Archive for September, 2011


The Front Line

The Sargent forged ahead and I wrapped my arms around myself. Around me, my fellow soldiers crawled and stumbled over the crusted landscape. A little further down the slope behind us, the last few troops emerged from the tree line. If indeed you could call the alien trees that. Their sparsely spaced, thick trunks soared up but they sprouted no leaves or branches

Wind whistled by as we hiked up the passage, blowing first one way, then the other, buffeting us about. I sank down in the lea of a slimy outcrop and hid my head. I didn’t want to be here.

Footsteps squelched by across the spongy ground. “What are you doing?” Someone asked. “Quick, come on, before the Sarge notices.”

I shook my head.

With a shrug, the unnamed soldier moved off. The tail end of the invading force passed me by and I counted silently towards the arbitrary number of a hundred. That was when I would peek to see if the coast was clear before making a run for it, back down the passage towards daylight.

Fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five. A few brittle yellow flakes dislodged from above and brushed my side as they fell and tumbled away down the slope. I looked up.

“What do you think you’re doing, Private?” yelled the Sarge.

“Er, I, er‒”

“You will get your ass out of that hole and march it up that hill right now, Private. What are you, some kind of coward? I don’t believe I have cowards in my army!”

“Sir, no, Sir,” I said, shaking.

I crawled from the hole and the Sarge jumped down behind me.

“I need every single one of you putrid slime balls to get this job done, so you will not hide in a hole like some vile bacteria, you will do your duty. Do you hear me?”

“Yes Sir.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Sir, I hear you, Sir.”

The Sarge marched behind me until we caught up with the rear end of the unit then he ordered a corporal to keep an eye on me and returned to his position at the head of the column.

The light from the entrance to the passageway grew fainter and the ground more slimy. The mucus – I refused to refer to it as anything else – sucked at my feet. In the growing darkness, my eagle eyed Corporal kept one hand against my back, so I couldn’t slip past.

We crested the hill and began to slip and slide our way down the far slope. We had to rely more on touch than sight now. The wind soaring up and down the passage died down a little.

At the bottom of the slope we paused on the lip of a cliff. I struggled through the massed troops to peer over the edge. The chasm yawned into complete darkness.

“At ease, soldiers,” the Sarge called.

We settled down in the dark, on the disgusting plateau, and waited.

Some time later, I realised I could see and groped my way to the edge of the precipice. Light welled up from the bottom of the cave.

The Sarge jumped up. “Right, this is our opportunity. Our battle ground stands at the bottom of that maw. We take it hard and fast. There won’t be much resistance but they will send reinforcements. It’s our job to hold the line until our main force arrives. Are you with me?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” The troop responded as one.

A deep rumble and the sound of rushing air welled up from below.

“Go, go, go! And find something to hang onto at the bottom.”

The army tumbled over the cliff, dropping from one rounded, slippery ledge to another, bouncing and falling, until it landed in a heap on the soft ground at the bottom. Those at the front quickly dispatched the few, pitiful resistance fighters.

“Find something to hold onto,” one Corporal yelled above the rushing wind.

We spread out and grabbed onto any lump or bump we could find on the smooth floor. Some just dug their way into the soft, fleshy ground and made their own hand hold.

The wind grew, blowing in with the light. The roaring noise deafened us. A few unlucky souls lost their grip and tumbled into the darkness behind. I clung on for dear life.

Suddenly the noise and the inrushing air stopped. I relaxed my grip.

“Hold on, this is it!” yelled the Sarge.

Before I could get hold again a storm of violent wind surged up from the darkness. It lifted my body from the ground and bore me up the cliff. The crusted, slimy landscape whipped by in a blur and then the world turned bright white.

My broken body lay surrounded by those of some of my fellow soldiers along with small boulders and puddles of slime dislodged by the gale. The white cloak over the world closed in around me and I let my own world close with it.

 

Paul’s crumpled tissue hit the bottom of the waste basket. “Damn it, I think I’m getting a cold.”

***

I hadn’t originally planned to post any fiction on this blog, but this piece came about because I was too ill to think of anything interesting to write about.

