t. There’s room for improvement, but it’s still fun.

2. You can’t put it down. Literally.

Unlike the 3GS, the iPhone 4S (and, of course, the 4) has a smooth glass back. Put it down on anything other than a flat surface and you’ll find your new phone doing a lemming impression.

3. 3G is the only way to go.

The option to switch off the 3G and onto an Edge/GRPS network has been removed. This means battery life takes a hit. This is a stupid omission and an idiotic move on Apple’s part. Hopefully we’ll see this rectified soon.

4. The camera is on par with a dedicated digital camera.

Whilst a digital camera is always going to win in terms of functionality, the improved 8 megapixel camera and LED flash is excellent. I can see my camera sitting at home a lot now I have a 4S.

5. This is evolution, not revolution.

A number of people have told me I have no right to be so pleased with my phone as it’s like an iPhone 4 only better. This, to my mind, is like telling me I can’t be pleased with an Aston Martin DB9 because it’s like a Fiat Panda only better. The truth is that the upgrade from an iPhone 3GS is noticeable. Speed, storage space, camera and display are all improved. But, to my mind, there’s no point in upgrading from an iPhone 4. It’s not really worth it. Far better to wait and see what the iPhone 5 brings.