Category Archives: Writing

To Harm or not to Harm the Protagonist – Part II

One of the questions I am frequently asked is how I can stand to harm the characters that I so lovingly created.  This answer is: not without difficulty.

Harming a character can, and often is, as emotionally draining upon the author as it is physically upon the character.  Harming characters forces me to take these creations which I have poured my time, work and soul into creating and consciously choose to put them through a form of hell.  These characters in question are my friends, my confidants – the ones who have shared with me their deepest secrets, as I have shared my own.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I do harm my characters.  The dark nature of the worlds I create requires it.  From parasitic aliens slowly removing the very essence of humanity from those they conquer, to the ancient torture chambers of my upcoming fantasy novel, Black Rose, characters are pushed to their physical, emotional, and mental limits.  Yet within these aspects often lie the heart of the story.  The character’s struggle to overcome the obstacles which are laid before them and the suffering they endure throughout their journeys make them more real, human and relatable to the reader.  It also becomes a point of suspense, helping to place readers on the edge of their seats as they wonder which of their characters will survive – and which ones will not.

“Do not be afraid to harm your characters” was one of the first and most fundamental elements that I was ever taught by my long-time mentor.  It is also one of the elements of writing that I am still, almost a decade later, struggling to learn.  In order to write dark, tragic scenes well, it forces the author to tear apart the same characters which they have spent so much time bringing to life.  In my personal experience, these scenes have left me sad, upset, and angry.  They can also leave me exhausted and emotionally drained, as though I had been forced to physically accompany the characters on their journey.

Now, I am not stating that this experience is typical of every author.  In fact, there is a wide variance of methods, experiences, and tricks to writing such scenes. To help demonstrate just how varied these methods are, I will include a link to a list of ‘rules of writing’ recently published by The Guardian.  Some of which I agree with, some of which I do not.

The list can be found here:

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Let’s Talk about Research in Creative Writing

Sitting at a meeting of my writers group last week, I found myself speaking about the importance of conducting proper research when constructing a novel.  After a few minutes of discussion on what I consider to be one of the fundamental elements to craft of writing, several members of the group expressed their surprise at the amount of research I tend to conduct in the process of writing a novel.  Another asked the importance of research, given the rather fantastical genres in which I generally write.

Literary critic Georg Lukács stated that characters “once conceived in the vision of their creator, live an independent life of their own; their comings and goings, their development, their destiny is dictated by the inner dialectic of their social and individual existence.”  He believed that characters “try to live their own lives,” independent of the author who created them.  This strive for independence, in turn, frequently forces an author to research places, activities, and fields in which he or she has never before had an interest.

Now, it should be noted that Lukás was in fact, a realist and the majority of his theories were applied specifically to works which could be classified as realism.  However, the same principles are easily applied to works of fiction.  To draw an example from my own work, the novel I am currently writing, a YA fantasy series, revolves around a world of martial arts and medieval swordplay.  When I first informed one of my long-time mentors about my initial ideas for the novel, her response was something akin to this:  “Sounds great!  Just one quick question.  What do you know about martial arts and swordplay?”  The answer, to quote George R.R. Martin, was something akin to: “Stick them with the pointy end?”

So began my journey into researching various forms of combat.  I did this by first, reading lots of books on various forms of martial arts, reading fiction which featured elaborate fight scenes, and even watching a few old kung-fu movies.  Then, I attended classes at local karate and jiu-jitsu dojos.  Though I did not partake of the actual courses, I conducted multiple interviews with instructors and observed students for hours on end, having specific movements demonstrated for me by students while I took extensive notes on the technique, instruction, and history of both disciplines.  When I had eventually written and completed these scenes to the best of my ability, one of these instructors was kind enough to read through and critique my action sequences.

Several months ago at the Dublin Writers Festival, I listened to a speech given by bestselling author, Dan Brown.  Brown addressed the topic of research, by stating that his most extensive research lies in the locations he describes in his novels.  He makes a habit, especially for his most recent novels such as The Inferno, of visiting the places that he plans to describe.  This research allows him to describe the locations with vivid accuracy and incredible levels of description.