You can find more fiction over on The Great Escape

© 2011. C Harrison. All rights reserved. Do not re-distribute.

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Can you schedule creativity?

Camp NaNo Participant badgeOn the 30th July this year, someone asked me, “are you doing camp NaNoWriMo in August?”

My immediate response was no, but then I thought about it for all of two hours and decided, sure, why not. I need a project to get me back into serious writing after the break I’d had. So I signed up and then the question became, what am I going to write?

I have a novel series that I consider to be my primary project, but I’d already decided not to write any new material until I had worked on what I already had a bit more. I considered using the story I had already started planning for NaNoWriMo in November, but I had a fairly solid plan for that, and I still had a lot of outlining I wanted to do before I started writing. So, that left me with the option of attempting the challenge with a brand new, fresh idea.

A genius plan this was not. While I know I can do it, I learned that I cannot make myself do it. I have written 50k and more in a month without an outline before, but it was a project I felt inspired by. The idea I chose to use for Camp NaNo was barely more than a feeling that the characters and world I had used for a short story had more to give. I eventually struggled through 30k.

Can you schedule creativity? It’s a question a lot of authors will likely come across sooner or later. It may be trying to make time in a busy life by allocating that hour before dinner as writing time, or trying to bash out a short story for that submission deadline next week. If you’re lucky it may even be when your publishing contact comes through with a deadline at the top. So far I have been lucky enough to be able to run with my creative whims, but I do not want to be a slave to them.

Is it just a matter of disciplining one’s self, or does the quality of what you produce suffer when you can’t write how and when you want? I have found I often feel less satisfied with the work I plan than the work that flows out on its own, but perhaps that is just my own view of it.

For NaNoWriMo in November, I will be working on a planned, outlined idea and I am setting myself the challenge of completing the re-writes and edits within the following four months. I hope that by the end of it I will better understand myself and whether I can successfully schedule my creativity.

Tell me about your experiences with writing to deadlines and with letting your creativity flow unstructured. Can creativity be scheduled? What techniques have you employed to help you structure and schedule your writing?

What’s in a Name

As much as people might say that a name is only a label and it is the person who gives it meaning, when it comes to characters, you can get a lot from a name. Why do you think there are so many hero’s called Jack? It’s a strong, masculine name. Tiffanys are expected to be blond and ditzy while Sarahs will be down to earth girls next door. And readers will almost always be suspicious of Victors and Seths until they get to know them.

We get these associations from varied places; celebrities, fictional characters, classic stories and general social reinforcement. It’s worth being aware of the impression a character’s name gives, by thinking where your own impressions and associations come from when you think of it. As with a lot of things in writing, just thinking critically and being aware of things puts you more in control of end effect.

 

Finding names

Writers are creative types, so they shouldn’t have trouble thinking up names for their characters, right? Oh, if only it were that simple. Sometimes a name just materialises with a character, other times you just can’t find a name that suits the character and sometimes you just can’t come up with enough, diverse names for all those bit part characters. I know I for one seem to end up with a Sam in half the things I write.

I find that choosing character names is very much like house hunting; when you find the right one, it clicks and you know it.

 

So here’s a little advice on how I navigate my way through the sea of names:

  • Avoid having main characters with the same initial, especially if they are the same gender. If you have Stephanie and a Susan, for example, your reader may get confused until they develop a stronger sense of the characters, and then you may find them skipping back to that early chapter to check if it was Susan or Steph who said that thing before.
  • Alliteration between first and surname often comes across as comical, so avoid it for characters you want people to take seriously.
  • Names that are difficult to pronounce can put readers off. How many people have bailed on Tolkien after tangling with one too many unfamiliar names? If you’re writing fantasy or similar where you want unique names, try to make them a) short and b) pronounceable under common language rules. That way, the name can be unique and distinctive, but still rooted in the familiar.
  • If a name doesn’t immediately jump out, stay open minded at first. Write a short list of options.
  • Use a name generator to expand beyond your standard pool of names and avoid repeating the same names over and over.

