Deleted scenes #2 – #4

14 August 2015
Luckily the editing process isn't quite this tedious

“Murder your darlings” – William Faulkner

One of the strangest things about writing a multi-protagonist story (or at the very least, one of the things I wish someone had warned me about before I started writing one) is how much it forces you to write a story in a certain way.

To explain what I mean, imagine I had a book with just one protagonist in it. In such a novel, the hero might get 30+ chapters all to themselves. The whole story is told through just a single set of eyes and thus, over the course of the book, the reader is able to fully follow the hero’s story and understand their plight. This approach allows for a lot of twists and turns and, consequently, a great deal of character movement.

Look at 50 Shades of Grey for example (and wow, how I never thought I use that book as a positive example…). The whole story is told from the point of view of one character: Anastasia Steele. Thus, no matter how much Ana flip-flops in her relationship with Christian Grey (and boy, does she flip-flop), it doesn’t matter. We go right along with it.

Multi-protagonist novels, however, are very different beasts.

When your plot needs an infographic to explain it, you know you're in trouble

When your plot needs an infographic to explain it, you know you’re in trouble

On the one hand, having more characters means that the scope of your novel can be wider (since you have more eyes in more places showing the reader more aspects of your world) but the flip-side of this is that unless you’re lucky enough to have all of your viewpoint characters in the same place at the same time (in which case, why on Earth do you need to have multiple protagonists to begin with?), the individual plotlines for each character become quickly diluted.

When each character has only 5-10 chapters dedicated to them and the reader might not encounter that character again for several hundred pages at a time, it becomes increasingly important to keep each of those characters constrained to plots which can be easily summarised and understood. Your characters need simple throughlines and clear resolutions. There is little room for ambiguity.

So many protagonists... Best make them all stereotypes and give them 3-4 scenes each

So many protagonists… Best make them all stereotypes and give them 3-4 scenes each

It’s a law of diminishing returns: the more complex your novel becomes, the simpler its individual storylines must be in order to avoid your reader getting lost in a maze of byzantine plot twists.

Which is exactly the situation I found myself in with my main character, Abigail Leighton.

Abi’s story was always centered on the theme of identity and belonging. She is caught between the two worlds of the bunks and the nobility, belonging to neither and yet hated by both. Hers is a unique position, and one from which the reader is able to fully grasp the multi-faceted issues plaguing the ship. (Or at least, that was the theory).

Australian model Gemma Ward. Her innocent yet determined appearence informed much of Abi's character

Australian model Gemma Ward. Her innocent yet determined appearance was a big inspiration when writing Abi

Originally the plan was to have Abi break out of the bunks near the beginning of the book (which she still does), betraying her best friend in the process (ditto). Later, she would find that the outside world isn’t quite the land of milk and honey she’d always thought it would be (which is still the case) so she goes back to the bunks, begs forgiveness from her friend and then together they break the unspoken out of bondage and lead a rebellion against the ship, thus creating a third, new choice for her.

The problem was… that last part was too complex. If I had 20-30 chapters dedicated to Abi, I might have been able to make it work. But squeezed into just 10 chapters it just came across as her being indecisive, flip-flopping from one chapter to the next between wanting to be in the bunks, then out of them and then back again. It strained credibility.

Plus there’s the fact that no one would choose to return to the bunks. No one. It doesn’t matter how neat and tidy it made my narrative arc or how much thematic sense it made. The simple fact is that Abi, the character, would never return to the bunks even if you paid her and thus by shoehorning such a face-heel turn into the book I was doing her character a dis-service.

Abi might be many things, but an idiot she is not.

So instead I chose to postpone the reunion between Abi and her friend into the next book where it would happen on more even terms. The denouement of Abi’s story line changed from one of her instigating the rebellion to her actively fighting against it instead. Her story became simpler and easier to follow. A clean arc, shorn of ambiguity which (*spoilers*) ends with her becoming a hero.

