Friday 23 September 2011

Friday Flash - The Agency

I sat at my desk and stared at the blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. A cigarette balanced on the edge of an ash tray, a ribbon of smoke curling upward like a nicotine-flavoured Mata Hari. A bottle of ten year old Ben Nevis Single Malt stood just beyond my grasp. That was some good whiskey right there. I cast a longing glance at the bottle and licked my lips. A double shot would be my reward for finishing another chapter of my latest book.

I looked at the clock. 10:23pm. She was late. I looked at the door, willing it to open. I drummed my fingers on the edge of the desk. She knew I was pushing a deadline here. My publisher wanted to move forward the release date of the next Dick Trenton mystery, and I still had fourteen chapters to write. I caressed the keys of the typewriter with trembling fingers, and considered typing something. My fingers locked up - no, I couldn't write without her. I snatched up the smouldering cigarette and took a drag.

At 10:30pm, the door swung open and crashed against the filing cabinet. I looked up, expecting to see her. Five feet and eight inches of pouting redhead, all curves and sophisticated tailoring. She liked to perch on my desk as I wrote, telling me the stories I would type.

"You Arthur Brannigan?" The 6ft brunette in the doorway pointed a red lacquered talon at me. A cigarette dangled from her scarlet lips.

"Yes. Who are you?" My fingers crawled along the edge of my desk to my drawer. I kept an antique Colt .44 in there, just in case.

"Your Muse." The brunette tottered into my office on skyscraper heels, wobbling around like goddamned Bambi. She wore the same kind of pinstripe outfit as my usual girl, but my usual girl had the parts in the right places to fill it out. This dame was built like a garden rake, and the suit hung off her like my dad's old business suit on a scarecrow.

"You're not Claudia."

"No, I ain't. Claudia ain't available, so the Agency sent me." The brunette sat down on the edge of the desk with a thump. My skin crawled to see her up close. Makeup pooled in the deep creases around her eyes and mouth. She grinned, displaying a mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth.

"Well, I, er, I suppose you'll do. You know the story?" I asked.

"Yeah, though I gotta tell ya, it ain't all that good." The brunette stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray.

"What do you mean?"

"Your Dick Trenton crap is all the same. I liked that other one. What was it called?"

"Staircase to Nowhere." I sat back in my chair, deflated by her harsh tone. I hadn't thought about my first book in over twenty years - the only book to bear my real name.

"Yeah, that was some good storytellin', Arthur." The brunette fished around in a battered purse for a dented cigarette case.

"Well I don't write like that any more. But I got to get this one finished, so, I, er...I guess we better get started. You gonna tell me what happens next in the story?" I pulled my chair forward and laid my fingers on the keys, ready to type.

"Not so fast, bucko." She slipped another cigarette between her fire engine red lips and fumbled with the lighter.

"Hey, I'm paying you to do some work here!"

"Correction, you're payin' the Agency, and they pay me. You ain't my boss." She clicked the lighter again.

"I have a deadline to meet, and-"

"Then ya better get workin', hadn't ya?" She snapped her fingers and pointed at the typewriter.

"Well, where does the story go next?"

The brunette waved her hand to dismiss me. She shook the lighter and tried again. Still no flame. She growled at the unlit cigarette.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"That ain't important, sugar. Your deadline is, though, so you better get to typin'."

"Fine then, I'll just put in a complaint about the dumb broad who didn't want to do any work."

I reached across the desk for the telephone. She darted forward and put her ice cold hand over mine before I could lift the receiver.

"What did you call me?" she asked. The gruff edge fell away from her voice, and a steely glint in her eye taunted me.

"I called you a dumb broad. Now you gonna do your job?" I forced myself to sound forceful.

"Ain't nobody calls me a dumb broad, asshole."

She reached forward and laid her hand over my mouth. I tried to pry her fingers free but her grip was too strong. I kicked and bucked but she didn't let go. Intense cold radiated out of her hand, freezing my throat as it made its way down. My kicks grew weaker, until I couldn't kick any more.

I stood up, aware that I'd left my body behind. I turned around to see the corpse of Arthur Brannigan slumped in the chair by the desk. The brunette leaned forward through me, and hauled the corpse aside. The body landed on the floor with a thud. She climbed over the desk and sat in the empty chair. A wicked grin, devoid of any humour, spread across her face as she began to type.

I watched that bitch finish the manuscript. I watched her take phone calls, impersonating my voice. I read the reviews that she clipped from the newspaper and pinned to the wall.

I watched my replacement Muse become a better writer than I ever was.