 

Here are a few name resources I’ve used before:

Scrivener

Last week I did a quick review of writing software, Scrivener. Scrivener has a built in name generator with a vast selection of country/language filters to choose from.  You can select starting initials for first and last name

 

The Random Name Generator

A very simple name generator for US style names with only one variable, obscurity. Can be useful if you don’t have too strong an idea of what sort of name you are looking for.

 

Fake Name Generator

Allows you to set gender, age and country of origin, but only generates one name at a time. Although the names it generates can be quite good, it is more time consuming to go through a reasonable number.

 

Faire Names for English Folk

This web publication on medieval English names not only provides an extensive list of names, it also gives extra information about prevalence and naming trends. Perfect if you’re setting you story in this period.

Scrivener: Love at first sight

I’ve heard a lot of people raving about Scrivener, but I’ve always been a bit sceptical. I have developed a certain system for organising my writing projects which I like, and I had my doubts that any piece of software would be compatible with my existing system.

Well I decided to give it a go and downloaded the Windows beta to explore its features. There were really only two things I knew would be deal breakers:

1. Annotation

When I edit, I like to be able to read through making notes on what I want to change rather than just changing as I go along. This way, I don’t find myself making snap decisions about changes to one part that then create more problems because they don’t take later parts into account.

Not only did I find that Scrivener allowed for inline annotations (which may not be quite as visually easy to follow as Word’s commenting bubble system, but still do the job), I found I could even give my highlighter colours labels.

It’s like they read my mind. Currently I have a separate document with notes on what my highlighter colours mean, so being able to have this information to hand as I was highlighting is excellent.

2. Version control.

I like to keep archive copies of my drafts so I can always go back and see my previous versions. Never throw anything away, that’s me. Currently I keep track of my drafts by numbering them, 0.1, 0.2 etc for incomplete first drafts, then 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, 2.1 etc. upgrading the first digit each time I do a substantial re-write and the second for more minor edits.

It took me a little longer to find the Snapshot feature than the annotation features, but once I did I was very happy. Snaphots enable you to save/archive versions of your document that you can later revert to or just review to see what was there previously. Not only can I keep my old drafts, but they are attached to the current version of the document rather than being separate files cluttering up my computer.

So far, my favourite feature has been the way I can navigate quickly between the different documents. I have all the benefits of breaking the project down into chunks with none of the inconvenience of having to juggle multiple Word files all the time.

Earlier in the summer I took part in Camp NaNoWriMo (I only made it to 30k, but that’s another story) and I started writing my story in chapters, with a word document for each chapter. Every time I wanted to update my word count, I had to open all of the documents and copy each section separately into the text box on the website. Had I been using Scrivener, I could have just opened them all sequentially in the editor and highlighted the entire text to copy.

Click to enlarge

I’ve now imported a project, which I had started but not progressed very far with, and started using Scrivener to work on it. I took the outline I had as a word document and turned each bullet point into an index card. Now, when I come to work on that point, I already have a document ready and waiting. I’ve broken the project down into much smaller units, just because I can.

Scrivener has quite obviously been developed by people who write. There are lots of simple but elegant little features, like “Typewriter Scrolling,” which means the text insertion point remains in the middle of the screen, and the ability to increase the display size of the text while still having it wrap within the window you are using.

So, my fears that Scrivener would be incompatible with my existing system were unfounded. Not only is it compatible, but it enables me to use my own system in new and more efficient ways (for example, I now have pictures for my characters sitting on the screen alongside the editor for inspiration).

Within a few hours of using it I knew I was going to find it hard to go back to my normal way of working, but unfortunately, the Windows version is still only a beta and I don’t want to entrust it with any of my longer, more complete works. However, at only $40 on release I have already decided I will be buying a copy when it is finally ready. My verdict: a big, starry-eyed thumbs up.

I’d love to hear your experiences with Scrivener, good or bad. What would your deal breakers be when considering a new piece of writing software? I’d also be interested to hear if you use an alternative program and how you get on with it.

