Christopher Keene’s first novel, a LitRPG adventure, Stuck in the Game, was published by Future House Publishing in August 2016 with the sequel, Back in the Game, following in 2017. Christopher has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature with Honours in Creative Writing. He has received two honourable mentions in the Writers of the Future competition and won first place in a creative writing competition for the University of Canterbury Gazette.
Christopher recently signed a contract with Solstice for his grimdark/epic fantasy trilogy, A Cycle of Blades. The first book in the trilogy, Gods of the Mountain, is scheduled for release later this year.
Welcome Christopher, can you please tell us a little about your books?
Stuck in the Game and Back in the Game are my first two books in the LitRPG series, Dream State Saga. As their titles imply, they are the usual ‘stuck in a video game’ story trope, but with a bit of a twist in that the protagonist must stay in the game to help him recover from a car crash which paralyzed him and put his partner in a critical condition.
Aside from that I also have an epic fantasy trilogy in the works, a dystopian sci-fi novel under contract with Lang Publishing and am currently under negotiation with a few publishers for a fantasy story that uses New Zealand and Māori mythology as the basis for its setting and magic.
What exactly is LitRPG, and what inspired you to write in that genre?
According to the Facebook group LitRPG is a sci-fi or fantasy story that follows two rules: 1) It involves some type of explicitly stated progression (ie leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc). 2) It involves a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in. I’ve had feedback that Dream State Saga is a decent gateway series for anyone wanting to give this genre a try.
When I first wrote Stuck in the Game I didn’t know LitRPG was even a thing, and I doubt many authors whose books fit into it (e.g. Tad Williams and Ken Catran) know about it even now. I was lucky to find this niche market after my book’s release. What inspired me to write the book was when a friend of mine (who the book is dedicated to) bet me I couldn’t write a story as good as anime like Sword Art Online, .Hack/Sign, and Log Horizon after I criticized their stories. I want to say I succeeded, but anyone who has watched these shows are free to let me know whether or not they concur.
You chose to take the traditional route, and went with the Future House Publishing, can you tell us a little about the process of seeking a traditional contract?
I’ve always found the traditional publishing route to be a lot like fishing. Through much trial and error, I finally found the right formula for writing a good query letter or as I like to call it, the bait. Querying is pretty much the bread and butter of submitting to agents and publishers and once it was pitch perfect, I started throwing out some lines; submitting it to agents and publishers alike in the hope of getting a bite. I actually got two bites at once, one was from Future House for Stuck in the Game and the other was from my agent for another book. I decided to race them to see which would get a book out quicker. Needless to say with two books to zero, Future House turned out to be the bigger catch.
The covers are beautiful! What is it like to work with a publisher? What are some of the advantages? Disadvantages?
Thanks! A word I would use for what it’s like working with a publisher is motivating. Knowing that other people are going to be waiting on your input and suggestions really encourages you to work hard and think about things you might not have if you’re self-publishing. For the other advantages you pretty much hit the nail on the head, they supply the cover art that you want, as well as the many stages of editing and marketing.
The disadvantage is that once it’s released you have to go through a proxy to fix any errors that might be found. Luckily there’s only been a few of these. As a poor student at the time, the biggest motivation to traditional publishing was that it cost me nothing. As a novice to publishing I didn’t want to spend money I didn’t have on something that professionals could do for me.
Do you have any advice for any of our members who might be seeking a publisher for their own books?
There’s no dancing around it, traditional publishing is a competitive industry. Unless they’re trying to scam you, no publisher is going to choose you out of the thousands of other people submitting unless your writing is good, and the only way to be a good writer is to be honest about how bad you are now and dedicate yourself to improving.
The other side of the coin is resilience. More often than not, you will get rejections. I received hundreds before realizing what I needed to make my query letters stand out. Learn from them, second guess yourself, get a second opinion, and remember that you’re selling yourself as well as your writing so try to be professional.
And finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?
More books! As mentioned above, a dystopian story is coming out soon as well as my first adult fantasy book, not to mention the Dream State Saga is getting another sequel. It’s a big jump for me going from a smaller publisher to a larger publisher and I’m hoping to catch one of the Big Five in the future. I’m always juggling several projects at once so who knows which one is going to help me break into the big time.
Either way, both the goal and the process itself is enjoyable to me, so I feel I win either way.
Thanks Christopher! It’s been great chatting with you.
If you wish to learn more about Christopher’s writing, please his blog: https://fantasyandanime.wordpress.com/
Future House Publishing publish Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, and Middle Grade books, with distribution in ebook and print in Barnes & Noble, Costco, Amazon, and through independent retailers. They have published 40 books since their formation in 2014, but are not currently accepting submissions.
Can you tell us a little about your NaNoWriMo 2016 project?
I find it really hard to talk about what I’m writing because I can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise, I know you need to be able to do this for pitching purposes, but I still struggle. For NaNoWriMo, I’ve picked up a story idea I’ve had kicking around for several years but never figured out the way into.
Just to explain the photographs: My novel passes through a lot of share houses, featuring those kinds of surfaces and textures.
How many times have you participated in NaNoWriMo?
Although I’ve signed up before, this is the first time I’ve actually got going.
How have you adjusted your regular routine for the month of November?
I haven’t made changes as such, it’s more that I’ve ratcheted up my commitment by setting very specific (but achievable) goals. I set a goal of writing 2000 words per day with 1 day off per week, just in case. I figured out that on weekdays, if I got up fifteen minutes earlier, I could get an earlier bus and have an hour of focused writing at a cafe before work, instead of half an hour of maybe writing in my journal about – whatever. Before work, I usually manage between 600-800 words. Sometimes I get in another 200 or so at lunchtime, trying to get food in my mouth rather than on my keyboard. After work, usually after dinner, I write until I’ve met my target and finished what I wanted to write about. On the weekends, I cram writing in whenever I can. It is incredible how much you can achieve when you sit down and plug away at it every day.
