Welcome to my World

Update: Vessel is now available on Amazon here

Hello, and welcome to Work in Progress, my blog about the books I write. If you’re looking for Noah’s Ark, you can download that for free here, and if you want to read my new book, Vessel, you can download it from Amazon here. I will begin posting chapters of my next book here on this blog very soon.

Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Vessel now available on Amazon

It feels like only yesterday that I wrote the prologue for Vessel, and publication has come around already. That’s right–Vessel is now available to purchase for a limited-time offer of 99c/99p. You can purchase it from Amazon here.

I want to thank everyone for their input and support throughout the journey of bringing Vessel to publication, and I hope you all enjoy the final version. If you’d like to leave a review, I’d be very grateful. Please could I ask that you post it on both Amazon.com and .co.uk.

Thank you again, and I hope you all enjoy Vessel.

One Week Remains…

Argh! Vessel is out in a week and I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I’m a marching band of jitterbugs on a trampoline in an earthquake, buzzing with more excitement than the queue at Peppa Pig World, and on the other hand I’d rather scrap the whole thing and pretend it never happened. P-day is incoming and, to be frank, I’m bricking it.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to publish work of your own, I’ll try and lay down how I feel right now about it all. This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ type of story; I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. I’m simply trying to pass each agonising second between now and August the 1st. Writing a book is a journey and a half. There are highs and lows, distant horizons and lights at the end of tunnels that turn out to be high-speed locomotives. You lay your soul out on the floor and pick it apart bit by tedious bit. The resulting composition is more than a collection of words for its creator: it’s a piece of them, a chapter of their own lives laid out in paper and ink (or pixels). Each line carries a memory with it, be it pleasure at its inventiveness or shame at the multitude of times it took to get right. Some chapters sat side by side with the death of a loved one, others with the union of two of the living; it’s as much historical non-fiction as it is fiction—you just have to read between the lines to see it.

And now I’m going to take that portion of my life, my personality, my growth and my shame, and lay it out for all to see. Some will smile and clap, others will spit and jeer. Each word is sent on a direct expressway to my heart, fresh and raw and ready to tear me in two. Every review, every rating—or indeed the lack of those things—is a slight against me, against who I am, and I accept that. That doesn’t mean I like it. And to make matters worse, for every negative review I take to heart, there’s a positive one that I simply can’t believe. You know, I’d go so far as to say it’s a traumatic experience.

Well, that’s enough bleeding heart nonsense from me. Vessel is out very, very soon, and I couldn’t be more excited. I hope it lives up to the expectations of all you people who have followed my journey (and thank you for joining me along the way) and those who have yet to become a part of it. The next blog post I write will be on the other side—see you there.

If not plot, then what?

Following on from a previous blog post where I jotted down my thoughts on plot versus characterisation, I noted that characterisation has to work far harder in the literary medium than it does in the film. That said, I didn’t explore the hows, wheres, whats, whens and, in particular, the whos of characterisation. Why? Truth be told, it’s because I don’t know the answer. It’s a journey I’m taking, a skill I’m learning, and it remains to be seen whether or not I’m getting any closer to the writer’s holy grail of crafting a believable and relatable protagonist.

What I can do in the meantime is suggest what I think makes a good protagonist. Here lies the disclaimer: what I’m about to say isn’t gospel—in fact it’s as far from it as it can possibly be. It’s amateurish guesswork at best. But that’s not say it’s definitely wrong, because I could guess and guess well. We’ll see.

A good protagonist doesn’t have to be good. By that I mean they don’t have to be fighting for the ‘goodies’. It makes life a whole lot easier if they are, but having readers care for a ‘bad guy’ is so much more of an achievement. That’s because the number one rule, in my amateurish opinion, is that the reader has to identify with them. Doesn’t matter how good the plot is, how badass the protagonist is—if you think they’re a dick, you won’t read on. So if the protagonist is a baddie, the writer needs to be clever in how they take the imagination of a normal law-abiding citizen and turn it to empathise with the actions of someone who’s done wrong.