Last Wednesday I sat in my writing armchair with my laptop slowly cooking my lap desk thingy (it’s from IKEA, so it probably has a stupid name) when my partner poked his head in the door and said, “do you want to go to the cinema tonight to see The Dark Crystal?”

Now, I had no recollection of jumping back in time to the early eighties, so this seemed odd. He went on to explain that the classic Jim Henson film was being shown at our local art house cinema, Chapter. What was more, after the film we would get to meet puppeteer and performer Toby Philpot who not only worked on the film in question but also cult fantasy classic Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi.

Naturally I said yes and we toddled on down, grabbed some drinks and a flapjack (it’s not a popcorn type of cinema) and settled in for the show.

 

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal follows perhaps the most simple and classic of fantasy adventure plots. To save his world, Jen, last survivor of the persecuted race of Gelflings, must find the crystal shard and reunite it with the Dark Crystal, but his every step is hounded by the armies of the cruel Skeksis, the dark and twisted race that rules the land.

The attention to detail in this film is truly astounding; every frame is packed with richly decorated landscapes both alien and enchanting. While the few optical effects created, not from complex computer generated graphics but screen projections and early blue-screen work, do come across a little dated, the environments and characters have stood the test of time.

The story suffers slightly from a lack of pace, and unfortunately the creators felt the need to keep reminding you of the plot every five minutes, but never-the-less, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, endearing film.

 

Question and Answer with Toby Philpot

After the film Mr Philpot rose from his seat and we were treated to a fascinating account of his experiences working on the film.

Although only credited as one of the Mystics, the peaceful, gentle race of beings who raised Jen from infancy, he explained that all of the performers were involved in virtually every scene. Each of the characters required a team of puppeteers and every moving part of the set was controlled by a human operator.

One particular scene he described occupies only a few seconds in the film. As the camera pans through the alien jungle, a series of pointed, propeller topped seed pods spin up out of the picture. Toby explained how initial efforts to pull the props up with strings produced poor results and then someone had the idea to reverse the film and drop the pods into the picture. After that the team of puppeteers spent  an afternoon “playing darts” by dropping the spinning pods from a gantry over and over until they achieved the perfect take. After each shot, an assistant bundled the props into a bucket to haul back up for another go.

The enthusiasm with which he recounted his time working with Jim Henson and Frank Oz, creators of The Muppet Show was obvious and genuine. He explained that after each long, tiring day of filming, the performers had the opportunity to sit and watch the rushes (the unedited footage) from the previous day, and how, even though they were exhausted, they rarely passed up the chance.

As experienced puppeteers, Henson and Oz strove to create a working environment keyed to the use of puppets. Thus, every stage floor was raised with removable sections to allow the performers access from beneath, and even the walls had access points. When performing in the fearsome Garthim suits, assistants would be on hand to give directions and hook up the suit to a gantry between takes to take the weight off the operator. Toby used the term “happy energy” to describe the feeling of collaboration and camaraderie.

Much of what he said chimed with my own experiences working on film shoots with The Great Escape, especially the friendships formed, and it was a genuine pleasure to listen to him speak.

 

 

I have great respect for the creators of this adventurous experiment of a film. Toby explained that Henson and Oz entered into the project with the aim of creating a truly believable world, populated by alien creatures, where the viewer did not see puppets or men in suits, but living creatures. An ambitious goal, true, but one which I think they succeeded at admirably. Although in Toby’s own words the film is flawed in terms of its story-telling, in terms of its creative vision, in my opinion, it has no equal.

For me there is something both nostalgic and genuinely impressive about the special effects of the eighties. While early efforts at computer generated effects now look clunky and unbelievable, the beautifully crafted models, sets and costumes of earlier times still look as impressive as they always did. It is my hope that Hollywood never truly forgets the rich, dynamic quality that physical effects can bring to a film and I was delighted to find that Mr Philpot shared my views when I got the opportunity to ask him a question of my own.

I leave you with the classic 1982 trailer for The Dark Crystal, and hope you’ll join me again next week. Also, remember to visit The Great Escape this Monday for our September video, Yarn.

 

 

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