Unfortunately, this leaves my original ending somewhat in limbo. There is no place in the novel now for Abi the would-be terrorist or her flip-flopping shenanigans. Thus, I present three chapters to you here. Three deleted scenes which will never make it into the book.

Click here to read deleted scene #2: Back from Exile (PDF)

Click here to read deleted scene #3: The More things Change (PDF)

Click here to read deleted scene #4: Undertakings (PDF)

As with my previous deleted scene, these chapters are far from perfect. Expect to see spelling errors, redundancies and other writerly ticks that would normally get weeded out during the editing process. Despite this, I like these chapters a lot and it’s sad I couldn’t find a place for them in the final mix. But ultimately the need of the story much come first. There is little room in multi-protagonist novels for needless complexity.

I hope you enjoy them.


Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

3 August 2015
Luckily the editing process isn't quite this tedious

Luckily the editing process isn’t quite this tedious

As promised in my most recent blog post, I’m currently hard at work redrafting my novel the Arkship Ulysses for what will absolutely, definitely be the final time. Probably.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to share with you some of the scenes which never made it into the final cut.

As with any long-form piece of work, writing a novel often involves a lot of trial and error. It’s difficult to know exactly where a story is going when you sit down to write it and of course that inevitably results a lot of extra material which never sees the light of day.

How much extra material you ask? Well let me put it this way: the first draft of my novel completed in December 2012 was about 250,000 words long. The second draft, completed December 2014 was 160,000 words long.

Yeah, that’s a lot.

Now before I do this please be aware of a couple of things:

  1. The writing in these extracts isn’t fully polished. This is very much a work-in-progress here so expect to see a lot of repetitions, redundancies and other writerly ticks that the editing process normally takes care of
  2. These scenes no longer have any place in the book. It’s not like you can easily slot them into some place in the novel and have them make sense. Unfortunately things have moved around so much by this point that these scenes no longer fit without significant re-writes to their entry points.

All clear? OK so without any further ado I give you deleted scene #1.

Deleted scene #1: The Black Sea

Click here to read Deleted Scene #1: The Black Sea (PDF).

This ‘scene’ (actually 4,000 words long, which is long enough to make it a chapter in its own right) is the telling of an old Earth legend. The story Susan tells Stuart in this chapter is a simple one but it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for because of how thematically resonant it is with the rest of the book as well as with Stuart’s character arc as a whole.

It also tells us a lot about the back-story of this world without being extremely in-your-face about it. I’ve always liked it when the world building of novels is done by the reader as much as it is by the writer and this story is, I feel, a perfect example of this. When you read it you get a real sense for the role of faith in people’s lives and how the citizens of the Ulysses perceive their religion as well as the catastrophe which stranded them among the stars in the first place.

As you can probably tell from the way I’m talking about this scene, I really like it a lot and I honestly wrestled with it a long time before finally deciding to delete it. Despite how much I enjoy it, it is ultimately 4,000 words of what is essentially filler and I can’t really justify that in a book that’s already well over its recommended length.

Anyway, if you’re interested in keeping score, this scene would have taken place during what is now Chapter 24: The Metapath. It even ends in a very similar way.

I hope you enjoy it.


Returning to the Arkship Ulysses

20 July 2015

As many of you know by now, I finished writing my epic SF novel the Arkship Ulysses at the tail-end of last year. I may have mentioned it once or twice.

Needless to say, the whole endeavor was a labour of love from beginning to end. Writing on the Arkship Ulysses spanned nearly 5 whole years – a depressingly long chunk of time to devote to telling a story I’ve had going round my head since I was 14 years old but a necessary one.

712L The Observers web

I have no idea why I keep using this picture to illustrate the Arkship Ulysses. I guess I just like it

The end result was good, although I’d be lying if I said it ended up close to what I originally envisioned. For one thing, it was a lot longer than expected, so much so that I had to cut the story in two and add in a sequel I’ve been trying to plot out ever since. At least 2 major characters were chopped out of the final cut, one of whom was originally supposed to be the book’s hero. There were whole chapters that I’ve even talked about on this blog that never made it into the final edit.