Bad guys—particularly when they’re secondary characters—have a nasty habit of becoming two-dimensional cut-outs with no structure to them beyond an evil laugh and an inexplicable desire to live in a volcano. But bad guys are people too; they have thoughts and feelings, they wonder what the weather’s going to be like and they take their dogs for walks. As a writer, if you treat them like a person, build them up as someone who lives life as a day-to-day struggle, your readers will connect. The recent TV show Breaking Bad does a wonderful job of cajoling you as a viewer into empathising with protagonist Walter White, who, when given the news that he has cancer and only a few short months to live, uses his chemistry skills to cook meth and build a fund for his family when he’s gone. You see him, a normal guy, get swept into an unknown world, and you’re right there with him, and you care because he cares. It’s emotional blackmail when you think about it: the writers are saying, ‘here’s this nice guy, but things aren’t going too well for him right now. Maybe you should stick around to make sure he’s ok, cos, y’know, you’re a decent human being and that’s what decent human beings do.’

So we, as readers, do. The protagonist becomes our responsibility, and we’ve got to make sure they make it through to the end of the book. You know it’s done well when you finish the story and feel empty, like you’ve just lost a friend. Those manipulative writers forced you care . . .

But I don’t think it’s a simple as making the protagonist the kind of person you’d sit down with for a beer. Oftentimes, the ones you care most about are the ones you wouldn’t want to spend any time with at all, yet you seem obliged to feel bad for them from a distance. The disgruntled alcoholic cop who only ever works alone is a tried-and-tested example that works almost every time. It’s hackneyed, yes, but it works, and people enjoy it. If crime books were about cops with nice families and big houses and perfect lives, readers wouldn’t care less. Social pariahs need care, so they end up as our protagonists. The affliction doesn’t have to be as bare-faced as being a drug-addicted school drop-out that’s only two more hits away from heaven: sometimes the subtleties are all that’s needed. A normal guy with a normal job that gets put in a difficult situation can engender just as much sympathy if it’s done right.

Meet John, for example. He works in an office, nine to five, as a structural engineer. He’s nearly sixty, he has a nice house, a comfortable lifestyle, and his three kids have all grown up and left the nest. But recently he feels he’s been growing apart from his Sheila, his wife. Nothing bad’s been said, nothing’s really happened at all, but . . . he doesn’t know why, but the silence left behind when his youngest set off for university just keeps on getting louder. He stays late at work to avoid the twisting awkwardness of the gulf between him and Sheila, working himself into a knot of stress and anxiety. He wants to speak out but his voice won’t let him. There’s nothing he can do—no—nothing he can bear to do. So he sits in the office, watching the minutes tick by one by one, wishing each one was his last.

Now, with any luck you’ll feel a little sympathy towards old John here, even though nothing particularly bad has happened to him. Because the situation is one we all so inherently dread, it should be easy to relate to John’s feelings of confusion and despair. Perhaps you have some suggestions for John, and that’s good because it means you care enough to want to help. As the writer, it is then my job to carry the story forward without then frustrating the reader by making John take the dumb choice at every turn. I see that a lot, and it’s a cheap way to progress a plot that leaves a reader exasperated. Why, John, why didn’t you just step to the side when that boulder rolled down the hill after you? Are you stupid?

My last musing on the topic is the quality of believability. Readers have to believe in what our protagonists are doing, believe the decisions they make are sensible and rational, believe the reactions to their surroundings are genuine. Like a magic eye picture, a reader sinks into a book in a strange zen-state of semi-awareness, and unbelievable behaviour is a poke right in the eye for them, throwing them completely and leaving them with a distorted view of things. And as a subset of believability, its important to have consistency, too: changing behaviour and personality will leave a reader just as sore-eyed.

Well, I suppose that concludes this week’s unstructured ramble. I hope some of it makes sense, and I hope some of it is true. I strongly feel that what I’ve said isn’t far from reality, and with a little bit of luck I can heed my own advice and make something of it.

