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Recipe: Cauliflower Fritters

Before I start:

  • I was debating whether to do the disingenuous Buzzfeed recipes thing and call them pancakes even though they are quite clearly not.
  • These have like two ingredients, and are therefore perfect.
  • Also completely gluten-free, due to aforementioned only two ingredients.
  • Someone has almost certainly done this before, but “I should try X” is one of those thoughts that plagues me when I’m trying to sleep.

Are you ready for a recipe which is hysterically simple in its construction and is therefore perfect for breakfast? A recipe which will shut up the irritating Paleo types, please vegetarians, and soothe the gluten-free? A recipe which is acceptable to even people doing that moronic 5:2 diet who are on their 2 day?

Also it tastes pretty nice, which is clearly far more important.


This is the minimum amount and provides ratios, you can of course increase it and make more.

  • 200g cauliflower (roughly 1/4 of a medium cauliflower)
  • 1 egg

That’s it, that’s your lot. Optional extras:

  • Dried seaweed – I put this in the ones you’re about to see photos of.
  • Spices mixes/herbs – I used a paprika/garlic powder/garlic chips/onion salt mix in mine but that’s because I use it in absolutely everything
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • You could probably add Bonito flakes or really anything small and flavoursome


  1. Cut the cauliflower up as small as you can, this will make life easier later.
  2. Boil the cauliflower until it is soft
  3. Mash the cauliflower until it is mush. Put in the spices/seaweed/whatever you’re adding.
  4. Mix the egg into this until it’s sort of smooth.
  5. Glob some of the mix into a frying pan/wok/hot plate on a low heat. Don’t spread it too thin or it won’t stay in one piece.
  6. When it seems like the bottom’s probably cohered reasonably well, turn it over and press it down.

The above mixture, depending on what size you make them, makes about three to four fritters, which is a perfectly adequate breakfast. I splashed some oyster sauce on mine because that’s how I roll but really I’m sure it works with just about anything salty.

mix pan serve

Additional information:

If you’re counting calories, this comes to 128-130 calories for the whole mixture outlined above.

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How Being An Outlines Nazi Has Made Me A Better Writer

As with every “how X has made me a better writer” piece, this isn’t guaranteed to make anyone else a better writer, and some of the time by “better” what I actually mean is “more able to vomit out 4000 words in two hours and spend the rest of the day dicking about on the internet and failing to clean the kitchen”.

So really the title should be “How Being Outlines Hitler Made It Easier For Me To Write Books Quickly” but frankly the connotations of that are a little more damning.


National Novel Writing Month’s “be competitive with yourself” approach has worked for me in terms of output, but it can take a long time if I have to think about what I’m doing and where I’m going with a story on the fly. That’s fine if you have nothing else on, but for several of the years I’ve been doing this idiotic fiction dash I’ve also had a day job, and time has been slender.

2006 – the “I have no idea where this is heading”

The first year that I did a full NaNo (as opposed to a half-NaNo, which I did the year before like the cowardly custard I was) I forgot I was going to do it, and sat down on the afternoon of the first of November and went “shit, write something”. It wasn’t until four days of meandering and collecting references to characters from my meander that I decided it would need a plot, and lifted one from Shakespeare, and continued to meander with slightly more direction.

This was the beginning of the end for what had previously been a popular approach for me, the “start out and see where you go”. Going in totally blind and finding your own way is still popular with a lot of people and often produces great works of exploratory fiction (especially after it’s been edited), but for me it began to lose its shine when I stalled at the end of November and still hadn’t finished my story. It took me a further six years to finish it.

2007-2008 – the “tracking PoVs because there are so many”

Over the course of two years, while I had a day job that required eight solid hours of typing at high speeds, I wrote two halves of a novel that came out at over 300,000 words. Looking back I have no idea how this happened because even organised, motivated me could not puke up 150k+ while doing eight hour days now: I have some clear memories, too, of weekend days spent locked in my bedroom more-or-less beating my face against the keyboard, trying to extract 4,000 words from the confines of my empty head.