Still, I have to count it as a success overall, not least because it actually received an honest-to-God review online! And believe me: for an unpublished, unknown author like myself to receive any sort of unsolicited attention is a very rare and humbling thing indeed.

A couple of choice quotes from The Finder’s Saga review linked above:

“Burgess story and writing are epic. The chapters are long but the writing rich with description and dialog.”

“I find the plot intriguing and the characters strong, rich and multidimensional. The characters have motivations, fears, hope and all the emotions necessary for a rich story.”

“I find his setting descriptions and the background story believable and essential to the plot.”

Those are all really nice things to say about my work and I’m honestly chuffed to bits and extremely humbled that The Finder’s Saga would commit an entire blog post just to talking about yours truly. One of these days I’ll return the favour man, I promise.

And by the way, reading nice things about myself: Strangest. Feeling. Ever.

Special thanks to The Finder's Saga for the really kind words

Special thanks to The Finder’s Saga for the really kind words. It was very humbling

Anyway, in his book On Writing, Stephen King says it’s often a good idea to let a novel sit for a few months after you’ve finished writing it before you start with the redraft. He says that when you first finish working on a novel, you’re too close to it. You’re too invested in the characters and too close to the story to have any sort of objective opinion about it.

He recommends taking a step back and leaving it in a drawer for a few months while you work on other things.

This book is pretty much my bible when it comes to approaching creative work

This book is pretty much my bible when it comes to approaching creative work

It has now been six months since I last wrote about the Arkship Ulysses. In the meantime I have, in accordance with King’s advice, been doing other things. Lots of other things. Now, finally, I think I’m ready to jump back in to this beast and make some much-needed (and final) edits.

“What edits?” I hear you cry.

Well as it happens I actually made a list of patch notes whilst writing the first draft in anticipation of this day. These are basically moments during the writing process in which I was aware of contradicting myself but didn’t want to go back and fix them in the interests of moving things forwards. The list I’m about to print here probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve read the book as closely as I have but hopefully it will put into context just how much redraft work needs to be done.

In short, it will involve writing one completely new chapter and extending two more as well as numerous other fixes which will mostly involve a lot of CTRL+H work.

writers-block

Note: I will not actually be using a typewriter to make these edits

Fixes needed are:

  1. Make Nathan Hathaway Master-at-arms not Chief of Marines
  2. Don’t kill Tundra until chapter 15
  3. In chapter 14, Rutherford tells Kara that she’s due to move into the Captain’s quarters – not ones that he himself is funding
  4. Change Ramiel Sullivan to Gabriel Sullivan throughout.
  5. In chapter 17, it is taking place on the morning of Earth Day not the evening. People are still getting ready and when he listens to the Captain, he’s talking about how nervous he is about meeting Kara for the first time and whether he really needs to. He’s told it’s mandatory.
  6. It’s Commander Fletcher, not Albright
  7. Stuart when he goes to Oxley: he is publicly thrown out but still secretly helped. Oxley sends Sarah to give Stuart a map. ‘The best nodes can be found here’. And then they share a shot of something (this contains the gene seed for the Metapath). Stuart perhaps vaguely guesses this near the end of the book but it’s not until the sequel that all becomes clear.
  8. Remove the character of Rutherford. Where he currently exists, make it all Nathan Hathaway. Put Rutherford as a far more professional soldier type. Keeping his superior’s secrets and covering up for him out of loyalty. A much better replacement for him in the second book when he takes over as master-at-arms. It’s Rutherford that interrogates Stuart, not Hathaway
  9. Give each department head a cool-sounding naval name. Boatswain (chief of maintenance) for example. Chaplain, Master Shipwright (chief engineer), Wardmaster (medical), Ordnance, pursers (administration), etc.
  10. Show Estavan getting pulled away for interrogation better than currently

As well as generally giving it a spit and polish and cutting its length by at least 5%.

