Fostering ideas – the 100:10:1 method

It’s hard to resist writing the first story that comes into my head on any given theme. That worked out great early on – it got me writing, kept the prose flowing – but recently I’ve found it’s trapped me in some corners, persisting with stories I’m not passionate about because of the importance of completing things.

I think I may have stumbled across a solution, in this blog post on game design by Nick Bentley. You can go and read that post for details, but it boils down to coming up with loads of ideas, then refining the best few, then producing the best one of those few.

I tried it last night. I knew I wanted to write a steampunk samurai story, so I sat and wrote a long list of core concepts for that story. Just single sentences trying to evoke character and conflict. After the first twenty it got quite challenging to make them interesting and different, and by the time Laura got home and broke my reverie, somewhere in the sixties, it was hard work to keep coming up with new ideas.

Now to add some smokestacks
Now to add some smokestacks


Looking back over the list it was well worth it. My first few ideas were obvious and brought nothing new to the story telling table. That strained period towards the end was bringing out real novelties, and though some of them were junk, some really engaged my brain.

Later today I’ll try refining that list. As well as picking out my favourites I’ll probably combine some for stronger story seeds. Then I’ll work on their characters and plots before picking one to write. It means a lot more effort in the initial stages, but if it results in a better story, one I’m more likely to enjoy writing and that readers are more likely to enjoy reading, then it’ll be well worth it.

Nick’s process could be used in any creative field. Go have a read, give it a try, and let me know how you get on with it.


Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons.

Writing for themes

Ghosts in the Gaslight, my new story in the Desolation anthology, was written for a theme. Ironically it wasn’t the theme of the anthology it ended up in, though that fitted too. But it’s a great example of why I like writing for themes.

Themed anthologies get advertised all the time. A quick glance at Duotrope‘s upcoming deadlines calendar reveals such wildly divergent  themes as ‘barbarians of the red planet’, ‘dare’ and ‘stories of unwise lesbian desire’. Even when I don’t think I can meet the deadline, these themes often give me inspiration for what to write. They send my brain in directions I didn’t expect. They give me the boundaries and limits that are so crucial to successful creativity.

Steve Snodgrass

I never would have written Ghosts in the Gaslight if I hadn’t seen a call for submissions for a gaslight fantasy collection. That wasn’t where the story ended up, but it got me thinking about how to combine the Victorian era and fantasy. It even inspired the central fantasy element in the story – a spirit who’s actually visible in the gaslight.

So if you’re looking for inspiration for your next story, or for something interesting to read, take a look at themed anthologies. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there.



Picture by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr creative commons

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the march of progress

Progress is a problematic idea, one that rings an idealistic bell for some people, but for others smacks of smug superiority. Once seen by our society as an obvious ideal, it’s now challenged and made more complex, struggling to retain its original idealistic shine.

It therefore seems appropriate that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, raises issues of progress in the Marvel universe, the Marvel brand and beyond. Because that description of the problem of progress is also the problem of Cap.

Captain America


A reader’s progress

My view of Captain America has changed over the years, as I suspect it has for any reader who’s stuck with him. When I started reading superhero comics I was put off by what looked looked like a symbol of blind patriotism. But then I started reading comics with him in, particularly those written by Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, and I saw something else. Not jingoism but idealism, a dream of what a nation and a person should aspire towards. More nuanced and reflective than that costume might make you think, but still with his ideals intact.

This marked progress in my understanding of characters like Cap, the way that, even if I don’t buy into everything they represent, the way they represent it can be of value. I’m not patriotic, but Cap showed me how even that ideal could be a positive influence.

This mixed up Captain America, bound by an ideal of his country rather than blind loyalty to it, is the Cap that we get to see on screen. He’s a man out of time, a less cynical figure from a less cynical age, who challenges us to stand up for ideals. It’s not that he isn’t conflicted, but that he doesn’t let himself become jaded. Chris Evans is brilliant in that role, one of the best bits of casting in recent mainstream cinema, really bringing the character alive.

