Friday, 21 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 4 - World-building

By Alison Morton
Images by JD Lewis 

Setting is vital to a story whether it’s in the background or an integral part of the narrative. But I want to take you further and deeper than mere location into building a whole world for your story – 3D instead of 2D. And it applies whether you are writing supermarket romances, terrifying thrillers or intense historicals.

If you set your story in a different country, you can visit the places the characters live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky or freeze in a biting wind. If nearer home, you will be familiar with much of your book’s world.

If you invent a country or a past or future time, you have to get your imagination going hand in hand with research. We’re creative beings, we’ve imagined alternative realities since we were children and that’s what will drive your world building.

But you have to be practical as well, and believe me, fans will expect you to know everything from costume, social philosophy and weapons to food, transport and childcare provision. (Yes, I was asked that at the launch of my second book.)

No country can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order and income. You don’t need to mention any of these, unless it impacts on the plot, but you should have it all worked out in your head, notebook, file on your hard disk or in the cloud. 

Some questions to ask yourself

How do people make their living? How are they educated? What kind of industry is there? What is the food like? Are there markets, little shops, big chains? What does the money look like? Is the government representative? Are laws authoritarian or permissive? Who holds the power?

Consider what your book’s world looks like. If it’s a country we already know, has transport developed beyond the horse and cart to steam trains, electric trains or crammed motorways in your story’s time? Is it safe to travel from one town to another? And remember landscapes familiar in the 21st century looked a great deal different in the eleventh.

If it’s an imaginary country, are there mountains, seas and rivers? What’s growing in the fields, does the countryside consist of plains, valleys or desert?

You may like to draw a map, however crude, just to keep track of where you’re sending your characters. And spare a few moments for the climate. You can’t have grapes and thus wine without some rain and a lot of sunshine…

Practical tips to engage readers

· Anchors and links to ‘normal’ e.g. a cop is always a cop wearing a uniform and an attitude, a tired working mother is exhausted whether she’s on Mars, in Ancient Rome or Tunbridge Wells

· Juxtaposition: reinforce a setting or details of your world through a character’s eyes when she sees and reacts to something that diverges from ordinary life in your potential reader’s location and time

· Drip-drip: local colour or period detail is essential, but only where necessary and when relevant. 90% of your research does not belong in your narrative.

· Names, everyday words and slang: Make them appropriate to the setting but keep them simple, so they don’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Characters in setting

Character-based stories are popular and readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments. Three key points that apply to building a book’s world:

· Characters have to act, think and feel like real people whatever language they speak or however they’re dressed

· Characters should live naturally within their world in their ‘now’, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes.

· The permissions and constraints of their world should make additional trouble and conflict for them.

Go visible

Build a file of images of real environments similar to your book’s world. It’s an immensely useful way of re-immersing yourself into I when stuck. Obviously, an imagined country is hard to photograph. If you can draw, then you have the tools at your fingertips, but if like me your artistic skills are limited to turning out sketches of pin-men, then it’s back to the camera.

An imagination exercise

Close your eyes and walk your character through a street in your book’s world. What do they see, touch and smell? Is the place crowded, noisy? Are there stalls or shops, are people on foot, horseback or in cars? Is it deserted, eerie or threatening? What is your character feeling as they walk along? Anticipation, fear, excitement, cynicism, pleasure?

Happy writing!

Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. 
She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, an MA in history and an over-vivid imagination. 
 She blogs, tweets, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Next week: Sensory storytelling with Bernice Rocque

Friday, 14 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 3 - The Invisible Spider

By Rohan Quine
Images by JD Lewis  

It’s easy to find sensible, responsible advice about writing, but there’s a shortage of irresponsible advice.


The former addresses structure, characterisation, editing etc. Much of it recommends good things, which may be enough to create something well-built and polished that chimes sweetly with the expectations of its readers, in any category (including literary fiction). And that’s the goal, for many writers and readers, which is fine – mission accomplished.

There are additional games in town, however. Many of these are complementary with the above, in that they generate their electricity not through chiming with expectations, but through challenging and expanding the expectations of their author and of readers who love to buckle up and take such a ride. To be entertained by consuming or creating a brilliant thing that fulfils expectations, or to be challenged by consuming or creating a brilliant thing that plays subversively with any expectations: these are not simple alternatives at opposite ends of a spectrum, in any category of fiction. But many novels can be identified as facing more in the direction of one or other of that spectrum’s ends (both directions being of equal value in themselves). It’s in this sense, to the extent any novel faces the expectation-subverting end of the spectrum, that I refer to a shortage of irresponsible advice.

