Thursday, 28 March 2013

What Happens Next

What happens next? It's such a simple question, but it's one that's so crucial to us when telling stories. The basic unit of the story is 'and then'. Without 'and then', there can never be more than a static situation. It can be beautifully described and elegant, the perfect character study, but if nothing happens, then it can only hold our interest so long.

Asking what happens next has a curious kind of power to it for a writer. We might not have a clue about our story or we might have every instant mapped out, we might have a focus on characters or plot lines, overarching themes or symbolism, yet always that question brings the focus back to the simple unit of what the reader is going to get through in the next little while. What happens next? Not a week from now, not in chapter seven, but next?

It can be great for focusing the mind. It can also be enough of a question to get through an entire rough draft. It's certainly the question you want your readers asking. How do you get them asking it? By asking it yourself. By creating situations in which you are compelled to ask it, and answer it, and keep on answering it. By never quite giving the answers that everyone else does. So go on, tell me, what happens next?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


So, England have scraped a draw with one wicket left, after batting the entire last day with no intention whatsoever of going for the win. It's a result that will no doubt have non-cricket lovers puzzled at why anyone should care. To them, I imagine it is proof of everything that is worst in the sport. Five days and still no result.

There is a reason for it, which is that in Test cricket, the players on opposing sides aren't competing over the same thing in the way they are in many other sports. The batting side is trying to get as many runs as possible, but rather than trying primarily to restrict them, the fielding side is trying to get them out. If a side prevents its opponents from meeting their objectives, but do not meet their own, then a draw seems the only just result. It is victory through success, not by default.

It seems like a strange thing, yet in so many other sports, defensiveness and not giving anything away has become the route to success. I watched the judo and the wrestling at the Olympics, and in both cases the stalling game predominated, presumably because those who take risks in those sports lose more often. In rugby, I recall reading a book on the game that emphasised that the try was actually not the main priority, because too many things had to go right at once for it to happen. Get into position, it argued, don't give anything away, take the penalties and the kicks. Even in baseball (and American sports are ostensiably obsessed with action) a quick read through Moneyball suggests that the ability to attract walks through the opponent's mistakes is the batter's currency, not just home runs.

Why am I thinking about this in general? Because it affects the two sports I play most to such an extent, and because there is a more complex relationship going on in them between attack and defence. When it comes to BJJ/submission grappling, matches again seem to degenerate into long fights over the grips and slow, grinding games, simply because one mistake means you've lost. The emphasis is on never making that mistake, never giving any room for your opponent to win. The same could broadly be said to be true of epee fencing, where bouts frequently lose periods to 'feeling out' and stalling.

Yet good submission grapplers are also unfeasibly agressive when they see an opportunity, and we do occasionally see the spectacular. Sabre fencing, meanwhile, where a purely defensive parrying approach simply doesn't work often enough to be successful, is at the other extreme of agression, most fights generally starting with at least a couple of double hits in a row (where both people hit each other simultaneously, ignoring their defence).

Why? In sabre's case, I think it's linked directly to making defence more difficult, to such an extent that I now believe sabre is quite unbalanced as a weapon. In grappling's case, I think it's linked to the idea of being able to win with just one successful submission. I think it's also about the extent to which you're able to force someone into the game you want in these sports.

Meanwhile, of course, Stuart Broad is still out there, surviving seventy odd balls for ten runs...

Thursday, 21 March 2013


One interesting thing I found earlier was a conversation between Neil Gaiman and long time collaborator/illustrator Dave McKean, where they were talking about how they didn't gel over Mirrormask very well because they had such different approaches to writing. It gave me a couple of insights into NG's writing process, which is apparently a lot more fluid and unplanned than, for example, the one I've been using for the past few months.

That has made me have a look at the way I have produced works, and it seems to me that all the ones I've finished and been happy with (all?) have been produced in a similar way. Yet somewhere along the line, I've got it into my head that lots of planning is necessary. I'll plot out stories in detail, working out all the elements... and then I'll wonder why they no longer excite me when it comes to writing them.

