Archive | October 2009

New layout

The eagle-eyed among you will notice that I’ve changed the template for my blog. Being coding challenged means I am limited to the free sample templates provided by Blogger. If only I had the skills to design myself the perfect format…

What I was really after was a three column template because I have lots of widgets on the side and some of them are below the fold. According to the webbie guys at work, this is BAD. But there is no three column template. Hopefully this one is easier on the eyes.

The Third Step will get published!

A while ago, Pantechnicon accepted a second short story from me. The Third Step was supposed to go into Issue 9 but didn’t make it. Then Pantechnicon had to close and I thought, well, that’s that then. I suppose I better send it off to some other places.

I didn’t. Life has been very much on hold this year. A very large part of the last ten months has been taken up with the need to secure permanent employment. That is still the case and will be for the foreseeable future. I’ve been lucky to get a temporary contract and be earning enough to pay the mortgage, eat and buy a few nice things. It still means that every spare moment is eaten up by job hunting and it still feels very insecure.

Yesterday I had some good news. Pantechnicon will be putting out two final issues alongside Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. My story had got lost between editors; now it’s been found again, they’d like to publish it in the final issue of Pantechnicon, which will come out in April 2010.

More books on writing

This week I’ve been reading lots and may actually have had a breakthrough on the work-in-progress.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King. This was a really useful book and the sections on inner monologue, sophistication and voice were illuminating. I think in an effort to avoid expository lumps and explaining dialogue or narrative I’ve also stripped out all the inner monologue. Suddenly breaking the 50,000 word barrier doesn’t seem like such an impossible task.

On Writing, Stephen King. This is part biography and part a discussion on writing. There’s little practical advice (don’t believe the quotes on the back) but what is there is useful. What there is a lot of is inspiration. It’s like a letter of faith to all aspiring writers and should be referred to whenever you’re feeling insecure.

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler. I picked this up as it was recommended to me. While there’s a lot of good stuff in here it does tend to the formulaic. There is lip service to stories other than the ones where the protagonist is a farm boy who becomes a king (metaphorically speaking) and the good guys always win, but that is really the focus of the book. If you like structure and formula, then it’s a winner. Not for me though.


I discovered the most fun thing the other day. Well, alright, not the most fun thing, but it is pretty entertaining.

Bookwormr is social media for people who like to read. You create lists of books that you have read, are reading, or want to read. For those you’ve read you can rate them and write synopses or reviews. As it’s social media you can link to all your friends. My user name is BoudicaM and it currently says ‘BoudicaM has no friends’. Tragic, yet hilarious.

Apparently it can be linked to one’s Facebook profile, but I haven’t managed to figure that out yet.

On characters changing for the better and happy endings

A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post by Joe Abercrombie asking if characters always have to change for the better and if happy endings are absolutely necessary. Given that I’m reading Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers it seemed particularly relevant and I’m going to try to answer the questions.

Do characters need to change for the better? I forget where I heard it, but it has been said that that’s what a story is – a series of events that act upon a character and force them to grow. I’ve heard it said that if your main character isn’t different at the end then it isn’t a story. And it is true that in many cases a character is redeemed or potentiated by their journey. But not always.

Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey has been hugely influential and has been recommended to me by a wide variety of writing and non-writing acquaintances. I have struggled with applying it to Sacrifice (the work-in-progress), partly because Sacrifice is non-linear and partly because my protagonist is a bastard whose idea of being a better man is to be a richer, more powerful man. The Writer’s Journey is based around the concept that all story-telling is myth and this is where the requirement for positive change and happy endings comes from.

Myths aren’t just for entertainment. They are for teaching. Myths tell us how to be, what behaviours are acceptable and how we will be punished if we don’t conform. Myths are all about social control and maintaining the status quo. The protagonist’s change is usually in the form of growing up – accepting the responsibilities and duties of adulthood, accepting the rewards for conformity and giving up childish things. Other myths dwell on the punishments for wanting things that you shouldn’t want or doing things that you are told not to do. I simplify a bit.

Jungian psychology has raised mythic archetypes from widespread patterns of social organisation to truths about the human condition. But these are patterns derived from the stories and new stories will give rise to new archetypes.

As fantasy is the genre most closely aligned with myth there is perhaps a greater desire to see fantasy conform more closely to mythic structure. Ursula Le Guin, in her somewhat elitist essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ describes fantasy as a journey into the subconscious and says that like psychoanalysis it will change you. (Ah, but change you into what exactly? Change can be good or bad.)

But that’s myth, where the farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king, where a young girl opens a door she’s been told not to and sees that others who’ve trod that path have died horribly, where the young girl who is obedient and gentle and kind and passive gets rewarded with the big house and handsome husband. Myth tells us how the world works and it lies.

In real life, people try to change and they fail. Sometimes they try again and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people spend a lifetime trying to change and their success is small or non-existent. Often people spend time trying to change the people around them imagining that it will make their experience better. Of course time and experience change people but not always for the better and not always with their awareness.

I think that learning does not always come best from a model of what to do. Sometimes an example of what not to do is more instructive. There are myths and stories that do this, that show what is lost from not taking the opportunity to change.

So does this mean that characters must change? No. I think that there must be the possibility for change and the story is in how the character responds to the possibility. The change can be good or bad and the response can be to change or not. I think that people are becoming more sophisticated (if only slowly) and more literate in the mechanics of story telling and myth making. (As a aside, I wonder if advertising is not the true descendent of mythology?)

Personally, I find fantasies of the ‘farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king’ type superficial and immature. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t fun or well written, just that they are empty mental calories – candyfloss for the brain. I like a meaty exploration of the dynamics of change. It’s hard to become a different person and the people around you are often unsettled by it. It can seem as if the world conspires against any attempt to become a better person. A story that tells how a character reacts to these trials can be much more emotionally fulfilling.

On to happy endings. I resist the choice of happy or sad endings. Moral certainty is much less monolithic than it might have been in the past and our stories will reflect that. Right and wrong, good and bad, are not so easy to define in complex, intertwined relationships. The ‘good’ guy’s happy ending is the ‘bad’ guy’s unhappy ending. A story with several characters reacting to the possibility of change in a variety of ways will have an ambiguous ending. It will be shades of grey for most of the characters with some happiness and some loss.

I feel strongly that an ending must fit the story being told and sometimes we choose to tell stories that don’t end up in a happy place. It’s not so much about predictability as about internal logic. An ending can surprise the reader without losing a sense of rightness.

For the record, I think Best Served Cold presented it’s characters with possibilities for change and they each responded in their own way.