What made you decide to take the NaNoWriMo challenge?
I’ve been working on the second draft of my first novel for what feels like a very long time – 18 months thereabouts – without feeling like I’m getting anywhere. I started to wonder how I would ever get to work on all those other novels I have floating around in the back of computer/brain/journals if I couldn’t get through this *swearword* second draft. NaNoWriMo was a good opportunity to put down the hard slog of editing/re-writing and pick up an idea I’ve wanted to play with for a long time – like a working holiday. A fun one.
I also thought that the daily habit of writing those 50,000 words would improve my writing. There was an American photographer, Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009) who worked for forty years as a nanny and took photographs after hours and sometimes during her working hours. 17,500 negatives, 2,000 prints and 30 home movies were found after she died and they (well, probably not all of them) are extraordinary. I believe that good art is made through doing and doing and doing. Doing NaNoWriMo is establishing a good habit of writing and writing and writing.
P.S. I do like my first novel. When I finish it, it’s going to be great.
P.P.S. Google Vivian Maier, I don’t imagine you’ll sorry, there’s a story in every photograph.
What do you like the most about NaNoWriMo?
I’ve found the more I write, the more I want to write and the faster my ideas come. Doing NaNoWriMo has reminded me (because I had forgotten) of the FUN of writing. I love making stuff up and I love playing with words and if can make up a great story using a compelling arrangement of words then that’s a worthy way to spend my time.
How has the establishment of NaNoWriMo influenced your writing habits?
Doing NaNoWriMo has brought home how much you can achieve through discipline. It has also made me question my preconceptions of what writing work I can do where. When I first started writing I had a lot of false starts, I kept changing and editing and stopping and starting. It was easy (for me) to get nowhere writing on a computer. I didn’t really get going until I began writing by hand, in a journal, because you can only go forward. The overriding directive of NaNoWriMo: keep writing! Don’t edit, just keep going! has helped me learn to keep going on a computer. That will save a lot of time 🙂
After NaNoWriMo, I think I will continue my hour-long session of writing before work. I often get far more done in that hour than I might in four hours on a weekend.
Do you have any tips for NaNo newbies?
I find when I get stuck that if I just start writing, something will come to me. It might be something like:
Oh no! I don’t know what to write. Whatever will I write? I’m hungry. I wonder if my character is hungry. I wonder what they like to eat.
I bet they like chips. I bet they eat chips all the time, especially when they shouldn’t…
Using Scrivener really helps with getting stuck too – you just start a new scene and keep going and all those bits and bobs are still there waiting for you in one neat location when you find out you really do need them.
Also, don’t forget to stretch your wrists around and get up every now and then.
Do you reward yourself for achieving your daily/weekly goals? If so, how?
My plan is to reward myself with a new book for each week I meet my target. Last week I went to Scorpio Books aiming for a nice fat fantasy or SF novel and came home with a collection of Walt Whitman poems. His writing soothed my brain.
Sure! I am Christchurch born and bred and I love living here in New Zealand. I find nature very inspiring and the openness of the Canterbury Plains and the forested, hilly seascapes of Banks Peninsula have influenced my writing, as well as that feeling you get as a Kiwi of being at the very edges of the earth. I grew up curious, loving to learn new things, dreaming vividly, reading avidly, and longing to travel to all the wonderful places in the world I could only experience imaginatively. Once I did a little of that and settled back in Christchurch, it was a pleasure to go places again on paper and get back to my writing roots. I’ve been writing stories ever since I could pick up a pen and I’m currently working to complete several novels and short stories.
Has your knowledge of literary analysis affected your writing style?
Yes, absolutely. I consider my undergraduate and postgraduate literary degrees as an apprenticeship in the craft of literature. For me, as much as writing is about simply loving stories, it is also about loving the craftsmanship of creating them. Being trained in literary analysis taught me a lot about how stories are crafted, and this has helped me to be intentional as well as instinctive in my writing.
Has your knowledge of literary analysis influenced your reading habits?
You have published a number of retold fairy tales, but with a distinctly unique twist. What draws you to rewriting fairy tales?
You took the independent approach to publishing your novellas. How did you find the process and would you recommend it?
It took a little bit to get my head around the process at first, but once I figured things out it became straightforward and easy to reproduce. I wouldn’t recommend independent publishing to authors who are looking for a large (especially mainstream) audience, unless they are willing to invest in their own marketing campaign. But if you have a niche market or a story (or collection) that is unlikely to get picked up by a traditional publisher, then I think it’s a great way forward.
What advice do you have for other writers?
Jessica Colvin is a writer, artist, and mother of two from Christchurch, New Zealand. She writes under the pen name Ami Hart and lives in two worlds: one being post-quake Christchurch and the other is a fantastical place where dragons and space ships soar, sometimes side by side.
Ami is a member of SpecficNZ and the Christchurch Writers Guild. She has had several short stories published in various anthologies and is currently writing a fantasy novel. She blogs about her writing adventures here: http://www.amilibertyhartwriter.com/
Can you please tell us a bit about your NaNoWriMo history? How many have you participated in, and how many times have you succeeded?
I started the NaNoWriMo journey in 2012 and haven’t missed a year since. I have also done Camp NaNoWriMo 6 times and met the word goal I set each time.
As a veteran NaNo Writer, what are some of your previous stories?
Liberty: The Fragile Empire, (Science Fantasy). Utopia Lost (Science Fiction), The Final Battle (Fantasy). All these novels are still in revision.
Why do you regularly participate in NaNo?
I liked the idea of the challenge and wanted an excuse to start the sequel to my first fantasy novel (still in edits). The forced deadline helps train me to be more productive as a writer.