PS Two weeks today until the launch of Vessel! Exciting times!

‘Meet My Character’ – A Blog Tour

Fellow writer and blogger Dave Farmer recently posted a summary of a character from his up-coming novel The Range. Dave kindly invited me to continue the theme, so I’m going to use this as an opportunity to introduce you all to a character from my next book, the project I’m working on now Vessel is complete. Here are the questions:

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
Meet Jake Brooks, a fictional character from my next as yet untitled novel.
2. When and where is the story set?
Future Earth is all you need to know. Oil is a distant memory and space travel is nothing special. Planexus leads the way in interplanetary mining, and the company has begun to set its sights on the possibility of inhabiting a new planet.
3. What should we know about him/her?
Jake Brooks is an ordinary man. He has a degree, a good job that pays well, and enjoys passing the time playing video games. And he has a lot of time to pass, because 99% of his employed life is spent travelling. Jake is an interplanetary geologist, and his job takes him to faraway places in search of valuable natural resources. It isn’t an exciting job, but it gets him by comfortably.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
Being an inter-planetary geologist isn’t considered a particularly demanding role, however the requirements for long-distance travel are strict. Several shorter missions are necessitated before an astronaut’s license is rated for deep space, so when a fellow geologist is replaced last minute by a young man, Byron Ash, who claims not to have a license at all, Jake has due cause for concern. As the time passes and the mission ticks on, Byron begins to show his darker side. On board a small craft of ten crew, it’s going to be tricky to stay focussed and keep calm.
5. What is the personal goal of the character?
Jake, like most people, wants a simple, quiet life. With the addition of Byron to the crew, that isn’t going to get any easier, but nevertheless it’s a goal that remains the same. The problem is, the rest of the crew start to have different ideas on how to achieve it.
6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
The book is as yet untitled, but I will soon be posting a chapter per week right here on andrewjamesmorgan.com as soon as Vessel is published on August the 1st.
7. When can we expect the book to be published?
Once all the chapters are up, the book will be formally edited ready for pitch and publication. Hopefully that will be before the end of the year.

Plot . . . or not?

I, like many other budding authors, believed in first time success. Actually, that’s not quite what I mean, because there are many authors whose first novels do well, and deservedly so. In better terms, I believed the ability to write was gifted, not earned. Sounds silly when put like that, but how many times have you heard someone say, ‘everyone’s got a book in them’, or, ‘you should write that as a book, it’ll be really good’? Sure, there are people that have had some great experiences, but the assumption that a good idea is all that’s required to convey it with believability and authenticity on paper is way off.

It wasn’t that long ago that I realised this myself, that the mastery of writing is as much a skill as the construction of plot. Which brings me to the subject matter of today’s post: which is more important, characterisation or plot? It’s a question that raises an important oversight that many new writers battle with, and that’s the craftsmanship of both plot and characterisation. I myself am guilty of putting my all into writing plot, setting scenes in my head like a movie director might, transcribing the mental view down onto paper and letting the protagonists tag along for the ride.

Reading has helped me see where I’ve failed and where the masters have succeeded; once I discovered what I was doing wrong it was much easier to realise what others are doing right, to pinpoint it and capitalise on it. Plot is important, yes sir, but it is gear in a train, not a sole driving force, and I wish I’d realised that sooner. Characterisation, well—that’s the lifeblood of the story, the part the reader latches on to, identifies with, the part that makes them care. There are books that rely almost solely on characterisation—but the other way round? Nah.

This rookie mistake of prioritising plot comes, I think, from the misunderstanding that the mediums of film and paper work in the same way. At first glance they seem to, but they don’t and here’s why: in a film, the protagonist’s point-of-view is presented from a third person vantage point. You, the viewer, are a being in the sky that watches over all that happens in the movie, and your identification with the character comes from their dialogue and actions. Verbal narrative is a rare (and often cheesy) way of presenting the protagonist, whereas in a book, verbal narrative is one of the key methods a writer utilises to put the reader into the protagonist’s shoes, even when the book is written in third person.