Research is an important and vital part of the creation of a novel, no matter what the genre.  While it is true that authors of speculative fiction might be able to take more liberties than those of non-fiction or realism, research still remains a vital part of the writing process.

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Writer’s Block…Fact or Fiction?

One of the most common terms in a writer’s vocabulary is ‘writer’s block.’  This ubiquitous term encompasses a vast plethora of arguments which writers use to justify why they have not written a word, despite the numerous hours, headaches, and tears spent in front of the blank page.

My long time writing mentor, a brilliant writer we will call “L”, is of a philosophy with which I have most reluctantly found myself in agreement when it comes to this subject: writer’s block does not actually exist.  Now, this is not to say that writing is easy or that there aren’t days where writers cannot find the time or words to craft their next chapter, scene, or even sentence.  Instead, what “L” means is that there is no magic, invisible force preventing the writer from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Instead, the writer is being “blocked” (if you will) by some very real, identifiable issues.  Issues which, with time and practice, can be overcome.

Many possible solutions and suggestions exist in the idea of how to overcome the obstacles which might prevent one from writing.  As with many other facets of life, each method is not a perfect fit, and it may not be included here.  I offer only a partial list of what many professional writers recommend and have passed down to younger authors like myself.  It is up to you, the individual writer, to discover what method works best for you on a personal level.

For myself, the most simplistic solution I can give is that writing is a matter of habit.  The sooner an author gets into the habit of writing, the easier writing should become.  Developing habitual writing requires a person to write every single day.  Whether it is for fifteen minutes or several hours does not matter nearly as much as the act of writing itself.

This is a habit whose importance many professional authors stress.  For example, at a recent speech given during the Dublin Writer’s Festival, bestselling author Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code) stated that while writing a book, he sets his alarm somewhere between 4 and 5 AM every morning, every day of the year.  By doing this, Brown is able to ensure that he has time to write, undisturbed, for a least a few hours before other members of his household are even awake.  He states this helps eliminate distractions and helps him to focus.

Not a morning person?  (I know I am certainly not!)  Perhaps try writing at night instead.  Some of my best writing is done at the end of the day, when my other work is completed and I can use writing to help relax.  The time of day, much like the amount of time, is far less relevant when compared to the importance of forming the habit of writing on a daily basis.

Now, once the issue of finding and setting aside the time to write has been established, there comes the issue of finding the words to put on the page.  A common complaint is that, despite an author’s best efforts and their willingness to transcribe a character’s latest adventures, the character refuses to relate their tale to the author.

E.M. Forster once stated that characters, “arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny.”   Because of this, an author must often find ways to negotiate and connect with their characters in, at times, unusual ways.  Personal favourites include 1) conducting an interview with the character in question 2) skipping ahead to a different scene or even 3) actually acting out the scene I am attempting to write (behind closed door with the curtains drawn with no audience… besides my cat).  All of these methods may serve to help you find new ways to speak to characters when they become silent or uncooperative.

As I previously stated, these are just a few possibilities that may help the next time your characters aren’t in a talkative mood or the words simply aren’t flowing.  Remember, like the majority of things in life, writing takes time, dedication, and often, lots and lots of practice.

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To Harm or not to Harm…the Protagonist

One of the most difficult lessons for any author to learn is to not be afraid to harm their characters.  Whether it takes weeks, months, or even years to create the stories which eager readers often finish in a matter of days, characters often have the ability to come to life upon the page.  For an author who has journeyed with characters through their creation, development, triumphs and failures, the thought of harming the characters is never easy.

I once listened to an author state that she had made a deal with her characters that she would stop harming any sub-character who the protagonist loved.  The problem, of course, was that a few novels in the series later, her protagonist had decided to love just about everyone.  The books, which were once a blend between a mystery and horror of a noir flavour, suddenly transformed into a safe novel, where the readers know for a fact that every major character will survive.  The novels lost their edge, that uncertainty that is created when one knows that no one is safe, not even the leading protagonist.