How much preparation do you do in advance?
Not a huge amount. The characters and the world details form in my head, whizzing around helter-skelter, fluid and changeable right up to the point I start typing the first draft. Those few ideas I’m able to nail down firm I jot down in notebooks beforehand.
Would you like to tell us a bit about your 2015 NaNo project?
The working title is “Severed Wings/ Neon Dreams”. It’s an urban paranormal fantasy and is a collaborative project with my sister (she’s an illustrator). We were going to insert graphic novel elements/panels at the beginning of each section/ or chapter.
The story is centred around an elderly woman named Sam. Sam is dying of cancer, unmercifully slow. She accepts her fate, believing it’s what she deserves after the type of life she’s led. In this final twilight stage of her life she receives an 11th hour visitor. She never gets visitors, people with redacted pasts rarely do. This visitor in question sets about changing her life, or rather, her death forever. The problem is Sam hasn’t known any other life and certain lethal habits are hard to break.
Can you please describe your writing process; how do you fit NaNo into your daily routine?
I write whenever I get the chance. Generally when the kids are at school, sometimes in the evening (although my brain usually closes up shop by 8:30). Occasionally I brave an early morning writing session in the hope that I might get some done before the kids wake up.
I like to write uninterrupted for at least an hour. I only resort to outlining when I am stuck, even then they are brief, loose notes. I enjoy discovering the story as I write it—it’s much more exciting that way. Word sprints are my life savers, the 20-30 minute bursts can really get those words flowing.
Do you have a preferred “writing space”? If so, what about it makes it ideal for your project?
I have the office space in my room, but I like going out to libraries or cafes. There are often too many distractions at home, like animals, housework and baking.
Do you have any tips or tricks for coping with writer’s block?
Create a loose outline for the next chapter.
Showering (maybe the mystical shower portal will speak its warm glowy wisdom)
Music (and sometimes dancing)
If all that fails then I’ll skip the scene completely and go to a scene that I am excited about.
Thank you Jessica/Ami! Best of luck with your NaNo 2015 success.
Chris Visagie is our “Quill”, basically, he’s the committee member that helps us to get things done. Both a writer and a reader, Chris has yet to share his writing with us (or with me, anyway), but I am eagerly anticipating his contribution to our next anthology.
Chris, can you please tell us a little more about yourself (and your creative endeavours)?
I was born in South Africa but moved to New Zealand with my family when I was seven. I grew up in South Otago then moved to Christchurch three years ago. I currently work in retail.
While I did a lot of creative writing growing up, I took up writing fan fiction shortly after finishing high school which got me started on writing with the intent of having other people read it. That then inspired to me to start writing original stories.
What are your preferred genre/s to write in? What is it that draws you to it/them?
My preferred genre is urban fantasy. What draws me to them is the possibility and the characters that it inspires. The possibility lies in the fact that you combine the fantastic and the mundane. A wizard could have a nine to five help pay alimony to his faerie ex-wife, a vampire could have an image consultant, said image consultant could be a vegan werewolf. There is just so much story telling potential.
As for the characters they inspire. Like I said, urban fantasy lets you create a whole range of interesting characters but at the same time it lets you create very human characters as well. Despite their fantastic nature, the characters still live in our world and as such must deal with the same things we do. When done well the supernatural aspects actually help to accentuate the human aspects and hit closer to home
Where do you get your inspiration?
While my stories are set in modern times, I draw a lot of inspiration from Classic lore and mythology. Growing up I was a huge fan of Greek mythology and loved the Odyssey.
What do you enjoy the most about the writing process?
The ability to explore ideas and concepts and see where they lead.
What do you enjoy the least?
Proof reading, even though I know how vital it is.
Any particularly pitfalls you have learned/would like to learn to avoid?
Spending too much time on the planning stage. For all the virtues of planning it is very easy to end up spending too much time in your head and never getting anything done.
How has being a writer influenced your everyday life?
Being a writer means that I tend to look at the world from a more contemplative stand point. I examine situations I observe more closely and at the same time think of how a slight variation would have changed the situation. It also makes waiting in queues and bus stops less tedious because I usually have a story idea I’m working on to amuse myself with.
How has being a member of the Guild influenced you as writer?
It has put me in touch with a lot of creative people to share ideas with as well as find a social aspect to what can be a very isolating passion.
Can you please tell us a little about a project you are working on at the moment?
A current project I’m working on is about Daniel Loxley, a professional “Problem Solver” situated in the City of St Giles. People come to him with problems that he tries to solve. He does this using his connections, wits and the occasional use of his powers as a partially turned vampire. But when the daughter of the District Attorney is found drained of her blood and her body placed on display in some sort of ritual, tensions start to rise between the magic users and the vampires. Now Daniel has been hired to make sure the ones responsible are stopped before anyone else is hurt. Add to this the return of Daniel’s sire and you’ve got a problem that perhaps even he can’t solve.
What advice do you have for other writers?
The best advice I can give other writers simply put is to sit down and start writing. As simple as that seems, it so easy to spend so much time in your head planning the “perfect story” and never getting round to writing it. Also, it often won’t be until you’re actually writing the story that you notice faults you hadn’t previously considered.
Also when trying to flesh out a character, an exercise that I think helps is to create a scenario and that you place the character in and then figure out how the character would respond. For instance, in keeping with urban fantasy, your character in a dinner having breakfast when suddenly a zombie bursts in. What would you character do. Would hide under table and try to crawl to the exit? Would they pull out a gun and try to shot it? Would they pull out equipment to examine it? Would they just say “Hi John” and then get back to eating breakfast?
Now these scenarios don’t have to be this outlandish. The point is just that figuring out how your character would respond to various situations will help you figure out who your character is.