For this, I had to keep track of an ungodly number of PoV chapters and the passage of the McGuffin through them or around them – a plot one of the readers described in her feedback as “like a contra-dance”. So I made a diagram showing the movement of the narrative, and the movement of the characters around it, which was immensely useful, and after a while started making notes for what was happening in future chapters.

2009 – the “I didn’t make a proper plan and thus didn’t finish”

This year was a hideous disaster festival for a lot of reasons, and one of them was that while I wrote 80k, I didn’t finish the book, and still haven’t.

2010 – the “day plan cometh”

Trying to force-birth a first draft of a book while doing something that, at last, required some of my brain (A BTEC HNC in Music Production for reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time) was also, not coincidentally, the time in which day plans first came into use. Mostly not detailed at this point, but the whole plot had been worked out in advance, and a spreadsheet full of “this happens next” was brought into being. As a consequence of this I ploughed through the appropriate plot points at a speed which would otherwise have been impossible, and didn’t fail my silly vocational qualification.

2011 – the “several spreadsheets”

This was the year where I picked up my planning by the scruff of its neck, hurled it into an armchair, and threw a library at it. It was also the year I began using a chronological spreadsheet, to work out what each of the characters was doing and when, regardless of whether they were on opposite sides of the world. I made sure I knew what was happening on each day, and where the characters were going to be, and how this affected each of them, even if I didn’t always make a solid or rigid outline for the days.

And lo, the novel passed largely without incident.

2012 – the “last-minute re-outlining/pacing failure”

I’d intended to write something else, realised I didn’t have my plot ready or my research ready, and went into panic mode. The panic produced a rough outline, and the rough day-by-day guide produced a manuscript. In the later editing it was determined that, despite my best intentions, the outline hadn’t given a strong enough shape to the overall novel in terms of pacing and act distribution, and that the end of Act Three came rather out of nowhere, and so I was obliged to pull an extra two chapters out of my arse. This is not a good place for chapters to live, and was the impetus to start putting in Act divisions in future outlines (or at least, in some of them).

2013 – the “we’re going to need a bigger boat”.

I did a lot of research for this book. Or at the time I thought I did a lot of research for it, but then I spent most of this year reading increasingly disturbing books about viruses for my current effort and I want to slap the me of last year for being a coward. But it was a grand leap forward in outlines, where I divided up my outline into three acts, and then into what I was writing for each year of the story, and then which days I was writing each section on, and how many words that needed to be…

… and then I dumped every single bit of dialogue, vague scene exploration, character note, or snapshot I’d made about the story in the seven years between first coming up with the idea and actually writing it, into the outline, at the appropriate juncture.

This gave me an outline which was if I recall, more than 20,000 words long, which seemed a lot but in retrospect cannot hold a candle to the planning document for this year.

As a consequence of this I swanned through 146k words without really raising my pulse, which sounds wonderful until you realise I had to edit out about 20,000 words of that.

2014 - the “double-distilled for clarity”

And now, this year. Oh, this year.

This year my outline document was 52,000 words because I put so much research gunk in it.

That is, if you are not up to speed, longer than the actual required length of a NaNoWriMo winning manuscript, but that is neither necessary nor the point. The point is that, having repeatedly extended and rewritten and fiddled with and extended and rewritten my outline, and then gone through and made a note of all the characters, locations, and research points needed for each day’s writing (which I may not have been, er, religiously sticking to), I’ve made getting down to the business of writing even easier this year.

Double Distillation

With an outline already in place, each day I read through the original outline entry for that day, square it with what’s been happening in the story up to that point, and draw up a series of points – headlines, if you like – to summarise each of the separate major scenes covering that day’s segment. Occasionally these involve a bit of dialogue as it comes to me, or just a note on what the outcome is going to be and who is there: sometimes the whole collection expands out to about 500 words.

This, I’m finding, helps put me in the right mindset to continue with the story and, once I’ve started writing, to know exactly where I’m going and not need to take any breaks to think about what’s happening next – everything’s already been thought of in advance.

