Writing Prompts

I have a stack of books and booklets with writing prompts in. I love them – always have. It’s great to mull on an idea, have a scene sparked off by just a line or image. A good writing prompt can lead to a great story. In a way, it’s always why I sometimes like themed competitions or submissions. Writing to a prompt or theme really gives me a chance to exercise my writing muscles.

Problem is, sometimes the story ends up being a little…long. Which in some cases is fine. But I used to be able to write shorter short stories quite a lot, and I need to try that more, need to try to pin it down.

So, here’s the plan. Now and then, I am going to pick out a prompt, and post it here as a small extract. They might contain characters from current WIPs, or even ‘lore’ relating to those worlds. We’ll see. And if a prompt intrigues you, too, please feel free to use it and let me know how you got on. Once I’ve got a few posted, I’ll  add a page to list them all. And please remember, these will be unedited, rough pieces, but I always welcome constructive criticism! Every post will be prefaced by PROMPT #. Let’s see how this goes. Like my own mini-writing challenge!

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Circe – Madeline Miller [Books]

circeSometimes, you read a book that is so wonderfully and beautifully written, with heaps of description aiding the characters and plot, that it feels like you really are transported to the novel’s location.

Circe is, without a doubt, one of those books.

Circe is the daughter of a Titan and a nymph, but lacks the power of her father and the beauty of her mother. As she grows, however, it becomes clear she has a different kind of power, one which frightens even the powerful Olympian gods. Circe is exiled, and makes her home on a small island. There, she develops her powers as a witch, and pays attention to the people who wash up on her shore, meeting various figures from across Greek mythology.

This book is vivid. We are taken through Circe’s childhood, flashes coming at us in quick succession (as immortals grow quickly), and get to see the world around her, her father’s palace, as well as her grandfather’s, and the area she and her brother claimed as their own, where Circe would meet her first mortal. Everything is completely and utterly through her eyes, allowing us to see what she sees, feel what she feels, in a truly unique perspective. We get fully inside Circe’s head, but are still allowed a reader’s perspective, reading between the lines and perhaps grasping things more than her, or before she is able to.

There are many characters in the book familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of Greek mythology, as well as characters perhaps not as well know, but still rooted in the sources. We get glimpses of heroes unlike the ones we know from myths, seeing them this time through a woman’s eyes, rather than as part of epic poems constructed by men. Perhaps the strongest achievement of the book is through Circe’s emotions. We feel her sadness, her fury, and her happiness, throughout each stage of her life. And each scene is coloured by this, with language used to its fullest.

Overall, Circe is a beautiful retelling of ancient stories, offering a new point of view on familiar tales, and is an excellent read. I will definitely need to get hold of Song of Achilles, and will be picking up any of Miller’s future novels.

 

Why My Current Favourite Book Is A Twitter Thread

I love Twitter, I really do. Some of my favourite books in recent years were ones I picked up because people were raving about them, or I followed the author on Twitter and became interested in their writing. If you’re looking for a community, guarantee you’ll find one on there, just by looking at hashtags like #amreading, #amwriting, #WritingCommunity, etc. Twitter, I think, can be one of the most useful tools for an author who wants to connect with their audience, and Susan Dennard has done this in a really interesting, unique way.

For those unfamiliar, Susan Dennard is the author of two series, Witchlands and Something Strange and Deadly, and of course more information can be found on her website. Recently, she posted something intriguing on Twitter, something that read like the opening to a novel told in second person, including a poll at the end, indicating it would be down to followers to choose what the MC did next.

Choices were made and the story has advanced. With every step, the options get more difficult, with consequences becoming more, well, dire, and potentially disastrous. But take a quick look at the replies and it’s easy to see how invested people – including me – have become in Winnie’s story, and the world of The Luminaries.

And a whole fandom has built up around this. Susan does an excellent job of drip-feeding information to people hungry to find out more, leaving people speculating. What is the locket? Which family would I belong to? Why did this thing happen?