Lastly I would say to write what you enjoy writing. For all the pleasure there is to be had, writing a story is long, tiring and there will be times when it feels more effort than it’s worth. If on top of that it’s a story that you don’t find some joy or passion in telling then it’s going to be infinity harder to get it finished. As nice as the idea of writing a story that a million people would want to read is, start with a story that you would want to read.
Angela Oliver maintains and updates the blog, which includes asking the other committee members their interview questions, and she thought she might be interviewing herself. Luckily, Judy Mohr (our new President) has put forth the following questions:
Every time I see you, you’re drawing another creature of nature. This is obviously a part of your creative process. Tell me, where did this love of animals begin and how has it influenced your writing?
I can’t really say precisely where my love of animals began, because I’ve been fond of them as far back as I can remember. I imagine my parents (who gave us bunnies and a kitten) and my nana (who would take me to feed the ducks), had a strong influence. Birds were a particular passion, and I persuaded my parents to let us keep parakeets, including the construction of three aviaries. To date, most of my stories have contained at least one animal. Some are written from the animal’s point of view, in others they are a major component of the plot. I have strong conservation views, and wish to educate the audience (I tend to write for the 10-14 age range), increasing awareness, without (I hope) coming across as too preachy.
With all these wonderful characters that you draw, how many of them actually make it into your stories? Which was your favourite to bring to the page? Which was your least favourite?
I have a main core cast of characters that I have illustrated for years. Many of them I have created detailed background stories for, but for the most part these stories remain in my head (slowly slipping away). Of my recent illustrations, I have mostly been concetrating on wild animal illustrations. It is hard to say who my favourites and least favourites are – but I find humans a LOT harder to draw, and thus mostly encourage other people to draw them for me.
One of my favourite character creations is Rhapsody Kelpdance:
I’ve never written Rhapsody’s story – or even developed it particularly far – but I do love the gentle flowing lines of her, and creating a dragon based on the leafy sea dragon was fun.
My least favourite to draw are the frightening ones. Not because I dislike frightening stuff, but because I cannot do it well. Everything I draw comes out looking somewhat whimsical and cute.
You were one of the original founders of The Christchurch Writers’ Guild. Tell me, how did that come to be?
It all began in Paper Plus, Hornby, when I came upon Beaulah’s book, picked it up and thought “oh look, another local author who has published through CreateSpace”. I took note of her name and looked her up when I got home, acquired the ebook (apologies to Paper Plus and Beaulah) and emailed her. She replied, we met for coffee and got discussing writing in Christchurch. At that point, there didn’t seem to be a particularly involved social network for writing, I’ve later learned that I just wasn’t looking hard enough, but we decided that we would begin one, starting with the community on facebook. Writing is a lonely business, and can be quite discouraging when you struggle to finish, become overwhelmed by the editing process, then finally you finish it and don’t know what to do with it after that… Well, our idea was to bring writers together to read and review each others’ work, to encourage and enable those that wanted to write, and connect like-minded people. I really love the sense of community we’ve got going within the Guild – the fact that many of us meet outside of the regular gatherings, and that I have formed genuine, long-lasting friendships. When you cannot talk to your spouse, siblings, parents, or friends, about writing, then you can turn to the Guild.
The Guild has morphed into something much greater than those original days. How do you feel about that and where would you like to see the Guild head in the future?
It’s a bit scary being an official incorporated entity! But, honestly, I don’t want to see it change too much. I would like to see more anthologies – especially encouraging participation from those members that may be a bit reserved about sharing their works – and perhaps a “shared world” series. We did some workshops early on, and I hope that we can re-commence them again soon, given members pratical exercises and inspiration to continue with their craft.
Many new writers among the Guild seek you out to read and/or edit their material. What advice do you often give to new writers? What advice would you give to those of us not so new?
For new authors, my main piece of advice is to write, just write! Even if it’s rubbish, just do it. “Don’t get it right, get it written,” as Barbara Arnold, my writing for children tutor, says.
And for those of you with completed manuscripts:
I enjoy reading “new” manuscripts, the freshness of something that has not been edited into sterility. However, there are a few things that I would change if given the opportunity. It’s very easy to spell-check a novel, however, spell-checker does not find homophones. And auto-complete can substitute the intended word with something that not only makes no sense, but is frankly hilarious. I have yet to read a novel written on a cell phone using autocorrect, but imagine that would be a nightmare. My advice to writers is: before anyone else reads your novel, read it yourself first – from cover to cover – and keep an eye out for misused words. Every time I come across one of those words, it is like I have been slapped out of the plot. It ruins my concentration and switches me from reader mode into editor mode.
Otherwise, try and get the grammar as correct as possible. It doesn’t need to be perfect – a beta reader will always expect a few typos – but you want your readers to pick up on plot holes and discrepancies, not become distracted by mentally stabbing in commas and full stops, tracking down errant apostrophes or taming wayward semi-colons.
Back to your writing: what do you see of the next step for you? Will we ever get to know what happened to your lemurs?
I’ve been thinking about writing again a lot. Many of you may be aware that I’ve been in a writing rut for most of 2015, having barely written anything fiction. Part of this is my animal-a-day project, which includes drawing specific creatures for NZ Art Cards (coming soon to an independent bookstore or DOC i-site near you, I hope!) and general slump. The second novel in the series, “A Tail of Two Scions” is a dual-char book, following Rakoto and Aurelia. Rakoto’s side of the story is pretty much done, but Aurelia’s is proving to be a struggle, mainly defining the conflict and keeping it structured. And then I have to interweave the two. I did re-read the third draft of Aurelia’s beginning and feel it’s pretty good, really, and I should just soldier on with the darned thing. So, the answer is YES. And my animal-a-day project will be finishing early next year, so I can concetrate fully on writing once more.
