Operation Lightning 2015

Last year I triumphantly shouted to anyone who would listen about how I would be publishing the first ‘season’ of my Lightning novellas in 2015, starting in April 2015 so that the final part would be launched in time with Christmas 2015. One episode a month with a gap at the midpoint to fit a bit of a cliffhanger and give me some catch-up time. I guessed I would need the delays between ‘episodes’ to edit the stories, but I didn’t realise it would all take so long and that my lack of knowledge in the field was quite as much as it is.

The season is written, that’s a start. I have a little of the supplementary material also written, but not much yet. That’s far shorter than the season itself though, so it should be easy enough to get done. So here’s what’s left to do.

I’m going through the episodes myself first, just to make sure they make basic human sense, then throwing them at four readers so they can rip them apart like the jackals they are. The big hope is that they won’t find anything shockingly wrong, story-breaking or horrendous. I plan everything to a crazy level, so it shouldn’t ever hit that point. Still, one of my readers found a continuity issue which had remained untouched in a couple of drafts. Hence the need for readers. Episode One is with the readers, I’ve gone through Episode Two but have yet to send it off. Episodes Three through Eight will be handled in order as I keep going through my tasks.

The readers throw back my work with notes, hopefully praise, probably thousands of things I’ve done wrong. I have Episode One back from one reader so far. Each one can be dealt with later than the last, luckily.

Then there’s the scary other things. The bonus content, the covers, the webcomics (I’ve given up on the idea of a video project, but a couple of short-form webcomics would be pretty cool). Then a Lightning website to act as a central hub for everything in the series, linking to wherever I’m selling the ebooks from. Gods, there’s marketing to work out… so much.

I’m undaunted, I still plan on releasing Lightning Episode One, “Crash Day,” in 2015. That’s the main goal, but April’s probably too near even to get the story edited, find a cover artist and get the first couple of short stories finished at the same time.

The current plans for launch dates have the season finale, “A Very Lightning Christmas,” end up launched in December 2016 so it still fits with Christmas. Episodes will release every two months either starting from October (using the gap month content as a bonus month full of fiction) or August (using the gap month content inserted in the release schedule).

Everything else is yet to plan.

There’s the other work I do as well; my comic reviews on the Google Plus comic book community, my video game reviews on D+Pad Magazine and soon my work for Who Dares Rolls, a tabletop website. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to start up Explosion High! properly, too.

Here’s to a busy 2015 and hopefully getting published!

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Cuckoo

There is a hatch in my kitchen. It looks like this:

Cuckoo

I have never been in there. My flatmate Sam has when he was dropping boxes off there and I think he was the first of us to look in there properly. He wasn’t eaten by anything and hasn’t gone all strange so I assume it’s safe.

One of my friends, Joe, was working for the same company as me so we were chatting over the work email about the things in the hatch. He asked what was up there and I couldn’t remember what Sam had said, so I waffled for about two hundred words. His response was, “That’s really creepy, is it from something?” So I knew I had to turn it into a short story.

The story turned into Cuckoo, which you can find here. It’s a little longer than I originally intended, but I hope you enjoy it.

The flat is definitely based on my own flat, the experiences of looking for new flatmates are mostly real, but none of the characters are, especially what’s in the hatch.

Now that time has passed, a few of us have settled on a new lie about what’s in the hatch. We say that it’s the tapeworm farm and they’re all in tanks of water, gently sloshing around under UV lights, ready to be sold to people as part of a new fad diet craze.

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Dead of Winter

DoW

I admit I had a little fun initially with Dead of Winter and my promise of a review of it.

At first there was this, then my review of the camp fire horror role-playing game Dead of Night which had been a long time coming, too.

Now, finally, here’s a review of one of my favourite board games of 2014; Dead of Winter.

Oh, and that appearance of the Lost Board Game will not be the last time you see it. I intend on finally playing and reviewing it later this year, maybe that will break the curse placed upon me when I bought it.

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Twenty Years Ago

It’s a big anniversary for me today, so rather than rant about NaNoWriMo or the popular culture, or putting up a short story (I actually did that last week, there’ll be another one soon, I promise), I’m going to delve into a bit of my past.

I live through narrative, I like to tell the stories of my past and my family. Ask me about my father’s mannequins, about Arnold the pigeon, our history of strange pets or even my love of comics and I’ll tell you it all. Ask me about the craft of writing, the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes, why Gilmore Girls is one of the best televisions or why I hate owls and I’ll be there with a rant for you.

This is something I don’t tend to go into, and generally would rather not. I had a realisation earlier this year that this was going to be the twentieth anniversary of something fairly big and heavy, that my choice to try and be a bit more physically active was kind of a good full stop on it. So here’s a look into the twentieth anniversary of my back surgery.