Also, in a movie you can see when someone is scared, happy, angry etc. It’s on their face, a reaction to the unfolding scene, a subtlety that we absorb without thinking. That doesn’t exist with writing. The reader needs to know how the protagonist is feeling and why, but simply writing ‘he pulled a sad face’ is the equivalent of the movie director cutting to a close shot of the hero pulling a sad face—it’s too obvious, it’s too clunky and it ruins the flow. So a writer must use good characterisation to present the character in an unobtrusive and identifiable way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling either disassociated or overloaded.

The last difference between a movie and a book is the most obvious: a movie is a visual medium, and requires less effort on the part of its audience. Visual effects, cool music, slo-mo etc engages us and gives us the associative hit of adrenaline/sadness/laughter that we seek from these entertaining escapes. Characterisation can take a back seat when visuals takes over, be it a well-choreographed fight, a huge explosion or incredible CGI. Van Damme wouldn’t have got very far if characterisation was an essential part of cinema.

So in my journey to better myself as an author, I’ve discovered that the art of presenting my story in written form is as much a challenge as creating the story in the first place. I’ve also learned that creating believable and identifiable characters is key to keeping a reader interested, more so than the cleverness of the plot. How to create the kind of characters that stay with a reader long after the final page has been read, I still don’t know. I’m working on it. I think I’m improving—I’m certainly changing—but whether it’s for the better remains to be seen.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

With Vessel soon to be making its mark on the Amazon charts, it’s about time I started to think about my next endeavour. Truth be told, I’m way past the thinking stage: my next book is steamrolling ahead with about a third of the first draft complete. Once Vessel goes live, I’ll start posting chapters on here to see what you all think (and I value your contributions immensely), but in the meantime, I want to talk a little about how the book came to be.

With Noah’s Ark, I started at the beginning, set fingers to keyboard and typed. Of course, my writing skills were a little more crude back then—and it shows—but it’s the technique that’s of interest here. I simply had an idea about a man leaving a city devastated by an apocalyptic disaster and I ran with it from there.

For Vessel, I took a more formulaic approach. I documented the chapters one by one, building up a plan for the book. As I worked my way through chapter after chapter, I wrote more detailed notes for the oncoming story. To be honest—and this sounds odd—but I’m not sure it helped. As the book materialised, the story changed—and quite dramatically. The method felt a little stifled, and was ultimately unnecessary. The ongoing notes helped, reminding me of key facts and figures along the way, but forcing the story along a predetermined path had all the fluidity of tar.

My new, as yet untitled work took a step back again. I had an idea about an interplanetary geologist sent on a mission to survey a world deemed capable of supporting human life. I also had some further thoughts about where the story might go, but I kept them loose and hazy, concepts carried by a breeze rather than blueprints etched in diamond. And so far the book has been a much more dynamic writing experience, a journey that I, the writer, am discovering along with the protagonist. We’re in it together, so to speak, wondering what’s awaiting us around the corner. With any luck, whatever it is will be entertaining.

After I’d had this revaluation, I read Stephen King’s insightful On Writing. He clarified my findings, saying that he too likes to journey with his protagonist, that any time he tries to become the master of fate his story become flat and lifeless. And his reasoning was as follows: if you, the writer, knows what’s about to happen, chances are the reader will too. And further to that, if you know what’s going to happen, it’s harder to convince a reader that the protagonist didn’t expect it.

This isn’t to say it’s a technique that works for everyone. It probably isn’t. But it’s working for me. Right now, a third of the way into the book, things are starting to take a turn for the worse, and there’s a whole lot of journey to get through until the end. Will it all work out or will it not? Like the avid reader, I have some ideas of my own, but until I read the words there in black and white, I won’t know for sure. And that’s what makes the writing experience enjoyable for me, and with any luck, the reading experience for you.