And just for the fun of it: if you could be an animal (other than human), what would you be?
I know you expect me to say a lemur, but I think, instead, I would like to be a parrot. Long-lived, intelligent, with a handy appendage for manipulating objects (their beak) and, of course, they can fly. But what sort of parrot? That’s an almost-impossible question, but I would rather fancy being able to turn into a kea.
Angela has written and published three books via Amazon’s CreateSpace program and is currently involved in drawing an animal-a-day on her blog: ZooTrophy. She has also created a collectible trading card game about ecosystems and food chains.
Chris Yee is our Treasurer. He has studied animation and worked as a game developer. Currently he tutors at the Yoobee School of Design, and for the Imagination Station (Lego!). He also, of course, writes!
Chris, can you please tell us a little more about yourself (and your creative endeavours)?
As mentioned, I teach Film, Video and Animation at ACG Yoobee School of Design, though to say my creative endeavours are restricted to motion graphics is a bit of a misnomer. Storytelling for me has always been an ongoing endeavour. I would probably go so far to say that it is something humans have had since the dawn of time, but I digress. While perhaps being something I’ve been doing for a long time, it was by no means a successful one as yet. I am quite bad at coming to conclusions, finishing off the story in a satisfactory way. I’ve read various literature in my youth, ranging from Sci-Fi notables such as Carl Sagan and Michael Crichton, to really cheesy titled books such as ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’, which ironically may have been my first introduction to Terry Pratchett. When the only storytelling ended up being in the form of mostly schoolwork, which at the time to me felt greatly restrictive, it took a back seat from the remainder of my studies. Then, sometime in 1999, I was approached by someone on ICQ (yes, this was THE chat messenger in those days), offering what was best described as text based role playing in the vein of a Star Trek theme. Intrigued at this I signed up, going through the processes and protocols of IRC (Internet Relay Chat, effectively real time forum chat rooms) and just fell in love with it. It was essentially being an actor, a screenplay-writer and a director all at the same time. Improvisation was key in being able to work with the stories created by the person in charge of running the Sim (short for Simulation). For a number of years I forged lifelong friendships and somewhat improved my ability to tell stories in a dynamic atmosphere. This real time, present tense scriptwriting eventually moved on to a past tense prose as it moved to a non real time format which has pushed my motivation to write in this way. A few years on I had become intrigued at the growing market of digital film-making, applying and studying at Natcoll Design Technology (now Yoobee School of Design) in 2006. Studies into the practical application of storytelling in a audiovisual medium helped me gain an understanding of how these aspects enhance written media in general, pushing me further to create fun and engaging stories. My road to writing has been a rocky and tumultuous one, but I still keep going with the help of friends and family who support my endeavour, and while I still regard this as a casual activity, I know it will lead to something greater.
Game development was an amazing experience. While I was brought on solely as an Artist, I moved up to the role of Technical Artist, in that I had to deal with technical and programming issues to ensure that the art side of things were consistent in the vision of the game producer. If not, then I’d find ways to get it working. Problem solving and analytical processes were something I was known for, and typically aren’t traits a creative artist possesses initially. It was sad to move on from this, but it has lead to other opportunities and can be something I can always return to.
Recently, at least this year of 2015 I had been approached to teach Stop Motion movies using Lego for the Imagination Station based in Christchurch. This was quite an engaging endeavour as it put two of my favourite things together (Film and Lego) to help kids of all ages explore storytelling aspects in a visual format as well as teaching them to understand some technical aspects of film-making. While teaching at Yoobee has now taken up the time I typically had for teaching at the Imagination Station, this has expanded significantly in teaching material with others taking up the mantle and I fully expect it to continue amazingly in the future.
How does telling a story via visual media (such as animation) differ from telling a story via written media?
In what ways are they similar?
The way that visual media communicates ideas and concepts lies in its delivery. While written media communicates various ideas over time, movies for instance provide additional depth to it in the form of an audiovisual sensory experience. In a lot of ways this can condense a lot of the material given; a lengthy descriptive exploration in a book can be represented by a brief scene of imagery in a movie. A conversation between characters is now enhanced by their body language, their tone of voice, and the cinematography. In short, this application of storytelling opens up a whole new realm of artistic expression. Structurally, they are no different; they more often than not have a three act structure, with inciting incidents, rising tension, a climax, falling tension, and denouement. These are the core aspects that make up a good story in any form and will most likely never change.
When writing for the visual, how do you portray a character’s personality?
Personality aspects in a visual medium can, at base level show up in their expressions, their body language and typically how they compose themselves in any given situation, as from a film-makers perspective, actors have to be able to portray any personality the writing and direction call for. Their appearance, clothing etc can be great visual indicators of their base personality, but that’s all surface and in most cases can only communicate where they’ve been. Who they really are, their past, their experience goes so much deeper.
Good thing though, when indicating in a script you can actually say ‘Bob is sad’. It’s up to the actor or animator to interpret this based on the context and scene and express these emotions accordingly via body language and facial expression. Scriptwriters have to be as concise as possible as they cannot fill the script up with endless description. The only section you can go to town on is Dialogue.
What genres do you prefer to work in? Who/what are your inspirations?
Science fiction has always been my staple, but I have been toying with other genres to see if I could do them. Two Science Fiction authors that I’ve been a fan of for a long time are Peter David and Dan Abnett. They write in a way that feels real, as in they’re not all super human types, just normal people thrust into a particular situation and deal with it accordingly, be it war, politics or the pawns of gods. For Fantasy, I still have my sizeable collection of Terry Pratchett. The dry humour is what caught me, and following along with the vein of ‘ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations’, I’ve been more interested in the Nightwatch story arcs, as well as other stories based in the City of Ankh Morpork.
Can you tell us a little about your writing processes/habits?