And that is how I use ridiculously detailed outlines to turn “writing a book” into a game of “filling in cells” which takes significantly less of my time each day than it used to.

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Muffin Fail

I’ve never made muffins before. I can identify two major problems with what I’ve ended up with:

  1. Too much flour, so they’re not really what you’d call “light and fluffy”.
  2. Not enough of one of the flavours I was intending to use.


  • 1 egg (medium)
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 125ml milk (semi-skimmed or whole)
  • 5ml vegetable oil
  • 200g plain flour
  • 5tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt

What I actually put in, for some reason related to my painfully terrible understanding of mental arithmetic:

  • 275g plain flour
  • 25g of custard powder
  • some rhubarb

What that should have been:

  • 100g plain flour
  • 100g custard powder
  • some rhubarb
The beginning, featuring a 99p store silicon baking thing.

The beginning, featuring a 99p store silicon baking thing.

Part of the problem I think was not being able to reduce the recipe down sufficiently. What I have there made about 17 bloody muffins, which is a lot more muffins than I need. I am growing increasingly annoyed by the assumption of every recipe site ever that the only person mad enough to cook their own food is someone with a household of, apparently, 10 people.

I'd love to be able to take twee, romantic shots of baking but the reality is kind of messier.

I’d love to be able to take twee, romantic shots of baking but the reality is kind of messier.

Well, with any luck my coworkers won’t object to some slightly bland muffins with rhubarb in them.

I lied, I can definitely do twee.

I lied, I can definitely do twee.

At least they’re not very big. I suppose I could just lob them out of the window at the people in the beer garden behind my house. Maybe I could coat one in rubber and bounce it off the head of that one woman who sounds exactly like Graham Chapman pretending to be an old lady. Anything’s possible.

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Recipe: Drunk Jerk Cake

“Why the hell is it called that?”

Well, listen. I don’t think it qualifies as bread because there’s no yeast in it, and it’s actually made from the base of that brownie recipe that does everything, so it’s a cake. And it’s got cider in it, so I decided to be whimsical. And it’s got jerk in it, so jerk. And “Drunk Jerk Cake” sounded better than “leftovers and booze bread” to me.

This is … probably not to be undertaken drunk, but is a good way of using up crap you have around.


135g wholemeal flour (Can use plain, probably should use plain, I just used wholemeal because I’m fucked if I’m ever going to use it for anything else and it was taking up space)
12.5g jerk seasoning/smoked paprika (about half and half)
a bit of dried rosemary
62.5g butter
1 egg
50ml cider (which gives you the rest of the can to drink) – note to Americans, this means “hard” cider.
25g peanut butter
50g tomatoes (I used a mixture of sundried and fresh because that’s what I had), you could instead do 25/25 of sundried and olives, or whatever, really.


  1. Preheat oven to 180C
  2. Rub butter into flour/spice mixture. Do this with your hands. Rub it in and keep rubbing it in until it has a texture like breadcrumbs. NB: This is gross and you will get stuff under your fingernails and then when you wash your hands you will look like you have a skin disease.
  3. Mix in the egg using a huge wooden spoon/spatula. It’s easiest if you stick the bowl under your arm like you’re in a nursery rhyme. Great workout, bloody exhausting. Helps if you sing something inane while you’re doing it.
  4. 4. Now mix in the peanut butter. Thought your arm hurt before? We’re not even started.
  5. Mix in the cider. Enjoy getting splashes all over you. Enjoy the gross noises it makes.
  6. Mix in your tomatoes, olives, whatever you’re using for variety. Keep mixing. Admire your biceps.
  7. Scrape the tough stuff into your 3 ramekins or whatever you’re cooking it in. Try to flatten it out a bit.
  8. Put ramekins on a tray and put them in the oven for 45 minutes.

Do not be alarmed by the foam of cider bubbling at the top, by 45 minutes it should definitely be done. If it sounds like a weird thing to eat, do not panic. No one has to know you ate this.