Additional scenes to add:

  1. Before being rescued from the bunks. A scene where Abi is burying her father. Her friends gather around her wrapping up his body and leaving it out for the priest. There’s nothing left to keep her here now, she thinks. Its time she makes a break for freedom. Brent is marveling over Kara. This is the girl the uniforms are all het up over? Dawn reveals her plan to use her. He offers to take her in to show the Gentleman. They’re putting an army together. Plans to attack the ship. Abi rolls her eyes at the words. It’s all show boating, she thinks. Still she gives the uprising her blessing. He’s angry now about father’s death. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.
  2. After visiting the bunks to try and see Dawn. Abi goes looking for what remains of her old life. There is little left. Her old quarters are all in the hands of the Oxleys. She manages to look up Stuart in the directory but his quarters are deserted. They are tiny and a mess. Equations everywhere. Old ship parts he was tinkering with. She finds a small box tucked away under the bed containing the old family crest. She remembers how it used to adorn her father’s chest when he still wore the uniform of master shipwright. Remembers him cold beneath the touch as they laid his body out to be collected by priests. She takes it with her.
    Outside she runs into the landlady who scowls at her. Says Stuart is two weeks late paying his rent. She’s going to kick him out. She thinks Abi is a whore he’s hired. She takes the box of goods from Abi. Abi protests. I’m his sister. But the landlady takes one look at the number on her arm and shoos her away. Abi returns to her quarters alone. That’s when she cries.
  3. Final chapter to resolve everything. The Captain sits in his quarters going over the reports coming in. The ship is a mess, the nobility are at each other’s throats in outrage and he doesn’t know who to trust anymore. He trusts Abi, however, for reasons Abi doesn’t understand. He asks her to help him find a genuine long-term solution to the issue with the bunks. He reinstates House Leighton which his father pulled down years ago. He names her ambassador to the bunks. Abi reluctantly accepts.
work-in-progress

“A movie is never finished, only abandoned.” – George Lucas. Suffice to say, it’s the same with books.

Phew! Well anyway, that’s all for now. I’m going to give myself 3 months to make all of the changes listed above. At the very least I hope to be done by my birthday when I can finally start sending this thing off for submission and working on another novel instead. As always I will post my progress here.

I also plan to start posting some deleted scenes on here which never made it into the final cut. Think of them as Director Bonuses if you will, a nice little extra for those of you who have been following me this far.

Watch this space!


Short story: Four minute warning

29 June 2015

First of all, no this is not the long-promised redraft of the Girl who Cried Glass I told you about over a month ago. I’m still working on that. Just need to deal with writers block and time shortages and all those other little hurdles that life loves to throw at you first.

In the meantime, here’s a very old story I wrote while at university.

Spoiler warning: it’s terrible.

Click here to read Four Minute Warning (PDF)

The inspiration for this masterpiece [sic] comes from two places. One is a short story by Garret Adams called Jumper (read about it here) which I first came across in the book On Writing by Stephen King.

Now let me say straight away that On Writing is an excellent book, full of great insight and wisdom for any budding writer.  However, the short story included inside the book (a story which won the writing competition King ran to coincide with the launch of On Writing no less) never really resonated with me. It felt like little more than a troll fic, a story built around its ham-fisted plot twist, which comes completely out of the left field and leaves you with more questions than it answers.

On Writing by Stephen King: A great book for any new writer

On Writing by Stephen King: A great resource for any new writer

So why did I decide to write a story inspired by this piece of fiction?

Well, suffice to say I was still new to the world of writing at the time and trying to find my own voice. And here was an example of a short story, highlighted by the masterful Stephen King no less, of what he considered to be a great piece of fiction. At the time I hadn’t read many short stories – I certainly hadn’t written many of them – so this random piece of short fiction ended up becoming something of a template for how a short story should look.

  • Hence Four Minute Warning opens with our hero in a very difficult situation – just like in Jumper.
  • The police are looking for him – just like in Jumper.
  • There are no fleshed out characters other than the hero – just like in Jumper.
  • It ends with the main character (*spoiler alert*) becoming a terrorist and killing lots of people – just like in Jumper.

