Friday, 9 November 2018

Plotting Your Novel

This scrappy graph is explained in detail below

Writers are the best villains, since we spend so much time plotting, and talking about plotting. Here are some of my recent thoughts on the topic, which may be useful to people taking part in this year's NaNoWriMo - an excellent pursuit, which led to three of my books. Hopefully this post is also useful to my editing clients.

Although I was thinking about novels when I wrote this, it also applies to plotting a short story, or a novella.

Story Structure

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Much of the talk about plotting is related to the middle, and how it connects the beginning to the end.

The beginning is not all the boring stuff that leads up to the story. Cut that shit out. No-one wants to read it. The beginning is the crisis situation, the "inciting incident", the thing that triggers the story. It's the bulldozer turning up to demolish a woman's home. It's the demon crawling out of the wardrobe into the child's bedroom. It's the moment when the man locks eyes with the person he falls in love with. It's the point when everything changes, and it can never be the same again. (Though it is fine to have a bit before this, to establish the scene and create a bit of empathy with the character, to create context; just don't drag the back story on and on - you can always fill in a bit of it later. Use your skills to keep it interesting and lively ... and brief.)

The middle is where momentum builds. I'll mention that again below, under the section on structuring.

The end is when things get resolved, for good or ill - the point everything up to that point has been leading to. If you do your job well then the reader will not be able to stop before they reach this point.

To give a practical example from my novel Lost Solace. We have an inciting incident: "Woman discovers a scary spaceship full of horrors; she overcomes her fears and boards it". Her life will never be the same again. Then there are a series of challenges of increasing tension and risk as she fights to survive and make her way to the bridge (with a goal that is hidden from the reader until the end - which breaks a key rule, but see the final section of this article, "Rules"). Then there is an ending, when we find out if she survives, and if she succeeds in attaining what she sought.

What Is Plotting?

Plotting is deciding on the main points of the story - what happens and when, what actions the characters take as a result, and what happens next. Ideally the plot points should tell a satisfying story, lead to some change in the world or characters, and probably tell a secondary story backed up by themes which make the tale more universal. When an author has an idea for a story, they may start to write down the main plot points.

Plot Or Pants?

Some authors plot every point in minute detail, so that when they come to write the story they have a good idea of what will happen in each scene. This prevents dead ends, and helps authors to get words written, because they always know what they are going to write. This system is known as "plotting". (Note that, if you have a good plot plan, you don't have to write the scenes in order - you can write them in reverse if you prefer. Some authors like to write the ending, then the beginning, tying them together with language and motifs, then fill in the middle bits later.)

Other authors prefer to let if flow and make it up as they go along, asking "what if?" and creating new scenes out of how the characters react to events. This is known as "pantsing" - "flying by the seat of their pants" (idiom), or "playing it by ear". The characters drive the story. It can lead to exciting and unexpected twists for the author and reader, or it can lead to wasted time and dead ends and more need for rewriting. Note that for pantsing to work, you have to already visualise strong and believable characters and interesting situations for them to exist in.

The reality is that many authors mix the two systems, they are not mutually incompatible. I plan out most major parts of my novels, but not in massive detail - as I write it leaves the characters with freedom to surprise me. It also means I have structure, but still feel excitement as I write.

Top tip: if you are new to writing then err on the side of plotting, with breakdowns of your scenes and chapters. This lets you spot problems, or areas to cut, before you waste time writing them. Ask the question about every sub-plot and twist and event: "Does this contribute to the overall story, or is it just words?" Usually only very experienced authors can use full-blown pantsing and still achieve good novels.

Structuring The Novel

Stories can be plotted onto graphs. The story's plot becomes a visual thing. Stories have shapes. Before I go any further, it's worth thinking about this, and the best way is to watch this short and entertaining video where Kurt Vonnegut talks about the Shapes of Stories. I never tire of that. Then look at the section on Freytag's pyramid in this piece about dramatic structure. Okay, now you're an expert at visualising your story on a 2D graph. Well done.