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Flash Fiction: Do Not Read

It’s been a little while since I put a short story on this site, so here’s a little something I’ve done to stretch my legs (yes, writing legs, shut up!) and provide a little bit of horror for the season.

This is my entry to this week’s Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge, in which writers were asked to write 1,000 words about disease.

I hope you enjoy my story, Do Not Read.

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NANOWRIMO 2014 CHARACTERS

We’re almost at NaNoWriMo, so I don’t know how useful this advice will be, but it might help people as they go.

Characters are awesome, it would be pretty difficult to make a story without them. I’m sure it’s not impossible, but still, I’d rather not try yet. Learning who these characters are ahead of time can only help, even if you only do a little to understand who they are and why they’re in your book. In doing this kind of thing, I have actually found some characters to be unnecessary and removed them from the story or merged then with others to help tighten up the story.
We’re all going to have our respective casts and strengthening your relationship with them might help you push through your word count and the events of your novel. It may even be a way of dealing with a random Panic Jar plot invading your book or just waffling to get your words done for the day.

CHARACTER EXERCISES
No one chooses to write a two-dimensional character. We all want people to think our cast could be real and react like people to stimulus. If you’ve got a basic idea of who your leading cast are, you could interview them and see how their voices and answers work. If they feel too similar, you can tweak them accordingly.

When I was at the University of Sussex undertaking a Creative Writing CCE course I was told a simple exercise: Put your character up a tree and have someone throw rocks at them. How do they react? In theory each of your characters should react differently. Of course there could be a stated reason why they don’t and instead act exactly like someone else.
Paul Pickwoad in Amnesiac City would try to talk his way out of the situation as his main drive is that he believes he can talk his way out of any situation. McWilliams would hide and try to make jokes. Brogan would shoot the person without a moment’s thought.
It’s a simple exercise, but a good litmus test.

There are many, many good character questionnaires online which could be simple or run really deep into your character. I vary which ones I use most of the time, but another questionnaire I took from the CCE course is an eleven question one:
1) Where do you live?
2) Do you have a job? What is it?
3) What do you like?
4) What do you hate?
5) Do you have many friends?
6) Are you alone a lot? Are you lonely?
7) Where did you raised?
8) What was your upbringing like?
9) Do you have any secrets? What are they?
10) What problems do you have?
11) What is your name?

It’s fairly simple and while some questions can overlap at first look, each character in the book I’m proofreading now has had some very different reactions.

For instance Lena Parker, one of the main characters:

1) Where do you live?
With my parents in Fate Cove. It’s a fancy island town.

2) Do you have a job? What is it?
I’m at school, but I work sometimes at my uncle’s coffee shop. In theory more than in practice. Don’t tell him I said that.

3) What do you like?
Sports, Luke and Cam, the island, reading, fighting.

4) What do you hate?
Not being good at fighting, losing my ability to feel any physical contact.

5) Do you have many friends?
I have a best friend; Vanessa. After that I’d like to think I have a few. Cam and Luke. My brother and I get on, too, no matter what he says.

6) Are you alone a lot? Are you lonely?
I guess… Not many people talk to me. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Popularity has a price and I like being me too much for that.

7) Where did you raised?
Right here. I grew up as one of the first ‘island babies’. We’ve travelled a little, but we always return home.

8) What was your upbringing like?
Great. I might still be going through it. What do people class as the end of childhood? There should be fireworks to show when you’re done with it.

9) Do you have any secrets? What are they?
I’m not as naïve as they think. I think.

10) What problems do you have?
I can’t feel physical contact most of the time, I want to not feel uncomfortable in my own body. I want my dad’s approval, I want to know what to do with my life.

11) What is your name?
Helena T Parker. My friends and family prefer to call me Lena as my mum has dibs on the name.

But then others might not actually answer the questions. Lena’s mother actively refused to answer what her real surname was. One of the cast revealed her real full name to me and I had no idea she was acting under a false name until that point. I won’t say who, yet.

On our community page we link to a couple of character questionnaires you may want to put your cast through. You might want to take some of the billion personality quizzes like, “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” “What colour are you?” and so on. There’s a point where you’re just running in circles with the same information, but to get a sense of who they are and their voices, I do recommend this as something to try out.

If any of you have questionnaires or exercises you like to do, post them in the comments as it’d be interesting to see different and potentially better ones.

CONTINUITY NOTES
Austin Waters is left-handed and won’t swear until a certain point in Play Dead.
Joe Parker is allergic to pepper, Howard Morton is lactose intolerant. Vanessa is actually ambivalent about cheese, despite what she says to impress her crush.