One writer who has successfully mastered this idea, without a doubt, is the author of the A Song of Fire and Ice series, George R.R. Martin.  Better known by its HBO title, Game of Thrones.  This series is full of competing protagonists in a world which seems contain only one unbreakable rule: No one is safe.  Martin seamlessly introduces and eliminates characters with each turn of the page.  This creates an emotional story-line and an air of uncertainty as readers remain uncertain as to who will be alive from chapter to chapter.

This tension helps to create a successful novel and prevents a given story from becoming predictable, repetitive, safe, and ultimately boring.  However, my personal experience shows that it can be extremely difficult act.  When I write, I embark on a deep and personal journey with my characters.  They become friends, confidants…even family.  Feelings of love, hate, frustration and friendship all exist within the various relationships created between myself and my characters.  The idea of harming, or even killing, the characters I have come to love as they have allowed me to journey with them is as hard if not harder for me as it is for any reader.  Breaking their hearts, their bodies, or taking their lives is an act which never gets easier.

Harming characters creates suspense, conflict and excitement within a story.  It creates the most emotional of moments, bringing intensity, uncertainty, and heartache into a given story.  Because of this, no matter how hard the act of harming characters becomes, it is still a necessarily part of the writing process for successful progression of a novel.  One of the keys to a good story is having characters, whether in a realistic or fantastical setting, seem as realistic as possible to both writer and reader.

In real life, bad things happen even to good people.  Ensuring the characters do not always leave a story unscathed is a way to reflect this realism which authors attempt to instill within their fictional worlds upon their characters.  The fact that a fictional character endures the same emotional and physical harms that people often find within their own lives, makes that character more real to readers by making it easier to share in their pain, as well as their joys.  It is because of this, that writers must so often work to overcome their inhibitions and be willing to harm the same characters that they worked so hard and lovingly to create.

Here’s another article with further thoughts on this topic:

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Dark Side of a Hero

How does one begin to define a villain?  How about a hero?  In old Westerns or fairy tales, the differences were typically obvious and easily recognizable.  The youthful hero dressed in white taking on the bad guy draped in black.  Yet, as stories advance and grow more complex than the often Disney-fied fairy tales, the distinctions between characters become far less clear.

My fascination with the role of the villain began in my early teens.  I was about thirteen when I read my first vampire novel, Interview with the Vampire.  It was a tale which took a creature traditionally found in the role of a villain, the vampire, and placed him into the role of the protagonist, generally reserved for the hero.  The novel, written by Anne Rice, takes the reader into the heart and soul of its hero, a creature born of darkness.  By listening to the character’s first person account of their life’s story, the majority of readers find themselves attempting to understand the viewpoint of the vampire and come to sympathise with this traditionally dark character.

In 16th & 17th century British Literature, the term for a villain placed into the role of the protagonist was referred to as a ‘villain-hero.’  Classic examples include Shakespeare’s Richard III, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Milton’s Lucifer.  These stories had characters who often proved as, if not more, interesting than the heroes who attempted to stop them.  The difference, however, was that in these older tales, the villain almost always remained true to their nature, and could never be called a hero.

This changes in the more modern era where villains have begun to rise from their traditional roles to not only take the place of the protagonist, but of the actual heroic role.  From new versions of the fairy tale where the villain pleads to have their side of the story told, to the monster who proves himself capable of showing his once lost humanity, villains are rising from the shadows into the spotlight.  This trend is popular not only in literature, but on the small screen as well.  Popular shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Shield show heroes of questionable morals, more commonly termed ‘antiheroes’ in the modern day.  Characters who can easily be identified as “other” by a normal, law-abiding society.  Yet as the protagonist of their respective shows, audiences inevitably find themselves cheering for these corrupt individuals as they journey through the characters’ personal trials and tribulations, often involving the same issues of love, friendship, and hardships that plague more traditionally heroic characters.

What, exactly, causes a character to become a villain?  Do they have a story to tell and if so, what part of their history helped to transform them into a character of dark portrayal?  Are they villains because of their actions, or the more complex issue of possessing a different set of beliefs from those upheld by the hero or society at large?