Now let's take a step back and begin to write down what happens in your story. There are many different ways of getting started with thinking about the plot points and shape. Some people follow a fairly traditional structure such as the Eight-Point Arc. Other use systems such as The Snowflake Method. I have also heard of authors who think of it as “The Pee Pee rule": "Plot Pendulum. Keep it swinging back and forth, further and further, so that the highs and lows for the main characters get more extreme as the story moves along.”

The point is to come up with a structure that has increasing tension as the characters try to overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals (survival, or a love interest, or a successful heist), but the world responds to their actions and new, greater, challenges and threats are introduced. They make decisions, they perform actions, and the stakes get bigger. As an author, we can't make things easy for our characters if we want a compelling story. Pile on the challenge and see how the characters cope.

In simple terms this scale increases until the main peak where they succeed or fail.

So at this stage you may well map out your plot points on a graph, with the X axis as time/advancement through the novel, and the Y axis as tension or challenge. This is a tool you can go back to at any point in a rewrite to help you restructure effectively or check that things are going well (here's one practical example where I did that).

The opening image is how I visualise the graph for most stories - a bit like Freytag's Pyramid (mentioned earlier) but with the peak pushed towards the end point. We want more build-up and action than we do denouement. Also, the upward climb isn't a straight line - it is a zigzag or wavering line of emotional highs and lows as the characters have ups and downs. There will be twists, reveals, and moments of calm.

The end result should be momentum - a build up of tension and an increase in the stakes - that keeps the reader glued to the page, then a grand finale where they get their fix, then a bit of tidying up as the pressure is released ... and then you're done. Although this sounds like I'm describing a thriller, it works for love stories, for growing up tales, for all genres. We always need characters we care about, and there always needs to be something getting in the way of what they want (otherwise it is not a story).

Rules

As I say to my editing clients - any writing rule can be broken, as long as the end result works. Hopefully some of the stuff here is helpful, and it covers 95% of the stories out there, but there will always be exceptions.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Data Tracking, Privacy, Amazon, And Clean Links

A "clean" Amazon link looks like this - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0787HLF4X/

The Walls Have Ears

In recent years there has been an explosion in the amount of data collected about us without our permission, much of it driven by the desire to make money from ramming advertising down our throats (and some of it in order to manipulate us). You can see a teeny bit of what Facebook tracks about you here. Websites can find out a lot about where you are, what technology you use and so on just by clicking a link - see this site for a demonstration. And you know how every website says you are giving them permission to save cookies on your PC and track you, "to enhance your experience", even though all you are doing is reading a few paragraphs? "Enhance your experience" is a euphemism for "so we can profile you and make money from compiling and sharing that data with a mass of companies". As one example, I visit the PC gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun (now owned by Gamer Network Ltd). If you dig down to their "Privacy Policy" page you find out that by default they can share your data with 622 advertising companies. Six hundred and twenty-two! Just from one website visit.

A selection of advertising "partners" that Gamer Network Ltd can share your data with
(data from this page on 2018-11-06)

The default position taken by 99% of websites is that you have "opted in" to tracking unless you explicitly state otherwise - which is not in the least bit practical. I visit hundreds of sites a day, and using the web would be impossible if I had to find the settings and opt out of the forced spying on every site. Worse, it would usually only apply to a single browser on a single system, because - in order to opt out - they save another cookie to your browser! So you have to do it all over again, thousands of times, if you switch browser, or change PC, or use a different gadget, or clear your cache, or reinstall Windows etc ... blatantly it is impossible to opt out. And that doesn't even take account of all the other tracking taking place whenever you log into a site (or even don't - systems such as Flash cookies have also been used to secretly track people using Adobe software, as one example - see here, here, and here).

Amazon And Tracking - What Are "Clean" links?