A company’s progress

Marvel have made great progress since they set up their own film production team. Sure, it hasn’t all been an upward curve – progress never is. But they’ve found the confidence to try different styles, as exemplified by the darker, half thriller tone of The Winter Soldier, and by the upcoming cartoonish space romp of Guardians of the Galaxy (for which I am super excited – seriously, have you seen how fun that trailer is?).

They’ve also gained more confidence in tying their films together. They started out with little nods and post-credit sequences. Then they gained faith in what they were doing and went a bit too far, with a chunk of Iron Man 2 that served continuity at the expense of the film. Now they’ve become more confident again and so don’t over-sell it, simply re-using characters and elements, like when Agent Sitwell emerges from bit parts and DVD extras to take on a significant role in this film. It adds richness for those who watch all the films, and does no harm for the casual viewer.

It’s this balance of variety and interconnectedness that’s making the Marvel movie universe so compelling.

Progress in the film

Which brings me round at last to the theme of progress within Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There are some obvious nods to the wonders that progress can achieve, like when Cap gets introduced to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye. There’s also an acknowledgement of its alienating effect, as Cap suffers from an extreme form of the alienation many people feel in a fast changing world.

But progress really comes to the fore when we learn about the plan of the film’s villains. This is forced progress, one group’s view of the future being pushed forward at vast cost to the rest of mankind. It’s the sort of progress that 20th century dictators were so fond of, pushing society down a controlled path towards what they saw as its inevitable destination. It’s progress towards oppression.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story of the benefits and the dangers of progress, but like Cap the film retains its idealism, showing that even through setbacks we keep moving towards better things.

Progress in our depictions

The film’s central plot is also a sign of progress in how we discuss one of the biggest political issues of recent decades – the ‘War on Terror’. At first those using the arts to critically discuss this movement were shouted down. Then critiques began to emerge on the fringes and through subtle metaphors. These became more blatant and more popular – The Wire being a fine example – until a decade later we’ve reached the point where a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster can turn a thinly veiled analogy for the War on Terror into its central villainous plot.

When a taboo subject becomes the centre of a Captain America film, we can feel confident that people feel free to speak their minds.

So that was good then

I really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a cinematic experience it was full of action and excitement. As a source of reflection afterwards it’s been surprisingly thought provoking. It’s got to be seen as another success for Marvel, and I can’t wait to see the next.

If you like the Marvel movies then you should go out and see this one. If not then you can probably wait until it’s on TV. But you should all still be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, have you seen that trailer? That’s some big, dumb, fun progress right there.


The Lego Movie – taking the ‘sub’ out of ‘subtext’

I went to see the Lego movie this morning. It was everything I hoped for – weird and wild and full of visual fun.

As they say in the film, everything is awesome!
As they say in the film, everything is awesome!

The film’s pretty clear in its underlying message – don’t try to fix everything in a sterile image of perfection, let life be messy, chaotic and fun. Near the end an unexpected plot and stylistic twist turned this from what you might generously call subtext to a full on out loud message about how people should play with their toys and with each other. That might sound like it trampled over any subtlety the movie had, but actually it worked. Despite the moral sledgehammer they were wielding I found it charming. The fact that it was tied to a visual shift and story twist really helped. (Sorry if I’m being a little cryptic, I’m trying not spoil the film.)

Sometimes the subtext can become the text. Sometimes it’s OK to just throw subtlety out the window and go ‘hey, here’s the message of my story!’. That’s particularly true when writing for children, but I think it applies with adults as well. If you do it well enough you can get away with that kind of thing. The risk is that doing it badly will really put people off your stories.

I heartily recommend the Lego movie. It’s awesome fun. And maybe it’ll inspire you in your own creative acts as well – something this wild and exciting really should.

Back to the core of the story – a great week of TV

I watch my TV online through channels’ streaming sites and Netflix, to avoid the schedules and the adverts. Also because I tend to forget that stuff’s on. So over the weekend, I ended up watching last week’s Misfits as well as Agents of SHIELD. They were both great episodes relative to their shows – though Misfits, being Misfits, was far more interesting – and they both acted as reminders for me of how important it is to stay true to the core of the world you’re exploring.

Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.
Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.

Spoilers ahead for both shows. Just saying.