Thursday 22 September 2011

What The Guns of Retribution taught me

Here I am with my final post about The Guns of Retribution, ahead of its paperback release on Saturday. When I asked for questions, John Wiswell asked "if writing it has taught you something, that'd be good to share."

Well, you know something? Writing it DID change something for me. I've already touched on my writing process a tad, but I thought I would expand slightly on how I stopped being a pantser, and started looking at plotting instead.

Pants vs plot seems to be the kind of either/or debate that just won't go away. It's like choosing between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, between Macs and PCs, or between pirates and ninjas. A while back, I would have said there was no way you could ever find any middle ground - you're either one, or the other. The Guns of Retribution changed that.

Pre-Guns, I was very much a pantser. When I wrote the first draft of my Fowlis Westerby novel, I made it up as I went along. I vaguely had the ending in mind, but there was no definite sense of a plan. Characters spouted dialogue and made decisions on the spur of the moment, and it was all very exciting. The First Tale was much the same - considering it was a web serial, I didn't really know where it was going until episode fifteen. Then Grey O'Donnell breezed into my life and made me think about things differently. I began his story and suddenly I had a bulletpoint list of plot points I wanted to include. I knew the beginning, middle and end, and while I didn't have a detailed synopsis, I knew enough to make up the bits in between.

I always thought plotting seemed too regimented, or rigid. How could you have fun following your characters' carefree flights of fancy if you already knew what they'd do next? It seemed a little too much "writing by numbers" and I worried that plotting in advance would leave the resulting story feeling a little formulaic. On the other hand, the problem with pantsing is you can end up writing yourself into dead ends, following the exploits of entirely the wrong character, or wasting time wandering through a plot that you ultimately can't conclude. But friends, there is a middle way.

I've seen some outlines that run to several pages, and some which almost seem like novels in themselves. Likewise I've seen simple lists that state the content of the beginning, the middle and the end. I don't have the patience for long outlines, and short lists don't quite do it for me, so I ended up with a list that simply stated what the point of each scene was going to be. For example, the first scene is set during a train robbery, so the first point was "Train robbery". Fairly self-explanatory, really. Thing is, while I knew roughly what was going to happen next, I didn't know how it was going to happen, and this is where the pantsing came into its own. Knowing what the next scene will be focusses your mind onto only those possibilities that make sense in the context of the next scene. It's liberating in the sense that you're still making it up as you go along, but it stops you wandering too far from the path since you know what your destination will be.

Since then, I've read James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure and Larry Brooks' Story Engineering and both of them make an excellent case for using outlines. I'm certainly making another bulletpoint list while I outline the sequel to The Guns of Retribution (mostly using the 'cause and effect' train of thought - that the 'cause' scene has to come before the 'effect' scene in order to produce a logical narrative) but I'll be leaving myself enough wiggle room so I can discover the characters as I go along.

The Guns of Retribution is currently available for Kindle (here for US and here for UK), and the paperback comes out on Saturday!

Other posts about The Guns of Retribution;
Historical Fiction
Writing Process

Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Guns of Retribution - Characters

Following on from my post yesterday, in which I answered Emma Kerry's question about my writing process regarding The Guns of Retribution, today I'm going to discuss my characters and what they mean to me, as posed by Doc O'Donnell - characters and what they mean to me.

I've already written a post over on the Write Anything blog about creating characters, but I have to admit, I didn't purposefully set out to create any of the characters that appear in The Guns of Retribution. My principal characters are Grey O'Donnell (protagonist and bounty hunter) and Jasper Roberts (antagonist and sheriff). There are other characters, such as Grey's sidekicks Billy and Mahko, my femme fatale Madeline Beaufontaine, and Jasper's evil righthand man Jesse, but each of them cropped up during the writing process with little conscious thought on my part. It's almost as if they were standing offstage, just waiting for their turn to come on and shine.

I've already talked a little about Grey and his part in the writing process in my post yesterday, and he truly is a pleasure to work with. He's tough when he needs to be, but the rest of the time he's well-mannered and polite. He and Jasper share a past, although Jasper's violent and murderous tendencies are what drove Grey to leave Retribution six years before the events of the book. He took up bounty hunting as he's a good shot, he can ride, and it allows him to fulfil his sense of justice and fair play. Grey also managed to freak me out during a ouija board session during one of my paranormal investigations when he came through to thank me for giving him life. Not something many authors can lay claim to! He's not perfect, and he doesn't claim to be, but he tries his best to do what he thinks is right.