Photo not by J. Reilly this time, which explains the poor quality.

Photo not by J. Reilly this time, which explains the poor quality.

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Recipe: Christmas Comes Early

Before I introduce this variant on the BBC Good Food Best Brownie Ever Recipe (more details on the post where I made them into apple and cinnamon bars), I have to admit that I fucked them up slightly: oven temperature was too high, which meant the brownies cooked too fast on the outside and split on the top. On the other hand, given my trepidation concerning them cooking properly at all, I don’t think it went too badly.

Christmas Brownies

Wait, why the fuck am I making Christmas anything, it’s the middle of August?

  1. This never stops the bloody shops, as soon as the Back To School sales stop there will be Christmas shit in shops.
  2. I want to make sure I’ve got it right when the time comes to thrust these babies at alarmed friends who have had years and years of my voluble insistence that I will kill them with my cooking.

So, once again:

Christmas Brownies

I imagine when they don't crack you can also decorate them, if that's your bag.

I imagine when they don’t crack you can also decorate them, if that’s your bag.

(Serves 3, don’t be a greedy fucker)


  • 35g plain flour
  • 1 egg
  • 12.5g ground allspice (it’s more than you think)
  • 100g soft brown sugar
  • 62.5g salted butter
  • 75g cranberry jelly (this hides in the condiments aisle for some reason even though it is clearly jam)
  • 25g mixed dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, candied peel, etc)
  • 25g chopped glacé cherries (if you don’t like glacé cherries either double up the dried mixed fruits, substitute something similar, or have a long hard think about what’s wrong with your life and your choices, you weirdo).


  1. Heat your oven to 180C. Not 185C as I apparently inadvertently did, which would be stupid.
  2. Throw sugar, butter, and cranberry jelly into a pan and melt them together while stirring.
  3. You should end up with goo. Turn off the heat and stir in the egg. Break the egg first otherwise this really will not work.
  4. Sieve the flour and ground allspice into the mixture and then stir it in persistently until the mixture is basically smooth and thick; this takes a bit more effort than with the apple bars for some reason.
  5. Wang in your dried fruit and cherries, stir them until they’re evenly distributed in the mix. Potentially hold some back and chuck ‘em on top later so they don’t all sink to the bottom like mine did? I dunno.
  6. Scrape your goo into 3 x ramekins or 2 x (ovenproof) mugs or a small tray, whatever you fancy, really. Put them on another tray, and put that tray in the oven for 30 minutes.
  7. Remove your Christmas whatsits, wait for them to stop being painfully hot, serve with custard or ice cream or brandy butter or whatever it is that counts as Christmas Accompaniment in your house.

Added bonus: these are nowhere near as calorific as the chocolate version so if you’re being bullied into Watching Your Waist by whoever, you can mark them down as 313 and not, like, 500.

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Recipe: Possibly A Kind Of Soup Thing.

I don’t really follow recipes very much, and just have a mental catalogue of “this is how to make acceptable food happen out of one pot” ideas which usually ends up in elaborate and expensive gumbo (did you know that adding rice to the mix to soak up the sauce means that when the leftovers go cold you can make them into burritos? It is possibly a crime against humanity but it’s very tasty) or variations on pasta sauce. This time it was soup.

I’m warning you now, this contained a MAGIC INGREDIENT.

Serves three, has the exciting name “sinus-clearing soup”.

Ingredients (non-magic)

  • 360g braising beef steak, diced
  • 1 potato, diced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 150g button mushrooms, larger ones chopped
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 170g butternut squash, diced
  • 1 gel beef stock pot
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • about three handfuls of jerk seasoning
  • 600ml water

Ingredients (magic)

  • Leftover noodle broth (approx 250ml) containing:
  1. Another gel beef stock pot, dissolved
  2. 2 tsp of a mix of spices I did myself some time ago which contains garam massala, cinnamon, paprika, ground chilli, celery salt, tumeric, and a bit of cocoa. In what proportions I cannot tell you.
  3. A sachet of noodle flavouring (chicken) which most likely involves chicken stock, monosodium glutimate, dehyrdrated carrot chunks, salt, unidentified green bits.