I think part of it is another idea stolen from Gaiman which is that no one reads the first draft. I'm actually very picky about the first draft of novels. I don't like going back and fixing big things. Yet when I play music, I'm very much of the 'get something down and capture the moment' school. So it's time to try being more spontaneous with these things again.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Team sports, Australian cricket, and fencing

The whole controversy around the Australian cricket team, with players getting sent home for failing to fill in feedback on a Test match, has got me thinking about sports teams in general, coaching, team cultures, and the kind of things that I like/don't like. I played cricket for years, and I've also been a part of fencing teams. I've even captained fencing teams. So what I wanted to do was look at a series of behaviours and traits around sports teams that didn't work and contrast them with some of the ones taken from those teams I've liked. I'm not saying that I'm in any position to tell professional sports people how to do it, but certainly, this should be applicable to amateur sport.

Form filling exercises- Rather like the Aussies, I've been asked to fill in a few forms over the years. And rather like them, I don't get on with it. Sports psychology has given us goal setting paperwork and formal feedback paperwork, psychometric testing and questionaires relating to motivation. I actually had one fencing coach who was into all this as well. There are probably good reasons for doing it, and handled well, I'm sure it can help, but all too often, it feels like both an interruption and like they are something those asking you to fill them in will throw back in your face later. They feel like written evidence to be used against you, rather than tools to help improvement. Contrast that with the best fencing teams I've been in, which despite featuring at least a couple of psych students, always relied more on just... you know, talking to people.

Big group warm ups- Everyone needs to warm up before sport, fair enough. However, not everyone will need the same intensity of work to get them warm. Nor will they require more than an hour before a match. That is not a warm up, but a training session. I've been in cricket teams where we arrived two hours early to do catching and fielding drills for almost an hour, before running around the field, with the bowlers going off to 'warm up' with half their allotment of overs for the day. Fencing team contrast: all the warm ups were of the 'I'm doing a warm up, do you want to join in' variety. We had some people who wanted to do half an hour's hard work, and some who declared that the first round of pools in a fencing tournament was their warm up. We accepted whatever seemed to work best for them.

Skill drills with punishments: I've walked out of a cricket practise over this. Being made to do press ups every time you drop a catch does not make you better at catching. It makes you better at press ups. It also embarrasses everyone concerned and does not address the necessary steps along the way to getting better. Contrast that with the environment of every fencing club I've been in, where the response to a training mistake is to move back to a level you can do and build up the technique.

Team uniforms/team songs: Another pet hate. I've been around cricket teams that have insisted on wearing suits to matches, because it 'shows we're a team'. I think the bit where we all show up on this big bus and play another team does that, thank you. I explicitly refused when our university AU suggested the fencing team should do the same sort of thing, because I knew that it didn't matter (also, we wear quite enough silly clothing to play the game).

Compulsory team socials: Apparently, it is a big thing for cricketers to go on social nights together. And eat together. It builds team bonds. It raises the ethos of the team. Again, with fencing, I went on exactly one social in the whole of my university career. We had fencers (particularly french exchange students) who flatly refused to touch the food in the university canteen after matches. It didn't get in the way. In fact, it became something of a running joke.

Measurable fitness as the main benchmark: In a skill based sport, it is often hard to measure improvement. Am I hitting my cover drive ten percent better than last week? Is my head-chest feint half as deceptive? No one knows, which is why I believe sports science people place so much emphasis on physical fitness. They've been taught that results must be measurable, and fitness is measurable. Yet all the biggest improvements I have seen people make in fencing have come through improvements at the technical/tactical level.

Pretending to be best mates: Here's a thought for you- I have been in fencing teams with at least one person I didn't like very much. Indeed, there have been moments (usually when they were drunk) when I wanted to abandon several of my teammates a hundred miles from anywhere. In cricket, we would have had to pretend we were best friends. In fencing, we just got on with our part of things and won stuff.