Really, you could just slap the label “Just like Jumper (only worse)” on the strap line of this thing and it would pretty much sum up the whole thing. It would also save you 20 minutes of your precious life.

Does anyone even remember this movie?

Does anyone even remember this movie?

By the way, while we’re on the subject, what sort of a name for a story is Jumper anyway? Any Americans reading this: please stop using the word “jumper” as the title for you fiction. It sounds terrible. No British guy wants to read the epic story about one man and his favourite sweatshirt. Thank you.

Talking of titles, that segues neatly into the second inspiration for this story, namely the timeless piece of pop music entitled Four Minute Warning by ex-Take That member Mark Owen.

This timeless classic of a song (which disappointingly isn’t actually four minutes long) is one of those so-bad-it’s-good songs. My friends and I used to listen to it all the time at university as something of an in-joke among ourselves. I guess it kind of grew on us over time until it pretty much became the soundtrack of our entire university lives.

And now I share it with you. Feel privileged guys. These be rare gems I’m sharing with you today.


Short story: The Girl who Cried Glass (Before)

27 April 2015

crystalsRecently I shared with you an old story which I pulled back from the grave to submit for a writing competition.

It seemed to go down pretty well around here so, one month later, I’ve decided to try the same thing again this time with another of the many old stories cluttering up my hard drive.

The Girl Who Cried Glass was originally written during one of my more pretentious writing phases. It was right around that time when I was finishing university and it co-coincided with an increased level of confidence in my abilities that never quite matched my actual talent. The story is typical of my work at the time: over-sentimental, devoid of plot, and too in love with the sound of its own voice to bother saying anything worthwhile. All in all, a complete mess.

Click here to read The Girl who Cried Glass (PDF)

computer-human6

The story itself is a science fiction tale about a woman who is part computer, part human. Like all so-called Metapaths, she has been designed to act as a kind of human-computer interface that allows for far more efficient computer-human interactions than is possible with a mouse and keyboard alone. Thanks to her literally being able to think in hexadecimal code, Metapaths like her are able to give extremely clean and coherent commands to a computer. And, in turn, because of her human appearance and her ability to hold a conversation, she is able to better explain and analyze any output far more easily than a computer can. Win-win all round.

The hero of the story finds herself neither human or machine. Like any human she longs to find a purpose to her life. Like any machine she longs for order. Instead all she gets are sexual advances from older men who just want to use her as bragging rights as the latest technological gadget.

If all of this sounds very familiar to long-time readers then I’m not surprised: it’s an idea I literally stole from myself for use in the Arkship Ulysses.

Do I feel bad about stealing from myself? Not really. As you can see for yourself, The Girl who Cried Glass is a crap story with an even worse name. However, I do feel there is a good idea buried in there somewhere which I’d like to explore in more detail. For one thing, a shift to the third person would better emphasize the main character’s lack of identity. Getting rid of the flashback portion of the story would help even out the flow of the story and developing the dialogue between the two characters in the restaurant at the beginning would better help flesh out a story which is (ironically) in need of humanization.

All of which means completely rewriting this story from scratch. As always I’ll post back the results here when I’m done.

Oh and a final note on the title for this story: The Girl who Cried Glass was the name of a documentary by the same name which was on TV at about the same time I originally wrote this story (I did look for the documentary again before posting but it looks as though it hasn’t been uploaded yet. However, a shorter video about the same girl can be found here). I have no idea why I used this documentary as the title for my story. I guess it just goes to show the mindset I was in at the time.

As always comments and criticism are welcome.


Short story: Gifted (After)

12 February 2015

Marshall-AmpsA couple of weeks ago I posted an old story on here. I said I was going to redraft it and send it off to a short story competition about ghosts. The story had to be up to 5,000 words long and it had to have a ghost in it. Those were the rules. The rules said nothing about the story itself being scary, however, or even a horror for that matter.