  1. Melt the ghee in massive pot.
  2. Vigorously rub literal handfuls of jerk seasoning into the diced beef, sling the beef in the pot.
  3. Add the onion, then garlic.
  4. Beef should be pretty brown now. Celery and mushroom goes in the pot. Personally I like to chop/dice things as I’m going along because it provides a natural pause to allow things to cook more but I hear other people like precision.
  5. When that’s looking fairly cooked sling in the squash.
  6. Carrot, potato, and the magic.
  7. Add the stock gel.
  8. Add the water.
  9. Bring to the boil, angrily hitting the pan when the laws of physics dictate that the bastard thing isn’t coming to the boil fast enough. At this point eating raw peas out of the pod and swearing at the cooker are both entirely acceptable ways to try to bend universal laws to the will of your growling stomach.
  10. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes.

What you should end up with is a beef broth with a serious sheen of fat floating on the top. DO NOT SKIM THE FAT, YOU GIANT FOOL. 1 serving amounts to about 450 calories and that is a decent-sized meal. Taste it: it should taste of FIRE and MEAT. If it doesn’t make your nose run you have probably been stingy with the jerk seasoning and you deserve to go to hell. If it doesn’t taste of SERIOUS MEAT you only put one stock pot in and should be stationed under a demon cow herd in hell. Or just an ordinary cow herd, I’ve lived by a dairy farm and frankly normal Frisians are enough.


Why not substitute pretend!meat protein for the braising steak and vegetable stock for the beef stock pots? The outcome should still be okay because of glorious ghee.

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Writing Motivation Advice Chiefly For Myself

You’re allowed to sit in on this, but bear in mind that if anything doesn’t fit your situation it’s because I am shouting it at myself through a very long cardboard tube in the hopes that it sounds more authoritative when it comes out the other end.

Things you definitely have to do.

  • Write. You cannot slouch about the place calling yourself anything relating to “a writer” if you do not write anything.
  • Edit. Editing is part of writing. Firstly, that thing you wrote six months ago is full of dodgy bits where you decided that the correct phrasing didn’t matter and the important part was getting all the information down. It is now six or more months later and the correct phrasing does matter now, as does the fact that you’ve overloaded the scene with information and need to go and remove the stuff that isn’t pertinent. Yes, including the stuff you thought was good or interesting. If it’s not necessary it’s not staying.
  • Stop behaving as if “editing” doesn’t count as writing and therefore browbeating yourself for not doing “any” writing.
  • Research. You can’t confidently write about a place or time if you don’t actually know anything about it and are constantly worried that the whole course of your story is going to be thrown out by information you were too lazy to get hold of.
  • Stop putting off research on the grounds that you “need to concentrate properly”, you’re perfectly capable of absorbing information by osmosis and the more you get of it the more likely you are to retain it.

Things you do not have to do.

  • Seek other people’s approval for any ideas you have. While it would be lovely to pique someone’s interest, because being asked questions about an idea is a great way to get it into a reasonable and audience-friendly shape, there is also the factor of most people being self-centred idiots who simply do not have the concentration span to listen to your idea. Stop trying to sell them on it and go away and write the thing because you want to write it. Then think about your sales pitch.
  • Know exactly what you’re doing. Yes, it is easier to write a polished book if you have a very thorough outline. No that does not mean that you can just leave things forever because coming up with an outline is hard or you have an order for writing worked out. You can write to find out what you’re writing, too.
  • Readjust your idea to suit what people are talking about liking. You are writing it because you want to write it, therefore write what you want to write. Don’t write to please people who don’t have the same tastes as you, you’ll just end up resentful of them and resentful of the work you’re doing. This point in particular also stands to the acquaintance who nervously asked me what I thought of vampire novels: the fact that I mostly do not like them should under no circumstances prevent you from writing yours. You’re not writing it for me.