Agents of SHIELD

I know some people have been down on this episode. But for me, it focused on the things the show originally promised – how living in a superhero world affects ordinary people, and connecting up with the Marvel movieverse.

The whole plot stems from the actions of a group of fire fighters who helped clear up the mess in New York after the Avengers film. They’ve been through a lot just doing that, and naturally enough they’ve taken a souvenir. It was a great reminder that somebody has to clear up after the destruction of these superpowered showdowns. That that’s hard, sometimes heart breaking work. And that, for the people involved, it would be a huge moment in their lives.

The souvenir, an alien helmet sitting in a fire station, was also emblematic of the exotic element entering ordinary people’s lives. Of the sense of wonder those fire fighters felt seeing beings that had come from another world. Of just how brightly that moment must have shone for them compared with their ordinary lives. And of the fact that something that powerful, that exotic, can also be dangerous.

This was followed up in the second half of the show when Simmons became infected by the virus on the helmet. She was all excited about science, and then she was facing her own death. Because she was ultimately just a scientist, and she’d been infected by something from another world. The way she handled that almost had Mrs K crying.

So what looked like a mystery of the week became an exploration of the show’s themes and the nature of its world, and that was great.


To my mind, Misfits has been upping its game all through this series, following the wobbles of the last one. It’s getting properly focused on its own core theme and the point of its world – slightly rubbish super powers possessed by slightly rubbish people.

This week they explored that theme in a big way, paying off the promise of Abby’s mysterious background. Who was this girl who couldn’t remember her past? Who had she been before the storm? And, from the more meta perspective of the audience, why was she in the show if she didn’t have a super power?

The answer paid off both promise and theme beautifully – Abby wasn’t a real person. She was someone’s imaginary friend, the output of that person’s power. She was, in essence, no-one. And, as a result, she lost what was becoming the great romantic relationship of her life.

It was heartbreaking. But in true Misfits style, this wasn’t made maudlin, but delivered with a flurry of sex gags and inappropriate behaviour. The episode was both beautiful and hilarious, and a reminder that the people society treats as hopeless and unimportant can have as deep and powerful feelings as anybody else.

Just goes to show

For me as a writer, this was a reminder not to get too distracted. To remember the core theme of the world I’m writing within, and make the whole story an expression of that. And also that superpowered stories don’t have to be just crash-bang-wallop.

So, if you got through all my ramblings, did you watch those shows? And what did you think?


Picture by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr creative commons

Lessons learned – A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation by Victoria LynnSchmidt

This is the third of Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s writerly ‘how to’ books that I’ve read, and the things I found useful about it are very similar to the previous two books. I doubt that it’s breaking deep new ground with its approach, but it’s useful for me, and will be one I’ll refer back to a lot over the next year.

A Writer's Guide To Characterisation - available in soothing mint green
A Writer’s Guide To Characterisation – available in soothing mint green

A Writer’s Guide to Characterisation builds on the archetypes Schmidt gave in her previous 45 Master Characters. These archetypes are designed as bases for characters who will click with an audience, and the first half of the book looks at how the archetypes interact with each other. Schmidt discusses how these archetypes are likely to see each other, how they will cooperate and how they’ll clash. I took some issue with the division into male interactions, female interactions and romantic interactions – as if only male-female relationships can be romantic, and they can’t be any other way – but I understand that Schmidt’s providing shortcuts in a limited page count, so I’ll cut her some slack. The romance could be added or removed from these relationships while still making use of Schmidt’s guidance. If you’ve read 45 Master Characters, then it’s a useful appendix to that.

The second half of the book gives a new set of archetypes, based around animals and loosely grounded in Jungian psychology. These aren’t substitutes for the previous archetypes, but something that could be used just as readily with them as instead of them. Rather than focusing on classic fictional personality types, these focus on the character’s theme, purpose and arc. While this isn’t totally detached from the character’s personality, it did remind me that the two aren’t the same. You could write three similar protector characters but give each a very different story by making one learn about trust, one about freedom, and one about patriotism. I don’t think I’ll be looking at these as often as the previous 45 models, which I use for most of my characters, but I will use them.