So anyway, it’s been many long hard days since that last post and I’ve finally finished the redraft. The story is now called The Star, which is a much more fitting title for it.

To break things down a little:

  • Things that stayed the same from the first draft to this one: the characters, the setting, the plot points and the length
  • Things that have changed: literally everything elsetumblr_n2gqggvSsE1ryd41yo2_1280

The Star still follows the same basic outline as Gifted. Both stories start with the lead singer of a newly popular band passed out backstage just moments before the biggest gig of his life. In both we then get a scene of his band mates trying to bring him back to his senses, followed by a gig that goes disastrously wrong (though for different reasons). In both we then get to see the fall-out from this terrible concert, which results in the character hating himself.

For all that, however, this is a very different story to the first one. Its themes are different, its characterization and tone is different. The central concept at the heart of the story is perhaps the most different thing of all. And that’s one of the reasons why this was so fun to write. I was following a story template created by my younger self but I still had room to be creative.

It’s nice when that happens.

As always C&C welcome.


Short story: Gifted (before)

29 January 2015

Marshall-AmpsSo now that my novel is well and truly out of the way I’ve been thinking about the different ways I can utilize my time. Last year was a good one for me with two stories published and I’d like to see if I can keep that momentum going if at all possible.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to submit a bunch of stories over the next few months to various anthologies and competitions. Now before you say anything, yes I’m well aware that I already tried doing that over a year ago to little effect, but in my defense I was submitting to magazines at the time, of which there aren’t that many these days and those which do exist have very broad readerships. This time I will be specifically targeting competitions and anthologies, providing them with (I hope) exactly the sort of story they want to see. It was a strategy I tried last year to great success so I’m going to see if I can keep a good thing going.

So, to start with I’m going to submit a ghost story to this competition for The Fiction Desk. Here’s a description:

‘Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.

Sounds simple enough, right?

index

This is pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the subject…

Now normally I would be the first to say that ghost stories aren’t my forte. I’ve never written one, I’ve only read a handful in my life, and I don’t even believe in ghosts so it’s kind of difficult to take the whole thing seriously. However, in this case I’m feeling secretly confident about things because I trick up my sleeve. Namely, I already have a story written… kind of.

For this, I’m going to try retooling an old story I wrote many years ago for a university project. At the time of writing I got a good grade for it, but like so much of my earlier work, I find that time hasn’t been kind to it. It’s way overwritten, far too aware of itself and, yes, it’s absolutely in love with the idea of everything being as dank and gloomy as possible (because Goddamn it, if dirt and dim lighting doesn’t make things feel more real then I don’t know what does!).

Click here to read the original version (PDF)

As you can see, there’s no ghost in this story per se, but there is something very much like a ghost. You know how people sometimes say that really talented people were ‘born with a gift inside them’? Well, I tried playing with the idea that this is literally true. I imagined a gift as being a kind of spiritual creature that lives inside every person. As you would expect, every gift is different (just like every person is different). Some gifts are big and impressive, others are understated and shy. Some are well looked after, allowing them to flourish. Others are neglected or ignored.

For the story, I envisaged a musician who is, quite literally, wasting his talent. He has an amazing gift inside him – one of the best ever made – but he has misused it for years, using it only to produce quick and easy songs that are guaranteed to sell but which don’t test his talents in any way.

Then I imagined the gift getting super angry and trying to get its revenge…

internal-demons

Yeah, I know it’s a little convoluted as premises go but I have to say I do quite like it and I think it would transition well into a longer story, especially if it were told from the point of view of the gift a la the Screwtape Letters. But for a 4,000 word short story submitted to a writing competition…? Meh, it’s a little too fiddly to be workable in my opinion.

So yeah, the idea is that I’m going to be rebuilding this story with a much more straightforward premise. The main story elements will remain the same, as will the essential beats of the plot, but the gift will be swapped out for a more traditional ghost-like creature, which will hopefully result in a far more easily digestible story.

Check back next week when I’ll show you (some of) the finished version. Hopefully you’ll agree it’s a big improvement over this first draft.