Things you definitely should not do.

  • Continually put things off because you feel they might not be perfect.
  • Write for people who aren’t into your core interest in the story (e.g. if you are completely smitten with Achilles-esque hubristic heroes in search of personal glory, 60ft tall ice monsters, and weird mole fetish sex, don’t feel that you suddenly have to cater to people whose principle areas of interest are small-town divorced mothers trying to maintain personal dignity, car crash recovery, and cancer statistics in mining towns).
  • Abandon editing something because it’s “clearly terrible and cannot be saved”.
  • Make blog posts instead of working.

More unhelpful writing advice can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t.

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Kintsugi: the cloth variation.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ) or  Kintsukuroi (金繕い) – the latter is probably more appropriate in this case but the former is more common – is the rather brilliant practice of repairing broken crockery with a glue containing gold, a practice for which like most things these days, one can purchase a kit. This is, as many people have pointed out, pretty cool. The idea behind it is that as well as preserving a useful item, you are also adding both literal value (the gold in the original resin was actual powdered gold) and metaphorical value (as the pattern of breaks and fixes are unique, making a mass-produced item into a one-of-a-kind artwork).

It has a great deal of potential.

As I tend to shy away from smashing my crockery on purpose and don’t really have beautiful bowls like the above anyway (my cupboards have been filled by a cunning combination of novelty-themed items given as presents and random rubbish salvaged from the Sally Ally shop at £1 for Several), it did occur to me that there is another way to bring this into my life: clothes.

I have a moth problem, because I live in a moth-friendly climate and like to wear natural fibres for some mad reason; while recent measures such as “washing absolutely everything in lavender oil every time I do laundry” have apparently driven away the vile pestilence of mothkind for the time being, previous moth incursions and general wear-and-tear have left their mark.

A Uniqlo hoodie, owned now by The Resident Australian, suffered the ravages of existing on a person, and has been previously patched up with gold Anchor embroidery silks:

hoodie sleeve

Recent moth-like holes have begun appearing and have been summarily dealt with:

hoodie pocket

This may seem like a lot of effort to save a hoodie, particularly an unassuming green one like this, and in truth it probably does smack as much of stubbornness as thrift or inventive, artistic problem-solving. Of course, there are also rather more expensive items that need saving:

Bolongaro Trevor and I have a horrible relationship where I throw them money and they make me clothes which are typically slightly too small for me to justify giving them money.

Bolongaro Trevor and I have a horrible relationship where I throw them money and they make me clothes which are typically slightly too small for me to justify giving them money.

My beloved and not-yet-worn-enough-to-justify-this Bolongaro Trevor jumper came down with a case of MASSIVE HOLES from being in the laundry basket where the EVIL MOTHS have taken to spawning, and, determined to wear it again without damaging the structural integrity of my knitwear or rocking the Joe Dick look, I took to the many holes with embroidery thread and the understanding that making my jumper look like it has been repeatedly wounded in battle will only improve it:

Scar tissue

A combination of red and gold thread together.

As scar tissue makes the body of a person more interesting and storied, so turning my jumper into a fabric recreation of the 27 wounds of Coriolanus should in theory make it a more noble, fascinating, and more of a WARRIOR GARMENT.

'Look, sir, my wounds!  I got them in my country's service, when  Some certain of your brethren roar'd and ran  From the noise of our own drums.'

‘Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country’s service, when
Some certain of your brethren roar’d and ran
From the noise of our own drums.’

… Or I can at least claim no one else has one the same.

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Gone, but not forgotten: test writing.

Well, I’ve been absent, but not idle. In the one arena I’ve been enjoying this thing called “paid employment”, where people give me money in exchange for me coming and doing untaxing things for a few hours a day and taking the occasional break to write. In the other, I’ve been using those occasional breaks to generate some tests for a book I’m hoping to write (pending a large amount of frightening research, and me turning the plot from a series of vague handwaves and “key scenes” into “outlines for each day of writing”).