The shortage is understandable, because this concerns something central yet elusive to define, for which there’s no recipe. When present, the something is often hidden in plain view, like a large invisible spider crouching at the centre of a visible spider’s-web. And for this spider, all that sensible advice about structure etc. is secondary.

The spider represents more than just the passion that has driven the author – though passion is capable of trampling with primitive glee over responsible considerations, so as to conjure up perhaps three or four of the creature’s legs. But to conjure up all eight legs, with eight fat thighs emanating from a muscular central spider-body, the passion in question has to be the passion of a killer. By which I mean destroying as much as possible of what would have been expected in a given paragraph, while still maximising what will most seduce and reward. (It’s an intricate set of negotiations between these two imperatives, down to individual words and syllables.) Among its other missions, this passion is a ruthless destroyer of received tropes, with a view to discovering new ones. This passion’s charm, in clothing its destruction in beguiling language, would have ensured it a successful career as a criminal if it had been destined to be a person in real life instead.

In general, one has to destroy to create, as in the old-school example of a sculptor hacking away the stone that isn’t the statue, or a writer’s rejections of a myriad words on the way to the best ones. But if a writer pursues such micro-level destruction/creation with an intensity that feels like a joyous criminality – if the abstract impulses in the writing process feel ferocious enough to have resulted in an arrest if they’d been somehow embodied in meat-space instead – then my instinct is that this writer is more likely to create something whose electrification is as irresponsible as many of the classics were regarded when they were first published.

I can feel my invisible spider turning her eyes in my direction, when I identify her as embodying the desire to create something whose core reason-for-being is to be explosively and irreducibly itself to the max, with such force and beauty and rightness that it had to be what it is, and that serves up a gigantic and celebratory fuck-you to the world, expressing both the darkness and the brightness of its creator’s unique experience of being alive.

I’m told each instalment of “Creative Pulse” should suggest a specific exercise … but I just can’t quite picture this kind of beast consenting to be activated by an exercise. So maybe the closest thing would be for a writer to create or re-visit a brief manifesto for themselves only, and ensure their spider animates it. Mine comprises the following questions, but such a manifesto can take whatever form feels right.

(1) How can I illuminate the world, to the best of my finite abilities, using language in new and old ways, and thereby leave the world infinitesimally better than it was beforehand?

(2) How can I aim and attune my ears as clearly as possible to whatever the highest artistic potential may be, then bring down the richest results from that place, then give those results the truest and most beautiful form I can create?

(3) How can what I write take an honest account of the darkness and pain in the world, while at the same time being a vote for life (maybe even an absolute blast of fun along the way)?

I suspect an invisible spider can’t be magicked into being, if she isn’t already there; though she may need to be coaxed out of hiding. If she is present, however, then she deserves to be allowed to walk in grand freedom through every paragraph of every novel she helped inspire.

Rohan Quine is an author of literary fiction with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror, celebrating the beauty, darkness and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time.

The Imagination Thief (novel); The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong (four novellas); and the upcoming The Beasts of Electra Drive (novel), a prequel to the others.

Reviews are here and here. Lists of retailers, latest info, video-books, films and other fun are at | @RohanQuine  

Next week: World-building with Alison Morton

Friday, 7 July 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 2 - The Dreaded Saggy Plot

– and How to Avoid It
by Lorna Fergusson

Images by JD Lewis 
So you’ve written that whizzy, grabby, punchy opening. You know your readers will be hooked and you’re saving an equally amazing ending for them. You can’t wait to see their reaction. Scene follows scene, chapter follows chapter, you’re keeping to your schedule of a thousand words a day or week … then something happens. Something bad.


The momentum slows, the story flags, your belief in it starts to evaporate. You were always aware of the risk of your plot flatlining, but it seems to be doing something even worse. It’s sagging. Your story started like the construction of a suspension bridge with sturdy towers at either side of the chasm – but the bridge itself is drooping into the canyon.