A particular issue for authors (and readers, and reviewers) is Amazon. That's because Amazon is one of the largest marketplaces for books - but Amazon is also one of the companies making heavy use of automated data gathering and algorithms based on software-run assumptions based on that data. Assumptions which are often wrong, and can cause all sorts of problems.

Recently I suggested to someone who was sharing Amazon links to products that they only use "clean" links. I was asked for clarification, which reminded me that not everyone knows about how insidious all this spying and tracking is, and how it can affect us in the real world. It makes sense to share some of that information here. Then you'll know what is meant by "clean links" (at least in the case of Amazon links).

Basically, whenever you do something on Amazon, it adds codes to the URL with numbers that lead to references in their databases . E.g. if I search for my wonderful book Lost Solace, then copy the URL from the browser bar (e.g. to send it to someone else), then I get something like this:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace


The format is as follows:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Base URL

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Additional book data – unnecessary, can be deleted entirely and the URL still works

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
ASIN – Amazon’s internal code for the book (like an ISBN)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
All sorts of additional unnecessary gunk

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=3551297207&sr=8-1&keywords=lost+solace
Tracking data

That tracking data it the bit that connects the search to a database entry, which will also probably include the date and time of the visit, the country, the account doing the search (if logged into Amazon), the email addresses and physical addresses stored on the account, computer ID info, and connections to cookies saved on the PC – Amazon ones, maybe others too such as Facebook ones. So all sorts of stuff is being tracked, and because it is then stored on an Amazon database, you can’t see it or remove it. Amazon is understandably secretive about how all this works, so much of it is guesswork.

The problem is that if you share that URL and someone else clicks on it, their data is connected to that ID as well. A key thing to understand is that Amazon’s algorithms are automated (and often faulty – I have been incorrectly targeted by Amazon a few times with false positives based on their automated systems e.g. have a look at this article, which also links to other examples).

This can then lead to all sorts of issues. Suppose lots of people click on that link (for example, if it had been included in a review on a website), and they go on to buy the book and maybe review it – Amazon may then flag it up as “suspicious”, as if they are perhaps connected accounts, sockpuppets, accounts from a review manipulation farm, or are friends/family reviewing books for an author. All of those can lead to the reviews being removed, and sometimes even reviewing privileges removed, with no comeback or warning. Maybe also selling privileges and livelihoods in some cases. I read about this kind of thing regularly. And there’s no way to question Amazon’s data, or find out what evidence they are basing their incorrect assumptions on. And all that can potentially stem from just clicking on an Amazon link somewhere that has tracking codes in.

Therefore, if sharing Amazon links anywhere (blogs, emails, social media) the only safe option is to strip out the tracking data. Basically, everything after the ASIN needs to be deleted, so you end up with this:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Solace-Karl-Drinkwater-ebook/dp/B0787HLF4X/

That’s a clean and safe link.

As I mentioned earlier, the book title can also safely be removed if it is present – not a safety thing this time, just to make a tidier link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0787HLF4X/

That goes to the same book as the one above it, but is much tidier, and also 100% safe to share (you can click on both to test them). The latter is the type of clean link that should be shared.

That’s why professional author groups insist on clean links. Clicking on even a single tracking link can cause all sorts of problems down the line, and accusations of review manipulation from Amazon – including emails that say this (an actual one I received):

We have determined that you have violated our Customer Review Creation Guidelines. As a result, we have suppressed all of your reviews, and you will no longer be able to post reviews on Amazon.com.

We made this decision after carefully considering your reviewing account. This decision is final.

We cannot share any further information about our decision, and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.


In that case I was lucky, and they admitted that they’d sent it me by mistake, though never explained why or how (because it would reveal all sorts of dodgy issues with how they manipulate data):

We have reviewed the message, and determined that you were sent incorrect correspondence

That’s why all Amazon links have to be clean. This is something anyone using Amazon links needs to be aware of, for their own account safety as well as that of others!