When something big or something which can be called back to is mentioned in any of my stories or notes I note it on a bit of card (and Scrivener tab) which reminds me of the character’s continuity. This way, hopefully everything will be consistent and can be tagged in when necessary. Sometimes these established facts can be used later on as fully-fledged plot elements, sometimes they won’t come up at all but are there just in case.
This kind of housekeeping is something I recommend to save you from searching back and forth through your book to check what the eye colour of a character is. What I tend to do is get a stack of index cards, one for each character, then jot down the absolute basics as necessary for the story.
In Lightning this was the name, what they want, their voice, relevant colour scheme and random items. In Play Dead it was a lot less, just name and role in the heist. In Amnesiac City it’s the characters’ name, the random item they wake up with, their motivation and their belief (eg; everything can be solved through talking, if I use humour everyone will like me).
Each time something new happens, it goes on the cards. Someone’s allergic to something. Someone hates a type of music. I admit I tend to nitpick and when something is completely out of place or contradicts known facts, it drops me out of the fiction. This happens with amateur and proper writers alike, for instance Renly Baratheon’s eye colour which changes in A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, some people try and square that circle with excuses about how his eyes may have changed colour, but even George RR Martin admits he screwed up.
If you keep your own continuity notes on a card, notepad, Scrivener tab, anything like that, you’ll be in charge of whether you mess up or not and you may be able to harvest that information for plot elements later on. In season two of Lightning, I’ll be using Joe Parker’s allergy to pepper as part of a rather painful ‘meet cute’.

LITTLE SCENES
Something else you might want to do as a fun exercise is put two of your cast in a situation together outside of your book and see on some note paper what happens. Do they fight? Do they get on? Do they get it on? You aren’t allowed to write any of your 50k before NaNoWriMo, but nothing stops you writing a little side story or even having a hypothetical scene. I know in Lightning I had some side stories such as the Parker family watching Buffy and the reactions of them all to something which I admit I’m a massive fan of. Helen Parker took my fandom of the series on, Buzz was handling his accounts on a Galaxy Tab, Joe had wandered off to play Xbox, Lena was humouring her mother but this was something of her generation, then their new addition to the family had to check which elements of the show were real or not. It was a fun little scene to get me into the ‘skin’ of the cast even though it technically all happens ‘off screen’ in the book itself.

I’m sure there are more fun things to do with characters, but this is all I have for now. I’ll add more if it comes to mind.

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NANOWRIMO 2014 PLANNING BASICS

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My nice new notepad and the chapter headers

In National Novel Writing Month there’s one challenge; writing 50,000 words in one month. The thing is, there are so many different ways to get that done and so many ways to prepare for it. I’m going to go through a couple of them, including mine. This is all based on my experience and something which I’m sure will differ from person to person. One of the great things about being a writer is that it’s all so varied how we go about the process.

TEAM PLOTTER VERSUS TEAM PANTSER
Versus may be a bit of a misnomer, but if there’s anything close to a divide in NaNoWriMo writers, it seems to be those with a plan and those drawing on raw inspiration and panic.
Plotters are people who plan in advance what they’re going to do and at an extreme level they have character studies, scene breakdowns and the like. They might already have a draft done which they’re reworking or know this is their time to set out a new draft.
Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may enter with a rough idea but for the most part they’ll be entering each day with a rough plan, drawing from plot generators or letting the characters and events lead the way in their story.

Despite being a fan of arbitrary and unnecessary warring over things, this is actually more of a scale than anything else. As someone firmly in the plotting camp, I still plan events out with enough room for change if the characters surprise me once I’m writing. This happens to me most years; I come up with an outline and design for a character and once I’m in their skin and writing their behaviour then things change. I guess that’s like an actor taking on a scripted role and making it their own. Still, I like some leeway for that and for the events themselves to change, even if I know the main action in the scene. As an example, in my NaNoWriMo 2012, a heist story, I killed a couple more cast members than I intended and shocked myself with the turn of events. In my first NaNoWriMo I had a realisation maybe half way through the book that the genre was actually horror, something I hadn’t gone in expecting at all.

PANTSERS
This late in October, if you’ve not actually figured out what you’re writing then you’re probably one of these guys. That’s okay, especially if you have a community on or offline who can help throw random pieces of inspiration at you from time to time.
Pantsing has a kind of romanticism to it. You’re opening your brain up and letting raw inspiration take the wheel. It’s interesting and artistic, whimsical and fun. It’s also rather difficult. There are some writers this is completely perfect for but writing is a bodily function as Chuck Wendig has said. It’s something you can train, exercise and get ready for this sort of challenge so you don’t burn out.
Preparation for pantsing NaNoWriMo is the easiest; just have something to write on be it a notepad, desktop, laptop or whatever. It might be good to plan contingencies like having random tables of plots, story dice or something along those lines.
I’ve known a bunch of pantsers in my time in NaNoWriMo, many of whom have run out of steam or stalled. This is okay, if you made any words in this month then that’s fine. There are ways to mitigate this. Some writers I know have changed their project entirely half-way through, which is totally acceptable in NaNoWriMo terms. Others have used random plot devices to get through the event. We have something called The Panic Jar. If you need a plot element then you draw a piece of paper with a little nugget of inspiration from a jar the MLs have. In our community the jar is a great tool and a threat. All the entries are put in by other writers, either feeling nice or cruel. Whatever’s there, you add it to your book.
One writer used only entries from the Panic Jar for his novel one year, drawing 48 plot elements from the jar and forum challenges on www.nanowrimo.org. He put his protagonist through them. He was a brave soul to trust in all of us that much and managed to win NaNoWriMo with a story (and his sanity) intact. This year he’ll be dual-wielding stories instead, but he has served as inspiration to others who have decided to take random plot elements for
Even if you want to pants NaNoWriMo, a little bit of stability to then riff off would be great to help sustain you; whether it’s knowing your character well enough to know how they’ll react to all the things you’ll throw at them, or maybe just the theme, the tone… one thing can help you ground it enough to carry you through the rest.