Jasper's a bastard. In the novel, I depict him as being short and easily riled, prone to histrionic screaming fits and not-so-subtle threats. I don't really like writing Jasper as he leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but I guess there is something of the pantomime villain about him. He might be little in stature, but he's larger than life! Besides which, his performances allow Grey to be a bit sarcastic and it's nice to see that edge to Grey, since he's normally so easygoing. I didn't want Jasper to be the kind of villain you love to hate, or the kind of villain who is so cool in his own right that you prefer him to the hero (like Captain Barbossa or Darth Vader) - I wanted Jasper to be outright odious. I didn't want him to come across as being the somewhat stereotypical "short man with a big mouth", so I brainstormed his backstory to find out what could have possibly turned Jasper from being a bit wild, to full-on evil. I came up with quite a lot of backstory for him, but not much makes it into the book - and that's because it doesn't need to. Readers only need a hint of backstory, and they can fill in the rest. This is a novella, not a psychological case study.

Besides, this isn't just a Western, it's a pulp Western. It needn't be too complicated - it's not trying to be Ulysses. My characters need realistic motivations but I'd rather they were entertaining than lifted from life. Because ultimately, that's what I was trying to do with The Guns of Retribution. I wanted it to be historically accurate, but I want to entertain. I want people to read my book instead of numbing their brain in front of the TV.

If this appeals to you, you can buy it on Kindle (here for US and here for UK), and the paperback comes out on Saturday! Don't just listen to me, check out Pulp Serenade's review!

Tuesday 20 September 2011

My Writing Process

As I said in my post about writing historical fiction, a few people asked me questions on Twitter about The Guns of Retribution. As it comes out in paperback on Saturday, I thought I'd answer a few more.

Writer Emma Kerry asked me about my writing process, and how the story grew, so I thought I'd tackle that today.

I started off with my protagonist, Grey O'Donnell, and my villain, Jasper Roberts, at the same time. I think you can't really know your protagonist until you know the antagonist so it made it easier to develop them simultaneously. They share a dark past and the hatred between the pair of them fuels the events of the book so I'm not sure I could have written one first, and then the other. In the first draft, Grey was actually an outlaw, and his companions Billy Cole and Mahko comprised his gang. I let Grey tell his story, but he kept doing nice things for people. I wasn't completely sure that people would "buy" the idea of a well-mannered and thoughtful outlaw. It's not entirely far-fetched (Robin Hood, anyone?) but it just didn't sit right with me. I did what any self-respecting writer does when their characters won't do what they're supposed to and I switched from first person point of view to third.

It didn't work. Apparently the idea of a nice outlaw didn't sit right with Grey either. Partway through writing, he asked me, ever so nicely of course, if I could change his profession. According to him, he was actually a bounty hunter, and Mahko and Billy were not gang members, but rather his friends. As it happened, I'd already written a murder in the Old West in my Dead Man's Hand trilogy, and so it came to pass that Grey ended up as the bounty hunter pursuing this particular murderer. As Grey was so involved with the decision, I switched it back to first person to let him tell the story his way. It always pays to keep your protagonist happy.

As for my writing process, it was a little haphazard, if I'm honest. I'd never really used outlines or writing plans at all before - I was always very much a pantser. However, I didn't want to write myself into any dead ends and as I had an idea of the ending before I began, I wrote a rough list of bullet points for the major scenes. I simply made up the bits in between as I went along. It's quite a flexible method - you have the security of knowing what's going to happen and when, but you still get to explore various possibilities along the way. I'd already immersed myself in Western novels and films, but to add to the experience, I listened to the 3:10 to Yuma soundtrack while writing, which gave me a wonderful backdrop to the story.

One other thing that helped immensely was the site. I made sure I wrote a portion of the story every day, so even if I only wrote 750 words, I'd be 750 words further into the story than I would have been otherwise. I'm quite competitive so I used that to my advantage, and seeing that row of ticked boxes every day spurred me on to keep writing. I did have the problem that I didn't actually want to finish it, a problem I wrote about in April,  but I put my fears aside and wrote the ending.

I edited the first draft quite extensively, and I also used beta readers once I had a draft I was happy with. I can't thank Rob Diaz, Jen Brubacher, Sam Adamson and Adam Byatt enough for their input - thankfully, no one had an issue with any of the sections I didn't want to part with, and I agreed with everyone's comments! Extra thanks go to Carrie Clevenger for talking over plot points with me when I got stuck.

Tomorrow, I'll be discussing character creation!

If any of these has whetted your appetite, The Guns of Retribution is available for Kindle (here for US and here for UK) for either $1.85 or £1.14, although the price will be going up soon! You can also preorder the paperback ahead of its release on Saturday.

Also, feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you'd like to be kept up to date with blog posts and releases!

Monday 19 September 2011

Photo Prompt 51

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 51st prompt is Sea.

North Sea

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!