What choice is least likely to get me killed?

There is a fandom and community, people sharing theories and trying to persuade others to pick the right choice, lest we end up dead. And avoiding death seems to grow more and more difficult.

Thanks to the brilliant Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style thread, there is now a hungry, waiting audience, ready for when Susan Dennard decides to release a book about these characters. There are teams, there is speculation, there is a love interest that has a fanbase completely divided. To me, seeing this story unfold feels like being part of e-mail groups as the Harry Potter books were being released, but even better thanks to us, the fans, being able to control the story. And I think many people are going to feel worse now about screaming at characters for making ‘stupid choices’, after seeing what sort of trouble a character can get into when a collective group is making the decisions.

Overall, I am thoroughly loving The Luminaries, and eagerly await every daily installment (usually when I’ve just finished work – it feels like a reward for a hard day!), wondering what sort of mess we’ll be in now, hoping it’s something we can recover from. And if you haven’t joined us yet, it’s not too late! Go check out the thread, catch up, and cast your vote.

We could seriously do with all the help we could get.

The Queen of The Tearling – Erika Johansen [Books]

queen of the tearling.jpgDear friends,

One thing I want you to understand, is I will never disguise my feelings about a book on this blog. I will, however, always try to find the good in something. But if I say I liked a book, I liked it. If I gush about how great it is, I absolutely loved it. If I disliked it, it’s going to be clear. And if you felt differently about a book than I did, I would love to hear from you – I’m always open to discussion.

That said, if you passionately love this book and cannot hear a bad word said against it, it might be a good idea to turn away now.

I did not like this book.

I struggled with this book, and it is one of those rare times I considered rethinking my do not DNF policy.

The Queen of the Tearling is about Kelsea, a young woman in the Tearling, who due to her heritage, has grown up isolated with no one around but her foster parents. One day, a group of men come to whisk her away to the capital and crown her queen. But they are being pursued by the Caden, a group of assassins hired by her uncle, who wants her dead before she can be crowned.

So far, so yeah this sounds interesting, right?

It didn’t take me long into the book to discover I probably wouldn’t like Kelsea. She feels really bland, and makes massive judgements about the people she sees. Speaking of which, the book is very, very focused on appearances. All the men in the guard are handsome and young, despite the fact most of them have been in the guard since Kelsea was a child. People seem to age really slowly in the Tearling, for some reason – actually, almost every man (except the bad guys or slightly-bad-guys) are described as handsome. Kelsa herself keeps moaning about how plain she is, but I really don’t understand how one would think themselves plain if they’ve never seen anyone else? Also she has no mirrors, just sees herself reflected in water, and that’s not really a great one to judge appearance?

I’m not saying Kelsea has to be beautiful, or even ugly. But it just reads a bit odd, and honestly, the plain female hero obsessed with books…it’s been done. A lot. And Kelsea doesn’t really add anything to it at all.

Oh! And one of the men in her guard happens to be black. We know this, because Kelsea seems him and IS SHOCKED. She has (gasp!) never seen a black man before. But…she’s never seen ANYONE before? Like, again, her whole life has been lived in complete isolation. Oh, except in history books. She remembers that.  She has definitely seen black people in history books about…the slave trade.

And (I might be misremembering) I can;t recall anyone else’s race being mentioned again. So either he gets a special mention for being the first, or…no one else in the Tearling is black? I don’t know, but considering it’s the future, and people are descended from the Brits and Americans, it would be REALLY BLOODY WEIRD not to have anyone else who isn’t white. Speaking of which, why British-American? What happened to the other countries? Oh, except Europe. Because they came separately and have a completely different country right next door. Coincidently, all the doctors and medical supplies were on the same ship, which sank. So medicine is poor.