Firefox Privacy Tip

If you use Firefox as your browser then I recommend installing uBlock Origin.

This is an additional option (you can have both installed at the same time): Privacy Badger.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Saturday, 3 November 2018

31 Days Of Horror


One of my author friends, The Behrg (whose novel Housebroken I loved) posted a series of articles recently called 31 Days Of Horror. He asked me to do a guest post as part of it, so I wrote about ... well, horror fiction. You can read my post on his site here. I've also included a backup of the article below (with The Behrg's introduction in italics).



So today’s post in 31 Days of Horror is brought to you by author Karl Drinkwater. Karl is an author from across the pond who’s done a tremendous job of blurring the lines of genre fiction. I’ve had the chance to read a few of his works and with each new book I can honestly say he keeps getting better.

lost solace

If you’re new to Karl’s work, his horror collection, which includes three separate books, is a great place to start. His latest work, Lost Solace, is a fantastic sci-fi horror piece which I blazed through. With an incredibly strong and memorable female protagonist and a fascinating plot with a mystery at its center, it’s a perfect example of why science fiction and horror go together so well. Check out my original review of the book here. (And from what I’ve heard, a sequel is coming soon).


But enough from me … Here’s Karl, sharing his thoughts on what makes the horror genre so great:

*******************************************************

Brandon asked me to write something for his 31 Days Of Horror posts on his blog. And that got me thinking about why we write this stuff. Hell, how does any author decide what they’ll write? How do authors decide whether to write fluffy sci-fi, or thriller romance, or steampunk mystery?

Some authors write in genres that are popular, because it helps them make a living. Some authors write in genres that they have a great affinity to, because they couldn’t imagine writing anything else. Horror authors often fall into the latter category.

They see horror in the world and don’t want to shy away from it. And yet, by immersing themselves in fictional horror, they do escape, at least for a while – into a more controllable world. Sometimes evil will still win there, but the experience of reading or watching the fictional story unfold can provide catharsis, rather than the depression that comes with real world horror. (The latter can only be overcome by changing the world through understanding, compassion, patience, empathy, and love. See, horror authors aren’t just obsessed with zombies and chainsaws.)

Each horror author had their own journey towards the dark side. I’ve been a fan of horror since I was a child, when I climbed trees with a horror book and got so immersed that I would forget to come down for dinner. It was a form of escape. It was a workout for my imagination (and climbing skills). The swaying branches and whispering leaves were the perfect backdrop for stories where I dreaded to find out what happened on the last page – but I also had to know. There was no ending the story part-way through. I learnt that we have to face things until the bitter end.

As an early teen I spent pocket money on books by King and Koontz, and spent whole days lying on my bed reading thick novels, or staying up too late because I couldn’t put the book down. The stories seized me by the scruff of my neck in ways that other tales couldn’t. Even when I wasn’t reading them I’d be pondering the things that haunted Derry, or Snowfield.

So I raise a toast to horror, and will defend it as a genre whenever I feel the need. Here’s a post where I was asked to argue the case for why more people should read horror books. I succeeded that time. I’ll keep doing it.

May horror’s darkness continue to light the way for quality fiction.

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Friday, 2 November 2018

Chilling Reads For Halloween


Whadya mean, I'm two days late? I was busy finishing Chasing Solace and sending it to my wonderful team of beta readers!

Well, I spotted this article "Chilling reads for Halloween" which included a mention of my own work:

"Web by Karl Drinkwater (as part of his short story anthology): this story is interesting for a couple of reasons: features a POC character from a culture I admit know little -she is a Somali woman, living in England-, there is certain ambiguity on it that will leave you to wonder what really happened. Sometimes horror doesn’t come from outside, but from inside us. It’s a tough read, so be warned."

I love reading what people think of my stories!

At the moment you can read that story for free here: "Halloween freebie - Web, from They Move Below".

Some of the other horror-related blog posts I wrote recently for official Creepy Day:

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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Thursday, 1 November 2018