Test writing has always proven useful in the past, as a way of taking the characters for a spin in the world without being committed to the plot yet; it frees up the brain from the panicky sense that this absolutely must go somewhere and that all dialogue must further the plot or characterisation, leaving it free to explore character voices, imagery and idiom in the world, and the starting or finishing relationships between characters.

Writing about one to two thousand words a day for a week (it must be nearer two a day because after five days I have ten thousand words in disconnected set pieces), I’ve acquired a few locations in my head, settled some descriptions, picked up some additional cast members, and gained a better understanding of the character who is probably going to be my PoV for the book.

At first glance, through the lens of a camera, Buddy Peace was nerve-wrackingly attractive: he had a strong brow, a strong chin, huge brown eyes, black hair plastered into place with industrial quantities of hair cream, and the ability to turn a very affecting look of wounded innocence on at will. Deprived of the spotlight, he was a slender man in his middle twenties with slightly bandy legs and a little less height than leading men were expected to pull, extending his adolescence with the usual powders and grease to conceal some deepening eye circles and an apparently trenchant inability to shave thoroughly.

All the same, he was magnetic when he chose to be, and his teeth, though discoloured by heavy smoking, shone out like tiny stars in an arresting smile.

Joe said, “Miss Byrne told me you have free cigarettes.” He disliked asking for things on a profound level, preferring to make a statement and wait for his interlocutor to make the necessary connection. He thought that perhaps he had not always been so oblique, but the neediness of addiction shamed him into circumspection just now.

Buddy Peace cast a dark look at his supposed sweetheart. “Does she think I’m a fucking vending machine?” he asked without bitterness. He pointed a carton of Lucky Strike – the favoured brand of the GIs, Joe noticed without much interest – and jiggled it. “Take as many as you like.”

Joe took one.

Buddy brandished a box of matches, and made a show of lighting Joe’s smoke for him: badly. He shook the match out and shoved it back into the box, and said with a heavy sigh, “I gotta keep the matchsticks or Set get up in fucking arms. ‘Continuity’. Assholes. Who looks at the floor in movies unless someone’s lying on it?”

There’s many a slip between the test writing and the finished, edited, proof-read novel, but at this stage it’s usually possible to see some of the final form visible in areas like characterisation or scenery, and it definitely feels like a worthwhile point in the process. Happily, it’s also a stage that most people seem to gravitate to instinctively, which is probably why it doesn’t turn up much in “How to Write A Book” books (including mine).

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How To Steal Your Way To Being A Better Writer

Contentious title? Contentious title. And “steal” is possibly the wrong verb, but so is “plagiarise” in this context.

What I’m talking about is often referred to as “retelling” or “modernising” or in post-modern circles occasionally mislabelled as a “pastiche”. It’s part of a very, very long literary tradition, and is for some reason now frowned on despite the basic acceptance of the idea that there are only very few actual plots in existence, into which almost every story effectively categorises itself.

Now there’s this writer, a historical fellow, greatly revered by a lot of Anglophones as one of the pinnacles of literature. Like most writers he’s not actually as much of an innovative lone wolf genius as we like to make out, but half of what sells a writer is the legend of what a tremendous trail-blazer they were and people get a bit uncomfortable if confronted with the idea that what most writers do is nick stuff. The writer in question is dear old Bill Shakespeare, who has written a lot of what might be called archetypes for future stories: the divided lovers, the deposed king (every third story in the Western canon of literature turns out to be Hamlet if you squint hard enough), the rebel prince taking his place as leader, the general who changes sides, the scheming wife who drives a murder plot, and the oft-overlooked but personal favourite of mine “that which ends in cannibalism and ladies with no hands”. I’m not saying everything he came up with has continued to be a roaring success. But his plots have been used and reused and told and retold, and he himself drew heavily both on history and mythology for his work.