I ended up with two main lessons from this book. One’s familiar – frameworks and archetypes can be useful. If you treat them as a support rather than a restriction, then they can provide shortcuts on some aspects of a character, freeing you up to think about the other details. If you know where you’re starting from, they can also raise the right questions to give your character depth.

The other lesson was that a character’s personality and motivation aren’t the same as the arc, the changes they’ll go through and lessons they’ll learn from the story. Having options in a book will help me not to use the most obvious arc for each character, and that’s got to be a good thing.

Now excuse me, I have a chapter to go write. But before I do, I should consider whether my heroine’s character arc fits the archetypes of a horse or a whale.

Using theme in writing – custard to the rescue!

When we talk about theme in fiction, it’s often as something the writer should work into their story. But yesterday I had the interesting experience of being rescued by my theme.

A story with a strong theme can be powerful for a reader. It creates a sense of consistency and subtle connections within the story for them to pick up on. It can make for a richer, more rewarding experience as they notice the many ways the story explores love, or revenge, or custard, or whatever the theme is. And so we try to use themes in our stories.

Tasty, tasty theme
Tasty, tasty theme

Yesterday I wasn’t thinking about theme. The story I’m working on has power and its negotiation built into its bones. It’s in the way I designed the characters, the way I structured the plot. And so, for better or worse, I don’t think about it much as I write. But today I got stuck on a scene. A debate between two characters had reached an impasse. I knew what I wanted to happen next, but I couldn’t find a way to do it that didn’t feel too easy, like the characters weren’t sticking to their guns. Any attempt to get out of this just led me back round in circles, going over the same points again and again. I was clutching my head in my hands, trying not to scream in front of the staff of my lovely local cafe, as I was driven nuts by the corner I had stuck myself in.

And then it occured to me to go back to the themes. The theme of the story. The themes of the characters, and how these connected into the main theme. Even to contemplate something I hadn’t consciously created, the emerging theme of this scene, which because of my planning connected nicely into the main thread. I thought about how these themes could be further explored in this scene, how they related to that stuck debate. Ideas started to bubble up in my brain, half formed and not yet the solutions I need, but full of promise. They were leading me out of that hole.

This is where theme becomes a tool for writing. It’s a way to focus you, to move on through the blocks, to throw in new elements while remaining consistent. It’s a source of inspiration when you get stuck and all your other ideas have failed.

Or all my other ideas, at least.

Readers, how does theme shape your reading experience? Do you often notice it or think about it as you’re reading a book? And writers, how do you use theme? Is it something you struggle to work with, or a spark that inspires your every writing moment? Has it helped you through the blocks? Leave a comment below, I’m curious to know.

Writing Live by the Sword

Live by the Sword came from one of my basic desires as a fantasy writer – to write something that’s familiar and accessible, but that also brings something new to the genre. To provide my audience, and myself, with enough novelty to stand out but not so much that readers will feel lost.

To this end, I decided to write a Roman fantasy. It’s something I’m returning to at the moment, and that I think has a lot of merit. The majority of secondary world fantasy has a strong Medieval flavour – The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The First Law, etc. We’re starting to see more influences from the Renaisance and the Victorian era coming through, especially with the growing success of steampunk. But if writers go further back it’s normally to produce wild barbarians in a Conan style, rather than to build on ancient civilisations.

So I picked Rome. I picked the arena because it was an exciting setting, and because this was before the popular Spartacus TV shows, when it had more novelty. And I picked the gladiators as characters not for the glory and romance of men of action but because it allowed me to look at those harmed by the might of Rome, as well as to show the wide diversity that was the oppressed under-belly of the empire.

The plot came from something more modern. I saw paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery by artists who had survived the horrors of the First World War, and whose art was shaped by this. It made me think about the other forms of creativity that came out of that era, such as the war poets, and how art became a way for them to cope with the violence they experienced. I wanted to explore that, and it fit naturally with looking at how my gladiators escaped from the traumas of their lives. The fact that I was writing fantasy let me turn this metaphor into reality, the subtext into text, art into something literally transformative.