If you ask any writer, they will typically say they work in complete isolation, absolute quiet and zero distractions. I can work just fine with two of those, and ignore the distractions, unless something really interesting is being discussed. By that point however, the writing time has been sunk but it is often not without knowledge gained. I much prefer writing in the company of others, preferably other writers so as not to leave others in a non communicative state. Noise of all sorts, whether random music, cafe banter, or even a bustling airport terminal, I can easily zone all these sounds out to a indecipherable hum. However, I require these random noises, possibly to occupy my auditory senses so that the rest of my brain can focus, akin to distracting the attention starved child so that some amount of work can be done within an allotted time.
I will say that Scrivener has helped with my organising of my story materials immensely. For those that don’t know, Scrivener is a piece of writing software that aids in providing structure to various projects. I don’t spend too long on this process at the start, but it does help keep story, research and other bits & pieces separate, whilst at the same time having them easily accessible for reference.
And of course, nothing starts the process better than a steaming cup of fresh coffee.
How do you go about creating the worlds that your stories are set in?
Worlds, strangely enough, are one of the first things I start creating as it helps me understand what sort of events and characters will exist. In most cases, at least to date anyway, I create worlds that work for humans as well as any other races and/or alien life forms. With this in mind, a traditional Earth type, terrestrial world works. If this is early on in the story arc, then visualising set pieces to fit the story works for me as a lot of the world isn’t fully formed at this point, so I can be as flexible as I need to be if they help move the story forward. But as I expand the story, I develop town names, cities, nations, politics and so on. These things which I set in place, I make note of in my research files so that my world can remain consistent the more I reveal about it. Whether I describe an entire mountain range for the sake of blowing it up (and seeding plot points for later stories), developing an industrial society, or simply describing the onset of a magical infection that can transform life into something more terrifying, I take great care in cataloguing and integrating these moments and changes as the stories progress.
What advice do you have for anyone who might wish to create their own short animation, game or book trailer?
Have a plan. A good story, while having at minimum an outline, can be as flexible and random as anything. However the technical aspects that go behind the construction process of telling said story has to follow a good, solid plan if there is a deadline to meet. From concept to storyboarding, visual cues and even interactive prompts help guide and give direction to the material, so that all aspects are cohesive. With games, you take on board the story elements and integrate them smoothly with the gameplay elements. While some of the most popular games out there alternate between these two, it is in my mind not the best way to tell stories within a game environment. To use it effectively, the player not only has to be a part of the story, but also help drive the narrative and be invested in the actions they choose to take. This is a long and arduous task for a developer, which leads me back to how you must have an effective plan and solid research into the application of sensory experiences for animations and trailers, and interactivity for games. All this aids in seamless integration into the art of storytelling. Oh and one other thing; have fun while doing it. If you’re not having fun creating it, then you probably won’t enjoy reading, watching or playing it either.
Judy Mohr is the newly-elected Secretary for the Christchurch Writers’ Guild – having translated and transcribed screeds of legalese for us – and has also conceptualised and began plotting her dark fantasy opus. This begins with Beacon of Hope for which she has elected to take the traditional publishing path.
So, Judy, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always made up stories. As a child, I would spend hours with a tape recorder making up plays for my Barbies to act out. (Yes, I’m really that old.) I have always expressed my thoughts into written form. I kept a diary in my teen years. I wrote poems and lyrics to songs in my late teens, early twenties, and spent far too many hours hiding from the real world in the bowels of a dark theatre somewhere, often on-stage singing and dancing. But while studying for my PhD, I needed to find another way to escape the pressures of being a part-time research student and a full-time mother of two.
One night, in 2008, I had one of those vivid dreams where you can remember every detail. I thought it would make a fantastic story, so I wrote it down. The next night, I revisited the dream, so I wrote down more of the details. Eventually, it became a way of allowing my mind to shift away from the complex engineering calculations that I had to do daily as part of my PhD. I wrote while on the bus. I wrote while waiting for the school bell to ring and the chaotic life of a mother to begin. I wrote while on my lunch break. I wrote before falling asleep at night. By the time I had finished my PhD, I had four volumes of hand-written notes. I typed it into the computer and there was well over 2000 single-spaced pages, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the world I was creating.
Today, many of those original ideas still exist, but they have grown as I’ve managed to find more time to devote to my fictional writing.
Your series spans multiple volumes; how do you organise and plot out the storylines?
You are, of course, assuming that I’m organised enough to actually plot in the first place. I very rarely plot. When writing, I write out of sequence. Inspiration strikes and I trace a character’s story, hashing out where it might fit within the timeline as I go. More often than not, I’ll write something referring to a past event, then have to go back and actually write that past event. I have a starting point and a finish point, the road between them is open to interpretation.
But how do I keep track of what will go into which book? Well, that I can answer. It comes down to finding a start point and end point for each part of the story. It’s a similar concept to separating a single book into chapters. They all need to connect, but they need to be self-contained bits of action. The other deciding factor is what becomes the controlling premise or inciting character for a given storyline. I have a large character set to draw from, and many are main characters for their portion of the overall story.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
That would be letting my imagination run wild. It’s liberating to occasionally dream up gruesome ways for people to die, or the sensual touch of a lover’s hand. Frequently, I find myself examining my own thoughts and values as my characters go through the intricacies of life, ranging from childbirth to funerals, and battles with a sword or in the intimate confines of the bedroom. All characters are an extension of the writer, and sometimes we just have to let those aspects of ourselves run free. Saying that, it’s always interesting when a character takes on a life of their own and drives their own story. Recently, one of my characters managed to escape the massacre I had planned for her and she started a rebellion of her own. I have no idea how she did that, but she made sure that I couldn’t kill her, not right away. While I growl at the harlot for taking control of her own story, I find myself grinning. It’s so much fun.