I pick on Shakespeare not for shock value but because plays are a lot easier to dissect for plot elements than prose. They’re tidily divided up into Acts and Scenes, they’re designed to have a pretty clear structure for an audience of drunk people standing on straw to understand, and if you use Shakespeare instead of Stoppard you don’t have to worry about being bogged down with endless descriptions of setting and action beyond “A forest outside of so-and-so” and “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

The exercise

Take a play, by anyone, but probably The Bard. He wrote a lot of them, so you’re pretty much set for finding something that will serve your purposes. You will in all probability have already seen a film which is based on it: if you’ve seen Ten Things I Hate About You you’ve seen Taming of the Shrew, if you’ve seen She’s The Man (I don’t know why you would have done but you might) you’ve seen Twelfth Night, and so on. There are also an oodleplex of faithful and less-faithful straight adaptations, modernisations, and the like to work from: Baz Luhrman might do if you don’t like Kenneth Branagh, the BBC did a collection of “re-imaginings” of Midsummer Night’s Dream (execrable), Macbeth (passable), Much Ado About Nothing (admirable), and The Taming of the Shrew (delectable), and if you’re feeling the need for classic cinema there’s always the 1952 Julius Caesar in which Marlon Brando’s intense frown plays Mark Antony and the rest of him follows underneath like a confused and muscular basket beneath a balloon made of eyebrows.

My point is, take one of these bad boys, and have a look at the plot. What happens in each act? You don’t even need to figure that out for yourself because there are approximately ten billion summaries of every single play on the internet. You should be able to find a summary without any problems at all: what happens in each act? How does one thing lead to another? Who has which information when – how much earlier do the audience have the information than the characters themselves? Which decisions cause the characters the most grief?

Now you pretty much have the skeleton of a story. You can choose to lop off the pieces that you don’t like, or adapt them: Ten Things I Hate About You took “Bianca cannot marry until her sister has been married because girls are married off in the order of their birth” and turned it into “Bianca’s father makes a fatuous bargain designed to prevent his younger daughter from pregnancy and she takes it literally”; it’s quite possible to remove all kinds of apparently-essential points from the plot and have it still function as an idea. You can remove characters, scenes, concepts, historical eras, and run the same plot on radically different rails.

In fanfic, there is a great sub-section devoted to alternate universes, where the characters are re-imagined in a different setting and lead different lives, while still retaining the core personality traits and appearance which is believed to define them. There is race-bending, a brilliant reaction to the unnecessarily white predominance in characters in Western Media, where iconic characters are redrawn and rewritten as people with the same skills and rough storyline, but a different racial background, and all that their different experience of society would have changed. These acts of imagining when developing character are the kind of balancing acts that you need to take when working on your ability to plot.

Give yourself a new cast and a new setting, take a very familiar plot, and work out how it would run, given these people, and this world, instead of what was provided at the time. Myths and legends are great for this, but often the plot is vague or too short and lacking in subshoots to be a useful guide which is again why I tend to use Shakespeare as an example: there is no actual need to stick specifically to him, if there is another playwright you prefer who can be used in the same way.

One thing which is extremely helpful in running this exercise is seeing how long each scene and act takes to get through, which means watching an adaptation can be vital: it helps you to judge whether that section should have been longer or shorter, how important it was to the overall story, and whether or not it should be included, altered, or followed faithfully.

How does this improve your own plotting?

By giving you an idea of how a deeply successful storyteller has ordered events and where they place moments of crisis along the line of the narrative, you familiarise yourself with the ebb and flow of tensions inside a story, the push and shove of causality, and how to turn the inevitable into the dramatic. It’s also a great exercise in editing: given a critical look at the failings in the playwright, it’s possible to fill in his gaps, and assure yourself that a story with weaknesses (for example, important deaths taking place off-stage due to the constraints of Elizabethan theatre, perhaps) can be made stronger not only by throwing out the unnecessary or changing the faces of the actors but also by giving more meat and heft to pre-existing sections.

And please don’t feel that it’s an unproductive exercise: if you look, you’ll find plenty of published novels which are essentially reworkings of Shakespearean stories, Greek myths, and folk tales – there are, after all, only a few plots – and a good writer can stretch those few plots an awfully long way.

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