So there we go. A little insight into where this story came from. Now it’s time for me to take some of this inspiration and go write something new.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 3: agency

I’m on the Hunger Games again today. Again, spoilers for the trilogy – please go read the books first, then come back.

When the Hunger Games film was released, much was made of Katniss as a female lead. Some people praised this strong female role model, drawing comparisons with the way Hollywood normally treats women. Others were more critical, challenging whether she actually has any control over her life, or is just a victim with more action. These are interesting points, but for me they point at something deeper, highlighting how Suzanne Collins treats individual agency in these books.

First, a point of terminology. Agency, a term I first came across in an undergrad social science module, refers to a person’s level of free will and control over their own life. It’s contrasted with structure, where our actions are defined by the existing forms of society and the world. So, when a criminal burgles a house you could ask how far this was his choice (agency) and how far it was the result of his limited learning opportunities and poverty (structure).

How does this related to Katniss? She’s flung into a life-threatening struggle by a brutal society and historic circumstances (structure), combined with her own choice to protect her sister (agency). Within the game, she is severely constricted by the nature of the game (structure), and by the plottings of others (structure, or at least not her agency). But she deals with this using her own skills and force of will (agency). Her actions are seldom a matter just of free choice or constraint. The final act of defiance with the berries is one of desperation, a startling free choice that goes against all the norms (agency) but is still constricted by the circumstances of the game (structure). In the world of the Hunger Games, as in real life, structure and agency are not separate but intertwine in a complex fashion. Freedom is a matter of compromise and interpretation.

This exploration of agency goes further in the later books, as Katniss is drawn, sometimes without realising, into the politics of Panem. Agency becomes much more complicated, with people acting as groups. As the resistance led by District 13 make harsh decisions, it becomes harder to tell how far any of the characters are following a path they would choose, or how far they are being driven by circumstances. Even as they make collective decisions, does this give them agency as part of a powerful group, or restrict that agency through the structures of the group.

Looking inward, Katniss’s own agency becomes questionable. As she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, how far are her decisions really a matter of free will (agency), and how far are they defined by the disorders from which she suffers (structure)?

Many stories simplify these issues, presenting characters as in control of their lives, or breaking free of the structures that bind them. Much like The Prisoner, their tales cry out ‘I am a free man!’ The Hunger Games takes a much more nuanced approach, and it is this that makes it so difficult to define Katniss’s place as a female lead. This is a strength of the books, not a weakness.

So, if you’ve read this far, what do you think? Did you see the same things in the books as I have? What do you think of Katniss as a lead character?

All in the name

Having done a thousand words of emotional and descriptive edits yesterday, I now have a story fit for reading, in all but one key regard – the title.

Titles are important. They give a first impression of the story, set readers’ expectations, can make the difference in whether someone picks up your work.

They become more important when you’re working with a smaller number of words. You can see this at its most extreme with drabbles, stories of exactly a hundred words. There, the title becomes a cheat, a way of adding words to your story, of clarifying theme or situation in ways you couldn’t fit into the text. But this also extends to other stories. The title can focus the reading experience, highlighting themes, indicating genre, making the reader pay attention when the title phrase appears within the story.

For me, this isn’t always a problem. Some of my stories, in fact some of my favourites, were inspired or shaped by a  phrase that became the title. This applies to both the stories I have in Ann VanderMeer’s steampunk collections. ‘The Cast-Iron Kid’ took its title from a character and flagged up its mixed genres, steampunk and western. ‘Urban Drift’ calls attention both to the sculpture around which the plot revolves and the mobile city setting, as well as referring to the sense of purposelessness urban alienation can trigger, against which background the protagonist’s own purpose is tested.

For the story I’ve just finished revising, set in a steampunk prison, I don’t have such an obvious title. The original inspiration, the panopticon and panopticism, is no longer central, and another easy label hasn’t bubbled up to replace it. I’m not going to let this stop me sending it out. I’m sure that today I can find a title that will do, given the alternative of sitting indefinitely on my story. But it’s just not the same.

Titles matter. And for me, the lesson this time is to think about them as I go along, not just wait for the end.