Which brings me to some other points. They made a crossing, from somewhere, but to WHERE, EXACTLY? Is this a different planet? Or did they find some other continent, and kill whoever lived there? None of this is explained or hinted at, and there’s really not a lot of indication as to why things have regressed so much. Don’t get me wrong – I love when worldbuilding makes you think you’re somewhere else, but it turns out (GASP) it’s the future! The problem is, this doesn’t do that. There is literally no reason to not explain these events, or where they are. It’s outright stated – not even hinted at – that this is in our future. There’s mention of Harry Potter and The Hobbit. Revealing that this was another planet would have made it more interesting, I think, but maybe that was revealed and I missed something? I dunno.

And why do people live for so long?

The book builds up the mysteries of who is Kelsea’s father and who is The Fetch but there is literally no pay off to these. To any of these! Three huge questions and by the end of the novel none of them were answered. If one of them was, I’d have found that mildly satisfying, but them all being left makes me feel like it’s a ploy just to get people to read the next one.

Honestly I could rant about this so much more, but I’m not going to. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did, but I struggled so much and as you can probably tell from the above, there were a lot of things that just nagged at me.

I would definitely not recommend this book, unfortunately. But that’s just me, and looking on reviews, it seems to be a book you either love or hate, and of course this is all just completely and utterly my own opinion.

Still, if you have read this book, I would absolutely love to know what you thought. And I promise my next review will be less ranty.

How Not To Introduce Characters

girl and tree.jpg

Readers and writers, I think, all have their own little pet peeves when it comes to something they read. For the most part, these all come down to personal taste. Some readers might dislike reading something involving the supernatural. Personally, I really don’t like ‘direct thoughts’ unless they are handled extremely well. Otherwise, they feel jarring and too much telling, rather than showing.

Another thing that tends to annoy me involves, more specifically, the introduction of characters.

Introducing characters can be hard. You want readers to feel a certain way towards them, but don’t want to drone on and on. There’s a point when it becomes boring to read lengthy descriptions about their clothes and the way they enter a room. Actually, when it comes to clothes, I don’t always think it’s necessary, unless it says something particular about a character. But it’s not clothes here I’m talking about. The thing that really, really gets me, is when a character waltzes into a story and we’re told, outright, every little detail about their personality.

So, in a third person narrative with a main character, say the girl in the photo above, we might have the following –

“Jenny, a beautiful girl, was sad. She wore a white dress, and a crown made of twigs. She sat under the tree. Jenny was usually a happy, kind girl, with hopes and dreams. She loved hard. Now, the sadness was so overwhelming she didn’t feel as if she could go on. Jenny had been due to get married, but her handsome, wonderful finance, Robert, had run off with a bridesmaid.”

Bit boring, isn’t it? We’re told a lot about her, but that’s the problem. We’re told. Every writer knows the old ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, and though there are instances where this can be broken, usually it’s still better to stick to it, for the most part. Plus, when we’re told something – especially positive things, like they’re gorgeous, or kind, or plain wonderful – it sometimes makes it harder to believe. We need to see things. Plus, being shown something means, if they act against that description later, we’re not rolling our eyes, wondering, well, we were told she was kind, so why is she now acting like that? Show us her kindness, because it then leaves room for her to be not-so-kind in another situation.

So, the above could be changed to –

“Jenny reached the tree where she’d shared her first kiss with Robert. The crown, formed of twigs, circled her dark hair, and dug into her skin. She sank to the ground, drew her knees to her chest, and rested her head on them, allowing the tears to fall. Everything she’d wanted from that day was now ruined. Her bridesmaid, who’d she’d babysat for, who she’d helped out when her own husband left her, had betrayed her. The thought brought a deep, aching pang to her chest. How could she possibly go on?”

Still not perfect, but it is just an example. It gives the same information as above, but, hopefully, in a much more engaging way. Showing, rather than telling.