And your least favourite?
My least favourite part about writing would be, without a doubt, the editing process. You spend countless hours building this amazing story, only to hack it to bits. Whole scenes disappear because they have no relevance, or passages vanish, never to be seen again, just because they didn’t work the way you had originally planned. In my mind, writing a story is the easy part; editing it into something worth reading—now that’s where a true writing talent shows through.
Do you have any tricks or techniques for keeping your stories focused in the right direction?
What exactly is the right direction? Because I write scenes out of sequence, I don’t normally see the right direction until the editing process begins and I start splicing the different aspects for a given section of the timeline together. It is frustrating when you know certain inciting events need to happen, having the story fully written from that point forward, but it’s that process of making point A match up with point B that is actually the fun part. I guess you can say that I’m a “Discovery” writer through and through.
Your world is complex and intriguing; can you please tell us a little about your world building process?
I have a process?
Joking aside, everything about the world in my stories is fashioned after what I observe in the real world. Okay, the magic side of things might be pure imagination, but there are still ties to the real world. Anger flashing into flames that cover the body… My mother often referred to anger like the blood was boiling and heat was rushing through you. If you think about it, it’s not far from the truth.
Any fictional world needs to be believable. You need to be able to identify the characters as real people, the settings as real places. By taking real world observations and shifting it into a fictional environment, you know that a reader could imagine whatever you throw at them and accept it as normal.
Editing is an important part of your writing process; can you tell us about the resources (ie: websites etc) you have used?
How ironic that you ask this. Editing for me is literally red ink on paper. I’ll print out what I have written, and hack at it with a red pen. When I’m happy with what I have written, I then get other writers to read it.
I’m a big user of the Scribophile.com website. This site is a critiquing site with writers from all around the world and in every genre imaginable. The idea behind the site is that for you to post your own work for critiquing, you must first critique the work of others. You may feel that you have nothing of value to add to someone’s piece, but every time you read another’s work, you start to see the faults in your own. You discover ways to express ideas that you never thought about, and the comments you get back on your own work might shift you in directions that you never considered, but make your story stronger.
Once I have something that I believe is ready to go out the door, I shove the manuscript into that metaphorical drawer and leave it while I go work on something else. I then come back to it, sometimes months later, and reread what I had. That’s when you discover those glaring faults that you would be embarrassed if anyone actually saw.
At the moment, I feel like the editing process will never end, and until my manuscript is actually published, it probably won’t.
What are the most important things you have learned through these?
Don’t give my manuscript to my husband to read. I say that jokingly, but there is actual truth to those words. Many family members don’t want to spoil any dreams that someone might have and hence will say your manuscript is great when it really isn’t. Now, my husband never once said that my manuscript was great. In fact, the first time I had him read through it (many years ago now), his only comment was, and I quote, “Your fight scenes suck.” Geez, could anyone be more blunt?
Over the years, my husband has read through my manuscript many times at different draft stages. It was him who pointed out glaring plot holes, leading to my first book becoming two. However, every time he did provide feedback, it would end in a shouting match. Now, I only get him to read through something that I want to be torn to shreds. It’s typically only a passage where I’m struggling to get the descriptive right; he can normally come up with the one word that makes all the difference.
What made you decide to take the traditional publishing route?
The biggest allure of traditional publishing is the marketing aspect. I have no idea what to do, and I really want to see my book on the shelves alongside Terry Goodkind and Brandon Sanderson, however, because of where my name falls in the alphabet, I’ll likely be next to George Martin, but I’d be good with that too. While the query process has made me question my writing more times than I care to count, I believe that my story is stronger for it. I have recently rewritten parts of Beacon of Hope, all in the hopes of tantalising an agent or publisher, and I actually like the revised manuscript much better. It’s a long road to becoming a traditionally published author, but I’m determined to get there.
Any advice for authors who might be thinking of taking similar steps?
Never give up. The worst that anyone can do is say “No”, but they will definitely say nothing if you don’t try. So you get a bad critique; rewrite the story and move on. So you get nothing but silence from agents/publishers; examine what you’re sending out, rework it and send it to the next lot of agents/publishers. If you believe in your story, it will happen. It only takes one “Yes”.
Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting “interviews” with various members of the Christchurch Writers Guild – both members of the committee and others.
We will begin with Beaulah Pragg, the newly-elected President of the Guild; she is also one of the co-founders. I first met Beaulah when I came upon her book, The Silver Hawk, on the shelf of PaperPlus Hornby, noted down her details, acquired the book, and emailed her. Soon after that we organised a meeting, got discussing writing in Christchurch, and from there the Christchurch Writers Guild was born. Beaulah also works for the Christchurch City Libraries, teaches writing courses and is overall an inspiration to us all.
To begin, Beaulah, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
I’m twenty-six (for about another month). I work at the library and teach creative writing to children. I started writing back in 2005, with my very first National Novel Writing Month (Nano) and pretty much went from there. Have to admit, I wasn’t very good at Nano. I’d get bored with my story too easily, or get stuck, but I was too stubborn to give up, so I invented the world-building Nano, which I’ve done ever since. I just fill up the 50,000 words with character interviews, descriptions of stuff, random scenes from all kinds of POVs. At some point, all that information clumped together in my brain and I wrote the Silver Hawk. Now I’m trying all kinds of techniques to prod the sequel into shape.
What do you enjoy the most about the creative process?
I love the characters & social world-building. I’ve never been much good with magic systems or street maps, but I can tell you the history of a family back five generations. I have this cool timeline software that helps me keep track of all the backstory, and a family-tree program to manage all the inter-marrying. The trick is to let all of that go when it comes time to write the actual story. Just because you know the names of his three brothers, and their wives, and their second cousins, doesn’t mean you need to include them!
What do you find the most frustrating?