PLOTTERS
This is very much my domain, so I’ll be covering it a bit more. In a previous year I wrote something like eight NaNoWriMo articles about this sort of thing and they are still here on the site, but I’ll be making it shorter as we’ve all got little time until it’s here.
Plotting might mean you’ve got enough of a plan that literally all you need is time with your fingers on keys. That’s how I dealt with the last few NaNoWriMos and novel writing I’ve done between them. Yes, characters still surprise me. Yes, twists can happen, but the skeleton of the book is there. Here’s how I figure things out and as I said, the pantser/plotter thing is more a scale than anything else, so feel free to follow as much or little of this as possible:

THE CONCEPTUAL STAGE
Logline & Synopsis
This is in theory the easiest: “What is my book about?”
When someone asks you, “What the hell is this nanny rummy thing? What are you writing about?” Can you pitch it to them in a sentence or two. Working on the elevator pitch is good anyway, so if you can have the logline of your book worked out this early, you’ve got a touchstone you can keep coming back to.
You can go from there to a synopsis; in fact the NaNoWriMo website actually has a space where you can put your book’s synopsis. That’s a good thing to see in front of you and have to fill out. Think of this like the blurb in the back of your book, or a grown up version of your logline. Now you’ve got your basic concept expanded a little.

Theme, Mood & Tone
These are things which I’ve actually stolen from the World of Darkness RPG but they’re great for reminders of what you’re writing about. Like the logline, it’s something you can keep coming back to and reminding yourself what the book’s going to be about.
Theme – Every story is about something. It doesn’t need to be overtly stated, but something underlying in the text. It could be said that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about how growing up is a monstrous experience not unlike facing the end of the world. Lost was about personal journeys, redemption and rebirth. These are personal reads on them and I’m sure others have different versions, but knowing even slightly what your theme is means you’ve got some control over the message.
Mood & Tone – Is your story gritty and grimdark, where only the most brutal fighter can win? Is it something where good intentions will resolve the day? These are two elements which are closely linked but I still like to count them as different as I’ve often had some disparity between the two. Mood is more of the underlying mood of the piece, is it something where the mood is fairly relaxed or constantly pressured? It might not be openly stated in the story but you know it’s there and can keep returning to it. The Tone is more active, something to have in the voice of the piece. Are you going to have a funny horror story? Are the people going to quip their way through things? I see this more to do with the voice than ‘mood.

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Chapter One and the opening scenes.

AMNESIAC CITY
My NaNoWriMo 2014 is of course, plotted pretty thoroughly.
My logline is: “A city of over a million people where no one has their memories, where monsters come out at night to remove ‘unnecessary’ people.”
My synopsis is: “If you had no memory of who you were, of where you were, or where you belonged, what would you do? In the city of Naraka, one million people wake with no memory, no identification apart from a magnetic card with a surname. They’ve suffered some kind of city-wide attack, and of course, no one can remember what happened. The fallout is immediate and horrible. People’s minds break at the prospect of losing all they were. Each amnesiac wakes with their ID card and one random item, many of which are weapons. A suburban apocalypse ensues, with people trying to restore order and unite the citizens against those who have snapped. While some want to restore the city’s order, others want answers. Camps who oppose the city take up residence in nearby box stores, several cults have their own interpretation of what the city wants, but Naraka has its say in the end. It always does. It is times like this people find out who they are, even if they don’t know who they were.”

The theme is, “Who are you when you lose everything?”

The mood is, “mysterious and apocalyptic, tinged with an undefinable loss.”

The tone is, “dark and confused.”

TO WRAP UP
Even a little bit of a plan is good, but do what feels right for you and your story. These are what works for me and has for the last two NaNoWriMos (and this one, hopefully).
Everything I said up top, that can change. If you set a logline or a tone or anything like that, you can change it as you write and realise that your comedy was a mystery, that you had no known theme but later on you know what you’re talking about. You’re not locked in on anything, other than your aspiration to write 50,000 words.

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