Keep in mind, the words of a great man: “Any man who must say I am the king, is no true king.” Similarly, if you need to state your character’s traits, it makes the reader doubt if they actually have them. I’ve always taken that quote to mean that actions speak louder than words. You show people who you are by what you do, not by saying ‘I am…’. So give your characters the chance to do the same.

tywin king quote.jpg

What about you? As readers or writers, what are the things that particularly annoy you when reading?

Play Time

One thing writers are told time and time again is to read everything they can get their hands on. You cannot be a writer unless you’re a reader; otherwise, how do you know what’s gone before? Plus, reading books allows you to see how sentences are crafted and with a keen eye you can see how a writer has enabled you to feel for a character or, in some cases, to see where they have fallen down flat with this.

But it’s not just in books where aspiring writers can pick up tips. Film and TV, obviously, are brilliant showcases for dialogue, and looking at the way directors frame camera shots and build on relationships between characters can always provide inspiration for tricky scenes. But there’s a further medium that can be looked at, too – video games.

I mentioned before about my love for Bioshock and part of that love comes from the way it’s written. There are twists that are built up throughout the game, great moments of dialogue, and the way it’s written means that, as the main character, by a certain point you’re never quite sure who to trust. And then, of course, there is the ending, which quite honestly had me tearing up. (Well, the ending I saw. There are different endings depending on your actions in game)

Since I finished that game I’ve been playing Fallout 3. Bioshock is a more linear game, where you basically move from one part to the next. Fallout is different, in that you can pretty much explore the world around you at your leisure. You can follow the main story quests, or do lots of little side quests or a mix of both…it’s up to you.

Even with this freedom, story and plot still play a major role. On top of that, the writing – especially with dialogue for so many different characters – has to take into account the potential actions of the person playing. Yes, the enemies have stock lines that get thrown at you as you fight them, but if you listen Galaxy News Radio with Three Dog (a DJ who doesn’t know what a disc is) you’ll hear him mention various places and events and, later, even hear him reporting on what your character has been doing.

The actual plot revolves around your character going out looking for his/her father, and in terms of writing, the game is very good at giving hints as to what your father might be doing, via Three Dog. And there’s a karma system to it, too. You can save certain characters or help them out, giving you karma, or…do other stuff and get negative karma. I assume. I very much help people in the game where I can. And of course, there is one character I care about more than any other, who I just want to be happy even if he keeps running away from me. Just hope he turns up at Vault 101 again soon.

images (1).jpgOne of the other games I’ve been playing is Kingdom Hearts 1.5  – the remake of the PS2 game by the same name, but this version is apparently HD or something and has two of the other games included. I’ve been focusing on replaying the main game; I know when I played years ago I got to the end, but I don’t quite remember if I actually managed to beat the final boss or not.

Kingdom Hearts is a game using characters from Final Fantasy and various Disney films. You play Sora, a FF-style kid who just wants to leave the island he lives on with his two best friends. But when a storm strikes, the friends are separated and Sora wakes up in a very strange town. He meets Goofy and Donald, on a quest to find King Mickey, and joins them hoping they can help him find his friends.

With these two familiar faces, Sora travels through various worlds including Wonderland, Agrabah, the jungle Tarzan calls his home, Ancient Greece, and many others. As for plot, it’s a fairly simple one to follow, but one which does really well in drawing in these characters and having them inhabit the same universe, as the villains gather together to try to take over the world, using the heartless to achieve their goals.

Plot wise, it has some good examples perhaps of how to take existing stories and merge them together or rework them to fit something else. And what with it being a kid’s game, although it is single player there’s a strong message of working together and the importance of friendship. Something to keep in mind if, as a writer, you’re working on writing for kids.

kh That’s only two of the many, many games out there with compelling plots and interesting characters, mainly because it just happens to be the two I’m mainly playing at the moment. There are so many others out there, and I’ll probably come back to this in a future blog post, maybe one about the sort of games I played when I was younger. But if there are any games you’d recommend, or think contain some good tips for writing, let me know in the comments.