Honestly, the excessive world-building can be a bit of a curse, because you get stuck in things having to be a certain way because of other stuff you’ve already decided about his cousin’s ex-wife. Then, when I bravely tell myself to let it go and do the right thing for the story, I now have to go back and deleted said cousin’s ex-wife, or re-write her story to fit. I feel like there are so many threads and sometimes it’s hard to get them to come together in any pleasing kind of tapestry.
You have independently published your novel, can you please tell us a little about the process, the positives and the pitfalls?
That was back in 2013, so I expect some things have changed since then. I went through the query process and even got some bites from various agents, but they all said no in the end. I just wanted people to read my story, so I googled self-publishing and jumped on CreateSpace, Kindle (KDP) and Smashwords. I worked through their various formatting guides, threw together a cover and pushed ‘go’. I was really lucky. People have been so supportive and I’ve learned so much since then. The original book was full of mistakes, but my readers were also my friends, so they pointed them out in a nice ‘we still think you’re awesome’ kind of way.
I set up a book launch with South Library and got a whole heap of books printed for it. When they arrived, it turned out there were still a bunch of errors. Mum said I couldn’t sell them and paid for a last minute emergency reprint locally. Cost a heap and she wouldn’t let me pay her back. I felt really bad. It did change my blasé attitude toward spelling and grammar though. I highly recommend getting a professional editor, even if you do everything else yourself.
Please tell us a little about the inspiration behind the CWG.
Going through the process of self-publishing The Silver Hawk, I felt like I was the only person doing this kind of stuff in Christchurch. There didn’t seem to be a group for me. Everything was still all about being ‘good enough’ to get accepted by agents or publishers. When I met Angela and we realized we had both gone down the same self-publishing path independently, it seemed natural to want to create a group. The CWG is about having a place to go where you’re accepted and can talk about writing—whether you do it for fun, want to publish yourself or win a publishing contract. I just wanted to show people that we’re not alone. We’re here for you, whatever you want to do.
How have social groups such as the CWG and SpecFic influenced your writing endeavours?
It’s been great to watch that sense of community grow—to share our stories and learn from each others’ successes and failure. I’ve loved workshops like ‘Show, not Tell” because they’ve given me a chance to play and extend my writing. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences in Auckland and Wellington, meeting fellow SpecFic people and realizing there are a whole lot of people trying to do exactly the same things as me, and they’re awesome. I really believe that we have power as a community that we don’t have on our own. When be believe, as a group, that something is possible, we find a way to make it happen.
So yeah, being part of these social groups has helped me grow, not just as a writer, but as a person.
How can the CWG help and support our authors?
For me, it always comes back to those social connections. You are responsible for your own words and what you choose to do with them. We’ll help you out if you need advice, whether it’s about semi-colons or formatting a manuscript, or even handling a bad critique. We’ll run workshops where everyone can get together and practice their craft. But the main thing is that CWG is a place where you can find other people travelling paths very similar to yours. The support comes not so much from the organization, but from the people who populate its meetings, workshops and forums. We’re committed to that support being unconditional and unprejudiced. As long as you treat others with respect, we’d love to have you.
What do you predict for the future of publishing and writing in general?
We’re rapidly transitioning into a digital age. Barring catastrophic digital collapse, zombie apocalypse or other excuses to return to a primitive post-apocalyptic survival scenario, I expect most people will be reading digitally in the not-too-distant future. Certainly the traditional publishing model is collapsing. We can see that right now. The thing is, just because books aren’t being made and sold the way they used to be, doesn’t mean people aren’t reading. Story is a fundamental part of life. We all need stories to make sense of the world, and we love authors who make us think or make us feel.
So writers will still be needed and stories will still be read. Our job, as a group, is to look for new opportunities and pounce on them, feeding back what we’ve learned to enrich the whole. There’s no point bemoaning what is gone or trying to halt the wheels of change. I can’t tell you what the future will bring, but I can tell you I’ll be watching with baited breath. There are all kinds of exciting new ways to connect with our readers, if we’re brave enough to give them a go.
As you have insider knowledge, what role, do you feel, will the libraries play in this future?
Libraries are about so much more than books. People come to us for the community, for a place to work or study, or even just for help navigating the overwhelming mass of information out there. I get questions that range from “What should I read next?” to “How do I install Overdrive on my iPad?” and all kinds of unusual things in-between. The libraries are committed to staying relevant, which means keeping up with technology and being that support for people’s informational needs.
As a teacher of creative writing, what are some of the pitfalls you have seen?
I teach creative writing to children, so some of the issues I’ve seen are really just part of the learning process – things like “Use your quotation marks!” and “Please paragraph, sweetheart. It’s really hard to read a whole page without any gaps in it.”
Having said that, the children I teach are incredibly imaginative and have so much fun with their writing. I think one of the pitfalls for us as adults is to forget that this stuff is meant to be fun!
Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Write. That’s a really good place to start. Keep your notes organized so you don’t expend precious mental energy trying to remember whether he had green eyes or blue. I use Super Notecard, which is just amazing for this (and also free up to the first 100 cards, so try it out).
Develop a safe, supportive community where you can share you writing and critique other people’s work. You can only improve as a writer if you let people give you feedback, and if you practice looking for ways others can improve. I’ve tried all sorts of groups and forums for this purpose, and my favourite so far is definitely Scribophile (which I just joined a week ago after our new Guild secretary, Judy, recommended it). Scribophile is also free for low-level users and has an excellent karma system which means you get back what you put in. I highly recommend giving it a go.
Finally, when you think you’re done and want to get your story out there, please make sure to find a professional editor. Even if you’re going for a traditional contract, you’ll stand a much better chance if your text is clean.
Oh, and join the Guild, so then you have people celebrate and commiserate with along the way.