When I began to write this debut novel, it was with these questions in mind.  I desired to explore the nature of the villain writing from a first person point of view.  Following the path of my protagonist from the innocence of youth, readers are allowed to travel with her into her slow descent to darkness.  They watch her first experiences with seduction, torture, and death.  They witness her inner turmoil as she is asked to take her first life and experience her pain as she is forced to surrender all she holds dear – friendships, love, and eventually, her very humanity.

Yet not all is as it seems.  As my protagonist is slowly indoctrinated into the Empire, instilled within her is a belief system that is very alien to those upheld by the majority of the western world.  She is taught and trained from her youth to believe that emotions are for the weak.  That torture can be a necessary evil, or a priceless work of art.  That, for the good of the Empire,  you must sacrifice the lives of those lower in rank in order to protect those who are responsible for its survival, and above all – the most glorious achievement to be attained is to die in service to the Empire.  These core beliefs come to define her character and are used to justify her actions when called upon to explain the dark twists and turns of her life.  The question becomes, can this woman fairly be judged a ‘villain?’  Can she even be considered a human?

For an ‘antihero’ or ‘villain-hero,’ the definition of a moral code takes on a new meaning.  With these characters, whether in Dexter, where a serial-killer only hunts other serial-killers, or in Rice’s novels where the protagonist vampires vow to only hunt the wicked, there is almost always a code by which these characters choose to live by.  These codes often do not align themselves with the standards that citizens are expected to hold in regular society.  However, they nevertheless stand in the place of more traditional moral requirements.  Under these personal moral and behavioural codes, the reader or audience is able to hold the protagonist to a certain level of expectation which the character’s code serves to enforce.  It is only in the act of breaking these often self-imposed codes of conduct, by which the antihero engages in truly ‘villainous’ activity.

For me, this novel comprises a very deep and personal journey into the exploration of what, exactly, constitutes, a ‘villain.’ One that is as capable of friendship, love, and heartache as any who might be called a ‘hero.’  I have attempted to align my protagonist with the traditions of the ‘villain-heroes’ who came before, exploring the nature of evil, humanity, and heroism to discover that not every hero is innocent and not every villain is soulless.

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Are you a writer or a reader?

One question that I am frequently asked is why I decided to study literature as opposed to creative writing.  The answer involves the conflict that seems to exist between these two branches of English within the realm of the academic.

I decided to major in English when I was a junior in college.  However, once this fact was established, my university asked me to answer a particular question: Are you a reader or a writer?

To me, this question was a rather surprising one.  After all, the best writers are often the best readers, are they not?  Now, what the university actually meant was that they offered two different paths to an English degree, one focusing on literature and one on creative writing.  Excited by this writing option, I looked forward to attending my first creative writing course as an upper-level student.  However, once I actually arrived for my first day of the programme, I found myself both surprised and disappointed.

This disappointment arose from a negative experience with my first day of the course.  Sitting down in the classroom full of other potential students, I was issued two items.  The first was a copy of Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  The second was a list of restrictions as to what would be deemed ‘unacceptable’ or at least, ‘highly discouraged’ topics.  Expecting to see a list of controversial issues such as politics or race, I was very surprised when I read through the list and instead found that the restrictions included: ‘science-fiction, horror, fantasy, paranormal,’ and a number of other genres which can most accurately be described under the term ‘Speculative Fiction.’

The university preferred and encouraged topics of a more ‘literary’ nature despite using the text of a popular speculative fiction author as a basis for the course.  Biographies, travel, nature and a relatively new genre coined under the term ‘creative non-fiction’ were among the favourites of those encouraged.

It was because of these constraints that I made the decision to study literature, as it posed none of the restrictions on topic choices which were found in the ‘creative’ writing programme.  In literature I was able to pursue topics for which I found a passion that has carried me into later studies.

A few years later, when deciding to choose a graduate programme, I again discovered much conflict between the literature and creative writing realms.  Literature was seen by many as the higher of the two fields of study.  I was even asked at one point if, given my love of writing, I would not prefer to obtain my degree in an ‘easier’ creative writing field.