The suppression of the individual- Overall, there's an emphasis on the suppression of individuality in the name of the team in cricket and other mainly team sports. 'No one is bigger than the team' they say. 'Difficult' individuals must be made to conform to the team dynamic. Well, I've been that difficult individual. In cricket teams, it has occasionally led to me not fitting in. Whereas I've been in fencing teams where every member would have been labelled 'difficult' by another sport, and we've gotten on famously. Why? Because fencing is an individual sport that occasionally comes together in team format, and it values the individual, complete with quirks.

Anti-intellectualism- One point that comes out of this is a kind of anti-intellectualism that seems to pervade team sports. Apparently, you have to fit the lowest common denominator in order to avoid excluding any members. Which meant that trips to and from certain cricket matches were full of crude jokes, casual insults, mindless singing and idiocy, whereas some of the most interesting conversations I've had have included fencers, possibly because university fencing teams tend to have a high geek quotient.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

National Wormhole Day

So, where and when would I go given access to a wormhole? Somewhere medieval, perhaps? It might have been interesting, for example, to have been in the room the day the canons of Beverley and Ripon decided to fake charters granting them rights that applied even against the Archbishop of York. Or that day in 1137 when the Cistercians founded their monastery at Meaux, effectively paving the way for the existence of what is now Hull. Or I could nip back to 2003 and tell myself to do a creative writing course rather than seven years of postgraduate history degrees. Given what I've ended up doing, it might have been more applicable.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

IWSG: Why Fantasy?

I happened to run across this article about fantasy writing earlier, which raised the question 'why write fantasy'? Why indeed? I mean, it is my default setting as a writer, but there presumably has to be a reason for that. I've even been asked by friends before if I would ever write anything that wasn't fantasy (the answer to which is that I have, as a ghost-writer, but I'm unlikely to for myself).

So, why fantasy? One answer to that is that it is simply what comes out of my head. Point me in the direction of a story about an old man and of course he's going to be a wizard or an aging hero. Suggest someone unhappy with their job, and obviously that job is going to be as a goblin henchman. You mean that your brain doesn't work the same way? Which may sound a little silly, but for me it's a valid point. We strive for our own little bit of individuality as writers when looking for our voice, so if yours happens to include a preoccupation with including tentacled-Things from Beyond, why try to stop it?

The other answer that makes sense to me is that fantasy gives us distance. I'm sure there are people who can write about big issues in ways that are painfully close to them, but I've never had the knack. Instead, if I want to say something big, it has to be with a few dozen layers of unreality in between. It's that thing of fiction holding a mirror up to life. Well, fantasy still does that. It simply happens to be a magic mirror that is busy downloading new fonts when you really need to know who the fairest of them all is.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Crafting a Plan

I started work on a novella for someone this week, and one of the first things I had to do was craft a plan to show them how to take their general idea into a more detailed chapter by chapter breakdown. I've also put together several plans for my own things, and I think it's worth making a few observations:

  1. First, a plan is usually a good idea, at least for me. I suspect for quite a lot of people. I've tried starting things with no idea where they're going, but quite often they seem to head in the direction of dead ends. The start doesn't bring about the ending, either. Yet there's nothing to stop a plan being in someone's head.
  2. Other people's structures can help, but they aren't a magic formula. There are many writing structures floating around, of various levels of complexity. They all represent valid ways of analysing story, but not one represents a more valid way of doing things than your own sense of what should happen next.
  3. Which means that sometimes, writing down your own understanding of structure can help. Do you think in acts or not? Do you think in terms of stages of character growth, key steps along the way or something else?
  4. By the same token, software for writing and plotting can force you into approaches that don't suit you. Never do anything because your favourite structure says you must. Do it because that is what you know needs to happen.
  5. Plans can take many forms. I generally progress from a premise to a kind of micro synopsis to a chapter by chapter summary, to a full synopsis. Other people may work in other ways. In general, I like plans that consist of short segments initially, so that they can be changed easily.
  6. I like to keep plans quite general and open to change. I know that I need to leave room for the imagination, or it feels like I'm writing by rote. That often means leaving space to change minor elements, or even re-plot completely towards the end.