What can you do to save it? Here are 10 tips, plus an exercise to try out:

1 Think visually. Keep a grip on your plot with charts or colour-coding. This helps you to maintain a sense of its overall shape and of the interweaving of its elements.

2 Variety is the spice of plot: if you keep writing the same type of scene with the same kind of structure, you’ll weary your reader. Use dialogue, description, revelation, twists, changes of point of view. Intersperse the high-octane with the meditative. Open chapters in different ways. Have the calm before the storm, the false hope before destruction, the despair before redemption. Mix it up.

3 Nothing is set in stone. Maybe you wrote a route-map for this story but the road is heading straight to the Land of Boredom. Be prepared to retrace your steps to where you made a significant plot-choice, ready to take the road you didn’t travel first time round.

4 Complicate it. You have a main plot with main characters but they are not the be-all and end-all. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Who are the people around them and what are their stories? Don’t wheel on characters to do something in connection with the main character, then wheel them straight off again – give them their own wants, deeds and outcomes. Sub-plots, that’s the thing. Or dual narratives. Or multi-stranded thriller plots. Or multi-generational saga plots.

5 Raise the stakes. When your character has overcome a crisis, give them a bigger one. Unloose your inner sadist. Give them hell. Throw unexpected challenges at them or make the consequences of their choices turn bad on them. Give them trepidation, guilt and angst. Make them responsible. Give them, at all times, opposition, whether externally or internally.

6 Be unexpected. This is trickier than you might think – a twist in the plot that the writer chuckles complacently over, thinking they’ve outsmarted their reader, is often glaringly obvious to said reader. That said, when it works, it really works.

7 Create connectivity. Use flashbacks, repeated motifs, contrasts and counterpoints between plot and sub-plot, irony and foreshadowing. Be subtle with all that. Foreshadowing badly handled is telegraphing and as clunky as can be. Jump between groups or narrators or focal characters – spin those plates and keep them spinning.

8 Timing is everything. Seed information and revelations carefully so that the reader never thinks ‘deus ex machina’. That little breadcrumb trail will lead them inexorably into the heart of the forest.

9 Create mini-hooks. Every scene, chapter or section ending should have something in it that will encourage the reader to keep reading. The hook is usually an unanswered question. Keep your reader asking what will happen next. As soon as you answer one question, ask another.

10 Rev up. As the story progresses, give the reader a sense that it is going somewhere. Factor in highs and lows but make sure the overall effect is cumulative not sequential – you are building towards that superb ending you can’t wait to write, remember.



Here’s your plot scenario: a new boss joins the firm where your MC, a woman, works. Within a week the boss is telling her she will have to transfer to another town.

1 How does your MC react? Say yes or no? Is there a deadline for the decision?

2 What are the consequences of that choice likely to be? Jot the possibilities down.

3 If ‘No’, what are the reasons? Fear of moving? Commitments at home? What are those commitments? Children? An elderly parent?

4 If the MC says ‘Yes’ and moves, how does that play out? Regret? Whole new start? Does she rent her original house out? How does that go?

5 What might complicate that scenario? What if the elderly parent, for instance, has a fall and needs care?

6 If so, here’s your chance to thicken the plot. What if your MC has a sibling who has never carried his/her weight in terms of taking care of said relative? What now? Does MC ask for help? Does the sibling refuse? If so, a chance to complicate things further – what are the sibling’s reasons for refusing? Start inventing their life-situation.

7 What if the MC has no sibling and chooses instead to move the relative to the new town?
How does the parent feel about that? Grateful? Dislocated? Who are the friends/connections the parent is leaving? Is there a history there?

8 Review all this – maybe a plot has emerged as you mapped out these possibilities. There are a whole lot more, believe me! Start imagining where you could introduce the unexpected or where you could make the MC’s situation even more challenging. Before you know it, that narrative rope will be taut again.

Lorna Fergusson runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy. She is a novelist and prize-winning short story writer, who has taught on various Oxford University writing programmes since 2002. She has republished her novel, The Chase, originally published by Bloomsbury, and contributed to Studying Creative Writing for the Creative Writing Studies imprint. Her ebook collection of historical short stories, An Oxford Vengeance, includes Salt, which won the Historical Novel Society’s London 2014 Short Story Award.


Twitter: @LornaFergusson

The Chase: Paperback via my website

An Oxford Vengeance:

Next week: The Invisible Spider with Rohan Quine