This implication that the field of studying literature is somehow more rigorous than the actual writing of the stories being studied, in my personal view, does a disservice to both fields.  I have found that through the majority of my studies, creative writing and particularly genre writing, has been viewed as a detriment as opposed to an asset.  It is seen as the lesser of the two disciplines.  In my view and experience, the idea that creative writing is easier than literature is far from the case.  I think both disciplines require a rigorous and continual amount of work.

One of the lessons which I have learned through the creative writing process was how to write long, complex pieces which must be carried coherently over hundreds of pages.  Another valuable lesson I gleaned from this process is facing the criticism which always occurs when one’s work is shown to others.  This plays true in arguing ideas in the world of academia and, perhaps more importantly, learning to accept outright rejection.

In order to compose an academic paper, a writer has the benefit of relying upon the work that has come before.  In the realm of science-fiction or fantasy, this is often not the case.  While it is true that certain conventions do exist within specific genres, some of the greatest authors often blur, distort, or even outright abandon the rules.

Characters born in a non-existent world require a great deal of research to bring them to life.  Characters are often prone to arise with interests which are not shared by their author.  In my case, such topics have included military structure, torture tactics, martial arts, and human anatomy – just to name a few.  Each of these interests presented themselves as a new topic in need of thorough research and investigation.  My best example involves research on martial arts, where I spent weeks watching classes in both karate and taekwondo in order to learn how my characters would properly engage each other in forms of hand to hand combat.

Though I have ultimately followed the literary path it is my contention that these two fields teach similar lessons including the value of research, editing, and the work required to complete a long piece.

To return to the originally presented question: am I a reader or a writer?  The answer, as it turns out, is a rather simple one – I am both.

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Writing Process:

Writing is not easy.  It takes years to learn the craft, and even longer to learn the complex process of editing, revision and the difficulties of entering the world where one gets to call themselves a ‘published’ author.

This process begins with the most simplistic rule that writing has to offer: In order to be a writer…one must write!  As fundamental as this sounds, it can also be one of the most difficult writing tasks to perform.  To be a dedicated writer, a person must write consistently, every day with regularity.  This does not mean that you must write for a long period of time, or reach a certain word-count.  There are days where a writer may find themselves writing nothing more “I don’t know what to write” over and over again.  What you write, especially at the beginning of the writing process, is not nearly as important as the fact that you, as a writer, sit down every day for a set period of time, whether it be ten minutes or ten hours, and force yourself to write.

The second most important part of writing is to finish what you begin.  This is a feat which 90% of people who begin a writing project, will never achieve.  At this stage, the quality of the first draft does not matter.  It is what some writers actually refer to as a zero draft, one that no other than yourself (and in my case, my cat) will ever see.  It does not matter if there draft is full of errors or gaps within the plot, as long as you have a beginning, middle and end, then you have achieved what the majority never will.

Next is the editing process.  For this, many find either a first reader or a small group of fellow writers to assist in the editing process.  The person or people entrusted with this should be above all, honest.  I can assure you from experience that if there are problems with your story, it is far better to hear it at this point, from your trusted readers, than to learn of them later from an agent or audience.  Self-editing is not enough, as you are the person who is least likely to see the issues with your work.  This is because, among other reasons, that you know the answer to the gaps in the plot of your story, where a different reader will not.

Only after all of this can you call what you have a “first draft,” and you then have the privilege of repeating the revision process several more times, before you reach a final draft.  Then comes the process of attempting to transition into the publishing process.

Traditional publishing is a tough, competitive world.  In this day and age, even those with true skill, talent, or even connections can have difficulty breaking into this world.  The majority of major publishing houses will not consider manuscripts without an agent.  The number of manuscripts sent to agents are far more than can ever be accepted, and sometimes even the best of works can be rejected based on an agent’s time, client load, and personal taste.  This is where the advice comes in, ““Pick a wall in your house. Cover it with rejection letters. When the wall is completely full, then, and only then, will you get published.”

The other option, which has risen in popularity over the past few years, is self-publishing.  This option has gained more ground in the new day and age.  On this topic, I am going to add a link to an article posted today featuring an interview of three writers who decides to take the “self-publishing” route.

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