Running late today – getting an internet connection has been a little tricky. Of course I am completely relaxed. BTW do you like my new profile shot to the left there?

I was thinking about writing craft and how as writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best Gem I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing may be unhelpful for another. Each writer approaches their work from a unique perspective. Each will do some things instinctively, struggle with others and have unique blind spots.

After a bit of consideration, I decided that just going chronologically would be the easiest approach. For me, the first Gem was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. I binned it. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue and movement. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that the setting cannot be removed from the story. The acid test being that if the setting element can be removed from the story then it is not supporting it – a capital crime for a short story where every element must pull its weight.

Then – and this was derived after a long, slow slog, rather than a lightbulb moment – I understood the role of point of view. Over a long period of time I learned to control it and use it. I learned to convey what a character was thinking from another character’s PoV through gestures, hesitations and leading dialogue.

I have increased my understanding of creating both emotional resonance and character sympathy – hook – but I think I’m in for a long haul before I have the mastery I need. This is what I really want to understand right now.

What are your greatest Gems? What do you want to learn next? Better still – what are your killer tips on creating emotional resonance and hooking a reader?

End Games

There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What books have you read that have left you in a state of sublime happiness? A surging feeling right down in your gut that your life has somehow been enhanced? The knowledge as you lay that book aside that something truly wonderful has passed from the writer’s psyche to you?

What do you think constitutes a good ending?

Also posted at Mad Genius Club blog.

Power On Voyager

There was quite a bit of celebration this week as Voyager 1 celebrated 35 years sweeping through our solar system. The hard-working little beast – despite its 1970s technology – is still powering on out there. Still propelled by its last gravity slingshot and crusiing on 350 Watts from its Plutonium batteries. It’s a Hell of an achievement, and I have nothing but respect for those NASA and JPL engineers of the bygone era, there attention to detail, dedication and technical know-how.

There was a lot of press over the last week or so with the headlines ‘Voyager Leaves the Solar Sytem’. The fact is no one will really be able to know – except in retrospect – when our silicon-and-alloy ambassador will really cross the Heliopause – the boundary of the Heliosheath where the suns influence stops and the cosmic wind takes over.

What they do know is that the cosmic rays being detected by Voyager have increased quite dramatically in comparison to its prior journey from the inner Solar System. This is a good indication its nearing the Heliopause. It’s only by analysing the data over a long period (and let’s hope old Voyager keeps ticking through the whole process) that the precise ‘boundary’ will be declared.

Amazing achievement though – Voyager is 18 billion kilometers (11 billion mi) from, the Sun. All the while carrying that gold disk with the ‘Sounds of Earth’ . God knows what any alien race will make of that – ‘Hey man, break out the record player. These cats don’t use vinyl.’

I can’t help but imagine the historical tours of the outer Solar System in a century where you speed out from Earth to Oort Cloud in a fast cruiser, snap out of suspension to watch in amazement as the ancient Voyager 1 limps along through the cosmic wind. Or the celebration in around 50,000 years when the little beast finally reaches a star poetically named AC+79 3888.